Category Archives: A Review A Week

Review of The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward

Lockward coverDiane Lockward. The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Wind Publications, 2013. 263 pgs. $20.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I didn’t know I was looking for Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, but I sure am glad I found it. I’ve benefited from Lockward’s newsletter and blog over the last few years; many of the poetry prompts featured in her newsletter have encouraged me to think about language differently—attentively, curiously, mischievously. Her newsletter is an act of generosity that few of us could sustain for as long as she has (though I assume she also has fun with it). I’ve written some poems I would never, ever, ever, ever have written without the challenge of her prompt. What I have appreciated about her prompts, and what I appreciate about the book, is the detail and complexity. She extends her prompt well beyond the first expected instruction; she assumes her audience consists of working poets.

Like many of us, I own many books on poetic craft, and I’ve found almost all of them useful in one way or another. But mostly these days I find them more helpful for my students than for my own work. Lockward’s prompts are challenging, though, because they’re inventive. And they’re inventive because she uses poems by other poets as the inspiration. She reads those poems carefully, noticing the elements that are just peculiar enough to intrigue writers who’ve been at it for a while.

The book is organized in ten chapters. Each chapter includes two or three “craft tips” from other writers, ranging from Kim Addonizio to Jane Hirschfield to Jeanne Marie Beaumont to Vern Rutsala and many others. Each craft tip is followed by a poem and a prompt inspired by that poem, followed by poems written by Lockward’s readers in response to the prompts. We see, therefore, not only that the prompts work, but that they inspire dramatically different poems by different writers. Each chapter also includes a feature called “The Poet on the Poem”; here, Lockward prints a poem and then interviews the poet about the composition of that poem. Then each chapter concludes with a “Bonus Prompt.” The Crafty Poet, in other words, is both craft book and anthology, but its unique characteristic is the direct relationship between the included poems and the exercises.

For example, in the chapter on “Voice,” Lockward begins with a poem, “Post Hoc,” by Jennifer Maier. “Post Hoc” plays with cliché to establish tone. It starts this way: “It happened because he looked a gift horse in the mouth. / It happened because he couldn’t get that monkey off his back. / It happened because she didn’t chew 22 times before swallowing. / What was she thinking, letting him walk home alone from the bus stop?” The poem uses enough repetition and variation to keep us engaged; it lets us think we know where the poem is going, and then it turns a corner we hadn’t anticipated. Toward the end of the poem, we read these lines: “Why, why, in God’s name, did he run with scissors? / If only they’d asked Jesus for help. / If only they’d asked their friends for help. / If only they’d ignored the advice of others and held fast / to their own convictions,…” The first instruction in Lockward’s prompt after this poem is just what we’d expect: brainstorm some clichés. We might even anticipate the second step: recall some pieces of advice. Many of us might stop with the combination of those two instructions. But Lockward’s prompt continues: “Use at least three different repeated sentence beginnings…” And “Use lots of questions and alternate them with declarative sentences.” And then finally, “You might use a different Latin phrase as your title.” The prompt is complex and contains enough different instructions that all of us could start somewhere—and all of us could be led where we might not otherwise go. This is what I mean when I say her prompts are both challenging and inventive. The sample poems that follow, by Kenneth Ronkowitz and Ingrid Wendt, illustrate how this prompt encourages both wit and reflection.

Even the craft tips are thoughtfully complex, much more than the word “tips” might imply. Wesley McNair offers not one but “Ten Tips for Breaking Lines in Free Verse.” Each tip focuses on a different purpose—meaning, rhythm, mood, shape. The final tip could be added to every piece of writerly advice: “Believe these tips and don’t believe them. Let the feeling life of your poem be the final authority.” Take seriously the insights of other writers, but not too seriously. Take seriously your own intentions for your work, but inform your intentions with the practices of others.

Reading through this book, I find myself torn by competing desires: to linger over many of the poems, and to rush to my desk to try the prompts. A book that inspires me to do more than is possible—what a good book that is. I’m glad The Crafty Poet found its way to my hands, and I’m looking forward to leafing through my notebook in a year or so, counting up the poems that owe their conception to this book.

Review of Life Work by Charlotte Mandel

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Charlotte Mandel. Life Work. David Robert Books. 2013. 97 pgs. $18.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Life Work, Charlotte Mandel’s eighth collection of poetry, is arranged into five sections, each one containing poems related either by content or form. The collection is, therefore, something like a compilation of chapbooks, and it illustrates the title’s suggestion—by including such a range of poems, the book does seem to represent a poet’s “life work.” Many of the poems are written in received forms, from sonnet sequences to pantoum to ghazal. Several of the poems are elegiac; others are ekphrastic. They describe the quotidian—a new mattress, an old sweater—as well as the majestic, both immanent and transcendent.

The first section contains several elegies to the speaker’s husband, often composed as sonnets. “Crossing the Calendar Bridge” is a sequence of three sonnets that trace grief’s evolution, eventually linking end to beginning. In a sense, it does begin at a beginning: New Year’s Eve, but it is the first New Year’s after her husband’s death, and the speaker recalls his New Year’s ritual, the recitation of a sentence which now can never again be true: “Lucky us, we’ve earned / another year.” By the end of this sonnet, she imagines him waiting for her with a “welcoming embrace”; the next sonnet begins, “I did not always welcome his embrace.” So this middle of the three sonnets explores some challenges and rewards of marriage. The final sonnet of these three returns to grief, and it is the most formally intriguing of the three. In the second sonnet, the speaker had referred to the match between herself and her husband as “rhymes” that “were true or near or simply free.” The rhymes in these sonnets are as often near as they are true, and at times they border on free. In the third sonnet, the rhymes are almost never exact. As the poem nears its concluding couplet, however, its attention turns to language itself as a factor in experience. Mandel says: “Get past the calendar, switch off the screen / stop conjugating ‘is’ as ‘might have been.’ // Yet how to tell the poem ‘don’t reminisce’ / all moments lived are sparks to genesis.” On the one hand, the speaker encourages herself to receive the present as it is rather than interpreting it as absence. Yet she also addresses a conundrum—how to convey the difference between what was and what is without reminiscing. As we reach the final line, however, the rhyme—reminisce/genesis—delights us. We are surprised by what the form can do, and so we pause—as we would at the concluding couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet anyway, or as we would at the concluding line of any poem—but here we pause to consider the truth that this rhyme forces: everything does lead to beginning, whether that is the beginning or a (perhaps new) beginning. “Sparks” here is a particularly interesting noun, especially as they are not sparks from but to genesis. That aspect of ourselves that is life, that spark brightening for a moment before it dies away, does connect us to the beginning. The poem works in part because it leads not where we would expect, to an end, but instead it chooses to end with beginning.

I’ll discuss only one other poem, this one written a bit more freely than a sonnet demands, yet not entirely in free verse either. “Flood Washed” is written in energetic syllabics and describes a snake, already dead on the sidewalk, which serves to recall an earlier snake killed by the speaker’s husband. The poem is composed in couplets. In the first several, the first line consists of nine syllables while the second line consists of three. Eventually, the pattern is reduced to lines of eight and three syllables, then seven and three, then again eight and three. The speaker is attracted to the snake’s beauty, linking it to creative desire: “Who framed you, the visionary / poet asks— // from whence comes this earthly design / built into // matter’s insistent desire: In / all things, form.” A snake can seem oddly formless, and yet its length curls into forms as patterns of scales create forms of its skin. If not all pattern and form create beauty, beauty nevertheless requires pattern and form. In concluding with the word “form,” the poem itself testifies to the beauty of its own structure, and it confirms the beauty of form in much of the rest of the collection.

I often find contemporary poetry written in received forms a little heavy-handed; I hear the metrical rhythms too definitely. The rhythms of Charlotte Mandel’s poems are refreshingly subtle, often nearly natural. I appreciate poems written in received forms most when my recognition of the form is secondary to my appreciation of the whole, as it is throughout Life Work.

Review of The Storehouses of Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams by Philip Memmer

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Philip Memmer. The Storehouses of Snow: Psalms, Parables and Dreams. Lost Horse Press. 2012. 67 pgs. $15.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

We’re fine with dreams, most of us, but who will say what a psalm is, or what a parable does? Psalms in the Bible, of course, address God and are often attributed to King David; sometimes they curse enemies, and sometimes they praise creation. Sometimes the speaker moans about his sorry state before cursing enemies or praising creation. Parables seem to be straightforward enough, once we’ve read Jesus’ explanation—but then sometimes we take another look and say hey, wait a minute. There are other interpretations too. Parables are slippery creatures, never quite securely within our grasp. And along with its psalms and parables, the Bible is full of dreams, though not the kind of dreams we describe today. Biblical dreams are never silly; they’re often seeking an interpreter; they’re always prophetic. So what is Philip Memmer doing in his fourth collection, The Storehouses of Snow, whose contents consist entirely of pieces labeled “dream,” “psalm,” or “parable”?

When I read Memmer’s Lucifer: A Hagiography a few years ago, I was astonished. He’d taken a character I thought I knew well enough  and revised him sympathetically. Although he provocatively called that book a hagiography, it also reads like an extended parable, for it is a story we want to keep turning over in our minds, understanding more and differently each time. The Storehouses of Snow is equally rewarding, though structured very differently. It begins with a piece called “Psalm” that functions as a preface, then contains eight sections, each consisting of three parts, a “Psalm,” a “Dream,” and a “Parable,” not always in the same order. Between sections four and five, he places another single “Psalm,” and the collection concludes with another “Psalm.” Each of these pieces takes our conventional notions of the form and adapts it to a 21st century psyche, inevitably informed by at least as much skepticism as belief.

The opening psalm challenges us to consider the relationship between ourselves and our belief—perhaps the two words, “self” and “belief,” are after all just synonyms; perhaps the symbol that links them is just an equal sign. Or perhaps it’s desire that corresponds to belief, and meaning is simply projected desire. This psalm consists of three short stanzas (every poem in the book relies on this pattern of tercets, an opening line followed by two indented lines). I’ll quote the second two stanzas: “I can tell myself I see you, / until I realize / that I face you // with both eyes shut, and the dazzle / I might have called truth is / my own bright blood.” As a preface, this poem seems to warn us not to put too much faith in, well, faith. Such would seem to be the end of it, if the entire book that follows didn’t also address this “you.”

Many of the psalms here invite consideration, discussion, pondering. They include memorable lines: “Because you are always ceasing / to be, and then ceasing / to cease to be” and “How, Lord, could you have created / a creature such as me, / enamored with // (of all the things here in this world) / the freshness of a field / of new asphalt?” and “looking down / through December // to this one mystery floating / so cheerfully towards / its own melting…,” this last from the title poem. Their language both replicates Biblical language and reads as entirely contemporary.

The poems that intrigue me most, however, are the parables. They captivate as riddles do, each solution a surprise. In one, a row of houses is broken into by thieves. The parable begins with a generalized situation, as parables are prone to do: “There was a street.” The first two thieves do what we expect thieves to do—they break windows and locks, hunting for valuables. But they leave empty handed because they find nothing of interest. The third thief, however, walks in through an open door and claims the house as his own. And then, the poem concludes, “like this man—and though / you will always // be a thief in your heart—you must / find the kingdom empty, / then make it yours.” Perhaps this parable reflects the opening psalm, in which we see only our own blood but call it glorious. Even so, this parable suggests that we can make a kingdom of emptiness. The poem is as successful as it is because the final turn, beginning in the penultimate stanza, transforms it from a simple story to an invitation to perceive ourselves anew, with understanding and compassion. In the final parable in the book, three voices sit before a teller, each voice hoping for favor. They are Lie, Truth, and Story. The teller lies on his deathbed, and distinctions among the three voices fade. After the teller does die, the three share his heart: “for the last time, / in their terrible greed, / they devoured it.” But before this moment, when the three notice that the teller has died, they interpret the event according to their own preferences: “He’s better off, sighed Lie. / And in his sleep, // smiled Truth. Story said nothing…” But Story does say something eventually, “There once / was a man…” Story seems to have the last word, converting the teller into a story, one that resembles a parable in its opening. Is every story a parable, every last word a riddle? Perhaps. We are left to make our own kingdoms of—no, not emptiness—but language, which insists on meaning.

As for the dreams, they too are provocative. I encourage you to read the book and discover them for yourselves.


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Review of Secure the Shadow by Claudia Emerson

Emerson cover

Claudia Emerson. Secure the Shadow. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 70 pgs. $18.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Secure the Shadow, Claudia Emerson’s fifth collection of poetry, consists of elegantly restrained meditations on memory, loss, death—of a father, a brother, anonymous strangers, various animals—those subjects poets consider again and again. Of course, all grief reminds us of our own mortality, as Hopkins insists in “Spring and Fall” and Odysseus demonstrates when he lives to hear a story of his own death. Yet knowledge of our own mortality needn’t diminish the authenticity of our memorials for others; the intensity of our grief might instead verify our willingness to forget the self. Although many of the poems in Secure the Shadow incorporate a first person speaker, that speaker remains contemplative, inviting the reader to consider what she has considered, to perceive what she has perceived. Reading this collection, our identity expands as we find ourselves among a community—of the living and, yes, of the dead.

The title poem describes several daguerreotypes of deceased children, “Secure the Shadow” a slogan to encourage the production of images. If the body decomposes, the image can remain. The instruction to “secure” a “shadow” is provocative, for a shadow, though a noun, is barely a thing. A shadow is something that is not, yet it testifies to that which is. The children in these daguerreotypes are strangers to the speaker, yet she notices their detail, their individuality. Some of the details will seem bizarre to many modern readers: the corpse of a girl dead nine days, preserved on a “desperate bed of ice”; the corpse of another girl holding a live cat; the corpses of children who have “their hands tied as though in bondage; / this is, the photographer’s notes instruct, / to prevent displacement,…” The images suggest that though each child has become anonymous, each life nevertheless had meaning, and some meaning, if not the same meaning, returns through the poem. In the last section, Emerson suggests that the images eventually collapse into types, for the poses and props repeat themselves, “rooms and windows, cradles and caskets.” The poem turns outward, for just as the types of these portraits are limited, so also are our ways of seeing: “the light / changes, fades, is lost, the pane—the lens— / darkening from glass to mirror, until / the substance of the eye sees itself / outside the self, and then can look no further.” The reader, also, seeing his or her future in these daguerreotypes, can see no further, yet it is empathy rather than solipsism that enables us to see “outside the self.” “Secure the Shadow” rests in compassion, a trustworthy trait in any speaker.

Two of the other poems have particularly stuck with me in the months I’ve been thinking about this book. Neither is as long as “Secure the Shadow,” but both explore the relationship of grief and identity. They are stylistically similar, written in couplets with indented second lines, as are nearly all of the poems in the book. This structure works particularly well in “Namesake,” a nineteen line poem of nine couplets with a single final line, nineteen lines but only two sentences; the first sentence ends in the middle of line ten. Although Emerson frequently relies on this form, “Namesake” illustrates how flexible the form can be and how adept Emerson is with the line. The poem opens this way: “While still a child, he sensed his name— / spoken, shouted, whispered, laughed, and called // and called and called—was not fully his, / having been first his grandfather’s…” The break between lines two and three, which is also the first stanza break, illustrates how Emerson complicates meaning by exploiting form. The second line seems simply a list of verbs affiliated with speaking, but then we have “and called and called” to begin line three, repeating “called” and emphasizing it, so that we pay attention, not only to the insistence of “called”—which will be referred to later as the boy sometimes refuses to heed its imperative—but also to additional meanings of “call.” To be called is not only to be identified, but also to be set apart. This boy’s calling is not his own because his name belongs to his grandfather, who died when his mother was a child. This boy is called, but only because the other one, who was also called, cannot answer. The boy can therefore never be certain of his calling.  Without the line and stanza break where it occurs, readers would not be as inclined to ruminate over this verb, recognizing its depth. Calling him, his mother longs for her own father, and so the boy experiences her disappointment when he answers. Experiencing himself as disappointment, the boy “could not know whom to rage against, // the one who called, the one who would not come.” Other lines in this poem read as units of meaning that augment the sentence’s grammatical meaning, and Emerson varies the rhythm within the lines through phrasing and caesuras so that the music remains engaging and even becomes surprising.

Another poem, a particularly short one called simply “I,” also explores the relationship between identity and grief, this time through the mind of one who can no longer express his thoughts. He can say one word only, one syllable, one vowel: “he tries again / and again, repeating the long flat i— // a needle deepening in the groove—until / his voice registers something beyond grief, // disbelief, the word having returned / to sound—oblivious elegy, that pure vowel.” The single sound, the first person singular pronoun, is elegy. The man is not yet dead, but he could not be more clearly mortal. Like “Namesake,” “I” is written in couplets, though this time as a single sentence. Nearly all of the lines are enjambed, so the poem is propelled forward more quickly than “Namesake,” though again the rhythm varies from line to line. It’s a beautiful poem, and it’s heart wrenching.

Secure the Shadow is stylistically and thematically coherent. Many of the poems are ambitious—we read, pause, reread. The poems consistently reveal a depth of meaning that compels rereading. I am anxious for Emerson’s next book, and yet also not anxious, for the poems here provide enough to engage me until then.


Review of Gathered, edited by Nick McRae

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Nick McRae, ed. Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets. Sundress Publications, 2013. 164 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I’m a collector of anthologies, not so much the conventional ones organized by nation and period and intended as textbooks for literature courses, but the quirkier sort, those that illustrate an editor’s obsessions, often gathering poems according to their subject matter or form. On my shelves now, I see anthologies devoted to poems about science and mathematics, poems responding to the paintings of Edward Hopper, poems reinterpreting classical myths. I see an entire book of ghazals; one of my own poems is forthcoming in a collection of sestinas. Several of the anthologies I own focus on religion, spirituality, the Bible—for such are my own obsessions. So it is no surprise that Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets, edited by Nick McRae, has found its way into my hands. (Full disclosure: I am not a Quaker, though I am a student at the Earlham School of Religion, where I have taken a couple of courses in its Ministry of Writing.) McRae has done an admirable job collecting work by poets whose worldviews—and, often, aesthetic practices—overlap without defaulting to monotony. The poets may assume a similar frame of reference, in other words, but they gaze out into the world from different angles, settling their vision on their own individual landscapes.

The work of a few of the contributors—David Ray, Sarah Sarai, Maria Melendez—was familiar to me, but many writers were new. Several of the newer poets have not yet published books, but their work is widely available in literary periodicals. Many of the poems overtly address religious themes, while others consider ethical challenges—of war, hunger, environmentalism. Yet others explore those universal subjects of love and loss, birth and death; these poems both gain significance from their context and contribute to the collection’s significance. Familiarity with Quakerism will deepen a reader’s understanding of some of these poems, including several that rely on light or silence as controlling images and one written in the voice of early American Quaker John Woolman, but none of the poems will be too obscure for someone unfamiliar with this spiritual tradition.

As occurs with most reviews of anthologies (or of any book, really), I’ve marked many more poems than I have space to discuss here. So I’ll focus on only two, “[Because it is perishable]” by Jennifer Luebbers and “Mrs. Noah Breathes with the Animals” by Elizabeth Schultz. These two poems are dramatically different in form, yet they have each managed to stay with me. “[Because it is perishable]” is written in short couplets with the second line consistently indented. The entire poem consists of one long sentence. As striking as the syntactical control, however, are the sonic effects. Internal rhyme, off rhyme, alliteration, and assonance mark the poem, intriguing the ear, but subtly. The poem begins this way, with the title functioning as a first line:

[Because it is perishable,]

the day, with its vinegar &

orange, its coffee gone 
      cold & porridge

 solid on the sill…

My eye is attracted to the spacing, and then my ear perks up at “orange…porridge.” The imagery isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it is peculiar enough to arouse my curiosity. After describing a fantasy of a day, the speaker acknowledges that what

we really want is someone
to witness each day:

our names for each other,
our words for things—

always, friend, I will hear
your voice

singing in the sound
of paper.

The friend’s voice is singing, therefore, in the materiality of the poem, even as the words are literally spoken by the speaker (even though no one, of course, literally speaks on paper—and even as here, we read pixels on a screen rather than ink on paper). Most of us do want someone to witness to our days, our lives, to testify to them, and isn’t that what poetry does, partly—bear testimony to the notion that we have lived.

One of the attractions of many anthologies is stylistic variety. Compared to “[Because it is perishable],” Elizabeth Schultz’ “Mrs. Noah Breathes with the Animals” looks much more conventional on the page—every line is justified left, each of the two stanzas fourteen lines long. The form doesn’t force a reader to pause, wondering at the juxtaposed imagery, and yet I did pause, considering the voice, its insights, the speaker’s situation. When I think about Noah’s ark, I’m grateful I wasn’t on it, mostly because I imagine the stench of all those cooped up animals. In this poem, however, Mrs. Noah expresses a more generalized weariness: “I was exhausted / by miracles,” she begins. She feeds the animals, many of them carnivores—this isn’t yet the peaceable kingdom after all. Her aim seems only to get through the day, apparently too tired to wonder whether this experience will conclude on dry land. They have lost track of sabbath, and she finds no rest, though as the poem ends she does notice one gesture that  might, possibly, offer spiritual sustenance: “Perhaps the kangaroo, dainty / hands lifted to her face, prayed. / There were no answers, only / the surge of our breathing.”  The prayers aren’t answered unless breath itself is the answer. Some days, breath is enough to pray for.

I did find a few of the poems less interesting, too dependent on modifiers or too ordinary in their language. Such is the nature of anthologies. Reading them, I inevitably ponder the selections, considering the extent to which my own choices would have coincided with the editor’s. But such also is the privilege of an editor, to create a collection that illustrates his own vision. The contents of Gathered demonstrate an editor’s thoughtfulness. I’ll be returning to it, rereading many of the poems, seeking out more work from these contributors.


Review of Gold by Barbara Crooker


Barbara Crooker. Gold. Cascade Books / Wipf and Stock, 2013. 70 pgs. $11.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Gold,  Barbara Crooker’s fourth collection, is published as part of Cascade Books’ Poiema Poetry Series which features the work of Christian poets, presumably those whose work reveals their faith commitments. Other authors in the series include such accomplished poets as Sydney Lea and Paul Mariani. Artists of faith (and I include all faith traditions here, although in this review I will adhere to the language of Christianity), when they understand their drive to create as a call, know that part of the responsibility of their gift is to attend to craft, to write as well as they are able. Sometimes such artists assume the role of prophet; sometimes they bear witness. Sometimes their content overtly reveals their religious orientation; sometimes their spirituality enters their work more subtly, in their approach to their material. Either way, these artists recognize that their urge to create forms a significant part of their claim to be made in the image of God. For this reason, I am glad that Cascade Books has created this series, providing space for poets who are serious about their faith and also serious about their art.

Crooker’s poems in this collection are not narrowly religious, but they are faith-filled. They accept life as it is—defined by mortality, for example—even as the speaker sometimes wishes it could be otherwise. Many of these poems have been written out of grief as Crooker mourns her mother’s death, yet they remain firmly invested in this material world. Several of the poems describe her mother’s final illness, particularly as she ate or failed to eat. Among my favorites is “Ambrosia,” the speaker’s mother’s word for everything good. Maybe it was “chicken / in basil cream with Sauvignon Blanc on fresh linguine. / Or a dense chocolate cake, sour cream and hot coffee / in the batter.” But it might have been just a piece of fruit. Or maybe it was a donut, “filled / with the jeweled ooze of jelly.” Her mother ate, attending fully to this bit of the world, “And when she was done, she sighed. Ambrosia.” Ambrosia is, of course, the food of the gods, and according to some stories, it confers immortality. As she hovers in mortality, the speaker’s mother translates her life into the immortal world, not through theological debate or repentance or even prayer, but through her appreciation of the concrete elements of this particular world.

Most of the poems in Gold are brief personal lyrics, with a consistent speaker from poem to poem. They rely on images taken from nature—goldenrod, maple, geese, mockingbird. The speaker listens and sees as she moves through her days. And she thinks—her observations lead to insight, most often to that familiar frustrating paradox: life is full to overflowing and yet we still resist letting go when we must. One poem that illustrates this preoccupation is “Late Prayer,” which opens with an unusual impatience: “It’s not that I’m not trying / to love the world and everything / in it, but look, that includes people / who shoot up schools, not just the blue / bird in his coat of sky,…” Crooker’s line breaks here are particularly effective. The break at line three, for example, after the word “people” suggests initially that attempting to love people in general can be trying, rather than only the  people “who shoot up schools.” The poem lists several examples of horrifying or at least annoying types of people, contrasting them with sky and clouds and wind, the aspects of creation that are easier to appreciate. Then, a few lines from the end, the poem shifts its tone. Even as she has become impatient, the speaker remains filled with “wild longing.” She hopes reality consists of more than “shining surfaces.” And she understands that she might fail, too, not because she’s likely to kill someone or harden her heart against her fellow creatures, but simply through a failure of courage: “Will I be strong / enough to row across the ocean of loss / when my turn comes to take the oars?”

In the final section of the book, the poems become more varied in their subject matter, often responding to paintings and other pieces of art. The speaker seems to have emerged from her period of mourning and re-entered the world. My favorite image in the entire book occurs here, at the end of a poem called “Salt”: “Long ago, / someone tipped some salt on a black skillet / and decided to call that spillage ‘stars.’” I was not expecting that metaphor, yet it encapsulates the poem, which situates domestic experience in terms of a transcendent reality.

If I have a quibble with these poems, it is with the preponderance of forms of the verb “to be.” I would prefer more telling, more engaged verbs. A strength of these poems is in their imagery, which we often assume is composed of nouns and adjectives, for we see and hear and touch things. But as we watch those things, they change, even when they seem still. Poems often hinge on the nature of that change, conveyed with verbs. Nevertheless, these poems have called me to observe my own world more mindfully, to name it, to call out to it, and to hear when it calls out to me.

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Review of Phyla of Joy by Karen An-hwei Lee

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Karen An-hwei Lee. Phyla of Joy. Tupelo Press, 2012. 63 pgs. $16.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Phyla of Joy, Karen An-hwei Lee’s third collection, is filled with things—bamboo flowers, oolong tea, honeybees, salt. The poems are exceedingly visual, and much of the music in the poems corresponds to the tightly concrete—yet also seductively puzzling—images. Many of the poems are contemplative in tone, but they develop their meaning (if meaning is what they’re aiming for) through juxtaposition of imagery rather than explanation. I found myself rereading several of the poems, sometimes because I found the language so attractive, sometimes because I didn’t quite understand; most often, I experienced both responses simultaneously. I realized, eventually, that these are poems to sit with, to absorb, to pick up and put down and pick up again. Sometimes the lines don’t make literal sense, but they are nevertheless interesting—“Monday is where camphor comes from,”—until, usually, as we read from one line to the next, the poem’s logic rises up in us as dawn rises up, tentatively, from earth.

Many of the poems engage our curiosity immediately. “Prayer of Resistance” begins with this question: “How do we fly to heaven / with the resistance of weather?” “Dream of Metasequoia” claims that “Two o’clock is the weight of empathy.” “Sunday Is” completes its title with “A kind of raiment.” I find myself measuring the “weight of empathy”—it is softer than the glare of high noon, more hopeful than that oppressive dark night, but it is not nothing either. Cupping empathy, our hands sink slightly. And I find myself considering Sunday’s “raiment,” a garment to wrap ourselves in to signal intention, attention to our internal lives. I anticipate an answer to the opening question in “Prayer of Resistance,” but read this couplet instead: “Wedding gases, says a child. / No, they’re noble gases.” These lines, too, I find curious, though I’m uncertain how they relate to either heaven or “the resistance of weather.” Like many of the poems in the collection, “Prayer of Resistance” establishes its sense via detour and deflection; it meanders toward meaning, teasing the reader perhaps, as the poem resists easy penetration and the reader resists meaninglessness. The speaker suggests that “the resistance we meet in life / winks at the universe,” and I find myself winked at too in my determination to understand, to resist the poem’s ultimate conclusion, “before black holes swallow all / we remember since birth.”

Some of the poems are more immediately accessible. “Invocation,” for example, opens with a straightforward statement, “My body isn’t shaped like a violin, said the girl.” Although we don’t yet know who this girl is—or if it matters who she is—the relationships among the lines are more direct than they are in many of the poems. The poem continues, “Curve in my hip isn’t deep enough, profundo. // One blue world, my curve vanishes. / You aren’t a violin, said the mother.” The girl offers several negative evaluations of her body, each time the mother suggesting that the girl can’t be reduced to figurative language, as desirable as that language might be. The language in this poem is beautiful, but the girl is after more than beautiful language, as is the mother. The poem ends ironically, “without the pressure of metaphors / / invoking paternal shadows, absent figures of speech, veritas.” At some level, of course, all language is metaphorical. And declaring something absent brings it into presence. The truth of the poem lies both in its metaphors and in their denial.

Perhaps the most playful poem in the collection is “Theories of the Soul,” which references ideas of Kant, Aquinas, Heraclitus, and others. It helps to know that Thomas Aquinas was taunted by his companions as a “dumb ox,” for in the poem, Aquinas “feels his soul / sailing out of his head // floating near the roof / where a blue ox wings by.” Perhaps in attempting to describe the soul, each thinker is correct. By its end, however, the poem becomes a love poem, to Aquinas and other theologians, yes, but also to another unidentified “you,” the “true friend” referred to in the poem’s epigraph. “If you / are a soul in two bodies,” the speaker speculates and then continues, “life is more complex / and we must labor // twice in the field of sorrow / after sleep, bath, and a glass // as Aquinas whispers, the things / we love tell us who we are.” The speaker has named this you whom she loves, and has, now, revealed who she is.

Phyla of Joy is unusually unified—through form, style, repeated reference. The writing is spare and satisfying and suggestive. Although I occasionally wished for more guidance from the speaker, I much more often appreciated the quiet patience the poems encourage.


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Review of Theophobia by Bruce Beasley

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Bruce Beasley. Theophobia. BOA Editions, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Theophobia, Bruce Beasley’s seventh collection, is both the sort of book I immediately gravitate to and the sort of book I ordinarily avoid. Several of the poems puzzle over theological questions, often beginning with orthodoxy and then springing outward, exploring the ramifications of creedal statements for those of us defined by modernity and postmodernity. These questions intrigue me also, and I admire poetry that grapples with those big abstract questions while maintaining its firmly concrete identity as poetry. Beasley’s work does that, yet at first glance the poems in this collection also make me a little wary. Some of the vocabulary is highly technical—“hexadecimal code,” “somnotropic, thanatropic, oneirotrope,” “phenylalanine”—and some of the line and stanza breaks draw attention to syllables (rather than words) and to orthography—“twi- / dim this / demi- // night this…” As my eyes light on these pages, before I read the poems, I worry that I just won’t understand what Beasley is up to. And then if I do understand, will my work of comprehension earn a just wage? Beasley’s poems do demand an attentive reader; but they demand the sort of attention that is most pleasurable, a reader who is immersed in the questions, who is fully engaged with the language, who surrenders to the poems’ guidance.

Most of the poems in this collection are several pages long, often arranged into sections. They juxtapose language from one specialized discipline with that of another, exploiting the ideas of genetics, for example, to explore theological teachings that have been debated (and even generally agreed upon by most Christians) for millennia. The poems succeed because this juxtaposition does indeed startle us toward fresh insights. Readers are presented with a mind thinking, a particularly energetic mind, one that enjoys the task. And despite my own initial hesitations, I found the poems ultimately hospitable.

Because I would like to explore some of Beasley’s strategies closely, I’ll discuss only one poem in this review, “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia.” My choice is inadequate, I know, for several other poems in the collection are compelling, complex, and rewarding, and I don’t want to suggest that this poem somehow summarizes the collection (although in a sense it does). It is the poem that has come to obsess me; it is the one I can’t leave alone.

Obviously, a poem reliant on an online encyclopedia regularly updated with contributions from expert and amateur alike could not have been written much before the present moment. The title suggests, though, that it’s not simply a Wikipedia entry on the Holy Spirit that the speaker has read, but the Holy Spirit’s own frequently updated virtual collection of revelations that the speaker has observed. In both Greek and Hebrew, words translated as “spirit” can also mean “breath” or “wind,” a fact the poem incorporates. The poem is arranged into nine sections, each one logically distinct from the others. The poem opens with the description “Glossolalic and disincarnate.” Glossolalia is the practice of speaking in tongues, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and one, perhaps, particularly suited to poets. And the Holy Spirit is the aspect of the Trinity least likely to be portrayed in human form. This opening section becomes a prayer: “interfere / in me, interleave me / and leave me through my breathing: like some third // person conjugation I’ve rewhispered / in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue / made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.” The spirit of God is on the one hand the breath of God; the Holy Spirit also descends, according to the Pentecost story, upon the apostles as tongues of flame. And Yahweh, who will be introduced in section six, may very well be as much verb, “I am,” as noun. Yet if all verbs in a language are irregular, if a language has no discernible pattern, can that language be learned?

In the second section, the speaker attempts to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity: “I can’t keep / straight sometimes which one of You / is You: // there’s One who fractures off from light / as light, I know, and One / (is that One You?) eternally begotten, so never not at just that instant being born.” Anything eternal always was, of course, and always will be, yet here we have an additional fact—the Holy Spirit isn’t simply eternal but “eternally begotten” (a description usually applied to the second person of the Trinity), and so always also emerging, “being born.” The Holy Spirit, therefore, is always and is always new.

Section three seems to veer away from theology. It describes a truly bizarre creature, a parasite, “Toxoplasma gondii,” which attacks the brain of a rat, persuading the rat to lust after cats because the parasite reproduces itself in the intestines of cats. Is this how the Holy Spirit acts on us, the section asks, reconfiguring our response “from dread to lust for what consumes it”?

By the end of the poem, the speaker has explored the rationale for representing the Holy Spirit as a dove, and he has revealed his own son’s response to the infancy narratives of Jesus: “so Jesus’ dad was just like you…” The speaker returns to Wikipedia and to prayer, concluding with this petition: “Who // bloweth where You listeth, Whom / the world will never know, list to blow / down me.” We hear John Donne here, and we hear allusions to hymns earlier on (at least I do)Yet the poem is entirely Beasley’s own. To thoroughly explicate it would require more space than a brief review permits, and extended explication isn’t really the purpose of a review. For that we have other forms and, perhaps, the opportunity for additional conversation. This poem integrates science, technology, etymology, and autobiography into theology, suggesting that nothing exists apart from this one who is “Being-Without-a-Body,” yet the poem handles each idea with a light hand. It’s mystical rather than missionary; it aims not to convert but to astonish. Reading this poem, I keep imagining myself in the presence of someone who puts down the paper after every few sentences to exclaim, “Oh my God, you’ve got to read this.”

I’m envious of Beasley’s agility in this book. The poems consolidate the mind with the spirit, the ordinary with the extreme, possibility with impossibility.

Review of A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith

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Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, eds. A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Tupelo Press, 2012. 291 pgs. $19.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith collects nineteen pieces in addition to the editors’ introduction; the approach both to topic and to format is unique. Contributing poets include those we might expect to hear from on matters of faith (Alicia Ostriker, Christian Wiman) as well as those whose work might first come to mind in other contexts (Carolyn Forché); they include well-known poets who have been publishing for decades (Gerald Stern, Grace Paley) and also younger poets closer to the beginning of their careers (Jericho Brown); and they include poets whose spiritual practices range from Christian (Marilyn Nelson) to Muslim (Kazim Ali) to Buddhist (Jane Hirschfield) to Pagan (Annie Finch). Each of the pieces originated as an interview by the editors, but because the editors have chosen not to include the actual questions, the pieces read like hybrids between interview and informal essay. This choice serves the collection well; straightforward interviews can become stilted on the page, and readers are often more interested in the answers than in the questions, for poets and other writers generally manage to say what they want to say regardless of the particular questions they’re asked. I found each contribution engaging, and I found something to ponder in each one, whether or not the contributor’s poetic or spiritual practice resembles my own. I was most pleased to see that each poet’s contribution concludes with a poem, often prompting me to pull one of their books from the shelf or to seek out their recent work.

Each piece begins with a quotation from the interview serving as an epigraph. One of the most intriguing comes from Kazim Ali: “Prayer is a form of panic, because in prayer you don’t really think you’re going to be answered.” Perhaps our poems become articulated answers to those prayers, the words we can hear once our panic subsides. Writing sometimes feels like that to me, a rhythmic breath settled into the heart of chaos—but that’s my experience, not one I want to imply is common to the poets included in A God in the House. Though maybe some would agree.

Ali’s contribution, “Doubt and Seeing” describes an experience shared by many writers I suspect, that of rethinking one’s aesthetic identity once readers begin to respond to one’s work. “To call oneself a spiritual or religious poet seems strange to me,” he says, “but once my first book came out, and I started doing readings, people would say to me, ‘You’re a religious poet.’ I decided to consciously explore the topic more in my second book, but I never planned to be a religious poet” (33). He suggests that his next book will be less overtly religious, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be at all religious. Of course, “religious poet” isn’t all that Ali is; it isn’t the entire identity of any of the contributors, but each contributor does seem to be consciously—maybe even intentionally—aware of the spiritual components of his or her being.

Several of the contributions foreground autobiographical experience. Occasionally this material will be known to readers who’ve already been immersed in the poet’s work, but often the material is more personal, more intimately honest than we will find in other sources. In “Not a Butler to the Soul,” G.C. Waldrep describes his experience with mainstream Protestant denominations as well as with Mennonites and Amish communities. His exterior life changed, almost against his will it seems, as his interior life shifted:  “one does not invite the Holy Spirit into one’s life and expect it to operate on one’s own terms…I gradually, quietly started making the cultural changes I had long dreaded, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t bear any longer not to make them” (187). Because it’s virtually impossible to separate one’s artistic vocation from one’s spiritual life, Waldrep experiences the two as conjoined but not identical: “The question I more often ask myself is not about the relationship between faith and poetry, but rather the relationship between prayer and poetry. They’re not the same…though there is some intrinsic relationship. Sometimes I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: when you’re in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds—sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp—coming from the other side of the connecting wall” (181). His metaphor feels accurate to me, and much more satisfying than the frequent claim that poetry is prayer or that writing is praying, even if writing is for many of us a spiritual practice.

Eleanor Wilner, however, comes closer to describing poetry as prayer in “Natives of the Earth,” though what she actually says is that the act of writing poetry shares certain characteristics with the act of praying: “insofar as the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness; must, as the ancients had it, call in the Goddess, the Muse, the power of the imagination—that which must be invited and cannot be commanded—in that sense, in which prayer involves a humbling and earnest entreaty for vision, and a creative deepening of perception toward a kind of ease of being, then okay, the difference begins to fade” (223). The difference fades, as differences can fade between reading and thinking, between writing and being. Yet fading is not vanishing.

I would like to pursue conversations with each of these contributors. I would like to ask more questions. I would like to quote more of their remarks here. The trouble with commentary is that even in the near infinite space of the virtual world, one must eventually stop talking. I want to go on, but more, I want to return to the poems of these contributors. A God in the House is, ultimately, a book about community, one I am grateful to be among.



Review of When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

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Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

If you’re like me, you were introduced to the work of Natalie Diaz when she read a poem on PBS NewsHour; you can watch the video here. I found that poem and her reading of it compelling, energetic, and fresh. So I ordered the book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, her first collection. Since then, Diaz has won some prestigious awards, and her book has been reviewed in some pretty notable places. So When My Brother Was an Aztec might not need another review here, but I have wanted to reread it with the kind of attention preparing a review requires. I suspect other readers of this collection have also returned to read it again. It’s a book that intrigues me because whenever I think I understand what she’s doing, I realize that no, I almost understand it. Almost understanding is so much more pleasurable than actually understanding—for almost understanding holds out the promise of more, and then more.

The book opens with the title poem as prologue. The Aztecs, of course, are most frequently remembered for their practices of human sacrifice, often of children, often by tearing out the beating heart of the sacrificial victim. The poem opens with an ironic reference to that practice; the speaker’s brother “lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.”  Through several poems, especially those in the center second section, the book explores the effects on the speaker’s family as her brother plunges into addiction and their parents become both willing and unwilling victims of his activity. The title poem concludes with a sentence that also functions as one of the book’s thematic statements: “My parents gathered / / what he’d left of their bodies, trying to stand without legs, / trying to defend his blows with missing arms, searching for their fingers / to pray, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec, / their son, had fed them to.”  This final line break is crucial, for the brother isn’t only a brother or metaphorical Aztec; he is her parents’ son, and this detail of his identity intensifies their heartbreak. The pause between “Aztec” and “their son” created by the line break increases the emphasis on “their son,” so that readers must pause too, considering the sorrow of such a relationship.

The opening poem warns us that this collection won’t be an emotionally easy read. Many of the most powerful poems examine the brother’s addiction, including “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs,” and “Formication.” “No More Cakes Here,” the final poem in the center section, imagines a party celebrating the brother’s death. The party is full of balloons, clowns, a magician, a mariachi band—it’s a hyperbolic vision of festivity, too manic to be real. When the brother shows up, the speaker must examine her hope: “The worst part he said was / he was still alive. The worst part he said was / he wasn’t even dead. I think he’s right, but maybe / the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe / the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.” This poem is honest in a way we seldom permit.

Poems in the other two sections are stylistically consistent with those in this second section, but their range of topics and references is wider. Poems in the first section most directly address Native American experience (Diaz is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community) and sometimes tend toward sly and irreverent humor. Here we have an Indian Eve thinking about ribs and an Indian Mary who misses Gabriel’s visit because she’s collecting commodity food. Here we have a Mojave Barbie, a doll that initially seems like something Mattel would market: “Wired to her display box were a pair of one-size-fits-all-Indians stiletto moccasins, faux turquoise earrings, a dream catcher…” But Mattel would not include “erasable markers for chin and forehead tattoos, and two six-packs of mini magic beer bottles.” Diaz continues satirizing pop culture’s multicultural impulses, as Mojave Barbie injects insulin and argues about the Bering Land Bridge theory. Ken and Skipper show up, as well as Barbie’s Dream House and various other accessories. The plot that features Mojave Barbie, however, is not one that will ever be promoted on a Saturday morning television commercial.

“The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” is a prose poem, as are several others in the collection. Diaz writes most often, though, in a loose long-lined free verse, though the book also includes a ghazal, a series of triolets, and an abecedarian. Diaz can take on just about any form, it seems, and adapt it to her own purpose; when she writes in a received form, she handles it subtly and creatively. One of my favorites is an homage and challenge to Whitman, “Reservation Grass,” in which she repeats and revises the sixth section of Leaves of Grass. Another is “Dome Riddle” in which she creates an extended series of metaphors for skull, including “this jawbone of an ass, smiling sliver of smite, David’s rock striking the Goliath of my body, / this Library of Babel, homegrown Golgotha, nostalgia menagerie, melon festival, / this language mausoleum…” And including “French kiss sweatshop” and “commodity cranium cupboard.” The metaphors in this poem are often unexpected and the language is rollicking. It’s fun to read.

Diaz’ voice is distinctive. She is a poet who has something to say and both the skill and the will to say it.