Books Received, Reviewed, Acknowledged
Sean Thomas Dougherty, editor, Alongside We Travel: Contemporary Poets on Autism, NYQ Press, www.nyq.org, 2019, 193 pages, $18.95
I don’t generally review anthologies, but this one is special. I mean that as a compliment, not as bad pun, as the subjects of these poems are all special needs people. Most of the poems relate to children, whose lives, and the lives of their care givers, are profoundly impacted by their autism spectrum disorder. What is consistent, throughout this selection, is the deep abiding love of the care givers for their children, a love that is so intertwined with pain, the two are almost indistinguishable. I generally like to read a book in one or two sittings, but this one required time between poets to digest, to savor, and to regain emotional equilibrium, after a series of emotionally fraught poems. As it is impossible to quantity or qualify an individual’s pain, it seems unfair to single out individual poets from this well balanced selection, but here are a few poets who stood out for me: Yvonne Blomer, Lauren Camp, Barbara Crooker, Lisa Dougherty, Susan Elmslie, Rebecca Foust, Tony Gloeggler, Connie Post, Celeste Helene Schantz, and Emily Vogel.
There is no one particular approach in these poems. Some are formal, some are long skinny short line poems. Others are dense, compact, and brutally honest. One, by Oliver De La Paz, utilizes the autism spectrum protocol to create a long, interpretative poem, in response to the direct, symptomatic questions written in Bureaucratic (a language devoid of feeling), in a “just the fact ma’am”, POV. De La Paz answers from the mind of a person in that other world, the world of autism, which is both magical and horrible. This is a tour de force that offers a unique perspective to how evaluations of this sort offer no insight whatsoever into the condition and accomplish nothing except, maybe, establishing the already known.
an autist’s mother reflects
afraid to die
but in this wild
dark New Hampshire
glow like downed pulsars
like your face
& no trace of errant gene
or what perished
to breed such rapture light
Rebecca Foust (quoted in full)
You sit in the middle of the floor
and try to swallow the world,
in the midst of strewn toys, a trailing of stars,
small footprints indented in the carpet,
old crumbs leading to destinations fantastical.
The conundrums of your surroundings
delight you, and you tilt your head
like a planet on its usual orbit-
in an attempt to fathom it,
whatever it is.
Emily Vogel (quoted in full)
Cynthia Brackett-Vincent editor introduction by Wesley McNair, Except for Love: New England Poems Inspired by Donald Hall, Encircle Publications, PO Box 187, Farmington, ME 04938 www.encirclepress.com. 105 pages, 2019 $19.95
When Hall died last year, just short of his 90th birthday, he left a huge gap in the community of American Letters. Accomplished as a widely known poet, essayist, short story writer and teacher, his work spanned memoirs of his Eagle Farm, his New Hampshire Homestead, after a long process of grieving for his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. An appreciative introductory essay by Walter McNair, a widely known poet in his own right, outlines the depth of the loss most of us who loved his work felt. Thirty-five poets, all from the greater New England area, contribute their work in appreciation to Hall’s inspirational work. As with most tributes of this sort, some of the poems draw directly from the poet’s work while others offer personal glimpses by personal friends.
(from) Visiting Don
In Memory of Donald Hall
In the dream, I’m back at Eagle Pond
One window’s filled with the heavy heads
of Jane’s peonies-and the other, snow
banked up high against the darkened barn.
You were inscribing a book for me with
a silver pen, How sloppily the dead write....
(from) Mt. Kearsarge
After Donald Hall’s “Mount Kearsarge”
We lifted our eyes to hall’s blue ghost:
the old poet, all whiskers, on his porch;
a widow, in the house she needs to sell;
I found the Ossipees’ opposite sentinel.
Whence cometh the help? Help comes
from the Lord. he who made Kearsarge
and Ossipees made whiskers, and widow,
In general, anyone who cherished Hall’s vast body of varied work, will find this tribute anthology a worthwhile, even, necessary addition to their Hall collection.
Holly Day, Into the Cracks, Golden Antelope Press, 715 E, McPherson, Kirksville, MO, 63501, 2019, 55 pages, $14.95
Day is a poet of deep relationships. In her previous books, she explores family/personal relationships in ways that show a dynamic disparity, an ambivalence, where complex emotions intertwine with dreams. She says quite emphatically: real people don’t live like people on TV. Life is not a sit com nor is it a celebrity reality show. Day knows that there is no such thing as a “reality show”. Maybe there is a TV reality, as anyone who watched what it might be like to be at home with the Osborne clan knows (minus the kid who refused to be hounded by cameras). More likely, real people are going to face hostile family members, parents and in –laws becoming mentally abrasive, succumbing, slowly to dementia. Children grow up and become their own people, often estranged, or downright hostile. There is not simply an empty nest but an abandoned one.
When the poet dreams of tiny things, she evokes a hostile place not unlike Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, where birds and squirrels become threatening agents of harm. She notices a spider’s nest in a funeral home, has macabre thoughts at a bus stop, sees a crossing guard as a headless man, nature as the enemy, and dreams that are further threats from another world she cannot control.
Many of these poems are astonishing in their virtuosity. Lines are crisp and impactful; there are no wasted words anywhere, no padding, just the necessary ones. “Just the Facts, Ma’am”, as Joe Friday would say. The most astonishing poem in this collection is “Laika” and she saves that for near the end of the book. Laika, for those of you who may not know, was the first living creature launched into space by the Russians. The poet tries to explain to her daughter why these men are putting a puppy in a box and launching it into space. The people in the news item look so proud to see their dog thus chosen but, more importantly, Day wonders “what stories they told their daughter/when they talked her into letting the stray she’d rescued/become part of the space program”) . The final poem in this collection shows as well as any the deep ambivalence Day’s poetry excels at:
I watch my daughter playing in the yard
singing to earthworms and dancing with toads
and I know she sees all the magical things
I’m missing. I join her games
make fairy house out of mud and broken seashells
share stories of how wonderful it would be
if we were frogs or fairies ourselves
and I can tell she believes
we could be these things if we really wanted to be
and that being just what we are is some kind of choice
I can tell she believes this
and I wish I could, too.
(quoted in full)
Day’s language is immediate and visceral, and she takes you to places you may not ever wish to go, but be assured, she has been there already, and she is as good a guide to follow as any.
George Looney, What Light Becomes: The Turner Variations, Red Mountain press, www.redmountainpress.us. 2019, 67 pages, $19.95
This extraordinary book won the 2018 Red Mountain Poetry Prize.
Looney does what the best of ekphrastic poets do: he not only captures the visual impact of the paintings he chooses to write about, but he captures the essence, the spirit of the creator, and offers new interpretations that aid us when revisiting JMW Turner’s work. What Looney does seems effortless, as the paintings themselves sometimes do. These poems appear as if they arrived, whole and mysterious, by themselves, without deep concentration. Maybe they do arrive from the subconscious, but it is an earned creation, not a haphazard one.
As a poet whose fascination with the ekphrastic process, in general, and Turner in particular, I was prepared to be disappointed as I was with Adam Kirsch’s book on August Sander’s photos.
Looney does not let me down for an instant:
(from) The Beauty of It
after the Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons Oct 16, 1834
Knowing it isn’t just light, this burning
that from here, the other side of
the Thames, torches a compromised sky
as if it were an act of fierce revenge
nothing could justify, he beauty of it
seems, reflected in the sluggish river,
a longing for someone to notice
how the canvas stills such ferocity....
It is as if Looney were in the boat with Turner, as JMWT purportedly witnessed the actual event. Looney knows the artist’s preoccupation with how the smoke appears against a darkened sky, artificially lit by the flames. He knows the “sluggish” movement of the tide that distorts and reflects, interjecting an astute observation that, that the burning is like (to the artist) an act of revenge. For those of us who watched Notre Dame burn, we can understand Turner’s fascination with the fires. And Looney’s fascination with Turner’s fascination. And these are just the first eight lines of the book.
The distillation of light and color, the Venice watercolors, where the difference between sky and water seems to disappear in the light, the swirling clouds, the smoke, the storms, that fires of hell on the water, are all there. So many ekphrastic poets concern themselves with surface images only. Looney avoids that completely, particularly in the long series of “Burning of the Houses of Parliament” show. Often the “burning poems” comment on a previous poem, just as often he comments on a completely different subject, variant approaches to color. If compare and contrast is the object, then Loney is a master of juxtaposition.
Other ekphrastic poets attempt to analyze and shunt the organic process, of using the initial art as the motivator for the assumptions/interpretations the poet assumes, often to ridiculous ends. Looney avoids all these potential hazards of creation, by entering into the subjects with a deep understanding of both the artist and his work. Turner supposed, last words are, “The sun is God!” do we believe him? I believe Looney does.
Linda Nemec Foster, The Elusive Heroine: My Daughter Lost in Magritte, Cervena Barva Press,
www.cervenabarvapress.com. roughly 30 pages, 2018 $7-
In twenty-one, brief, tightly constructed, emotional poems that literally, relate how her daughter was lost at a huge retrospective showing of the multifarious work of Magritte. Losing a child, if only for a short period of time, is a parent’s worst nightmare. Add surreality and a large amorphous crowd to the horror, and you have the premise of this book. These poems work individually but taking the author’s advice to access the works mentioned, gives the depth she intends. This is no casual collection of impressions as the author says, these five-line poems took years of careful thought and reworking.
It was well worth the time and effort.
Lisa Akus (nee Dougherty), Small as Hope in the Helicopter Rain, Cervena Barva Press, www.cervenabarvapress.com., 30 pages, 2018 $7
I first came across Lisa’s work in the recent NYQ Autism Poetry Anthology which featured, among others, the title poem. In objective, highly allusive language, she imagines the self-contained worlds of her autistic daughter. These poems walk a difficult balance bar between emotional engagement and wonder, wonder at the almost magical attributes of mundane objects. She imparts an emotional depth to the objects and extrapolates her worries with a deep concern for her child’s well-being. Akus is all about family, not just her autistic child. Rarely has a poet entered the mind of an autistic person with such clarity.
T.K. Splake, rosetta café ghosts, order from the author at 25214 ash street, calumet , mi 49913 no price listed 2019 roughly 18 pages 5 poems per page 4 color photos front and back end pages.
The clear suggestion of the cover is a mirror image of Hopper’s iconic painting, “Nighthawks”. Instead of a couple, in the early a.m., with a counterman in a coffee bar, there is an empty café with the torso of a mannequin, sporting a for sale t-shirt, inside the closed-for-business coffee shop. There is snow on the ground. There are Christmas decoration around the picture windows. The night, literally, feels cold. The implied people, their ghost images linger inside, alone, as the poet says in his intro,
unfriended on facebook
without ‘like’ postings
person no longer exists
barista’s titty tease
like delicious wet dream
before falling asleep
long night hours
stale warm beer
poet praying for dawn
dark angel waiting
Elizabeth S Wolf, Did You Know?, Rattle Press, www.rattle.com45pages, 2019 $6-
Did You Know? is the winner of the annual Rattle Chapbook competition. Did You Know?, continues in the rich tradition of the previous winners, by exploring difficult subjects in an honest, direct, compassionate manner. There is a dark secret at the heart of the book. Wolf’s father, a lawyer, pillar of the community, learns from one of his social friends, the family doctor, that his wife, the author’s mother, is developing MS. Thus, begins a “do no harm” cover up, that has major repercussions when the father dies and the secret is kept among this coterie of friends and associates. Apparently, everyone but his wife and her children knew about the diagnosis.
What follows is the stuff of this book. fraught with indignation and accusations against this wall of silence. Imagine not being told about a debilitating, progressive, no cure debilitations disease, and trying to make sense of the changes that are happening in the dark. Wolf doesn’t have to imagine. Justly, as the black sheep, as ‘that woman’, she is indignant, as her brothers are, once they learn what has been kept from them all. The mother eventually forgives everyone but the father, whom she hates the rest of her life, even stating that she would like to go to Sharon, where he is buried, so she could stomp on his grave (dance on the grave of the son of a bitch ? as Wakoski said).
Wolf’s barely suppressed anger is not limited to the treatment of her mother, but at having been considered beneath contempt by the family, simply for being a girl. She is the not a male, a willful one at that, who was essentially ostracized, and is even outright accused, by implication, of killing her father, by being such a bad girl. All of which is pure nonsense. That she managed to overcome this cold, heartless family is near miraculous. One of the miracles in her life, besides becoming a mother and writer, is this wonderful book.
Heather Sullivan, Method Acting for the Afterlife, Nixes Mate Books, www.nixesmate.pub/books, 53 Pages, 2019, $9.95
Sullivan’s book is largely autobiographical, telling and retelling of events in her life. Beginning as a child, events seem to be one thing, but appear to be another later on. The breaking of a mirror, as a seven-year-old, an act the poet’s mother says will bring you seven years bad luck, then blowing out birthday candles, seem innocuous in and of themselves but appear to be emotionally fraught in a larger life context. She feels as if she has been cursed by bad luck and, in a way she was. Other life markers, along the way, are related, in a similar manner, until it become apparent that the overall theme of the book is one of a crippling grief.
The death of her mother, when the poet is a happily married woman, despite three children of her own, some recognition as a well-regarded poet, the death paralyzes her. Revealed, in a poem about a conversation with an analyst, is that she is basically unable to relate to her family, to anyone, the way she could prior to her mother’s death. Though she is in a stable, loving marriage, she can no longer have sex; can no longer do much of anything. Grief effects everyone differently, can overcome life but, hopefully, the writing of these poems has helped Sullivan to move on and resume something like a normal life.
Ryki Zuckerman, the gone artists, Nixes Mate Books, www.nixesmate.pub/books, 56 pages, 2019 $9.95
Zuckerman’s subject is the universe. All of it. She muses on what could have been in a powerful, personal, memories of a lover she lost touch with when he went to Vietnam and whom she rediscovers on Facebook. She ponders the meaning of life, from philosophical conundrums to the more mundane, everyday ones , as equally as important. She considers big question through small moments, like details of a life on the cusp of adulthood at a niece’s bat mitzvah. Her use of language is both electric and propulsive, tinged with irony, regret, anger and humor. If pressed to offer a succinct overall impression of this wonderful little book, I would say, far ranging.
The Universe Unfolding
given three wishes
what would you change?
you ask for rain
and the floods come.
you ask for it to stop raining
and the drought parches the earth.
you ask for evil
to be eradicated
and all human life disappears
and then, unfortunately,
you are out of wishes
(quoted in full)
Ellaraine Lockie, Sex & Other Slapsticks, Presa Press. www.presapress.com, 30 pages 2019, $8-
The cover of this delightful chapbook, shows a somewhat distraught woman, trying to shave her legs in the shower. The reason she is distraught becomes readily apparent once you read “Why I Don’t Shower” . Apparently, this ordinary activity, becomes more complicated than one could ever imagine, in a hotel, in Berlin, where the water pressure and the temperature of the water, wildly fluctuate, without warning. One wonders, by the end of this hilarious story, how she managed to survive, “the shower”.
Perhaps, even more outrageous, is her runaway dog escaping from her motel room while she is “dressed” only in a short robe. The resulting chase reveals more than anyone could ever have wished (in “the Robe Also Rises’). Beware the unexpected consequences, of traveling with a dog, especially if you stay in motels. The character Lockie presents, is aware of how the most mundane activity can become totally bizarre in an instant. As a rather naïve young woman, she stumbles into situations and misreads them, as befitting a girl who thought twat was the past tense of twit (from “Nomenclature in Montana”). Not to be missed is her “Bidet in Haibun” which reveals all you need to know about a bidet and more.
Two More by Splake from India
Splake’s main themes of creative independence, struggling against the ticking of the clock, and making up for lost time, are all in evidence in these books. He literally communes with nature, finding a spiritual awakening in the wilds of mountain out backs Civilized man has lost contact with his essence, the spiritual essence of the world that is, and has literally plugged into a world of materialistic emptiness, a null and voiding of the mind, without appreciation of the beauties of creation.
The cover of Between the Lines, is of a dead tree in a clearing. The lines of the tree have a found art quality, all pointy graying, branches and decay, framed against autumnal background. This would be an apt metaphor of the poet’s work.
rat bastard time
in brautigan creek
icy cold currents
crystal clear water
small dark minnows
darting around fingers
staring at reflection
gray grizzled face
wondering what happened
to sixteen year old boy
(quoted in full from In Between the Lines)
from outside the lines
walden pond wisdom
ignore others ‘musts’
beside brautigan creek
soft flowing melodies
forest slowly darkening
waiting night whispers
as brother Richard says
simple as that
Two from Finishing Line Press
I have seen both of these poets read, several times, from these intensely personal books. Judith recently said about the rape poem in her collection, “Why does it take thirty years to report something like that? It takes a long time to get over it.” Many of the poems are of the “confessional” sort as in detailing some of the wilder days of youth when her life could have completely gone off the rails but did not, given she now has had a productive creative, and professional, life. One of the greatest responsibilities she has taken on is the adoption of a Mexican boy who has become her son. Her Motherhood Trilogy is an outstanding examination of the process of becoming a mother, and cherishing a child, in stark contrast to the cruel and evil practices of our government, now. Judith takes stock, as a woman of 62, recalling rehab and gives thanks for being here and now, beyond the dark moments of her earlier life, in her After.
Susan grew up in the shadow of Coney Island, fondly recalling her memories of family: grandparents, mom and dad all of which have, at least, a tangential contact with The Fun Park. She recalls The Nathan’s Famous Hotdog Eating Contest and a personal song of Coney,
I’m going to Coney Island, where it rains peacocks
and the lampposts are rainbow swirl lollipops.
I’ll take the F train to Coney, that rabbit foot,
coney foot, lucky foot, boot of Brooklyn with its tow
in the ocean. I’m dancing in Coney Island, with the
drag and burlesque queens in the Mermaid Park....
This panoramic overview of memory, loaded with specific details, give a strong sense of how Oringel feels about the place, how she returns there, and to the embrace of her family, whenever she thinks about the amusement park and the beaches. No doubt Coney Island is a place of magic and dreams and excitement that can affect your dreams forever as her last poem, “My Coney Island” suggests,
“In dreams I see bathhouses like craggy ruined castles,
sky and sea where windows used to be.
A street of broken bungalows
leads to the beach, brown fishmeal sand, water
the impossible turquoise of the Aegean
where the Greeks began, and also my story,
and the boardwalks at night,
my mother and father pressed closer and closer
in the chilling sand after day’s heat.”
I’ve been there and Susan take me back to all my Coney Islands of the Mind.
Mark W. O’Brien, My Childhood Appropriated, Foothills Publishing PO Box 68, Kantona., N.Y. 14856, 2019, 38 pages, $10.00
As with all Foothills books, the signatures are hand sown and the work is printed, assembled, and produced, with infinite, old fashioned, care. This is the way books were made once upon a time, and particularly appropriate, as O’Brien’s book is all about looking back fondly to his early youth. Life was not always wonderful, but people cared for each other, the family was loving, and his memories are mostly good ones. We should all be so lucky.
Guy Reed & Cheryl A. Rice, Until the Words Came, Post Traumatic Press, PO Box 544 Woodstock, N.Y. 12498 www.PostTraumaticPress.com, 2019, 30 pages, $12.00
This collection is dual, (dueling, in a friendly way). The collection begins with three poems on where the words come from; two by Reed and one by Rice, as they explore different aspects of the writing process. There is a semi-serious, tongue in cheek, tone that veers into outright outlandish humor. “Encounters” with writers are deft and vaguely ridiculous, as Reed does in his poem about how he cannot write like Frank O’Hara.
Reed has dreams of Anne Sexton, and how a cavernous venue can make for a surrealistic poetry reading event that is oddly satisfying, in unexpected ways. Having been to several readings in that venue he is channeling, I can assure the reader it is, well, cavernous and readings easily veer into the territory of the surreal. One in particular stands out, where Cheryl Rice was the host, stating clearly that, “Everyone was on the clock.” She then set an actual alarm clock for five minutes, in an attempt to limit one notorious abuser of the privilege of the floor. This individual then spent three and half minutes of his time adjusting himself, the microphone, the music stand for his manuscript and assorted body parts. He was mortally offended when the alarm clock rang, while he was in the middle of the second paragraph, of a prose reading that was clearly meant to be three or four times the allotted limit. “You mean the rules apply to me?”
It is what that sense of humor that Cheryl hosted her annual Sylvia Plath Bake Off reading (now defunct) and wrote poems for this collection. Her work here, delicious, witty, and caustic as she can be in real life, is evident in “I Dream Stanley Kunitz Is Dead” (“as if he were still alive)”Taking Off Billy Collins’ Clothes” (in the style of Billy Collins) and” Recovering Sylvia”( A day on the Cape will never be quite the same after this.) A fun collection by two assured poets.
John Dorsey, Your Daughter’s Country, www.bluehorsepress.com2019, 45 pages, $10.00,
Dorsey travels all the time and his poems reflect his journeys. He focuses on places, and people, with a sharp eye, and a keen sense of that makes places and the residence of them, tick. These are people in crisis, folks whom the economic recovery has skipped over, whose lives are spent in bars, 7-11’s, gas stations and diners. Everyone has a complicated history, including his own family who had harbored the darkest kind of secret at the heart of it. Despite all the poverty, the dead lives, and nowhere towns, Dorsey has a sense of humor about life and isn’t afraid to interject it into his work.
my dad’s cousin dean
could raise his lip
like elvis presley
he was the king
of western pennyslvania
but couldn’t sing a lick
Dorsey is one of the more prolific poets writing and traveling about today. His work is uniformly consistent and satisfying. Check him out the next time he is in a town near you.
Margaret Bazzell Crocker, When I was a Girl Like Me, Stubborn Mule Press, stubbornmulepress.com, 2019, 59 pages no price listed
Coincidentally, I saw Margaret read with her husband Dan, and John Dorsey, not long after I read her book. It had been some twenty years since I last read any of her work, so it was refreshing to meet the poet behind the words, and to get an update on her life, and times, as related in her poetry. It would not be unfair to say these poems had a diary like quality, in that they reflect her ongoing struggle to remain on course. Her married life has included severe challenges, both economic and personal, that led to all the difficulties inherent in a world of privation. There are bad jobs, and never enough of, well, anything. They lived in dad neighborhoods, there were always drugs around, street crime, hell, the whole nine yards. She hints at secret drinking, that eventually led to AA. But, through it all, what most impresses, is her survival instinct; her will to rise above privation and to make something of her life. Her poem, “For Carrie, says it best for me,
“I am of an age,
many things do not astound me.
I am in the new bracket,
mine eyes have been opened.
I drive the gray car to a cream office
work a tan day
and dream in taupe and robin’s-egg blue.
I speak 1-dog 2 kid small-town-big-fence talk,
and I forget there were ever girls like me
that saw girls like me
But she doesn’t forget where she came from and how she got to where she is now, as this book clearly shows. The poem I return to most in this excellent collections is, “Growing Up Curry-Kelly-Bazzell-Kincaid-Hasty-Crocker A Guide for Beginners.” Here, Margaret addresses her daughter, outlining all the family traits, instincts, physical characteristic of her ancestors, to be found in the child’s personality. Everyone who has children/family will relate.
Three from Epic Rites
Matt Amott, The Memory of Her, Epic Rites Press, www.epicrites.org., 50 pages, 2019 $10-
Ben Newell, Fuzzball, Epic Rites Press, www.epicrites.org, 58 pages, 2019 $10
Rob Plath, My Soul is a Broken Down Valise, Epic Rites Press, www.epicrites.org. 122 pages, 2019, $13.50
All these poets, and epic rites books in general, favor a certain kind of in-your-face style. Back in the day, that would be when Bukowski was alive, and reigning as king of the poetry pile, this style was referred to as Meat Poetry/Bar Poetry. The defining characteristic would be a macho style with a lot of drinking, misogynist pussy sniffing, and, a not-obligatory, and often brawling. As a former bartender, who turned down physical challenges from drunk people because I don’t believe in unnecessarily harming mentally and physically handicapped people, I am not impressed by macho posing. This is not a value judgment, but an observed fact, borne out by these books and others from the press. Among the poets first published, and revered by the press, is Todd More a, poet whose work I value. I agree with the assessment that he is one of the most under-rated Outlaw Poets of the small press. All this needs saying before we enter the books at hand.
As I was familiar with several of the books of one poet, modestly familiar with another (who we have published) and not familiar with the third poet, I decided to read the book whose back cover poem I liked the best, first. (there are no blurbs. Having been known to write my own blurbs I find the whole process of blurbing generally incestuous and vaguely ridiculous. That said, I write them all the time) Amott won the best back poem contest. He seems to me to be kind of guy most at home, having a few beers after work, shooting the breeze, and hanging out until last call. He is the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind running into and shooting the breeze with on a semi, or, even, regular basis. His author photo shows a mellow, appearing guy, with a long beard, who might be at home playing a guitar with ZZ Top and cranking out tunes like “Well Dressed Man.” His poetry reflects that. Having spent decades living that kind of life, I can say a guy with that temperament, whose work reflects that, is not a bad thing.
The cover of Newell’s, “Fuzz Ball, suggests a CHP warrior on patrol in an urban landscape. Only two poems, by my inexact count, actually reference fuzz ball, one is about cop and the other about female nether regions. Newell is a much ruder, attack dog type of poet here, than Amott. The humor is cruder, streetwise, and superficial, sometimes juvenile, scatological and sexual, as Meat poets can be. I guess you could call it typical bar room banter humor. Talking tough is no substitute for having something to say. Maybe I’m just jaded, but now that I don’t have to hang out in bars to earn a living, I don’t.
Plath is the most accomplished poet of the three. By this I mean, he is stylistically, subjectively, and technically more astute than the others. His work is polished, has depth, and purpose. He has published several large books of consistent work that attest to his prolific output. Of the three, he is also the closest in form and approach to Bukowski, in detailing, referencing and composition. Over the course of a long book, however, this can be a detriment, as the influence is so great, and so obvious, it detracts from Plath the individual poet. Plath is talented enough, accomplished enough, and intelligent enough, to do better work. Free yourselves from your chains and move on! There is more to poetry and life than Charles Bukowski and the sooner everyone knows this the better off we all will be.
David Chorlton, Gilded Snow; the poems of Raissa Parnok, Cholla Needles, www.cholla needles.com, 2019, 22 pages, $5-
Gilded Snow is that rare hybrid text that combines poetry and commentary in a deep textual manner most texts can only aspire to attain. In the tradition of Stanislaus Lem’s, A Perfect Vacuum, and to a lesser extent, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and Roberto Bolano’s, Nazi Literature in the Americas, the editor brings little known poet, Raissa Parnok, to the forefront of forgotten minor poets. Perhaps, using Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, Pale Fire, as a guide, the editor offers us the original text with incisive commentary that compliments the poetic work. In a very real sense, the commentary intertwines with the poems offered and becomes, essentially, at least as expressive and as important as Parnok’s work. Perhaps, and this may be the editor’s subtle intention, the commentary becomes the text.
Parnok was an original, using a random found technique, that few poets can successfully match. Her deft usage of the keys is almost symphonic in depth, though one could argue the smaller format, is best suited to her musical intentions. Evoking disharmonic tonal systems reminiscent of Schoenberg, Parnok offers an exciting tonal feast that never fails to entice and surprise. This is a rare work that editor Chorlton should be congratulated from saving from the rubbish heap now that poet is deceased.
A related sequence of poems, by a follower of Parnok’s, Cleveland, concludes this slender volume, along with original portraits of the poets by the editor (both photographs and original art). Cleveland is a treat, as the confidence of the self-assured artist, who can refer to himself with only the one name, is evident by his thoroughly masculine style. Cleveland attacks the keys with fervency not seen in the more delicate Raissa’s work. All in all, this is a varied, unusual reading experience all lovers of poetic oddments cannot afford to miss.
also from Cholla Needles, ayaz daryl nielsen, a nameless stream, 96 pages, 2019
Nielsen is a master of the short poem. All forms as his poetry blog and long running magazine, both called bear creek review, have shown. One line poems, haiku, Haibun, anything short and to the point: humorous, sad, elegiac, happy, raunchy, contemplative....you name it the magazines offer it and so does this excellent collection.
the world empties my heart
the sounds of silence forgetting,
of a left open mirror,
of an open doorway,
of prowling new things
reaches my ears
the geese flying low
a snowdrift in our garden
all as it must be
someone at this table
someone at this table
seeks a conversation
wants to be heard
it takes awhile
before I realize
(A page of poetry, chosen at random.)
Darren Demaree, Emily As Sometimes the Forest Wants Fire, Harpoon Books, 2019, 128 pages, $16-
Demaree is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most exciting, energetic, original poet’s writing today. His style is energetic, electric, immediate, and 100% pitch perfect. Having read three full length books of his, published in the last two years, and a chapbook based on the life of the pop singer, Sam Cooke, I can only marvel at his output and the consistent urgent tone of everything he writes. His books are political, incisive, sometimes vicious, in their dissembling of vain, hypocritical, autocratic political systems that seem both hyper- real, and as mythical, as the place they evoke, Ohio. Demaree’s Ohio is a dystopian hell hole, chaotic, and lawless, filled with no hope losers and brown shirt police people and soldiers. And now Emily, who is a larger than life figure, the female other, who is both wife, and the platonic form of wife.
How do you describe something that eludes description? Reading Demaree’s book is probably a great place to start, as Emily is both defined and indefinable, sometimes in the same poem. She is everything and nothing. She is pure poetry, as natural and as elemental as a hurricane or a wildfire, as insubstantial and ethereal, as a dream lover, and as warm and hospitable as the most pliable, physical lover anyone ever had. Emily is a wild creature of the imagination who takes you places man was never meant to go. Is allusive, elusive, illusive, yet still the embodiment of all things female. She lives in Ohio. Demaree’s Ohio. You should go there.
Emily as The Length of My Gaze
We all know the distance
between my eyes
& the physical
boundaries of Emily
is the deepest level
of oasis. The truth
of the human heart,
taste of it, that sway
is the real Emily. I see her
all the time. I stare. I have
no idea what created her.
Three from Iniquity Press, Vendetta Books, care of Dave Roskos PO Box 906 Island Heights, NJ 08732-0906 firstname.lastname@example.org
Helmut Christoferus Calabrese, New Creations Collected Poems 1975-2019, 215 pages, 2019 no price listed
Anthony George, astro flower: a trilogy, 118 pages with photos by the author, 2019 no price listed
Jen Dunford Roskos, Begging a Bowl of Birthright Stew, 125 pages, 2019, no price listed with an afterword by Dave Church and original collage illustrations by the poet
A few years ago, a local poet and I, were commissioned by a commercial press, to evaluate a manuscript by an author who insisted on publishing his didactic, Intro to Philo like text, as poetry. The editor was hoping to dissuade the author from his insistent demands. Though it was tough going, I soldiered through the hundred plus pages. and wrote in my evaluation that the author, who had English as a second language, and, while articulate, had no concept whatsoever of what poetry was. Indenting prose does not a poem make. He would not be alone in making this fundamental mistake, but it was so obvious to the two of us. We both suggested a wide range of possible poets to read to get a grasp of the concept of poetry and to abandon his misguided attempts to publish his work in that genre.
While Calabrese has a better understanding of the idea of say, the poetic homily, his work does not advance the cause of poetry. I say this with no great pleasure. He seems to be a fundamentally kind, generous, and sincere individual, who clearly is accomplished in chosen field, music. D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Margaret Atwood, to name some of the rare few who excel at more than one form, he is not. Many have dabbled, but few have succeeded. I offer a one line poem as an example, perhaps unfairly, of the work as a whole;
Find Your Place
Everyone is where they are for different
This does not strike me as a poetic insight, as any kind of insight at all, that hasn’t been previously suggested thousands of times. Sometimes hobbies, like poetry writing, should be kept as a private pleasure.
Anthony George strikes me as a kind of hip-hop Whitman. While Old Walt heard America singing, George hears it grieving. Parts of this work, especially the third section, soar with a lyric intensity that, while disharmonic (in a Whitman vision sense but melodious as a kind of spoken poem rising from the page insisting to be heard) it surges on the page.
The first section is a poetry of location, a punk Emily Dickinson is cited (I’d loved to have met her!) in a Jersey city where everyone is and everything is stifled. She is restrained, restricted by place, going crazy with a need to get out but to where? That is the question while she and everyone else searches for an answer, they are making the club scene, drinking, doing drugs, having frantic sex, but getting nowhere, but dead, or stuck in the same spinning rat cage wheel routine.
George begins the second section, “the animals resurrected the guns reloaded”, with an
evocative, in your face declaration
21 st century people
21 st century people
they cry into their paintings
they try to make
failing & singing
21st century people
It is being able to create
& for sale
As of dried blood
Was worth more
Than blood flowing
Body to Body
Life to life....
These are the times everyone’s mother feared; times of the messiahs, of despair, of the antichrist, trump, and we should work together to make life and art, to make something better out of the muck and the despair of what we are experiencing now.
Some of the style of the third section, particularly in the social critiques, the anti-war stance, reminds me of the seminal, ultimate outsider poet, Paul Weinman, who flourished and published through the 70’s through the 90’s. Weinman’s persona, White Boy, the voice of outrage that he cultivated, is similarly evident in George’s work. His tone and cadence are much different, but the objectives are the same. Ultimately it is the message that moves. George hears America weeping. We all do, and his poetry takes us where he has been.
(An aside George anticipates the uniquely Trumpian 4th of July event as an, inglorious, made for TV reality show. Our world has morphed from the observation by Godard in the 60’s that “we are the children of Marx and Coca Cola” to we are the children of McDonald’s big macs. There is no irony now, only unintentional satire).
My good friend, the late Dave Church, in our frequent correspondence over the course of some ten years or so, always had high praise for this relatively unknown, young poet, Jen Dunford. He insisted this is a poet to keep an eye on. Aptly, his insightful tribute placed at the end of Begging a Bowl of Birthright Stew, shows us just how prescient he was.
I don’t think it would be unfair to subtitle this, often brutal book of self-revelatory work, as Portrait of the Young Poet as Drug Addict. A rebellious youth, from high school on, where she began writing the poems Dave was telling me about, and into her twenties, Jen was doing all the drugs, eking out a barely subsistent existence, and writing when she was able. She claims that she started her literary career in the gutter and that does not seem far from the truth. She says, truthfully, that she was all the way down and out, was...” just a trash picker/ in the united states of garbage”. Like another Church protégé, Stephanie Hiteshew, with whom he collaborated on a book of epistolary prose, Dunford Roskos lays it all on the line. She lets us see all the ugly truth, and these poems don’t make more for easy, pleasant, reading, nor should they. What is moist striking, especially to someone who has struggled with the excesses of substance abuse, is her gradually, maybe even heroically, coming out on the other side of her addiction. Not only has she kicked the habit, but she has worked with autistic children, is in social worker field, as her husband the poet, publisher, and former addict, Dave Roskos.
from ode to urban high school kids
what right do I have to tell them anything?
they see me as white meat
a product of a private school education
who lived in an unbroken home
they don’t know I was a junkie
the poem goes on in the mind of the students ending with :
why plan for the future
when life’s uncertain
why try hard at school
when it has fuck all to do
Dunford-Roskos knows as well as anyone, where the lack of planning ends, how the street music stops playing when the show is over, and there’s nothing left but the side of the road you are nodding in.
Several tribute poems to Dave Church are moving elegies to a poet who knew all the ins and outs, and down and outs ,as well as anyone. May he live on in our hearts and our minds. Thank you, Jen for these poems and all the rest.
Al Ortolani, Hansel & Gretel Gets the Word on the Street, www.Rattle.com/chapbooks 39 pages, 2019, $6-
There are high school English teachers and there are high school English teachers. I was blessed to have two excellent teachers, one of whom, nearer my age than the other, became a friend after I graduated. He encouraged me to read, and even said my first dismal effort at writing a poem, “Wasn’t half-bad.” Which I interpreted as praise. It must have been, as I am still doing it 55 years later.
Ortolani appears to be one of those, the good guys, whose love of literature and teaching is evident in all the poems in this excellent collection which was the 2019 Rattle Chapbook Contest; no mean feat as the book automatically has a seven thousand person audience once the book and the latest issue of Rattle reach their subscribers.
Forgetting Dante in Third Period
I was reading Canto 34 to my senior English class.
Virgil was climbing out of circle nine; Dante
slugged toward Purgatory. The storm
that had been building in charcoal clouds
hit the windows-lightning shimmered, thunder banged.
All seven rows turned to watch.
Spines cracked-terza rima flattened. Twenty-seven
copies of Ciardi translation
hit the wood.
It was a tremendous moment
for forgetting centuries of literature. The rain
streamed in sheets across the glass. One girl
claimed the whole world
was getting scrubbed in a carwash.
Keith Dersley, All the Red Brick Streets, available on Amazon as a paperback for $7.79 or as a kindle download for $3.89
Dersley is a real misfit, a regular working class guy, one of the lads, who spends much of his off time in his local shooting the breeze with like-minded friends. That he writes poetry, makes him: not quite the kind of guy who fits neatly into a peg hole or into a job. But he is not bitter.
He describes an ordinary guy except that he likes to read, loves to read, really, and has a gift for rendering the life of blue-collar people into plain language. He is more Beat/ Bohemian than Meat/Bar poet, in that he can talk literature and football with ease but has no literary pretentions. The guys he hangs with could care less about books and poetry and he knows it. Unlike the rowdy Bukowski, brawling meanness, yeah Bukowski reads and listens to classical music, and he doesn’t care who knows it, but there is an innate crudeness about him that doesn’t wear well in the long run. Let’s face it Bukowski was a flat out mean and nasty which, I guess, remains one of his charms, such as they are. He had an attitude of, “what are you going to do about it” (how he was). Dersley would rather discuss than fight, and he is much better company than Bukowski often appears to have been.
Refreshingly, he has a sense of humor, which is always welcome in the brutal, man’s world of bars and booze. And make no mistake about it, this is a man’s world. Women may come and go but they sure as hell won’t be discussing Michelangelo.
Kelvin was good
on classical guitar
so he locked himself and Maurice
in the kitchen and
they couldn’t come out until
they’d written a 3 minute hit single.
they came out with nothing
because they already knew
it was the same with the novel,
the Great Global Novel
he was always going to write:
he knew too much John
Cheever, Richard Brautigan and Joyce
so he ended up crossing out every line
that he himself managed to set down.
Kelvin was convinced of his own
inevitable failure in life
but had the fortunate gift
of regarding this
as somehow meritorious.
he was also confident
of being One Anointed.
of course, none of the rest of us
could possibly regard ourselves
the way he did,
as the eternal Rock Star In Waiting
Every bar, just about anywhere, has someone like Kelvin, only the field of aspiration changes. If you have a Kindle you should have ordered this book already, if not, the paperback is reasonable as well. Go for it.
Alan Casline, Summergreen, Foothills Publishing, www.foothillsoublishing.com, 125 pages, 2019, $16
There is nothing like a handmade, well-crafted book in your hands, with poetry inside to match the love and care that went into the making of the book that contains the writing. My near name sake, Alan Casline, who, like myself, if we had a dollar for every time we had been confused one of the other, we would die wealthy. Not that we look alike, or write alike but, yes, the names are so similar we are often mistaken for each other. So I have taken to calling myself “the other Alan.”
Which is neither here nor there, when we are discussing the poems in the latest Foothills title. Casline dedicates the first poem to the late Nanao Suakaki, a poet of the earth, the land the sky, all things that have to do with the natural worlds. His poems evoke the reverence for creation that are common in the works of Beats such as his good friends Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger as well as Allen Ginsberg. The dedication is apt, as Casline writes of his local natural, “sacred places” where he often hikes. He is the founder of a publishing enterprise called Rootdrinker dedicated to the written and spoken word often deeply concerned with endangered or preserved areas of natural, wild beauty. Although Rootdrinker has been inactive of late, the founding principles are very much alive in these spare poems. Casline lives in the moment, catalogs the changing of the seasons, the nuances of places as they change throughout a year. Whether he is at the Chrisman Preserve (where he hosts an annual reading named after poet and naturalist Will Chrisman) at the Pine Hollow Arboretum where he hosted a monthly poetry reading, except in winters ,for several years, at Tawasentha, the hilly park with cliffs on the outskirts of Albany, the Show Caves of Central Pennsylvania, or a picnic at Bernadette Mayer’s House, in the wilds of Nassau, N.Y., you know you will be in the hands of a master craftsman, My favorite poem concerns the painting of the signs at the Pine Hollow Arboretum,
Island Pond gets a sign
Japanese Hill, this is the sign I really want to do
pines to dream of meeting bear on a northern island
area signs, consider space
Magnolia Field, think of the language
which places are in the vernacular
actually used (I’m going to make a sign for the Big Compost Pile)
Azalea Field, Silverbell Trail, Glacier Ridge
only supplies left for a few more signs
Western Glad because you see it first
& there is more to the place (and name) then first glance
Fir trail and Metasequoia Field....
I’ve been to all the places referenced, but the caves, and they are well worth the journey, with Alan’s book, or on your own.
Warren Woessner, Exit ~Sky, Holy Cow! Press, www.holycowpress.org, 70 pages, 2019, $16
Woessner is a practitioner of not-a-word-wasted school of poetry. His work is lean and sinew, keenly observant as anyone who is as avid a birder as this poet is. Love of nature pervades every aspect of this book, lulls you into a sensation of peace and calm, overshadowing, for awhile, the darkness that waits within. Once you reach a certain age (he and I are roughly the same age), we know all too well: people, places and things begin to disappear.
End of a Hot Day
At 3 a.m. the dogs
Birds lower their wings,
close their beaks.
The apartment still roars
with the artillery of air conditioners
but the fronts have shifted.
I think of you
frozen on our end,
gentle and distant as tomorrow’s clouds.
(quoted in full)
There are elegies here, as a muted, almost silent cry, for his late friend, the poet David Hilton in “Goodbye Wisconsin.” A deep sense of loss invades the space where the birds are. Even Spring feels like a loss; the renewal temporary, the new growth a false front, for what follows with the seasons, the changing tides of the life cycle. A series of “cancer poems” are brutally honest as they are, fraught, detailing his wife’s fatal, misdiagnosis that led to her death at 39. Woessner makes us feel the injustice of it all.
Two Halloween poems are harrowing, one in each section. The image of death hitchhiking and given a ride, then refusing to get out of the car, is unforgettable. And yet, this book, despite its often-dark subject matter, does not project a feeling of depression. Woessner has lived long enough, understood enough about life, and felt enough of the beauty of the world, to understand that an ending, no matter how sad and unjust, is the way of the cycle of being.
Eric Greinke, Invisible Wings, Presa Press, www.presapress.com, 63 pages, 2019, hardback, $24.95
Greinke is another poet closely in touch with the natural world. His poems reflect his continual close observations of the mutability of our daily existence and linking them, in a broader context, with the life of the poet. We have poems with titles like “Alberta Clipper”, “Fly Fishing in the Rain” “West Wind”, and “Storm Flowers” among others. These are not simplistic descriptive pieces by any means as the poem “Overnight” shows.
A clear winter night
here in my warm den.
The cedars are bent with snow
by the shores of the frozen lake.
I wake to a dying fire.
Drivers on the road
go by but do not see
how moonlight floods the sky.
They just don’t look up.
Tonight the bridges are closed
& travel is dangerous.
I wandered lost for years.
Now here I am,
huddled by a fading ember.
As Greinke has reached that stage in life where reflection is natural and elegiac tone are inevitable. His reflections reveal a life well lived that hopefully as many more poems such as these in it.
Five from the new, energetic, Stubborn Mule Press. Information about the press and books is available from www.stubbornmulepress.com
First up is Kevin Ridgeway, Too Young to Know, 86 pages, 2019 $15-
If I had a vote for best poetry book cover of the year mine would go, without reservation, for the one that graces Kevin’s book. The art is early paperback titillation sleaze. Is of a grim, determined, semi-dressed man, on a rumpled bed, reaching for his gat, while the semi-naked woman next to him, observes. The art promises, adventure, sex, substance abuse, or as they used to say: a gun, a blonde and a love-struck man. What more could you want? If that isn’t exactly what Kevin delivers, it is enough to appreciate the intended irony of the come on.
What Kevin delivers is a deeply personal, often grief stricken, troubled poetry, recounting his often-perilous mental state. A state of mind that has led to several hospitalizations; to the deep pain he feels at the loss of his best friend, his primary support, his much loved, mother, to whom, this book is dedicated. While these poems are all close to the bone, I would hesitate to call them confessional, rather I would say; they tell it like it is in Kevin’s world. The distinction being, if you lived a life on the edge of sanity, are involved with the usual young person’s experimentation with drugs, sex and rock and roll, have made many bad decisions, including a just-out-of-college, marriage, for all the wrong reasons, relationship. Through it all, his father is largely absent, due to his criminal history, which has culminated in a life sentence behind bars. Contrast this with his mother’s unreserved love and compassion. Kevin does.
Ridgeway is devastated by her loss, and these reflect the grief he feels. Many have tried the poetry of loss, but few succeed, and I would argue, few have succeeded as well as Ridgeway has. Yes, there is despair, suicidal despair, mental breakdowns galore, bipolar incidents, but what matters is, that the poet has survived these potentially life ending trials, that he is moving on with his life as well as he can. The picture on the cover may be lurid, but the poetry inside is vital, alive and fresh.
Caitlin Vance, Think of the World as a Mirror Maze, 61 pages, 2019, $15
Vance has a the gift of making unusual connections, both visual and verbal, in a readable way. She knows all the sleight-of-hand verbal tricks that lead you down dark alleys and bring you out of the darkness into an unexpected light. Verbal trickery can be a trap in itself, as endless series of mfa student books have shown. I would assert there is more to poetry than clever word sequences and deep dreaming word assemblages that pass for insight and astute observation. Many have gone there, and few have returned mentally intact.
Vance however is the exception to that MFA rule: she not only has the skills of language, the knowledge of the craft, but she knows how to arrange her creations in actual, stunning, poems. Yes, she is young and accomplished, and has the MFA degree, but she has earned her chops with a poetry than can only be described as “the real thing.” Two contemporary women poets came immediately to mind as I read Vance, Bianca Stone and Patricia Lockwood. She isn’t way way out there as Lockwood can be, or even Stone, to a somewhat lesser extent, but she has a sense of humor, and an ironic tone that can be both serious and surrealistic. Vance is a poet to watch for in the future.
Mike James, First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places,2018, 57 pages, $15-
Having read a few James collections in the past, I was prepared for an entirely different book than the one I got. In general, James has written in a narrative style, about familiar places and people, often of a personal nature. These poems, however, have more in common with a poet like Charles Simic, than that other guy, Mike James. And, in this case, that is a good thing.
All these poems are written as in, what he calls, Americanized ghazals, with the first lines acting as titles. The subject matter is varied and unusual, following its own particular kind of logic. I kept looking for the place to return to where the glass of milk is lit and found all manner of interesting objects and inhabitants inside the houses where the glowing glass of milk resides. James bids us enter.
Noah gathered animals two by two. Desire works the
same way. Not one person, alone. Like our hands, desire
is a coupling.
Both is my favorite. That’s a problem. Give me the cherry
pie along with the apple. Give me the cheerleader and
the pool boy.
My favorite place to go is inside my head. Pleasures and
damnation swim along as old friends. Sometimes, it’s
like ice-skating in hell.
Sartre says hell is other people. My father said hell is
where I’m going. Thankfully, Sartre is not my father.
I live, helpless, among ambiguities.
The only thing I miss is what I leave out. For instance,
there’s no you in these lines. I know....Cue violins.
Maybe brass trumpets. A kazoo.
What James says about going inside your head is what poetry is all about. This particular journey inside a man’s head is an eventful, even exciting, one.
John Macker, The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away: Selected Poems 1983-2018, 2018, 92 pages, $15-
Macker’s poems are thoroughly rooted in the West. He evokes the history, the landscape, the ethos of Western living. Think Dorn, without the mythmaking device of the Gunslinger, think Tony Moffeit’s outlaw blues, think Corso on horseback. Macker is a true misfit, a poet prophet of the badlands, maybe even a Patchen of the countryside. Macker firmly place himself in the outsider ethic, a poetry of one who does not play the academic game, but who displays a wide range of poetic knowledge, of influences, well beyond the ones already mentioned.
As he has been plying his trade for decades, Macker has a large, solid base to choose from, much of which I am sad to say, I am unfamiliar with. This collection goes a long way to rectifying this oversight on my part.
Jared Smith, That’s How It Is, 2019, 92 pages, $15-
I’ve been reading Jared Smith now for forty years or so and he never fails to astonish me with his astute observations and verbal dexterity. The first poem in this new collection took my breath away,
Trapped Inside the Cattle Cars
Trapped inside the cattle cars
one is aware of the gentle warmth of flesh
and the leaning into each other,
the comfort of the rocking cradle.
We have each other for support.
The iron rails seem to last forever.
The associations are many, at once tactile, odiferous, and visual. A simple sounding premise, a six-line descriptive narrative, is full of ominous implications. Two interpretations are immediate: the cattle cars are taking the inhabitants to the camps (first thought), or they are conveying the animals to the slaughterhouse (also likely). Whichever you choose, the outcome is fatal. I can’t think of a better way to introduce a collection than this.
Nothing is quite as simple as it seems in the world that Smith creates for us. His American views can be panoramic, as in the Whitmanesque title poem, or intensely specific. Smith celebrates life, its beauty, and freshness but not without revealing the sordid, and often dirty dichotomies, of a society governed by misguided, hapless politicians.
Earth history is washed away in a melting glacier, centuries old forests burn, renewal becomes a study of decay, instead of rebirth. Still, Smith is always mindful of the long game, knowing full well, we are a blip on the radar of geological time. Nature becomes a kind of muse for him, knowing full well that: there is no virtue in natural beauty, it just is. When the corporations took control of the country, they set in motion a: nothing is sacred, self-defeating, and ultimately, self-destructive process, that leads to a dead earth policy; the kinds of dystopian wasteland so many current books are predicting. There is no going back to right a wrong in nature; gone is gone and no one knows this better than Jared Smith. And then there is the fiction and poetry of dystopia.
At the End
We leave nothing here.
So cold tonight I swear
the windows will shatter
in my house, blue shards
of birds piercing my flesh
and the winds will hollow
as heartbeats on caskets.
Kyle Laws, Ride the Pink Horse, 2019, 72 pages $15-
Reading a Kyle Laws collection is like watching a panoramic, Cinemascope move. Though the title refers to a movie (and a novel of the same name), a black and white B movie, the sense of her poems is of a vast scope as large as the West itself. The first of the two sections riffs on characters, and their conversations, from an obscure (to me, anyway) hundred-year-old short story. The female character lists a number of items that are all part of the ten thousand things she needs to have before she dies. Some are objects, others are simple, like a good dinner, other are more ephemeral, like clouds. Here the cinematic panorama becomes evident. Esther, as she is named, admires the Sangre Cristo sunset, she sees, wishes for, Georgia O’Keeffe clouds. The poems are wistful, yet concrete, universal, yet personal, referential but wholly their own. I had a sense these poems were part of a performance piece. Certainly, they could be, though she never mentions that this is so, as they are as orally precise as they are intensely visual; perfect for speaking aloud.
The second section is more specifically referential to Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of her GOK’s pieces are specifically invoked, though at one point, she discusses how Emily Carr might be a more enduring artist with the late Todd Moore and his wife. What is most important is the influence of the artists on Laws’ vision of the West. These poems are rich, even resplendent, in scope and color. Autobiographical material seems to slide in, almost unnoticed to create another story inside the other, artist inspired one. This is such a richly overlaid piece, that one reading, and a brief appreciation, cannot do the justice it deserves.
If this poem doesn’t make you think of Georgia O’Keeffe, I don’t know what will.
Where the roads are perfectly straight
and fields circular if irrigated by pivot,
but dry streambeds meander across plains
and lakes have the irregular hem of a skirt
made in home economics class required of girls
that three years later became box pleated
in brown wool with tweed matched at seams.
Out of nowhere a canyon appears
that you can descend if the tread on your boots
is good enough, river that carved it called Purgatory.
Backed into the cliff is the outline of a house,
adobe gone back to earth, only the foundation left
and stubby poles that carry electricity from the top.
I cannot imagine what drives someone to these depths.
(quoted in full)
Alexis Rhone Fancher, Junkie Wife, www.moontidepress.com 2018, 36 pages, $12-
The Dead Kid Poems, published by KYSO Flash Press, www.kysoflash.com (available on Amazon as is the previous title) 2019, 50 pages $15-
To say that Alexis Rhone Fancher lays her life out and leaves it all on the page (... to extend a football analogy of leaving it all out on the field). These poems are as intense and as personal as it gets. Junkie Wife is as ugly and as fraught as the title suggests. Ever see the second movie version of “Lolita”? Where Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert is weaving down a two lane, crossing over the double yellow lines, and back into his own lane, narrowly avoiding driving off the highway, casually inviting disaster? That’s the way Alexis’s life was, except, in her case, the accident that seemed inevitable, happened in real time.
And it wasn’t an accident was it? Not really. The movie that could be made of this no- holds-barred, searing account, would be like the one made from Hubert Selby’s, “Requiem for a Dream.” Thankfully, Alexis emerged on the other side of this drug disaster, was not used up the way the character played by Jennifer Connelly in the movie was sure to be. Many years later, Alexis is clean, and able pursue her twin gifts as a poet and a photographer.
Both skills are skillfully employed in her Dead Kid Poems. Another, greater tragedy has befallen her. This tragedy is one that could not have been avoided or prevented: the death of her beloved son, from cancer, at 26. Alexis’ previous collection, The Joshua Elegies, covered the same, sad ground but, as is apparent, she cannot let go. Who could blame her? Smith rages against the cruelty, the helplessness, she felt in the first book, only to discover, years later, the feelings have not diminished but have if anything intensified.
from Accustomed to Dead Kids
(sung to Lerner and Lowe’s “Accustomed to Her Face”)
I’ve grown accustomed to dead kids
they almost make the day begin.
I’ve grown accustomed to the latest
locked-down campus on TV;
the thoughts, the prayers,
the no one really cares
are second nature to em now,
like breathing out and breathing in.
I’ve grown accustomed to the sound
of gunfire zinging through the air,
the kid who shoots his classmates in his
I’ve grown accustomed to their screams,
the ending of their dreams;
accustomed to dead kids.
As this excerpt shows, her grieving is also an act of compassion and empathy. Why do we have to keep asking the same questions? Why do we have to keep saying when are we going to make these shootings end? There is no way to contain such deep, soul changing grief. They make us feel what must be felt, makes us aware of what a shared humanity means. It is sad that we live in a time when, shared humanity, empathy, and compassion, has to be defined.
Robert Cooperman, The Devil Who Raised Me, Lithic Press, www.lithicpress.com, 2019, 104 pages, $17.00
The Devil Who Raised Me, is the fifth volume, in an ongoing series of poems, set in the Wild West in the 1800’s. While it is the fifth book in the series, it is the origin story of John Sprockett, outlaw, murderer and, later, all around scourge, of Colorado. This is not your John Ford Western view of the West, starring a heroic figures such as ones played by John Wayne, but a good kid gone bad, all the way rotten bad, in ways that suggest the mean boys of a Cormac McCarthy western based novels. Cooperman takes a panoramic view, introducing a host of characters, that have real lives and aspirations, well beyond the standard western movie sidekicks, those black and white good guys and bad guys. If Sherwood Anderson had roamed the plains states from Missouri to Colorado, instead of rooting himself to Winesburg, Ohio, he might have produced books such as the one Cooperman has. They are always highly readable, even novelistic books. Each one feels self-contained, plot driven, and have all the color and background of exceptional fiction. It is worth noting, the first book in this series, The Colorado Gold Rush won the Colorado Book Award for Poetry when it was first published. Three unpublished poems from the Sprockett series are included in the poetry section of this issue. If you haven’t been reading these books, what are you waiting for?
T.K. Splake, red line fevers,18 pages, 2019 no price listed contact the author at TK Splake 25214 ash street, calumet mi, 49913. Get a complete list of his titles.
The red line Splake refers to is, in his words from the preface, “the maximum speed an engine will operate at.... a wide variety of artists perceive ‘redline’ as the limit or boundary of their creative pursuits.” He goes on to suggest this can lead to madness and suicide, but also to the new territories of the creative process. As an aging bard, Splake continually confronts the very real threat of the end of the line. His themes are the big ones, life, sex and death, perhaps aided by a .357 solution, when life is no longer viable/when faced with a terminal verdict. This is not so much a suicidal thought but a logical end of days in a state when there is no right to die mandate.
Splake continues to mine the short form poem to articulate his poetic observations:
facing blank page
turning love into ink
disappearing into darkness
journey to find myself
wild beautiful escape
Michele Battiste, Waiting for the Wreck to Burn, Trio House Press, www.triohousepress.org, winner of their annual Louise Bogan Award, 2019, 81 pages, $16
Every Michele Battiste book is an occasion. Waiting for the Wreck to Burn, was years in the making. I recall seeing some of these poems, from the first sections, five or six years ago. They are brutal and beautiful, difficult and rewarding, essential and unforgettable. A main theme, in the early work, involved the extreme difficulty of confronting the reality of a murder, in this case, of her mother in law. Michele is all over the page, quite literally, with swerving lines, spirals, and gyres, as we slip down the rabbit holes of perception and emotion with her. Ultimately, there is no way a violent death can truly be resolved. Her poetry shows, the process is made more complex as her marriage is in crisis, has reached a terminal velocity point, and must end soon.
Consequently, her poems are filled with decay, abrupt endings, blind corridors, that lead to locked doors. The dissolution of the marriage is less abrupt that the murder but feels as painful because she has invested so much of herself in it. And there is a child. As a child of a divorce, I can fully well appreciate her apprehension of what the meaning of the permanent separation for her child will be.
While the central themes revolve around grief and loss, there is a bitter, acerbic humor to the later poems. There is a new relationship, but she feels an acute sense of loss/sadness, knowing that it will never make sense to be a mother again. As the heading for the final section, Transitional, indicates, the poet feels she is in the next stage of her life. While she is young, younger than my own children, she is reaching an age where having children will no longer be an option. The transition is both physical and mental, and it is poignantly described.
AMERICAN PROVERB” What a
Woman Doesn’t Know, She Imagines.
The fall from the balcony, not so
bad. What survives on a regular
basis: sticks, shoes, plastic cups,
anything metal. Anything sharp
stays sharp, though it may bend.
Most objects are worth retrieving.
Some appear valuable from great
or even mediocre heights. One
night she stands on a chair. One
night she leans over the railing.
One thing she knows though no
one told her. What we’ve lost is also
what we desire.
Cathy Porter, 16 Days, Dancing Girl Press & Studio, www.dancinggirlpress.com , 2019, 21 pages no price listed,
The 16 Days referred to in the title are a reference to the poet’s cancer treatment.
16 Days Plus Change
“The gold standard of radiation
for early stages”-my first oncology
appointment, questions met with
perfunctory answers, and, “you’re so
lucky we caught it early”-
which makes me smile the smile of an assassin-
one ready to blow due to an overflow
of good cancer luck.
The appointment ends in low gear-
as will most that follow the 16 days (plus change)
of gold standard treatment, soon to be
months that follow me around
like an old dog on the cusp of dementia,
sniffing their owner to make sure it’s safe.
Of course, there is no such thing as “good cancer news”. Cathy becomes a disease, and a treatment, rather than a human being. The treatment leaves her exhausted and depressed. And who wouldn’t be? She still has to work, and it is implied, that she is not the only one with cancer in her marriage. She copes the best she can, goes to work, endures the hours there, knowing another treatment is coming. Her exhaustion is cumulative, worsening with each treatment, and, that, yes, it could be worse.
We all know people for whom it was worse. And for the “lucky ones”, we have these poems, with not a word wasted, not a self-pitying remark anywhere, she remains hopeful; that there is a life after diagnosis. It may not be pleasant life, there are more dark days than bright ones, but when we read these, and read them again, we know that she means it when she says,” we must never give up”. Her dedication, at the close of this small, but devastating, and beautiful at the same time, collection, sums her attitude up: “To my fellow warriors of the Big C: we are all pretty in pink. Rock on. Fight on. One breath at a time.”
Stephanie E. Dickinson, Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself, Alien Buddha Press, email@example.com, 2019, 94 pages no price listed. Titles from the press are all are available on Amazon
The vignettes, as this is a book told in sparse prose, proceeding as a novel told in stories would, are billed as fictions, but read to me, like exquisite prose poems. They may be more detailed than most poems, may have more elements of pure prose than your typical prose poem (whatever they are as no one knows, nor can anyone define, exactly what prose poetry is) but they work as both. Much as she had done in her previous book, The Emily Fables, Dickinson uses family lore to create a convincing, and affecting, portrait of woman who would otherwise have been forgotten. The author did not know this physically odd, considered freakish, because of a birth anomaly (the proportionally oversized head of the title) as she had her aunt Emily. She only learned of this “secret” in the family closet as her mother neared death. Given scant material to work with, Dickinson creates a person who suffered much, was shunned, and reviled because of her deformity, and suffers more once she is cast out to fend for herself.
Her life’s journey, and it is, literally, a journey, is filled with depravation, abuse, and poverty, but is not a life devoid of complex feelings and impressions. The author’s empathy for the outcast is everywhere in evidence in a compelling portrait of one of life’s true misfits. Like Diane Arbus who said, “freaks know things we don’t.” Dickinson knows this. She understands. Arbus suggested we listen to what they have to say. Stephanie does so in a he richly imagined portrait.
As she had done in her book, In Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, Dickinson shows she is capable of sensitive understanding of troubled women with more past than a future.
Blurbs for two must read books!
Edward A Dougherty 10048 Finishing Line Press, PO Box 1626 Georgetown, KY 40324, 2019, full length book 19.99 firstname.lastname@example.org.
What John Hershey did with Hiroshima, Edward A. Dougherty has done for 9-11. 10048 is an elegy for the World Trade Center, the best kind of poetic history: one which is unvarnished, accurate, compassionate, and poignant. The poet says that no one had a metaphor for the attack on, and collapse of, the towers. “It sounded just like what it was.” Dougherty repeatedly asked, “What changed after 9-11?” The answer is, everything changed. All of us old enough to remember that day have stories to tell: Who we knew? What we saw. Where we were. 10048 is the story of a day that began when the zip code, the book’s title, represented a place, and by the end of that day, was no more. This is the book not only of our times but for all ages.
Rebecca Schumejda, Something Like Forgiveness, Stubborn Mule Press, stubbornmuleprerss.com, 2019 119 pages, $15-
How do you forgive the unforgivable? This is the question Rebecca Schumejda wrestles with, on a grand scale, in this emotionally taut, tightly structured, intensely personal poem. Using a slow reveal, the poet dispenses morsels of information, with regard to the nature of the crime, and her struggles with coping with her love for her brother who committed it and, finally, the heinous nature of what he did, until we learn, as well, what happened. She asks, among the many effective
refrains, “What if you had died that night?” Somehow life could have been easier if he had. Maybe. I know how she feels. I’ve been there: different relative, similar crime. Something Like Forgiveness is not simply a must read, it is an experience.
Late Arrivals, acknowledged, read, but not reviewed
Pam Davenport, A Midwest Girl Thanks Patti Smith, Slipstream Press, www.slipstreampress.org., 2019 32 pages $10- winner of their annual chapbook competition for 2019
Lisa M. Dougherty& Sean Thomas Dougherty, The Answer Is Not Here, Nightballet Press, www.nightballetpress.com 2019, 24 pages $5-
Jessica de Koninck, Cutting Room, 2016, 83 pages, Terrapin Books, www.terrapinbooks.com. $16-
David Graham, The Honey of Earth, Terrapin Books, 2019, 81 pages, $16-
Lee Ann Roripaugh, Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50, 2019, 2019, 89 pages Milkweed Editions, www.milkweed.org.
Received and Not Read but nearing the top of the pile: two translation from the Hungarian by Paul Sohar of Zoltan Boszormenyi. The Conscience of Trees, Ragged Sky Press, 270 Griggs Drive, Princeton, N.J. 08540, www.raggedsky.com. 2018, 125 pages
Gygry Faludy, Silver Pirouettes, Ragged Sky Press, 2017, 156 pages
Miyo Vestrini (translated by Anna Boyer & Cassandra Gillig),Grenade in Mouth, www.kenningeditions.com, 2019, 106 pages $14.95 distributed by Small Press Distributions (support those guys!)
Suzanne S Rancourt, Murmurs at the Gate, Unsolicited Press, www.unsolicitedpress.com
200 pages, 2019, $19.99 + s/h
Small Press Print Independent Magazines Highly Recommended
Clutch, Street Corner Press, 10781 Birchwood Drive, Sister Bay, WI, 54234 $20 2019 edition
The latest anthology sized magazine is 253 pages jam packed with poetry, short prose, and rare photos of small press legends such as Bukowski (several candid and I do mean Candid as you will see ), John Bennett, Al Masarik, TK Splake and art by Gene McCormick among others. The cover photo is of the late Doctor John in full regalaia and sets the tone for an exciting reading. There are poems by Bennett, Markowski, Splake, that Catlin guy, Lew Welch, Huffstickler, Dave Etter, Ed Mycue, Dan Barth among many others. If you are only going to buy one or two small press titles a year this is a great one you won’t want to miss.
Slipstream, PO Box 2071, Niagara Falls, NY 14301 www.slipstreampress.org, The issue in hand is the #39 representing a heroic effort of longevity and dedication by the three founding editors: Dan Sicoli, Bob Borgatti and Livio Farallo. Generally, each issue has a theme as this one does: Boneyards, Junkyards, Backyards. They also sponsor an annual chapbook contest. The winner is included in the subscription price.
Chiron Review,522 E. South Ave, St John, KS67576-2212, www.chironreview.com., Four times a year this journal produces anthology sized magazine. The editor has been around the small presses for over thirty years beginning with a newspaper style, slim journal of poetry, short fiction, and reviews called Kindred Spirit. Gradually, this publication has transformed itself into a vanguard of the independent. 49 dollars gets you four issues a year and it is worth every penny.
Blue Collar Review, PO Box 11417, Norfolk, VA 23517 This is the essential poetry journal of the working man. If you are a union man, if you have worked in the trenches at any wage paying job, if you detest the corporate state, subscribe to this magazine now!
Abbey, David Greisman, 5360 Fallriver Row Curt, Columbia, MD, 21044 To know Abbey is to love her. How can you hate a magazine that features artwork by Wayne Hogan (and his quirky poems)? And has done so since 1970. There is nothing fancy about Abbey, just good poetry, witty commentary by the editor and a consistent tone without a single rant, ever.
Stoneboat Literary Journal, PO Box 1254, Sheboygan WI, 53082-1254 www.stoneboatwi.com.
I have the 2018 edition with one of my poems in it. Full sized, glossy, independent. Dozens of poems, Visuals, Fiction, Nonfiction and an interview with Wisconsin State Poet, Margaret “Peggy” Rozga
Lummox Number 8, PO Box 5301 San Pedro CA 90733-5301 www.lummoxpress.com 2019, 217 pages. $25. Hundreds of contributors: poems, articles, flash fiction, reviews, photos. A must for every small press reader.