Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review of No Need of Sympathy by Fleda Brown

Brown cover

Fleda Brown. No Need of Sympathy. BOA Editions, 2013. 87 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

All poems, I’m told, are love poems in one way or another, and the object of all love poems is really the language in which it’s written. Fleda Brown’s most recent collection, No Need of Sympathy, is all about language, and imagination, and memory, and perspective. Perhaps these four nouns ultimately refer to the same thing, but the poems in this book are characterized by a playful variety that doesn’t boil down to just one thing. The poems often develop surprisingly, as one idea leads to another and then turns back on itself, so that one sometimes continues reading just to see where these words will go. More than many contemporary poets I read, Brown relies on rhyme and received form, but she does so subtly, as if the form were almost a coincidence. She is clearly a skilled poet, and her skill is perhaps most evident in the fact that she wears it so lightly.

The collection opens with a poem called, “For, Or, Nor.” Those of us experienced in teaching basic grammar find ourselves often reciting “and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet” the list of coordinating conjunctions students may use to correct their run-on sentences. Despite their identical grammatical purpose, however, and despite our temptation to view them as mere place-holders in a sentence, the conjunctions alter the meaning of a sentence and occasionally also alter our perceptions of a speaker. Brown’s poem explores how language both reveals and forms person and persona. Here is the first stanza of the first section, “For”:

“I’m leaving you,” she said, “for you make me sick.” But
of course she didn’t say that. She thought the “for”; she admired
its elegant distance, the way it’s wedged like an iron strut
between result and cause, the way it’s almost “far,” and dire

as a raised eyebrow.

“For” is certainly among the more formal of coordinating conjunctions, and it is used in ordinary conversation much less frequently than most of the others, as the speaker recognizes. It’s formality does suggest distance. The speaker’s analysis of “for,” here is intriguing, for she initially claims to admire “its elegant distance,” as if it signals class—the sort of personality for whom “a raised eyebrow” would be “dire,” but then “it’s wedged like an iron strut”—it’s forceful, even implicitly violent. My favorite compositional detail in this stanza, though, is the inclusion of “But” at the end of the first line. It not only amplifies the insistence of “But,” but it also serves to gather in one of the conjunctions otherwise missing from the center of the poem.

The second section of the poem, “Or,” finds it controlling metaphor in Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral, which the speaker describes according to its compilation of options: “repeat and repeat, always with variation.” The third conjunction, “Nor,” excludes rather than permits options, and this section of the poem becomes more somber. If in the first section the speaker is experimenting with persona, in the third section it’s her life rather than her personality that’s at stake:

As a flower sheds petal after petal, as further tests
strip away one after another of the last hopes for a cure,
as a person shakes into the waste bin all her cigarettes
and goes down the street not knowing who she is, the pure

air of saints is achieved by abandonment: Jesus in the garden
alone, cold moon disappearing, Buddha at the morning star,
mind emptied of its snarl of ignorance. Neither to harden
against loss, nor to welcome it. To let it be who you are.

The accumulation of choices available through “or” are absent here; choice is negated through “nor.” Through the positions of her figures of speech and allusions in this section, Brown has constructed multiple layers of meaning. Initially, it seems that the petals lost from the flower are compared to the hope lost through medical tests—and those two events are compared here—but then they both come to refer to “the pure / air of saints…achieved by abandonment.” The stanza break in this section serves as its fulcrum, as the speaker moves from hopelessness and disorientation toward acceptance and neutrality. The return to “nor” in the last line is particularly telling, for it doesn’t close off an option, exactly, as we expect “nor” to do. Yet it doesn’t exactly open itself to options either. Rather, it disengages itself from attachment to one future or another; it permits the speaker to be simply who and what she is.

The rhyme in this last stanza is particularly effective, as the “a” rhymes—garden / harden—are also near rhymes with the “b” rhymes—star / are. In fact, Brown uses similar near rhymes to fulfill the rhyme pattern in earlier stanzas, as “admired” rhymes with “dire” in stanza one and “where” rhymes with “repaired” in stanza four. The concluding stanza, therefore, functions to enclose the formal strategies Brown has chosen earlier in the poem as well as to fulfill its thematic intent.

In several of her poems, Brown incorporates multiple sources of knowledge, juxtaposing one image against another and then developing the first as metaphor for the second. This works particularly well in “Sugar, Sugar” which initially seems to be about a sugar maple, and then seems to be about the ubiquitousness of refined sugar, but ultimately reveals its central concern—a girl’s adolescent development. She experiences herself as quickened energy, like what she tastes in “Pepsi, its sugar- / fizz, and the frozen orange clouds of the Dreamsicle, the slow / caramel centers of the Milky Way…” Each of these is like “lightning up my body,” and her body is also like the tree:

…It was so far away, so far from the tip
of a tree to the ground, yet the waters traveled through the narrow
tubes and arrived from roots and leaves, and the trunk slowly
thickened with its quiescent heartwood that shored up
all the rest, that was, really, quite finished with all the rest,
that let itself be wrapped by the sugar-hyped layers, so it could
think. It was not really thinking. What was it doing,
not bothering to call itself happy or sad?

This poem is an exploration of growth and of life, obviously, but it is also an exploration of how creates meaning and invites us to accept our own meaning. Brown exploits this strategy in several other poems here, many of which are among my favorites: “The Kayak and the Eiffel Tower,” “My Father and Hemingway Go Fishing,” “The Dead,” “The Puffball.” No Need of Sympathy is a collection that is clearly contemporary and yet understands its place in tradition; it is serious without being somber, playful without defaulting to the merely clever. The poems are set in specific geographic locations and often mention individual human beings, and their particularity succeeds in that paradox we hope for from literature, in reading of another to understand ourselves, “To let it be who you are.”

Review of Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

Szybist cover

Mary Szybist. Incarnadine. Graywolf, 2013. 70 pgs. $15.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Late in 2013, I asked a group of friends about their favorite collections of poetry published during that year. Several mentioned Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine. Perhaps it was fate or destiny or maybe just coincidence, but the next time I wandered into a small bookstore that generally stocks very little contemporary poetry, I saw Incarnadine on the shelf. I picked it up and quickly understood why so many readers had found it so compelling, and why it won the National Book Award in Poetry for 2013. This book explores the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to suggest that she would become the mother of Jesus, from multiple angles and through numerous forms. Szybist’s skill with poetic craft permits her to construct a collection that is wildly imaginative. She links this story to historic persons from medieval Cathars to Kenneth Starr and George W. Bush; she retells it by listening to girls complete a jigsaw puzzle and by diagramming a sentence. She examines canonical artistic renditions, and she contributes her own words to a mural at the Pennsylvania College of Arts & Design. She doesn’t, in other words, simply repeat, repeat, repeat, or even revise, revise, revise; she exploits her obsession in order to make it new in each poem.

The collection opens with “The Troubadours Etc.,” a poem that situates us clearly in our postmodern 21st century, when we so often default to irony, deflecting belief (whether religious or not) rather than engaging with it. The poem begins:

Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.
Not their curtsies or cross-garters
or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
promising, promising.

At least they had ideas about love.

Of course troubadours are easy to mock, with their stylized gestures, their flamboyant clothing, their apparent willingness to sacrifice so much comfort for romance. Yet the speaker and her companion are also traveling, following a highway west toward some unstated destination. Their setting includes pastoral details—cornfields, cows, sheep—but they are undercut by images of mechanized modernity. The cows, for example, are “poking their heads / through metal contraptions to eat,” and the sheep are surrounded by “huge wooden spools in the fields” and “telephone wires.” The speaker eventually reveals her own longing:

The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.

The spectacular, in other words, was before them. They moved toward it. Yet that time is over, or perhaps only seems so:

At what point is something gone completely?
The last of the sunlight is disappearing
even as it swells—

Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me?

Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.

At its conclusion, the poem urges a return to something like the troubadour’s belief in what lies ahead rather than only behind. This poem instructs us how to read the collection, taking an idea seriously, acknowledging our place in history and tradition. For what is a poet if not a troubadour, even one who discounts the identification by attaching “Etc.” to her title? And what is a troubadour but someone devoted to the beloved’s absence? Yet the collection is more than a troubadour’s love lyrics, for it acknowledges that while the Annunciation is a love story, it’s a story of many other things also—power, fear, violence, embodiment.

Yet tradition needn’t be solemn or even serious. “Update on Mary” is a tongue-in-cheek prose poem that quickly suggests an identification between Mary Szybist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Its opening sentence suggests that good intentions might not have changed much in 2000 years: “Mary always thinks that as soon as she gets a few more things done and finishes the dishes, she will open herself to God.” This Mary worries about her wardrobe, seeks order, enjoys cookies perhaps a tad too much. In another collection, the link between the two Marys—author and subject—might be less prominent, but here we’re virtually required to superimpose one woman upon the other as we continue reading. Then the fifth sentence states, “When people say ‘Mary,’ Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things.” On the one hand, Mary Szybist could easily experience these thoughts; on the other hand, Mary the mother of Jesus could also be critiquing historic interpretations of her. This poem is among the most humorous in the collection, and the humor is refreshing, urging us not to take ourselves too seriously or our faith too solemnly.

I don’t want to spend so much time discussing the content and themes of Incarnadine that I neglect Szybist’s accomplishments with craft. The book includes poems in free verse and in form, including forms Szybist has created. But she occasionally also adapts received form, writing poems that allude to received forms without actually representing them. For example, the form of “I Send News: She Has Survived the Tumor after All” alludes to the villanelle through its rhyme scheme and tercets, with a concluding quatrain, but it does not include the salient feature of a villanelle, the repeated lines. “Annunciation: Eve to Ave” suggests a sonnet—it contains fourteen lines, rhymed abba abba cab dea, with additional internal rhymes, and many of the lines are basically iambic pentameter. But some are not. The poem takes more liberties with the form as it proceeds. And those liberties are what I admire most; the poem overtly disrupts our expectations of form, just as the event it describes must disrupt any expectation of nature and human life. Szybist understands form thoroughly enough, she is comfortable enough within poetic tradition, that her poems pay homage to these forms and also extend them.

I have read Incarnadine numerous times, as one does preparing a review. Yet I sense that I am only beginning to comprehend its depth. I look forward to keeping these poems near, for what they can teach me about poetry, yes, but more for the pleasure I experience, each time, reading them.

Review of Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand by Dave Harrity

Harrity cover

Dave Harrity. Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand. Seedbed Publishing, 2013. 183 pgs. $16.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand by Dave Harrity is a unique contribution to the set of resources available to contemporary writers. It is on the one hand a writing guide, for it includes a month’s worth of daily writing exercises; on the other hand, it is a devotional book, for it approaches writing generally and poetry specifically from the perspective of a believer, one who interprets his own writing practice as poemia, the creative work of God. God’s creative nature is reflected through creation, and we who have been created as images of God participate in creation and re-creation through our own artistic enterprises. Harrity addresses his readers as Christians, and this book will be most helpful to those who are sympathetic to faith traditions and spiritual practices, of which writing can be one.

In his introduction, Harrity explains the dual identity of the book this way: “The ultimate aim of this book is two-fold: first, to demystify writing practice, but not domesticate it; second, to give you and your faith community the tools you’ll need to create art, live intentionally in and outside your own religious community, and explore the mysteries of your faith through acts of writing, like journaling and poetry” (xiii). The intended audience, therefore, is also at least two-fold: members of faith traditions seeking to enrich their spiritual practices but who might not have significant experience as writers, and writers who are hoping to further integrate their art with their spiritual lives. Many of the exercises are designed for beginning writers, but they can easily be adapted for those with more experience; at the very least, the exercises will assist experienced writers in producing work they would not otherwise have produced. I worked through each of the exercises earlier this summer, and three or four of them have led to drafts of poems that I will be hanging on to (three or four poems emerging from one month’s worth of brief exercises is a much better than average rate for me).

The book is organized into weekly chapters, each opening with a poem. Each day’s section includes a reflection piece as well as a writing exercises, and these exercises are often linked to each other and/or to the opening poem. Some of the exercises focus on content—memories, emotions, observations. Others focus on elements of craft: figurative language, word choice, imagery. I won’t summarize any of the exercises here because their effectiveness often results from the surprise of the sequence of instructions, but I will say that I expect to return to some of the exercises again, tweaking them a little bit each time in order to continue exploiting their strategies.

I worked my way through this book independently, but it could easily be used in a writing group. Harrity has included a section at the end that provides discussion suggestions and further exercises for people who want to use Making Manifest as a guide in writing communities. The book itself and particularly this concluding section is an excellent resource for parishes and congregations, spiritual formation groups, and other small group ministries that focus on spirituality and the arts. I know that I will be recommending the book, as well as Harrity’s affiliated website, , in the work I’m currently doing with spirituality and writing.

Review of Estrus by Bill Neumire

Neumire cover

Bill Neumire. Estrus. Aldrich Press, 2013. 89 pgs. $12.60.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Reading through Estrus, Bill Neumire’s first full-length collection, I was both puzzled and intrigued. Rereading it, I felt my intrigue heighten, as I began to understand the logic of his craft, yet I seldom anticipated the choices he’d make next. His language often feels more detached than personal, even when a first-person speaker enters the poems, as if the writer has examined each word for its interest, the way an artist might examine each tile before inserting it into a mosaic. The poems often rely on facts about the external world for their controlling images and metaphors, and his language is both precise and surprising. The poems suggest more than they state directly. They are tantalizing—accessible word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, yet I often felt as if I hadn’t quite grasped their full meaning. There is enough going on with rhythm and image, however, to reward rereading, and eventually the relationships among the various components become clear. I often felt that unique delight of recognizing another poet accomplishing something I wouldn’t have thought to try.

“The Arctic Tern,” one of the earlier poems in the collection, is written in free verse though clearly influenced by the sonnet. It consists of an octave and a sestet, and there is something like the sonnet’s turn between the two stanzas. Here is the first stanza:

Fact: The tern sees more daylight than any creature on earth
as it turns at each pole before the end of each summer.
At both white ends of the world there is a warmest moment,
a courtship hour when the right dance
can catch the right eye. In therapy this flight
is called avoidance. In archetype this is called the quest.
In science, migration. In a song
this is the refrain.

Neumire opens with “Fact” here, but he interprets that fact from the beginning, steering away from the apparent objectivity with which he begins. Terns are astonishing for their extreme migrations, but for the purposes of this poem, the migrations are important because they are linked by sunlight and warmth, despite our association of the poles with cold. Subjectivity enters early on, in other words, becoming obvious by the “courtship hour.” We might think we know where this poem is headed now, but we’ll be wrong, for interpretation depends on context—the therapist’s office, a discussion of depth psychology, the ornithologist’s lab, the musician’s keyboard. Reading this poem, we might immediately assume that the tern will function as a symbol, but if its flight serves as metaphor, lines five through eight warn us away from too presumptive an interpretation. I appreciate how Neumire juxtaposes two meanings from related disciplines but with such divergent connotations: “avoidance” and “quest.” Then he seems to revert to the objective, to the extent that we are willing to grant science objectivity. And then he concludes with the possibility that is most surprising to me: “In a song / this is the refrain.” It’s the pleasing return, the delightfully familiar bit upon which the rest is built. How is this so?

The second stanza seems to introduce an entirely new metaphor:

Once, overwhelmed by a patch of strawberries,
I spent the whole day running
from the biggest berry to the next biggest, stuffing
them in my red-stained mouth with my red-stained hands
not for fear of their vanishing but for the taste
that was everywhere in me.

How is a patch of strawberries related to a tern’s migration pattern we might ask. This stanza adds an additional interpretive layer to the list of possibilities from the first stanza. This poem doesn’t mourn scarcity—it’s not a fretful commentary on the limits of polar survival—but rather celebrates abundance, of strawberries, yes, but also implicitly of arctic warmth. The speaker’s ingestion of the strawberries is driven not by gluttony but by astonishment. The last line suggests how fully we merge with the world, for just as the speaker is in the world, the world is also in him. And the “fact” that permits this integration is the recognition of abundance.

Many of the poems in Estrus rely on the sort of context-less fact that begins “The Arctic Tern” as their impetus, facts that could seem like bits of trivia more suitable for a game show than a collection of poetry if Neumire weren’t in such control of metaphor. Some of the most effective poems that rely on this technique are “Think of the Bioluminescence You Do Not Emit,” “It’s the Hour of the Helpless Horse,” “A Stitch of Facts,” and “Beached Pilot Whale.” Each of these is written in conventional poetic form, with lines and stanzas, but the collection also contains several short prose poems that also achieve their purpose through the incorporation of unusual bits of information. “The City’s Pediatric Emergency Room” is one of them, and it is also one of the most moving poems in the collection. Neumire’s often matter-of-fact tone paradoxically invites the reader’s emotional response:

This morning the pig-tailed, corduroy-legged neighbor girl was erased by a red Mazda obeying the limit. She’s still there, though, like a De Kooning erased by Rauschenberg. In a box of facts, I found that one can tickle a penguin into a shattering chuckle & that babies’ eyes all begin blue. There are men in chimneys today & streets being named after berries which were named after scientists who were named after saints. Can we go on? Apparently, for the shifts are turning at the paper mill: night to graveyard, graveyard to day, manufacturing calendars with empty boxes for all your plans.

Until the last two prepositional phrases, this piece reads like an accumulation of arbitrary facts, intended to demonstrate the reality of chaos or even nihilism. Yet, the end suggests, we go on with our lives, making our plans, penciling in our commitments, as if we control our future, as if we won’t be “erased by a red Mazda obeying the limit.” There’s no one to blame for this tragedy—it might be meaningless, as empty as the boxes on a blank calendar. And yet we can’t ignore this girl, even if she’s been written over by a “box of facts.” The poem achieves its effect because it delays its sense until the end. Neumire obviously understands not only the rhythm of individual lines and stanzas, but also the rhythm of meaning as he reveals and withholds and reveals.

I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking about this collection. Many of the individual poems were originally published in such respected literary magazines as The Laurel Review, Salamander, Saint Ann’s Review, and Rattle, so Neumire obviously has readers. I hope this book will garner more.



Review of Book of Dog by Cleopatra Mathis

Mathis cover

Cleopatra Mathis. Book of Dog. Sarabande Books, 2012. 69 pgs. $14.95.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

At first glance, Book of Dog by Cleopatra Mathis does not seem particularly unusual. It’s arranged into three sections, the poems mostly shorter than a page and mostly justified left. Although taken together, the poems imply a narrative, taken individually they read as lyrics, focused on the speaker’s perceptions of the moment, an aesthetic inclination common to much contemporary American poetry. In other ways, however, particularly tone and content, the collection is unlike most others I’ve read. The first section of the collection, “Canis,” focuses on the dissolution of a marriage, revealed more through the geographic context of the human characters than through their actual interactions. The second section, “Book of Dog,” is a thirteen-part sequence narrating and grieving the death of a dog. The final section, “Essential Tremor,” opens further outward, describing the lives of other creatures and the speaker’s relationships with them. In this book, Cleopatra Mathis is a nature poet, but her approach is her own. The poems are neither as romantic as Mary Oliver’s often are nor as scientifically precise as those of Pattiann Rogers; nature doesn’t serve here primarily as an avenue to epiphany, nor is it the means to an interesting description. (And lest I be misinterpreted, I admire the work of both Oliver and Rogers.) Instead the poems explore encounters between the speaker and the other life forms, more fully dependent on the speaker’s personality than many nature poems are. Mathis participates in a tradition, in other words, but she makes it her own.

In the first section, the characters are often identified simply as “he” and “she.” As often occurs when relationships dissolve, neither character is particularly admirable, the “he” withdrawn and silent, the “she” resentful and accommodating. Fortunately, the poems’ attention to the sound of language and the imagery, especially as it describes the world beyond the couple, keep us reading. My favorite poem in this section, “Song of If-Only,” is stylistically unusual, though thematically linked to the others. It conveys the obsessiveness of hindsight and regret, while acknowledging the futility and irritation of both. Here is its opening sentence:

If only the bird had been alive, not something dead
delivered onto sand; and not this packed cold sand,
where nothing moves even slightly, no blow-holes,
no scurrying things, and if only the shore birds’
seaweed nests, that little piping, hadn’t been smothered
by a freak spring tide.

That’s how regret works: if only this, if only that. The sounds of this sentence attract me—the alliteration, “dead / delivered”; the assonance, “sand…packed…sand” and “no blow-holes”; the rhythmic shift between the hard “packed cold sand” and the softer “shore birds’ / seaweed nests.” The speaker continues, introducing a bit of humor and hyperbole: “O save me” and “Euphoria / just the name of the shack I want in this driving rain.” Finally, the poem concludes with self-awareness, an acknowledgement that thought patterns can retain their hold over us even when we understand their ineffectiveness:

And if only it would stop, shut itself up for good—
this off-key if only that goes on singing,
like some deranged child, repeating.

I will not discuss any of the poems in the second section at length, although they are central to the collection’s themes. My neglect of them is perhaps unfortunate for that reason, and also because the speaker’s extended close attention to a companion animal (as opposed to wilder species) is unusual. This section is best read in its entirety, however, and so I will leave it to each reader to do so.

The tightest poems in the book occur in the last section, and they are nicely balanced between imagery and interpretation. In “Magnet” the language is attractive even when the imagery disturbs:

The ocean’s fickle, especially when it’s cold June
and the packrat bands of ducks and gulls,
all the worse for their nipping and wailing, force themselves
on trash and more trash the winter tides kept hoisting up.

Humanity enters this poem only through its residue, the “trash”: “the fishing line hung from the gull’s mouth / and the ribboned balloon wound itself tight / around the dead seal’s neck…” The trash is both trite and dire, but the poem avoids preaching. Nature thrusts itself into the future, as this season’s birds hatch and plants blossom. The individual is merely representative. Even time and place, despite their continuity, become incidental as the poem offers its conclusion: “Think of it all / in motion, season to season, minute by minute, so that no one / who has been here, not one, occupies an actual place.” The poem urges its readers to abandon that anxious grasping after meaning and significance which will not be found so much as accepted with proper attention to “the sand’s / glassy quartz, even the duller grains a semi-precious stone.”

These quoted lines suggest both Mathis’ thematic concerns as she explores the human relationship to other elements of nature and her stylistic proclivities. She most often relies on concrete language and a monosyllabic vocabulary. These choices contribute most to the poems’ success, for the most memorable lines achieve their effects through this tight rhythm and vivid imagery.


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