Summer 2020 Book Reviews
BOOK REVIEWS on books by Patricia Spears Jones, Valerie Nieman, Kate Daniels, Clarence Major, Dennis Maloney, Natasha Saje, Jeanne Larsen, T. R. Hummer, Jeanne Murray Walker. Scroll down to read them.
A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poems by Patricia Spears Jones
Sometimes, you have to play a long time, to play like yourself. Miles Davis
The poet herself, Patricia Spears Jones, is the better guide to Lucent Fire (her collection of new and selected poems published in 2015 by White Pine Press) than what this, a critical review, purports to offer. In particular, there is an interview with Jones by Barbara Henning (published in The Poetry Project Newsletter #246 and available here https://www.poetryproject.org/15089-2/) that is entirely about the poems in this collection.
The quotation from (an English translation of) a poem by the Egyptian poet Muhammad Afifi Matar, which Jones invokes as an epigraph and a dedication for this collection of her poems, is most suggestive and telling:
for here fire scatters its robes
extends its steps through the joy of questions
"Here," that is within and throughout, her poems, Patricia Spears Jones is telling us, there is a "fire" which, if it is not too forced, is that "fire" about which Heraclitus said, it is "kindling in measure and going out in measures," and which reveals itself beneath its "robes"-----the verbal 'clothing' of her thought and language, walking on poetic feet (that is, in the varied rhythms of her poetic phrase), extending itself into our different readings, as the very questions which the poet asks herself about (or within) her own poems. The questions ignite into poems, the poems, 'burning but not consumed,' are thereby "lucent" like the "fire" itself. Of themselves, they are lucent questions, or, better, joyous plays of call and response.
"I'm a lyric poet for the most part," Patricia Spears Jones has said.
"So the issue for me is what kind of ideas am I thinking about. How can I bring some emotional energy into a poem? How can I play with language in an interesting way so that when I write about something, it is both familiar and heightened at the same time?"
As her readers, these same questions become our questions, too, according to what her poems may 'kindle' in us and in what measure. Indeed, in this collection, all manner of 'measure' is a primary theme and subject. And Jones includes a poem titled "Measure," which concludes:
We look across the lake. The mountains tremble
at an immeasurable speed.
And we have nothing to do with it.
Centuries before, the Japanese Zen poet Dogen had called his readers to notice, that "the mountains are walking too." The encompassing rhythms of nature, of breath and daily speech, the non-quantifiable mysteries of feeling in a musical phrase, are from where the 'measure' of her poetic sentence originates. As a poet, Jones knows that, in the best of her poetry, when it is 'working,' because she is 'playing like herself,' there is that something "immeasurable" in its "measures," and that she has "nothing to do with it." (Maybe this is why, to anticipate my subsequent comments, and contrary to her own preferred distinctions, Jones' lyric is narrative and her narrative is lyric.)
The poems in this collection were selected by their author from her six previously published books, plus a few early poems and a choice of (at the time) new and uncollected poems. They evidence a poet, in the maturity of her writing life, whose poetic sentence is often found by her music, but who herself constantly renews the search for her poetry. By which I mean: all of her poems are written under or within the influences of the music that plays within her plural life and its poetic imagination, and even though, maybe, some of the poems in this collection are some combination of what works least and works best in her poetry. But with all the different styles and 'sounds' within her, contending with and for her voice, 'to play like herself' is still something that must constantly be sought for, and, in some of the poems in this collection, is still being sought for. As, certainly, happens for many, if not all, good, and even the great, working poets. But, as the poet Hayden Carruth reminds us, in his poem "The Joy and Agony of Improvisation," we love to listen to how a song "is striving and how beautifully failing."1 This is the search, the recherche (if to say so is not too labored), to which I refer, the 'almost finding' or 'getting lost in the finding itself.' Another name for this is "the blues." And Patricia Spears Jones is a blues artist.
There are numerous poems, or portions of poems, in which the "lucent fire" to which Jones refers does 'kindle in measures and goes forth in measures' to achieve an especially satisfying and vivifying fusion of memory, music and meaning, in concert with the right register of emotional energy and a correlative play of language; and each reader, according to the ear of her reading and its predilections, will have her favorites. In my own reading, I have returned, often, to three in particular: a portion of "The Birth of Rhythm and Blues (From the Billie Holiday Chronicles)," "Ghosts," and "The Fringe of Town."
Indulging, maybe, my own predilection for (call it) partisan amplification, I say that in one portion of "The Birth of Rhythm and Blues (From the Billie Holiday Chronicles)" we can find Jones' whole art of lyric narrative and narrative lyric (for, by my read, her lyric and narrative styles---- because of her music and blues sensibilities in which they both originate, are inseparable and mutually informing). I reproduce the entire portion as follows:
My daddy come back from the war, tall, slender, handsome.
Lonely in Korea, lonely in Arkansas. Lonely enough
to court my mother. Tall, pretty and tired
of her drunken husband, their store going bankrupt
and the grimy reality of small town daily life. A small town is
gossip and errands, work and more work. Schools closed in
spring (chopping cotton) and early fall (picking cotton),
the death-defying lives of all Black people-----high yaller to coal black.
A Black woman's life is like double jeopardy.
All you win are dreams for your children
and the right amount of lies to make waking worthwhile.
Call it sweet talk from a colored soldier back from the snows of
Back from the nasty jokes, the threats, the fights in in This Man's Army.
Back to America. Still alive.
Maybe it is just me----I am, after all, only one reader, and sufficient unto the review must be the reader therein, but this portion has everything of rhythm, image, voice, emotional tone and evocative power possessed by the great, primordial "epics" (as they are called); it is Black America and the Blues meets the Odyssey (I am thinking of the Emily Wilson English translation), but with Billie Holiday as the 'Penelope,' who is the main protagonist of exile, estrangement, temporary conquests and homecoming. Jones, the lyric poet, so finely pitches and hones her phrases that in their arrangement and succession they verbally produce a whole world remembered through how the stories of its people are told. Memory and Billie Holiday; we will return to these.
Jones knows that the poet's work, coming before her poetic line or sentence, is in her phrase---this word and not that, adding an alliteration that enhances a feeling, a meaning through its moment of music. Hence her insistence not on the narrative but on the lyric, whose phrasing must be fashioned with the same felicitous union of technique and spontaneous improvisation for which a blues or jazz musician strives. It is a long, long work of 'homecoming,' of listening in on yourself, until you hear how to, in Miles' phrase, "play like yourself."
"I do not think of myself as a narrative poet," Jones plainly states about herself as a poet. "The later poems are often meditative or lyric or some combination." Well, reader's prerogative, I do think of Jones----and precisely because of what she accomplishes in so many of her poems, as a narrative poet, though not only that, of course. Both a lyric-narrative and/or a narrative-lyric poet, maybe. I think of Miles Davis saying in some interview, or is it in his autobiography as told to Quincy Troupe, that his trumpet phrasing was based on Frank Sinatra's phrasing in his singing and Orson Welles' speech rhythms, when, and how could it not be, all the while and all along, it is Louie Armstrong's trumpet phrasing. Contiguities, not 'influences,' are preferred here with Jones' poetry as well. Jones' own misdirection, intentional or not, is suggestive, wherein 'what it is' and 'what it is not' successively turn into one another.
Hayden Carruth wrote a poem, included in his collection Doctor Jazz, which is composed entirely of the names of those jazz musicians who were most beloved to him, and whose immortal sounds and phrasings inhabited him (and which he, at least, heard resonant in every word he wrote).2 Jones, though not in a single poem, seems to infer a comparable catalog of musical heroes for the epical, the historical, the memorial, the intimate and secret, and all of the labyrinthine quotidian, from which her poems are made. Each of the following musicians is invoked in a different poem in Lucent Fire, and in every way is integral to that poem's rhythm, phrasing, style and meaning:
Sly & The Family Stone
Mary J. Blige
Billie Holiday, first, foremost, and above all. There is a contiguity, a intimate call and response, like a secret partially revealed, partially concealed, between Holiday singing the subjects of her songs and Jones' writing hers into poems. "I'm not a formal poet as such," Jones explains. "No sonnets or villanelles. But I love mid-rhyme, I love couplets. My poems are conversational, but they're definitely not prose." Her poetic sentence, as already suggested, is borne, not of a particular form, but of a style and sensibility; it is a blues line, a blues phrase, which is something more than a "form." In the effect of these blues-sentences in sequence, there is her "fire" "kindling in measures and going out in measures." "In measures" of the blues. The musicians and music her poems invoke are not for illustration or topical reference; they are, rather, of Mnemosyne herself, mother of the Muses, who are, for Jones' poetry, the Muses of Black American history and experience. In their music, which in-spires, memory of this history and experience comes alive.
The poem "Ghosts" does not name the musician whom it ostensibly is about or who occasioned the poem; a jazz musician, it seems, who was, Jones writes, "filled with beauty, so filled he could not stop the shadows / from their walk around his horn..." Along with Billie Holiday, it is this unnamed musician who, it seems to me, is nearest to, or even identified with that "Ghost" who, here again, must certainly be Mnemosyne herself, which thus makes her the mother of "Ghosts," that is, of all things-----person, place, or thing, event or otherwise, which occasion the 'search' for memory, and by memory, with which each of Jones' poems begins and ends. Similar to the portion of "The Birth of Rhythm and Blues" already discussed, this poem exemplifies the whole of Patricia Spears Jones' craft of lyric and narrative, as well as the scope of history and memory she can distill into a few sentences, which is the particular excellence of her art.
"Ghosts" is composed of sentences, precise spontaneities, reminiscent of how the unnamed jazz musician must have phrased notes with his horn, and something like the lines with which Cezanne composed his last works. An interplay of the said and unsaid. In each sentence, and in the poem cumulatively, there is the simple, but subtly variated, musical phrase which gives 'measure' to her language and imagination. "Ghosts" refers to not only the lost or long-gone music that is still listened to or listened for, but also everything that was contained in that music, from Second Avenue in New York City to the most distantly perceived stars at night. So the poem concludes:
Ghosts on Second Avenue, jazzmen in the falling stars.
If you catch one, your hands will glitter.
To "catch one" is to receive the 'spark' that makes your own memory, your own language, your own art come alive, and which then enables you to "play like yourself."
"Living memory"-----however it may be guised by (or as) what she names, "ghosts" (interesting that what is living should manifest guised as a "ghost"), and not "historical and documentary memory" (to use a distinction made by the writer Jorge Semprun) is, I think, of utmost concern to Patricia Spears Jones. Jones has said she thinks "a lot of what we are still dealing with to this day is what happened in WW2 in the middle of the century." That's a whole lot of "what happened" to consider in relation to Jones' poems. Such a consideration cannot be conducted here. Regrettably, the interviewer did not invite Jones to elaborate on this pronouncement, but it seems to me essential that a future review and study of Jones' work should be attentive to, if not be guided by, this pronouncement.
The poem "The Fringe of Town," Jones tells us, is her "riffing off of Shangguan Wan'er aka Shangguan Zhaorong's "Twenty-Five Poems upon Traveling to the Changning Princess's Floating Wine Cup Pond.""
Sometimes it is good to be at the fringe of town
Just this side of the hubbub, the gossip, the need to demand
Yes, it is good to be apart from, though one is in its very midst, what Osip Mandelstam called, the "noise of time," the "blah blah blah," as Céline named it. To be 'on the fringe' is for many poets and artists, of course, a preferred 'place,' a 'place' that is home, though, or especially because, it is not a geographic or spatial location. It is a 'place' in which the poet differently experiences time (and therefore memory), where the interiority of literature and writing, of reading too, is ascendant, and in which time, as one of Nabokov's characters put it, is "caressed," such that one differently feels time's texture. A contiguity of heritages may be felt; thought, imagination, literature, poetry----it could even be only a phrase or sentence, from other heritages, other cultures, may come alive and be received as one's own. The 'epiphanies' (Joyce called them this) occurring in the ordinary immediacy of life, its tasks, its encounters, its routinized moments, may be a little more noticed, too, much like seeing mountains walk, or seeing them tremble at immeasurable speed.
"The Fringe of Town," all of it, is made from such an experience of time and an 'epiphanic' experience of an ordinary task, folding laundry, in this instance. The poem itself, readers will have already rightly concluded, is much better than this or any explanation of it. And note where, sometimes, Jones chooses or not to capitalize the first letter of the word that begins a line.
At the corner Laundromat, a tall light complected woman complains
about the heat----it's not even 70
She tells the Bangladeshi man to turn on the big fan.
But it blows in dust, he says.
"I don't care," says she.
It's not that hot. And I sit somewhere in 7th Century China
with a woman of the court writing a poem about her travels
in the Changning Princess's Floating Wine Cup Pond.
Jones often produces, in her a poetry, and she does it especially in this poem, an effect, analogous to a kind of harmonic-convergence, of the inward and the outward, and, in this instance, of the environs and 'feel' of a Chinese poem from centuries ago and the 'present' of her poem.
As for me, childless, husbandless, book reading, happy to observe
How these women's shout a weary pride in their daily lives
Mothering so many or burying the poor men who used to hang
the corner of or organizing the fete for Friday after next
As huge washers rinse and spin and dryers remove yet another layer
I am the woman barely visible, the intellectual, the possible slut.
Not one of us will jump into the floating wine cup pond, but it is
to know that one existed centuries before at a town's fringe.
Those centuries old breezes from China brush my neck
as we stand here folding clean underwear
& worrying about what to make for dinner.
Here again, throughout "The Fringe of Town," we have an intense pleasure in Jones' command of her lyric, her musical phrase-----its simple but just-so use of alliteration and rhyme, or of internal and near rhyme, the blues-joy in the seeking, the striving, the almost finding and the beautiful failing, with which she builds and conveys, sentence by sentence, a vast, epically quotidian moment, "both familiar and heightened at the same time."
Jones' poetry stands out for the ways in which, with lucent word-traces, it reveals the lineaments of life, the delicate vessels through which it circulates in a person and from person to person. Jones' poetry does not resort to or take advantage of circumstantial opportunism and declarative superficiality. At the center of her poems is an unalterable poetic instant, adamantine and pure like diamond, whose "lucent fire" refracts from within through its (the diamond's) own facets. Hers is a blues-based and styled poetry that, like all good blues, attempts to intuit limits, of a dream when the dream is possible, of the nightmare when necessary (and because it is inescapable); her poems describe a dialectic between these intuited, or imagined, limits. At such limits, which may also be at the fringe----whether of time, of memory or history, or all of these at once, "losing and finding are the same," as Hayden Carruth once expressed the great epiphany of the Blues.3 Jones says this differently-the-same in her poem "In Like Paradise/Out Like The Blues":
Artists make whole somehow the ways
In which dreams persist.
Each of us turns to the hunger of stars
And wipes the crumbs from our mouths.
 Hayden Carruth, Collected Shorter Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1992), p. 147.
 The poem is titled "The Fantastic Names of Jazz." See: Hayden Carruth, Dr. Jazz (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2001), p. 107.
 See the poem "Lost," in Hayden Carruth, Collected Shorter Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1992), p. 274.
Robert G. Margolis is a freelance editor, researcher, and literary translator. He resides in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and daughter.
Valerie Nieman, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse
Winston-Salem: Press 53, 2018. 83 pp.
Review by Brendan Egan
Valerie Nieman's enchanting novel-in-poems, Leopard Lady, begins with a tantalizing epigraph from the Victorian side-show impresario, Tom Norman: "It was not the show, it was the tale you told." Norman, best known as the exhibitor of Joseph Merrick, the so called "Elephant Man," intended this statement to explain the appeal of the wide variety of curiosities that toured the western world during the Golden Age of the circus: what turned out the crowds was not so much what or who was on display so much as how audiences' perceptions were shaped into shock, fear, desire, repulsion, or even empathy by the narrative constructed around them. In the case of Merrick, gawkers were drawn to the posters, educational brochures, and Norman's promotional patter, all of which touted the now-implausible story of Merrick's mother being toppled by an elephant as a child, leading to a "maternal impression" that altered her son's appearance.
Echoing Merrick's life in some respects, the poems in Leopard Lady follow their hero, Dinah, from a troubled Appalachian childhood into a life as a performer in a sideshow travelling America in the middle decades of the twentieth century. In place of Merrick's tumorous genetic syndrome, Dinah suffers from vitiligo, a skin pigment condition that leaves her appearing "allover speckled, face to breasts to ankles," and which earns her the sobriquet of the book's title. Nieman delves deeper into the showman's wisdom about "the tale you told," and finds not one, but many stories explain how a person is transformed by curiosity.
Dinah's story of becoming is retold several times throughout the book, but the first of these accounts is the one that lingers most. In the opening poem, "The Leopard Lady Speaks," the, as yet nameless, speaker explains: "This leopard-skin come onto me/when I lost love." The poem goes on to explain how a failed romance allowed her to recognize how she had failed to value herself in prioritizing her beloved, "trying to be/ all things to him, and him not wanting/ what [she] ever was." This spiritual change, she suggests, manifested itself in her body:
...the letting-go of that man--
him of me then me of him--
left me streaked, specked, and spotted
like the flocks of Jacob
and I opened my mouth to say
the true things that underprop the world.
Not only does the poem serve to introduce the reader to Dinah's distinctive voice--folksy and precise, studded with biblically prophetic speech--but also to introduce two questions that reel about one another throughout the book: In what ways do the body and the spirit come to define one another? What marks us more, love or its absence?
As to the second of these questions, Dinah's life is punctuated by the loss of love from her first moments. The daughter of a black father and a white mother who dies in childbirth, she is placed in the care of a childless couple, the Gastons, who can only offer her "a sort of love," brief as it is deficient. Only still a girl herself, she suffers two lost pregnancies, one of which she implies was fathered by Mr. Gaston, before running away and joining a traveling show. There she finds a home and, eventually, a brand of comfort, performing first as a dancer, then a gifted fortune teller, and finally as the Leopard Woman. Even here, her life is not untouched by loss. Mrs. Elderia, her mentor in the art of reading palms (and people), passes early on in her days with the show.
And there are the men who traverse her life. The nameless first takes her away from the Gastons and toward her traveling. Then there is Shelby, an amusement ride operator with whom Dinah has a carnival marriage, consummated on a ride around the Ferris wheel. This affair, too, quickly becomes that tragic love on which she blames the appearance of her "spots." Finally, the second section of the book concerns a pairing, more spiritual but no less fragile, that Dinah takes up with The Professor, a seminary drop-out who, in a seemingly unlikely turn, takes on the role of the carnival tout.
One of the great pleasures of the world Nieman's verse builds is its rich specificity. The settings and milieux that Dinah passes through are rendered through vibrant images and language. Though her story rushes away from it, Dinah's birthplace in rural Appalachia leaps to life through her memories of sorghum cane farms, root-workers, the "Good Book," and banjo tunes. Likewise, she carries the markings of this place with her in peculiarities of phrase. Through Dinah, a skunk becomes a "piss-kitty," a boy's "mouth gapes like a catfish," and her own skin recalls "a spotted hound/or rump of an Apaloosey."
The telling of Dinah's early days also captures some of the complexities of Affrilachian identity, though only through the fleeting side-long glances she is afforded as a biracial woman brought up in a white household. In "Call and Response," she meets a cattle trader, "black as/ the neathside of a shadow," who seems to know more about Dinah than she knows of herself. He interrogates her about how she ended up on her foster parents' farm:
Don't you got no people?
I'm meaning your own folk.
Preacher says I'm of the tribe of Ham.
Chapter and verse, they sure can quote,
chapter and verse: "Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants.
Here, Nieman illustrates the uneasy collision of regional cultures, white and black, on the shared grounds of landscape and religion. Dinah recognizes, for the first time, this very collision present in her own body. The encounter sparks an awareness of difference and of displacement that fuels Dinah's desire for the self-determination eventually provided her by the travelling show.
Similarly, the community of carnivals--people and customs--are rendered with an insider's fluency and a tenderness that withstands even the most trying of her touring experiences. In "How I Was a Jig," for example, Dinah describes her demeaning first job: a dancer, dressed in ersatz costume of "naught but a grass skirt and some beads." She and two other black women are placed on stage "to make a jig show for the crackers." Even when she learns that her body serves as bait for a grift that falsely promises her white audiences a night alone with her, she relishes the relative freedom this new life offers her. "So I jigged," she says. "Made that grass skirt sing/like ripe wheat.... with the free wind/...we pulled stakes/and blew town."
Of the many retellings of the Leopard Lady's origin story, the one captured in "Fearfully, Wonderfully," best demonstrates what her transformation means in the complex social order among the show folk. In character, Dinah speaks to her audience to whom she hawks "pitch cards" as a souvenir:
In my days I been raised up
lowest to highest
being now a natural,
as are called Show Nobility...
After us who are shaped by God's thumb
come the working acts,
what have schooled their bodies...
...just above those who show
in pickle jars, misborne things...
Though the poem is filled with pain, it still celebrates the range of experience Dinah has lived in her career, and a measure of hard-won grace. Dinah's show cards quote an odd episode from Genesis about "the spotted and speckled among the goats." However, the hierarchy of naturals, working acts, and gaffs, in which those who are most burdened are most rewarded, is more reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew, especially that oft repeated claim that "the last shall be first and the first shall be last."
The forms that Nieman adopts to give shape to Dinah's stories vary from dramatic monologues (some addressed to carnival audiences, others more intimate) and dialogues to more lyrical meditations on such topics as "Seeing," "Wealth," and "Devil's Work."
A welcome contrast arrives in the second section of the book, with the appearance of the Professor, who speaks in poems of his own and becomes a counterpoint to Dinah's perspective as well as to her voice. Nieman gives him a more traditional set of poetic tools to match his more conventional education and the skill of elocution that earns him a place in the show as the "inside man" among the rubes. His lines read as measured blank verse that is at once more cautious and more awestruck than Dinah's.
Reflecting on the death of a sword swallower as a result of mishap during a performance, the Professor remarks:
The body, this bin of dust, can endure so much--
Point and edge and heat and cold, nails thrust
Into the nose, electricity on the skin.
The trick, I have learned, is that there is no trick--
Talent must put a hand in the trap, disjoint
Shoulders, eat glass, rest on the points of pins.
This voice too, we soon learn, navigates the places that the body, breakable and forever unfulfilled, intersects with the spirit to define a life. The Professor, born Jonathan, battles a congenital cardiac condition that made his skin blue at birth. Though surgeons were able to partially correct his heart, he carries the weight of its inevitable failure. Eventually, it marks him in spots that mirror Dinah's own like "photograph/ and negative."
It is this last, chaste love story that might be the most startling and heartening aspect of the consistently surprising Leopard Lady. It depicts two full and complex characters who share very little except similar wounds. Yet seemingly by magic--by showmanship, by the tales they tell--in this transient space, they are able to make one another whole.
Brendan Egan lives in west Texas, where he teaches at Midland College. His stories and poems have appeared in Witness, Threepenny Review, North American Review and other places.
Kate Daniels, In the Months of My Son's Recovery
Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2019. 116 pp.
Review by Lacey Hudspeth
"Horrified to look away from the cold infinity of the punchbowl..."
Kate Daniels, in her new book In the Months of My Son's Recovery, describes a collegiate scene in snowy Vermont, but she also describes the decade of her life watching her child slide into the "cold infinity" of the ins and outs of heroin addiction. She intimately brings into focus what many of us only see in news headlines and know only as "the opioid crisis." But with perspicuity and tenderness Daniels is able to show us both the woman-as-mother-of-an-addict who mourns and grieves and the woman-who-is-first-a-woman and has sexual, physical, emotional needs and desires. These two women are of course one and the same yet concomitantly bifurcated; separate sections in the text, they are separate chambers of the full ontological creature that she is. The reader, in turn, is "horrified to look away from the cold infinity" that is motherly grief caused by a suffering, addicted adult child. And also, the reader wants to look and know these words more deeply, because pain, grief, sex, cancer, addiction--these are all at the center of what it means to be a human.
Although Daniels (rightfully) connects her work to American poet Frank O'Hara, I was more often reminded of the American Philosopher John Dewey. In his book, Human Nature and Conduct he describes the "self" as the thing that is constituted and formed by our habits. The self is never a final end, but a thing that can be changed and shaped and determined by the various different habits that we create in our lives. Much like Daniels who is a "her" and "the addict's mother" and then, later in recovery an "us", in each of these instances of her selfhood, we observe in her poetry new lines of habits, rituals, and liturgies that generate new selves and somehow galvanize hope and strength.
The first section, "Her," is the shortest section with just three named poems. On page two she comes out swinging, declaring that the small habits we each have surrounding our bodies and sex "won't do a goddamn thing to change" the fact that time moves forward without our permission and takes our skin and belly, leaving us dry and overlooked. In this first poem, no action can make "a goddamned difference," but, in later poems, Daniels offers another perspective. In the poem "Support Group," for example, she says:
The meetings helped, but it was hard to go
Because the first thing you did was admit
you were fucked, and had no power.
Still it was worse to stay home, sitting on the fear
like a solitary hen hatching poisoned eggs.
The reader hears the rhythm of standing up, getting in a car, and driving to a meeting-- a meeting, where exactly the same things are said each time: "Hello, my name is __, and I'm an addict." A meeting where participants endlessly practice telling the story of lives and addictions. A meeting where we admit that we are fucked and actively work to rebuild who we want to be.
In Deweyan Ethics, there are no final moral ends, no single, final moment where we are damned. There are only moments in which we choose a path. Maybe one path makes more sense than another, but no path is wrong--it simply means our next path might be more challenging. But the path to recovery in addiction is a path that operates by creating habits of language and practice, as Daniels' poems illustrate. She describes her son praying each morning as he gets out of bed, "help me, help me, help me get out of bed" and then later sitting in a meeting reciting the litany, "not using, not using, not using." In these sorts of liturgical and ritual practices, performances gather and bind people together as a way of substantiating hope in our lives.
Her second section is called "The Addict's Mother." Such a mother witnesses her addicted son steal her bank book and her grandmother's wedding band to sell for heroin, for the short win of a fix. She begins each day with the singular premise that "addicts destroy themselves." She tells us that there is no point in wondering what went wrong--the only thing at stake is the aftermath: the finding, the detoxing. Interestingly, the grammar and structure in this section is decidedly different than the others--where the others have long sentences with clear endings, the poems in this section contain multiple caesuras and ellipses, as though she is trying to say more, as though the magnitude and heartbreak of being the mother of an addict is simply too enormous to squash into the tidiness of a poem. She describes in "100%" how she has been changed by this new identity. Not just in small ways that might shape her decisions, but biologically, ontologically, she is a different person and can never go back to the fullness of who she once was. In "Epiphany in the Atheist's Kitchen," Daniels writes about transformation and coming out changed on the other side:
Through the chute to death. Not
Exactly that, she thinks when she
Can think again: not death--
Though something has perished,
And some strange force is rapidly
Advancing to occupy the newly emptied
Space. What it was she never
Believed in before, she has to now
Consider that it really might exist.
Because here it is, beside her, right
Here in this room--not saying anything,
Not trying to convince her-- just
Going about its business, removing
all the agony.
The transformation is not necessarily religious. It is a shift from "emptied space" to "filled space." There is the epistemic shift from "what it was she never believed in before" to "she has to now consider that it really might exist", and then the ontological shift that is implied when she speaks of the thing in her room "removing all the agony." The metaphysics of the human person are transformed and are always transforming.
This book of poetry is a glance into an American epidemic--the suffering and longing for blankness, for death, for an end to the raging pain inside. And, notably, this is an epidemic that does not persecute based on class or race and gender. But, this book is also a substantive glimpse into how creating habits can sustain hope. As ontologically fleshy as we are, our flesh and bodies have stories that stay with us and cannot be erased, rather they move us forward into new ways of being in the world. We are neither static nor fixed creatures, we adapt and evolve and recite litanies and hold hands and weep, and we make love-- because in each of these things our bodies and our minds bind together in a wider selfhood. She closes the book with the affirmative title "Yes" and these lines:
This world is a whirl of yes and no
of death and life. The living tread
lightly and heavily the grass above the graves
of those who once felt just as they do now--
making love, eating a meal, raising
wine to their lips at liturgy or table.
Maybe we glimpse that habits won't do a god-dammed thing when we practice them all alone. But I think she comes to a different conclusion at the end: that when we practice our habits together, with other human persons with pains and joys and bodies, we become part of the living together and we practice solidarity together. Even horrified by the pain, the lasting impact of Kate Daniels' poetry offers us a glimpse of solidarity and hope, through which there can more than the cold infinity of the punchbowl.
Lacey Hudspeth is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School and is currently a Circulation and Reference Librarian at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Clarence Major, My Studio: Poems
Louisiana State University Press, 2018. 81 pp.
Review by Daniel T. O'Hara
The title poem of this volume comes last, and its programmatic position fits with its programmatic statement well:
More than you would think
Can happen in this limited space.
Spatial compression has its virtues.
The easel stands tall and books line the wall.
Start with a counterpoint then embellish.
It's a visual metaphor, a working space,
soaked in bright northern light.
This is where I respect a certain aesthetic,
an interior with a motive,
explore the geometry of images,
where I investigate immediacy,
emulate my ideal,
frolic with new ideas,
touch the touchable,
and make myths of myself enraptured.
A room of one's own?
This is more than a room.
It is an impeded mental vista (81).
As in the other poems here, there is an ironic reflexivity worn lightly, a pull between a modernist inheritance (the suggestion of Woolf's famous title at the end) and a more thoroughly American thrust, despite the post-impressionist painterly accoutrements. The ideal, I imagine, comes embodied in the romantic persona of Walt Whitman, the poet who can send the sun out of himself everyday to mark his infinite riches of imagination.
In "Possibilities" Major spells this out even more:
I tbink of Edward Hopper
and sunglight on a wall.
Where there is sunlight
there is also shade.
throws a lot of shade across the yard.
Just beyond the sunlight
I study the shade's shifting contours.
This requires the fading of realism.
I feel free to doze off in the shade's solitude.
I remember the serenity of the shade.
Never mind the gloomy landscape
in which the farmhouse stands.
A bright moment given by sunlight!
I take it in, make it part
of my endless possibilities (74).
Here is where Major diverges from his giant predecessor Whitman--not in the romantic aesthetic of endless possibilities, but in its source, not coming from the inside out but as coming from the immediacy of the object and its world, however faded: "A bright moment given by sunlight!" Whitman, Stevens, Ammons, other American poets of the last century or so would be the sources of any new light, while here the gift of aesthetic possibility endless in nature comes from the object itself, much more a realistic perspectivism, than a purer and more subjective pose.
The rest of the volume contains a wide variety of poems, many retellings of fairy tales, many new fairy tales new-minted for it, and slices of love-life, family life, even 9/11, all with the same sense of being given a new aesthetic idea for Major's endless possibilities. In their Hopper-like starkness and Whitmanian enraptured status, all represent not "the fading of realism" but that bright moment of the world's epiphany, a natural supernaturalism worthy of William Carlos Williams and of Wordsworth.
Daniel T. O'Hara, Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Temple University, is co-editor of The Shining Rock Review and editor or co-editor of other journals and book series. He is also the author of nine books and editor of six collections of essays by various hands. His fields are modern literature and theory.
Dennis Maloney, The Faces of Guan Yin
Meredith, NH: Folded Word, 2018. 54 pp.
Review by Stan Galloway
Maloney begins The Faces of Guan Yin with a three-fold dedication: first, he invokes "the often hidden female lineage of Buddhism"; second, "the many goddesses in everyday life"; and, third, "the feminine in all of us."
Toward the female lineage, he points out in his preface, various names by which the female presence is known from various Asian cultures: Avalokiteshvara, Kannon, Guan Yin, Chenrezig, Quan Am, Gwan Eum, and Kuan Im. He chooses Guan Yin as the focal representation of them throughout the book, "the embodiment of compassion and wisdom."
The everyday goddesses take many forms, from "an old woman serving tea / at a roadside stand to travelers / who enter with a thirst," in the opening poem, to "the voice of ocean / you inhale and exhale" in the last, poem 29. These goddesses often go unrecognized: "You may only glimpse / her once or twice / in your life [. . .]" (poem 14), and then in unexpected places such as the tops of trees (poem 29) or a Grateful Dead concert (poem 14).
It is through the last lens, the feminine in all of us, that Maloney does his most subtle work. There is "One Guan Yin" (poem 7) which may question how one might "distinguish / between male and female form" (poem 2). The recurring "I," while female in construction, represents the human condition when she identifies possession of a "body once / a palace of pleasure / now a house / of pain, / plaster sloughing off" (poem 10). And in the same way each reader filters life experiences, "She weaves / words to fill the books / of question and failure" (poem 20), the same book as each reader makes.
There is something of "monks intoning sutras" (poem 6) recurring, whether "Songs of incantation [or] songs of despair" (poem 23), leaving each of these poems a dewdrop of thought to taste before it dissipates in the hand. This little book centers the feminine not as subset but as integral, unnoticed element of each of us.
Stan Galloway's reviews have appeared in The New Orleans Review, Callaloo, and The Paterson Literary Review. He founded and hosts the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival at Bridgewater College where he teaches writing and literature. He is the author of The Teenage Tarzan (McFarland, 2010) and Just Married (Unbound Content, 2013).
Natasha Sajé, Vivarium
Tupelo Press, 2014. 75 pp.
Review by Jeff Klebauskas
In Vivarium, the world becomes an unfinished puzzle, the pieces scattered about, finding homes in religion, bones, eBay, Japanese cherry trees, John Milton, pollution and the marriage between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, among many other objects, people, situations. Alongside Sajé's musings on the world, her life, are odes to animals, extinct ones as well as those who still roam the earth. In "'Upon Learning That Kangaroos and Emus Can't Move Backward,"' kangaroos, coyotes, dodo birds and carrier pigeons all reside within the enclosed area that is the poem. The last line reads, "Sometimes progress looks like a / joke, a huge bird with tiny wings not meant for flight." It is only natural to stretch that idea, link it up with the final piece in the collection titled "'Against Chronology,"' which Sajé claims was written in response to the flawed notion that order makes sense of things. The irony of such a response in an abecedarian book of poems shows just how vast, awkward and non-linear the poet's worldview can be. Just like mine, yours. Between many of the titles are brief interludes that are obsessive, unwieldy concentrations on the letters of the alphabet. A through Z are poked and prodded for endless information, until a vivarium exists in each letter. One can imagine Sajé in the clouds staring down at the world like a child staring down into an aquarium, with a pen and notepad in hand, analyzing, sometimes with judgment, sometimes without, and marveling at the earth's treasures while sympathizing with the struggles its inhabitants endure. She speaks from the place of a god, a being who sees all in one sweeping panorama, without ever forcing any person's hand, any animal's hoof, paw or pouch. The minutiae run strong in Vivarium, making it relatable on any number of levels. The reader may not see their exact reflection, but there will be familiarities, which is what makes Sajé's work so diverse, inclusive, timeless.
Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Confetti Head.
Jeanne Larsen, What Penelope Chooses
Cider Press Review, 2019. 86 pp.
Review by Sarah E. Kruse
Rethinking the unsung voices of the women in Homer's Odyssey, from Kalypso to Cassandra, Persephone to Penelope in What Penelope Chooses, Jeanne Larsen's use of hip language and edgy word play infuses the contemporary and colloquial into traditional meter, punching up the poems' rhythms with no-nonsense, talkback sass. In "A Real Hottie & A Sounder of Boars, Wolves, Lions" the closing lines exclaim,
Sugar, I got to go. Circe
kisses his every digit. Slap [I'll map]
his ass: [-quest it for you.] Figure-flinging,
tells what's coming down.
Hey, if those siren
-girrrls are their own muses, what is she?
Passive characters no more, Larsen evokes street-smart personas that echo the classic text with a twist.
Riffing on the motif of Penelope's weaving, Larsen examines the construction of a text while challenging its acceptance. She writes, "I find no solace in the fret-worked logos / --study. That grid's the problem really," playing on both the sense of a worried text and also an ornate one, how a text holds ideas, or locks ideas into that grid, become part of Larsen's critique. Questioning who is allowed to speak and who is speaking, Larsen offers statement and then unraveling as Penelope did her warp and woof:
Now we offer
knowledge-networks, archives laid down
in syllable-sign--we swear, oral fellow,
we will explain. But ah, what matter
what our patter means?
Punctuated with a comeback, "no one maps us." Poems for the era of the Women's March and #MeToo, this collection gives a powerful voice to the voiceless and sass to silence. Larson seamlessly brings the narrative into the 21st century by interweaving the contemporary politics of war in Syria, Black Lives Matter, and the 2016 election as a solemn reminder to keep asking who's telling are we listening to. At every page, Larsen encourages readers to look for more, to look for "some man not made of words" (53).
Sarah Kruse is a lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), an adjunct professor at Bryant University in English and Cultural Studies, and an Associate Editor of Barrow Street Press. She received her doctorate from the University of Rhode Island in 2016. Both a scholar and creative writer, she has published critical work in Assay: a Journal of Nonfiction Studies and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, and creative nonfiction in Hotel Amerika.
T.R. Hummer, Eon
Louisiana State University Press, 2018. 89 pp.
Review by Jeff Klebauskas
In Eon, death is a character; a living, breathing entity that goes beyond the prototypical form of the sickle-wielding, hooded skeleton who comes for us when our time runs out. Its shape changes throughout the collection's narrative. It jumps from place to place without relaxing in one area for too long, creating a series of connected vignettes that make up a convoluted body, eliciting more questions about our existence than answers.
Split into three sections, the collection is categorized as a triumvirate with Murder as the act of dying, Urn as the memorial and Eon as the legacy of those deceased, those who are still living.
Within Murder lie images, histories, scenes of the act of death, the art of it. The reader sees a euthanized dog, corpses strewn about a battlefield, decapitated heads on benches in metro stations, on courthouse lawns. The images can be disturbing, but Hummer doesn't bring such subjects up to create a spectacle. There is depth in these final moments of life, in how the state of the bodies and body parts tell a complex story about their owners. In "'Water Trial,"' the aforementioned euthanized dog "accepts this one final order," delicately baring his teeth as he drifts into whatever realm is waiting for him on the other side. The powerlessness of the living in relation to death is devastating in the final stanzas. "Prime matter collapsing into itself through the silver / meniscus, emptied, overmastered, carrying nothing home."
Urn is prefaced with dueling quotations from William Blake and Sir Thomas Browne. According to Blake, "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead," while Browne takes a more compassionate approach to those who have passed on when he states, "We mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes." It seems Hummer chose these two in order to present the spectrum in which he is working in. There are no boundaries to the emotions one feels regarding death and all these emotions cooperate in this collection. The poems in Urn read like complicated obituaries. Creative people from all types of backgrounds in music, poetry and literature rub elbows with dogs, cats, philosophers and scientists. The most intriguing of these obituary poems may be the one Hummer writes about himself, where he views his outlook as a sixty-year old man as that of a newborn, his entire life described as being buried alive, Socrates' all-I-know-is-that-I-know-nothing mentality bursting at the seams with the lines, "I was more dead than you / can imagine, and I rattled my chains in rhythm / To bad music on a radio."
The final section, Eon, dedicated to Hummer's wife Elizabeth, deals with our eternal existence, where we go, or not go, when we leave the earthly plane. In "'what is a soul,"' two children are standing over a fountain when one asks the other what a soul is. The other responds, "Just something grown-ups say when they don't know what they're saying." The line highlights the unknown we see as children, the unknown we think we will one day be able to identify when we grow up. The children in Hummer's work are more knowledgeable than that though. They recognize the faulty logic, the assumed intelligence and knowledge that is expected to come from experience. Hummer shows that knowledge, awareness, intelligence are fluid, that the supposed grasp on the universe is, for the most part, ungraspable. What we know as children turns to dust when we grow up and what we know as adults does the same when viewed from the perspective of a child. Later, in "'what is a body,"' the two children have grown, died. We see them ponder the physicality of being alive from the grave. The images are poignant, heart wrenching, but show that growing old and dying isn't all that bad as the deceased look up from their burial plots-- "Somewhere above us the mourners' feet / Rippled the grass and moved on. And when / I kissed you, the dust on your lips was sweet." The section ends with "'The most ordinary life"' where Hummer seems to relent in his far-reaching pursuit of the reason for our existence, by finding comfort in his own most ordinary life. The details are simple--a glass of water, a potato, an open window. The speaker proclaims, "Over the threshold of nothingness / we step onto a porch with chairs watched over / By a patient beagle. How simple that was."
Using haunting abstractions, visceral imagery and verbal treks across otherworldly landscapes, T.R. Hummer takes readers on a journey through space and time where both coexist, yet don't exist, are confabulations, figments of the imaginations of those willing to chase their definitions. We are shown that there is no real plan to existence, a notion that can be terrifying, but it is also filled with an infinite amount of insight which can alleviate that terror.
Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Confetti Head.
Jeanne Murray Walker, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking
Paraclete Press, 2019. 67 pp.
Review by Carolee Bennett
The title of this collection by Jeanne Murray Walker represents two journeys, one in which the poet explores the sonnet form and another in which the poems' narrator navigates the joys and struggles of daily living. As described in the book's prologue, the collection organizes the latter into four themes: creation, connection, death/grief and silence. Throughout the book, readers get a sense that the narrator is working with the raw materials of those themes, exploring her subjects like lumps of clay that ultimately reveal to the artist what shape they want to take (versus the other way around). This approach prizes experimentation and play over perfection and is captured in a few lines from "The Music Before the Music" that detail the sounds of an orchestra warming up: "Hear the nickering run / of a scale, the brash cymbal. A bright lash / of squeaks, the wigged-out chug or a bass viol, / scripscraps of band and clank, a swirling flash / of flotsam. Go back to unselfconscious style / before style. A grace that's not yet botched." These same lines may also be used to provide context for the challenge the poet has given herself: to master the sonnet, the singular form to which the collection dedicates itself. In the traditional sonnet, of course, sound is central, and as it repeats, it creates of a kind of order from chaos, ideally supporting and sustaining a subject while at the same time staying out of its way. The sonnets in Pilgrim achieve this through a mixture of known and new rhyme schemes, and through robust use of both enjambment and assonance. By avoiding end-stopped lines, the poet not the form dictates the tempo. And by filling the poems with strong internal rhyme, Jeanne Murray Walker establishes a musicality far more expansive than the sonnets' established rhyme patterns. In this way, they find "a grace that's not yet botched."
Carolee Bennett lives in Upstate New York, where --after a local, annual poetry competition --she has fun saying she was the "almost" poet laureate of Smitty's Tavern. She has an MFA in poetry and works full-time as a writer in social media marketing.