book review

La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals by Philippe Jaccottet (Trans. John Taylor)

la clarte

By Michael Collins

The late Philippe Jaccottet, winner of the Petrarch Prize, the Prix Goncourt and the Schiller Prize once claimed, “Everything – I think I can say this – everything that has given rise in me to a poem or a poetic prose piece has done so, it seems to me, because an opening has taken place in the wall of appearances; an opening through which, in addition, a happy light did not necessarily pass; what rushed through might have been frightful.”[i] This passage seems particularly descriptive of the meditations that make up ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals,’ his final, posthumously released works.

‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ is a sequence of prose sections, spanning the final decade of Jaccottet’s life, that arise from and reflect upon one such “opening,” the sounding of a unique chapel bell:

I’d never heard a tinkling—prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times—as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline . . . Yet which I couldn’t listen to as if it were a kind of speech —emerging from some mouth . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender . . . Ah, this was obviously something that resisted grasping, defied language, like so many other seeming messages from afar—and this frail tinkling lasted, persisted, truly like an appeal, or a reminder . . . (6-7)

The abiding experience accrues great devotion, a poetic inspiration that never finds verse form: “I must keep it alive like a bird in the palm of my hand, preserved for a flight that is still possible if one is not too clumsy, or too weary, or if the distrust of words doesn’t prevail over it” (5). The poet’s faithfulness is rewarded in continual and invigorating attempts themselves at reaching for the expression of the ethereal sound, ranging from a “limpidity which a heart would hardly be able to conceive, to hope for; and yet which would have enough power to act on a heart without any reference to its own nonetheless undeniable origin” to a synesthesia resonant with myth: “I had to think of morning dew that would be—as in a fairy tale—winged, and metamorphosed into aerial sounds . . . ” (13). A humble resilience results from this ongoing practice of linguistic devotion to the ultimately unsayable, yet even this modest dignity rests upon the mere possibility of his own life being somehow akin to the mysteries of his own reverence: “Would thus my life, so close to the end, at last discover itself to be an appearance of sense as fragile, yet also as persistent as all those signs of which I would have been the gatherer, the ‘re-gatherer’, and the too-clumsy interpreter?” (14)

All of these gentle considerations are confronted and threatened throughout the work by the rising drone of mindless cruelty that pervades the same world, represented by the recurrent figure of a man being released from a Syrian prison while hearing the screams of those still being tortured:

Therefore reduced, at the very end of my life’s path, to staggering between two aspects of my experience, at least both of them being indubitable: the gathering of signs, which is almost all my poetry, with the last sign received, this year still, as the starting point of these pages—all those signs whose singularity is to be minute, fragile, barely graspable, evasive yet undoubtful, indeed quite the opposite: very intense; in the final reckoning, the most precious things that I will have received in my life, without my having looked or even hoped for them. And on the other hand, the growing fright of one who walks in a corridor of a prison in Syria and will never be able to efface from his mind the screams that he has heard rising from the lowest circles of Hell. (20)

The fellowship of past poets, readings of their work and the memories it framed, provides recurrent and essential succor:

Defenceless, however? Not completely, because I had experienced those unexpected encounters as by far the best part of my life, some of them remaining completely interior or almost, and of which I perceive today that they were all oriented in the same direction, embellished with a mute joy, directed towards what Plotinus, as a rereading of Shestov has just reminded me, called the Very High, with the same terms that Hölderlin, all the same, still dared to call the Sacred, and even the Gods. Encounters sometimes prepared, without my being aware of it, by all those fragments of poetry which had come to me from all sorts of places, which were so well engraved thereafter in my memory, and which also proceeded, however different they were, in the same direction. (26-7)

Though these textual embodiments of the sacred may bridge death in finding the next generations, the awareness necessary to engage with them, in accordance with its own perceptive nature, circles back to its consciousness of the very evil that can only manifest materially because it is utterly unconscious of itself:

As for he who gets immersed in listening to music, with closed eyes, and imagines himself, for as long as he listens, sheltered from the worst; while this coat protects him no better than that of the snow.

Comes the moment of the torn coat, the torn body, and too often tortures with no thinkable excuse for them.

Comes the destruction with no remedy and of which one cannot speak without lying, without flourishes, if not those armfuls of flowers that merely mask the unbearable. (36)

The enduring truth, perhaps, that we may take from this “opening…in the wall of appearances” is the plurality of delicate, life-affirming synapses it fosters, in which both wisdom and innocence past are borne into the future:

I cannot help but notice, at this very late moment, as I write these already trembling lines, that here I’m touching the exact heart of what made me write, and which excuses, or in any event explains and justifies, all my repetitions from the onset, or nearly so.

To which responds the little bell of my childhood, the one that my father would ring at the garden gate…a little bell tinkling shrilly in the falling snow (34-5)

The sequences comprising The Last Book of Madrigals can be read as following the life of an intimation such as the bell, through a lifecycle – or several – within creative development that allows the inspiration to morph and take on new perspectives, as the title indicates. Here the initial life declares itself “While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi”:

When singing, he seems to call to a shade

whom he glimpsed one day in the woods

and needs to hold on to, be his soul at stake:

the urgency makes his voice catch fire. (49)

In a process that will play out in various ways over the course of the sequence, the speaker then moves into an imaginal scene in which the shade disputes with him:

              ‘I’ve no wish to be led away by your too-ingenuous angels,

but rather by those gentle women, even if they disappoint,

those merry ones suddenly—who knows why—so serious,

and we’ll take the white cherry trees for a lamp.’ (51)

The speaker first decries then incorporates the other perspective, merging it with his original one into a modified third:

would their way of leading astray also guide,

since they’d be the most faithful images

of the ephemeral sky?

It’s their gaze I gaze at, for quite a while,

to verify these landmarks for my future steps. (51)

As with the bell, the speaker enters into a form of dialogue with the place in himself where the “wall of appearances” has opened, and, as in ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ this conversation expands over the course of revisitings to include the voices of imaginal characters, poetic ancestors, and mythic echoes. Within the psychic movements of the text, the experiential, living qualities of myth are consistently invoked through dialogue with the other poetic elements, the replicable nuances of perception, feeling, and reflection in which the reader may join the speaker. Take, for example, the conscious, felt rebirth of placing oneself as a small life within a vastness of voices and stories both ancient and present:

Then I raised my eyes: the whole wide sky

was around us,

with chirping in the stubble

like stars along the ground.

A last flight, like a trail of silence, was visible

and I said to myself: ‘So now we’re born again,

baptized by the long summer night.’ (53)

The fusion of stars and crickets combines unlike senses while also interchanging the grand and humble, the immanent and transcendent in a poetic gesture that corresponds with the larger moves between the speaker’s voice and those “other” voices great and small that the poems incorporate. This can be observed in more extensive imaginal developments throughout the collection as well”:

I believed that with its creaking wood and wheels,

once the day had snuffed out its fires, this chariot

would almost join the other one

where each of us would hardly have to reach

to gorge ourselves on ripe stars. (55)

Other images, perhaps indicative of communing with the past poets in a more direct way, reflect the polyphonic nature of “the poet’s” voice, its awakening of the textual voices of the departed concurrent with correlatives in the living world:

The streams have awakened.

The least clear voice intertwines with the clearest one

as their fast waters weave together.

So that I can be bound with similar bonds,

I’m happy to reach out my two hands.

Thus bound, I free myself from winter. (71)

The classical identification between poet and weaver moves from image, to mythic invocation, to refrain and extended metaphor as the poems unfold, the shifting between roles helping to facilitate accompanying movements of tone and perspective. Hence, in one poem Penelope “reweaves the blue cloth of the sky” in order “to protect us patiently and faithfully / from the black archer with his too-frigid arrows” (73). The colors in the weaving are then commended to “swift jockeys of summer, / wear them to glorify the invisible woman / who bet her beauty on your fiery spirit” (75). Spring’s affirmation of new life is the explicit concern of this weaving, the mythic renewal both fusing and expressing the invigorating feeling and sensation: “Who on those flaming benches around the arena would doubt / that living grace will triumph over a bundle of bones?” (77)

The intermittent use of second person and imperative draw the reader into the drama as both witness and surrogate to the speaker’s explorations, perhaps a subtle way of this poet passing on his own legacy:

Look at the swifts:

as many wrought-iron arrows in the walls,

shot towards the four corners of the sky

when the summer evening falls.

And he who still writes on the last staffs,

perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff

has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,

but now the hook tugs at my heart

and I don’t know if it’s the daylight or me

bleeding in these pearly waters.’ (81)

The poem places the central perspective with the reader, through which the speaker views both his own mortality and, perhaps paradoxically, through it, his own enmeshment within the daylight and water as a vital and ongoing part of the life of the world despite the impending cessation of “his” consciousness:

There’s a beauty that the eyes and hands touch

and that makes the heart take a first step in song.

But the other one steals away and we must climb higher

until we can’t see anything any more,

the beautiful target and the tenacious hunter

blended in the jubilant light. (83)

As in the meditations of ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ however, the perspective that affirms its temporary place in ongoing life is not at one with the voice located closer to personal mortality. In fact, one important moral contribution of both works is bringing the two into intrapsychic dialogue. Here, the birds carry the blurred projection of transcendent self and the shadow of death that it implies for the individual poet, through which he recovers his deep, unwavering vocation:

In the distance, the blue tents of the mountains

seem empty.

What are you sombrely scheming on your wires,

nervous birds, my familiar swallows?

What are you all going to take away from me?

If it were only the summer light

I’d willingly wait here for your return.

If it were only my life, carry it off.

But the light of my life, cruel birds,

let me keep it so I can brighten November. (99)

The movements between mythic macrocosm and imaginal immanence, in parallel with the reflexivity of speaker and addressee positions, facilitate many framings of this inner dialogue, bringing forth various moods, perspectives, experiential openings, and insights. In doing so the reflections weave together objective knowledge of the human confrontation with death with the mythic experiences of ongoing life in ways that transcend both poet and text, brightening Novembers for those yet to add their own threads to the choir of tapestries.


[i] Jaccottet, Philippe. Ponge, Pastures, Prairies. Translated by John Taylor. BSE Books, 2020pg 37.

You can find the book here: https://www.seagullbooks.org/la-clarte-notre-dame-and-the-last-book-of-the-madrigals/

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.

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Casualty Reports  by Martha Collins

cas reports

By Charles Rammelkamp

Martha Collins’  new collection is dedicated to “the casualties of Covid-19; to the casualties of racism inflicted by the police and others in the United States and throughout the world.” The poems shine a light on the casual cruelties the powerful inflict upon the vulnerable, the exploitation, the inhumanity, the total lack of empathy.

The book is also dedicated to the memory of her father, William E. Collins, whose similar stories of exploitation in the coal industry are highlighted as part of the thematic thrust of Casualty Reports.

The tone is necessarily elegiac but the verse is written in a style that is at once allusive and expository, suggestive and explicit. Several poems in the final section, “And Also,” are indeed elegies for lost friends.  In fact, Casualty Reports is finally dedicated to Collins’ late friend, the peace activist/poet Lee Sharkey, whose collection I Will Not Name It Except to Say, which likewise addresses injustice and inhumanity, was published in 2021, after her death in October of the previous year.

Casualty Report is made up of five sections, two titled “Legacy,” which deal with coal – coal mining, coal miners and unions, pollution, propaganda – and two titled “Reports,” which focus on other injustices for which we have a collective accountability – racism, poverty, war, gun violence among them.

The first poem in the first Legacy section – the first poem in the collection – is called “In Illinois” and deals with her family’s history in the coal mining business, great-grandfather and grandfather dating back to 1871.
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             My father whose mother kept   him out of the mines kept
             his father’s fathers oil lamp   kept his father’s carbine
              & safety lamps kept a box   of wicks-picks-globes kept
              his father’s 50-year union   pin his first aid pin his
              flashlight safe for use kept   manuals papers This lamp\
              was given all labeled This pin    was given kept it all it was
              .
              his legacy labeled dated   1965 & signed & kept for me
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Two poems later is “A History of American Coal Through the Lens of Illinois,” largely a prose description of organized labor – United Mine Workers of America – with a mention of Mother Jones, and the largest private-sector coal company in the world, the Peabody Coal Company. Subsequent poems – “Du Quoin,” “Herrin,” “Virden” – highlight the brutal massacres of miners in parts of southern Illinois, union members and Blacks. Poems like “Store” and “Model Miners (2005)” allude to Merle Travis’ celebrated country song, “Sixteen Tons” (famously covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford) about the virtual slavery of the miners to the coal companies for which they worked (“Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store”).
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Collins does for coal mining what Herman Melville did for whaling in Moby-Dick, an exhaustive overview and close examination of its history and its global implications, from “A History,” which cites references to coal in the Oxford English Dictionary from as far back as 1387, to “Types of Coal Mines,” which include coal picked up from the surface, to mines going deeper and deeper, more intricate and elaborate, to the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining, which devastates the landscape, turning lush forests into barren moonscapes. “Burning” focuses on the poisons and pollution.
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            the mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen
            oxides from burning coal that fill
            our air & fall upon us as acid rain—
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            the selenium, arsenic, lead from coal
            ash stored in coal ash ponds that leak
            & spill & pollute our waters—
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            but most of all the carbon dioxide
            released by burning that captures
            heat that warms our air & melts
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            our glaciers, lifts our seas & warms
            them, dries our land & fuels fires,
            strengthens rainfalls & hurricanes….
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The previously mentioned “Model Miners (2005)” is a poetic transcript of a propaganda piece General Electric made to depict coal miners as sexy Marlboro men and women, who are concerned about the environment and global warming. The advertising clip can be seen here – https://pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/ge-model-miners-ad/.
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The poems in the two “Reports” sections concentrate on other forms of worldwide injustices. The five-part poem, “Lamentations,” modeled, Collins tells us in an endnote, after the Biblical Book of Lamentations, was written in response to an interdisciplinary project about guns and gun violence. The first part begins:
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            America   more guns   more   than us
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            Bullets   bullets   bullets   bullets   more
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            Children in school   boy in park   no sorrow
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The subsequent parts allude to Trayvon Martin, mass shootings in locations across America (El Paso, Dayton, Midland Odessa), hate crimes and gang violence. It ends, part five, echoing Lamentations, with a call to remember the dead:
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            Remember our people killed by guns
                                                                                    we have more guns than people

.             Remember our 100 people killed each day

                                                                                                      the shot and injured
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            Remember our 1000 killed each year by police….
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“For Gaza” is a poem about the shabby treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government. “Blue” is a poem that refers to the Vietnamese monks who set themselves on fire in protest in the 1960’s. The poem, “Like Her Body the World” sums up our inherent responsibility in the whole mess. Collins writes:
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            we are part of the body we forgot
            we thought we lived outside like a brain in a jar
            we thought we were pure like thought nothing to lose
            but we are losing too we are losing parts.

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The poems in the final section are more personal, saying goodbye to different friends who have passed on. Casualty Reports is a devastating indictment of our time, of our species, of our less than honorable stewardship of the earth.

You can find the book here: Casualty Reports – University of Pittsburgh Press

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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Event Horizon  by Cate Marvin

event
By Lynette G. Esposito
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Event Horizon by Cate Marvin, published by Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, Washington, May 2022) is ninety pages of long, sometimes prose-like poems that deal with universal subjects such as relationships, memories and life problems.
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Rendezvous with Ghost on page eleven explores the possible sensual relationship with a ghost in an historic hotel filled with memories.
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Did it transpire to rise from beneath the floorboards?
Did it escape into the room through a heating vent?
Suddenly, my head palpable as an apple, felt its eyes.
The folding chairs woven into the room by their rows.
The shining caps of knees bent that belong to bodies
that sat with ears attentive as rabbits struck midfield
by a passing motor…
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The eerie scene is set.  The poem consists of twenty-six lines in a one-stanza form presented visibly like a newspaper column.  The narrator’s voice erupts in the last line in italics: But I love him, I love him, I love him.  All is made clear in this imaginative love story.
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Marvin’s poem Blue on pages forty-seven and forty-eight is dedicated to Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021)
and explores grief with the memory of shared observances in nature.
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I really like that joe-eyed weed.
Pictures of pretty pink wildflowers
can hinder sorrow for a second,
by the idea of filling my yard with
the distraction of blossoms whose
colors turn on like a hundred radio
stations all at once.  The problem
with plants for me is all the names I can’t remember….
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Marvin skillfully equates flowers, colors and one’s own yard to the alleviation of grief which she gives a time frame to—a second.  The reader can feel the loss through the carefully selected images of things a person wish they did, the lack of remembering things, and the wondering about where one was when death came for the loved one. All work extremely well partly because they are common to all of us.
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The poem has six stanzas all composed of nine lines.  This reminds me of Sylvia Plath who often used form to suggest a message.  I particularly like this.
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In the poem, My Mother Hangs Up, on pages eighty-four, eighty-five and eighty-six, is presented
in couplets mimicking the back- and -forth conversation between a daughter and a mother on the phone and the masks a daughter wears for her mother’s sake.
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I can feel my mind panting.
She asks me to save the program.
I almost convinced her to fly
to New York to see the performance
with me but her knee is stiff
and she can’t manage stairs.
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The daughter persuades, the mother resists. The poem continues in this venue.  Marvin sets up scenarios of her past, her mother’s reactions and the ultimate concern that her mother thinks she knows her.  It is a fine example of two people in a complicated relationship, a mother and a daughter,
who understand each other but not in the way they think they do.  Mother love does that.  Daughter love does that, and Marvin hits the target on this.
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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.

Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani

smoking
By Charles Rammelkamp
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Chris Abani’s Smoking the Bible is a long letter to his brother, dead from cancer, full of sadness, grief, melancholy, but also a strange kind of nostalgia and a groping toward forgiveness, a resolution of grief that can never come. The poems are written on a train ride through the American Midwest, the train itself a metaphor for so many journeys.
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The title refers to a memory, growing up in Nigeria with his older brother, using pages from their often violent father’s Bible to roll cigarettes. As he writes in the poem, “Leather,” which begins with the observation, “The Bible is heavy with vengeance”:
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 And so we smoked Father’s Bible.
 Page by torn page folded into the origami
 of an adolescent rebellion.
 All these pages inhaled,
 the holy evocative power of words and we
 remained silly children bound by our fears.
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Indeed, Smoking the Bible is full of ghosts, which necessarily refer to a profound past that lives on in the present, and which introduce God into the equation, that Ultimate Ghost. In the poem “The Ghost Speaks” he writes:
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You tear Psalm 23 from Father’s leather-bound Bible,
roll it. Silently I recite, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not –
You consider the roll and with the match and flame
already licking the edge of the paper, you ask if I think
God remembers my name.
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Abani is no stranger to political oppression. He spent six months in prison at a tender age for writing a political thriller, Masters of the Board, on suspicion of having helped organize a coup. The plot of his novel resembled what actually occurred in Nigeria. His brother, like Chris, was also a political refugee. From the very first poem, “Flay,” addressed directly to his brother, we understand this. “Migrant,” he writes,
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 punished by spice and the scent of cooking,
 you wake up on a cold day in another country
 and put your faith in hot rice and braised goat,
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and the persistent aftertaste of a lost home.
Gospels are made of less than this.
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So the train metaphor becomes even more pointed – flight, escape. As he observes in “Ritual Is Journey,” “To be a man, to be black, to be a black man, / is a dangerous journey.”  In “What Is Traveled, What Is Fragile,” while winding up a mountainside in America, on the train, Abani writes, “The first lie they tell you
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is the lie of immigrants. The truth
is America is a nation of refugees
of trauma, displacement, and fanatical hope.
When we say immigrants we mean
I left home but I have nowhere to arrive to.
When they say immigrant they mean
an anxiety that leads to murder, erasure—
of indigenous, black, brown and other bodies stamped
into bedrock, into foundation, into sacrifice, deleted.
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And later in the poem,
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Grief is the beast we must all ride,
for the sublime yields only after the grotesque
has been traveled with grace: a living.
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“Jordan Is No Mere River” is addressed to God. It starts “I don’t know how to work out this loss with you, O God,” meaning his brother’s death. “Here in the Midwest, winter haunts everything.” And later in the poem:
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Now death feels familiar as my palm on your brow.
We are citizens of displacement, never
recognized for who we are. Never
from where we travel to.
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Moreover, his mother, a white British woman, represents the tribe of the colonizers, an inherent tension; his father is violent and abusive. In “Lineage” he writes about his father’s “quiet revenge” against the British, “blow after blow dealt to my mother, / his white English wife.”  While she did try to leave her husband, he writes in “Cameo: The Cut,” “No woman can leave five children like a wayward past. / No road can hold that journey.”
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In “Portal,” Abani spells out the situation that forms the background to this thoughtful sequence of poems, the underpinning urgency with which he addresses his brother:
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I wear my father’s death like a scar.
I wear my brother’s death like a scar.
I wear my mother’s death like a scar.
Not a talisman, but another kind of medicine.
The danger of begging the dead to return
 is that sometimes they do.
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“How to speak of us / without speaking of Father and Mother?” he asks in “Cameo: Broach.” Likewise, in “Rain” he asserts that “our father’s violence” has bound them as brothers. “How to Write a Love Letter to Your Brother,” which begins in “A train station silent but for the hum of tracks,” includes the lines:
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When father stepped to you, just before
the first blow landed, I heard you
begging, negotiating, pleading
that began as words became a keening.
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How overwhelming! The futility of grief, though inevitable, dominates the landscape. In “Offertory” he writes, “Though we know grief cannot raise the dead,  / we speak the spells nonetheless.” Similarly, “Fragrance” begins “Sometimes grief is acceptance / that love has always been inadequate.”
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I think of that endless summer of fragrance –
smoke from burning Bible pages….
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The final handful of poems in this powerful collection, from “Scythe” (“I watched your tense quarrel with death”) and “Vigil” (“My brother’s jaw slackens in death,  / mouth falling open, slides to one side.”) through “Mbubu,” “Crossing,” “The Familiar Is a Texture We Cannot Trust,” and the last poem, “The Calculus of Faith,” focus precisely on his brother’s death. This inevitably brings up the theme of religious belief and meaning. “The Calculus of Faith” begins, “In the end I realize / every human body is a scripture,” and later goes on:
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The second miracle was an onionskin sheet
of paper torn from a King James Bible
filled with oregano and thyme and smoked.
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Smoking the Bible is a powerful, elegiac collection, eloquent with grief and forgiveness.

You can find the book here: Smoking the Bible

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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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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Last Stop on the 6 by Patricia Dunn

Dunn Dolce Cover

By Thaddeus Rutkowski

In this fast-paced novel of tangled family relationships set just before the start of the US war against Iraq, Patricia Dunn tells the story of Angela Campanosi, a twenty-nine-year-old antiwar activist who returns to the Bronx after several years in Los Angeles. Angela has received an invitation to her brother’s wedding, but she doesn’t know why the invitation was so late in coming or why her brother is marrying this particular woman: a nurse who is about to be sent to Iraq. Further complicating matters is the fact that the groom is MIA when Angela arrives—and no one will tell her where he is.

Angela’s thoughts turn inward as she remembers sins she believes she has committed—deeds that caused her to flee the Bronx and lose touch with her family. “I needed to get away, far away,” she tells the reader. “Distance didn’t make the guilt vanish, but it had made life bearable enough for me to take action, make changes, and be a better person.” For a long while, we don’t know exactly what happened, but Angela blames herself for the accidental fall that put her brother in a wheelchair. She doesn’t know if he still holds that incident against her, because she can’t find him to ask. She receives no help from her stubborn mother, her unrecovered alcoholic father, her foodie uncle, and a onetime friend/boyfriend who has (almost) become a member of her family.

Things get wild when Angela receives a request to be her brother’s best man, makes a trip into Manhattan and gets caught in an antiwar demonstration, and visits an art opening where all of the works (by the friend/boyfriend) represent members of her family—all before she reunites with her brother. A subplot involves a large amount of money owed by the brother to some gangster wannabes. For much of the story, Angela is on the outside of her family, looking in. “All the years I’d been away,” she tells us, “I could only see [my brother] Jimmy from ten years ago, sad and hopeless. He’d moved on. He was able to express joy. He, my whole . . . family, was happy. Happy without me.”

The novel, by the author of Rebels by Accident, is published by Bordighera Press, a nonprofit dedicated to Italian and Italian American literature. As the story unfolds, you’ll meet characters living more or less as they did in the old country—but in the northern Bronx, at the last stop of the Number 6 subway train. In addition to Angela’s family, you’ll find various local personalities, including the Beach Chair Ladies, whose role is to keep the gossip going. Anyone, Italian or not, who has had an immigrant experience will appreciate the push and pull that exists between an original culture and a new society. “At the end of the day,” says one of the local characters (who turns out to be a building contractor, not a gangster), “there’s love.”

You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781599541730/last-stop-on-the-6.aspx

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio, Translated by Jeannine Marie

CARNATION-web

By Greg Bem

There exists a most beautiful language whose words look like little houses made out of mushrooms. The loveliest runic letters pale beside it.

(page 19)

The Uruguayan surrealist Marosa di Giorgio has seen much poetry arrive in contemporary English over the last several years and a strong selection thanks to the work of translator Jeannine Marie Pitas. In 2010, Ugly Duckling Presse released Pitas’s translation of Giorgio’s History of Violets, and in 2017 I Remember Nightfall. Though we knew not then during their publication, these pivotal translations of some of South America’s most stunning, uprooting poetry served as portals inviting us to receive the newest release: Carnation and Tenebrae Candle. This long, episodic work reflects and refracts the fantastical, exploring the transcendent and otherworldly landscape of di Giorgio’s childhood in Salto, Uruguay. And yet as specific as this bizarre world often feels, it pulls and pulls the reader toward its rhythmic center, keeping stability in question and understanding a challenging process.

Now, I was a branch, a broom plant; I saw that I was nearly a rose. The wind rocked me gently. But at the same time I was firmly attached to the ground.

That was the way I died as a child in that mysterious part of the garden.

(page 39)

The book is long and staggering. At times it feels like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. At other times like Alice in Wonderland. And at times like Grimm’s. At other times, the book feels balanced and mature in its reflections and wording, strangely aligned with some of the other recent surrealist and expressionist translations: Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase comes to mind, as does Salgado Maranhão’s Consecration of the Wolves. And it feels entrancing! I found myself throughout the book consistently mesmerized as though it was my first exposure to Lautréamont. Pitas points out in her afterword that, in addition to Lautréamont, di Giorgio was well-read and carried influences from Blake, the Brontë sisters, Poe, and Dickinson. I see their voices and faces in this book acutely.

In the end, I managed to turn around; on tiptoe, walking backwards, I arrived home. The wind was shining in the enormous windows; a silence floated over all the rooms. There were narcissi in all the vases. The fairy slipped away gently, round and gold like an egg.

(page 97)

But despite the similarities to other writers, Carnation and Tenebrae is a body of work unto its own, a poetry that contains substantial innocence, intimacy, and the potential for anything to happen—in a way that surprises and shocks even in 2021. That Pitas has concerted efforts at a time in our collective history where digital world-building is at its most prolific, where Minecraft is an alternate reality for most young people (and old people alike!), where virtual reality is finally accessible and desirable, where more people than ever are included in the conversations of creativity and construction, holds striking coincidence.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle was originally published in 1979, but feels wildly new and also reminiscent of expressionist writers from 100 years back. The format, a numerical sequence of 124 sections (or entries) flows between prose and poetry in a way that feels natural, and reminds me of how one might approach jotting and scratching across a notebook as new ideas are born.

The sections are short (most are less than a page), allowing the book to be read in a flow that suits the reader’s needs and capacity. In this sense it feels like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Ease is important in the context of the book’s density: di Giorgio’s genre might as well be called fantasy surrealism, or supernatural surrealism. The acclimation to these uncanny and beautiful snapshots or impressions takes time for the reader and often exhausts. There is a flirting with capacity and a tension with the stability of truth at play in almost all these poems.

Until you reach the immemorial garden of gladioli, the garden where I always knelt down, weeping and sobbing . . . But you remain omnipotent, ruling over those infinite flowers.

You took control of everything
even my memories of the time when I didn’t know you.

(page 55)

Within the long, rolling form of the book is a loose narrative that includes familiar, familial figures who come and go through domestic and filial circumstance, often (as seen in the quotes above) including elements of the pastoral or of gardens and natural objects. There is a theme of marriage as well, which is carried across many poems and raises questions, even if indirectly. The book’s origins are resounding of small town (or village) life—the perfect staging for the exploratory and imaginative inwardness of the narrator. I am reminded of Narnia, of the Upside Down, and of spaces of otherness that carry us away time and time again, generation to generation. And yet the fantastical breaks down those dichotomous framings and creates a more nuanced blend of realities. It is a mutant-like transformation of time and space; it is ideally surrealist as it moves back and forth between realities through some curious sensory connector left just beyond the reader’s awareness. It is a writing that finds a measured space between both worlds as one world, one unifying and captivating experience.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Carnation-and-Tenebrae-Candle-by-Marosa-di-Giorgio

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com

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Jeoffry: The Poets Cat by Olive Soden

jeoffry

By Byron Beynon

The subject of this book is Jeoffry, a real cat born in a London whorehouse during an earthquake in March 1750.  He began life “in a cupboard, under the staircase of a grand house in the Covent Garden Piazza.” Jeoffry’s coat was “a fuzz of carrot and ginger, with ripples of fawny stripes that ran down his back”, his colouring inherited from his father “a spruce orange tom”. He was fortunate to come into the world at a time when “to keep and to feed an animal with and for pleasure was an activity becoming more and more common in Georgian England:”

At the age of nine however he found himself confined inside a lunatic asylum along with the poet Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771).  Between 1759 and 1763 he shared Smart’s cell, and in exchange for company and love the poet devoted 74 of the surviving 1,700 lines of his religious poem “Jubilate Agno” (Rejoice in the Lamb) to his cat Jeoffry.  Smart was confined to the asylum for religious mania.  Born in the county of Kent, and a graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, he worked as a hack journalist.  He wrote his masterpiece during his confinement, although it wasn’t published until 1939.  The poem describes his cat, who was his sole companion, and the sequence beginning “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry ….” is the most anthologised poem in English.

The biography is a mixture of fact and imagination, allowing us to follow Jeoffry’s life and experiences in literary and theatrical London. He meets Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge in the Strand, he views the composer George Frederick Handel’s swollen legs, and shares Smart’s cell as the poet writes the poem which will make Jeoffry immortal.

In the twentieth century Benjamin Britten set “Jeoffry” to music, and the poets W.H. Auden and T.S.Eliot were also impressed by this magnifi-cat. The biography comes with the 74 lines of the poem for Jeoffry, and 12 illustrations in colour, including works by William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough.

Soden has written with empathy and invention, a comical, deeply moving, profound biography. With excellent research, he recounts the life of Jeoffry, praising him as “a mixture of gravity and waggery”.

You can find the book here: http://www.oliversoden.co.uk/jeoffry-the-poets-cat.html

Byron Beynon coordinated Wales’ contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His poems and essays have featured in several publications including North of Oxford, The Independent, Agenda, Wasafiri, The London Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets).  He is the author of 11 collections of poetry including Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions).

The Bold News of Birdcalls by Edward Morin

birds
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Constructed around the notion of birds, four parts entitled, Noise of Blue Jays, Melody of Wrens, Endurance of Robins and Passage of Swans, each section containing ten or eleven loosely thematic poemsEdward Morin’s charming new collection, though steeped in the natural world, principally in the Great Lakes region, contemplates so much more than feathered bipeds.  To be sure, there are more than half a dozen poems focused on birds – blue jays, swallows, wrens, robins, juncos all in the spotlight; thrushes, kingbirds, siskins, ducks and grouse making cameos, and, as he confesses in “A Bird Story,” “I killed / a cedar waxwing, then swore off hunting.” There are poems about invasive plants (“Mighty Phragmites”), fish and fishing (“”Beneath the Bridge,” “The Big One”), flowers, anemones, a toad, a dog. But the ultimate attention is placed on humankind.
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Morin’s lived a long life, as he recounts in several of the poems. “Moments Musicaux,” a tribute to his younger sister Audrey, who died at 73 in 2010, tells her life story in snapshots accented with reference to music, singing, musical instruments. For one, there’s the ukulele he holds in the family photo taken when his mother comes home from the hospital with his new sister, older-sibling-resentful (“I look ready to wring its stringed neck”). There is also the image of a devoted brother singing Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus at her first wedding.
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Morin’s love is implicit in his description of what sounds like a challenging life, Audrey’s two marriages, her five children. The first husband? “He chased gals and the American Dream / to the Coast.” But through it all she shows grit and determination. Later in life, when she answered phones for her suburban Chicago police station –
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She would coax abused wives and suicidal
teens away from permanent solutions
to temporary problems. She knew more
about caring than many social workers.

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“Elegy,” “Poetry Man,” and “Old School Ties” are other affectionate poems celebrating lives that have touched Morin’s, two of them former colleagues, the other a friend from childhood, all of them now gone. “Poetry Man,” written for Lawrence Pike, concludes:
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In isolation I ask myself:
Why go on writing? Is it for glory?
promotion? a fee? self-help? Or even
to knock another poet out of the ring?
Larry, I celebrate and share your
compulsion: fire smoldering in the belly,
rising to enchant the heart and brain
and fly out of the mouth, as a gift.
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These reflections are echoed in the poem, “Depression,” which ends, “Loneliness is a feeling time has run out.” But note the “celebration.” That’s the main note in Morin’s poetry, despite the trials and the adversities. My favorite poem in The Bold News of Birdcalls bears this out. “Yes” is a poem about the single-note birdcall of “Joe Sartori” (a Japanese Buddhist term for awakening, “comprehension; understanding”) – the bold news of a birdcall indeed.
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Satori is the middle-aged neighbor of the narrator’s mother. Home from college, the narrator visits Satori at his mother’s request. Satori has evidently had a stroke or suffers from some disability. He can say only one word, his one-note birdcall, “Yes.” Years later, when he reflects on his neighbor, the narrator puts things in perspective:
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When I was broke or girlfriends dumped me
and I feared the horrors of life’s end,
Joe’s predicament stormed into my mind.
Fate gave him one word to last his life.
Not a bad choice, I still say out loud
to the night sky in witless affirmation.
Yes.  Yes.  Yes.
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“Valentine’s Day, 1972,” with its allusion to the legendary 1929 murder of seven mob members in a garage in Chicago, is a noir description of a hold-up in a store in which the poet was clerking.  (“Nixon had ordered wage freezes to curb / inflation; bosses cheerily complied. / My part-time teaching paid child support.”)  It’s a grim memory of a hand-to-mouth existence. But this, too, teaches a lesson. (“It was only a job.”)
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The Bold New of Birdcalls includes a number of humorous poems, some reflecting his years in academia, including “Adjunct Winslow’s Discourse,” a poem about the subjectivity of grades and one buxom coed’s attempts to have hers changed. “Father Holtschneider Considers Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s Tenure,” related in the voice of Holtschneider himself, President of DePaul University (an actual historical person),  tells the not-so-funny story of a man applying for tenure and the politics that surround such decisions. “The Bernie Madoff Hustle” – to a tune something like “Barney Google” – satirically roasts the charlatan financier.  And that “Odelet to a Toad” (“Can you fathom why some call you ugly?”):
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For you, being there is more important
than getting there. If I were to reach
down and clutch your soft body so we
might discuss this matter face to face,
I suspect that you would wet my hand.
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In the final Passages of Swans section, which includes a wedding song to a friend (“Epithalamion”) as well as advice in the form of a letter to “Tom Katt” from a wise, older friend about navigating the stormy straits of love (“An affair is the poor man’s vacation”), there are, among the episodes that mark a life, a couple of meditations on old age, regarding his mother-in-law, that stand with the previously mentioned poem about his sister. Wise, sad, compassionate.
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The poems in The Bold News of Birdcalls soar with humanity. Yes.  Yes.  Yes.
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You can find the book here: The Bold News of Birdcalls|Paperback
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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 Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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