Review of Hour of the Ox by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello. Hour of the Ox. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 62 pgs. $15.95.

Hour of the Ox, which won the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, tells a story of loss, of the richness of a former life and also the richness of a current life. Its author, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, succeeds in these poems through her reliance on imagery that is not only concrete but unusual, her trust in the power of metaphor, and her adoption of an authentic and informed yet thoughtfully quiet voice. Her language is evocative, restrained, and precise. The poems link personal memory with cultural tradition, such that disruption of one signifies disruption of the other.

“Your Mouth Is Full of Birds” is arranged into long-lined couplets. The form suggests control and order, appropriate for this poem which is trying so hard to contain its emotions, particularly of loss. Unlike in many couplets, most of the lines here are enjambed rather than end-stopped, a strategy that destabilizes the initial sense of control. Yet the lines in each couplet conclude with either true rhymes (follow / swallow), near rhymes (branches / branded), exact repetition (said / said), or, in one case, an evocative form of metonymy (birds / rookery). Cancio-Bello’s close attention to all elements of the line is matched by her subtle development of metaphor and her attractive word choice. Here is the poem:

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said

nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded

like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked

into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember

the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell

in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,

when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant you forgave me for the rookery,

because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

Relationships between lines and sentences are particularly interesting in this poem. The first sentence requires four-and-a-half lines, and though it consists of multiple clauses, Cancio-Bello does not separate any of them with commas, letting them run into each other instead like a person speaking too quickly, without a pause to suggest grammar’s influence on meaning. She reserves the single comma to introduce the final series of phrases brimming with modifiers and objects but lacking any subject. I am examining this first sentence so closely because I am intrigued at how Cancio-Bello controls the pace of this poem and how the pace helps develop as well as subvert meaning. The enjambment between lines two and three is an example of such subversion, especially following the quickly spoken first two lines. Given the repetition of “and I said” and “and you said,” readers are expecting the words that follow “you said” to be a response to “I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven.” But they’re not. The word that follows, “nothing,” is a word in the poem only, not a word the “you” utters. The imagery that follows is beautiful, but as the poem progresses, the speaker and the readers begin to realize that perhaps the speaker had misunderstood the “you” all along. Perhaps, when the “you” raised the subject of forgiveness, it wasn’t the “you” who required forgiveness but the speaker. The structure of this poem permits such ambiguity, which is almost always more interesting than certainty, without confusing the reader.

Finally, we reach the last couplet, which is also intriguingly ambiguous, the ambiguity heightened by the line break. Many poets would have broken the line after “me” rather than after “follow,” so that we’d have this final couplet: “because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow me / still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.” This slight shift doesn’t substantially affect the meaning of the first line, but it does dilute the possibilities of the second. Who is crying, “they” or “me”? “Red-throated” is a phrase often applied to birds, though not crows particularly, and “swallow” is of course also a common bird. In a less-accomplished poem, this language would serve only as a clever pun, but here the language encourages readers to recall the birds that have populated the entire poem as well as the title, “Your Mouth Is Full of Birds,” before they consider the alternate (and to my mind, more likely) possibility that the speaker is (also) “crying for you.”

The best poems reward such close reading, not merely for the purpose of literary analysis, but for instruction in craft. I am often astonished at the skill of contemporary poets. I read a poem, and I wonder, “How did she do that?” And then I think, “I want to do that, too.” Nearly all readers, I think, will enjoy the poems in Hour of the O, even when the poems themselves are somber. Readers who are also poets will want to read and reread, hovering above these pages in order to absorb just a little, and then a little more, of Cancio-Bello’s skill.


Review of Walking Backwards by Lee Sharkey

Lee Sharkey. Walking Backwards. Tupelo Press, 2016. 89 pgs. $16.95.

The most striking characteristic of Lee Sharkey’s most recent collection, Walking Backwards, is its voice. Although many of the lines in many of the poems are grammatically straightforward, their meaning is often elusive. The speaker frequently sounds detached from her material, her tone nearly neutral, which ironically amplifies much of the content’s chilling horror. These poems examine anti-Semitic actions of governments and individuals, often during (or, more accurately, throughout) the twentieth century, though also contextualizing these comparatively recent attempts at Jewish annihilation within their endless history. Yet the collection also offers glimpses of beauty and is itself a sign of that most human need—to create beauty. Even as the poems narrate some of history’s most vicious events, the collection is populated by poets, musicians, and painters. Ultimately, Walking Backwards also looks forward, confronting the future through the knowledge of evil, yes, but also with hope.

To the extent that Jewish history begins with Abraham, it begins with violence—not yet genocide but with a patriarch’s willingness to commit filicide, not once but twice. The Bible is as violent as any book of modern history, and the Hebrew people are perpetrators as well as victims. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his sons, though, is qualitatively different from the more anonymous or generalized battle scenes. Isaac lived a long and full life, but what most people recall when they hear his name is that his father was prepared to slit his throat.  “Betrayal” is a meditation on this story and opens with an attractive though peculiar image: “A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube.” The second line begins to suggest which story this poems responds to, and the complexity of that story is acknowledged within a few more lines. Here is “Betrayal” in its entirety:

A seed pearl slides down the fallopian tube

90 years of waiting and now the slow roll into existence

Song and supplication

He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum

The other child exiled to the desert with no milk in the goatskin

Song and the spill of blood

He will be a wild man, his hand against every man and every man’s against him

Or was it the other on the altar

And lifted his own child up

Song and

Cast the child down in the wilderness

And laid him on the pyre

The right hand smothering his dusky countenance

I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons

The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright

Abraham and Sarah had waited decades, into their old age, for the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would be ancestors of a great nation. Meanwhile, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, through Sarah’s maid Hagar. After Isaac was born, Sarah grew jealous and asked Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, which Abraham did, sending them out into the desert with only some bread and a skin of water, essentially to die. God saves them, but Abraham was clearly willing to sacrifice his first son as well as his second, Isaac, a fact that non-Muslim readers often forget (a version of this story is also narrated in the Koran).

Without knowledge of this foundational story, “Betrayal” makes little sense, but the poem is much more than simply a retelling of the story. Sharkey relies on her skill with craft to create a poem that includes a theological interpretation but is so much more than that. Her use of alliteration and consonance, particularly as those elements influences rhythm, is particularly effective. The easeful repetition of “s” and “l” in the first line reinforces the meaning of “slides,” and the stress on “down” immediately following two iambic feet also sonically emphasizes its meaning. A similar effect occurs in the next line with “now the slow roll,” the long “o” sounds stretched out to slow down the pace. So far, the action relies entirely on imagination, as an egg’s journey those few inches from ovary to uterus is invisible. The poem opens musically, even a tad romantically, so readers are startled by the immediacy of the fourth line: “He wakes to the knife tip stroking his sternum.” This line, too, is musical, and the gentle word “stroking” belies its significance. The poem becomes more sinister as readers recall its appalling reference, but then the poem turns toward a more sympathetic and compassionate view of Abraham. Here, he is not a man driven by blind obedience, asserting his loyalty only to God. He longs to protect his son even as he sacrifices him, “smothering his dusky countenance” with his right hand, but “The left hand covering his face to save him from the fright.” Scholars—and believers generally—have argued for millenia about the meaning of this Biblical story, but one important element in the poem is the speaker’s empathy with the actors. Between these two final lines is another, the italicized “I have built seven altars and offered up seven sons,” a reference to Jewish midrash referencing Jewish martyrs, and particularly mothers’ experiences of loss, so in this particular poem, it serves to turn the conclusion back toward the beginning, the “seed pearl” becoming human life.

In the context of the entire collection, however, this line links the poem to many others, to all those who have to some degree suffered a martyr’s death, killed for their identity. Stylistically, “Betrayal” resembles many of the poems in the collection. Its allusions are more ancient, as most of the poems address modern evils, those at least as difficult to fathom as the idea that God would command a man to sacrifice his son. Nothing about contemporary culture suggests that human beings will soon emerge from their determination to annihilate each other, a fact that makes Walking Backward all the more crucial. If anything will save us, it is our capacity for thoughtfulness, and it is thoughtfulness that most accurately characterizes this book.

Review of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky


Daniel Borzutzky. Lake Michigan. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 81 pgs. $15.85.

Daniel Borzutzky has published several collections of poetry and translations, and he’s won prestigious prizes, including the National Book Award. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll want to pick up his latest, Lake Michigan. If you’ve not yet read his poetry, you should begin now, with Lake Michigan. Although the book is organized into scenes and acts, the individual poems are each structured similarly—each line, long or short, a sentence, straightforward and devoid of punctuation. The book is inspired by an unbelievable and yet absolutely believable investigative report asserting that the Chicago police run a secret interrogation facility where they torture individuals into confession and where they can keep these individuals hidden from their families as well as from the (more public and documentable version of the) judicial system. Borzutzky’s stylistic choices reinforce his stark chilling content, though you may finish the book wishing you did not know the truths it reveals.

The collection opens with a prologue that captures Borzutzky’s tone and style as well as foreshadows the degree of implicit and explicit violence that will be described throughout the book. Here are the first few lines:

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house asking questions about the boy they shot 22 times

There are 7 of us in front of the mayor’s house screaming about how the videotape of the shooting was covered up so the mayor could get reelected

And a police officer says down there where they live there was a shooting     you should be protesting that shooting     a 9-year-old boy was shot by a gangbanger     why aren’t you protesting that shooting     why are you only protesting this shooting

Another police officer wants to know why we are protesting this shooting when just yesterday there was a drive-by shooting in Rogers Park and two innocent bystanders were shot and one of them died

We don’t answer      instead we do a die-in in front of the mayor’s house and the camera crews from the nightly news stand above us as we lay stiff and motionless on the cold wet pavement

They shot the boy 22 times

Here in the prologue, the collective speaker understands how precariously we hold those things we claim to hold dear: democracy, equality under the law, basic human rights—as state-sponsored violence makes absolutely clear. While the questions the police ask are valid, and while every form of gun violence in the United States needs to be addressed, state-sponsored violence against citizens and other residents is qualitatively different from any other type of violence. State-sponsored violence reveals that we, especially if we are not white, have no rights, to paraphrase Justice Roger Taney, that the police are bound to respect.

The poems in this book, titled as scenes, range from two to five pages. The speakers are occasionally collective as in the prologue, though more often they are individuals or presumably omniscient figures external to the action in the poem. Despite the stylistic consistency, the poems hold the reader’s attention because the details are so chilling, and because the events narrated here have become so undeniably typical of American life.

This excerpt suggests that Lake Michigan is poetry of witness, which it is, challenging readers to position themselves among the witnesses who speak in this book. Individuals become witnesses because of what they observe, but more significantly because they testify to their observations. Neither witness nor testimony is served very well by the pensive lyric that has constituted the dominant mode of American poetry over the last few generations, so Borzutzky’s choice of this straightforward, almost non-poetic, form is strategic and effective.

Nevertheless, Borzutzky exploits elements of traditional poetic craft, sometimes by drawing the reader’s attention to what it cannot accomplish. Here are the first several lines of “Lake Michigan, Scene 10”:

The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys

And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews

And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis

And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured

And the psychologists overseeing torture are like psychologists overseeing torture

And the mayor privatizing prisons is like the mayor privatizing prisons

And the rule of law being suspended is like the rule of law being suspended

And the broken prisoners on the beach are like broken prisoners on the beach

I dream I am pregnant and my baby is a revolutionary plan to destroy the global economy

And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth

And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees

And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner

Similes are insufficient; everything here can only be like what it is. Language can describe only what is. Attempts to imagine similarities between what is and what isn’t only dilute the horror of what is. Borzutzky extends this catalog nearly to its limit, shifting the rhythm slightly—by exaggerating the catalog even further—in line 10, just after he has interrupted the pattern in line nine. Subsequently, the poem shifts briefly into concrete imagery, “the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner,” before returning to the catalog of more straightforward violence, eventually linking these events to the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Virginia, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the poem progresses, however, it distinguishes between witness and bystander, suggesting that the two roles are mutually exclusive. If readers begin to feel implicated here, the book has achieved one of its goals.

Lake Michigan is a serious and disturbing book. It is ambitious, not simply for the success of its art, but for the survival of the nation which has made it necessary.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poem concludes with these affecting lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review of The Canopy by Patricia Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There she moves. There she stops breathing.

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review of Mercy Songs by Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee

Mercy Songs. Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee. Diode Editions, 2016. 31 pgs. $12.00.

Mercy Songs is an unusual collaboration between brothers, Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee. The twenty-two poems alternate between the two authors—so it is the collection rather than the poems themselves that is collaborative—but thematically, imagistically, and even stylistically, the poems are closely linked. Many of the poems are composed in comparatively long lines arranged into a single extended stanza. The language is accessible yet sonically attractive. They are set on and around freight trains and railroad tracks, with the first-person speakers not exactly plural but often speaking of (if not as) “we” and poems written by each author referring to “my brother.” The concept and strategy of this chapbook is therefore (I think) unique, but its success depends on what every other collection depends on—the quality of the poems themselves.

The title poem (by Kai) opens with these sentences:
He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest. He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith,
the pop of the ping-pong ball in the background,
the gorgeous prayers of Emmanuel Paine
when he really got going, when he drowned out
and slipped into tongue…

The title here, “Mercy Songs,” is crucial to understanding the poem, but what is most impressive is how the imagery becomes so auditory and how the word choice creates auditory impressions for the reader, until the reader begins to hear mercy songs in the language of the poem, just as the speaker hears them in the noises of the day. Many of the poems in this collection rely on alliteration as a primary aural device, the most extended example here being “pop of the ping-pong ball…prayers of Emmanuel Paine.” The poem becomes nearly a litany, but its rhythm and content are both so interesting because of the specificity of the list—“the weight room,” “the mess hall,” “the empty machine shop walls,” “the late night stations on faith,” which is the first overt reference to the religious content of traditional mercy songs. The list continues with items that seem ordinary until we come to “the high-pitched scuff of the bald guard’s boot.” This guard is

…The one who wore crosses
and belted out Lowly, My Savior and Sinnerman
the way Nina Simone had sung it live
at the Winterland Ballroom in ‘75…

The description of this guard occupies the center of the poem, which quickly returns to daily details until we reach the final transcendent sentence:

But mostly, he heard them in the private hours
of waiting to fall asleep, when everyone else was alone
in their dreams and the whole penitentiary seemed
to be floating, like one of those city-sized cruise ships
you take to the Arctic, or Cape of Good Hope,
or those Indian islands with lions and dragons
where pirates had one time divided their treasures
and slept in the mouths of caves.

We don’t absolutely know the setting for the poem until this last sentence, and it is here that readers understand why mercy songs might be so necessary. The speaker experiences this rare moment of privacy as he listens to the night noises while everyone else sleeps. The night is so peaceful that it almost feels free: “the whole penitentiary seemed / to be floating.” The references to lions and dragons and pirates make it seem almost magical until we remember that no, it’s a prison.

Many of the poems in Mercy Songs function this way, surrounding the harsh reality they describe with the pleasurable music of language.

The next poem, “Muscles in Their Throats,” (by Anders) contains a reference near its beginning that directly connects it to “Mercy Songs.” Initially, its content seems quite different from most of the other poems, but as the poem develops, it reveals its true subject: language. Here is the beginning:

The Neanderthals tracked mammoths through the snow.
Postholed twice between each of the creature’s
blue-hued prints. Peered down at the toe digs, hoping
for any fissures in the powder that might be a sign
of weakness. Nightmares larger than the caves
they slept in.

As soon as we reach that fifth sentence, we recognize that the two poems are connected, though not as obviously as the repeated reference to sleeping in caves might suggest. “Muscles in Their Throats” is not about imprisonment, though it may be about mercy. The speaker imagines these Neanderthals hunting, cooking, and eating, likely eating together, but “we don’t know for certain how much they could say / to each other.” Could they speak? Did they have language? In this, perhaps they are radically different from modern humans. But no, the poem suggests:

…It’s no different now. My brother
strips boughs off the wind-stunted pines at treeline
and stacks them on a boulder…

Our resemblance to Neanderthals doesn’t depend on their hypothetical ability to use language. Rather, our language does not solve our inability to communicate, even with someone as close as a brother. The middle third of the poem describes the speaker and his brother attempting to build a shelter. Then it returns to a consideration of Neanderthal anatomy, which suggests that it’s possible they did speak. We can’t know now, but perhaps soon we will: “When scientists / finish a life-size model of the esophagus, we’ll finally hear / what their voices must have sounded like.” This poem is thematically complex. It is skillfully crafted, like every other poem in the collection, which is a good thing because these writers have something to say.

Kai and Anders Carlson-Wee have mastered many of the strategies of poetic craft. For that reason, their work appeals to me as a poet. And the poems themselves are remarkably compassionate. For that reason, they appeal to me as a human being.




Review of Still Pilgrim by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review of The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir. The Cowherd’s Son. Tupelo Press, 2017. 99 pgs. $16.95.

The Cowherd’s Son, Rajiv Mohabir’s second full-length collection, is filled with references to Hinduism and  India. Readers encounter Krishna, Sita, the Ganges river, Holi, Kolkata, curry, and henna—as well as colonialism, Coca Cola, New York City, and Hawaii. To many American readers, the collection will initially feel, therefore, remote or even alien (or worse, exotic), for though American culture has become increasingly diverse over the past two or three generations, it has also become profoundly secular. We may eat more tandoori or masala, more pad thai or pineapple fried rice, more falafel and tabouleh, but the average American’s knowledge of non-western religious traditions is probably not much more extensive than it was in 1950. Yet these poems are written with such precision—Mohabir’s attention to craft is so detailed—that readers will return, intrigued, even if they remain also for a time confused, because the language is so attractive.

Mohabir’s incorporation of traditional Indian cultural content succeeds because he treats it dynamically. Rather than simply describe Krishna or retell an ages-old story, he connects tradition to his speakers’ own lives. The past seeps into the present, for tradition is on the one hand explicitly concerned with time, connecting ancestors and descendants; yet tradition also transcends time, suggesting that these things we do and believe ever were and always shall be. Inasmuch as The Cowherd’s Son addresses and confronts tradition, therefore, it is about connection.

“Holi” opens with these couplets:

Coward, how can you warm your hands
so far from the Holika in flames?

Come closer and trace the subway and ship
lines in these palms. You gather embers

in your dustpan to light your own fire
and dream of the return of some god

who will pull you from this coolie history

Holi is a Hindu spring festival, the festival of colors, which begins during one evening and continues through the next evening. As the festival opens, celebrants pray before a bonfire that evil will be destroyed, including their own evil, burned as the ancient figure Holika was burned. This poem relies on images of fire and heat, juxtaposing details of the tradition against details of modern life. The speaker is both being warmed by coals and in danger of being consumed by fire, unless “some god” pulls him “from this coolie history.” The poem develops through an accumulation of allusions to the Holi narrative, and then concludes:

Cowherd, can you pray, your tongue
so cleft, or do you eat the coals

to cauterize the mantras flapping
wild as cicadas in your hollow?

Look around at beauty cloaked
in orange. Everything you love

will one day burn.

This last sentence, which in another context might be read as a threat, is here reassuring instead. The cycle of living and dying will continue, and we will each be consumed. The poem shifts at the beginning of this second quotation, turning toward different questions and answers than the speaker had provided at the beginning. Yet the turn is not absolute, as we hear in the near repetition of “Coward” and “Cowherd.” “Cowherd” also opens onto a series of alliterative words—“can,” “cleft,” “coals,” “cauterize”—particularly attractive to the ear. The simile that follows, “wild as cicadas” (with the internal hard c in “cicadas” not technically alliterative but creating nearly the same sonic effect), initially strikes me as odd, for I don’t usually associate cicadas with wilderness. As I consider the simile further, I think also about the “mantras,” those words or phrases meant to keep us focused. How, or when, is a mantra like a cicada? Or, what happens when a mantra becomes undifferentiated noise? Isn’t that what mantras are intended to be, more sound than meaning?

The next line contains another alliterative hard c in “cloaked,” and this line break is especially effective, as the line suggests that beauty is disguised until we cross over the line break to the end of the sentence, “in orange.” We see again the beauty of flame. Everything will burn, but fire and smoke rise and disperse, becoming not nothing but a part of everything. The embers remain for a time, able to reignite the fire, just as cicadas seem to crawl from the earth, alive again after a period of dormancy. The language of this poem is beautiful, and its ideas are evocative. Attentive readers will mull it over, returning to it again and again, attracted by its refusal ever to have its meaning completely resolved.

Many of the poems in The Cowherd’s Son enact a similar puzzlement over meaning. “Cow Minah: Aji Tells a Story,” is structured in several sections, each section narrated in English and a patois. “My Name is a Map” is also arranged into four sections, each exploring connotations of one of the speaker’s names—“Paul,” “Raimie,” “Rajiv,” and “Mohabir” or “Mahabir.” “Mysterious Alembics” consists of eight brief sections of prose that together explore relationships among caste, sexuality, geography, family,  and language.

Reviewers often look for some weakness to cite, as if to prove our objectivity or our distance from the author. Here there are none. Individually, each of the poems in this collection compels rereading. Together, they present a complex portrait of a person whose position in the world seems unstable but only because it is so intricately layered.



Review of In the Volcano’s Mouth by Miriam Bird Greenberg

Miriam Bird Greenberg. In the Volcano’s Mouth. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 101 pgs. $15.95.

The poems in Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first full-length collection, In the Volcano’s Mouth, are compelling for both their content and craft, but be warned—the collection is not an easy read. There’s very little safety here, and what safety there is is temporary. The book explores implicit violence, threat, unease, with the reader becoming increasingly apprehensive.

An early poem, “Valediction,” explores the speaker’s childhood memory, of a mother, yes, but also of a much more sinister image. Referencing Octavio Paz, the poem begins,

My earliest memory

              is aboard a train, drowsing. My mother

covers my eyes

                             suddenly with her hand, startling


me awake. Light spills

              between her fingers, then a long shadow,

hanging from a pole.

                             Flag of civil


wars, swaying

              on its rope…


The poem begins comfortably, even nostalgically. But the nostalgia is a decoy, for although the mother does act protectively, the image that follows, “a long shadow, / handing from a pole” is horrifying. Greenberg’s attention to the line in this excerpt enhances the effects of the sentences. The second line, for example, reinforces the deceptive hint of nostalgia as “My mother” is positioned adjacently to the suggestive “drowsing.” Then the break between lines three and four, with “suddenly” introducing line four, contributes to the abrupt shift. Despite the mother’s attempt to shield her child, the speaker nevertheless glimpses the “long shadow.” The next line, “hanging from a pole,” one of the few in the poems where a line consists of a single complete grammatical unit, is as disturbing as it is in part because the stark phrase is isolated from other material. Greenberg’s next line—and stanza—break emphasizes the particular disruption of civil wars, when danger arises not from beyond borders but from within them.

The poem progresses through linked images until we reach the last couple sentences and stanzas. Soldiers, we are told


              asleep as animals

bedded down

                             at their tethers. One covers


the back of his neck

              with his hand, as if warding off a blow

in his sleep.

These concluding sentences recall the opening, when the speaker was nearly asleep and then startled awake in time to perceive the residue of violence. These lines suggest that the world contains no safe space, as even in sleep a man must settle into a posture of defense.

I admire how this poem proceeds, the experience conveyed subtly yet directly. Its format requires deliberate reading, which permits the content to unfold gently—if gentleness is not too paradoxical for the revelations that ensue.

Throughout In the Volcano’s Mouth, the poems are most often composed in short stanzas, particularly couplets, with some lines indented as in “Valediction” above. “How Loss Inhabits a Body” consists of twenty-three couplets followed by a final single line, with alternating lines indented. Its strategy, however, is quite different from “Valediction,” as it opens with a series of imaginative similes responding to the title:

Like your collar is always turned up.

              Like the wind twisting in your ears, conch


and cilia. Like the spine of the roof

              peering behind other roof-spines, green


with moss. Like waking up as someone

              else. Like when you’re having sex, but you’re not


quite you; you’re a German woman

              who can strip and clean an automatic weapon,


and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.

This poem opens suggestively enough, with loss compared to a chill. References to the body lead to a metaphor in which a body part becomes the vehicle rather than the tenor, “spine of the roof.” The most startling metaphor occurs a few lines later, “a German woman / who can strip and clean” not a bed but “an automatic weapon, / and reassemble it in the time it takes to fry an egg.” Here, Greenberg incorporates a more traditional domestic image, “fry an egg,” to emphasize the most undomestic of skills, “strip and clean an automatic weapon.” Juxtapositions like this typify Greenberg’s work. They keep the reader nearly constantly off balance, guarded against what might come next, just as the speaker and other characters are.

The poems in In the Volcano’s Mouth are not apocalyptic, but they are ominous. They are set not in the peaceable kingdom but in the bloody and carnivorous world we actually inhabit. This collection won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, an award it clearly deserves. Greenberg’s voice is already distinctive, and each of these poems calls out for multiple readings.