Book Review: Evergreen by Sarah Frances Moran

reviewed by Clara B. Jones

evergreen

Evergreen
Sarah Frances Moran
Weasel Press, 2016

Once, a decade or so ago, I was complaining about a boyfriend to a Hindu friend who replied, “Clara, everybody has a story.” Of course, I learned from that experience not to take myself too seriously; however, reading Sarah Frances Moran’s chapbook, Evergreen, convinces me that some stories are more urgent than others. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), An American is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes and a child is victimized every 8 minutes. Feminists and their activist counterparts are keenly aware of the socially-, politically-, and economically-sanctioned differentials between men and women pertaining to power and agency. Though the inequalities of Patriarchy and inequality are inherent to American society, it was not until my late thirties that I consciously realized that many men were not benign figures and that, except for their self-imposed or legally-imposed restraint, most men are capable of dominating me physically. As a result of this insight, I assess any man’s control over his aggressive potential.

Sarah Frances Moran, Founder and Editor of the highly-regarded poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review, has experienced parental narcissism in the extreme. Confronted with a stepfather who is, at once, flawed and impotent, Sarah describes a complex relationship with a man who psychologists might describe as a person lacking empathy or the capacity for “Theory of Mind,” a person unable to view a situation from another person’s perspective. Raised Catholic, Sarah’s relationship with “Bebo” (or, “Dad”) is sufficient to seriously challenge her faith (“ What 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Says”—“They say this god will destroy him who destroys/ god’s temple./ They say this,/ but I don’t believe it.”); yet, despite her trauma, she is resilient enough (like an “evergreen”) to recognize her predicament as a complicated one (“The Child Is Gone”—“I wondered if there was something inside me you needed”) and to understand that her victimizer may be unable to appreciate Beauty (“The Child Is Gone”—“When you hear that songbird/ does it still rip you apart?”). Though some might say that Sarah is too forgiving of the man who sexually abused her, she refuses to allow the perpetrator’s moral and spiritual emptiness to define her own Truth. Furthermore, Sarah is on a path to discovery of wholeness that she invites us to accompany her on.

Evergreen is a beautifully-produced book with a haunting cover photo depicting a pine forest darkened by foreboding weather. The reader is aware from the outset that this is going to be a rough ride of expiation and “working through,” reminding me of other women artists who have used their practice in an attempt to come to terms with pain…psychic and/or physical. The visual artist, Käethe Kollwitz, comes first to mind for her many attempts to purge the distress of losing a beloved grandson in World War II. Indeed, the poet and critic, Harry Burke, reminds us that poets are like visual artists using the blank page upon which to record creative expressions, and Moran, like, Kollwitz, uses her talents to communicate strong feelings as well as their causes, effects, and (partial) resolutions (“Caution: Go Slow”—“I want my own cage/ and my own understanding”). Sarah’s narrative poems reside in the tradition of other “confessional” poets (e.g., Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds) for their deliberate attempts to draw the reader into the writer’s personal experience.

The organization of the book is effective, moving in sequence through the poet’s own stages of grief, in particular, feelings of betrayal, sadness, and anger (“This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid A Finger On Me”—“These are the cages I keep where I harbor/ all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.”). These sentiments are reinforced by the use of sarcasm, a defense mechanism protecting a wounded ego (“Every I Love You Lied Through Your Teeth”—“You’ll die thinking of me.”). Eventually, Sarah is forced to admit that the perpetrator is human (“The Child Is Gone”—“…pour into my inner sides and find/ what is it you lacked in yourself.”). The victim is not relieving the victimizer of responsibility but realizing that human beings can be, at the same time, evil and worthy of pity. In another stage, perhaps, still driven by anger, the poet stereotypes “Bebo” as in the poem, “Bebo The Broken”—“Very tall with tattoos on his arms/ and a busty Latina on his chest.” However, the reader would do a disservice to Moran by appropriating the description of the perpetrator. The characterization of “Bebo” and his failures, as well as his misdeeds, belongs to Moran, herself, and her stepfather’s characteristics are no laughing matter. The poet’s stereotyped description of her abuser is not an attempt to distance him but an attempt to highlight that he is a man as well as a buffoon.

Ultimately, aided by therapy and a loving partner, Sarah has been able to define and inhabit her own turf. She presents herself as wounded but healthier, wiser and grateful (“Salvation”—“A display/ of scars/ and wicked smiles/ whispered words/ and shouts that shatter fears.”). These beautiful and memorable poems reveal the poet’s journey toward enlightenment, which none of us completes, and they exhibit strong music and interpretive power, recording one woman’s path to a healthy relationship with herself and others. There is something in this chapbook for everyone, hetero-normative, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming (“An evening with Zoloft”—“It’s cotton candy kicked across the living room/ because I wanted chocolate.”). Reading these poems gave me insight about how to address my own experience with familial sexual abuse and, most important, reminded me of the importance of healthy self-care (see, for example, the poem, “If I Were Jane Gallagher”). Evergreen deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates the poetry of personal experience and should be recognized as an important poetic contribution to gender studies.


C Jones smallClara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, she writes about identity and power. Ofi Literary Magazine, WNC-Woman, Transnational, Bluestem, The Review Review, Mount Island, and 34th Parallel are among the venues her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in, and her collection, Ferguson And Other Satirical Poems About Race, won the 2015 Bitchin’ Kitsch Chapbook Competition. In the 1970s, Clara studied with Adrienne Rich and has studied recently with the poets Meghan Sterling and Eric Steineger.

Book Review: Becoming the Sound of Bees by Marc Vincenz

Reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski
becoming-the-sound-of-bees-mark-vincenz
Becoming the Sound of Bees
Ampersand Books
June, 2015

I read this collection of poems in fits and starts, mostly while I rode the subway to and from my class. I took in every word, however, and I appreciated Vincenz’s large, clear-eyed, often profound vision of the world.

One of the poems, “Amelia’s Orange Grove,” kept bringing me back. This poem is not typical of the book, in that it is about a romance, or a romance almost gone wrong. It is about a relationship between a man named Juan and a woman named Amelia. There is love between them, but there is also distrust, and probably infidelity. The poem begins:

Juan doesn’t dare ask, but knows Amelia has others—
in dark cities, in the dust of autumn, pictures her
winding down dwindling alleys where windows
slam shut at noon; sometimes he smells them
emerging from Amelia’s pores at night
when she sleeps and he turns, watching streetlight
flickering forgiving forgetting

The character Juan is suspicious of Amelia; he imagines her in alleys “in dark cities” (cities without light, or cities of dark people?) and he can smell other presumed partners emanating from her skin. And yet, there is a sense that this couple will stay together, because there is an element of “forgiving” and “forgetting.” There is also the suggestion that Amelia’s wanderings are only in Juan’s mind, because he doesn’t have the nerve to ask her about them, and thus he has no confirmation.

In the middle of the poem, Juan looks up at the sky and tries to identify constellations (he tries “to remember Sagittarius from Capricorn, searching for the virgin and the sky’s dangling umbilical cord”). It is not just an astronomical exercise, because he seeks the stars that symbolize purity and birth—qualities prized by many, in a wife. In this way the poet connects the universe with our own experience of life—something he does repeatedly and well throughout the book.

At the end of this poem, Amelia seems to promise a life for herself and her partner, in a house next to an orange grove, and Juan tastes the fruit of that grove as he eats an orange with the “skin, flesh, pips” and “swallows it all.” It is as if he is consuming the sweetness, bitterness—and seediness—of a relationship all at once.

In a later poem, “Fossil,” the personal world meets the natural world again as the speaker (presumably the poet) walks along a beach with a man named Ivan (presumably a friend). The poem begins:

He comes alive again & calls them
ancient crabs & I don’t correct him

though I know they’re trilobites,
he reaches down and feels their smooth

ossified shells, running his finger
along their ridges & appendages,

their sharp protrusions, moves his
thumb across their compound eyes.

I tell him, like us they could see
in stereo, complex eyes that caught

light into far distances, the first
complex eyes on our planet

Here, the poet makes a connection between the present and the distance past—hundreds of millions of years ago. He points to a similarity between our eyes and “their” eyes, suggesting that just as we see across eons, these ancient creatures could see “light into far distances.” And in the part of the poem not quoted here, there is another hint of romance as Ivan “looks sad again like when he thinks of Tatjana and the creatures vanish.” It is as if a loved one is going the way of extinction, as the trilobites did.

Becoming the Sound of Bees is filled with references to the natural, the ageless and the elemental. The cover art shows beekeepers, both male and female, dancing next to movable comb hives in an apiary, smoke jars in hand. Perhaps the message is that if we listen hard enough, that droning, buzzing sound will draw us back into something more primal, more durable, than what we experience every day.


 

CREDIT: Tony Cenicola
CREDIT: Tony Cenicola

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

Author Interview: Christopher Grillo

Six Fold

Recently, Zoetic Press was pleased to premier Christopher E. Grillo’s newest poetry collection, The Six- Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow. Christopher is an education professional and recent graduate of Southern Connecticut State University’s MFA program, his poetry having been featured in Extracts, Up the River, Young Raven’s Literary Review, Drunk Monkeys, Noctua Review, Lunch Ticket Press, Referential, The Elm City Review, and more. Christopher is Noctua Review’s Connecticut State University’s Poetry Prize Winner and the Elm City Review’s editor’s choice award winner. He moonlights as a high school football coach at his alma mater, North Haven.

Christopher spoke to Kolleen Carney about The Six-Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow, his writing process, sports themed poetry, and what’s important to have an adult.

KC: The Six-Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow is a narrative collection; did you draw any of these poems from your own life? Is there any aspect of confessional writing in these poems?

CG: Absolutely. I don’t believe a poet can effectively convey a message through subject matter he or she knows nothing about. I was a small town kid and an athlete. Many of the poems are some of the most distinct memories I have of my adolescence. That is not to say that they aren’t embellished and altered in a lot of ways, and certainly there are “moments” implanted for continuity’s sake. Those moments, the ones that are more fabricated, in my opinion, are the weaker poems in the collection.

KC: In these poems the speaker is almost haunted by memories of his youth. I think this is a theme most of us struggle with; the wish to still be young, the wish of having done more (or differently), the reality of being older with our glory days behind us. Any thoughts on this aspect of your book?

CG: Yeah. I think for me it is less of a reflection for remembrance’s sake and more of a comment on growing up and losing some of the “innocence” (though I wouldn’t describe any of the characters as innocent) of those adolescent years.

When I frame it that way it sounds depressing. But I would like to think the book actually has a hopeful ring to it. That Frankie’s dreams, and the speaker’s dreams for Frankie, and his idealism, kind of crumble is totally gut wrenching. But the characters persist and learn to lean on each other more than ever.

That’s what it’s all about when the smoke clears. In adulthood, they have loyalty and friendship, and while it seems a small victory, it is much more meaningful than the fantasies of their youth.

KC: The poems are a beautiful blend of athleticism and masculinity paired with introspection. I will admit I have not read a lot of sports- themed poetry. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? Were you afraid of it not being well received?

CG: Thank you! I’ve been asked this many times in one form or another, and I think for a while I was defensive to what I felt the implication was, the old meathead trope. I recognize now that I am one of a very small sample size living in the overlap on the sports/literature Venn diagram, and so I am more understanding of the questions raised by the phenomenon. To answer directly: no it was not difficult, because I am myself an introspective AND physical person. For me, as a football player, the game helped me to become more introspective. I was an overachieving athlete, a wannabe hanging on at a level of play far above my physical capacity. By their very nature, athletics test a person’s physicality, but the mind and the body are so interconnected and so you are constantly examining your strengths and self-inflations versus your weaknesses and self-doubts. If you are not honest about whom you really are you will be exposed. What’s worse, you will let people down. I think that is true of life as well.

KC: I understand this book connects with another work by you. Could you tell us about that? What made you focus on this particular narrative?

CG: Sure. So this collection is one half of what was my MFA thesis and is now a full-length collection called Heroes’ Tunnel (Anaphora Literary Press.) The poems in the full length alternate in focus from the speaker’s relationship with Frankie to the speaker’s relationship with his love interest, Charlene. During my thesis defense a reader praised the work for its braided narratives. I tried my best to look as though that was the intention, but it really wasn’t. I left the defense and blew up the order of the poems so that there was a Frankie section and a Charlene section, and it became clear that I really had three books. The Charlene section was published early last year under the title When Rain Fills the Chasm, by Finishing Line Press.

KC: What is your writing process like? I am always fascinated with how writers, you know, write.

CG: For me it usually starts with a phrase or a piece of description that the world around me offers up. From there, the poem starts to take shape and I get a basic idea of what I would like the reader to take away. The revision process is when I tighten the language and the extended metaphor so that my intent is clear. This is the most natural way to write, I think. I have written with a collection concept in mind, as with Heroes’ Tunnel, and it is a really tough process. I think this is why you see a lot of poetry collections out there that are loosely held together by abstraction. I don’t think this devalues the writing in any way. A good poem is a good poem, but I personally feel like I am wasting my time if I am not writing towards a clear narrative collection. That’s just me. I must have been a novelist in my past life. In my current incarnation though, my ADD is too aggressive for prose.

KC: Tell us about the title, which is beautiful. Amidst all the sports imagery, this snow is a gorgeous stand- out.

CG: I really struggle with titling. In the early drafts the majority of the poems had titles like “Driving with Frankie, Winter.” A lot of the feedback I received was focused there, so I went on a titling binge. Towards the end I was really losing steam. The poem the collection is named for features Frankie and the speaker driving home from the bar in a snow storm. I Googled “snow”, “snowflakes”, etc. One of the first things that popped up was that phrase, six-fold radial symmetry. I don’t know how it contributes to the collection, but I’m sure if you brought it to an AP lang class somebody could figure out the connection. If I’m being honest, I just think it sounds awesome.

KC: What do you do when you are not writing?

CG: I am a middle school teacher in New Haven, so that is usually the thing that pulls me away from writing (in the most positive way possible). I love my students and the work I do on the achievement gap. They are my heroes. At this point in my life, being a teacher is so much more central to my identity than being a writer.

I am also an assistant high school football coach at my alma mater, which is so much fun. I like to work out though I’m not super outdoorsy. I’m more of a gym/free weights guy. I’ve recently started golfing a bit. I play with my old man who is retired and plays like twice a week. It’s one of those full circle experiences. He’s helping me with the mechanics through the guise of trash talk. It’s like little league baseball all over again. I love it.

* * *

The Six- Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow is available through the Zoetic Press website.

Kolleen Carney is a poet and Associate Editor for Zoetic Press. 

Book Review: The Perception of Meaning by Hisham Bustani

reviewed by Safia Moore

perception

The Perception of Meaning
Hisham Bustani
Syracuse University Press, 2015

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
– George Orwell

Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani labels the epigraphs for his bi-lingual publication, The Perception of Meaning, as “entrypoints,” and the quotes from Al-Hallaj and Tagore contain two words that define this challenging collection of prose poems: see and vision. But the doorkeeper of these often brutal, occasionally terrifying pieces (the publisher classifies them as short stories) does not welcome so much as grab the reader, forcing him/her to witness the colossal mess mankind has produced. Nightmarish imagery is rife although not all twelve pieces are surreal, and whilst Bustani often refers to particular places, people, and incidents in the Middle East, his outlook is unflinchingly global.

Recurring tropes such as evaporation, disappearance, people and objects dissolving like mirages, are in keeping with the book’s title: meaning itself can only be perceived, and as Descartes observed, perception has its limits. Most pieces do not so much warn in the prophetic sense, as blame: humankind is hastening its own demise and hope is invariably absent. In “The Book of Meaning,” man is portrayed as an actor with no shadow, on a stage with no audience: “It’s pointless,” he thought to himself, deciding to step down. Three poets “hurling poems at the opposite wall” demonstrate Art is no solution: “the poets have died, taking with them the similes and metaphors.” The intellectuals, the couple posting selfies online, the rich man, the beggar, all are alone, the world a mere backdrop to their pointlessness which is magnified by technology.

Comparisons with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are inevitable, but Bustani’s work is born of the online generation, portrayed here as victims rather than masters of technology. Humour creeps into an otherwise pessimistic (some might say depressing) volume of work via Bustani’s take on social media and the effects of computer technology. In “Laila and the Wolf” (the Arabic version of Little Red Riding Hood) the legend is subverted with the grandmother sexually abusing the wolf and the voyeuristic hunter posting a video on Youtube. The killer line is, “a child threw his story book in the trash, and walked out of the library into the street.” I was reminded of W. B. Yeats’s “All changed, changed utterly.” Similarly, “A Game of the Senses” with its reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, suggests that technology and man’s devotion to it, have forced the five senses to “commit mass suicide,” the imagination destroyed, the mind “penned in by tall fences made of wires and high-speed microprocessors.”

I felt the most successful of these anti-tech pieces was “This Deluge of Emotion is Going to Make Me Vomit,” perhaps because I sensed a more honest poetic voice at play as opposed to the one in weightier poems requiring multiple footnotes. A series of confused questions, simply put, reveal the insincerity of online versus real relationships – the edges are blurred, do we know what is real and what is fake anymore? Human interaction, love, “has become a passing line that quickly disappears behind the top frame of the chat screen” and meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire, saying, “I have to defile you.” Technology caters to man’s base desires and clouds his ability to discern what is valuable and what is mere trivia.

The first piece, “Apocalypse Now,” directly references the Coppola film and sets the scene for the whole collection with effective images spawned by modern warfare and commercial greed. The focus here is on victims: human, animal and vegetable. While Nature cries, man responds with, “I will bottle your sorrow and sell it” and feeds more dead trees into photocopying machines. Environmental concerns are more specifically addressed in “Requiem for the Aral Sea” which also rues the catastrophic results of man playing god. But is there any hope in Bustani’s perception of the modern world? The title of the final piece in the book, “Salvation,” is apparently ironic with its reference to Jesus’s last words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The most arresting image in “Salvation” is the “small blue bead” (Earth) that “knows it roams in a wide, wide, wide space without purpose, without much consequence.” Optimism is an illness, cured by current affairs: “He swallowed the news broadcast twice a day, and wrapped himself up in newspaper before going to sleep.” “Salvation” ends by addressing the reader in the second person, describing post-apocalyptic man’s suffering as “endless,” a repeated word which fades away. It is a powerful, melancholic signing-off.

The translator of The Perception of Meaning, Thoraya El-Rayyes, has produced a work which comfortably embraces the English idiom and never sounds like a cover version of the original. This is fitting for a book with international influences and universal vision. Clearly, Bustani is not mired by roots or attachment to the Middle East; his world is your world too. The often surreal imagery can be shocking but the more realistic pieces stayed with me longer, perhaps because they felt more emotionally true. For example, “History Will Not Be Made On This Couch” depicts a man torn between holding on to his perception of normality (symbolised by his television remote control) or risking his life to join the Egyptian uprising in 2011. In this piece, the context is clear and the message unadulterated by metaphor or esoteric references.

Bustani tackles the “big issues” of modern life with imagination and originality. He is duly recognised as an important voice in Arab literature and his work is starting to appear on academic reading lists. However, to reach the general reader, perhaps Richard Price’s advice, “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write,” is salient. There is evidence here that Bustani does this very well, but personally, I would have liked more of it. Having spent some time with this collection however, I am sure Bustani will find a niche readership that appreciates the magnitude of what he sets out to achieve in The Perception of Meaning. It will be interesting to see what he produces next.

 


 

Safia_Moore-Safia_Moore_BnW_PhotoSafia Moore is a writer and editor from Northern Ireland with a PhD in Irish poetry in English. Safia has published fiction, reviews, interviews, and criticism in various journals including The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, Severine, and The Honest Ulsterman. She is the 2015 winner of the Bath Short Story Award.

Book Review: Slouching Towards Entropy by Lisa Mangini

reviewed by Allie Marini

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Slouching Towards Entropy
Lisa Mangini
Finishing Line Press, 2014

Lisa Mangini’s poetic voice is absolutely one-of-a-kind—my first introduction to Mangini’s work was while working at Lunch Ticket (No One Ever Told Me, poetry, finalist for 2013 Best of the Net award) and then later, Mojave River Review (Undressing, Childhood Logic, Phone Call to a Long Distance Lover, Annotated with Kierkegaard’s Diary, flash fiction) .

Mangini is one of those rare birds who works cross-genre and is equally adept in both: her poetry and prose are masterful, powerful, and command the attention of the reader in a way that’s seductive and cerebral. Slouching Towards Entropy, Mangini’s 3rd poetry collection, is immediately recognizable as her distinctive voice, but the subject matter of this collection (to this reader) steers her work into new territory. While the body of Mangini’s work is defined by a raw vulnerability and an intimate, confessional quality expressed in unconventional, memorable imagery, Slouching Towards Entropy takes these qualities even deeper, mining childhood experiences and memories for adult revelations. The main theme explored in these poems in not necessarily the experiences themselves, but the speaker’s having survived these things and how they have come out on the other side, changed.

The tone of this collection is planted as a seed in the first poem, “A Bird in the Hand,” where Mangini writes, “I was ten; I did not know/ names of birds or even painters—I couldn’t spot/ the angle of her neck and call it “Picasso-esque”/as I might now.” The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and adult comprehension is planted as a seed in the reader’s mind with this opening piece, a seed which grows, extending and unfurling from an idea to a unifying theme as each poem builds upon the one preceding it. The crescendo of this collection, is, to me, “Bird Watching at the End of the World (ii)”—the title of the collection, Slouching Towards Entropy, is taken from the last line of this poem, with a sly backwards nod to Yeats’s “Second Coming”, as well as Joan Didion: here, rough beasts can be birds, young girls, women in clubs, or the violence we experience and survive in nature or childhood, the effects of which only surface as understanding, years later. The final pieces in this collection, “The Last Meal” and “Boundary”, serve as a coda: a winding down, the calm following an emotional storm. The final poem, “Boundary,” re-zones the experiences, memories, and connections explored throughout the poetic arc and asks the reader to consider, “How far away is air before it is considered sky?”

Want another take on this collection? Read NonBinary Review contributor Angele Ellis’s review of Slouching Towards Entropy, Weave Magazine.


 

alliebattsAllie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

Book Review: Refractions by Stephen Behrendt

reviewed by James Rovira

Refractions-Cover_web-200x300

Refractions
Stephen Behrendt
Shechem Press, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire presents a 999 line poem titled “Pale Fire,” written by the fictional poet John Shade, alongside annotations and commentary by a fictional scholar, Charles Kinbote. One of the more amusing features of this novel is the comparison readers make, intentionally or not, between some of the charming, everyday content of the poem and its scholarly interventions. As the poem broaches a wide range of subjects, real and imagined, it invites readers to engage with the beauty and mysticism of everyday life from baseball to our reading to light on a window pane.

Stephen Behrendt may well be a real incarnation of the fictional John Shade. He is, fortunately, very much alive and not in need of editorial intervention, so that the 90 pages or so of his poetry in Refractions, though punctuated by black and white art by Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, is presented to readers without annotations or other scholarly intervention. The poem is divided into five sections prefaced by a Prelude, “My Daughter Dances,” which is about the author’s adopted, eight-year old Chinese daughter and her public dance performance. It is a meditation on parental pride that remembers back to her adoption at eighteen months old and then thinks forward to the present moment of performance.

Section I, “Found/Lost,” primarily consists of flora and fauna poems that capture everyday interactions with the author’s immediate environment around Lincoln, Nebraska. Snakeskins, possums, birds, deer, snow, and ice dominate these poems, which in some ways are reminiscent of very traditional haiku – not in terms of length or form, but in terms of mood, tone, and subject matter. “Snakeskin” in many ways captures the mood and theme of many of the poems in this volume, describing how the author preserves traces and remnants of things past for his daughters to play with in the present.

The poems in Section II, “Little Mysteries,” are more questioning, engaging with the mysterious and the unknown. While they also describe encounters with nature, several poems are about encounters with other human beings and their losses, such as the death of loved ones or the loss of a job. “Dark Letter of Spring” is particularly moving as it describes another poet’s letter to the author describing how he has been unexpectedly fired, and how he is now “hunching his shoulders / against the winds of rejection” (p. 41).

Stephen Behrendt is a scholar currently serving as the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It isn’t surprising, then, that some of his poems engage his life as an academic, which are found in Section III, “The Archives.” This section consists of poems about poetry, art, and research. “Three Benton Pictures” is ekphrastic poetry about three paintings by Thomas Hart Benton: The Hailstorm (1940), Susanna and the Elders (1938), and Wreck of the Ole 97 (1943). The most amusing poem in this collection is found also in this section: “Seminar: Computers and the Humanities; or, An Academic Poem that Goes Astray.” This poem describes the narrator’s attendance of a digital humanities lecture that was entirely and pleasantly distracted by a young woman who arrived late and then started to eat out of a small bag of carrots: “We all try not to notice, try not to hear, / try to cancel out that sweet aroma…” (p. 54).

Section IV, “Places/Faces,” consists of travel poems. The first three are set in Arizona while the poem “Carolina,” sadly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poems about death and loss, is about the daughter of an abusive and alcoholic father whose mother dies. All of these poems tend to be strongly characterized by death and loss: three animal poems describing death, estrangement, or distance between animals and the poem’s human narrator are followed by three poems about burning or clearing land. The final poem in this section, “Closing the Mill,” is about unemployed mill workers meeting at a bar for cheap beer.

The final section of this collection, “Harvest Time,” opens with a poem that compares waiting for a harvest to waiting for the dead to return from war. The second poem, “Garden,” is about a woman waiting for her husband to return from war and then receiving news of his death. Poems here often juxtapose images of dead fathers against images of death and dying in nature, such as leaves changing and smaller animals being hunted. This section ends with two poems about John Keats followed by a poem about coyotes. This final poem, “Coyotes at Midnight,” is about living on the border of wilderness and civilization and about the separation and misrecognition of wilderness, the wild, and of nature by civilization.

Behrendt’s poems usually consist of four to eight stanzas that vary from three to eight lines in length, the most commonly repeated pattern being six to eight four-line stanzas, so that most poems are about a page in length or a little more. While these poems are best characterized as free verse, lines most often consist of unrhymed iambic pentameter punctuated with anapests. These poems are very accessible examples of contemporary Americana, engaging a tradition of American Romanticism descendent from Wordsworth and Emerson. These poems are fully grounded in an everyday life that is invested with significance through the poet’s feelings and perceptions, and they contribute significantly to a growing body of early twenty-first-century war poetry. The word “refractions” then becomes a trope for our different engagements with everyday life and the variety of effects that it has upon us. Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton’s black and white primitivist woodcuts represent images of the landscape, birds, or plant life described in Behrendt’s poetry. As is usual for collections of poetry by Shechem Press, the book is beautifully bound and typeset, and is worth the time of an afternoon’s reading or of further critical engagement.


 

James_Rovira-jimheadshot2Dr. James Rovira is Associate Professor of English at Tiffin University, where he teaches British Literature, Poetry, and Literary Theory. His book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety was published by Continuum in 2010. His most recent scholarship extends Romanticism as a field to contemporary film and television in articles for edited anthologies forthcoming from the University of Mississippi Press and McFarland and to rock music in his current edited anthology, Rock and Romanticism. He is also at work on the edited anthology Interpretation: Theory: History.

Book Review: rel[am]ent by Jamison Crabtree

reviewed by Zeke Jarvis

relament

rel[am]ent
Jamison Crabtree
Word Works, 2015

It’s easy to see that rel[am]ent is a great idea. Writing lamentations for classic pop culture monsters as the core of a book of poetry is exactly the sort of thing that’s popular these days. Of course, there’s a problem with good ideas, and that is that the writing doesn’t always live up to the idea. Thankfully, Jamison Crabtree’s rel[am]ent does live up to that promise. Strong descriptions and a patient, confident tone help to set tone and draw the reader in. Take the opening lines from “lament for dr. frankenstein”: “There is no word for digging in the rain, / but it should have a wet sound to it. For us, / the act of creation is like doing the foxtrot with crutches / except I would not crush your toes, you’d crush mine, / and together we’d have a miserable sort of grace…” The combination of immediacy of imagery and natural tone give an enjoyable setup to the idiosyncratic details about plumcots and shopping at Piggly Wiggly later in the poem. This combination of immediacy and idiosyncrasy help to give these poems a personal feel that shift the subject matter away from bland references to the source material and more into the anxieties and frustrations put on display by the poet.

These aren’t the only lines to show Crabtree’s smart balance of the source material with being able to stand alone. A lesser poet might rely primarily (or exclusively) on in-jokes and meme-level referential humor and puns. Wisely, Crabtree brings in images and lines that work well for fans of both poetry and monsters. In “lament for freddy krueger,” these lines late in the poem clearly call out to the film franchise: “You, who replaced his fingers / with razors, will injure / whatever you try to protect” will make fans of the films look at Freddy Krueger in a different way, and yet, the image is vivid and striking enough that even those who are largely unfamiliar with the films will recognize the sentiment and the unsettling quality of the image.

Of course, many of the figures that Crabtree takes on are big figures in horror that anyone will recognize (the creature from the black lagoon, Dracula, and the blob, for instance), but there are a number of lesser-known creatures that give Crabtree room to play with, like the incredible melting man and the incredible shrinking man, both of which have the usual humor (the opening words of “lament for the incredible melting man” are: “Steve! No, Astro-Steve”) and original use of the everyday that help to make them enjoyable and memorable.

It’s also worth noting that not all of the poems follow the “lament for” format. The prose poem “to paint it closed, to hammer it shut” maintain the odd energy and wistful feel of the book but it does give a sense of distinction through its playful use of parenthetical insertions to add ambiguity to many of the lines. And “we have unlimited lives” is a clever spin on video games, competition and desire that has a very personal feel even if it does not situate itself in a specific character.

Near the center of the book is the string of numbered fragments “golem,” covering. This poem shows Crabtree’s careful use of rhythm and white space, knowing what to give and, more importantly, what to withhold. The simplicity and elegance of some lines (take the following from XII: “He once said to me / if you buy the bullets, we can / use my gun”) have all the more power for their understated delivery. “golem” lives in an interesting in-between space between the laments and nonlaments, and it’s easy to see why it takes such a central spot in the book.

Overall, the book does a good job of honoring the source material without being constrained or limited by it. Unlike some works that treat their source material in an overly reverent or literal way, rel[am]ent uses these figures for inspiration, but it moves beyond them, making them the poet’s own so that this work is inspired by the monsters that fascinate us, but it is really about we who are fascinated.


 

Zeke_Jarvis-Piano smallZeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His books include In a Family Way and So Anyway… His work has appeared in Bitter Oleander, Moon City Review and Thrice, among other places.

Book Review: Edible Flowers by Lucia Cherciu

reviewed by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

Edible FlowersIn Lucia Cherciu’s first poetry collection in English, Edible Flowers, her characters in communist run Romania fight battles everyday: small and large. Cherciu’s words blossom into exquisite narrative poems. In 1970s Romania, Nicolai Ceausescu became General Secretary of the Communist Party (1965). According to an article run in The Economist “Country Profiles,” 1994, Romania had extremely fertile farm land. Articles allude to the fact that the country could have benefitted from an agricultural boom, but instead Ceausescu put his efforts into industrialization and exportation. The focus was on fuels, machine building, and chemicals and the people suffered.

Cherciu begins her work grounded in the heart of the people. The author, born in Romania, moved to the United States in 1995, writes poems through the eyes of native and immigrant. The passion she has for local Roamanian villages, customs, and neighbors is apparent.

One of the early poems in the collection explodes with a generosity of spirit and is so lush it overtakes the reader with magical thinking. In “In This World May it be for Your Soul,” (which is also what the first section of the book is called), the theme is that any gift can be delivered in the afterlife as well. (“In this world may it be for your soul, in the other world, may it be for his soul…”) Here are a few lines:

so they say three times when they give away
a live chicken, ceramic plates, wooden spoons.
Any gift can be sent directly to someone
in the other world, no matter of size,
like some magical form of UPS,
and both the messenger and the receiver
get to enjoy it: no wrapping, no ribbons,
no card, no address.

Give an orphan a red colored shirt because that is the favorite color of a deceased loved one, and many people receive the fulfillment: the giver, the receiver, the dead. Cherciu describes such generosity, such mysticism in this domestic ritual, we are intimate with these people instantly. Put plainly: beautiful in word and practice.

In “Sealed with a Drink,” Cherciu depicts simple imagery to illustrate how people “traded land without papers,” over a glass of brandy. Her father takes her on a walk to show her property lines and we are with them, walking through a sunshine filled field. It is an intimate moment between father and daughter and again illustrates the affection the author has for her subject. She writes:

He wanted to show me property lines,
but I didn’t listen. Then
the borders didn’t seem
to matter. A lark spread its wings
hiding in the folds of a black cherry tree
sewing the seams of the sky together.

Almost as if in a dream, we walk with father and daughter on a secret path, we hear the larks, the sky split open, the vista reveals itself, the red grasses, their land that “frames the world.” Cherciu majestically captures these quiet domestic moments, appreciates them, makes us cherish them.

Of course light and warmth burn brighter because of the dark. In “Censorship,” Cherciu’s ode to novelist and poet Marin Preda (1922-1980), she addresses his last work: “The Most Beloved of Earthlings,” which was a harsh attack on communism and the book was pulled from all stores and shelves. Cherciu writes that people memorized passages, spoke in code surrounding the book, secretly circulated first editions to friends. We learn in the last stanza that not long after the book was confiscated the author was found dead, apparently from a heart attack: the autopsy stated: asphyxiation. Even reading the poem’s stanza, the circumstances surrounding his death are suspicious. Cherciu writes:

White like the depth of fear
kept at bay, so we heard of his death:
that he had a heart attack,
that he choked on his own vomit
or on a bottle cap on his pillow.
Blue like the warmth under wings,
what went unsaid.

This narrative poem eloquently and sadly describes thoughts we do not want to face— this author, stood up to the people in power, committing wrongs and was most likely murdered for it. A writer: an enemy of the state. No one was safe to express themselves, or support those who did. This poem packs a sucker punch.

In “How to Make Your Mother Laugh,” the hardships of the poor, are slammed down on the page in black and white. In this poem, Cherciu writes from the perspective of one who has already left. She reads her hometown newspaper twice a week, she talks to her mother on the phone and they discuss the news of the day. This is not a humorous poem. Rather the title is selected to emphasize the opposite tone. Here are two vignettes of “news” that Cherciu details in this poem:

A woman left her three children
home alone for seven days,
all between two and six years old;
when they were found
they were eating cardboard,
huddled together for heat.

A highly-educated woman,
showed in a picture
as very attractive and trendy,
killed her mother
by suffocating her with a pillow
then hanged herself from a pipe.

These are news “bytes” that could be in the local news in United States, however altered. We have social services in our country. We like to assume children are not starving in a corner somewhere in the United States, but in reality, they are. At first, these scenes seem like “the other” but they are not. Cherciu depicts the struggle for humanity to survive. It doesn’ t matter that this is Romania twenty years ago. It could be today. Cherciu hits us with these lines, these shadows of death and abandonment in a community’s dark corners.

It is the poem “Her Hands,” however, which presents such a beautiful and sad metaphor for Romania itself and the author’s relationship with her homeland. This poem describes a mother who wove, needled beads, embroidered seven foot long wedding scarves for a son who never married. This woman’s hands were already gnarled by arthritis, unloaded horse cars, split wood by herself, lifted forks of hay atop a fifteen foot hay stack, and still she slaved over the wedding scarves. So much effort and hard work gone to waste, her hands callused and rough, her dexterity sacrificed. Like the government of Romania, ignoring the needs of the people, the old suffered, the young people fled the country: all of this energy was there to make something beautiful, but misused. Cherciu writes in “Her Hands”:

Never worn by godparents or groom,
the seven-foot long shawls
she wove, embroidered,
and decorated with sequins
molded away in damp piles,
the glitter oxidized, tarnished.”

Cherciu’s collection delivers poignant and real portraits of a beautiful country, the faces so sharp on the page, as are the crowded markets, the garden paths, the barking stray dogs. It’s power and weight haunts the reader long after reading the last poem.


 

Jennifer_MacBain_StephensJennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out from Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen at Jet Fuel Review, Pith, So to Speak, Entropy, Right Hand Pointing, and decomP.

Book Review: Sophrosyne by Donelle Dreese

reviewed by Lucia Cherciu

sophrosyneDonelle Dreese’s new book, Sophrosyne, feels like a nice cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. Kind and collected, the main voice presents the world through the lens of peace, relaxation, and inner equilibrium. The sure, confident voice demonstrates that the poet has much practice and experience with words. Indeed, her previous poems from A Wild Turn (Finishing Line Press) and Looking for a Sunday Afternoon (Pudding House) share the same qualities of serenity, meditation, and balance.

The poet is indebted to a view of the world in which humans represent a link in an interconnected universe. Like a healer practicing alternative medicine, the poetic voice is searching for other ways of identifying the sources of contemporary malaise and discovering a cure: a “doctor wearing a coconut oil / and cinnamon-smudged frock // prescribing pomegranate and aloe vera juice / to soothe a burning, pin-pricked soul, pressed garlic on a cracker and fresh ginger tea” (53). Dreese’s poems suggest that remedies are within reach and one has only to understand the secrets of simple treatments for what ails body and soul.

The world at large is ill, given the invasion of the Monsanto dominance and oppression, so our responsibility as citizens is to protect seeds. In “The Seed,” Dreese states that farmers “know the seed is life / and whoever owns the seed / owns life, mine and yours.” The poet exhorts us to “care for the seed / as we might cradle a beating heart” (17). Indeed, the poet draws attention to a world in crisis, in which crimes are committed against the land in the name of progress, and large agribusiness has taken over the land. Instead of preaching, the poet invites us to listen to the song of the seeds, to pay attention to the small and the delicate, the overlooked and the silenced.

In this respect, Dreese’s work is described well in “Poem with Backbone in It,” which could serve as an ars poetica of her own work: “I want to celebrate the person who says / what everyone else is thinking.” Her voice articulates the conflicts of our times and praises authenticity and purpose: “the person whose mind tracks the natural curve of the spine / anything else is artifice or disease / a scoliosis of the brain” (49).

The themes of Dreese’s poems celebrate everyday things such as blue jeans, tea, chocolate, pomegranates, and amaranth. Her attention to detail creates simple lists for methods of attainable happiness. Often humorous, her poems laugh at the sly mechanisms of consumerism where everything becomes a decoy to make us buy something. For example, in “Wellness Catalogue,” the poet describes the subtle lures that make us order useless things: “If I wore the persimmon Zen dress, / the heart-centered jade lotus necklace,” and if one were to buy all those items listed in the catalogue, would one achieve inner peace? Dreese questions the allures and delights of products that advertise calm and wisdom: “If I settled into the seagrass & mangowood / meditation chair, would my monkey / mind assume a neutral position…?” (61). Gentle humor and restraint define the tone of Dreese’s work.

The style of her poems is based on metaphor and associations, with an art that makes her work look easy, balanced, and paced. Several poems are built on serial metaphors, where each phrase brings a new image, completing the picture. For instance, in “Circadian Rhythms,” the voice describes the elusive quality of sleep with the desperation and envy of an insomniac: “One must approach sleep as if earning / the trust of a lost dog trotting a country road” and each successive stanza develops an incantatory series of metaphors. Indeed, Dreese’s book overall competes with yoga, meditation, and music in order to reconnect with the inner rhythms of contentment and joy.


 

LuciaCherciuLucia Cherciu was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1995. She teaches English at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY and her latest book of poetry is Edible Flowers (Main Street Rag, 2015). Her poetry has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. Her web page is luciacherciu.webs.com.

Independent Best American Poetry Winner

PUSHCART PRIZE NOMINEE2015

Every year, the editors at Zoetic Press stage a giant fistfight that we call “prize nomination time.” Why the giant fistfight? It’s because our tastes are very, very different. That’s great news for our contributors, because our rule is that we don’t have to unanimously agree to publish a piece. If one of us likes a piece enough to passionately champion it, it’s in because we feel that each one of the editors represents a segment of the reading public.

But when it comes to choosing prize nominees, each of us has our favorites, and each of us can talk eloquently about why we love them. The fact that any contest limits the number of nominations a press can make drives us to distraction, because if we believe in a piece enough to publish it, we believe in it enough to nominate it.

This year, we had just gotten over the black eyes, bruised ribs, and fat lips of our nominating process when we got our first bit of amazing news:

Saba Razvi’s poem “O Dervish of the Restless Heart,” featured on Saturday as one of our nominees, won Independent Best American Poetry this year. 

NBR6Razvimed

Congratulations to Saba Razvi for her beautiful work! We feel both proud and lucky to have had the honor of publishing it.

Read O Dervish of the Restless Heart at NonBinary Review.