Tag Archives: Lynn Domina

Review of Casual Conversation by Renia White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

of this country

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

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

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

that can’t be fixed by closing?

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

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


Review of 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 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.