No Don’t by Elena Karina Byrne

no dont

By Neil Leadbeater

‘No, Don’t’ can be construed as a plea from the heart. It is something that the narrator is addressing to herself and to her readers. It is saying ‘No, you don’t have to capitulate, let anything distract you or throw you off course, especially fear, especially grief. The double negative adds emphasis to the plea.

Reading Byrne’s poems is the art-equivalent of looking at a collage. Quotations selected from philosophers, scientists, educators, artists and writers, are often used as launching pads for her texts. The texts themselves are embroidered with a collage of images, personal experience and playful language. This is what makes them multi-layered and complex and seemingly out of the box as far as linear narrative goes. The reader is invited to take a leap of faith between one sentence and the next and not to worry over how he or she got there. In musical terms, Byrne’s poems are more akin to a Lutoslawski symphony than a Bach fugue. To read them is to go on an exciting journey, never quite knowing where you are going to end up. 

Unlike her previous collections, these poems are profoundly personal. The empirical ‘I’ makes its appearance in many of the poems in a move that is very much focused on the purely personal and subjective side of poetry. The contents are divided into two distinct sections. The first section is haunted by the loss of Byrne’s half-sister, memorialized in ‘Lynne’s Car Washed Violently Down Off The Cliff’ while the second section addresses more general issues that respond to the resurgence of hatred in America toward people of colour, immigrants, women, gay and trans communities and people in poverty.

The collection opens with a distant memory of Byrne, aged seven, being self-aware of her place in the omnipresent universe. Its unsettling title ‘During the Vietnam War’ is a reminder of just how fragile and threatening that universe can be. Lying on the wet grass and looking up at the sky, the mood is not so much of wonderment but defiance: ‘she was restless then & she was / glad she was not safe.’ Use of the third person personal pronoun lends the poem some distance.

‘Tomboy From The Art Room’ is set in the context of her growing up in an artistic family as a hyper-energized tomboy and is based on a dream about flying and being both a boy and a girl. An unsettling moment occurs in the second sentence which sets the tone for the remainder of the poem. Here she writes: ‘Can you see me riding that Native American horse saddle seat, / desert-out, with only oranges to eat, their white-waxed DDT skin flakes shining like / so many dead fish scales from my fingers…’ (The US banned the use of this insecticide in 1972).  Another poem arising from childhood, ‘White Doll’ is equally unsettling. The sky is described as ‘a commotion / of high radioactive-white clouds’, the light at dusk is ‘inconsolable’, the Barbie doll sleeps on a bare floor ‘in knuckle-blue darkness’, the world is ‘drowning’ and ‘always in mourning’ and the house is ‘silent’.

Rain falls in torrents through several of these poems. In ‘Such Things In Animal Skin’ Byrne tells us that it was because of the rain that her half-sister died:


Her car, near the ocean, slid down a canyon and outside

            mother-years passed over the continental divide

in the private garden stopped by snails and birds of paradise,

mocking birds mocking the grey darkness every summer since.


‘Cow Song’ is a poem that is based around herding calls used to call livestock down from the high mountain pastures in Scandinavia. Its tradition goes as far back as the Middle Ages when singers used to corral animals with a hypnotic melody known as a ‘kulning’ which can reportedly be heard by a cow that is 5 kilometers away from its caller:


I heard them, far-off, deep-calling

from behind death’s invisible floor door. Their wallow

metronome from the after rain mud was one giant body.


            Arizona’s yellow arm length of light all

            the way to my own body standing at the edge

of their field held me.


In Byrne’s poem, the singing becomes a grief song. A grief that refuses to move.

In the title poem, ‘No, Don’t’, Byrne is the child ‘sitting on the winding Escher stairs’, a reference to the Dutch artist’s work ‘Relativity’ which depicts a world in which the normal laws of gravity do not apply. Byrne’s poem is addressed to ‘the two of me’ the two who belong to two different sources of gravity. Her cry from the heart is asymmetric and there is nothing of comfort here, only bewilderment at the experience of being pulled in two different ways between fear and desire.

‘The Devil’s Auction: Twelve Nights of Discouragement’ is an ekphrastic poem based on a photograph of the film actress Eliza Blasina dressed as a horse when she appeared in a prose melodrama in four acts called ‘The Devil’s Auction’ which was first staged on Broadway in 1867. The poem was written directly from the photo image.

Two poems which caught my attention from the second half of the book were ‘The Future Is A Beast Prelude’ and ‘Eclogue In Herzog’s Orange & White’. In the former, Byrne uses language to play on the theme of time in all its shifting phases: in the title we have the words ‘future’ and ‘prelude’ and in the poem we have words and phrases such as ‘in the instant’, ‘life after death’, ‘episode’, ‘duration’, ‘day or night, yesterday or today’ and the adjective ‘metronomic’ – the ultimate keeper of time. The arresting opening ‘Violence / is commissioned in the instant…’ is just as arresting at the end: ‘Dead, Father still / opens the door for Mother in the dream, / half singing.’  The latter is a pastoral based on Werner Herzog’s diary ‘Walking on Ice’. In the foreword, Herzog says that he received a call from Paris informing him that his close friend, the German film historian Lotte H Eisner was ill and dying. Determined to prevent this, Herzog set off on a three-week walk from Munich to Paris in the depths of winter. The rain that has fallen on many of Byrne’s poems returns again. Byrne, using Herzog’s diary as a backdrop for her own grief, scents the poem with oranges. She tells us in a note that her father, who had been born next to fields of orange groves, ate endless oranges and drank nine glasses of milk a day and that her mother loved all the variations of the colour orange to the extent that she often experienced entire dreams in the colour orange. Italicized lines in the poem refer to extracts from Herzog’s diary while the references to oranges become an outworking of grief for Byrne’s own life after loss.

These poems show us the vulnerable side of our human nature against the backdrop of the ephemeral beauty of the natural world. They are brave poems, written with unflinching honesty, straight from the heart.

You can find the book here: No, Don’t


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and The Gloucester Fragments (Littoral Press, 2022). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.


All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of The Migrant Aid Crisis by Dana Sachs

all else

By Michael Collins

“These were weeks when international media regularly published photos of refugees walking along rural roads in Europe – a girl with a teddy bear, two boys pushing a third in a wheelchair. The images captured the strangeness of the situation and, to some extent, its pathos, but not the hours of physical exertion that walking demanded from people who were already hungry and exhausted” (103), Dana Sachs writes of Syrian refugees trying to make their way to new homes in All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of The Migrant Aid Crisis. One overarching moral aim on which the book certainly delivers is to bridge such gaps for readers with no direct experience of the crisis, whether between received images and their contextual stories or, even further, to include the inter-complexities among those stories.

Sachs weaves together life stories of refugees and volunteers, some of whom are both, who fled the war in Syria to Europe via Turkey and Greece beginning in 2015. A multilayered journalistic account, it ranges from the psychological struggles and insights of its central figures and families, to the cultural obstacles encountered and bridges formed in piecing together daily solutions amidst the crisis, to the national and international political obstacles to humane processes of relocating refugees. It successfully weaves narratives and perspectives from a diverse group of those struggling to help and/or survive on the ground with the relevant statistics they humanize, all in juxtaposition to the plodding roll out of broader, much better funded programs and policies by governments and large NGOs. The important contributions of larger entities are acknowledged, but their shortfalls are considerable:

“It is one of the terrible ironies of this story that the European Union had authorized €83 million to improve living conditions for displaced people in Greece and yet many fled official camps, taking shelter instead in illegal housing. The rejection of camps testified to their squalor and isolation and the fact that living there made people feel that they’d been warehoused and forgotten” (179).

The primary focus of the book is the smaller, more directly observant, interactive, and operationally agile organizations, such as Humanity Now: Direct Refugee Relief, of which Sachs is a co-founder. Indeed, the evolution of such organizations, often in cooperation with one another, is an interesting storyline of its own:

“Europe’s grassroots community had matured…. The most effective teams managed to marry the expertise and professionalism of large NGOs with the nimbleness and heart of small-scale relief efforts. The Norwegian charity A Drop in the Ocean, for example, had started out by providing emergency aid on Lesvos Island in 2015. By the end of 2016, the organization was sending experienced representatives to international conferences and issuing annual reports. It remained extremely lean, however. The organization had only 1.5 paid positions and relied almost entirely on volunteers. Over two thousand people from thirty-five different countries had served as ‘Drops’ in Greece” (225-6).

The complexities between the different abilities and restrictions of the various forms of aid organizations are an important aspect of the book. Sadly, transnational refugee crises seem more likely to proliferate than abate in the coming decades, and increasingly effective modes of cooperation and interdependence among the greater humanitarian community will only become more important. All Else Failed will be important to consider as such conversations evolve.

Its relevance to such conversations is also due to its methods and subject matter. All Else Failed is inherently focused on the perspectives and experiences of its featured refugees and volunteers, an approach that corresponds with the practices of grassroots aid organizations and communities. The book makes its most compelling case for the mode of humanitarian aid it champions in these interwoven stories. This approach also facilitates another compelling contribution of the book: Its nuanced profiles of these individuals point toward an emerging model of wounded, empathetic, self-aware, and resilient crisis citizen that bypasses dichotomies between victim and helper.

We meet several of the refugee families in their pre-war lives in Syria and follow them from these various versions of stability through the process of assessing their proximity to danger and options, making the choice to leave behind all that cannot be packed and carried, and planning to flee the country, in some cases by necessarily separating their families. The next stage involves a dangerous journey on which most of those possessions are lost or paid to smugglers, and unpredictable sequences of movements are undertaken to avoid detection by authorities. This is all before arriving in Greece, which is utterly unprepared to receive them, in their attempt to reach other destinations in Europe, which mostly refuse them, many for years. These journeys then bring the refugees to the settings shared with volunteers in Greece, first on beaches pulling survivors from tenuous vessels, subsequently in camps established to manage their basic needs, and finally in slightly preferable but still challenging squats organized by local community leaders.

The refugees’ narratives record squalid poverty, frustration with obstacles to constructive action, fear for their families’ health and safety, and, perhaps most torturously, the malaise, boredom, and tedious despair of the camps they find themselves stuck in. A recurrent, inspiring, and salient turn takes place when a refugee gains access to agency in the form of community service, usually in one of the illegal housing projects set up in cities away from the camps:

“The past few months had challenged Rima in every way. Her assessment of comfort had radically shifted. She had not forgotten the luxuries of her home in Syria, but she more often thought of her current situation in comparison to the squalor of [the camp]. The [housing squat] felt like heaven after the camp. She loved cooking for her community and worked hard to make delicious food. She didn’t want anyone to merely subsist; she wanted them to actually enjoy her meals. I cook, she told herself, for the sake of God. Rima Halabi had joined the volunteer movement” (167).

The illegal squats have no recourse to official channels of aid, and therefore require these contributions, but they have the ancillary effect of creating community bonds: “If a refugee knew how to paint walls, unclog toilets, or run electrical wiring through a building, the squat needed that person’s help. Unlike in government-run camps, where residents were mostly passive recipients of aid, this community would succeed or fail based on the active engagement of those who lived inside” (165).

Inspiring though some of their achievements may be, these meager dwellings are still haunted by crime, addiction and widespread depression, another important aspect of the resettling experience difficult to capture in brief mass media reporting, a particularly insidious issue as it demoralizes many of those who could be pillars of refugee communities: “[D]isplacement undermines the confidence of people who had previously regarded themselves as respectable members of society” (243). More problematically, it results from and manifests in behaviors that would not necessarily be connected by volunteers who did not have the ability to get to know the individuals involved: “squat residents refused to venture into the streets of Athens unless they had washed their clothes and made themselves look clean and neat. But it’s difficult to wash clothes if you live among 150 men sharing two bathrooms” (243). Some of these complicated situations are met by the creativity and compassion of refugees and volunteers, as in the generation of “Ramadan packs,” distributed before sunrise to make sure the observantly religious are fed (172). A great many others, of course, simply linger and fester due to the paucity of resources.

We do get to read about some of the life-affirming success stories: refugees resettled, reunited with families, determined to learn new languages, understand new customs, integrate into new roles and communities, even aspiring to build lives capable of supporting returns to Syria to help others when the opportunity may present itself: “When the sun rises, it will be our turn to help people” (281). These outcomes, however, involve arduous perseverance, the ability to be creative and rational in balancing traditions and pressing needs, the willingness to invest in community, and a capacity for gratitude capable of blotting from the mind the injustices of the past in order to take whatever forward steps are possible.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that these qualities are often shared most apparently with the volunteers who move to Greece at cost to themselves and work tirelessly to improve the situation. Though these individuals may model ingenuity, tenacity, and gritty humanitarian service, Sachs makes no attempt to romanticize their dedication or make Hollywood archetypes out of complex individuals.

The evolution of one stalwart volunteer’s perspective stands as an example of the most mindful volunteers’ balance between presence to the other and personal investment drawn from their own context: “When Kanwal described what she’s witnessed in Greece, she made it personal. ‘I just kept thinking this can be me and my family or my loved ones,’ she would say of refugees she’d met in Greece. People opened their wallets” (100). The aspects of altruistic mythologizing one would expect often accompany decisions to offer so much of one’s live to a difficult cause: “Kanwal Malik, thirty-four years old, had found purpose. I’m so broken, she thought. These people are fixing me. On Leros, she had seen how people had joined together for the common good. The system moved her deeply. She wanted to be part of it” (100). However, the deepening of such initial conceptions is considerable:

“On her first stint volunteering, she had felt such profound empathy for displaced people that she defined them simplistically: ‘These are angels. They’re the holy ones. They have to be good because they’ve been through so much.’

Now she considered those views naïve. ‘They’re just like any one of us trying to survive,’ she told me one. ‘They have their good. They have their bad. They are just normal people that have been through terrible circumstances and continue to live in terrible circumstances, which actually tests their character.’

This conclusion might sound obvious, but Kanwal had actually come to a fundamental truth that escapes many observers of crisis – that refugees are complicated human beings, just like the rest of us” (219).

Indeed, some of the most powerful individual lessons we may learn from those chronicled in these pages involve the need to tend to one’s own mental health and personal boundaries while providing aid and succor. By offering some protection against cumulative grief and despair, such practices sustain these individuals’ compassionate determination, a necessity in facing their various and often isolating paths. These challenges are so intense that, on the few occasions when two or more of the central figures’ paths would cross for the first time in the book, I felt palpably overjoyed for them, relieved that they would be present to help one another from then on. Perhaps, in addition to the claims made explicitly and implicitly by the text regarding how we might approach such crises in the future, we might also consider our responses as readers as we look back on such moments where human connections are formed that strengthen all parties – and approach future interventions with the priority of facilitating them.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/All-Else-Failed-Unlikely-Volunteers/dp/1954276095

Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.



The Anxiety Workbook by Christina Olson


By Charles Rammelkamp

In the poem, “What I Learned from the Ginkgo” (Ginkgo biloba), upon learning that a friend has just received a diagnosis of bowel cancer, from which he could die, the speaker’s impulse is to write to him, fuck cancer in its ass, knowing her friend might laugh at the dark humor, but she has misgivings, telling herself, “you are so clumsy / using humor as shield / the way you always do.” Indeed, more than the therapist’s Sit with that idea for a bit or her compulsive cleaning and tidying, or making lists, or the way she wraps “myself in facts, like research // in some magical science cloak that can protect / me from all my feelings,” humor is Christina Olson’s main strategy for dealing with anxiety. For just as the title suggests, The Anxiety Workbook is a kind of parody about dealing with worry, fear, apprehension, angst, a guide for the perplexed.  She’s almost like a stand-up comic. So many of the poems are long, hilarious rants. Even when dealing with the very worst of anxiety-inducing situations – spouse abuse, suicide, rape, the pandemic – she can force a little chuckle of recognition from the reader.

The collection is prefaced with a “found poem” she has modified for her purposes, called “Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Screening Tool,” which she says in her Notes that she borrowed from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. As in many a questionnaire, it proposes a list of questions with Yes or No checkboxes. In Olson’s case – Do you experience excessive worry? Do you find it difficult to control the worry once it starts? Etc. – all of the boxes are checked YES. She confesses that she even worries about not worrying in the best, correct way. “Therapists are always surprised that it’s not death, or money, or my husband leaving me, so then I worry that I don’t worry about the right things….”

The poems that follow, in five parts, begin at the beginning, as it were, with “Intro to Therapy,” which she began as an undergraduate in college. “Back then / I thought therapy would be like a course of antibiotics: / I’d do the cycle and then I’d be fixed.”  Twenty years later she’s still at it. Six of the fifty-three poems in the book are titled “Write Your Trauma: A Workbook Exercise,” as if this really were a self-help book with tips for controlling one’s anxieties. (Well, isn’t it? Smiley face emoji goes here.)

In the poem “Jeans! Jeans! Jeans!” which involves the death of a friend’s mother, she gives us insight into her worrying. It’s mithridatic, as if steeling herself against the worst.

            My therapist said, Look at that brain of yours,
            always trying to prepare you for the thing
            it knows will hurt like hell.


She goes on: “See how I turned this poem / about my friend’s dead mom and her grief / into a story about me…”

“Anxiety Open House,” “Anxiety Summer,” “Anxiety Snow Day,” “Anxiety Garden,” and “Anxiety Lake” are also part of the curriculum in The Anxiety Workbook.

About midway through the collection, as if hitting the midterm exam, comes “Intermediate Therapy.” She’s dealing with a new therapist, to whom she confesses that she likes to clean her house, “as if doing so cleanses / myself of every bad choice / I’ve ever made.” The therapist tells her this is not the right approach; she must “do something all for herself.” She’s not necessarily convinced.

            At least when you anxiety clean,
            you have a very physical result
            that you can later look at and think,
            Good job. You did that.

Olson frequently refers to nature to illustrate her thinking. Almost a dozen of the poems are called “What I Learned from…” (Wisteria, Gingko, Mastodon, Remains of Xena, A 12-Foot Mammoth, Gympie Gympie Plant, Velvet Ant, Copperhead, the Pregnancy I Terminated, West African Lungfish, Goblin Shark). These, too, are comical but provide insight into human behavior. “What I Learned from the Gympie Gympie Plant” (Dendrocnide moroides ), for instance, begins:

            killing you softly is not the m.o.
            of the gympie gympie plant
            which would prefer instead to kill you
            repeatedly & very agonizingly

 There’s a lesson to be learned here about the anxieties we carry with us through life, the things that will torture us over and over, their sting no less potent over time.

Mammoths and mastodons figure into a handful of poems – “Catalogue of Damages,” “Among the Bones,” “What I Learned from the Mastodon,” “What I Learned from the remains of Xena, a 12-foot Mammoth,” “20/20” – always with affectionate humor and insight (“Xena, what is it with all these goddamned flawed men”).

Several poems involve Koko the gorilla who paints watercolors that someone is selling online. Visit Koko.org for further information.

As one might expect from a poet and creative writing teacher, Olson also focuses on language itself in several poems.  Latin words, for instance, are important. In “Another Theory on Language” she writes that she makes up words for things that “language hasn’t caught up to yet,” citing various examples, mainly convoluted German terms.

            Or Empörugbotschaft, which is
      exactly how you feel when someone
             replies to your email and not only
             have they not answered the question,
             they ask you a question
             that your message took great pain
             to answer. Empörugbotschaft,
             you think, which means, Per
             my last email, fuck the fuck off.
This marvelously funny but poignant collection ends (“Write Your Trauma: A Workbook Exercise” Statesboro, Georgia 2021), well, inconclusively, but this is therapy, right? What did we expect? “Okay,” the therapist says to Olson after she dutifully catalogues the things she likes about herself, “That’s good. We’ll pick this up next time.”
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.

As Is by Julia Spicher Kasdorf


“I, too, write by the sentence, compose as is, then break my lines”

By Alexis David

Outside the day is as gray as the underbelly of a cat. I walk on icy sidewalks and the air punches my cheeks. I worry about what I need to fix in my life, what I could do better—write better, publish more, read more, exercise more. However, I am reading the work of Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s grounding, yet exciting collection of poems entitled As Is. I am boggled by the title. Why does she name this book of poems “As Is?” What is it about accepting things as they are, not fixing things? The first section is preceded with a quote from Wallace Stevens that insists we should not fix things because fixing things causes a finality. Is there an immortality in viewing experiences, memories, ideas, “as is?” I find myself immersed in a culture of self-help, of always wanting to change, to get better, to do more, to get more. It has taken me three months to write this review of this book. During this time, I have scolded myself to be quicker to request more books to review, to write more. However, I keep coming back to the collection’s title and wonder if it’s all for naught. Kasdorf’s work allows me to accept the beauty of the world as it is. Many of the poems are simply a documentation of what is; Kasdorf leaves space for the reader to engage with the images.

For instance, in a poem about canning tomatoes called “Climate Change with Daughter and Tomatoes,” Kasdorf writes:

I have always believed things

will turn out with work and hope, maybe not quite

what you thought, but somehow, yet when I opened

one of those quarts, it reeked of rot. Nothing for it

but to haul it all up the hill in a wagon, dump jar after

jar until the compost looked like a heap of red organs

that later grew a coat of soft, white mold. (16)

This poem is lovely. My favorite line is, “I have always believed things/will turn out with work and hope” (15). The image of the tomatoes is symbolic for the whole collection of poetry. This is a book written by a realist. The tomatoes molded over, needed to be dumped out. The poem becomes a documentation of this moment, as if to say, “This is how things are.”

I experienced a February thaw while reading Kasfdorf’s work. My Buffalo winter began to break open and spring slowly appeared. I spent hours at my desk in the warm sunlight, gingerly flipping through the pages of this book. I found a reading that Kasdorf gave at the Midterm Scholar Bookstore. Here, she mentioned that the act of poetry making is the combination of writing from a certain viewpoint and memory. This is emblematic of the book. Many of the poems in this collection are a persona looking back at her life, but the collection resists nostalgia. Instead we get poems from the last seven years of Kasdorf’s life that have currents of nature imagery, domestic life, and a personal history set against national and international histories. Poems that sit among coal miners and the Amish and Mennonite communities. In the reading she mentions “loving a place the way we find it” and that the act of poetry making holds it with care.

There is a sensation that Kasdorf holds these memories with care. At times in the poems, there is a loneliness in this vantage point, as in in the first poem of the collection, “They Call It a Strip Job”: “no one hears me cuss” (5) and again in the next poem, “Sweetgum,” which to me, is about poetry making: “Like grief, this labor/requires long walks, bicycle rides, and talking/out loud when no one else is around” (7). She returns to this theme of “as is” in the line, “Let go your desire to wrap/it up; closure’s a hoax” (7). Here is a poet handling the soft, cotton material of poetry: memory and observation. In this piece, she defines poetry according to Yehuda (Yehuda Amachi, the Israeli poet?) as “a vaccine you brew/in your own body from myriad diseases” (8). Poetry becomes both the substance of disease and also the inoculating substance that will protect you, save you from the bigger illness.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Flags” (36). I’m simultaneously reading the critic and poet, James Longenbach’s book: How Poems Get Made. Here Longenbach spends the first chapter talking about the medium of poetry, which is language. Kasdorf’s diction in this poem is gorgeous. My reading of this poem is that it’s a father greeting his daughter after she gets off the bus. He shows her the flowers in the yard, “pointed buds, bearded iris blossoms—/lavender, yellow, white, indigo” (36) and uses them metaphorically to warn her of the dangers she faces, “Look: irises bloom/in our June garden, daughter, see whiskered/stripes on tongues that tremble from/the mouths of beasts. How your beauty/opening, opening worries me” (36). The language here is both natural and domestic, a theme carried out through the collection. There is a subtle sensation of the dangers of masculinity, carried through on the next page (which shows Kasdorf’s delicate ordering of the poems) where we find the poem, “When I Say Is That What You’re Wearing?” This poem is an address from a mother to a daughter who is worried about “some stranger gazing/on her buns will gobble/them up in one gulp” (37). What follows is a series of poems, in a “strangled sonnet” form, that all begin with “When I Say. . .”

Later in this section of the book, there seems to be motifs of tension between things remaining the same and change, especially natural spaces. In “Dialogue with Lake Perez” (54), Kasdorf asks the lake, “what swims beneath your glitter?”(54). Here we follow this meditative conversation between lake and speaker, the lake answering back with nouns “minnows, fin fish, crayfish” (54) and the speaker repeatedly asking, “Before them?”( 54). This poem has the quiet and wise quality of a good children’s book. The curiosity of the speaker is not quite satisfied each time, not until the end where the lake can’t remember anymore and asks the speaker instead to be quiet, remove her shoes and step into the water.

I love this poem because it directly confronts the title of the book, in the most gentle of ways. It’s impossible for things to always remain the same. Everything is always changing. The natural world is one of impermanence. And even poetry itself is always changing. Just as you can never step into the same river twice, you can never read the same poem twice. Our paratext, or subjective experience that informs our meaning-making of the poem, changes. We relate to poems differently at different moments because we are always gaining different reference points. The poem triggers different memories or associations. So, can we really leave things as is? I don’t know. The third section of the book features shorter poems, more haiku-like in nature. Here, the language is sparser, shorter, often following a structure of two lines per stanza that take up half the page. These poems remind us that maybe we don’t need to consciously change. Maybe I don’t need to publish more and more or exercise harder. Perhaps, Kasdorf is evoking the Buddhist idea of “non-striving.” Maybe we should, as Kasorf softly tells us, “Love, leave/your desk, come to the woods/where all is urge and bird-flurry/yearning toward sky” (63).

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/As-Poetry-Julia-Spicher-Kasdorf/dp/0822967022

The Cut Point by Rodrigo Toscano


By Greg Bem

The Cut Point is Rodrigo Toscano’s tenth book, and is the latest in his forays into the elastic and acrobatic edges of poetry and poetic language. It is an ambitious work that continues to best represent Toscano’s range, though it lacks some of the book structure that could make the work accessible and better knowable to the general reader.

From the opening poem, “Magnolias,” Toscano’s experimental and performative breath is accelerated across the page: “This shade-casting magnolia’s / getting involved / with your breathing” (page 1). This introduction to the book is a prime example of finding quick, concise balance between astute observation (place making and world building) and leaning into the fringe and pulling out the abstract.

The balance here is the difficulty of Toscano’s works, which make it excellent to read through, backwards and forwards. Toscano continues: “Or is it better put / was always involved / with your breathing”. The visual qualities (the poet emphasizes intensity and momentum through a pendulum of tabulations and enjambment) and the linguistic precision form a kind of doppler effect of poetry: the feeling of speed and the pressure to slow down at once moves into the reader.

Not all the works are quizzical and baffling, but many of them are. These qualities of question and wonder make Toscano’s poetry great to sit with, to puzzle over, to get haunted by. Sometimes the poems dribble down the page in their mesmerizing: “The unpaired, or paired / or semi-paired, or / multiply paired people / and pestilence” (from “Endless Summer NOLA,” page 12). This literary cascade is complimented by Toscano’s list poems, which are also splattered across the book in mildly absurd, often ecstatic, otherwise amusingly bemusing: “In yellow pants / with red cane / green glasses / with sparkles / purple shoes /with stars / starched white shirt / perfect creases” (from “Sapeurs and Cobalt,” page 3).

Poems like these contain the dialogical and bisecting performative voice Toscano has chiseled across the years. “Couplets” are more like schisms, more like being split down the middle and put back together again, a stack of bricks placed with chapped fingers, a cairn of pebbles in a glacial basin, a conversation of interruption and compilation. In “Triage Poetry,” the cuts are direct, rhythmic, clean:

So sick of triage poetry
Can’t even tell you how much, folks.

Poetry that picks up the pieces
Of broken people, smashed up people

So sick of it. Don’t want to hear it.
Oppressions of all kinds, real shit.

(page 73)

The lines read like a singular voice in couplets, but the allusion to multiple voices, to dialogue, to duality, is also present. “American Poetry Quarterly” moves further afield, the dialogue broken up with line breaks into a clear distinction of separate voices, separate speaking:

You don’t have a routine?

I mean—

You’re spontaneous! You’re a spontaneous poet.

No no no—

(page 72)

And in some cases, the “cut” is not as clearly a this or that, but a more varied texture, with nuances in timing and space on the page. “The Land” reflects this by way of a director (as the first voice) and a performer (as the second voice), with the cut between the two voices, as well as a cut within the performer’s lines: “’The land. . . / swims to sea’ // perfect— / take eight // “The land. . . / floats in space”’ (page 80).

Toscano brings additional forms into this collection, including exploring more complex patterns of the “the foot,” tercets and other stanza styles that feel like William Carlos Williams or Anne Waldman and so on. The rhythm and motion push the book forward and each poem feels like one in a long arc of experimentation through various forms, various common approaches that Toscano has chiseled open and weathered into across time.

Still, the book tends to move so astoundingly fast, with little context, that the themes get buried in the form and experimentation. Toscano often includes more serious topics in his writing, and comments on gun control, political parties, postcolonialism, to name a few in this volume, but the impact of these topics feels awash and buried. Likewise, the poet’s approaches to writing feel distanced and obscured through the lack of the book structure, lack of explanation, lack of traditional explication for the reader. And yet the book’s writing is so compelling that perhaps that is the true cut: the slice of being, an excision from expectation.

You can find the book here: http://counterpathpress.org/the-cut-pointrodrigo-toscano

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.




The Skin of Meaning by Keith Flynn

By Lynette G. Esposito
The Skin of Meaning by Keith Flynn is an interesting mixture of contemporary reactions to issues that affect us in the twenty-first century.  Keith presents one hundred and eighty-one pages of poetry divided in three sections entitled Etymologies, Dichotomies and Necrologies. Flynn uses a variety of poetic forms in each section and presents his messages in fresh imagery, clear logic and almost genius linguistic control.
The Skin of Meaning, published by Red Hen Press, encourages the reader to think a little outside the poetic box.  For example, in the poem, The Force of Compassion, on page twenty-three in the Etymologies section, Flynn creates a place where memories come out of the walls in his one stanza, eleven-line poem.
Sit with things and listen long
and the singing will begin. 
turn your free fall into    
a voluntary act.  The song
shattered, every being
takes the place of the harmony.
The well of the past is bottomless
and in the wall the song climbs
out of the nets and jewels of time,
 the infinite unraveling mingles 
well water, lotus heart, rising crane.
The poem suggests meditation and realization as all becomes a moment of acceptance and peace with the walls becoming the musical instrument. 
Flynn’s control of the forward movement in poetry is seen in his poem Robert Johnson’s Milk Cow Blues in the Dichotomies section on page eighty-five.
We love the singer for the ache in his voice.
We love the acre for the seam of water
splitting it in two.  Neither of them know
the source of the bruise, or why the blunt blue
cut that pushes back against their best efforts
so transfixes the visitors, who cannot avert
their own pitiless gazes into or suppress their
best guesses about the fault’s black bark history.
The brindle cow grazes and chews and stares into
the indigo pool that divides the field, a song in 
her head that calls across the fracture toward her calf,
hobbling like a toddler in her mother’s leathery heels,
its rubbery wheels drunkenly reeling the calf toward
its only recognizable song, regardless of the source.
Flynn’s poems need to be read in their entirety to appreciate their meaning. Although the poem begins with love, it does not end that way. His use of water images suggest a divisive negativity to a situation that should or could be pastoral but is not.
In the final section, Necrologies, the poem The Mountain that Eats Men on pages one hundred and seventy-four to one hundred and seventy six is a fifteen- stanza poem that explores images of a man trapped on a mountain with a broken back.  The images are fresh and strong as they set time and situation into place.  He ends the poem with images that suggest what the hungry mountain does with men.
     I was swamped and alone
in a jagged avalanche
of freshly baptized sounds
     dancing at twenty paces
with loaded gondolas of coal
This volume is loaded with complicated poems that a serious-minded reader would appreciate.
It is not light reading.
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.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review, Bindweed Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, That Literary Review, The Remembered Arts Journal, and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives  in Mount Laurel, NJ.

2nd Wednesday’s Poetry @ Northeast Philadelphia Regional Library Summer/Autumn 2023

Summer/Autumn 2023

2nd Wednesday’s Poetry @ Northeast Regional Library

Featured Poets + Open Mic

Curated By North of Oxford Literary Journal

6pm to 7:30pm

2228 Cottman Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19149

June 14th

Cydney Brown and Evan Anders


Cydney Brown is the 2020 Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate and author of Daydreaming. She is a Freshman at Northwestern University and has been writing poetry since she was in 5th grade. Brown has been featured in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6abc, Philadelphia Citizen, and Fox29. She is the recipient of The Romero Scholarship For Excellence In Spoken Word. She is a Gold Award Girl Scout, recipient of The Good Citizenship Award, and Shine Global’s Youth Activist Award. Cydney wishes to inspire people to speak their truth and share her poetry with the world.


Evan Anders brews coffee for mass consumption in Philadelphia. His poems have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, decomp journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He is a retired stay-at-home dad who thinks Bob Dylan was best in the eighties.
Visit Evan online at Evan Ander
September 13th
Elliott batTzedek and Autumn McClintock

Elliott batTzedek, MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, received the Robert Bly translation prize and a Leeway Art and Change Award. She is a bookseller and a liturgist for Jewish communities. Her work appears in: American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Cahoodaloodaling, and Naugatuck River Review Her chapbook the enkindled coal of my tongue was published by Wicked Banshee Press.

McClintock Headshot

“Autumn McClintock is a freelance writer and editor living in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Her newest chapbook, Dirt Bird, was published by Alexandria Quarterly Press in March 2023, and poems of hers have recently appeared in The Account, Cimarron Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Georgia Review. She is Poetry Editor of Doubleback Review. Find her online at www.autumnmcclintock.com.”

October 11th
Dave Worrell and Leonard Kress


Dave Worrell’s chapbook “We Who Were Bound” was published in August 2012 by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. His limited-edition ekphrastic collection “Close to Home” appeared in 2015, featuring paintings by Catherine Kuzma. Dave’s poems have appeared in Slant, Canary, Shot Glass Journal, Heroin Chic, Referential Magazine, Symbiosis, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Exit 13 and elsewhere. He has performed his music-backed poems at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia and The Cornelia Street Café in New York.


Leonard Kress has published poetry, translations, non-fiction, and fiction in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Craniotomy Sestinas appeared in 2021. He lives in Blackwood, NJ and teaches at Temple University.



Ten Most Read Poetry Book Reviews at North of Oxford as of National Poetry Month

Based on readership

Beyond Repair by J.C. Todd


A Summoning by Nicole McCarthy


Bobish by Magdalena Ball


Bone Country by Linda Nemec Foster


Commonplace by Hugo Garcia Manríquez (trans. NAFTA)


A Magician Among the Spirits by Charles Rammelkamp


Stop Lying by Aaron Smith


Lilith Walks by Susan M. Schultz


Pacific Light by David Mason


The Dog Years of Reeducation by Jianqing Zheng

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2023/04/01/the-dog-years-of-reeducation-by-jianqing-zheng/ .



2nd Wednesdays Poetry at Northeast Philadelphia Regional Library – May 10th

Spring 2023

2nd Wednesday’s Poetry @ Northeast Regional Library

Featured Poets + Open Mic

Curated By North of Oxford Literary Journal

6pm to 7:30pm

2228 Cottman Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19149

May 10th

TS Hawkins and Emari DiGiorgio 

HawkinsTS_Headshot8x10TS HAWKINS is an international author, performance poet, art activist, playwright, and member of the Dramatists Guild. Plays, short works, and books include Seeking Silence, sweet bread peaches (formerly, Cartons of Ultrasounds), Too Late to Apologize, In Their Silence (formerly, They’ll Neglect to Tell You), #RM2B, The Secret Life of Wonder: a prologue in G, AGAIN, #SuiteReality, “don’t wanna dance with ghosts…”, Sugar Lumps & Black Eye Blues, Confectionately Yours, Mahogany Nectar, Lil Blaek Book: all the long stories short, and The Hotel Haikus. Ongoing projects: TrailOff and Community Capital: an Afrofuturism South Philly Walking Experience. TS HAWKINS


DSC_6554-2 (1)

Emari DiGiorgio is the author of Girl Torpedo, winner of the Numinous Orison, Luminous Origin Literary Award, and The Things a Body Might Become. Her poetry has received numerous awards, including the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, RHINO’s Founder’s Prize and a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. At Stockton, Emari teaches first-year writing and poetry, is Faculty Director of Murphy Writing, and serves as President of the Stockton Federation of Teachers.