Review of Descent by Kathryn Stripling Byer

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Kathryn Stripling Byer. Descent. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 57 pages. $17.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Descent, Kathryn Stripling Byer’s sixth collection of poetry (her first, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest has also recently been reprinted by Press 53), is arranged into three sections, each exploring a different aspect of biological and cultural descent. Part I explores the lives and deaths of Byer’s ancestors, particularly her grandparents. Part II focuses on southern culture, including of course questions of race and privilege. Part III returns to more immediate, apparently autobiographical, experience, though these poems also situate themselves within the context of family.

Byer demonstrates facility with a range of forms in this collection, from free verse to sonnet sequences—many of the poems, in fact, whether in free verse or received form, are arranged as sequences. Byer seems unusually engaged with and adept at the demands of poems organized as a series or divided into sections, a strategy I appreciate. Such poems permit a poet to examine a subject from multiple perspectives, to return and return to an obsession without repeating herself.

Among my favorites is “Drought Days,” a long poem in nine sections centered in Part I. This poem explores several of the book’s central thematic concerns—belief and disbelief, what we see when we see ourselves, quotidian demonstrations of care for another, the significance of landscape. It is dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, and it examines her character and personality in a time of drought. “Rain, because prayed for,” the poem begins, “was always called God’s answer, / God being what gave / or withheld whatever we needed.” Everything comes from God, in other words, even when it doesn’t come. This opening stanza suggests the circular reasoning that almost inevitably forms a part of belief—expressing a prayer defines its fulfillment as an intentional answer in a way that expressing a wish, for example, does not. When rain follows a prayer for rain, the prayer has been answered by God. When rain follows a wish for rain, however, the wish has been fulfilled, but by whom? The speaker rebels against a God who withholds, the judgmental God whose judgments are inexplicable, and she describes her rebellion with a particularly memorable image: “God stank like a singed field.” Who would worship such a creature? Certainly not the speaker. Her grandmother does, but her grandmother would presumably describe God with different imagery. She looks out her window and sees “corn that sang when / the wind came, a husband who shoveled hay / into the cow pen, the empty yard waiting // for the child growing inside her…” “Drought Days” presents the grandmother as a woman who has both a simple life and high standards for it; the poem also develops an implied narrative as the speaker grows from a girl to a woman. In the last section, the speaker is a girl again, playing with cousins as they try to compensate for a dried-up pond. They fill an oil drum with water, pretend they’ve gone to the beach. But the “water began to smell / rusty, more tractor oil to it / than tropical coconut.” This image encapsulates the children’s identities: “We would always be / hicks. Pink and flabby like pickled / pig flesh in our grandmother’s jars.” To be persuasive, fantasy paradoxically requires some basis in reality, and tractor oil is simply too distinct from suntan lotion. Its aroma is too pervasive a reminder of their distance from the sea. The section ends with a reflection on “Soul food,” and stories that belong to others, returning the poem to its beginning. Although the speaker no longer seems to be actively rejecting her grandmother’s version of God, she nevertheless remains as excluded from the community of believers as she is from the social class of those who vacation on Myrtle Beach.

The figurative language in this poem works particularly well, as do other choices Byer makes. The lines breaks, for example, in one of the stanzas quoted above exploit the reader’s anticipation and then emphasize the children’s disappointment in their situation. Here is the full first line of the seventh stanza: “on the farm. We would always be”; the enjambment at the end could be read to encapsulate hope, but the full line, read as a line rather than parts of two sentences, undercuts that optimism, for there is no hope for change. The pessimism is confirmed with the beginning of the next line: “hicks.” Byer exploits this primary difference between poetry and prose to create layers of meaning that the sentence as simply a sentence—“We would always be hicks”—could not sustain. This final section of “Drought Days” contains 27 lines, 20 of which are enjambed. None of the line breaks calls undue attention to itself, yet they all contribute to the poem’s resonant effects. “Drought Days” is the work of a poet who understands how control of craft can significantly contribute to development of theme.

Descent contains several poems that expand the poet’s vision into a broader social realm, particularly the six-part sonnet sequence “Southern Fictions” in Part II. For me, however, the most memorable poems are those that explore the speaker’s relationships with her direct ancestors. These more personal poems remain interesting because the speaker herself seems not quite resolved on their meaning. There’s always more to be understood by the speaker—and so there’s also always more to be understood by the reader. These poems are effective because they can be known, but never completely.

Review of Songs from an Empty Cage by Jeff Gundy

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Jeff Gundy. Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace. Cascadia Publishing House, 2013. 294 pages. $23.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I am not the ideal audience for Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace, though I think I come close. I am a poet, after all, with a particular interest in the links between spirituality and creativity, and one who finds the transcendent and immanent equally compelling. But I am not a member of an Anabaptist tradition despite my attraction to some of the impulses behind the historic peace churches. So reading this book as someone who is a near bystander but not a member of Gundy’s community was a provocative and satisfying yet also odd experience. I noticed my readerly identity more than I often do while reading, and I recognized my outsider status, but I was an outsider this time because I am not in the minority, as Amish, Mennonites, and members of the Church of the Brethren almost always are—that was the odd part.

Songs from an Empty Cage consists of sixteen essays that engage the intersections of the four terms in the book’s subtitle. One of Gundy’s goals is to participate in a style of divine exploration that has recently come to be known as theopoetics. Theopoetics isn’t just eloquently written theology or poetry that functions as theology, but a different approach, a more imaginative stance, within theology. It is a theology of the mystics. It aims to infuse theology—which often strives for finitude and certainty and closure—with a poet’s approach to the world, an appreciation of mystery and longing and openness. Theopoetics, in other words, might be less concerned with doctrine as a source of truth than with metaphor and image as a means of exploring possibility.

Some of these essays are directed specifically toward Anabaptists, especially Mennonites, and assume some familiarity with Anabaptist history (the significance of the Martyr’s Mirror, radical violence in 16th century Münster) and contemporary political and theological questions (in the work of theologian John Howard Yoder for example). These essays both puzzled and intrigued me. Gundy provides enough context for those of us outside his tradition to situate ourselves, but he doesn’t feel compelled to rehearse the entire history of the Protestant Reformation or of Anabaptism’s place within it. As a result, I could follow his arguments, but I also felt a newly kindled curiosity, a desire to learn more.

Many of the essays are structured as interesting hybrids of memoir, intellectual argument, and creative expression. They enact, therefore, Gundy’s attraction to heresy (he confesses, on the first page of his introduction, to a “fascination (mostly intellectual) with transgression, opposition, and ‘heresy’”) by refusing rigid generic boundaries—without drawing unnecessary overt attention to the fact that that is what he’s doing. I don’t mean simply that he includes some poetry within his prose, but more importantly that he crosses the major division that existed in many English departments during the latter part of the twentieth century—that between the creative writers and the analytical writers, the emotive types and the intellectuals—a division that more recently seems to be dwindling, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Because of the structure of these essays, we not only witness a mind thinking, but we’re also privy to some of the intuitive leaps that mind makes.

“’Truth Did Not Come into the World Naked’: Images, Stories, and Intimations,” for example, illustrates Gundy’s struggle with abstraction. It begins with an anecdote—he had been invited to reflect on the contributions of a colleague, J. Denny Weaver, and to address among other topics how his “viewpoint on Christology” related to Weaver’s work. Rather than explain his understanding of Christ directly, comparing or contrasting it with Weaver’s, Gundy recalls a poem, “How the Boy Jesus Resisted Taking Out the Trash.” He includes the poem in this section of his essay, and then goes on to consider how his poem corresponds to the nature or style of some of Jesus’ teaching. Gundy’s response is decidedly elliptical, but then Jesus was also at times an elliptical fellow. In considering theological questions, Gundy returns again and again to the concrete and incarnate. He includes several other brief narratives in this essay, referencing Walt Whitman, Thomas Merton, the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, James Wright, and others with equal ease. The essay concludes with a description of a “poetry night hike,” organized by Gundy, that went awry. He blamed himself, but got a poem out of it anyway, “Where Water Finds an Edge,” which begins with the line “Nothing like a careful, thorough plan with one large error.” The speaker of the poem searches for a place to sit beside the river, and then the poem continues:

Every stone is a section of the mind of God,                                                                                           every leaning tree and breathing creature.                                                                                               We need the dark because it makes us clumsy,

because it makes us forget the banks we are rushing between,                                                         muttering about hymns and women while the Falls                                                                           open before us. We will not need to be ready

to tumble down. We will shine and shout                                                                                               and all the damage will be forgotten soon.                                                                                             The water is not wounded by its breathless journey,

it bears its troubles lightly, it winks to the sun,                                                                                          it does not falter as the full night arrives.                                                                                                And the hard ledges glow, long after all else is lost.

The essay ends one paragraph later, with a reflection on the gift of error, the value of stumbling through the dark. Both the poem and the essay demonstrate the style, substance, and value of theopoetics. Rather than endlessly searching after certainty, we might become like the water, forgiving ourselves for our own clumsiness on our own “breathless journey,” leaping forward even “as the full night arrives.” Gundy never does directly address the instruction he began with, to provide some description or definition of his Christology. Nevertheless, by concluding the essay with this poem, he suggests that theology, too, needs its own darkness, its own glowing ledges. Precisely by living fully as incarnated beings in this world, he seems to say, we inhabit the mind of God.

Many of the essays in this collection reward close readings. Like the best theology and the best poetry, they open out onto the world.


Review of Monks Beginning to Waltz by George Looney

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George Looney. Monks Beginning to Waltz. Truman State University Press, 2012. 93 pages. $15.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Beginning to waltz or participating in other activities, monks show up frequently in George Looney’s sixth collection of poetry. So do artists, particularly Caravaggio, and violins and hearts and various species of birds—vultures, crows, parakeets, loons, and that other Bird, Charlie Parker and those other flying creatures, angels. What this suggests is that Looney is comfortable drawing from classical culture as well as nature for his imagery, metaphors, and motifs. Despite this range, the poems individually and collectively explore one dominant theme—the spiritual longing that works through and yet somehow transcends mortal flesh. Hence Caravaggio, that painter of fleshly abundance. Hence the birds, those beautiful fluttering creatures who are here and then gone, who embody our desire to rise above the very flesh that weights us to this life.

The opening poem of Monks Beginning to Waltz, “The Sorrow and the Grace of Vultures,” exemplifies this theme, and it is a particularly successful example of Looney’s craft. It is also my favorite. Through deft line breaks and carefully placed pronouns, the poem exploits ambiguity, not to confuse but to engage a reader’s conscious attention with the scene at hand. Most of us don’t ordinarily associate vultures with grace, either its physical or the spiritual form; yet the poem begins with the speaker’s father asserting that connection: “My father says they prove grace is possible / even in this world, // that memories only need the occasional / slow drag of wings to stay aloft.” This metaphor is accurate, I think—memories do stay with us without much effort, or reappear suddenly as if brought back with the breeze. But why would grace be affiliated specifically with buzzards, rather than with some more delicate or more majestic or simply more beautiful bird? The speaker interrupts to insert what seem to be his own metaphors: “They drift / thermals off flat tar, dark angels // some Italian might paint. I’ve seen them pray / over a deer with a second skin of flies, // an altar panel Tiepolo would not have / placed behind the cross.” Are dark angels necessarily demons? When buzzards pray, do they praise death? Is this poem going to become simply macabre, or is its author up to something else? I found myself both fascinated and repulsed by this imagery, yet also intrigued by a speaker who could imagine grace enveloping even a buzzard.

The poem contains an embedded story that reveals the relationship between grace and buzzards, a story in which buzzards become like angels, messengers of God if, as the speaker’s father wonders, God is who we’re praying to when we pray. A soldier during World War II, the father had found himself hiding out in an Italian church, along with several other soldiers, some wounded. “A local told him // Tiepolo painted the frescoes that flickered / around them. Explosions // brought the stained glass to life. / In the tortured light of saints // they cowered in the rafters.” They? By this point, readers have likely forgotten the buzzards, or momentarily set them aside, but within a few lines, we’re reminded that these birds led us into the poem, and now they’ll lead us through the story. “Could’ve been / the end of the world for all // they knew, he says. The wounded were / so afraid my father and a friend // opened fire. The first hit hung there, / claws stuck in wood. // It fell later, in the silence after / the shelling. They had to // shoot the rest out of the air. It was / awful, he says. Trapped // by the amnesia of panic, they flapped / from stained glass to wood, // looking for the rip artillery had left in the roof / where they had come in. // One finally broke through the flickering image / of Saint Francis and died. // Two escaped through the shattered monk.” Within seventeen lines, Looney has used the pronoun “they” five times. On each occasion, the referent of “they” is certain or nearly certain, yet readers understand that lingering beneath the buzzards’ panic is the panic of the soldiers, and the end of the world could be near for all involved. Looney’s choice to rely on a pronoun rather than on a series of nouns, in other words, contributes to the poem’s depth and complexity; seldom is a poem’s success so dependent on “they.” As the poem moves toward its conclusion, the layers of meaning depend less on grammar than on the connotations of icons. The image of St. Francis, patron of animals, leads not to freedom but to death, at least until the saint himself becomes “shattered.” These two buzzards who live through the ordeal to escape become “angels who flew / through Francis into a sky, // broken, with room for grace.” The father believes in this grace because he believes in forgiveness—for the multitude of sins implicit in this story, many of them almost unavoidable for the individual soldier.

While other poems in this collection include a range of content, they all challenge the received notion that the flesh undermines the spirit. Instead, these poems suggest that the flesh reveals the spirit, that the flesh opens onto spirit, that the spirit—if not identical to the flesh—nevertheless finds its meaning in this incarnated world.

If I would ask anything else of this book, it would be for greater stylistic variety. (With one exception, all of the poems are written in couplets or in a combination of couplets and tercets.) Yet the book’s consistency also contributes to its virtues, the consistency increasing the pressure, with each poem, to make it new. Looney does that by taking the old questions seriously, by insisting on meaning even in this modern devastated world.

Review of House Under the Moon by Michael Sowder

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Michael Sowder. House Under the Moon. Truman State University Press. 2012. 85 pgs. $15.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Of course I would pick up a collection of poetry whose opening poem is titled “Lectio Divina.” And of course I would look at it more closely once I noticed the titles of some other poems: “When God wakes up inside you,” “Hiking at Oselong, Tibetan Buddhist Monastery of Andalucía,” “Fire Sermon,” and “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Cut-up.” Whether or not I would end up truly admiring these poems, I knew that the chances were good I’d find something to appreciate. House Under the Moon, Michael Sowder’s second collection, is accomplished and compelling. Its mood is meditative, yet a story emerges as the poems accumulate. Through them, Sowder explores and reveals his spiritual engagement, yet his language is concrete. The transcendent in this collection is fully integrated with the immanent.

The book is organized into two sections, “Homecoming” and “Housekeeping.” The first section is set earlier and includes several poems that feature his first son, Aiden; the second is set a few years later and focuses more on his second son, Kellen. In both sections Sowder addresses the divine; the poems suggest that the speaker, his sons, and other people participate in divinity by whatever name it is known.

The first poem, “Lectio Divina,” opens with a common object put to a task that is no longer so common: “With my mother’s pitted paring knife / I slice the yellow, uncut pages.” The pages are from La Vida de Santa Teresa de Jesus, or the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. The speaker immediately recognizes a kindred voice, one he had known as a younger man. The final stanza suggests how closely we are each connected to the saints, just as each of our solid forms is buoyed up within impermanence: “Or is it the way I’ve found my / dawn cries lifted, sung / by a woman, an Atlantic / away, centuries ago, in a convent / of barefoot nuns, a town of stone and light, / in a book I’ve called from a warehouse, / acids hurrying it to dust, pages / never cut open until now? / O, Santa Teresa, / may your words that I am breathing, / in this slow disappearing, / light my way to Avila.” I am personally taken with this poem for its recognition of literature’s ability to dispel our cosmic loneliness, for it shows us that others too, though worlds away, have felt as we feel and thought as we think. Who could be more different from the speaker than a 16th century Spanish cloistered nun? Teresa was a mystic, however, and so is the speaker, as later poems will reveal. The poem succeeds, though, because of its craft. The line breaks enhance the meanings of the sentences; the speaker’s cries are “sung / by a woman” and also, due to the lineation, by “an Atlantic.” The speaker, therefore, is linked not only through time to other mystics but also to the expansive world itself. When Avila is described as “a town of stone and light,” we understand it as a place of permanence and revelation, as Teresa’s words seem to have acquired another kind of permanence for those of us who read them centuries later. Yet the words too are disappearing, in part because the paper they’re printed on is literally disintegrating, but also because we all disappear, “hurrying…to dust.” “Lectio Divina” is the perfect poem to open House Under the Moon because it so successfully links the two primary spiritual traditions explored in this collection—Christianity and Buddhism. The Christianity is obvious in this poem; as it concludes, however, we move toward a more Buddhistical interpretation of existence, a focus on impermanence. As a prayer form, lectio divina is a practice of meditative reading, usually of scriptural texts—but many of the poems in this collection also reward meditative attention.

Several of the poems here explore similar themes, often by revealing the speaker’s care for his sons. In “Kellen in My Lap, Five Months Old,” the speaker has risen in the middle of the night to hold his son. Reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind while his son sits on his lap, the speaker considers enlightenment: “What is satori? Suzuki asks. The bottom of a pail / broken through.” Meanwhile, the speaker’s infant son plays with his fingers as light and darkness mingle inside and outside: “Darkness / holds its wing above the valley. Orion // brightens January snow and down in the far fields / flickers a single yellow windowpane. // The delight you find in my fingers / a monk has no words to name.” The yellow light outside recalls the “circle of lamplight” by which the speaker is reading in the opening line. Again, the images carry the poem through to its conclusion so that Sowder can conclude with a direct statement, one that is nevertheless tonally consistent with the lines that have come before.

House Under the Moon succeeds primarily because so many of the individual poems are so accomplished. The collection as a whole also demonstrates Sowder’s ability with multiple strategies and forms—couplets, prose poems, irregular stanzas, justified and indented lines. Even as the poems explore a consistent theme, Sowder keeps the reader engaged through stylistic variety. I found this book refreshingly honest. It’s a collection that invites us in—to observe not only a mind thinking, but a mind emptying itself of thought.

Review of Iron String by Annie Lighthart

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Annie Lighthart. Iron String. Airlie Press, 2013. 77 pages.  $15.00

Reviewed by Kasey Jueds, Guest Reviewer

“I stop again and again/to hear the second music,” Annie Lighthart writes in the first poem of her collection Iron String, a poem which functions as a luminous ars poetica, a map for all the poems that come after. The two musics here—“one easier to hear, the other/lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard/yet always present”—are the musics Lighthart listens to and makes known to us throughout her wise and graceful book, which concerns itself with the everyday noise of rain, birds, children playing or crying, and with the numinous music that runs beneath these sounds like an underground river.

Some poems, like some people, don’t reveal themselves easily. They are slippery or barbed, difficult to engage with, to find a way into and through. These sorts of poems present their own pleasures and rewards, but they can also frustrate, can seem to withhold on purpose.

The poems in Iron String offer a deep and different type of pleasure, one that seems rare to me these days: the pleasure of open-heartedness, of deep feeling and thinking offered as gift. They manage to speak both clearly and surprisingly of often-mysterious things, of emotional and spiritual states that feel absolutely true at the same time as they feel unnamable—except, of course, in the way Annie Lighthart does name them, by making them into poems that become their names.

One of the collection’s many beauties is the full expanse of its feeling life. In the poem titled “February,” the speaker is “too small for much wreckage, too tight and done with resisting.” In “Light Rain,” after a painful argument, she is “ready to fail,/to go back inside and begin it again.” And in “The Sea Lion Tank,” she recognizes that “to rise in the morning/could be to lift your head from that sleep/and love each salted star for what it may bring.” Iron String’s moments of epiphany, of tenderness and love, feel believable because they feel earned: the poems speak with quiet authority of both tenderness and its difficulty, its lack.

The poems feel bravely themselves: bravely non-ironic, bravely forthright in naming abstractions (love, grief) and making them alive in their ways of seeing the things of the world: a loaf of bread, a cow in a field. The poems’ quotidian details are gates into their world of recognition and newness. I love the balance of relief and wonder these poems offer: relief because they reveal their truths so generously, and wonder because they do so strangely, magically, startlingly. In “There Were Horses,” Lighthart writes, “An open white page in any book was a lean white horse/looking out, and a swollen door stuttering at night was the breath and stamp of a horse nearby.” Here are the familiar forms of horse, book, and door, both reassuringly, invitingly themselves, and magically transformed. (Or possibly not transformed, but seen through into the otherness they also are.) Later in the same poem: “Those days we brushed each others’ hair like the manes of horses/and with their kindness gave each other kingly gifts.” The generous, open-hearted psychic space of this poem—and many others in the book—feels so deeply lived, reading it makes it easy to believe such a way of being is possible.

This has been a difficult review to write. Not because Iron String did not move me deeply, but because it did. And because it is beautiful. In her introduction to Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry, Louise Glück writes that our natural response to beauty is silence. It’s been challenging to move beyond silence (my own first reaction to Iron String: a wordless sense of happiness and gratitude) to find the right words to describe Lighthart’s book.

But I can say this: I carried Iron String in my pink shoulder bag for weeks. I read it in the dentist’s office and on the train. The poems remind me of what I need to remember: to watch and listen, to pay attention, to recognize that there is always more to hear and see. That second music, again. Annie Lighthart reminds me to “set my ear to it as I would to a heart.”


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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

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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.