Review of Night Angler by Geffrey Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

be burned down…

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

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

Review of Because What Else Could I Do by Martha Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the winding road
the bare trees

through bare trees
the gray pond

beside the pond
the bench where you sat

the empty bench
the still pond

across the pond
the two white chairs

the chairs reflected
where I would swim

and when I’d swum
almost back in

you’d get in the water
and meet me there

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

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

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

Review of How the Universe is Made by Stephanie Strickland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you say Weil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

as an equal:
	so God

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

that the world

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

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

to its nature, how that
	snares us. 

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

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

Review of What We Carry by Susan Glickman

Susan Glickman. What We Carry. Signal Editions, Véhicule Press. 2019. 89pgs. $14.95.

Summarizing either the thematic concerns or the stylistic characteristics of Susan Glickman’s latest collection, What We Carry, in a sentence or two—or even a paragraph—is virtually impossible. Several of the poems respond to Chopin’s Preludes. Others riff on slang phrases. Many explore the environmental crisis that human beings can no longer deny. Despite this variety, What We Carry consists of poems that are always individually interesting and yet also comment upon each other.

The voice is both poetic and speakerly; that is, the lines are filled with images and the language is often figurative while the tone is inviting and just casual enough. This is Glickman’s seventh collection of poetry—she has also published novels and children’s books—and her experience shows.

“Ice Storm,” for instance, is among the freest of the free-verse poems—neither its lines nor its stanzas at all imitate regularity, and the voice quickly shifts from comparatively formal at the beginning to one comfortable with slang. Through its choice of imagery and metaphor, the poem becomes itself an analysis of distinctions between figurative and literal, and of the value of those distinctions. The speaker consistently second-guesses her statements, correcting herself or at least refining her interpretations. Here is the first stanza:

Everything’s exquisite
albeit decorative and dead
as a Fabergé egg.
I put on my old-lady shoes
and heel-toe it down the street.
Over the pavement there is ice,
over the ice, slush,
over the slush a layer of snow
and sleety particulate
so that it is curiously like walking across sand
except not at the beach
and not in summer
where, after all, there would be
some vital signs.

Words like “exquisite,” “albeit,” even “Fabergé” suggest an educated and perhaps detached speaker, one who might not wear, or admit wearing, “old-lady shoes,” one who might not be playful enough to “heel-toe it.” Ironically, the most definite sonic device occurs in the opening more formal lines, the alliteration of “decorative and dead,” itself also an ironic commentary on beauty. Softer alliteration occurs a few lines later with “slush…slush…snow…sleety,” enhanced with the sibilants in “ice…ice” and “curiously.” The only simile occurs right then, “like walking across sand,” which the speaker immediately undercuts by discussing how the simile is inaccurate.

The second stanza begins by stating, “Ice does a plausible imitation of life,” and then continues with descriptions of ice in the mundane form of ice cubes rather than the “exquisite” meteorological ice from stanza one. This second stanza concludes with an associative memory of the speaker’s grandfather, permitting the third stanza to open with phrase containing such a common metaphor that we often forget its metaphoric status: “’On the rocks,’ he called it, / which baffled me as a child.” Many readers will recall that childhood bafflement on first hearing idiomatic or figurative language. Even here, the speaker revises her description, and the revision helps her convey her experience more accurately:

I was slow that way,
holding out for a version of the universe
where each thing was one thing only.
Or not slow, exactly, more like credulous
because I already knew better; knew

that the world I lived in
and the one I was told about
were not the same.

And so here she is, telling about the world herself, using language so infused with metaphor that one thing can never be “one thing only.” One thing can never be simply “Itself,” no matter how much we desire it to be, for each thing is interpreted as it is perceived—or if a thing can be exclusively “Itself,” it can never be that same “Itself” to anything else. As much as we require language to make sense of the world, language also inevitably filters our understanding.  Even the ending of this poem, for all of its critique of language, is ambiguous—is the tone matter-of-fact, mournful, or more sinister? I interpret it as sad, especially given the content of much of the rest of the collection, but in a different context, it could easily be read differently.

“At Drake Bay” begins as a simple—attractive but still apparently simple—description of fish near shore, but it becomes, at its conclusion, a summary of the collection’s primary theme. The speaker watches as

blue damselfish flickered
amidst the wavering angels,
lavender puffers lurked under lava rock,
and between trees of white coral
darted silver needles.

Again, here, the most common sonic elements are alliteration and assonance. Glickman seems attentive to sound without being obsessed with it—the sounds are attractive, but they don’t overwhelm the ear.

In its final stanza, the poem becomes much more thematically explicit:

At night millions of stars
watched, or didn’t,
from an impenetrable sky.
One definition of grace: nature
without us.

Despite its brevity, this stanza accomplishes a lot. The first lines call attention to human solipsism, with our frequent temptation to assume that all of creation attends to us. The fourth line of this stanza exploits enjambment, a tactic Glickman seldom takes, and so it stands out particularly strongly. The line seems logical, even reassuring, almost Romantic: “One definition of grace: nature.” But the sentence doesn’t end there: “nature / without us.” As much of the rest of the book demonstrates through its exploration of extinction and other environmental disasters, we have chosen instead to be us without nature.

Glickman uses her straightforward diction to her advantage throughout the collection. It permits her to call attention to environmental collapse without sounding accusatory or self-righteous. She leaves readers to examine their own consciences. There’s a lot more to discuss in What We Carry—Glickman’s explorations of art and beauty and everyday life, her finesse with form, her ability to connect the one to the many—but rather than risk that her poetry will be lost in the analysis as it so often is in the translation, I’ll simply encourage readers to pick up this collection, then to explore her earlier work, and then to hope for

Review of Pantheon by Philip Memmer

Pantheon by Philip Memmer. Lost Horse Press, 2019. 64 pgs. $18.00.

Pantheon is the perfect title for Philip Memmer’s latest collection, for nearly every poem is titled for a god, though they are gods you’ve likely never considered—“The God of Adequacy,” “The God of Shrugs,” “Your God’s God.” After other books called Lucifer: A Hagiography and The Storehouses of the Snow: Psalms, Parables, and Dreams, this new Memmer title should not surprise us. Like the poems in these earlier collections, though, Memmer’s approach to topics that would seem overtly religious is delightfully unorthodox. As such, they are refreshingly faithful.

Though varying in length, the poems here are structured similarly, arranged into tercets, with the second two lines of each stanza indented. The tone is sometimes wry, bemused, occasionally reassuring. Whether god or human, each speaker is accessible—I know this guy, we might think—and yet each speaker also offers some insight we might have almost but never truly grasped for ourselves.

In “The God of Wisdom,” the god describes “you” climbing the proverbial mountain at whose peak wisdom surely resides. The “you” is confident, maybe even smug about his abilities to both climb and perceive: “You walk, // and—too soon, you’re sure—approach / what looks like/ the summit.” Experienced mountaineers might grin here, for the first summit is seldom actually the true summit. The “you” becomes slightly irritable as each hilltop reveals another to be ascended, until Memmer takes the greatest risk in the poem: “another crest, obscured behind the last, / comes into view. You / climb it, and // another crest, obscured behind the last, / comes into view. You / climb it, and…” Some poets might have enough nerve to repeat this stanza yet another time, but Memmer repeats it a total of nine times, covering an entire page with these lines, his hyperbole (except it’s probably more realistic than hyperbolic) amusing those of us who have the luxury of reading about this trek from the comfort of our lazyboys. The God of Wisdom, who is the speaker of the poem, assures the frustrated climber that the bartender in the pub at the foot of the original hill will indeed serve him, “stained // with so much sweat and mud” as he is. And, ironically, this god is as comfortable as the reader: “I’m here, where I’ve always been: / by myself // in the overstuffed chair by the fire. / Yes: you stink / of effort and failure // and faithfulness. Take your boots off, / if you think you can, / and buy me a drink.” So, the God of Wisdom relaxes continually in a pub, where people congregate, though this god remains alone. Memmer’s skill with lineation is evident here, for despite the constraints of the form he has chosen, he is nevertheless able to defer a sentence’s full meaning through his line breaks, “effort and failure // and faithfulness.” Success isn’t measured by the you’s scaling the ultimate true peak but by his persistence through those nine repeated hopes and disappointments. But the God of Wisdom, rather than rewarding the you with a drink, rewards him with the opportunity to buy this god a drink. Memmer the poet, channeling the voice of this god, remains always one step ahead of the reader.

Another of my favorites from this collection is “The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night.” Memmer’s conceit here permits him to describe the all-too-common experience of dozing off behind the wheel of a car and waking up just in time to avoid a fatal crash but to infuse this description with a new interpretation. The addressee in this poem wakens as he hears the shoulder’s gravel beneath his tires, along with screams of passengers from another car. The driver of the other car is, of course, the God of Driving Alone…. Yet, this god’s point is not that he saved the you, who, unlike the addressee in “The God of Wisdom,” hadn’t set out in search of a transcendent experience, but that this late-night meeting doesn’t necessarily signify much of anything. This god says, “those were my high beams // splitting the road down the middle… / that was my horn, four screams / still echoing // with your own. The devil-red glow / you pant in / is from my taillights—I’m gone // and I’m not slowing down. Don’t follow. / Someone else / will have to bless you now.” Those final three lines are stunning. They are provocative—what god has ever forbidden followers? They might even seem cruel. But then I, as reader, wonder, could this last line also be read as assurance, that someone else will always arrive just in time to offer a blessing? Maybe not every time but enough of the time.

Every poem in Pantheon engaged me. Every one called me to reread it, attending to its craft, its technique, as well as its content. Memmer is a highly proficient poet who has demonstrated mastery of craft in his previous collections also, so although I admire his skill in these poems, I was not surprised by it. What did surprise me is how much I enjoyed each of the 29 poems individually, for how many collections can be, from beginning to end, that satisfying?

Review of Widowland by Pamela Manche Pearce

Widowland by Pamela Manché Pearce. Green Bottle Press, 2018. 36 pgs. £6.00.

Over the last decade or two, small publishers have again begun to emphasize the chapbook, a form I have come to love for its focus and variety and quirkiness. I appreciate chapbooks most when their brevity enhances the work, when the work circulates around a particularly narrow theme or topic—that is, when the material is unified—rather than when a poet publishes a chapbook simply because he or she isn’t yet prepared to publish a full collection.

Widowland by Pamela Manché Pearce explores the related themes of death and grief, memory, and the solitude of widowhood.The poems vary in style, form, and tone, yet they are united through these thematic concerns. Whether or not Pearce is finished writing about her husband’s death (I suspect not, for who among us ever is finished with such an experience?), the poems here belong together, and the chapbook is their perfect form.

The opening poem, “Tree of Cardinals,” is one of the strongest in the collection and introduces the idea of “widowland” with remarkable subtlety. The imagery revealss how memory can both disturb our temporal stability and also help convert grief into something like joy. Here are the opening stanzas:

I stand
in my dead husband’s
study and look
out the window
at an expanse
of winter.
I focus
on a small
bare tree,
a tree
of bones.

I imagine
a cardinal
an ornament
on the barren

A voice tells me
I can have
a cardinal
and one appears.

Then it says
I can have
as many cardinals
as I want.

Were it not for the single adjective in the first sentence, “dead,” reinforced by the metaphor at the end of that stanza, “of bones,” the poem would have a much less layered meaning. Yet the speaker does again not mention her husband, his death, or even his study as the poem proceeds. Perhaps “the voice” is his voice; perhaps such an idea is only wishful thinking. Still, she receives a promise, regardless of its origin, and the promise is fulfilled. The poem proceeds imagisticly, a tree outside suddenly “ablaze / with small / crimson / birds.”

Then the controlling image of the poem shifts from the caalrdinals specifically to their color:

What is red?
What is red to me?
Everything that blood is.

Red is the fabric
apple stitched onto
my first-day-of-school
and the real one
my grandfather has
for my teacher.

It is the color of his
cracked fingertips
that smell of
gasoline as he
cups my face to
kiss my hair

I have
as many cardinals
as I want.

So concludes the poem, with the speaker’s recognition that life is filled with promise, even in the midst of mourning. Imagine how differently this poem would read if it had ended with the penultimate stanza and the word “goodbye.” Presumably, the grandfather is long dead, too, and the goodbye he offered that day presaged many others. Yet the poem ends not with loss but with pops of color, with beauty and gratitude.

Another of my favorites in this collection is a prose poem, “Temple.” Its contents are strange, almost surreal, except the setting is real. The speaker’s perceptions and her translation of her observations into language create the surreal feeling for the reader. “Temple” opens with a statement that is nearly preposterous: “It might have worked: taking his cremains to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and placing them in the coin and medal cabinet of King George III.” How could a reasonable person think such a thing? The speaker isn’t exactly unreasonable, but she is grieving, and nothing in the world appears reasonable to a person in the early phases of grief. She finds herself in the wrong gallery, however, and sees “Portrait skulls and reliquary guardians with bared teeth and hats of turtle shells and mouse bones. Masks howling with human hurt and loss, streaked with soot and mud that smelled like radiation fire. The vacant eyes on a death mask, cleverly stuffed with cowrie shells then stitched down with sinews of pig, then ringed round and round with the red dust of butterflies. Heads. Heads. Heads.” The scene is undeniably memorable, as are most museum exhibits focused on death rituals of cultures not our own. These objects and the rituals they suggest might not be familiar to the speaker, but the emotions they represent are, for she concludes the poem waiting to be consumed: “To bring me to my knees as a sacrifice to my original being as a bird, a pebble, a beach. To rush me and his ashes down a river of sorrow and blood.” Though she remains alive, her body enfleshed and enlivened with spirit, she expects, even longs, to share her husband’s fate.

These two poems represent the range of tone and style of the collection. Though the seventeen poems here are thematically united, each poem is new. The speaker explores not only what more can be said, but how else she can say what she needs to say. Widowland can be read quickly but should be read slowly. It’s a rewarding collection.

Review of Spilled and Gone by Jessica Greenbaum

Jessica Greenbaum. Spilled and Gone. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. $17.00. 70 pgs.

Jessica Greenbaum entices you into her poems through her titles—“I Love You More Than All the Windows in New York City,” “Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium at the Morgan Library,” “The Trees Having Tea above Me,” “Ode to Polish Forests”—and then she rewards you with the imagery, inventively figurative language, and narratives that follow. The poems in Spilled and Gone, her third collection, are structured primarily of comparatively long lines organized into single stanzas, though interspersed among these poems is a series of odes, most often praising common items like a potato masher or serrated knife.

These odes are structured quite differently, still single stanzas but with lines that often consist of only two or three stanzas. These odes provide resting places throughout the collection for both the reader’s eye and the reader’s emotional stamina, for though these poems are rewarding and memorable, and though in many of them the speaker achieves some kind of acceptance by the end, the journey is often troubling, as many of our journeys are.

In “My Eden Story,” for example, the speaker tells the story of her ancestors’ immigration to the United States. Though “Eden” often evokes paradise, life before the Fall, when human beings lived without effort or unhappiness, the Eden here is the one Adam and Eve were required to leave behind. The poem begins with these lines:

My great-grandparents were hounded out
of their native lands; no streets were named after them
in those lost-named Slavic towns where they left everything,
nor in Argentine where the paternal pair tarried
for the birth of the baby who became my grandmother,
nor where they landed in Manhattan…

The phrase “hounded out” works perfectly here—readers know immediately why these people left Europe; Greenbaum doesn’t need to state or even allude very directly to the horrific events that followed their departure. Eventually, the family ends up in Monticello, NY, a resort town in the Catskills when the Catskills were known for their Jewish resorts. The poem focuses on a couple of significant events, her grandparents’ wedding, her great uncle digging a lake with a backhoe, in order to demonstrate the passing of time. Midway through the poem, the focus shifts from ancestral history to the speaker’s own life: “That’s where I came in,” she says.

The poem describes the girl’s many activities at this camp in Monticello, and in her memory, these years were comforting and carefree. As a girl born in the United States after the second World War, she clearly had no memories of the vicious anti-Semitism her great-grandparents had experienced; perhaps she had no knowledge of it either. The poem could end here, with the child’s innocence and the suggestion that life can get easier. With the escape from Manhattan to the rural Catskills, perhaps the family even returned to a bit of Eden. Once a people falls into the knowledge of evil, however, no return to Eden is ever possible. The poem doesn’t end here.

It ends much more subtly:

…Sometimes I went spying
for salamanders, lifting up ferns and stones after the rain,
because this was one way the children recognized
what life meant. Flushed from their own home,
the tiny-footed creatures flashed orange on green moss
and I see them as my first neon sign for happiness,
which is why I hope I let them go and live in peace.

This ending does gesture back toward Eden, but these salamanders are “flushed from” rather than “hounded out” of their homes. Recognizing children’s’ occasional attraction to cruelty and their naïve desire to capture wild creatures to keep as their own, the speaker doesn’t exonerate herself, but she doesn’t falsely attribute either of these characteristics to herself either. She leaves the poem and the memory ambiguous. She is able to choose “happiness” and “peace” as the last words in the final two lines of the poem while also signaling that these enviable states remain uncertain.

Despite the length of the poem—50 lines—that last line arrives suddenly. The effect of the last line depends in part on its suddenness, and also upon the choice of thirteen monosyllabic words, the last ten of them iambic. Greenbaum’s skill with craft results in poems like this one, written effectively yet without drawing undue attention to the craft, seeming, in fact, to rely on absolutely ordinary language. The lines are fairly consistent in length, as the quotations above demonstrate, and more often enjambed than end-stopped. Because the lines are comparatively long, Greenbaum can both rely on grammatical units in choosing line breaks and also include frequent caesuras within the middle of the lines, affecting rhythm as well as meaning. For example, in the quotation above, the lines all end strongly, but the one that contains a period three syllables in, and four lines from the end of the poem, is most remarkable: “what life meant. Flushed from their own home,…” The period functions nearly as a thematic colon; life means being flushed from your home. The child isn’t thinking about pogroms or death camps, but the poet is, and so is the reader. Greenbaum’s ability to address such a subject without ever specifically mentioning it is impressive.

I found myself lingering over many of the poems in Spilled and Gone. Every time I’ve returned to it, looking for a specific poem, I’ve read others instead, drawn in by the voice and then ruminating over the insights. Greenbaum pays attention to her world and teaches her readers how to pay attention too.

Review of Kill Class by Nomi Stone

Nomi Stone. Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019. 90 pgs. $17.95.

Occasionally a poet emerges whose personal experience or knowledge permits readers entrance into worlds they might never otherwise know. These poets write books that change our thinking about our lives and about how literature can intervene in the actual, material world. Think about Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam (which I reviewed here) or Tyehimba Jess’ Olio or Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us. Nomi Stone is one such poet, and Kill Class, her second collection of poetry, is one such book. Stone is formally trained as an anthropologist as well as an accomplished poet; Kill Class could not have been written otherwise. In these poems, the speaker is embedded on a military training base, observing

observing and participating in “games” intended to teach soldiers how to make war.

Though written primarily in free verse, the poems assume many forms, taking advantage of the options for line lengths and line breaks that free verse allows, and they range from very short (3 lines) to unusually long (6 pages). Stone is skilled enough with craft, that is, to exploit the characteristics of language in order to explore her subject fully. By exploring such a disturbing topic through a variety of forms, the poems continually surprise, startle, and horrify.

The title poem is the longest in the collection. Details emphasize  the game-like nature of the soldiers’ training. “The story says we are in the country of Pineland,” the poem begins, eventually describing the speaker’s role:

The story says I join the guerillas.
The story says I carry this tent in.

Three cages at the wood-line:
the goat, the chickens,
a solitary white rabbit.

That rabbit, seemingly introduced here as simply a bit of local color, will become crucially significant, revealing the speaker’s character as one who refuses the false restriction of an either / or possibility, and therefore as one unsuitable for “Kill Class.” But first, she reveals more about her role:

Commander: You are Gypsy, from Taylor-town, the widow of Joker,
one of the fallen guerillas.

They make me a fighter.

One woman among 40 guerillas
and the 12 American soldiers
secretly training them to overthrow
their country’s government.

Joker fell heroically, and our child—there was a child—they made
me eat his ashes.

The syntax here is puzzling—does the second “they” have the same antecedent as the first “they”? Although it would seem so grammatically, logically it would seem not; surely those forcing her to eat her own child’s ashes must be the enemies. People identified as “we” or “us” could never behave so barbarically. Except. Except. This is a class that teaches participants how to kill, how to dehumanize someone in order to be able to kill him or her, and in doing so, how to of necessity dehumanize oneself. I still want to believe the “they” here refers to the enemy, but then I come to this line:

“Commander: Do you take hot sauce on those ashes?”

Part of the point here is that there’s little difference between “we” and “they,” and that “we” have little reason to persuade ourselves of any moral superiority.

Here, Stone steps back, providing temporary relief from the story’s intensity:

It’s May. Heat saps the water out of the body
as pines swoon in and out
and out. They have put aside the rabbit for me.

Commander: Gypsy, this is yours. Feed it. For now, feed it.

Some small choices in this excerpt are particularly effective, an article rather than a pronoun for instance: “the body” not “my body” as if the speaker is beginning to dissociate. The next line break, “pines swoon in and out / and out” emphasizes the heat’s dizzying effect. When the speaker is instructed to feed the rabbit, readers understand the possibility of emotional attachment but also notice the ominous “For now.”

As the poem develops, Stone emphasizes the role-playing nature of this class, focusing on the necessity of remaining in character. As the poem moves toward its climax, the significance of some details becomes clearer, and the speaker begins to understand her ethical dilemma. As an anthropologist, she might often be able to assert, accurately or not, cultural detachment, but here she is embedded, playing a game that is not play, within a culture that is at least to some extent her own. I am going to quote a long passage here in order to show how Stone conveys tensions among her “real” identity and her role, revealing eventually how little distinction there is between the two:

They bring me to the tree-line for kill class.
Gypsy this rabbit is yours. We have all been kind
enough to share our food and water out here.
We all have to help out so we can eat.

There is a pit for the un-useable
portions of the entrails.     Secure the goat, slit its neck over
the pit, and proceed with the chickens.

This one is yours.
Use this stick. One time over
the head should be enough.

You have to, Gypsy, they say.
You can do it. Commander tries to give me
a fist bump to say We
are in this together. We are not in this together.

They cannot make me lift
my fist. Gypsy
how can we trust you? If you can’t kill
an animal, how
can you be a fighter?

The pines.

I’m sorry. I will clean it after if you want.

They bring me over     the chickens warm and still
The flesh under
their feathers
the organs
pulled out / the pearled
interiors.     This is meat now. I turn them
into something

we eat. I think I am done,
but Whisker says almost gently
Gypsy you need to kill the rabbit. Unfortunately
you do not have a choice.

I have a choice.     Let me be perfectly clear,
I say. It is not happening.

The men make a circle
The pines make a circle
You need to hold
the legs.     They are tying together
the legs     the animal
screaming     They raise
the stick     The legs are in
my arms     The legs are in my arms

What a conclusion. As insistent as the speaker has been that she has a choice, that she is different from the soldiers, that her role play remains more conscious than theirs, she discovers how implicated she nevertheless is, how implicated we all are. The most obvious sign that the speaker is losing control of her situation is the absence of punctuation in several of the lines toward the end of the poem. In addition, the line breaks and extra spaces between phrases create a confused and abrupt pacing, suggesting the speaker’s confused thought patterns. She acknowledges that she abstracts animals “into meat” by participating in their preparation after the kill if not in the kill itself, but she continues to insist, “I have a choice.     Let me be perfectly clear, / I say. It is not happening.” Again, Stone’s reliance on a pronoun creates a useful ambiguity. On one level, the phrase is used colloquially, the speaker meaning that she is not going to follow the instructions she’s been given. On another level, the sentence is a plea of denial—this horror that is happening cannot possibly be happening. The poem ends with the rabbit not yet killed, though its imminent death is undeniable. The only question is whether the speaker will be able to remain a passive participant—though the poem certainly implies that she has already passed that point, that she passed that point even if unknowingly as soon as she entered this role play.

Kill Class is an unforgettable book. Its success depends on Stone’s ability to describe this material artfully, but as importantly, it also emerges from the speaker’s recognition of her own moral culpability in a world that repudiates any easy distinction between “us” and “them.”

Review of The Floating Door by M.E. Silverman

The Floating Door. M.E. Silverman. Glass Lyre Press, 2018. 83 pgs. $16.00.

M.E. Silverman’s The Floating Door features a few series of overtly related poems interspersed with other individual poems that complement them thematically. One series consists of poems in “Response to” contemporary concerns, from the mundane and mildly amusing, e.g. “Step on a Crack,” to the more disturbing yet still somehow amusing, e.g. “I Can’t Get off the Couch.” Another series features “Mud Man” and “Mud Angel.” Yet another explores the life of “The Last Jew” in Afghanistan—many of my favorite poems in the collection occur within this series. The collection includes several prose poems, as well as traditionally lineated poems, most often written in free verse, demonstrating Silverman’s attention to craft.

The book is interesting for its craft but even more interesting for its thematic strategies, juxtaposing explorations of spirituality and religious practice with descriptions of the ordinary encounters of 21st century life, challenging temptations to separate the transcendent from the imminent, the sublime from the dismal.

“The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with His Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin” begins by setting the stage, the last Jew tired of being last:

After seven years,
he digs him up
for the High Holy Holidays,
brings him home
to the space they once shared,
slaps him down
in a borrowed rocker
in the empty café.

The act, of course, is absurd, though perhaps no more absurd—though clearly not implausible—than the fact that any given country would be home to its “last Jew.” The two celebrate the holy day together, though “celebrate” might exaggerate their activity:

The sun snaps shut
like a casket lid over Flower Street.
By the open door,
a table is set for two.
Levin remains silent,
still holds a grudge,
jealous that Zablon outlived him
but more concerned with his hands
tied to the chair
with the tzitzit from his old tallit.

He sits wide-eyed, surprised,
slightly displeased,
even more thin skinned
than before, …

I’ve often observed that as people age, barring a stroke or other serious brain injury, they just become more like they always were; for Levin, this development seems to follow him even into death. Zablon isn’t lonely simply for company, nor is he missing a specific person—he’s lonely for the companionship of someone who understands his worldview, his ethnic and religious commitments, so lonely that digging up a grumpy corpse improves his evening.

The act acquires symbolic value of course,  the entire poem functioning as a metaphor for the power of the dead among the living, even moreso when cultural memory is infused with genocide, but it succeeds primarily because of its literal meaning. Silverman creates two interesting characters, men who might not seem to have a lot in common with the reader, but men who resemble us nevertheless. For who among us hasn’t experienced this deep longing, and who among us hasn’t also rested in the comfort of our character flaws? These men are interesting because of their oddities, though those oddities aren’t really so odd.

“Mud Angel” is tonally quite different from “The Last Jew Celebrates the New Year with His Dead Friend, Ishaq Levin.” It is written in short couplets, with a comparatively equal distribution of enjambed and end-stopped lines. Here is the poem:

In the barn, he removes
& folds his clipped wings,

a blue-gray, not from dye
but from age, grime, storage.

Gently, the bruised feathers
brush the scar on his left cheek.

At night, in flight,
it itches more

like a healing wound
open to air. Every morning,

every morning he looks down
from the loft, rests

a hand on a bale of hay,
thinks about chores

& closes the trunk, thick
with dust & dirt,

then turns, his back bare
with phantom limbs.

The imagery in this poem—“bruised feathers,” “itches more / like a healing wound”—is memorable and assists the reader in imaginatively embodying this figure. For what is a mud angel, really, but a human being, made of clay as Genesis tells us and “little less than angels” as Psalms says. The sonic devices are equally effective, especially the alliteration and consonance: “bruised feathers / brush,” “closes the trunk, thick / with dust & dirt, / then turns, his back bare.” Silverman’s reliance on monosyllabic words emphasizes these hard sounds and permits these short lines to be comprised of predominantly stressed syllables. That is, although the poem isn’t metrically regular, it often nearly sounds so and occasionally becomes so: “At night, in flight, / it itches more…” In this poem particularly, Silverman exploits many of the poetic devices available to him without becoming shackled by them.

The collection also contains several prose poems, many of which emphasize narrative and in another context might be called flash. These pieces are often highly imaginative, bordering on magical realism. “Hurricane Dreams,” for example, opens with the speaker’s father pulling “a hairless cat out of my chest,” the father immediately becoming linked to Abraham. The poem questions the father’s power; he is not God and therefore “cannot breathe life into something so small as me,” yet as we all know can deliver death. Any piece of literature that analogizes a father and son as Abraham and Isaac is bound to become ominous, as this one does. Although it concludes with the collection’s mystical title image, the last sentence remains more ambiguous than the story from Genesis is, disturbing as that story nevertheless is: “I breathe & breathe & obey for the love of God, the way Isaac did with his eyes closed, without murmuring, aware of the sharp steel but not what his father hears, what his father knows, yet still willing to go through the floating door.” In the canonical story, what the father hears is God’s revision of his command to kill Isaac, but what the father also knows is his willingness to have committed that act. The poem seems to conclude with meditative trust, but the speaker’s willingness to submit himself to the father doesn’t relieve the poem of its sinister undercurrent. The reader can’t help but respond ambivalently, and evoking that ambivalence is perhaps Silverman’s best decision here, for the poem becomes much more memorable than if it had resolutely (and likely falsely) resolved this dilemma.

M.E. Silverman’s work has been widely published in literary journals, and he is as active as an editor as he is as a writer. I was, in fact, introduced to his work through an anthology he edited, Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which I also reviewed here. I appreciate his vision in both roles, and I’m looking forward to whatever he publishes next.

Review of Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan. Harborless. Wayne State University Press, 2017. 65 pgs. $16.99.

Harborless, Cindy Hunter Morgan’s first full-length collection, is unusual in several respects. The book consists of forty poems responding to specific shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, wrecks that often occurred because of weather, of course, but also due to exploding boilers, waterlogged wheat, or collisions with other ships. They carried loads of pigs, Christmas trees, apples, immigrants. The poems are interesting for their content but also for their craft—they rely on memorable figurative language, incorporate a range of poetic forms, and successfully incorporate the voices of multiple characters—yet they are also entirely accessible for readers who believe they don’t like poetry.

The collection is arranged into five sections, each bracketed by “Deckhand” poems that suggest thematic concerns to be explored in the following section. The first poem, for example, “Deckhand: Scent Theory,” describes a young man who recalls his past and considers his present through aroma:

When he climbed up the deck ladder
that first morning, his shirt still smelled
of his mother’s wash line:
Dreft and sunshine.

Now what he breathes is rain
and ore, deck paint, grease,
engine oil, boiler exhaust,

Mornings there is coffee.
Sometimes he pours a bit
on the cuff of his sleeve
so later he can press his nose in it.

The poem concludes with these lines:

At night he peels
his clothes off
and drops them in a pile,

dark, stagnant puddle
of stained cotton,
cesspool of sweat turning
to mildew.

The poem progresses from pleasant scents that recall presumably pleasant memories—laundry on a line and the deckhand’s mother—through less pleasant but utilitarian scents—deck paint, engine oil—to the unequivocally vile—a “cesspool of sweat.” This job, working on a ship all day out on the lake, might have seemed romantic to the young man when he was still imagining his future, but it quickly acquires the characteristics of most physical labor. It’s exhausting work, and the rewards are slight. The speaker doesn’t directly reveal the deckhand’s thoughts here, permitting the imagery to evoke all we need to know. Such effective imagery characterizes many of the poems in the collection.

These final two stanzas of “Deckhand: Scent Theory” also illustrate Morgan’s skill with sonic devices. We might quickly notice the slant rhyme between “peels” and “pile,” but then notice the repetition of both “p” and “l” in “puddle” one line later, as well as the subsequent internal slant rhyme with “pool” in “cesspool.” In addition the “oo” of “pool” is repeated in “mildew.” Because English spelling is so inconsistent, the same sound often represented by wildly different spellings, the carryover of “pool” to “mildew” is invisible to the eye and therefore more subtle when the ear picks it up. Then there’s also the alliteration of “stagnant” and “stained” which contribute to the consonance of “cotton,” “sweat,” and “turning.” And of course, there’s assonance in “cesspool” and “sweat.” Virtually every syllable, in other words, contributes to the aural pleasure of these stanzas. It’s tempting to assume that accessible poetry will be unsophisticated in its craft, but this poem more than manages the dual challenges.

Most of the poems in Harborless are written in free verse, but Morgan also incorporates several in received forms, notably a series of erasures printed to resemble the remains of burned paper, as well as a pantoum and a couple of prose poems. Here are the first few sentences of “J. Barber, 1871”:

Peach crisp, peach pie, peach jam, peach compote, whole peaches, sliced peaches. In those hours before the peaches burned, the whole ship smelled like August in a farm kitchen. The hold was full of Michigan orchards, full of juice and sugar and the soft fuzz of peach skin.

The exuberance of the opening list is fun to read, despite its context. The rhythmic energy continues throughout the poem, which concludes with this sentence:

Peaches sizzled and spit as the ship burned, as fire consumed what was made of sugar and what was made of wood, as masts toppled like limbs pruned from fruit trees, as men rolled across the deck like windfalls, bruised and scraped, and everything was reduced to carbon and loss.

Because of the exuberant language, the last clause, “everything was reduced to carbon and loss,” becomes particularly haunting, reminding readers that despite their visions of “men roll[ing] across the deck like windfalls,” this event is not comic but tragic. Morgan’s ability to manipulate the reader’s response is impressive here, as the poem includes such attractive imagery as “each peach was seared, the sweet juice of summer briefly concentrated and contained before everything cooked, oozed, dripped, and exploded,” appealing to the reader’s desire, before it turns to the final evocative statement.

This poem, like others I’ve discussed, achieves its effect in part through its reliance on imagery associated with the land, with farming, to describe its opposite, life on water. Morgan’s reliance on agricultural imagery creates an almost nostalgic motif woven throughout the collection, such that the poems have more subtle craft-oriented relationships in addition to the obvious relationships of content.

The cities of Marquette and Munising, MI, both located on the shore of Lake Superior, have chosen Harborless as one of their community reads for next fall. A collection of poetry might be a daring choice for such a program, but this book is exactly the collection to appeal to experienced readers of poetry as well as readers who believe they don’t like poetry. Its content is compelling and its characters are sympathetic, as in the best fiction, yet its craft is both skillful and subtle. Reading and rereading this book has been exceptionally satisfying.