charles rammelkamp

A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Jianqing Zheng’s new book of poems, winner of the 2019 Gerald Cable Book Award, is a collection of haibun, a Japanese literary form first used by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century that combines prose and haiku juxtaposed to provide a fresh “way of looking” at an event, a scene, a character, an anecdote, a sort of “double vision.” The form is inherently reflective, meditative, while being descriptive in brief but vivid prose and incorporates elements of autobiography, essay, flash fiction/nonfiction. The accompanying haiku may be seen as a subtle commentary or summation of the prose passage.  A Way of Looking is divided into four sections, “On the Road,” “Farewell,” “Momentary Stay” and “Forever,” which feels almost like the cycle of seasons, so that the reader has a sense of coming “full circle,” experiencing the writing, which indeed has many seasonal referents.
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Just as Bashō’s haibun were originally travel accounts from his various journeys, so many of Zheng’s are the same, as is evident from the title of the first section. In many of these, Zheng, who lives in Mississippi, drives around the Deep South region in search of the places where famous bluesmen performed.  As he writes in “Weekend Drive, 1998”:
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After landing a university job in the Mississippi Delta, I fell in love with photographing blues sites for my research. One Saturday I went to grab shots in Moorhead where W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues” immortalized the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo Delta railroads.

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            juke joint blues
            a sluggish creek crosses
            through town
            by a lean-to shack
            blooming wisteria
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He drives on to Inverness, hometown of Little Milton, another bluesman, looking for Arcola. He gets lost, asks directions from various people, one of whom suggests Zheng, who looks a little bewildered by the instructions, follow him in his truck, until he finally finds the fork to Arcola.  He rolls down his window and thanks the man. “Oh, brother, the back road wasn’t that hard to find.” In “Birds of Passage” he is driving to the airport in Memphis, just before dawn. “We cross the Yazoo River Bridge, pass Baptist Town where the bluesman Robert Johnson died of poison,” eventually passing Avalon, “where the blues marker for Mississippi John Hurt looms above the roadside high weeds.”   As day starts to break, he slows down, “to catch this gorgeous flight:

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            crack of dawn
            thousands of snow geese
            honk off the fields”
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His travels take him to Helena, Arkansas, New Orleans, Tokyo, Wuhan and Canton, China, where the protagonist of the haibun encounters

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            a rooster’s crow
            headstone
            of a Chinese railroad builder
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The haibun in the “Farewell” section are more third-person sketches and anecdotes than personal reflections or reminiscences. They are all located in China. “Mediation in Changsha, China,” “Moon Festival,”  “Home,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” an amusing anecdote about a man named Seng whose snoring disturbs his wife, are some of the titles. The accompanying haiku to this latter reads: “spring equinox— / a cat’s nocturnal yowl / in the front yard.” The title is a sly reference to the popular belief that the romance in a marriage dies with sustained familiarity. You can feel the wife’s frustration!  There’s even a haibun called “Responses” that recalls an inane song in praise of Chairman Mao that he was forced to sing during the Cultural Revolution. The selection ends with the humorous haiku:

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            riverside hip hop
            even the water
            starts twerking

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“Fish Debate,” another haibun from this second section, has a very Taoist point-of-view. Two ancient Chinese philosophers, Zhuang Zi and Hui Si, walk by a river and see fish. Zhuang Zi (known also in literature as Chuang Tzu) thinks they look happy, but Hui Si says it’s not possible to know if fish are happy. Zhuang Zi replies, “You are not me; how do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?” This is so much like the other famous Taoist about Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. The accompanying haiku reads:
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which came first,
the hen or the egg? –
endless rain

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The “Momentary Stay” section brings us back to Mississippi. “Night in the Mississippi Delta,” “Road to Vicksburg,” “The Bayou by the Home in the Woods” are some of the titles of haibun that take us to specific scenes. In “Road to Vicksburg” the narrator sees a dead armadillo in the road and, momentarily distracted, nearly collides with an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

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by the blues highway
to casino
a wreathed cross tilts in wind

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In “Delta Wind,” Zheng writes with an almost Kerouac-like flair, “the wind rises like the saddest blues blown from a sax in a lean-to juke joint.” The accompanying haiku reads:

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autumn night
a freight train chugging
across the Yazoo

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A Way of Looking is dedicated to the memory of Don and Nell George. The final section, “Forever,” includes several tender haibun written in their memory. The Georges welcomed Zheng to Hattiesburg, Mississippi when he came to the United States from China as a young man, and he feels a great love for them, a sadness at their death, but the haibun express an enduring connection that itself reflects back on the section title.
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Many of Zheng’s haibun include more than one verse passage. Many of the haiku contain seasonal references, and this is true of the three included in “Eulogy,” written in memory of Don George. The first reads:

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            summer visit –
            in the town where
            I was born
            I’m asked
            where I’m from
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The second follows the reflection, “He taught me to pronounce a word in English, how to mow the grass, and more importantly, how to be a man in my life.” The verse that follows reads:

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            spring morning
            mom and dad chat
            over coffee
            memory an aroma
            of old times
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Finally, after thanking both Don and Nell for their kindness and guidance, he concludes the haibun:

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            autumn dusk
            an empty recliner
            in the den
            a lonely cat
            at the window
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The section and the book end with a short haibun called “Waiting for spring” that sums up not only the section but Zheng’s overarching philosophy as well:
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When life stops clicking, body – a mass of elements – can be turned to ashes, used as fertilizer for flowerbeds.
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                        autumn dusk
                        a worn-out jacket
                        on a peg
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Jianqing Zheng’s A Way of Looking alters the reader’s own vision, providing a view of reality that’s more peaceful, more benevolent, more thoughtful.
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You can find the book here: A Way of Looking
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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 Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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Reefer Madness by Robert Cooperman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The title of Robert Cooperman’s hilarious new collection comes from the 1936 melodrama about high school students lured by drug pushers. Reefer Madness became a cult classic in the 1970’s among the younger hip generation, for its unintentionally campy humor.  The lurid movie poster, warning ADULTS ONLY contained phrases like “The sweet pill that makes life bitter” and “drug-crazed abandon.” “Youthful marihuana victims. See what really happens.” In part one of this collection, Cooperman shows us what really happened, at least to him, and his experiences are so familiar to anybody born before 1960 and probably beyond.
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After a poem about the meaning of “420,” the code for smoking dope, Cooperman launches into “The First Time I Tried Weed: Brooklyn College,” about his initiation into the rite. Though citing the familiar “Refer Madness” warnings in the very first stanza – “In high school, it was gospel / that one ‘puff’ would turn us / into groveling heroin addicts” – curiosity wins out, and just as the response to the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” – “satisfaction brought him back” – that first time smoking with a college friend was glorious.  The poem ends with another nod to Refer Madness:
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            Giggling at a joke only I could get,
            I fell into bed, the room a tilting merry-
            go-round in a Hitchcock mystery,
            but no desperation, thank god,
            to shoot smack.
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  Then in one entertaining poem after the next, Cooperman details the whole project of “getting high”: The rituals of rolling joints, the exclamations of “I’m really wrecked!” that came almost like a testimony at an evangelical religious service, only instead of “Praise Jesus!” it’s “I am so stoned!” We read about the psychedelic songs of the era that were a necessary component to the experience – “White Rabbit,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Jimi Hendrix.  There are poems about the various drugs on the menu of our youth – hash, angel dust, psychedelic mushrooms. “Worse” vividly describes a bad trip on mushrooms in the otherwise idyllic setting of the Catskill Mountains. “It’s in the Bag” is a poem about snorting cocaine and the energy-burst it provides – and recognizing how easily one could become addicted to it, reefers or not.
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“Smoking Dope Outside the Keats Museum: Hampstead Heath” tells the story of two friends sneaking a joint outside the building while their wives linger inside, “maybe beside the very tree / where Keats had heard / his immortal nightingale.” Their spouses bust them, making them feel like kids caught breaking a window, but at least they avoid the surveillance cameras!
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As the first section winds down, marijuana has become legal in Colorado, where Cooperman currently resides, though now in late middle-age, a little late to really take advantage. He recognizes his dope-smoking days are over, though he still enjoys the occasional “contact high” from the skunk-stink of marijuana drifting from the pothead neighbors or when walking by the school kids passing joints around. In “The Weed Tree,” he and his wife stroll up a hill after passing the kids,
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            me floating a bit, pointing out to Beth,
            the red-tailed hawk making lazy, lovely,
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            merciless circles above the lake.
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“Got Pot?” and “AAA and the AA” explore the further implications of legalized weed, in the Trump era, when we all needed a crutch to make it through.
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In “Now That It’s Legal” and “Now That Colorado,” he laments the loss of the risk-taking scoring dope used to entail, which added a frisson of “sticking it to the Man” to the alteration of one’s consciousness, an added bonus. “Now That Colorado” ends the first section and sets us up for the equally hilarious second part.
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            In my day – geezer that I am – it took
            some discernment to score primo weed,
            and always the fear that the dealer was a narc,
            or if you sweated sauntering past beat cops,
            they’d stop you faster than Killer Kowalski’s
            professional-wrestler Atomic-Drop-Kick move.
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           And now the Girl Scouts will sell cookies
           outside pot shops! I ask you, is nothing sacred?
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“There are eight million stories  in the Naked City,” the iconic line at the end of every episode of the long-running TV series from the early 1960’s went. “This has been one of them.” Just so, Cooperman gives us over three dozen angles on the scene outside of The Wild Weed Dispensary in Denver as a Girl Scout troop sets up outside to sell cookies, in the second part of this hysterical collection. “The Girl Scouts of Colorado have decided it’s now cool to peddle their baked goods outside marijuana dispensaries,” a story from The Denver Post informs – the epigraph to the section – and Cooperman is off and running!
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There’s the Larsen family, the jilted wife Wilhelmina, chaperoning her Girl Scout daughter Melissa outside the Wild Weed Dispensary, while the wayward husband Ron holes up with his sex kitten Clair. There are Leonard and Marissa Millstein, a public defender and corporate lawyer at ideological (and marital) loggerheads, and their Girl Scout daughter Emily, caught in the middle. There’s the cop, Malcolm Sanders, whose daughter Kelly is also a Girl Scout and remembers the note her mother left when she walked out on Kelly’s father, no longer able to be a policeman’s wife.  Poor Fiona Terry, shoved into the Girl Scouts by her mother, hates being there at all, always the odd-girl-out. Cindy Bartlett, another Girl Scout, is the daughter of Sonny, a Hell’s Angel-style motorcycle gang member whose ex-wife Jo-Jo is having an affair with the tattoo parlor owner Nick Breeze, all here while the Girl Scouts sell their cookies. Each uproarious poem adds a soap-opera-like tale to the afternoon sale.
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Reefer Madness is a rollercoaster high, and the melodramatic warnings about pot? Still potent in the twenty-first century, as little Melissa Larsen tells us:
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            Tiffany’s older brother tried to get us to smoke,
            but our teacher warned us we’d become maniacs
            and have to live in straitjackets, like forever.
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So do yourself a favor and read this collection about “drug-crazed abandon.”  But a warning: read just a couple of these poems and you will probably be hooked!
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You can find the book here: Reefer Madness
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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 Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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Porno Valley by Philip Elliott

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Following his debut noir, Nobody Move, winner of the Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards, Philip Elliott’s new novel is likewise set in Los Angeles, the home of so many legendary private detective dramas. This one, too, features colorful losers and endearing anti-heroes and is full of plot surprises and just generally compelling storytelling that makes you want to read on.

Porno Valley takes place at the turn of the century. Elliott juggles three different narratives, one in 1998 involving the ambitious Jemeka Johnson and her not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer but well-meaning partner, Raymond (Ray-Ray) Jones. Another is set a year later in 1999 and involves a pair of small-time-crook junkies, Richie, a sociopath from hell, and his troubled wife Alabama. The final thread takes place in the summer of 2000 and involves a private detective named Mickey O’Rourke. Mickey is 78 and about to embark on the final case of his half-century long career. Mickey is the loneliest guy in the world and touches the reader’s heart with his quiet integrity and modest reflection. He’s been hired to find a missing person, a porn star named Jeffrey Strokes (“his real name”). Jeff is an interesting character in his own right, the most laid back person in the world, winner of three AVN awards, the Oscars of the porn industry. Somebody describes him as being like Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, in The Big Lebowski.

In fact, the novel opens with Mickey meeting his client, Bethany Summers at MidnightPussy Productions in San Fernando Valley, where the nascent porn industry, fueled by the rise of the internet, has become a huge growth business. Jeff has been missing for a year, and hence the three threads will come together, eventually. Bethany is Jeff’s girlfriend – or former girlfriend – both part of the porn world. She’s currently involved with Riccardo, another performer in porn films. It turns out that Riccardo plays a pivotal role in Jeff’s disappearance.

We meet Richie and Alabama in Nevada where they are holding up a diner. They’ve been a Bonnie and Clyde pair for a while but recently had a quickie Nevada wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator. Most importantly, they are supporting heroin habits and want to move up to more lucrative enterprises to support their lifestyle. Elliott is excruciatingly detailed when describing junk sickness and need. It’s almost visceral, reading about Richie’s and Alabama’s craving and Alabama’s OD.

Originally from LA, Richie brings his wife, a rural Alabama girl who left home to escape an abusive father, to the big city to seek their fortune and feed their jones. Los Angeles itself becomes something of a character, its sleaze and glamor, its poverty and luxury. “Nobody knows Los Angeles until they’ve been entranced by it, corrupted by it, cast out from it, and returned to it on their knees begging it to save them, and Richie knew Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, a year earlier, Jemeka, scratching out a living and paying off her late father’s debts as a stylist in a hair salon, stumbles into the world of dope-dealing and, shrewd businesswoman that she is, realizes this is her ticket out of poverty. Jemeka is very ambitious – “greedy” may be a more accurate, if less flattering, adjective.

Elliott writes compellingly about poverty and the desperation it creates, especially for characters like Richie and Jemeka, but  generally in poor neighborhoods like Compton, “well-intentioned families who called Compton home got ground up in the giant machine of this nation, slipping further toward poverty and the tragic moment when pressing need overtakes good intentions.”

At first Jemeka worries about the negative impact her dealing may have on her community, but over time she rationalizes selling crack as responsible because she isn’t adulterating the drug with dangerous additives just to maximize her profits. “Looked at that way, selling crack wasn’t so bad. It could even be said she was doing something good for the community.”

On balance, Jemeka is a sympathetic character, even as her ruthlessness (which she rationalizes as pragmatism) sometimes blinds her. Richie, though, is a totally repulsive dude with a mean streak a mile wide. It’s only Mickey whom we admire. Mickey’s wife of decades, Martha, has recently died from cancer. We feel his loneliness. He’s always been a romantic. He remembers winning Martha’s love by reciting Yeats to her, the poem, “When You Are Old.”

While resolving the various plots, the novel ends somewhat ambiguously, as if the story is “to be continued.” We do learn what becomes of Jeff Strokes,  but other things still seem a bit up in the air.  Elliott is fully aware of this. “It’s an intentionally subversive ending,” he says, “meant to be a little irksome as I wanted to play around with the fact that most crime novels end super conveniently wrapped in a bow with all loose ends tied. The novel was my attempt at playing around with the concept of a whodunit (as a friend said, ‘it’s not a whodunit but a how- or whydunit inside a noir.’) In a way I wanted to write an anti-Nobody Move. So, yeah, just playing with expectations.”

Elliott convincingly recreates the era with reference to the current music at the end of the century. Richie is in love with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Californication” He also goes for the relative oldie, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult). Jemeka plays 2Pac’s music in her salon, “Only God Can Judge Me,” which is appropriate. Mickey, meanwhile, has Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on a cassette tape.  Remember cassette tapes?  “I Won’t Back Down” is his anthem. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is featured in a scene at Tower Records where Richie goes Medieval.

In any case, Porno Valley is a terrific, satisfying read. The reader’s reaction is not unlike Bethany’s when Mickey at last tells her about Jeff.  “Bethany’s mouth fell open. She looked like God had descended from Heaven and urinated on her.”  Philip Elliott keeps you guessing to the end!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Porno-Valley-Angel-Philip-Elliott/dp/1999086848

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.

Poisons & Antidotes by Andrea L. Fry

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” go the lyrics of a hit song by Kelly Clarkson, the same paradox at the heart of Andrea L. Fry’s impressive collection in which she explores the clash of the nutric and the toxic,  the safe and the perilous: the noxious and the obnoxious, as the title of the book’s first section sums up.
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“Oh, I would divide the world into binaries,” she begins the poem called “The Glitter of the Simple,” but the dichotomy is never so clear, as she captures so beautifully later in the poem:
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The sacred passion flower,
ringed by purple filaments,
though its cool smile nests in leaves
of cyanide.
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Later in the poem, after having archly declared her intention to judge by appearances only, Fry more sagely notes the deceptive malleability of the world’s contents in an observation from which the collection takes its name:
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Both substance and creature slink
over a delicate border,
can so easily pass
from poison to antidote.
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Some of Fry’s poems are so deliciously specific in spelling out the world’s almost oxymoronic inconsistencies. “Jimsonweed” and “Mothballs,” which open the book, focus on these two modest objects to tease out the point. “The Flower Maker” tells the story of the accidental poisoning of a person who makes beautiful bouquets for ladies’ hair using a chemical like Scheele’s Green, a mixture containing arsenic. “She shaped the flowers, / and pinned them, // loved them like / little green children.”  Unfortunately, the flower maker got the poison all over herself, too, her hair and lashes, and eventually into her stomach and liver.
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“The Snake Charmer” is another poem that plays on the ambiguity of the safe and the dangerous. Inspired by a magazine article about an Indian snake charmer who “attempted suicide by cobra” (“your nemesis / and livelihood coiled in a basket”), she describes the man considered an “entertainer” by some and a “beggar” by others:
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Yours was like a prophet’s
mission, to travel to villages
and festivals – like a marshal
out in front, townspeople cowering
behind – to challenge peril,
dare it to come out from its
hiding, show itself.
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An oncology nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Fry knows what she’s talking about when she evaluates the risks and benefits of different drugs and therapies. “Tomfoolery” brings a smile with its curmudgeonly expression, but she speaks truth:
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Harrumph, I say!
Your cure’s as toxic as the bug itself.
A panacea that kills the lymph.
Amphotericin destroys both fungus and the host;
camphor kills moths, gives us emphysema.
Amphetamines make depressives
leap the fence….
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“Narcan,” a poem about the emergency drug used to treat opioid overdose, expresses a similar ambivalence; the “miracle” comes with a warning, “the burden / of pure gift.” “Therapy” continues the idea of the fragility of the body in response to drugs, “fondling kidneys / like pottery.”  And so we encounter “Amir” “holding / the sample of urine with a slight tremor, as if asking for alms,” as uncertain and terrified as any other anonymous patient.
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This mixture of promise and peril is particularly potent in “Return,” a poem dedicated to “the Babushkas of Chernobyl,” the old women coming back to tend to the radioactive land, “to your home, / to what they said would be uninhabitable.” The birds, the bees, even, for a time, the wolves, moose and boars were gone. “But you would not grieve.  / There was work to be done.”
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My favorite poem is the one called “The Renderer,” in which a farm mother cushions the death of a beloved ancient horse with a vision of Patsy grazing happily in Heaven, much like the story parents tell their children about the dead family pet going away to live on a bucolic farm. Unfortunately, before she can take the kids away, the renderer drives up, jerking “the brake up like he was snapping / something’s neck” and proceeds to describe how he will have to saw Patsy’s legs off before hooking her up and driving the carcass away. The mother hastily rolls up the window and starts to leave the property. They drive away in silence for a few minutes, and then:
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“Mama?”
“Yes, Jack,” I said.
“Was that God?”
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Fry’s sense of humor shines throughout many of these poems, while expanding on her theme. “Don’t Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle!” channels the snarky colleague who manages to undercut her co-workers while smiling her fake smile. “Help Desk” is a sort of surreal take on the recorded telephone message that “directs your call.” “The Show Dog” anthropomorphizes the competitors in competitions like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “The Death of Rhetoric” humorously analyzes how language has been poisoned. It starts out:
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Take whatever.
Once royal, now it dwells
like a fallen angel
in the most ignoble realm:
the syntax of a sullen teen.
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These marvelous poems brim with wit, imagination and intelligence. What doesn’t simply charm or enchant you will make you wiser. (Am I right, Kelly Clarkson?)
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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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Covid 19 2020 – A Poetic Journal by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

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Moonstone Press has just released Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s, Covid 19, 2020 – A Poetic Journal. 

The Chapbook is available here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/sahms-guarnieri-diane-covid-19-2020-a-poetic-journal/294?cs=true&cst=custom 

What Others Say:

As sobering as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, when the Bubonic Plague devasted London, Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s, Covid-19, 2020 is a grim recounting of the horrible year through which we have just lived.

Starting with the ironically named “March Madness” section, a term that usually refers to the annual NCAA basketball tournament but so succinctly captures the mass disorientation, like “a sci-fi movie, yet real,” as she notes on 3-23-2020, the journal proceeds through April, the cruelest month, mixing death and rebirth in its stew of life, into the horrific summer of 2020 –

185,000 dead in the United States by Labor Day – and into fall/winter with the mounting dead, the glimmer of hope that a vaccine may soon be available. The collection ends on New Year’s Eve, over 350,000 Americans dead under the chaotic leadership of the Trump administration, the most of any nation in the world.  Along the way, as if the pandemic were not bad enough, Sahms-Guarnieri addresses the social turmoil that tore the country apart, the racial injustice that spawned BLM.

Sahms-Guarnieri captures the fear and loneliness so eloquently in the April poem, “Nature & Mothers Weeping,” which begins:
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Horrific scene played on TV—
a mother weeping & wailing
for daughter, dead. COVID-19.
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Last seen alive via FaceTime:
Mom, I can’t breathe.
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I, with thoughts of my only
living daughter, weep
for those whom I don’t know
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The July poem, “Untouchables, for daughter, Mary,” drives the point home :
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We who always embrace every time
we meet & whenever we leave each other,
came no nearer than 6 feet.
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An unmeasurably cruel calculation
for me & daughter, whose hazel irises,
as life protectors, gently glided into
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mine: touching, without touching,
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As Defoe wrote over three centuries ago, “everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger…London might well be said to be all in tears.”

Charles Rammelkamp, author of Ugler Lee and Mortal Coil 

You can get the chapbook here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/sahms-guarnieri-diane-covid-19-2020-a-poetic-journal/294?cs=true&cst=custom

Shellback by Jeanne-Marie Osterman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In the eponymous poem of this powerful collection, Jeanne-Marie Osterman, reflecting on the cruel, ghastly hazing her father received from his crewmates on their way home from the war in the Pacific in 1945 – an “initiation” administered to sailors crossing the equator for the first time – writes:
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This is one shellback’s daughter
trying to find that wiser self within
who can forgive these men,
for they’ve come from Okinawa
where they watched a buddy’s skull
blow out of his head,
teeth still gripping his last cigarette.
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This collection of poetry about her father’s long life and slow death (1919-2017) is steeped in blood and violence.  JDO, as he was known, experienced the most horrific things in the war, from an attack by a kamikaze pilot that killed a dozen men and maimed and injured many others to the grim day-to-day duties of the killing business, and he returns home to Washington state a damaged man. Not always the easiest person to live with, prone to spasms of violent behavior and cruelty, he ages into a tough old bird who resists acknowledging his pain and physical decline, in a way that’s both admirable and tragic. As Osterman writes in the poem, “Forgive,”
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I let memories I can’t erase
rest in peace,
knowing no one is only
their sins.
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The collection opens cleverly with the poem, “Epilogue”:
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He’s losing his grip.
Last Saturday night,
trying to shave for church,
my father cut his face so deep
it bled till 2 AM.
He couldn’t reach the Band-Aids
to stanch the blood.
He fell down trying.
He wouldn’t ring for help.
He didn’t make church.
He won’t wear his hearing aid,
so I shout the small talk –
think it’ll rain today?
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This introduces JDO perfectly. The rest of the collection shows us the man in his perpetual state of denial, suppressing his trauma, as he navigates fatherhood and old age, and indeed, our end always marks our beginning. The final poems deal with her father in the hospital, dying, pivoting from this “epilogue” that opens the book. Osterman is with him during his final days.
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Osterman really knows how to start a poem with a bang. For instance, “The String” begins:
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            I go to my father’s room to take him to dinner and find him
            face down on the floor. Thinking he’s dead, I say, Daddy?
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            I think I’m at the end of my string, he says, so I call 911.
            He wants me to pick him up, but he’s dead weight. 
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Right away, the reader is involved in the drama, compelled to read on. “Get the Body You Want” similarly begins: “Middle of the night, on your way to the bathroom, / you trip and fall on the wheelchair we insisted on / to keep you from falling.” A poem early in the collection, “Third Girl,” starts, “I was my father’s third girl. / Sundays I tried to be his boy.” Again, we are drawn into the drama. She is writing here about the great American pastime of watching NFL football on TV, but it highlights one of the heartbreaking themes of the collection, the child’s desire to be loved by her parent and the casual neglect he often shows. “On the Stillaguamish River,” a few poems later, poignantly addresses the same yearning. “I just wanted to take up your time, see how // you, once a sailor, would row, save me from drowning….”
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The poem, “Polaroid,” in which an emotional eight-year-old Osterman poses for a family photo, describes JDO, his jaw clenched, holding the camera and warning his daughter not to cry, “or I’ll give you something // to cry about. I was happy / at least he didn’t tell me to smile.”
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The poems that vividly address JDO’s wartime experience are truly jaw-dropping, drenched in blood and gore, from “End Like a Sponge,” “Wing and a Prayer” and “Theater of War” to “Fukuryu” and “Think of It,” which deals with the battle of Okinawa, in which 50,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese died. What a horrific experience for a teenager to have to live through! On top of that, the hazing by his crewmates in “Shellback” reinforces the permanent psychological scarring.   And as she writes in a later poem, “Patterns,” “You might think that holding it in / kept it from us, but we / could feel it.”
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In the midst of the grimness, Osterman displays a sense of humor at times, while illuminating her father’s character. “Horny Goat Weed” is a poem about discovering a package of one of those (quack?) medications that you see in the snack kiosks at gasoline stations, meant to enhance a man’s libido, “a remedy for erectile dysfunction.” “My father’s ninety-six. My mother’s been dead for years,” she writes; another poignant example of JDO’s refusal to concede weakness.
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Just as this tender elegy starts with an “Epilogue,” it concludes with “The Living Always Leave You, but the Dead Stay with You Forever,” which is the true epilogue to this sequence. Her father has been dead six months, but reminders keep popping up.
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Perhaps the most touching poem in Shellback is a poem toward the end called “Yay.” Her father’s body is beyond salvageable; it’s only a matter of time. He is thirsty but he can’t drink. Droppers are not allowed, and water dripped from a spoon only rolls off his lip and soaks his hospital gown. JDO’s daughter soaks a piece of cloth and squeezes it slowly onto his lips.  The gratitude is heartfelt.
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            Yay, he whispers.
                          Yay.
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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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Summer Reading Recommendations 2021

Top ten book reviews based on readership of North of Oxford

scott

A Little Excitement by Nancy Scott

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/a-little-excitement-by-nancy-scott/

erotic

Erotic by Alexis Rhone-Fancher

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/erotic-by-alexis-rhone-fancher/

danish

Danish Northwest/Hygge Poems from the Outskirts by Peter Graarup Westergaard

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/01/danish-northwest-hygge-poems-from-the-outskirts-by-peter-graarup-westergaard/

red rover

Red Rover Red Rover by Bob Hicok

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/01/01/red-rover-red-rover-by-bob-hicok/

RAZOR WIRE

Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/05/01/razor-wire-wilderness-by-stephanie-dickinson/

American Quasar CoverA Camera Obscura Cover

American Quasar by David Campos / A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/american-quasar-with-poems-by-david-campos-and-art-by-maceo-montoya-a-camera-obscura-by-carl-marcum/

world

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/the-likely-world-by-melanie-conroy-goldman/

HunleyCov

Adjusting to the Lights – Poems by Tom C. Hunley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/adjusting-to-the-lights-poems-by-tom-c-hunley/

savant

The Philosopher Savant Crosses The River by Rustin Larson

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/the-philosopher-savant-crosses-the-river-by-rustin-larson/

come

Come-Hither Honeycomb by Erin Belieu

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/come-hither-honeycomb-by-erin-belieu/

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Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

mary jane

By Charles Rammelkamp

Narrated in the first person by a 14-year-old girl in 1975, Mary Jane isn’t so much a coming-of-age novel as it is a coming-into-consciousness novel, which may be a quibbling way of saying the same thing since “coming of age” is ultimately all about a character’s self-awareness, but over and over again in this charming, often laugh-out-loud-funny story, the protagonist, Mary Jane Dillard, notices things for the first time, such as her parents’ racism and anti-Semitism, and comes to conclusions about what things are actually valuable and meaningful in a person’s life, as if she is waking up from a long, long sleepwalk.

Mary Jane is the only child of a conventional Republican father and a humorless, church-going homemaker mother. A framed color photograph of Gerald Ford hangs on their dining room wall, visible over her father’s head as he sits at the head of the table reading the newspaper while his wife and daughter serve the meals. Mary Jane has been hired as the summer nanny of the five-year-old daughter of Richard and Bonnie Cone, a psychiatrist and his wife who likewise live in Roland Park but are the opposite of her parents. (Bumper stickers declaring, IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever are plastered on a door.)

The child’s name is Izzy. (“Our neighbor, Mrs. Riley, had told me her name was Isabelle. But I liked Izzy better, the way it fizzed on my tongue.”) Mary Jane immediately takes to the child. Like Izzy, another only child, Mary Jane has no real friends, feels awkward around girls her age and has absolutely no interest in going to sleepaway camp with her contemporaries. “When I did have to socialize with kids my age,” Mary Jane confides, “I felt like I was from another country. How did girls know what to whisper about? Why were they all thinking about the same things?”

In contrast to her own orderly home – a place for everything and everything in its place – the Cone household is chaotic, books and clothing piled everywhere, food rotting in the refrigerator. Bonnie is not a homemaker, and her shrink husband is a luftmensch, his head in his work, not his home. Mary Jane will bring order to the household over the course of the summer, but the more relaxed and loving environment of the Cone family will have a profound effect on her as well.

Later in the novel, Mary Jane reflects, “In my own house, each day was a perfectly contained lineup of hours where nothing unusual or unsettling was ever said.” By contrast, the Cones are loud, intense, emotional, and Mary Jane always feels a little afraid. “But along with that terror, my fondness for the Cones only grew. To feel something was to feel alive. And to feel live was starting to feel like love.”

When the story starts, Richard Cone has cleared his calendar for the summer to care for a recovering rock star, Jimmy Bendinger, lead singer of Running Water, who has a heroin addiction. He is accompanied by his celebrity wife Sheba, known all over the world for the popular television variety show she’d hosted with her brothers called Family First! Jimmy and Sheba are in Baltimore incognito, and in one of her first acts of rebellion, Mary Jane doesn’t let her parents know about them. While Bonnie entertains Sheba and Mary Jane runs the household (eventually she takes over the grocery-shopping, cooking and cleaning duties), Dr. Cone and Jimmy do their work out behind the house, in a garage converted to Dr. Cone’s office.

Blau’s characters are as quirky as Anne Tyler’s memorable Baltimore characters, though not as complex, but then, they are seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who still sees things in black or white and either/or terms. There’s Beanie Jones, the nosy neighbor who keeps popping up in comic relief but who precipitates the climactic therapy scene on the beach, whose conclusion provides the novel’s real surprise plot twist. The Cones and her parents are vivid in their own ways, the parents for being so conventional, uptight, anti-Semitic and racist. But the real bigger-than-life character is Sheba, the former TV star celebrity bombshell. The story lights up whenever she’s around.

There’s also plenty of humor in Mary Jane, much of it involving Mary Jane’s ignorance and squeamishness about sex, her fear that she is a “sex addict,” even though she is a virgin who has never even kissed a boy. She overhears Dr. Cone use the term and it sticks in her head. She wonders if there is something wrong with her for seeing a penis when she sees a cucumber. It’s like a running gag through much of the novel, and part of Mary Jane’s “coming of age” is resolving this issue at the group therapy session on the beach.

All of the women, Bonnie Cone, Sheba and Mary Jane, have “mommy issues,” conflicts with their mothers about their social roles and behavior.  Bonnie’s mother is horrified when Bonnie marries a Jew; Sheba’s mother continually slut-shamed her daughter when she was growing up.

This mother-daughter tension is especially spotlighted in Mary Jane’s case. We’ve seen that her mother and father are cold, distant, but her mother can also be mean.  When Mrs. Cone and Sheba enter the kitchen after Mary Jane and Izzy have cleaned out the refrigerator, “Mrs. Cone leaned in and kissed the top of my head. No one had ever kissed me like that. Not my mom and not my dad.” Mary Jane remembers an incident when her mother caught her drinking milk from the carton, slapped her head, which caused the milk to spill, and ordered her daughter to mop the kitchen floor. Her mother provides specific instructions for buttoning a blouse, to ensure her modesty. When Mary Jane gets her period, her mother supplies the napkins and belt but does not discuss any of it.

But at the end of the summer, after Mary Jane’s deceptions catch up with her and the double life blows up in her face, she is able to resolve her conflicts with her mother (her father remains remote), but we saw that coming all along. Mary Jane is the real “adult” in Mary Jane, truly a heroine. This novel is such fun to read!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Jane-Jessica-Anya-Blau/dp/0063052296

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.