You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf
By Greg Bem
But at some point, I stop dancing
and start poking meat.
At some point, I stop wondering
and start looking.
(from “High Tea,” page 47)
Kim Vodicka’s third book, The Elvis Machine, is the follow-up to 2018’s rambunctious Psychic Privates. It contains an explosion and a resulting silence—a collection of poems worth feeling uncomfortable by only to slowly be empowered by moments later. Featuring a myriad of ecstatic tones, collages of images and ideas that wander through and between each poem, The Elvis Machine is a collection of intensely beautiful feminist poetry that ruptures and coats. It is a book that takes up time and does not give it back: each poem features narratives with a sense of the imperative—these are Vodicka’s speakers’ moments, at once intimate and relentless.
I wrote a note near the beginning of the book that describes a cursory understanding of how the poetry is working in The Elvis Machine: “balance between delicate and chaotic—juxtaposed.” On one hand, Vodicka reaches a totality that blends between these qualities. But that’s also a superficial way of describing her work. There is much more going on from moment to moment, from poem to poem. The poems’ speakers, which tend to feel both similar and distant from one another, contribute to the collective; The Elvis Machine embodies a choral quality, and with it comes empathy and a sense of reflective endurance.
The rage of the wounded feminine lifts me.
I vow to be a famous mass murderess.
I vow to let you clean up the carnage.
I vow to grasp without ever even reaching.
I vow to wear wicked withc shoes for the rest of my days.
(from “Blue Flowers (Reprise),” page 61)
What is being endured? Systemic misogyny, for one. These poems contain a lot of love, but that love is persistent across time and space of pure, awful agony and difficulty. Plights and oppressions galore await the casual or intentional reader of Vodicka’s works. These bounds never sit still in their horror, their trauma, and any of the bravery behind the confessions. Many of these poems contain language that disturbs, sickens, and twists the guts into a rigidity or spasm. It is the type of work that could force one reader to shake their head in disbelief and another reader to throw up their lunch. Because Vodicka does not hold back.
But she isn’t only out to provide the grotesque. Much of the highlighting concerns active, dynamic sexuality that arouses. The stimulation edges the reader along, maintaining concentration, deepening satisfaction. As rhetoric, as pedagogy, Vodicka’s work is an alignment emphasized by viscera and an ultra-realism. It is this visceral work that produces lingering effects, effects of insight and inspiration. Readers of Vodicka’s previous books will know these feelings well—The Elvis Machine is further refinement of techniques perfected in earlier works.
But I will fight to the death
to retain my sensitivity.
Which means I’ll die of love.
Eaten alive by those who say right
but mean wrong.
(from “Babalon Fantasy,” page 114)
Despite the work being “ultra-real,” some readers may relate and feel the resulting elements of survival contained within. That chorus calling for new minds and voices within the readership. The stories, while holding that imperative, are much more than a series of urgent “calls to arms.” They are also uniquely positioned as vignettes that illustrate a fluidity concerning sexuality and relationships. Vodicka’s speakers blend in their own form of identity collage. This is a unique collective of humanity that, while at its core resembling a distinct feminine energy, contains many folks with many identities. That fluidity moves through gender, moves through sexuality and sexual orientation, and is wonderfully queer. The risks that are taken here, in what sometimes comes off as a freefall or dance between each poem, are immense. But Vodicka’s poetry satisfies that immensity with humor, ironic crassness, and a profound attraction toward the guttural. Some of the most complex differences between humans end up being solved with our shared ability to laugh, mate, orgasm, and produce bodily substances.
What The Elvis Machine reflects is a commitment to exploring the self of selves. Vodicka’s work is an ongoing epic meta-narrative that fits well into an era of distraction and hyper-consumption. I believe it carries a poetics that embraces technology and emerged senses of knowing with unsolved, systemic issues faced by women for millennia. I believe it also connects to the issues faced by trans, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming folks as well.
Cuz the moon is a rogue,
and the muse I on repeat,
and my gaze has been thusly affected.
Respectable receptable, man-infested.
Kingly queen with delusions of infamy.
(from “Milk PTSD,” page 41)
Vodicka’s poems are not solely concerned with solving those issues but rather, like the trickster hero(ine), concerned with pointing them out and doing so in a powerful, incessant, and beautiful way. The language is as crisp as a lake’s edge, as rigid as daggers, and it sweetens the world like a brief lick of blood. It is poetry capable of challenging and chiseling. It calls and it crumbles. And it knows what it is capable of from cover to cover, allowing risk to manifest as subtle, tense experimentation.
Whether readers have a history with feminism or have never heard the word, whether they have read feminist poetry or have never imagined they could, The Elvis Machine is a great place to start. And with as many doors as it shuts in its forceful, chaotic elegance, it opens just as many for us to depart, screaming all along, only to sit still, rest, grow, and sigh empathetically. Vodicka has once again, through effort that bridges gaps between chaos and delicacy, between formalities and madness, crafted a gift of a collection that will educate, will infatuate, and will salivate the gentle reader’s understanding of, and belonging to poetry.
You can find the book here: https://www.clashbooks.com/new-products-2/kim-vodicka-the-elvis-machine
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.
By Lynette G. Esposito
The book is available from www.upress.pitt.edu
By Maggie Paul
A sharp intellect coupled with compassion contributes to the wry yet tender tone of The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky Press, 2020), the fifth collection by poet, translator, and author, Lynn Levin. Levin’s new collection contains a trove of poems that courageously traverse a wide range of subjects including, the seduction of a drug that removes a patient’s fear of death, a criminal finally turning himself in “for a bed and some chow,” and the practicality of habits (organizing, offering small kindnesses to strangers) that structure our days. An alchemy of ordinary gestures, pieces of memory, and echoes of a pre-digital world rise up in poem after poem to reveal who we really are, what we value, and ultimately, what we call our lives. In Levin’s world, form and meaning are intertwined. There is nothing trite in the execution of these poems.
Levin’s work incorporates traditional form and word play to great effect. She is adept at rondels, villanelles, ballads, lyrics and narratives. Her use of end-rhyme, off-rhyme, and internal rhyme is delightfully embedded in the music of the line. Yet these techniques are so skillfully handled, they do not obscure the edgy subject matter and multiple layers of meaning in each poem; rather, they enhance it. In this poet’s hands, form and meter are not constrictive containers, but vehicles barely visible carrying the reader to surprising and evocative ends.
When addressing the challenges of living in the virtual world of cell phones, online dating, and social media, Levin, with a unique un-pedantic approach, explores how 21st century devices alter the nature of relationship – both with one’s self and others. To do so, she calls upon such predecessors as Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman, as in “Song of My Cell Phone,” a play on Whitman’s “Song of My Self.” Here the narrator proclaims, “I sing the life electronic,” and invites the reader to enter into the poem with echoes of Ginsburg’s “Howl:” “I saw the best minds of my generation,/clunking into buildings and strolling into traffic….” Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry” provides the impetus for Levin’s “Sex:” “I too, dislike it,” as the poem proceeds to explore the primal yearning of the body and ultimately turns to conclude, as Moore did regarding the art of poetry, that the value of sex is ineffable.
Some of the poems elegize aspects of a former time. In “Writing in Longhand,” the narrator, after “decluttering” Maria Kondo-style, discovers hand-written letters she’d not looked at in years: “And there I found my old friends alive/in their script.” It is not just finding the letters that moves the narrator to fondly recall the old art of letter writing, but the way the cursive style of each friend reveals their personality: “Exuberant Nancy/with her flourishes and bubble-dotted i’s./Tammy, her cursive half-sized/as if the soul witheld.” Emails and texts notoriously exclude the unique individuality of their correspondents. One must sometimes guess at tone and meaning, and therein we find a loss.
One sign of a strong collection is the desire to turn to it again and again. Successive readings of The Minor Virtues yields more than the number of pages in the book. The poems never fail to re-open, like water lilies known to open at day and close at night. The undeniable magic of multiple meanings and witty conceits occurs without clutter or fluff. Each poem delivers; the possibilities are laid plain.
Among the most moving poems in this collection are those in which the narrator addresses and examines the self, both specific and general, from a philosophical if not existential point of view. The Lilith poems are a carry over from Levin’s previous books. In The Minor Virtues, the Lilith poems continue to mythologize the experiences of a female persona. These poems address the power dynamic between men and women as in “Lilith and Adam,” the writer “before a keyboard and screen” who remembers fondly the writing implements of stylus and quill in “Lilith, the Scribe,” and the trials and tribulations of seeking the intimacy of love in the public sphere of online dating in “Lilith Tries Online Dating.” These poems are at once humorous and yet, full of pathos. As post-modern elegies for how humans communicated in the past, they shed light on a type of beauty the digital world has all but erased.
Is the speed of the digital, technological world worth the sacrifice of in-person relationship, the touching of hands that occurs when a customer pays with small change, the kindness of a woman sharing her breast milk with “…a new mother who is not producing enough milk for her infant?” a new mother whose milk is not producing enough for her infant? Has it enhanced or deepened our awareness and appreciation for how we spend our time? In “My Hours,” the narrator drives these questions home: “All my life I have passed/through curtains of mist./When have I lived and why?/I have spent so much/of my life in aimless hours—lost in weeds, lost in flowers.” How many of us privately hold these same questions? It takes a tightrope walker, a dancer of both classical ballet and hip hop, to weave examinations of our eternal nature with those of the edgy, fast-paced post-modern world we find ourselves in. Levin’s poems perform a seamless duet between the physical and metaphysical, humor and tragedy, joy and loathing.
It is satisfying, no gratifying, to read poems that so eloquently and astutely address the issues of our time. When you enter the poems in The Minor Virtues, prepare to travel the full spectrum of experience lived, lost, and still to come. You just may find yourself…dancing.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1933974354/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Maggie Paul is the author of Scrimshaw (Hummingbird Press 2020), Borrowed World, (Hummingbird Press 2011), and the chapbook, Stones from the Baskets of Others (Black Dirt Press 2000). Her poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the Catamaran Literary Reader, Rattle, The Monterey Poetry Review, Porter Gulch Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and Phren-Z, SALT, and others. She is an education consultant and writing instructor in Santa Cruz, California. For information on Maggie’s publications go to: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/hummingbirdpress
Towards John Keats’s Third Collection of Poetry by Byron Beynon
Two hundred years ago in July 1820, John Keats’s third book of poems “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems” was published by Taylor and Hessey, of Fleet Street, London.
His two previous collections “Poems” (1817), and “Endymion” (1818), had either been ignored or reviewed with savage scorn. This third collection contained most of the major work and is rightly considered his greatest collection.
The eighteen months or so leading up to the book’s publication had been for Keats a rollercoaster of different emotions, with the death of his brother Tom from TB, anxiety over money, personal illness, interspersed with periods of calm, inspiration, and fresh landscapes. However, he managed to create in a relatively short time (between January and September 1819) a body of work which challenged comparison with those of John Milton in his maturity.
This outpouring of major poetry in 1819 produced “The Eve of St Agnes”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to Psyche”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “La Belle Dans sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “To Autumn”. Poetry full of atmosphere, with wonderful delicacy and reserve. It was also a time when his older brother George had already left England and emigrated to America, he’d also met the love of his life Fanny Brawne, not forgetting he had to catch up on and digest several scathing reviews of his previous collections.
These reviews, as John Barnard points out in his book on Keats, were the product of “snobbery and class-consciousness….”. He also noted that “Keats’s aspirations had touched a nerve. Keats represented a threat.” Undaunted Keats would have the strength of mind to continue with his writing.
In his journal letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina written during December/January 1818/1819 Keats recalled:
“The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang – I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o (r) other- neither had Tom….. Sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you.”
George had sailed in June 1818 from Liverpool to Philadelphia, onto Pittsburgh, then to Illinois territory, and the frontier settlement of Henderson in western Kentucky. After several years he eventually moved to Louisville. By the early 1830s, with a successful lumber mill and flour mill, he prospered, and built a large house in Louisville in 1835.
Keats, after the death of his brother Tom on 1st December 1818, moved into Wentworth Place, (now called Keats House), Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown. He had been writing and working on the poem “Hyperion” but put it to one side as the year drew to a close due the stress of his brother’s illness and death.
It was also in his journal letter to George on the 16th December 1818 that Keats first mentions Fanny Brawne:
“Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer, still resides in Hampstead – she is a very nice woman – and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange – we have a little tiff now and then- and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.”
Two days later, on the 18th he wrote “shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height- with a fine style of countenance of the lenghthen’d sort – she wants sentiment in every feature-she manages to make her hair look well- her nostrils are fine- ……her full-face which indeed not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements….”
Through the encouragement of friends like Charles and Maria Dilke, Keats decided that a change of scene might do him good, and by mid January 1819 he travelled and stayed in Chichester, and then onto Bedhampton, to the old Mill House, where he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes” (January/early February 1819). It was another friend, Isabella Jones, who probably suggested to Keats that he should write this poem, a short romance, based on a legend. He had also been working again on the poem “Hyperion”, but the going was slow, and he finally abandoned it before or during April 1819. In mid February he began something new, the unfinished “The Eve of St Mark” where he pictures a cathedral town on a Sunday evening. At the time he worked on this poem he was suffering from a sore throat and was confined to his rooms.
He was now heading towards a golden period when the great odes of late April and early May would come. Back in London, on 11th April Keats took a walk across Hampstead Heath and met Mr Green an acquaintance from Guy’s Hospital in conversation with Coleridge, he joined them on their walk and as Keats said “In those two miles he (C) broached a thousand things……Nightingales, Poetry, – on Practical Sensation- Metaphysics- Different genera and species of Dreams….”
Soon after he wrote “Fancy”, and then on 21st April the ballad “La Belle dame sans Merci” (not included in his third volume). Within another nine days he had completed “To Sleep”, two sonnets “On Fame” and then “Ode to Psyche” the first of the great odes which was written by 30th April. “Ode to Psyche” proved to be a valuable springboard, within two or three weeks all the five remaining odes except “To Autumn” were written. His mind open and restored again with a fluency of purpose after a period of uncertainty and anxiety.
His friend Charles Brown wrote that “Ode to a Nightingale” was written soon after “Ode to Psyche” and composed in a single morning, he described the time of composition as lasting “two or three hours”. Brown also wrote:
“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continued joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of papers in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.”
Richard Holmes in his essay on Keats reflects on the poet’s survival in popular imagination via the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and how in the twentieth century “Scott Fitzgerald revealed a lifelong obsession with Keats, which produced not only the theme and title of “Tender is the Night” (1934), but also inspired his late pedagogic attempt to become a literature professor, as movingly recounted in Sheilah Graham’s “College of One” (1967), which began when Fitzgerald started reciting Keats to her as they drove back from a Hollywood film premier in his ancient Ford.”
Between July and September 1819 Keats stayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, he would also move to Winchester, working on the play “Otho the Great”, and the poems “Lamia” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. That July, Keats who was by then engaged to Fanny Brawne, wrote to her from Shanklin:
“My Sweet Girl,
Your letter gave me more delight, than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe it it, …I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else – I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”
At Winchester, in September he wrote the sensuous and richly powerful “To Autumn”, and on the 19th he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds and mentioned:
“How beautiful the season is now- How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it…I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm- this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
During the winter of 1819/1820 and back in Hampstead, Keats became unwell. His increasing ill health would continue throughout 1820, and his doctor ordered him to go to Italy, hoping that a warmer climate would aid his recovery. In July his third book, after revisions, was published by Taylor and Hessey. With an intuition for sound Keats had produced a body of work unmatched by a poet who had not quite reached the age of twenty-four. As RS White stated in his “John Keats – A Literary Life” the poet did have the “satisfaction of seeing into print a new volume of his poems, containing mainly the fruit of his astonishing creative output in 1819, its title emphasising the romances:”. White further adds that “the 1820 volume is a sublime artistic success, comparable to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in its significance for literary history.”
By September, along with Joseph Severn, Keats set sail for Italy on the Maria Crowther. There in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821, the 25 year old poet died from TB. Joseph Severn later reflected “Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undernote of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind.”
When I lived in London I took advantage of visiting the restored house in Hampstead where Keats once lived and wrote several of his poems and letters. On display inside were first editions of his three books of poetry. These books were once owned by his good friend Charles Brown, and they bear his signature. They were originally issued in drab grey paper covers but Brown had them re-bound in leather to match other books in his library. All three volumes went out of print and they were not available again until 1840. However pirated editions appeared in Paris in 1829 and also in Philadelphia in 1837.
For further reading and sources on John Keats:
John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Bernard Penguin Books 2006
Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings Oxford UP 1986
John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate Harvard UP 1963
John Keats by Robert Gittings Penguin Books 1979
John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale UP 2012
This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes William Collins 2016
Keats and his Circle – An Album of Portraits compiled & presented by Joanna Richardson
published by Cassell London 1980
John Keats A Literary Life by RS White Palgrave/MacMillan 2012
Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Poetry Wales, The London Magazine, San Pedro River Review, Poetry Salzburg, Agenda and the anthology Moments of Vision (Seren). Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and the Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)
PRELUDE: After a four-day visit to Kodiak, Alaska, during August 2018, I witnessed Mother Nature’s stunning beauty that is difficult to describe in words. It is fortunate that the flora and fauna featured in Kodiak’s breathtaking beauty is protected by the laws of nature and those imposed by humankind. Natural physical forces (earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, tsunamis) cause and regulate these phenomena. The natural forests, landscapes, oceans, seashores, mountains, gentle breezes, powerful winds, tumbling streams, singing birds, fresh clean air, changing cumulus clouds, warm sunshine, falling rains and other features made me feel very blessed that I was able to walk and experience the ambiance of such peaceful creations. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, in her book “Molly Bawn” (1878), states “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I was inspired to write this essay titled “Dearest Nature” as a feeble attempt to put into words my thoughts and feelings as I experienced being the eye of the beholder viewing the beauty of nature while meandering within nature’s abode.
Dearest nature, I hope that you never know that I was here! I hope I did not leave even a single footprint that would indicate my one-time presence. Nature is for all humankind to view, appreciate and protect by leaving behind no unsightly symbols of human existence.
English Romantic lyric poet John Keats once wrote, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” The poetry of Kodiak Island’s beauty is very much alive, and I would not want to risk disfiguring or marring it by my being there. The beauty portrayed before me on Kodiak Island cannot be replicated by humankind. Only the laws of nature can effectively change, modify, alter or improve the landscape. Nature’s law is stronger than any law humans have ever composed and implemented.
I felt my asthmatic lungs enjoying my breathing in clean fresh air. German-born diarist Anne Frank once wrote, “I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” My late wife always knew I was distressed when she would see me going off for a long walk in the woodlot on our farm.
Visiting nature in its purest form was like being home even though it was just a short drop-in visit. American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once stated, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” As I meandered in Kodiak’s Forest, I felt heaven was surrounding me with peacefulness, serenity and calmness. The emotions of nearby seas varied with calmness and perilousness. Calm seas dominated two ravishing days of fishing with dear friends. Hazardous seas fraught with danger impeded an additional two days of fishing.
Both calm and hazardous seas were beautiful in their own natural way. Calm seas were ruled by clear blue skies sprinkled with white cumulus clouds. Hazardous seas were commanded by high winds, fast moving white capped waves and rain noisily crashing against rocky and sandy coast lines.
In that part of the world winter can be harsh and gruff but dazzling in its own way. I was confident cold temperatures, freezing winds and snow unrolled their frigid wrath over trees on mountains and valleys with a snow white blanket while they slept during winter months. Rachel Carson once said in her book “Silent Spring,” “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
To appreciate and understand the traits of nature’s pace, her secretive wherewithal virtues include patience, persistence and perseverance. My love of nature in Alaska evolved because I found pleasure in trail-less woodlands, bliss on isolated shores, a culture where no one disturbs nature’s beauty and the roaring euphonic music of the deep sea. Naturalist and conservationist John Muir wrote, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while never-ending cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Let me close this essay with a prominent Latin proverb, “Nature is our mother!”
We wish all well during these troubling times and ask with great sincerity that when you go out to be safe, stay six feet apart, and wear a mask. Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it is a way for all of us to protect each other from this virus which is unrelenting in its pursuit of human beings. Be safe and stay home when at all possible. Let us be hopeful that a vaccine is on the horizon in the near future. Simply put, DO THE RIGHT THING!