charles rammelkamp

Obit by Victoria Chang

obit
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Written in the slender, right-justified form of newspaper columns, so familiar to readers of obituaries, these poems are no less lyrical for their journalistic form. Two events inform these poems.  “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” the first poem, begins:
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My   Father’s   Frontal  Lobe  –     died
unpeacefully  of  a  stroke  on June 24,
2009 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in
San Diego, California.
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The second poem, “My Mother,” begins:
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My Mother died unpeacefully  on  August 3, 2015 in her room at Walnut Village Assisted Living in Anaheim, California, of pulmonary fibrosis.
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These two dates, June 24, 2009, and especially August 3, 2015, recur again and again as Chang writes the obituaries for what has been lost – “Victoria Chang” died June 24, 2009: “Because he did / not die but all of his words did.”  In the first poem, “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” she has written:
.                                                   When the
frontal lobe died, it sucked in its lips like a window pulled  shut.  At the funeral for his words, my father wouldn’t stop   talking, and his love passed through me….
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“Voice Mail,” “The Future,” “Civility” (“Maybe / this is what happens when language / fails, a last breath inward but no breath / outward.”); “Reason” (“My father’s words / taken out of his brain and left downstairs.”), “The Clock” also died on June 24, 2009, the circumstances of their loss and the questions their loss provokes noted in separate obits.
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Things that died August 3, 2015, for which she writes obits, include “My Mother’s Teeth” (“…died twice, once in / 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. / Once again on August 3, 2015.”); “Ambition” (“I buried ambition in / the forest, next to distress.”); “Chair,” “Approval” (“I love so many things I / have never touched: the moon, a shiver, / my mother’s heart.”); “Form,” “Optimism,” “Friendships” (“…died a slow death after / August 3, 2015.”) ; “The Doctors,” “Time,” “The Situation” (“at least part of the situation; my father / was the other situation.”); “The Head,” “Hindsight,” “The Priest,” “Similes” (“There was nothing like death, just / death. Nothing like grief, just grief.”); “Language,” “Clothes” and “The Face.”
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There are plenty of other dates and other things whose passing is noted in their own obits, because the overarching themes in these poems are grief and language and their intricate intersections. “Grief,” indeed, gets its own obit (“Grief – as I knew it, died many times.”).  But there are so many insights into the grieving process throughout these poems.  “…our sadness is plural, but grief is / singular,” she writes in the obit for “Tears.” In one of the several obits for “Victoria Chang” she notes, “When someone / dies, there is a constant feeling of / wanting to speak to someone….”  In the obit for “Oxygen,” she recalls her mother’s difficulty with breathing that the pulmonary fibrosis caused (“I’m not sure / when I began to notice her panic / without the oxygen….”) and reflects:
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Like   grief,  the   way   it  dangles   from
everything like earrings.  The  way   grief
needs oxygen. The way every once in a while   it   catches   the  light   and   starts
smoking. The way my grief will die  with
me.
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Juxtaposed against her obit poems for the death of her mother and the crippling of her father are tankas written about her own motherhood, for her own children. This Japanese five-line form is so appropriate for these brief reflections. Each of these intervals contains two such stanzas. Several of them begin with the line, “I tell my children,” and several others with “My children, children.” The very first of the tanka intervals reads:
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My children, children,
there’s applesauce everywhere,
but it’s not for you.
It is strange to help someone
grow while helping someone die.
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*
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Each time I write hope,
the letters fray and scatter.
The hopeful poets
never seem to have dreams,
never seem to have children.
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Indeed, “hope” is so entangled with “grief” that it’s tough sometimes to distinguish the two. In an obit for “Hope,” which “died on October 15, 2014 when / the FDA approved two drugs, Esbriet / and Ofev for pulmonary fibrosis,” Chang alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) when she writes:
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                    Hope is the wildest bird,
the one that flies so fast it will either
disappear or burst into flames.
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OBIT concludes on a wider angle, as if, as in a movie, the lens widens to include a more expansive vision.  For the final obit is for “America,” which “died on February 14, 2018, / and my dead mother doesn’t know.” That’s the date of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, in which seventeen people, most of them children, were gunned down, and over a dozen others were injured. Though certainly not the last school shooting, in many ways the Parkland shooting marked a change when the children themselves said enough is enough and began to protest the insanity of guns in the United States.  And thus, after so much grief, so much noting of loss after loss after loss, Victoria Chang concludes her collection on a redemptive note, with the final tanka:
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I am ready to
admit I love my children.
To admit this is
to admit that they will die.
Die: no one knows this but words.
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My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope, hope, hope,
see how the mouth stays open?
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –
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The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora by Tanya Ko Hong

the war
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Tanya Ko Hong’s heartbreaking collection of poems is all about bearing witness and the need to testify to a truth against all the forces of silence from both without and within that try to suppress its expression. This truth is all about treachery and betrayal. Interestingly, it is in the very last stanza of the final poem in the book, “At Tara Station in Dublin,” where we find an invitation to speak.  The speaker in the poem finds herself stranded in an Irish pub drinking coffee when she is approached by a “sweet-looking girl” who asks,
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not in Gaelic but in fluent English:
“Love! I am a hungry angel of the street.
Get me a McDonald’s hamburger and a cup of coffee,
and tell me a story of your star,
the land where you came from, please.”
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All the poems that precede this one are the story. So much of the horror of the story Tanya Ko Hung tells is suppressed – hence the title of the collection, because the war rages within the heart of the Korean woman.  These poems, then, are the cathartic expression of these cruel truths.
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There are so many forces that tell the Korean woman to be quiet, to “suck it up.” There are the long cultural expectations for Korean girls. The poem, “Asian Woman” begins:
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This is what you do with your life:
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Take what your father gives you
care, food, shelter
Learn to be wife
cook, sew, maintain your household
Obey orders, serve your family…
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In a word, the Asian woman is expected to submit. She also writes in “The Cost of Breath”:
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Nice girls don’t speak
their minds or
question men…
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In the three-part poem, “Look Back,” the speaker of the poem, who has immigrated to America, tells her daughter that the reason she came was for “better education, better opportunities, / and a better life,” which is only part of the truth of why she’d fled, and her daughter knows. “‘Oma, it’s so boring. All Asians in my class / have the same answers.’” “I didn’t want to look back,” the speaker confesses.  She goes on, “to survive, I learned / to pretend not to know.” Similarly, in “Mother Tongue,” she writes, “life’s not so bad / if you don’t pay attention.” Denial, then, is another force holding the Asian woman back.
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And besides, nobody will hear her anyway.  She writes in the title poem, “The War Still Within”:
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White man said
             No one listens to you
             No one sees
             Open your mouth
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I said
               Go ahead
Cut and burn my tongue
You can’t set fire to my secrets
My other tongue
will speak
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Against all this, balance the need to tell the story of “the land where you came from.”  But it takes courage, fortitude. The brief aphoristic poem that begins the collection, “The Way to Cross the Desert,” reads:
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Do not think about

the oasis.

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The truth that Tanya Ko Hong is compelled to tell involves the inhumane treatment of Korean women, their betrayal by their families and countrymen. The epigraph to the poem, “Asian Woman,” comes from Na Hye-sok, the twentieth century Korean feminist: “Isn’t it about time Chosŏn women lived like humans?”
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At the heart of this inhumanity is the legacy of the Comfort Women – Wianbu in Korean – the 200,000 Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 that Hak Soon Kim came forward to denounce the Japanese. The horror had been suppressed for over three decades. In a stunning suite of poems entitled “Comfort Woman,” Tanya Ko Hong shows us the horror. In “1941, That Autumn”:
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They put a long stick between my legs –
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing!
they rage, spraying
their sperm
the smell of
burning dog
burning life
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In “1943, Shanghai, China”:
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One night
a soldier asked all the girls
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Who can do one hundred men?
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I raised my hand
Soonja did not
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The soldiers put her in boiling water
alive
and fed us
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The horror continues beyond the Japanese occupation.  The poem “Yang Kong Ju” about a Korean woman trying to survive in American occupied Korea starts:
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Koreans called her
Yang kalbo
Yankee’s whore
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The fallout from all of this is the scorn and disdain of one’s countrymen, perhaps the most compelling reason to flee. “Tiki Boy” is a poem about a Korean woman who has an American G.I.’s son.
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The women said, You’re so pretty –
but when she wasn’t there:
That yang kalbo,
her lips look
like she’s eaten mice.
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We read the sad story of a homeless elderly woman in “Grandmother Talks of Camptowns” in which betrayal follows betrayal, first by the government, then by the children, the brother, the sister, the lover.
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In a footnote to the poem, “A Blonde Whispers Korean in My Ear,”  the poet writes, “As an immigrant of the Korean diaspora, I know what it feels like being invisible, voiceless and powerless.” Coming to America is not easy, either.  We read about the difficulties of the immigrant in poems like “Second Period,” about the classroom experience, and “American Dream,” which ends with the poignant question:
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Who am I to you,
America?
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The War Still Within is moving and enlightening at the same time, a compelling collection of poems.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

 

Catastroika by Charles Rammelkamp Available for Pre-Order

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“Whether Rasputin was charlatan or saint remains ambiguous, but Catastroika casts the larger-than-life character in new light (or shadow). Told from the perspectives of Rasputin’s daughter and a fictional Russian Jew –both settled in America–this book reflects on Russia’s past through their experiences. Intimate and insightful, Charles Rammelkamp will have you saying “da!” to Catastroika.” — Eric D. Goodman, author of Setting the Family Free, Womb: a novel in utero and Tracks: A Novel in Stories

“Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Charles Rammelkamp’s fictional witness to history, Sasha (Alexander Federmesser), was there, and can tell us lucky readers all about it, from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Revolution, through the murder of the Romanov family. Throw in Maria, Rasputin’s daughter and her amazingly picaresque real life in Russia, Europe, and Hollywood, and you’ve got a tale for the ages. Rammelkamp’s diction is pitch perfect for the times he writes about. Read this amazing collection, then read it again.” — Robert Cooperman, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry, for In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains

“What a fabulous witches’ borscht! It’s fabulous in a strict sense: what seems to be the stuff of fable is firmly rooted in the real world. Catastroika, a historical novel-in-verse opening with a poem in the author’s own voice–his response to viewing a famous part of Rasputin’s anatomy in a glass jar in a St. Petersburg museum–moves to a narrative alternating between the voice of Maria, Rasputin’s adoring daughter, and that of Sasha, a Russian Jew acquainted third-hand with Rasputin and first-hand with young Maria. Their stories take us from the Romanovs through the Bolshevik revolution to the present day in the US. Meticulously researched, Catastroika is peppered with shocks, from the horrors suffered by Jews and “White Russians” in post-Romanov Russia, to the astounding US careers of Maria Rasputin, first as a lion tamer with the Ringling Brothers circus and then–but no, I will commit no spoiler here by revealing her final career. Equally delicious is the later life of Sasha in the US city of –but no, that too would be a spoiler. Suffice it say that Catastroika, to borrow a show-biz phrase for a bravura performance, really brings it home.” — Clarinda Harriss, author of Innumerable Moons and other books of poetry and fiction

“Was recent Russian history a matter of perestroika (reform), or was it more of a catastrophe? It was a combination of both, as shown in Catastroika, a collection of poetic accounts of events that are sometimes ordinary, and other times shattering. The tellers of these deeply felt, often wrenching tales are Maria Rasputin, daughter of the mystic, healer, and ladies’ man Grigory Rasputin, and Sasha Federmesser, a Jew who lives through persecution, escapes Russia, and settles in Baltimore. These poems will open your eyes to truths about rulers, revolutionaries, and the people caught between them.” — Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of Border Crossings

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Catastoika-Charles-Rammelkamp/dp/1627202986/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=charles+rammelkamp&qid=1586693601&s=books&sr=1-1

Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney

getting
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In his Preface, Thomas Devaney references W.C. Fields’ snarky comment, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Urban legend has it that this is the epitaph on Fields’ gravestone, though that’s not actually so. But the comment highlights Devaney’s own relation to the City of Brotherly Love, where he grew up and currently lives (he teaches at Haverford College). In other words, “It’s complicated.” And yet, Getting to Philadelphia might easily be described as a love song to his native city. He writes in one of the new poems, “The Home Book”:
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The Quaker City, City of Brotherly Love, Home of the Lenni-Lenape, City of
Neighborhoods, Bicentennial City, Death Headquarters, the Hidden City.
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Not only a city of hard-luck and History, but how the heart and the fist
beat together as echoing impulse.
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Five of the poems are new, The other thirty-eight come from five previous volumes. So this is truly a selection based on a lifetime, on an idea, on a theme.  What is that theme? Beyond a catchall “Philadelphia,” which might be a copout, the theme is no less “À la recherche du temps perdu” than is Marcel Proust’s masterwork.  Only, as the title one of the poems tells us, “Memory Corkscrews So You Can’t Remember It”: “Philly makes, Philly breaks.”  More generally, though, he notes in “The Blue Stoop,” “They say, Don’t forget where you’re from, /  but I don’t have to, I never left.” Not forgetting isn’t exactly the same as remembering, though, we learn.
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So many of these poems take place in transit. The scenery flashes by , either from car or train or simply from the perspective of a Baudelairean flaneur strolling through the city. The title poem, from 1999’s The American Pragmatist Fell in Love, describes a train trip on Thanksgiving Day from New York to Philadelphia, the year a strong wind created havoc and caused injury during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From Penn Station to Trenton, Trenton to the SEPTA train, and
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Finally Aunt Sharon’s for dinner. Everyone there
and you say hello
and you say you were at the parade
and they ask, touching your arm, if you’re all right
because you’re told and will see footage
one of those gigantic balloons, Cat in the Hat, got loose
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In other poems, the narrator is in a car, noticing: a “hobbled ’74 Pinto” in “Memory Corkscrews,” driving in circles; a Ford Focus in “OREGON AVE”; a Buick Special in “The Picture that Remains,” that “clicks, starts and goes.” In “Saturday Night Special” it’s a “’64 Caddie,” which may reappear in “Don Cook’s Brother’s Cadillac.” In “Rear Window” Devaney laments “The collapse of tenderness / and no place to park,” gazing through the rear window of his car.  In “River Song,” one of the new poems, the narrator is driving through New Jersey, which jumps past the window “like a hand-held film.”
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Other poems are from street view, the perspective of the flaneur strolling through the neighborhoods of his youth: “Algon Avenue,” “Mr. Uska and His Dog, 1973,” “That Old Block,” “Heads Up,” “Sessler’s or Hibberd’s Bookstore?” “The Legend of Cornbread,” one of the new poems, details the search for an elusive graffiti artist.
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I remember most the piece between the Schuylkill Expressway and 30th Street
Station. A very tall, long-lettered piece. Who knows, a self-portrait? How the
flat red-fade and the dusty Krylon yellow disappear into each other.
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In “The Home Book” we encounter Cornbread again.
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Remembering a lunch cart at 19th and the Parkway. The guy ahead of me
says, “All right, Cornbread, see you tomorrow.” And there I am, next. Place
my order and work-up the courage, and, finally: “Are you Cornbread?”
“Yes I am,” he almost smiles. “That’s me,” he says. “Cornbread the writer?”
“Hell no,” Cornbread laughs. “That’s the North Philly Cornbread. I’m the
West Philly Cornbread!”
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So many of Devaney’s lines and images seem like camera snapshots, and indeed, photography is an important element in his work. Not only are there photographs by Zoe Strauss, Will Brown and Léki Dago, but there’s also a poem entitled “Darkroom Diaries” (from Runaway Goat Cart), which we are told in a note was “found in a darkroom at Moore College of Art dated 1972. In “Pete Rose Meets Zoe Strauss” the poet talks baseball and the glory of the 1980 Phillies with his photographer friend.  Devaney collaborated with Will Brown on The Picture that Remains, his book of poems based on Brown’s photographs of Philadelphia in the 1970’s, from which nearly a dozen of these poems are collected.
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Devaney gives a shout-out to a number of other Philadelphia poets and artists as well. In “The Home Book” he gives a nod to Kevin Varrone and his wife, Pattie McCarthy, prize-winning poets who teach at Temple University.  Getting to Philadelphia is dedicated to poet Francis Ryan.
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In its detail, does Getting to Philadelphia succeed in recovering the past, corkscrewed though memory is?  The “wild marching band of memory” he mentions in “Morning in Runnemede”? The answer is, well, yes, I guess so, to the extent anybody ever can. As Devaney writes in “That Old Block,”
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Everyone knows and nobody does.
Even back then it was far away;
Even to the blocks not far off,
It was another world. It always was.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
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Poetry Videos to Get You Through the Weekend

We searched YouTube for some of the poets we have published and our staff over the years to provide you with some live readings to enjoy during these turbulent times. We hope you enjoy!

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The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

dead kid
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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A companion to her collection, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, published four years earlier, The Dead Kid Poems hammers you with the grief and injustice of a child’s death just as relentlessly, if not more so, than the previous volume. The very title is like a blunt object, nothing allusive or metaphorical about it. Only, where The Joshua Elegies ends on an ambivalent note in the poem, “when her dead son is seven years,” the new collection seems to offer something like comfort, or redemption, at its close. In the first collection,
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a woman is skating barefoot on her sorrow,
her brain awash in the smell of his skin,
her arms shackled to the stars, a
pirouette of unmet promises,
regret. if she blames it on herself
she can fix it.
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Compare this searing guilt to the last lines of “Photo of My Dead Son, Taken at the DMV”: “Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket. / Sleep now, Mama, he said.”
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This is not to say that it’s any easier, that the mourning comes to an end, that there is “closure,” which is all too clear in poems like “My Dead Boy”:.
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Eleven years after, my boy’s still dead.
(I hold him in the rafters of my head.)
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His photo’s propped at the side of my bed.
(I kiss it on the nightstand near my head.)
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A letterman jacket hangs in his stead.
(I shelter him, so deep inside my head.)
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Are you over it? my clueless friend said.
(I nail her to a grim place in my head.)
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But maybe with time comes perspective. It’s clear from these verses just how internalized the pain has become. Inside my head, indeed.
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Or maybe, to put it another, way, “I’ve grown accustomed to dead kids,” as the sadly resigned satiric poem, “Accustomed to Dead Kids,” begins, a spoof of the song Rex Harrison sings in My Fair Lady.
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I’ve grown accustomed to their screams,
the ending of their dreams,
accustomed to dead kids.
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I’ve grown accustomed to the sobs,
of parents, frantic as they call.
I’ve grown accustomed to the terror
when their children don’t respond;
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the pleas, the cries,
unsaid goodbyes
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are second nature to me now,
like breathing out and breathing in.
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Written for her sister, this collection includes half a dozen poems about the poet’s niece, “Anna,” addicted to meth and in the midst of the chaotic life addiction entails, the car wrecks, the homelessness, the desperation, driven by the craving, the dependence; the emotional blackmail they extort from parents who feel responsible and desperate themselves. In “Back on Meth, Anna Dumps Her Dog at Her Mother’s,” Fancher writes,
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My daughter’s a bottomless pit, my sister says.
She thinks I’m made of money!
What makes her think she can sponge off me?
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You do, I answer.
I’m done, my sister swears.
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This time I almost believe her.
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There’s more of this sense of the inevitable in the poems, “There are worse things than a dead kid, I think,” “The only people who call it ‘Cali’ are from someplace else,” and “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds.
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I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say,
Don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.
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What a punch in the gut! But it’s not heartlessness that drives these reflections, it’s the wisdom of grief.  You can’t read a poem like “Every Day Is Mother’s Day,” with its Zen-koan-like opening stanza, and not feel the depth of her anguish, internalized though it may be.
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If you had only
one child and he died, are you
still a mother?
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It’s this kind of torment that provokes a poem like “Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom,” with its cautionary counsel, its unabashed invocation of superstitions in trying to make sense out of the totally meaningless cruelty life so often throws our way.
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Pass an egg above his body while he’s sleeping.
Make the mano fico over him with your fist.
Sew small mirrors into his clothes to reflect misfortune.
Tie a red string around his wildness.
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When someone gives him a compliment, spit over your shoulder three times.
Then touch wood.
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In an Afterword, Fancher confides, “My grief is not finite; eleven years and the poems about my boy keep coming. Even when the sadness ebbs, it returns with the deadliness of a tsunami.” But even in her distress, Fancher is able to write eloquent verse, like the extended metaphors that inform a poem like “”Residuals: An Elegy,” with its poignant allusions to television, or “Anna as a War Zone,” in which she describes her sister as a sort of angst aircraft divebombing to her daughter’s rescue.  Both collections contain a number of Fancher’s arresting photographs, including foreboding images of the raven, a bad luck sign in ancient mythology. The crow, in fact, adorns the cover of The Dead Kid Poems.
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So there may be a sort of “deliverance” for the reader at the conclusion of the book, but the warning for any parent or grandparent at the end of “Unsolicited Advice” is still so potent: “Don’t tempt the gods.”
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You can find the book here: KYSO Flash: Books
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

Soul Sister Revue: A Poetry Compilation by Cynthia Manick (editor)

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Think of Cynthia Manick as an impresario, the mistress of ceremonies organizing the entertainment at this gorgeous revue, which is complete with an intermission halfway through – “When Soul and Poetry Meet, a Revue Takes Place” – in which Manick explains her inspiration behind the project, back in 2013.  Soul Sister Revue is a live show that takes place four times a year. This book represents the print analogy of the performance, with two poets from each of the twenty shows spanning the past five years represented.  While not all the poets in Soul Sister Revue are female, they are all of color and all exhibit soul.

Which of course provokes the question, What is Soul? Glad you asked. Each of the forty-one poets with work in this anthology (the forty selected plus Cynthia) has an answer. The format for each performer-on-the-page on the Revue stage is: 1) the poem; 2) an explication or elucidation of the poem in the poet’s own words; 3) a response to the question, “What Is Soul?”; 4) a response to the prompt, “Favorite soul performer or song?” and 5) a brief bio of the poet.

“Soul is what’s left after the world has worn you down,” Jeremy Michael Clark (“Dear Darkness”) writes. “Soul is duende,” Roberto Garcia (“Elegy in the Key of Life”) writes, “that inexplicable thing that connects human beings, that makes art true.” “Soul is memory, even when you don’t realize you are remembering,” Rio Cortez (“Writing Lately”) opines. Yasmin Blkhyr (“& I Mourned What I Could Not Name”) believes “Soul is the heart, the meaty heart & also the whistle of air in the lungs.” And my favorite is from Mia Kang (“Civitas”): “Soul is the thing under the thing.”

Not surprisingly, many of the poems – like Garcia’s mentioned above – address music. Freida Jones contemplates jazz in “No Maps in This Music”:
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Marion Brown rises
slender & ebony
lips wrapped around reeds
joined by Trane, Ayler and Ornette
fueled by Elvin drums
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Patricia Smith writes in “Why a Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong about Motown,” “We learned
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what we needed, not from our parents and their rumored
south, but from the gospel seeping through the sad gap
in Mary Well’s grin. Smokey slow-sketched pictures
of our husbands, their future skins flooded with white light,
their voices all remorse and atmospheric coo. Lil’ Stevie
squeezed his eyes shut on the soul notes, replacing his
dark with ours. Diana was the bone our mamas coveted,
the flow of slip silver they knew was buried deep beneath
their rollicking heft. Every lyric, growled or sweet from
perfect brown throats, was instruction:  Sit pert, pout, and
seamed silk. Then watch him beg….
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Joshua Bennett’s “Barber Song,” David Tomas Martinez’ “The/A Train” and others allude to or are inspired by song.  Similarly, a number of poems are inspired by or in homage to other works of art. Notably, two poems take their inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s musical, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.  These include Peggy Robles-Alvarado’s “Praise Poem for Bronx Girls Who Make Shopping at Rainbow More than Enough” and Pamela Sneed’s “When the Rainbow is Enuf / for Ntozake Shange,” which begins:
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The internet has transformed our grieving patterns
Everything comes and goes so quickly
After death there’s a tremendous outpouring and then a few
weeks later months years later nothing
I have come now to watch all who shaped me die
Never got to write about or even register Prince
Then Aretha
Ntozake
People without whom I couldn’t have formed my voice
my identity
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Grief is a potent theme throughout this collection. So many of these poems address mourning and loss, in an elegiac tone, from R. Erica Doyle’s “Winter Solstice” and Amber Atiya’s “The Skin South of My Collar Bone Burns” (“This poem is a kind of griefwork,” she comments in her “About” section) to Chris Slaughter’s “The Father,” Keisha-Gaye Anderson’s “To My Sisters” (“…a wave of motion / when grief slowly siphons breath”) and Lynne Procope’s stunning “Thirteen Assumptions and Seven Questions.” In her response to “What Is Soul?” Procope writes, “How do black folks persist? Our bodies distort to contain so many hurts. On a cellular level, we must have evolved to hold grief.”
The “Favorite Soul performer or song?” section of each poet’s entry is incredibly charming. Aretha Franklin is cited over and over again (Manick, Evie Shockley, Jeremy Michael Clark, Lynne Procope, Maria Fernanda Chamorro, and Mia Kang all mention her, one song or another), but Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Otis Redding, among others, are also mentioned more than once.   Beyoncé and Prince, Billie Holliday and Al Green also have their advocates, as well as others.  In her opening poem, “I Wish the Trees Could Sway to Marvin and Aretha,” Cynthia Manick partakes of the melancholy tone that’s a direct manifestation of “soul”:
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because sometimes I forget/ soil/ can do more than hold/
wooden or metal boxes….
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You get a sense of what real fun a performance of Soul Sister Revue must be.  Poetry and soul lovers can vicariously experience the Soul Sister Revue from reading this impressive collection.

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 You can find the book here: Anthologies — Jamii Publishing

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
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