Current Book Reviews 2022
Please scroll down to read further reviews on books by Allison Funk, Cleopatra Mathis, Joseph Bathanti, Keith Flynn, Henri Cole, Mihaela Moscaliuc, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Shara McCallum, Ashley Jones, Mark Wunderlich, Sarah Arvio, J.C. Todd, and William Wright.
Cleopatra Mathis, After the Body: Poems New and Selected
Sarabande Books, 2021. 216 pages
Review by Sarah Freligh
There are many choices for a poet wishing to assemble a life's work in a single volume, most notably what poems to include and how to arrange them. The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden (Random House 1945) opted for an alphabetical arrangement based on first lines, while The Collected Poetry of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin 2015) favored an earliest-to-most recent order for his book, a structure that emphasized the poet's coming of age through his work. Conversely, Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats (BOA Editions 2000) opens with recent work, including the titular poem, followed by selections from each of four previous collections in ascending date order.
Like Clifton, Cleopatra Mathis uses a new-to-old arrangement in After the Body: Poems New and Selected, opening with twenty-three new poems followed by selections from seven previous collections. But rather than merely including what others might consider her "greatest hits," Mathis has chosen poems that both speak to and expand on themes of the body; in doing so, she's created a unity that's rare or often nonexistent in new and selected works. Read in its entirety, from beginning to end, After the Body offers a retrospective of Mathis' work, but also forges a narrative arc typically found in a single volume of poetry, a trajectory that accrues in power and propels the reader forward even as we're moving backward in time.
The titular body figures into most of the poems in various ways, but especially so in the new poems, most of which center around an aging, failing body ravaged by the indignities of Parkinson's disease and other illnesses. Mathis, however, is a master of suggestion and image, a strategy that lifts the poems above the merely confessional. Pain is evoked rather than dwelled upon, making these new poems all the more heartbreaking in their powerful understatement.
The natural world has always figured into Mathis' work and the new poems engage with nature in ways that emphasize the fraught world the speaker has entered. Here, nature is both observed and experienced in images that act as a launch pad into explorations of pain and the ways the body have failed the speaker. The poem "After Chemo" focuses on the mice that have taken over the speaker's house in her absence because "They never expected me back." The critters have invaded every available space in the house, "burrowing into linens and tissues." They've even made "A bed in the stove's insulation" and there is little the speaker, in her reduced physical state, can do to respond:
I am not the same, and they know it
Afraid of what I might touch
wherever I reach, connections
severed, all the lines chewed.
In these lines, the speaker has become the ruined house, "the sieve" in which illness, like those mice, has its way.
Images of illness and death persist. In "Not Myself," the speaker sees "For the first time. . . a link/ between me and all the other/ impossibly dead," heretofore seen at a remove in scenes from movies or newspaper stories. Likewise, in "Dyskinesia," images turn from winter and spring to something more sinister and invasive, something that "flew the air/ through the flimsy north-facing windows// and found me," ultimately prompting the unwanted movements of the title.
There are fewer metaphors in the new poems, a strategy that Mathis admits is owing to feeling "stripped away by the disease" as well as to a desire to only "present what is":
I think I began to distrust any kind of adornment in the way of image because I saw it finally as being sentimental. And "like" itself became an impossibility. (Mathis1)
Metaphor, then, lands with a wallop when employed. In "Mother Pain," the eighth poem
in the book, pain is female and fierce:
She was the big wind coming through windows I couldn't close,
turning over the orchids I loved, spattering the dirt.
If she wanted, I'd be on the floor weeks later
The metaphor is gorgeously and painfully expanded with the speaker's observation that:
I was just furniture
that needed dumping. I was a dropped clock
and time had turned to serve her, my every second
belonged to her. She said just die.
The natural world also acts to structure the new poems, tracing a narrative arc from brutality to beauty. The books opens with "This Time, The Hawk," in which the speaker is dive-bombed in early evening by a hawk that "swerved/ upward to a broken off trunk/ not ten feet up," while in "Silver," the last of the new work, the speaker contemplates a spider web in which is intertwined "three long silver hairs--my own/ I have to assume. . . made pure and purposeful". Here, the aging body has shucked off what it doesn't need, subsequently repurposed and ultimately made beautiful by nature.
"Silver" is both an effective segue and a natural transition to the older books. Here the bodies are those of beloved relatives--mothers, daughters, husbands, brothers and grandmothers--and throughout the reading of these, the "body" from the new poems lingers like a palimpsest, a shadowed reminder of and elegy to what will be.
Indeed, the tone of the earlier poems is often elegiac, highlighted by a stunning eight-page poem from The Bottom Land (1983). "Elegy for the Other" is dedicated to the speaker's brother, a drug dealer who is missing and whose presumed death is a source of painful speculation:
When I can pray, this is my prayer:
that you went out with one pure breath,
the stroke of an arm reaching as in flight
that unexpected beat when the long white
feathers of the nightjar open.
The selected poems from What to Tip the Boatman (2001) are especially harrowing in their unflinching focus on a daughter's mental illness, often evoked in visceral images. In "That Year," the daughter-- "breaking and freezing"-- would "slice another hole in her body,/ not pierces but a ragged stitch/ circling her arm". "Cutlery," meanwhile, imagines the world through the daughter's point of view:
All you'll know
of the knife
is the blade you remember,
cousin to the fork's five prongs,
those scissored lines
you dragged across your arm.
The book concludes with the final poem from the Book of Dog (2012), a satisfying finale to the trajectory of After the Body and a fitting bookend to the dive-bombing hawk of the opening poem. In "Survival: A Guide," the speaker observes an aging heron that has spent "More than a generation here/ and every year more drab." Unlike the bird-of-prey hawk, an "it" with its onerous "curved beak, blunt-headed, wide," the heron is definitively a she, a survivor who "strikes the pose" and goes about her business in spite of the threats that lurk around her. The connection to the new poems and the resonance to their speaker are achingly clear in the poem's--and the book's--poignant final lines:
Older now, I see her plain, a mere surviving
against a weedy bank with fox dens
and the ruthless, overhead patrol.
Some blind clockwork keeps her going.
1Mathis, Cleopatra. "Always a Condition of Urgency." Interview with Rachel Richardson. Poetry Northwest, 6 Oct. 2021. https://www.poetrynw.org/interview-always-a-condition-of-urgency-a-conversation-with-cleopatra-mathis. Accessed 12 Dec. 2021.
Sarah Freligh is the author of We and Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. She is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.
Allison Funk, The Visible Woman
Parlor Press, Free Verse Editions, 2021. 70 pp.
Review by Carolee Bennett
Allison Funk's newest poetry collection starts with the word afraid and ends with oblivion, a pairing that offers a clue about how seriously the thin volume takes its work. In just 32 poems, The Visible Woman explores the relationship between body and creator--which is not a type of deity but instead artist, poet and mother--and travels boldly from the highly intimate level of the cell to the extreme distance of galaxies and stars. The journey from what's seen and held to what's beyond (and perhaps invisible) is bi-directional and not without risk, but Funk's speaker is fierce.
We get a clear sense of this throughout the collection, including in "Chimera," where the speaker's voice is a force all its own:
Most dangerous fenced, I can scare
Myself as the snake I am too, whip
That coils inside, going round and around.
Some days it takes all my strength to keep it
From leaving my mouth as fire.
We witness the voice as pure power again in "How We Are Silenced." It's a devastating poem about a teen in Mosul who's "escaped her captors after years/ of bondage." For a while after returning home, she's "closed her eyes and stopped speaking." She lies face down on a mattress, but the poem does not leave her or the reader there. Instead, it ends with the teen's voice (self-expression) as pure life force: "hers is the sleep of the unborn/ before they cry themselves alive."
And later, in "Murmurations," we again feel this same channeling of power--a rising up of sorts--when the speaker warns:
Don't underestimate them as some do
In seconds they can change direction.
Swarm. Become a mass
that renders a predator helpless.
With those lines, Funk puts the broader world on notice about the strength in what women can manifest (i.e. create) collectively. It is "mass" (literally), and it is massive. Several bodies become a single, powerful object and establish an apt metaphor for the entire book: "to create a whole cloth out of what was in pieces". In this way, The Visible Woman is full of bodies, whose collective energy demands we reflect on how we see the female body and its many expressions.
While some of the bodies in the poems are living, many are representations of the female body. From dolls and wax figures designed as teachers of anatomy to photos and works of art, Funk explores how these depictions are consumed and created (and by whom). It's a credit to Funk that we examine this dynamic, and where the power lies within it, from the eyes of the book's female speakers instead of some other gaze. In "The Good Mother in the Art of Louise Bourgeois," for example, Funk writes, "They're all here, the women she's come from" and "how indelibly she imprinted herself."
She performs the action in that sentence. She is creator and canvas. The mirroring artist and art subject repeats throughout The Visible Woman and is captured exquisitely in "Anatomista." The poem describes a self-portrait sculpted in wax by Anna Morandi Manzolini, a wife and mother who studied and taught human anatomy in the 1700s, using both cadavers and wax models she molded:
Anatomist, artist, here
at the Museo di Palazzo Poggi
in a taffeta dress, poised
with a scalpel above a human brain
we see her as she saw herself
Taffeta and scalpel are not only quite a pairing (can you say "bad ass" in a literary review?!) but also wholly representative of the spirit of Funk's The Visible Woman. The shadow side of the fierceness in making/ adorning things (the taffeta) is the power to erase or remove, a potential violence (the scalpel). Is this risk inherent to the proximity/intimacy of artist and art? Does the artist's creation replace her? Consider these lines from "Vespers" in which the artist feels somehow apart from the power she wields:
I'm still not in the body
I'm trying to occupy.
No more there than the owls
real only in the ruckus
they make at night--
I can hardly hear the lub-dub
of my heart.
I'm outside of.
Might this evening prayer also be considered an ars poetica? Perhaps. As the speaker negotiates her position, she struggles to embody her voice (the owls and their "ruckus"). She even seems to describe it as a separate force or foreign body ("gorgeous fury"). It is within her, but it isn't her, a possible way of pushing back against the way some presume art to be a stand-in for--or measure of--the artist herself, sometimes, even the artist's own view.
"The Good Mother in the Art of Louise Bourgeois" inquires directly about this risk, asking, "At what cost do we make art?" As the speaker in the title poem says, "Mine, too, is a story/ of how we disappear./ Yet I keep returning." Putting a finer point on this, "Cursive" makes clear (in this collection, in these poems and, of course, in many aspects of readers' lives) that a kind of erasure can be at the artist's/creator's own hand:
she's at her desk one moment
studiously bearing down between the lines
and the next she's working as hard
to erase what she's written
as she will
to rub herself out in time.
In the hands of the female artist is also the ability to portray or erase other women, and the stakes are incredibly high. For example, a poem titled "In Daguerreotypes" describes how mothers sometimes hid under sheets to make them invisible in portraits of their children. The speaker expresses surprise both in finding "women/ pretending they weren't there" and in the photographer's role in the camouflage: "She'd even assist in shrouding them."
Directly opposite "In Daguerreotypes" in the layout and order of the book, Funk places "Remembering Francesca Woodman," a poem in which the artist's eye poses another kind of danger: "As if the lens you aimed at her,/ intended only to capture her beauty,/ resembled the end of a gun." The poem portrays Francesca, her art and her death by suicide at age 22--a clear attempt at erasure with devastating finality.
"Remembering Francesca Woodman" concludes with an interesting union of witness and artist: "She made her way/ to an open window to escape your gaze,/ you, loving her, joined her on the ledge." The reader accompanies the subject of the poem, metaphorically. The art and its observer are companions.
This recalls the communal force of the earlier murmuration. Individuals both borrow power from their counterparts and contribute to the creation of a larger force. The murmuration--the single poem with that title, the collection of poems in the book and the community of women it assembles--is undeniably practical, mesmerizing in its beauty and absolutely seen.
Carolee Bennett is a writer and artist living in Upstate New York. She has an MFA in poetry, works full-time as a writer in social media marketing and blogs at gooduniversenextdoor.com.
Joseph Bathanti, Light at the Seam: Poems
Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 65 pp.
Review by Daniel T. O'Hara
The last poem herein also takes this volume's title and clarifies its meaning: the perception of an outside observer some distance away is seeing that "Deep within" a mountain, where "miners suspire, /shake light at the seam" with their breaths, living or dying. The seam is that of the almighty coal, the light literally being that of their shaking helmets. All the poems are similarly more interconnected than the plain subtitle suggests. Based on the poet's own walking tours and Carl Galie's celebrated photographs of coal country, in West Virginia and Kentucky primarily, the volume reads like a visionary ethnography of the post-apocalyptic ravishment of strange beauty and sublime, even grotesque spectacle of what human beings willingly and otherwise have done to the earth in the name of first, so-called progress and now purely naked greed. To say that Bathanti is an environmentalist is like saying Shakespeare was a playwright of some renown. And yet, the poems, even while expressing Christian sentiments and biblical language, largely depict this world carefully, even somewhat objectively, even more powerfully to bring home to the reader the sharp poignancy of this world.
For me, "Sundial, West Virginia" captures the scene's major representative features:
Children take sick from powdered coal
loaded into freight cars from a silo
half a soccer field
from their Marsh Fork schoolyard,
then doused with bonding agent
to suppress the dust.
Hovering twelve hundred feet above the school children's "cubbies" is an earthen dam and behind it, "bibbed," as if an infant, lies "the gray impoundment:/2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge." No wonder that the poem characterizes the looming "gouged peak" as if the lobotomized head of this monstrous baby mountain. Even the "serpentine switchbacks" that "weave a cat's cradle" of improvised roads down this peak, its top removed, as if subdurally it was to provide a delicacy for the Hannibal Lecter coal mining corporation reflected right into "the grade-rooms" of the school.
Meanwhile, the children learn skills largely measuring accurately the details of their ever-threatening fate: "They study terminal velocity, /the likely speed of a downslope flash flood." The jutting out second line here enacting the imaginative outline of what will come upon the page. Similarly, the children add to their vocabulary lesson new chemical elements and their terminology (conveniently italicized by the poet for the reader), thereby becoming ironically advanced in the knowledge of their fatal plight: "watershed, toxic, /overburden, subsidiary, arsenic, /mercury, chromium, cadmium, /boron, nickel, selenium. That the next line is the blunt "They pledge allegiance" ensures the readers get the bitter irony even as it reminds us that the poem is particularly a day in the life of these children, while the forecast of their lives appears darkly in the background. This touch throughout the poem extends throughout the volume. Every poem, every line, contributing to the unity of vision and tone of the volume.
After the school children "return thanks in the lunch hall"--to God I imagine, given the saturation of this world by the trappings of faith, they play their innocent childhood games at recess: "skip rope, play jacks, / . . .sing Little Red Caboose." First, the school children's "primer is gravity." Every bell, then, every suggestion of time and the passing day, signals their being on "this side of glory." As the poem, as well as the entire section entitled "Limbo" suggest, not to mention Galie's photo cited at the opening of the poem and section, "Almost Heaven," being in such a state, neither damned nor blessed, though closer to the latter in theory, only means daily life can be at best pervaded by moments of blissful ignorance as "Sundial/ casts its shadow on the hour."
Joseph Bathanti's Light at the Seam is simply the best volume of contemporary poetry I have read in years. Its quiet grace and verbal play do not euphemize the haunting horrors of destruction and abandonment. Take, for example, these lines from "Floyd County, Kentucky":
No lintel to speak of,
But a chicken wire screen
door hinged on twelve-inch
block and lattice, jittering,
wind chimes knelling,
Each time a charge grunts--
off-thunder rumbling the hollows.
The delicate play and strength of such lines, or of these later ones, "the dooryard/held in a brazen of peonies, /rickety picket once-white to corset them," evoke as they dismiss as inappropriate the poetic glamor of a Whitman or a Milton when elegizing an entire world. As my title is meant to suggest, post-Apocalyptic Appalachia enforces an honesty and self-restraint that challenges the poet to new severe but piercing inventions worthy of deep reflection on humanity's role in our planet's fate.
Daniel T. O'Hara, co-editor of Shining Rock Poetry Review and Anthology, is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Temple University and the author and editor of fifteen books.
Keith Flynn, The Skin of Meaning
Red Hen Press, 2020, 179 pp.
Review by Ezra Solway
The late Lawrence Ferlinghetti once said that a poem should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song. That rare liminal space, though hard to achieve, discovers fertile ground in Keith Flynn's latest collection of poetry, The Skin of Meaning. This wide-ranging collection fans out in triptych form: etymologies, dichotomies, and necrologies. As in his five earlier collections, he displays strong command of alliteration and the vowel register and uses mostly conventional narrative forms to elucidate his points. Weaving between a vertiginous scale of allusions and topics--Robin Williams, Arshile Gorky, Nina Simone, the Hindenburg, Manolete--the book ultimately hinges on its protean ability to grapple with what it means to be an American today, which is to say: lonely, an unjust fear of death, and inextricable contradiction.
The opening etymology section dissects cultural archetypes like glory, nostalgia, democracy, and climate change. "Montauk" retraces the displacement of the Montaukett tribe, asserting that "when we become what we/ are running from, we will/ circle where we walk/ like a drunken hawk." "Nostalgia As Entropy" shows how we randomly assign meaning to make up for our lack of understanding. "The Glory Façade" subverts our very human temptation to cement the story of our life: "knowing that a human being/ in love with mystery/ is never finished." "The Force of Compassion" is a heartfelt appeal for undivided attention and the pleasures it affords. The first and eponymous poem of the collection is not concerned with the minutia of what someone loses, but more importantly, the symptoms of that downward spiral.
He was late to the party and without directions,
though his invitation was secure, and his instincts
keenly honed to an acceptable edge, and as we are
waiting to see if the fates will hear our ode to joy
we are given the sound of a man losing everything;
From here, Flynn renders the consequences of a "lifelong secrecy tipping over a robust single indiscretion."
....The hidden realities so carefully furrowed in shy
smiles and feigned deference which fasten his
fading future, slowly shot through with the wrinkles
of original meaning that he has never outgrown.
Baked into much of the text is a steady diet of healthy dissent, unearthing a variety of cultural wounds and malpractice. In "Climate Change," for example, he deploys sardonic humor and potent imagery to call out the rapacious ignorance of people vis-a-vis the looming crisis at our doorstep.
What good is living
if you can't design
your own scent, from the
squeezed glands of civets
and rare orchid petals, or to
have your loafers sewn
from the pelt of the latest
endangered animal, with
thread comprised of a truly
Humor is never used gratuitously or simply by way of entertainment. It's only employed to clarify the gravity of the problem. As a result, Flynn invites the possibility of suturing these cultural wounds so long as they can be truly appreciated. Consider the end of "Climate Change":
History books would evaporate
if their subjects were not such
primordial hoarders. Perfection
anxiety has never occurred to
the coal miner or the foot soldier
or the concubine, or the polar
bear, for that matter, scrambling
through the rising glacier water,
searching for a broken berm of
ice to rest his skinny fur upon
With "World Boogie" in the Dichotomies section, Flynn musically calls attention to the adjoining streets and parkways and highways named after famously opposing Southern icons, such as Harriet Tubman Avenue alongside Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The fact that these historical figures are still at loggerheads today reveals the deep-seated complexities of navigating the American South.
The mysterious chasm between musician and listener is constant grist for Flynn's mill. For example, in "Robert Johnson's Milk Cow Blues": "Neither of them know/ the source of the bruise, or why the blunt blue/ cut that pushes back against their best efforts/ so transfixes the visitors."
On one hand, the genius of musicians like Glenn Gould, Howlin Wolf, Paul Motian, and the ineffable power of their music is celebrated: "Inside a melody, we are never alone." And yet, by the same token, he acknowledges how an audience can be a mob that interprets music with "variable perspectives."
The double-edged sword of pining for glory or a higher purpose is on display in "The Searchers," which culls the assorted likes of Ansel Adams, Einstein, Napoleon, Matthew Henson, Gorky, and General Lee.
Some poor souls seeking glory are left
wounded in their punitive wars and shot by
puny villagers for the gold in their teeth,
or some like Matthew Henson, drag their
black carcass and the frozen assets of
various companions to the top of the world,
only to be ignored by History.
Sparing no victims in his tableau of searchers, Flynn lends a cautionary tale, one that ends in a surprising tone of conviction and hope.
To mesmerize others, one must see the worst
of the world's colors, to lift your saber like
General Lee in the direction of eternity,
to find your final resting place being whipped
through gauntlets of defeat and disgrace,
to clamber over the unassailable precipice
and drop into nothing at your life's expense,
to fight out from the bottom or through the wall,
and discover that the journey itself was its own
reward, and that the ardent search was all.
Necrologies, the last section of the triptych, is marked with artists at their breaking point. In "Look For Me In Liberia," Nina Simone's voice is revived as her displeasure with America was at its apex: "I've swallowed the storm/ I'll not be rode/ I'm a freight train/ I tell the track/ where to go." Basquiat's abridged life is lamented as is Manolete, the seemingly fearless matador. The depiction of the vanishing elephant trick in "Houdini And The Dead Letter Office" is a harrowing high-wire act of burning monks, frosted voices, and unruly labyrinths. The horror of "Antietam" is recounted with heavy precision. But among the gory roadkill and capital punishment and boundless iconography, you'll also find here poignant meditations on grief, the kind that worms its way into the guts of it all. Consider the opening of "Coffin Not Included":
Gradually the world shuts you out,
your plum skin dapples and craters,
effectively exhausted by holding back
the waterfall that is a human being.
There is no getting used to sorrow;
every encounter, like the rungs of a ladder
lap higher and harder until the rails
turn to eels in your hands and escape
as ropes of smoke, weary of the body
and its constant demands. The walls
between this world and the next
are leaky as an old rowboat.
To paraphrase E.L. Doctorow, good writing is meant to deal not with the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. And that's what Flynn is laying bare here in The Skin of Meaning. This collection--provocative, funny, melodic, compassionate, and blunt--should be required reading for every American today. These poems contain such indispensable human sadness and joy. They are as sanely associative as the finest of Cezanne's paintings, and strike the deepest chords.
Ezra Solway writes in Philadelphia with Waldo, his beloved asparagus fern. A Pushcart nominee, his work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, North of Oxford, and Gone Lawn, among other journals. You can follow his writings on Twitter @SolwayEzra
Henri Cole, Blizzard: Poems
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020. 64 pp.
Review by Brendan Egan
In Henri Cole's latest volume, nature intrudes: A bat takes up residence above the door. A dove crashes into a picture window. A pair of deer graze on the edges of an airport runway. A lion comes out of the darkness. A new disease, a super bloom, a blizzard--everywhere, the natural world comes unannounced, with a force that questions assumptions of human authority. "See those bulbous clouds forming over the small San Gabriel Mountains?" the speaker of "Land of Never-Ending Holes" asks, "They are greater than any tanks or armored vehicles." The confrontation of clouds and tanks feels especially alive against the psychic backdrop of our plugged-in culture, in which the flat truth of institutional aggression is unavoidably present and might only be ruptured by the greater shock of bearing witness to more elemental energies.
Frequently, these intrusions are recorded in images of quiet and earthy beauty. A snail is "consciousness inhabited/ by flesh, willful, bold, tres chic," moving on a "muscular foot, like script." And the deer by the tarmac in "Departure," bear "a forest/ that renews itself each year" and "an ice frock." "The bottoms of their hooves listening to the frozen landscape" are juxtaposed with the speaker's mundane gesture of unfolding the newspaper, confined in the bubble of a passenger jet.
These poems regard the surprise appearance of nature as a kind of gift, perhaps for the very reason that its arrival causes disturbance. As the speaker of "To A Bat," addresses his invasive subject: "thank you for afflicting/ my life." The effect might be one of purification, as if such visitations have the power to shake off the "corrupt, infuriating,/ shallow, sanctimonious" trappings of daily life, returning some clarity of mind and spirit.
Yet, there is a touch of Seamus Heaney's bog body naturalism lurking in the impositions of animals, plants, fungi, weather--the sense that entropy and violence are rapping at the fragile veneers of both our contemporary assurances of safety and the same popular sensibility of natural wonder that leads us to fawn over our brief encounters with wildlife. If nature purifies, it does so by way of decay. Several times, the collection returns to those mortal equations of self with flesh, and flesh with earth. "Beware the heart is lean red meat./ The mind feeds on this," warns "On Friendship." Meanwhile, "Unstable Air," wherein the speaker searches a cemetery for the graves of two black Revolutionary War soldiers, raises
of lying in the tomb
of one's master
whose dust was
as white as yours.
Especially in the second of the three sections that make up the collection, the history of war itself serves as an illustration of the way animalistic impulses have driven human behavior. "The Horsemen," for example, explains the ceremonial re-enactment of a military exercise from the crusades in which knights joust against "the effigy of a Saracen--/...threatening the horsemen with his heavy/ whip armed with lead and leather balls." "Goya" begins by describing a gory plate from the Spanish painter's etching series The Disasters of War that depicts "Three corpses bound to a tree stump." In both of these instances, the speaker turns introspectively away from the punch of the primal. However, a sense of recognition lingers:
...Later, out in the plaza
I light a cigarette and have a long pull,
with small exhales, taking measure
of my own hand, its lustrous hairy
knuckles dinged from grinding meat.
The poems in Blizzard are filled with such moments wherein the capacity (if not the impulse) toward brutal instinct is balanced precariously against civility and self-awareness.
Maybe the greatest strength of Cole's craft is in his ability to redirect energies--to ride the current of a scene or idea to a point of intensity, then to steer the reader toward another tack that reveals insight. His preference for free verse sonnets matches this pattern of thought: compact and focused, building up to the inevitable volta. The direction of the turn is often inward, joining emotional (and sometimes spiritual) impression to observations of external realities in a unified path.
Just as Heaney's work in the 1970s drew parallels from the ritual violence of history and the fermentations of the sod to the social tumult of midcentury Northern Ireland, Cole positions his images of unruly nature in the midst of his own political moment. The most conspicuous of these parallels can be found in Cole's treatment of those scenes of contemporary suffering too familiar to anyone following the headlines of recent years: starving migrants, victims of the Taliban, the incarcerated, the natural world itself. A step removed, Cole also connects his naturalistic images to conflicts in which injury has been subsumed by discourse.
Cole addresses, for example, the ugly menace churning within the "state-sponsored spectacle/ of mansplaining and lies" of the Trump administration:
Can't you see your one thousand dogs
Are not greater than our
One thousand gazelles?
There are moments in which the cumulative effect of the book seems to be a kicking against the muted powerlessness we might feel in face of the violence that surround us, rooted as it is in some fundamental rot. The title poem captures a sort of stir-craziness that feels apt for our burned-out times, "existing quietly behind lock and key,/ like a cobweb's mesh." Here, the poem does not name the varieties of struggle, in such abundance elsewhere in the collection, but instead catalogues the absence hollowed into the predawn hours of a snow storm. "I need everything within/ to be livelier," the poem announces, "infatuation, sadism, lust: I remember them,// but memory of feeling is not feeling,/ a parasite is not the meat it lived on." This could be the central thrust of the collection. Turning away from passion to bloodless tranquility is one way to ensure that we don't succumb to violent zealotry, but it also isn't exactly living. And, maybe more troubling, it offers no resistance to the aggressions that surround us.
The third, most personal section of the book circles reminiscently around the intersection of gay men's private and political concerns during the years of the AIDs crisis. These are not poems of overt protest and they rarely detail the physical toll of disease, instead they capture the intricacies of personal desire and its echo, loss. Through these memories, Cole begins to sketch a way forward. In the delightfully titled closing poem, "Gay Bingo at a Pasadena Animal Shelter," Cole writes:
I think maybe my real subject is writing as an act of revenge
Against the past:
The beach was so white; O, how the sun burned;
he loved me as I loved him, but we did what others told us
and kept this hidden. Now, I make my own decisions.
I don't speak so softly. Tonight, we're raising money for the
Fundraiser bingo as act of revenge seems winkingly ironic, but there's a nod here, too, in the direction of the discarded pets, who carry with them the same animal spirit as the wild creatures elsewhere in the book. To align with them is to embrace some of that wildness in the hope that it might bring about some justice.
Brendan Egan's poetry and fiction has appeared in Threepenny Review, Greensboro Review, Rattle, Witness and other places. A graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University, he lives in West Texas, where he teaches at Midland College and attempts to keep a garden.
Mihaela Moscaliuc, Cemetery Ink.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021, 86 pp.
Review by Robert G. Margolis
Cages of Visibility:
A Review of Cemetery Ink by Mihaela Moscaliuc
...the poem is not transparent, as some have said,
nor a looking-glass, as some have also said,
Yet it has almost the quality of disappearance
in its cage of visibility. It disperses among the words...
A cage went in search of a bird. Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms2
Forgive this reader his preoccupation with the book's title, but it is the poet herself, who in applying this title, Cemetery Ink, to her poems, gets me started on a linked chain of associations and evocations. The immediate and obvious association or conclusion is: these poems are written in cemetery ink. Of what is this ink made? From the charnel ash of incinerated remains? Is this ink a fluid medium of resurrection? And what kind of cemetery is this? In her poem "Transatlantic," she refers to her "Passport stamped with a new grave..." A clue, maybe. In any case, this cemetery seems to be something of a 'moveable cemetery,' somewhat like a moveable feast, if the analogy may be applied.
Here is what I think:
Mihaela Moscaliuc is writing with the ink-distillation of charnel memories. Her ink is made from their ashes, their incinerated remains. Memory herself is the distiller of this 'resurrectional ink' and the distillery for its brew. And this cemetery is the "great graveyard in which lie buried the complexities of samsara and nirvana."3 This is a line from a sadhana text by Chögyam Trungpa. Though it may seem a totally out-of-left field association, and it is almost certainly not an influence on or reference for Moscaliuc, it is one that may be precisely conjoined to this book of her poems and their title.
The poet, who is also a translator of poetry from Romanian into English, is compelled, is provoked to 'translate,' that is to make (transatlantic) migrations between and within language(s). Throughout this book of poems we are, as it were, listening in on Moscaliuc as she discerns and testsassays, what Gerald Stern calls, the "loyalties of my own music." Gerald Stern, a writer and poet who is a mentor and exemplar for Moscaliuc, is in his poems, he says, in search of "the holy sparks buried in the physical."4 The allusion is to a certain Kabbalist notion which need not concern us here. But one cannot help notice the association of "buried" with "cemetery," and thus that this is likewise Moscaliuc's poetic search. Speaking of kabbalists, this line from a poem by the Sephardi kabbalist Avraham Abulafia applies well to the kind of "ink" with which Moscaliuc is writing: "blood is the name of your soul, and ink the name of your spirit."5
In some of these finished poems there is, I feel, still a poem struggling to emerge, to get out, to be released from its own words, its "cage of visibility" (as Hayden Carruth named it). Moscaliuc's word-hoard in Englishbut surely populated by and informed by her Romanian language, often seems to be in a kind of (trans)migration from elsewhere; it appears to leap forth, out of the unseen of her imagination, onto the page, with its own private mythology of ordinary life, but not yet fully arrived. I feel I am reading in a poetic language that is not yet fully 'translated' into itself. Maybe this is the poet's intention. So that the reader must enter the line labyrinth of her poems and, following the poet's own thread (if the reader can find it!), emerge victorious with the meaning confined within it. I admit that when this is happening in some of her poems, I cannot find the poet's own thread; these poems are dense and are difficult for me to traverse, if I can enter them at all. I have failed to understand them. Put another way, in each of these poems, I see only its "cage of visibility"still in search of a bird, and not yet the poem itself. No matter. Let another, a better attuned and more skilled elucidator than am I, beginning with the poet herself, comment on and act as guide to those poems.
In this collection, the exemplary poems to which I respond are: "Transatlantic," "Bread," "Forget the blossoms," "Kitchen Talk." Which no doubt says more about my tastes and preferences, their inclinations and limitations, then the poems upon which I presume to comment. There is also "Elegy for my mother's employer" and "Blessing" ("for my son, enwombed"). In these poems, there is much of that "insane devotion" (Gerald Stern's phrase) to the smallest, incidental particulars which persist in the poet's imagination and memory until she interprets them, and even if for years she has resisted doing so.
Lying awake at three in the morning, asking myself why I esteem these poems more and distinguish them from the other poems in this book collection, the answer comes: Because they are love poems. They do not attempt to force their language to do what it is not yet prepared to do. They have, to apply Carruth's criterion, their own "quality of disappearance" which allows them to disperse among their words. Other readers, I hope, will disagree with my distinctions and preferences, and offer different interpretations.
"I walk the day," Moscaliuc writes, "to harvest what I see." These poems, the ones I respond to as exemplary, gather and fashion from the harvest of what she sees. In some poems I find latent 'haiku'-like moments of seeing. Here are three, for example, from "Pollutants" (I take the liberty of slightly altering the line arrangement to make the point):
Memory care residents
push walkers as if
sure they're still on their way
without celestial light--
scarabs roll dung balls astray
Man, tree, beetle
we ram into darkness
when robbed of our Milky Ways
Cemetery Ink includes a poem titled "From The Book of Salt." "Self-exile," Mosculiac asserts in this poem, "is what I get for entrusting memory with recipes." And also for entrusting "cemetery ink" with memories? It makes me think that, in all her poems, Mosculiac contends with, what one writer calls, "the Hermetic Problem of Salt." Alchemical salt, that is, "the physical 'body' which remains after combustion, the corporeal substance that survives death to re-inaugurate new life."6 The salt in "cemetery ink," therefore.
"I know salt through its absence," Mosculiac writes. "I taste with someone else's tongue." "Tongue," of course, is also a synonym for "language." Is this 'someone else' also the writer of (some of) these poems, and "with someone else's" language? "With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt," the poet quotes from Vayikra (Leviticus) 2:13. "A pinch here, a pinch there / Taste this" Mosculiac invites. I taste, we do taste, yes, a bit of her salt, and even if it is primarily the salt of absence. She shares with us from the harvest of what she sees, loyal to her own music. But I am left wishing "self-exiled" Mihaela Mosculiac, and not 'someone else,' would make her harvest offerings with more of the taste of her own salt.
 Hayden Carruth, Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press (1992), 352.
2 Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, Michael Hoffman translator, New York: Schocken (2006), 16.
3 Chögyam Trungpa, The Sadhana of Mahamudra Source Book, [Privately published] (1979), 68.
4 Gerald Stern, "Punching Holes," in Blessed As We Were: Late and Selected Poems, 2008 2018 New York: W.
W. Norton (2020), 262.
5 Peter Cole, The Dream of the Poem, Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 1950-1492, Princeton:
Princeton University Press (2007), 247.
6 Aaron Cheak, "The Hermetic Problem of Salt," http://www.aaroncheak.com/hermetic-problem-of-salt
Robert G. Margolis is a freelance editor, writing consultant, and literary translator who resides with his family in Philadelphia. He is currently teaching at Temple University.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Praise Song for My Children, New and Selected Poems
Autumn House Press, 2020.
Review by Tina Barr
In "Praise Song for My Children," her new and selected poems, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley proves herself a magnificent poet. In her most recent poems, she writes with a true lack of self-consciousness or postulating. Her deep heart and highly developed intelligence show themselves in poems written with incredible authenticity, sincerity. So often I read poems that lack the voice of lived life behind them, the sense of experience and feeling. Wesley's poems exude feeling. They are rich as cakes. They bring to mind the work of the great oral poet, Etheridge Knight, because her poems employ the power of oratory, incantation, in a way that is so different from a deliberate use of anaphora. The poems' style is not literary in that sense; it's instinctive and carries the feel of the word or language as spoken. It feels like her poems arise out of the origins of oral poetry, that they are meant to be said and heard. They are oratorical in the best sense. When I read:
and we say oh, the river, and then it goes away,
and we say, oh, the swamp. Some of us are hard,
sometimes the river, sometimes the rock.
I am reminded of Langston Hughes, his effortlessness. It is that lived experience and that real emotion that comes onto the page. So, in the book's title poem "Praise Song for My Children," lines about the roosters,
Where after so long, only small roosters
remain in a town that used to be ours.
evoke a loss, a pain, that experience of war in Liberia, planted in concrete images, and even that adjective "small" says so much.
I love, in this poem, the "old pepper birds," "the owl's howling." I hear owls, but never thought of them as howling, so reading Wesley's poems is a relief for me; her poems give me back what I have wanted from poetry, a voice that is true, like perfect pitch. In that section of this long title poem: "I am becoming an old woman," composed of nine lines, the anaphora "I am becoming" doesn't feel like the lines are being written by a creative writing student or an "intellectual," they are coming from the original place anaphora comes from, a howl, a wounding, a deep place, a need. It is a relief to read such poems. They are redemptive, a grace, prayers in the true sense, because they are always authentic. The poems arrive in a fusillade of language, nothing fake, or false, just the power of truly felt emotion. They help the reader carry his or her "bags of worries." These poems really do "possess the wind," and who can say that? not many.
Tina Barr's third book, Green Target (2018), won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, judged by Patricia Spears Jones, and was selected by Michael Waters as winner of the Brockman-Campbell Award. Her first book, The Gathering Eye, won the Tupelo Press Editor's Award; Kaleidoscope was published in 2015, by Iris Press.
Shara McCallum, No Ruined Stone
Alice James Books, 2021. 73 pp.
Review by Katherine Watkins
Before visiting Scotland for the first time in 2015, poet Shara McCallum probably never imagined that years of research, focus and creative output would result from a chance exchange with an Edinburgh shopkeeper. Yet these unlikely circumstances are precisely what gave rise to her latest collection, No Ruined Stone. Upon learning that McCallum was a Jamaican-born poet, the shopkeeper shared a little-known piece of Scottish history: the story of how Robert Burns, Scotland's most beloved poet, nearly emigrated to Jamaica in 1786 to work as a "bookkeeper" on a slave plantation.
This complicated discovery is where McCallum's imagination takes root, fashioning a verse narrative that explores what might have happened had Burns actually gone. In McCallum's tale, voiced in a series of monologues by characters both historical and imagined, Burns arrives in Jamaica ill and disillusioned, then begins a love affair with an enslaved African named Nancy. From their union, a child, Agnes, is born. When "barely out of girlhood," Agnes is raped by plantation master Charles Douglass. She dies giving birth to Isabella, a Jamaican-Scottish "Quadroon" who emigrates back to Scotland in 1815 to live as a white woman with grandmother Nancy posing as her servant.
Through this rich landscape of plausible unreality, McCallum examines the very real way that historical forces, like slavery and colonialism, shaped and continue to shape individuals who exist within the wake of those circumstances. For example, back in Scotland, Isabella apostrophizes Burns as she contemplates the paradox of her situation: "in journeying here/ what choice was I given/ but to morph/ shape-shifting into what she [Nancy] feared/ . . . passing seamlessly/ . . . no one I see knowing/ her name but yours/ everywhere everywhere." Isabella's attempt to reconcile the facets of her identity is the same project we all undertake when, whether through necessity or the luxury of choice, we confront history honestly. No Ruined Stone is a timely invitation to do just that, revealing however painfully, that none of us chooses his inheritance.
Katherine Watkins majored in Creative Writing at Rhodes College before moving to Scotland where she earned a Master's in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. She was a 2017 recipient of the Milken Educator Award for the state of Tennessee.
Ashley M. Jones, Reparations Now!
Hub City Press, 2021. 80 pp.
Review by Aisha Sharif
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, reparations is "the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury."1 It is this act of amends-making that Ashley Jones' collection, "Reparations Now!," explores. Jones' book plays with form and sound to right historic wrongs as well as intimate ones. The former type of injustice is thoroughly addressed in the poem, "Reparations Now, Reparations Tomorrow, Reparations Forever." The speaker demands George Wallace, the infamous segregationist, give her more than money for Blacks' suffering. She says, "Give me every/ snapped neck and the noose you wove...the screams/ you silenced...the songs you said were/ yours...the beauty of my hair. The/ swell of my hips. The big of my lips..." Here, Jones demands reparations on behalf of the Black communitythe recognition and replacement of murdered bodies, of stolen art, of physical attributes that were disparaged and slighted. And, yet, Jones shows that reparations is personal, too. In "Soul Power/ James Brown Time Loop," James Brown's music serves as the "beat" or catalyst for the speaker to feel the hurt of past relationships; her reparation becomes the ability to identify her hurt as an emotional injustice. In the poem, "For The Men Who Made Sure I Knew They Did Not Love Me," the speaker calls out past lovers: "First of all/ aint nobody want you anyway...nobody asked/ for love songs you did not mean...I know/ I wasn't loved by you." Jones rights wrongs by articulating and rejecting the false intentions of others; what the speaker gets in return is the ability to show Black women as beautiful. The poem "It Is Entirely Possible For A Black Girl To Be Loved" serves as space for Jones to rewrite how Black women are viewed, which is the ultimate, permanent reparation. At times, though, some language feels expected: "Now there is no room for the/ Dixieland lie:/ we/ no longer hold these truths you made/ us accept. Under God, yes. We hear Him/ singing...despite the United Hate of America." Nonetheless, Jones' collection reflects the hard work of reparations, reminding readers that righting wrongs is risky but necessary. It demands that Black women call up past rejections, silencings, and even deaths in order to rewrite and own their collective and individual joy.
Aisha Sharif is a Cave Canem fellow whose poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Tidal Basin Review, Callaloo, and Rattle. Her book, To Keep From Undressing, was published by SparkWheel Press in January 2019. She teaches English at Metropolitan Community College in Missouri.
Mark Wunderlich, God of Nothingness.
Graywolf Press, 2021. pp 80.
Review by Scott Hightower
Mark Wunderlich peels the singularity of the human experience. In section one of God of Nothingness, Wunderlich's "Driftless Son" is as anti-heroic as Carolyn Kizer's "Voyager" or the Pied Piper.
"Good enough for who it's for," he'd say,
tapping in a crocked carpentry nail ....
As a child he'd hitch up his angry pony
and beat it all the way to the train.
To fetch the bales of tobacco and haul them to the shop.
If he dawdled and was late, Grandpa Adolf
would unbuckle his wooden leg
and leave it napping on a chair,
then beat his little hunchback with a cane--
Little Hunchback, Little Hunchback,
never you be late again!
("Ha Ha Little Hunchback")
Wunderlich's work, like the physical landscape of the world that he is evoking, is made up of precedence: wildlife, misfits, losses; hindsight, insight, and foresight. Wunderlich departs from precedence as easily as he recognizes it. He makes clear that though versed in the elemental life of his progenitors, HE will not be doing what HIS FATHER did. He will be departing. Wildlife is often ambushed or poached. Perceived misfits are ever subject to control mechanisms and schemes to keep them subservient and corralled by norms, losses are suffered through. What one is left with is the life of the solitaire poet; the set of eyes and the voice of the prodigal son. But even wading into that narrative, Wunderlich takes the voice of the son who stayed:
How easy it was to stay, to suffer nobly and alone,
how simple to be useful to the infirm,
keep the showered vigil, pat the dying man's hand,
a relief to walk worried about the crop, spend the morning
oiling tools, sweeping up the shop
while he spends the bail money I sent parachuting from a plane.
For years we didn't hear from him, though he cashed
the birthday check, while we imagined him as some wreck
sleeping on a bus. We. All of us.
And so he returned, welcomed warily by our dwindling clan,
to shake his dying dad's hand. Here I stand
in the background, frying the fatted calf in grease,
while he weeps for what was lost--for himself--
and with evident enviable release.
He who is a good church worker may not be, in the end, the one of the deepest faith. Hard to tell. Such moral gaging is not as easily deciphered as who is diligent and observant and who is theatrically observed. Everything is clearer in the abattoir's cold light... the cropped are butchered exactly like the wild.
In section two, there is an encounter, a graze with Jeffery Dahmer, a misadventure of a father, the watchful view of a wife and mother, a nephew's death by suicide, the euthanasia of a pet cat. Indeed, the farm clan is dwindling.
In section three, the notion of transport begins with horses and rises and spreads out into a larger cultural landscape. A pious early Renaissance Piero della Francesca portrait of Mary Magdalen is conflated with contemporary prostitutes in plastic chairs stationed beside an Italian road. The sacred and the profane--mortal and eroticare both holy (Blake). That singularity stuff. There are ekfrastic poems, a poem regarding a wayside alpine bee museum outfitted with a Christ child, one regarding a Connecticut headstone over an imagined desiccated heart, a proposition connected to Rilke, a mythic and some Nordic inspired poems.
The last section is comprised of three poems.
In all of his books, Wunderlich evades the position or tone of self-righteousness, the stench of arrogance. He is dependably generous, clear, steady, and fierce. God of Nothingness is a book with something for every single one of its readers, for every single one of us.
Scott Hightower is the author of four books of poetry in the US and two bilingual collections published in Madrid. He lives in Manhattan and teaches at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Sarah Arvio, Cry Back My Sea
A.A. Knopf, 2021. 92 pp.
Review by Vanessa Loh
Sarah Arvio's Cry Back My Sea is a performance in the language of heartbreak and longing. In these poems Arvio, a translator of Federico Garcia Lorca, boasts his influence: simple language, first person, confessional. But what she does next is where her own mastery becomes evident. Using nothing but words, Arvio send out ripples of sounds and connotations that build up and pare down meaning into waves of sense and sensation. The poem "Rat Idyll," for instance, introduces the following lines: "O my satrap you said it I'm trapped/ In my rapt joy". The word "satrap" distributes its alliteration first to "said" (say-ed) then to "trapped" and "rapt"--then later in the poem to "sated" and "satyr" and "satire." Then "satyr" develops another semantic ripple with "goat" and "scapegoat," which flows into another, and so on. The swelling of words crests, and the foam left on the surface sounds like a foreign language that, as it turns out, you understand fluently.
What fascinates me most, though, is the undertow, which gives this playful and poignant volume its strongest overall cohesion. This backward-looking impulse is a search for the unspoken. The poem "Shrew," teases out multiple valences of the titular word, but never refers to the small rodent. The speaker wrestles with attempts to renounce her own cursed (an old definition of "shrew") and inescapable heart; and the nagging voice of this poem indirectly suggests the voice belongs to a different kind of shrew. The poem also makes several references, both direct and indirect, to animals. For instance, the never-mentioned small prey is indirectly called to mind with references to its not-quite predator: "Oh screw I eat crow. I crow my heart out/ Am I the shrew to it or it to me." I find myself flipping back to the poem before, called "Small War" for the satisfaction of re-reading these lines: "But the best-laid plans I say and/ pause thinking it better not to mention// mice with their trail of dark images." And so the undercurrent has pulled me through the trail of dark images back to this place where I have already been, but I'm deeper in now, and heavier with the weight of all that the poems have shown me.
These poems are a tour through the semantics of someone else's mind, masterfully crafted by the poet to require just enough translation to conjure not just the satisfaction of surprise, but the intimacy of discovery that goes along with love and heartbreak.
Vanessa Loh is a PhD candidate at Temple University. Her dissertation titled Impossible Art, focuses on neuro-aesthetics & cross-modal works of art and literature from the Modernist period.
J. C. Todd, Beyond Repair: Poems
Able Muse Press, 2021. 93 pp.
Review by Anne Kaier
In this fierce, memorable and masterfully-written volume. J. C. Todd writes about war's non-combatants--families, women, an army doctor caring for soldiers wounded "beyond repair."
Todd was born in the middle of World War II. Although she lived safely in the US, her imagination is attracted to scenes of devastation left after the battle. She was a child when images of bombed out cities and refugees in worn overcoats flooded newspapers casually left on American living room chairs. These sights have never left her. In Beyond Repair, she takes us into the threatened lives of people barely surviving World War II Lithuania, or recent wars in Iraq and Syria. In "Night Ride, ar Raqqah,"
at every checkpoint
long waits, corpses
in the back seat
her water breaks
the crown not stopping
newborn pushing into all of this
There are no easy answers here. Is the newborn a promise of hope or another fragile human we need to fear for--or both? It's a measure of the power of these poems that Todd gives us no easy answers, no lazy abstractions.
She's too good a poet. She can turn a literal scene into a metaphorical one. In "Chokehold," she takes us into the mind of a veteran who used waterboarding and can't forget it:
as the boards slid
into the water
and slide out
all these years after,
she wakes, throttled.
The words are simple but almost every line in these two stanzas ends with a mute such as "d," or "t." As the tongue clicks against the palate, these sounds literally close the throat. It's an expert use of English.
The courage of her imagination is astonishing. When a bomb denotates among shoppers in an Iraqi market, their flesh "rains petals." It's a real, shocking and gorgeous image that contrasts the realities of war with the beauty of the world. These two words are as eloquent an anti-war cry as any I have ever heard.
This is a book you will read and re-read and never forget.
Anne Kaier's book of poems is InFire. Her essays appear in The New York Times, The Kenyon Review and other venues. "Maple Lane" was mentioned on the list of Notables in the 2014 edition of Best American Essays. She is working on a memoir about her years at Oxford in the 1960s.
William Wright, Grass Chapels: New & Selected Poems
Mercer University Press, 2021. 184 pp.
Review by Riley Thomas
William Wright's Grass Chapels is a delicately-crafted selection of new and old poems that interrogate the tension of society in the natural world. Beautifully haunting, Wright's poems take us on an imaginative journey through time: invoking a deep reflection of the past and present and speculating the future of humanity and our physical environment.
Wright's poetry seeks a striking balance between nature and the everyday human experience. Nature is an active agent throughout Wright's work, molding the world through its many interactions with humanity. Poems like "Boyhood Trapped Between Water and Blood" and "Summer, 1988" act as snapshots of the narrator's life. Physical observations in nature serve as revelatory moments in which the child can learn hard lessons about society. The rotten shack home to a hate crime that is "never storm-cleansed,/ never burned away" and the "creature,/ nearly hatched, stifled from a fall" are both symbolic of how violent society can be.
Wright also emphasizes the destruction of nature by humanity and the destruction of humanity by nature. In his poem titled "Prologue," Wright illustrates the recklessness of society with his description of a "ghost-choked town," where "[a] swamp stagnates, impaled with a derelict/ truck, mattresses, a charred tractor and heaps of cattle bones". Conversely, poems like "Anodyne" demonstrate the power of nature to devastate a society: "Up toward McCormick, a fire gnaws/ through understory, destroys, renews./ The ash crosses// four counties." Such an approach suggests a tormented relationship between human beings and the physical world that is cyclical.
Wright's emphasis on the cyclical nature of life and the natural world is echoed in the organization of Grass Chapels, where he shares samplings of his poetry from eight collections in receding order, going as far back as 2005. In content, Wright begins with "Boyhood Trapped Between Water and Blood," retreating in nature with childlike wonderment, and ends meeting death in "Night, Yonce's Field," "fixed in a cathedral of flowers." The inversion of past and future with his past and future self creates congruity between the macro and the micro, creating a layering of imagery and sensory experiences that engrosses the reader in Wright's storytelling.
Wright's meticulous cultivation of Grass Chapels results in a palimpsest of images and themes, ideas etched on top of each other, resulting in poetry you can return to again and again.
Riley Thomas received her Master's in English Literature at CSU Fresno and is currently attending Temple University as a Ph. D. student. Her current research interests are in gender performativity and how it applies to geopolitics. Her thesis examines women's rebel spaces in 1980s' dystopic literature.