Books Received & Acknowledged

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Artwork by Gene McCormick

Chanel Brenner, Vanilla Milk: A Memoir Told in Poems, Silver Birch Press.

There is nothing worse for a parent than the death of a child. This book tackles the unthinkable: the discovery of the poet’s six year old son’s incurable disease, and death, that happens so quickly and so unexpected it is almost impossible to fathom.  The poet confesses she never wrote a poem before her son’s death but when she does, the result is both excruciating and beautiful. If there is such a thing as an awful beauty, this book exists to demonstrate it.  If getting it out there, as a form of therapy was a motive for writing Vanilla Milk, Brenner has accomplished her goal. There is no way you can come to terms with something as terrible as she, her husband and remaining child had to experience and Brenner knows this.  Whatever else you can say about Vanilla Milk, one thing is certain: she is one hell of a brave woman and a first rate poet.  Thank you Chanel Brenner for your strength and courage.
Stephen Burt, All-Season Stephanie, Ohm (Rain Street Taxi imprint).

Burt, one of the principal New York Times poetry critics, creates a believable, most engaging female persona from the ages of roughly 5 to 17. Using a variety of stylistic devices and forms, he shows his chops as a writer. One might argue that he goes to great lengths to flash this versatility, sort of like submitting a clever PhD thesis in creative writing, instead of a serious, if amusing, book. One might ask: was it necessary to use all these different forms when a straight forward narrative would do. Furthermore one wonders, to mimic his own disclaimer, was Stephen not happier being Stephanie the voice (persona) than Stephen the poet?   
Claudia Emerson, Opposite House, LSU Press.

Is it possible for someone living with cancer, and knowing it is only matter of time before the disease wins out, to write a book about the end of things and not have it be a strangled cry in the wilderness?  Or a depressing litany of woes?  The answer is: Yes, if you are Claudia Emerson, you carry on with the business of poetry, create a narrative of third person stories, often with the character under the gun or with an inevitable negative resolution and proceed with the business of living while she may.  Taking her cues from Emily Dickinson, Emerson has wrought a fine tuned book where the simple things in life that no longer are: telephone booths, old-fashioned barber shops, cursive writing assume new meaning as they become extinct.  Noting their passing in a wry, melancholic tone, the drama is in knowing that while the small things are no more, these too are part of a larger world that will soon cease to exist. All loss is relative.  We have much to thank Emerson for, in leaving this collection that lives on in her absence.
Charles Rammelkamp, Mata Hari: Eye of the Day, Apprentice House Press.

There is something about a historically based poetic narrative that is inherently dramatic when the subject is one as compelling as the infamous Mata Hari.  With a multitude of points of view, the factual details are enhanced by innuendo, gossip, and outright lies to create a person whose glamour remains intact even many decades after her execution.  Her early years are shown to be one of a loveless marriage complicated by a philandering husband, with a venereal disease, that he generously shares with his wife.  Their marriage is fraught with tragedy as their oldest child may have been murdered by a minder. Regardless of the truth, the boy died young and horribly, the marriage failed and both principles continued their wanton ways.  Eventually, after a second, equally as disastrous marriage, Mata Hari reinvents herself as an exotic dancer and professional mistress to influential men of substance and stature; a habit that leads to an inevitable suggestion: that during WWI, she used her wiles to become a spy. Rammelkamp suggests that these charges were largely unfounded and were based, more in puritanical revulsion to her lifestyle and jealousy, than on fact.  Essentially, the poems suggests, she was apolitical, but the innuendo that she was responsible for “the death of 50,000 Frenchmen”, trumped fact and reason. Eventually she was duly executed in what the poet clearly thinks was based on false assumptions and so-called fact. This is a uniformly strong collection anchored by the tragic farce of the final years of Mata Hari’s life.
Barbara Ungar, Immortal Medusa, The Word Works. 

Ungar’s collection is the 2015 winner of the Hilary Tham Capital Collection, a  series which derives its name from an immigrant poet whose work deals with problems of assimilation in a new country and the extreme difficulty of leaving the old connection of culture and blood. There is a strong sense of connection in Ungar’s book with culture and religion, specifically what it means to be Jewish in America.  The deepest connection throughout these remarkable poems, is with her father, for whom she becomes both daughter and mother in his final years.  The memories in poems such as “My Father Looks at Vermeer for the Last Time” and “Inheritance” are chill inducing.   It would be unfair to characterize this collection as one note, as Barbara has a sly wit she displays in various formal diversions that both intrigue and amuse, making the more serious poems that much more poignant.
Maggie Jaffe, Continuous Performances: The Selected Poems of Maggie Jaffe, edited by Christopher Butters, Marilyn Zuckerman and Robert Edwards with an introductory essay by Robert Edwards, Red Dragonfly Press.

Generally speaking, the popular misconception is that politics and poetry don’t mix.  The problem is perceived as being: all politics are topical and becomes dated, once the issue under consideration is no longer current.  Maggie Jaffe transcends this misconception, showing that when your main political issue is basic human rights, there are no statutes of limitation.   The opening poem, “America”, goes straight to the heart of the issue of the US of A’s evolving self-image, built on lies and genocide, and glossed over by self-aggrandizing rewriting of history Consider  the eye catching image of Liberty in New York harbor.  At Liberty’s feet in Jaffe’s vision, cracked mollusks shells once used as wampum, money that is, are now worthless. Our self-image of a land of equality where all are people are treated the same, may be comforting but the facts suggest otherwise. Jaffe recognizes the ugly truth behind the illusion of corporate plutocracy and oppression of the working classes; a subject that Jaffe returns to continually in vivid, personal poems of the highest quality. To say that a poet is undervalued is almost a cliché, almost meaningless, as all poets are undervalued and under read in this society and that is by design.  Poets are mocked, denigrated as effete and irrelevant, in a world whose popular culture is dominated by a medium that creates its own realities and calls this self-referential, meaningless removal from life, the real deal. It is all stuff, nonsense, and delusional but much simpler and comforting than examining the basic issues of our complex world.  Jaffe never stopped looking hard into the dark soul of America until her untimely early death from cancer.  I knew Maggie slightly from her editorial worked with Cedar Hill Press and she took poems of mine for their magazine and the Roque Dalton anthology which has since become a collector’s item.  If there is one poet who should be rediscovered, it is Maggie and Robert Edwards’s thoughtful, personal essay outlining her work and life gives us ample reason to appreciate both the poet and her words.

Short Takes for Mostly Short Books

Joan Colby, Ah Clio, Katty Wompus Press. 

Clio the muse of history, Clio and empowered woman in and of her time whenever that may be.  Energetic, focused poems on aspects of woman: bottom line: don’t mess with Clio. She is her own woman, she knows what she is all about and she knows how to get it.
Laurel Speer, Gym Poems.

The latest of Laurel’s ongoing series of wry, mordantly delicious observations of humans in their natural element: this time around in the various gyms she has belonged to and worked out in.  If they same familiar, they are. I swear, I know all of them from the various bars I worked in and most of them are still there talking to themselves in the back bar mirrors not noticing no one else is listening.
Bernadette Mayer, All Fall Down, Benevolent Bird Press. 

These brief, highly individual, unique poems, apparently all written to and for members of her ongoing poetry workshops, showcases her incomparable gifts as a poet. To say Bernadette is one of a kind is an understatement: she has a keen, particularly twisted sense of humor which yields poems that only she could write. And that is a good thing indeed.  As I was putting this issue together it was announced Bernadette won a much deserved and much needed Guggenheim Award. Congratulations to deserving poet, an icon of the age
Frank Montesonti, A Civic Pageant, Black Lawrence.

Poets beware (and readers also) a clever, sometimes, even ingenious, title sets the bar extremely high for the author.  Random examples of titles almost impossible to follow up on: “Gratuitous Voice-Over at the End of a Film Reflecting on the Tribulations of the Plot and Coming Finally to an Epiphany”,” Those Anomalies at a Party When Everyone Falls Silent”, “Quitclaim of the Wizard of Oz”, “A Time to Sing of Airports”, and so forth and so on.  This poet falls far short of fulfilling his title’s promise. Maybe he should spend more time on the poems and less on hooking you into reading them.
Amelia Martens, Purgatory, Black Lawrence. 

This brief collection of linked prose poems deservedly won the press’s Black River Chapbook Competition.  The poems are tight, expressive, imagistic and surreal, creating a state of being akin to where we are now, only much worse, as if waking into a dream of being unable to wake up from.  Maybe this is Purgatory, maybe it is hell, as one of the blurbs suggests, wherever it is, Martens gives you plenty of details all readily accessible in theory, but all eluding any attempts to grasp them. 
Bruce Boston, resonance, dark & light, Eldritch Press. 

If you know sci fi poetry, you know the work of Bruce Boston.  For the better part of four decades, Boston has been a leading voice in the field, a perennial winner of the highest awards in sci fi and horror poetry.  This large collection brings together close to a hundred pages of previously uncollected work with striking illustrations. Sometimes Boston’s poems are darkly humorous, other times tinged with a Lovecraftain horror or a genre defying, Daliesque wit and grotesquerie.  
T.K. Splake, Last Train Home.

You can always depend upon Mr. Splake for arresting cover images that encapsulate the work inside. In this case we see an old coal fed steam engine head-on abandoned in a field.  On the rear cover is a close up of a wheel, rust frozen in place.  As Splake’s primary themes as a photographer, and an extremely gifted one, are the complete desertion of Michigan’s industrial and mining past: of buildings, warehouses, and deep mines left as they were when the companies left town and all the Upper Peninsula villages basically returned to nature; an unnatural death with all the bodies left behind in full view to rot and decay in public.  The poems in this collection reflect Splake’s observation of, ”what horrible lives they must live,” view of materialistic, monetary gain driven denizens of modern society.
Ellaraine Lockie, Where the Meadowlark Sings

This brief. elegiac chapbook was the deserving winner of the Encircle Publication (publishers of the magazine Aurorean and its anti-image Unrorean broadsheet) annual chapbook contest.  Ellaraine is given to sitting in cafes and observing humanity over her coffee. And what insight she has. These poems are both subtle and amusing, as they are, telling and revelatory. The poet muses over what has been lost, disappeared, and gone away forever, but not without hope and the knowledge that new traditions can and are being created and handed on for future generations.
John T. Hitchner, Pieces of Life Between Latitudes, Encircle Publications. 

Once again the cover of the book is a metaphor for what lies within. The exquisite shot of a hill with leaf turning trees reflected in a clear, undisturbed body of water, presumable a lake, suggests where Hitchner is in life.  Reflecting on his past, life and loves, losses and gains, one gets a deep sense of philosophical path for what remaining life he has.  His meditative process is clear and often troubled.  As he says in his poem, “In the Airport Waiting Room,”

“One could do more than be
a passenger on a plane.”

Brief Anthology Review

Robbi Nester ed. The Liberal Media Made Me Do It!  Nine Toes Review a division of Lummox Press. 

The premise of this clever volume of poems is a call for pieces written to specific broadcasts on NPR radio.  The topics range from the mundane, to the deadly serious, and remain, no matter when the show was broadcast, as topical today as they were when they were broadcast. I wonder what a Conservative equivalent to the liberal anthology would look like? Oh, I forgot, they don’t do PBS or NPR only hate radio  and if they did have a radio equivalent you wouldn’t be able to hear the articles with all the bibles thumping……..

Brief Fiction Review

How does one sum up work by Spiel?  Well, one doesn’t, really, one fastens his seatbelt and like the Bette Davis character in “All About Eve”, gets ready for a bumpy ride.  Spiel doesn’t so much engage you, as assault you with language. No one, and I do mean absolutely no one, does dialogue the way Spiel does.  His sense of language is so acute and multi-dimensional you feel as if you are transported into another existence. To turn a phrase by Laurie Anderson from one of her concept pieces, “Hell is where you are now, only much, much worse.”  And that much worse place has these people in it like a No Exit Dairy Queen where all the milk products are off and the meat sandwiches are all as rancid as the brains of the people who have come there to dine for all time. 

Rather than go on at length, and I could, I am a huge fan of Spiel’s work, artistic and written, I will quote in full my blurb for his book from Rain Mountain Press,

“Imagine a world where the people in it are the sum total of the big box stores they shop at, the products they buy there  and whose warped world view is shaped by the televisions they watch, and you have some idea of the mental capacity of the characters in Dirty Sheets. Theirs is not the  quiet desperation that Thoreau speaks of, but desperation primed: highly vocal, expressive and willfully ignorant.  Oddly, and these stories are extreme in their oddness, there is a real poetry to all this self-defining, manic speech that is so unique and particular, is so elemental, the reader cannot help but be swept along the absurd, surreal streams of consciousness.  Dirty Sheets, simply put, is a unique, unforgettable reading experience.”

Shameless Self Promotion 

Those who know me generally concede I am not the best nor the most aggressive marketing person for my work.  The thrill is in the writing, not in the selling. Still, and we have to be real here, selling the book is important or else there will be no more publishers, small or large.  Hence I am compelled to mention that chapbook, Beautiful Mutants is available from the publisher Night Ballet Press (or me, though I urge you to check out the catalog at Night Ballet Press for many books that should be of interest, not just my own) If you go to their website at Night Ballet Press,, you will be able to access all you need to find my book and others.  And as a teaser, I will offer one poem from the book to spur you on to find out more about all these Beautiful Mutants.

The Misfit and the Freak

Most of the novels about life
in bars are like Hemingway
with a bad hangover, nothing as
classic as a much better writer than
Papa, Chandler, full of lines that
flatten the heads of draft beers as
they are spoken.  Every so often
a plot will develop like a bad
treatment for a great book later made
into an even worse movie people
see and mistake for the real thing.
Trying to impress with a worldly,
intellectual acumen, people speak
as if they were well read though
what they say is like the Cliff’s notes
of something with vital pages missing.
Mostly the characters along the wood
are like demented relatives of Faulkner
inbreds lost in some dense woods of
their own invention with festering bodies
long past their due date. Or else they
are guys like these two, Lenny and
George from “Of Mice and Men”
through the looking glass, the big guy
being the relatively well-spoken one,
the controller, while the smaller guy
is like a lit fuse burning down to
the charge, a non-stop talker, primed
on pills, a misfit and a freak drinking
flaming shots of Cuervo Gold, stolen
stuff in their pockets and dead things in
their wake, the bar an outpost even Conrad
heroes would never go.

Just In 

Bunkong Tuon, Gruel, NYQ Press. 

We were proud to feature six poems from this collection and now readers can savor the complete collection in a haunting, handsome volume from NYQ Press.  The wrinkled, partial photograph on the cover, is of the celebration of his parents wedding in Cambodia before Pol Pot’s reign of terror. BK says, “Who knows how that photo survived.” Given how the poet was carried across the mountains by his grandmother to escape the Khmer Rouge, and eventually to emigrate to America, one can only wonder.  And here it is today, on the cover of a book that celebrates their life, his grandmother’s good grace and love, and growing up in America to become the poet, father and professor of English Literature that he is now.