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.

The Missing Ones

The Missing Ones, Poems by Lauren Davis

Review by Risa Denenberg

I’ll start with a disclosure: Lauren Davis and I are friends and often share our poetry with one another. The first review at the Café was my review of Davis’s chapbook, Each Wild Thing’s Consent, and Lauren has been a guest reviewer on this site. In The Poetry Café Guidelines For Reviewers, I say,

I am not at all reluctant to publish reviews of books from poets known to the reviewer, as long as the review is credible.

Reader, I promise, credibly, that I am besotted with The Missing Ones, and would urge you to order one of the limited press run of 40 copies, if any were still available. But it appears they are all gone. Befitting the poems, they have disappeared.  


The Missing Ones (Winter texts, Limited edition, 2021) by Lauren Davis,is a tour de force narrative of persons lost at sea. More specifically persons lost in the glacial-fed, crystal-clear body of Lake Crescent, a lake which reaches a maximum depth of over 1000 feet, is algae-free due to the water’s nitrogen content, and has an average temperature of 44 degrees.  Davis’s interest in the stories of these lost lives is also compelling to me as we both live on the Olympic Peninsula, near this iconic lake. Davis’s poetry is equally enthralling, and a remarkable lyrical match for the story she tells in these poems.  

In the book’s preface the reader learns,

On July 3, 1929, Russell Warren picked up his wife, Blanch … They drove U.S. Route 101 along Lake Crescent towards their home in Port Angeles, Washington. They’d promised to celebrate the Fourth of July with their sons. But the couple did not arrive home. The two boys never saw their parents again.

In the poem, “Seven Thousand Years Ago,” the story’s history opens,

            The earthquake cut a drowned country
            xxxxx for us to rest.
            In these depths, God laid out a marriage bed.

The first poem in the book, “Blanch Says,” starts with the line, “There are dangers / in deep waters no one / speaks of.” The enormity and terror of nature as it unfolded and continues to evolve on the Olympic Peninsula is rendered skillfully in these lines. As humans struggle to stay relevant on mother earth, nature plods on, on her own course. In “The Missing Ones,” Blanch is an iconic symbol of that struggle when her voice says,

There is a stain on the rock
unfolding. I drink the lake,

All of it. I make it mine.   

And in “What Makes the Lake So Thirsty,” the plot thickens,

We are not the only mislaid ones.
They rest at separate depths.
            //
We are the republic of secrets
and missing person cases.
I wore my least favorite dress to our death.
The lake floor is a reversed sky,

And yet, there is a life in the depths, and in “Things That are Pleasing,” Blanch’s voice lists some of them,

Beardslee trout dancing.
A rainstorm I hear but cannot feel.
The small of winter in hidden splits.
My husband’s eyes in the depths.

Now I must tell you something about Beardslee trout: they are a species of rainbow trout that are endemic to and live only in Lake Crescent. If this piques your interest, read more at The Native Fish Society. It is this detail, among others gleaned from the long history of the lake, that deepen the emotional resonance of these poems.

Blanch also has her complaints. In “Things that Irritate,” she lists some of them:

Candy wrappers that float into my bedroom.
Friends who do not say goodbye after they are found.
Long weeks without rain.
Divers that swim past my outstretched hand.

And there are also “Rare Things,”

Minutes that I do not miss my sons.
Green herons.
Decades without new bodies.

Blanch’s voice tells her story in “I’ll Tell you What Happened,” a narrative of drowning that is precise and terrifying, and yet redemptive at the same time.

This is how it feels to drown:
You’ll try not to inhale, but you will.

Water will fill the lungs. When your beloved drifts by
you will be unable to reach your hands to him.
Just try to move a single muscle. Your eyes will

stay open. Your husband has something to tell you—
you can sense it in the cold. Wait until you are both done
drowning. Then build a new home.

The details here are stunning, make me want to believe in this afterlife of the drowned dead. I grieve for Blanch and the others when she says, in “When the Lady of the Lake Comes to Stay,”

Russell, we have a visitor
and nothing to offer—
 no cake, no coffee.

Let us share our home
with its many rooms of water.

These poems are not at all sentimental. I am not a sentimental person. And yet, even at the fifth reading of them, I have cried.

Why would I review a book that is currently out of print? In part because I want you to remember the name of the poet. Lauren Davis. The poet has other books for you to buy and you will find her poems on the internet in many places. You will be hearing more from her, I promise. And, as the first printing sold out, hopefully, a second printing won’t be far behind, so that you can have your own copy!


Lauren Davis is the author of Home Beneath the Church (Fernwood Press, forthcoming), and the chapbooks Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press, 2018), and The Missing Ones (Winter texts, 2021). She holds an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and she teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books. She is a former Editor in Residence at The Puritan’s Town Crier and has been awarded a residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Davis lives on the Olympic Peninsula in a Victorian seaport community. Her work has appeared in over fifty literary publications and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Poet Lore, Ibbetson Street, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. 


Title: The Missing Ones
Author: Lauren Davis
Publisher: Winter texts (first edition, limited run)


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Readers and Writers ALERT!

A few announcements!

Thanks to the ever-on-top-of-it Trish Hopkinson, I would like to refer you to her Daily Digest updated listing of free chapbook contest presses! Support the presses that support you!

I’m looking for some help with The Poetry Cafe Online, in the following areas:

1) Reviewers. I have received so many wonderful chapbooks and cannot review even a small percentage of them. I welcome guest reviewers. You can choose a book from the listings, and I will mail it to you with guidelines for writing the review. Newbies are welcome, I’m happy to mentor you in the art of poetry reviewing! Interested? Let me know!

2) Features. Since the inception of this site, I’ve wanted to feature the wonderful small presses that publish chapbooks, but I honestly haven’t had time to do it. I’m looking for someone who would like to write features of small presses for publication here at The Cafe. Interested? Let me know!

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


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.

Interviews: A New Feature at The Poetry Cafe!

Big thanks to all who have been following The Poetry Cafe Online and reading our reviews of poetry chapbooks. I continue to receive chapbooks from near and far, and am amazed at the quality of what I am reading. I am forever grateful to guest reviewers: Sarah Stockton, Jerri Frederickson, Siân Killingsworth and Lennart Lundh who have written such superb reviews. I’m always on the lookout for new reviewers, so please get in touch if you are interested.

Today, The Cafe is opening a new reading room for interviews with authors of poetry chapbooks. We’re starting with Lauren Davis’s review of Jeff Santosuosso’s chapbook, Body of Water. Take a read and enjoy the winding path through the process and rewards of writing.

This means we are open for your interviews too. Please contact me if you want to pitch an interview with your favorite chapbook poet!

Contact me at: risa@thepoetrycafe.online

A Nation (Imagined)

  10/14/19

A Nation (Imagined) by Natasha Kochicheril Moni
winner of the 2018 Floating Bridge Press chapbook contest   

Review by Linera Lucas 

   

A Nation (Imagined) (Floating Bridge Press, 2018) is a lyric poem about love, grief, nature, and graceful endurance. The format is one long poem bookended by two short poems, and the story is a simple one: a man and a woman love one another, he goes off to war, she stays home, he dies and she continues to think of him. But the way Moni tells this story is anything but simple. Just because a book is short does not mean it is not profound.

The opening poem “And what if everything” makes it clear that this is going to be about death and memory. We are going back in time. First we are in a field of daffodils, and then we are in a minefield. The transition is brief and shocking, as if the reader is the one who is blown up. We start with sex and move to death where,

the pause after love
before love which is
now     You are in a field
of daffodils
– no –                                   
a field of living            mines 

If you bend left, death. If you bend right, memory. This is the prologue, the poem that teaches the reader how to read the rest of the work. Thank you, much appreciated. It’s good to have a guide, even if I’m not quite certain just how much I can trust the poet who is leading me onward. The long poem begins,

Remember the year you forgot to water my jade

and ends with,

Do you remember this?

Next, we are going to have the catalogue of what happened, in poet time, in real time, and in a mix of the two. I feel as if I had been given the chance to open a secret box, to read letters I am not supposed to know about, and I feel a little guilty, but I don’t want to stop reading.

Now the poet writes to her lover, telling him what has happened since he left, how she wishes he would write to her, then I turn the page and she says a letter arrived three years too late, that their tree will be firewood,

 Tomorrow
 our madrona
 becomes a cord
what will keep

                                      (our heat)     

And what will keep their passion alive, now that he is dead? This is a poem about coming to terms with grief, also about not coming to terms with grief. She wants to send him his chickens, tries not to weep, gives him a list of what she saw on her daily walk in the woods. She saved a wildflower from a young girl who wanted to cut and press it.

“They” (the ever present outside world), would like her to do various things, to be more like someone else, to behave in a recognizable manner, but she wants her lover to “enter and with care //   strike the lantern” . . . taste the apricots,

on your favorite plate              your favorite plate

the one                        chipped                       
from too much             loving.              

   

This might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Then there is the bargain she wants to make at the end of this poem: “unwind your voice / from my inner ear and I will ” not steam open the letter written to him, which started this whole story. What is in that letter? I am not going to find out, and I like that.

And now the final poem, the other bookend, “Letter to a Lover Whose Name Spells Dark Bird.” This is, of course, a letter to Corbin, the dead lover. Corbin is a variation on Corbie, which is another name for crow or raven, birds of intelligence connected with death and messages from the dead. This poem has the kind of bargaining that deep grief brings, past pleading and near madness, but such resigned madness. Here’s how it starts,

Look, when you call – bring the basket

and here’s how it ends,

Meet me and we
will forget our bodies were ever anything but

a little salt, water                                   
waiting to be stirred. 

and in between is,

the year we spent a lifetime
sailing in the boat of our bed.

So that’s the last poem. I have read the story, and have been changed by it. What makes this chapbook so fulfilling is how real the grief and love are, how tender and fierce the poet narrator’s love for her dead Corbin, and then the ending, with the unopened letter. Because at the last, we never really know another person. We can guess at them, follow the clues from how their lives cross ours, but each person contains many mysteries.

Natasha Kochicheril Moni is the author of four poetry collections and a licensed naturopathic doctor in WA State. Her most recent chapbook, A Nation (Imagined), won the 2018 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Natasha’s writing has been featured in over sixty-five publications including Verse, Indiana Review, Entropy, The Rumpus, and the recently released Terrapin Press anthology, A Constellation of Kisses. As a former editor for a literary journal, a panelist for residency and grant award committees, and a chapbook contest judge, Natasha loves supporting fellow writers. She owns and operates Helios Center for Whole Health, PLLC, which offers naturopathic appointments, medical writing, poetry manuscript consultations, and writing and wellness lectures/workshops.

natashamoni.com 
helioswholehealth.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).

The Optimist Shelters in Place

The Optimist Shelters in Place, by Kimberly Ann Priest

Published by Small Harbor Publishing, Harbor Editions, 2022
Review by Maria McLeod

The significance of bearing witness

The Optimist Shelters in Place, a poetry chapbook by Kimberly Ann Priest, is an account of survival during a plague. The mundanity of daily routine provides a setting for existential angst which appears to the reader as universally familiar. Published during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, Priest’s chapbook chronicles the early days of isolation as if intent on creating a public and personal record of our adaption to a previously unfathomable circumstance.

The reader can imagine a future historian turning to Priest’s writing to learn the scope of the pandemic’s impact, as it reads as a reliable narrative, an unembellished account. Priest records this new and unwelcome homebound existencebeginning in March of 2020 as a quarantine of unknown durationin order to signal her intent to the reader through the construction of 24 themed poems, all written from third person point of view, each title beginning with “The optimist” followed by an action taken by the optimist (or someone in her life). For example:

“The Optimist Scrambles Four Eggs for Breakfast”
“The Optimist Cuts a New Plant”
“The Optimist Takes a Personality Test”

Opening with a scene of a woman (the “optimist”) talking to her plants, Priest places us in that moment—pre-vaccine —when it seemed the only way to survive an isolated present was to hope for an “inhabited future”:

The plants feel it too.

She tells them to think about new sills to adorn
in some inhabited future,
not to imagine this will be their final resting place. She tells them

what her daughter told her before leaving was deemed essential:
this is all temporal.

Although confronting and combating loneliness rides the surface of these poems, the more salient theme expressed is the significance of bearing witness. Evidence is presented to the reader in the form of the book’s dedication, “for the spider,” a reference to the tenth poem in the collection, “The Optimist Leaves a Dead Spider Dead on the Carpet.” Here, the spider serves as a metaphor for our existence as measured by our significance, or insignificance, to others:

From underneath her coffee table a lone spider
plans a route of escape.

Quarantine is difficult for all sorts of creatures.

At dusk, when shadows brush the carpet a semi-cloudy grey,
he leaps out from under swimming over its follicles,
but not fast enough.
His smushed dot remains on the carpet for over three days.

The choice of third person point-of-view provides readers with both a comfortable perch and an active part. If one is to transcend loneliness and the resulting feelings of insignificance, one’s existence requires recognition. The reader takes the witness chair.

Amidst the details of daily life—the grocery shopping, the scrolling through Facebook, the phone calls, the tending to (or ignoring) domestic chores—the pandemic facts and stats are placed throughout the book. These are actual news items. Their inclusion provides both a reality check and a foil to the “optimist” whose survival tactics include moments of personal indulgence that allow a form of escape: a glass of expensive wine, a walk on the beach, a hand in the sand.

In North Carolina the Death Toll is 507.
But no one is talking much about North Carolina,
and she wonders what it’s like not to be talked about so much.

Again, it’s being talked about, being recognized, that Priest asks her readers to consider; this comes not as a directive, but an emphasized remark. It’s as if she’s raising her eyebrows at the end of sentence, inserting a pregnant pause. Descriptions of being seen represent moments that serve to buoy the speaker: the interested glance of a grocery store worker; her daughter’s brief but pleasant visit. But there is also a concern expressed over the opposite, to be unseen, unrecognized:

Not essential, no one has called her in weeks;
she’d rather die somewhere else than right here, alone.

Perhaps the most pointed lines in the collection come from the poem, “The Optimist Remembers What is Needed to Feel Essential.” Here the reader learns that a contributing factor to the optimist’s isolation is divorce, the dynamics of which are indicted by the following two lines, “The last thing her husband said to her is no one will want you / after this. Maybe he was right.” It is the words the poet sets in italics, representing the now ex-husband’s stark remark, that lift off the page like a slap, followed not by a refutation but a deflated concession by an omniscient narrator, “Maybe he was right.” These lines double the impact of the loneliness and isolation presented by this collection, an existential crisis expressed in the need to be seen, heard, loved and recognized in order to feel human and present in this world—needs that were challenged during the pandemic. 

It makes sense, then, that the last poem, “The Optimist Sleeps Through the Night,” is about survival, focusing on the act of breathing as recognition of one’s existence. The poem’s subject is someone apparently unknown to the “optimist,” someone ailing and hospitalized. The speaker imagines the patient’s revival after what we can only assume has been a harrowing hospital stay, a near-death experience. In doing so, she uses her omniscience as a means of harnessing the power of positive thinking, as if her ability to see him helps bring him to life. Here Priest ends, as an optimist would, on a positive note:

… Somewhere/a fever has broken

Somewhere a young man wakes
to discover the sounds of his own breathing—how much like love it is.

An exhale of carbon monoxide
and hope.


Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird, the American Best Book Awards finalist. She is also the author of four chapbooks: The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, Still Life and White Goat, Black Sheep. She is winner of the Heartland Poetry Prize 2019 from New American Press. She teaches writing as an assistant professor for Michigan State University. She also serves as associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.


The Optimist Shelters in Place
Author: Kimberly Ann Priest
Publisher: Small Harbor Publishing, Harbor Editions, 2022
ISBN: 9781957248011  |   43 pages  |  $12.00


Maria McLeod is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Mother Want and Skin. Hair. Bones. She’s won the WaterSedge Chapbook Contest, Indiana Review Poetry Prize and the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize. She works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.


Risa Denenberg is the curator of The Poetry Cafe Online.


Maria McLeod

Maria McLeod, is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Mother Want and Skin. Hair. Bones. She’s won the WaterSedge Chapbook Contest, Indiana Review Poetry Prize and the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize. She works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

Dangerous Women

Dangerous Women, by Jesi Bender
Published by Dancing Girl Press

Review by Jennifer Saunders

Patriarchy can transform nearly anything about a woman into a threat. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is frequently criticized for paying too much attention to her wardrobe, but when Janet Yellen—secretary of the Department of the Treasury—appeared before Congress wearing a suit she had worn in public five weeks previously, she was criticized for that. Meanwhile, in 2014, Australian TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit on air every day for a year as an experiment, and nobody noticed. Hillary Clinton was regularly criticized for being “shrill” but when she softened one debate appearance with a laugh and a shoulder shake, she was deemed unserious. It’s the classic double-bind: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Which is why, in Jesi Bender’s poetry chapbook Dangerous Women, the “Married Woman” and the “Unmarried Woman” can both be declared dangerous. The “Young Woman” is a threat, but so is the “Old Woman.” There is either the “Beautiful Woman” or the “Unseen Woman.” The “Woman Apart” is suspect, but so are the “Women Together.” Why, it’s almost as if it’s the fact of womanhood rather than any particular behavior that’s considered threatening under patriarchy.

Too smart dumb blond too pretty what a dog too loud too pushy too bitchy too much. Who does she think she is?

The poems in Dangerous Women pair these archetypal threats with poems inspired by literary and historical figures ranging from Jezebel to Georgia O’Keeffe (who, it should be noted, once said, “The men like to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”). Bender lays the foundation in her opening poem “Womb Wounds” (archetype, The First Woman) which traces misogyny back to the story of Eve. “All daughters of the same black Eve / she in us birthed sin,” Bender writes. What could have been a source of power—the birthing womb—is reduced to pain, leaving those giving birth to “[b]ear this burden with a grin” and to become “broken bones.”

The line “Now—where is her heart, the core of her flesh” from “JesiBelle Waits For the Hounds” (archetype, The Faithful Woman) strikes me as the guiding thread of this collection. What has happened to these women’s stories? What has become of the core of them? The women in Dangerous Women have either been forgotten, like Maria Sibylla Merian, the German naturalist and scientific illustrator, or flattened into stereotype like Jezebel who is remembered as a harlot rather than as a woman remaining true to her native religion. The core of her gone, all that remains are:

her arms, her legs and her head.
They wanted it this way,
As far as I can tell,
So no one would ever be able to say;
“This, this was Jesi Belle.”

Bender writes this of Merian in the prose poem “Soft Egg” (archetype, The Independent Woman):

That was what she wanted to show the world—that deep down where things crawled and clambered, there were insides so beautiful, so delicate and bright, that they mirrored the infinite ecology of the human heart.

Here we see the heart again, the core.

I do feel compelled to mention my discomfort with one of Bender’s poem, “The Portrait My Mother Made,” (archetype, The Strongest Woman) dedicated to Mamie Till-Mobley and written in Emmett Till’s ghost-voice. This image troubled me:

Cradled by silt I came out
clean as cotton from the gin
released

Is that image one the murdered Till would have used? Coming from Chicago as he did and having been raised by a woman who herself left the South as a very young child, it would not likely have been a natural linguistic reference point of his. More importantly, the cotton gin was the invention that solidified chattel slavery in the South by making large-scale cotton production profitable. In a way, it was contributory to Till’s murder. Placing the image of ginned cotton in Emmett Till’s mouth struck me as a questionable choice.

Bender is on more solid ground when she is shining light on historical figures who should be better known such as the naturalist Merian or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican writer, philosopher and Hieronymite nun who is considered the first published feminist in the Americas. I was unfamiliar with both these women, and Bender’s poems inspired me to learn more about them. Dangerous Women is at its best when recovering such stories in Bender’s lyrical language. In the “Tenth Muse” (archetype, The Unmarried Woman) she writes in the voice of de la Cruz:

Who
promised you      Salvation
The sky quells and
light     vibrates against skin

Women fly and fall in this collection, become or give birth to birds. “Last night, I dreamt / I birthed three dead birds,” Bender writes in “Shalosh” (archetype, The Childless Woman) while in “A Poem For Emily” (archetype, The Quiet Woman) Emily Dickinson is described as a “little red wren.” Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, imagines herself flying in “The Bird Machine,” one of the collection’s prose pieces (archetype, The Intelligent Woman): “In her mind, when she closed her eyes, she pictured that as she spread her arms and pushed the wings against the air, there would be a trail of exultant leaves in her wake. {gold} “ In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixous writes, “What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected.” The repeated appearance of birds and bird imagery in a collection about how women are constructed as dangerous and threatening taps into this deep root, but Bender’s poems reject rejection. They reclaim and retell. They restore the core.

Jesi Bender is an artist from upstate New York. She is the author of the play Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus) and the novel The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit). Her shorter work has appeared in Fence, Split Lip, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among other places. http://www.jesibender.com

photo credit: Sarah Tinsley

Dangerous Women by Jesi Bender
dancing girl press, 2022
32 pages, $8.00
available here:


Jennifer Saunders is the author of Self-Portrait with Housewife (Tebot Bach, 2019), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. Her poem “Crosswalk” won the 2020 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and appeared in Southword. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Grist, Ninth Letter, San Pedro River Review, and other publications. Jennifer holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in German-speaking Switzerland.
photo credit: Denise O’Gorman


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Jennifer Saunders

Jennifer Saunders is the author of Self-Portrait with Housewife (Tebot Bach, 2019), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. Her poem “Crosswalk” won the 2020 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and appeared in Southword. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Grist, Ninth Letter, San Pedro River Review, and other publications. Jennifer holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in German-speaking Switzerland.

photo credit: Denise O’Gorman

Real Rhyming Poems

Real Rhyming Poems, by J.M. Allen

Published by Kelsay Books, 2022
Reviewed by Nikki Gonzalez

If you’ve ever held a poetry chapbook in your hands, you know their comparative lightness. They don’t have the physical heft of a novel or even most magazines. Yet their brevity–the majority no more than 50 poems–is what gives them their very weighty punch. The strength of a chapbook is in the concentrated emotion they deliver. And it can be quite a wallop.

J.M. Allen, with his collection, Real Rhyming Poems, delivers his strike in smart, witty rhyme. One could easily underestimate the impact of this style, brush it aside as just an observational comedian in couplets or Seinfeld-in-verse.  But I invite you to look beyond the humor and see the compilation that, while not taking itself so seriously, profoundly allows for connections. I don’t, for example, need to live in Minnesota to imagine just how cold my ears would be in winter and who wouldn’t laugh, albeit with a knowing little ache, at the experience of typing out a heated email. In “An Email Never Sent,” Allen rhymes:

I wrote an e-mail; it was how I reacted.
I was about to hit Send, but a text got me distracted.
The content came to me fast, as my anger slowly rose.
I just kept on typing, with the sharp words that I chose.

The email, of course, isn’t sent after an interruption forces him to re-read his words (and it’s probably for the best!), as Allen concludes, “And so after the delay/ my draft e-mail I re-read,/ And then it struck me–I should just call him instead!”

The poem “Acknowledgement” is perhaps the best example of Allen’s ability to share in the human experience as he writes specifically of the impact of connecting with others through smiles. This poem, a mere four lines in length, creates the emotional encounter of a simple nod or wave in passing–“a feeling that is priceless”:

If you smile and say hi, it might just brighten my day.
Or nod to me in passing, nothing you need to say.
When I’m driving my route, a wave to me would be niceness.
And you may make me smile, a feeling that is priceless.

Reading the poems in Real Rhyming Poems feels like taking a walk with J.M. Allen through his neighborhood, through the seasons, through various terrains–from beaches to hiking trails to the prairie, and through his daily routine as he points out all the details you might otherwise miss. As you synchronize your pace with his, page by page, learning his stride, becoming accustomed to his style, you begin to develop a sense of anticipation, knowing a smart twist will come at the end of each of his pieces. You expect it. You ready yourself for it. You’re giddy with the promise of a knowing, connecting laugh or “aha!” moment.

But the walk Allen takes us on, though it begins easy and fun and playful, begins a climb into observations of more adult issues. The poems go from airy Shel Silverstein-esque read-alouds and move gradually to weighty reflections.  I began to feel the gradation change in the poem “The Lawnkeeper” (published in my own literary publication, The Parliament Literary Journal), a reflection on “that” neighbor–the one who sprays chemicals on the lawn or whose landscaping machinery is loud and annoying and used way too early on a Sunday morning.

Chemicals are often sprayed on it,
and I think ants get it the worst.
No insects at all are tolerated,
even though they lived there first.

Many of us will relate; we laugh knowingly; we connect. But this time when we laugh along, there’s a slight sting. It’s not just disrupted weekend sleep that Allen’s rhymes go after; he also swings a pointed jab at the ignorance and ego that prefers an immaculate lawn over the damage it causes to the environment. We climb higher as Allen goes on to reflect on micro-managing bosses (who end up getting the promotions, incompetent as they are!) in “Eruption”; gun ownership in “Why I Bought a Gun”; and health issues in “Living at the Hospital”, a poem that begins:

I’m mostly living at the hospital,
sure wish I could be done.
I keep needing to give my birth date,
my life should be more fun.

Most likely, we’ve been there too, have given our birth dates over and over to nurses, and technicians, and doctors as well. It feels like an absurdity. And we also understand that, to be in that situation, something serious underlies.

Allen concludes with “Dragons,” perhaps the most serious poem in the collection. Masked in fairy-tale metaphor and layered with his trademark wit, this concluding piece closes our walk together with an undeniable parting squeeze. The final couplet unites all his strengths–the smart rhyme, the unique perspective, the ability to connect to us:  “To calm my nerves, a drink from my flagon / And I promise this time to slay my dragon.”

With each of the poems in the chapbook, we can find connections–with Allen and with each other, sharing common experiences of life that unite, and enjoying a little chuckle about them. These poems are seemingly simple, but impactful indeed.


J. M. Allen is an electrical engineer and parent, who enjoys writing rhyming poems. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and has been a longtime resident of Rochester, Minnesota.


Real Rhyming Poems, J.M. Allen
Kelsay Books, 2022
ISBN 978-1-63980-128-2
40 pages, $16.50


Nikki Gonzalez lives in New Jersey where she is a professor of Psychology and publishes The Parliament Literary Journal.


Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Ghost Moose

Ghost Moose, by Margo Taft Stever
Published by Kattywompus Press

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley

Margo Taft Stever’s poems in “Ghost Moose” are beautifully written even as they illustrate the cruel conditions to which humans often subject animals. These poems offer a window into current ecological concerns about the reduction of biodiversity among and within species as well as how deeply this poet values the lives of all creatures.

Some poems combine warning and lament. This poet writes both lyrically and precisely describing human-inflicted animal cruelty. However, when Stever’s poems refer to people within her circle, the poems suggest rather than recount personal details.

Stever sets the thematic stage in her first poem, “Three Ravens’ Watch,” a poem written from the perspective of ravens watching skaters in the painting, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Traps,” by Peter Bruegel. Such a poem reminds readers that there has always been human folly. With an air of superiority, representatives of the animal kingdom castigate humans of an earlier era, admonishing them about ongoing calamities:

This harshest winter attracts you to skate, to forget
your misery, scrawling icy patterns. Ravens,
three of us, stand sentinel, noticing
your slow-witted motions, your ugly sprawls.

//
You who now skate, do not forget that you will return
to your endless winter, bread riots, witch
hunts, old widowed women targeted, and frozen birds
falling from the sky. We know that you want to eat us.

In an easy transition from the first poem to the title poem, “Ghost Moose,” once again we see children at a river, this time during a mild winter when ticks multiply and afflict moose calves, as “their mothers / witness starvation from blood loss.” Such poignant description calls to this reader’s mind assorted contemporary news photos of mothers hovering near their own children dying of starvation and disease in impoverished or war-torn countries. Stever’s poems call for respect of all sentient beings as she sets animals’ survival and well-being on par with that of humans .

Stever’s poems stand alone as well as share themes and images that glide smoothly from page to page. We know the name of the mental hospital and the names of drugs in Stever’s “Locked Ward” poems. However, we don’t know names of the people confined. It seems intriguing that the first “Locked Ward” poem abuts one about a mother’s death in “Calling Mother After She Died.”

These and other poems abound with images from nature. Stever expands the meanings of her poems by interjecting intimate commentary. For example, in the midst of the above poem, Stever asserts “I have forgotten what bound // us together, mother to daughter.”

Confinement of humans and animals is a through line in this chapbook, as with the three “Locked Ward” poems arranged within the chapbook. In addition, the poem, “Birds at the Zoo,” contemplates how Inca terns appear struggling to exit captivity, whereas the double-wattled cassowary freezes as if in “multi-colored / contemplation of her lot.” This short poem may give a reader pause to reflect how such animal response tendencies inform the human condition, how humans deal with stress and conflict.

In a subsequent poem, it becomes impossible to ignore the stress and searing cruelty imposed by crate confinement of pigs in factory farms. “Litany of the Sow” juxtaposes childhood rhymes with statistics of piglets crushed by the weight of their mothers. The musical poetic devices serve both as contrast and to ease reader tension in a difficult-to-stomach poem. How to ignore the pain of:

Fourteen piglets suckle at her teats;
she shifts her body to keep from losing
limbs. Hear her moans,
                                        bones tear in her skin.

These poems combine anger, prayer, and plea. By following the poem, “Litany of the Sow,” with a poem given the title of a Christian hymn, “Agnus Dei,” Stever’s words allude to “Lamb of God” and invoke “mercy.” This poem describes encroachment of our housing and malls on animal habitat as well as how humans torment animals “just for fun.” Stever’s Biblical reference reminds us of a moral and spiritual call to be not only our brother’s keeper but to honor the lives of all sentient beings. We are called to keep them safe. Humans have inflicted “the sins of the world,” as the poem lists, such as “swamps bulldozed for sun / seekers, McMansions, / strip malls, five-acre “horse farms.’” The last verse of the poem begins lyrically as “Sunlight slants into the victim / pool, missing species, radiant / particles from the past” and ends by intoning, as in prayer, “Have mercy on us.”

This poet is not one to harangue. Let the reader intuit from powerful depiction. One of the last poems, “Beloved Child,” is composed from a letter by the poet’s great-great grandmother, as she lay dying, to her infant daughter. This poem resonates with earlier poems about the poor sow and the mother moose. Contrast this poignant epistolary poem of love with cruelty depicted in the couplets of “The Ballad of the Dolphin”:

Fishermen did not want to compete
with you, but killing you was not enough.

How they used the screams
of several to slaughter more.

Other soothing and ironic poems serve to lighten the harsh truths of this chapbook. Stever’s poems invoke concerns about loss of biodiversity, sometimes called the sixth (mass) extinction. She has written a brief elegy of the Anthropocene. Several poems speak of birthing, of motherhood, and of children. Species, even the human species, seek continuity, and we cannot live without hope and/or mercy.

The final poem of “Ghost Moose,” “End of Horses,” is written “from the end / of the time zone” when “nothing survived after // the horses were slaughtered.” Does this reference anticipate the end of the Anthropocene? One might read the poem as a cautionary premonition.

Reading this gem of a chapbook illustrates Stever’s own dictum. In an interview at The Chapbook Interview, she says, “The poet must have something to say. The poet must write out of passion and necessity rather than an attempt to showcase the latest craft trend.”

Stever’s chapbook is a moving example of ecopoetic literature that deserves wide reading. However long our civilization lasts, poems like these bear witness, inspire, and give us pause to do what we can to make a more positive impact for all species.


Margo Taft Stever’s poetry collections include Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019); Ghost Moose (Kattywompus Press, 2019); The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015); The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012); Frozen Spring (Mid-List Press First Series Award, 2002) and Reading the Night Sky (Riverstone Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 1996). She co-authored Looking East: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to China (Zhejiang University Press, 2012). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Verse Daily; Prairie Schooner; Connecticut Review; “poem-a-day” on poets.org, Academy of American Poets; Cincinnati Review; upstreet; Plume; and Salamander. She is founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and founding and current co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York. For more information: https://margotaftstever.com/.


Title: Ghost Moose
Author: Margo Taft Stever
Publisher: Katywompus Press, 2018
Price: $12



Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Sharon Waller Knutson

Sharon Waller Knutson is a retired journalist who lives in Arizona. She has published several poetry books, including My Grandmother Smokes Chesterfields (Flutter Press, 2014), What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say and Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob (Kelsay Books, 2021), and Survivors, Saints and Sinners (Cyberwit, 2022). Her work has also appeared in Black Coffee Review, Terror House Review, Trouvaille Review, One Art, Mad Swirl, The Drabble, Gleam, Spillwords, Muddy River Review, Verse-Virtual, Your Daily Poem, Red Eft Review, The Five-Two and The Song Is…

Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion

Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion, by Kelly Sargent

Published by Kelsay Books, 2022
Review by Sharon Waller Knutson

Kelly Sargent’s powerful memoir in verse, Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion is a profound love story of twin sisters, Kelly, hard of hearing, and Renée, deaf, born in a world they didn’t understand and that didn’t understand them, and the loss felt when they separated at the age of twelve.

I met Kelly when she made her debut on Verse-Virtual in February with two poems about her twin sister and I emailed her to tell her how much I enjoyed the poems. She sent me a copy of the manuscript and I was charmed and impressed with her wonderful writing.


Abandoned at birth in Luxembourg and adopted at age three months by an Air Force couple, Sargent writes about deep feelings of responsibility for her younger, smaller twin who cannot hear her own cries because she is born deaf. Kelly takes on the roles of teacher and sign language interpreter.

With exquisite imagery, striking symbolism, and spellbinding storytelling, Sargent expresses a range of emotions, from helplessness, frustration, and sorrow to delight, pride, and joy as the twins become mirrors and learn to rely on each other. When Renée enters the Austine School for the Deaf in Vermont when they are twelve, Kelly feels a loss as deeply as a death and must search for her own identity.

Each poem is powerful and poignant with lines as sharp as a slingshot that propelled me into each one, beginning with “Seeing Voices”:

My twin sister used to shut her eyes
to shut me up when we argued.
Born deaf, she held the advantage in any girlhood fight.
I had no choice but to be instantly
muted;
her eyelids,
a remote control when static sounded like me.

I was mesmerized by an introduction to another form of communication in “Her Voice”:

One day, she would hear
with the nut-brown eyes, then lidded shut,
and speak a language that was already foreign to them.
foreign because they had four ears that weren’t broken,
    or because
they had four ears
that were broken
.

In “Fruits of Labor,” I was fascinated by Sargent’s demonstration of how she taught her deaf twin to form speech:

I wrap your tiny hand around my throat,
size identical to your own,
for you to feel the sounds vibrating within.

blue-ber-ry
ba-nan-a
straw-ber-ry

In “Rumors of Spring,” there is the bittersweet letting go and pride as Sargent watches her deaf twin find her place by attending a special school for the Deaf:

Sunlight illuminated you
and struck you
luminescent.

I watched you play in teal-tinted rains
and marveled as your auburn hair
absorbed autumn’s last dusk.

“Kissing the Horizon” tantalizes with exquisite imagery as Sargent experiences separating from her twin:

Barefoot on the beach swings,
we used to watch the horizon bob —
where sunset unfolds in sleepy, dusty-rose hues
and sunrise yawns,
stretching golden limbs to greet the day.

Cradled in wispy silver threads
cast by a spool of smattered stars, we were
wrapped securely in a vast, uninterrupted galaxy.

Rich in symbolism, “The Quaking Aspen” powerfully speaks to Sargent’s mourning the loss of her twin and beginning her journey of self-discovery:

Dawn curtsies, and I weave the woods, recalling the ghost of my twin sister
by my side, gauzy fingers fluttering in a brittle breeze
.

I shuffle at stubborn crabgrass long covering trails
once carved by four leather sandal soles.
She always wore red.
Parents too easily hoodwinked by identical, ten-year-old imps
had colored me blue.

I seek her still.
My mirror.
I seek it, still. 

“My Voice” is stunning as Sargent shows the beauty in deaf self-expression:

I am Deaf.
My fingers speak

A coiffed paintbrush in my grasp,
my voice streaks turquoise and magenta
across a parched canvas.

In her swan song, “Poetry in Motion,” Sargent reveals the utter joy and excitement of the twins’ reunion and reveling in each other’s company:

Sipping from crystals imbibed
with rosé for me and white for you,
we grow giddy between samples of moonlight,
creamy and smooth on crisp linen.

Fingers spin tales before firelight
as silver-bangled spools unwind syllables
and pastel-polished nails paint on invisible canvases
.

Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion enlightens on the profound power of love, what it means to hear and be heard, and the mirrors through which we see, lose, and find ourselves again. I didn’t want to put the book down, and will be begging for the sequel.


Born hard of hearing and adopted in Luxembourg, Kelly Sargent grew up with a deaf twin sister in Europe and the U.S., and worked with deaf students in educational settings. She also wrote for SIGNews, a national newspaper for the Deaf. She is currently a Vermont writer and artist whose works, including a 2021 Best of the Net nominee, have appeared in more than fifty literary publications. She is the author of Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion (Kelsay Books, 2022), also a finalist in the Cordella Press Poetry Chapbook Contest. She also authored Lilacs & Teacups (Cyberwit, 2022), a book of modern haiku, and a poem recognized in the international 2022 Golden Haiku competition was on display in Washington, D.C.  She serves as Creative Nonfiction Editor of The Bookends Review, as well as a reviewer for an organization whose mission is to make visible the artistic expression of sexual violence survivors. Visit at http://www.kellysargent.com.


Title: Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion
Author: Kelly Sargent
Publisher: Kelsay Books, 2022
Price: $17.00
Also available in Kindle format


Sharon Waller Knutson is a retired journalist who lives in Arizona. She has published several poetry books, including My Grandmother Smokes Chesterfields (Flutter Press, 2014), What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say and Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob (Kelsay Books, 2021), and Survivors, Saints and Sinners (Cyberwit, 2022). Her work has also appeared in Black Coffee Review, Terror House Review, Trouvaille Review, One Art, Mad Swirl, The Drabble, Gleam, Spillwords, Muddy River Review, Verse-Virtual, Your Daily Poem, Red Eft Review, The Five-Two and The Song Is…


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Lori Green

Lori Green

Lori Green is a Canadian writer who has been writing poetry and dark fiction since she first picked up a pen. Her work has been accepted in various publications including Ghost Orchid Press, Dark Rose Press, Black Hare Press, and more. She studied English Literature at the University of Western Ontario and now lives along the shores of Lake Erie. She is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @LoriG1408 or on Facebook.