book review

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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Kim by Rudyard Kipling

kim

By Ray Greenblatt

          Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was an author of many poems and as much prose. He lived many years in India as a journalist , so he knew the inner workings of the country, even speaking Hindi. Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, he seemed to evolve into something different and grow to believe in the White Man’s Burden as he aged. However, we are not concerned with politics or economics. Our goal is to illustrate how Kipling blends his poetic skill into his unique early novel Kim (1901).

                                                                     Poetic Style

          Let us immediately analyze Kipling’s poetic approach. Afterwards, we shall observe how these poetics bring his characters and India itself to life. He the author sometimes interrupts the omniscient narrative to step forward into the scene. “There was a whirr and the voice stopped—as voices must if you ram a thrice-doubled coat on to the wax cylinder and into the works of an expensive phonograph.” (151)

           At times he makes it sound as if a report had actually been written about Kim’s spy work after he graduated from the St Xavier School. “The report in its unmistakable St Xavier’s running script, and the brown, yellow, and lake-daubed map, was on hand a few years ago (a careless clerk filed it with the rough notes of E. 23, second Seistan survey).” (170) As in poetry, inversion is used. ”Followed a sudden natural reaction.” (185)

          Kipling finds a series of phrases emphatic. “Bone by bone, muscle by muscle, ligament by ligament, and lastly, nerve by nerve. Kneaded to irresponsible pulp.” (275) Sometimes simple nouns: “Decked, brow, nose, ear, neck, wrist, and ankle with heavy native jewelry. When she turned it was like the clashing of copper pots.” (177) Repetition, even of clauses, plays a role:  “Because they knew and loved the Lama, because he was an old man, because he sought the Way, because he was their guest.” (195)

          That last paragraph contained a simile using “like.” Another is “gurgling, grunting hookahs, which in full blast sound like bull-frogs.” (71) His metaphors are prevalent too: “With the gait of a bogged cow.” (160) And how Indians speak like the British: “the tinny, saw-cut English of the native-bred.” (84) Often sight images like “watching the throat-muscles quiver and jerk” (180) blend with hearing imagery, “he caught the well-known purr and fizzle of grains of incense.” (179) The onomatopoeia is acutely used.

          Kipling’s poetic devices are numerous, so I will close this section with the imaginative use of verbs, such as “the Lama jibbed at the door.” (27) Gerunds: “with strivings and yearnings and retchings and agonies.” (288) Participles: “full-fleshed, heavy-haunched, bull-necked, and deep-voiced.” (225)  “Northern folk . . . swearing, shouting, arguing, and chaffering in the packed square.” (17) You can see all of these methods at work throughout the novel.

                                                                      Kim

          Kim, a half-English, half-Indian boy, we see grow up from ages 13 to 16 at the height of the Raj. He is bright and loves all aspects of life. He can blend in with a crowd, dressed like them and speaking their language. Kipling describes that phase of life as “years of indiscretion.” (2) If he is offended Kim is apt to tell a person off. “Consider for a while, man with a mud head. Think you we came from the nearest pond like the frog, thy father-in-law.” (60) And yet, Kim has a good heart, calling India “the great good-tempered world” (34) and “this broad, smiling river of life.” (61)

          After many adventures the ever-healthy Kim becomes ill. Usually his sleep was deep.  Noise “did not even weave a dream through his slumbers.’”(140) But now “his soul was out of gear with its surroundings—a cog-wheel unconnected with any machinery.” (282) As he heals he says, “I remember that the days and nights passed like bars of white and black, opening and shutting.” (276)

          However, the wise old Lama inspires him. “The cross-legged figure, outlined jet-black against the lemon-colored drift of light.’” (287) “The Lama was his trove, and he purposed to take possession.” (12) The Lama taught him to think deeply, beyond the common world of men. “Kim watched the stars as they rose one after another in the still, sticky dark.” (193) He practices meditation. “His mind drifted away from those heights with the rush of a wounded bird.” (185) He “threw his soul after his eye across the deep blue gulfs between range and range.” (233) The boy loves the Lama very much perhaps because Kim was an orphan. I see him following in the wise man’s footsteps not as a priest but as a teacher.

                                                            The Lama

          The Lama was old: “He turned his head like an old tortoise in the sunlight.” (6) Kipling describes “his thousand-wrinkled face.” (10) He often feels tired: “The Lama dropped wearily to the ground, much as a heavy fruit-eating bat cowers.” (66) “The Lama shrugged and shrunk into himself, a dingy, shapeless mass.” (33) But he has a quest to discover the river Buddha found to cure all ills. He is often unsure: “The boat of my soul rocked upon the waters of illusion.” (260) Yet, the people loved him for his holiness: “The Lama was a great and venerable curiosity.” (38)

          With Kim’s constant aid and love, he can energize himself: “It pleased him to curl himself up into the sudden sleep of old age.” (193) Then refreshed his “voice boomed like a Tibetan devil-gong.” (244) We see the Lama “speaking truth to chance-met people.” (16) He is sympathetic to all castes of individuals. “’And they likewise, bound upon the Wheel, go forth from life to life—from despair to despair,’ said the Lama below his breath, ’hot, uneasy, snatching.’” (54)

          He has learned to endure: “My spirit sits above my bones, waiting.” (212) The monastery in the mountains of northern India is where he calls home. To reach there and show Kim his country along the way becomes his goal. “With steady, driving strokes from the loins he strode upwards.’”(230) “The first freshness of the day carried the Lama forward with long, easy, camel-like strides.” (51) “He set his ivory-yellow face, serene and untroubled, towards the beckoning Hills; his shadow shouldering far before him in the dust.” (229) The Lama will learn that his magic river is anywhere that he is contented.

                                                         People

          At many moments in the novel crowds dominate the scene. “A solid line of blue, rising and falling like the back of a caterpillar in haste, would swing up through the quivering dust and trot past to a chorus of quick cackling.” (62) “The crowd drew a long, quavering breath.” (48) “A wall of uncertain darkness speckled with little flames and alive with half-caught forms and faces and shadows.” (71) “They scattered like frost on south eaves of a morning.” (259)

          Different characters occur then disappear. “A wild-eyed, wild-haired Sikh devotee in the blue-checked clothes of his faith, with polished-steel quoits glistening on the cone of his tall blue turban, stalked past.” (61) An evil holy man looks at the Lama: “The priest looked at him sideways, something bitterly—a dry and blighting smile.” (49)

         Kim meets a spy disguised: “Ash-smeared, ochre-barred, dusty-haired Saddhu . . . luminous with insolence and bestial lust.” (204) On another occasion the same spy is disguised so that two Russian agents refer to him as “the nightmare of a Viennese courier.” (239) His real intelligence is shown when he says: “To discuss medicine before the ignorant is of one piece with teaching the peacock to sing.” (218)

          The Lama becomes fast friends with an old soldier– the man, not his former profession. The soldier thinks of his long life: “It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.” (57) But with the Lama’s ministrations he begins to recall: “”Last night broke up the fountains of remembrance in my so-dried heart.” (51) The two old men form a diptych as they nap: “The old officer’s strong-cut head pillowed on his arm, the Lama’s thrown back against the tree bole.” (55)

          A rich old woman who nurses both Kim and the Lama back to health springs vividly to life in the novel. She is a talker: “They could hear the old lady’s tongue clack as steadily as a rice-husker.”(75) She even screams: “She trotted forth to raise a typhoon off the cook –house.” (278) Yet she can be happy: “She chuckled like a contented parrot above the sugar lump.” (214) Although her language can be rough: “She paid Kim compliments that would have flung European audiences into unclean dismay.” (214) But her nursing shows her skills: “Have I shifted thee and lifted thee and slapped and twisted thy ten toes.” (277) Kim kiddingly admires her old face: “a Moon of Paradise, a Disturber of Integrity.” (75)

                                                          India

          Kipling can describe cities, like Lucknow. “She is the center of all idleness, intrigue, and luxury.” (120) “The house-lights scattered on every level, made, as it were, a double firmament.” (148) Some stores were weird like a tobacco shop: “Those who know it call it The Bird-cage—it is so full of whisperings and whistlings and chirpings.” (177) Kipling can depict a simple decoration: “The patterns on the gold-worked curtains ran up and down, melting and reforming as the folds shook and quivered to the night wind.” (71)

          Yet some buildings can be sinister as Kim encounters sounds and smells: “ The room was full of things that smelt like all the temples of all the East. A whiff of musk, a puff of sandalwood, and a breath of sickly jessamine-oil caught his opened nostrils.” (149) This description even approaches horror: “There leaped out from the walls a collection of Tibetan devil-dance masks, hanging above the fiend-embroidered draperies of those ghastly functions—horned masks, scowling masks, and masks of idiotic terror.” (149)

          Kim and the Lama traveled into the country. ”Mid-days in the dun-gloom of kindly oak-forests.” (269) “The smoke-scented evening, copper-dun and turquoise across the fields.”  (214) “The frogs were busy in the ditches, and the moon slid to her setting.” (220) “The solemn deodars, climbing one after another with down-drooped branches.” (146) “They walk farther north: “Golden, rose, saffron, and pink, the morning mists smoked away across the flat green levels. All the rich Punjab lay out in the splendor of the keen sun.”  (31)

          They longed for the silence and restorative air of the mountains. “The long, peaceful line of the Himalayas flushed in morning-gold.” (225)  “A thousand feet below lay a long, lazy, round-shoulder bank of mist, as yet untouched by the morning sun.” (254) “It was like sitting in a swallow’s nest under the eaves of the roof of the world.” (258) Those stupendous heights, “all day long they lay like molten silver under the sun, and at evening put on their jewels again.” (231)

          For the Lama his religion was an integral part of the landscape and its people. “Buddhism, overlaid with a nature-worship fantastic as their own landscapes, elaborate as the terracing of their tiny fields.” (232) “The easy, uncounted Eastern minutes slid by.” (188) “The soft, smoky silence of evening in India wrapped them close.” (287) Kim and his Lama had found fulfillment.

          By today’s standards Rudyard Kipling’s poetry is old-fashioned. However, some of his fiction remains powerful; from the short stories The Phantom Rickshaw and The Man Who Would Be King to the novels The Light That Failed and Captains Courageous. But for me Kim, employing diverse poetic effects, is the pinnacle of his success.

You can find the book here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/93144/kim-by-rudyard-kipling/

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

The Body Dialogues by Miriam O’Neal

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Major Tom Looks at Earth from Space

By Stephen Page

A friend of mine had a male neighbor that lived next door to him who had a son in junior high who during last year’s Halloween dressed as a girl. Another friend of mine told me that every time he came home from work, he found his 4-year-old son wearing his mother’s high heels. I told each of my friends the same thing that “This is a normal thing. Your son is just trying on a different persona.  Besides. Is it politically correct to try to change him or his behavior to fit your idea about who he should be?”

The narrator in Miriam O’Neal’s The Body Dialogues is having dialogues with herself, trying to find a mental voice that feels comfortable with her body. These conversations become poems.  Mx. O’Neal separates the book into three sections in her search for her narrator’s voice.

In section 1, the metaphorical and literal “Birth” represent that painful realization that the baby has when she realizes she is outside the comfort of the womb and inside the outer world. From that moment on, like the baby, it seems the narrator does not feel at ease with her body or her surroundings. Anxiety becomes the theme of the following poems until finally, near the end of the first section, in “Breathe,” the narrator decides she has to accept who she is, and that the only way to do this is to relax.

In the 2nd section of the book, the narrator travels to foreign lands in order to adventure outside the microcosm of her current existence, hoping that this will free herself emotionally.  She wants to be less judgmental of herself and accept her body for what it is, a part of herself.

In the 3rd and final section of the book, the narrator is at home again remembering her travels and how she found a different perspective of her body by looking at it from foreign locations. One poem depicts the International Space Station flying overhead and the narrator imagines projecting her being inside one of the astronauts, looking out a window at earth, all the while singing the song “Major Tom.” She begins reading voraciously, ferociously searching for other poets who have searched for and found comfort with their bodies as they are. In this manner, literature becomes one of her guides on her journey.

As a final note, there are not only references to the narrator’s mind observing her body, she is continually comparing herself to people around and trying to decide if she is beautiful or not beautiful.  Additionally, there are dialogues that infer gender identification and sexual preference. All of these poems become epiphanies. The narrator is understanding that for many people, mind-body oneness, beauty, and gender behavior are societally taught, not internally programmed. The ways in which we come to terms with ourselves and balance our emotions evolves through living life. Moreover, the ways in which see ourselves physically in comparison to others in the world around us are our subjectively our own interpretations.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Body-Dialogues-Miriam-ONeal/dp/1733768351

Stephen Page is part Apache and part Shawnee. He was born in Detroit. He is the author of four books of poetry, several stories, essays, and literary criticisms. He holds degrees from Columbia University and Bennington College. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, a First Place Prize in Poetry from Bravura Magazine, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant.

A Little Excitement by Nancy Scott

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By Charles Rammelkamp

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Perhaps because so much of her poetry involves dreams and death and anthropomorphized animals, Nancy Scott’s new collection has the force of fable, subtle moral insight and a long view of existence, lessons for living. “My mind lives in a neighborhood I don’t want to visit,” she writes in “Some Things Never Change,” a poem that, like so many others, takes stock of some of the frightening elements of life and ends with an image of longing and regret.
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The modest claim in the title is reflected over and over again in the 41 poems in A Little Excitement. Take the poem, “Gone Fishing,” which begins in an erotic dream but moves on quickly to frustration and remorse.
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I was deep into this dream
where our tangled bodies
were naked in the wet grass,
stars overhead, suddenly
a neon sign flashed
Vegan Cocktail Guaranteed to…,
no matter, the magic was gone.
I floundered around for
a new dream and found myself
standing in front of your grave,
but you weren’t there.
Gone Fishing was staked
next to your headstone.
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The whimsical term means checking out from reality, and it applies here in more ways than one, from the brief, interrupted, sensual dream – the magic gone as instantaneously as the neon flash – to the stark reality of her lover no longer living.
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As in ancient fables, Death is a real character in several of the poems. There’s “Death Attends a Poetry Reading”; Death is not really a welcome guest!  “Mixed Greens” begins-
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After a spate of relatives dying, funeral wreaths, heels
sticking in mud on the way to the gravesite,
I decided to dine with Death to discuss the situation.
I love what you’re wearing, said Death to jump-start
the conversation.
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It’s an amusing poem; Death seems to have the narrator’s best interests in mind, for the sake of her longevity (though one is reminded of Saul Bellow’s observation in Herzog, “Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping lightbulb.”).  Similarly, in “The Old Woman at the End of the Block” (Aesop couldn’t have come up with a better, more portentous title!), she brings a measuring cup over to the 103-year-old woman to borrow a year or two.
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If you still need more time,
come see me again,
because after I’m dead,
what good is it then?
I thanked her profusely,
and, with cup filled to the brim,
I took my sweet time home.
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Like Death, animals have human features, too. Poems such as “The Bear,” “The Birds,” “Dumping the Emu,” “The Elephant in England” (fifth cousin of Babar’s wife, Celeste), “Playing Chess with the Muskrat” and “Rabbit Diva” (“She was the warm-up for Wayne Newton / in Vegas. She had a million-dollar fur coat / and pink ears to kill for.”) could be straight out of French fabliaux, as anthropomorphized as any Reynard the Fox. In the title poem, “A Little Excitement,” which begins with a bemused observation about “cloverleafs,” those complex highway constructions, being so unlike the plants we find on lawns, a traffic accident occurs.
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A bewildered coyote with an injured paw
was snarling traffic. Cars honked.
The coyote kept zigzagging across lanes.
Another coyote joined the first.
They walked upright now, slapping
each other’s back before suddenly vanishing.
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Wow, you can see them becoming human before your eyes, a couple of dudes in modern America!
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Just as fables sort of “bend” reality, so do dreams, and so we circle back to regret and its opposite, wish-fulfillment. “Gone Fishing,” which confronts the reality of the death of a lover, ends:
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If I scroll to the part where we
were throbbing with passion,
would you forget all
this craziness and come back?
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“Some Things Never Change” similarly concludes:
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No matter, I can do without until the tracks of my mind
finally unwind: I’ll answer the doorbell
dressed in bridal white,
a gardenia in my ear, and you’ll be waiting to lead me
down the garden path the way you always have.
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And the poem “What Is Meant to Be,” a title that confronts “reality” head on like no other, likewise sums up:
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Heart pounding, I hesitate to approach your car
only to find you’re still a dream.
Instead, I slip my key into the front door lock.
When the wind suddenly kicks up,
I feel someone behind me, whispering
my name. I can’t move. What if…
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These fabulist themes of the potency of dreams, the malleability of death, so potent in Scott’s poetry, ultimately make me think of the famous Taoist tale of Chuang Tzu, dreaming he was a butterfly, and upon awakening, wondering if he wasn’t really a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? The poems in A Little Excitement are sad, clever, and thoughtful all at once, whimsically playing with the gratification of desires, the moral implications profound and moving.
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You can find the book here: A Little Excitement
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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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