Author: North of Oxford

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

Two Poems by Catherine Zickgraf

cath 2
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 Remission
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Blessings in the clouds sound horns of plenty.
Her boys roll around in frenetic joy.
They are pinecones still maturing on the boughs,
on her song in the sweetness of wind-borne bells.
Her words will remain when her voice flies away.
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She weaves yarn through her backyard long pines
so her children can wander their own unknown.
She watches from the porch with gratitude
they’re still young enough they still return home.
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The bridge outside connects the creek sides,
brides swim their dresses out to sea—she teaches
her sons to see with their minds, not eyes.
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Rivers scoop lakes at their estuaries.
A marble she holds encases the oceans.
Tending futures inside, she polishes the sky’s eye,
guards her kids tugging rope up the creek side
and swinging into the long line of horizon.
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Storyteller
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She holds a placemat I wove from construction paper
to lay under her Willow Blue Wedgewood plates on
holidays. I slept over often, I was her bed warmer,
slid eyes open at times when she stroked my hair in
the strawberry dawn. Her girl, says my emerald ring.
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Waking wide into a houseful of comfort, dark coffee
percolating, strawberry jelly and toast, I helped turn
dough into linen-lined bowls of dinner rolls. We
greeted parents, uncles and aunts at the door—sons
of her heart, in-law daughters of her dreams. She’s
prayed hope and home into each new household
since before her boys were born. We still lament his
absence, the guest list forever incomplete. Yet she’s
been strong enough to attend to our needs, tending
generations of seeds, taking the head of the table.
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Fed full and warm, we laughed, I swam carpet and
grass with cousins. My, how those evenings passed
without watch-references, phone-glances, grudges,
etc. Adults rested elbows, leaned in, flushed with
Riesling—trunks feeding canopies their leaves. For
from the recliner now, she nurtures with stories of
perseverance and stability to bless even as-yet unsent
souls whom during her own time she will never meet.
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cath
Catherine Zickgraf grew up in Boothwyn, PA and lives in Augusta, GA. Two lifetimes ago, she performed her poetry in Madrid. Now her main jobs are to write and hang out with her family. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pank, Victorian Violet Press, and The Grief Diaries. Her chapbook, Soul Full of Eye, is published through Aldrich Press. Find her on twitter @czickgraf. Watch and read more at http://www.caththegreat.blogspot.com
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Two Poems by James Tyler

cumberland
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Cumberland River, 2am
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There’s a latitude and longitude in Tennessee
where I step in the dirty Cumberland River,
mud between toes, those brittle bones.
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It goes from here to the Queen City,
winds its filth, memories of Civil War
and white paddle steamers.
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Wind sings songs on the surface
to rainbow trout and walleye,
to the bones of drowned lovers.
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White lights shine on black water,
reflect the last silver quarter minted 1964.
The Queen City is asleep now,
nestled against the Cumberland River, 2am.
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There must be some equation
explaining how the river bends into nothing—
darkness a heavy, bottom-dwelling catfish—
darkness that betrays no moon tonight.
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I could slip nude into these black waters,
but it’s too cold and the current might take me away—
for I am a man and not Ophelia,
for there is no bard to orate about me but me.
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Somewhere around here I wish starlight could sink
all the way. I wish I could play the flute,
coax sleeping fish away from the reeds
so they could follow me into my own dreams.
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My father taught me to fish these waters,
how to hook a night crawler and cast a line,
but I never got the gumption to gut one.
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Put your ear to these waters and they’ll sing
a whole history, how sun and star burn in turn,
and maybe they’ll tell the truth, or just a little lie.
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Blade of Grass
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O to be a blade of grass, trampled upon
by the soles of a thousand feet,
to fall victim to the gardener’s blade
in the morning before the spring storm.
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Dear wind, your northern breath sour
from snowstorms and icy midnights,
spreads pregnant pollen across meadows,
the whorehouses of nature.
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I am not a wildflower, red columbine or harebell,
just a blade of green that has grown too tall,
quite worthless in the eyes of flower pickers,
but am I not one of God’s children, equal
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to lily and rose, though not fragrant or fair,
free to be pissed upon by your purebred dog
and forgotten like one of a thousand banquets
whose mother is dirt and water, seed and sun?
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The double rainbow is essential to my soul
in a mundane world whose colors are black and grey,
where I kiss the dew with tongue and a force
that can cut this blade, this insignificant flower
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whose song remains unsung in the season
who becomes golden in its turn and spun,
becomes humble food for cattle and horse,
forsaken by me, yet still touched by God.
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James Tyler earned a BA in English from Austin Peay State University. He has been published in such journals as Chiron Review, Cape Rock, Doubly Mad, and Poetry Quarterly. He currently resides in Nashville, TN.

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Two Poems by Ace Boggess

park light
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Listening to James Brown on Pandora Radio
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Thing to do while lying in bed, embracing
as slack body squeezes slack—
post-sleep, pre-awakened. Forget sex—
hard demand of it James Brown’s words &
rhythm urge like hundreds of electric pulses
in the creature reviving. Let them
carry you on a pilgrimage
where what you seek has less importance
than what you see, experience—
all music, even songs you loathe
which fill your dreams with calamities—
stir something you’ve forgotten:
maybe it’s the funk you’re in
his funk will bring you out of.
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“And What Is the Point of Walking
When There Is Nowhere You Have to Be?”
                        —Katherine Kilalea, Ok, Mr. Field
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let me be lazy without the word tattooed on my chest.
it’s hot outside. say it. yes, it’s scorching, humid.
asphalt melts my tennis shoes. my skin
slicks as though I showered in cooking oil.
when spacemen left their heaven, they left the oven on.
think light, & there is light—too much, I’m blind.
let me be lazy one afternoon with nothing to do,
no roads to cross, goods to accumulate.
I could, if forced, stroll slowly to the corner shop,
except I see no corners, only curves
that bend to monotony. let me be lazy.
let me self-medicate for aches & lack of sleep,
lulled by the computer light until my eyes
let me remember why I came.
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Ace Boggess photo
Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry—Misadventure, I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, Ultra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.
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Another Life by Abriana Jette

seagull
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Another Life
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I met him before the wild of the present
another life entirely
(each century our story widening)
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I dreamt it might have happened
grew frightened at the untold unraveling
felt the ocean sweep my body
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bone by bone to dust wept quietly
woke up another person entirely
leaving a dozen centuries widening
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behind me the wild present
and in every retrospection
in every life I have been divided in
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beyond the confines of this body
though still a bodily calling
his voice in every version
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abrianna
The poetry of Abriana Jette has been featured in The Seneca Review, PLUME Poetry Journal, Poetry New Zealand and many other places.
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Two Poems by Edward Lee

feet
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Memory
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This soil beneath my feet
is as your body,
spread before me
wounded by age
and decay, tumbled
by strong winds
and harsh rains,
disappearing with every passing season,
as you do
from my memory,
the last of you
staining clothes
I no longer wear.
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Two Countries
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In the country
that lives
in the marrow of my bones
I am a free man,
prone to daydreams
and gentle lies,
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while in the country
that beats beneath my steps,
I am a man bound
by all the tales
I have told,
and the tales to come,
those that I must tell
for their ancestral untruths
to remain alive
and true.
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Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll.  His debut poetry collection “Playing Poohsticks On Ha’Penny Bridge” was published in 2010. He is currently working towards a second collection. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com
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A Familiar Street, Unknown by Brian Rihlmann

sidewalk
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A Familiar Street, Unknown
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Sometime, walk a street
you’ve only driven before,
maybe on your way
back and forth to work.
Overlook nothing—
notice every pothole and sidewalk crack.
Notice people’s yards—
their statues and symbols,
and whether they grow grass or vegetables,
or weeds, or nothing.
And notice the people, too—
do they smile and wave, or at least nod,
or just look away?
Notice how easily the roots
of trees shatter curbs,
driveways, and all our plans.
Notice how easily their flesh
absorbs the rusty spikes of a barbwire fence.
Notice what gathers curbside
and in drainage ditches.
You may find rare flowers
among road grit and broken bottles,
growing from piles of dead seeds.
You may find a still glowing ember,
and something to fan it with.
You may find a memorial
with candles burned down
to shapeless lumps and a child’s note
scrawled in purple crayon—
We miss you Daddy.
Read everything you see,
everything you find on the ground.
Read graffiti and street signs.
Read the chalked messages
of neighborhood children.
Discarded paperbacks and high school essays.
Arrest warrants, medical reports,
missing person flyers.
A gospel tract flapping in the gutter
like a wounded dove.
A crumpled love letter—
unwrap it carefully as a gift
and read the words that failed
to sway a too human heart.
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brian
Brian Rihlmann lives and writes in Reno, Nevada. His poetry has appeared in many magazines, including The Rye Whiskey Review, Fearless, Heroin Love Songs, Chiron Review and The Main Street Rag. His latest collection, “Night At My Throat,” (2020) was published by Pony One Dog Press.
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Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

RAZOR WIRE

By Charles Rammelkamp

Toward the end of her harrowing true crime memoir, Stephanie Dickinson writes that her own experience with missteps “has shown me that life sometimes does give you a second chance, and that we must seize it.” Razor Wire Wilderness focuses primarily on Krystal Riordan and Lucy Weems, two inmates in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, New Jersey, a maximum security prison for women, how they got there, how they survive once they are incarcerated, their urgent pursuit of that second chance, that redemption.

Dickinson weaves her own story throughout Krystal’s and Lucy’s, from her dull mid-century childhood in rural Iowa to hitchhiking around North America as a teenager, rebelling against a repressive Midwestern mother, her fateful meeting with her friend Michael in Montreal, and eventually attending an inauspicious Thanksgiving Day party in North Carolina at the home of Michael’s psychopath friend Charlie, who, drunk and jealous, blasts her with a shotgun, rendering her left arm useless for the rest of her life.

Dickinson had already read Capote’s In Cold Blood, the newspaper stories of the Manson cult girls in the Tate-LaBianca murders, the accounts written by Auschwitz survivors, the brutal Andersonville prison camp during the American Civil War, when, in the summer of 2006, her attention was snagged by the lurid cover story in the New York Daily News, Hooker Watched Boyfriend Kill Teen, a true crime story about Krystal Riordan and her pimp lover Draymond Coleman and their victim Jennifer Moore, murdered in a shabby Weehawken, New Jersey hotel.  Stephanie befriends Riordan, sympathetic to her through her own life experiences, and the friendship results in Dickinson’s much-heralded 2014 novel, Love Highway. Razor Wire Wilderness is as much backstory to that novel as it is a story of deliverance.

Krystal is born with the odds already stacked against her. Her mother, Eva, is a prostitute who neglected her children.  Indeed, when Krystal reconnects with her mother years later, Eva steals from her! Lice-ridden, Krystal, already molested by an uncle before the age of five, and her younger sister Nicole are “rescued” by Child Services and subsequently adopted by the Riordans, a middle class family in Orange, Connecticut. Despite the parental attention, Nicole will become a junkie, Krystal a prostitute.

For almost a decade, Mrs. Riordan, a Girl Scout troop leader, ferries Krystal and Nicole around to therapy sessions, music lessons and, in 5’9” Krystal’s case, basketball practice, until one day, when Krystal is 14, her mother catches her in her bedroom with some boys, and after consulting a psychologist for “disturbed adolescents,” packs her off to a boarding school for troubled teens in Maine called Élan, which turns out to be more like a prison run by sadists than a nurturing educational institution. Students are humiliated and attacked by residents who are egged on by school officials. They shout, “You’re a whore!” and “We wish you were dead!” The whole approach is later described by investigators as a “brainwashing technique.”

Élan ultimately closed in 2011 after stories of deprivation and abuse circulated about the place whose annual tuition was around $50,000. Stories of suicides and prison were common. But in Krystal’s case, the damage had already been done – or exacerbated. After she graduates, it’s almost no wonder she turns to prostitution.

This is how she meets her psychopath, Draymond Coleman, a man almost twice her age, whom she loves with the passionate conviction of a person in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome.  Dray is both her lover and her pimp. Often, at Draymond’s direction, they engage in threesomes with other girls, and indeed this is how things ultimately go wrong.

One night a group of teenagers from New Jersey comes to Manhattan for a night of fun. One, Jennifer Moore, get separated from her friends and falls into Draymond’s clutches. He takes her to the Weehawken hotel where he and Krystal are staying, and things get out of hand. Draymond strangles Jennifer, and he and Krystal dispose of the body.  They are caught and Krystal winds up at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF).

Dickinson describes the bleak existence at EMCF in great detail, from the treatment by guards to the work details to the humiliating desperation of “Toilet Paper Day” to the interaction among the inmates. It is at EMCF that Krystal meets her friend Lucy Weems.

Dickinson describes Lucy’s life in grim detail, from her rough treatment by an uncle, her life of drugs and prostitution, the heroin addiction that drives her to the grimmest decisions.

“It’s hard to get off the hooker hamster wheel,” Lucy confides. “I’ve given blowjobs for $400 and anal sex for $20. If you’re dope-sick, you’ll do anything.”

Dickinson describes the intensely possessive friendships among the women at EMCF and how Valentine’s Day with its explosions of love and sex is the signature holiday in prison. “Love’s an obstacle course that sometimes ends in blood,” she writes. Fights are usually about cheating.

By contrast, Mother’s Day is sad. Children are ashamed of their incarcerated mothers; mothers of inmates refuse to visit their daughters. Those that do are awkward and self-conscious. Dickinson tells the grim stories of so many of the women, like “Anna,” who has sex with her 14-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, for which she’s been sentenced to five years at EMCF.

Do Lucy and Krystal get a second chance? After her release, Lucy reunites with the father of her younger daughter and seems to be making a life, difficult though it often is. The COVID-19 pandemic occurs when Krystal is still facing five more years at EMCF, still determined to get out and start over. “I look forward to a normal bed,” she declares. “Wearing real clothes and shoes….There is so much I want to do.”

In a final reflection, Dickinson dreams of a final redemption for all the girls – for everybody – who has taken a wrong turn, made a disastrous decision. Razor Wire Wilderness is a fascinating look at a world so many of us never encounter.

You can find the book here: https://www.kallistogaiapress.org/product/razor-wire-wilderness/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

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High Tide by Ed Meek

 
high tide
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The surf is certainly up in Ed Meek’s High Tide published by Aubade Publishing. Nina Rubenstein Alonso, Editor of Constellations, a Journal of Poetry and Fiction, comments that “Ed Meek’s poems pull us in with such clarity that you don’t feel the pain at first, almost like a painting you need to study until you see what’s waiting in the shadows, that scarred figure, it’s history.”
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High Tide makes the reader feel like he is swimming in the shallows, safe, unaware of the images of sharks like dark gothic beings waiting to prey on your intellect.  The poems open on one path, then deliciously lead down another one you did not expect. For example, the first poem in the book on page one, Hamock, details notes that Columbus took.
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                 Mayans carved them from the bark of trees
                 Columbus noted in his diary.
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Meek skillfully uses the title to define “them” and holds a conversational tone all through this twenty-six line, one- stanza poem.  Meek details the wonderful leisurely activities of using a hammock through the first fifteen lines of the poem then speaks of A promise I usually fail to keep as the poem reaches a turning point.  The tone of the poem becomes more somber and the narrator becomes like a spider in a web suspended above the earth dreaming of things he did not do and the Mayans half asleep before Columbus washes ashore.  It is a powerful poem with many suggestions.  
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This highly skilled author shows this strength throughout the book.   In the poem on page seventeen, Praise for Ponytailed Girls Who Run, Meek presents a nice setting and visual and makes a subtle comment on what is alive and what is not alive using hair as his metaphor.
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          I love to see them bouncing past
          on the balls of their feet—
          hair pulled back to flaunt
          flawless skin, flashing
          arms from T-shirts, legs
          in short shorts, multi-colored,
          incandescent shoes.
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In this three- stanza, free-verse poem, it is clear the narrator’s admiration has reconstructed a view of beauty.  The third stanza turns to the hair.
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        And the hair, lovely,
        surely not dead
        but vibrant with life and light
        as it sways and bobs
       like a rope swings in the wind above the water.
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Meek has turned the vision of a young girl running into a comment on how life is perceived.
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While some poems span more than a page, Meek is also able to project deep meaning in very short poems.  On page seventy-eight, the three- line, one-stanza poem,  The Last Game, demonstrates Meek’s ability to see and translate images into profound interpretation.
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        When you die, you will slide
        under the tag at home.
        dust rising in the air.
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The assumption that we all die is, of course, clear, but to become dust and rise in the air at home, gives one pause for thought when housekeeping.
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Hide Tide is a thoughtful book of complex poems that range from the ordinary to extraordinary in both themes and images. It is not a book one would read in a single setting but a little here and a little there allowing time to digest.  It was a pleasure to read.
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High Tide is available from Aubade Publishing at https://aubadepublishing.com/books/high-tide/ 
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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