THE DEAD KID POEMS

The Dead Kid Poems, by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Review by Sarah Stockton

Alexis Rhone Fancher’s new chapbook, The Dead Kid Poems  (Kyso Flash Press, 2019), while a complete collection unto itself, is described on the title page as a companion volume to a previous chapbook called State of Grace: the Joshua Elegies (Kyso Flash Press, 2015). Not having read Fancher’s previous work, I can still vouch for the fact that while this new collection contains its own cohesive integrity, reading these poems feels like stepping into the middle of a much longer conversation; not so much eavesdropping, as witnessing. Not as a passive bystander, but as an attentive companion to this ongoing story of grief.

A sense of the continuity of the poet’s suffering and resiliency is conveyed even with the page numbering; the Table of Contents starts on page 13 (with no numerals on preceding pages). This small numerological detail adds to the overarching sense of time’s long embrace–or is it a devastation–so well-documented in lines like this from a poem, titled, “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds,” about her sister’s child, which take us from pregnancy to current reality:

I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say
don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.

Most life narratives don’t follow one smooth and congenial plot line, much as we might wish it were so. The sufferings and shock of illness, death, addiction, and estrangement touch us all to one degree or another, at one time or another. And yet it is this poet’s gift to offer up the best configuration of words and meaning she can conjure, to transform suffering into connection, and shame into strength. In the poem “Every Day is Mother’s Day,” we are asked to contemplate an answer to the question:

If you had only
one child and he died,
are you still a mother?

The poem goes on to answer:

Yes, a son. Just one.
Or: No. I have no children.
That’s unthinkable.

Like he never was.
Say it and then catch yourself:
Such cruel betrayal.

Again and again, the poet asks us to think the unthinkable, and to think about what we would say if we didn’t care what anyone else thought. In “Car Shopping,” the great antithetical freedom of grief is expressed in one short, sharp moment,

You can fit grandkids
in the back, the saleswoman
promises. I tell
her my only son is dead.
My husband’s horrified look.

Some of the poems in The Dead Kid Poems are not about the death of the poet’s son from cancer, but about addiction, another kind of death, albeit played out here in slow, suffocating motion, sustained but not truly arrested by loving intentions or co-dependent desperation. “Anna as War Zone,” written to a sister, the mother of Anna, is a testament to the ways in which other lives are damaged by addiction’s greedy tentacles. It opens with the truly brilliant line, My sister is a cargo plane of Hail Marys; Anna, the war zone she circles. Then the poem goes on in exasperation, or despair:

She’s low on fuel, her husband ready to walk, the rest of us at wit’s end. A good mother never gives up on her child, my sister insists. I am speaking to a wall.

The title and subjects of The Dead Kid Poems might dissuade some readers, but I would hope not. I’d gladly hand this chapbook out at a 12-step meeting, a wake, or give it to an adversary or my own children. It says, pay attention, this is what grief does. If time, for a grieving parent, for any of us, is both frozen and malleable, much too long and all too short, then we might as well tell the truth while we can, to whoever will listen. As the poet says in “Overdose (Persona poem for K. S-B on the death of her son),”

Don’t minimize my loss.
My boy is not better off dead.

For once, let’s say it like it is:

He did not pass away.
He died.

There are no panaceas in these poems, and few condolences. Small gifts run through it, however: honesty and dark humor, examples of survival with grace. And finally, we are left with a small comfort that a deep solace is possible:

Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket.

Sleep now, Mama, he said.

[BUY IT !]

Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.

Review by Sarah Stockton

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).

Sarah Stockton

Meet Guest Reviewer: Sarah Stockton

A life-long bibliophile and poetry autodidact, Sarah Stockton also holds a BA/English and MA/Education, and has extensive training as an addiction counselor, creativity coach, and spiritual director. Along with raising two kids, Sarah has held various university positions over the years as both staff and adjunct professor (in literature and theology). Sarah is also a freelance writer and editor, and the author of two nonfiction books on spirituality. Most recently her poems have appeared in The Shallow Ends, Rise Up Review, American Journal of Poetry, Crab Creek Review, Empty Mirror, and Glass Poetry, among other publications. 


www.sarahstockton.com Twitter and Insta: @sarahpoetica

FOOTNOTE

Footnote, by Trish Hopkinson

Trish Hopkinson is a force in the poetry community with her almost-daily publication of an all-things-poetry blog that informs poets where, how, and why to submit poems; conducts interviews with editors of no-submission-fee journals; and publishes guest blogs addressing all aspects of writing, reading, submitting and publishing poetry. I’ve followed this blog avidly and very much appreciated her recent interview introducing The Poetry Café.

With such a footprint in the world of poetry, I was curious to read Hopkinson’s work. Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017 with the subtitle of “A Chapbook of Response Poems.” Each of the twenty poems in Footnote has either a footnote or a dedication (some as ‘for,’ others as ‘after‘), inscribed beneath the poem. Each poem embraces the spirit of its annotation, at times using found lines, erasures, or the style of another writer. While visually each poem has the familiar appearance of lines and stanzas on the page, they each possess a quirky—somewhat experimental—writing style.  An example of a poem I particularly enjoyed was, “And Finished Knowing – Then –,” footnoted with a nod to Emily Dickinson, of course, but with Hopkinson’s sly imprint,

I conjured a childbirth, in the air,
and nurses all askew
stood standing – standing – till the dream
seemed real enough to chew.

I wondered how the poems in the book came together. At an interview at The Literary Librarian, Hopkinson explained the book’s origins:

“In 2015, after teaching a community poetry writing workshop on response poetry, I realized I had quite a few response poems of my own. So in this case, the collection was a surprise waiting for me in already completed work.”

These days we find a wealth of ‘Response Poems’ that foment resistance to injustice and oppression. Hopkinson’s responses come from a different tradition—emotional and spiritual responses to other artists that have affected, influenced, and secured a solid foothold in her psyche and writing. Footnote is in essence a work of conversations. Her dedications include an artist (Everett Ruess), a musician (Janice Joplin), a filmmaker (David Lynch), and a writer (James Joyce), but are mostly poets (Baraka, Paz, Rilke, Ai, Neruda, Dickinson, Plath, Rumi, Poe, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg). As a reader, I always find myself wanting to know the poet through the poems. We get a nuanced taste of Hopkinson from her choices. While a first person voice is mostly absent in these pages, the poems are strong evidence of her appetites.  

I was intrigued by Hopkinson’s use of syntax and voice. Compared with conventional sentence structure (subject … verb … adjective … noun), these poems often lack a subject. Not only are there few ‘I’ pronouns, there are relatively few pronouns of any sort, as here in the first stanza of “A Way In,”

As involved and still
as looking inward. Loudly
closing all the shutters at once.

“A Way In” reflects a speaker with a deep and full inner life, one that gazes internally for sustenance—a true introvert. The reality is a closed room where,

Sunlight will edge between cracks
& in warm strips of faith, of truth.

There are glorious murals of lilies
on the wainscot
in the dollhouse. The dolls
sit still all day.

The speaker remarks that she is satisfied with Pausing,

in this moment, staying still,
waiting to pass this old age, the
mortal pain of body; sloughed off . . .

How to describe this voice—muffled, ghost-like, echoing? Several of the poems offer hints of the speaker’s mind in response to the iconic artists she bows to. These range from “A Way In” with its atmosphere of stillness, to “We all got a secret side,” which tells us, It’s even stranger underneath, to “From Her to Eternity,” where she says, I am a mere abstraction. Yet, there is a confessional tone in her poem, “Waiting Around,” which starts with these lines:

It so happens, I am tired of being a woman.

And ends with this stanza,

I wait. I hold still in my form-fitting camouflage.
I put on my strong suit and war paint lipstick
and I gamble on what’s expected.
And what to become. And how
to behave: mother, wife, brave.

There is darkness in many of the poems in Footnote, a darkness that is not, however, nihilistic. I find both craft and courage in these poems. The reaching outward to connect. The love of language and art. The need to find sustenance in art, writing, music and film. Like most of us, the poet herself might feel like a footnote at times, but rather than giving in to being stuck in a predictable role, she becomes immersed in communicating with artists of enormous power. And in the process of those larger conversations, occurring in the dark cerebral places where we know ourselves best, she becomes a peer in the conversation.

In “Broken Hearts Buried Here” with its footnote, “found in Ulysses,” Hopkinson’s contributions to the conversation are broad, and very much her own, as in these lines,  

Lots of them lying around—lungs and livers and old rusty pumps,
A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood
every day, every mortal day, a fresh batch courting death


like stuffed birds buried in a kitchen matchbox.
Consumptive girls with little sparrow’s breasts,
baldheaded business men, men with beards, old women, children.


The cemetery is a treacherous place.
The soil fat with corpse manure, bones, flesh, nails,

Finally in the last poem, “Footnote to a Footnote” with its own footnote, “after Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” Hopkinson blesses the panoply of what is most holy to her,

Bookshelves are holy.
   Missing dust covers are holy,
   magicians & black & white T.V. shows,
   Penn Jillette theories & Andy Griffith justice,
  Uncle Walt songs & Ginsberg poems—holy, holy, holy.

[BUY FOOTNOTE!!]

Trish Hopkinson has always loved words—in fact, her mother tells everyone she was born with a pen in her hand. She has been published in several anthologies and journals, including Stirring, Pretty Owl Poetry, and The Penn Review; and her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017. Hopkinson is co-founder of a regional poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets, and Editor-in-Chief of the group’s annual poetry anthology entitled Orogeny. She also co-founded Provo Poetry and is currently the Literary Arts Coordinator for the Utah Arts Festival. You can follow Hopkinson on her blog where she shares information on how to write, publish, and participate in the greater poetry community at https://trishhopkinson.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).

FEED

Feed,  by Emily Mohn-Slate

It’s nothing short of amazing that most women survive their infant’s first year. A mom loses about 1000 hours of sleep during that year, leading to all kinds of worries, including, for example, driving while exhausted, and perhaps having a car crash while rushing a sick infant to the pediatrician’s office. And sleep deprivation is only a slice of the predicament. More toxic is the way motherhood has the habit of swallowing personhood.

Emily Mohn-Slate’s chapbook, Feed (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), unpacks the strains and tensions that overwhelm mothers of infants: anxiety, forgetfulness, desperation, loss of identity, guilt, hypervigilance.  In “So Easy” the narrator reminds us that it is possible to kill a baby inadvertently in a sleep deprived state:

A woman left her baby in the car,
rushed to work—her baby overheated & died.

Of course, the poems in Feed do more than recount this theme, familiar as toast to so many of us. The universal dilemma of motherhood is retaining a semblance—even a memory—of oneself. The muscle in Feed is Mohn-Slate’s ability to transcend the inevitable difficulties by describing those early days with intense attention and focus. When she says, “I want so many things”  we tune in to the dissonance. But when she says, “What did my mother regret?  / Guilt, a tight ring I can’t take off,”  the weight of being a woman within generations of women rushes at us.

When she tells us,

The way I hold my son
no hands         my arms as railings
I can read a little,

we know she has succeeded not only in holding on to bits of her non-mom self, but in insisting on it, and in that process, asserting that to do so is our birthright as well as our daughters’. But that insistence does not erase constant anxiety, as she asks herself, 

Did I fasten the buckle around 
the baby’s soft waist?

Most of the 15 poems in Feed are detailed sketches performed as the scattered thoughts of a new mother who finds the job to be more than she bargained for, and then finds a way through it. A baby “grunts, spits” while mom longs “to be alone.” Along the way, there are detailed observations—of the baby of course—but also of the “saguaro cactus” that “only blooms at night,” and “the guy who collects the grocery carts” who “hops up and rides each one a little way / before they click into each other.”  Mohn-Slate vividly portrays the mood, the pace, and the angst of mothering in precise images such as, 

My shoulders are wedged in a box hammered shut by others, their needs heavy on my chest. 

The cover of Feed is a remarkable mosaic by Daviea Davis titled,Meeting the Aunts,” which gives us an infant’s eye view of being ogled by four terribly frightening faces. It is to Mohn-Slate’s credit that the poems in Feed maintain a clear-eyed view of the baby’s position, even while the poems focus on the situation of the mother. It’s not easy to look up at the world with infant eyes, while at the same time, experiencing the nonstop demands of mothering.

Two confesional letters addressed to “Dear Charlotte” were of particular interest to me. They frame the poems from “May” to “November” –a critical six-month period during which a new mother may or may not adjust to the tedium of caring for her infant. We are told in the end notes that “Charlotte” is Charlotte Mew, and Mohn-Slate is using “a few lines from Mew’s poems.”  It is as a poet that Mohn-Slate takes solace from Mew. I see the connection to the mother’s plight in these lines from Mew’s poem titled, “Fame,”

I see myself among the crowd,
where no one fits the singer to his song

Two babies appear in the book: a boy whose “appetite is unfeeling, total” and a girl, who “screamed & coughed on her own drool.”  The mother may complain “I never meant to be so needed” as she leans “over the counter eating / numb eyed”  but she doesn’t lose her footing. The final poem in Feed is titled, “I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem,” where she starts out saying, “after reading Ross Gay’s new book /which makes me feel light and giddy.”  But she can’t sustain it and the poem turns to,

but my poem becomes
about the collapse of long
love, how even the brightest
glint in the eye
becomes shadow eventually.

The poem, “Aubade with Teether” reminds us how often the teether hits the floor. We pick it up, wash it off (or not) and put it right back in baby’s mouth. Joy is found in those moments when kids can just be kids. Joy is also found in stealing time to read and write poems, in being a poet who is also a mother. Thus,

Joy must be at least
as complicated as sorrow.
 

Maybe joy is the real mystery.

Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript has been named a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes offered by University of Wisconsin Press. She is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. 

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).

15 Reasons I Write Poetry Reviews

  1. I’ve always wanted to read poems more deeply and with greater compassion.
  2. Writing reviews teaches me to read closely.
  3. It forces me to read slowly, to re-read, to scribble marginalia.
  4. Reading closely engenders intimacy.
  5. Compassionate reading opens the text to diverse interpretations.
  6. It’s helped me to love poems that I’ve always thought I couldn’t love.
  7. I feel an intimacy with the poets whose books I review, even though I may never meet them in person. I imagine them reading my reviews and feeling known.
  8. It was such a lovely surprise to find out I am good at it.
  9. Writing reviews has become my own self-guided MFA program.
  10. I think the poetry world needs more personable, less academic, book reviews.
  11. I love seeing my reviews in print. It makes me feel less marginalized as a poet.
  12. It’s a thrill to receive advance review copies.
  13. So many books of poetry never get reviewed.
  14. So many small independent presses deserve more love. Reviewing the books and chapbooks of presses I admire is my way of showing them some love.
  15. Some days I think, “if my poems don’t reach readers, at least my reviews will.”

Refugia

Refugia, by Kristin Berger

 

In her full-length book of poems, Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), Kristin Berger gives us a full-on love story, filled with sexual imagery (nipples welt at the memory of grazing), nature-tinged environs (hope helixing like swallowtails), lyric metaphors (… little rivers / come for you / like mouths)— and, in the end, the sorrow of loss (we could agree to send love away like that).

In her chapbook, Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019) she gives us a drilled down version of these themes, while at the same time conflating human urges with earth’s tempers and human offerings with earth’s counter-offerings—those consequences of human/earth interactions. But that sounds so ecological. In fact, none of the sexual imagery, natural environs, or lyric metaphors are missing here; instead, these condensed poems heighten a complex voice, and are more open to interpretation.

In Merriam Webster, refugium (noun, plural- refugia) is defined as:

an area of relatively unaltered climate inhabited by plants and animals during a period of climatic change that remains a center of relict forms from which a new dispersion and speciation may take place after climatic readjustment.

Whew, to that!

In the preface page of Refugia, Berger offers a more poetic definition, using words from the naturalist, Barry Lopez,

The realm of the unintended, the hidden, the inadvertent pocket of protection where species large and small often find their lives least disturbed.

These poems honor their title by reaching for that home where love or species may thrive in the midst of tempest. Refugia is composed of 24 poems, divided into two parts: “1/ Snow on Earth” and “2/ Earth on Fire.” Each short free-verse poem is set off by a 3-line haiku edging the right bottom of the page. The formatting of these poems feels to me like a variant of haibun. The haiku distill the already condensed poems from syrup to molasses.

In the two parts, the poems first reflect the role of snow in the cycle of activity and dormancy, and then the role of fire in the cycle of birth and destruction. They are not a statement or a warning; they are simply a small truth reflecting a larger truth. As such, and knowing where the author is located, they are about how the darkness and cold of winter heighten the desire for light and warmth; and how the forest fires of the Pacific Northwest stand for the passionate relationship between humans and earth.

Berger’s skill as a poet is in surprising language and a constant turning towards or leaning into an unexpected metaphor.  This craft comprises the poems, not just elements of them. Here are a few lines;

I pull you into me
like the swallow that rescues
blue yarn from the wrackline (9)

Fire begins with Yes, hungry
like a newborn, blazing every
notch, limb and canyon
pivoting towards the source. (15)

We may never be touched again
quite 
like this spring loves the earth.  (23)

The story here spans history and climate, bonds and rifts, past and future tense. It doesn’t have an ending, and conveys that there may be no relic to find of its story in the flooding of time. The notion of permanence without a living record is deeply ingrained in nature. Humans use words, but words may not survive what we have set in motion, or even what is inevitable. This is not to say these poems convey hopelessness or passivity. Rather, they are movements taking place in the process of finding refuge. In “24,” a love story—which is the entire history of the human species—hangs on these surprisingly hopeful words:

Children will skip through willow sundials
and the legends of bears’ large hearts
just to climb this terminal moraine,
feel the sun burning. (24)

Persian Pony Press, the publisher of Refugia, calls itself “a pop-up press based in Portland, Oregon.” You won’t find their website online. How fitting.

Kristin Berger 2019


Kristin Berger
 is the author of the poetry collections Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019), Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), How Light Reaches Us (Aldrich Press, 2016), and For the Willing (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her long prose-poem and collaboration with printmaker Diane Sandall, Changing Woman & Changing Man: A High Desert Myth will be published in 2019/2020. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-hosts the Lents Farmers Market Poetry Series, which has brought over 40 local emerging and established poets to the neighborhood. More at kristinberger.me

 

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 Poetry Cafe in the Spotlight!

Thanks so much to Trish Hopkinson for publishing an interview with me about The Poetry Cafe! You can read it here:

Since it was published, I have heard from more than 20 poets who wish to send me copies of their books! Whew! 

Later today I will be publishing my next review: Refugia, by Kristin Berger and onboard is Feed, by Emily Mohn-Slate. I am working on adding all of the books I have received to the list under “Drumroll, Please” and will be linking each book to the place where it can be purchased. I will be adding cover pictures in the future, and perhaps, interviews with chapbook poets.

I am looking for writers who are interested in writing reviews for this website, as I have more books already than I can review alone. If you are interested, send me an email at the address below. Anyone associated with an MFA program who wants to send students my way, I would be happy to connect with them and discuss guidelines for chapbook reviews. If you want to give them credit for writing a review, even better! And, I will send them a book to review! 

The email address is risa@thepoetrycafe.online

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