charles rammelkamp

Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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One thing you notice about Bob Hicok’s poems is that so many of them have no stanza breaks, and when they do it seems a little arbitrary anyway since every one of them is a stream of consciousness, developing its own logic, as if the poet is thinking out loud.  Indeed, in an interview several years ago with Split Lip magazine, Hicok said, “I don’t really know where my poems are going; I almost never know where they’re going.” He goes on, “I wish in a lot of ways that I could plan poems out. A lot of people talk about walking around and they’re writing as they’re walking around, or they’ll build a sense of a poem over a period of time. And for me it’s so much about just sitting down and seeing what shows up. The first thing that shows up that has energy and catches my attention—I just start following where it’s going.”
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Take a poem in his new collection called “A lament, pep talk and challenge walk into a bar.” It begins
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Banjo. Zither. Carnegie Hall. The Four Tops and Seasons.
Greek chorus, Music of the spheres and triangles
and dodecahedrons.  The Kinks. The Mozarts
and Fats Waller and Puentes.  The Butthole Surfers.
My office is bigger and more flexible than my heart
and this is a weird way to critique my heart….
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And he’s off, musing about what it means to be a good person, helping others (“and do unto others goes from words / dropped in the suggestion box to law.”), the futility of good intentions, of wanting selflessly to bring clans and tribes together. And then, “It’s no accident I began”.
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this meandering with music: no two species
could come from more distant planets
than a Steinway and a sax,
yet listen to how well they get along
when they put their mouths where their fears are,
when they lend us our better-tuned selves.
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No accident that Hicok describes his verse as “meandering,” and yet it coheres in a heartfelt message. “Don’t just have but be a soul,” the poem concludes.In that same interview with Split Lip, Hicok laments, “One of the things that I am uncomfortable with as of late is that some people are looking at me as a funny poet, and I think that can pretty much be the death of a career.” Indeed, the title of the poem just quoted takes the form of the classic joke about three different characters walking into a bar, but there’s obviously a serious moral consideration at its heart.
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Make no mistake, Hicok can make you smile with his versatility with words. He is funny! In “Pedagogy,” a 55-line poem with no stanza breaks, he and another person are passing notes, “the most private genre after the shopping list.” You have to smile at such an observation. And later in the poem, “I try to make the word / ‘theater’ out of ‘hate her’ but need another t / and one less h.” But Hicok goes beyond “funny.” “If you make a joke,” he notes in the interview, “it usually stops the conversation, and that’s not my intention at all.”
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Indeed, so many of Hicok’s poems in Red Rover Red Rover concern themselves with how we humans are wrecking the planet.  It doesn’t get much more urgent than that. Poems like “On the Rocks” and “Weather Report” and “On the Other Hand,” which takes Greta Thunberg as its subject, directly confront climate change and human responsibility.
“Having our cake and being eaten by it too” addresses the thoughtless human greed at the core of this, as does “After you, or what would Whitman, Emerson, or Merwin do?” (The title is a jokey play on “What would Jesus do?”). This poem begins, “It’s not too late / to schlep water in a bucket to your sink.” It goes on with example after example of how the human urge for convenience has wrecked the ecosphere. It concludes,
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On the count of three, never use
electricity again. One, two, two
two, two, two
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This, too is funny, right? But of course it’s serious. And heartrending. Oy. How are we going to get out of this mess? “Looking in the mirror” has the same message. It’s a poem about the Amazon burning because Brazil is clearing the forest for cattle, because cattle provide beef for hamburgers, and so many of us love our Big Macs and Whoppers. If each one of us just stopped ordering cheeseburgers,
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the closer we are to being able to breathe
tomorrow and more importantly the day after
the day after the day after
the ten thousand years after that.
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While not prescribing a solution to the world’s problems, Red Rover Red Rover includes several poems about the Tao, the Way, living in harmony with the natural world. Indeed, the book’s title, itself a kind of joke as it plays on the simple childhood playground game, comes from the ten-page poem in the center of the volume, “My Tao”: “red rover, red rover, send good or evil over.”
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But Bob Hicok is just thinking out loud, not really suggesting or commending any social policy changes, not really. These poems are entertaining, first of all – yes, often “funny” – but they are challenging and thought-provoking at the same time.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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All Our Fare-Thee-Wells by Robert Cooperman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The title of Robert Cooperman’s latest chapbook of poems refers to the fiftieth anniversary concert series the surviving members of The Grateful Dead performed in 2015 – a couple of decades after Jerry Garcia had already died. Like the concert, this chapbook is at once a sweet goodbye and an almost palpable blast of memory. Of course, it’s saturated with nostalgia. Cooperman’s previous chapbook, Saved by the Dead (Liquid Light Press) likewise revives the memory of the famous jam band and similarly addresses the fleeting nature of youth.
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The collection begins with the poem, “Ask Amy,” set in contemporary times, the narrator and his wife, Beth, who is an integral part of the whole sequence of poems, reading an advice column question over breakfast, from a woman whose feelings have been hurt by her brother, who plans to attend a rock concert rather than celebrate his sister’s 65th birthday. The advice makes Bob and Beth smile, though not without a passing sorrow over what cannot be recovered.
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“Unless,” Amy replies,
“that gig involves
Jerry Garcia returning
from the Other Side,
your brother has no excuse.”
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The next set of poems takes us back in time, first to Cooperman’s youth in New York and the Dead’s legendary performance at Fillmore East, “all of us roaring for the music never to end, // as all things must.” A suite of four poems set thirty years ago in Baltimore and D.C.’s RFK stadium follows, bringing us to Jerry Garcia’s last days and, almost as a consequence, the end of Cooperman’s youth. “Seeing the Grateful Dead, RFK Stadium, July, 1993,” ends:
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“Jesus, he’s a wreck,” I said,
frightened for a favorite uncle,
though his fingers flew
along the frets, and tunes filled the air,
two years before he went still
and silent forever.
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We’re next taken to that Fare-Thee-Well concert in 2015. At this point, Bob and Beth concede their age has become an issue. “Watching the Last Show Ever of the Grateful Dead: Pay Per View TV” starts:
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Who could afford tickets and a hotel room?
Not us.  So Beth and I settle for live TV
and not a joint or pipe: Beth frowning
on my imbibing, and nowadays, my lungs
rasp like stripped-down gears, after one toke.
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The concert’s a treat, though if we’re honest,
we admit something’s missing: Garcia,
gone twenty years, but still indispensable…
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Just as in Saved by the Dead, Cooperman encounters kids who weren’t even alive when the Grateful Dead were prominent and reacts to their innocent ignorance, reflecting on his own geezerhood. In “The Grateful Dead Dancing Terrapins Baseball Cap,” he encounters such a person in a health care facility, home away from home for the elderly. The poem starts:
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The receptionist at this urgent care center
compliments my baseball cap when I sign in.
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“Thanks,” I smile, despite the urinary infection:
my urethra barbwire every time I piss.
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“We’re everywhere!” I chime the code
to a fellow Deadhead, but she throws a look
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blank as the black boards I’d dusted
and washed, at after-school detention.
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“Jerry Garcia?” the name, in my nostalgic universe,
should be clarification enough.
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“Who?” her young brow’s furrowed, as if considering
the most confusing math problem ever devised.
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 In “A Question in the Buchtel Boulevard Post Office: Denver, Colorado,” it’s a postal clerk who makes him feel his age.
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“Winter Cold,” “The MRI Machine” and “At the University of Colorado Hospital Spine Center” are other poems involving the frailty of age. This final one is about the results of the tests, the X-rays and MRI, the next steps, the next treatment decisions. It ends:
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Still, it’s nice to dream of walking,
even slowly, around the park’s lakes,
and not teeter and tap with my cane,
while listening to the ghosts
of Jerry Garcia and Pigpen
harmonize on an old blues number,
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when my generation believed
its birthright was to stay forever young.
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Ah, youth! But there are also moments of redemption, as when, in “We’re Everywhere,” he encounters a couple of fellow Deadheads at a fundraiser at the university where Beth teaches. In “License Plate,” he notices a car’s vanity plate as he drives through Denver running errands. “GR8ful-1” it proclaims. Bob wants to salute his fellow Deadhead, but the car turns left, and he’s not so sure the driver would understand anyway.
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Better just to savor his plate, of tasting
the delights of once being young,
when we thought music could save the world,
or at least make it more bearable.
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In the final poem, Bob and Beth consider attending a concert in nearby Boulder featuring three surviving members of The Grateful Dead, but they decide against it.
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“Now if Jerry’s ghost were to show up,”
I joke to Beth, “or if the man himself
were still alive, that’d change everything,”
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like all those hopeful sightings of Elvis.
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All Our Fare-Thee-Wells is full of wit and an honest appreciation for a musical act that means so much to Cooperman, and with its insights into aging and the exuberance of youth, it’s a collection anybody can enjoy.
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You can find the book here: ALL OUR FARE-THEE-WELLS by Robert Cooperman – Finishing Line Press

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

What Are the Chances? By Robert Scotellaro

By Charles Rammelkamp

In the story “Plink!” in Robert Scotellaro’s new collection a man stands at a window, mesmerized, watching diamond-like hailstones falling out of the sky, pelting the asphalt, the sidewalks, the sides of cars. “Then it stops. The way magic often does.” That’s an apt description of the sixty-eight marvelous little stories, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to no more than three pages, that make up What Are the Chances? First of all, they do feel magical, with so many strange characters, often costumed, popping off the page, snaring your attention – like hailstones – and then the payoff, the flash that makes “flash fiction” flash fiction, the sudden illumination of character or scene. And then the story stops.

Stories like “Mr. Nasty,” “The Cleaning” Girl,” “Bad-Boy Wannabe and the Cephalopod Empire,” and the single-paragraph, “Death’s Late-Night Walks,” among others, feature characters in dress-up; the German word maskenfreiheit – signaling the freedom conferred by masks – come to life. In “Mr. Nasty” a man flirts with a hired birthday party performer, who is dressing up as Snow White, the entertainment at a party for his daughter, while aware of the watchful eyes of his mother-in-law and wife. Nothing comes of it, of course, but the tension is like lightning. Similarly, the Bad-Boy Wannabe watches his devil’s mask blow away from his head in a breeze, exposing him, while he tries to impress a girl in a squid mask, the two sharing a joint. But, unmasked now as he is, she is out of his league. The cleaning girl dresses up in her employer’s jewels and furs while the homeowners are away, fantasizing the luxury, only to get a bad scare when the doorbell rings, sure she’s busted.  However briefly, we feel all of these characters’ illicit feelings, the lust, the covetousness, the fear.

Although some of the stories are truly grim, ominous, like the title story in which the protagonists come home to find their home robbed and a lethal butcher knife displayed on the bed, or “The Pencil,” in which a schoolkid hides in a bathroom stall while a shooter guns down his classmates, most are funny. They feature likable schmoes to whom we can all relate, walk in their shoes – in their masks – indeed. In “Those Eyes in the Rearview,” a man gets into the Uber he’s just called. “I saw his eyes in the rearview. They were red and crazed.” The driver tells his passenger that he’s just killed a man he caught sleeping with his wife, and the passenger is his hostage. Like the passenger, we feel our blood pressure rise, our pulses race; only, two-thirds of the way through the story, the driver “pulls off his mask,” reveals he is an aspiring actor and was just having the passenger on. “That was some top-notch acting, right?” he boasts. “Come on, give me that.”

In the story, “Flatware,” we encounter a similarly bizarre situation in which a man is sure his home is being broken into and stabs a fork into the neck of the “intruder,” only to learn that the intruder is the brother of his neighbor, come to retrieve a ball his nephew has knocked over the fence into the protagonist’s yard. A comic rush to the emergency room follows, the protagonist taking full responsibility. When they return, the protagonist apologizes again (and again), shakes the man’s hand, returns to the kitchen where he’d been eating his Chinese takeout (hence, the fork conveniently in his hand when the “burglar” came in), “wondering if I should call Tina at her sister’s, where she always went after one of our big blow-outs.” In a flash, then, we see the backstory, why this guy was on edge in the first place.

In the story, “Wise Sunglasses,” the lonely unnamed female protagonist collects sunglasses – her mask. In an aside, Scotellaro writes, “The heart-shaped pair were Pete’s favorites. ‘My Lolita,’ he’d say, though she was far from it, and he’d find the real thing soon enough.” That’s about all we hear about “Pete,” but in a flash we intuit the protagonist’s loneliness, the betrayal at its base. She’s wearing her owl sunglasses when the story concludes, “not feeling the least bit wise.”

In “A Disadvantage of Momentum” we encounter Phil and Nan, post-surgery in a hospital room where Phil lies, recuperating. At their weekly session with a couples counselor, Heidi, they’d been told to “spice it up” after they’d become empty-nesters, the last kid off to college. Nan goes along with one of Phil’s adolescent fantasies, while they are driving home from dinner, her face in his lap, but a sudden fender bender at a stoplight results in a bite too deep. Nan asks Phil, “Anything left?” “Enough,” he replies. The story ends:

They heard some laughter and watched as shadows gathered behind the curtain, grew. Then a hand reached in and swung it open.    

Of course, some stories are better than others. I’m not going to rank all sixty-eight, but every one of them does pack that flash punch. Robert Scotellaro is a master of this form. It’s magic!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Chances-Robert-Scotellaro/dp/1950413268

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

Things That Go Trump in the Night by Paul Fericano

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Very soon, in the next few weeks, those Americans who have not mailed in their ballots will go to the polls and elect a new president.  For many, the last four years have been one catastrophe after another. Late-night comics have tried to ease the horror with jokes, but ultimately the only way to ease the angst will be to elect a new president, and who knows how quietly Trump and his minions will go?
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That said, Paul Fericano’s parodies are not only funny, but they are intelligent, with references ranging from Shakespeare and Mark Twain to Ethel Merman and Marlon Brando, from Humphrey Bogart and Speedy Gonzales to Ezra Pound and Sir Walter Scott.  Some allusions may be more obscure than others (Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is certainly not obscure, but I can’t say I ever really read it), but Fericano touches many a cultural landmark in these short, humorous passages, from William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” to Rodgers and Hart’s “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
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The Invocation, and hence the title of the book, refer to the traditional Scottish prayer:
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From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
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In Fericano’s verse, it’s the press secretaries from which we ask to be delivered. The book was completed before the Fox News refugee, Kayleigh McEnany, took over the position of chief propagandist, defending Trump’s lies and failures, spinning his cruel policies into something compassionate – or at least Obama’s fault! –  and attempting to turn the disastrous pandemic response into something heroic and decisive, all with a straight face, despite the staggering numbers of dead, the chaotic “policies,” the mixed messages about masks and social-distancing, the breathtaking failure to come straight with the American public about the danger of the virus. Yes, Lord, please, deliver us!
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            Good Lord deliver us
            from moochies and huckabees
            and long-leggedy spicers
            and things that go trump in the night.
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The collection is divided into eight sections, all of which begin, “Trump Pardons…”: Elvis (Make America Gyrate Again), Harvey Weinstein (Make America Date Again), Obama (Make America Hate Again), Speedy Gonzales (Make America Immigrate Again), Pence (Make America Mutate Again), Reagan (Make America Hallucinate Again), Charles Manson (Make America Tate Again), His Colon (Make An Enema Wait Again).  The wit is dagger-sharp, the satire devastating.  The final section, Trump Pardons His Colon, begins with three variations on a theme: “Trump of Allegiance” (“I trump allegiance to the swag / of the Norman Bates of America”); “Dummkopf von Allegiancestein” German Translation (“Ich trumpf allegiancestein to zee trumpf / von zee Vereinigten Trumpfen von Amerika”); “Durak Iz Allegianceki Russian Translation (“Ya prevzoshel allegianceki to trumpfnoy / iz Unitenyye Trumpfi Ameriki.”). Russians, Nazis: why do these references seem so appropriate? So spot on?
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The Huckleberry Finn parody, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Trump,” is similarly on target in lampooning the opening paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with reference to Hitler:
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You don’t know about me unless you’ve read a book by the name of Mein Kampf, but that doesn’t matter. That book was written by Mr. Adolf Hitler, and he told the truth, mainly. There were some things which he lied about, but mainly he told the truth. Let me tell you something: I have never known anybody who hasn’t lied at one time or another, unless it’s Joe Goebbels – Adolf’s Joe Goebbels, that is – and Himmler, and the Angel of Death are all written about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some lies, as I said before.
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The longest poem, “The Secret Plot to Kill Trump,” the penultimate poem in the collection, is inspired by a mash-up of speeches Trump has given, at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, at a factory in Ohio, and at a CPAC convention in Maryland, in 2017 and 2018. It begins with an epigraph from a speech Robert Kennedy made about an erosion of a sense of national decency, and it ends with the last public words RFK ever spoke, just before he was assassinated in Los Angeles (“and now it’s on to Chicago / and let’s win there”).
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Subtitled Poems of Treason and Resistance, this book is guaranteed to get under the very thin skin of  a certain “orange peel / barrel” (see “William Carlos Williams Trumps Himself” for this reference). Things That Go Trump in the Night will either be an ominous warning about the next four years, or it will give a good, hearty laugh, if mixed with the bitterness of what this president has done to our country.   
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You can find the book here: Things That Go Trump in the Night | yunews

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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  published by Future Cycle Press.  Most recently Catastroika  was released by Apprentice House in 2020, Ugler Lee released in 2020 by Kelsay Books.

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My Mother’s Transvestites by Tiff Holland

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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As in her 2011 flash fiction collection, Betty Superman, winner of the Rose Metal Press’ Short Short Chapbook contest, the star of this poetry collection is the narrator’s mother. But she’s not the only star. There’s so much else going on in these poems, from reminiscences of a Midwest childhood to fluctuating gender identity to sex, death, marriage and parenthood.
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But the title poem and the prose poem that begins the book, “Hot Work,” both focus on the men who come into her mother’s beauty salon, men who “would like nothing more than to mingle under dryers, nibble donuts, discuss The Enquirer with the other ladies.”  The poem concludes:
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My mother applies the transvestites’ make-up. I feign sleep in a shampoo
chair, sneak peaks at finished products: wingless angels with five o’clock
shadow, tottering in circles between the dryers and the styling chairs,
trying in that small space to learn to fly.
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How like her mother’s female clients, whom Holland shows us in “The Beauty Shop Ladies”:
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They really want to be movie stars
Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Vivien
Leigh. They’ve seen “The Women”,
and they like to lounge on the settee-
shaped shampoo chairs while awaiting
their turn as the focus of my mother’s
attention.

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They all smoke in the way
of the rich and famous, holding
Salems and Winstons with just
the tips of their middle and fore-
fingers, close to the filters, calling
attention to their manicures,
the hue of their lips.
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The narrator’s mother skillfully juggles the fragile egos, like a magician. Other poems involving the mother include “Vanilla” (“Still in rollers, cigarette clenched between dentures, / Mom sat at the kitchen table….”), “Resemblance,” which is also about the narrator’s daughter, “Kenny,” “Orange, Brown, Yellow, Red,” “Thanksgiving,” and “The Vagina Tax,” in which she alludes to her mother’s death. This poem also concerns the narrator’s daughter.
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I admit, when the amniocentesis came back
Girl, I suggested murder-suicide: you, me
the Girl in my belly. I refused to birth into
this world another being to make only
seventy-six cents for every dollar
a boy would make.
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The mother appears in others, but this is a nice place to segue to two of Holland’s other potent themes, gender identity and sex. Early on, we get a picture of the narrator as a tomboy. In “Vanilla,” the mother dresses her son up like a girl, and of course the kids on the bus picked on him. The narrator pounded them. In “Flared,” we also read about clothing, and the narrator’s distaste for girlie clothes. “Foundations” which also deals with feminine garb, begins:
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About the time I was trying to decide
whether to have a sex change operation
but before I threw all my dresses and skirts,
my slips and nylons in the trash,
my boyfriend invited me to a fancy nightclub
for New Year’s Eve.
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This poem is neatly balanced by the final poem in the collection, “The Last Dress,” in which the narrator reflects on the last female garment she kept, but only for “wedding or funeral, over / seventy degrees, my / attendance obligatory.” As in the poems already cited and others like “Once I Wore a Red Bikini” and “”Don’t Ask,” the narrator’s ambivalence about gender roles as manifested in clothing and appearances is likewise upfront and center.  The poem – the book! – ends with positive self-affirmation:
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Really, I abandoned it because
I had no where to go in which
I had any reason to be someone
other than myself.
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Speaking of funerals, they are the subject of more than a few of these poems. “Carry On” is about the narrator’s father’s funeral. “Grandma Gone Out of Breeden West Virginia” is about burying her grandmother on the day she turned eight. “Eulogy for O’Toole” is about her mother’s second husband’s funeral. “Elegy for Uncle Bill” is a sweet tribute to a loved uncle, who in some sense still lives on. “In some theories of time, / everything is happening at once.”
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Indeed, the poems in which the narrator re-creates her childhood in Ohio are like this. “Purple Town,” “A Piece of August,” “Yanked” and “Burning Ghost Money in Akron, Ohio” bring the Midwest to life. The narrator married at seventeen to a boy going into the army, and several of the poems address this aspect of her coming of age, such as “Watch, Necklace, Luggage,” which is about the wedding, the reception in the Eagles hall where her Uncle Buddy’s band supplied the entertainment.  “Between home and homesick is the highway, / the Day’s Inn at Cave City, Kentucky,” she begins the poem, “No Need for Room Service.” It’s a poem about escaping from home. The occasion for this poem is not clear, though I like to think of it as the narrator and her husband after the wedding.  “Just past claustrophobia, we slip / from Central to Eastern Standard Time….” A vivid character named Tracy, a sort of “town slut” figure, appears in three of the Midwest poems, including the title poem.
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There is so much to admire about My Mother’s Transvestites, not the least of which is the humor that makes you smile on almost every page, the sympathetic characters, not the least of whom are the narrator and her mother, and the humanity that lies underneath it all.
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You can find the book here: My Mother’s Transvestites
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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  published by Future Cycle Press.  Most recently Catastroika  was released by Apprentice House in 2020.
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The City of NO by Louie Crowder

city of no

By Charles Rammelkamp

From the emphatic denial implicit in the title – NO is short for New Orleans, but the negativity is no coincidence – it’s clear the three novellas that make up this wonderful, lyrical, earthy book are full of a sense of loss, ranging from the elegiac to the tragic.  The narrative focuses on Keller Hardy and Henry Gereighty, two gay men who live in the twilight of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.  Both are on a quest for love and self-discovery, the metaphor of a seafaring Odysseus-like voyage applicable to both. Indeed, the title of the first novella, which focuses on Keller, In Irons, is a nautical term, which basically means “going nowhere.”  Like Odysseus leaving Ithaca for Troy and returning twenty years later, The City of NO begins in My Enemy’s Dog Pub in the French Quarter, where Keller Hardy is a bartender, and it ends in the same place, Henry Gereighty having returned from his own travels to New Orleans. What happens in between is the journey of discovery.

Keller’s story takes place over two years, beginning in 2010 and concluding in 2012. The story takes place in the wake of “The Catastrophe,” Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the city. “The Catastrophe forced an entire region of people to recreate themselves.” Keller’s recreation is compounded by the fact that he is gay.

The wind and sea exposed what he had buried in sacred ground after having become known as a gay man. In the beginning what that meant for him was throw-away employment. Keller and all the survivors like him had eclipsed into Throw-Away People and there was a shift that ran them all underground. In the wake of The Catastrophe in the City of NO Keller’s contributions to the reconstruction were pouring liquor, opening bottles, and talking: bartender….

He flees the city in his boat, the Merlin, named after the sorcerer, and much of what happens to him in his subsequent travels to South Carolina and Florida feels magical, surreal: metaphorical. The shark attacks are one, “for hunters, like killers, are cosmically united.”   His wanderings seem futile, frustrating, and by the end, when he is returning to the City of NO, he is pursued by a Great White shark, obsessed and thwarted as Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick. Does Keller live? Does he commit suicide? Is he drowned? The end of In Irons feels ambiguous, but then we switch focus to Henry Gereighty.

Henry’s story widens the scope. He is the protagonist of the next two novellas, Henry Gereighty and Storage. Henry appears to be five or ten years older than Keller, who is 41 when his story ends. For with Henry, a playwright who originally came to New Orleans to find himself (inspired by Tennessee Williams), we learn about The Genocide.

In the 1980s the President of the United States committed an act of Genocide against the gay community, declaring war not only on a generation of men given a death sentence, but on an entire generation of children discovering who they were. Henry was taught to hate himself; existing in Survivor Mode, navigating a violent Christian occupation that kept him isolated and in fear of all the things he was.

Henry, too, is in search of love and acceptance. He grew up queer in a small Tennessee town, feeling so alone and “wrong.” He fled to New Orleans. “The City of New Orleans taught Henry Gereighty how to be gay. Then, despite the Southern world that questioned his existence, he taught himself how to be a playwright.”  Then came Katrina.

In the first novella, we encounter Henry groping his way through existence, giving up on being a playwright – though he has had several plays successfully produced. He encounters various people in bars and “out in the country,” from Frankie St. Pierre to an unnamed lawyer to a rock-throwing gimp, having sex and getting drunk. By the end, in an internal debate, he concludes, “You have to reinvent yourself.

The next novella, Storage,  is the reinvention.  It begins with a quick scene from 1983, Henry virtually kicked out of the small town by his father for being gay, but then it’s 2009 and Henry is returning home to Tennessee (his “roots”?) to help his ailing father die. There is so much compassion and forgiveness here that it kind of emphasizes the pointlessness of the father’s bigoted hatred in the first place.  In one telling passage, Henry advises another smalltown gay man, Will, to move to Atlanta, where there is a thriving, supportive gay community, but Will resists, wary of going to ”an enclave.” With resignation, Will says that he has “adapted” to his home. Henry objects. “If for no other reason you can always find someone like you to not be alone with. Here, in places like this, you’re always alone. Always.”

Henry’s father Eustus does die, and though Henry bas  done nothing but comfort the old man, the effect is nevertheless liberating.

He could smell true freedom then for he understood the exorcism. “You’re gone now, daddy. Now it’s just me.”

For the first time in his life, Henry Gereighty was not governed by regrets, and he only dreamed of possibility, even in the face of loneliness.

And then a few days later, back in the City of NO, Henry goes to My Enemy’s Dog Pub, and the reader will need to read this for him- or herself to appreciate the full effect.

The City of NO is such a powerful, lyrical, melancholy book whose impact will remain with the reader for some time.

You can find the book here:  https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1938144708/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3

 

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  published by Future Cycle Press.  Most recently Catastroika  was released by Apprentice House in 2020.

 

 

Summer Reading Recommendations Based on readership- Top fifteen books reviewed at North of Oxford January – July 2020

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The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora by Tanya Ko Hong

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/the-war-still-within-poems-of-the-koran-diaspora-by-tanya-ko-hong/

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

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/soul-sister-revue-a-poetry-compilation-by-cynthia-manick-editor/

ÜBERCHEF USA by Jennifer Juneau

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/uberchef-usa-by-jennifer-juneau/

The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/the-dead-kid-poems-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/what-the-owl-taught-me-by-annest-gwilym/

Paper Bells by Phan Nhiên Hạo (Translated by Hai-Dang Phan

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-hao-translated-by-hai-dang-phan/

The Weight of Bodily Touches by Joseph Zaccardi

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/the-weight-of-bodily-touches-by-joseph-zaccardi/

On an Acre Shy of Eternity: Micro Landscapes at the Edge by Robert Dash

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/on-an-acre-shy-of-eternity-micro-landscapes-at-the-edge-by-robert-dash/

The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/the-elvis-machine-by-kim-vodicka/

Obit by Victoria Chang

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/obit-by-victoria-chang/

Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/getting-to-philadelphia-new-and-selected-poems-by-thomas-devaney/

Someone’s Utopia by Joe Hall

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/02/01/someones-utopia-by-joe-hall/

Library Rain by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/library-rain-by-rustin-larson/

Flow by Beth Kephart

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/03/01/flow-by-beth-kephart/

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/in-the-dream-house-by-carmen-maria-machado/

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Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

Audubons-Sparrow-Front-Cover_Low-Res-300x450
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Subtitled A Biography-in-Poems, Juditha Dowd’s insightful collection concentrates on the famous naturalist’s wife, Lucy Bakewell, showing us the incredible hardships both she and her husband endured. While some of the poems are in John James’ voice, most are from Lucy’s perspective, in the form of diary entries and letters as well as lyrics that reveal her mind. Audobon himself lived to the age of 65, dying in 1851 after suffering a stroke several years earlier and slipping into dementia, and Lucy survived another couple of decades after him, but the arc of these poems covers the twenty-five years from their meeting, in 1804, to their departure for England in 1829, when Audubon’s success was just at its start.
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When they meet in their rural eastern Pennsylvania community near the Schuylkill River, Audubon is only nineteen years old, Lucy seventeen. Born into a wealthy English family that were friends with the distinguished Priestly and Darwin families, Lucy Bakewell had come to America only two years before. John James Audubon, whose ancestry was a bit less genteel, had a French background, via San Domingue (Haiti).  The second poem, an 1804 letter to her cousin Euphemia, concludes with a decorous allusion to their growing mutual affection.
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As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised
to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.
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Lucy affectionately refers to John James as “La Forest,” suggesting his love of the outdoors, his vigorous nature. He’s a lively young man who charms her mother and her younger siblings with his swaggering liveliness. As Lucy says in another letter to her cousin, “Mr. A. is fond of dancing. He treats us to his fiddle
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or accompanies me on pianoforte, and he’s taught us all
some charming French chansons.
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For this reason, Lucy’s father is skeptical of him, but for better or worse, they marry three years later.  Soon after, they head west, into the frontier.  Dowd likens John James to Papageno, the comic character in Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, at once playful and wise“To tell you all this truth in simple words,” Papageno famously says, “I make my living catching birds.”  
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While his primary drive is always collecting specimens and drawing them in detail, for the next ten years, Audubon makes a brave effort to support his family through various business ventures. He and Lucy have four children, though two of them, Lucy and Rose, die in infancy. In Kentucky, he goes into business with his brother-in-law running supply stores, a sawmill, but they lose everything in the Panic of 1819.  In a poem set around three years earlier, “Audubon at the Window,” Dowd shows us John James musing to himself:
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I do not dissemble when I say that I’m a happy man,
though something weak within me says I’m not.
Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,
and ice has skimmed the creek beyond that stand of holly.
I cannot see it, for I’m here amid the bales and boxes,
flour bins and raisins, and the woolen socks,
hoes and skillets, twine and carriage straps,
the cabinet where we keep the guns and shot.
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I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,
while something in me sighs that I am not.
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Oy, what poet or painter hasn’t felt the same, toiling away at his or her clerical job, or serving customers in a store or restaurant?  But after the business failure, John James devotes himself to his passion, first at the Western Museum in Cincinnati, then in New Orleans and eventually Europe. These next ten years are tough ones and put a real strain on the marriage. Lucy and her husband spend years apart while he is in Scotland and England trying to get his work published.  Except for fleeting journal entries and occasional desperate letters to Lucy, we do not enter Audubon’s thoughts as much as we do Lucy’s, on whom the burden of supporting the family falls. She becomes a teacher at a plantation in Louisiana for an imperious Southern family and then later sets up teaching on her own. Correspondence between husband and wife is intermittent and overlapping.  Poems like “I Put Aside Pride” indicate the humiliations Lucy endures for her husband’s sake, just as in an earlier episode, when the family’s finances are falling apart in Kentucky, in a poem called “I Remind Myself about Gossip,” she reflects: “What wife escapes a husband’s reputation?”
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The sequence ends on a happy note with their reunion in Louisiana after years apart, but more tragedies, as well as triumph, fame and financial success, will follow over the next 40 years. Dowd includes  all of this information in a Preface, an Afterword and a Timeline, but the essential drama in Audubon’s Sparrow focuses on the sacrifices of the early years and the love that sustains them.
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Audubon’s Sparrow – the title refers to the swamp sparrow Audubon had inscribed with Lucy’s name in The Birds of America – is satisfying on so many levels, for its lyricism, the love story, the history, the sense of life in early nineteenth century America. The book also includes five illustrations from Audubon’s work, including hawks, a downy woodpecker, the mocking bird, and not least, that swamp sparrow.
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You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/

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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) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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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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