book review

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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A FIERCE HEART
 
            It may feel a bit unnatural to combine the words holy and dark, but all one needs to do is turn on the news and see well-intentioned people navigating a world of violence, and the realities of lives poised continually within antithetical forces, to realize it’s not such an unusual merger. This extends to our interior being as well since it reflects, on a microscopic level, what exists in a macroscopic equivalent. Clare L. Martin’s latest book Seek the Holy Dark: Poems was written with an intrepid pen and a fierce heart that knows all too well the many unbearable burdens of existence. A 2017 selection of the Louisiana Cajun and Creole Series by Yellow Flag Press, it embodies the inheritance of a melancholy, mixed history of those particular southern sensibilities, specifically the Franco-American descendants of colonial Louisiana, centralized in the legacies of New Orleans. It’s a rich blend of exotic architecture, authentic jazz music and Mardi Gras frenzy that belies a region fraught with ghost histories, voodoo stories, poverty and struggles evoked most recently in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The region was always susceptible to natural disasters, rising back up on the strength of its people, its colorful history and its almost supernatural resilience. Clare L Martin seems very much a child of these legacies, internalized in unrelenting examination.
            The cover of the book is evocative, and artist Agnieszka Nowinska compels with deep reds and rich, vivid colors despite its ominous depictions of inverted imagery and swirling whirlpool warnings, and represents the poems well. Martin opens with the title poem of the book written “after Jo Ann Tomaselli’s ‘Birds & Fence’” (P. 8, epigraph). If you search this photograph, you will find a stark black and white picture of birds strung along a wire affixed to a weathered, wooden fence against a gray horizon. But the most remarkable thing about the photo is that these birds appear apart from one another, each perched in its own spot, together yet isolated. Martin states, “We only surmise the fence/contains a breadth/for one impenetrable/moment” (P. 8, ll. 4-7), the illusion of support and kinship evident. This is at the core of where these poems reside. There is a deep desire for meaning and connection that continues seeking despite overwhelming discouragements. Martin knows there are hidden answers within our shadow selves, and she searches for them relentlessly but, ultimately, with little resolution. From the sparse “The Hanging Woman” to prose poems like “Embellishments,” we see the futility of false absolutions for our transgressions. Deep catholic influences migrate from poem to poem in the disappointing promises of religious icons and symbols. In “Come, a Love Poem” she pleads, “Touch my brokenness/with your miracle/with your spit and mud, and I shall be healed” (P. 24, ll. 27-30). The plea is not to any deity but to a lover, in sexual union, a human connection, the poem inspired by photographer Brian Baiamonte’s “unclouded,” where clouds rest at the bottom of the photo like violent ocean waves with rays of sun breaking through above them. But these saviors rest on the surface and not in the depths of where we need to go to rescue ourselves. She observes, “We drop through this world/into dark awakening/we, the strong –hearted” (P. 13, ll. 19-21). And it takes a strong heart to plumb the subterranean wounds of our existence. Martin continues to search less than optimistically but forges ahead nevertheless while “Sobs bully our throats/Unique fears squirm in the gut/Only sex dispels the hour” (P. 25, ll. 18-20). And these poems are candidly sexual in shattering, visceral expression. These are no romantic visions. Martin fixes us with stark, vivid images such as “A dress is silent on the floor” (P. 14, l. 11), “…bruise-colored garments” (P. 17, l. 15) and perceived losses as in “Aftermath” when she states, “My old-woman womb/flutters with illusory children” (P. 19, ll.17-18) and “crown of thorns/my own heart/brambles and thorns/jag the aorta” (P. 21, ll. 23-26). Earthy and organic, the poems are palpably anatomical in references to bodies, blood and breath, the tools by which we interact and often measure meaning.
These are poems of mourning, regret, and loss. In “Phoenix,” a prose poem with an epigraph “for Kelly,” we have a woman as “Huntress, seductress, heathen and whore made new in body, new in word” (P. 39, ll. 15-16). We all return to the earth but, for Martin, it is as if we continually bury ourselves piece by piece even before our last breath. She has a way of seeing things in the present as already past and disappointing as she states in “Refuge” when she pleads: “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9). In “Of the Gone Woman” we find a clue to Martin’s despair, the poem buried within the midpoint of the book. She names her mother “the Gone Woman” and remembers her mythological legacies and “bad magic” (P. 38, l. 14), stating almost accusingly, “Mother/you skimmed your finger/along my bone/and left a print/inside” (P. 38, ll. 18-22).  This poem is a scathing indictment of injurious maternal bequests and segues into further generations as in the poem “All This Remembering” where we meet a daughter:
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 My only child
stares me down
with hatred
while a tube is snaked
down her throat. A black
foaming slick of pill
fragments
drains out of her mouth— (P. 50, ll. 11-18)
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            It does not get much darker than this. Loss in subsequent relationships permeates the work in deep, thematic ways, expectations undercut by failure and bereavement: “We named ourselves after mountains/but forgot what shifted beneath us” (P. 40, ll. 17-18). In “Eiffel Tower, a Recollection of Paris, 1986” the iconic landmark is never visited as the narrator remains in bed with a stranger during her visit, resting in the shadows of the city, a reminder only “of what I missed” (P. 41, l. 3). And in “Refuge” she pleads, “Please, tonight, hold me/with the remembrance of light” (P. 43, ll. 8-9), the transitory, sad expectation of loss already anticipated. People appear as translucent outlines, not wholly flesh and grounded, gone before they actually leave as in “Seeing Through” when she observes, “Your shape embosses/the far line of the horizon” (P. 45, ll. 7-8). And in “The Artist and His Model” there is a cold, removed interaction between painter and subject, as if the replication of the model is more accessible and vivid than the actual woman.
            Poems such as “Thunder found me” are somewhat less original in expression but are more than compensated for in pieces like “What We Carry” that are sparse yet rich with imagery. There is a sense of constant opposition between people, desires and even the way Martin perceives the natural world as in “How it comes,” where she observes: “Today it came to me/as a bird; its wingbeat/light as a whisper, pecking/fruit in a verdant heart” (P. 36, ll. 21-24). We are alone yet still together like those birds on a fence, and our “shared transformation” seems to occur at the very point we leave our bodies. The poet “constellates with discorporate multitudes in harmonic undulations” (P. 61, ll. 29-30), as she states in “End Note” that concludes with “Holy holy holy” that is ultimately more of an imperative than a deterrent. Beyond the constant insistent hopelessness, there is “the Christ/that I need to believe in/that I am begging to take/a Lifetime’s desperation” (P. 21, ll. 17-20). But it is disconcerting, as if the narrator recognizes the shallowness of needing to believe as opposed to any genuine confidence or optimism.

Stark, unrelenting and uncensored pleas and imagery define these poems. Martin leaves nothing on the table, asking us to see the skin, bones, organs and very heart of darkness. She resides in the demi monde of duality, committed to the search, where those of us with resilient hearts and resoluteness will resolve to join her. .

You can find the book here: https://www.yellowflagpress.com/_p/prd15/4592458541/product/clare-l.-martin—seek-the-holy-dark

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Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.

A WEEK ON THE CONCORD & MERRIMACK RIVERS

a week

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Review by Ray Greenblatt

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Henry Thoreau made a week’s boating trip with his brother John in 1839. Henry was a mere 22! This voyage in a sailboat with oars would be a forerunner to the classic Walden; in it we see so many elements that reappear in the latter work. However, the former book was not published until 1849 and did not sell many copies. Henry’s brother would die at age 27 in 1842; Henry would succumb to tuberculosis at age 45. If in some obscure New England attic stacks of A Week are discovered, what would they now be worth!

.                                                                          STYLE

During his voyage Thoreau refers to many eras: Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, Moslem, etc. He concentrates on all aspects of Greek civilization: Orpheus, Jason, Pythagoras, Plato, Aurora. He philosophizes about astronomy, early American history, friendship, politics. He even discourses in detail on certain famous  individuals from Persius to Chaucer to Goethe.

Let us first consider the bare bones of Thoreau’s writing; later we will add the flesh. He often relies on a series of adjectives: “The few dull, thumping, stertorous sounds which we heard impressed us.” (200) Also, nouns, verbs, and even sentences are written in triplicate for emphasis. He often inverts his verb before the subject: “So have all things their higher and their lower uses.” (185) This puts stress on a key word. We notice metaphors and similes, but his analogies are subtle: “The fisherman, meanwhile, stands in three feet of water, under the same summer’s sun, arbitrating in other cases between muck-worm and shiner.” (21) Comparing a fisherman to a lawyer is unique. He also coins many original adages. Using the concept of money figuratively he writes: “The truth is, there is money buried everywhere, and you have only to go to work to find it.” (208)

Critics often write about Thoreau’s dryness and fact-oriented analyses. Yet, close reading discloses whimsy: “Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.” (197) Sometimes the humor holds a bite: “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again.” (32) This ecological statement still applies today!

Our author is excellent in description. Here the wind drives their boat under sail: “The mountains like school-boys turned their cheeks to it . . .The north wind stepped readily into the harness which we had provided, and pulled us along with good will . . .with our wings spread, but never lifting our head from the watery trench.” (384) He employs all his senses: “All these sounds, the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon, are the evidence of nature’s health or sound state.” (40) And “I see, smell, taste, hear, feel, that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.” (182) This will lead us to Thoreau’s views of nature.

.                                                                   NATURE

Thoreau fully believed that man was part of nature and could see transcendental things and the universe through it. Something as simple as a flower: “I have passed down the river before sunrise on a summer morning, between fields of lilies still shut in sleep; and when, at length, the flakes of sunlight from over the bank fell on the surface of the water, whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner, so sensible is this flower to the influence of the sun’s rays.” (19)

Trees like the linden have been working partners with man: “It was once used for carving, and is still in demand for sounding-boards of piano-fortes and panes of carriages, and for various uses for which toughness and flexibility are required. Baskets and cradles are made of the twigs. Its sap affords sugar, and the honey made from its flowers is said to be preferred to any other. Its leaves are in some countries given to cattle, a kind of chocolate has been made of its fruit, a medicine has been prepared from an infusion of its flowers, and finally, the charcoal made of its wood is greatly valued for gunpowder.” (166)

The bream holds a special delight for him: “Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles.” (26)

He admits to having killed and roasted a pigeon somewhat reluctantly: “We obtained one of these handsome birds, which lingered too long upon its perch, and plucked and broiled it here with some other game, to be carried along for our supper; for, beside the provisions which we carried with us, we depended mainly on the river and forest for our supply.” His philosophical reasoning: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.” (236)

Nature is so much older than man: “Here is the gray dawn for antiquity, and our tomorrow’s future should be at least paulo-post to theirs which we have put behind us. There are the red maple and birchen leaves, old runes which are not yet deciphered; catkins, pine cones, vines, oak leaves, and acorns; the very things themselves, and not their forms in stone,–so much the more ancient and venerable.” (266) Its beauty has a correspondence: “Undulation is the gentlest and most ideal of motions, produced by one fluid falling on another. Rippling is a more graceful flight. From a hill-top you may detect in it the wings of birds endlessly repeated. The two waving lines which represent the flight of birds appear to have been copied from the ripple.” (338)

Thoreau sees in nature a combination of exigency and the fanciful: “There seemed to be a great haste and preparation throughout Nature, as for a distinguished visitor; all her aisles had to be swept in the night by a thousand handmaidens, and a thousand pots to be boiled for the next day’s feasting,–such a whispering bustle, as if ten thousand fairies made  their fingers fly, silently sewing at the new carpet with which the earth was to be clothed, and the new drapery which was to adorn the trees. And then the wind would fall and die away, and we like it fell asleep again.” (355)

.                                                      LITERATURE & THE POET

The essayist and poet states that he likes quality books: “Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,–such call I good books.” (99) He wants nature woven into the literature: “The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience.” (107) Conversely, he condones bad books in which a man “finds himself reading a horse-rake, or spinning-jenny, or wooden nutmeg, or oak-leaf cigar, or steam-power press, or kitchen range, perchance, when he was seeking serene and biblical truths.” (99)

He highlights the value of the classics: “I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveler does the fairest scenery of Greece and Italy. Where shall we find a more refined society?” (239)

First, he reasons “to some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography.” (60) However, he centers in on the worth of the poet: “Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature . . . What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright, methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor philosophy can supply their place.” (93)

The poet’s “words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience.” (101) To illustrate an idea, Thoreau would quote a poem or part of one, often his own. “The poet is no tender slip of fairy stock, who requires peculiar institutions and edicts for his defense, but the toughest son of earth and of Heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognize the God in him. It is the worshipers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.” (362)

.                                                                       PHILOSOPHY

Thoreau’s philosophic views are grounded in the real. Take travel: “The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or a pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house for fourpence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip into your sugar,–this alone will last you a whole day.” (325)

His views on government are more profound: “When I have not paid the tax which the State demanded for that protection which I did not want, itself has robbed me; when I have asserted the liberty it presumed to declare, itself has imprisoned me . . . Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.” (135) “Herein is the tragedy: that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery.” (136)

About religion he is even more accusatory: “The church is a sort of hospital for men’s souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailor’s Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather.” (77) He even rebuffs evangelicals:  “Tell me of the height of the mountains of the moon, or of the diameter of space, and I may believe you, but of the secret history of the Almighty, and I shall pronounce thee mad.” (71)

His religion rests in the mystical: “This earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansion.” (403) What is our life: “We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language. We have need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” (406) This leads us to Thoreau’s emphasis on the man of the earth, the countryman.

“The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.” (179)

“How few circumstances are necessary to the well-being and serenity of man, how indifferent all employments are, and that any may seem noble and poetic to the eyes of men, if pursued with sufficient buoyancy and freedom. With liberty and pleasant weather, the simplest occupation, any unquestioned country mode of life which detains us in the open air, is alluring.” (220)

A man in nature is in touch with his soul: “Yet these men had no need to travel to be as wise as Solomon in all his glory, so similar are the lives of men in all countries, and fraught with the same homely experiences. One half the world knows how the other half lives.” (227)  “These are stirring autumn days, when men sweep by in crowds, amid the rustle of leaves like migrating finches; this is the true harvest of the year, when the air is but the breath of men, and the rustling of leaves is as the trampling of the crowd.” (359)

Our author also puts up with a certain type of rudeness among these men: “I therefore did not repel his rudeness, but quite innocently welcomed it all, and knew how to appreciate it, as if I were reading in an old drama a part well sustained. He was indeed a coarse and sensual man, and, as I have said, uncivil, but he had his just quarrel with nature and mankind, I have no doubt, only he had no artificial covering to his ill-humors.”

About these hearty men he says: “Men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat, who were out not only in ’75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives . . . Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what they have not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.” (6) And this figurative “writing” brings us full circle in Thoreau’s philosophy.

In his fine book The Geography of Imagination, the renowned American critic Guy Davenport wrote about Thoreau: “He was clearly an ecologist; he was also a student of time, of cyclic movements in nature and of the miraculously synchronous organization of plants and animals. Hence his daily inspection of one woodscape, knowing every detail of its life . . . Thoreau’s love affair with the scrub-oak, homeliest of trees, began to have the qualities of myth, the Greek feeling for the olive which we find in Oedipus at Colonus.” (242) Even at such a young age as 22, we can see that Henry Thoreau had developed the skllls to write Walden years later.

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You can find the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7720.html

Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

 

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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Redaction and Inquiry
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There has been a trend in recent decades of what has popularly been called New Age thinking and the idea that science and spirituality are not antithetical, challenging approaches to traditional Western thought purported since the dawn of The Enlightenment. Prior to that time of bustling scientific discoveries, technological advancements and industrialization, humans were much more intricately linked between the machinations of the physical world and the workings of the cosmos. More current views are harkening back to that conventional wisdom and, in many ways, modern inquiry can now substantiate the facts of our interconnectedness, spirit and science yoked together intricately within our experience of the cosmos. 
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There is extensive debate about the efficacy of theories supporting these assumptions, with much inability to reach consensus. Magdalena Ball’s new poetry collection, “Unmaking Atoms,” might just be the kind of unifying force that is needed. Bridging the hard, concrete world with our abstract interior one, Ball seeks to deconstruct what we use from the physical environment as confirmation and ballast for our existence in contrast to the illusive, mystical world of the unknown. She juxtaposes emotions and memory with sensory perceptions evoking a quantum leap of sorts, seeking a crossroads where answers might be possible. We need poetry to explore these seemingly inaccessible and polarized forces, amidst a mass of contradictions, in ways theses and academic abstracts often cannot.
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“Unmaking Atoms” is a very ambitious work of seven sections and ninety-one poems. There is a relentless insistency and emotional intensity in these poems, a genuine and heartfelt plea that implicates us and demands our engagement. In “The Last Report of the Day,” the opening poem, Ball invokes poetic lineage in Adrienne Rich with an deference to maternal guidance. Addressing Rich she states, “…you became every mother/I had ever lost” (P. 6, ll.13-14). In facing the inevitable demise of physical loss, this is Ball’s anchor—to grieve, seek solace and often acceptance in the creative landscape of the poet. Throughout the book Ball derives substantiation in the words of other poets and writers such as Elizabeth Bishop in “Charitable Crumb” and Edna St. Vincent Millay in “Luminous Air,” and many others in an effort to reside in good company in a world without definitive resolution. In the lovely prose poem “Essential Whites,” Ball expresses the angst and striving of a writer, the conflicts and challenges, and the endless hope for inspiration: “Writing this way, while waiting for transition is like the swipe of a hand against my face: that blessed sting” (P. 93, ll. 1-2).
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The constant tension in these poems is inherent in the exploration between perception and reality, “…as if this alien moon were the moon” (“Right Angles to Reality,” P. 10, l. 8), and with some resignation, in “Catalyst,” we remain “…subject to reactivity/and mathematical constructs.” (P. 13, ll. 28-29). But Ball continues to strive for resolution between two worlds as evidenced in the wonderful tactile imagery of “Salting the Wound” as she reflects, “A memory of moon settles/liquid and silvery into my skin” (P. 19, ll. 17-18). In “Encroachment Spells Erosion” (after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake) the geocentric title attempts to yoke us to solid evidence as in the lines “…the world’s a cell/very ordinarily designed/a song of alibi…” (P. 32 ll. 5-7). In “Life Dreaming” she says this more directly, a scientist’s desire to see life in basic, clear terms in opposition to the discomfort of the doubtful mind: “…a secular prayer to calm the pain of change” (P. 34, l. 24). Often there is further acceptance as in “Harnessing Wind” which captures optimism in natural wonder and acknowledgement of mysteries.
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There are many poems that might have worked well as a completely separate 
volume on loss, specifically maternal loss. “Irrational Heart” is a soulful, exquisite elegy with the supplication “…anything to negotiate the hurt” (P. 26, l. 69) and with homage to lineage in “I might share this knowing with my daughter/when she’s in need of a god/and no male/armed with a pocket full of tools/will do…” (P. 26, ll. 137-141). An example of a very long poem that keeps us moving through it effortlessly with anticipation and empathy is “Hieroglyphics,” and in “Nature’s Observatory” in a reversal of inheritance, “…the air took your breath/a reverse offering” (P. 88, ll. 2-3). “Probability Waves” expresses the frustration of loss with a stubborn resistance against all reason and outcomes: “…if I never know/then all things are possible” (P. 92, ll. 26-27), and “In Situ” highlights this frustration in juxtaposed images: “…there was much to do/but nothing more to be done” (P. 94, l. 3) and serves as a nice complement to “…an aging child/counting losses” in “Image of the day” (P. 107, ll. 21-22). The theme of impermanency gathers momentum in “Past Life” with stars as hypergiants “…burning through billions of lives” (P. 12, l. 22) asking “Is the connection between us/me in this life/you in another/so tenuous/un-tethered by those bonds/we once thought permanent?” (ll. 33-38). As Ball asks us in “Atomic Mess” in direct, plaintive language, “…does inheritance/provide solace” (P. 11, ll. 25-26)? The maternal loss might best be expressed with a good balance of emotion and imagery in “Mourner’s Kaddish”:
“For me you’ll always be in motion,/standing in the bright/light of your kitchen,/the percolated aroma,/cut cake,/a ready joke” (P. 70, ll. 27-29). Ball excavates deeply in an essential and noble undertaking of dismantling bereavement, meaning and recovery.
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There are many words and expressions throughout the book that are illuminating but will likely require the reader to be curious enough to look them up, some being more accessible within the context of the poem and others less so. For example, “Mandlebrot” referring to absolute numbers (P. 9, l. 19), “Enceladus,” the sixth largest moon of Saturn (P. 10, l. 9), and “synecdoche,” (P. 10, l. 25), a part of something referring to the whole. In “Trojan Horse” there are obscure references throughout, at least to most of us, as in (P. 24, l. 15 ) “…on a Gantt or Pareto” but then followed by the incisive “…the waiting executive team/of the soul” (P. 24, ll. 16-17). “Mirror Neurons” has words like “thigmonasty,” (the response of a plant to touch or movement) quite dense to linguistically integrate for the less energetic reader.
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Occasionally there is a somewhat inaccessible joining of imagery and language such as “…running, like Buddha himself/into glory…” (P. 18, ll. 16-17) and the obvious rhyme scheme of “…from perception to conception” (P. 18, l. 6), Herceg/Ball Review/P. 6 both from “Beginner’s Mind,” but then the lovely “…leaving me with all this/responsibility/all this breath” (P. 18, ll. 19-21). Alliteration is used effectively as in “Irrational Heart” in the lines “With closed eyes, I watered the weeping/willow…” (P. 26, ll. 1-2). Imagery works well in “Static” between shocks of ghostly memories and physical evidence of those memories, and “Landscape at Pentecost” is a good example of conveying an emotion and impression through concise, accessible symbolism. “In The Frame” evokes nicely a snapshot of memory with clear, simple visuals like “…olive-hued chain” (P. 37, l. 11) and “…dusky teal” (P. 37, l. 14). And scientific references work well as in these lines from “Walking Into Eternity” which are precise yet defining: “…all things change under pressure/silica and calcium carbonate/call it entropy/that elegant word for chaos/disorder, decay…” (P. 33, ll. 6-10).
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There is the ongoing hint of conflict between the poet’s vocation and the mundane obligations of daily life in motherhood, children, running a household: “I could put something/in place to serve/a replica/doing dishes/with the same earnest/lack of care” (“Planet Nine,” P. 108, ll. 4-9). “Ascetic Stitch” expresses this dilemma of maternity, being stuck in the ordinary and commonplace, hording provisions against potential disasters, deceiving oneself: “I keep pretending I’m different” (P. 51, l. 22), often putting aspirations aside while justifying obligations. In “Orthonym” there is the poet’s potential unraveling back, possibly only to find she is  “…lost in that lonely place/where skin meets bone” (P. 17, ll. 40-41), with maternal confusion amidst marriages, names and identities. “A Cloud Withdrew” conveys a genuine sense of detriment and missed connection and has a sensuality to it: “…slippery like liquid,” (P. 72, l. 7), “…your elemental self/water vapour/my face wet/the sky empty” (P. 72, ll. 15-18); “…finding you only through redaction” (P. 72, ll. 23-24). In “Möbius Strip,” a surface with only one side and one boundary, the desire to look to the corporeal world for affirmations and how they fall short of answers bemoans loss that cannot be quantified: “…I crawl, an unborn child, blind and hungry/back around the fold towards this place of darkness/this gap” (P. 57, ll. 20-22) and, in “Dark Matter Wants to be Alone,” Ball echoes again this unknown place with options open: “As dark matter’s mysterious ghost/I inhabit two worlds/feed two hearts,/hedging bets/just in case one proves to be real/the beater; the keeper” (P. 64, ll. 37-41).
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This subtle confidence continues in “inanimate,” a wonderfully concise poem, words parsed judiciously, a hesitant homage to optimism in the observation of our interconnectedness with the elements. In fact we join in this communion and do not hold the rights to benevolence in “…that all things/even the inanimate/responded to compassion” (P. 63, ll. 20-22). Ball states directly in “Stargazy” that we are the stuff as made from stars, buoyed by science and spiritual implication, as when she observes, ”In the end,/we’re all like you/burning up our fuel/collapsing after what feels like/ten thousand years…” (P. 69, ll. 7-10). And in “Venus in the East Before Sunrise” she tells us the uninvited is “still beautiful” (P. 73, ll. 35-36).
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Unmaking Atoms is a thought-provoking work, its natural inclination to scientific inquiry applying a probative and penetrating analysis of our vast universe and the limitless spectrum of its human inhabitants without sacrificing genuine emotion.  A nostalgic longing permeates these poems, where the pragmatic mind examines and the poetic one questions. Practical applications that attempt to explain the inexplicable as in “Most of Everything is Nothing,” emphasize the striving: “I watched my tools float/soundless down some river” (P. 41, ll. 7-8). Ball navigates the frustrations well and laments “…there are some places/even a poet can’t go” (P. 92, ll. 15-16). She even states directly, in “Fractals of Fractals,” that “I wrote this book myself/at the atomic scale of pain” (P. 110, ll. 12-13). With “Intelligent Equations,” the last poem of the book, the poet confesses she is “…lost in time/waiting for answers” (P. 114, ll. 29-30), an honest, heartfelt admission. Ball manages to examine and rest in that space most admirably.
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You can find the book here:
 
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About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.
 

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

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Reviewed by Stephen Page

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As I am browsing around a bookstore, I pick up Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, because another writer recommended the book to me.  It is simplistically written. It is geared for high-school or freshmen-college students (but, I am sure that is Oliver’s intent). The first couple of chapters are short and low-attention spanning, but by chapter 7 they expand and deepen.  There are some important points made in the book, even in the first six chapters:

Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is also true of painters, sculptors, musicians.,  something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious . . . still, painters, sculptors (poets) and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  Whatever can’t be taught, and there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned . . . This book is about the things that can be learned.  It is about matters of craft . . . this book is written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills.

The book is written with the idea of teaching basic poetic skills, philosophies, and exercises, so it’s a great book for novice writers, or for teachers of novice writers.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Handbook-Mary-Oliver/dp/0156724006/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

 

The Way Back by Joyce Meyers

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Review by David P. Kozinski
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The title of Joyce Meyers’ first full-length book of poems points to the various journeys that the contents convey. The Way Back (Kelsay Books) presents tableaux of travels to other lands, through history and life’s challenges in language that is mostly spare and straightforward and always elegantly rendered.
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The book begins where life on Earth began, in “Water”, then touches on evolution in “Darwin’s Finches” and “Beginnings” and sojourns briefly in ancient history, as well as in the studios and lives of artists like Michelangelo and Frida Kahlo. Meyers explores family history and relationships, celebrations of life and the challenges of aging and facing death, nature and the threatened environment with clarity and precision, through a consciousness well aware of the ephemeral nature of everything we can see and touch, cherish and imagine.
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The personal and specific lead the reader to contemplations of universal subjects, with careful attention to the music of words. The first stanza of “Cooking School” reads
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                        Here you learn to peel
                        yourself like an onion. Start
                        with the skin, translucent,
                        crisp as parchment.
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Later, the Tuscan chef guides the narrator’s fingers, “as I shape the pasta dough / in the shadow / of my mother’s hands.” Her mother, aging and frail, waits far away, “hands fluttering in her lap / like broken wings.” In “Nursing Home” the narrator surprises her mother with a plate of shrimp cocktail and olives. The poem concludes
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                        Too much, she says
                        before she eats it all.
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                        When we wheel her back
                        to the day room, she grabs
                        my hand and won’t let go.
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The strong sentiments, familiar to those who have experienced parents’ decline, are deftly conveyed through images of hands and without sentimentality.
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“Impermanence” is both the title of a poem in The Way Back and a theme that streams through it. The poem begins, “opening the door to morning / the sky rinsed clean // the shroud of grief lifted / by the wind” and touches on the cycles that have long fascinated scientist and poet alike: “yet you were once / a mountain, a star // and will be again.”
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Poems like “Aubergine” and “Ajar” deal with the nature of existence – its impermanence and fragility. In the former, we find the narrator preparing ratatouille on a winter morning with Mozart playing on the radio, but are abruptly pulled from the tranquil scene in the second stanza, which presents a neighbor, assaulted by her son, facing, “a choice between his intolerable behavior / and the impossible side effects / of the only drug known to control it.”  The contrast of the two stanzas is echoed within the end of the second, starting with violence in Israel and “a glimpse / of how it will be when that tinder box ignites,” and concludes by letting us know that, during that same week, the narrator “fell in love again / and again with my husband.” Despite living in a world that knows much horror and sorrow, she will serve the ratatouille to her grandson, hoping it will help him forget for a while his parents’ divorce and later, practice dance steps she and her husband are learning as, “We take our nourishment where we can.”
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Set at the end of December, “Ajar” offers an image of a door that may be “opening or closing, / poised to shut in or set free.” The third-person narrator notes how
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                        … A new year
                        waits like a two-headed
god hovering undecided
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which way to turn, like words
that would change everything
yet hang unsaid …
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In a dynamic world, nothing is as fixed and clear as we might wish it.
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                        … We think we know
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                        what we are. A river
                        caught by a camera will never
                        be that river again …
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The poet leads us through her husband’s successful bout with cancer, through eye-opening travels to Russia, Kenya and Thailand, and arrives at “East”:
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                        I keep going east,
                        pulled toward the place
                        where morning springs,
                        where the sun sleeps at night.
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The journey proceeds from place to place and through time, “past ancient monuments / to ego and engineering,” and past China’s Great Wall – a wonder of the world that nevertheless could not resist the world’s intrusions. Seeking wisdom, the narrator wants “to follow the sun back / and back, all the way / to its mother’s womb, bow / to her in gratitude for light // and warmth…” She longs to ask this mother, “why stars and species // must be born to die,” and why nothing “travels faster than light / but thought,” and “what happened / before time began.”
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Many poets have tackled important subjects, and some have been able to do so while balancing the extremes of experience with the quotidian, but few have the ability to illuminate the profound with such concision, and through such original and natural-sounding language. Meyers accomplishes this and more in The Way Back. The poems resonate long after the book is closed.
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David P. Kozinski’s first full-length book of poems, Tripping Over Memorial Day (Kelsay Books) was published in January. He won the Delaware Literary Connection’s 2015 spring poetry contest and the Seventh Annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which included publication of his chapbook, Loopholes. Publications include Apiary, Cheat River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Rasputin.

Magnesium

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
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John Stuart Mill drew a shrewd distinction between eloquence and poetry. The former, he said, is heard. The latter is overheard.
The best of the poems in Ray Buckley’s Magnesium demonstrate the soundness of Mill’s observation. Take this one, for instance:
I was mistaken when I said
those things to you.
I’m apologizing now.
For being wrong and for
being very sure I wasn’t.
This sounds exactly like something you might hear in the booth next to yours in a restaurant, and it reminds one of how poetic the fragments of ordinary discourse can often sound — and be. Like many of the poems in this collection, this one’s first line serves as its title. None of the poems is titled “Magnesium,” though many of them and many of the lines that compose them bring to mind that experiment one did in high school chemistry class, when you set alight a thin strip of magnesium wire and watched it sizzle. “Who will reveal us to what we are thinking?” has just that sort of sparkle.
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Poems are not the only things here. There are prose interludes, and what are best described as playlets, fragmentary dialogues. One of these, “Piccadilly Circus,” has two guys in a phone booth at the London landmark trying to reach a girl to tell her where to meet them. It would make for an effectively absurd skit a la Samuel Beckett (who is referenced from time to time in the book). There is a sort of narrative at work here, defined largely by a sense of disaffection and the need for apology. This can be wryly self-deprecating, as in the conclusion to “One Too Many Things”:
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I work very hard to be considered significant.
I have intentions of having a very elevating photograph taken of me
at some point so it can accompany the paragraphs I’ve written
dedicated to my abiding attention to my own immortality.
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It does seem that the speaker in these poems has much to be apologetic about. There are the references to drugs: “I’d be in better shape to say something to you/if I had something other than 2631 in my system.” Cyclobenzaprine hydrochloride, known by the number 2631 on the pill, is a muscle relaxant, which would seem no big deal. But a later, one-line poem announces “I ran out of narcotics. But I have this bottle of muscle relaxers.” And the very next poem, also a one-liner, notes that “It’s very good for one’s career to affect a drug problem.” So we may well be dealing with a less than reliable narrator, which might be a problem were it not that the speaker himself sometimes doubts his reliability:
I’m sorry I made you believe I was a liar. The strangeness of my honesty was a red herring. … I don’t know how to properly explain to you how false everything you believe is.
The recurring sense of unfulfillment grows trying at times, but one never doubts its authenticity. It would appear to be a common mode of being these days. And every now and then there is the exultation of “Be Grace”:
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Tell us how you started it all.
Grow roots in us which we’ll
Wish ourselves the prisoners of
Reach in like all there is is reaching.
Be grace, and tell us your secret.
Like eternity, shine like eternity.
Go into us, contain us.
And be grace. 
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Ray Buckley is worth keeping an eye on.
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Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.
 
 
 

The Philosopher Savant

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Review by Stephen Page

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In the first poem of the book the narrator, as a young boy, skips church and wanders the countryside, discovering new truths, learning he is able to think for himself, coming to his own conclusions about himself and the world, and finding out he is not bound by non-secular dogma. This is where the Philosopher Savant comes into being.

The book follows the remembrances, dreams, fears, evaluation, assessments, and vision of the Philosopher Savant. He is an average person, a father, a householder with a job—but he has a vagrant soul and the fugue vision of a shaman.

Larson writes in the veins of Whitman and Shakespeare. Some of his poems read as contemporized sonnets, and they have as much genius entwined as Shakespeare’s.  While reading the poems, I had a feeling of transcending my self, a oneness with the “all”. The thesis of the book parallels and paraphrases the consciousness of the diffused identity, an identity much like Whitman’s—putting that in other words, “If you want to find me again, look for me in the silence between your thoughts.”

Larson’s intention with the book is to hold the consciousness of the reader, and never let it go, completely—as the images and stories of the poem remain in the minds of the reader after the book is read. Larson wants to say to the reader that everyone and everything share the same consciousness, they always have, and there is only one being in the universe.

What works wonderfully in this book, aside from the brilliant poetics, is that the reader becomes aware that linear time is insignificant. Similar to how memory works. The Philosopher savant is allowed to say what he wants, when he wants, the way he wants, wherever he wants. He remembers things in an anti-chronological manner. He remembers between lifetimes, previous lifetimes, the present, the past, and he forecasts the absurdity of the future.

A while back, I read an earlier book written by Larson, “The Wine-Dark House,” and I was mesmerized. Each poem in “Philosopher Savant” is packed with as much detail as a short story.  Larson’s writing style is multifarious.  In the great library of the universe, this book would be there on the top shelf. If the great library of Alexandria still stood, this book would also be there.

I look forward to reading Larson’s next book, “Pavement”.

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Rustin Larson’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, North American Review, Poetry East, and The American Entomologist Poet’s Guide to the Orders of Insects. He is the author of The Wine-Dark House (Blue Light Press, 2009), Crazy Star (selected for the Loess Hills Book’s Poetry Series in 2005), Bum Cantos, Winter Jazz, & The Collected Discography of Morning, winner of the 2013 Blue Light Book Award (Blue Light Press, San Francisco), and The Philosopher Savant (Glass Lyre Press, 2015). His website is: https://rustinlarson.wordpress.com/

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/