Author Archives: Lynn Domina

Review of In the Volcano’s Mouth by Miriam Bird Greenberg

Miriam Bird Greenberg. In the Volcano’s Mouth. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 101 pgs. $15.95.

The poems in Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first full-length collection, In the Volcano’s Mouth, are compelling for both their content and craft, but be warned—the collection is not an easy read. There’s very little safety here, and what safety there is is temporary. The book explores implicit violence, threat, unease, with the reader becoming increasingly apprehensive.

An early poem, “Valediction,” explores the speaker’s childhood memory, of a mother, yes, but also of a much more sinister image. Referencing Octavio Paz, the poem begins,

My earliest memory

              is aboard a train, drowsing. My mother

covers my eyes

                             suddenly with her hand, startling

 

me awake. Light spills

              between her fingers, then a long shadow,

hanging from a pole.

                             Flag of civil

 

wars, swaying

              on its rope…

 

The poem begins comfortably, even nostalgically. But the nostalgia is a decoy, for although the mother does act protectively, the image that follows, “a long shadow, / handing from a pole” is horrifying. Greenberg’s attention to the line in this excerpt enhances the effects of the sentences. The second line, for example, reinforces the deceptive hint of nostalgia as “My mother” is positioned adjacently to the suggestive “drowsing.” Then the break between lines three and four, with “suddenly” introducing line four, contributes to the abrupt shift. Despite the mother’s attempt to shield her child, the speaker nevertheless glimpses the “long shadow.” The next line, “hanging from a pole,” one of the few in the poems where a line consists of a single complete grammatical unit, is as disturbing as it is in part because the stark phrase is isolated from other material. Greenberg’s next line—and stanza—break emphasizes the particular disruption of civil wars, when danger arises not from beyond borders but from within them.

The poem progresses through linked images until we reach the last couple sentences and stanzas. Soldiers, we are told

                                           lie

              asleep as animals

bedded down

                             at their tethers. One covers

 

the back of his neck

              with his hand, as if warding off a blow

in his sleep.

These concluding sentences recall the opening, when the speaker was nearly asleep and then startled awake in time to perceive the residue of violence. These lines suggest that the world contains no safe space, as even in sleep a man must settle into a posture of defense.

I admire how this poem proceeds, the experience conveyed subtly yet directly. Its format requires deliberate reading, which permits the content to unfold gently—if gentleness is not too paradoxical for the revelations that ensue.

Throughout In the Volcano’s Mouth, the poems are most often composed in short stanzas, particularly couplets, with some lines indented as in “Valediction” above. “How Loss Inhabits a Body” consists of twenty-three couplets followed by a final single line, with alternating lines indented. Its strategy, however, is quite different from “Valediction,” as it opens with a series of imaginative similes responding to the title:

Like your collar is always turned up.

              Like the wind twisting in your ears, conch

 

and cilia. Like the spine of the roof

              peering behind other roof-spines, green

 

with moss. Like waking up as someone

              else. Like when you’re having sex, but you’re not

 

quite you; you’re a German woman

              who can strip and clean an automatic weapon,

 

and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.

This poem opens suggestively enough, with loss compared to a chill. References to the body lead to a metaphor in which a body part becomes the vehicle rather than the tenor, “spine of the roof.” The most startling metaphor occurs a few lines later, “a German woman / who can strip and clean” not a bed but “an automatic weapon, / and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.” Here, Greenberg incorporates a more traditional domestic image, “fry an egg,” to emphasize the most undomestic of skills, “strip and clean an automatic weapon.” Juxtapositions like this typify Greenberg’s work. They keep the reader nearly constantly off balance, guarded against what might come next, just as the speaker and other characters are.

The poems in In the Volcano’s Mouth are not apocalyptic, but they are ominous. They are set not in the peaceable kingdom but in the bloody and carnivorous world we actually inhabit. This collection won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, an award it clearly deserves. Greenberg’s voice is already distinctive, and each of these poems calls out for multiple readings.

Review of Les Fauves by Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker. Les Fauves. C & R Press, 2017. 75 pgs. $16.00.

Barbara Crooker’s most recent collection, Les Fauves, considers two primary subjects—visual art and language. Those subjects are admittedly broad, but her approach narrows them considerably. The book is arranged into four sections, with the first and fourth primarily exploring specific paintings by artists like Matisse and Van Gogh while the second and third consist of poems whose forms depend on language play or that respond to peculiarities of language in daily life. Initially, these two sources of material might seem decidedly distinct, but it is the notion of play that connects them. One of the early poems quotes Gauguin: “if you see / a tree as blue, make it blue.” Painting, even representational painting, need not be absolutely realistic, any more than language guarantees any absolute identification between signifier and signified. These poems have encouraged me to think about painting differently, and they’ve also offered me a lot of fun.

The second poem in the collection, “Odalisque avec Anémones, 1937,” demonstrates much of what Crooker does best in this collection. It opens with these lines:

Delacroix said Banish all earth colors, and Matisse
took this to heart, not a smear of clay, dirt or sand
anywhere in this painting. Anemones—red, orange, purple—
drape themselves in front of the woman lounging
on the divan, her red-striped yellow wrapper falling open.

The comparatively long lines here, typical of many of the poems in the collection, permit Crooker to exploit opportunities that distinguish poetry from prose. Beginning and ending the first line with painters’ names, for example, emphasizes the significance of the artist, and it also defers the reader’s satisfaction—will Matisse accept this advice regarding color or not? The second line with its string of monosyllables adopts an interesting rhythm (one other line in the poem consists exclusively of monosyllabic words, but its rhythm is entirely different, a fact attentive readers will find pleasurable). The third line enacts what I most appreciate about the poetic line; it augments the meaning of the sentences. The first sentence means that no “earth colors” appear in Matisse’s painting; the second sentence shifts to the bright anemones and their positions vis-à-vis the woman. The line, however, suggests the additional possibility that the anemones fill the painting. Ekphrastic poetry presents particular challenges regarding visual imagery—it’s almost impossible for a poem to be as visually stimulating as a painting—but Crooker rises to that challenge throughout the collection, and as these lines demonstrate, she also attends to elements of poetic craft that visual art cannot provide.

Midway through the poem, the subject shifts from the painting itself to the speaker and a companion. Crooker creates a series of images reliant on the color yellow, beginning with line five above, and leading to a moment in a café where she experiences unexpected happiness:

the one with the surly waiter in the striped jersey
who wouldn’t bring us bread, then brought us the wrong wine.
But the day was warm, and our lunch, when it came—
grilled sardines drizzled with oil—was just what we wanted,
and we were happy in the sun on the white wicker chairs,
something blooming in my heart, anemones
spilling from their vase.

I enjoy the sonic effects of these lines, particularly the assonance, alliteration, and repeated anapests.  But even more I appreciate how these concluding lines return so satisfyingly to the poem’s opening. The shift in subject that occurs in the center of the poem develops naturally and would have been enough of an ekphrastic response, but the last two lines, risking sentimentality as Richard Hugo says we must without collapsing into it, elevate the poem’s accomplishment. We’ve almost forgotten the anemones until, ah, there they are again.

A few pages later, we come to “Les Boulangers,” one of the most exuberant poems in the collection. The poem is a celebration of that most ordinary and delicious substance, bread. It begins with an appreciation of those most responsible for bringing it to us, the bakers, and proceeds quickly to a litany of thanksgiving for its wonderful variety:

Blessed be the breadmakers of la belle France
who rise before dawn to plunge their arms
into great tubs of dough. Blessed be the yeast
and its amazing redoubling. Praise the nimble
tongues of those who gave names to this plenty:
baguette, boule, brioche, ficelle, pain de campagne.

With its focus on language, this poem might have been placed in section two or three of the collection, but it more appropriately belongs where it is, among others set in France. Crooker’s skill is particularly evident in this poem, with the alliteration in lines one and six, the pun on “rise” in line two, the variation in placement of “Blessed” (a variation which continues in later lines), and the shift from “blessed” to “praise” to keep the list engaging. As the poem reaches its conclusion, having blessed every possible aspect of bread, including butter and crumbs, the focus shifts, demonstrating the surprising suggestion that praise is characteristic of humility: “And bless us, too, O my brothers, / for we have sinned, and we are truly hungry.”

This poem is truly pleasurable to read, and I imagine it would be even more pleasurable to hear read. I hope I have that chance.

There’s much more to say about Les Fauves. That’s the thing with good books—you just want to keep talking about them. But you also want to return and reread, and that’s what I shall do now.

Review of Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November

Yehoshua November. Two Worlds Exist. Orison Books, 2016. 76 pgs. $16.00.

Yehoshua November’s second collection, Two Worlds Exist, resembles his first, God’s Optimism, in terms of the ease with which the life of faith is integrated with the life of poetry. As we move further into the twenty-first century, religious belief has both declined substantially and continues to be contentious. Poetry—or any literary writing—which takes faith seriously must confront two temptations, to ignore the secular world and become pietistic, or to prioritize the secular world and become defensive. Neither of these stances is good for literature, and fortunately, November evades them both. He writes of his faith tradition as naturally as he writes of his children, his ancestry, his teaching.

Several of the poems address November’s young daughter’s hearing loss. He grieves that circumstance with the desperation common to parents who wish only to protect their children. He contextualizes the poems describing that experience by writing about one of his father’s more extreme parental losses in “Conjoined Twins.” November’s father was a physician whose wife had just delivered stillborn conjoined twins, “Two bodies / and one heart.” Other physicians plan to use the bodies of these infants as an opportunity for teaching, so

Early the next morning, another Jewish resident
stood over the bodies with my father,
performed the ritual circumcisions in the silence
of an unoccupied delivery room.
“Choose names you would not otherwise use,”
the rabbi had instructed on the phone.

What should have been a joyous occasions has become somber, one whose meaning is unclear, even to the faithful and scientifically trained father. The rabbi drives the father from his faith with the age-old suggestion that evil visits those who lack sufficient faith. The poem, though suggests a different interpretation, one which situates these boys imagistically within their tradition:

“I looked quickly
and saw them embracing,”
my mother later said
of the two boys, who were to be born
between Purim and Passover.

One was named Mordechai,
who gathered all the Jews
when they thought they had been forsaken.
And one was named Pesach,
the holiday when all Jews,
even idol worshippers,
were freed,
as long as they desired to go.

And they left their bondage
and arrived at the mountain
where, the Midrash states,
they camped in the desert
like one man
with one heart.

A poet’s interpretation of events does not rest in explanation but in description, in representation, in the image. Poets gather meaning from the concrete, as November does here. He may not have been able to satisfy his father’s desire to know why any more fully than the rabbi had, but he is able to use his poet’s attention to interpret the event very differently, placing the boys within the very foundation of Jewish tradition, the freedom marked by Passover.

Other poems are more joyous. November includes several that recall his first sighting of and experience falling in love with his wife. In these poems, he recognizes the sacredness of marriage, of one soul’s longing for another, but he also recognizes that body and soul are complementary, each allowing the other insight into our human existence. In “The Life of Body and Soul,” November links his own life to Chassidic tradition and to scriptural interpretation. “Yaakov is the soul, and Aisav is the body,” he says, and then recalls a recording he’d heard years before:

I heard a crackling silence,
and then an old rabbi said, The soul
is God’s greatest opponent. It wants
always to break free of the body,
leaving the world barren of holiness.

In dualistic religious traditions that separate body from soul, interpreting them as opposing forces, we are so often taught that it is the body that craves, that carnal experience leads us to sin, that purity resides in the soul. So it is startling to read, as I imagine it was to hear, that the soul craves too, and that holiness enters creation through incarnation.

After the reference to the world’s barrenness above, November alludes to the story of Hannah praying for a son before turning to his own desire:

And the laws of prayer mirror her prayer—
her desire reflecting His desire
for the life of souls in bodies.
And, sometimes, the mystics say, the body’s desire
is really the soul calling out from underneath—
Yaakov reaching into the world
with Aisav’s hands
for the lot the soul has descended to sanctify.
And always, that ascetic, the soul’s high priest,
mistakes the body’s desires for nothing more.
So that when, for example, I saw you standing
at the soda machine in college, and my body was awoken,
the high priest of my soul,
having just returned from a year in the Holy Land, said,
This is just a young man’s desire
for a young woman with long dark hair.
But in the body’s version, there are five Jewish children
and our life together.

“The body’s version” exceeds the body. “A young man’s desire,” like Hannah’s desire, reproduces God’s desire for creation. I appreciate this poem for its insights, but also for its tone. As the poem explores its subject, observing body and soul from multiple angles, it produces its own insights. Its subject is revealed as the poem unfolds, as gratifying to the writer, I suspect, as to the reader. The best poets explore questions rather than provide definitive answers, and this is what November does here.

Yehoshua November is an extraordinary poet whose books are worth waiting for, but I hope not to have to wait very long for the next one.

 

Review of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry. Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 143 pgs. $21.95.

One of the pleasures of following Kelly Cherry’s work is that it’s so varied—every book explores new territory. She has written in multiple genres about topics that fall within numerous academic disciplines. She seems to surrender to her obsessions, permitting them to lead her where they will. Her latest collection, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer, benefits from the range of her interests, as it does from her discipline as a writer, for with this book she has set herself an intriguing challenge. On its most obvious level, the book functions as a poetic biography of its title character, but it reveals the character of Oppenheimer and the experience of his times through references to T.S. Eliot and his own quartets, and to The Aeneid, as well as many others. Cherry structures the book as a modern epic, though one developed through lyric as much as narrative. The individual poems, though not always written in received forms, contain sufficient echoes and instances of meter to feel regular. Cherry’s skill with craft, in other words, permits her to weld formal to free so as to almost create a hybrid of the two.

The opening poem invokes the muse in the manner of Homer or Virgil, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously: “Invoke a muse? How quaint.” However, Cherry also suggests that those of us modern writers  who consider a muse as little more than a conceit might want to rethink our attitude: “But is it quaint, / considering that words appear upon / the page almost before one’s thought of them.” She’s right, of course; when the writing’s going well, it often does feel as though something beyond our consciousness is guiding our hand. This invocation adheres to the tradition, asking for the right words not to bring the poet glory but in order to praise the epic hero appropriately, to honor “a man, if not his killing weapons.” A challenge for writers who wish to bring an old form, especially one that has been nearly abandoned by contemporary writers, into a modern context is to decide which of its elements to retain and which to relinquish. Cherry addresses that issue already in her invocation, asking to praise the book’s hero without glorifying war. The ethics of a national poet, if that is what the creator of an epic is, have changed in the millennia between the classical period and our own.

Undoubtedly because of my own readerly training, I found the poems that imagine Oppenheimer’s emotional life most compelling. The first section of the book traces Oppenheimer’s childhood and young adulthood, as he begins to reconcile himself to his difference from others. The opening of “East and West” provides an example of Cherry’s approach:

Hard-working German Jews on the Upper West Side
put distance between themselves and the Ostjuden,
who, they thought, were too Jewish, redolent
of shtetls and ghettos.

The strange off-rhyme of “shtetls” and “ghettos” catches my attention first, along with the assonance of those words and “redolent.” But even in the first line, we notice the assonance of “working German” and the alliteration of “German” and “Jews.” What’s particularly intriguing about these choices is that the similar sounds are most often not reproduced in the spelling, the soft “G” in “German,” for instance, alliterating with the “J” in “Jews, or the “or” in “working” creating assonance with the “er” in “German.” The reader’s ear is challenged to do all of the work rather than sharing it with his or her eye. The music is more surprising than it would be if we could see it coming, and that surprise offers bonus delight.

Cherry brings Oppenheimer into this poem in its second half. He was the son of one of these embarrassing new interlopers, but maturity is accompanied by perspective:

like Mark Twain, he discovered that the old guy
had somehow learned a helluva lot, and then
belated love for the father flourished in the son’s heart.

The shift in diction catches the reader’s attention here—another instance of the poet not taking herself too seriously—and the casual vocabulary protects the last line from sentimentality.

The last poem in the collection, “Ashes and Stardust,” is both transcendent and realistic. Oppenheimer has died, along with most of his generation and many of later generations. Each of us is here and then gone. That fact, however, does not evacuate life of its meaning. As the poem says, some leave evidence of themselves in books or art or scientific discoveries, but most do not. Most people loved at least one other person during their lives, and many of us love many others, but evidence of that love disappears eventually too. Surrender to nihilism is tempting here, especially given the book’s focus on a discovery that has made immense destruction possible, but the poem concludes more compassionately: “We are here and then nowhere. Not there. Not there.” This line doesn’t suggest resignation as much as it does mystery. Even with all of the knowledge Oppenheimer acquired and created, even with all of the knowledge required for this book to have been possible, that mystery remains.

A thorough discussion of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer would take pages and pages more. There’s much to be discovered in it. It is erudite and it is allusive without being at all pedantic. It is a book that could only have been written in our time, not simply because of its subject but also because of its ability to praise and critique simultaneously, to reference generic conventions without being bound by them, and to tease the reader with its shifts in levels of discourse. It is a book that deserves to be read, yes, but also engaged with, discussed, analyzed, and argued about. I hope I’ll be able to meet up with some of its other readers to do just that.

 

 

 

Review of Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller

Susan L. Miller. Communion of Saints. Paraclete Press, 2017. $18.00.

Communion of Saints, Susan L. Miller’s first collection, is arranged into four sections, “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love,” and “Pax et Bonum,” a phrase which translates as “peace and all good” and is particularly associated with Francis of Assisi and Franciscans. This last section contains poems inspired by a pilgrimage the author took to Assisi. The other three sections consist primarily of poems connected by a conceit—their titles link an acquaintance of the speaker with a saint, e.g. “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” or “Portrait of Ann as St. Stephen, Martyr.” This device could grow old, functioning more as a gimmick than a driving force. Fortunately, Miller knows what she is doing; the links between the titular figures are neither superficial nor simplistic; the appropriateness of the figurative identities is revealed gradually and emerges from the details of their lives. Miller does provide notes identifying pertinent details regarding the saints, but the poems could, in fact, be read without any prior knowledge, though familiarity with the saints’ lives certainly deepens appreciation of the poems. Some of the saints she mentions—St. Francis, St. John the Baptist—will be familiar to almost any reader; others—St. Agnes, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure—will be familiar to most devout Catholics; a few—St. Roch, St. Pascual Baylon—might be entirely unfamiliar to almost all readers. Yet the poems do what literature does best, make the readers want to know more.

The collection opens with a poem placed as prologue, “Manual for the Would-Be Saint.” Miller provides instructions that apply to the dailiness of what it means to be human, those moments when so much harm can be done, as well as to those experiences of transcendence we so often associate with saintliness. Here are the opening lines:

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

These lines illustrate both Miller’s perception of saintliness and her attention to craft. Some of the lines allude to Biblical language or to writings of saints, “the dark night,” “burnt offering,” “pray without ceasing.” Even in these lines, though, she suggests that holiness occurs through actions that might be more difficult than we anticipate; the “burnt offering” we are called to offer is not a sacrificial animal but “our own pride.” Other lines suggest that these saintly qualities occur in the context of incarnation; human life is imminent as well as, we hope, transcendent: “a subtle scent of smoke and pine.”

The content of  this poem is thought-provoking and will easily appeal to readers invested in spirituality; the form offers lessons to any poet invested in craft. Of these nine lines, seven are end-stopped; of the entire poem’s twenty-six lines, in fact, nineteen are end-stopped. Yet the rhythm varies significantly from one line to the next, primarily because Miller includes caesuras at different points in the lines. In line one, the caesura occurs between syllables five and six; in the second, it occurs between syllables three and four; and in the third, it occurs after the first syllable. Miller achieves this by relying on modest anaphora, the suggestion of repetition without its full weight—“The first principle,” “The second,” “Third.” By the time we reach line five, Miller begins and ends the line with the numeric signals, “The fourth” and “the fifth.” Miller’s strategies throughout these lines permits her to exploit syntactic devices without risking monotony.

Just when Miller has extended this strategy about as far as it can be extended, the poem shifts direction again:

Eighteenth, we enter the stranger’s city
at the mercy of the stranger’s hand.
Nineteenth, love flees the body,
and the spirit leaves its husk. And suddenly
the numbers do not matter: nothing that is matter
matters anymore: all is burned, all is born,
all is carried away in the wind.

This conclusion is satisfying on several levels. It demonstrates that all of these instructions, expected and unexpected, have been leading toward something greater. Miller plays with language, punning on “matter,” that substance we often mistake for the opposite of spirit. And finally, the imagery suggests that the way to sainthood transcends not only “matter” but also religious distinctions, for those last two lines could have as easily been spoken by a Hindu or a Buddhist. Sainthood it seems according to this “Manual” is not achieved so much as simply experienced.

Perhaps this is one reason why Miller is able to ally so many of her acquaintances with saints. In “Portrait of Evie as St. Martin de Porres,” she describes her friend and colleague, the poet Evie Shockley, speaking with commitment and grace, revealing that power can reside apart from domination:

….And she writes, we too: specific,
in every hue, the human family emerges and recedes
like the patterns behind eyelids when I close

my eyes. San Martin taught this kind of grace:
when called by royalty to heal the sick, he arrived,
knelt, and queried, Why would a prince have need

to call on a mulatto, a poor friar like me? Then,
knowing his powers exceeded anyone’s
in that room, he laid his hand on the man’s flesh

and healed him.

The line breaks in the last full stanza are particularly effective. We pause after “Then,” lending the syllable additional weight, until the “poor friar” does what he has come to do.  Breaking the next line between “anyone’s” and “in that room” permits the prepositional phrase to do double duty—St. Martin has more power than anyone in the room, and it is also “in that room” that “he laid his hand on the man’s flesh // and healed him.” Miller doesn’t often indent lines as she does with the final one here, but the additional pause reinforces the effect of the saint’s action. We are left with the suggestion that St. Martin might have healed the prince more fully than the prince had hoped. He is presumably healed of his physical illness but perhaps he is also healed of the spiritual wounds that encourage him to draw distinctions between himself, the prince, and St. Martin, the mulatto.

Miller’s poems are ambitious, perhaps even more so collectively than they are individually. They show us what poetry can do, encouraging us to notice grace-filled people in this grace-filled world.

 

Review of The Goddess Monologues by Vandana Khanna

Vandana Khanna. The Goddess Monologues. Diode Editions, 2016. 28 pgs. $12.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Vandana Khanna’s The Goddess Monologues exemplifies what are in my opinion the best qualities of a chapbook.  Featuring 22 related poems, it is thematically focused on several Hindu goddesses, the stories that circulate around them in Hindu mythology, and responses of contemporary believers to them. Through its content, the collection is able to exploit the limits of the chapbook and seems best served through this form of publication.

Many of the poems adopt a regular appearance on the page, with couplets and tercets being Khanna’s favorite stanzaic forms. The lines themselves are tightly composed, reinforcing the stanzas’ crisp appearance. “Why Sita Is Chosen,” for instance, consists of five couplets, the first two consisting of single sentences, their second lines firmly end-stopped. The next three stanzas also consist of three total sentences, though here none of the stanzas duplicates the sentence, and the only line that concludes with a period is the final one. Through these choices (along with others—the frequency of caesuras, her use of monosyllabic or polysyllabic vocabulary), Khanna demonstrates how rhythmically variable such a traditional form can be.

Each line is tightly written, and the language concrete—yet the imagery reveals a Sita who retains her mystery. The poem opens with details that connote setting: “Amongst peacocks and jacaranda / she is humble, calls everything leaf, bird, sky.” Is referring to a peacock as merely a bird a characteristic of humility? Or is a goddess simply unimpressed with a peacock’s pomp and strut? The remainder of the poem relies on equally concrete language, particularly nouns. Here are the final three couplets:

She is always in the wrong season, wakes
to a mouth full of pine needles, winter grass,

imagines the cold hush of stars, spiked and luminescent,
as halo, as proof. She is wary of fire, backing away

from stove, candle, match. In mirrors, she sees only
a mouth yielding, practices bending to the wind.

The character Khanna conveys through these details is compelling. Readers watch her, puzzled perhaps, but also curious. The language and structure of the poem arouse the kind of interest that inspires us to read it again, and again, until its lines promise to linger in our memories.

Another poem, “Parvati Laments Her Reincarnation,” relies on similar imagery and rhythmic strategies. Many American readers, for whom reincarnation is a romantic idea, will be surprised at Parvati’s opening statement:

My body a revision of bones and skin,
face a dim-lit moon looking for its place
in the sky. How many times must we

rewind, start the story over?

Parvati’s question suggests that reincarnation isn’t actually “revision” so much as repetition. Her tone is frustrated as she anticipates replicating her earlier narrative. The poem is successful, though, not only because Khanna can so effectively inhabit Parvati’s voice but also because she is adept with craft—metaphor, imagery, lineation. Notice how these elements work together in the second half of the poem:

…Each time we meet
something gets subtracted: the peculiar
beat of my blood, the brown husks

of my eyes. Read my palm, tell me where
to stand. Lie and say you hear the river
rushing through me, vein by vein.

At the stanza break, Khanna exploits the options of the line break to defer the metaphor’s power. The previous image, “beat of my blood,” isn’t particularly unusual, but it becomes more resonant when the final image and metaphor recall it, “hear the river / rushing through me, vein by vein.”

Sita is a popular character in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. As is true with many characters in religious mythologies, many different stories are told of her, not all of them consistent with each other. Parvati is Shiva’s consort and the mother of Ganesha, one of the most endearing Hindu deities. Some potential readers might wonder whether they are adequately informed to understand these poems. My advice is to plunge right in. Although readers steeped in Hinduism will catch allusions others won’t, the poems are strong—they will more likely encourage readers to learn more about these goddesses than exclude readers who are unfamiliar with their stories.

I am looking forward to reading more of Khanna’s work, and I am also looking forward to reading more books published by Diode Editions. When I purchased The Goddess Monologues, I also picked up a couple other chapbooks. Diode has done a remarkable job with production—the cover stock and paper are high quality, and the design flourishes are thoughtful and appropriate to this collection. As a material object, the book does justice to its contents.

 

Review of True, False, None of the Above by Marjorie Maddox

Marjorie Maddox. True, False, None of the Above. Cascade Books, 2016. 90 pgs. $14.00.

The poems in Marjorie Maddox’s True, False, None of the Above are amusingly erudite. Nearly all of them allude to other pieces of literature and other writers, from Dante to Hawthorne to Hopkins to Flannery O’Connor. While they take life seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they accept the foibles that so often characterize human beings.

Much of the sense in these poems emerges from their epigraphs, as in “Euchre and Eucharist,” which cites Robert Frost speaking of T.S. Eliot, “I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist.” The poem proceeds as a series of—references, more than misquotations, revisions, playful paraphrases of both Frost and Eliot. “Something there is that doesn’t love a game,” it begins, “that wants its end.” Later, the poem responds differently to games: “Hope is the cruelest game, breeding / lies out of the dead hand, mixing / memory and desire.” Maddox refers to multiple Frost and Eliot poems, revealing deep understanding not only of both poets’ oeuvres, but also of their different philosophical commitments. Yet as fun as “Euchre and Eucharist” is to read, it transcends any temptation to become simply a spoof. Religion is an easy target, and many writers have taken their aim; if all a poem does is demonstrate how easily religion can be satirized, it also demonstrates a lack of ambition for itself. Frost in the epigraph suggests that Eliot at least, if not all Christians, approaches a central tenet of his faith falsely, as an impersonation of the real thing, if the real thing exists. Rather than rise to that bait, Maddox plays with the most well-known lines of both, forcing readers to ask how serious play can be, or how playful serious questions can become without losing their urgency. “In this garden of numbers / that promise redemption, / picking apples is a distraction” another stanza asserts. Here Maddox is doubly allusive, referring not only to Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” but also to the story of the Fall in Genesis. One reading of the line is that the poem critiques Frost, even as Frost critiques Eliot, for his poem, his dream of apples, of an abundant harvest, his long sleep. Is picking apples a distraction? Or is it a distraction only when the player is already distracted by play? Is the harvest a component of redemption, or does it create the need for redemption? Such fruitful (no pun intended, really) ambiguity reveals the depth of this poem and the true seriousness of its game.

Maddox frequently captures the essence of human weakness, often more unfortunate that overtly malicious. “Mañana” responds to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a story of temptation and delayed promises of repentance. The poem illustrates how easily we persuade ourselves of our good intentions, even as we surrender to temptation:

“Mañana,” we call over our shoulders
to our other selves on the brink of the forest,
the ones testing the shadows with a toe,
calculating the time and temperature of predicted
repentance. “Mañana,” we hang on the breeze
drifting toward the dark leaves that decay
beneath our dust-clad feet traveling nowhere
but away…

This poem succeeds in part due to its imagery but even more, I think, due to its rhythm and other sonic effects. The proportion of monosyllabic words in this excerpt is high, permitting a steady beat, and the longer words often reproduce sounds from the shorter ones. Notice the alliteration—“testing,” “toe,” “time,” “temperature” and “drifting,” “dark,” “decay,” “dust.” Notice the off-rhyme of “breeze” and “leaves” and the internal rhyme of “decay” and “away.” Notice the assonance—“over,” “shoulder,” “toe.”

The most immediately noticeable detail of the poem, though, is its title, “Mañana,” which is repeated five times within the poem itself. Why the Spanish, we might ask, especially since the poem responds to an author who could not be more strongly identified with New England. Why not simply say, “tomorrow”? Although “mañana” means “tomorrow,” it also means more than “tomorrow.” It means “not today,” which might be tomorrow or might be someday, maybe. The connotations of “mañana” don’t include a definite commitment but rather an indefinite non-committal. The speaker, and all of us who intend to get around to repentance someday approach the idea casually. The task isn’t urgent. The last lines, though, suggest that such an attitude is precisely our undoing:

…just as the last lights sink
and—from the thick woods of our denial—
the serpents uncoil.

Readers shudder at the image, its suggestion accentuated by the off-rhyme of “denial” and “uncoil.”

The poems in True, False, None of the Above share a consistent approach in their allusiveness, but the collection also highlights stylistic variety. It includes poems that rely on rhyme and meter as well as free verse; poems written in couplets, tercets, and quatrains; poems divided into sections and poems composed without stanza breaks; poems reliant on short lines and long lines. The shortest poem here is seven lines, the longest over a page. Through her ability to exploit form, Maddox adapts form to content. Because of this variety, the book avoids predictability, even as so many of the poems cite their ancestors.

Taking tradition seriously, the book also recognizes how relationships between writing of the past and present create a living text.

Review of Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes by Cheryl Dumesnil

Cheryl Dumesnil. Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 90 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Let me just say right off the bat that Cheryl Dumesnil’s Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes is among my favorite collections from the last few years. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and this is what I’ve come to: the writer’s confidence in her voice. These poems are tight but accessible. Every word pulls its weight—so often in less accomplished poems, the language is hesitant, characterized by a few too many modifiers and imprecise verbs that flatten the lines. Dumesnil’s poems, in contrast, are pleasurable, occasionally because they’re overtly fun and funny, but more often because they present experience exactly and concisely. It’s not just their content but their aesthetics that reward the reader.

Most often, these poems are composed in couplets, a particularly rigorous form because the abundant white space highlights lax writing. Poems written in couplets can be spare, reinforcing their stark appearance, or they can be almost hyperbolically rich, in ironic contrast to their appearance on the page, but it’s difficult for them to succeed at any point between. Poets can get away with more in long dense stanzas than they can in briefer stanzas that will never be mistaken for paragraphs.

“Notes to Myself on the Morning after His Birth,” for example, gestures toward the catalogue, but the items it refers to are developed so fully through imagery and implied metaphor that it quickly surpasses the expectations of that form. Having just given birth, the speaker hopes to remember everything, what it felt like to notice her son’s skin, breath, aroma for the first time. She captures that paradoxical combination of awe and loss that occurs so frequently to parents:

…his body’s
plumpness in the first hours,

like a cake’s perfect rise held only
for a moment, as if on the breath

of god before the exhale—you will
never get that back. Nor will it ever

leave you.

Although she will witness the miracle of her son’s breathing over and over again, she will never again be quite as stunned by the experience. The structure of this poem enhances the reader’s experience, partly because the couplets seem to float on the whiteness of the page, but also through the frequent enjambment which encourages the reader to hesitate, wondering if the meaning of the line  will shift after the break. In the excerpt above, the enjambment sometimes reproduces the meaning of the sentence, as in “held only / for a moment” where the reader pauses just as the breath is held briefly at its peak. The next line break accomplishes something similar, the baby’s breathing held “as if on the breath // of god…” Dumesnil emphasizes the subject of these lines—breathing—by breaking the line and stanza after “breath,” separating that phrase briefly from its object, “of god,” a phrase that heightens the significance of the infant’s breathing to the universally sacred. Then, the next break works differently: “you will / never get that back.” Initially, “you will” seems to gesture toward a positive accomplishment, and it is only as the next line begins that we realize the grammatical move into future tense signifies loss. But not complete loss—although the speaker will never again experience this awe in exactly the same way, the subsequent line confirms that she will always remember it.

The most poignant lines occur a few stanzas later, as the speaker begins to understand how radically her life has changed: “Mama, he warned, / you have signed on to witness / / a daily parade of exquisite / losses.” Parenting includes many experiences beyond this witness, but it never occurs entirely apart from this witness.

Throughout this collection, the speaker pays close attention to the world. In “The Flock,” for instance, Dumesnil asks, “If a house sparrow arrives on my sill, / sprig of language pinched in her beak, who am I / / to tell her no?” The “sprig of language” is one of the most evocative metaphors in the book, exploiting the habit of birds to carry literal sprigs in their beaks, juxtaposing that with the patterns of birdsong to accomplish some of the tasks of language, while also suggesting a closer relationship between humans and other animals than the characterization of humans as language-using animals would suggest. This poem concludes with imagery that indicates life is fundamentally paradoxical, that wishing it otherwise is a futile even if understandable desire: “The window-stunned robin who hunkered // on my deck for hours—that she flew away meant / one thing, that she left a red stain meant another.”

The poems I’ve discussed are thoughtful and thought provoking. I said, though, that some of Dumesnil’s poems are actively amusing, so if you’re looking for humor, be sure to read the genuinely funny (yet also poignant) eight-part “Tampons: A Memoir.” It encapsulates the experiences many of us have shared—so many of us in fact that I’m tempted to edit an anthology called Feminine Hygiene.

The control Dumesnil exhibits in the craft of each poem extends to the entire collection. It’s tone and content are nicely balanced between the internal and the external, the personal and the social, the serious and the lighthearted. I’m grateful I live in a world where this collection can exist.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Flour, Water, Salt by Ruth Bavetta

Ruth Bavetta. Flour, Water, Salt. FutureCycle Press, 2016. 73 pgs. $15.95.

The titles of the poems in Ruth Bavetta’s most recent collection, Flour, Water, Salt, will certainly pique the interest of most readers: “If I Were a Maker of Marzipan,” “Grandmother’s Bird’s Nest Pie,” “More Than Thirteen Lemons in the Rain,” “A World with No Chickens.” These titles suggest an imagination that is attentive to the world, to its detail, and one that is also engaged with language. These characteristics are born out in the poems, which consider the rituals of daily life, particularly of food and cooking, meals eaten with family members, the bodies that are nourished in kitchens.

The collection is organized into three sections named with the three nouns of the title. Several poems in each section somehow incorporate the subject, creating a thoughtful coherence, but the approaches are unique and intriguing, analogous to a collection of related short stories in which the protagonist of one might appear only as a fleeting pedestrian in another. The reader begins to anticipate the appearance of flour or water or salt and remains aware of the connotations of these necessities even when the poems don’t mention them directly.

Among the most successful poems in the collection is “More Than Thirteen Lemons in the Rain,” written “after Wallace Stevens.” Through its startling imagery and associative organization, this poem demonstrates the influence of Stevens’ famous thirteen ways, but its references and connotations are less obscure than in much of Stevens’ work. The poem is composed in couplets, each of which could stand independent of the others, but the accumulation of imagery contributes to a more pronounced effect than any individual couplet could. Here are the opening stanzas:

The tree, not in an orchard
but alone in an overgrown garden.

The fruit, brilliant
on this grey day, each one its own sun.

Lemon after lemon after lemon,
all the same, yet none the same.

Sour surrounded by bitterness
surrounded by light.

We see the tree first amid disorder, and then we see the fruit as light amid darkness. Couplets are perhaps the cleanest and most crisp stanzaic form, especially when each second line is end-stopped. Immediately, therefore, the poem brings order to the overgrown chaos of the garden, and to the almost profligate abundance of the tree, the “Lemon after lemon after lemon.” The poem is embedded with paradox—not only order and chaos or “brilliant” yellow against a “grey day,” but sweet and sour, wine and lemonade. The speaker refers to human beings in only three of the eleven stanzas, including two of the most memorable, stanza five: “He thought it was a ball until / the fragrance stained his fingers” and stanza nine: “Blood running down my mother’s arms, / the lemon’s thorns.” A lemon distinguishing itself as lemon through “fragrance” is not surprising, yet it is startling in the context of this stanza, when it is unrecognizable as fruit or even as living object until “He” smells it. This couplet prepares the reader for additional references to human engagement, but we are unprepared for the implicit violence in stanza nine. Aside from the “grey day” in stanza two, the poem overflows with yellow and yellow and yellow—shining bright warmth. Then in stanza nine, and only in stanza nine, we see a color that is equally bright and warm. Unlike lemon juice, however, blood is neither sour nor bitter but intimates passion and danger. This poem would have been memorable even without stanza nine; with it, the poem is haunting.

Bavetta exploits concrete imagery throughout this collection; her skill with imagery is perhaps her greatest strength. The poems are most successful when she permits the imagery to imply metaphor or to suggest significance. In some of the poems, the metaphors—especially as constructed “the x of y” with “y” and abstraction—feel self-conscious and even unnecessary: “whipped / into a meringue of longing” (“Queen of Puddings”), “dredged in the flour of expectation” (“Honeymoon”), “Drank the water of discontent” (“What We Did”). Some of these metaphors would be stronger if they were implied, e.g. “dredged in expectation” or “drank discontent.”

Flour, Water, Salt is a thoughtful collection whose arrangement creates a narrative of relationship. The tone is often compassionate, even when the speaker expresses anger or explores bitterness. That is, she treats others, including an ex-husband, fairly—although he’s described negatively, the speaker most often includes herself in her critique. In its entirely, the book is an exploration of anger and joy, hope and sadness that equates, ultimately, to acceptance.

 

 

Review of Field Work by Sarah Estes

estes-coverSarah Estes. Field Work. Cider Press, 2015. 68 pgs. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Sarah Estes’ Field Work had been sitting in my to-be-read stack for several months, and every once in a while, I’d sort through the pile and think, “I should read that.” Now that I have, I wish I’d read it much sooner, for it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of lyric poems, grounded in wisdom and informed by struggle. The poems acknowledge grief and loss, but they strive toward acceptance of these experiences as components of the life we are given to live.

The opening lines of the opening poem, “The Fall,” encapsulate one of the book’s major themes: “This is what God is. Water. / This is what survival is. Swimming.” The title, of course, evokes a foundational Christian teaching about human nature, that we are inherently disobedient, sinful, unwilling to accept limits. The poem, though, never again refers overtly to that Biblical story, and its exploration of human XXX is much more gentle. Here are the first three stanzas:

This is what God is. Water.
This is what survival is. Swimming.
You don’t realize until entirely immersed.
Until your suit is a purple skin.
Until the lines of yourself
have begun to slip

from meaning.
And you see your hand
plunging you forward, the way a fish
jumps into what it was not made for.

When it is your own hands pulling you
through the water, you begin to think you
are strong. That strength is something
like loving the air, but not the air you
breathe into your own lungs.

Ironically, the poem suggests, it is when the boundaries separating ourselves from the rest of creation dissolve that we most believe ourselves in control of our circumstances. Theologians and psychologists have asserted similar ideas, but, for me, the abstractions of theology are never as pleasurable as the metaphor of poetry. The ideas Estes explores in “The Fall” are interesting, but the poem is successful because its language is vivid. The extended metaphor is so effective that readers forget they’re immersed in metaphor until we reach the end of the poem, pause, and return to its beginning.

How does Estes seduce her readers into interpreting figurative language as realistic, accurate description? This poem demonstrates Estes’ mastery of craft. Its effect on the reader reproduces the water’s effect on the “you”: “You don’t realize until you’re entirely immersed,” in water or in language, what it is that surrounds you. Both the sounds of the words and the appearance of the lines on the page reinforce the imagery, for whether this water is river, lake, or ocean, its rhythm is recognizable. The relationship between end-stopped and enjambed lines illustrates how Estes exploits craft to develop her theme. The first four lines are end-stopped, and the first two also contain definite caesuras; the rhythm of these lines is abrupt, just as their content is stated directly. After line four, however, the next two lines are enjambed, with end-stopped lines occurring further and further apart.  The rhythm, that is, becomes smoother and softer as the “you,” the reader, imagines herself more and more fully immersed. Where the lines are enjambed is as important as that they are enjambed, for meaning resides at least as much in the line as in the sentence. In stanza three, for example, the meaning would shift subtly if a line broke at “strong” or “strength” rather than at “you” and “you” and “something.” Estes places “strength” close to “strong,” so that the synonyms themselves increase their strength, but not nearly as much as they would if they’d been placed at the ends of lines. Their placement in the middle of the line instead subtly undercuts their strength. Estes also relies on assonance and alliteration to both vary the rhythm of the poem and reproduce the rhythm of water. Because so much is going on in this poem and because its elements so enhance each other, the pleasure of “The Fall” increases with each reading.

Clearly, “The Fall” explores the relationship of the self with the divine. Other poems expand Estes’ exploration of relationship, incorporating the self and family, the self and strangers—often much less privileged strangers—into this primary relationship. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is that the collection is organized to reproduce a speaker’s emergent understanding of her place in the world. The last section of Field Work consists of several poems set in southeast Asia. In these poems, close relationships among members of the speaker’s family merge with encounters with others. Although poems that depend on foreign locales for their content often drift into superficial presentations of exotic sites and sights, Estes is as committed to accuracy and understanding here as she is in poems set in middle America.

Field Work contains poems that vary in form as well as content. Estes is particularly adept at exploring the nature of the line, not only where to break it as I discussed above, but also whether it ought to begin flush left, how far to extend it or how radically to trim it, what its relationship is with the sentence and with the stanza. The voice, though, is consistent throughout—thoughtful, serious though not solemn, quietly inviting. It is a voice that, I hope, will have much more to say.