Author Archives: Lynn Domina

Review of A Cartography of Home by Hayden Saunier

Hayden Saunier. A Cartography of Home. Terrapin Books, 2021. 82 pgs. $16.00.

A Cartography of Home is the perfect title for Hayden Saunier’s most recent book. “Home” because the word evokes connotations of rest and comfort—connotations that are both confirmed and challenged in this collection—and because its definition is so expansive. “Home” can refer to the house you sleep in each night, but it can also refer to the place you’re from, where you belong, and to the earth itself, even the universe. And “cartography” which refers to maps, a way of seeing, but also to the entire scheme of mapmaking—what is emphasized, foregrounded, distorted in the reduction of a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional rendition of it. A Cartography of Home reflects on all of these ideas and questions in poems that are both accessible and layered.

“Men Walking on the Moon,” for example, opens with the most mundane of scenes, people watching television, but then proceeds to a metaphor that questions whether any of us can ever, really, feel confident in our homes:

We were remembering the night in 1969
how young we were, how blue the TV screens,

when someone said it was the only time
she ever heard her father talk about the war.

The good war, ended years before a man
walked on the moon. We turned our faces,

candlelit, toward her. She said that when
he saw the first man’s footprint deep

in lunar dust, saw how the tread had stamped
its pattern clean and hard into the soft

white surface and nothing stirred,
he shook his head and said,

That’s what the ground was like at Nagasaki
when we were sent in afterward.

Our boot prints sank in ash.
And that was all he ever said of it.

The couplets here lend some control to the chaos of nuclear destruction, and they mirror the father’s restraint. The metaphor is effective because we are all so familiar with that lunar footprint, a symbol of some kind of human achievement that seems almost quaint fifty-some years later, an image that on its (literal and figurative) surface seems uncomplicated, “its pattern clean and hard into the soft / white surface…” We are also familiar with imagery associated with nuclear bombs, but that imagery consists of mushroom clouds or the imprinted shadows of evaporated human figures on rocks. Saunier links those two events here through an image we might not have associated with Nagasaki, “Our boot prints sank in ash.” Thematically, we could link war to space exploration through technology, which so often results in destruction, even if unintentionally. In this poem, though, the two are linked through their human consequences, a man who can’t forget even if he doesn’t speak of his memory, a man for whom the triumph of a moon landing evokes the horror of nuclear war. Nuclear destruction felt as otherworldly as lunar exploration. The image is accurate—we can see the boot print; we can feel our own foot sinking into ash—and it is startling. Now, as a reader, I will recall Nagasaki every time I, too, see a photograph of that lunar boot print.

Another poem, “Standard Conditions on Earth,” also relies on the ordinary to examine those facts we can’t understand, particularly mortality. The speaker explores the idea of standardization, beginning with standard units of measurement: “Here, one kilogram is equal to 9.8 Newtons” and “We calculate standard pressure at sea level; // standard temperature at zero Celsius. Neither / can be seen, just measured, just endured.” This last line here hints toward the poem’s conclusion, which will discuss more significant things that can’t be seen. Until then, the tone of the poem shifts from neutral to comic (“Cold-stunned iguanas drop from trees // when temperatures fall near freezing, / whatever scale one uses, and those poor lizards // never see it coming, which seems funny to us”) to mournful (“Massive ice sheets break away, locusts chew // through miles of millet fields in Kenya, cracks / splinter dams, rust eats through steel, // erasure, birth, mutation, death, tornados, / my neighbor’s memory gone overnight”). Although the idea of a standard is obviously constructed, the facts of decay and disappearance are not. As much as we might understand how decay leads to new growth, the possibility of our own unique disappearance remains incomprehensible. Despite all of the poem’s foreshadowing, its conclusion still comes as a surprise:

Standard to try to measure how much dust
what’s disappeared kicks up. Standard too, for us

to try to make a song of it, both lullaby and ballad,
a thing to sing and sing and sing until we drop.

We’ll each drop, just like those poor lizards who never saw it coming. Any comedy evoked by this second use of “drop” is decidedly darker, as readers are forced to consider just how different we might be from “Cold-stunned iguanas.” This poem relies on specificity, as so many good poems do, and also on slightly quirky bits of information—how many readers would have known that a Newton is a unit of measurement? I particularly appreciate the sonic devices in this poem, the alliteration, assonance, and consonance, along with the rhythmic variance. There’s the comparatively soothing repetition of m and l sounds in “miles of millet fields,” immediately followed by the harsher “cracks / splinter dams.” These lines rely almost exclusively on monosyllabic words, permitting an abundance of stressed syllables, followed by a line that speeds up by incorporating polysyllabic words: “erasure, birth, mutation, death, tornados.” This line, consisting entirely of nouns, suggests that these events occur without an actual actor, without the locusts or cracks or rust that chew and splinter and eat. We reach the final couplets, acknowledging our own inevitable disappearance, though still denying it, converting that knowledge to song, which is made of breath, which is what proves we’re still here. Although this poem is not written according to a strict metrical form, several of the lines take advantage of meter, moreso as the poem progresses. “Standard Conditions on Earth” is a good example of contemporary prosody; it echoes the tradition, neither shackled by it nor ignorant of it.

Both of the poems I’ve discussed are written in couplets, but throughout the collection, Saunier relies on many other forms. Some of the poems are organized into tercets, while others consist of a single longer stanza. Some of the lines are justified left, while others are indented. A few of the poems approach form more experimentally. So while Saunier seems to find couplets, for example, congenial, her choices are informed by all of the options available, and the poem’s form, every time, enriches its content.

A Cartography of Home is an attractive and thoughtful collection. Its poems challenge us to redefine what we might think of as mundane. They consider the present in light of both the past and future. As you go about your own days, thinking of so many of them as so common, these poems will rise to remind you how indistinct the boundary is between ordinary and extraordinary.





Review of The Honey of Earth by David Graham

David Graham. The Honey of Earth. Terrapin Books, 2019. 81 pgs. $16.00.

David Graham’s poems celebrate—or commemorate, really—the ordinary. Ordinary objects, people, places—though what, really is ordinary? Isn’t every memento, every person, every living creature somehow extraordinary, each in its own way? In The Honey of Earth, Graham’s third full-length collection, he answers that question with a decided yet unobtrusive yes.

“Vinegar and Fizz” consists of two parts, the first a page long and the second only 19 lines. Though both sections describe the speaker’s mother, their most significant difference is in tone, and it is that tonal difference that helps the poem achieve its greatest effect. Although the title comes from the second section, the speaker shows just how fully characterized by “vinegar and fizz” his mother is in the first section:

My mother could not be trusted
to tell it straight. She adored welshing
on a bet, spinning tales, splashing
in hyperbole’s lake.

The first line-break sets the tone for this entire section, as its misleading suggestion reproduces the mother’s own narrative habits. The language becomes increasingly playful and original—most readers, I imagine, will long to listen in while the mother is “splashing / in hyperbole’s lake.” Already by line four, we realize that it’s the story we can’t trust. The storyteller—well, we can certainly trust her to tell a good story. The speaker continues with his own mischievous language, until he recalls an astonishing moment:

….Did she
place a single peanut on my pudgy
palm for the elephant to lift with its
trunk? Of course. A touch still zapping
me sixty years later. My mother would
never turn away from any elephant,
juggler, parade, song, or barker
beating his drum of gorgeous lies.

At the beginning of the poem, I envied the speaker because his mother must have been so frequently entertaining. Here at the end of the first section, I envy him that experience feeding an elephant, that “touch still zapping” him. I think I’m engaged by the content alone, until I look more closely at Graham’s language.

The alliteration in the second and third lines above is especially effective: “place…peanut…pudgy / palm.” Interestingly, and probably coincidentally, the syllables beginning with “p” in the first quoted line are each separated by three syllables. The alliteration is pronounced, therefore, without becoming too insistent. “Pudgy,” itself an amusing word, becomes more amusing beside a description of an elephant. Here at the conclusion of this first section, we discover that the mother enjoys hearing a good story, the barker’s “gorgeous lies,” as much as she enjoys telling one.

Had it ended here, the poem would have been satisfying and memorable. In section two, however, the comedy becomes tinged with tragedy, or at least sadness, and the tone more poignant. Years have passed apparently, and the mother is being evaluated for dementia. A doctor asks her her name, which she can’t reveal, though she relies on her wit to deflect the question. Even as her future is becoming clear to her son, the doctor, and the reader, she refuses to surrender:

…then he inquires if she can say
what season. She looks around the ward
craftily: decorated tree, tinsel, cartoon snowflakes
stuck to the windows. “It’s almost Christmas.
What are you getting me?” Next he wonders
if she knows the year. She glares into his face,
allows a sullen pause….Then, “1937,” she says.

The line breaks in this stanza reinforce the content: “She looks around the ward / craftily” and “’It’s almost Christmas. / What are you getting me?’ Next he wonders / if she knows the year” all emphasize the meanings that are deferred through the break. Again, these choices don’t call attention to themselves, instead achieving their effects through subtlety.

The poem could end here also, but it continues for one more stanza, as the speaker imagines what life was like for his mother in 1937:

And so it is. She’s going on sixteen, a girl
ready to burn and roam, nobody’s fool,
a spitfire, all vinegar and fizz.

Her life with all of its dreams, expectations, hopes, and yes, sorrows, lies ahead of her, beckoning. She seems ready for anything, determined to take full advantage of this one life she has. And then the poem does end, enfolding the mother’s entire life with a statement that could refer to the girl’s attitude in 1937 and the woman’s so much later in the present:

The train is about to leave the station
for the one and only time. She’ll be damned
if she won’t be on it, and ride far from home.

I’ve read few poems that so genuinely appreciate a parent’s quirky personality and also retain such admirable warmth as that personality threatens to disappear.

The title poem, which references lines by Wallace Stevens and which is the final poem in the collection, also achieves much of its effect through Graham’s attention to sound. “We wake to winter blaze on our windows— / the world whitened while we slept,” the poem begins. The next several lines describe the landscape outside and a frosted window, one of winter’s features so familiar to those of us who live in cold climates. Midway through the poem, the speaker reveals the precise date: “If this isn’t our valentine, what is?” Creation has sent him and his audience a love note, and will continue sending it throughout the season. Then about two-thirds of the way through the poem, it turns, as so many good poems do:

Beneath the tumble and flutter of snow
lie bulbs stored in ice-lock, ready to burn
and shudder upward from their own decay,
the honey of earth immemorial.
So I send you this valentine, though it comes
and goes at once, though it kites
like a snowflake up and down, over and out.

The word “So” beginning the final sentence is particularly telling. It establishes a relationship of cause and effect between the existence of the frozen but not dead flower bulbs, whose future blossoms literally emerge from their past foliage, and the valentine the speaker offers to his listener. The “you” is both the individual listener, of course, and the book’s audience. We readers close the book, having received these last lovely words that are as much invitation as farewell.

Throughout The Honey of Earth, Graham has fun with language, but he utilizes this language to reveal some of life’s more significant meanings. He muses. He contemplates. He responds. Readers, too, can’t help but respond to these poems.

Review of Hope of Stones by Anna Elkins

Anna Elkins. Hope of Stones. Press 53. 2020. 65 pages. $14.95.

Anna Elkins’ Hope of Stones is organized around one of the most unusual premises I’ve seen in a collection of contemporary poetry. Two historical figures dominate the collection, Teresa of Ávila, 16th century nun, saint, and author of The Interior Castle, and Charles-Axel Guillaumot, 18th century French architect who created catacombs beneath Paris in order to reinforce tunnels under the city that had been dug to extract building stones. A third figure, the poet, communicates with both, often revealing intersections between them.

The poems are laid out on the page distinctly, with the architect’s aligning with the bottom margin, the nun’s justified right, and the poet’s conventionally justified left and beginning near the top margin. What begins with an author’s obsessive interest in two unrelated persons eventually reveals that very few objects or ideas, not to mention people, are in fact separated from each other. What have stones to do with light, or bones to do with prayer?—as much, it turns out, as imminence has to do with transcendence.

The collection is arranged into three sections, “pray,” “build,” and “wonder.” Each of those words would seem to be affiliated with one of the characters speaking through the collection, but each section includes poems of all three individuals; readers realize that wonder is often a form of prayer, as is building. In attempting to understand the architect and the nun, the poet is also attempting to understand herself, of course, as well as the world and its creator.

In “The Poet, Fasting,” the speaker describes a fast required by a dental procedure, considering how mundane necessity sometimes leads to revelation. “I lie beneath the maple tree on a quilt & watch / the sky beneath branches,” she says. Though her thoughts wander, they remain focused primarily on the practical: “how all these leaves will need / raking come fall, what to juice for second breakfast, / when to run the dishwasher.” Here the poem shifts, exactly in its center, to explore the nature of women mystics, women required to attend to household tasks regardless of their spiritual lives. We might think of Teresa of Ávila here, or as likely, the many women whose names are lost to history. The speaker, the poet, as is evident here and in several other poems, longs for mystical experience: “Transcendence—/ I am the woman lying beneath the tree & the woman / floating above it, hoping to see God.” This description of transcendence is provocative. The woman remains attached to earth, her entire body literally in touch with it. Yet she also drifts upward, letting go of whatever tethers her.

In poems like this, the poet’s attraction to a figure like Teresa is understandable. Yet the architect, too, though he was not professionally—or perhaps even personally—religious, encounters suggestions of the transcendent daily. He is saving Paris from literal collapse by shoring up its foundation with the skeletons of its dead. Nothing conveys mortality like bones. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the subject, thoughts of mortality almost inevitably lead to questions of immortality, of whether “this”—this world, this physical life—is all there is, of, in other words, dreams of transcendence. “The Architect & the Macabre” describes Guillaumot’s work most directly. Here it is in its entirety:

Thousands of carts of bones, of earth, of coffin
wood. Hundreds of torches & ells of canvas.
Dozens of pounds of candles & solder. One
goal: to empty the cemeteries. This collection
of skeletons will be unsurpassed. At Montrouge,
we dump the bones into a hole, & a dangling
chain scatters them as they fall. At the bottom,
we arrange them in columns & rows, creating
friezes of femurs & walls of skulls. Bones of third-
century saints—those who died before Saint Denis
Christianized the city—mix with bones of those
I might have known. Epochs & generations
blend, no origin left to matter.

The physical description here is macabre. Bones of saints and bones of sinners are reinterred together, their mass grave simply a solution to a problem of physics. The architect doesn’t even gesture to the sacred. The ultimate arrangement of the bones might seem artful, but the goal is practical rather than aesthetic.

While the poems of the nun and of the poet vary in form, nearly all of the poems of the architect are formatted this way, in a single block stanza, each line approximately the same length, the stanza most often between 10 and 15 lines. The form reproduces the architect’s thinking and observation; masonry relies on regularity. Mysticism, on the other hand, defies order. Although the rhythm in the architect’s poems is not metrically regular, the lines are tight, with plenty of accented syllables. One of the most interesting aspects of these poems, in terms of craft, is how Elkins uses the line in the architect’s poems. In “The Architect and the Macabre,” most lines are enjambed, but it is the nature and variety of the enjambment that interests me. In the first line, the enjambment is dramatic—“coffin” parallel to “bones” and “earth” but leading to a single syllable, “wood,” beginning the second line, a period immediately following “wood.” The opposite strategy occurs in line three, with a period occurring just before the last syllable of the line: “solder. One / goal.” This enjambment significantly disrupts the grammar of the sentences, forcing the reader to pause at that insistent break. In line eight, however, the enjambment encourages the reader to rush on to the next line, as line eight ends with a present participle: “we arrange them in columns & rows, creating / friezes…” This is the type of enjambment T.S. Eliot uses to begin “The Waste Land”: April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire…” The participle nearly deletes the pause at the line break, forcing the reader beyond mere grammatical sense. Elkins’ line break here emphasizes the architect’s creative endeavor, though it will remain almost invisible to those who benefit from it.

Much more so than with end-stopped lines, enjambment compounds the meaning of the sentences. Line twelve, for example, reads as a sentence whose meaning differs from the actual sentences, “I might have known. Epochs and generations.” Read as a unit, that line suggests more than the sentences do alone:

…Bones of third-
century saints—those who died before Saint Denis
Christianized the city—mix with bones of those
I might have known. Epochs & generations
blend, no origin left to matter.

Elkins’ skill with craft equals the uniqueness of her content. She is the author of several other books, including an earlier collection of poetry, The Space Between. Although she writes in many genres,  readers who enjoy The Hope of Stones will find many of the others gratifying also, for her focus is consistent across genres—travel and spirituality, the inner and outer journeys, and the correspondence between them.

Review of Obscura by Frank Paino

Frank Paino. Obscura. Orison Books, 2020. 81 pgs. $16.00.

Those of us familiar with Frank Paino’s earlier work have been ecstatic since the announcement that Obscura, his third collection, was forthcoming. It was certainly worth the wait. The poems in this collection are attentive and thoughtful, brimming with unusual detail but also considering what all those concrete things add up to. Their topics are the significant ones poets often attend to—

life, love, death, and whatever (if anything) follows—and they are populated by saints, devils, scientists, dogs, birds, and other creatures as they grope toward wisdom.

Among the more disturbing—and there are several that describe callous, or at least thoughtless, human behavior—poems is “Falling,” whose epigraph describes an event when a hotelier in Niagara Falls, who, hard-up for customers, sent a boat filled with live animals over the falls as a tourist attraction. Given many of the other poems in the collection, readers can’t help but also think about The Fall when they read this poem, and how truly fallen human beings are. Initially, the poem considers possibilities that might have interfered with this event:

What if the buffalo, fur matted with mud and dung,
had tucked one glass-slick horn beneath the ribs
of the man who led him aboard the decommissioned


What if the raccoon had dragged its rabid teeth
along the pale flesh of its handler’s wrist, a surgical slice
just above the glove-line he would shrug off
until night fell with its fever and slow asphyxiation?

What if the lioness, halt in her dotage but still made
for life, had clawed a mortal gape into her captor’s jugular,

“What if and what if,” this section concludes—that phrase we humans tend to obsess over. None of these “what ifs” occurred, of course, for the animals did tumble frantically to their deaths. The difference between the animals’ potential harm of the humans and the humans’ actual harm of the animals is that the animals would simply have been acting according to their natures—a rabid raccoon will bite. The humans, on the other hand, offer the consent of their wills for gratuitous cruelty, a novelty to stave off ennui.

The content of this poem, developed through attention to detail, is shocking, and that shock contributes to the poem’s memorability. Its success as a poem, however, depends on much more than shock. The sounds of these lines reverberate in the reader’s ear. Take a look back at the opening, for instance. Assonance and alliteration work together, contributing to the pleasurable rhythm while remaining sufficiently subtle. The short “u” sound dominates the first lines—“buffalo,” “fur,” “mud,” “dung,” “tucked”—and mingles with the alliterative “matted with mud” and the consonance of “glass-slick,” the sibilants of that phrase suggesting both speed and menace. This stanza relies on hard sounds, in “jutting” and “scraped,” for example, and then returns to the short “u”, “thunder seemed more like / the thrum of honeybees.” Everything about this language, from the definitions of the words to the sounds they exploit, is interesting.

“Taxonomy,” one of the longest poems in the collection, also considers the place of animals within the human world, but through an empathic description of the life of Adam, who, “after a while” as each stanza begins, wearies of his duty to name:

After a while, the glitter
began to fade, the way
a bright star, regarded full-on,
becomes its own ghost
behind the shuttered eye.

After a while, he couldn’t
look past the next in line,
couldn’t bear the beastly
swizzle that curved beyond
the perfect wash of sun
that gilded the perfect pasture
in perfect shades of umber.

Paino’s use of “After a while” as an organizing device throughout this poem is oddly appropriate—for how would Adam, still inhabiting the Garden of Eden, measure time? Units of time haven’t been named, and what reason would there be for measuring time before humans were required to labor, attend to growing seasons, or experience the end of time through death? Without death, a person’s story has no end, and so no middle either, even if Adam did have something of a beginning. Even in Eden, however, Adam’s task grows tedious. Without imperfection, how can perfection be joyful, or satisfying?

Midway through, a stanza addresses Adam’s state directly:

After a while, all the whiles
congealed like blood
in a ragged wound,
and Adam named the ache
that plagued him loneliness.
He cried out from his
empty bed, felt a fist
like iron enter his side,
saw a fairer form bloom
from the snapped curve
of his floating rib.
Like him. And not.
He named this partner Eve.

Here, too, Paino is attentive to sound—“Adam,” “named,” “ache,” “plagued.” (A thorough analysis of this poem would examine all of the other Biblical references throughout, like “plagued” or the earlier “throng of lepers chasing / the hem of a dusty robe,” but a short review like this cannot accommodate such an analysis.) Paino’s description of God’s removal (without any mention of God) of his rib is particularly effective, “felt a fist / like iron enter his side.” He likely suffered quite an ache following that event, but it is the ache he named loneliness the new ache cures.

The poem ends where we might expect it to, with the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, but it doesn’t end how we expect it to:

…when the angel
swooped down
with his flaming sword,
they’d already taken
what little they had
and vanished,
having rolled
the thing they named freedom
across their tongues
and found it sweet.
Like spoonfuls
of milk and honey.

A land of milk and honey is what the Israelites will discover centuries later in their own experience of freedom following enslavement in Egypt. Here, though, Adam and Eve find freedom of choice, even if choice leads to misfortune, more engaging than the monotony of perfection. “Taxonomy” is itself an engaging example of how to retell a story that has been told and told again.

Obscura is accomplished and satisfying. If you’ve read Paino’s earlier work, you’ll be very glad for this new collection. If you’ve never come across Paino’s work before, start here, return to his other collections, and then wait eagerly with the rest of us for what will come next.

Review of Drowning in a Floating World by Meg Eden

Meg Eden. Drowning in the Floating World. Press 53. 69 pages. $14.95.

The first thing readers will notice about Meg Eden’s Drowning in the Floating World is its subject matter—the earthquake of 2011 that led to the Japanese tsunami and the nuclear reactor damage that followed. The next thing most American readers will notice, I suspect, is how little they know about Japan and Japanese culture. Reading these poems attentively for content, readers will also begin to notice how adept they are with form, how their

effects emerge from skilled craft as much as content. Eden explores this disaster and her response to it through individual and communal experience. There’s much grief here, of course, but also hope—the story doesn’t end with despair.

One of the most direct narrative poems in the collection is “Corpse Washing,” designated as “after Rilke.” The speaker here is a mortician who is preparing a girl’s body for cremation in the presence of the girl’s family. Eden reveals some of the gruesome details, but she does not exploit them for shock value; the tone remains neutral, while respect for the dead requires such honesty. Toward the beginning, the speaker describes preparation of the corpse:

Her family shows me her class
picture, I compare it to
the body in front of me
bones shaped like a hand; a burrow
of dark wet flesh, overrun by maggots.

I wash what remains of her
under the funeral garb and, knowing
nothing of drowning, everything
of drowning, I imagine
the journey of her body.

I patch in the maggot holes. I fill
her mouth with cotton. The mother
brings me the lipstick she used to wear—
a bubblegum pink—and for a moment,
the girl’s lips look soft and alive.

Although some of these details are typical of funeral preparations, others are not, the maggots of course, but also the girl’s youth, the difference between the photo of the girl and her remains. These stanzas are effective in part because of their attention to concrete actions and facts, but also through the sentence structure, all of them beginning subject-verb, the most straightforward, almost journalistic, English sentence structure. The only abstract reference is the speaker’s imagining “the journey of her body,” and even that is brief, permitting readers also to do their own imagining. The last quoted line here relieves the readers from some of their horror, but that relief is momentary, as the next section begins, “I brush the seaweed and trash / from her remaining hair until it’s soft.”

The entire poem consists of eleven regular stanzas, each five lines long, the lines themselves not metrically regular but approximate enough in length to reinforce the direct presentation of detail. Only as the poem concludes does the speaker indicate how desperate this event is:

The mother takes
the last water to her daughter’s
lips, but the girl rejects it.
She’s had more than enough
water for one life.

This is how we say farewell:
the girl’s favorite dress is brought.
A summer dress, short sleeved
and red like poppies. Laid over
her body, the dress is engulfing.

Inside her coffin, the girl is lifted
to the oven. The fire is living and god-like.
She is fed into it, quickly,
before anyone can imagine her burning-alive
hair, the gnashing of that poppy dress.

Only here, at the end, does the speaker permit metaphor. The emotional restraint of the first ten stanzas heightens the effect of this final, horrifying act. The details, especially “that poppy dress,” suggest the workings of human memory, how the smallest things haunt us.

A very different poem, “All Summer I Wore,” begins with a line that could be a continuation of “Corpse Washing.” The title leads into the first line, “dead girls’ dresses.” A less imaginative poet would have continued along this line, but Eden creates an anaphoric chant, each line until the last beginning “I wore” and incorporating so much more than clothing. “I wore dresses I found on the shore, in now-empty homes,” she says in the second line, leading into the wearing of culture and cultural disaster. Other lines include “ I wore the muddy water the carried my neighbors’ bodies” and “I wore washed-up Chinese newspapers & Russian bottles” and “I wore the names of my classmates, etched in my arms.” The speaker is encased in the concrete and abstract detritus of this tsunami. The form is particularly appropriate here, its repetitive insistence reproducing in language the effect of inescapable reminders of this event.

The collection contains several poems written in received and more experimental forms—a triolet, a villanelle, a series of haiku, a prose poem. Eden handles each of these forms deftly, and her nonce forms are equally intriguing. It’s as if she wishes that this event could be understood, explained, even accepted if only she could find the right kind of language to contain it. I would discuss each of them if I thought readers would want to spend that much time reading about the poems rather than reading the poems themselves.

Instead, I’ll conclude by devoting attention to the final (and probably most hopeful) poem in the collection, “Baptism.” It describes a literal baptism of a girl named Kaylee in the ocean near Fukuoka. It opens with the pastor already in the ocean, “water dark up to his thighs.” The water this day is quiet, its blue stretching calmly to the horizon, so unlike the water that had washed over cities only a few months earlier. Then the baptism occurs:

                                From the shore,
we, the church, stand holding

our shoes, feet bare
in the sand, waiting. Out east,

new cities will be built.
Inside Kaylee, a renovated

city is filling.
She rises from the water.

So the collection ends, a community rising from the same water that would have destroyed it. This final poem, through its context in this collection, grants extra weight to this baptism. It is not simply a formality, nor a naïve commitment made by an individual, but a choice made by a person within a community that knows how dangerous the world can be. Still, she rises, in full view of her witnesses, as so many have hoped to rise after disaster.

I hope we won’t have to wait too long for Meg Eden’s next collection. I’m eager to hear what else she has to say, and how she will say it.

Review of American Loneliness by Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley. American Loneliness. Lost Horse Press, 2019. 85 pgs. $18.00

Reading Roy Bentley’s American Loneliness is exceptionally gratifying. The individual poems are ambitious, and there are many of them, 68 altogether, that take the reader on a wild jaunt through American popular culture. The poems consider the Wright brothers, the Kennedy family, James Brown, Janis Joplin, movies, television,

shipyards, factories, automobiles, astronauts, Appalachia, Ohio, and California—as well as hope and despair, right and wrong, relationships, and, as the title indicates, loneliness. They take people and their stories seriously, respecting both their subjects and their readers.

Bentley’s poems tend to fill the page—they’re long-ish poems with long lines. They look dense, but the language itself is conversational and colloquial. Their impulse is narrative, yet they also take full advantage of elements most often associated with poetry, especially concrete imagery and sonic devices like alliteration and assonance. And Bentley is also a master of the rhythm of the sentence. His long lines permit him to play the sentence against the line, his stanzas revealing meaning differently than paragraphs would but also differently than more forcefully enjambed shorter lines would.

“The Afternoon My Father Met Ted Kennedy” is among the more somber poems in the collection. It describes a plane ride and conversation mingled with alcohol, the two men share. Here is the second and final stanza:

…I’m told that the Senator from Massachusetts
smiled under the gaze of the Bond-girl flight attendant.
While they were together neither mentioned murder or
assassination, my father’s handiwork in the Korean War,
any sort of slaughter, though Kennedy finally leaned over
the audibly ticking clock to ask my father what he thought.
About this life. The world in general. And what if I say
he said, Thinking is way above my GS-11 pay grade—
which had Kennedy doing a spit-take. Spewing Scotch.
My father said Ted Kennedy laughed like he was a man
without a serious care in the world but stopped to look
for a moment out the window by his seat in First Class.
Maybe the spray called to mind blood and exit wounds.
The merriment before last breaths taken in limousines.

Through much of this stanza, information is conveyed comparatively objectively, though word-choices like “handiwork” and “slaughter” remind us that we are listening to a speaker with opinions. Near the end of the stanza, though, the information slides from observable activity into the speaker’s speculation, suggestions that implicate both men. The speaker seems to hope that both men experience reminders of the results of their decisions, but the poem offers no evidence that such is the case, and I suspect that both men have become adept at justification and denial.

The imagistic link between the spit Scotch and the “spray” of “blood and exit wounds” is one indication of Bentley’s skill. If we look at lines three and four above, we see that they nearly scan, the third line basically trochaic and the fourth iambic. The phrase “neither mentioned murder” particularly catches my ear, its regular rhythm enhanced by the alliteration and the repeated “er.” This phrase also slows the rhythm down considerably. If we insist on defining end-stopped lines as those which conclude with a punctuation mark, this stanza is nearly evenly divided between end-stopped and enjambed lines, but several of the lines that look enjambed actually do break at a grammatically logical point, e.g. “like he was a man / without a serious care…” Instead of relying on heavily enjambed lines, Bentley varies the rhythm through caesuras, “About this life. The world in general. And what if I say” or “which had Kennedy doing a spit-take. Spewing Scotch.” The length of his sentences varies more widely than the length of his lines, and the difference between the two helps him alter his rhythm.

Other poems focus on the ordinary un-famous individuals among us, “The Keno Caller at the Oxford Café in Missoula,” for example. Yet, these poems are at least as effective as those that mention Ted Kennedy or movie stars at revealing the meager hope that characterizes so many lives. In “The Keno Caller…,” the scene reminds the speaker of moments in his childhood; layered connections between the two time periods emerge throughout the poem, which concludes, despite the speaker’s isolation, with something like hope: “as if grace is the etcetera we make happen / above the roar and against great odds.” In the poem, grace emerges as the effect of looking away from an individual’s loss, looking away in order to grant the other his dignity. Yet grace is also an “etcetera,” something so trivial it isn’t even worth naming. “Etcetera” relieves the speaker of too much hope followed, according to the odds, by too much disappointment. Although several of the characters in this poem seem down-and-out, the speaker, through his tone and attention, reveals that their condition is the condition of us all.

It is this quality that is most admirable in American Loneliness. The book explores the quiet desperation that characterizes so many lives, but it meets that desperation with mercy. I’m attracted to his craft, but it’s his empathy that will keep me reading his work.

Review of Sugar Fix by Kory Wells

Kory Wells. Sugar Fix. Terrapin Books, 2019. 109 pgs. $16.00.

Sugar. Don’t we all love it. In chocolate, in cookies, in—as Kory Wells so wonderfully describes in one of her poems—red velvet cake. And don’t we all love that other sugar, that “I need a little sugar, Baby,” as Wells also explores in poems like “Dear Reader,” “Love Me Anyway,” and “He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy, but I’d been thinking of his mouth for weeks.”

Sugar Fix, Wells’ first full-length collection, employs sweetness—and its absence—as a conceit to explore identity, ancestry, and the effect of the past on the present. The first few poems suggest that the collection will explore personal history and individual desire without wrestling with any of the social tensions of our time, but just as the reader relaxes into that belief, the poems begin to hint at that fact we all know, how personal history is inevitably entwined with all of the sins and failures of social and national history. One of the most admirable qualities of this collection—and the quality that really makes it a collection rather than simply an accumulation of forty or so poems—is how subtly Wells is able to weave personal ancestry with national history.

In many of the poems, Wells chooses a colloquial, idiomatic diction. The voice is often conversational without being plain-spoken, conversational, that is, without sacrificing personality. “He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy, but I’d been thinking of his mouth for weeks” begins this way:

when he finally called me up
and asked if I’d like to get
some ice cream.

I was full from supper and my
thighs sure didn’t need it, but
I’ve never struggled with


Already, we know what this speaker is about, and we know that she knows, too. There’s no circling around desire for her, no pretending she doesn’t want what she wants.

An element of craft that surprises me is how Wells uses the line, especially in stanza two. Ordinarily, I’d wonder if a poet who broke lines with words like “but” and “with” or even “my” had thought much about lineation. Wells clearly has, for throughout the rest of the poem, lines break with much stronger words, and as the poem heats up, she ends three consecutive lines with the word “him”: “I’d been praying about him. / How I wanted him, / how if I couldn’t have him, / I wanted to be free…” So what is she doing in stanza two? Ordinarily, in a sentence consisting of three independent clauses linked by coordinating conjunctions, which is the grammar of this sentence, both of  those conjunctions, here “and” and “but,” would be preceded by commas. In this sentence, however, Wells uses a comma before “but” but not before “and.” The effect of this choice is that readers anticipate that whatever follows “my” will be another item the speaker is “full from.” So we are slightly surprised when the sentence turns to “my / thighs sure didn’t need it.” Reading this poem for the first time, I noticed my surprise and also my delight in it. The next clause, however, is preceded by a comma, so the “but” takes on more force. I was surprised and delighted again when I read “I’ve never struggled with / / priorities,” as the speaker reveals that self-discipline or restraint, characteristics we ordinarily value, aren’t considerations for her.

The poem continues in its colloquial way until we reach the final stanza:

I kept telling myself
it was just an ice cream,
but even then I knew
love is a kind of ruin.
When those cones arrived
so thick and voluptuous,
I almost blushed to open my mouth
before him, expose my eager tongue.

That ice cream, whether rounded mounds of chocolate fudge or swirls of soft serve, has come to represent all desire, and somehow we know that the speaker will be satisfied. “He drove a four-door Chevy,…” is a playful poem, demonstrating the fun we can have with language.

Other poems are more serious, especially those that explore the speaker’s Cherokee ancestry and questions of her extended family also including African American members. The history of race in the United States is decidedly peculiar, especially the detailed categories based on so-called blood quanta that were created by the legal system. In “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgment,” Wells describes an occasion when one simple mark on a page utterly changes a man’s life. The poem begins with an extended sentence describing the marshal who is working in North Carolina soon after the Civil War. Mid-way through the poem, attention shifts to another man:

Assistant Marshal J.T. Reeves, who some call
carpetbagger, now sits amiably on the porch
with one Willis Guy, farmer, age 59,
and reads back to Mr. Guy
all he has written, so mistakes may be
corrected on the spot. The marshal is not
from around these parts, and Mr. Guy,
previously known as
Mulatto, previous to that known as
Free Colored Person, if asked would claim
Catawba, Cherokee, even the dark Porterghee,
but figures it best to keep his silence
as the government man’s ditto of Column 6. Like that,
Mr. Guy and all his kin become
White. Mr. Guy would admit he isn’t
as good at letters as his children,
but squinting sideways at the marshal’s ledger,
he knows the unmistakable difference between W and M.

So much is included here in these few lines. We don’t need to think too hard to realize that Mr. Guy’s appearance suggests he is white; only another marshal, one from the area and knowing Mr. Guy’s family, would know to write M. Though stating little directly, Wells is able to convey much. Even in a poem of this more serious subject matter, she retains her colloquial speech patterns, e.g. “figures it best,” “all his kin,” and “squinting sideways.”

Wells brings these themes together in “Some Notes and Three Word Problems on Red Velvet Cake,” one of the most ambitious poems in the collection. Divided into sections, the poem progresses through figurative and symbolic association rather than narrative, drops of food coloring linked to drops of blood, the law regulating each, DNA tests confirming some familial speculation. In this poem, sugar doesn’t simply satisfy a craving. The sweetness serves instead as a gesture toward racial reconciliation, though the poem also makes clear that the speaker’s family, and likely all families, have a long way to go before racial identities will not outweigh every other difference.

The poems in Sugar Fix reveal that Kory Wells is skilled with received forms as well as free verse, that she can tell her stories from multiple angles and in multiple ways. Few of the poems resemble each other on the page. This variety of form is particularly effective in a collection that continually circles its linked themes of desire and ancestry. Her story is certainly shared by many Americans, whether we acknowledge it or not, but her approach to that story is uniquely her own.

Review of Night Angler by Geffrey Davis

Geffrey Davis. Night Angler. BOA Editions. 2019. 96 pgs. $17.00.

Geffrey Davis’ Night Angler is a collection that is both absolutely timely and perfectly timeless, though its timelessness is unfortunate, or perhaps I’m pessimistic in calling it so. Many of the poems address the speaker’s challenges being a Black man in America, a Black father of a Black son. The poems are honest and clear-eyed, and they are also gentle. They explore the awe of fatherhood as well as its worries. The collection is successful for two primary reasons: the trustworthiness of the speaker, and the range of poetic styles and forms. Davis, in other words, has something to say and the skill to say it artfully.

One of the most intriguing pieces here is the multi-part poem, “3: 16,” a reference to the Biblical passage from the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Each section of this long poem takes its title from a word or phrase of this verse. Rather than use it as a weapon, as we so often experience in contemporary popular culture, Davis explores his associations with the words, taking the ideas seriously, as things to be understood, accepted or rejected, in terms of his own life, rather than as ideas so long received that they can reveal no new knowledge. The first section, “Whosoever,” is a ghazal, though there is so much else going on in the poem that the form becomes almost a counter-melody rather than an overly insistent beat that can sometimes occur in forms that rely on repetition. Here it is:

from the restaurant bar     I smile & watch my only begotten sway
before the old musician     who mirrors my only begotten’s sway

& strains to lift his bearded voice above the dining-room din—
they’ve paid him to play below conversation     but my only begotten sways

two feet away from his blue guitar     the grace of it giving him permission to push
his song out above the evening chatter     in fact     my only begotten’s sway

commands all eyes: the customers & young waitresses & old man fixed
even the purposeful darkness of the joint seems lit by my only begotten’s sway

so strange–: how open to perish we have become     how freed from
first intent     how surrendered to believeth only as my begotten sways

Davis takes some liberties with the ghazal—not every couplet is complete in itself, subject to rearrangement without obliterating the sense, and the repetend is not preceded by a rhyme. Davis’ revision of the form’s requirements, however, permit him to incorporate other strategies. I hear echoes of Langston Hughes (“He did a lazy sway… / To the tune o’ those Weary Blues”) and see perhaps an allusion to Picasso’s “old musician” playing a “blue guitar.” This section also includes several other words from John 3: 16, “perish” and “believeth.” And the dancing boy facilitates “grace,” both the musician and the diners experiencing themselves and the world anew: “how open to perish we have become     how freed from /  first intent    how surrendered to believeth…” Davis doesn’t specify what exactly these people believe now—the poem is not doctrinal, not insistent on literalness, but mystical. He admits the strangeness of the experience, something that could neither be intended nor reproduced. Readers, too, if they are paying attention, will experience this poem’s mystery, for we are not directed what to feel or think but invited into the physicality of the music and the dance.

“Self-Portrait as a Dead Black Boy,” another poem consisting of multiple sections, several of them reminiscent of sonnets, adopts an entirely different tone, though it, too, is informed by the speaker’s identity as father. The poem references the Black boys and men whose names—Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and others—became known to Americans through their murders; one of its most discouraging effects is how long ago their deaths seem, not because they were long ago but because so many other Black people have been killed since.

The poem is thematically complex, opening with the speaker’s memories of shooting “minor things that wandered into yard” with a pellet gun. The first stanza ends with this line: “I could track     if I had two surprised seconds,” while the second stanza begins, “to explain the meaning of my hands     my instincts / would have been to show you the weapon / to turn     hoping you could see gentleness.” Then it introduces Tamir Rice. The lineation here is especially effective, linking the speaker’s skill tracking small animals to the implicit quick reactions of someone who would, seeing the pellet gun rather than the young boy, mistaking Rice’s toy gun for deadly force, shoot back.

In section III of this sequence, the speaker himself, a father now, buys a gun, initially thinking it will protect him and his family. He realizes, though, that the gun is more likely to get him killed, directly or indirectly, than it is to save him. We’re not told what he does with the gun. Instead, we see him doing the only thing he believes he can do:

…on my knees
I’m preparing my heart to receive the next shots
until a new divinity forbids one more black body

be burned down…

Change will come only when “a new divinity” makes itself known, or, more accurately, when people recognize this “new divinity,” new, perhaps, not because it hasn’t existed but because it hasn’t been recognized. What is humbling here for white readers such as myself is that the speaker is “preparing my heart to receive the next shots,” preparing himself emotionally and spiritually for a most extreme injustice, rather than preparing himself for vengeance.

I look for the day when poems like this won’t be necessary. Right now, though, these poems are absolutely necessary, and I’m grateful that we have writers like Geffrey Davis to bring them to us.

Review of Because What Else Could I Do by Martha Collins

Martha Collins. Because What Else Could I Do. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. 55 pgs. $17.00.

Martha Collins’ Because What Else Could I Do is a moving and effective collection written in response to her husband’s death. The poems are filled with grief, of course, which is never a linear experience, and these poems portray the speaker’s confusion, her attempts to make sense of something that can never be understood.

None of the poems are titled, for titles would make them seem finished, would situate them as art, when in some ways they are more like fragments of something that can never be made whole. Stylistically, the poems are disjointed, ungrammatical, and often spare—as thinking is in the midst of grief. Although she did not originally intend to publish this work, Collins’ great success here lies in her ability to convey the grief-stricken mind as well as the grief-stricken heart while also providing enough narrative detail for the reader. Nothing is revealed all at once, and some things aren’t entirely revealed at all, yet the speaker still seems trustworthy, and readers will sense that enough will eventually be made clear.

Here is one placed toward the beginning of the collection, as the speaker tries to reconcile herself with facts by obsessively recalling moments she’d change if only she could:

back I go back and do over it’s
7:30 I drop the papers and put
my arms around you and tell you—

back I go back it’s the week before
I put my arms around you and say

I will never let you go if those
people come to take you away I
will not let you go I say I—

The speaker’s husband had been receiving scam calls from individuals claiming to represent the IRS—“those people” in the third stanza—and threatening him with arrest; these calls literally drove him to his death.

Here, the speaker’s thinking is obsessive, “back I go back and do over,” and so are her actions. When we reach the final stanza, we realize that she is not only assuring her husband that she will “never let you go,” but she is insisting on their continued connection to herself, insisting almost that he cannot actually be gone, and to her readers. Like the other poems in the collection, this one uses very little punctuation, relying only on two dashes, one of which occurs at the end of the final line. So the final line isn’t final, but it doesn’t simply drift off, as it would if Collins had used ellipses, or even if she had ended without any punctuation, as most of the poems do; instead, the line and thought are interrupted. The last line consists of eight monosyllabic words, establishing an insistent yet irregular rhythm. This poem creates its emotional effect primarily through its repetition, but there’s more to craft than simply the evocation of emotion. Collins’ smartest craft choice is that final dash.

Here is another of the poems, later in the collection, in which the speaker’s grief is less raw:

the winding road
the bare trees

through bare trees
the gray pond

beside the pond
the bench where you sat

the empty bench
the still pond

across the pond
the two white chairs

the chairs reflected
where I would swim

and when I’d swum
almost back in

you’d get in the water
and meet me there

This poem is in some ways more conventional, with its reliance on concrete imagery and on the revelation in the final couplet. Yet here, too, the speaker repeats herself, the word “pond” used in each of the first four couplets, along with “the bench,” “the empty bench,” and “the two white chairs,” “the chairs”—the turn in the poem occurring between those two instances of “chairs.” So many of the external markers remain the same, though everything for the speaker has changed. She is less adrift in this poem, though, as the final couplet suggests that her husband will still meet her as she arrives on shore. He is gone from this world, and yet, the poem suggests, his presence is more than simply memory.

The couplets and the short lines suit this poem well, not only because they establish a sense, accurately or not, of order, but also because they emphasize the significance of the concrete objects the poem describes. Grief peels away everything that is extraneous. There are other human states that benefit from an accumulation of language, but grief is spare. It is eventually, as Emily Dickinson so famously stated, “a formal feeling.” Here, it is restrained. The poem is also almost reassuring; it concludes not with the speaker swimming away, toward the opposite shore, nor with her returning to an empty shore, but to the place where her husband met her so many times. Even the grammatical mood here, the conditional “would,” suggests reassurance, in contrast to the finality of a simple past tense.

I can’t exactly say I enjoyed this collection, for it is so sad, and it describes a situation that went so wrong, but I am grateful to have read it. It tells the truth, which is, perhaps, poetry’s greatest responsibility.

Review of How the Universe is Made by Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland. How the Universe Is Made: Poems New and Selected, 1985-2019. Ahsahta Press, 2019. 293 pgs. $21.00.

Reviewing a collected or selected volume of poetry is always a challenge. There’s so much to say in response to decades of any author’s work, which has inevitably changed through those decades, in response to events in the writer’s own life, in response to or reaction against political and social changes as well as aesthetic developments in literature and other arts.

Stephanie Strickland’s newest collection, How the Universe Is Made: Poems New and Selected, 1985-2019, is particularly challenging to evaluate within the short space of a review because her work has grown uniquely experimental. She has written—or built, or designed—poems for many new media platforms, viewable online as websites with plug-ins like Adobe Shockwave or Flash, relying on code generated lines, on CDs, or with PowerPoint slides. Yet she simultaneously pays homage to canonical writers such as Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville (who were certainly experimental in their own times). Strickland’s body of knowledge is astonishing, for she incorporates material from virtually every academic discipline as she explores the coded nature of language and its role in humanity’s search for meaning.

Among the most prominent figures throughout How the Universe Is Made is French philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil. Born into a non-observant Jewish family in 1909, Weil explored the teachings and literatures of several religious traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, before finding her eventual spiritual home within Catholicism; she was likely baptized shortly before her death in 1943. Weil’s daily life, however, was marked at least as much by her engagement with leftists political movements as it was by her mystical spirituality. These factors and others have made her an attractive as well as controversial figure for many groups of people during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

In many of the poems, Strickland references Weil’s biography, though without directly explaining the details or slipping into a pedagogical tone. In several, Strickland incorporates quotations from Weil’s work and from others writing about her. Whether quoting or relying on her own language, Strickland’s work is elliptical, always hinting toward its subject, circling around it, exploring its facets without ever insisting that the reader concur. These lines are poetic responses to Weil, after all, not analyses or apologetics. Poetry compresses language, relying on attentive readers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. Here is “Agent,” a poem that occurs early in the selections from “The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil”:

How do you say her?
		Simone. Say Simone.
But she signs 
her letters, Your affectionate
son, Simon—

		she’s divided,
		always going half-way,
		a double agent.

How do you say Weil?

		Not Vile, not the German,
		although I would be pleased
		to call her Miss Because,

		but as the family said it,
		Vyay, Vey, an oversound
		of woe, of one

		who waits, keeps vigil.
		To us, a way away,

On one level, this poem is simply an exploration of a common conundrum—how do you pronounce “Weil”? Yet each of the pronunciations encapsulates meaning, and the words refer to aspects of her life—her German heritage, her desire to serve as an agent for the French resistance. She is not the “Vile” of German behavior during the 1930’s, but lest the poem become too predictably or simply anti-Nazi, Strickland introduces a pun, “Vey, an oversound / of woe,” oy vey, oy veh, the Yiddish expression whose use in American popular culture has become almost a parody of Jewish life. The puns continue, though more seriously, in the final stanza, wherein “Weil,” having become “Vey,” now becomes “way,” “a way away. A way for whom, we might ask, and away from what? The speaker says, “To us,” meaning perhaps herself and all readers, an anglicized pronunciation of Weil, a deep allusion also, perhaps, to Weil’s conversion to Christianity, as Jesus described himself as “the way.” And then we have the final line, the single word, “unavailing,” itself containing “Weil” pronounced in its center. “How do you say her?” the poem asks in its opening line. By the time we reach the end, we’ve been instructed in the proper pronunciation, but we’ve also been led astray, as much “away” as toward Weil, for she seems no more knowable here at the end than she was at the beginning. We can name her, but naming does not lead to possessing her, regardless of what the theologians or psychologists claim.

A couple of poems in the middle of this section appear to be spoken in Weil’s voice—though context is important, for nothing in the poems themselves overtly reveals this. “Justice” contains statements consistent with Weil’s theology, a view of God as absent from the matter of creation that some would find uncomfortable, even heretical. Yet the God portrayed here is attractive, even seductive:

As justice is to disregard your strength in an unequal
	relationship and to treat the other
	in every detail, even intonation, posture, exactly

as an equal:
	so God

all-powerful, does not exert power; God waits like a beggar
	for us, made equal, Might drawn

that the world

As justice: so God, secretly
	present, an opening in us that can move, consent, bond us

but not
	appearing—appearing absent; except
	for how a thing can be beautiful, constrained

to its nature, how that
	snares us. 

This poem is particularly philosophical and daring in its determination to take such an abstract concept as justice as its subject matter, but I am most attracted to its skillful craft. The poem’s arrangement on the page, along with its punctuation, encourages readers to slow down, to consider its ideas as well as its words. Notice how Strickland uses the line to both repeat and disguise her repetition as the logical sequence of the sentence shifts from premise to conclusion. “As justice,” the poem begins, leading to a similar phrase in the second stanza: “as an equal: / so God.” Immediately after the midpoint, parts of these phrases appear again, this time in a single line so that they stand out less obviously: “As justice: so God, secretly.” In case we leap ahead too confidently, the next stanza begins with a contradiction and paradox: “but not / appearing—appearing absent.” The poem concludes suddenly, imitating the quick unexpected act contained in the phrase, “snares us.”

Other reviewers will undoubtedly focus on the mathematical and technological content of How the Universe Is Made, for which I am glad. This collection is one that will elicit multiple responses, for it offers multiple points of entry. Its variety is among its strengths, yet its variety is also consistent with its material and approach, an exploration of all that which, like the universe, can never be fully known.