Category Archives: A Review A Week

Review of Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan. Harborless. Wayne State University Press, 2017. 65 pgs. $16.99.

Harborless, Cindy Hunter Morgan’s first full-length collection, is unusual in several respects. The book consists of forty poems responding to specific shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, wrecks that often occurred because of weather, of course, but also due to exploding boilers, waterlogged wheat, or collisions with other ships. They carried loads of pigs, Christmas trees, apples, immigrants. The poems are interesting for their content but also for their craft—they rely on memorable figurative language, incorporate a range of poetic forms, and successfully incorporate the voices of multiple characters—yet they are also entirely accessible for readers who believe they don’t like poetry.

The collection is arranged into five sections, each bracketed by “Deckhand” poems that suggest thematic concerns to be explored in the following section. The first poem, for example, “Deckhand: Scent Theory,” describes a young man who recalls his past and considers his present through aroma:

When he climbed up the deck ladder
that first morning, his shirt still smelled
of his mother’s wash line:
Dreft and sunshine.

Now what he breathes is rain
and ore, deck paint, grease,
engine oil, boiler exhaust,
steam.

Mornings there is coffee.
Sometimes he pours a bit
on the cuff of his sleeve
so later he can press his nose in it.

The poem concludes with these lines:

At night he peels
his clothes off
and drops them in a pile,

dark, stagnant puddle
of stained cotton,
cesspool of sweat turning
to mildew.

The poem progresses from pleasant scents that recall presumably pleasant memories—laundry on a line and the deckhand’s mother—through less pleasant but utilitarian scents—deck paint, engine oil—to the unequivocally vile—a “cesspool of sweat.” This job, working on a ship all day out on the lake, might have seemed romantic to the young man when he was still imagining his future, but it quickly acquires the characteristics of most physical labor. It’s exhausting work, and the rewards are slight. The speaker doesn’t directly reveal the deckhand’s thoughts here, permitting the imagery to evoke all we need to know. Such effective imagery characterizes many of the poems in the collection.

These final two stanzas of “Deckhand: Scent Theory” also illustrate Morgan’s skill with sonic devices. We might quickly notice the slant rhyme between “peels” and “pile,” but then notice the repetition of both “p” and “l” in “puddle” one line later, as well as the subsequent internal slant rhyme with “pool” in “cesspool.” In addition the “oo” of “pool” is repeated in “mildew.” Because English spelling is so inconsistent, the same sound often represented by wildly different spellings, the carryover of “pool” to “mildew” is invisible to the eye and therefore more subtle when the ear picks it up. Then there’s also the alliteration of “stagnant” and “stained” which contribute to the consonance of “cotton,” “sweat,” and “turning.” And of course, there’s assonance in “cesspool” and “sweat.” Virtually every syllable, in other words, contributes to the aural pleasure of these stanzas. It’s tempting to assume that accessible poetry will be unsophisticated in its craft, but this poem more than manages the dual challenges.

Most of the poems in Harborless are written in free verse, but Morgan also incorporates several in received forms, notably a series of erasures printed to resemble the remains of burned paper, as well as a pantoum and a couple of prose poems. Here are the first few sentences of “J. Barber, 1871”:

Peach crisp, peach pie, peach jam, peach compote, whole peaches, sliced peaches. In those hours before the peaches burned, the whole ship smelled like August in a farm kitchen. The hold was full of Michigan orchards, full of juice and sugar and the soft fuzz of peach skin.

The exuberance of the opening list is fun to read, despite its context. The rhythmic energy continues throughout the poem, which concludes with this sentence:

Peaches sizzled and spit as the ship burned, as fire consumed what was made of sugar and what was made of wood, as masts toppled like limbs pruned from fruit trees, as men rolled across the deck like windfalls, bruised and scraped, and everything was reduced to carbon and loss.

Because of the exuberant language, the last clause, “everything was reduced to carbon and loss,” becomes particularly haunting, reminding readers that despite their visions of “men roll[ing] across the deck like windfalls,” this event is not comic but tragic. Morgan’s ability to manipulate the reader’s response is impressive here, as the poem includes such attractive imagery as “each peach was seared, the sweet juice of summer briefly concentrated and contained before everything cooked, oozed, dripped, and exploded,” appealing to the reader’s desire, before it turns to the final evocative statement.

This poem, like others I’ve discussed, achieves its effect in part through its reliance on imagery associated with the land, with farming, to describe its opposite, life on water. Morgan’s reliance on agricultural imagery creates an almost nostalgic motif woven throughout the collection, such that the poems have more subtle craft-oriented relationships in addition to the obvious relationships of content.

The cities of Marquette and Munising, MI, both located on the shore of Lake Superior, have chosen Harborless as one of their community reads for next fall. A collection of poetry might be a daring choice for such a program, but this book is exactly the collection to appeal to experienced readers of poetry as well as readers who believe they don’t like poetry. Its content is compelling and its characters are sympathetic, as in the best fiction, yet its craft is both skillful and subtle. Reading and rereading this book has been exceptionally satisfying.

Review of All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman

Henrietta Goodman. All That Held Us. BkMk Press, 2018. 66 pgs. $13.95.

Henrietta Goodman’s third collection, All That Held Us, consists of untitled Petrarchan sonnets that explore relationships among a daughter, her absent father, shamed mother, judgmental and peculiar aunt, and at least one early lover. The family is more dysfunctional than most and so makes for interesting reading. What is most striking about the collection, though, is how Goodman manages the

sonnet. Most writers in English opt for the Shakespearean version because it requires fewer repetitions of each rhyme, yet Goodman adheres to Petrarchan expectations and seems to do so with ease. Although almost all of the rhymes are true rhymes, they are never forced and are often both subtle and inventive. Similarly, the diction throughout the collection is colloquial, interestingly subverting this most classic of classical forms. In addition, she adapts the strategy of a crown of sonnets, repeating a line from one poem in the next, though the repeated line often occurs in the middle of a following sonnet rather than at its opening. The poems are woven together as they would be in a crown, that is, but more inventively, more surprisingly.

Here is the fifth poem in the collection:

It wasn’t innocent, the way they mocked
each other, screeched and grumbled a grammar
of perfect bitterness—wore it, armor
of status, even though my mother hocked
her rings in Charlotte. So easily shocked,
my aunt had packed away the old glamour
of dances—sweat-stained dresses, the clamor
for a partner. She sprayed Lysol and locked
her door when my friends came, called me the child
in notes she wrote to God or no one, scraps
of paper buried under piles of stuff.
I called her shithead once at thirteen, wild
to separate myself, to spring the traps,
to find out whether words would be enough.

One of Goodman’s strategies is to use “they” toward the beginning of a poem without an explicit antecedent. Although the referent soon becomes clear, readers sometimes interpret “they” to mean one couple, e.g. the father and mother, when it refers to another, e.g. the mother and aunt. This ambiguity, which from a less-skilled poet would result simply in confusion, here reinforces the turmoil of this family—so much is unstated, so much can be inferred only through close observation.

The form here, particularly Goodman’s choices of rhyming words, reinforces the content with understated wit. The rhymed words “grammar,” “armor,” “glamour,” and “clamor,” for example, suggest in themselves the ambivalences within this family. Arguments proceed according to an expected form, and the two women’s symbiotic misery ironically armors them against further risk, and the potential for pain risk entails. “Glamour” might once have been desirable but is now characterized distastefully, by sweat and noise. The aunt’s attitude particularly can be characterized as the sum of these words. Goodman’s facility with end rhyme is enhanced by her attention to sonic effects more generally, the alliteration of “grumbled a grammar” or “whether words would” for instance, or the near rhyme of “notes” and “wrote.” Throughout this poem, the sounds are aggressive, the hard “k” and short “a” being particularly insistent.

The aunt’s character is conveyed here through memorable detail, especially in the sestet. She sprays Lysol to disinfect her house after guests arrive, refers to her niece as “the child,” and writes complaints to some invisible figure. There’s a second turn in this sonnet, midway through the sestet, as the speaker shifts attention to herself and her own desire to escape this place and these people. She discovers the power of language, not simply to evoke a reaction as she likely did here but also to validate her own experience.

The following poem begins with a line adapted from this one: “The clamor for a partner—how to give / it up?” This subsequent poem explores the adult lives of the mother and aunt, their tamped down desires converted to arrogance and bitterness. Several poems in this section focus on the relationship between the mother and the aunt. The speaker herself observes the adults but only comes to understand, as children will, a few years later. The relationship of the two women is invariably inflected by knowledge of the man who appeared for one of them, briefly, a few years earlier, the man who came to the house only once after the speaker was born but who is as psychically present as if he had moved in and claimed the lazyboy and tv remote. Midway through the collection, two poems illustrate, through their structure, how one relationship infuses the others. One poem describes the baking of a birthday cake for the mother, an unusual event in that very little actual cooking otherwise occurred in this family. The line that links the octave to the sestet states: I think they loved each other / once, shared their mother’s cookbook, watched TV.” The next poem begins with this line: “I think they loved each other once, or thought / they did, the day they fished Lake Elsinore / from a sailboat he’d bought—a whim before / they conceived me.” When the reader begins this poem, the temptation is to assume that the “they” in the first line consists of the same individuals as the “they” in the similar line from the poem before, that is, the mother and aunt. By line three, however, that assumption is proven wrong, and the “they” who “loved each other” becomes the mother and father. The dyads cannot escape each other, and Goodman guarantees that readers understand this through not only the form and content of the individual poems, but also through her arrangement of the poems within the collection. Goodman’s thoughtful attention to the progression of the individual poems and to the effect of the entire collection is, for me, one of the most satisfying elements of All That Held Us.

Like many readers of contemporary poetry, I suspect, I spend most of my time with free verse and, more recently, experimental and hybrid forms. Many poets still write in received forms, some regularly, some more occasionally. All That Held Us, though, is unique among collections I’ve read over the last few decades, not simply because Goodman has written an extended series of Petrarchan sonnets, but because she has both retained the conventions of the form and adapted it to the 21st century. The poems are a pleasure to read individually, and they are even more pleasurable to read as a group.

Review of Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment by Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala. Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2017. 120 pgs. $19.99.

One of the most interesting developments in the publication of contemporary poetry has been the turn to hybrid forms and hybrid collections. One factor is clearly related to technological developments that now permit text to be located on a page in unusual ways and also permit a mix of image and text that would have been difficult (and more crucially, expensive) just a generation ago. Another factor, I suspect, is the increasing diversity of cultures represented by publishers of contemporary poetry in English. Not every culture distinguishes among genres identically to mainstream British and American readers, nor does every culture assume that genres should not be mixed within a single published work. So we’re seeing collections of poetry especially that include pieces typeset as prose (whether we label them prose poems, flash, or something else), photographs and drawings, and short dramatic scripts. I suspect that one reason many of these collections that are challenging the boundaries of genre are published as poetry is because most poetry publishers are small, with limited staff and even less hierarchy, and much of this work is not sold in conventional bookstores. Such factors could discourage these publishers from experimentation, but the opposite seems to have occurred: these smaller publishers can do what they wish, and many of them are producing the most interesting work being published today.

Minal Hajratwala’s Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is one such collection. It contains poems that follow conventions in their appearance on the page, poems in columns of alternating voices, poems that look like prose, and finally a play. Despite these generic differences, the pieces are linked stylistically as well as thematically. Hajratwala juxtaposes classical with popular culture, putting characters from each in conversation with each other—Lady Gaga and Cassandra of Troy, for example. She also references individuals and characters from many different historic and geographic locations—Arjuna, Zitkala-Ŝa, the Buddha, Achilles, Margaret Mead. The poems are pleasurable to read because their content is often surprising, but they are not merely clever. Hajratwala encourages her readers to think not only about cultural distinctions and their sometimes arbitrary significance, but also about how members of a given culture perceive others. The book is playful and also thoughtful, challenging and wry, sometimes amusing and often very, very serious.

“Bodies of Water,” the third poem in the collection, plays on the multiple meanings of both nouns in the title. Describing Lake Victoria, it opens with what initially seem like a bizarre series of metaphors, though those metaphors soon make an appalling kind of sense:

Shape of brainstem, or ovary.

Northwest of the nipples of Kilamanjaro,

south of the Sudan,

the pale queen’s lake makes a gap in the continent

where, now, corpses rush—

a torrent of flesh so uniform you would not guess

they died for their differences

a hundred miles upstream.

One passes

every three minutes.

The initial metaphors, describing landscape in terms of reproduction and primitive thought, perhaps simply reaction more than thought, for it’s the “brainstem” not the brain that serves as the metaphor’s vehicle, prepare us for the subsequent event, the ethnic slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. A few stanzas later, a European speaks:

I have never seen such cruelty to man,

claims the British ambassador, his tongue

distorting Hutu, Tutsi, Rwanda—

The ambassador’s statement is so ironic as to border on despair, for so many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ ethnic conflicts in Africa are the direct result of European colonialism. Many of the poem’s images rely on body parts, as does “tongue” above, as the speaker describes the bodies’ “dismemberment.” Then, she turns to her own response:

Two hand spans across the globe

I wonder whose hands will caress

the forty thousand, how will they shift

so many dripping dead to shallow graves &

in which language will they wail?

The poem critiques the British ambassador as well as the soldiers who have committed such atrocities. It also reminds the reader that we are all implicated, for one of the most disturbing facts is that there are so many events to compete with this atrocity, to debate the ambassador’s claim. This poem is perhaps the most serious in the collection, but many of the others explore history, revealing that history is the continuous story mistreatment of one group of humans by another.

“Bodies of Water” is a poem organized into conventional lines and stanzas, all the more horrifying because it so resembles a lyric on the page. The pieces in section three, “Archaeologies of the Present,” are more experimental. They adopt several of the conventions of social media and electronic search engines, each piece accompanied by a list of tags, and each tagged word appearing in bold face. “The Beautiful” has the following tags: “star, blood, cellular, closet, homo, hegemony,” and begins this way:

Luxury at this time in America means white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, a material used in bathing towels in five-star hotels. The stars are a rating system indicating quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one must be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough for projection: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides are enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means exist to simulate blood.

As soon as American readers see “white robes with hoods,” they are thinking KKK. The poem initially seems to suggest this is a misreading, but the second paragraph oddly confirms it. Members of the KKK have committed hundreds of homicides, to create terror among African Americans and others, and to offer entertainment for some white Americans. (Who can ever forget the photographs of mobs at lynchings?) “Luxury” is privilege, the ability to wear the terry-cloth robe or to wear or decline to wear the other robe with a hood. “The Beautiful” continues to enumerate daily rituals that signify luxury—varieties of cereal, lipstick, closet organizers, milk. The piece ends with a return to its beginning:

Homo fortified milk is sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying needs for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, are white.

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is worth reading and rereading for both its style and content. Its hybrid nature entices readers into close attention, heightening the effect of the content. We’ve never read about these events, our own cultures, or the cultures of others quite this way before. If the accomplishment of this collection is representative of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, I can’t wait to read more of their books.

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
unscathed,…

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.