book review

The Dog Years of Reeducation by Jianqing Zheng


By Jerome Berglund

straw hats float like life preservers / in a white sea of cotton

George S. Patton once famously declared that pressure makes diamonds.  Folk musician Robert Dylan similarly posited that ‘behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’.  Dickens had his boot blacking sweatshop, Bukowski that dread post office, Plath a certain apiary.  For one particular youth in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution and ever after the harrowing indignities and discomforts inflicted across his peculiar rice paddy, nearby cotton or soybean fields in young adulthood, and the ‘reeducating’ these locales supplied for him and an entire generation of disillusioned acolytes will come to loom large, rattling past and present, irrevocably informing and energizing the eventual scholar and educator’s tangible and subconscious worlds personally and professionally – shifting paradigms, granting heretofore unprecedented perspective, empathy, incredulity, butterfly wings precipitating an ocean’s worth of ripples outward in profound and fascinating fashions.

Containing a wealth of fresh, original content to marvel at, the newly released full-length poetry collection Dog Years of Reeducation also presents together some carefully selected, arranged, and essential chestnuts – polished or expanded upon, with a definitive, ‘directors cut’ feel – to ensure as complete and comprehensive as possible an exhibition from a widespread and extensive career of Jianqing Zheng publishing in different places, styles, and approaches discussing these topics and experiences, creating an essential showcase of the poet at his finest in discourse upon a subject deeply familiar and important to him – and germane for each of us also, in many relevant ways, wherever we reside or fit into discrete struggles for agency, autonomy, edification and community.  Appreciators of his new book should also investigate a previous shorter collection by the author examining similar matters, Enforced Rustication, roughly half the length of this latest robust assembly of material.

Half a century having elapsed since their occurrence, these scenes have only grown more potent in the annals of recollection and grasping their rightful place in posterity, aging like a fine artisanal vintage, fermented and preserved with enormous care.  Jianqing’s series has a decidedly Leaves of Grass nature; like the portfolio of Whitman’s representing an industrious life’s work, Zheng’s own magnum opus continues quietly shifting and expanding here, contracting there, everywhere pulsating with the most serious intention and disciplined searching for the perfect words and spaces to express and communicate an ephemeral feeling, convey ambivalence as to what ultimate moral (nor have such revelations remained static; comparing the earliest poems scrutinizing this era from first sections of book with the latest additions in the evolving conversation and debriefing makes for a wildly thought-provoking and stimulating exercise:  ‘rusticated years / no longer taste bitter’?!) or lessons should be inferred, interpreted or gleaned, poignant but elusive truth which is slippery as a worm between one’s fingers.

When you feel the pain, the leeches already bloat with your blood.

If you are interested in history, knowledge, the quest for meaning and acceptance, desire to better understand global politics and the murky missteps of that Great Leap Forward in hopes of learning from and not repeating various miscalculations, intuiting happy accidental benefits, discerning glaring pitfalls so they may be avoided, then this will prove an indispensably didactic addition to every student of the human condition’s library.  Observing one of the foremost modern masters in English language haiku and haibun applying his talents to such an ambitious, intimate cause and undertaking is truly riveting to witness.

Just as Henry Miller constructively plumbed his ‘Rosy Crucifixion’ period to great effect throughout his career, Edvard Munch would be plagued by an obsession with the image of his sister withering on her sickbed from tuberculosis, Billie Holiday’s nickname Lady served as a constant reminder and hearkening back to that nascence working with her mother in a house of ill repute (imaginably not dissimilar to the French equivalent in which Edith Piaf was almost identically matriculated), the same specter which has so long been haunting Europe made its presence no less felt in the formative years of one of America’s most revered and accomplished living poets of our generation as Jianqing Zheng ironically found his voice amongst crushing subjugation and pressure to remain silent and conform, traumas and anxieties both patent and invisible inherent of coming into maturity under the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong.

life in the fields / a fly trapped / in a web

In a tactic quite analogous to how Canadian and the American indigenous children were removed from their families and cultures, indoctrinated with Christian beliefs, clothing, hairstyles, robbed of their names, encouraged to not learn their ancestral language or traditions of sustainable agriculture and self reliance, the minutia and broad strokes of what in practice this romanticized initiative of working the land, receiving tutelage by agrarian castes amounted to is captivatingly illustrated here in a case study which should give every progressive reformer pause.  This affecting period, equated in the opening poem – and revisited figuratively near the conclusion – to the dog-eared pages of a yellowed book, suffice to say made a lasting impression on its pupils, though a far cry from the sort responsible architects had envisioned it should.  The particulars, details, and startlingly similar nuances of an approach ostensibly under the ironic pretenses of rejecting and revolting from capitalism’s peculiar brands of bondage and feudalism, yet creating for all intents and purposes a proletariat dictatorship every bit as tyrannous to the citizen and stifling for the intellectual, has been one of Jianqing’s lifelong fixations – looking back on with the bias of hindsight and a storied career’s amassed experiences with statecraft, philosophy, theory Eastern and Western both, viewed through diverse and holistic lenses.

It’s been said no one is a prophet in their own land.  As with Joyce’s intensive, elevated depictions of an Ireland he remained permanently detached from after his exodus, something in the introduction of time and distance, the finality and confliction of expatriation – it’s no surprise or coincidence that one finds the wayfaring hobo and stray dog among Zheng’s recurring cast of characters; the third section of Dog Years begins ‘homesick / a seesaw creaks’ – facilitates much of literature’s most evocative reflections and deliberate meditating.

There is something quite archetypal and timeless about this narrative, from the Biblical Joseph impressed into service by a betrayal of his brothers, to the Athenian children sacrificed one after another to a labyrinth’s minotaur, and more contemporary local parallels such as the story of Solomon Northrup which inspired his memoir of repression and liberation 12 Years a Slave, the many unmistakable commonalities between the coerced physical labor and psychological hegemony exerted upon the individual throughout the People’s Republic of China in the late sixties and early seventies and the abominable practice of forced servitude upon which the Americas were founded – vestiges of which remain vital organs of the nation’s economy, rebranded and obscured through the entrapments of convict leasing – were immediately apparent upon emigrating from the land of his birth, Zheng could not fail to perceive in the Mississippi Delta region of the postbellum South he arrived in, has called home for over three decades.

The anecdotes and realizations of this collection represent an integral catalytic impetus, seeds which would sprout into a strong thread of solidarity and internationalism (e.g. in Delta Notes: ‘hayfield / blacks and whites work together / under the blue sky’; among academic contributions to the critical landscape the author has edited significant and acclaimed anthologies African American Haiku and the Other World of Richard Wright which include valuable articles on a range of subjects and exemplars) running across, perceptible admirably about the oeuvre of Jianqing – whose given name bears a noticeable resemblance to the word zhiqing, or ‘Educated Youth’, used to describe those millions of middle and high school aged adolescents shipped off to the countryside for compulsory drudgery and propagandistic training by provincial agents of supposed ideologic superiority.  These preoccupations with class, oppression and homogenizing, affinities with experiences of marginalized and exploited American populations will be discerned and artfully cited for the reader’s attentive consideration innumerable places throughout Zheng’s vast and eclectic body of work; leitmotifs and correspondences become more obvious as one observes the mosaic each piece and facet comes to form when understood as a cohesive unit.

‘Night Life on the Farm’, one of Zheng’s signature and most provocative works is worth paying particularly close attention to, clearly represents a highly consequential and significant piece to this longstanding private puzzle of origins the poet has so worthily grappled with.  In different iterations it has appeared in earlier collections, is here presented with a new intriguing ending and twist, serving as a vital backbone and means of grounding and contextualizing the work, offering an overarching through-line across a prolific literary journey and thirty years (in Delta Notes Jianqing wistfully ponders, ‘MLK Day / wondering what dreams / I’ve realized’, laments lacks of progress or improvement: ‘still a black and white pic / at the edge of cotton fields / a paint-flaking church’) of diligent composition and publications.  The cotton towns of the United States, microcosms of sorts for the global south, and pickers who inhabit them, their distinctive field holler music (in Found HaikuDelta Notes) reappear persistently, like Blues standards being covered by deft musicians old and new. Cigarettes as currency, smoking representing momentary release are also noteworthy recurring symbols and themes in many poems.  The sparrows Mao failed to eradicate are frequently omnipresent, leaping, pecking, fluttering indomitably through many a storyline.

An initial string in Dog Years ‘Reel to Reel’ describes one young farmer (a father in an earlier variation of the piece, interestingly) in a rice paddy urging an ox through its plowing.  Elsewhere the hill Myna blackbirds of his native land are described caged and free, engaged in hunger strike and parroting back basic phrases.  Confined parakeets (present in Minis too) and a caged rooster similarly appear in collection The Porch.  More overtly in Found Haiku one verse describes the residents of a plantation interning a large enclosure of tropical birds.  In ‘Free Choice’ through the dying and style of a women’s hair identity and authenticity, self-determination in the face of or response to domineering societal pressures to superficially conform, toward a presumed aesthetic principle (something very relatable for African Americans past and present, females most particularly, in regards to hair and makeup traditions) is beguilingly relayed.  In many areas throughout the author’s writings, the melon as seasonal delicacy and bucolic staple both Asian and American, figures prominently and enigmatically in different usages.  There is also a question of qualification, appropriation superbly broached or posed countless times, such as a remarkable verse in Delta Notesdelta tour / a cell phone’s blues ring / in a tourist’s purse.  No clear or straightforward answers exist for such perplexing inquiries, and the koan aspect, element of reflecting upon complexities at length lends much value and interest to each of the author’s incisive investigations.

If I never acquainted myself with local peasants…

How a surging populist movement representing groundswells of consensus and public support may compromise its ideals egregiously, a nation can flippantly forsake its population, a generation can misuse (the Emmett Till tragedy subtly galvanizes many of Zheng’s poems, including memorable pieces exploring Money and the Tallahatchie River in Delta Sun) and manipulate their youth, a zealot excuses and consents to problematic means for justifying lofty ends, the way conflating babies and bathwater invariably lead to misunderstandings in the highest echelons perverting objectives, fomenting ignorance, discouraging critical thinking (a scene of apple picking, as well as a striking verse from Zheng’s collection of sequences Minis comes to mind: ‘on every window / of the school shines / a morning sun’; a passage in Found Haiku is also germane: ‘hidden track / through cotton fields – / a train of dust’), fostering complacent automatons rather than the spirited striving toward actualization necessary to achieve a post-scarcity economy, predicated upon learning and constant challenging of imperfect institutions, infrastructure of both commerce and the state… These subjects provide the poet with no shortage of powerful raw material, the careful synthesis of which has required a lengthy and painstaking brewing process which finds some of the most coherent and urgent articulation yet in The Dog Years of Reeducation released this year by Madville Publishing.  Daring readers who seek this book out shall encounter compelling contents both immensely edifying and tremendously enjoyable to peruse.

You can find the book here:,countryside%20to%20receive%20reeducation%20from%20the%20poor%20peasants

Jerome Berglund has published book reviews and scholarly articles in Frogpond, Fireflies Light, Valley Voices and more. He has also published poetry in short form in Asahi, Shimbun, Bottle Rockets, Modern Haiku and more. Twitter



Let’s Call It Paradise by Mike Maggio


By Charles Rammelkamp

The very title of Mike Maggio’s new collection raises questions. Let’s Call It Paradise: you can almost hear Maggio continue with, “even though we know it’s not true.” Why not call it a circus? What is this “it,” anyway? In these remarkably unique poems, Maggio examines the modern world as if he were a visitor from another planet. Indeed, the penultimate poem in the collection, “Into the Wilderness We Came,” is like a QR code which we scan into our smartphones to view a restaurant menu, “and off to Grandma’s house we went” follows like a punchline. The sardonic humor slaps you in the face like a waiter’s damp towel.
Paradise is arranged in sections titled “Selling Eden,” highlighting the commercialism of the “sacred” in society, “The Serpent,” “Babel,” “The Epistles,” titles that also allude to religious themes, and the book begins and ends with “The Road to…” and “And Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” likewise suggesting religious experience. So yeah, let’s call it paradise – instead of its opposite. It’s all a sales pitch, after all, right?
A social activist/critic whose first love was found poetry, cut-ups, collages and erasures, Maggio composes his poems as if he were assembling them out of parts (or removing parts). As he notes in the Author’s Statement that prefaces the collection, Let’s Call It Paradise (subtitled on the cover page “A Poetry of Concoction”)  “attempts to examine societal forces…to look at who we are, what we’ve become and where we may be headed,” while keeping a skeptical eye on the “technical revolution” that continues to transform our lives at an alarming rate. The book is “dedicated to everyone who cares about our future.”
The collection opens with a “Siren Song,” beckoning the reader, like J. Alfred Prufrock. “Come, let us go now to a place beyond dreams,” he croons, seductive as the supernatural maidens that lure Odysseus, “…to the merry, manic marmalade / malls, to the towering halls of dithering / tongues, to the glittering temples that / mesmerize all.”  This here’s America! The capitalist paradise where versions of reality are bought and sold.
Right out of the gate he gives us “True Religion” (including the top five hundred songs in history), “When Jesus praised a widow,” and “Epiphany” (“Every day, she prayed to the TV”). Poems called “fall: roman empire” and “Fall: American Empire” suggest the fragility – the illusion – of this paradise. “Oanly in am-” spells it out (or misspells it):
oanly in am-
As is plainly obvious by now, Maggio has an acerbic, mocking sense of humor. “A Guide to the Signposts in the Garden of Eden” includes such markers as I. “You are now entering the Garden of Eden. / Fig leaves required past this point,” and VII. “Adam and Eve slept here,” and VIII. “Create your own original sin. / For more information call 1-800-666-EDEN.” And in the same “Selling Eden” section he gives us poems called “ChatRoom,” “That Is: The Question” (“Are you searching to look pretty?”), “Hair” and “Hey there, stud!” in which we may be wandering around that mall looking for the quick-fix to irresistible attractiveness. “Condoms” and “Sex Therapy” are here, too. “Sales Event” makes it explicit:
Everything is a sales event
he said.
for sale.
Take my life for example:
My money
My house.
My health.
All up for grabs.
Even death.
“Instant Party Gal,” an inflatable doll offered in “The Serpent” section, and “Flat Belly Science” provide further siren lures as we stroll around the mall.
Which brings us to “Babel” where any sense of cohesion completely breaks down. “Spam” (“this is not spam” repeated over and over and over again), “Subject Making Sounds,” which is made up of alternate alphabet symbols whose “sound” is anybody’s guess, “Glottal Stop Poem,” “Bomb Threat Checklist,” the kind of bureaucratic how-to you see posted in office buildings, a “found poem,” indeed, “Ingredients (for Life),” also a found poem, listing “artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives”: all of these nullify language, rendering it all barnyard babble. “Limerick” reads:
            I once read your post on Facebook.
            It led all the way to your bankbook.
            I took all the cash
            I was unabashed
            Now you have nothing but blankbook.
We receive warnings about identity theft and personal identifying information (PII) all the time, right? There are checklists….
All of this, after “Epistles” from Maryrose Komo of Kuwait and the inane “Have a Nice Day” greeting, culminates in the zeroing of language in the final section, “And Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” whose poems take the digital world of binary 1s and 0’s to the max. It begins with “Into the Wilderness” and reaches full binary code in Pastorale,” a word that refers to a musical composition. In between, Maggio gives us “Mac Low’s Menu,” which is a page of barcodes, “And Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” a list of five-digit numbers that look like zip codes, “Record Out of Range,” which looks like computer programming code, “Into the Wilderness (Reprise)” in which, after the initial I, all the vowels are absent from the words. “No Normal” ends:
            no smarttags
            no symbols
            no social
            texting no
            twitter no
            no Maggi
            o no Mag
            gio no
            no Maggi
The final poem of the collection, “My Paltry Piece of Paradise,” which sounds almost apologetic, reads, like other poems, like a catalogue of ingredients or parts (“dyspepsia / dyslexia / disassociation / motilium 10 mg / prozac 20mg”), concludes: “Lift here to experience.”
Indeed, Mike Maggio’s one-of-a-kind Let’s Call It Paradise isn’t read so much as it is experienced.
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.

Benefit by Siobhan Phillips


By Michael Collins

Laura, the narrator of Siobhan Phillips’ Benefit, describes her dissertation as “focused on characters in Henry James at the periphery of the narrative” such as Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl, who “has little money and no children. She therefore can do nothing herself. She stands on the sidelines and talks about what other people are doing” (72). Notably, this passage could also function as a plot summary novel from the somewhat lost perspective Laura herself occupies for much of it, if, that is, if we add Laura’s addendum:

Viewed another way, Fanny Assingham is not peripheral to The Golden Bowl. It is she who introduces the impoverished Italian prince and the rich American daughter. It is she who sets the whole narrative in motion. At some point, Renata wrote at the end of one of my dissertations chapter drafts, you may wish to consider whether your description implies a stronger indictment of narrative structure. But I didn’t want to indict anything. Certainly nothing I was working on. (75; italics original)

Laura’s impressions of the relative importance of a “minor” character and the injustices visited upon her by class structure are a mere whisper of the widespread social injustices Laura’s research projects in the novel will explore, ranging from the brutal sugar trade’s accumulation of mass fortunes, to the treatment of characters “at the periphery” of modern wars and the refugee crises they caused. The quote from Renata also foreshadows much of Laura’s intuitive and creative “research” that will be published as the novel itself, which follows Laura’s reorientation toward her evolving guiding principles and her extensive reconsidering of the perspectives of other characters previously kept at the periphery of her own life.

The novel begins as Laura is “not renewed” at an adjunct teaching position, which sends her on various explorations of potential sources of income. By necessity or unstated wish, this time period also seems to call Laura toward reconnecting with friends; in fact, the first few chapters are individually structured around meeting various members of her former cohort of Weatherford fellows at Oxford. Laura’s narration of these meetings, often eviscerating all varieties of social contrivance, shows her to be an incisive reader of humans as well as texts:

Heather’s relationships with men: numerous not frivolous. They were always deliberate, even if sometimes casual. She did not do one-night stands or flings. She went on dates; she dated, sometimes several people at one time. Sean and I are going to brunch. Matt is taking me to a jazz concert this weekend.  I told her, I don’t know anyone else who actually dates. Dating helps you meet people. As if that’s a good – Laura you’re terrible. Heather was smiling. I know I am, I said. Don’t mind me. Keep doing everything exactly as it should be done.

I think you need to be very beautiful to do everything exactly as it should be done. Also, you need to have money. (54; italics original)

If, however, Laura undertakes an informal inquiry into narrative structure, she does so intuitively and relationally – and her own assumptions are revised along with anyone else’s, particularly those involving the importance she places on the perspectives of others. Through this process she learns that her friends do not view her as a foreign object, but rather with respect, as in Caroline’s description of their time at Oxford: “[Y]ou were sort of assessing everything all the time. That’s why you weren’t part of things. Mark and I talked about it once. He had this idea that if he passed muster with you, he would be okay” (288). This seems to be a discovery for Laura, although it has long been apparent to the reader that Laura’s narrative voice is indeed continually assessing everything, an interesting way in which Phillips’ narrative strategies allow us to see Laura concurrently from interior and external views. It helps us to perceive an interesting complexity Laura’s character: Her assessing gaze is also regularly turned debilitatingly inward, so much so that she relies on observations of and interactions with her friends and mother as one primary source of grounding in navigating her professional crisis.

In an interesting formal development, the middle chapters are structured around improvisational forms of writing, including a narrative structured around a false dichotomy between novels of incident versus novels of character that was dismissed by Henry James, whose rebuttal she highlights: “the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not” (242). This more esoteric doctrine seems an elusive goal compared with her sometimes comically self-aware diary: “Today I thought again about how I should use this record, this journal. I am doing it wrong. I should write more about my day-to-day life, my ordinary actions. I should not write about what I am learning or reading. That goes somewhere else” (110). Writing things in the “wrong” places, in turn, becomes the form of a later chapter that interrupts and juxtaposes attempts at biographical imagination of the founders of the Weatherford fellowship with her own process of moving out of her mother’s house. In seeking out a form that “has life” narrative structure is obliged to morph with and perhaps to a degree facilitate the unfolding life of the narrator – or, seen another way, perhaps, a narrator who is opening to a broader array of experiences carries into their writing a curiosity to experiment with the perspectival and expressive potentials of new and different forms, even those that seem “wrong.”

Laura’s experiments with more process-oriented modes of writing, dovetail with her extensions of “research” to include a variety of excursions into previously unexplored pockets of consciousness and society. Meditation helps her to perceive her work as a mirroring, albeit in a backhanded way: “[I]t turns out my thoughts are not like clouds in the sky. They do not drift. They gnaw. My thoughts are rats in a field of sugar. Rats, I read, are one of the few animals that not only survive but even prosper when fields are cleared for cane” (96). Reconnecting with friends from her time at Oxford also allows her – and the novel itself – the benefit of their perspectives cultivated in other fields, integral to complicating the work of both. Greta, a professor intently focused on supporting students, quips, “You don’t need to be a trained anthropologist to know that gifts are all about power” (142). Whereas Caroline summarizes her field of “Development”: “It’s a bunch of people who wanted to do some good, and realized they couldn’t, and kept going anyway” (283). I’m focusing more on Laura’s evolution of consciousness in this piece, but the historical and ethical conversations, clustered to a degree around the other characters’ specialties, are each significant in their own right, as well as providing context for Laura’s troubling meditations. The rats have real teeth, and, significantly, they sometimes visit the meditations of other people.

These exchanges of disappointments, disillusions, and apprehensions point to another interesting aspect of these social reconnections, the delicate manner in which Phillips shows the other characters to be Laura’s friends, almost despite Laura’s wishes to remain at an observational distance. The other, also notably understated, side of Laura’s aversion to sentimentality, though, seems to be that she is a generally polite and compliant friend.

None of this obviates the litany of psychological and historical demons Laura faces, beginning with those created by her lumping together of social structures and their evils: “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you” (156). Her ideation also cuts off what she perceives as her potential paths of retreat from this quagmire: “I know that failed academics are supposed to find refuge in imagination; they are supposed to realize that books are more important than scholarship about books. But they’re also supposed to find refuge, the failed academics, in life; they are supposed to realize that the world is better than any words. I don’t want either part of this contradiction” (209). Oddly, this thinking bottoms out in a realization that, though negatively experienced, is quite grounding: “I saw for a moment what I was. How I was. Exactly how wrong, how petty, driven by illusions I didn’t even admit, cowering under the generosity of others, my own indecision, my own ineffectual inconsequence, counting on that” (264). Leaving aside the self-indictment of “failed academic,” which is barely justifiable as a criticism, Laura’s comments, if we’re individually being honest, are true for most of us and the social structures that contain us. A subtle achievement of the novel is its balancing of social critique with awareness of the shadow aspects of the consciousness through which they are processed and articulated.

Laura is aided in this process by a bit of sanguine wisdom from her dissertation advisor, Renata, through which she develops a more intricate understanding of the “countercultural” work of “scholarship” (292) and a more complex and intersubjective understanding of the dynamics between story and character, based in no small part on a reconceptualization of her own character and story:

It was the feeling of taking things in; it was the feeling of needing more – information, words, understanding – and of having more and not enough and then again needing; it was the feeling not of wanting to work but of wanting to learn. It was not a moral feeling. Selfish rather. But so utterly distant from myself at the same time. How badly I had served this desire, and yet how faithfully it continued nevertheless: That was something to trust. (297)

This ownership of her passions constitutes a complex enough understanding of “selfish” to be characterized as self-knowledge, and its realization carves a place for the novel as a pluralistic and interdisciplinary research story in which the personal equation forms a shifting figure and ground with the various subjects of study. Laura is, after all, among many other things, the narrator. Not to be excluded from this achievement, the work’s literary forebear Henry James tacks on his own again reread writing advice to such posterity: “One must save one’s life if one can.” (296).

You can find the book here:  Benefit

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



Let No One Sleep by Juan Josè Millàs Translated by Thomas Bunstead


By Michael Collins

The intertwining themes of mirroring, identity and narrative construction present themselves concurrently in the very opening of Let No One Sleep, the latest from Juan Josè Millàs in the engaging translation by Thomas Bunstead:

Seeing herself in the mirror, Lucía said, That fat woman is me.

This was not said insultingly; she wasn’t being mean to herself. She, after all, was pretend thin rather than fat. So her mother had said when she was a girl….” (9)
Lucía negates the simple assumption of a weight-normative negative inner monologue. However, the reasoning for the statement, such as it is, involves an attribution of her “true” identity to a concept coined by her mother, who died when she was young, an construct that Lucía herself fleshes out as an adult. It is notable in this context that the statement “That fat woman is me” – as opposed to the more expected “I am fat” – seems to create an alternate self in the mirror image in opposition to her invented-inherited self in order to identify with it and draw towards the enigma it represents.
The line takes on more ominous undertones shortly thereafter when we learn of Lucía losing her job in IT development the day after the death of an obese colleague who died suddenly after a significant weight loss:
Her death confirmed people’s suspicions, whatever they were, given they were impossible to substantiate either way. The day after she died, the company, an app-development firm that also installed, configured, and maintained IT systems, filed fraudulently for bankruptcy and shut down. (10)
The passage, like many of Lucía’s narrative constructions, juxtaposes the two events syntactically, as if their slight chronological separation in consciousness keeps the death from shading or perhaps expressing Lucía’s feelings about the job loss. The self-confirming gossipers add a layer of isolation to the woman’s plight, and by extension Lucía’s, showing her awareness of how neither have much control of their own story. Or, perhaps, none of us have much control of such things, but we notice it most when cut off from our habitual sources of stability – and when conscious compartmentalization collapses.
As fate would have it, Lucía leaves work in a taxi, and “The taxi driver turned out to be a programmer as well” (11). Shortly, we learn that this interaction, like the one with the mirror, ends up describing Lucía’s future in reverse, a subtle pattern that dovetails with the ways in which individual identities support and destroy the identity formations of others throughout interactions of the novel. The cab driver suggests – narratively and/or psychologically – Lucía’s oncoming events in sharing his own experiences as a driver: “’You get into all kinds of scrapes. Plus, I imagine I’m in a different city every day. New York, Delhi, Mexico…’” (11). The English translation here sounds like a mashup of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fight Club in ways that invite comparisons of this “single serving friend” and the complicated adventurer Lucía with various unreliable narrators and the works that serve as their vehicles. Other subtle literary allusions arise throughout, in keeping with the novel’s problematizing of identity, mirroring, and art as representations of and stable reality.
Lucía’s driver also references his use of self-hypnosis as a way of deepening his practice of pretending to drive his cab in different cities with the hypothetical – and evangelized – purpose of deepening connection to his actual environment: “’It’s like when you succeed in imagining what you’re doing and doing what you’re imagining, all at the same time, the anxiety in your life goes away’” (12). I’ll leave the reader to parse where the novel upholds and complicates this statement, mentioning merely that the self-hypnosis seems to form a segue for Lucía from her previous work with algorithms in IT programming. As the novel unfolds it also seems to explore the algorithm as a metaphor for the mind’s own recursive functioning in ways that range from the liberating experiences that can arise from improvising with identity to the blind spots and tunnel vision associated with obsession.
Somewhere between these competing approaches, Lucía also seems to calm herself with an ironically non-predictive rehearsal of precognition inherited from her mother:
This was a phrase she had spoken thousands of times in her life, though it did not, in general, precede anything happening. She had gotten it from her mother, who would sometimes stop mid-action and say, “Something is going to happen,” followed by a vacant look coming over her. Then, since nothing happened (nothing visible at least), she would go the rest of the way down the stairs, or finish brushing her hair, or whatever it was she had been doing before the sudden stoppage. Lucía had inherited that sense of some vague but threatening event being constantly just around the corner. (15)
The prediction, counterintuitively, comforts Lucía by not coming to pass, except on rare occasions that reveal how terrifying the unforeseen often is as a mere psychological factor without an actual event even needing to take place. As if a part of Lucía’s learned algorithm for confronting fear, the statement repeats in, from, and to Lucía as if creating a ritual bubble of psychic protection, a practice that deepens the pathos of the opening scene significantly.
Other characters posit such bubbles in the external world as well, and the novel as a whole continually explores ways in which the psyche, precariously, exhilaratingly, hilariously, and tragically vacillates between these poles of self-protection and relative self-exploration through interaction. In Lucía’s case, this takes place on a higher magnitude due to her process of attempting to negotiate with the world a new identity that it will mirror back in the responses of others. However, the same duality manifests in the other characters, like the woman who works in theatre who invites her into a similar para-intimacy to the one Lucía shared with the first cab driver, except with the seating reversed: “I often use taxis to get things off my chest. The car is a kind of bubble; it creates a provisional sort of intimacy between two strangers. I’ve told colleagues of yours things that not even my closest girlfriends know about” (36). Also like the first driver, she offers up a statement that, while true in a limited context, wildly belies greater implications: “Theater’s quite like that, a bit of a closed circuit, it’s own ecosystem” (40). Both characters, regardless of their initial intentions in these conversations, open new worlds for Lucía, in which she sees herself from different perspectives and allows dormant parts of her to externalize into evolving new versions of herself that grow increasingly chaotic to those around her, ultimately challenging the algorithms of social reality itself.
Lucía is insouciant and instable, liberated and liquescent. Though she is seeker and subject in ways that dialogue with meta-dramatists from Pirandello to Beckett, the narrative itself is continuously surprising and entertaining, offhandedly funny and deconstructive of many forms of social preposterousness that one is often too polite to point out, unless one finds oneself with nothing to lose. I’m limiting myself to writing about the opening here so as not to ruin the turns, hard stops, and side trips for everyone else because the book is, literally, the ride of a lifetime.
Michael Collins’ poems have appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.

Flutter, Kick by Anna V. Q. Ross

By Lynette G, Esposito
Flutter, Kick by Anna V. Q. Ross features poetry that explores the human aspects of the feminist voice that deals with hurt, loss and solution. Ross observes from complex angles and touches, with a light hand, issues that affect women’s lives.
In her poem, Milk Teeth on page twenty-two, she speaks of her problems in conceiving and the kindness of friends who suggest she should foster. Later in other poems, she reveals she has a son and a daughter transcending the hurt and loss to solution. 
While her friends could not predict her future, she demonstrates in her poem, Passenger Pigeon on page thirty-three, how short-sighted people can be in other ways. She opens the poem with:
I read they traveled
in flocks big as hurricanes, and fast
She purposely suggests the past in the tense of her verb and how her knowledge of the pigeons is from research. The one- stanza poem says a person could reach up and grab a bird there were so many flying so low. Her view of how we see what we want to see and the lack of seeing the outcome is clear.
Who was the passenger?
Or is passage the important part–
the routes they moved through air.
We care so much about who
belongs where, arm ourselves
against the imaginary. No one
believed they could die out.
There were so many.
The poem is short, only eighteen lines, but the message suggests the outcome of how many can become few and then none without anyone predicting it.
Ross explores memories and scenes as she uses everyday reminders of the good and the bad. On a train ride she pictures the beautiful school her children attend but drowns the thought in sorrow of a shooter. This is a poem brought from the headlines that breaks a heart.
She addresses another headline issue on page sixty-five in her poem The Crossing, where Ross suggests how people depersonalize migrants.
In this morning’s paper thirteen women
Drowned off the coast of Lampedusa–
The mothers, fathers, babies were called migrants by the Italian coast card that came to their rescue as if they were different from people. The one-stanza poem observes that help is not always helpful and good intentions do not always provide good results.
In this poem, Ross has taken current problems and made them personal in how one views others.  She uses the image of the water opening up to those fallen from the boat and closing over them because the rush of water from the fast- moving coast guard vessel caused the water to rise like a hand in greeting and scuttled the boat.
The volume is divided into four unnamed sections.  Ross explores both personal issues and subjects that are in the modern news cycle.  She has a contemporary voice that intermixes universal issues with personal ones.  This works well throughout the ninety-one pages of verse.  It has an earthy and realistic tone as if she raised chickens in her backyard and named every one of them.
You can find the book here:
 Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.

Atlantis, an Autoanthropology by Nathaniel Tarn


By Neil Leadbeater

In this literary memoir and autoethnography, anthropologist, poet, essayist and translator Nathaniel Tarn reflects upon a life lived in many different cultures. Now in his ninth decade, it is a work that has been over thirty years in the making, giving us a truly remarkable summation of a lifetime’s achievement.

Something of the modesty of the man speaks to us in the title for Tarn hesitates to call it an autobiography per se. In it, he eschews the empirical ‘I’ for he has lived such a full life that he has ‘never (yet) been able to experience the sensation of being only one person.’ The dedication: ‘To all my (m)others’ and some of the quotations that preface the book are worth repeating here because they point the reader to the way in which Tarn has chosen to embark upon his project: ‘I is a throng of voices’ (Janet Rodney: The Book of Craving) and ‘No, one wasn’t just one. One was ten people, twenty, a hundred. The more opportunities life gave us, the more beings it revealed in us…’ (Joseph Roth: Right and Left). Instead, Tarn assumes the position of narrator, referring throughout to this person or persons called Tarn, as if he were a fictional character. This shifts the perspective, making the narrator examine his life as a subject of study.

The book is organised into a series of ‘throws’ rather than chapters. The full significance of this choice of word is explained later in the text (think of the potter and his wheel). Each ‘throw’ follows a particular theme which weaves its way into the overall tapestry of the book, following more or less in chronological order.

Before embarking on his distinguished literary career, it is necessary to remind ourselves that Tarn had been an anthropologist for thirty years, beginning with studies at the Musée de l’Homme, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the College de France, Paris, in 1949-50, continuing with work at the University of Chicago (including fieldwork in Guatemala), 1951-53; the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.), in 1953-58; fieldwork in Burma in 1958-59; and teaching at the S.O.A.S. in 1960-67.

Reading between the lines, we get a real sense of the tensions that built up and the decisions that had to be made when Tarn came to realise that he could no longer inhabit simultaneously the world of anthropology and the world of literature. There had always been the hope that poetry and fieldwork could continue in parallel but something had to give. Resigning from ‘the best southeast Asia job in the world’ in 1967, Tarn changed tack and worked for a couple of years at Jonathan Cape, publishers, London, breaking new ground by pursuing literary connections with the Americans before re-entering academia in the United States and, after teaching at Princeton, teaching comparative literature at Rutgers from 1970 to 1984.

On one level this is a book about people and places. Among many of the world’s major artists and intellectuals, he knew André Breton, René Char, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Margot Fonteyn, Günter Grass, Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Octavio Paz, Henri and Nō Siegel and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

As an anthropologist, Tarn has travelled widely to places in Guatemala (special mention should be made here of Lake Atitlán, which became a kind of spiritual home to him with overtones of a lost Eden), and South East Asia. Reading about these and other places, one gets a sense of how privileged and grateful he feels for having seen them before the tidal wave of mass tourism took over and changed their character forever. In 1959, for example, when he first saw the Taj Mahal in India it was with, at most, a dozen other people. Twenty years later, he shared it with several hundreds.

From the world of literature, we read of Tarn’s associations with the British, the Europeans and the Americans. In Britain, there is an account of Tarn’s membership of ‘The Group’, an association of British poets that included Peter Redgrove and George MacBeth that used to meet at the home of Edward Lucie-Smith, his work with the publishers Jonathan Cape and, by extension, Cape Editions and Cape Goliard Press, his inclusion in volume 7 of the hugely influential Penguin Modern Poets Series and the publication of his first full-length poetry collection Old Savage / Young City. After emigration to America, we read of his assimilation into American life and his meetings with leading luminaries such as Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Eliot Weinberger and Charles Olson. 

On another level, the book is about far more than this. At its heart, it is an exploration of poetry: what it is and how it comes about within the mind of the creator. There are insights into the visionary poetry of Wordsworth and Blake, the need for the poet not merely to give pleasure but crucially to become part of the very spin of the world in motion. It is also about the many different sides of Tarn: Tarn the traveller who has an insatiable interest in other cultures, especially in religions and symbolic systems, primarily but not exclusively, classical, Mayan and Buddhist, Tarn the avid collector (of textiles, ceramics, postage stamps and books), Tarn the ornithologist (trips to Cape May and Hawk Mountain to watch the raptor migrations, magnificent sightings in Alaska, birding in New Guinea) and Tarn the botanist (he has a particular love of roses)…and this is by no means all. ‘Completion,’ he states, ‘is not a word that ever should come near this book.’

Following ‘retirement’ there are accounts of trips to countries as far flung as Bhutan, Indonesia, China, Japan and Ecuador to soak up the culture. We read of his insatiable enthusiasm for visiting museums and cultural monuments and the need to experience one’s past.

Tarn’s views on the way in which historical artefacts are displayed for the public’s consumption, consumer bourgeois culture, his horror of human exploitation and the impotence of institutions to do anything to stop it, his prediction that ‘the planet will survive by the skin of its teeth.  The human race will not,’ and the fact that too few understand that the conservation of nature and of culture are indissolubly linked: ‘you cannot save one without the other’ are all argued vigorously and stated with conviction. Although, at times, the writing is introspective, his style is always engaging and often conversational with a good dose of humour.

Poetry is so central to Tarn’s world that, towards the end of the book he declares that its title is also known to its author as Atlantis: An Autoanthropoem. It is here that he poses the question as to why so many young people want to be poets and concludes that it is because it is the only means whereby one can create ‘world’. As Tarn sees it, ‘Poetic liberation is the oldest liberation movement there is. Anyone can join. Anyone should.’

You can find the book here:

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



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

la clarte

By Michael Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When singing, he seems to call to a shade

whom he glimpsed one day in the woods

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

the urgency makes his voice catch fire. (49)

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

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

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

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

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

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

would their way of leading astray also guide,

since they’d be the most faithful images

of the ephemeral sky?

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

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

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

Then I raised my eyes: the whole wide sky

was around us,

with chirping in the stubble

like stars along the ground.

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

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

baptized by the long summer night.’ (53)

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

I believed that with its creaking wood and wheels,

once the day had snuffed out its fires, this chariot

would almost join the other one

where each of us would hardly have to reach

to gorge ourselves on ripe stars. (55)

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

The streams have awakened.

The least clear voice intertwines with the clearest one

as their fast waters weave together.

So that I can be bound with similar bonds,

I’m happy to reach out my two hands.

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

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

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

Look at the swifts:

as many wrought-iron arrows in the walls,

shot towards the four corners of the sky

when the summer evening falls.

And he who still writes on the last staffs,

perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff

has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,

but now the hook tugs at my heart

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

bleeding in these pearly waters.’ (81)

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

There’s a beauty that the eyes and hands touch

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

But the other one steals away and we must climb higher

until we can’t see anything any more,

the beautiful target and the tenacious hunter

blended in the jubilant light. (83)

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

In the distance, the blue tents of the mountains

seem empty.

What are you sombrely scheming on your wires,

nervous birds, my familiar swallows?

What are you all going to take away from me?

If it were only the summer light

I’d willingly wait here for your return.

If it were only my life, carry it off.

But the light of my life, cruel birds,

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

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

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

You can find the book here:

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

Casualty Reports  by Martha Collins

cas reports

By Charles Rammelkamp

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

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

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

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

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

.             Remember our 100 people killed each day

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


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

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

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.



Event Horizon  by Cate Marvin

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