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.

Review of All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman

Henrietta Goodman. All That Held Us. BkMk Press, 2018. 66 pgs. $13.95.

Henrietta Goodman’s third collection, All That Held Us, consists of untitled Petrarchan sonnets that explore relationships among a daughter, her absent father, shamed mother, judgmental and peculiar aunt, and at least one early lover. The family is more dysfunctional than most and so makes for interesting reading. What is most striking about the collection, though, is how Goodman manages the

sonnet. Most writers in English opt for the Shakespearean version because it requires fewer repetitions of each rhyme, yet Goodman adheres to Petrarchan expectations and seems to do so with ease. Although almost all of the rhymes are true rhymes, they are never forced and are often both subtle and inventive. Similarly, the diction throughout the collection is colloquial, interestingly subverting this most classic of classical forms. In addition, she adapts the strategy of a crown of sonnets, repeating a line from one poem in the next, though the repeated line often occurs in the middle of a following sonnet rather than at its opening. The poems are woven together as they would be in a crown, that is, but more inventively, more surprisingly.

Here is the fifth poem in the collection:

It wasn’t innocent, the way they mocked
each other, screeched and grumbled a grammar
of perfect bitterness—wore it, armor
of status, even though my mother hocked
her rings in Charlotte. So easily shocked,
my aunt had packed away the old glamour
of dances—sweat-stained dresses, the clamor
for a partner. She sprayed Lysol and locked
her door when my friends came, called me the child
in notes she wrote to God or no one, scraps
of paper buried under piles of stuff.
I called her shithead once at thirteen, wild
to separate myself, to spring the traps,
to find out whether words would be enough.

One of Goodman’s strategies is to use “they” toward the beginning of a poem without an explicit antecedent. Although the referent soon becomes clear, readers sometimes interpret “they” to mean one couple, e.g. the father and mother, when it refers to another, e.g. the mother and aunt. This ambiguity, which from a less-skilled poet would result simply in confusion, here reinforces the turmoil of this family—so much is unstated, so much can be inferred only through close observation.

The form here, particularly Goodman’s choices of rhyming words, reinforces the content with understated wit. The rhymed words “grammar,” “armor,” “glamour,” and “clamor,” for example, suggest in themselves the ambivalences within this family. Arguments proceed according to an expected form, and the two women’s symbiotic misery ironically armors them against further risk, and the potential for pain risk entails. “Glamour” might once have been desirable but is now characterized distastefully, by sweat and noise. The aunt’s attitude particularly can be characterized as the sum of these words. Goodman’s facility with end rhyme is enhanced by her attention to sonic effects more generally, the alliteration of “grumbled a grammar” or “whether words would” for instance, or the near rhyme of “notes” and “wrote.” Throughout this poem, the sounds are aggressive, the hard “k” and short “a” being particularly insistent.

The aunt’s character is conveyed here through memorable detail, especially in the sestet. She sprays Lysol to disinfect her house after guests arrive, refers to her niece as “the child,” and writes complaints to some invisible figure. There’s a second turn in this sonnet, midway through the sestet, as the speaker shifts attention to herself and her own desire to escape this place and these people. She discovers the power of language, not simply to evoke a reaction as she likely did here but also to validate her own experience.

The following poem begins with a line adapted from this one: “The clamor for a partner—how to give / it up?” This subsequent poem explores the adult lives of the mother and aunt, their tamped down desires converted to arrogance and bitterness. Several poems in this section focus on the relationship between the mother and the aunt. The speaker herself observes the adults but only comes to understand, as children will, a few years later. The relationship of the two women is invariably inflected by knowledge of the man who appeared for one of them, briefly, a few years earlier, the man who came to the house only once after the speaker was born but who is as psychically present as if he had moved in and claimed the lazyboy and tv remote. Midway through the collection, two poems illustrate, through their structure, how one relationship infuses the others. One poem describes the baking of a birthday cake for the mother, an unusual event in that very little actual cooking otherwise occurred in this family. The line that links the octave to the sestet states: I think they loved each other / once, shared their mother’s cookbook, watched TV.” The next poem begins with this line: “I think they loved each other once, or thought / they did, the day they fished Lake Elsinore / from a sailboat he’d bought—a whim before / they conceived me.” When the reader begins this poem, the temptation is to assume that the “they” in the first line consists of the same individuals as the “they” in the similar line from the poem before, that is, the mother and aunt. By line three, however, that assumption is proven wrong, and the “they” who “loved each other” becomes the mother and father. The dyads cannot escape each other, and Goodman guarantees that readers understand this through not only the form and content of the individual poems, but also through her arrangement of the poems within the collection. Goodman’s thoughtful attention to the progression of the individual poems and to the effect of the entire collection is, for me, one of the most satisfying elements of All That Held Us.

Like many readers of contemporary poetry, I suspect, I spend most of my time with free verse and, more recently, experimental and hybrid forms. Many poets still write in received forms, some regularly, some more occasionally. All That Held Us, though, is unique among collections I’ve read over the last few decades, not simply because Goodman has written an extended series of Petrarchan sonnets, but because she has both retained the conventions of the form and adapted it to the 21st century. The poems are a pleasure to read individually, and they are even more pleasurable to read as a group.

Review of Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment by Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala. Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment. The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2017. 120 pgs. $19.99.

One of the most interesting developments in the publication of contemporary poetry has been the turn to hybrid forms and hybrid collections. One factor is clearly related to technological developments that now permit text to be located on a page in unusual ways and also permit a mix of image and text that would have been difficult (and more crucially, expensive) just a generation ago. Another factor, I suspect, is the increasing diversity of cultures represented by publishers of contemporary poetry in English. Not every culture distinguishes among genres identically to mainstream British and American readers, nor does every culture assume that genres should not be mixed within a single published work. So we’re seeing collections of poetry especially that include pieces typeset as prose (whether we label them prose poems, flash, or something else), photographs and drawings, and short dramatic scripts. I suspect that one reason many of these collections that are challenging the boundaries of genre are published as poetry is because most poetry publishers are small, with limited staff and even less hierarchy, and much of this work is not sold in conventional bookstores. Such factors could discourage these publishers from experimentation, but the opposite seems to have occurred: these smaller publishers can do what they wish, and many of them are producing the most interesting work being published today.

Minal Hajratwala’s Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is one such collection. It contains poems that follow conventions in their appearance on the page, poems in columns of alternating voices, poems that look like prose, and finally a play. Despite these generic differences, the pieces are linked stylistically as well as thematically. Hajratwala juxtaposes classical with popular culture, putting characters from each in conversation with each other—Lady Gaga and Cassandra of Troy, for example. She also references individuals and characters from many different historic and geographic locations—Arjuna, Zitkala-Ŝa, the Buddha, Achilles, Margaret Mead. The poems are pleasurable to read because their content is often surprising, but they are not merely clever. Hajratwala encourages her readers to think not only about cultural distinctions and their sometimes arbitrary significance, but also about how members of a given culture perceive others. The book is playful and also thoughtful, challenging and wry, sometimes amusing and often very, very serious.

“Bodies of Water,” the third poem in the collection, plays on the multiple meanings of both nouns in the title. Describing Lake Victoria, it opens with what initially seem like a bizarre series of metaphors, though those metaphors soon make an appalling kind of sense:

Shape of brainstem, or ovary.

Northwest of the nipples of Kilamanjaro,

south of the Sudan,

the pale queen’s lake makes a gap in the continent

where, now, corpses rush—

a torrent of flesh so uniform you would not guess

they died for their differences

a hundred miles upstream.

One passes

every three minutes.

The initial metaphors, describing landscape in terms of reproduction and primitive thought, perhaps simply reaction more than thought, for it’s the “brainstem” not the brain that serves as the metaphor’s vehicle, prepare us for the subsequent event, the ethnic slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. A few stanzas later, a European speaks:

I have never seen such cruelty to man,

claims the British ambassador, his tongue

distorting Hutu, Tutsi, Rwanda—

The ambassador’s statement is so ironic as to border on despair, for so many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ ethnic conflicts in Africa are the direct result of European colonialism. Many of the poem’s images rely on body parts, as does “tongue” above, as the speaker describes the bodies’ “dismemberment.” Then, she turns to her own response:

Two hand spans across the globe

I wonder whose hands will caress

the forty thousand, how will they shift

so many dripping dead to shallow graves &

in which language will they wail?

The poem critiques the British ambassador as well as the soldiers who have committed such atrocities. It also reminds the reader that we are all implicated, for one of the most disturbing facts is that there are so many events to compete with this atrocity, to debate the ambassador’s claim. This poem is perhaps the most serious in the collection, but many of the others explore history, revealing that history is the continuous story mistreatment of one group of humans by another.

“Bodies of Water” is a poem organized into conventional lines and stanzas, all the more horrifying because it so resembles a lyric on the page. The pieces in section three, “Archaeologies of the Present,” are more experimental. They adopt several of the conventions of social media and electronic search engines, each piece accompanied by a list of tags, and each tagged word appearing in bold face. “The Beautiful” has the following tags: “star, blood, cellular, closet, homo, hegemony,” and begins this way:

Luxury at this time in America means white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, a material used in bathing towels in five-star hotels. The stars are a rating system indicating quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one must be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough for projection: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides are enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means exist to simulate blood.

As soon as American readers see “white robes with hoods,” they are thinking KKK. The poem initially seems to suggest this is a misreading, but the second paragraph oddly confirms it. Members of the KKK have committed hundreds of homicides, to create terror among African Americans and others, and to offer entertainment for some white Americans. (Who can ever forget the photographs of mobs at lynchings?) “Luxury” is privilege, the ability to wear the terry-cloth robe or to wear or decline to wear the other robe with a hood. “The Beautiful” continues to enumerate daily rituals that signify luxury—varieties of cereal, lipstick, closet organizers, milk. The piece ends with a return to its beginning:

Homo fortified milk is sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying needs for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, are white.

Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment is worth reading and rereading for both its style and content. Its hybrid nature entices readers into close attention, heightening the effect of the content. We’ve never read about these events, our own cultures, or the cultures of others quite this way before. If the accomplishment of this collection is representative of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, I can’t wait to read more of their books.

Review of Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang. Travel Notes from the River Styx. Terrapin Books, 2017. 92 pgs. $16.00.

I’d had Susanna Lang’s Travel Notes from the River Styx in my to-be-read pile for some time, and when I finally picked it up recently, reading it in one sitting, my first thought was that I wished I’d read it sooner. It’s just fantastic. You should all read it. I’d end this review right here, but I know you, dear reader, have heard such claims over and over again, and you’re skeptical. So let me try to convince you.

This collection is a meditation on time and distance, separation and return. Many departures, as the title suggests, are physically permanent, though memory can keep people close or permit them to arise without previous notice into the present. Memory itself sometimes departs too, frustratingly, sadly, though a person remains near. Travel Notes from the River Styx explores relationships and ancestry, particularly the details of ancestry created by war, displacement, and refugee status.

The most prominent figure in this book is the speaker’s father. In the opening poem, “Road Trip,” the speaker travels through mountains, along a road she’s traveled before, and experiences a mystical visit, perhaps through a dream, from her father, mother, and grandmother. The visitors transcend the boundary between life and death, of course, but transcend time in other ways also, more comfortable here than they had sometimes been in life. Written primarily in tercets, the poem opens with a contrast between familiarity and difference:

You remember the signs along the road
for underground caves, stalactites,
zip lines, miracles. There was a sign

I hadn’t noticed before—Cavern, Ice Age Bones.
As if, on the way south, we could take a detour,
pass through an earlier time, visit our ancestors

as we visited grandparents when we were children,
our fathers driving for days punctuated by exits
advertising cheap motels where we didn’t stop to sleep.

What the speaker hadn’t noticed before is an invitation to deeper time, a kind of visit that would be miraculous, though probably unlike the miracles advertised in the first stanza. Lang’s preference for regular stanzas—couplets, tercets, quatrains—is evident throughout the collection. Here, the regularity suggests a sort of control that helps manage the unpredictability of a mystical experience and the overwhelming power grief can exert. The regularity along with the comparatively long lines also affects the pace, slowing it down to ensure a more contemplative reception of the story the speaker will tell. A few stanzas later, Lang describes the visit with her more recent ancestors:

…the rain fell as it always falls on these roads.
It’s a story you and I tell about these trips,
the fearful crossing through the mountains, in rain

or snow or fog. This time my father waited
where I stopped for the night, my mother busy
in the kitchen though she, too, was a visitor in that place.

She moved back and forth from counter to stove
with her mother, who was at home there, the rooms
dark in the early evening as if underground.

They set my place at the table, though as in the old stories,
I cannot tell you what we ate. The rules have not changed
about what you can and cannot bring back.

My father was still in his nightshirt but he stood unaided
as he had not done in years, a glass in his hand,
proposing a toast. Has it been like this for you,

have you found the house where your dead linger
along some other road, in the course of some other trip?

The direct question that concludes this section, asked of the “you” who has been addressed throughout the poem but also, of course, of the reader, is particularly effective. The details indicate that the speaker’s experience consists of a moment within the legend of continuous human experience: “as in the old stories, / I cannot tell you what we ate.” She shifts between these events that occur within a type of universal time and her own specific role, describing a man recognizably her father but not her father as he was at the end of his life. And then with the question she turns outward, linking her story to the suggestion of others. Her word choice here, “linger,” “some other road,” “some other trip” reinforces her theme, how time allows multiple moments to occur simultaneously.

The poem concludes by linking all of these ideas imagistically:

…Chanterelles rise
from below, ruffled like vivid cloth; rise from those caverns
where the signs call us to witness ice age bones,

where those we’ve loved wait for us to stop on our way
and share a meal, even if we cannot tell later
what wine sparkles in the glass we raise.

These last lines are particularly satisfying. They return us to the opening of the poem, and to the line I quoted above with the speaker’s father “proposing a toast.” Though the poem certainly explores grief, the last line celebrates the speaker’s experiences, even as some of them have been of loss. Yes, the dead wait somewhere; nevertheless, “wine sparkles in the glass we raise.”

In its tone, craft, and subject, “Road Trip” is representative of many of the poems in the collection. “Welcome” is somewhat different, though it, too, feels contemplative. Again, the poem is addressed to an indeterminate “you. Although the speaker refers to herself initially in the first person singular, she assumes a collective responsibility, speaking for a community that includes other living creatures as well as inanimate elements of nature. Here is the poem:

Now that you are here, I want you to know
the difficulty of water.

How the river is so low, we dream of floating.

How we try the pump though the well has run dry—
it’s a form of prayer.

I want you to know the despair of sea turtles
and the homesickness of mackerel.

How the evening is nostalgic for the voices
of sparrows, how the wind

when it rises brings only dust from the road.

I realize that you do not have enough buckets to fill our wells,
that you do not make rain.

Still, you should know. For one day at least,
you should taste our thirst.

Lang’s skill with craft is evident throughout this poem, especially in her use of assonance and internal rhyme and her decisions regarding line breaks. Most memorable, however, is the voice. It’s authentic and trustworthy, partly because it is so quiet. In this poem, the matter-of-fact tone paradoxically reinforces the speaker’s desperation. In every poem in the collection, the voice is reassuring yet honest,  inviting the reader into an examined life.