Books Received, Reviewed, Acknowledged
Drew Pisarra, Infinity Standing Up, Capturing Fire Press, firstname.lastname@example.org, 58 pages, 2019, price unlisted.
Our humble submission guidelines of likes and dislikes includes “no formal poetry”. So what does a heterosexual, informal/ free verse/ narrative loving editor and poet make of a Sonnet sequence about a poet’s mostly one-sided, mostly sexual, affair with a gay lover? ( I will add, as an aside, that I read, more than once, Vikram Seth’s epic novel, in sonnets Golden Gate, George Meredith’s thwarted heterosexual love affair in 50 sonnets, Modern Love and am a big fan of Marilyn Hacker.....) Well, your humble editor sits back, reads the poems and enjoys every one. While Drew doesn’t flat out say his “lover” is a bitch, I think his actions suggest he so is. These poems are clever , amusing more than fraught, and bend the form in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. A few brief excerpts illustrate the tone of the book:
broke more often than cheap dinnerware”
(from Sonnet 10-4)
“Your flesh is warmer and kinder than brass
so why shouldn’t I kiss that Golden Ass?”
(from Sonnet 18k)
“In the film, Victor Frankenstein creates a mate
to wed the monster. She’s a fright -wigged she-devil
who cares little for muscles. For her what rates
is a pretty face.”
(from Sonnet X+Y)
Pisarra goes on to compare their love affair to something like a failed Frankenstein experiment. Oh my. Love is battlefield, as Pat Benatar famously sang. It doesn’t matter how you do it; skirmishes and wars are inevitable. But to have never fought, ah , that would be the true tragedy.
And on the totally other side of the spectrum:
Wayne F. Burke’s, Diflucan, Bare Back Press, www.barebackpress.com., 52 pages, 2019 no price listed.
Many of Burke’s poems in this collection have appeared in his chapbook, Planet Crouton, previously reviewed here. Diflucan, supplements his earlier work with the same kind of narrative persona. Here is a guy who throws a rock through a neighbor’s window to shut up a yappy lap dog so he can get back to sleep. After hustling back inside, just as he is about to fall asleep, the dog begins to bark again. What next? Nothing good.
As a child he rebels, pretty much, just for the hell of it. He is brought up by his grandparents who are neither caring, nor particularity supportive. In fact his grandpa seems to more than a bit of a psycho, definitely an asshole, at any rate. No wonder the kid is messed up.
Burke consciously channels Bukowski with an amusing poem about the man himself working as a cashier in a neighborhood store. Chinaski? Yeah him.....Grown up, Burke’s persona drinks too much and gets arrested for dumb stuff. No one has a more screwed up 40th birthday than he does. The inevitable trip to jail feels appropriate. Act like an asshole and you get treated like one. Maybe he should stay home on his next significant birthday. Maybe he should just stay home period. He works crappy jobs, doesn’t do well with women. It seems like a what the hell, pointless existence. He is never going to score big at anything he does and will never end up with a BMW to drive to the track the way Bukowski did. All this feels like tales of an ordinary existence. I suspect there are a lot more people in the world who live like this than we think.
Ed note. I am somewhat clueless where the yeast infection referenced in the title fits in. Maybe I missed something, Or maybe it is just a metaphor for life. Or maybe he is just getting one over on us. If you like hard core “meat” poems this works for you, If you don’t, it won’t. The reader should keep in mind these are “persona” poems not necessarily accurate depictions of the poet’s life, past or present
Max Ritvo, The Final Voicemails, (edited by Louise Gluck) Milkweed, www.milkweed.org. 79 pages, 2018, $22 hardcover.
There is something about a poet dying young that creates a romantic aura about the work he, or she, leaves behind. What is rare about young Mr. Ritvo, was how talented he was, how much quality work he produced at the end of his brief life, (24 years) while dying of a childhood, incurable cancer. His work is among the rare few whose genius was well established at that young age. Many poets are romanticized for showing potential, Ritvo was realizing it when he died.
I recently read a joint work, edited by a former teacher of his, the esteemed playwright and teacher, Sarah Ruhl, Letters from Max: the story of a friendship. In it she chronicles how this intensely brilliant young writer, not really a playwright, but a poet, came into her playwriting class and became a major part of her life. In the few years they knew each other, the two developed a kinship that was beyond mere friendship, but of the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent. The relationship gradually morphed into one of mutual trust and a conversation between two creative equals. The book is guaranteed to break your heart as the reality of the inevitable pervades even the earlier hopeful messages.
Former Poet Laureate Louise Gluck collects, under instructions from Ritvo, and with his Ritvo’s wife’s permission, the final poems, without editing. She adds a selection of printed-as-a- chapbook poems, that were his brilliant thesis for her writing program. These poems, as the letters to Max also show, reveal a young man of such wide reading, intelligence and insight you forget how old he was. At 21, he is an intellectual powerhouse. I cringe at memories of myself at that age and how little I knew compared to this exceptional young man. The first half of the book is extraordinary and should last as a testament to man facing death with a clear-eyed intensity almost unmatched by any poet I can think of. Is he bitter? Who wouldn’t be? Is he resigned? He has to be. These poems must be read and should endure. The only last-days-of-a-poet work I can think of, remotely as pure, poetically, as these, are : C.K. Williams, Falling Ill, and Claudia Emerson’s equally as brave one, The Opposite House.
Marc Frazier, Willingly, Adelaide Books, www.adelaidebooks.org., 112 pages, $19.60, 2018.
The poet quotes Thich Nat Hat near the end of the book in his poem, Theorem: “If you suffer, it’s not because things are impermanent./ It’s because you believe things are permanent.”
This brief epigraph seem to me as good a summation of the poetry Frazier offers us in his collection, Willingly. The title poem concludes,
“As day ends I enter a warmer house
where I gaze out my window
at the moon, convinced I’d chosen this life”
Who chooses the life they live? We make choices but much of what we do, become, or do not become, are preordained by matters, circumstances and realities, we have no control of. It is nice to think we have chosen the direction we have taken, but Frazier knows the ironic reality of Willingly; the title as a kind of epiphany.
In his poem, “Stories, Café Voltaire”, the poet observes the random congruence of people all congregating in the same place for a similar purpose. No two people are remotely the same but each have a story, an individuality, that marks the critical intersection of life and our place in the world. The stories, no matter what they are, are the essential stuff of life. I get the strong sense that Frazier’s medicine for melancholy is his poetry.
There is a real thematic strain of loss and regret here, the most poignant being the brief family history that begins: “mother threatens to kill me/during the seventh month of my life”, an inauspicious beginning that has consequences that recur throughout the collection. You can read the poems as a collage of a life: pieces here and there fitting into larger personal mosaic. There are moments of real intimacy as in “Without Words”, Sergio” and “Appositives”, while tender and intimate, also suggest an imminent sense of impending loss. Many of the family poems, while suggestive of nostalgia, are mostly about the passing of family members. Tenderness is never absent but intimacy often is. Frazier is a poet of the human heart. He takes us inside a full life and leaves us the better for having traveled with him.
T. K. Splake, beyond brautigan creek, contact the poet at email@example.com for ordering information, 45 pages with black and white photographs and an accompanying CD of the poet reading in places that are the subject of poems (roughly 15 minutes long) 2019.
Anyone familiar with the work of T.K. Splake knows he lives in the remote areas of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the word remote was invented. Splake has marked out his territories that he deems “sacred” in the woods outside of his home in Calumet. They border what he calls “brautigan creek” after one of his inspirational writing mentors. Inside this clearly defined, in the poet’s mind, area, at the spiritual heart of it, on the banks of the creek, is Splake’s Poet Tree ,where he has hung poems, photos, art, mementos and other signifiers that are essential to the ethos of his work. He relates what it means to him and tells the extraordinary and sad tale of his original Poet Tree that was defaced, chopped down, and burned by an unknown defiler. One wonders why anyone would deliberately destroy what was clearly someone else’s “holy” place. The poet provides no answers, perhaps because there are none. Instead he finds a new tree to enshrine and begins anew. The Buddhist prayer flags he has hung from tree limbs signify the enshrinement.
Other signifiers include: a broken down chair, a rocker, a pair of hikers dangling from his tree and a metal cup; all the necessary implements a body would need on his journey beyond brautigan creek. It is a special place indeed and I encourage everyone who can to go there and find some peace for themselves.
echo of thunder
storm moving in
poet alone in the woods
surrounded by friends
waiting music of rain
Richard Kostelanetz, Continuous Dialogue a dramatic poem, whiskey tit.com., 95 pages,$11.95 2017.
Whiskey tit is a very independent press, writing in the bottom left hand corner of the front page, before the text of this book: “If you intend to stea l any or all parts of this book, have a little class and tell us how you intend to use it:firstname.lastname@example.org.” I have no intentions of stealing any of this book nor quoting it and I would sing praises for the text if only I knew how.
There is definitely a dialogue involved here, presumably between a man and a woman. Let’s say, consenting adults, though at any given time the roles will change. I am sure there is a method to this madness of role switching voices, but I didn’t delve deep enough to figure out exactly what it is, but I suspect it isn’t exceedingly difficult. What I did was just go with it, and try to imagine this as a stage play, maybe like that scene in a Woody Allen movie where he has actors doing a scene from a play that is a mirror of the movie we are watching ( I don’t remember which one. The last 25 or so kind of blend together after awhile). It’s like being in a cinematic hall of mirrors. In this Dialogue it feels like being in a verbal hall of mirrors.
While reading this, I thought of books by one of the giants of post modernism, William Gaddis and his novel in voices, The Recognitions, where it was not unusual to have as many as six voices speaking, none of them attributed (there might have been more...) and why I gave up reading him. I can handle unattributed voices, but there is a limit to how many one can be expected to keep track of . One speculates..... But I digress. There is a kind of drama to this back and forth dialogue, some wry humor, as I understand it, and you arrive at some place other than where you started from, sort of. The experience is as if you came into a 24 hour play somewhere in the middle and left a couple of hours later, somewhere in the process of the experience but not necessarily at the end, beginning, or even in the middle. I was reminded of “24 Hour Psycho,” an installation referred to often, and with effect, by Dom DeLillo in one of his novel, Point Omega, ( an installation where the frames of the movie are slowed so that it takes exactly one day to play the whole movie). Kostelanetz is no Psycho and he’s no Gaddis either, but he is defiantly one of a kind.
Nancy Gerber, We Are All Refugees, newferalpress, ww.newferalpress.com., 27 pages, text and photos, $12.00, 2017.
There is shared intimacy in this brief collection, that anyone with elders who told stories at family gatherings of the people from the “old country” ,wherever that might have been. In my case, it was the weekly card games between my great aunt and grandmother, or when my adult cousins came by to talk. My remaining close family lived in an informal compounds with backyards abutting. The various, younger cousins, such as myself, heard tales of the siblings who had passed on, the husbands and other relatives, who had died or had moved away. These people, never known, and only referenced by these linked stories, told and retold over the years, attainted a kind of legendary status that became almost mythic.
Gerber’s stories have a more palpable reality as her family was forced to leave the old countries because of the Nazis in Europe, while my family can be traced well back into the 1700’s. Regardless of what the origin stories are, a good story, a good poem about the stories of people, are always identifiable, even if the people are unknown to you. The album snapshots that accompany her poems add to this sense of reality, of people who faced crises, abandoned an established life, and lived anew in a foreign world. A reader knows when an author is succeeding in his or her work when he wishes there were more stories included as you know that there are many not told here.
Jimmy Santiago Baca, When I Walk Through That Door, I Am, Beacon Press, www.beacon.org74 pages, 2019, $12.95.
The Latin American Diaspora, human rights crisis, is more accurate, at the Southern border is chillingly told through the voice of a woman whose child is taken from her by ICE. Kidnapped is the appropriate term, and she is never reunited with him. She is abused, raped on several occasions, and treated like walking garbage, though she is, in fact, well educated, and has had a life that included a loving family and meaningful work. That is until the drug cartels killed her husband and she was forced to flee into the arms of ICE. Baca’s poem is as immediate as the news. The concluding essay relating his “adopted” refugee is worth the price of the book and should be read by anyone with a social/moral conscience.
Julie Carr, Real Life An Installation., Omnidawn, www.omnidawn.com., 192 pages, $17.95, 2018.
This is an issues oriented book told in a way that is both incredibly challenging and intensely personal. Her style could be described as: oblique. That would preclude the impassioned approach she has to essential issues of the body, that range from abortion, child birth, woman’s health, human rights, rape and any of a dozen other issues, of immediate concern to feminists of all stripes are subsumed by the form. A brief summary does not do justice to this brilliant, unique style of this far ranging collection that often uses art installations to illustrate, or define, a point. Check out the installation website also. Neither the book nor the website should be missed.
Brenton Booth, Bash the Keys Until They Scream, Epic Rites Press, Tree Killer Press, available for order from Amazon, 104 pages, $10-, 2019.
Booth’s poems describes a no longer youthful man, in his late 30’s who works, but is, essentially down and out. He drinks in the worst kinds of bars, often to excess, often with unintended consequences, ranging from fist fights to nights spent with a “who is that naked woman in my bed?”, mornings after. It is a going nowhere kind of existence but what separates him from the other low lives he knows, is that he writes. Yes, he likes MMA but he also reveres writers such as Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Henry Miller.
In some ways, it would be fair to say Booth is an Australian Bukowski type writer, whose persona fits inside the pages of innumerable Chianski volumes. Even the title recalls a works by Bukowski. But what separates Booth from the other poets who worship at the grimy feet of the no account master, Booth is really good at what he does. His lines are short, crisp and jab, like a good fighter who likes to work inside. His most enduring relationships seems to be with prostitutes and he seems romantic enough to believe the standard whore line, “You were so good, the next time ‘round it will be for free.”Of course there is never another next time around. Not with the same girl. But he falls for the line continually. In fact the poem that moved me the most in the collection is an after-sex confession by a young woman who says she started in the profession and is only doing it until she can save enough money to travel. To travel to all the places anyone ever wanted to go: New York, Paris, London. We all know how that is going to work out ,especially Booth, who does not editorialize.
One Tough Bastard
He must have been in
his mid-eighties and I
would see him every
day badly hunched and
inching his way up
it’s a steep surface and
took him over an hour
to get from his apartment
building at one end of the
street to the shops at the other
but he’d do it without cane
or walker or wheelchair
he was the toughest man in
maybe the whole world
and when I stopped seeing
I didn’t feel bad
because unlike most
Yes, there is rough, explicit sex, and some violence in the poems, but they feel secondary to the overall picture of a man aware enough to recognize strength in weakness and admit to following the impulse to write wherever it leads him. He persists even when the roughnecks he associates with do not value, nor understand what writing is all about.
Which brings us to the three prose pieces at the end of the collection. The final two deal with the question of writing in a rough life. Also there is an exquisite tale of a MMA fighter, at the end of his career, hearing it from fans who generally revile him, as he fights the bout of his life, one that he is supposed to throw, and how he solves the dilemma of both winning and losing the bout.
The problem child is the story called “The Angel of Death.” There is violence against a woman, who invites the beatings she receives, from a man who clearly is uncomfortable with delivering them. It becomes obvious that the woman is using men as an instrument to kill herself, as she lacks the fortitude to do the deed herself. She is beautiful and yet she is, literally, a battered shell of a woman. The man recognizes that, in order to free himself from this ever downward escalating relationship, he must flee immediately, leaving her ,and everything he owns behind. Booth recognizes the inflammatory nature of the graphic violence against the woman, and seeks to mitigate it as much as possible, by revealing the questionable motives that inspire them. Still, it is a brutal piece of work. The author seems as repelled by the violence as much as the protagonist is. No matter how you read it, the violence is impossible to ignore.
Gretchen Primack, Visiting Days, www.WillowLit.net., 77pages, $16.99 2019.
Visiting Days is a kind of Spoon River Anthology of daily life in a cell as part of the prison industrial complex. Introduced by Randall Horton, this volume is an Editor’s selection and with good reason. As Horton asserts, and he would know, given his vast experience as a poet/memoirist, and as former prisoner. Primack has the chops, and the knowledge, to create a multitude of prisoner’s stories in convincing voices. Primack has spent much of her adult life working with prisoners, conducting workshops inside, and as a prisoner advocate. There are no apologies here, just straight forward, plain spoken, real life stories of the convicted. Try this out for size,
Justice (East Wing)
I started at Downstate like everybody, in ’84. Then I was packed up for Coxsackie
for four years. Then Shawangunk for two, then Clinton for one Greenhaven for three.
Clinton again for one, and then Elmira for one. No Elmira the Clinton. The back to
Greenhaven for two, then Upstate SHU, then Hudson SHU, back to Coxsackie for
one. Then Eastern for five, and now I’m on the draft for Woodbourne.
How’s that for a Guided Tour of Hell?
Rarely do we know what these men are in for. In the end, does it matter? What is essential to these voices is that despite their confinement, the crimes they committed they are still human beings and have lives of their own that Primack relates with great sensitivity and honesty.
Holly Day, Folios of Dried Flowers and Pressed Birds, www.cyberwit.net, 59 pages, $15-, 2019.
Most of the poems in this collection have a macabre slant that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror genre venue. In fact, most of these poems have been published in what could be termed magazines focusing on horror, science fiction and dark fantasy. And before you sneer, many of these magazines actually pay. There is “Stygian tar”, “lycanthropic angels”, “denizens of night chase down the stragglers of day”, “Bending Tombstones”, horrific nightmares becoming true, the odd monster and cemetery dwellers of various kinds. That said , towards the end of the collection, Day turns to a darker, more personal kind: fraught family relationships, madness , dreams begetting realties. Perhaps, the impulse to write horror poems lies in a deeper impulse, one where ordinary life experience can be displaced and made less personal. Getting paid is nice too, as are the science fiction awards she has won for many of these poems.
T. K. Splake, “scared and obscene”, Transcendent Zero Press, www.transcendentpress.net. ,
unpaged roughly 20 pages with Intro, $10, 2019.
Although there are only 11 pages of poems, each page has 8 pieces, so this small collection is actually bounteous in its compactness. Writing in his haiku like, short three line form, Splake examines the subjects he ponders most deeply: the vacuity of lives unconsidered and determined by electronic fixations to TV and cell phones. He revels in real life experiences in nature, with actual, interpersonal relationships with alive and breathing women. Essential is his morning coffee routine at his favorite café where he examines the world around him (when not walking in his cherished woods) and setting down what he sees. I think of these poems as more sacred and profane than obscene, unless you consider the unexamined life obscene. That said, there is nothing particularly obscene in a sexual way, though there are specific references to sex and love. What is sacred is real life, interactions with people and places and setting it down in writing and by taking photographs like the exquisite pair of color shots that are the front and back covers of this collection.
hopper’s nighthawk ghost
sipping expensive cappuccino
no smoking at starbucks
Helen Ruggieri, Camping in the Galaxy: Haibun and Other Writings About the Natural, Wood Thrush Books, 27 Maple Grove Estates, Swanton, VT, 05488 144 pages, $14.95, 2019.
The book is divided into four sections: The Nature of Things: Some Lyrics, The Neighborhood, The History of History, and Natural History they are all part of the mosaic that is Nature. Haibun are a brief lyrical prose paragraph followed by a traditional haiku that acts as a kind of coda, or epiphany, that derives from what has been said in the longer prose segment preceding it. These serve as mini-essays on Nature, for the most part, act as a parallel statements to the longer, actual, essays. In general, Ruggeri’s pieces are keenly observed, reverent in extolling unspoiled areas, where they still exist, and declamatory of the heedless destruction of areas. She rails against what is deemed as, “Progress”, such as the eminent domain despoiling of sacred land, once belonging to the Mohawks, for a highway. These essays are often wryly humorous, and always informative such as the, personal to me, “Ground Hog Day: A Shadowy Celebration”, having been married on Feb. 2. ( It’s not a wedding anniversary you generally forget given the outside attention to Pennsylvania’s Phil’s uncannily wrong predictions with regard to the end of Winter.) Anyone who ever swum in a, created- by-industrial-excavations, or who learned to ice skate on one, will relate to the “Growing Up Polluted.” The apocryphal tales of the dead bodies rising to the surface from the bottomless pits will also be familiar. Not to be missed is the essay borrowing a title from a Brautigan classic, “Revenge of the Lawn” which is taken literally, as “when yards go wild.” In all, I think I enjoyed the essays as much as, if not more than, the excellent poems.
I could have chosen any of the Haibun as an example. This one feels as germane as any to Helen’s thesis and concerns as a citizen of this earth
Ataensic was looking down through the hole
under the roots of the world when she feel, dropping
and dropping into the void. Below, small friends saw
her coming and turtle offered his back and a place for
her. Muskrat dove deep for mud and the birds chorused
to direct her fall, spinning the winds like a woven net
with the magnetic sweep of their wings.
And so the world was begun.
the turtle’s back
a Cambrian shield
Zev Shanken, If I Try To Be Like Him, Who Will Be Like Me?, Full Court Press, www.fullcourtpress.com., 11pages, $14.00, 2018.
Roughly half way through this fine, wide reaching collection of poems, Shanken asserts he will never be a great poet. Only a good poet would say this and Shanken is a very fine poet indeed. The six sections in this book cover a diversity of subjects ranging from personal experiences and observations of the Six Day War, life in Israel, Elegiac memories of friends and relatives (the book is dedicated to his late friend, Jay Greenspan, who was a fine calligrapher), reflections on his wife and life partner, former lovers, secular, and near devotional, poems about the Jewish faith, all told in a variety of styles with verve, wit and clear-eyed understanding, befitting a man with keen observational skills.
In the poem “What God Doesn’t Understand” Shanken outlines purely human feelings, the traits that distinguish us from other beasts, but would be remote to a divine being whose concerns are on such a lofty plain. Stuff like desire, nostalgia, addiction , golf ( a form of addiction, no doubt for some) and justice. This piece is emblematic of Shanken’s ability to frame questions, and provide answers, in ways that are both simple and profound, with a black humoresque edge. We are fallible and God does not understand this, as he created us in His image. His poem “What God Understands” counterbalances the earlier poems as follows:
“If death-bed confession might scare the patient,
Do not make the offer. The sages explain,
The agony of dying is atonement enough.
If confessions makes dying worse, do not confess.
If confessing makes dying holy, confess.
God grants atonement either way.
What insightful, ancient people
invented this clever, gentle god
brimming with compassion
who wants only that our lives be holy!
I cannot make death painless,
but I can make it guilt-free.
You are forgiven.
The agony of dying
is atonement enough
for the end of opportunities
to make life holy.
Farther out on the dark humor edge is the section, “What Happens When the Bad Guys Won.” There is no need to say who the bad guys are, as our daily news reports show. Poems specifically dealing with the Big Bad One, approach satire, even without necessarily meaning to, as the man himself exists as a satirical representation of all the things his office once stood for, not to mention the country, he is supposed to be leading.
There are so many excellent individual poems, I would be remiss for not mentioning a few that stood out for me, the aforementioned “The Six Day War: An American Jewish Volunteer’s Notes (Israel, 1967), the brilliant riff on Ginsberg’s “America”, “Israel” (read the notes!),the elegiac poems including, “At Seventy-Two I Visit My Father’s House, “Our Father’s PTSD”, “Dying Man to the Night Nurse”, “To G.”, “Making a Sick Man Laugh”, “In a Hospital Waiting Room” and “Six Differences Between a Joke and a Poem”. Read this book and choose a list of your own!
Joan Colby, Joyriding to Nightfall, Future Cycle Press, www.futurecycle.org., 99 pages, $15.95, 2019.
Joan Colby’s latest collection promises a wild ride into the darkest recesses of her poetic imagination, given the presence of thee black cloaked skeletal figures riding, in a thirties sedan, reminiscent of one Bonnie and Clyde would have used. The car has a suggestive license plate that says RESIST. What we have here is emblematic of what is inside: a nightmare image, suggestive political statements, flocking bats and death riders to the storm. The collection delivers all of these and more.
What distinguishes Joan’s work is the immediate, palpable reality she creates even when the mood, state, place she suggests is a dream,
“We seek our houses, we swim, we fly, we lose
Our keys, misplace the car, find our beloved dead
Wearing fedoras and hats with veils.
We ride horses, we arrive in class
Unprepared, our notes missing.
We appear on the avenue of the naked.”
(from Geography of the Dream”
And then we have a piece of the measles experience, part dream, part experience, part hallucination bit, above all, immediate and real,
“A darkened room. Venetian blinds
Slatted like a stern mouth.
No reading. No coloring books
Or paper dolls. I shut my eyes
Reddened like polka dots
Of my fevered body.
The doctor with his satchel
Of Uselessness. Two weeks
Or longer. It’s hard.
Joan brings us from the fevered state to one of rationality where she makes a point about the misguided anti-vaccination movement,
“It was eradicated, almost, then someone got a notion
About vaccines and autism. A former Playmate proclaimed
And parents shrank from syringes. Spotted babies
Wail as the war between nonsense and evidence surges.”
We live in dark ages of obscurantism and high minded stupidity, loudly proclaimed by people in high places with lots of opinions and not much knowledge. We shouldn’t have to make these points but, given the present reality, we have to.
There is a great deal of looking back and recalling loved ones now gone, family history, personal poems that are easily relatable to anyone told in lively, often startling contexts. The seasonal poems, especially the opening Winter sequence, are deft and evocative of the kind of cold that infects the bones. Sample some of the wild ride the title poem offers,
“A house on the hill awaits the faithful-
That’s us, redhanded and sorrowful,
Our knives, our handkerchiefs. Bless,
The storm skirting the horizon to sweep
The harvest into baskets of wind.
Here we are joyriding in stolen
Dune buggies or jeeps, laughing
At the invisible charts of history....”
(from “Joyriding to Nightfall”)
Arnold Skemer, In the Realm of the Barren Queen, Presa Press, PO Box 792, Rockford, MI, 49341, www.presapress.com., 32 pages, $8-, 2018.
Rarely does a chapbook of this size encompass the breadth and depth of a multi-layered, multi-faceted, subject matter as Skemer does in this collection. Ranging from a historical reference point, citing Charles II top advisor, to modern day Queens, the poet embarks upon an epic journey through time and place, that is ostensibly from the Outer Boroughs, all the way downtown, but is actually something quite different. The places may seem familiar: falling into decay neighborhoods, Romanesque buildings, the sidewalks of a place like New York ,but I am continually reminded of two other specific journeys that meander well beyond the here and now.
One would be Hart Crane’s, “The Bridge”. Instead of the magnificent, lushly, maybe even heroically, described span over the roiling waters of the river separating Brooklyn from NY, we have Skemer’s briefing for a descent into hell. A descent where the rushing waters and effluvia, create a sense is more of Stanley Nelson’s, “Brooklyn Book of the Dead,” than something Romantic and magnificent in scope. Indeed, there are lushly textured landscapes, as he says, of the mind. You could easily make a case that Skemer’s world encompasses an overlay of the imagination, creating a palimpsest of impressions.
There appears to be satiric intent, a dream like world that is disturbingly real, a dystopian world where the people in it are rabble, the writers, poetaster’s. His punning on the idea, place, and person of Queens, is remarkable and as clever as it is wryly funny. Who can evoke three co-existing Queens (Queens the borough, the dream Queen, the Barren, historical Queen, Queens all) All in 22 brief poems better than Skemer? Beats me.
The second specific literary sense I have, is directly related to his depiction of the city as Necropolis. Once you have descended into the subways, into the bowels of the city, you are in metaphor territory. Here is where the sewers are, and Dante’s Inferno takes place, not to mention parts of the Aeneid and, finally, Ulysses. We feel as if we are in a real place, “that real textured landscape” and yet not of it. Again the palimpsests: actual locations, a topography of the imagination, and dream state ,with actual living creatures in it, perhaps, like Moore’s Garden with real toads. Whatever it is, after more than on reading, I can think of only one word to describe this remarkable little book, ingenious.
Mary Kathryn Jablonski, Sugar Maker Moon, Dos Madres, www.dosmadres.com, 79 pages, 2019, $18-.
The moon is a metaphor. A locus in space. Selene. Lover of Endymion whom she visits at night and for whom she bears, fifty daughters. The sense and essence of the poet, Keats, dreaming awake. His Grecian Urn.
The moon, always changing, Phasing. Vatic. A topography defined by the imagination despite the locations on a man-made map. Man dreams and the moon dreams with it.
The Sugar Maker Moon. Fecund. Flowing. The syrup hidden inside by the hard skin of trees.
The moon. The force that control the tides. The place where poems are made. Have always been made. The place that is just beyond reach but always there.
The poems in this collection: multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted. Like a Dream on St Agnes Eve. The lover addressed is the other, the way the stars are other, but also there and here. The poet’s desires grasp what is near and far, but always remains somewhere else, yearning and seeing.
The poems are metaphysical . The way the 17th century poets wrote metaphysics. Traherne looked into a lake and saw another world inside the reflective surface. Also sensed, imagined, the world hidden beneath. This poet projects and sees the heavens as Donne saw, Donne who said “dull sublunary lovers love.” Jablonski loves with them. Sees what they saw. Inside and out.
The poet is a lodestar in the infirmity that makes dead reckoning possible. A locus that attracts, defines, impels. She is an earthbound moon controlling the tides. The actual and the unseen.
The poems are an abstract, fluid like a liquid moon but rooted in a place, inside all of us who dream, and who look beyond ourselves to imagine what might be there. She renders what Samuel R. Delaney, said was “the motion of light on water”, “the stars like grains of sand in my pocket”.
Once the reader feels as if he has found the heart of an image, the sense of moment, the poet shifts the focus and your sense slides away like quicksilver, mercury in motion, the Transit of Venus. What could be more wonderful? This creation of a psychical world with a visionary overlay that exceeds our casual view. This is what true Art does: create a universe that unifies thoughts, and dreams, and what we know, what we think we know, in a new way. The Sugar Maker Moon is an infinite canvas upon which all things are possible.
Eileen Brilliant, In the Middle of Things, Begin, Rain Mountain Press, www.rainmountainpress.com, 92 pages, 2019, $15-.
I confess to being hooked by the title. I have always believed that, when you write something, you are implicitly beginning somewhere in the middle and finishing somewhere else. Unless there is a definitive car crash or nuclear explosion, endings are always at some unfinished place. And unless you are Tobias Smollett, who begins Tristram Shandy, “I was born”, the beginning is only where the poet, novelist, author starts introducing the reader a framework to begin understanding the context. As the poet says in the title poem,
“Begin. Begin where you are.
Begin in this moment. In the middle
In keeping with her less-than-conventional premise for storytelling, her language is the stuff of disharmony. Words attack and crash into each other, sort of a language based worlds-in- collision on the page. The effect is both jarring and stunning. The reader, and I expect the listener, must slow down and pay attention to what is happening. This will certainly be a bumpy ride, and one that rewards the patient reader/listener in the end. As Brilliant suggests in the closure of her excellent poem, “Rewriting Memory”, “Fist to the face in odd fashion, our hidden wishes/ are revealed through concealment.”
Brilliant adheres to the Dickinson dictum: tell it slant, and I would suggest also to a Creeley like idea that meaning is more than meaning. These are not poems that are genteel or mannered, but hard working. Even a seemingly mundane subject like a lollipop has an unexpected depth, as the sweetness that is concealed inside the wrapper. One senses a kinship with Marianne Moore who makes the most out of nothing in unique ways.
“The studied wrap
around the pop
is slightly lifted
covered to conceal
The lifted outer
the inner flavor
eyed on an
(from “Meditations on a Lollipop”)
Brilliant pauses in her mediations to take a shot at Bukowski, which is sort of like low hanging fruit, to a poet whose obvious mastery of language far exceeds the popular poetry of a booze hound, whose subject matter is almost as limited as his language skills.
“shove it Charles enough of the weather
tell what you really want to
about wrestling Hercules and loving
three women for hours and later
finishing the boston marathon.”
from “Playing Around with Bukowski”
Ultimately, I think there is more to Bukowski that that, but not much more.
There are personal poems, as well, most notably about a fraught relationship with her mother, friends and significant others. The one that leapt off the page and shook me was one dedicated to Phyllis, “Invisible”, quoted in full,
I bring a plant
a purple violet
to your bed,
(Do not overwater,
the instructions say)
Place it at
the edge of
a gray metal tray,
fingers to your lips,
Despite all the discordant notes, the sometimes abrasive assault of words, Brilliant ultimately celebrates life, cherishes what it has given us and makes the most of what is offered in this far reaching, far ranging excellent collection.
Frederick Pollack, A Poverty of Words, Prolific Press, Available new from Amazon for $18.95, less for used and near new, and in a kindle edition, 129 pages, 2015.
Frederick Pollack, Landscape with Mutant, www.smokestack-books.com.uk available from Amazon for $5.92 new, 2018, 182 pages.
A pithy declaration of what poetry is, by the author, can be found on the back cover of Pollack’s, anything but poverty stricken book, A Poverty of Words, as follows, “Poetry is about something. It is neither wordplay for its own sake nor petty suburban epiphanies.”
Let the Games Begin. Much of modern academic verse seems predicated on language games which seem to about themselves more than about an actual, definable, exterior subject. There is way too much form at the expense of content . Verbal obfuscations and tricky, twisty, cul de sac word games can be fun in small doses, or when a poet is particularly artful or clever but hundreds of pages of it? Well, I’d rather be burned at the stake, using the complete works of Ashbery as kindling, and a thousand mfa dissertations as fossil fuel, than read those at length. In general , I agree with Pollack: give me a good old fashioned poem that begins at point A, proceeds through points B and C, and reaches some sort of identifiable, if deftly illusive, conclusion, D.
I am not saying that Pollack is a poet of rote form and content, quite the opposite. His subject matter seems to be almost unlimited. He tackles the mundane in “Stinkbugs”, to the topical “Coast Concordia”, to political candidates ,“Waiting for Romney”, all showing a deft sleight of hand. By the final lines of “Romney”, for instance, you almost forget the poem began with the slick, sanctimonious, uber rich candidate, and concludes with a, where we are now, at a moment of dark reality,
“Tubercular hostas and fraying ferns
resist the pathetic fallacy.
A sweet three-legged dog hops over,
My neighbor can’t afford him and he has no friends-
what will he choose? What will the dog choose?”
“from “Waiting for Romney”
The Romney campaign is all illusion and veneer, while in real life, in actual time, the impoverished are ignored, promised everything, but receive nothing that will help them endure. Some things never change.
Pollack is a man of considerable knowledge, a kind of learning that embraces Latin, mythology, politics, history, philosophy, all the classic tenets of a true Liberal Arts Education. Before Liberal was a swear word. He is both erudite and wryly amusing, even laugh out loud funny, though his humor is often muted, shows what I call: a complicated sense of humor, made interesting by allusive, illusive, elusive references, that could easily be overlooked by a less than attentive reader. A complicated sense of humor is my idea of a deep, inner richness.
If there is one thing both of these books lacks (presumably the publisher’s choice and not the poet’s), and this my old fashioned self speaking, are some notes, at the conclusion of the text, where the poet might share some of his wisdom of esoteric subjects with us. I am thinking , in particular of one rich piece, that bares multiple readings, that reminds me of Shelley’s, “Arethusa”, a poem of some fifty five lines, that has so many layers of meaning, historic, mythic and actual landscape, one could wrote a graduate thesis on it. One almost did, though eventually settled for a twenty odd page paper. Pollack’s poem in this class is “Aglaea”. I realize that, if I had a wifi connected phone, and I was riding on a bus, when I read this piece, I could look up the name, glean basic information, and attempt to divine Pollack’s admitted amalgam of ideas. I could learn details of his evocation of place and persons (real, imagined and idealized). But I don’t have such a device, nor do I intend to ever own one (curmudgeon and incompetent device user that I am). And I could, and did, look it up in my Oxford Companion to Phrase and Fable or any ofa multitude of related source books, which I do have handy in my living room. Still a brief note might have aided my initial reading. Regardless, this poem is a wonder of the true art of poetry in a classic sense.
Pollack is equally gifted in longer poems of up to nine pages as in “The Sect”, as he is with shorter ones, like the witty, evocative , “N.J.” A typical, if there is one, Pollack poem is roughly one page long. Astonishing virtuosity is a phrase that came to mind reading well over 300 pages of Pollack’s work. If you find all of the Liberal Arts subjects dreary, I suggest you skip to an “Ode to Cererals” which would make you wonder anew at the persistently long lasting products: “Count Chocula”, “Frosted Flakes”, and “Cap’n Crunch” (think about that for awhile).
Also highly amusing is a poem on the now dated to back pages of The Enquirer and People Magazine, “The End of Brangelina”, not to be confused with Jaylo and Arod or Jervanka, though who could blame you if you were confused? Pollack recognizes we are living in a Trumptopia Now!, a kind of dystopian wilderness of cruelty, bad policies, obscurantism, xenophobia, ignorance, hate and greed, where even babies have been weaponized and politicized. We live in a Landscape with Mutant(s) and Pollack is an antidote to all those negative qualities; he is a poet for this age.
Hala Alyan, My Twenty-Ninth Year, www.marinerbooks.com., 83 pages, 2019 $15.99
The most incredible fact of this amazing collection is that the author has just turned thirty yet already has a vast body of award winning work. In addition to three award winning collections of poetry prior to this one, and she has a novel to her credit. Her primary subject is her American life as opposed to war-torn Middle Eastern landscapes, where she was born and partially raised. There is no subject she doesn’t handle with grace, intelligence and forthrightness ranging from politics, here and abroad , to personal subjects: alcoholism( her own), anorexia, relationships, deep and complex, to casual, and committed. Alyan is a poet whose every collection, every poem is a must to read.
Denise Bergman, Three Hands None, Black Lawrence Press, www.blacklawrencepress.com, 67 pages, $16.95, 2019.
Bergman’s subject is rape. The central focus surrounds an intruder into her home, who held a knife to her throat and defiled her. There is no other way to say this but: he literally and figuratively defiled her person and her mind. While the act happened years ago, as might be expected, it has shaped her life. This collection is part of an ongoing process of coming to terms with the impossible, with living, with the knowledge that nothing can undo what has been done. The details are awful, the results worse. Bergman is a brave woman who deserves all of our attention.
Bruce Bond, Frankenstein’s Children, Lost Horse Press, www.losthorsepress.org, 67 pages, 2018, $18.00.
Mary Shelley’s timeless classic is the jumping off point, the engine that drives this tightly focused, narrative collection. While all of the poems do not directly reference Frankenstein, Bond knows full well that monsters come in many shapes, forms and sizes. Our world has always contained these monsters and our poetry. Bond evokes poets from Milton to Blake and the Romantics, among others, rendering them in the image of the times, though the core substance remains constant: what was an inhuman monster centuries ago is still a monster now. Orange is not a healthy flesh tone.
“.......Every monster a child.
Each falsehood in the science of revival a myth
of monstrous proportions. In other words, a story.
Which is why she tells it. To take it apart.”
(from the final poem in the collection, “Refuge”)
Jennifer Givhan, Girl with a Death Mask, Blue Light Books, Indiana University Press, www.iupress.indiana.edu., 79 pages, 2018, $10.00.
Givhan’s subject and language reflect the kind of brutalities that only a woman can endure. The language is often fraught, always dynamic, words clashing like, Matthew Arnold’s armies, at night. The work is propulsive, draggling you through her dark pales, but you feel elevated by her having taken you to these places, by the richness of her language and the bitter focus of her imagery.
Jeanann Verlee, Prey, Black Lawrence Press, www.blacklawrencepress.com., 89 pages, 2018, $15.95.
Jeanann Verlee understands, first hand, the far reaching consequences of her chosen subject: what it means to be prey. She enters into the mind of victims of, perpetrators of ,and the consequences of, preying. It is a virtuoso performance in style, of ideas, words, and experimental writing, that attempts to, and often succeeds at, merging all the difficulties of the concept. Without preaching, per se, she implies, she illuminates, she tries to understand, preying from inside. The psychological consequences are risky, and the poetry reflect the kinds of risks she has to take, knowing, as she does, the world is full of American Psychos. This world is an uneasy place to be, but he poet shows us that endurance is everything. We may be prey, but this too we can survive, and contextualize, in the hope that other people may avoid falling into the hunter’s trap.
Bianca Stone, The Mobius Strip of Grief, Tin House Books, www.tinhouse.com, 112 pages, 2018, $15.95.
I would hesitate to mention that Bianca Stone is the grand-daughter of renowned poet Ruth Stone, if it were not from the obvious fact that Bianca draws our attention directly to her heritage. The title is from a poem by Grandma Ruth, the book is dedicated to her and Bianca draws her attention to, a figure inside this strange after-world her grandma is now at , in the younger poet’s mind. This place seems to be a kind of limbo of migrating souls where there are still physical manifestations of our world, but is decidedly, another place entirely. There is wit, humor, and seriousness in this otherworldly journey, that seems at times, to overwhelm the poet, with the vastness of is conception, that mere poems cannot encapsulate her ideas. Any such qualms are dissipated by the final group of poems, where Bianca seems to hit at full stride running, and completely blows the reader away. The vast space of the conception, givers her wide fields of reference, and room to explore, to allow for some instances, where the results can feel somewhat forced, yet seem so jovial and self-assured, who are we to quibble over minor points? Bianca Stone is a talent, albeit vastly different from Grandma’s, and this is as it should be, Bianca deserves a close watch.
Tim Suermondt, Josephine Baker Swimming Pool, Mad Hat Press, www.Madhat-Press. com., 73 pages, 2019, $19.95.
One of the feelings this reader gets, when reading a Tim Suermondt poem, is that, after a few lines, you know where you are, who you are with, and what the evening is going to be like. Reading his work is like a small, intimate gathering of old friends, who don’t see each other as often as they would like to, and are determined to make the most of the meetings they do have. A good meal, stimulating talk, and the sights and sounds of interesting places, both new, and familiar. Suermondt has a gift for projecting a feeling of peace and contentment wherever he is and whatever he is doing,
Do Some Fishing Along the Seine
But my fishing days are over-
pity for the fish is my excuse.
I stand on a bridge and watch-
all the history and art,
and a group of pretty women
in pretty dresses, all of them cradling
books. I couldn’t be happier.
(quoted in full)
In the final poem, while driving down the Taconic Parkway towards NYC (infinitely preferably to the pedestrian thruway, though without services, and not as well maintained. But the scenery...) Tim and his wife, Pui, also a poet, muse about friends who live in the area. Some who he’d forgotten lived there (shamefully forgotten, he says) and he concludes,
“......”the world is beautiful” and it was
for the entire drive-forests and deer, a strange
gift shop selling wooden clogs and the owner’s dog
curled in a corner, watching everyone with delight.”
(from “The World Isn’t Ending”)
May we all find such peace and contentment in our lives.
Robert Cooperman, That Summer, Main Street Rag, www.mainstreetrag.com., 81 pages, 2019, $15-.
In recent books Cooperman has tackled working his father’s hat factory in Brooklyn, driving cab in NYC in the 60’s, Following the Dead , dealing with the selective service and the draft and now, a summer aboard in 1970. As a young hippie type, long hair and bearded by the time the summer has ended, he experiences the good and the bad : some good dope, free love and the theft of most of his belongings, plus some hostile-to-long-haired young people, folks. Still, the feeling is of a golden summer, a once in a lifetime chance, taken advantage of, when all things were possible and, even, fun. He uses The Odyssey as his guidebook which seems as good as any when traveling wherever life takes you.
Received and Acknowledged
Nicholas Hagger, Visions of England, Selected Poems by the Earl of Burford, John Hunt Publishing, www.johnhuntpublishing.com., 2018, 149 pages, $16.95.
Modern “visionary” poems in the metaphysical tradition by a prolific contemporary poet. I suspect this collection will be of more interest to classically trained students of British Literature in the UK than Americans who, with rare exceptions, do not appear to care or know anything about these traditions.
Laurel Speer, Melissa McCarthy Does Sean Spicer on SNL, contact the author at PO Box 12220, Tucson AZ, 85732-2220, 2019, 20 pages, $4-.
Delicious, often bitingly satiric commentary . Always witty, always on point. Small Press icon’s annual poetry pamphlet is a treat not to be missed.
Chris Stroffolino, “Slumming It” in White Culture, Inquity Press/Vendetta Books c/o Dave Roskos POB 906 Island Heights NJ, 08732-0906 or email@example.com 2018, 90 pages no price listed, $9?
Stroffolino wanders through culture, politics and other stuff. His style is rambling, often discursive, and not always clear what he is getting at, as if he is throwing words against a wall and seeing if they stick. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. If you like his work you will like this book. If you don’t, you won’t. Stroffolino is an acquired taste.
Emily Skaja, Brute, Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org., 2019, 74 Pages, no price listed.
Much deserved winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award as selected by Joy Harjo. Brutal is the only word that can described the breakup of her love affair. The poems have the feeling of the elemental as opposed to simply visceral. These are definitely not what might be called “revenge porn” but artfully conceived and realized works of essential poetry. Have only read first few poems and they are scathing, on point and brilliant . Promises to be an exquisite collection
Independent Mags. Support your in print small press magazines
Slipstream PO Box 2071 Niagara Falls NY 14301. Annual publication of gritty urban flavored poetry and sponsors of an annual chapbook contest for almost 40 years!
Cholla Needles, issue 29 just arrived $9- 100 pages ( full disclosure I am a featured poet along 10 other writers). Southern California publication centered around Joshua Tree Park area. Favors area related writing but not exclusively www.chollaneedles.com Also publishes a limited number of books by contributors to the magazine available from Amazon and others plus actual physical locations in the area. Rick Soos editor.
US. 1 Worksheets, Volume 64 2019, $10-www.us1poets.com orders to U.S. 1 Worksheets PO Box 127 Kingston, NJ 08528 144 pages. Tight narrative poems on wide range of subject matters. Favors everyday subject matter ranging from the family, PTSD after war experiences, life in all its many manifestations. Poems by favorite poets such as Robert Cooperman, Charles Rammelkamp, Matthew Spireng, Michael Schneider, Joan E. Bauer and D.E Steward among many others
Chiron Review : Editor 522 E South Ave St John, KS 67576 www.chironreview.com/submissions $60 a year 4 times a year. Indispensable quarterly representing the best of the small presses. Each issue is an anthology.
Blue Collar Review, Partisan Press, PO Box 11417, Norfolk VA, 23517, $20 a year ed. Al Markowitz. The definitive, long running, working man’s poetry journal. Also publish a limited amount of chapbooks of long time contributors and sponsor a contest for individual poems. They need your support now more than ever!
Trajectory, PO Box 655 Frankfort. KY, 40602-0655 www.trajectory.com $20- a year 2 issues, $15- single copy. Accepts poetry and short fiction. Recently released issue #18 with a 115 pages of work roughly half fiction and poetry.