Author: North of Oxford

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

Muddying the Holy Waters by Chocolate Waters

muddy

By Charles Rammelkamp

Without putting too much emphasis on the cleverness of the title, the words “muddying” and “holy” stand out as the labels of Chocolate Waters’ new collection. “Holy” is an apt description of her outlook, an almost spiritual, if comic and irreverent, voice that spins the narrative of her life; “muddying” certainly pinpoints the details of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the strangling conformity of a Republican small town, being the outsider everywhere, generally.

Muddying the Holy Waters is made up of two parts. “Impossible” is about an unrequited love affair with an unnamed woman. “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” subtitled “(the Curse and the Blessing of Mount Joy, PA),” is about her family, about growing up. Consisting of poems, essays and photographs (mostly in the second part, snapshots of her parents, siblings and herself), the collection is a retrospective of her life, as she enters her 70’s. Her goal in putting this collection together, she tells us in concluding essay, “The End is the Beginning – Muddying Your Own Holy Waters,” is to get to “the authentic bottom line of [my] life experiences,” to “explain how difficult it is for me to be vulnerable, to go beyond expressing my default reaction which is just to be majorly pissed off.”

“My life has been about rejection,” Waters writes in her introduction to “Impossible.” She also tells us about the origin of her name, the taunts of her classmates calling her “Choc-o-lotta Weirdo,” but also, living less than half an hour away from Hershey, named for “the religious racist chocolate magnate,” had something to do with it. (Spoiler alert: her parents named her Marianne, which I learned from reading the caption to a newspaper photograph of her as the Douglas High School spelling bee champion, in the second part.)

But rejection is at the heart of “Impossible,” in which she describes the evolution of her sexuality, from rejection by high school boys to eventually identifying as lesbian. She’s one of the first openly lesbian poets to publish in the United States, part of Second-wave feminism, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. First-wave feminism focused on voting and property rights; second-wave expanded the debate to include issues of sexuality, the workplace, and family.

As a front-line warrior, she experienced plenty of rejection. But this sequence focuses on a particular love interest that never developed the way she wanted. From poems like “Encounter #1” and “First Rush” (“longing to / ingest you / whole or / bit by bit”), in which her desire takes hold, to “Apology” and “Dirty Karma” she confesses her hopes, only to have them dashed in “Things I Won’t Have to Do (since I’ll never see you again)” and “Bang Bang” (“She shot me down / as I was talking on the phone / She shot me down as I was washing the dishes / as I was watching Netflix / as I was peeing”). The bitter reactions morph: “You Don’t Deserve Me” begins:

You know you don’t
The nights I howled over your rejection
What tossing me out the window did

Then, in the “Afterthoughts” section come the episodes of drunk dialing. The rejection still hurts.

The first section also contains a sometimes-funny, mostly sad series of poems about the dead animals in her life, from a favorite collie to her faithful cat Scruff-o (“for seven years he loved me”). We’ve all lost pets. Waters captures the heartbreak with real sensitivity.

The second section, “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” is by far the more affecting sequence, starting with the essay, “How Mount Joy Transformed Me into a Pisser Poet.” This section is all about her parents and siblings. If she is often unsentimental in her assessments of family members, she is always forgiving, affectionate. To her brother Bob she writes:

you are so terrified
of me
pagan dyke poet telling my truth in a bar
as i am
of you
good christian
telling yours in a church

Chocolate confesses her shortcomings as an older sibling, growing up in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, her impatience, but she concludes her short essay, “What Good Are Brothers?”:  “So what good are brothers? More than I thought, more than I have the ability to say.”

But it’s the poems about her mother and father that cut the deepest.  Her dad was a bigamist, a second family they only learned about later. He was also a real prick to his wife. They both essentially hated each other but stayed married.  When her father died, Chocolate was heartbroken. He was her favorite. She writes in “waiting room”:

I was in the waiting room w/uncle billy
down on my knees in public
crying unabashedly
gasping so hard
my tears strangled me
praying to a god I didn’t believe in

About her mother, she is not so teary. Though she recognizes her mother was a victim, she still can’t quite forgive. In “pauline’s daughter” she writes,

it was impossible having you for a mom
no way you could have mothered wild-child
brilliant
pissed-off
melancholic me
i ran more circles around you
than a venn diagram
but what was it like for you
left alone to parent four young children

abandoned by your husband
who preferred the company
of any woman but you

In “Mommie Dearest” she addresses Pauline who is lying in her coffin: “”What do I say to your dead body?” No breast-beating at this bedside.

The Mount Joy poems are bookended by the “Curse” poem – “I ran away / oh the freedom in escaping / the christian republican evangelists” – and the blessing:

two kinda of people live here
the ones who go to church and
the ones who go to the bar
had i stayed
i’d become a raging alcoholic
or a hallelujah

Chocolate Waters clarifies her muddied waters in this affecting collection, so we can see ourselves down there at the bottom as well.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Muddying-Holy-Waters-Chocolate/dp/0935060111

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

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Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling by Riad Saleh Hussein, Translated by Saleh Razzouk with Philip Terman

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By Greg Bem

Riad Seleh Hussein’s work has been a long time coming. Impassioned by political activism and experimental writing, Hussein’s work is not to be missed. Following a short but active youth, the Syrian poet (1954-1982) died due to unknown causes after a brief arrest and despite Arabic publications highlighting his contributions to prose poetry in Syria and the Middle East, English readers only now get a gaze into his world. Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is a powerful book unlike any other and I hope it find its way into many libraries, personal and beyond.

The poetry here is often compared to prose poetry, but one might find more similarities in English to Amiri Baraka and Ray Bremser, with long, sword-like lines cutting out across the page over, and over, and over. The effect in English is hypnotic and stunning, concussive and paralytic, though Hussein’s work is charged with density and relentless presentation of fantastic lines. But these lines are not without difficulty, because they aren’t afraid of war, they aren’t afraid of hardship, they aren’t afraid of carrying the voice of the people, and the country, of Syria:

O poor knives
O dirty human body
O dogs stuffed with sausages, love and the aroma of mint.
I am Riad Saleh Hussein
My age is twenty-two dry oranges
And hundreds of massacres and coups.
Thousands of times my hands have been terminated
Like two trees of happiness in a desert.

(from The Pure Artist and a Clean Flower, pg. 28)

I am reminded of the prose poetry of Burmese writer Maung Day here. I am also reminded of the Hmong poet Mai Der Vang’s recent book of documentary poetics, Yellow Rain. Concerning the lines or the sum, not all of Hussein’s poems are long, of course. Some of the most spectacular moments in the book occur with short, concise poems that are packed with image, metaphor, and a longing to provide words for impossible situations. At other times, these short poems feel like songs or prayers, exquisite and heavy at once:

Forever we shall lead you into the springs.
Forever we shall dry your blood with our green fingers
And your tears with our dry lips.
Forever we shall pave roads for you
And never let you get lost O Syria
Like a song in a desert.

(from Syria, pg. 21)

Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is not a long book, but it contains the best picture of Hussein that we have in the English language. Many thanks should be given to translators Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman for their efforts in bringing forward these poems. The book is divided into three sections and includes a swathing survey of Hussein’s work, opening the door for more translations to come. The collection includes historical information, including an opening essay and a timeline of dates centering the poet’s life. It also includes an homage by Terman, reinforcing the impression and inspiration Hussein’s poetry creates.

The sense of love in Hussein’s poetry is second to none, and this love is clearly integral to the poet. In one of the latter poems of the book, a five part love epic, he closes:

What do we do
if there is only one jubilee for the kiss
and many jubilees for the killing.

What do we do?

(from Jubilee for a Kiss, Jubilee for a Killing, pg. 78)

This is a universal love poetry, one that responds to the cycles of violence faced across the world, time and again. That we can appreciate it is a gift. That it can be present during the many breakdowns facing the West is a gift. This is a poetry that will lead us to new forms of resilience and an ongoing commitment to the poetry of the lyric.

You can get the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781734653526/tango-below-a-narrow-ceiling.aspx

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 www.gregbem.com

Along the Way by Scott Pariseau

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By John Zheng
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Scott Pariseau’s Along the Way is his first collection of poems and prose in variant forms, including epitaph, haiku, tanka-like poems, sonnet, free verse, and four prose pieces. As he says in the preface, the poet arranges the collection nearly chronologically and leads us along the way to different places—lived and traveled by the author—to experience his nostalgia, sadness, and sense of beauty found in ordinary life.
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One characteristic of Pariseau’s poetry is the use of different poetic forms. “Fall Migration,” which serves as the prelude, is arranged in four stanzas, each composed of two couplets. It also gives attention to alliteration and assonance, as shown in “I long that I might leave the ground / to fly with geese by time unbound.” Another good example of alliteration is in “Sprays of snow stuck / to my moist, scarved mouth” (“Night Walk, Winter”). Pariseau writes sonnets too. “First Crush” is a love sonnet in two stanzas. While the scheme is Petrarchan (composed of an octave and a sestet), the rhyme pattern is mainly Shakespearean. Yet, while the octave follows the Shakespearean rhyme pattern closely (ABABCDCD), the sestet veers to some degree away from the Shakespearean rhyme. Instead of using the EFEFGG rhyme, Pariseau has three couplets in the sestet rhymed as EEFFGG.
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Another characteristic of Along the Way is the use of imagery coming from his personal experience. For example, “In Autumn Light” relates the crows to the black soil:
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Crows
fly slow,
like black soil
rolling
off plows.
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As one who was once a farmhand, this reviewer appreciates the poet’s accurate comparison made from his farming experience. Another interesting image, a spoked wheel in “In Rotation,” creates a vivid auditory and visual view of the lovely puppies:
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Six puppies
slurping water
from a bowl—
like a spoked wheel
rotation slowly
clockwise
as they drink.
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Pariseau is a keen observer who finds something memorable or beautiful in the ordinary. In “Still Life,” an eight-line poem, he sees and smells “the moist scent / of cut roses in a bowl” which “permeates everything” that is not pleasant to the senses: the scorching heat of an afternoon, the thin air in a dusty room, the drawn blinds, and the dim, yellow light.
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Moreover, memory brings out a sense of place loved by people, as presented in “Night in Harkey Valley, Arkansas”:
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This family, spread by miles,
is together again, talking late
at the table.  Love stirs,
grows in the eyes
of three generations.
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Ancestors are named—
they are present, waiting;
their bones slide easily
into fresh young cousins.
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This poem presents a common but cozy scene of a family time filled with love and harmony. Their good relationship and communication are reflected not only through their talk but in their eyes as well. Their talk moves smoothly to the second stanza about their ancestors to suggest a history and heritage of three generations, and this heritage becomes concrete in the last two miraculous lines. A reader may wish the poem could be longer with more details to flesh out the family time.
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Besides writing about daily life and memory, Pariseau also turns his eye to ecowriting. “Thirteen Turtles: A Prose Meditation”—a short prose piece—conveys a strong ecological message. It intends to raise awareness of the potential negative consequence of the human killing of birds and animals and the destruction done to the earth. Further, Pariseau mentions yin yang in the Chinese cosmological symbolism, which means balance. People should realize that when the balance no longer exists on this earth, nature will turn to punish its destroyers—human beings.
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Occasionally we hear a sentimental sigh. “Dream at Ocean Haven” sighs about the bygone youth: “O, when do those / pure colors of youths / begin acquiring / the solemn tints / of the grave?” but oftentimes we see impressionistic and delightful views in Along the Way with an expectation for an aftertaste.
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John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.
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Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines by Ed Werstein

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By Edward Morin
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Ed Werstein’s first full-length collection, A Tar Pit to Dye In (2018), showed a jaunty bent for wordplay, commitment to poetry as vocation, and uncommon insight into human relationships and societal concerns. His new book, Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines (Waters Edge Press, 2021), builds on this foundation. It restates commitment in an opening epigraph from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Insurgent Art:
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“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

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Communiqué distributes over five dozen poems into sections named for thematic categories used by the full-service newspapers: National and Local News, International News, Weather Report, Sports Report, Business News, Politics, Special: The War Report, Science and Religion, and Obituaries.” Citing the headline and media source for each poem, Werstein segues from the original coverage into his personal insights, feelings, and interpolations.
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On the National and Local front, “A Couple from Massachusetts” tells of hikers who slip off an icy cliff and fall to their death. At first, the poet asks:
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With news of war, mass shootings, a pandemic
and a looming environmental disaster,
Why do I need to know about this?
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He decides that, of the 7,500 people who die each day in the U.S., these two are special to more than just their relatives and friends because they died “in each other’s arms doing something they love to do. / I should be so lucky.” The interplay of public and deeply personal themes is continually present throughout the book.
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Ranging from very recent news to that of bygone eras, headlines are the dock from which Captain Werstein launches his flotilla of poems. “Transportation Blues,” uses stock phrases from blues lyrics in complaints about Governor Scott Walker’s veto of high-speed rail in Wisconsin and the overall degradation of railroad passenger service in the U.S. In “Dear Emmett,” the woman linked to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till admits six decades later that she gave false testimony, underscoring the slow pace of racial justice. The personal compulsions driving these poems prevent them from treading water as rhetorical propaganda.
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For International News, Werstein draws on his experience living in Latin America as he portrays a deadly earthquake, Chilean miners rescued after weeks trapped underground, and the politics of Pablo Neruda’s body being exhumed. “Teaching Women How to Fly” compares America’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 with a similar industrial atrocity in Bangladesh, where the women “flying” to their deaths were sewing clothes Americans buy at Walmart. Working people’s perspectives are prominent throughout the collection.
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Weather Report features “Junkman’s Wet Dream,” about a Milwaukee flood of biblical proportions and the aftermath:
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Today, in the sunshine, people all over the city
are hauling water-soaked hutches, cabinets
and carpets to the curb as old pickup trucks,
driven by junkyard vultures, circle
like Conestogas making camp,
like planes over La Guardia,
like toms around a cat in heat,
ready to pounce.
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The poem “It’s Not God, It’s Us” epitomizes America’s apathy in the face of global warming: “[Don’t] take any action, except maybe sending a few bucks: / our only way to make up for a strangled government.”
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The emotional tone of poems in Sports News are by turns acerbic or heartwarming. They spotlight injuries in football games, Trump’s censure of NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem, and celebrations of the poet’s hometown Milwaukee Brewers and the legendary Detroit Tiger broadcaster, Ernie Harwell.  In Business News, the poem “Mine” plays upon that word as a corporate representative urges the reopening of an environmentally dangerous iron mine in the Penokee Ridges, then asserts rights of ownership over incalculable assets:
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The oil is mine, the water, mine,
even the wind. I’ll meter it and sell it to you
as soon as you buy all my oil.
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The speaker’s exaggerations in favor of corporate greed reduce his arguments to absurdity.
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The poet himself becomes playfully absurd in the poem “Austerity,” which addresses the world’s debt problem. He asks naively,
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What if, like other states, the state of poetry were in default?
Poets everywhere would be in debt.
A word lifted here, a phrase there, . . .
and pretty soon it would start to add up.
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Lenders would keep monetized words like “gold,” “estates,” “offshore bank accounts” to themselves and
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[w]e would be left with only titles,
signifying not our ownership
but our mounting debts,
and these few words: austerity
crisis, foreclosure, unemployment,
hunger, poverty, war.
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Words that would never be taken from us.
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Communiqué includes four villanelles—a stanza form that usually hampers rhetorical purpose; the best of these is “Second Thoughts” in the Politics section. Responding to the headline, “Virginia Legislature Turns Down Ban on Military-style Weapons,” a gun-rights advocate asserts:
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Above all else on Earth I love my guns.
They’re symbols of my freedom and my rights. . . .
            *          *          *
Above my wife, my daughters and my sons
whose lives my guns protect throughout the night.
            *          *          *
Opposing points of view I always shun.
There’s only one amendment I can cite.
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The speaker’s romance with firearms has become his ruling passion:
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Some poems of Special: The War Report visit U. S. military incursions into Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, others poems treat related domestic outbreaks of gun violence. The poet hasn’t met a war he doesn’t dislike. Science and Religion offers lighter fare. “The Picture of Dorian Redwood” exults in longevity, “The Voices at Chauvet Cave” imagines artists of primitive drawings speaking to us, and “Pan-Demonic” is a Bacchanalian paeon to lovers’ sensual joys during Covid-enforced sequestration.
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Obituaries, the book’s final section, pays tribute to Werstein’s idols—Hank Aaron, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek. It also commemorates executed convict, Troy Davis. The piéce de resistance of this section is the charming “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” It cites the headline announcing the legendary child star’s demise and begins:
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Let no alcohol be poured today.
Shirley Temple is dead at eighty-five.
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Let us raise eponymous sweet concoctions
of fruit and bubbles and toast Clark Gable,
whose Hollywood star was eclipsed
by a six-year-old supernova
who earned 1,200 dollars a week
during the Depression.
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Recommending that we honor Shirley’s memory as contemporaries did by imitating her hairstyle, donning sailor suit and tap dance shoes, and becoming “ambassador to foreign lands,” the mourner concludes,
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Shirley Temple is dead at almost eighty-six.
The Good Ship Lollipop has sailed the River Styx.
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Communiqué’s unconventional, if not unique, amalgam of poetry and mass culture is a “people’s history” with something of value for nearly everybody. The poet makes what interests him tantalizing through finely honed paradox and sheer verbal legerdemain. Theodore Roethke told poets, “Get to your compulsions”; I had fun watching Ed Werstein display his. He examines contemporary phenomena such as global warming, income and racial inequality, and corporate control of government with provocative wit reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw.
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Edward Morin is a poet, song writer and translator whose work has been published in Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner and three poetry collections including The Bold News of Birdcalls (2021).  His co-translations of contemporary poems from Greek, Chinese, and Arabic have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His book reviews have been published in Georgia Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Detroit News.
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Primitive Mood by David Moolten

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By Ray Greenblatt

David Moolten’s poetic lines vibrate and sing. His poems are mostly in Blank Verse because storytelling is a strong poetic technique. He is a profound thinker: his topics are far reaching from the romance of Tristan to the Enola Gay to Rwanda; from Van Gogh to the 30’s Depression to Garcia Lorca; from Nijinsky to Mount Rushmore to Medusa.

          I found his poems about Jewish events to be the most compelling because of my similar family background. I will concentrate on six of these poems that will highlight many of the poet’s techniques: Columbarium, Yellow Star, Story, Klezmer, Soup, and Dybbuk.

                                                               “Columbarium”

          A dove is a recurring image throughout this very moving poem about children caught in the holocaust.

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         “Legend says doves saved the Altneu synagogue
          In Prague in 1558, really
          Angles in disguise who hovered cooing
          Along the roof while the ghetto burned.
          You can imagine the faint creak as their wings fanned
          The flames away from Europe’s oldest shul
          The obdurate roost of tradition.”
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The Jews were saved then. Earlier in ancient Rome if a Jew died, at least he was allowed entrance into a columbarium, a room where funeral urns are stored.

          But in World War II all was denied Jewry. The interned children were forced to move boxes of human ashes. “To cloud and clot the current” intensifies the gruesome task.

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         “Perhaps
          There never was a way to contain such truth.
          Though as they scattered handfuls of gray silt
          To cloud and clot the current they must
          Have fluttered a little, carried in the wind
          As when a flock is released and wheels
          With calm restraint over a city’s spires and eaves
          Before returning to its niches.”
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Moolten combines the doves with the ashes both of which are in flight in their own way. The “truth” will out no matter how indirect.

         The poem concludes by considering the present; the symbols of dove and columbarium continue until the end. Now living Jews will keep the memory of injustice and the possibility of hope alive.

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          “Perhaps when you stand
          In the synagogue on a Friday night
          Once the crowds disperse, listening to the past
          Quietly murmured in a dead language
          You are that small opening, that repository
          Of memory, which is its own homing
          Crossing the impossible distance like a dove,”
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David Moolten’s endings are conclusive and powerful.
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                                                              “Yellow Star”.

          This poem is about life after surviving the prison camps. The Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear, gathers many metaphors about it.

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          “He saved it like a captured butterfly,
          A medal decorating a box of yellowed black
          And white snapshots, a souvenir of his first
          Lost life, infernal and exquisite, a flared match
          His hand could tolerate just a moment . . .
          In the torah that made him
          Who he was, a noxious star, a hexagram,
          Petaled like a sunflower, a saffron dahlia.”
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He rationalizes by seeing beauty in the star as a butterfly, medal, sunflower, dahlia. But it also stands for the pain of humiliation: “a flared match his hand could tolerate just a moment,” or “a noxious star.”

          The poem infers that he has lost his wife, a greatly beloved person, in the holocaust; his life was “exquisite” but became “infernal.” She was an:

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          “Ordinary, singular soul, which imbued
           Whatever her fingers touched, made it
          Less horrific, less contemptible
          Like the apple had Eve grown the tree herself.”
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This yellow star with its mixed associations was his memory of her.

                                                                  “Story”

          This poem is also about a man who has survived the holocaust. However, the horrific story he brings with him—almost too terrible for people to believe, even his own wife—becomes a character in its own right and takes over the poem.

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         “A story which stalks him across the slant of light
          Of years like his own long shadow
          On the veranda, an evil twin with a past
          Who stares in their windows.”
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          The “story” gains all the attributes of a person.
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          “Questioned, attacked
           As a crazy, the story has traveled far,
           Has grown old just getting here. But at night,
          The story dreams in a made-up tongue
          Not unlike Yiddish, full of fustian
          And folly.”
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Moolten fittingly ties words almost opposite in import together through alliteration; how can a durable cloth be silly—can language? So many Yiddish words have been adopted into English these days because of the interplay of their vigorous sound and meaning.

          The poor Story cannot stand happiness because that has not been his experience.

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          “Tonight, when the man hummed
          In the kitchen with his wife, the story
          Felt hands clapped across its ears.
          Like parenthesis on a tombstone.”
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What a marvelous simile; parentheses almost the last thing to be found on a tombstone
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          “When they ate codfish and green bananas
          Fried and dipped in sauce, the story starved.
          Tonight, when the man caressed her cheek,
         The story staggered, struck across the face.”
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The couple has moved to South America to get away from the European devastation they have suffered. Yet, the Story holds only that brutal background he is destined to reveal over and over.

                                                                  “Klezmer”

           This could be just a simple poem about how wonderful Klezmer music is, especially the lead violin.

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          “A violin is just wood and catgut but cunning
          In its persuasion; no instrument comes
          Closer to the human voice, such exquisite wailing,
          And when a klezmer troubadour strokes his,
          He almost sounds that good, tunes so forlorn
          They scratch at you, so jubilant they leave you
          Giddy as sparkling wine.”
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          The poet’s grandfather cannot help but dance to it; my Jewish grandfather played the mandolin.
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          “A staid man, a learned man would rise helpless
          Like someone jerked around on strings in a story
          By someone else. He’d nod and tap his shoe,
          A whole village in his veins, hoofing
         On their cloven feet, spinning and dropping
          Knees bent, still kicking at the scraped-out strains.”
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          But Moolten knows how to add salt to the tale; the hook he knows how to often employ. The poem hinges on a Christian fiddler who got revenge on a Jew by making him dance to a frenzy.

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          “Dancing in the underbrush until he’s naked
          And gasping, excoriated by roses.
          It’s a lie of course, blood libel, a fairy tale
         To tell children so they go to sleep
          In fear of witches or monsters or people
          Who get the better of them, mainly through lies.”
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Some lovely lines cannot be overlooked. The poet describes his grandfather’s 78: “An old record, the past scarred and warped/And repeating itself.” And why do some people dance: “The breathless/Urge to celebrate what was endured.”

                                                                     “Soup”

           Like the grandfather the poet’s great aunt, like my Jewish grandmother, carries the ancient past with her. She is a “squat vat,” onomatopoeia at its most vivid.

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          “She treated the modern world
         As her endlessly sighed-over pogrom
          With its blaring appliances and disobeyed traditions,
          Time alone a forced exodus, a rushed immigration
          For a woman who’d spent forty years
          In the same junk cramped apartment. She too
          Was a leftover, a squat vat of garbled English
          And malapropisms, of dire stories about boots
          With a sound like cracking ribs, of towns lost
          To mist and their own queer ways.”
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          It is food that makes this poem go; the stuff of life we cannot live without.
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          “She chewed us out for squandering
          The wondrous carcass that one should gnaw on
          Or scavenge for parts with which to engineer
          The concoction she soon had stirring in a pot,
          Gizzards and grease, a dab of horseradish
          And kosher salt, her recipe for polite excuses
          And pruning faces at what we feared more
          Than cow’s tongue or chopped liver.”
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“What else but bones did she have to hold onto?”

                                                               “Dybbuk”

           If we take this storytelling as truth, the poet’s father, from a Polish Jewish background, married a Puerto Rican Catholic woman. The grandparents thought her a dybbuk, an evil spirit.
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          “My grandparents performed
          The exorcism, laying out the tea service
          And the kugel, incredulous, confronting
          My father to save him, though gently, only
          In the spirit of polite conversation
         Questioning what possessed him
          To bring home a Puerto Rican shiksa.”
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          However, the young couple’s love was deep and unswerving.
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          “She hung on against all judgment. Her soul
          Cohabited with his even as she devoutly
          Wouldn’t let his hands near, her body already
          His shtetl house, his shack in a field.
          How soon forgotten the superstition of love,
          That faith in one another strong as a God
          Not yet jilted by enlightenment.”
 .
           The grandparents, still skeptical, thought the woman was only doing supernatural things to bind him to her.
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             “She said
              What he said, bosomed his words in her accent,
              A delusion of magic, of something charmed, conspired
              From nothing, shawl of tomb dust, blown ash,
              Burnt offering of the synagogue the world
              Might not dissipate, if they only believed enough.”
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The older people are still wrapped in those ancient beliefs they carried from the Old World into the Modern Age. Clashes were inevitable; my Christian mother was not accepted into the Jewish side of the family for ten years.
          It is so difficult for a writer to create fresh language; poetry is the major medium through which to do so. These six poems alone out of thirty that comprise the book Primitive Mood suggest so many techniques that the poet uses in his work: of course alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, metaphor and simile but also recurring symbolism, historical reference, multiple story lines as well as sudden swerves in narrative . . . the techniques are many and so skillfully employed. Most of all I sense a deep caring for humanity in so many of these poems. It doesn’t surprise me that David Moolten is a Medical Director of the American Red Cross in Philadelphia.
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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).
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Something Kindred by Nicole Tallman

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By Alex Carrigan

In Nicole Tallman’s chapbook Something Kindred, she responds to the passing of her mother through a series of poems and prose pieces that examine the immediate effects of the loss. As Tallman’s foreword states, these are pieces about grief in “a timeless sense.” While they read as anecdotes and rumination following her mother’s death, it becomes clear that each of these pieces could exist at any point in time, showcasing how grief is sometimes something that is experienced for the rest of one’s life.

The collection begins with the passing of Tallman’s mother, Nancy, written as a disjointed prose piece detailing the final moments as Nancy’s family witnessed her passing. This piece, “On the Last Moments Leading to Your Death,” has its paragraphs spread out and spaced several lines down on the page. It feels like a slow descent into the final moment, punctuated by recollections on helping clean Nancy or feeding her a popsicle.

This is then followed by “On Surviving in the Early Days Following Your Death,” where Tallman writes about the aftermath of her mother’s passing. This heartbreaking piece shows the banality of life as it continues following loss, with Tallman and her father replacing their home’s microwave after it breaks and Tallman dividing her mother’s ashes. Many of these moments have an underlying sense of uncertainty and confusion, such as when Tallman writes,

Dad and I take a trip in the snow to get the rings you left me resized. Dad also asks me if he should take off his wedding ring. He isn’t sure of the proper thing to do. I tell him not to worry about what’s proper. He should just do what feels right. He isn’t sure what to do with that. He says 45 years of marriage is a long time.

It’s also here that we begin to see the confessional aspect of the collection. In between each piece in the chapbook, Tallman includes a “confession” where she admits to things like taking photos of her mother after she died or the melancholy that came from the first holidays without Nancy. It’s here where the collection reveals probably its strongest response to grief: where Tallman finds now is the time to be honest and admit things she may never say otherwise. This includes one passage, where Tallman is dividing her mother’s ashes and writes,

I don’t portion out any for your mother. Grandma says she should have gone first. I don’t disagree with her. Dad says he should have gone first too. I don’t disagree with him either.

After that, the collection drifts into poems where Tallman responds to something that reminds her of her mother. These pieces include poetry about her mother’s ashes spilling in her suitcase, or how her search for poems about bereavement led to her discovering Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Sylvia Plath who is now an artist. “Frieda Hughes, I want to eat all of your mother’s poems / and all of your paintings. // It’s hard not to look at Frieda and feel / something kindred— / us daughters of dead mothers” Tallman writes in “On Reading Poems, I Now Sympathize With Daughters Of Dead Mothers.”

While the beginning of the chapbook contains pieces that are specific in their relationship to the author’s experience, yet universal in their themes and images, it’s towards the end that Tallman begins to move to the more experimental and unique. “On Grieving” is a poem that has to be read by turning the page and squinting to make out the message of “Grief is a blurry imperfect circle.” The final piece in the collection, “On Love,” reads as a mission statement on Tallman, as if she had to catalogue herself.

The poem, inspired by Alex Dimitrov’s “Love,” is a series of statements, many of which are linked, such as I love a wood-burning fire. / I love people who own fireplaces in Miami. / I love that a Miami summer can feel more brutal than a Michigan winter. / I love going to the beach when there’s no sun.” “On Love” reads like many of these loves of Tallman are specific moments or visuals that could have emerged upon recollecting about her mother, and it’s the sort of piece that could make the reader want to catalog about a loved one.

Something Kindred is a tearjerking, powerful examination of grief. Tallman’s ability to make personal, individualized moments feel grand and universal speaks to her expert use of detail and language. It’s a collection that asks for confession and exhalation following loss, and it’s one that will likely leave the reader feeling lighter after reading as they begin to truly take in what’s left behind after death.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Something-Kindred-Nicole-Tallman/dp/1736230611

Alex Carrigan (he/him; @carriganak) is an editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. His debut poetry chapbook, May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), was longlisted for Perennial Press’ 2022 Chapbook Awards. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review,  Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more.

A Great Afternoon of Poetry

Thanks to poets Thaddeus Rutkowski, Amy Barone, Peter Baroth, J.C. Todd, Evan Anders and Dave Worrell for an outstanding afternoon of poetry hosted by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri. North of Oxford presented an Autumn Poetry Reading at Chase’s Hop Shop. Thanks to Frank Huynh for hosting us. Here are some photographs of the event in no particular order.

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Open for Submissions

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North of Oxford is open for submissions of poetry, book reviews and essays. We are currently reading for 2023. Please feel free to send for consideration of publication. Follow the guidelines on our about page: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/