Author: North of Oxford

A journal of book reviews, commentary, essays and poetry.

Phoenix by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

phoenix reborn by iron phoenix

Phoenix Reborn by Iron Phoenix

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Phoenix
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If I had to choose the circumstances of my birth,
the mother of all do-overs
it would be alone, slick and silent
and I would shine on an empty stage
numinous like livestock:
But of which variety?
Which animal is without sin?
Meat on the hoof
or at the breast,
horns as vestigial anatomy
like the human pineal gland
or an appendix.
Which species denies pleasure
to its executioners
before the profits come rolling in?
After the capillaries are broken,
the rest is choice
about sentience and organs.
I would like to be more than my body
more than the limitations of my skin ;
and certain angles, slopes, ratios
of costume medals: never the good stuff
the markets trade in.
They say touch is nothing to us,
nothing to me
and yet I rub my hide
along a fence collapsing
from a surfeit of rain
and too little maintenance
until the follicles are breached,
ripped free of their burden
and I am another layer,
fresh and naked.
In the moonlight I will bray
at other possibilities,
Other systems,
and wait as patiently as I might
for my next set of parents. 
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Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s poetry collections are With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (Aldrich Press 2012); the forthcoming Daphne and Her Discontents (Ravenna Press); and four chapbooks. Her forthcoming novel is The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War (Amberjack Publishing) and her memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy, A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014).   

Fauna by Stephen Page

Along the trail at Pennpack

Photograph by g emil reutter

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Fauna
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Fauna is absent from the wood of late,
I cannot see her from my treestump—
She has lit to trees and burrowed underground
Escaping the face of four-legged Helios.
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Cynthia came to me in my tower—
She wore a diadem and sheer short robe
And while I lay naked on my carpet
She straddled me with her sandaled calves.
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Rosemary outside my matera window
Scents the sough of Delphi’s cloud
Buzzed northerly by the bumblebee
Brandishing his long red clover tongue.
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Diana was once a lover of mine
That flew with me to California
And shotgunned in my rusty Volkswagen
But did not vacate my New York studio.
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After four long years of living with Helen
And never touching barefoot Delos
Artemis leaned over fresh cut grass
With sunburnt face and parchment lips.
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Stephen Page phot with muse (1)
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Stephen Page is the Author of The Timbre of Sand, Still Dandelions, and A Ranch Bordering the Salty River. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Bennington College. He also attended Broward College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, reading, travel, family, and friends. Stephen Page   

La Coiffure 1896 Degas (Brushing Her Hair) by Maria Keane

La Coiffure DEGAS1
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La Coiffure  1896  Degas (Brushing Her Hair)
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It is all in the act of caring.
You are needing me as I you.
Your strong arms yield softness while
I yield to the strokes that burnish me.
 
There was another time when we
paired our talents, cherishing  memories
at the seas’ shore, when I depended on you
to disentangle threads of my being
weighing heavily on my shoulders.
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keane
Maria Keane served as adjunct Professor of Fine Arts at Wilmington University, New Castle Delaware from 1984-2009.  She received her M.A. from the University of Delaware (Phi Kappa Phi.)  Maria, a visual artist and a published poet, is an Arts and Letters member of the National League of American Pen Women, and an artist member of the Howard Pyle Studio of Wilmington and the National Association of Women Artists. The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and the National League of American Pen Women have awarded her distinctions for poetry. Maria has contributed ekphrastic poems to the Biggs Museum of American Art from 2005-2011.  She was awarded a Professional Fellowship jointly from the NEA and the Delaware Division of the Arts in 1997. )
    

Finding Center by Abbe Mogell

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Photograph by g emil reutter

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Finding Center
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I thought fall was immovable.
In a dry field rust is buried.
A town wakes up chilled.
No one listened.
Leaves of doubt fall for the last time.
I remember my first.
Front teeth missing.
No pink .
Secrets still hanging
in places
between his  2 front teeth.
They were all there without arms.
I like the scent of winter.
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AbbeMogell06172013
Abbe Mogell works and lives in the Philadelphia area. She is a poet, photographer and author.  Recently published in The New Mexico Review, her photography was featured in the online journal Talking Writing.     

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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Redaction and Inquiry
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There has been a trend in recent decades of what has popularly been called New Age thinking and the idea that science and spirituality are not antithetical, challenging approaches to traditional Western thought purported since the dawn of The Enlightenment. Prior to that time of bustling scientific discoveries, technological advancements and industrialization, humans were much more intricately linked between the machinations of the physical world and the workings of the cosmos. More current views are harkening back to that conventional wisdom and, in many ways, modern inquiry can now substantiate the facts of our interconnectedness, spirit and science yoked together intricately within our experience of the cosmos. 
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There is extensive debate about the efficacy of theories supporting these assumptions, with much inability to reach consensus. Magdalena Ball’s new poetry collection, “Unmaking Atoms,” might just be the kind of unifying force that is needed. Bridging the hard, concrete world with our abstract interior one, Ball seeks to deconstruct what we use from the physical environment as confirmation and ballast for our existence in contrast to the illusive, mystical world of the unknown. She juxtaposes emotions and memory with sensory perceptions evoking a quantum leap of sorts, seeking a crossroads where answers might be possible. We need poetry to explore these seemingly inaccessible and polarized forces, amidst a mass of contradictions, in ways theses and academic abstracts often cannot.
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“Unmaking Atoms” is a very ambitious work of seven sections and ninety-one poems. There is a relentless insistency and emotional intensity in these poems, a genuine and heartfelt plea that implicates us and demands our engagement. In “The Last Report of the Day,” the opening poem, Ball invokes poetic lineage in Adrienne Rich with an deference to maternal guidance. Addressing Rich she states, “…you became every mother/I had ever lost” (P. 6, ll.13-14). In facing the inevitable demise of physical loss, this is Ball’s anchor—to grieve, seek solace and often acceptance in the creative landscape of the poet. Throughout the book Ball derives substantiation in the words of other poets and writers such as Elizabeth Bishop in “Charitable Crumb” and Edna St. Vincent Millay in “Luminous Air,” and many others in an effort to reside in good company in a world without definitive resolution. In the lovely prose poem “Essential Whites,” Ball expresses the angst and striving of a writer, the conflicts and challenges, and the endless hope for inspiration: “Writing this way, while waiting for transition is like the swipe of a hand against my face: that blessed sting” (P. 93, ll. 1-2).
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The constant tension in these poems is inherent in the exploration between perception and reality, “…as if this alien moon were the moon” (“Right Angles to Reality,” P. 10, l. 8), and with some resignation, in “Catalyst,” we remain “…subject to reactivity/and mathematical constructs.” (P. 13, ll. 28-29). But Ball continues to strive for resolution between two worlds as evidenced in the wonderful tactile imagery of “Salting the Wound” as she reflects, “A memory of moon settles/liquid and silvery into my skin” (P. 19, ll. 17-18). In “Encroachment Spells Erosion” (after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake) the geocentric title attempts to yoke us to solid evidence as in the lines “…the world’s a cell/very ordinarily designed/a song of alibi…” (P. 32 ll. 5-7). In “Life Dreaming” she says this more directly, a scientist’s desire to see life in basic, clear terms in opposition to the discomfort of the doubtful mind: “…a secular prayer to calm the pain of change” (P. 34, l. 24). Often there is further acceptance as in “Harnessing Wind” which captures optimism in natural wonder and acknowledgement of mysteries.
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There are many poems that might have worked well as a completely separate 
volume on loss, specifically maternal loss. “Irrational Heart” is a soulful, exquisite elegy with the supplication “…anything to negotiate the hurt” (P. 26, l. 69) and with homage to lineage in “I might share this knowing with my daughter/when she’s in need of a god/and no male/armed with a pocket full of tools/will do…” (P. 26, ll. 137-141). An example of a very long poem that keeps us moving through it effortlessly with anticipation and empathy is “Hieroglyphics,” and in “Nature’s Observatory” in a reversal of inheritance, “…the air took your breath/a reverse offering” (P. 88, ll. 2-3). “Probability Waves” expresses the frustration of loss with a stubborn resistance against all reason and outcomes: “…if I never know/then all things are possible” (P. 92, ll. 26-27), and “In Situ” highlights this frustration in juxtaposed images: “…there was much to do/but nothing more to be done” (P. 94, l. 3) and serves as a nice complement to “…an aging child/counting losses” in “Image of the day” (P. 107, ll. 21-22). The theme of impermanency gathers momentum in “Past Life” with stars as hypergiants “…burning through billions of lives” (P. 12, l. 22) asking “Is the connection between us/me in this life/you in another/so tenuous/un-tethered by those bonds/we once thought permanent?” (ll. 33-38). As Ball asks us in “Atomic Mess” in direct, plaintive language, “…does inheritance/provide solace” (P. 11, ll. 25-26)? The maternal loss might best be expressed with a good balance of emotion and imagery in “Mourner’s Kaddish”:
“For me you’ll always be in motion,/standing in the bright/light of your kitchen,/the percolated aroma,/cut cake,/a ready joke” (P. 70, ll. 27-29). Ball excavates deeply in an essential and noble undertaking of dismantling bereavement, meaning and recovery.
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There are many words and expressions throughout the book that are illuminating but will likely require the reader to be curious enough to look them up, some being more accessible within the context of the poem and others less so. For example, “Mandlebrot” referring to absolute numbers (P. 9, l. 19), “Enceladus,” the sixth largest moon of Saturn (P. 10, l. 9), and “synecdoche,” (P. 10, l. 25), a part of something referring to the whole. In “Trojan Horse” there are obscure references throughout, at least to most of us, as in (P. 24, l. 15 ) “…on a Gantt or Pareto” but then followed by the incisive “…the waiting executive team/of the soul” (P. 24, ll. 16-17). “Mirror Neurons” has words like “thigmonasty,” (the response of a plant to touch or movement) quite dense to linguistically integrate for the less energetic reader.
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Occasionally there is a somewhat inaccessible joining of imagery and language such as “…running, like Buddha himself/into glory…” (P. 18, ll. 16-17) and the obvious rhyme scheme of “…from perception to conception” (P. 18, l. 6), Herceg/Ball Review/P. 6 both from “Beginner’s Mind,” but then the lovely “…leaving me with all this/responsibility/all this breath” (P. 18, ll. 19-21). Alliteration is used effectively as in “Irrational Heart” in the lines “With closed eyes, I watered the weeping/willow…” (P. 26, ll. 1-2). Imagery works well in “Static” between shocks of ghostly memories and physical evidence of those memories, and “Landscape at Pentecost” is a good example of conveying an emotion and impression through concise, accessible symbolism. “In The Frame” evokes nicely a snapshot of memory with clear, simple visuals like “…olive-hued chain” (P. 37, l. 11) and “…dusky teal” (P. 37, l. 14). And scientific references work well as in these lines from “Walking Into Eternity” which are precise yet defining: “…all things change under pressure/silica and calcium carbonate/call it entropy/that elegant word for chaos/disorder, decay…” (P. 33, ll. 6-10).
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There is the ongoing hint of conflict between the poet’s vocation and the mundane obligations of daily life in motherhood, children, running a household: “I could put something/in place to serve/a replica/doing dishes/with the same earnest/lack of care” (“Planet Nine,” P. 108, ll. 4-9). “Ascetic Stitch” expresses this dilemma of maternity, being stuck in the ordinary and commonplace, hording provisions against potential disasters, deceiving oneself: “I keep pretending I’m different” (P. 51, l. 22), often putting aspirations aside while justifying obligations. In “Orthonym” there is the poet’s potential unraveling back, possibly only to find she is  “…lost in that lonely place/where skin meets bone” (P. 17, ll. 40-41), with maternal confusion amidst marriages, names and identities. “A Cloud Withdrew” conveys a genuine sense of detriment and missed connection and has a sensuality to it: “…slippery like liquid,” (P. 72, l. 7), “…your elemental self/water vapour/my face wet/the sky empty” (P. 72, ll. 15-18); “…finding you only through redaction” (P. 72, ll. 23-24). In “Möbius Strip,” a surface with only one side and one boundary, the desire to look to the corporeal world for affirmations and how they fall short of answers bemoans loss that cannot be quantified: “…I crawl, an unborn child, blind and hungry/back around the fold towards this place of darkness/this gap” (P. 57, ll. 20-22) and, in “Dark Matter Wants to be Alone,” Ball echoes again this unknown place with options open: “As dark matter’s mysterious ghost/I inhabit two worlds/feed two hearts,/hedging bets/just in case one proves to be real/the beater; the keeper” (P. 64, ll. 37-41).
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This subtle confidence continues in “inanimate,” a wonderfully concise poem, words parsed judiciously, a hesitant homage to optimism in the observation of our interconnectedness with the elements. In fact we join in this communion and do not hold the rights to benevolence in “…that all things/even the inanimate/responded to compassion” (P. 63, ll. 20-22). Ball states directly in “Stargazy” that we are the stuff as made from stars, buoyed by science and spiritual implication, as when she observes, ”In the end,/we’re all like you/burning up our fuel/collapsing after what feels like/ten thousand years…” (P. 69, ll. 7-10). And in “Venus in the East Before Sunrise” she tells us the uninvited is “still beautiful” (P. 73, ll. 35-36).
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Unmaking Atoms is a thought-provoking work, its natural inclination to scientific inquiry applying a probative and penetrating analysis of our vast universe and the limitless spectrum of its human inhabitants without sacrificing genuine emotion.  A nostalgic longing permeates these poems, where the pragmatic mind examines and the poetic one questions. Practical applications that attempt to explain the inexplicable as in “Most of Everything is Nothing,” emphasize the striving: “I watched my tools float/soundless down some river” (P. 41, ll. 7-8). Ball navigates the frustrations well and laments “…there are some places/even a poet can’t go” (P. 92, ll. 15-16). She even states directly, in “Fractals of Fractals,” that “I wrote this book myself/at the atomic scale of pain” (P. 110, ll. 12-13). With “Intelligent Equations,” the last poem of the book, the poet confesses she is “…lost in time/waiting for answers” (P. 114, ll. 29-30), an honest, heartfelt admission. Ball manages to examine and rest in that space most admirably.
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You can find the book here:
 
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About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.
 

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

a poetry notebook covr

Reviewed by Stephen Page

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As I am browsing around a bookstore, I pick up Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, because another writer recommended the book to me.  It is simplistically written. It is geared for high-school or freshmen-college students (but, I am sure that is Oliver’s intent). The first couple of chapters are short and low-attention spanning, but by chapter 7 they expand and deepen.  There are some important points made in the book, even in the first six chapters:

Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is also true of painters, sculptors, musicians.,  something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious . . . still, painters, sculptors (poets) and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  Whatever can’t be taught, and there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned . . . This book is about the things that can be learned.  It is about matters of craft . . . this book is written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills.

The book is written with the idea of teaching basic poetic skills, philosophies, and exercises, so it’s a great book for novice writers, or for teachers of novice writers.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Handbook-Mary-Oliver/dp/0156724006/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

 

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

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Review by Richard Nester
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Judy Kronenfeld’s narrative powers are on full display in her latest collection, Bird Flying through the Banquet, a book whose central concerns are signaled by its cover art, a recasting of Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Peasant Wedding. Kronenfeld’s approach is ekphrastic with regard to multiple mediums, primarily visual, but musical also, as the book’s cover art presents a complex chord that the book’s contents both riff on and elaborate.
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A close look at this opening chord shows how complicated it is. Two ideas stand out: first, there is the Venerable Bede’s assertion found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England (731 AD) that man’s life can be compared to the flight of a sparrow through a mead-hall on a winter night from dark to dark, unknown to unknown; second, is the way that Kronenfeld applies that metaphor to Bruegel’s painting, where the darkness is represented by the graying-out of two strips at the left and right margins and the sparrow is added as a silhouette.
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Both of these ideas find a place in Bird Flying. Sometimes Kronenfeld’s subject is the ineffable itself, the permanent in the transitory, the missing in what remains—the sparrow’s all too brief but still exquisite journey. At other times, she foregrounds her immigrant experience, captured in the trope of the peasant gathering of Bruegel’s painting, which differs in one important way from the mead-hall gathering addressed by Bede. Bede was speaking to an audience of nobles, whereas Bruegel portrays a peasant banquet, more pot-luck than fine dining, an image Kronenfeld uses to bring together a series of poems that are both celebratory and richly peopled by person and places from her memory cupboard.
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Bird Flying is an intensely visual collection with a palette that ranges from the concrete to the imaginary,  from the “cracked sidewalks flashing mica” of “My Long-Left Birth City,” where the “newsstand, candy store, barbershop” are “utterly, beautifully, unremarkable,” to the mental vista of “Rothko Dark,” where after “long looking . . . giving oneself to darkness / faintly lightens it.” This poem does not refer to any particular Rothko work, but rather, to the optical vibrations created by the painter’s characteristic methodology, an effect Kronenfeld mimes in her memory portraits. The careful reader will note that “Rothko Dark” contains but one sentence, elegantly formed, as graceful in its lines as it is in its forward movement. So composed, it mirrors the book as a whole and the way individual poems propel it forward, while not sacrificing any of their individuality.
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 Kronenfeld’s fascination with time is constant. Examples include timepieces, her father’s alarm clock in “Ten Minutes,” times of day as in the lyrical “The Braille of Evening” with its “last coins of sunlight” and “darkness-gathering trees,” important dates such as yahrzeit in “Neighborly Sorrow” where the memorial candle “burns now in my agnostic /house, three thousand miles /from the Bronx,”  or time itself, as in “Grief-Shock.” “Grief-Shock” is worth careful study both with regard to its imagery and its sound. In the first place, this is not time as an abstract entity, but a particular kind of time, that is “grief” time, which simultaneously rushes our sorrows forward and stacks them up in a series of “after[s]”that leave us “stranded” and “despoiled.” At the same time that the imagery strands us—a clever but nonetheless organic wordplay (Kronenfeld is never witty for wit’s sake) on the shore, its language propels us relentlessly forward by a series of “s” sounds—“spot,” “homestead,” “stomped.” Every line has at least one “s” with one telling exception: the line that sets up the poem’s conceit in the first place “but time—like the metronome clicking,” a reference to time’s twin character as both object—  metronome—and process.
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Kronenfeld is seldom overtly political, but when she is, the effect is startling. The poem “What We’re Reduced To” offers such a moment, one where Kronenfeld’s husband is “reduced” to filing his protest on a scrap of paper shoved into a sidewalk crack, a comic rendering of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall, where worshipers place rolled up paper messages in crevices between the wall’s stones. Overt politics aside, her poems possess a high degree of civic involvement of a kind not reducible to slogans, as if they have decided to conduct politics by other means, those of language, family, and neighborhood.
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In this regard, I find itj instructive to contrast Kronenfeld’s use of Bruegel with that made by Auden in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” one of poetry’s the better known ekphrastic poems. Auden references Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and his verdict with regard to art and its influence on the larger world is the same in “Musee des Beau Arts” as it is in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats, ” where he says that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Art can call attention to the “astounding” moment and the way that it is ignored by the demands of commerce but that is all. In Icarus, the ship witnesses suffering, “a boy falling out of the sky,” but ignores it in pursuit of business as usual. In fact, the witnessing agent is not animate, not the sailors on board, but the ship itself, and all art can do is record that indifference.
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In contrast, Kronenfeld offers us a different Bruegel painting, Peasant Wedding, and a different set of conclusions about the human community and its resources. In “Ten Minutes” she shows us that business as usual is accompanied by bone-weary sacrifice, a poem in which suffering takes the form of an alarm clock whose demands can only be bought off for a few minutes. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld closes the emotional distance between art and suffering by offering us a father and daughter with a common set of problems. One way or another both are bullied, the father by the necessities of earning a working class living (witness the living room hide-a-bed) and the daughter by school yard injustice. Kronenfeld folds their two experiences together while merging the strategies each uses to cope, the father’s snooze alarm, which offers him a middle ground between sleep and waking, and the daughter’s cupcakes. Kronenfeld mines this memory only with great effort:
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            It’s terrifying how far back
            this memory goes. I feel as if
            I’ve had to lie on my belly
            with a head lamp and inch forward
            in the dark to see it.
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Nevertheless, the ore recovered is precious “as if / ten minutes would sweeten arm-twisting /death, or gentle me into braving his.” The minutes gained are a reminder of the celebratory meal of Peasant Wedding, where time is suspended by a community event that weds not just a couple but a community.
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Another back-channel source of recollection occurs during a dream recounted in “Lives of the Dead” where Kronenfeld’s parents, neither of whom can spell, play an “anarchic” game of Scrabble while she attempts to inform them that she has been robbed. They are suitably non-plussed, because after all they are dead, and, thus, immune to time’s persistent robberies, taking place downstairs and outdoors in the waking world. What makes this dream convincing is its intensely visual nature combined with the narrative grace Kronenfeld employs in steering her parents “to their little pocket of moored time.” The poem opens with a typical Kronenfeld canvas that renders the mundane beautiful: “Alive in my dreams, and serene /they sit in our 40-watt /dim Bronx kitchen on the lollipop-red /dinette set leatherette chairs.” Again, as in so many of her poems, the speaker is confident in her resources, able to gather the ingredients she needs, emotionally and linguistically, to serve and participate in time’s banquet.
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Mercy and compassion are far more prominent in these poems than complaint, which is not to say that the speaker is always content—far from it. There is a restless, probing energy in every poem, exploring and seeking answers, however elusive. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld locates the grandeur and consequence in apparently inconsequential lives, and in so doing, rescues us all. You will feel more alive for having read her poems.
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Richard Nester has twice been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published poetry in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo and Seneca Review and essays in the Catholic Agitator. His work has appeared most recently in Floyd County Moonshine.
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