Our Lady of The Flood

Our Lady of the Flood by Alison Pelegrin

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

The entire region around New Orleans embodies a certain sensibility, born of geography and weather and a unique heritage that is hard to define and even harder to translate. When I first moved to the city decades ago, I was both curious about and amused by the many “Our Lady” names of schools and churches. “Can you imagine what their fight song is?” an acquaintance once asked when we drove past Our Lady of Prompt Succor School.

After you’ve lived here a long time, though, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady Star of the Sea (which we called “the tuna fish church”) all become part of the sometimes bizarre linguistic landscape of the city.

I’ve also lived through many Louisiana hurricanes and floods, so I approached reading Alison Pelegrin’s Our Lady of the Flood with relish, and I was not disappointed. In this collection, Pelegrin skillfully cuts through the difficulty of cultural translation with a collection of poems that puts the region’s eccentricity in the colorful and sometimes absurd context that it deserves. Moreover, she does it—often with delicious humor—by using language that gives new life to the tasks and customs that are part of daily life in and around New Orleans.

The collection opens with the eponymous poem, “Our Lady of the Flood”:

Some saints are untouchable behind glass,
but you ride in open boats
with mildew on the edges of your gown,
a calm commander of the Cajun Navy’s fleet.
Your devotees worship outside
in a circle of ruined pews,
no incense but bug spray

This is a perfect introduction to the parade of “Our Lady” poems that are to come, as well as the other poems in Our Lady of the Flood, which include an ode to ambrosia (“confection snubbed by food snobs as a [. . .] meringue of shame”), a meditation on local bridges, and a commentary on the removal of New Orleans’ Lee Circle statue of General Robert E. Lee.

Hurricane Katrina, as one might expect, is an ongoing theme in Pelegrin’s collection. In “Anything We Want,” she expresses the longing of all Louisianans who were displaced by the 2005 storm:

They won’t quit asking, What do you want?
I want to be somewhere besides Mississippi
with its highway that splits fields
of cotton and soy and blackbirds.
I want art supplies and to read a book
in my old bed, to ride the streetcar by myself

//

I want my mom to say something
in the Walmart, where we have gone to spend
a gift card from some church
on anything we want.

And in “Quicksilver”:

[…] quicksilver visions wrinkle
and then they vanish. But
this water is absolute. It remains,
though the hurricane is over.
I have studied from my exile
in this hotel room, witnessed
rooftop rescue, the folly
of mammoth sandbags. This water
is no silvered mirage. It clings like tar.
It swallows everything we are.

The “Our Lady” poems are a special treat. “Our Lady on the Half Shell” celebrates “Bathtub Madonna, Lily of so many gardens, Queen of Heaven in a scalloped shell [. . .]”:

White-washed, with marble chips, or pansies, at your feet,
you have many faces in New Orleans—so many incarnations—
alabaster, hand-painted Creole or coffee or midnight skin,
your ghost eyes peering out and you motionless

And then there’s “Our Lady of ‘No Regerts’ ”:

Our Lady of No Regerts, prevention of bad tattoos
must be your side hustle, a part-time ministry,
because, queen of inky heaven, with respect,

a few too many permanent atrocities
have escaped your intervention

My personal favorite is “Our Lady of Whatever,” in which the poet fantasizes about being one of the many Ladies revered in New Orleans.

So many lakes. So many Ladies of the Lakes.
Maybe I could be Lake Pontchartrain’s Lady
of the Longest Bridge, Lady of Cicada Tea Parties,
of Lighthearted Marvels, of Sand Mandalas,
Reduced to Cerulean Ash. Our Lady of Shrinky Dinks.

A special gem in this collection is Pelegrin’s “Soliloquy against a Kudzu Backdrop”:

 Audience of none, superstition dictates
that I peek through the kudzu curtain
like a starlet before making an entrance
and speaking yet again on the theme
of ignorance observed in waking life.
I would like to believe these are actors I see—
rednecks so loud in their stupidity
that rather than being frightened by their antics
I find myself waiting for the punchline

//

How can we be
so different when the same trees
rustle in all of our dreams?

It isn’t easy to move readers beyond the clichéd images of jazz bands, wrought iron balconies and roaming alligators, to the sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, and always evocative images that represent what life is really like in New Orleans and its outlying regions. But in Our Lady of the Flood, Alison Pelegrin provides a charmingly authentic portrait of a culture that is like no other in the nation.


Alison Pelegrin’s latest collection, Our Lady of Bewilderment, is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2022. Other books include Waterlines (LSU 2016), as well as Hurricane Party (2011), and Big Muddy River of Stars (2007), both with the University of Akron Press. Pelegrin is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Louisiana Board of Regents. She is Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University. 


Title: Our Lady of the Flood
Author: Alison Pelegrin
Diode Editions
ISBN: 978-1-939728-16-6
28 pages, $12.00


Diane Elayne Dees is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and two forthcoming chapbooks, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died, and The Last Time I Saw You. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana—just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans—also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.


ABOUT THE PRESS: Diode Editions is an independent press based in Doha, Qatar and Richmond, Virginia. Editor-in-Chief Patty Paine founded the press in 2012 as an offshoot of Diode Poetry Journal. To date, the press has published 37 titles of poetry, chapbooks and poetry-related nonfiction works and hosts yearly book and chapbook contests.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe

Slow Dark Film

Slow Dark Film, by Lynn Strongin

Review by Risa Denenberg

I’ve been a fan of Lynn Strongin’s work since 2014 when she submitted a manuscript to my press, Headmistress Press. I immediately fell in love with her poetry. In fact, Headmistress has published two of her poetry collections: The Burn Poems in 2015 and A Bracelet of Honeybees in 2016. So I was interested in reading her newly released chapbook, Slow Dark Film (right hand pointing, 2021). I’m happy to report that it has the same powerful, idiosyncratic, playful language and fascinating narrative that is found in the poetry and prose she has been publishing for decades.

Strongin’s work is often autobiographical, ranging from childhood when she was hospitalized with polio, to in-between years when she traveled extensively, and on to present day, where she suffers the debilitating late effects polio. Similar to other collections, Slow Dark Film follows a narrative line comprised of the poet’s lived experience. Also similar to other works, her lesbian lover is right by her side.

In the first poem, “LUMINOUS,” Strongin provides a map of the territory the reader is entering, when she reports, “Asylum, forever mine.” This is an artifact persistently embedded in the poems.

The slow dark film of the title is both a recollection from childhood and a gauzy scrim that forms a backdrop through which the poet’s story is shaded. The memory is of the “slow dark painterly-grained film[s]” that were shown to “Children twelve & under” who were “Wheeled in/ to our asylum.” Years exist in this metaphor of so few words—the excruciatingly slow movement of time and the bleak darkness of her surroundings.

The charm in the writing is how Strongin can travel from asylum to Elysium using her vivid imagination and agility with language. In the poem, “IT INTERRUPTS,” Elysium is paradise, but also a harbinger of death:

Stamen & pistil, flowering,
The earth is procreation:
Creation. In a cradle, the bee cups honey
            The longed for, the filmed over, a deep caress
            The last word is always loneliness.

Images—such as the dark film—repeat throughout these poems, conferring a dream-like effect. In “YOUR WORDS,” there is an image of a ladder which repeats in later poems:

I am going through a life-change
            that has ladders                   of grieving

I think of the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder when I read this, one of so many associations Strongin’s words invite me to imagine.  In “I KNEW I WAS,” the ladder reappears:

I comfort myself
With castles
Teeth-eaten by wind
Like raggy lace. These ladders, they do not lead
Out of the flesh.

Another repeated narrative is found in poems addressed to “YOU”—the delicately unnamed lover, as seen in “WHAT IS THIS”:

Many tiny upheavals in our lives
Have made them remote: yet what is this, you
            coming toward me with an embrace lowered eyes,
            sorrowing El                 Greco face?

Or this, in “GHOST OF DAWN”: “By the time you bathe me/ Morning’s gone.”

In Slow Dark Film there are many weighty metaphors of illness and death, such as in “DEFEAT”:

I make my dark nest,
I lay my bright dress
To rest.

And in the last poem in the book, Strongin returns to the original image of the film:

IF LIFE is a sadness that unspools, a slow dark grain
My rising up is my bending
Down in a dancer’s position.

Slow Dark Film unspools a quiet narrative, leaving me with much to wrestle with, and reminding me of the Dickinson poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”


Lynn Strongin’s homeland is America. Her adopted country Canada. She has twelve books, work in over forty anthologies, and has been nominated for a Lambda Award and the Pulitzer Prize in literature.


Title: Slow Dark Film
Author: Lynn Strongin
Publisher: right hand pointing
, 2021


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Terrain

Terrain, by Gina Hietpas (Blue Cactus Press, 2020)
Cover art by Heather Romano

Review by Risa Denenberg

Before reading the poems in a new book, I always like to spend some time absorbing its essence in its entirety: cover art, back notes, poem titles, author’s bio, acknowledgements, blurbs. The cover art on Gina Hietpas’s “Terrain” is the remarkable work of the artist Heather Romano, who created it specifically based on “images from the text” and “the underlying themes of the poems.” In it, a naked woman is shown, mid-face to hips, tattooed with living symbols, hands at heart and solar plexus in a gesture of protecting a living landscape of vines, fruit, and birds.

Hietpas’s narrator lives up to that image— vulnerable, protective, patient. She brings the reader into her story with an invitation. In “Coyote Speaks to Me,” a coyote dares a human to accept the joys and hardships to be encountered throughout the poems in this work. It ends with coyote’s encouragement:

Stick with me!
I’ll show you persistence and the art of pounce.
Watch me shrug off disappointment.

In solitude you learn your story.
Only than can you riff on the moon.

In “What We Dreamed,” a couple buys a piece of land trusting their ability to make a life, “a reprised “go west” dream. Living the dream, they find themselves here:

Christmas Eve, drenched in the Milky Way,
we warmed ourselves with possibilities.
We assumed blessing in the winks of stars.

In “Dessert” an “After supper” . . . “walk through the orchard,” displays the abundance of life, in this case, fruits—apples, plums, blackberries.

The poems unfold the story of a marriage, early settling into “cold water living” while building a home and having children. The couple’s greatest hardship is yet to come in these early days of “Trim the wicks, light the lamps. / Feed the fire.” In the poem titled, “Coyote Chatter,” we learn that the coyote—a perfect spirit animal for this story—is “a trickster, hipster, predator, editor.”

Indeed, the “trickster” brings the unexpected; the “editor” revises the story. There is nothing sentimental in these poems, no paradise, just trust, love, and hard work. But there is also an unexpected trouble. In “Aria: We Are Introduced to Our Future,” a pain-filled night becomes:

Tomorrow, your morphine-laced body,
            splayed on steel-edged tables,
            pictured and probed,
will reveal in grainy images the seismic shift
            in our dreams.

Time passes, children grow, a home is built of “[c]edar, quarter sawn, straight grained/ layers of ancient cambium,” while a husband’s illness ties him to dialysis. Years pass, a family accepting this complication in their wake. In “The Ache of October,” the woman reflects,

I, now my mother’s age, wrap myself
in russet and gold, sit in the seen of sun.
Weep. Weep. Murmurs the nuthatch
caching bugs beneath the cherry’s bark.

These poems narrate a life, of which I’ve sketched some larger movements. Between signposts and events, the poems reflect a poet who is alive to the land, it’s foliage and wildlife. Each poem is vibrant with imagery and pays close attention to what is at hand, giving the sense of someone who lives faithful to the present moment.

In the final poem, “Credo,” Hietpas speaks of the harvest of endurance and acceptance:

Love is a stone.

It can fracture under pressure.
But yielding to wind or wave,
the sharp edges smooth.

Grain by grain, it gives of itself
to become the grit beneath your feet.


Gina Hietpas is a self-taught poet, born and raised in Tacoma, Washington state. Nowadays, she lives outside Sequim, WA, on a small farm with her husband, a few cows and a passel of chickens. Her land is a habitat for elk, deer, coyotes and an occasional bear. It is, for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. The opportunity to be a back-country ranger for several seasons shaped her connection to wilderness. Professionally she was a middle school teacher for twenty five years.  Now that she has retired, she focuses her efforts on writing. She has studied with Kelli Russell Agodon, Alice Derry, Holly Hughes, Susan Rich and Kim Stafford. Hietpas’ work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Tidepools, Spindrift and New Plains Review.


Terrain, Poems by Gina Hietpas
Blue Cactus Press, 2020
49 pages; $17
ISBN: 9781733037556



Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Mother Want

Mother Want, by Maria McLeod
Winner of the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest

Review by Risa Denenberg

Thank God for poetry and horses.

In her prize-winning chapbook, Mother Want, Maria McLeod narrates harrowing tales of childhood, both hers and her parents’— rendering a panorama of inter-generational wounds. Breaking the cycle involves finding a way out of the story, without disowning it. For McLeod, the poetry muse offers a pathway through the act of writing; horses heal simply by being, as she describes in “And the Sky Bloomed Pink”:

I learned about love
when working with horses.

[…] those sweet moments
mucking stalls, alone
with the horses at first light.

Still, the through-line, to the last poem, “Summer’s End, Dogs,” does not relinquish want or hide melancholy. Watching children leave the house, McLeod finds keepsakes in an ordinary life: backpacks, yellow school bus, garden weeds, plum tomatoes, and the “unrelenting loneliness/ of neighborhood dogs, announcing over and over:/ someone is missing, someone is gone.”

Inevitably, the mother looms large in Mother Want. In the title poem, the longing for a do-over is a poignant wish “to love what isn’t lovable” and “to meet my mother/ before the years of sleep.”  

I want to know her before she disappeared, before
she gave up being the mother, before she gave up
being the body of the mother, the breasts
and words, and touch of the mother.

But also “to empty her out, to ransack/ her body, to cause damage.”

In childhood, we don’t recognize our parents as beings apart from us with their own stories, and certainly not as children themselves. Aging and death of parents can be a time for reappraisal, perhaps even forgiveness, or at least acknowledgement that they did the best that they could. “Joyce, 1945,” subtitled, “fur meine Mutter,” reveals disturbing scenes of the mother’s childhood—stories McLeod was told “when I was finally old enough to hear of it.” McLeod speaks perceptively of her mother as a child, “unable to discern joy from terror.” 

In “On Sunday, Our Father,” the father is portrayed as the more functional parent in the home with an absent mother. He was portrayed as frightening: “We could hear the anger in his walk/ across the hardwood floor/ hatred of his wife.” And “Once he punched a hole/ in our bedroom door.” But also this:

He warmed bottles
of milk while my mother sleepwalked through life.
He made us pizza for dinner;
he let us drink pop. We loved
our father.

Later in “Death Defied,” we learn that the father was a “sickly boy” who was supposed to die but instead “rose out of bed, defying his doctors.” Similarly, the narrator in Mother Want defies the somber prospects of her childhood. Indeed, both parents’ backstories are sewn into the fabric of the child’s day-to-day reality.

There are other possible configurations of childhood in these pages. In “Bereft/ for Stephen,” the death of a beloved father brings forth the wisdom that,

Death has no dominion over your child self,
grieving not for the absence
of the frail father, but for the familiar
comfort of the sturdy back you mounted
before you could swim.

There are also present-day stories here, such as in “November Green/ for Mary.” November is a seen as a time of decay and decomposition as two friends walk and talk “of our work/ as professors, of love and marriage, illness, and our parents/ decline.” A cancer diagnosis is disclosed— “the wife of a friend … was dead,” while the speaker is “13 months post diagnosis,” but is “reluctant to refer to [her]self as lucky.” In this rambling friendship, there is also the story of a 10-year-old daughter’s elaborate funeral for her hamster “Creampuff,” with friends dressed in black and “some of the girls/ wearing fascinators, as if attending a British wedding.” There is a tenderness towards children in this poem that was often lacking in the poet’s childhood.

The poems in Mother Want are not only memoir, although the childhood memory pieces recounted here are indeed memorable—in the way an earworm won’t go away after the song ends. There are also poems of portraiture—ekphrastic poems of persons, so to speak—which are both memorable and gentle, a relief from traumatic memories.  In “Hammer and Nails,” a carpenter, “imagines where/ he’ll frame out windows, add a door.” As the day draws to a close,

He measures his next day’s work, makes his way
onto the dilapidated porch, faded color
he’ll need to scrape off, recoat. Make it new:
make it right.


Standing alone, this is a lovely portrait; but it is also an immensely satisfying metaphor for what might be done for a broken childhood.


Maria McLeod writes poetry and prose. Honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize, and three Pushcart Prize nominations. She was named the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest winner, judged by then Oregon State Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, for Mother Want, published in 2021. Her second poetry chapbook, Skin. Hair. Bones., is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2022. Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Puerto Del Sol, The Brooklyn Rail, Painted Bride Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Sonora Review and others. Originally from the Detroit area, she currently resides in Bellingham, Washington where she works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

Mother Want, Maria McLeod
Winner of the 2020 Water Sedge Poetry Chapbook Contest
Publisher: ‎ Independently published (May 25, 2021)
Paperback: ‎ 37 pages $10
ISBN-13: ‎ 979-8731318600


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

There is Still Singing in the Afterlife

There is Still Singing in the Afterlife, by JinJin Xu (Radix Media, 2020)

Winner of the inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize selected by Aria Aber

Review by Jeri Frederickson

There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife drew me in through its imagery and unabashed closeness to intimate loss and historical grief. You may find yourself and echoes of your own family in this debut collection by JinJin Xu. Drawing on personal experiences, playing with language and visual poetry, these poems shine a light for readers to see our own paths in the aftermath of complex family dynamics and loss.

We are in an afterlife of our own in 2021. I imagine this collection was written and set for publication before the Covid-19 global pandemic, and yet it entered the world right in the middle of it. Fortunately for us, as the world tries to find a post-Covid, or a Covid+ world, There is Still Singing in the Afterlife lifts the burden of finding a way. Xu visualizes an afterlife of both global and personal loss, chaos, and misunderstandings. As I read, I kept asking myself how does this collection feel so alive, like a song, despite its often heavy content? Xu shows the reader a way to sing again and a way to live through play, even as we grieve.

As is often the case with a contest-winning chapbook, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife has already received several reviews; I agree with previous reviews asserting the language’s poignancy and intimate closeness. The language draws us into the longing and hardship inside familial ties in poems like “New Year’s with my Aborted Sister,”

& my poor mother, with only a daughter to her name
             Melts her red tears into the little girl
            I have long searched for.
I am her daughter in this life, her mother in the next.
             I undress her grief, suckle cancer from her breasts

Xu’s precise language affirms and eases the weight of similar grief. Some reviews of this chapbook have pointed to the titular poem or to the “To Red Dust” poems to uplift Xu’s exploration of and confusion with familial bonds. While I find their perspective interesting and certainly relevant to poems like “New Year’s with my Aborted Sister,” I’m most interested in another aspect of this collection. Xu’s playfulness through language and the visual design of the collection includes glossy images that emboss, strike-through, or erase text, and the text moves across the page with a playfulness that first caught my attention when thumbing through the pages. Even before I entered the words as individual units of meaning, this collection took on a sense of play.

“To Red Dust” plays with the book as a physical object, and the reader gets to be part of the play. The words flow in portrait as well as landscape across the pages of this poem. The book’s need to be turned and engaged with as a physical object was a delight as Xu weaves heady ideas and complicated emotions into physical images:

As if I am not of my father’s body, I write
My name into my exhale, please
A swipe of his palm –
Do not leave us in the red dust

“Red Dust” sets the rhythmic pace of the collection, acting as the inhale and exhale while making the reader crane her neck and turns the page around and around even as Xu turns the ideas of family around and around.

At times, I didn’t understand quite what was going on in a poem, and I was surprised to find this never bothered me. Xu interweaves the senses with an emotional understanding even when the logic or narrative seemed out of reach:

unnameable mother
sat gashing fish scales
into the tremble
of a bucket
between her legs,
not yet knowing
the cost
of a bullet fired
at dawn
into the belly
of her
poem –

I didn’t understand all of what was going on in each scene of “Showing my Mother a Censored Film She Cannot Unsee, in Three Acts”, but I loved the playfulness of the poem’s styles and always felt drawn into the poem and landed with the poem’s end. Xu’s ability to play in this weaving creates a sense of trust in the reader to go along with the poem.

Xu plays with form through erasure in “The Revolution is Not a Dinner Party.” This poem of very short lines creates a melody even as it erases its source. Chairman Moa’s Little Red Book is the source material, and the poem lifts extended images such as:

Blind war
xxxxxxin thick ropes.

Ghosts,
xxxxxxa now common

Language. Not
xxxxxxliving. Paper.

We have many personal, societal, and governmental ghosts, and Xu’s deft words slide over playful rhythms and forms to give us a doorway to dance through into the afterlife of those griefs. There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife is a complex and visually compelling debut to hold. Let us look forward to more from JinJin Xu.


Photograph of JinJin Xu by Xu Xiao Ping.

JinJin Xu is the 2020 winner of the Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award. She has received honors from Southern Humanities Review, Tupelo Press, and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Her films have exhibited at Berlin’s Harun Farocki Institute and NYC’s The Immigrant Artist Biennial.
Born and raised in Shanghai, she received her MFA in Poetry from NYU, where was a Lillian Vernon fellow, and now teaches hybrid ballet/poetry workshops through NYU Tisch’s Art of Future Imaginations Grant, and serves as Books Editor of Washington Square Review. Her debut chapbook There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife was selected by Aria Aber for the inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize (Radix Media) and was published November, 2020. Her second chapbook This Is My Testimony is forthcoming Fall 2021 from Black Warrior Review. Find more of her work at jinjinxu.com.


        

Title: There is Still Singing in the Afterlife
Author: JinJin Xu
Publisher: Radix Media: November 20, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-7340487-2-8

$12, 48pp


Jeri calls Chicago home with her two cats and many plants. She dives into literary, visual, and performing art as a channel to nurture love and access beauty while questioning the experiences that hold people together. She graduated from Antioch University Los Angeles with an MFA in Writing. Her chapbook You Are Not Lost is published by Finishing Line Press 2021. IG: @jfredcreates


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Recoveries

Recoveries by Peter Snow (Finishing Line Press, 2021)

Review by Carmine Dibiase

Peter Snow’s extraordinary poetry happens somewhere between consciousness and dreamland: a region rich in the imagery of desire and of human wreckage and healing. These sixteen poems, which draw from Snow’s experience as a psychiatric nurse, house a quiet, humane vision, but a first reading of this posthumous chapbook might leave one feeling unmoored. Entry into this poet’s house of words requires trust in the rhetorical and imagistic play of his mind.

In “A walk in the mountains,” for example, there is a “he,” an “I” and a “you,” but are they three separate people or are they all one and the same? A “patient” has “blistered” feet “in heavy boots,” but “I climb this rugged path to the white house at the cliff top,” and then, in a statement addressed to “you,” comes an abrupt change of scene: “Don’t be afraid of the mirror at the top of the stairs beyond the doorway.” Are there three people here, or two, or only one? All three readings are possible.

This fluidity, as we soon discover, is not only intentional but necessary. Snow’s aim is to recreate the sensation of empathy, how we move in and out of our own present and past lives, and those of other people. In “Confession,” a patient and his lover have suffered a separation; as they heal their spiritual wounds, they begin to see “the outline” of a love, not for each other but for someone else. And the listening doctor thinks, to himself, “I searched in vain for a woman,” the italics signaling his private voice.

The doctor is a recurring, melancholy, and guarded observer. In “Words of comfort,” he wonders:  

Our life in this world,
what is it like


A boat that has sailed early,
leaving no wake.

He emerges from this desolating thought and “carefully knots his necktie.”

“Allow us to speak of miracles,” a patient says to him in “An impossible thing.” The doctor “dismisses the thought like blowing out a match,” retreats behind “his large and heavy desk,” and again “touches the knot of his tie.”

That knot recalls the tie pin that immobilizes the narrator in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “like a patient etherized upon a table.” And Prufrock’s bilious city is also evoked by Snow’s doctor, in the form of a journal entry:

“Looking back over my life, it’s like a city; I turn and walk through stinking alleys, and dingy side streets, loud with cursing, past the shebeens and brothels, past fights and grudging looks from dirty windows, or turn into broad avenues, full of noisy men.”

Like Prufrock, Snow’s doctor inhabits an ailing human world, in which, unbeknownst to his patients, he tries to feel what they feel in order to discover, and to heal, himself. That, however, requires a “fifth chamber” of the heart, something more than the observable four. One consolation along his journey—and ours?—is civility. Nurses come in, twice, with “biscuits and tea on a rattling trolley, pouring from a steel teapot, catching the sunlight.”

Peter Snow died suddenly on 12/18/19. Among his varied roles in life, Snow worked as a storyteller, teacher, poet, playwright, actor, bartender, goatherd, and psychiatric nurse. Snow taught Drama and English at Edinburgh Steiner School for 28 years (1983 – 2012), using storytelling as an integral part of the pedagogy.  He immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 2017.  Over his long career as a storyteller, he performed in diverse venues across the US and Europe, from tea shops to open fields.  He is the author of A Rosslyn Treasury and The Shifty Lad (Floris Books).


Title: Recoveries
Author: Peter Snow
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021.
17 pages. $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-64662-523-9


Carmine DiBiase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Cows

The Cows, by Lydia Davis

Review by S.M. Tsai

One may be jealous of another being licked: she thrusts her head under the outstretched neck of the one licking, and butts upward till the licking stops.

Lydia Davis’s The Cows (Sarabande Books, 2011) brought me back to every instance in which I stared at my childhood pets wondering “what are they thinking about?” Anyone who has spent prolonged time with animals will get a familiar feeling when they read this chapbook: the desire to decipher an animal’s intentions in the absence of a common language (while sometimes projecting personalities onto them). How many of us have monologued in tandem with an animal’s mysterious actions, or held mock conversations with said creature as they went about their business?

This chapbook is not a collection of individual poems, nor does it feel exactly like a standard short story. I can only describe it as a 38-page poetic observation of bovine life—one that is interspersed with photos, taken by the author during her year-long observations.

Davis has written other stories about animals, including cats, mice, and fish. Upon comparing these stories, we see that each type of animal can provide a different viewing experience to the human voyeur, due to their varied habits and needs.

In The Cows the theme of stillness is pervasive. The various incarnations of this stillness are portrayed throughout, for example:

How often they stand still and slowly look around as though they have never been here before,

And,

[. . .] they are so still, and their legs so thin, in comparison to their bodies, that when they stand sideways to us, sometimes their legs seem like prongs, and they seem stuck to the earth.

In a lifestyle marked by stillness, what are the things that bring action to a cow’s daily routine?

As Davis demonstrates, their stillness is set against a changing landscape of seasons (white snow to green grass), disturbance of other animals (flocks of birds, snowball-throwing boys, gaping writers), and the birth of calves. Ever-analytical, Davis also itemizes their forms of play:

[. . .] head butting; mounting, either at the back or at the front; trotting away by yourself; trotting away together; going off bucking and prancing by yourself [. . .]

The Cows thus depicts an ambling, relatively tranquil (but quietly humorous) existence for these creatures, at least through Davis’s eyes. But when we read some of her other stories, we are reminded that other animals may experience a different momentum in their daily lives. In her story “Cockroaches in Autumn,” (from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2009)  the featured critter’s activities are marked by speed rather than stillness:

[. . .] when I empty the bag, a crowd of them scatter from the heel of rye bread, like rye seeds across the counter, like raisins. [. . .] he stops short in his headlong rush and tries a few other moves almost simultaneously, a bumper car jolting in place on the white drainboard.”

While I found The Cows to be a thoroughly satisfying read on its own, it was particularly enriching to meet Davis’s cockroaches, mice, cat, and dog along with her neighbors’ cattle. I recommend The Collected Stories as companion pieces to this chapbook.


Lydia Davis is a short story writer, novelist, and translator. She is the author of six collections of short stories, including Can’t and Won’t (2014) and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009); one novel, The End of the Story (1995); and a collection of nonfiction, Essays One (2019), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Davis is best known for her very short, micro- or “flash” fiction; many of her stories are a single sentence or paragraph long. She has translated novels and works of philosophy from French, including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010) and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003). Her honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Man Booker International Prize. She is a professor emerita at SUNY Albany.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lydia-davis


Title: The Cows
Author: Lydia Davis
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sarabande Books (March 29, 2011)
32 pages
ISBN‎ 978-1932511932
Price: $9.95

          

 


S.M. Tsai spent many years doing archival research and writing, then turned to 9-5 jobs for a new learning environment. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine, Blue Unicorn, and the chapbook Bubbles and Droplets: 10 Poems of 2020. She lives in Toronto with her plants.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Postcards from the Lilac City

Postcards from the Lilac City, by Mary Ellen Talley

Review by Sylvia Byrne Pollack

Mary Ellen Talley and I have attended many of the same workshops over the past decade, and I was already familiar with her work when I learned of the publication of her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City (Finishing Line Press, 2021).  I’ve heard her describe this chapbook as “nostalgia-based,” but if nostalgia/memory is the seed from which this collection of poems sprouted and thrived, then I say keep on tending this tree. The fruit is delicious.

I also was drawn to this book because my mother loved lilacs. When I was growing up in Western New York, we drove to Rochester, NY each spring to the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. That park was the source of the lilacs that now flourish in Talley’s birthplace of Spokane!

Postcards from the Lilac City is an homage to place and era. However, it is not limited to Spokane, WA, known officially as The Lilac City, or to Talley’s school years. There’s a wide range of topics, from eating yak butter while traveling to baking shamrock cookies for the family.

The book is prefaced with a poem describing Pan’s infatuation with the wood nymph, Syringa, whose name is the genus name for lilacs. Three sections follow: “Bike Riding Before Helmets,” “Spokane Postcards,” and “After Vietnam.”

“Bike Riding Before Helmets” focuses on the poet’s early life. In “End of the Trolley Park,” we encounter the carousel where her parents first met. Strong sounds and dense details such as “two Chinese dragon benches / breathe fire” enhance the visual effects. They pick up the reader, carry us to another time, but by the end of the first section of the poem “The stallions are sleeping” and “The cemeteries are full / of riders.” The rebirth of the carousel in 1975, is told in declarative voice, rich with physical and emotional details, “as memories glisten spinning counterclockwise.”

The memories are mixed. For example, there is the contrast of a bomb shelter vs. the protection provided by the presence of the Poor Clare Monastery in “faith in the lilac city” –with the all lowercase title adding an ironic twist. A sometimes-troubled relationship with her father resolves into understanding in “As I Pursue You”:

what I most recall is your steady hand
grasping the back of my bicycle

and running beside me until I could not fall.

Talley uses various poetic forms—even a duplex. In a Jericho Brown-inspired poem, “Duplex: We Had a Real Fred and Ethel in the Lilac City,” we meet Talley’s parents, the real Fred and Ethel, to whom the book is dedicated.

The final two poems recounting the speaker’s childhood relive teenage years. A Stone Man on a festival float brims with not-so-latent adolescent sexuality. My favorite of this group is “Butterfly” which captures teenage brio in the speaker’s casual description of herself:

I, in my herringbone pleated skirt,
blue anklets and white Peter Pan collar,
history and French books tossed in the back seat.

The poem includes the maneuvers required to start her hand-me-down car: opening the hood, flipping up the butterfly hinge, getting into the car to turn on the ignition, getting back out to flip down the butterfly, then idling in PARK while listening to the radio and watching her classmates head off to the bus. She then has an hour to spend with her boyfriend under a lilac (where else?) before picking up her mother. So much of a teenage life is captured in 34 lines.

The poems in “Spokane Postcards” contain the eponymous postcard poems. The first stanza of each is a description of place, the postcard image, followed by a message, generally from Mary Ellen but sometimes from her grandma. They have the feel of a flipped over haibun.  The descriptions include place, season and senses. The messages use the casual voice of postcards to family and friends.

“Shadle Park” extends the teenage romancing of “Butterfly” with brief declarative and imperative lines: “Kiss the space between his teeth.” And, later, skin evokes the omnipresent lilacs:

pull petal soft sheer layers
from burnt skin.
Drop it all on an ant hill.

Probably the funniest line in the book is in the poem “Wandemere” in a message to a friend about experiences while traveling in Asia: “I am still so Spokane.”

The final section, “After Vietnam,” includes poems of marriage and maturity.  In “The Things We Carry,” memorable lines, such as “you and I carried desire / like youth’s cranking jump rope” are juxtaposed with dense descriptive passages. Later in “Fabric of Worry,” we find Talley’s judicious use of white space.

An homage to Gertrude Stein, “Occupation of Lilacs,” overwhelms the senses with the sight and smell of lilacs, in true Stein fashion. The lilting “Prism” delights with its nursery rhyme rhythms and nonsense, e.g., “Old onions cry out once pumpkin seeds twinkle.”

The poem, “Since you ask how do we love a sibling (enough)” uses a clever device. Lines are divided into two columns and lines in the right hand column in each stanza begin successively with H,E,L,I,X. The poem further explores and pulls together family stories we heard about earlier in the book. It is a moving tribute to family and the DNA ties that bind.

In the final poem, Talley considers “the movie of my life” in a taut, beautiful series of images of a tapestry,

ripped
in those years of hanging
beside a stone staircase.

There is much to savor in this eclectic collection of poems. Talley takes us on a carousel ride through time and space and in her quiet voice returns us a little more grounded, more appreciative of family, more aware of the beauty that leavens life.


Mary Ellen Talley was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac City, and then migrated to Seattle where she and her husband raised their two children. She earned degrees at the University of Washington and worked for many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Seattle area public schools. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Raven Chronicles, Banshee, What Rough Beast, Flatbush Review, and Ekphrastic Review, as well as in six anthologies, among which are All We Can Hold and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She reviews for several journals including Compulsive Reader and Asheville Poetry Review.



Title: Postcards from the Lilac City
Author: Mary Ellen Talley
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-64662-317-4



Sylvia Byrne Pollack, a scientist turned poet, has published in Floating Bridge ReviewCrab Creek Review and Clover, among other print and online journals. A two-time Pushcart nominee, she won the 2013 Mason’s Road Literary Award, was a 2019 Jack Straw Writer and will be a 2021 Mineral School Resident. Her debut full-length collection Risking It is published by Red Mountain Press (2021.)



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Diane Elayne Dees

. . . . in conversation with Randal Burd

Memoirs of a Witness Tree by Randal Burd was reviewed at The Poetry Cafe by Diane Elayne Dees, and, in turn, Dees’s chapbook, Coronary Truth, was reviewed by Burd. These two poets found that they had much in common, as you will see in this interview between them.

[M]y love of formal poetry—which I often write—is probably somewhat inspired by some of the poets, especially the Victorian poets, I studied in school.

Diane Elayne Dees

Randal Burd: I was recently privileged to have the opportunity to interview Diane Elayne Dees via email regarding her latest poetry collection, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books, 2020). That conversation informed a review of her chapbook, but her answers to my questions are illuminating in their own right.

RB: What inspired you to become a poet; to decide to write poetry and have it published?

Diane Elayne Dees: I always enjoyed writing, but didn’t start doing it seriously until later in life. I did political and tennis writing, and I wrote and published a lot of creative nonfiction and short fiction. Then, suddenly, I went dry—I ran out of story ideas. I began to write poetry because I was frustrated and wanted to write something creative. To my surprise, I took to it almost immediately and have written little else, in terms of creative writing, for several years now. And since I was already a published nonfiction and fiction author, it didn’t even occur to me not to seek publication of my poetry.

RB: Who are some of your favorite poets? Which poets have inspired your writing?

DED: My very favorite poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay. I also like reading Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Matthew Arnold, and Mary Oliver. Two of my favorite contemporary poets are Jennifer Reeser and Allison Joseph. I’m not aware of my own poetry having been directly inspired by any poet in particular, but I think that my love of formal poetry—which I often write—is probably somewhat inspired by some of the poets, especially the Victorian poets, I studied in school.

RB: What is your process for writing poems? Is it deliberate and scheduled or as the inspiration comes?

DED: It’s generally as the inspiration comes. However, I recently participated in two projects which required the scheduled writing of poems, and I was amazed at what that bit of pressure produced. I’ve no doubt that scheduling writing time would be a good idea—I just need to find the discipline.   

RB: I notice you draw a lot of inspiration from nature. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?

DED: I grew up near a lake, with woods right beyond my back yard, and I now live in a natural setting. Just about every day, I go outside to observe the birds and insects and other creatures, and to photograph them. I don’t garden as much as I used to, but I still tend to a number of plants. Also, my house is filled with images of the natural world.

RB: Is the reader wrong to assume many of these poems have an autobiographical element to them?

DED: Many of them are indeed autobiographical.

RB: Do you personally find writing poetry to be a cathartic process?

DED: I do! I find several different kinds of writing cathartic, but the poem—by virtue of its distillation of thought, melded with sound and rhythm—creates a total body experience of satisfaction/relief that is hard to explain to someone who has never created a poem. My hope is that the reader will also experience some of that.

RB: You have published a “progressive” blog, written for Mother Jones, and authored political essays, yet your poetry does not seem to be overtly political. What do you think of politics as poetic muse?

DED: I write and publish a lot of political poetry, but none of it appears in this chapbook. For me, social/political issues provide an endless supply of topics for poems, and writing about topics important to me is now my way of contributing to the conversation. However, those topics about which I’m the most passionate remain difficult poetic subjects for me to write about; my emotions get in the way. And—to return to the last question—writing poetry about social issues is quite cathartic.


Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.


Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.





Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin

Review by Nancy Naomi Carlson

A whole body of literature exists that focuses on the body. Indeed, one might make the assertion that all literature does so, in one way or another— enraptured body, dying body, panicked body, betrayed body, and, as in the case of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), body as betrayer.

Because I, too, have gone through, and written about “the cancer experience,” I was particularly drawn to this chapbook. I was curious to see how cancer could be the subject of a collection of poems without it spreading into all aspects of what makes a book cohesive and alive, i.e., a sense of tension between themes, linguistic risks, and tone (to name a few). Cesarco Eglin contrasts her subject matter’s doom and gloom with the urge to live her still-young life despite the ever-present shadows. The dark humor infused in these poems also underscores the seriousness of their themes. For example, in “Articulating the Changes in My Body,” Cesarco Eglin, a fine translator herself, compares her scars to Morse code:

I’m thinking about the Morse code as a
possible alphabet to get through, to get by,
to translate.

She then gives a graphic representation of Morse-code-as-scar.

It’s easy for poems about illness to veer off into sentimentality or self-absorption, but Cesarco Eglin masterfully negotiates the geography of living an unconditional life, despite her multiple bouts with melanoma, and despite the need “to guard [each] new spot ‘like a hawk.’” In this pandemic year, many of us are directly experiencing the need to be extra-vigilant to avoid contracting the virus, which makes this new chapbook of poems particularly relevant. Cesarco Eglin can never escape “the doctor’s voice in [her] head: it will come back.” She reminds us that “there is no vacation from being alert.” Indeed, in an existential stance to confront the absurdity of the human condition, she instructs us on how to take control of the uncontrollable, and writing is her chosen strategy. She offers us this wisdom:

One scar, then another;
that’s two lines already:
a couplet written in five months,
a couplet that promises
to be the beginning of a lifetime
of poetry.

Melanoma, her muse, has provided her with the motivation to be “aware of any little change in color, shape, texture, dimension, state, mode or mood of any mole or stain or spot on [my] body.” Cesarco Eglin, who was born in Uruguay and is fluent in Spanish and English as well as other languages, is open to melanoma teaching her the language of the body—learning it well enough to eventually call herself “a native speaker.” She’s trying to learn to embrace her scars, and compares them to bridges, as she brilliantly transforms the threatening juxtaposition of “bridge” and “attempt” to a life-affirming choice:

Many bridges, an attempt
to keep me in one piece;
an attempt to keep me
alive long enough
to cross them all.

In these days of COVID-19, we could all use something to help us cross these bridges—something to remind us to keep believing there are still “skies and wonders.”

The Reviewer posed some questions to the author about her book:

Nancy Naomi Carlson: What about Life, One Not Attached To Conditionals is uniquely suited to the chapbook form?

Laura Cesarco Eglin: I felt that a shorter form would suit Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals as a way to, at least in language, be able to finish the cycle, end the struggle psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. Intense, short, and move on to life, one not attached to conditionals.

NMC: I notice that “translation” is one of the themes of Life. How did your work as a translator (and an author who is translated) impact your writing this chapbook?

LCE: Experience translated into language. Poetry as a means to question, challenge, and rearrange thoughts and experiences. Translation as a form of reading deeply, analyzing.

NMC: Writing about illness seems to be a tried-and-true genre, but is also an emerging one, as the landscape of disease is ever-shifting. Were you influenced by other writings on this topic?

LCE: More than influenced on writings on this particular topic for this particular chapbook, I would say that I am always influenced by all the books I read. I think that goes without saying. But there are two books in particular that I’d like to highlight. They deal with overcoming a loved one’s death or suicide: Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen and Instead of Dying by Lauren Haldeman.

NMC: Can you say something about your wonderful title (e.g., how it came about; when, in the process of writing, it came to you…)

LCE: The title comes from a line in “Recovery,” a poem in Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals. I did not set out to write a poetry collection about having melanoma and skin cancer repeatedly and what that meant. I was writing poems and they, understandably, had that focus. The process of editing, rereading, changing, rewriting brings new perspectives, and when I read that line I perceived that it encapsulates the compass, as well as the power I think language has.

TITLE: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals
AUTHOR: Laura Cesarco Eglin
PUBLISHER: Thirty West Publishing House, 2020
PRICE: $11.99

BUY IT !!

Laura Cesarco Eglin is a poet and translator. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Calling Water by Its Name, translated by Scott Spanbauer (Mouthfeel Press, 2016), Sastrería (Yaugurú, 2011), and Reborn in Ink,translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval (The Word Works, 2019). She has also published three chapbooks: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), Occasions to Call Miracles Appropriate  (The Lune, 2015) and Tailor Shop: Threads, co-translated with Teresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her poems, as well as her translations (from the Spanish, Portuguese, Portuñol, and Galician), have appeared in a variety of journals, including Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Eleven Eleven, Puerto del Sol, Copper Nickel, Spoon River Poetry Review, Arsenic Lobster, International Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Blood Orange Review, Timber, Pretty Owl Poetry, Pilgrimage, Periódico de Poesía, and more. Cesarco Eglin is the translator of Of Death. Minimal Odes by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (co•im•press), winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. She co-translated from the Portuñol Fabián Severo’s Night in the North (EulaliaBooks, 2020). She is the co-founding editor and publisher of Veliz Books.

Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. www.nancynaomicarlson.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.