book review

A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Jianqing Zheng’s new book of poems, winner of the 2019 Gerald Cable Book Award, is a collection of haibun, a Japanese literary form first used by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century that combines prose and haiku juxtaposed to provide a fresh “way of looking” at an event, a scene, a character, an anecdote, a sort of “double vision.” The form is inherently reflective, meditative, while being descriptive in brief but vivid prose and incorporates elements of autobiography, essay, flash fiction/nonfiction. The accompanying haiku may be seen as a subtle commentary or summation of the prose passage.  A Way of Looking is divided into four sections, “On the Road,” “Farewell,” “Momentary Stay” and “Forever,” which feels almost like the cycle of seasons, so that the reader has a sense of coming “full circle,” experiencing the writing, which indeed has many seasonal referents.
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Just as Bashō’s haibun were originally travel accounts from his various journeys, so many of Zheng’s are the same, as is evident from the title of the first section. In many of these, Zheng, who lives in Mississippi, drives around the Deep South region in search of the places where famous bluesmen performed.  As he writes in “Weekend Drive, 1998”:
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After landing a university job in the Mississippi Delta, I fell in love with photographing blues sites for my research. One Saturday I went to grab shots in Moorhead where W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues” immortalized the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo Delta railroads.

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            juke joint blues
            a sluggish creek crosses
            through town
            by a lean-to shack
            blooming wisteria
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He drives on to Inverness, hometown of Little Milton, another bluesman, looking for Arcola. He gets lost, asks directions from various people, one of whom suggests Zheng, who looks a little bewildered by the instructions, follow him in his truck, until he finally finds the fork to Arcola.  He rolls down his window and thanks the man. “Oh, brother, the back road wasn’t that hard to find.” In “Birds of Passage” he is driving to the airport in Memphis, just before dawn. “We cross the Yazoo River Bridge, pass Baptist Town where the bluesman Robert Johnson died of poison,” eventually passing Avalon, “where the blues marker for Mississippi John Hurt looms above the roadside high weeds.”   As day starts to break, he slows down, “to catch this gorgeous flight:

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            crack of dawn
            thousands of snow geese
            honk off the fields”
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His travels take him to Helena, Arkansas, New Orleans, Tokyo, Wuhan and Canton, China, where the protagonist of the haibun encounters

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            a rooster’s crow
            headstone
            of a Chinese railroad builder
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The haibun in the “Farewell” section are more third-person sketches and anecdotes than personal reflections or reminiscences. They are all located in China. “Mediation in Changsha, China,” “Moon Festival,”  “Home,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” an amusing anecdote about a man named Seng whose snoring disturbs his wife, are some of the titles. The accompanying haiku to this latter reads: “spring equinox— / a cat’s nocturnal yowl / in the front yard.” The title is a sly reference to the popular belief that the romance in a marriage dies with sustained familiarity. You can feel the wife’s frustration!  There’s even a haibun called “Responses” that recalls an inane song in praise of Chairman Mao that he was forced to sing during the Cultural Revolution. The selection ends with the humorous haiku:

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            riverside hip hop
            even the water
            starts twerking

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“Fish Debate,” another haibun from this second section, has a very Taoist point-of-view. Two ancient Chinese philosophers, Zhuang Zi and Hui Si, walk by a river and see fish. Zhuang Zi (known also in literature as Chuang Tzu) thinks they look happy, but Hui Si says it’s not possible to know if fish are happy. Zhuang Zi replies, “You are not me; how do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?” This is so much like the other famous Taoist about Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. The accompanying haiku reads:
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which came first,
the hen or the egg? –
endless rain

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The “Momentary Stay” section brings us back to Mississippi. “Night in the Mississippi Delta,” “Road to Vicksburg,” “The Bayou by the Home in the Woods” are some of the titles of haibun that take us to specific scenes. In “Road to Vicksburg” the narrator sees a dead armadillo in the road and, momentarily distracted, nearly collides with an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

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by the blues highway
to casino
a wreathed cross tilts in wind

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In “Delta Wind,” Zheng writes with an almost Kerouac-like flair, “the wind rises like the saddest blues blown from a sax in a lean-to juke joint.” The accompanying haiku reads:

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autumn night
a freight train chugging
across the Yazoo

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A Way of Looking is dedicated to the memory of Don and Nell George. The final section, “Forever,” includes several tender haibun written in their memory. The Georges welcomed Zheng to Hattiesburg, Mississippi when he came to the United States from China as a young man, and he feels a great love for them, a sadness at their death, but the haibun express an enduring connection that itself reflects back on the section title.
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Many of Zheng’s haibun include more than one verse passage. Many of the haiku contain seasonal references, and this is true of the three included in “Eulogy,” written in memory of Don George. The first reads:

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            summer visit –
            in the town where
            I was born
            I’m asked
            where I’m from
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The second follows the reflection, “He taught me to pronounce a word in English, how to mow the grass, and more importantly, how to be a man in my life.” The verse that follows reads:

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            spring morning
            mom and dad chat
            over coffee
            memory an aroma
            of old times
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Finally, after thanking both Don and Nell for their kindness and guidance, he concludes the haibun:

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            autumn dusk
            an empty recliner
            in the den
            a lonely cat
            at the window
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The section and the book end with a short haibun called “Waiting for spring” that sums up not only the section but Zheng’s overarching philosophy as well:
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When life stops clicking, body – a mass of elements – can be turned to ashes, used as fertilizer for flowerbeds.
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                        autumn dusk
                        a worn-out jacket
                        on a peg
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Jianqing Zheng’s A Way of Looking alters the reader’s own vision, providing a view of reality that’s more peaceful, more benevolent, more thoughtful.
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You can find the book here: A Way of Looking
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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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Caina by Joe Albanese

caina

By Lynette G. Esposito

The tale of twin brothers who take different paths in their lives is not a new one. However, Joe Albanese has told the story of Grant and Lee from the first moments of their birth. The narrator is the younger brother by twelve minutes in his book Caina published by Mockingbird Lane Press of Maynard, Arkansas.

Albanese skillfully sets the time, place and background beginning with the first breath of the brothers who are named Grant and Lee after the Civil War generals because their dad is a Civil War buff. The symbolism of the names is carried throughout the one-hundred-sixty-four- page book divided into the twenty-five chapters. The brothers make opposite choices but no matter if they are together or not, they connect by both a misunderstanding of who the other is and a confidence of the deep connection they have to each other. They mirror each other.

Although the older brother, Grant, was born first, his brother’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The reader is privy to this information on the first page of chapter one.  However, Albanese illustrates the brother’s relationship by opening the first chapter with:

  When my brother and I were ten-years-old, we would play this game of chicken.  Once a week, while our mother was preparing dinner, the two of us would sneak out oof our back yard and run across the field to the train tracks, kicking dandelions on the way.

The boys would try to out last each other as the train bore down on them with its loud horn. The narrator, Lee, admits his brother always won.

From Lee’s perspective, his brother was always the larger than life more successful person. Then, a twist of events leads to Grant’s death; the identical twin, Lee, steps in as his brother and discovers all the things and much darkness he did not know his brother was living.

Albanese ends the story on the train track with Lee’s dead brother sending him a message.  Lee has a vision of his brother on the other side of tracks and Lee believes he finally understands what his brother was trying to tell him in life.

The chapters are filled with double entendre after double entendre in keeping with the twin theme and the story of doble lives in the same space. An example of this is in chapter twenty.

Lee Tolen has been dead for weeks…

It wasn’t Lee who had died…it was Grant.  When they pulled the evidence from the box, it was Grant’s id in the wallet. Yet, to complicate things, the very alive Lee is standing in the room with the killers of his brother.

Even though at one point the devoted brothers had not seen each other for ten years, their parallel lives intersected at the end and closes the story on the train tracks where it had begun.

Albanese has created characters who are interesting and believable using an old universal theme of twins.  He makes it work quite well.  This is a good read on a cold winter evening.

Joe Albanese has been widely published including poetry, short fiction and nonfiction across The United States and in seven other countries.  He is the author of Smash and Grab in addition to Caina.  He lives in South Jersey.

Caina can be found here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/caina-joe-albanese/1128942876

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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A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin

a feeling

By Greg Bem 

I wanted to show you something

that would give you pleasure

before the end of the world

(page 3)

Climate change. Ecological disaster on a global scale. The coming and going of empire, civilization, the human imprint. The collapse. The Anthropocene. It is all very present and very intangible and, no matter how we spin it, the end of the world (as we know it and have known it) is nigh. And so, what are we going to do about it? There are many who believe that the only two responses are complacency and response, where response is solution oriented. But there is a third, humble option: acceptance.

The embracing of finality is a core concept in Joey Yearous-Algozin’s A Feeling Called Heaven, a book surging with as much pause as activity. Within this remarkable collection, Yearous-Algozin takes the poet’s approach to disaster and hopelessness by finding a contemplative, curious, and stable position of observation. Not without difficulty, the poet’s form is as much didactic as it is conceptual: the poet is one of instruction and of a simpler positing within the calm reality that the horrific exists and it probably really is too large for us to manage.

I want you to focus your mind

on denouncing the hope

embedded in the idea

of our momentum as a species

the belief that we will somehow continue

even after we’ve gone

(page 40)

The book is composed of two poems: a first that lasts most of the book, and a second that serves as a coda to close out what is, overall, a sequence of meditations, mantras, prayers, and cathartic rest. The poems total just over 60 pages in length, and I felt them gently urging me on from the moment I opened the book. I felt the poet’s breath, the angles through which the dismal was approached, and reconciled, and I read on and on until the last line. There are natural pauses throughout the book’s first poem, “for the second to last time,” but they feel more like the space between the pulse than any full rest. It is an active book, after all, one that accounts for stillness but radically approaches stillness with full energy and availability. Even the title indicates that the fullness of acknowledgment and existent may sit within a single second, which for readers of poetry may be further elaborated as a single poem, a single book, a single read.

A Feeling Called Heaven is calm, and much of the calmness, despite the terror that surrounds us, can be connected to the simple and uncomplicated language Yearous-Algozin has filled within the pages. I attribute the plainness of the poet’s speech as a method of contrast to the failings of the human world’s complexities: what we, as a society, have created across time and space have led us to this point, this point that will soon be gone. Is it the poet’s job to continue the damned lineage, or offer relief and radical shift? The speaker here follows the latter path, though not without calling forth several examples of our burning world:

and the sun glints off pools of irradiated water

outside a freeway on-ramp

or hospital parking lot

in which a few discarded syringes

and fragments of plastic tubing

bob in the light breeze

(pages 12-13)

Like other post-apocalyptic descriptions as we’ve come to know them in recent decades, the imagery within A Feeling Called Heaven is as bleak and valueless as it is slightly exaggerated as relic and memento. It feels human while lacking the humanity, feels moving while utterly still in the confines of the poem. The poet, on the other hand, is not completely still. The speaker murmurs their way through the lines that scatter like dust across anonymous landscapes and situations that are grayed, sitting beyond the realm of truth and beauty. These moments that float through the page are as much liminal as they are in the center: the blind spot that is within each of us as we exist in an ever-fading moment.

Yearous-Algozin calls out this ever-fading moment as beyond-verbal. It may be hard to imagine a situation, a system, a reality that is outside of the confines of language, but that is yet one more radically-shifted premises of this book, and it is not just a premise but a truth that is absolute:

a non-verbal certainty

that a time will come

when the residue of the human

will have disappeared

almost entirely

(page 16)

When Yearous-Algozin writes “almost entirely,” it is the crucial piece of this recipe: we are not quite gone yet, and this is a moment we can refer to as the “feeling” of “heaven.” The last stretch before the end is one that is reconciliation, catharsis, and embrace. It is fullness. Finality. Totality. It is utter loss and the resounding silence we can feel at the end of our collective existence and knowing that it has come from us and will exist after us.

In Social Text Journal, Barrett White writes of Yearous-Algozin’s book, “Through its radical acceptance, A Feeling Called Heaven teaches an important lesson about pausing, being present, and deeply listening, both inside and outside ourselves.” While in agreement, I also believe that the book offers an additional lesson on our capacity as creators. Yearous-Algozin has written a book that offers a nullification of the creative process, an anti-inspiration to take the pause and escape the creative act; unlike any other book I have read, A Feeling Called Heaven positions itself as a rational counterpoint to tangible production and artistry. In the book’s second and final poem, “a closing meditation,” the poet writes:

my speaking to you now

produces an image like the reflection of the sun

or more accurately

a space for your thoughts to inhabit

(page 55)

Indeed, this book causes process to cease, time to fold, and the mind to warp beyond thought. For that feeling alone, I can’t recommend it more highly during this Winter, this season, this precipice we have found ourselves upon.

You can find the book here: https://nightboat.org/book/a-feeling-called-heaven/

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.

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The Blue Divide  by Linda Nemec Foster

blue
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Late in this lovely collection, referring to her immigrant mother in her Cleveland childhood, Linda Nemec Foster writes in the poem called “Blue”:
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A paradise where she flies, dusts clouds,
and polishes haloes. Washing the blue
of heaven until it shines like a word
that has yet to be invented.
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But the poem begins with a misheard word. The narrator is listening to an Egyptian poet and hears “blue heaven” when the poet is really saying “blue heron.” “Blue heron” morphs into “blue Helen,” the mother’s name, and the poem takes off on its own, heaven, haloes, invented words. So many themes, allusions and leitmotifs in the The Blue Divide are suggested by this single verse. Color – blue and gray – is a metaphor throughout. Poems about immigrants, war, her parents, the upper Midwest (Michigan and Ohio), Poland, dreams and art, religious themes, recur again and again.
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The book opens on the Balkan War of the 1990’s – “The Cypress Trees in Croatia,” “Report from Bosnia: ‘Hair’ Performed in Sarajevo.” “Love in the Midst of War,” the very first poem, contains the image, “the gray / of shrapnel and transparent clouds.” Color symbolism is tricky, of course. Green, for instance, can represent jealousy or hope, spring; red, the color of blood, can be lust and longing, courage or violence. But the blue and the gray in Foster’s poems seem consistent, if hard to define (a word that has yet to be invented).  Gray is consistently bleak.
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Immediately following the harrowing Balkan War poems (“They perform only / when there’s electricity,” she notes in the Sarajevo poem, reminding us of the dreary conditions of wartime) come Cold War poems set in 1950’s Poland, the country from which her grandparents emigrated.  Writing about the Hel Peninsula, she observes

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            …it was here that Stalin conducted his land grab, his politics of duplicity,
            his transformation of the blue sky crowning Kraków’s Royal Castle
            to the gray clouds belching from Nowa Huta’s factories…
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Blue so often signifies limitlessness – the sky, the ocean. Indeed, the collection’s title comes from the poem “Water”: “The ocean between them so vast,” she writes about her parents when her father joins the Navy in World War II, “not even two daughters could bridge / the blue divide.” As she succinctly puts it in the poem aptly called “All That We Cannot Name”: “Shape disappears into weightless blue.”
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But gray? Always bleak. The Cold War Eastern Europe poems give way to New York City, on the eve of 9/11, a man in a rowboat around Manhattan Island, before everything changed, “The man in his boat becoming / as forgettable as an ordinary / day when they still existed.”  Then “NYC to Poughkeepsie: The Man on the Train” spells it out: “If gray had a face

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            you’d see my blank stare right next
            to the word in the dictionary.
           Grapple, grasp, grating, then me –
           gray – my whole existence
           stuffed into four letters.
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The poem is narrated by a man who rides the commuter train each day and finds his life utterly meaningless.
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“Inside the Crater” is another poem that depicts a bleak world. The narrator finds herself staring into the Diamond Head volcano in Hawaii and finding it uninspiring, not the picturesque vision she’d imagined, but a dud.

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            And how many duds have we sustained in our collective
            lifetimes? Ex-husbands and former lovers. Small towns
            and dying cities. Our old neighborhoods in Detroit might
            as well be the streets of Dresden, circa 1945: houses
            bombed out, abandoned, torn down. Even the crazy
            people are gone. No more bag lady screaming at strangers
            on Cass Ave. and bathing in the sink of a public restroom.
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Dreams are a potent, recurring theme. “The Dream of Maine” is a poem about an imagined paradise, “The Far Country” about being on a train in a foreign country. It occurs the week after the death of someone close to the poet, and again it’s kind of bleak, like limbo. “The far country / where the border lies hidden and the guards / look distracted, asking for nothing but your name.”
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The final section of this book contains personal poems about Foster’s family and is again saturated in dreams. The section opens with “The Immigrants in Slavic Village: Cleveland, 1955,” Poles, Czechs, Russians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians assimilating, a theme that “Family Tree” continues, people losing their language, “underneath the orange sky / above the steel mills of Cleveland.” The immigrant’s granddaughter “has never / known the language of the Old / and wants to be nothing / but American.”
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Among the most charming poems here are “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss” about her mother’s obsession with movie stars (“My mother loved the back-stabbing of it, / the kiss and tell of it, the guilty pleasure of it.”) and “At 68, My Mother Sees Her first Foreign Film,” in which her husband – the poet’s father – is “afraid this is just the beginning.

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Next week she’ll give up cold cuts
and blood sausage; start eating bean sprouts
and tofu. She’ll begin to lose weight…
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“On her 90th birthday, my mother dreams / of her dead husband” begins the poem, “Gravity and God.” The penultimate poem is called “On the First Anniversary of His Death, I Dream of My Father.” I am in Kraków, your mother’s city, she tells him.
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The collection ends with “The Dream That Is Forgotten” and concludes with the perfect metaphor for the writing of poems:

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            In the dream that is forgotten, you learn
            to speak the language of sounds, not words.
            Language of bark, leaves, stones, mud;
            of fog sleeping in the marshes and sun caught
            in tangled branches. Language of amber
            sinking into its inclusions and rain falling
            from its clouds. You try to remember each sound
            as it leaves your lips, before you open your eyes
            on the blank page.
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The Blue Divide is a thought-provoking collection by a truly skilled poet.

.You can find the book here: The Blue Divide: Poems

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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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Left Over Distances by Mike James

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Left Over Distances by Mike James published by Luchador Press is an interesting mix of long and short poems divided into five sections covering eighty- two pages.  In the mix are poems about dreams, locations and loneliness.
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For example, on page twenty-six, James addresses time and space in his one-stanza poem Every Summer was Always the Same.
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          He’d eat butter sandwiches three times a day.
          On Sunday, he’d check his blood pressure with a garden hose.
          A Zen witch taught him that trick for a pack of smokes.
          Afterwards, he’d turn the garden hose into a Sunday lasso.
          He would climb to the moon when he could find it.
          He liked it there.
         He liked the moon quiet.
         It was up beyond dark clouds and among white stars.
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While James has not identified the he in the poem, he has focused on a special day of the week in the summer and what repeatedly happened on that day.  It is almost dream like in the memory of that day as the action went from observable activities to an imaginary trip to the safety of the moon where inactivity gave rest.  It is a skillful poem of images that both relate to summer experience and the distance one gains when one can see someone mentally disappear into another zone.
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He also accomplishes this sense of the present and the ethereal in his poem The Refugees on page forty-three.
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            Each carries two suitcases.
           One for belongings.
           One for ghosts.
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In this tiny poem, James has drawn a picture of people fleeing what they had but also carrying the memories of the past with them. The poem is lean, controlled and effective. Here he sets an unknown place where the refugees have gone with their surreal packing of spirits that can both haunt and comfort, and at the same time, suggest the loneliness of the journey.
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The poems throughout the five sections vary in form and length and from one stanza to many. James, however, seems to favor the one stanza free verse form.  On page sixty-five his poem,  Acceptance Jubilee  is a good example of this.
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            Once, I mistook my scars for stars and made my own
            little universe. I was a big boy with my own place. That
            night was dark. The moon nothing other than far away.
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Ths self-reflection poem uses images to detail the process of accepting one’s self with all the baggage that comes with it.  He turns his scars into something beautiful that helps with this acceptance.  The title guides the reader to the idea it is a Jubilee when it happens.  This is a skillful poem with empirical images and a clear message.
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This tome is not a quick read. The poems are the kind you come back to for a second look and maybe a third read.   I liked the variety of subjects and the clarity of poetic message.
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You can find the book here: Leftover Distances
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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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Red Truck Bear by Richard Nester

red truck

By Mary C McCarthy

In “Red Truck Bear” Richard Nester asks the most necessary of questions: what, like the moon, is in plain sight, yet unfathomable? The moon hides nothing, thinks nothing of us, looks back at us “with no discovery on its mind at all/ and even less concealment.” The moon, like the world we inhabit, is opaque in its stubborn “thingness,” cares nothing for us as we weave our webs of choice and action in its reflected light. In the wickedly funny “Wild”, forsythia, that early flowering plant often welcomed as harbinger of the new season, becomes a devouring nightmare, product “from a mating of kudzu with barbed wire.” Here nature is neither benign nor indifferent but actively malevolent. We are counseled to “Forget its pastoral sham,” beauty disguising the fact that “Forsythia hates you,” intends only its own good, and will gleefully overrun all your hopes and plans, punish you with slashes, poke out your eyes, finally even “devour houses and spit out the bricks.” Completely unsympathetic to us and our cherished sensitivities “It will eat your dog.”

All a hilarious exaggeration, yet the kernel of truth it proclaims can’t be denied. Empathy is only possible in the human world, not inherent in nature, and when it exists at all it is an “itty-bitty seed,” rare and hard, small and yet essential for any dream of the future. The job of the poet and storyteller is to make something out of the “Indecipherable,” to “convince you of your own indecipherable worth.”–”so you can go on and not give up.” Poetry may be like prayer, holy and essential, a saving grace.

Humanity, empathy, justice, love, all the hard things these poems strive to find and define, while illuminating their complexity and challenge. What we know is that “broke things stay broken,” and the enormous task of healing is an arduous process, where the damaged “have to be cleaned one breathing bird at a time” The theme of restoration occurs again and again in the idea of cleaning, of making things clean, even though “Clean” is an invitation to dirt, and “Too much cleaning up and one starts to see dirt everywhere.” To clean something becomes an act of faith and love, an insistence on hope. It is interesting that the principal character in the poems who does this restorative act is the poet’s “Dementia Stricken Mother, “who could make already clean things sparkle, and “shine like gospel in a new revelation.” Maybe we should all aspire to the kind of saintly “industrious joy” that loves the world so well “everything can be restored.”

In the series of shorter pieces under “Grudge” Nester demonstrates the power of inertia,

The stubborn resistance to change that keeps broken things broken. In stories about his father he explores the result of remaining mired in old and ungenerous assumptions. Stuck, his father cannot change, and the generations remain strangers unable to meet, share or collaborate on a future. The result is “nothing coming of nothing” unhealed, persistent isolation.

How can we escape this separation, plumb the indescribable space between the self and the world? That challenge comes from a cultural habit, the “Science Method.” To the Cherokee shaman that space doesn’t exist, he is never alone, but continuous with the natural world. For Western man, the existentialist, that space is an unbridgeable chasm, “our gift, only the gray form of a penetrating ignorance we were proud of.” Habit and theory are prisons, “not the key, but the lock.” Freedom is threatened by the familiar, though that familiar may be terrible, it is what we’re used to, what imagination chokes on.

As we live always hungry, always “at the starving end of something” we may only have a choice of addictions, where “Everything that lives is addicted to something.” The best we can do may be to choose our addiction purposefully, eyes wide open. Love something, “bite hard on the hook of something you love that loves you back and doesn’t lie.” We are like the praying mantis who chewed a frame for his head from a leaf, always seeing the world as frame for our image. Can we do more than preen, are we the universe reflecting on itself while “munching our green hopes”?

Perhaps our place is not in death and distance, but in love, which “keeps no calendar.”

Love can be our mirror, and the stories we share, even reluctantly, the fires to warm us. Stories are powerful acts, and shouldn’t be told “with your back turned.” A good novel carries us off and returns the world to us new, remade, and reimagined. In “Reckoning” singing birds teach us to reckon as they do, to see ourselves as “of little consequence beside important song, as by a great river.” Ultimately what we have and what persists is there always outside the window, “the exquisite world,” a wonder we are also part of, that might even “for the smallest instant” have depended on us being there, seeing, reflecting, loving and creating. There lies true restoration.

You can get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Red-Truck-Bear-Richard-Nester/dp/1950462749/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&qid=1635534873&qsid=140-5063485-5152802&refinements=p_27%3ARichard+Nester&s=books&sr=1-3&sres=B096TN7H7W%2C1909916315%2C1950462749%2C1949229319%2C1909916110%2C0615951864%2C0692743626%2CB0006QVHPK%2CB001GTABCQ%2C1718192878&text=Richard+Nester

Mary McCarthy is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Third Wednesday, Verse Virtual, Earth’s Daughters and The Ekphrastic Review.

Venice by Jan Morris

venice

By Ray Greenblatt

I have read a number of books about Venice.  Joseph Links’ Venice for Pleasure (1966) describes the facades of the city. E.V. Lucas’ A Wanderer in Venice (1914) analyzes the paintings there. Wm. Dean Howells’ Venetian Life (1866) comes close to depicting the people, but his sentences are convoluted.

However, Jan Morris’ Venice (1974) brings the city, people, essence vividly to life. And her style is quite poetic. As a matter of fact, I can make a case that one typical chapter “The Seasons” from that book can prove my point to the fullest extent.

SPRING

With a unique simile Morris begins her discussion of spring: “Spring floods into Venice like a tingling elixir or a dry martini.”  The Venetians have lasted through the winter: “There is a sense of discomforts survived and prosperity to come.”  Although it is a city made mostly of stone, nature potentially abounds: “Streaks and flecks of green appear in the city at last, softening its urban stoniness.” “The very pavements of the city seem to be cherished and revived.”

“The ponderous mansions are burgeoning with flower-pots, canary-cages and varnish.” Morris loves to use a series to give life to an object: “Bits and pieces of gondolas hang fresh-painted on it walls, totems of May—shiny seats, velvet cushions, a brass sea-horse dangling from a window-knob, a black walnut panel propped against a door.”

The economy of Venice truly comes to life with foreign visitors; Morris animates the concept with personification. “Now the massive tourist machine of Venice greases its cogs and paints its upper works for the summer.” Massive liners begin to arrive. “The first cruise ship of the year anchors tantalizingly in the lagoon, bright with awnings, with a scent of the Aegean to her funnel vapors, or a thin flicker of rust from the Hudson river.”

“The first tourists parade the Piazza, wearing tarbooshes, Maltese slippers, Spanish skirts or burnooses, according to their earlier itinerary.” “If you want to book a room the receptionist no longer greets you with cheerful informality, as he did a month ago, but cocks a sophisticated seasonal eyebrow, turns a supercilious page.” Later on we shall see how different winter is from spring.

Morris can write pure Romantic prose, an eyelash away from poetry. “And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.”

SUMMER

It is now summer when tourists dominate. “With a thud, a babble of voices and a crinkle of travelers’ cheques, summer falls upon Venice.” Morris’ poetics about Venice can be comical. “Her chief function in the world is to be a kind of residential museum, a Tintoretto holiday camp.” “The waiters of the Piazza brush up their brusquest manners.” Morris can be as acerbic as the topic she is describing.

The center of town can be the most vicious, but “as you custom farther from that avaricious fulcrum,” things calm down. “Souvenir stalls spring up like garish fungi.” Morris sometimes employs actual speech: “The cry of ‘Gondola! Gondola!’ follows you like an improper suggestion down the quays.” Bits of history are alluded to: “Enough people peer into the horrors of the dungeons each morning to make Casanova’s head reel.”

But it’s the concept of tourism in all its manifestations that takes her most drubbing:  “The guides and guide books presuppose an unflagging whip-lash energy in their victims.”  “Venice is one great itchy palm.” A photographer is always around to take your picture: “His old tripod camera (which stays in the Piazza all night, like a shrouded owl on a pedestal).”

“Thus through the loose gilded mesh of the city there passes a cross-section of the world’s spawn.” She does not mean that last word in a derogatory way; she is truly fond of tourists for their variety and desire to see a fabulous city. She is excellent in defining national types:

“Germans appear to predominate, for they move in regiments, talk rather loud, push rather hard, and seem to have no particular faces, merging heavily into a jolly sunburnt Volkswagen mass.”

“The Indians are marvelously fragile, exquisite and aloof.”

“The Australians are unmistakable.” (She doesn’t say how!)

“The Canadians are indistinguishable.”

“The Russians no longer come.”

“The Chinese have not arrived yet.” (Remember this is nearly fifty years ago.)

“Here a jolly soul from Iowa, every ounce a tourist, from the enameled ear-rings dangling beneath her bluish hair to the tips of her pink- varnished toe-nails.”

“Many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a day’s pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a treadmill.”

With so much beauty around, Morris wonders if tourists can absorb it all. “Seen against so superb a setting, art and nature exquisitely blended, Man can seem  pretty vile.”  A mysticism hovers over the city. “The shadowy Merceria, with its glittering shops, falls away out of the sunshine like a corridor of treasure.” Venice is personified as a grande dame. “She lives for flattery, and peers back at her admirers with an opal but heavy-lidded eye.”

WINTER

Autumn does not exist in Venice, according to Jan Morris. When the tourists leave after the summer, the Serenissima, a personal word for Venice meaning ‘serene,’ turns inward to count profits and take stock: “To see the Serenissima without her make-up on, try getting up at three in the morning one foggy February day, and watch the old lady reluctantly awakening.”

Morris would be one of the few persons to get up at that awful hour, but she wants to experience the essence of all Venetian moods: “You are deposited plumb in the middle of an almost disused nowhere, so deathly silent is the place, so gagged and pinioned with mist.” “The fog marches in frowardly from the sea.”

“So the day comes up again, pinkish and subdued, a Turnerish, vaporous, moist, sea-bird’s day.” He often creates painterly scenes: the preciseness of Canaletto or the energetic massing of Turner. “In winter Venice wakes up at her edges.” “The fringes of the city curl, and color, and bust into wintry flame.”

In the stillness of winter one can now see parts of Venice like one wanders in an antique shop: “Lamplight shines sullenly among the alleys, and sometimes picks out, with a gleam of wet masonry, half a sculptured saintly nose, the tail end of a carved peacock, a crown, a crest, or a crab in a medallion.” Alliteration is strong. “A smell of eels, apples, onions and cheap tobacco”–listen to the sounds that link those items.

Other than sights and smells and nearly tastes, Morris hears things as a poet who scans her lines: “Allowing the echo of your steps to retreat around a corner.” Do you hear your own steps or those of someone else? Certainly you can also feel the cold and dampness emanating from Morris’ poetic prose.

“So Venice sits huddled over her inadequate stoves, or hugger-mugger in her cafes.” “The great hotels are closed or moribund, their echoing foyers haunted only by a handful of disillusioned millionaires and leathery ladies of intrigue.” “The myriad cafes are raising their shutters, and their bottles, coffee-machines and sugar containers stand sleepily shining in the mist.”

“Inside Santa Maria Zobenigo the twisted baroque angels of the altar look down compassionately upon an early Mass.” “There may even scurry by, wrapped in worn wool, with a scarf over her nose and mouth and a string shopping-bag in her hand, some solitary poor conscientious soul off to clean a heartless office or buy the first cabbage of the dawn. Marvelous fresh phrases: “heartless office” and  “first cabbage of the dawn.”

“The nights are vaporous and tomb-like.”  Yet, at this time of year the most activity occurs by the lagoon: “A chatter and clutter of life beside the wharves.” “Two hulking cement barges labor up the Grand Canal, their four oarsmen shouting to one another, grand, slow and heavy in the gloom, like ancient galleys.”

“Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles.” And yet, this could be the presentiment of Christmas:  “Venice feels less like a grand duchess than a buxom landlady.’” Every passing barge seems full of bottles, or parcels, or little firs from the mountains, and every child in Venice seems to trail a red balloon.”

Relatives always abound at Christmas: “The interminable reminiscences of immaculate uncles.” Listen to Morris’ choice of “i” which ties words together. And church is integral: “Permutations of clergy, gold and crimson and misty with incense.” And we conclude with this ‘epic’ sentence: “The favorite melody of the day is passed from shop to shop, from square to square, down one dark alley to another, like a cheerful watchword in the night.” Morris’ philosophy of the city is woven smoothly into her descriptions.

Jan Morris knew Venice very well. She lived there with her growing family, returned many times, and learned a rough Italian. Although she never wrote a book of poetry, her prose was rich with poetic technique. She did the same in her books ranging from Trieste to Oxford; she captured the mystique whatever she described.  A mystery surrounded her as well for she transitioned from a man to a woman halfway through her life; she died this year at age 94, living a truly complete life.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Venice-Jan-Morris/dp/0571168973

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).

Slap by Rustin Larson

slap

By Lynette G. Esposito

Rustin Larson’s poetry volume Slap offers a wide variety of poetry lengths, forms and images. Published by Alien Buddha Press, it is ninety-two pages of insightful messages in poetic form.

For example, the poem Four Steps on page twenty-four, creates in thirteen stanzas, a situation of how many steps lead away from home when at the train stop and what it represents. Larson turns this image into the constant life journey of taking steps to all the doors that lead to or away from home.
                  Four steps, please. Four steps
                  into the train’s platform
                  in the middle of the night.
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                 Four steps before you trip
                 and fall down the basement.
                Four steps into the bower
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               of wild roses.  Four steps in fever
               into your mother’s arms
              in the cool kitchen of your childhood.  Four steps
Larson has used the image of four steps and varied situations to portray how close so many things in life are and what a difference this makes.  His exquisite use of the F sound and his skillful use of repetition control the poem to the closing single-line stanza:
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              steps from all the doors you called home.
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In contrast to this lengthily poem, Larson presents a little humor in his one- stanza, five-line poem Discard on page thirty-two.
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                  Although I might be a discard,
                  like the man who believes
                  in extraterrestrials,
                  I say to myself
                 I am not alone.
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The brevity of the poem does not reduce its effectiveness.  It takes a twist on the concept of the populace of Earth seeking other intelligent beings in other galaxies and looks clear sightedly at those who are perceived as discards on this planet. I find this poem hilarious. 
When the Shark Bites, is a one stanza poem on page sixty-two that presents a moment-in- time when Larson remembers having burritos with his daughters at Taco Bell in Iowa City and when his one daughter was little, how he put her to sleep with an unusual song. He begins the poem with:
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                   Not to disagree with the song’s lyrics
                   but sharks don’t have
                   molars.  They rip and swallow
                   rather than grind and chew.  It’s
                   a fine point, but important I
                   think….
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It is interesting that he begins this poem with facts then throughout the poem remembers wonderful instances with his children.  He brings a time frame in, 1996 and calls it a premium year.  The poem suggests it is about one thing but when Larson calls his daughters my little sweethearts the reader can feel how full Larson’s heart is remembering this time with his daughters. It is a skillful poem with musical references that some of a certain age will appreciate.
 
Slap is an interesting tome with some poems being stronger than others.  The poems vary widely in subject matter and with interesting twists.  It is well worth a read while sitting in a comfortable chair.
You can find the book here: Slap
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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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My Mother’s Transvestites by Tiff Holland

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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As in her 2011 flash fiction collection, Betty Superman, winner of the Rose Metal Press’ Short Short Chapbook contest, the star of this poetry collection is the narrator’s mother. But she’s not the only star. There’s so much else going on in these poems, from reminiscences of a Midwest childhood to fluctuating gender identity to sex, death, marriage and parenthood.
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But the title poem and the prose poem that begins the book, “Hot Work,” both focus on the men who come into her mother’s beauty salon, men who “would like nothing more than to mingle under dryers, nibble donuts, discuss The Enquirer with the other ladies.”  The poem concludes:
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My mother applies the transvestites’ make-up. I feign sleep in a shampoo
chair, sneak peaks at finished products: wingless angels with five o’clock
shadow, tottering in circles between the dryers and the styling chairs,
trying in that small space to learn to fly.
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How like her mother’s female clients, whom Holland shows us in “The Beauty Shop Ladies”:
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They really want to be movie stars
Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Vivien
Leigh. They’ve seen “The Women”,
and they like to lounge on the settee-
shaped shampoo chairs while awaiting
their turn as the focus of my mother’s
attention.

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They all smoke in the way
of the rich and famous, holding
Salems and Winstons with just
the tips of their middle and fore-
fingers, close to the filters, calling
attention to their manicures,
the hue of their lips.
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The narrator’s mother skillfully juggles the fragile egos, like a magician. Other poems involving the mother include “Vanilla” (“Still in rollers, cigarette clenched between dentures, / Mom sat at the kitchen table….”), “Resemblance,” which is also about the narrator’s daughter, “Kenny,” “Orange, Brown, Yellow, Red,” “Thanksgiving,” and “The Vagina Tax,” in which she alludes to her mother’s death. This poem also concerns the narrator’s daughter.
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I admit, when the amniocentesis came back
Girl, I suggested murder-suicide: you, me
the Girl in my belly. I refused to birth into
this world another being to make only
seventy-six cents for every dollar
a boy would make.
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The mother appears in others, but this is a nice place to segue to two of Holland’s other potent themes, gender identity and sex. Early on, we get a picture of the narrator as a tomboy. In “Vanilla,” the mother dresses her son up like a girl, and of course the kids on the bus picked on him. The narrator pounded them. In “Flared,” we also read about clothing, and the narrator’s distaste for girlie clothes. “Foundations” which also deals with feminine garb, begins:
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About the time I was trying to decide
whether to have a sex change operation
but before I threw all my dresses and skirts,
my slips and nylons in the trash,
my boyfriend invited me to a fancy nightclub
for New Year’s Eve.
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This poem is neatly balanced by the final poem in the collection, “The Last Dress,” in which the narrator reflects on the last female garment she kept, but only for “wedding or funeral, over / seventy degrees, my / attendance obligatory.” As in the poems already cited and others like “Once I Wore a Red Bikini” and “”Don’t Ask,” the narrator’s ambivalence about gender roles as manifested in clothing and appearances is likewise upfront and center.  The poem – the book! – ends with positive self-affirmation:
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Really, I abandoned it because
I had no where to go in which
I had any reason to be someone
other than myself.
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Speaking of funerals, they are the subject of more than a few of these poems. “Carry On” is about the narrator’s father’s funeral. “Grandma Gone Out of Breeden West Virginia” is about burying her grandmother on the day she turned eight. “Eulogy for O’Toole” is about her mother’s second husband’s funeral. “Elegy for Uncle Bill” is a sweet tribute to a loved uncle, who in some sense still lives on. “In some theories of time, / everything is happening at once.”
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Indeed, the poems in which the narrator re-creates her childhood in Ohio are like this. “Purple Town,” “A Piece of August,” “Yanked” and “Burning Ghost Money in Akron, Ohio” bring the Midwest to life. The narrator married at seventeen to a boy going into the army, and several of the poems address this aspect of her coming of age, such as “Watch, Necklace, Luggage,” which is about the wedding, the reception in the Eagles hall where her Uncle Buddy’s band supplied the entertainment.  “Between home and homesick is the highway, / the Day’s Inn at Cave City, Kentucky,” she begins the poem, “No Need for Room Service.” It’s a poem about escaping from home. The occasion for this poem is not clear, though I like to think of it as the narrator and her husband after the wedding.  “Just past claustrophobia, we slip / from Central to Eastern Standard Time….” A vivid character named Tracy, a sort of “town slut” figure, appears in three of the Midwest poems, including the title poem.
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There is so much to admire about My Mother’s Transvestites, not the least of which is the humor that makes you smile on almost every page, the sympathetic characters, not the least of whom are the narrator and her mother, and the humanity that lies underneath it all.
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You can find the book here: My Mother’s Transvestites
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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  published by Future Cycle Press.  Most recently Catastroika  was released by Apprentice House in 2020.
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