Siân Killingsworth

Meet Guest Reviewer: Siân Killingsworth

Siân Killingsworth’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Stonecoast ReviewGlass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist),Columbia Poetry Review, Mom Egg Review, Ekphrastic Review, Oakland Review, and Mudfish. She has an MFA in poetry from the New School, where she served on the staff of Lit. She is a current board member of the Marin Poetry Center.


Read more about her at www.sianessa.com.

She May Be a Saint

She May Be a Saint, by Sarah Nichols

Review by Siân Killingsworth

Sarah Nichols’ micro chapbook She May Be a Saint is an enigmatic exploration of a chimeric speaker, recounting the disintegration of a former identity and the darkly lyrical creation of a new self.

This book is composed of seventeen centos—short poems created entirely from lines and phrases selected from works of Sylvia Plath and C.D. Wright. It seems to me that Nichols chose these two poets’ works because the source poems are densely packed with images that are easy to pluck from a poem and repurpose. Only a few of the lines are recognizable because Nichols so expertly weaves them into a new, unique series of portraits. Admittedly, I have not read a lot of Wright, so her voice seems to me wholly subsumed in this creation, while Plath is still distantly identifiable – but perhaps only because she and her work have been so mainstreamed into contemporary consciousness via movies, anthologies, stories and the ubiquity of her most famous poems.

These poems are brief, with short lines comprised of few words. As a collection, She May Be a Saint is incredibly tight, as each poem builds on those preceding it in a lyric narrative that has a clear, multifaceted arc. It begins with the revelation of a self. The self goes on to describe her creation and we understand that it is in fact a re-creation in response to an unnamed trauma. In employing the voices of these other poets, Nichols creates an unsentimental speaker who describes a unique experience.

The speaker, “an unidentified woman,” opens in the first poem, “Once I Was” by inviting the reader to,

            Call me the
            Duchess of nothing 

To self-identify in this way, the speaker permits readers to acknowledge some measure of her stature and its simultaneous absence. A prominent member of European royalty, a duchess (or duke) ranks immediately below the monarch, yet to style oneself “the Duchess of nothing” is to suggest the meaninglessness of such a title and also to herald the imminent revelations of her dominion found in the poems that follow.

The religious elements of saints are jettisoned in favor of a more pagan supernaturality. The title is taken from Plath’s poem “Poem for a Birthday: Maenad,” and appears in “Once I Was,” signaling to us that this poem and the series that follows focus on re/birth and a watery spirit concealing (and revealing) her rage. In “Neat,” the water spirit is named again: the “undine-like maiden” is the blood running through veins.

Self-erasure is a thread that runs through the book. This Duchess notes “old happenings, / erased,’ and through the book makes oblique and overt references to her body being “a // coil, / blasted.” The speaker erases herself in order to create herself anew. Female saints of the past are known to have starved themselves, often to death, in the name of their religion, and their religious life was often founded in lieu of marriage. This physical diminishment has long been regarded as a form of self-effacement, and these acts were subsequently rewarded with sainthood after death. So, the Duchess, in a roundabout way, is the titular saint by way of self-negation.

Beginning in roughly the Middle Ages, some Catholic girls and women fasted to the point of developing anorexia mirabilis, a condition of self-induced starvation that often led to death. Their intention was to leverage physical suffering to get closer to God. Notable sufferers include Catherine of Siena and Saint Wilgefortis, both of whom took vows of chastity, abstained from food, and prayed for ugliness in order to avoid arranged marriage. Lack of food regularly led to these proto saints seeing visions and hearing voices, phenomena that led to a transformation from mortal to saint. In She May Be a Saint, the voices of others have been reshaped to speak for her – both Wright and Plath are manipulated and effaced so the Duchess’ own voice may come forth.

Many of the poems in She May Be a Saint refer to language, words, writing, ink, and carbon– a word with multiple meaning, calling to mind to the carbon of typewriter ribbon, carbon as replicated pages of print, the carbon graphite “lead” inside a pencil, and finally, carbon as the basic element of life. The Duchess replicates herself through telling, writing. She “drafted a / fictitious life.” Perhaps this is exactly what we’re reading: a juxtaposition of language, experience, erasure, rebirth. The opening poem again lays down the framework for this notion:

I poke
at the
carbon of it,

an end to the
writing.

Words to rid me
of

me.

As an opening statement, this powerful self-negation sets the stage for the Duchess to recount the traumas of the body, its difficult recuperation, and the novelty of a created identity with which to begin anew. About halfway through the chapbook, in “Invisible Wounds,” the Duchess reveals that she suffered an unnamed trauma twenty years in the past that forced her into “dormancy.” This is perhaps the reason for her original self-effacement. Rather than taking readers through therapeutic dissertation (as some poets do) that allows her to work through the trauma, the Duchess prefers to eliminate it and claim a new life entirely.

Since the speaker’s identity evolves continuously through the course of these portraits, it can be somewhat difficult to pin down because of this flux. We are witness to her body’s disintegration, its pain and the lessening of pain via drugs, we learn in “The Mask Increases” how her “bones soften,” yet all the while, she reveals, “I think I have been healing.” She “inhabit[s] a doll’s body” and later, in the poem “Other Bodies” seems to acquire a new body, which she calls “My new instrument.” With slightly eerie nod to gothic horror, the Duchess pulls back the veil on her wounds, tenderness, fear, resignation, and (spoiler!) a hint of threat at the end.

Nichols’ micro chap is spare and concise, but each poem is crisp, brimming with electricity and mystery. As a reader, I was left feeling somewhat breathless, as one might feel after watching a psychological thriller. The Duchess’ self-immolation and regeneration is a gift to readers, letting us closely observe and feel the transformation from a wounded spirit to a powerful one full of potential and intent.

Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of eight chapbooks, including This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl, 2018) and Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018.) Her poems and essays have also appeared in Five:2: One, Otis Nebula, The Fourth River, and FreezeRay.

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).

Café of Unintelligible Desire

Café of Unintelligible Desire, by Julia Caroline Knowlton

Review and Interview by Jeri Frederickson

Julia Caroline Knowlton’s Café of Unintelligible Desire (Alice Greene & Co., 2018), draws you in like the gentle beauty of a side street café. You might find you’ve spent hours there over a cup of tea, having the entire range of human emotions swirl around you in this charming and delicate place. Knowlton begins the collection with a poem titled “Invitation,” and dares us to:

Tell me what is more sacred—blood
or wet ink? Tell & I will
press your voice into the wind.

I was drawn in by this “Invitation” and the lyricism of her words. Café of Unintelligible Desire fills me with a sense of affirmation and calm, as if Knowlton was reaching across a café table and speaking to me honestly, with commanding clarity. Her poems show how the most complex events and relationships in our lives often go unspoken, and yet, those are the events and relationships that often shape our lives the most. In the title poem, Knowlton writes,

. . .  Lately in the café
we realize we owe each other nothing,
only two irises & twenty tiny crescents.
            Outside, it is quite a different story. 

Knowlton holds our attention with lyrical words that give meaning to the events and people in our own lives. Then she releases us from any obligation to continue holding onto those events or relationships and to continue living our lives.

In “Bad Mother,” Knowlton begins,

I gaslit you twice. Once at the fancy pool
when I told you that the chardonnay
in my Coke can wasn’t really chardonnay.
            Your furrowed brow after tasting it,
wet strands of hair striping your face,
            adorable swimsuit with blue Hawaiian flowers.

The frank openness of the speaker stands in direct opposition to the deceptive events in the poem. As someone who frequently wishes for the power to read minds, I love that Knowlton gives her readers this power throughout the collection. We get to see what is underneath the narratives we knew weren’t quite what they seemed on the surface, and this honesty brings about a catharsis.

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Julia Caroline Knowlton is a poet to look for at readings and in print. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Knowlton read her work. Her poems flow just as beautifully in a public reading as on the page. A new full length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order now at Finishing Line Press.

I was able to ask Knowlton a few questions regarding The Café of Unintelligible Desire:

Jeri: The chapbook opens with the quote from Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage, “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté; / Luxe, calme et volupté.” What is your preferred English translation of this passage, and what can you share with us about it?

Julia: The best translation I can offer is “There, everything is order and beauty; / Luxury, calm, and sensuality.”  I could write quite a lot about this epigraph, since it sums up Baudelaire’s entire poetics.  His poem is an invitation for the reader to leave (flee?) reality and go to a more comforting place of beauty.  It was also a love letter to one of his beloveds. For Baudelaire, the space of the poem is an ideal, almost sublime place.  The complication, though, is that although we may access an ideal poetic space through reading and writing and contemplation, we have to live our everyday lives in the broken space of reality.

Jeri: Your writing seems to remove all that is unnecessary, revealing only what must be said. And yet, the words themselves are so full that I don’t wish for more lines or more words in any of the poems. How did these poems come about? Did you go through many drafts to get to the sleek versions or did some of them come out as they appear in the chapbook?

Julia: I was greatly influenced by the Parnassian school of French poetry when I did my PhD in French literature back in the 1990s.  That school developed in the 19th century, and its main aesthetic was restraint and precision. The poet Théophile Gautier urged poets to approach the poem like a sculpture that would be sculpted out of the “block of marble” that is language.  I care very much about the economy of word and image, and I am, indeed, relentless in my own work about stripping away every single word that is not crucial to the poem.  As far as revisions, most of my poems only go through two or three versions.  They are already pretty spare when they “hit the page” for the first time.  The titular poem, “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” however, went through dozens of revisions, interestingly.  I wrestled with that one for two years.

Jeri: “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” is possibly my favorite poem in this collection. Somehow, as your reader, I get to feel smart and playful and my heart breaks and is made stronger all in these twelve lines. How did this poem come to be the title of the chapbook? Can you tell us about the “we”?

Julia: Great question!  I recently shared the story of this poem at two readings I gave this summer.  The poem was “inspired,” if I can say that, from a bad date!  I met a man for coffee in a café where I go frequently to read and revise and grade papers. This was about four years ago.  It went badly; it was obvious that there was no potential connection, despite the attempt.  Leaving the setting, I thought about how complicated intimacy is for most of us—we want it, but it is elusive, or fragile, or fleeting.  This applies to emotional intimacy (friends, family) as well as romantic intimacy.  A thunderstorm rose up in the sky as I left.  That is evoked in the last lines of the poem, to contrast the interior of the café with the outdoors. 

Jeri: Throughout the chapbook, Mary Shea’s illustrations serve as almost an epilogue to some of your poems. How did the pairing of poems and illustrations come about? How does this add to your own experience of reading the chapbook? 

Julia: Another great question!  My wonderful editor in Ann Arbor, Jill Peek, solicited the cover art. The story of the cover art is memorable.  Mary Shea had produced her painting, a study of Bonnard, but was dissatisfied with it.  Consequently, she tore it into pieces.  After she read my manuscript, including my poem entitled “La Femme de Bonnard,” she pieced & taped it back together!  She told my editor: “ruining it saved it.”  I love that statement: sometimes we have to “ruin” something in our creative process in order to move forward.  Sometimes we have to break down some kind of form in order to create new form.  Regarding her illustrations, my editor gave her the freedom to create what she wanted to create for the interior illustrations.

Jeri: Finally, based on the poems in this chapbook, I’d love to know, do you write in cafes? What is your favorite time and place to write?

Julia: I do not compose new poems in cafés, because I need to be alone to compose.  However, I do revise in cafés.  I like the “beehive” of activity in my favorite café—the scent of coffee and pastries, music, people working and talking.  I grade papers for my teaching job and read and revise poems in my favorite café, which is located near Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, where I teach.

 

 

Julia Caroline Knowlton is Professor of French at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She holds MA and PhD degrees in French Literature and an MFA from Antioch in Los Angeles. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets College Prize, her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Raw Art Review and The Roanoke Review.  She is the author of the memoir Body Story and the poetry chapbook Café of Unintelligible Desire.  Julia was a finalist in the 2018 NYC Center for Book Arts chapbook contest and a 2019 nominee for Georgia Author of the Year.  Her first full-length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.  She is available for interviews and readings: juliacarolinefr@gmail.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).

Word Hot

Word Hot, by Mary Meriam

Review by Jeri Frederickson

I wish my younger self could read Mary Meriam’s Word Hot. Anyone who needs to nurture their younger or inner selves should read this chapbook and draw in the courageous yearning for a body, for love, and for a muse. I keep coming back to Meriam’s hypnotizing sense of the body, the beauty and depth of nature, and her courage to reach out for a muse who will stay.

Living in an urban setting, I often long for nature. Meriam weaves nature throughout this chapbook like a love letter to those of us pining for the woods and the moon. The poem, “Cave In” brings us nature as a muse and a lover:

The forest sighs for succulent romance.
The moonlight jiggles in a modern dance.
The waiting window holds the weary tree.
The midnight branches tap. Come back to me.

Meriam plays with words like a lover might play with the lines on my hands. When I read Meriam’s poems, I am connected to that feeling of delight, of exploring something special and new.

Several of the poems in Word Hot are sonnets. While some of us first encountered Shakespearean sonnets in boring high school classrooms, Meriam blows the dust off my recollection of this form, and funnels the depth of a human soul into her sonnets. In “Thoughts,” she begins with:

Some thoughts are too unbearable to think,
but still they rock me nightly, tidal waves
of worry, thoughts that knock me off the brink,
drown me, and bury me in shapeless caves.
Some thoughts are faces I once knew, and some
remember voices, visions, trouble, thunder,
and some thoughts dwell on what I have become.

We connect with Meriam’s speaker in these poems because we identify with how hard and private it is to think thoughts that “are too unbearable.” Meriam wields the rhymes in her poems with an ease that allows her reader to relax, even in the midst of “tidal waves,” as she guides us. In another sonnet, “Country Music,” Meriam writes:

choosing which way I walk away from home,
kicking the leaves, as if my incomplete
existence could be saved without you near,
as if a wish could make a muse appear.

Meriam writes with the heartbeat rhythm of a sonnet and fills these rhythms with a sense of questioning and craving for something the speaker is not able to have. That sense of questioning or lacking is a human feeling that we all cope with, and Meriam’s writing makes this part of our common humanity a courageous and worthwhile experience.

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I wanted to find out more about how these breathtaking sonnets were born
and how Meriam approaches writing about the body and nature. I had the honor of being able to ask these questions in an interview.

Jeri: Word Hot was published in 2013, and now, in 2019, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about this bridge of six years. How does Word Hot continue to push your writing now? Are similar poetic forms, ideas, people, or places informing your writing today?

Mary: A muse is an inspirational goddess, and Word Hot seems to be invoking a muse, particularly one named Lillian Faderman. I’d been reading her books for the first time. I was, and still am, very grateful and tremendously moved by her work. I’ve always felt that I was too much: too sad, in too much pain, too intense, too needy, too lesbian. But Lillian’s books made me feel accepted, strong, brave, loved. I felt for the first time that there was a lesbian culture I could belong to, and it was alive in her books. I hoped to make poems that were just as alive. The muse is invoked at the beginning of epics, and Word Hot is the beginning of my own little epic, The Lillian Trilogy.  

Jeri: As a reader, I was drawn into the way you explore the beauty of the body and of nature. How did you set about weaving flora, stone, weather, etc. through this chapbook at the same time you were weaving the body, especially the body of a female muse or lover, through your poems?

Mary: I write intuitively, so exploring and weaving for me is about the nuts and bolts of reading, listening, looking, feeling, waiting, hoping, trying, failing, workshopping. Since I live in a wilderness of forest, mountains, lake, I’m very in touch with nature in my body of work.

Jeri: Some of your poems reach out to a person or idea and wish for a change or a specific response. Where do you wish a reader will choose to read Word Hot? If you could give your reader a place, what would that place look or feel like?

Mary: An island. A grassy cliff over the ocean. A group of girls and women in loose tunics and baggy pants who have just finished dancing, and are now sprawled around, each with Word Hot in hand. When it starts getting dark, they run to a living room and read the poems out loud. (Actually this sounds like where I went to college, Bennington.)

Jeri: “To Lillian” is beautiful. Tension holds this poem together, but it comes off so effortless on the page. In a poem like this, do you allow yourself to explore where the poem is going and discover what you want to say, or do you know when you’re writing what the map is for the poem? 

Mary: Thanks. I love writing in received forms, like this sonnet, partly because they are a map. It’s a pleasure and relief to be given a rhyme scheme, along with a set number of lines and feet. Then I follow my nose to see where it takes me. The first line draws me in. The search for rhymes opens new doors. Iambic pentameter keeps my syntax in line. The metrical heartbeat listens to my heartbeat. I’m dancing in a place I’ve danced in many times before, so I know the moves. I enter a trance and the lines appear from some deep place. I wait till I hear the truest words in my mind, then write them down. After handwriting the first draft, I type it, then scan it and make revisions. Sometimes the poem feels finished quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so I set it aside and wait. It could be years before I understand the poem, so I never throw away first drafts. I wrote some free verse poems around 1979 that I couldn’t accept or understand until 2019. I thank myself for saving the first drafts of those poems for 40 years. I’ve been periodically reading and wondering about the poems all these years, and finally feel so happy with them that they’ll be in my next book. 

Jeri: “So Close” includes quotes from both Mary Sidney and Shakespeare. How did you come to use these lines in this poem? 

Mary: In 2004, I saw a tiny mention in Newsweek about Robin Williams’ work on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Williams’ book, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? is full of compelling arguments that Mary Sidney is the true author. The two quotes sound “so close” to my ear, it’s hard to believe they were written by two different poets. That tiny mention had a gigantic effect on me. Something broke open, and I suddenly felt free of the oppressive canon that had dominated my education. I began to write a lot of sonnets, studying Shakespeare’s along the way. In contrast to many others, my scansion of the Sonnets found almost entirely strict iambic pentameter. I workshopped my formal poems at the online forum Eratosphere, where experienced formalists kicked my butt, as it were, when my form was off. The upshot of Shakespeare and Eratosphere is that for many years, most of my poems were strictly metrical with very few substitutions. Now I move in and out of form as the spirit moves me. 

Mary Meriam co-founded Headmistress Press and edits the Lavender Review: Lesbian Poetry and Art. She is the author of My Girl’s Green Jacket (2018) and The Lillian Trilogy (2015), both from Headmistress Press. Poems appear recently in Poetry, Prelude, and Subtropics.

Review by Jeri Frederickson

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).

Jeri Frederickson

Meet Guest Reviewer: Jeri Frederickson

Jeri is a writer and freelance editor finishing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Her poetry has most recently appeared in print in Thought Collection and Vines Leavesand online at Thank you for swallowing. She is the editor of online magazine Awakened Voices. She is also a freelance theater director and an ensemble member of Irish Theatre of Chicago where she has served as the Literary Manager and Associate Artistic Director. She currently fosters healing through the arts in Chicago as the Creative Director of literary, movement, and visual arts at a Chicago nonprofit organization for survivors of sexual violence. Instagram: @lifeplayedonstage 

My Father’s Kites and Corporal Muse

my father’s kites and Corporal Muse, by Allison E. Joseph

Allison Joseph is a personal hero of mine. Many creative writers focus primarily on their own work and their own careers. Joseph is that exemplary poet and educator who seems to be constantly supporting other writers. Beyond her considerable publication resume, and a staunch commitment to her craft, her bio of community building activities is impressive. And despite her gravitas as poet and professor, she frequently publishes her work with small independent presses. Bravo to that, I say!

Joseph is also that rare contemporary poet who has the talent for writing accomplished and accessible poetry in both free and formal verse. Her collection, my father’s kites (Steel Toe Press, 2010), an almost-chapbook at 56 pages, contains a section of formal sonnets eulogizing her father that I found both courageous and moving, at least in part because I’ve struggled to write about my own father. In an interview with Billy Jenkins at “The Fourth River” Joseph spoke about the difficulty she confronted in writing about her father:  

I found that it was harder to write about my father, who I had a fractured relationship with, than my mother, who died when I was a teenager.  . . . At first it stumped me . . . But it was because his death was  . . . about his life as a black man, the things he faced. His anger was a lot more emblematic. Even the very reason he died, diabetes, is something that affects far more disproportionately, the African American community.

But in this villanelle, “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir” Joseph reminds us that memory is “insecure” and she circumnavigates the topic of disclosure in this way:  

Some memories lurk deep, in bone and tooth,
with consequences I can do without.
What’s there to write? I had ‘that’ kind of youth.
Forgive me if I don’t tell you the truth.

In another interview I came across online, she adds this intriguing caveat about the “I” persona, which she believes can be used very effectively not only for confession, but also to connect with others,

So the opportunity in a poem for the “I” to fool its own inventor, it’s huge.  …  I think the distance between the fictionalized “I” of my particular poems and the person sitting next to you usually isn’t that far. 

Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018), which won the 2019 Independent Press Award for Small Books, is a lighter read emotionally than my father’s kites, or some of her other collections, but it shows off Joseph’s talent for both form and free verse and is packed with her sense of humor. Here, she pays homage to language itself, reminding the reader how words beguile, bewilder, and compel us.  In many of these poems, words and language take on mythic personas; those are the ones that interested me most in this collection. In the initial poem, “Dictionary,” she gives a warning,

You open me, and worlds begin to shift,
zealously, you’ll covet all I can define.

The title poem, “Corporal Muse,” is a psychological thriller. The protagonist here is corporal-like and,

Dressed in drab olive green fatigues,
bayonet in fist, beret on his bald head,
he wants to see your work—pages and pages
of it. He wants you broken and crying.

And in “A Plea to the Grammar Lady,” Joseph submits to syntax,

Split infinitives slap me hard, slice
thin red scratches across my cheeks.


Modifiers dangle from me, slipping
off into nonsense before I can pull


them back. Tense about tenses
I try to pin down the future,

For a taste of another side of Joseph’s humor, here are lines from “The Joining,” which is a wickedly funny riddle,

You’re a wind-up toy I never tire of,
big as my thumb and just as funny.

The last couplet of the final sonnet in Corporal Muse, titled, “Necessities,” is a response to our ubiquitous queries about the value of words and the ability of the “I” to connect with others:

Each syllable another life’s pushed through—
I only need these words I pledge to you.

  

Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she is part of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, moderator of the Creative Writers Opportunities List, and director of Writers In Common, a summer writers’ conference. Her books and chapbooks include What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand Press), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh), Worldly Pleasures (Word Tech), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press), My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books), Trace Particles (Backbone Press), Little Epiphanies (Night Ballet Press), Mercurial (Mayapple Press), Multitudes (Word Tech), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), Mortal Rewards (White Violet Press), Double Identity (Singing Bone Press), What Once You Loved (Barefoot Muse Press), Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry), Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press), and Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press). She is the literary partner and wife of Jon Tribble.

      

Buy Corporal Muse here!
Buy My Father’s Kites here!

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. 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 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.

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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).