Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Summer 2021 Book Reviews

Scroll down to read reviews of books by Eleanor Wilner, Alice Friman, Wayne Johns, Michael Waters, Sarah Freligh, William Walsh, Nick Norwood, Michael McFee, Eduardo C. Corral, and Rosebud Ben-Oni.

Eleanor Wilner, Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017

Princeton University Press, 2019. 212 pp.
Review by Daniel T. O'Hara

Daemon Reader
            Famously now, at the end of Ego Dominus Tuus, W. B. Yeats turns to the nearby water and calls to
                                                the mysterious one who yet
                        Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
                        And look most like me, being indeed my double,
                        And prove of all imaginable things
                        The most unlike, being my anti-self,
                        And, standing by these characters, disclose
                        All that I seek [.]                                                                                                                                

This call is the quintessential gesture of the poet in the modern romantic tradition, as the poet seeks the daemon, the more-than-natural power of creation and destruction that streams into the poet in creative moments. This being may be the muse or occult spirit, marked by its attachment to the poet, as if from before birth. Whether figured as male or female, or more than human or savagely animal, the daemon of creative power is what the poet must seek in order to write or otherwise the poet dies the life-in-death of the man who lives in nameless desperation. Eleanor Wilner knows this quest well, and I will address one of her new poems where she engages in it explicitly.
      Beginning her poet-critic career, Wilner publishes her dissertation in 1975: Gathering the Winds: Visionary Imagination and Radical Transformation of Self and Society (The Johns Hopkins University Press). The title tells us all we need to know, really. In a time of social and political upheaval, psychological and personal distress and possible revolutionary transformation, the poet is called to gather the winds of change, make sense of them, and yet also forward the process of imaginary apocalypse and future transformation. The poet does this via the revision of inherited myths and the making of new myths. Mythopoeia is what the post-romantic modern poet creates. Although many poets in this tradition practice confessional poetry in the process of their quest for an original mythopoetic achievement, others do not, and Wilner is of their school. In this she is more like Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and the folk poet. Yeats, of course, with his theory of the mask, practiced both impersonal creation and tragic confession.
       The titles of Wilner's earlier volumes tell the story of her career's progress: Maya (1979), Shekhinah (1984), Sarah's Choice (1989), Otherwise (1993), Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (1993-1996), The Girl With Bees In Her Hair (2004), and Tourist in Hell (2010); selections from each are included in Before Our Eyes. The collection also contains "New Poems (2011-2017)" consisting of three named sections: "I  Fair is foul, and foul is fair, II  An Answering Music, and III Lifelines." Wilner, a former influential editor of American Poetry Review and a distinguished editor and essayist in her own right, moves with the times as they search for public and personal change, even as the language of the poetry would be more explicit and demotic, welcoming, and embracing all readers. That said, when I first immersed myself in this selection, I felt the poetry was too knowing for passion, too prepared for surprise, as if the poet, adept at traditional and experimental forms, did not so much discover her expression as announce it.
      Then, however, I reread this poem, "Writing in Sand While Walking in Walt's Footprints," which is the last in "An Answering Music." The poem cites as epigraph: "As I ebb'd with the ocean of life,/ As I wended the shores I know,/ As I walk'd where the ripples continually wash . . . Walt Whitman."


Walking the shores with Whitman, under the dimming
stars of the eastern dawn, a small dog at our heels,
the dog's mind mostly in his nose, reeling in the scents
of a half-rotted fish, damp sand, a lost sandal, a beached
jellyfish--he yips, and draws back: a translucent medusa
with a paralyzing sting, a rider of currents, thrown off
by its parents, a generation fixed to the reef: freed
a gelatinous bell dangling a fringe of arms, boneless,
only the ocean holds it together;
                                                    left by the tide, as it
ebb'd with the ocean of life, helpless, it finally dries
on the shore, only a little venom left to burn-
ish the nose of a dog, walking at the heels of an old
poet, who, with a toe, writes a word in the sand,
and the tide, a last flourish of foam, answers in kind.


Whether Whitman is the daemon reader that Wilner called up originally, he makes his appearance in this Petrarchan or Miltonic sonnet wonderfully here. He is the American Daemon, certainly, and his footprints provide the tracks into which the now older poet Wilner would step, phantasm and soon-to-be phantasm, accompanied with a small, sniffing dog now rueful thanks to the remaining sting of the medusa jellyfish. Given the relationship of "As I Ebb'd"  to Whitman's other "Sea Drift" poems, especially to "Out of the Cradle," this poem becomes a rich field of possible meanings unknown to the consciousness of poet or reader, in which surmise and discovery are entertained and obliterated. Rinse and repeat, please! Whitman in "Out of the Cradle" presents himself as the word whispered out of the sea as the bird sings, and that word is death--both his own and the bird's. I love the image of the jellyfish being held together only by the ocean itself. The stony gaze of the gelatinous bell with its dangling fringe of arms is not quite enough to work that Medusa magic. And all inscription, including what the old poet, assuming this phrase refers to Wilner and not Whitman--but can we know for sure, can she?--must also be death. Or is it an answering name, such as Wilner's, that is, the poet who is here reading Whitman and revising him, "in kind."
      The new poems included in Before Our Eyes are all more like "Writing in Sand," discoveries of expression, as if the poet is tossing the bones of language to find her runes of the future, rather than following any abstract determinations made beforehand about mythopoeia. I urge old readers, and especially new ones, to immerse themselves in these new poems, and then go back and reread the earlier, perhaps too familiar poems, and learn how this poet has become her own daemon reader, her own muse, appearances at times notwithstanding.        
           
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.

Alice Friman, Blood Weather
Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 113 pp.
Review by Alice Allen

      At over a hundred pages and tackling many serious subjects--family relationships, love, aging, death, as well as the representation of women in classical myths, the Old Testament and literature--Alice Friman's seventh full-length collection could be overwhelming and cumbersome. But Friman, a consummate story-teller, adept at self-deprecation and mischief, has written a book that is as disarmingly funny as it is penetrating and powerful.
      These poems unearth deep seams of questioning that take the reader by surprise. Many have a conversational, jovial tone, and seem to beckon us into an amusing story or anecdote, but you never quite end up where you thought you were being taken. We are left upturned in a whole other plane and following a different train of thought.
      "Once Upon A Time" is ostensibly a funny story about a woman who changes out of a pink blouse during a rest break on a coach trip, resulting in everyone on the trip searching for the woman in the pink blouse, including herself. For some poets, this conceit would be enough. But for Friman it is only the beginning. We learn that the woman is searching for herself not metaphorically, like "Thoreau deep in Walden Woods,/ seeing himself in the soaring of a hawk", but

actually, the way, startled, you glimpse
in a passing mirror yourself as a stranger:
an old lady wearing hurt on her face
like an abandoned child.

We have gone beyond the neat boundary of the 'searching for yourself' conceit and into a very different landscape and tone: unsettling, without the scaffolding of humour to support us. Reality is pulled taut here; the woman has no pretension to finding herself, metaphorically, but her brutally bleak self-revelation is no less dramatic.
      Many of the poems in this collection strip away literary artifice, intent on exposing the nuts and bolts of the writing process itself. In "The Hike" the speaker is open in declaring her struggle at capturing the sound of thrushes singing. In "Ars Poetica in a Tilted Chair," the speaker describes being a poet as similar to being a chicken:

wing-clipped, cooped up, scratching at dirt.
A silly, flailing about without a head
and hooked on rubbing words together--
my pebbles in a crop.

In this magic trick of a poem, the speaker has an idea for a piece while in the dental hygienist's chair and proceeds to talk us through the idea for her poem, complete with literary references and jokes, while simultaneously keeping a conversation going with the hygienist, and before we know it, the poem is over and she's written it before our eyes. With disarming transparency, she unpacks and discards any poetic loftiness, in a tone that is modest and genuinely funny. Yet it is also a poem of startling resonance, meticulously crafted, balanced, measured and honed. There is an exquisite bounce and flow between the idea of pebbles, words, treasure, birds, teeth. It is funny and light but deeply packed with meaning, and while the speaker may be self-effacing, there is no self-doubt here, only a superb power and control over her medium.  
      The poems in this collection that seem to lay bare their process and question their position in the world, that are self-deprecatory and jovial, are paradoxically the ones that shimmer with a self-belief that is contagious and inspiring. It is the strength, perhaps, of someone who has had, possibly, to fight to feel comfortable in the poetry world. One imagines Friman has encountered, over the years, more than a few misogynist poet-types she so calmly and blisteringly fells in "The Poet."
      Friman frequently refers, Austin-like, to the Reader in her poems ("Reader, you may ask.....", or "Reader, lest I sound out of joint").  There's a refreshing clarity about the relationship between audience and writer. The poet offers herself as accessible, someone we could talk to and learn from. And while this is of course all part of the storytelling style, it comes across as sincere, as generosity on the part of Friman, who wants us to be comfortable and at ease with her poems. 
      Not all of the poems in the collection have this storytelling or conversational register.  There are several powerful lyrics, pared down and resonant. "In an August Mirror" is an extraordinary poem. In slow and steady paces, the heat of late summer is built up word by word, line by line. The poem has a deep, steady rhythm, like a funeral march, underscored by heavy rhyme and repetition:

Now is the time of ironweed, knotweed,
thistle and heavy heat--simmering and brutal.

Now is the time of no time when all days
rise in the oven the same and go forth in single file.

The controlled starkness of the poem's form, in pared down couplets, complements the parched landscape, the relentless monotony of the heat.  But from this sweltering heat-scape we are not offered imagery of the barren, spent husk.  Instead of desiccation we are offered something more powerful and vivid. From the "fields buggy depths":

the incessant cry of insatiability, the jittery song
of last chance, last chance. Each note, a letter

of the earth's alphabet. Each note, another stitch
knit into the scarf.

The poem ends with the declaration, like a laminated epiphany rising from the ashes of this landscape: "I know who I am. I know with whom I belong."
      This collection is rich with poems where nature or extreme weather (storms, rain, the changing seasons) are the catalyst for epiphanic moments, unlatching revelations of the self. "High Country, First Night" is an elegy to memory, time and the workings of the mind.  Waking the morning after a heavy rainstorm, the speaker finds parallels between the way our minds work and the way nature keeps time:

                    lugging its luggage of leaves through seasons
                          the way the mind drags its baggage
                              through nights' endless terminals,

                    struggling to catch up while preserving
                         what it has. The way oak keeps its leaves
                              through winter.

These nature poems claim a symbiosis between our life and the natural world, suggesting parallels between the passing of the seasons and the passing of our time on earth: the cry of "last chance, last chance" in "In an August Mirror"; the whisper of "remember me, remember me" in "Baring the Inevitable"; the voice screaming "Hold on, hold on" in "L is for Leaves."   The speaker lets us take intellectual and emotional comfort from such parallels, but there is no room for sentimentalism.  The poem "November Trees" starkly declares of the forest trees:

In all their grace
and terrible nakedness they symbolize
nothing. They are beyond us.
How can we bear it?

The relationship with nature throughout the collection is one of contracting and relaxing, grasping hard and letting go, the poet's honest, clear vision embracing fully what nature offers, but no more than that.  
      And while the birds in "The Hike" may have been illusive, her poem "Drawing the Triangle" perfectly captures the hawk, which "reels exquisite,/ circling down" outside her window, and unlatches its exquisite perspective:

...I watch the hawk, the hawk
the mouse, the mouse (poor thing)
the haven that's not there. It's here.
You're looking at it.

In the end it is not nature but the poem itself, the process of writing it, the words on the page, that makes sense of it all, that can offer us haven. 

Alice Allen grew up in Jersey in the Channel Islands and lives in the UK.   She has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales and a degree in English from Cambridge University. Her debut collection, Daylight of Seagulls, was published by The High Window press in 2019.    www.aliceallenpoetry.co.uk


Wayne Johns, Antipsalm
Unicorn Press, 2018. 99 pp.
Review by Brendan Egan


      Undeniably, the center of Wayne Johns' sublime and heartbreaking Antipsalm is the suicide of Johns' partner, the poet Rodney Jack. Surrounding this event, and forever shadowed by it, these poems capture what is overwhelming about romantic love--the way its immensity dwarfs and consumes the lover through both presence and absence. As the provocative title implies, to say that the book is an elegy seems insufficient. As much as it is concerned with and colored by loss, it is just as connected with the keen demands of love itself.
      Of the 150 psalms in the bible, about 50 of them can be considered "individual laments"--catalogues of personal mourning and pain. Though there's great variation within the genre, the typical psalm of lament calls on God to listen to the psalmist's complaint, pleads for deliverance, and concludes with a note of assurance that God will indeed relieve their suffering. Of course, the form presumes certainty, not only in God's existence, but in an active divine presence on earth--the kind of invested omnipotence that might be invoked to remedy individual ailments or even to take responsibility for them.
      By contrast, the antipsalm might be seen as presuming doubt. It doubts that any sentience has designed the conditions of the antipsalmist's pain. It doubts that anyone has the power (or the willingness) to relieve the antipsalmist's suffering. It doubts that God listens. Johns' debut collection reaches through such doubt, lamenting the loss of a beloved held so tight (and become such an integral part of the lover) that he can only be cyclically sloughed like the skins of a snake "emerging to peel away/ layers of itself."
      Though there is not a clear overarching narrative in the collection, the book is effectively framed by its opening. In the uncanny and devastating second poem, "Last Testament," Johns attends Jack's funeral uninvited by the family but accompanied by Jack's brother. Johns knows the realities of the life being celebrated and mourned better than the brother, who "hadn't seen/ or tried to see in twenty years" the man whom Jack had become. Yet, Johns' witness is silenced through omission, "not/ noted among the pallbearers, the survived by," and erasure. Even Johns' conception of his beloved is obliterated through mortuary make-up ("each freckle buried under pancake"), and the interment itself denies what he knows of Jack's will: "despite your wish/ to be (written, erased, all your words) turned/ to ash, scattered by my hands." What the family wishes to conceal by their public face of grief is an intersection of features that define the love between Johns and Jack: homosexuality, interracial partnership, illness, spiritual struggle, and even poetry itself. The desire to escape this silencing appears to drive the poems that follow.
      As "Last Testament" establishes a biographical context, the first poem, "Saudade," establishes a tonal one. In undulating lines, it describes a memory of being sucked down beneath an ocean wave. The title speaks to a form of nostalgia for something that can never be fully restored: the safety of "the shore glint[ing] in the distance." But the poem also presents as a kind of unheedable warning: "the thing to remember is not to/ struggle not to pull anyone else/ under, when you go under." The "you" here is ambiguous. It's not clear if this advice is addressed to the beloved or to the self, or perhaps even to the reader. No matter how it is to be read, there is a sense of intertwined fate--that when confronted with the inexorable we cannot help but drag those closest to us into its path.
      Like casting a dark spell, Johns seems engaged in a resurrection, as if maybe this dynamic might also work in reverse--by pulling up the beloved, the lover could escape the undertow. In this effort, the poems collect relics and familiars. "Hunting Song," in its way, describes the attempt to reclaim lost love from what has been left behind. "Years gathering scattered drafts," it begins, "fragments on scraps, and still/ a receipt or napkin sometimes slips/ from a book or box." With this slipping enters the antipsamlist's doubt:

...memory,
like dream, like film, sooner or later starts
to warp, to waver: the tongues of lilies
turn to flames hell-bent on erasing
what had been written: there.


Can even the most carefully constructed diorama of the past make it live again in the heart? Would knowing the answer stop anyone from trying?
      One of the grounding features of Antipsalm is the way that this process of accretion reveals linked motifs that reappear across poems, surfacing like ghosts or even inside jokes, building a network of resonant images: those snake skins, hands, mosquitos, crucifixes, outer space, and moths and caterpillars among them.
      The lesson about sinking and reaching for others returns, too. In the prose fragments of "Venetian Boat Song II," the speaker recalls his habit of touching the bottom of a lake while swimming as a child and the one time he ran out of breath: "I screamed and dog-paddled, then went under. Maybe I was drowning, maybe I just did it so one of the older boys would dive in and pull my body to shore." Here and throughout the collection, Johns seems to be touching on the way that hunger for love propels itself outward, seeking relief only by sharing this infinite appetite.
      The title poem traces this love-hunger's source back to some idea of Christ. An antipodal imagining of "The Lord's Prayer," (which itself draws on the psalms of personal lamentation), it is a petition of the deepest grief, in which a demanding God stands invisible and mute in the face of suffering. "Forgive us our hungers," it pleads, "as we have forgiven/ Your open mouth, insatiable as a black hole/ that consumes us in its silence." Behind this rage, though, is the essential commitment to the act of prayer, even one directed toward a cold and unresponsive audience.
      After all, Johns also reminds that tenderness can be found in submitting to desire. In "Passion," the lover recounts giving swimming lessons to his beloved, who tests his own ability to face the threat of drowning "by seeing how long he could/ hold his head under." The poem draws this test of spiritual and physical limits to the redemptive possibilities of sexual connection: "we swam again// on the rug, until we surfaced/ into our own flesh." Fragile, quiet moments of shared satisfaction bob up, too, like a luna moth captured in a paper cup, "trembling,/ one wing torn but beating" or a blue heron, "its long neck like a fluted vase" spotted while paddling a canoe.
      These are the glimmers of what might lie on the other side of suspicion. Johns ends his book, maybe surprisingly, with poems called "Faith" and "Hope," two of the finest in the collection, not just for the turn toward the promise of the future but how they turn toward the world, generously and with forgiveness. It is not that the antipsalmist has, at length, abandoned their doubt, but they have instead grown to accept its companionship. Meditating on the way bodies and souls carry their pain "not just on but underneath the skin," they observe how twilight "falls/ on but fails to illuminate/ the black water." The depthless mystery of love and loss remains, its threat of swallowing us whole is unabated despite whatever has gone before. Still, the antipsalmist tells us: "We must go/ under and rise whole or not at all."

Brendan Egan's poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming 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.

Michael Waters, Caw.
Boa Editions Ltd., 2020. 94 pp.
Review by Sarah E. Kruse

      Michael Waters' Caw is a distinctive call that, like Poe's interminable raven, invokes the love pangs of remembrance and confronts mortality in a fragile world. However, within Waters' universe, so many luminous threads of love hold the world together. This collection is as much an ode to memory as it is an elegy to the loss of a mother through the pain of dementia and death. The opening epigraphs taken from William Carlos Williams' "Crude Lament" and Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish" invoke both the long and mournful loss of the speaker's mother. There is also a sense of what it means to be the one left behind as a witness who testifies to the gradual unraveling of all that was once familiar.
      Written in three parts, part one of Caw moves through a reckoning of what love means, and how it manifests, subsides, and resurfaces throughout time. Ghosts of the past and past loves are revisited in all their permutations over time in the poem "Good Riddance Chicken." In this poem, an ex-girlfriend's recipes are over-written and reworked by the wife into something more palatable for her own use. The lines

Crossing out the names of each dish
At the top of the creased index card
To substitute one of her own invention

are a candid description of how the ordinary stands as proof of how we rework and edit not just a recipe, but a narrative and an articulation of the past and memory. But even with the editing hand that works to rewrite and substitute, ghosts of the past arise as in the last line of the poem where the ex's voice returns in a note at the bottom of the card reading, "always better when you add my company."
      Waters' suggestions of loss and ghosts, memory and desire, become the heart of the collection. Circling around these thematics, the collection ultimately centers on the loss of the mother. Part two (cleverly indicated by crow count not Arabic numbers between sections) is dedicated to the poet's mother and draws on Williams' line "Mother of flames" commenting on both the difficulties of life and death. Waters sculpts the experiences of aging, dementia, and loss into a series of exquisitely fractured poems that speak to the power of the ordinary, the narrative found in everyday objects, and longing that uses those fragments to create elegant collages from the broken colored glass of reality. The titles in this section all shift to small letters, amplifying what is made out of the fragmented and the small. The poem "dementia dawn" is a heartbreaking and beautiful portrayal of all that is lost. Waters' uses fractured couplets to capture the sense of what is lost to time and the fragmentation that happens with dementia itself. The opening lines,

pokes all buttons         on the bedside clock
till time grown ill        no longer blinks

stillborn a.m.   sponge-bathes for breakfast
silence             tongues the narrow hall

speak on multiple levels; the monotony of the day is mirrored in the blinking bedside clock that has quit working, poked and prodded but no longer responding with the correct time. The broken lines in this poem, and many others in this section, highlight the gradual breaking and undoing of self as clarity slips away into a river of memory:

she lies             one shoe off    sweater wrongbuttoned
mind awash     with the glimpse of clean

tablecloths        unstained        napkins            unsoiled
plates   such whiteness            ringed with silver

awaiting the arrival     of this day
that day           this day

The missing shoe and "wrongbuttoned" sweater indicate much more than a garment askew; they indicate the ordinary gone awry. The isolation of each noun and adjective on the next line visually illustrates on the page all that is breaking down. The domestic also doubles for the idea of what isn't broken in the unstained, unsoiled, whiteness, and silver. Spaced out, these objects carry more weight, holding in the daily, the repetition that continues with no differentiation where the world of memory is "awash" in its own erasure.
      Against this backdrop, the fracturing of the ordinary in other senses also echoes loudly in "domestic disturbance" where the breaking of dishes, fighting, and fragments of the mother's threats is a different kind of fissuring of reality:

I'll break every dish in this house      she'd howl
shards pinwheeling     hardwood floors

face slapper     spitball of spite
crying out at night       you never touch me

The shards and hardwood as descriptions evoke their own kind of brokenness and loss along with the dialogue that is only heard in snippets and that is finally driven home by the penultimate line, "mom,               I prod              what else have you lost".
      But the ordinary is as equally elevated by Waters as it is shattered. In the poem "grocery list" where the odd assortment of objects ranging from Twizzlers to gum and tea are spaced out across the lines, a new resonance is created with the quotidian brand names that a reader would not normally hear as a poetics:

Twizzlers        red       Obit     spearmint
tea       Sleepy Time    Gypsy Cold Care

12 oz    12 pack           Poland Springs
to stave off      dehydration

These objects that sit unused in the second half of the poem are then transformed by Waters' use of simile and line breaks where the accumulation of junk and clutter take on a religious tone by the end of the poem:
 
plastic bottles             abide in rows              like processions
of schoolgirls              bearing votive            candles

St Cecilia        St Agnes         St Teresa of Avila
lighting the refrigerator          whenever        the door opens

Here the relics of the holy are found in what is forgotten in the everyday. The careful balancing act that Waters accomplishes in many of these poems suggests there is something reverent in these moments if we could only see them. It is the power of the writing that extracts them and elevates them so the reader can see them illuminated.
      The last section of the book turns inward as a kind of confession to the witnessing and even at times to the guilt found in the previous sections. The opening poem in this last section, "Red-Billed Firefinch" draws on the theme of fire previously seen in the epigraph from Williams' poem, and also on the idea of what is consumed and erased, but here with a redemptive twist. Transformed with the image of the bird in the poem, the speaker would

Touch lips to plumage where ears must be,
                       
Then flick my finger to let loose each bird.
Have you heard my sins, scarlet flocks wheeling,
Unbound from my body? Have you witnessed

While the bird here symbolically carries away the confession, the reader is also reminded of the transfiguration of sin through confession. These lines carry the idea of what spoken language can do. This idea also doubles to describe the work of the poet who must transform the world and remake it into art through the language of poetry. Some of the poems in this section also seem like warnings to a future time as in "Electric Fence." Others are more overtly political even while at first seemingly trying to avoid the political as if to say, that even when one is speaking without the intention of politics, there is a responsibility and implication inherent in language even when it attempts to be apolitical. In "One Caw," the speaker innocently observes a murder of crows, but senses the landscape is about to change, and even in a simple moment of watchfulness, ideas and memories once again creep in,

I've seen this scene in films, Russian novels,
Old Master oils, Pathé newsreels.
Or on CNN--smoke in the city,
Schoolchildren scattered among rubble--

By the end, the poem concludes, "Something horrible about to happen." Here, the reader is reminded that the world is always unsettled, always morphing, always vanishing before it can be fully recognized.
      
In the vein of morbid contemplation, Waters ends the collection by turning to a meditation of the speaker's own death, and imagines a day when his loved ones will be scattered:

                                                Or
You might task our son with travel
To sow your ashes among the snowdrops
(Snowdrops always your favorite flower)
Lighting cemeteries near your home
Not far from the Ukrainian border.

      Caw, overall, is a collection that marvelously meditates on what is so fragile in our everyday world, how the violence of the daily can fragment one's sense of reality, and how our own memory, introspection, and witnessing is an antidote to loss and forgetting. Waters' lyricism and use of the page, particularly in the fragmented middle section, is an accomplishment in a long tradition of poetry that uses language itself as a form of witnessing and remembrance. Caw is a call that goes out to the world to bring us back to the tethers of reality and the quotidian that shore up the essence of what it is to be human against the rust of time.

Sarah Kruse is a lecturer at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and an Associate Editor of Barrow Street Press. She received her doctorate from the University of Rhode Island in 2016, and is currently working on an MFA in poetry at the University of San Francisco. 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.


Micro-Reviews

Sarah Freligh, We
Small Harbor Publishing, 2021, 29 pp.
Review by Tina Barr


      Sarah Freligh has mastered writing about the space in which girls become women and young women struggle for their identities.  Her language often has a strong cadence, a forward tumult that can reflect the poem's content, as in "Ann Arbor, 1974."  The protagonist thumbs a ride "with three geezers who passed/ a silver flask of Scotch."  She sings along "with Sinatra on the car stereo" and when she gets out in "South Bend," the driver "handed me a Hershey bar and a wad/ of ones."  Her telling is straightforward and merciless. In the prose poem, "Epidemic," an eighth-grade school classmate, Davie Gray, is not inoculated because of his family's religious beliefs; he spends a month in hospital and returns "skinny as a scarecrow and sterile," "sterile as a donkey, which is how the joke got started How is a starter's pistol like Davie Gray, answer, Both of them shoot blanks." In this startling, short prose piece, Davie "shows up at school with his father's gun in his black backpack and shoots his way through the cafeteria," and he kills six people before the cops "show up and lead him away." In the first paragraph Freligh has mentioned, as a class project, coloring a map of the Dakotas, including the Badlands, and the poem closes with the idea that the speaker has thought of "hunting down Davie Gray," "but I never do, though ... I did ... (take) a cell phone shot at sunset of the Badlands, which weren't bad at all, in fact they were kind of lovely in their shadowed dark."  She thus ties together, in her subtext, both quotidian and death-shadowed reality, lending the reference to "Badlands" all kinds of resonance.
      It's this kind of subtlety, a poet's mind, that co-exists with the flash and drama of her voice, that can pull off a five-sentence short prose piece about a pregnant girl she compares to "a muscle car," who goes to "care for a sick aunt in Florida."  "We knew she'd be back in nine months, flattened, her brass tarnished.  Smudged with the fingerprints of all who had driven her." 
      In this short collection, Freligh tracks, in "We Dive," girls at age 12, at age 14, at age 18, who "serve up the buffet of ourselves, tasty swell of breasts toasted brown," but who not only "swim" in the pool, but in the back of their boyfriends' cars: "we unzip them and dive as if we are starving.  We hold our breath, but we've already smothered.  Already drowned."  She is an eminently "readable" writer, but she is also a clever one, employing multi-layered meanings throughout her work. But her layering is never self-conscious or contrived.  It feels effortless. 
The characters in her poems and prose poems, or micro-fiction, reveal experiences like bulimia, a first encounter with makeup, teenage pregnancy, selling memberships at a gym, and, in some very strong poems, waitressing.  In the poem "Light Years" the imagery is precise and powerful, "Tonight the moon's an orange wedge, frazzle-/ edged leftover stuck to a gray bowl of twilight/ sky, orange like the bartender used to slice/ in the slow hour before the five o'clock rush." These poems are dramatic, engaged, forceful, as in "What I Liked Best," during which the speaker, after "punching out" "heads for a bar down the road," "dark and cool as a cave," where she "throws down" "blizzards of bills," and eats "paper cradles of fries so hot" "they sizzled/ a blister on the front of my tongue."  These poems are burning. 

Tina Barr's most recent volume, Green Target, won the Barrow Street Press Book Prize and the Brockman-Campbell Award.


William Walsh, Fly Fishing in Times Square
Červená Barvara Press, 2020. 63 pp.
Review by Katherine Watkins


      Equal parts playful and austere, William Walsh's fourth collection of poems, Fly Fishing in Times Square, is a concise but penetrating tour of the play of memory through distance, time, and evolving subjectivity. Whether recounting the mischief of boyhood, complex family relationships, or encounters with the natural world, Walsh's poems are chiseled vignettes that delight and entertain, then startle with piercing insight. "There's no controlling the world's divine mysteries," a speaker announces in the first poem, "Uncle Harvey's Airships," and the rest of the collection proves not only how rich and various those mysteries can be, but also their capacity to surprise by appearing in unexpected places.
      In "Baptism in the Ascension Pool," for example, two boys discover "holiness more than humanity" by imitating the 1979 St. Lawrence River jump of famous stuntman Kenny Powers. Recalling the experience decades later, the speaker muses, "Fairview certainly wasn't heaven,/ but maybe heaven is just two friends riding bikes/ off a church roof at the same time, the crunch of shingles/ dragging under our sneakers, airborne/ and falling, wings melting."
      Elsewhere, Walsh's focus comes full circle in poems that explore the amazement, terror, and yearning of parenthood. In "Raising Flowers in December," a father marvels at nature's capriciousness when a warm spell is interrupted by a winter storm that closes roads and schools. Carrying in a pot of geraniums, he pauses to watch his sons play Risk at the kitchen table, his daughter practicing arpeggios at the piano. He remarks, "I want the flowers to know/ I am saving them from an uncertain future./ These geraniums can live in my house, forever."
      Teeming with wonder, honesty, humor, and revelation, the poetry of William Walsh is fresh and perceptive. Walsh has earned his place among the great narrative poets writing today, and nowhere are his talents on greater display than in the pages of Fly Fishing in Times Square.

Katherine Watkins majored in Creative Writing at Rhodes College before moving to Scotland for two years where she earned a Master's in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. Currently, she works as an ELA Instructional Coach for grades 3-12 at a charter school in Memphis, Tennessee. Watkins was a 2017 recipient of the Milken Educator Award for the state of Tennessee.


Nick Norwood, Eagle & Phenix
Snake Nation Press, 2019. 72 pp.
Review by Aisha Sharif


      In Eagle & Phenix, Nick Norwood crafts intimate poems that explore the everyday spaces of our lives. Norwood's poems are propelled by a close depiction of concrete images--sun coming in through a window, palm trees lining a street, a family eating in a restaurant. Through this intentional focus, the ordinary becomes re-imagined as essential, just as essential as the image is in poetry. This point is presented in "Latchkey," where the speaker describes the process of letting themselves into their home as a child. The poem, like many others in the book, moves slowly, yet surely, through concise lines that describe each step: boldly strutting through the living room, yelling to hear the sound of their own voice in an empty house, racing upstairs, and slamming their bedroom door. The poet's eye is like a camera, panning around places so that readers see the space with renewed senses. In "Velazquez Auto Repair," Norwood positions the reader in the mechanic's workshop, viscerally describing oils, grease, and the stained concrete floor, as if notetaking. Even in poems dedicated to Norwood's family like "Clean Sweep," where a woman battling pancreatic cancer still expresses her desire for a clean house, Norwood strings together descriptions of tasks like changing the sheets on the bed and cleaning out the refrigerator that must be completed, even as death looms. Norwood's poems suggest that although we may view these everyday tasks and things as the backdrops to our experiences, these "things" are the experience as they are what we ultimately remember. The poet basically confesses this idea in the poem "Eagle & Phenix Dam" saying "No/ revelations but in things..." a direct summons of William Carlos Williams' "No ideas but in things."  This play on Williams' iconic line works since Norwood's poems rely heavily on images to uncover the depth of past experiences that he only now realizes as pertinent in his life. As the title of the poem (and the book) suggests through the image of a phoenix, the poems are a form of rebirth; they reenact old routines, revisit abandoned buildings, and call up deceased loved ones, and through this recreation, Norwood reveals new appreciations for the things of this world. The result is an enjoyable, accessible book of poems that remind us of how the image is still the heart of poetic memory-making.

Aisha Sharif is a Cave Canem fellow who earned her MFA at Indiana University, Bloomington and BA in English at Rhodes College. Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Tidal Basin Review, Callaloo, Calyx, Rattle, and other literary journals. Her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2019 and 2015. Her book, To Keep From Undressing, was published by SparkWheel Press in January 2019. She lives in Kansas with her husband and two daughters and teaches English at Metropolitan Community College in Lee's Summit, Missouri.


Michael McFee, We Were Once Here
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017. 88 pp.
Review by Jeff Klebauskas

      We Were Once Here takes readers through the Appalachian hills of North Carolina, ruminating on seemingly disparate subjects and objects that interlock via Michael McFee's carefully considered observations. The first section focuses on inanimate objects springing to life when viewed through the poet's lens. This especially occurs in "Beige Wall Telephone, 1960s," where a "...corkscrew cord/ filthied by idle fingers twisting it" becomes a window into McFee's childhood home, a home made visceral with "...nosy parents straining to decode/ one side of conversations..." and "...dumb endearments to whichever lucky soul/ we had a crush on that week."
      The second section is the most harrowing as McFee dissects his niece's battle with cancer, a battle that is unfortunately lost. In "Ashen," we are thrown into the ordeal immediately: "I almost gasped: her face was grayish, her eyes/ tired and deep-shadowed, her shoulders slumped/ as if from carrying great weight far too long."
      Section three shows a return to normalcy with McFee's everyday observations of Sunday papers, the frosted windows in a small-town Presbyterian church and the Sweet Chariot Car Wash, ending with an ode to Fats Waller and his nimble fingers loving that old upright as he invites us in for another drink.
      Upon winning the distinguished North Carolina Award for Literature in 2018, McFee said, "The best writing that I do is a gift to where I am in the sense that it's paying attention to where I am." We Were Once Here is just that, a gift to where he is but, also and possibly more importantly, to where he once was.

Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia where he is a current MFA student in Fiction at Temple University. His work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories and Cleaver Magazine.


Eduardo C. Corral, Guillotine
Graywolf Press, 2020. 81 pp.
Review by Vanessa Loh


      This bilingual English and Spanish (mostly English) collection depicts the variegated voices of America's undocumented immigrant population. "Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel," the longest poem in the volume, is a verbal-visual-linguistic collage of shorter pieces motivated, Corral tells us in the "Notes" section, by a deep personal engagement with the photograph Humane Borders Water Station by Delilah Montoya. Each page of the roughly twenty-five page poem captures a different voice, in a different poetic style, of the Mexican and Central American immigrants Corral imagines passing through--and sometimes the racist sentiments they encounter. One such voice cries out at the terrors of an unending night in the Arizona desert:

sólo borracho
                         o dormido
                                                se me olvida
                                     el tren
                        de la muerte
                                    puedo oírlo
                         tambores
                                    de sangre
              veneno gritando
                         el desierto
  me está comiendo
             soy de un país
                        donde el sol
           se levanta
Yoro

      The remainder of the volume, written almost entirely in English, is a dexterous blending of English language and Spanish language poetic traditions, musical heritages, and various spiritual practices. Corral's poem "Song of the Open Road," borrows its title from a poem by Walt Whitman about light-hearted independence, carefree oneness with the path one travels. The content of Corral's poem, though, is borrowed from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection training document listing twenty-one acceptable reasons for stopping a car within 100 miles of the border. The poet's updating of the American Dream-Horror emphasizes the politics of having a body, of where your freedom of movement stops, of who stops it, and how. It's about border crossing and boundary crossing.
      The political and the personal exist side by side in this collection as the various characters cope with oppression but also repression and shame, familial love, and romantic longing.
                                   
                                   I remember
                    dragging my thumb
                             through his beard,
                                                         coppery & difficult.
             The scorpions
                        pause, tilt
                                              the blade.
                  A threat, a reminder.
                                   It's my task to stop yearning
                                                          for as long
     as it takes them
                to carry a blade
                                      across my skin.

The juxtaposition of wanting while at the same time feeling unwanted permeates every aspect of this volume. With no safe place to let down one's guard, every desire becomes self-doubt, every certainty, an exposure. In a poem memorializing his familial relationship with the Chicano poet, Francisco X. Alarcón, we see where the political cleaves onto the personal as language cleaves onto the body: "you taught me Spanish/ is a colonial tongue." 
      In Guillotine Corral delivers the imagined lived-experiences of realistic characters without sentimentalizing or reducing to thematized poetic frameworks. This important collection documents the types of experiences endured by real people whose voices usually go unheard amid the clashing of political perspectives.

Vanessa Loh is a graduate student at Temple University. She is writing a dissertation that addresses cross-modality in modernist art and literature.

Rosebud Ben-Oni, If This Is The Age We End Discovery
Alice James Books, 2021. 100 pp.
Review by Ezra Solway


      To experience Rosebud Ben-Oni's If This Is The Age We End Discovery, is to wrestle in a simulated universe filled with horses, anti horses, wanton jellyfish and vampire bunnies with fangs of squarks. These whimsical and eerie components braid throughout the collection with filigree precision, and function within a kind of syntactical callisthenic--brackets, double colons, precise enjambment, and tiny exponents--so as to conjure the form of a mosaicked scientific theorem.
      "Efes" the Hebrew word for zero, or in mystical Kabbalah texts, "to nullify, to conceal," is the position from which Ben-Oni interrogates the necessity of imagination and curiosity as a salutary struggle. In "Poet Wrestling with Neutrinos She {Allegedly} Cannot Feel," she writes,

           
It was a matter of invitation, if I should fall for it,
completely, a force greater than any strong, electro-
magnetic or weak. A force much. {Much} greater than
gravity. Efes bears the crown & brings me to my knees

                                                While it is numbers, shaky
                                    & uncertain, that binds us
                                    together.

Language, Ben-Oni asserts, will always escape and betray. Yet, "Efes," offers an asylum from the entropy, a shapeless liminal space where: "gravity cannot compete/ & rivers in which you seek/ assurances will die/ when there is no life." If the speaker is grappling with existential doom here, lurking beneath that doom are insights for why it is imperative to keep going in the face of this kind of upheaval. For instance, in the eponymous poem,
           
As another storm snows us in
& there's nothing we could do
but fear the end. Those days too
We think are gone. We shouldn't.

      In general, poetry and science might strike some as two disparate wavelengths of thought. And while that stigma may persist, that divide never fully bridged, Ben-Oni manages to weave them seamlessly, highlighting the valuable role imagination and knowledge both play in the search for meaning at ground zero. As she elegantly puts it:

But my dear friend, the science of survival is not a science of discovery.
& when we die we go in mystery.


Ezra Solway lives in Philadelphia, where he studies Creative Writing at Temple University. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured in The Jewish Literary Journal, North of Oxford, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. 





 
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