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Review of The Paraclete Poetry Anthology, edited by Mark S. Burrows

Mark S. Burrows, ed. The Paraclete Poetry Anthology. Paraclete Press, 2016. 188 pgs. $15.60.

Paraclete Press has, over the last few years, become one of the most prominent publishers of contemporary poetry emanating from the Christian tradition. Their list includes some of the finest poets writing today, and their production values mirror the quality of the literature. So it is no surprise that Mark S. Burrows, poetry editor at the press, has also edited an anthology featuring several of the poets they’ve published. Some of the poets featured here will be familiar to many readers, e.g. Scott Cairns, Paul Mariani, Rainer Maria Rilke; others will be familiar more likely through their writing in other genres, e.g. Phyllis Tickle, Thomas Lynch; others still may be new to many readers, e.g. Paul Quenon, Fr. John-Julian. In addition to Rilke, the book includes two other poets in translation, Anna Kamieńska and Said. Several other poets are well-published but not yet as known as they should be—Bonnie Thurston, Greg Miller, William Woolfitt, and Rami Shapiro. One of the most gratifying features of the book, though, is its inclusion of new work be each of the poets (with the exception of Phyllis Tickle), as well as poems from collections published by Paraclete.

I could easily devote several pages to discussions of each of these poets’ work. As with reviews of most anthologies, it’s nearly impossible to do justice to the collection by focusing on only one or two of the contributors, especially when they write in such different styles and examine such a range of topics—both good things in an anthology. In an attempt to suggest this collection’s range and also to write a review of reasonable length, however, I’ll discuss two poems by two quite different poets, trusting that readers will be intrigued enough by these examples to explore the book further.

William Woolfitt’s “Flat-Spired Three-Toothed Snail” functions on one level as a description of one creature’s difficult life during drought and on another as a metaphor for the speaker’s and perhaps reader’s own experience of spiritual dryness. The poem opens with a stanza describing the environment:

Dog days, shut sky, zero rain,
wood sorrel and lamb’s tongue
smell like hot pennies,
copper scorch. Tiny blazes almost
kindle in the leaf litter, almost
give off sputters of smoke.

This stanza succeeds for several reasons, but most particularly through its concrete language and strong rhythm. The metrical insistence of the first line, consisting of two consecutive spondees followed by one trochaic foot and a final accented syllable, is augmented by its hard consonant sounds. The second line slows down a bit, with its longer and softer sounds, but it retains sonic interest, opening and closing with spondees, though these are less obvious than the pair in line one. (This poem—like many of Woolfitt’s—is  written in comparatively regular stanzas, but it is not composed in a strict received form. It is clearly informed by metrical practice without being enslaved by it. I’m paying so much attention to Woolfitt’s attention to meter—or if not meter, at least rhythm—because one significant challenge of free verse is to retain music, a challenge Woolfitt meets particularly well.) Additional devices enhance the music—the consonance and alliteration of “blazes…kindle…leaf litter,” the assonance of “hot…copper scorch.” Such attention to craft keeps a reader reading, even when the reader believes she’s attending only to content.

The poem concludes with these affecting lines:

Three-tooth secretes his shell, shapes
its apex and spire-whorls, patches
the temple that houses him,
mixes his mortar from calcium
in the dark soil that he eats.

While objectively accurate, the details in this last stanza are also emotionally and symbolically evocative. Through feeding itself, the snail provides for its safety. Despite its arid and arduous environment, the snail, in doing what it was created to do, survives. Even in its driest season, the snail receives what it needs. I don’t think I will ever forget that final image, “the dark soil that he eats.”

The contributor whose style is perhaps most different from Woolfitt’s is Said. His longest poems are ten lines, and his lines frequently consist of only three or four words. In his earlier poems, he addresses God directly, and even his later poems, wherein the audience is less specific, read like prayers. Here is one of his poems (they are all untitled) in its entirety:

you can pray to everything
that is near me
because I’ve given up my claim on
any privilege
so that I won’t be immobilized by my own light
and i ask you o lord
reveal all your names to me
even the last
the hidden

According to Islamic tradition, God has 99 names (though some sources suggest many more), with the 100th name hidden. The speaker here in asking to become acquainted with all of God’s names is asking to know God fully, to let nothing of God remain hidden, even the final name which is both hidden and “Hidden.” The speaker is humble, recognizing the possibility of being “immobilized by my own light,” that is, by the light of the created rather than of the creator. The poem begins peculiarly though, with the speaker it seems giving God permission to “pray to everything / that is near me.” Does God pray? If God prays, what would God pray to, or about, or for?

As a poem, this piece relies most on lineation to achieve its effect. The lines most often alternate between longer and shorter, so the rhythm speeds up and then slows down. Although nearly every line reproduces a grammatical unit, Said (or Burrows as his translator) nevertheless exploits line breaks so that meaning becomes augmented through the surprise of what comes next. To demonstrate how line breaks matter in free verse poetry, imagine that the second line broke after “pray” rather than after “everything.” The emphasis, the meaning, of the sentence would entirely shift, for a line like “to everything that is near me” suggesting a solipsism contrary to the poem’s purpose. At first glance, this poem looks simple, and its simplicity is part of its strength, but its simplicity is neither arbitrary nor easy to achieve.

The work of the other poets in the anthology are equally interesting. The representative sample of each poet’s work is large enough to pique any reader’s interest and to demonstrate the consistency of the poets’ styles and strengths. The book is a welcome introduction to Paraclete Press’ poetry list—I look forward to a second volume featuring their newer poets in a few years.


Review of The Canopy by Patricia Clark

Patricia Clark. The Canopy. Terrapin Books, 2017. 77 pgs. $16.00.

Patricia Clark’s most recent collection, The Canopy, is filled with nature—trees, birds, flowers—and with death—or perhaps not death so much as dying, or perhaps moreso the residue of death and dying. The poems are precise, attentive to the physical world, and poignant. The book’s thematic concerns—how astonishing the fact of life, how profound and yet also how slight the difference between being alive and no longer being alive—are effectively developed because of Clark’s reliance on the concrete. Readers are seduced into appreciating the world as it is and then reminded of how temporarily we inhabit it.

Clark introduces these themes cautiously. In the opening poem, “Knives on the Irish Air,” a prelude to the collection, the speaker hears the cry of her sister’s name called across the morning, but it is only as the book develops that readers come to understand why such a sound would so catch the speaker’s attention. Then the opening poem of the first section, “Balance, January,” seems less haunting than awe-struck and even a little humorous. Here is the poem in its entirety:

It’s stranger than you can account for,
being alive, a cold January morning and twenty
wild turkeys high up in white oaks,
their waking up stretches in half light—
first unbending out of a hunched ball, then
unfurling a wing, the second, while the broad
tail sticks out, flares, judders up and down.
Everyone says how stupid they are, will drown
when it rains simply by gazing up. I can’t
call them beautiful—but I grudgingly give them
credit for the way they balance on brittle thin
branches seemingly without fear. How to have
poise, to nestle down to rest on a fragile thing?

The first straightforward line turns on the following phrase, “being alive,” which leads us (or at least led me) to expect a meditation on transcendence, which this poem may in its own way be. The bigger surprise, though, comes after the next line break, “twenty” not a statement about temperature on this “cold January” day but leading instead to “wild turkeys.” Already, Clark has exploited the line break twice to suggest that this poem won’t go where readers expect. Ten of these thirteen lines are devoted to a detailed and lyrical description of these turkeys, each line both magnificently concrete and sonically attractive, even sometimes playful. The speaker earns the reader’s trust because she has been so attentive to her subject—how else to narrate a turkey’s early morning moves: “first unbending out of a hunched ball, then / unfurling a wing, the second, while the broad / tail sticks out, flares, judders up and down.” Rather than an object of ridicule, the turkey becomes almost glorious. The sounds as well as images in these lines draw out attention, first the short “u” in “unbending…hunched…unfurling” and then the series of accented syllables, “broad / tail sticks out, flares.” The spondee here, in the exact center of the poem, insists that we pay attention—and I love that later word, “judders.” In the following lines, the speaker steps back, commenting rather than describing, responding to human interpretations of the world rather than to the world’s opening up at dawn. Before the final question, she returns again to an alliterative image, “the way they balance on brittle thin / branches seemingly without fear.” This line recalls the poem’s title and reveals the lesson humans can learn even from such unlovely birds. “Balance” we’re so often told is desirable, but the more important detail here is that the turkeys claim their comfortable place in the world “without fear.” That’s what the speaker seems to envy, the turkeys’ acceptance of the world’s and their own fragility without any anxious grasping after security. “Balance, January” succeeds because Clark is careful with craft but also because the tone is both respectful and vulnerable. The speaker, we sense, is honest and so trustworthy.

A trustworthy speaker is essential when a poetry collection explores the fraught territory of grief. Near the end of the collection, “My Sister’s Earth Day” presents the occasion of grief much more directly. The poem begins with an environmental reference that alludes to global warming and hints toward an ominous future through its central image: “That it was Earth Day and still the leading / edges of an iceberg fell into the sea with a hiss.” The poem proceeds this way, primarily through sentence fragments, as if this transitional state between a body, a person, living and not living cannot be described with the grammatical fullness of a complete sentence. At its conclusion, the poem explores the mystery of our corporeal existence—we are so much more than our bodies, and yet without our bodies we seem entirely gone. The moment of death is presented directly, leaving the reader stunned:

And each of us, that we are not the body,
exactly, and yet through the skin, eyes,
hair, we love.

That the clothes are not the person, nor objects,
books. Memory is the fixative.

There she moves. There she stops breathing.

“My Sister’s Earth Day” is an exploration of grief and simultaneously an attempt to discover what it means exactly to be alive. We are alive as long as we are breathing perhaps, yet our bodies seem such poor representations of our selves. As Clark has stated in “Balance, January,” “It’s stranger than you can account for, / being alive.”

The poems in The Canopy are moving and memorable. Clark’s skill with craft means that she can present difficult material effectively, without overwrought angst or false notes along the way. The individual poems are arranged so that the collection’s power is cumulative. It’s a thoughtful collection that will invite its readers toward thoughtful responses.





Jo Pitkin. Rendering. Salmon Poetry, 2017. 80 pgs. $21.00.

Jo Pitkin’s most recent collection, Rendering, will challenge some readers—at least it did me—not because its references are unduly obscure or because its style is irritatingly inaccessible under the guise of experimentation, for neither of these qualities is true of the book, but because of some ethical choices the speaker makes. The poems in Rendering examine a love affair between the speaker and a married man. As a reader, my initial response to this fact was judgment rather than sympathy, yet Pitkin’s exploration of the relationship is so honest and full and avoidant of self-pity that I became increasingly sympathetic with the speaker, even though this relationship between a single woman and a married man ended just as many similar ones do. For the speaker, the operative word in the phrase “love affair” is “love,” and the relationship retains a permanent effect, as evidenced by the book’s arrangement into sections: “Before” (by far the shortest), “During,” “During,” “After,” “After,” “After,” “After.”

Most often for me, the success of a collection of poetry depends less on its content than on its craft. Most often, when I am additionally attracted to poetry because of its content, it’s because I already share an allegiance with or interest in the content. I am already, therefore, part of the author’s intended audience. Not so here—Pitkin needed to overcome my resistance to her content through her skill with craft, and that she did.

Here is “In Love,” the opening poem in the first “During” section, in its entirety:

Everything, everything—our afternoons,
the awful clock ticking on a nightstand,
the key to a room with its mirror and bureau,
the borrowed sheets, the beige drapes framing a view
of the thin river and the arched bridge,
the torn corner of the Daily Register,
the open copy of The End of the Affair,
the radio playing a Brahms piano trio,
the coffee mug marked with its copper ring,
the squat water glass clotted with red wine—
everything kept in that room’s narrow gallery
where we were never two but always three
has now resolved to dust and in motes flown by
yet quivers and pulses always in the mind’s eye.

This poem is reminiscent of a sonnet (if, like me, you define “sonnet” narrowly) and exploits several of the opportunities a sonnet provides. Many of the lines are almost yet not quite iambic and almost yet not quite pentameter. True rhyme occurs only with that absolute last click of the final couplet, but many of the other words occurring at the ends of the lines subtly echo each other. This choice is often the better one in contemporary American poetry, when regular true rhyme can so quickly become heavy-handed. We hear the muted echo of “afternoons,” for example, in both “bureau” and “view” and of “bridge” in “Register.” The meaning of “afternoons” is somewhat wittily contradicted by “nightstand” in the next line. Slight alliteration, assonance, and consonance occur throughout the poem, with “clock ticking, … key,” “borrowed …beige…bridge,” “beige drapes,” “torn corner,” “mug marked,” “coffee…clotted,” and other instances. The sonnet’s classic turn begins in line nine, as Pitkin begins to rely on the much harder consonant sounds and a more insistent monosyllabic rhythm than had occurred in the first eight lines. In terms of meaning, the turn takes full hold in line eleven, after the list of objects populating the room has concluded. Line eleven begins as did line one, with “everything,” and it concludes by describing the room as a “gallery,” not a place where events occur but where objects are displayed and observed. The next line contradicts readers’ expectations by manipulating a cliché. The more common description of lovers, especially when they marry, is two become one. Here, however, “we were never two but always three.” The two never have absolute privacy because of their constant awareness that their love forms a triangle, the third one perhaps excluded but never absent. The knowledge of the end of the relationship is never quite absent either, for even here at the beginning of “During,” everything becomes dust.

Two poems earlier, the speaker says that “Low dust devils skitter by. / Something sharp catches in my blue eye.” That uncomfortable sense is repeated here in “In Love,” though it is only the “mind’s eye” that perceives the dust. Yet the memory “quivers and pulses” as if still alive. This poem, accessible as its language is, is nevertheless dense with meaning. It succeeds on multiple levels, from individual word choice to theme.

Many of these poems demonstrate Pitkin’s skill with craft, and particularly her skill using and adapting received forms. She has clearly trained her ear as well as her eye. She understands the value of received forms as well as free verse, not simply well enough to compose in a variety of forms, but deeply enough to borrow some of a form’s expectations without bowing to their encumbrances through thoughtless obeisance. These poems benefit from Pitkin’s knowledge of the long tradition of received forms in English poetry, the increasingly long tradition of free verse, and the practice of inventing new forms by poets of every century. Throughout the late 20th century, “formal” and “free” were considered opposing terms, and most poets skilled in one tradition were inept in the other. We’ve passed through that moment. In the integration of these traditions lies the future, I suspect, of much American poetry.


Review of Still Pilgrim by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Still Pilgrim. Paraclete Press, 2017. 77 pgs. $18.00.

The first thing readers might notice about Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s latest collection, Still Pilgrim, is that the title character is an ordinary (if more attentive than some) woman meandering through this ordinary (and yet extraordinary) world. She is observant and devoted and also witty. Hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, her world seems to preclude stillness, yet she seeks it nevertheless and occasionally even finds it. Her outer world, in which she watches her mother undress and later dresses her own son, reads poetry and visits museums, listens to Frank Sinatra and fries pork chops, guides her pilgrimage inward. This collection confirms what every pilgrim learns—every journey is a journey to the interior.

The poems are near-sonnets (she refers to them as sonnets, but I am more curmudgeonly conservative on these matters), 14 rhymed lines close to iambic pentameter. Through the collection, the poems demonstrate how flexible a form the sonnet can be. Despite the consistent iambs, O’Donnell’s rhythm varies through strategically placed caesuras, polysyllabic words juxtaposed against monosyllabic ones, hard consonant sounds interspersed among softer ones. The rhymes, too, vary in tone, from somber to hopeful to humorous. The variety O’Donnell exhibits within the comparatively restrictive form mirrors the construction of the speaker, always identified only as “the pilgrim” but nevertheless developed as a round character with moods and worries and insights, successes and failures.

Here is the opening stanza of “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story”:

Find the fish you need to kill and kill it.
The Moby Dick of your life. The one who
keeps running away with your line. Chill it
on ice, then eat it cold, smoked, and blue.
This is the way you have your way with it
after it’s had its way so long with you.

The imperative mood of the opening line is enhanced by its ten consecutive monosyllabic words, including the repetition of “kill.” The sentence, reproduced as the line, is emphatic. The rhythm slows a bit in the next two lines, in part because they contain three words of two syllables each, but also because the sounds of the words are softer, and their grammatical functions are less insistent—the two consecutive prepositions in line three for instance. Line five approaches the force of line one—and its structure is quite similar—but it is immediately and effectively undercut by line six. We get the sense that the speaker won’t turn out to be as triumphant as the stanza wants to suggest. The second stanza confirms this impression:

Yet even once you kill it, it will still
haunt your dreams, aim its skull at your small boat,
batter your bow till it shatters, spill
the sea into your world and down your throat.
By night, at the mercy of the same fish
whom you dispatched and served upon a dish.
Did you really believe there’d come a day
when you would be the one that got away?

With the repetition of “kill it,” the first line of this stanza recalls the first line of the poem, its meaning emphasized by the insistent internal rhyme: “kill…will still.” “Still” here also evokes the “still pilgrim,” though in this poem her spirit seems anything but still. The pattern of rhyme means that we’ll notice one more instance two lines later, “spill,” but again that line contains an internal rhyme with “till.” The line between includes the off rhyme of “skull.” The sonic effects are appropriately forceful, aligned with this content, an obsession, a haunting, of a person determined to rid herself of “the fish” she needs “to kill.” Obsessions can never be truly killed, of course, as Melville’s novel teaches us. The last lines respond to the colloquial expression, “fish story,” in the title: “Did you really believe there’d come a day / when you would be the one that got away?” She will never, in other words, get away. Perhaps the “fish story” is the one she’s told herself—that she could get away.

Ironically, pilgrims don’t generally try to escape their obsessions but rather walk toward them. Those who flee end up like Jonah, awash in the stinking bodily fluids of the beast that will force them to face their calling. Pilgrims aren’t necessarily prophets—through their more contemplative practices, they can often seem the opposite of prophets—but the two roles share at least one characteristic, the near impossibility of being declined.

Some of the poems are more light-hearted, and among my favorites is “The Still Pilgrim’s Refrain.” This poem exploits the line breaks to build anticipation, repeating a single word at the beginning of each line, the reader’s delight increasing with each instance. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Home again and most like home
is the need to leave and return
again, the sojourn fun and done
again, and now my life’s my own
again. I wake up in my bed
again, make up my day from scratch
again, give thanks I am not dead
again, make sure my two shoes match

again, and walk into the world
again, set foot upon the path
I’ve walked so many times before
again. I will not do the math.
Again I sing my pilgrim song.
Again I am where I belong.

Is a pilgrim simply a restless soul, unable to sit still, to take a vow of stability, a mendicant rather than a monastic? Perhaps. But this pilgrim recognizes her pattern of departure and return, the rhythm created by walking the same path. By the end of the poem she recognizes the foundation of her calling, not to go where she is not, but to be where she is.

O’Donnell includes an afterword that I found particularly insightful in its discussion of the origin of these poems. Her description of her visit to Melville’s grave reveals something we readers often know but seldom accept—the coincidental, associative, and indirect nature of artistic inspiration. These poems do have an autobiographical origin, but as with much art, it’s not what many readers might predict.

The book is also one that readers might not predict, featuring a speaker who can be serious about her faith without being dogmatic, who is comfortable with paradox, who trusts that her life has meaning even when that meaning remains partly obscured.


Review of The Goddess Monologues by Vandana Khanna

Vandana Khanna. The Goddess Monologues. Diode Editions, 2016. 28 pgs. $12.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Vandana Khanna’s The Goddess Monologues exemplifies what are in my opinion the best qualities of a chapbook.  Featuring 22 related poems, it is thematically focused on several Hindu goddesses, the stories that circulate around them in Hindu mythology, and responses of contemporary believers to them. Through its content, the collection is able to exploit the limits of the chapbook and seems best served through this form of publication.

Many of the poems adopt a regular appearance on the page, with couplets and tercets being Khanna’s favorite stanzaic forms. The lines themselves are tightly composed, reinforcing the stanzas’ crisp appearance. “Why Sita Is Chosen,” for instance, consists of five couplets, the first two consisting of single sentences, their second lines firmly end-stopped. The next three stanzas also consist of three total sentences, though here none of the stanzas duplicates the sentence, and the only line that concludes with a period is the final one. Through these choices (along with others—the frequency of caesuras, her use of monosyllabic or polysyllabic vocabulary), Khanna demonstrates how rhythmically variable such a traditional form can be.

Each line is tightly written, and the language concrete—yet the imagery reveals a Sita who retains her mystery. The poem opens with details that connote setting: “Amongst peacocks and jacaranda / she is humble, calls everything leaf, bird, sky.” Is referring to a peacock as merely a bird a characteristic of humility? Or is a goddess simply unimpressed with a peacock’s pomp and strut? The remainder of the poem relies on equally concrete language, particularly nouns. Here are the final three couplets:

She is always in the wrong season, wakes
to a mouth full of pine needles, winter grass,

imagines the cold hush of stars, spiked and luminescent,
as halo, as proof. She is wary of fire, backing away

from stove, candle, match. In mirrors, she sees only
a mouth yielding, practices bending to the wind.

The character Khanna conveys through these details is compelling. Readers watch her, puzzled perhaps, but also curious. The language and structure of the poem arouse the kind of interest that inspires us to read it again, and again, until its lines promise to linger in our memories.

Another poem, “Parvati Laments Her Reincarnation,” relies on similar imagery and rhythmic strategies. Many American readers, for whom reincarnation is a romantic idea, will be surprised at Parvati’s opening statement:

My body a revision of bones and skin,
face a dim-lit moon looking for its place
in the sky. How many times must we

rewind, start the story over?

Parvati’s question suggests that reincarnation isn’t actually “revision” so much as repetition. Her tone is frustrated as she anticipates replicating her earlier narrative. The poem is successful, though, not only because Khanna can so effectively inhabit Parvati’s voice but also because she is adept with craft—metaphor, imagery, lineation. Notice how these elements work together in the second half of the poem:

…Each time we meet
something gets subtracted: the peculiar
beat of my blood, the brown husks

of my eyes. Read my palm, tell me where
to stand. Lie and say you hear the river
rushing through me, vein by vein.

At the stanza break, Khanna exploits the options of the line break to defer the metaphor’s power. The previous image, “beat of my blood,” isn’t particularly unusual, but it becomes more resonant when the final image and metaphor recall it, “hear the river / rushing through me, vein by vein.”

Sita is a popular character in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. As is true with many characters in religious mythologies, many different stories are told of her, not all of them consistent with each other. Parvati is Shiva’s consort and the mother of Ganesha, one of the most endearing Hindu deities. Some potential readers might wonder whether they are adequately informed to understand these poems. My advice is to plunge right in. Although readers steeped in Hinduism will catch allusions others won’t, the poems are strong—they will more likely encourage readers to learn more about these goddesses than exclude readers who are unfamiliar with their stories.

I am looking forward to reading more of Khanna’s work, and I am also looking forward to reading more books published by Diode Editions. When I purchased The Goddess Monologues, I also picked up a couple other chapbooks. Diode has done a remarkable job with production—the cover stock and paper are high quality, and the design flourishes are thoughtful and appropriate to this collection. As a material object, the book does justice to its contents.


Review of True, False, None of the Above by Marjorie Maddox

Marjorie Maddox. True, False, None of the Above. Cascade Books, 2016. 90 pgs. $14.00.

The poems in Marjorie Maddox’s True, False, None of the Above are amusingly erudite. Nearly all of them allude to other pieces of literature and other writers, from Dante to Hawthorne to Hopkins to Flannery O’Connor. While they take life seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they accept the foibles that so often characterize human beings.

Much of the sense in these poems emerges from their epigraphs, as in “Euchre and Eucharist,” which cites Robert Frost speaking of T.S. Eliot, “I like to play euchre. He likes to play Eucharist.” The poem proceeds as a series of—references, more than misquotations, revisions, playful paraphrases of both Frost and Eliot. “Something there is that doesn’t love a game,” it begins, “that wants its end.” Later, the poem responds differently to games: “Hope is the cruelest game, breeding / lies out of the dead hand, mixing / memory and desire.” Maddox refers to multiple Frost and Eliot poems, revealing deep understanding not only of both poets’ oeuvres, but also of their different philosophical commitments. Yet as fun as “Euchre and Eucharist” is to read, it transcends any temptation to become simply a spoof. Religion is an easy target, and many writers have taken their aim; if all a poem does is demonstrate how easily religion can be satirized, it also demonstrates a lack of ambition for itself. Frost in the epigraph suggests that Eliot at least, if not all Christians, approaches a central tenet of his faith falsely, as an impersonation of the real thing, if the real thing exists. Rather than rise to that bait, Maddox plays with the most well-known lines of both, forcing readers to ask how serious play can be, or how playful serious questions can become without losing their urgency. “In this garden of numbers / that promise redemption, / picking apples is a distraction” another stanza asserts. Here Maddox is doubly allusive, referring not only to Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” but also to the story of the Fall in Genesis. One reading of the line is that the poem critiques Frost, even as Frost critiques Eliot, for his poem, his dream of apples, of an abundant harvest, his long sleep. Is picking apples a distraction? Or is it a distraction only when the player is already distracted by play? Is the harvest a component of redemption, or does it create the need for redemption? Such fruitful (no pun intended, really) ambiguity reveals the depth of this poem and the true seriousness of its game.

Maddox frequently captures the essence of human weakness, often more unfortunate that overtly malicious. “Mañana” responds to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a story of temptation and delayed promises of repentance. The poem illustrates how easily we persuade ourselves of our good intentions, even as we surrender to temptation:

“Mañana,” we call over our shoulders
to our other selves on the brink of the forest,
the ones testing the shadows with a toe,
calculating the time and temperature of predicted
repentance. “Mañana,” we hang on the breeze
drifting toward the dark leaves that decay
beneath our dust-clad feet traveling nowhere
but away…

This poem succeeds in part due to its imagery but even more, I think, due to its rhythm and other sonic effects. The proportion of monosyllabic words in this excerpt is high, permitting a steady beat, and the longer words often reproduce sounds from the shorter ones. Notice the alliteration—“testing,” “toe,” “time,” “temperature” and “drifting,” “dark,” “decay,” “dust.” Notice the off-rhyme of “breeze” and “leaves” and the internal rhyme of “decay” and “away.” Notice the assonance—“over,” “shoulder,” “toe.”

The most immediately noticeable detail of the poem, though, is its title, “Mañana,” which is repeated five times within the poem itself. Why the Spanish, we might ask, especially since the poem responds to an author who could not be more strongly identified with New England. Why not simply say, “tomorrow”? Although “mañana” means “tomorrow,” it also means more than “tomorrow.” It means “not today,” which might be tomorrow or might be someday, maybe. The connotations of “mañana” don’t include a definite commitment but rather an indefinite non-committal. The speaker, and all of us who intend to get around to repentance someday approach the idea casually. The task isn’t urgent. The last lines, though, suggest that such an attitude is precisely our undoing:

…just as the last lights sink
and—from the thick woods of our denial—
the serpents uncoil.

Readers shudder at the image, its suggestion accentuated by the off-rhyme of “denial” and “uncoil.”

The poems in True, False, None of the Above share a consistent approach in their allusiveness, but the collection also highlights stylistic variety. It includes poems that rely on rhyme and meter as well as free verse; poems written in couplets, tercets, and quatrains; poems divided into sections and poems composed without stanza breaks; poems reliant on short lines and long lines. The shortest poem here is seven lines, the longest over a page. Through her ability to exploit form, Maddox adapts form to content. Because of this variety, the book avoids predictability, even as so many of the poems cite their ancestors.

Taking tradition seriously, the book also recognizes how relationships between writing of the past and present create a living text.

Review of Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich

Rich coverSusan Rich. Cloud Pharmacy. White Pine Press (print); Two Silvias Press (ebook), 2014. 67 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

I have read Susan Rich’s Cloud Pharmacy several times now, intrigued by its motifs, its figurative language, the speaker’s precision and simultaneous detachment. The poems are kaleidoscopic. Images coalesce and break apart; my attention follows one pattern and then notices another and then another. Each reading reveals a new entry point into the relationships among individual lines and poems and the collection as a whole. The poems are frequently characterized by an ekphrastic impulse, even when they are not responding directly to another piece of art. For the most part, Rich prefers the shorter line, shorter stanza, and often, the comparatively short poem. Composed primarily as lyrics, the poems nevertheless avoid the simple scenic mode or a straightforward autobiographical rendering of experience. The reader is invited in through stimulating language, words that create interesting sonic effects as well as phrases that develop compelling visual impressions.

I’ll discuss two of the poems in this review, The first, “American History,” is a commentary on the effects of our contemporary political culture, though the political commentary is muted, and it initially seems like a nostalgic look at all that has changed since the speaker’s childhood. Here are the opening lines:

Someday soon I’ll be saying, at school

there were chalkboards, at school
we read books made of paper,

we drank milk from small cartons…

So far, the changes, much as some of us might bemoan them, are comparatively neutral. Technologies of reading have changed, but those changes involve no moral component. But then the speaker recalls other details, and the changes recalled by the middle of the poem are more disturbing: “At school we met children unlike us, / studied evolution, enjoyed recess, plenty of food.” Despite efforts toward diversity, the student body in many schools remains homogeneous. And the content of virtually every academic discipline has become controversial, with the study (or not) of evolution evoking perhaps the most vociferous debate. The poem continues with a gesture toward Gwendolyn Brooks—“At school we sang harmonies of Lennon- / McCartney, we were cool;” but then turns toward a comparatively direct statement of its theme: “all paid for by taxpayers // supporting an ordinary American school.” The poem concludes with this critique of contemporary divisions in American culture, divisions so deep that an “ordinary American school” has become endangered. As with all successful poems, the success of “American History” stems from its approach to its subject, not from the subject itself. The poem brims with concrete detail, each likely recalling the reader’s own school days. Until the last two lines, the tone shifts between neutral and nostalgic; at the conclusion, the tone becomes more challenging but remains understated. The poet, that is, trusts her material and her readers, and she respects her craft.

I am most intrigued by the poems in section three of the collection, “Dark Room.” They consider the work of photographer Hannah Maynard who, according to Rich’s notes, experimented with self-portraits involving multiple exposures of her film following the death of her daughter, Lillie. Maynard’s idea is interesting, and so are the poems that respond to the photographs. As with the best of ekphrastic poetry, these poems are stimulated by the photographs, but they do much more than simply describe—a particular challenge when the reader is unlikely to be familiar with the original piece of art. And like the best of poems in a series, each one stands fully on its own but also gathers significance from the poems surrounding it. “The Process of Unraveling in Plain Sight” presents Hannah in the third person; she stares out into the world, appearing to gaze at viewers, including the speaker of the poem. Early in the poem, Rich conveys the effect of the multiple exposures:

Then she overlaps the images and leaves
no line of separation

but splits herself open like a magic trick;

now she’s Hannah times three.

Here, the break after the first quoted line appears to suggest that Hannah removes herself from the space, though the next line reveals that her multiple images become amorphous, indistinct from one another. She isn’t absent after all, but hyper-present. Yet, paradoxically, she isn’t present as an individual but as an amplification, one image juxtaposed against or superimposed upon another. Also paradoxically, the line in which she leaves “no line of separation” itself separates one description of the portrait from the next. Two lines later, the speaker describes the image this way: “a severed body (hung // in a golden frame, floating on tired air). The stanza break after “hung” emphasizes the image of the hanging body, which we discover is only hanging in a frame—but we cannot forget the gruesome image of “a severed body (hung.” The poem ends with the assertion that Hannah “Does not, // does not, does not allow / Lillie to stay dead.” I will remember the imagery in this poem because it is vivid but also because it works on two levels, as a description of a more literal photographic image and also as poetic imagery.

Cloud Pharmacy is a book to be read intently rather than merely skimmed. It is Susan Rich’s fourth collection of poetry, and for that I am grateful—not simply because there’s a sufficient body of her work out in the world now, but because her rate of publication (four books in fourteen years) suggests that she is a working poet who is likely to write and publish more.


Review of Iron String by Annie Lighthart

Lightheart cover

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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