Category Archives: A Review A Week

Review of Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang. Travel Notes from the River Styx. Terrapin Books, 2017. 92 pgs. $16.00.

I’d had Susanna Lang’s Travel Notes from the River Styx in my to-be-read pile for some time, and when I finally picked it up recently, reading it in one sitting, my first thought was that I wished I’d read it sooner. It’s just fantastic. You should all read it. I’d end this review right here, but I know you, dear reader, have heard such claims over and over again, and you’re skeptical. So let me try to convince you.

This collection is a meditation on time and distance, separation and return. Many departures, as the title suggests, are physically permanent, though memory can keep people close or permit them to arise without previous notice into the present. Memory itself sometimes departs too, frustratingly, sadly, though a person remains near. Travel Notes from the River Styx explores relationships and ancestry, particularly the details of ancestry created by war, displacement, and refugee status.

The most prominent figure in this book is the speaker’s father. In the opening poem, “Road Trip,” the speaker travels through mountains, along a road she’s traveled before, and experiences a mystical visit, perhaps through a dream, from her father, mother, and grandmother. The visitors transcend the boundary between life and death, of course, but transcend time in other ways also, more comfortable here than they had sometimes been in life. Written primarily in tercets, the poem opens with a contrast between familiarity and difference:

You remember the signs along the road
for underground caves, stalactites,
zip lines, miracles. There was a sign

I hadn’t noticed before—Cavern, Ice Age Bones.
As if, on the way south, we could take a detour,
pass through an earlier time, visit our ancestors

as we visited grandparents when we were children,
our fathers driving for days punctuated by exits
advertising cheap motels where we didn’t stop to sleep.

What the speaker hadn’t noticed before is an invitation to deeper time, a kind of visit that would be miraculous, though probably unlike the miracles advertised in the first stanza. Lang’s preference for regular stanzas—couplets, tercets, quatrains—is evident throughout the collection. Here, the regularity suggests a sort of control that helps manage the unpredictability of a mystical experience and the overwhelming power grief can exert. The regularity along with the comparatively long lines also affects the pace, slowing it down to ensure a more contemplative reception of the story the speaker will tell. A few stanzas later, Lang describes the visit with her more recent ancestors:

…the rain fell as it always falls on these roads.
It’s a story you and I tell about these trips,
the fearful crossing through the mountains, in rain

or snow or fog. This time my father waited
where I stopped for the night, my mother busy
in the kitchen though she, too, was a visitor in that place.

She moved back and forth from counter to stove
with her mother, who was at home there, the rooms
dark in the early evening as if underground.

They set my place at the table, though as in the old stories,
I cannot tell you what we ate. The rules have not changed
about what you can and cannot bring back.

My father was still in his nightshirt but he stood unaided
as he had not done in years, a glass in his hand,
proposing a toast. Has it been like this for you,

have you found the house where your dead linger
along some other road, in the course of some other trip?

The direct question that concludes this section, asked of the “you” who has been addressed throughout the poem but also, of course, of the reader, is particularly effective. The details indicate that the speaker’s experience consists of a moment within the legend of continuous human experience: “as in the old stories, / I cannot tell you what we ate.” She shifts between these events that occur within a type of universal time and her own specific role, describing a man recognizably her father but not her father as he was at the end of his life. And then with the question she turns outward, linking her story to the suggestion of others. Her word choice here, “linger,” “some other road,” “some other trip” reinforces her theme, how time allows multiple moments to occur simultaneously.

The poem concludes by linking all of these ideas imagistically:

…Chanterelles rise
from below, ruffled like vivid cloth; rise from those caverns
where the signs call us to witness ice age bones,

where those we’ve loved wait for us to stop on our way
and share a meal, even if we cannot tell later
what wine sparkles in the glass we raise.

These last lines are particularly satisfying. They return us to the opening of the poem, and to the line I quoted above with the speaker’s father “proposing a toast.” Though the poem certainly explores grief, the last line celebrates the speaker’s experiences, even as some of them have been of loss. Yes, the dead wait somewhere; nevertheless, “wine sparkles in the glass we raise.”

In its tone, craft, and subject, “Road Trip” is representative of many of the poems in the collection. “Welcome” is somewhat different, though it, too, feels contemplative. Again, the poem is addressed to an indeterminate “you. Although the speaker refers to herself initially in the first person singular, she assumes a collective responsibility, speaking for a community that includes other living creatures as well as inanimate elements of nature. Here is the poem:

Now that you are here, I want you to know
the difficulty of water.

How the river is so low, we dream of floating.

How we try the pump though the well has run dry—
it’s a form of prayer.

I want you to know the despair of sea turtles
and the homesickness of mackerel.

How the evening is nostalgic for the voices
of sparrows, how the wind

when it rises brings only dust from the road.

I realize that you do not have enough buckets to fill our wells,
that you do not make rain.

Still, you should know. For one day at least,
you should taste our thirst.

Lang’s skill with craft is evident throughout this poem, especially in her use of assonance and internal rhyme and her decisions regarding line breaks. Most memorable, however, is the voice. It’s authentic and trustworthy, partly because it is so quiet. In this poem, the matter-of-fact tone paradoxically reinforces the speaker’s desperation. In every poem in the collection, the voice is reassuring yet honest,  inviting the reader into an examined life.


Review of Monster Portraits by Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar


Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar. Monster Portraits. Rose Metal Press, 2018. 76 pgs. $14.95.

Despite anything you’ve heard about the death of this and that, we live in an exciting time for literature. Genres and styles have expanded considerably during the last half-century and particularly the last generation, with much contemporary writing challenging the idea of genre itself. The back cover of Monster Portraits, with writing by Sofia Samatar and drawings by Del Samatar, refers to the book as “fiction & art.” When I purchased this book, and as I was reading it, I read the text as poetry—prose poetry perhaps, but poetry nevertheless. Other readers would probably call the pieces flash fiction, though some sections also have the feel of nonfiction.

What difference does it make what we call a thing? Isn’t literature analogous to that rose that would smell as sweet called by any other name?

As a reader, I approach genres differently, as I suspect almost all of us do. I read poetry more slowly than prose, pausing more often, thinking less about trajectories, even though we know that collections of poetry are supposed to be arranged with an arc in mind. I’m more likely to mull over an individual word when I read poetry, and to yield my attention to other small units. Prose is made of words, too, you might say, but the units of fiction and even nonfiction are different than words—they’re paragraphs at least, or scenes. If prose is written the way masons build walls, brick by mortared brick, poetry is written the way Buddhist monks create sand paintings, grain by colored grain.

Conventionally at least.

Monster Portraits is anything but conventional, so it’s no surprise that it’s published by Rose Metal Press, which has made a name for itself publishing hybrid work. The books they publish are consistently interesting, in content as well as form. Monster Portraits in particular is puzzling and provocative, and the further I read in it, the more I liked it. Syncretic and sedimentary in their development, the pieces often rely on surprising juxtapositions that become perfectly logical by the end of the piece. Ultimately, the collection explores one question—who or what is a monster?—and also asks the more challenging one—who or what isn’t?

“The Green Lady,” for example, opens with a fantastical but direct description:

“She emerged from the sea at Rostai, crowned with foam. I had been camping on the beach. The water fragmented about her tendrilled head. I scrambled for my notebook, knocking over my little cooking pot, spilling my dinner, burning my hand on the coals.

Trembling, I scribbled her words, which blurred at once on the humid paper. ‘In our country, phosphorescence is eaten from little shells. Our castles are of coral; our herds are whales. It is the perfect place for you, except that you could not breathe.’”

The conversation between the speaker, who reveals her fear of drowning, and the Green Lady, continues for about three-fourths of the piece. Then the content seems to shift:

“In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier used a play on words to attack the reverence for the sacramental wafer. In his pun, the monstrance holding the wafer became the monster that rises from the sea in Revelation 13. O monstra, monstratis nobis monstruosa monstra!” The sin was the worship of the creature in place of the Creator. The error was a passion for the image.

“The Green Lady left me retching. I’d forgotten to hold my breath.

“The monster itself is a revelation.

“Balthasar Hubmaier was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. His wife, a stone around her neck, was drowned in the Danube.”

What does the Green Lady have to do with a Christian sacrament? Is the speaker making a theological argument? If a monster is a revelation, what does it reveal? Is Hubmaier’s wife linked to the Green Lady in any way other than through their affiliations with water?

Through this shift in content, the piece takes on significantly greater seriousness; it’s no longer simply fantasy or fairy tale (if fantasy or fairy tale are ever simply that), but also cultural commentary. Certainly, this piece is evaluating definitions of the monstrous, suggesting that the perpetrators of torture rather than their victims are the monsters. It also, however, provokes us to think about language, how relations among words sometimes signify hidden realities, how text is itself an image—and in this book, is also surrounded by actual images. Those of us who value art do often share “a passion for the image.” Perhaps all artists must at least risk heresy if our work is to be any good, not against religious doctrine per se but against received beliefs about what art can and should be.

The last piece in the book, “Self-Portrait,” confirms what we’ve suspected all along, that the distinction between monsters and other beings is neither clear nor certain nor absolute. The speaker travels through several imaginary places, briefly describing her activities in each. Toward the end, she refers to Cixous and the particular love siblings sometimes share and then addresses the reader directly:

“Here at the end I’m reduced to begging you: Endure the scar. Let an insight come and find you. The monster, in this case, would have been, emerging from a certain order of the figures, a ‘philosophy of love.’

“Endure the scar. When you’re alone, on the bus, on the tracks, in the vacant lot, on the edge of the bathroom sink, that’s where they find you.

“We went into the field to study monsters and they found us and they found us and they found us and they found us.”

This book is unlike anything else I’ve read. Like the monsters inside it, Monster Portraits found me and found me and continues to find me.


Review of Hour of the Ox by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. Hour of the Ox. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 62 pgs. $15.95.

Hour of the Ox, which won the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, tells a story of loss, of the richness of a former life and also the richness of a current life. Its author, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, succeeds in these poems through her reliance on imagery that is not only concrete but unusual, her trust in the power of metaphor, and her adoption of an authentic and informed yet thoughtfully quiet voice. Her language is evocative, restrained, and precise. The poems link personal memory with cultural tradition, such that disruption of one signifies disruption of the other.

“Your Mouth Is Full of Birds” is arranged into long-lined couplets. The form suggests control and order, appropriate for this poem which is trying so hard to contain its emotions, particularly of loss. Unlike in many couplets, most of the lines here are enjambed rather than end-stopped, a strategy that destabilizes the initial sense of control. Yet the lines in each couplet conclude with either true rhymes (follow / swallow), near rhymes (branches / branded), exact repetition (said / said), or, in one case, an evocative form of metonymy (birds / rookery). Cancio-Bello’s close attention to all elements of the line is matched by her subtle development of metaphor and her attractive word choice. Here is the poem:

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said

nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded

like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked

into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember

the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell

in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,

when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant you forgave me for the rookery,

because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

Relationships between lines and sentences are particularly interesting in this poem. The first sentence requires four-and-a-half lines, and though it consists of multiple clauses, Cancio-Bello does not separate any of them with commas, letting them run into each other instead like a person speaking too quickly, without a pause to suggest grammar’s influence on meaning. She reserves the single comma to introduce the final series of phrases brimming with modifiers and objects but lacking any subject. I am examining this first sentence so closely because I am intrigued at how Cancio-Bello controls the pace of this poem and how the pace helps develop as well as subvert meaning. The enjambment between lines two and three is an example of such subversion, especially following the quickly spoken first two lines. Given the repetition of “and I said” and “and you said,” readers are expecting the words that follow “you said” to be a response to “I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven.” But they’re not. The word that follows, “nothing,” is a word in the poem only, not a word the “you” utters. The imagery that follows is beautiful, but as the poem progresses, the speaker and the readers begin to realize that perhaps the speaker had misunderstood the “you” all along. Perhaps, when the “you” raised the subject of forgiveness, it wasn’t the “you” who required forgiveness but the speaker. The structure of this poem permits such ambiguity, which is almost always more interesting than certainty, without confusing the reader.

Finally, we reach the last couplet, which is also intriguingly ambiguous, the ambiguity heightened by the line break. Many poets would have broken the line after “me” rather than after “follow,” so that we’d have this final couplet: “because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow me / still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.” This slight shift doesn’t substantially affect the meaning of the first line, but it does dilute the possibilities of the second. Who is crying, “they” or “me”? “Red-throated” is a phrase often applied to birds, though not crows particularly, and “swallow” is of course also a common bird. In a less-accomplished poem, this language would serve only as a clever pun, but here the language encourages readers to recall the birds that have populated the entire poem as well as the title, “Your Mouth Is Full of Birds,” before they consider the alternate (and to my mind, more likely) possibility that the speaker is (also) “crying for you.”

The best poems reward such close reading, not merely for the purpose of literary analysis, but for instruction in craft. I am often astonished at the skill of contemporary poets. I read a poem, and I wonder, “How did she do that?” And then I think, “I want to do that, too.” Nearly all readers, I think, will enjoy the poems in Hour of the O, even when the poems themselves are somber. Readers who are also poets will want to read and reread, hovering above these pages in order to absorb just a little, and then a little more, of Cancio-Bello’s skill.


Review of Walking Backwards by Lee Sharkey

Lee Sharkey. Walking Backwards. Tupelo Press, 2016. 89 pgs. $16.95.

The most striking characteristic of Lee Sharkey’s most recent collection, Walking Backwards, is its voice. Although many of the lines in many of the poems are grammatically straightforward, their meaning is often elusive. The speaker frequently sounds detached from her material, her tone nearly neutral, which ironically amplifies much of the content’s chilling horror. These poems examine anti-Semitic actions of governments and individuals, often during (or, more accurately, throughout) the twentieth century, though also contextualizing these comparatively recent attempts at Jewish annihilation within their endless history. Yet the collection also offers glimpses of beauty and is itself a sign of that most human need—to create beauty. Even as the poems narrate some of history’s most vicious events, the collection is populated by poets, musicians, and painters. Ultimately, Walking Backwards also looks forward, confronting the future through the knowledge of evil, yes, but also with hope.

To the extent that Jewish history begins with Abraham, it begins with violence—not yet genocide but with a patriarch’s willingness to commit filicide, not once but twice. The Bible is as violent as any book of modern history, and the Hebrew people are perpetrators as well as victims. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his sons, though, is qualitatively different from the more anonymous or generalized battle scenes. Isaac lived a long and full life, but what most people recall when they hear his name is that his father was prepared to slit his throat.  “Betrayal” is a meditation on this story and opens with an attractive though peculiar image: “A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube.” The second line begins to suggest which story this poems responds to, and the complexity of that story is acknowledged within a few more lines. Here is “Betrayal” in its entirety:

A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube

90 years of waiting and now the slow roll into existence

Song and supplication

He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum

The other child exiled to the desert with no milk in the goatskin

Song and the spill of blood

He will be a wild man, his hand against every man and every man’s against him

Or was it the other on the altar

And lifted his own child up

Song and

Cast the child down in the wilderness

And laid him on the pyre

The right hand smothering his dusky countenance

I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons

The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright

Abraham and Sarah had waited decades, into their old age, for the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would be ancestors of a great nation. Meanwhile, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, through Sarah’s maid Hagar. After Isaac was born, Sarah grew jealous and asked Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, which Abraham did, sending them out into the desert with only some bread and a skin of water, essentially to die. God saves them, but Abraham was clearly willing to sacrifice his first son as well as his second, Isaac, a fact that non-Muslim readers often forget (a version of this story is also narrated in the Koran).

Without knowledge of this foundational story, “Betrayal” makes little sense, but the poem is much more than simply a retelling of the story. Sharkey relies on her skill with craft to create a poem that includes a theological interpretation but is so much more than that. Her use of alliteration and consonance, particularly as those elements influences rhythm, is particularly effective. The easeful repetition of “s” and “l” in the first line reinforces the meaning of “slides,” and the stress on “down” immediately following two iambic feet also sonically emphasizes its meaning. A similar effect occurs in the next line with “now the slow roll,” the long “o” sounds stretched out to slow down the pace. So far, the action relies entirely on imagination, as an egg’s journey those few inches from ovary to uterus is invisible. The poem opens musically, even a tad romantically, so readers are startled by the immediacy of the fourth line: “He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum.” This line, too, is musical, and the gentle word “stroking” belies its significance. The poem becomes more sinister as readers recall its appalling reference, but then the poem turns toward a more sympathetic and compassionate view of Abraham. Here, he is not a man driven by blind obedience, asserting his loyalty only to God. He longs to protect his son even as he sacrifices him, “smothering his dusky countenance” with his right hand, but “The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright.” Scholars—and believers generally—have argued for millenia about the meaning of this Biblical story, but one important element in the poem is the speaker’s empathy with the actors. Between these two final lines is another, the italicized “I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons,” a reference to Jewish midrash referencing Jewish martyrs, and particularly mothers’ experiences of loss, so in this particular poem, it serves to turn the conclusion back toward the beginning, the “seed pearl” becoming human life.

In the context of the entire collection, however, this line links the poem to many others, to all those who have to some degree suffered a martyr’s death, killed for their identity. Stylistically, “Betrayal” resembles many of the poems in the collection. Its allusions are more ancient, as most of the poems address modern evils, those at least as difficult to fathom as the idea that God would command a man to sacrifice his son. Nothing about contemporary culture suggests that human beings will soon emerge from their determination to annihilate each other, a fact that makes Walking Backward all the more crucial. If anything will save us, it is our capacity for thoughtfulness, and it is thoughtfulness that most accurately characterizes this book.

Review of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky


Daniel Borzutzky. Lake Michigan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 81 pgs. $15.85.

Daniel Borzutzky has published several collections of poetry and translations, and he’s won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll want to pick up his latest, Lake Michigan. If you’ve not yet read his poetry, you should begin now, with Lake Michigan. Although the book is organized into scenes and acts, the individual poems are each structured similarly—each line, long or short, a sentence, straightforward and devoid of punctuation. The book is inspired by an unbelievable and yet absolutely believable investigative report asserting that the Chicago police run a secret interrogation facility where they torture individuals into confession and where they can keep these individuals hidden from their families as well as from the (more public and documentable version of the) judicial system. Borzutzky’s stylistic choices reinforce his stark chilling content, though you may finish the book wishing you did not know the truths it reveals.

The collection opens with a prologue that captures Borzutzky’s tone and style as well as foreshadows the degree of implicit and explicit violence that will be described throughout the book. Here are the first few lines:

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected

And a police officer says down there where they live there was a shooting     you should be protesting that shooting     a 9-year-old boy was shot by a gangbanger     why aren’t you protesting that shooting     why are you only protesting this shooting

Another police officer wants to know why we are protesting this shooting when just yesterday there was a drive-by shooting in Rogers Park and two innocent bystanders were shot and one of them died

We don’t answer      instead we do a die-in in front of the mayor’s house and the camera crews from the nightly news stand above us as we lay stiff and motionless on the cold wet pavement

They shot the boy 22 times

Here in the prologue, the collective speaker understands how precariously we hold those things we claim to hold dear: democracy, equality under the law, basic human rights—as state-sponsored violence makes absolutely clear. While the questions the police ask are valid, and while every form of gun violence in the United States needs to be addressed, state-sponsored violence against citizens and other residents is qualitatively different from any other type of violence. State-sponsored violence reveals that we, especially if we are not white, have no rights, to paraphrase Justice Roger Taney, that the police are bound to respect.

The poems in this book, titled as scenes, range from two to five pages. The speakers are occasionally collective as in the prologue, though more often they are individuals or presumably omniscient figures external to the action in the poem. Despite the stylistic consistency, the poems hold the reader’s attention because the details are so chilling, and because the events narrated here have become so undeniably typical of American life.

This excerpt suggests that Lake Michigan is poetry of witness, which it is, challenging readers to position themselves among the witnesses who speak in this book. Individuals become witnesses because of what they observe, but more significantly because they testify to their observations. Neither witness nor testimony is served very well by the pensive lyric that has constituted the dominant mode of American poetry over the last few generations, so Borzutzky’s choice of this straightforward, almost non-poetic, form is strategic and effective.

Nevertheless, Borzutzky exploits elements of traditional poetic craft, sometimes by drawing the reader’s attention to what it cannot accomplish. Here are the first several lines of “Lake Michigan, Scene 10”:

The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys

And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews

And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis

And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured

And the psychologists overseeing torture are like psychologists overseeing torture

And the mayor privatizing prisons is like the mayor privatizing prisons

And the rule of law being suspended is like the rule of law being suspended

And the broken prisoners on the beach are like broken prisoners on the beach

I dream I am pregnant and my baby is a revolutionary plan to destroy the global economy

And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth

And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees

And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner

Similes are insufficient; everything here can only be like what it is. Language can describe only what is. Attempts to imagine similarities between what is and what isn’t only dilute the horror of what is. Borzutzky extends this catalog nearly to its limit, shifting the rhythm slightly—by exaggerating the catalog even further—in line 10, just after he has interrupted the pattern in line nine. Subsequently, the poem shifts briefly into concrete imagery, “the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner,” before returning to the catalog of more straightforward violence, eventually linking these events to the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Virginia, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the poem progresses, however, it distinguishes between witness and bystander, suggesting that the two roles are mutually exclusive. If readers begin to feel implicated here, the book has achieved one of its goals.

Lake Michigan is a serious and disturbing book. It is ambitious, not simply for the success of its art, but for the survival of the nation which has made it necessary.


Review of Mercy Songs by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee

Mercy Songs. Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee. Diode Editions, 2016. 31 pgs. $12.00.

Mercy Songs is an unusual collaboration between brothers, Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee. The twenty-two poems alternate between the two authors—so it is the collection rather than the poems themselves that is collaborative—but thematically, imagistically, and even stylistically, the poems are closely linked. Many of the poems are composed in comparatively long lines arranged into a single extended stanza. The language is accessible yet sonically attractive. They are set on and around freight trains and railroad tracks, with the first-person speakers not exactly plural but often speaking of (if not as) “we” and poems written by each author referring to “my brother.” The concept and strategy of this chapbook is therefore (I think) unique, but its success depends on what every other collection depends on—the quality of the poems themselves.

The title poem (by Kai) opens with these sentences:
He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest. He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith,
the pop of the ping-pong ball in the background,
the gorgeous prayers of Emmanuel Paine
when he really got going, when he drowned out
and slipped into tongue…

The title here, “Mercy Songs,” is crucial to understanding the poem, but what is most impressive is how the imagery becomes so auditory and how the word choice creates auditory impressions for the reader, until the reader begins to hear mercy songs in the language of the poem, just as the speaker hears them in the noises of the day. Many of the poems in this collection rely on alliteration as a primary aural device, the most extended example here being “pop of the ping-pong ball…prayers of Emmanuel Paine.” The poem becomes nearly a litany, but its rhythm and content are both so interesting because of the specificity of the list—“the weight room,” “the mess hall,” “the empty machine shop walls,” “the late night stations on faith,” which is the first overt reference to the religious content of traditional mercy songs. The list continues with items that seem ordinary until we come to “the high-pitched scuff of the bald guard’s boot.” This guard is

…The one who wore crosses
and belted out Lowly, My Savior and Sinnerman
the way Nina Simone had sung it live
at the Winterland Ballroom in ‘75…

The description of this guard occupies the center of the poem, which quickly returns to daily details until we reach the final transcendent sentence:

But mostly, he heard them in the private hours
of waiting to fall asleep, when everyone else was alone
in their dreams and the whole penitentiary seemed
to be floating, like one of those city-sized cruise ships
you take to the Arctic, or Cape of Good Hope,
or those Indian islands with lions and dragons
where pirates had one time divided their treasures
and slept in the mouths of caves.

We don’t absolutely know the setting for the poem until this last sentence, and it is here that readers understand why mercy songs might be so necessary. The speaker experiences this rare moment of privacy as he listens to the night noises while everyone else sleeps. The night is so peaceful that it almost feels free: “the whole penitentiary seemed / to be floating.” The references to lions and dragons and pirates make it seem almost magical until we remember that no, it’s a prison.

Many of the poems in Mercy Songs function this way, surrounding the harsh reality they describe with the pleasurable music of language.

The next poem, “Muscles in Their Throats,” (by Anders) contains a reference near its beginning that directly connects it to “Mercy Songs.” Initially, its content seems quite different from most of the other poems, but as the poem develops, it reveals its true subject: language. Here is the beginning:

The Neanderthals tracked mammoths through the snow.
Postholed twice between each of the creature’s
blue-hued prints. Peered down at the toe digs, hoping
for any fissures in the powder that might be a sign
of weakness. Nightmares larger than the caves
they slept in.

As soon as we reach that fifth sentence, we recognize that the two poems are connected, though not as obviously as the repeated reference to sleeping in caves might suggest. “Muscles in Their Throats” is not about imprisonment, though it may be about mercy. The speaker imagines these Neanderthals hunting, cooking, and eating, likely eating together, but “we don’t know for certain how much they could say / to each other.” Could they speak? Did they have language? In this, perhaps they are radically different from modern humans. But no, the poem suggests:

…It’s no different now. My brother
strips boughs off the wind-stunted pines at treeline
and stacks them on a boulder…

Our resemblance to Neanderthals doesn’t depend on their hypothetical ability to use language. Rather, our language does not solve our inability to communicate, even with someone as close as a brother. The middle third of the poem describes the speaker and his brother attempting to build a shelter. Then it returns to a consideration of Neanderthal anatomy, which suggests that it’s possible they did speak. We can’t know now, but perhaps soon we will: “When scientists / finish a life-size model of the esophagus, we’ll finally hear / what their voices must have sounded like.” This poem is thematically complex. It is skillfully crafted, like every other poem in the collection, which is a good thing because these writers have something to say.

Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee have mastered many of the strategies of poetic craft. For that reason, their work appeals to me as a poet. And the poems themselves are remarkably compassionate. For that reason, they appeal to me as a human being.




Review of The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir. The Cowherd’s Son. Tupelo Press, 2017. 99 pgs. $16.95.

The Cowherd’s Son, Rajiv Mohabir’s second full-length collection, is filled with references to Hinduism and  India. Readers encounter Krishna, Sita, the Ganges river, Holi, Kolkata, curry, and henna—as well as colonialism, Coca Cola, New York City, and Hawaii. To many American readers, the collection will initially feel, therefore, remote or even alien (or worse, exotic), for though American culture has become increasingly diverse over the past two or three generations, it has also become profoundly secular. We may eat more tandoori or masala, more pad thai or pineapple fried rice, more falafel and tabouleh, but the average American’s knowledge of non-western religious traditions is probably not much more extensive than it was in 1950. Yet these poems are written with such precision—Mohabir’s attention to craft is so detailed—that readers will return, intrigued, even if they remain also for a time confused, because the language is so attractive.

Mohabir’s incorporation of traditional Indian cultural content succeeds because he treats it dynamically. Rather than simply describe Krishna or retell an ages-old story, he connects tradition to his speakers’ own lives. The past seeps into the present, for tradition is on the one hand explicitly concerned with time, connecting ancestors and descendants; yet tradition also transcends time, suggesting that these things we do and believe ever were and always shall be. Inasmuch as The Cowherd’s Son addresses and confronts tradition, therefore, it is about connection.

“Holi” opens with these couplets:

Coward, how can you warm your hands
so far from the Holika in flames?

Come closer and trace the subway and ship
lines in these palms. You gather embers

in your dustpan to light your own fire
and dream of the return of some god

who will pull you from this coolie history

Holi is a Hindu spring festival, the festival of colors, which begins during one evening and continues through the next evening. As the festival opens, celebrants pray before a bonfire that evil will be destroyed, including their own evil, burned as the ancient figure Holika was burned. This poem relies on images of fire and heat, juxtaposing details of the tradition against details of modern life. The speaker is both being warmed by coals and in danger of being consumed by fire, unless “some god” pulls him “from this coolie history.” The poem develops through an accumulation of allusions to the Holi narrative, and then concludes:

Cowherd, can you pray, your tongue
so cleft, or do you eat the coals

to cauterize the mantras flapping
wild as cicadas in your hollow?

Look around at beauty cloaked
in orange. Everything you love

will one day burn.

This last sentence, which in another context might be read as a threat, is here reassuring instead. The cycle of living and dying will continue, and we will each be consumed. The poem shifts at the beginning of this second quotation, turning toward different questions and answers than the speaker had provided at the beginning. Yet the turn is not absolute, as we hear in the near repetition of “Coward” and “Cowherd.” “Cowherd” also opens onto a series of alliterative words—“can,” “cleft,” “coals,” “cauterize”—particularly attractive to the ear. The simile that follows, “wild as cicadas” (with the internal hard c in “cicadas” not technically alliterative but creating nearly the same sonic effect), initially strikes me as odd, for I don’t usually associate cicadas with wilderness. As I consider the simile further, I think also about the “mantras,” those words or phrases meant to keep us focused. How, or when, is a mantra like a cicada? Or, what happens when a mantra becomes undifferentiated noise? Isn’t that what mantras are intended to be, more sound than meaning?

The next line contains another alliterative hard c in “cloaked,” and this line break is especially effective, as the line suggests that beauty is disguised until we cross over the line break to the end of the sentence, “in orange.” We see again the beauty of flame. Everything will burn, but fire and smoke rise and disperse, becoming not nothing but a part of everything. The embers remain for a time, able to reignite the fire, just as cicadas seem to crawl from the earth, alive again after a period of dormancy. The language of this poem is beautiful, and its ideas are evocative. Attentive readers will mull it over, returning to it again and again, attracted by its refusal ever to have its meaning completely resolved.

Many of the poems in The Cowherd’s Son enact a similar puzzlement over meaning. “Cow Minah: Aji Tells a Story,” is structured in several sections, each section narrated in English and a patois. “My Name is a Map” is also arranged into four sections, each exploring connotations of one of the speaker’s names—“Paul,” “Raimie,” “Rajiv,” and “Mohabir” or “Mahabir.” “Mysterious Alembics” consists of eight brief sections of prose that together explore relationships among caste, sexuality, geography, family,  and language.

Reviewers often look for some weakness to cite, as if to prove our objectivity or our distance from the author. Here there are none. Individually, each of the poems in this collection compels rereading. Together, they present a complex portrait of a person whose position in the world seems unstable but only because it is so intricately layered.



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


              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.