Review of Territorial by Mira Rosenthal

Mira Rosenthal. Territorial. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. 93 pages. $18.00.

Mira Rosenthal’s poetry is both stark and lyrical—stark in its themes and often forms, for the poems often exploit the white space surrounding the lines, yet also very musical, the sounds of her words repeating and revising each other. The reader can’t help but pay attention. The poems in her second collection, Territorial, (Rosenthal is also a translator of contemporary Polish poetry and has published several collections of her translations) consider the land and geography, especially the violence committed against it and its creatures. They also consider the territory of the human body, particularly the violence and threats of violence against female bodies. Most importantly, they implicitly and explicitly link environmental violence with gendered violence.

“Squirrels of North America” initially seems simply to observe that most common of rodents:

From grab to flit, from clutch to twist, through leaf
twitch to the wind’s acoustic shifts, in parks, in yards,

one splayed in the shade below a picnic table, belly
down, arms out like a kite trying to fly from summer

heat & ash that blackened the nostrils of every breathing
thing in the vicinity of a swamp in flame…

In this opening, I first notice the repeated “i” sounds: “flit,” “twist,” “twitch, “wind’s,” “shifts.” Then I notice how many of the “i” sounds are followed with a “t.” Then I notice the repeated “l” sounds, in “flit” but then also in “clutch” (which also has the “tch” of some of the other words) and “leaf.” Then in the second couplet, Rosenthal emphasizes the “a” while maintaining the consonance of the “l.” Similar sounds occur in the third couplet. A high proportion of the words are also monosyllabic, permitting a correspondingly high proportion of stressed syllables. So many sonic elements are working together here—I’m caught up in the music and nearly forget that the lines are describing the action of squirrels. If all this poem did was continue this musically energetic description, it would be fun and memorable and almost certainly successful.

But it does so much more. Mid-way through the poem, the speaker introduces herself: “I disappeared / down one of those paths with a nice enough guy…” She’s a teenager, trusting nature, life, and the boy she’s with: “I trusted being this far in with no other // ear to hear me.” But then the boy says, “You know, you should be / more careful.” Suddenly, her experience becomes sinister. I wonder at the boy’s motive, which seems to be both to frighten her and to position himself as heroic because he doesn’t assault her, but he can only acquire this creepy virtue by frightening her, by suggesting what he could do if he wanted. For the speaker, everything changes:

…his words spread like a blanket over my young

face to shield the stunned animal & a knot of hard
acorn lodged in my throat & I swallowed & swallowed it

down. I was safe, but only for now. The boy took
my hand, later, by the fire & fastened his fingers to mine…

When we look back at the beginning of the poem, we notice that much of the vocabulary implies danger: “grab,” “clutch,” “twist.” The squirrels are acrobatic, but the language also unifies the poem well before the reader recognizes the true subject. In the two couplets that remain, Rosenthal returns to imagery evocative of squirrels, but the tone has irrevocably chilled:

…I kept silent, eyes fixed on the coals as tiny claws

gripped bark just beyond the frame of light, from grasp
to hide, from lash to flight, something wild gone dark.

Rosenthal maintains her attention to sound and rhythm, even relying again on “l” and “a,” but there’s nothing playful left. The speaker and the readers understand that she’ll never be safe again, that she, indeed, never was safe at all.

An equally haunting poem is “The Apron,” also composed in couplets. It begins with a description of an ordinary apron and a person searching through stacks of ordinary saved objects. Its obsessiveness soon emerges, and the poem becomes self-reflexive, the speaker calling our attention to her associative connections between objects and events with the phrase “Which reminds me.” In writing the poem, the speaker is longing to rewrite history. Early on, the apron string reminds the speaker of “the plank of an arm, fallen // from a body asleep in a chair…” Here, the image seems to be just a metaphor, the arm and the body serving the description of the apron. Later, this body becomes a “her” the speaker recalls and imagines, a woman who performs ordinary tasks, needlework, baking, protecting her dress with the apron. Then the speaker admits, “I reason I just might save her / this time, in the dank garage, saying please // don’t pull the trigger.” The line breaks here are masterful, the delay between “save her” and “this time” emphasizing how the speaker has likely tried again and again to change the course of events. Through an additional series of associative metaphors, the poem reaches its conclusion:

…she pressed the phone there, calling my father
& how he drove over & how he found her

slumped in the chair, her arm fallen open,
head bowed to her lap, as if reading.

The earlier “body asleep in a chair” suddenly isn’t just a body and isn’t merely asleep. This poem seems to follow a mind thinking, but Rosenthal’s selection and placement of detail reveals what a careful and thoughtful writer she is.

Several of the poems in this collection are more stylistically experimental—“The Invention of an Interstate System” and “In the Background of Silence” are two compelling examples that rely on long lines, with each line separated from the others into its own stanza. In the poems formatted this way, Rosenthal’s associative leaps are more extreme, requiring the reader to be even more attentive, but the poems invariably reward the reader’s effort.

Nothing in these poems is wasted, not a single word or syllable or sound. In poem after poem throughout Territorial, the writing is tight and musical and concrete, and the substance is profound.


Review of Coffin Honey by Todd Davis


Todd Davis. Coffin Honey. Michigan State University Press, 2022. 125 pgs. $19.95.

Coffin Honey, Todd Davis’ seventh collection, is one of the most carefully structured collections I’ve read in a long time. The individual poems address several primary topics—southernness, a boy’s sexual abuse by an uncle and the idea of the bear. These topics eventually coincide, but I won’t discuss the poems wherein this occurs because—and who would ever think this would be an issue in a collection of poetry?—I’d have to warn you of spoilers. The individual poems are memorable and attentively crafted; they not only withstand but nearly demand rereading.

Close to the beginning of the book, “Buck Day” describes a teen-age girl’s experience hunting with her father. Davis had made the risky choice (risky because the voice could so easily become condescending or didactic or simply unconvincing) to convey the events through the girl’s close 3rd-person point of view. The poem is complex, addressing the girl’s history of cutting herself, her thoughts on Biblical stories, and the comfort she derives from sitting in the deer stand with her father. Most, but not all, of the stanzas are tercets, and most often, the final line of each stanza is significantly shorter than the others. Regardless of the line length, each stanza is end-stopped with a period. As a result, each stanza concludes definitively, permitting Davis to weave several moments from the girl’s memory into the present. Here are stanzas 3-5:

She looks forward to these gray days: to sitting quietly
and saying nothing, to absorbing the cold. In the stand,
her shoulder rests against her dad. She lays the rifle, precise
as a ruler, across her lap.

During sophomore year, when she cut herself,
she used a razor in the bathtub. The water blurred red
lines, like a story with no end.

The moon’s nearly faded. Her dad nudges her.
Forty yards away a doe and spike figure-eight the field.
He whispers, “Yearlings,” says they’ll be tender.

The introduction of the “spike,” here a somewhat technical term meaning a young buck whose antlers haven’t yet developed a  wealth of points, will acquire greater significance later in the poem and assist Davis in consolidating the poem’s themes. Watching the deer, the girl feels ambivalent:

She likes the taste of meat but hopes they’ll keep running.
Her dad won’t let her shoot at a moving deer.

The doe doesn’t stop, but the spike falters, halts and bends,
mouth tugging at a fern.

She squeezes the trigger.

On the felt board outside Sunday school, Jesus waits
for Roman soldiers to nail him to the cross.

Her dad smiles as they walk to the animal, says
“Now the real work,” and hands her the knife.

The “spike” evokes a specific Biblical story, the center of the New Testament of course, the crucifixion. The girl’s body, the buck’s body, the body of Jesus—all of them are cut open, all of them are marked by their shed blood. Four stanzas later, the poem ends masterfully:

She cuts away the deer’s heart, gives it to her dad,
who slides the warm meat into a plastic bag
where blood, still pooled in one of the chambers,
begins to leak out.

This poem is successful in part because of its structure. In telling one story of the events of one morning, it tells several stories. Yet several other craft decisions also contribute to the poem’s effect. The lines and sentences are deceptively straightforward, most often beginning subject-verb and developed with a variety of phrases but seldom incorporating any subordinate clauses. The vocabulary is accessible; monosyllabic words dominate. The poem is, as a result, exceptionally easy to follow. In being straightforward, however, these lines are far from flat. In the stanzas quoted above, Davis includes internal rhyme (“the spike falters, halts and bends”), and he exploits his monosyllables such that some lines and passages become nearly iambic (“She likes the taste of meat but  hopes they’ll keep running”). When Davis enjambs his lines, he’s obviously attentive to the distinction between the line and the sentence, to the potential enhanced meaning of the line (“Jesus waits / for the Roman soldiers to nail him to the cross”). So although this poem can seem straightforward, it is far from simple.

Many of the poems in Coffin Honey are organized around an implicit narrative. Some of the most significant, though, are more elliptical and sometimes printed on the page in staggered lines, each often containing only a word or two. The meanings of the lines emerge more haltingly, as the sense is interrupted and disrupted by the extended space between words. This style is most notable in the multi-sectioned title poem and in a series of four other poems that seem to mark section breaks within the collection and that are each titled “dream elevator.” It is in these poems that the speaker’s sexual abuse is revealed, so their structure reinforces the nature of traumatic memory, as does their placement at irregular yet frequent points within the collection.

The range of styles and forms in Coffin Honey testifies to Davis’ depth as a poet. Although each individual poem is accomplished, it is the collection as a whole that is most impressive and sophisticated. It is timely and timeless. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking. It encourages the reader, to paraphrase the girl in “Buck Day,” to sit quietly and say nothing.

Review of Call Me Exile by Aaron Brown

Cover image of Call Me Exile

Aaron Brown. Call Me Exile. Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2022. 82 pgs. $19.95.

“Exile” is a complicated word weighted with history. When I hear it, I think about war and famine, about Israelites moving into and out of Egypt thousands of years ago and about 21st century Ukrainians, Syrians, and Somalians. In Call Me Exile, his second collection of poetry, Aaron Brown writes of dire international circumstances, and he also writes of much more intimate forms of exile, from one’s self and from others. The book is multi-layered, and the individual poems are well-crafted and emotionally resonant.

“Via Negativa” is an impressively concrete consideration of that most abstract of ideas, a theological concept that suggests God can be understood or experienced only through what God is not. Any image of God is of course not God, yet contemporary American poetry often finds its strength in the concrete image. So the concept of the poem is paradoxical, exploring the abstract by engaging the concrete. The poem contains several examples of what “you are not,” before it turns toward what “you” might be:

You are not the wind scraping branch on pane
or the continental plate strike-slipping beneath
a valley of bones drought-brittled and baked.
You are not hurricane clouds circling around
an ever-turning eye, slow-moving and a mile
wide, surrounding surging sea, framing bound
the heaving-heavens looking down on swirling
earth—nor are you the grass-fire spread before
the rains come cooling brush, keeping
calm what you are not. But maybe you are
somewhere close, not the land but the dust,
not the sea but the wind making waves or
the deep-dark pull of lunar longing, wanting
the vastness between us shrunk to nothing.

As much as I appreciate all of the visual imagery here, I appreciate the sonic effects even more. The frequent alliteration and assonance toward the beginning of the poem are particularly insistent. Some of the language, “framing bound / the heaving-heavens,” for example, evokes Hopkins to my ear, and the rhythm of the poem relies on an abundance of stressed syllables, also akin to Hopkins. At fourteen lines but lacking a regular pattern of rhyme or much iambic pentameter, the poem is not strictly a sonnet, but it is sonnet-adjacent. Most crucially, it turns at line ten, from negativa to possibility. The imagery in these last few lines remains consistent with earlier references to meteorology, but the final couplet surprises with its acknowledgment of desire: “the deep-dark pull of lunar longing, wanting / the vastness between us shrunk to nothing.” The harsh sounds that were so common earlier have softened, which slows the rhythm down a bit, especially with the repeated “l” in “pull of lunar longing,” and following “longing” with “wanting” emphasizes that need. Concluding the poem with the word “nothing” returns us to its title, but here what we have is not negativa but connection. In a lesser poem, this choice would be simply clever, but here “nothing” provides a final click, locking its meaning into place. It’s strangely satisfying.

The title poem, “Call Me Exile,” is also addressed to a “you,” but in this poem the “you” seems to be a stand-in for the speaker, a disguised “I.” It is arranged into three sections, each comprised of multiple couplets. In each section, the “you” arrives in a strange place, challenged by physical discomfort and psychological confusion. In the first section, he’s dropped off from a taxi in freezing Amman, where inside feels as cold as outside. In the second section, the “you” travels from one desert to another, finding himself caught between combatants, where “what fell around you was not snow, but shells.” Finally, in the third section, the “you” seems to have arrived in a safer place, if any place can be confidently experienced as safe:

Where are you now? What sand-scraped street
winters in your mind? When you go out

during night’s deadest hours, sky so crisp
the constellations open up to you, do you

remember the way each winter was its own struggle
for breath to come warmly,

for breath to be stilled? Like waking, thinking
for a second you are back—

an uncanny second when you mistake
morning birds for bombs.

Here, the description of cold is much more attractive than it had been in the first section. The you, apparently out of danger, experiences the universe as seeking to connect: “sky so crisp / the constellations open up to you…” Yet the opening question reveals how chronically unsettled the “you” feels, and the final couplet exposes the long-term effects of trauma: “you mistake / morning birds for bombs.”

“Call Me Exile” depends less on concrete imagery and figurative language than “Via Negativa” does, demonstrating once again the symbiotic relationship between form and content. The content of “Call Me Exile” is so intense, so unbelievable to those of us who have led lives of relative safety, that metaphor could easily become a distraction. In “Call Me Exile,” Brown’s narration is direct. Although the reader doesn’t struggle to comprehend the language, many of us will struggle to comprehend the experience. Brown permits us to feel horror, and that horror arouses empathy. Brown’s skill with craft guarantees that readers will cycle through several emotions while reading this poem, and that particular experience of reading will make the poem memorable.

Other poems describe additional moments of grief and loss—there’s a lot of sorrow in this book. Most readers, I suspect, will read it slowly because so many of the poems demand significant emotional engagement. Yet as filled with sorrow as this book is, it is not filled with despair. I won’t go so far as to claim that it is filled with hope, but it does conclude with a recognition that trauma doesn’t always have the last word, for as the last poem asserts in its title, citing St. Benedict, “Always We Begin Again.”

Review of Casual Conversation by Renia White

Renia White. Casual Conversation. BOA Editions, 2022. 72 pgs. $17.00.

If one element most characterizes Renia White’s first collection, it is voice. The poems in Casual Conversation are, on the one hand, conversational, but they are not, on the other hand, plain spoken or by any means flat. The voice is musical and assertive, intelligent and individualized. The poems address events that sometimes occur so frequently that conversation about them can seem casual, ordinary, common—but ought not be. Conversation about a lynching for example. Or a poem that initially seems to be about hot sauce but shifts to an exploration of race. Why do so many conversations in America need to turn to race some people ask. Because everything in America—let’s admit it—everything in America is about race.

The first poem in the collection, “hearsay,” opens with that most casual of expressions, “OK.” The speaker is responding to a companion who has revealed a bit of information, so the reader enters in medias res. The speaker provides just enough context to situate the reader, but only just enough, for the reader remains just a little off-balance:

OK so you are telling me the girl dared say
“I can’t just let you have my life,
not like that, your honor”

Occurring as it does at the end of the line and stanza, “your honor” stuns the reader—we know now that the setting is likely a courtroom, and this conversation isn’t nearly as “casual” as we might have assumed. A girl is talking back to a judge. The stakes are high. The following stanza doesn’t reveal why exactly this girl has found herself before a judge; instead, it reminds us of a much longer history and much bigger context. She isn’t standing before a judge simply because of any crime she might or might not have committed. She’s standing before a judge because she lives in a particular place that has developed through its own peculiar history:

and he sentenced her to a bedazzled tightrope
and a room without a window, and a son
that doesn’t know her name?                   middle passage
for this? think the girl doesn’t know her own
shame? given that face she wears? think she doesn’t
know where she is ain’t where she was put down
to begin with?                 that her first season was
someone else’s harvest?

In this stanza, Renia White chooses to reveal information strategically, and she exploits diction and lineation to enhance these choices. The line break following “son” is particularly effective, delaying as it does the most important detail. Then we have “middle passage” seeming to hang out on its own, as if the event it signifies were some kind of isolated event. White readers can rely on their privilege to ignore racialized trauma whenever it gets too uncomfortable or too tiring. It was a long time ago, after all, wasn’t it? The speaker insists that the past isn’t past, for “middle passage” isn’t simply a phrase tacked on to a line otherwise concerned with a single individual. “middle passage / for this?” the speaker asks. Her ancestors survived that trauma, in other words, for this? As the stanza continues, it opens up in order to position this girl’s experience within a broader context: “her first season was / someone else’s harvest?”

In its final lines, the poem challenges assumptions about privilege. Those who have it continually fail to comprehend why others don’t. That failure, of course, is a component of privilege.

some people get to want and need
and be met in it.           some just the mouth
just the teeth

some eat and they say
“why all the hunger?”

This poem succeeds because it reveals just enough, challenging readers to consider their own complicity in the type of events the poem describes.

Several of the poems in Casual Conversation force readers to confront their role within these conversations. Am I part of “us” or “them”? When we say “us,” what are we ignoring about others’ experiences? “un-“ addresses these questions most directly. The third stanza reveals how pronouns like “us” camouflage difference:

this is our undoing. woman beside me in the café
says this massacre is so like us. I think of the “us”
this takes                          then,
she might not mean “our” us, maybe their us.

Maybe the white woman means white people when she says “us,” implicitly acknowledging racial responsibility, rather than citing a more amorphous American us that suggests the speaker and the white woman beside her aren’t all that different. The stanzas that follow interrogate but do not resolve this confusion.

but maybe we got an us too: me, her,
everyone who decides to have it.

I think that’s what she’s hoping for—distance,
something to comb out of herself through.


you know how you can undo a whole home
with the unlatching of a window? howl from the pit
beneath it? say “we did this” and “we allowed this”

and the girl beside you will forget you are white, maybe
will not query your us-ing. will not ask which “us”

of this country

The metaphor of the opened-up home—open for what? escape, to release pressure from its own looming implosion, open for burglary or looting—will dominate the final section of the poem. Meanwhile, though, White has uniquely shifted perspective, entering the mind of the speaker’s white companion: “the girl beside you will forget you are white, maybe / will not query your us-ing.” The “you” here has become the white woman, hoping the speaker will forget that she, the white woman, is white, will accept the white woman’s “us” as including them both. Again, the line break at “maybe,” allowing that adverb to modify the clause that precedes it as well as the one that follows, is crucial. “Maybe” conveys some slight hope while simultaneously undercutting it. The white woman, perhaps, wants to climb out of the open window of her white house, but she can’t quite manage it. For the house isn’t just a building, and individuals are caught up in systems that individuals can’t dismantle. The poem concludes with another question:

…still the churches burn, the window’s open,
closing it will not save us, another window won’t save us.

who is us and what are we and what do you do
with an open thing

that can’t be fixed by closing?

On its own, the question is discouraging. But the fact that it can be asked, can even be thought, is perhaps a little less discouraging.

Casual Conversation is both important and good. These poems are successful because of White’s skill with craft and mastery of voice. They are important because of their themes, their refusal to look away from the horrors of the American past or its present. This book’s literary accomplishment and cultural significance make it a necessary collection for the 21st century.


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.