John Zheng

Most Read Reviews @ North of Oxford 2022

Just in time for holiday shopping! Most read reviews as determined by the readership of North of Oxford

cas reports

Casualty Reports by Martha Collins

book cover

All the Songs We Sing – Edited by Lenard D. Moore


A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers edited by Kyle Schlesinger


Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani

diseno de tapa echavarren paperback

Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman


The Flash Fiction of Lydia Davis


The Upright Dog by Carl Fuerst


Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene

World's Lightest Motorcycle

The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, Translated from Korean by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello


getting away with everything by Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman


Along the Way by Scott Pariseau

a feeling

A Feeling Called Heaven by Joey Yearous-Algozin


Poolside at the Dearborn Inn by Cal Freeman


Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me by John Weir


The Bar at Twilight by Frederic Tuten




Along the Way by Scott Pariseau

By John Zheng
Scott Pariseau’s Along the Way is his first collection of poems and prose in variant forms, including epitaph, haiku, tanka-like poems, sonnet, free verse, and four prose pieces. As he says in the preface, the poet arranges the collection nearly chronologically and leads us along the way to different places—lived and traveled by the author—to experience his nostalgia, sadness, and sense of beauty found in ordinary life.
One characteristic of Pariseau’s poetry is the use of different poetic forms. “Fall Migration,” which serves as the prelude, is arranged in four stanzas, each composed of two couplets. It also gives attention to alliteration and assonance, as shown in “I long that I might leave the ground / to fly with geese by time unbound.” Another good example of alliteration is in “Sprays of snow stuck / to my moist, scarved mouth” (“Night Walk, Winter”). Pariseau writes sonnets too. “First Crush” is a love sonnet in two stanzas. While the scheme is Petrarchan (composed of an octave and a sestet), the rhyme pattern is mainly Shakespearean. Yet, while the octave follows the Shakespearean rhyme pattern closely (ABABCDCD), the sestet veers to some degree away from the Shakespearean rhyme. Instead of using the EFEFGG rhyme, Pariseau has three couplets in the sestet rhymed as EEFFGG.
Another characteristic of Along the Way is the use of imagery coming from his personal experience. For example, “In Autumn Light” relates the crows to the black soil:
fly slow,
like black soil
off plows.
As one who was once a farmhand, this reviewer appreciates the poet’s accurate comparison made from his farming experience. Another interesting image, a spoked wheel in “In Rotation,” creates a vivid auditory and visual view of the lovely puppies:
Six puppies
slurping water
from a bowl—
like a spoked wheel
rotation slowly
as they drink.
Pariseau is a keen observer who finds something memorable or beautiful in the ordinary. In “Still Life,” an eight-line poem, he sees and smells “the moist scent / of cut roses in a bowl” which “permeates everything” that is not pleasant to the senses: the scorching heat of an afternoon, the thin air in a dusty room, the drawn blinds, and the dim, yellow light.
Moreover, memory brings out a sense of place loved by people, as presented in “Night in Harkey Valley, Arkansas”:
This family, spread by miles,
is together again, talking late
at the table.  Love stirs,
grows in the eyes
of three generations.
Ancestors are named—
they are present, waiting;
their bones slide easily
into fresh young cousins.
This poem presents a common but cozy scene of a family time filled with love and harmony. Their good relationship and communication are reflected not only through their talk but in their eyes as well. Their talk moves smoothly to the second stanza about their ancestors to suggest a history and heritage of three generations, and this heritage becomes concrete in the last two miraculous lines. A reader may wish the poem could be longer with more details to flesh out the family time.
Besides writing about daily life and memory, Pariseau also turns his eye to ecowriting. “Thirteen Turtles: A Prose Meditation”—a short prose piece—conveys a strong ecological message. It intends to raise awareness of the potential negative consequence of the human killing of birds and animals and the destruction done to the earth. Further, Pariseau mentions yin yang in the Chinese cosmological symbolism, which means balance. People should realize that when the balance no longer exists on this earth, nature will turn to punish its destroyers—human beings.
Occasionally we hear a sentimental sigh. “Dream at Ocean Haven” sighs about the bygone youth: “O, when do those / pure colors of youths / begin acquiring / the solemn tints / of the grave?” but oftentimes we see impressionistic and delightful views in Along the Way with an expectation for an aftertaste.
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot by D.S. Maolalai

By John Zheng
D. S. Maolalai is a Dublin-based Irish poet. Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are his second and third books of poetry, published respectively in 2019 and 2022 by Turas Press in Ireland. Sad Havoc Among the Birds is a collection of free-verse poems, many having short lines heavily enjambed; some irregular lines moving from short to long. It is rich with visual comparisons pleasing to the eye. In “Low tide,” the poet visualizes the sea as “a visible line / like a glint / on the edge / of a coin;” in “Preparing to go out,” he compares the loose jacket flaps to “the thin arms on a scarecrow;” and in “A bottle of wine for the rockpool,” he imagines the summer sun through the working of sight, touch, taste, and smell:
it was a weekend
into summer
and the sun had sloshed over like a bowl full of soup,
hot and
sticky and
making everyone smell of
Observation is characteristic of Maolalai’s poetry, showing a peculiar way of looking at things, people, and places. Many poems are imagistic. “A bowl of oranges” describes a way of using imagination against loneliness as well as for creative expression:
with you away
I sleep a lot
and not often alone.
my bedroom is a bowl of oranges;
sweet flesh, sticky
and slowly being revealed
as peeled layers
pile up,
dropped on the floor,
fresh vitamins and easy sustenance,
good on the side
with tequila.
Like “A bowl of oranges,” Maolalai’s poems shine with the influence of imagism or are in the steps of William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara in the use of short lines and personal tone. They are sketches with fresh images that present a moment, a person, and a place and by avoidance of pompous adjectives or big ideas. In “Lobster,” the poet first draws two mugs that are stained tannin-black, then he adds his friend Jack who stirs tea in his lifeguard’s shack. The view quickly shifts to the sand where imagination is on wings for the comparison of the two images (waves and trucks): “waves crash / like two-tonne trucks / on a highway.” The next image—wind—creates an effect not just auditory through its whistle but visual and tactile, as described below:
and the wind
comes over the dune
with a whistle
and a hand
that would mess up your haircut.
In a way, these images with the use of synesthesia enrich the aesthetic appreciation of the poem. The second stanza of “Lobster” focuses on Jack’s suggestion when he and the first-person narrator drink tea: to get drunk in town the next day or to pick up food for the barbecue, but the narrator’s indecision or hesitation to go for a drink is like the tea sipped, “hot and brown / and thick as bricks.” Instead, he likes to stay on the beach to continue his observation: someone walking a dog and “poking the seaweed with a stick” to look for the lost treasure. Then he shifts his eyes to birds that “pick their way / over the wet sand / shiny as glass / hunting lugworms” and to the sky that “hangs low / and milky grey / and sandy.” In the end, he shifts the view back to the milk offered by his friend, which “has sand in it,” the meaning of which seems as ambiguous as the title of the poem. Maybe that’s why poetry is challenging and open to interpretation.
Moreover, the poem titled “Colette,” though an epitome of Colette’s life and writing, seems to mirror Maolalai’s attitude about poetry writing. These two lines especially reflect his attitude: ‘she was just describing people she had met / instead of bothering to make a story.” However, “My friend, the writer” is a poem carrying an ironic tone and a sense of humor. In the beginning, the first-person speaker says:
he told me
he’d decided
to be a writer
so he’d started smoking cigarettes again,
unfiltered American Spirits,
and he told me he was drinking a bottle of wine each night now
Maolalai’s poetry shows a way of poetry writing he has found: giving attention to plain things, common people, and daily life that can easily slip the notice, as shown in “What are you waiting for?” which tells in a boring tone about the bus and train to take to work, the short walk from the bus stop, the café, the street sounds like empty music, the dinner to cook, and the tea to make. All these routines recur every day and every week, showing boredom with life, so the speaker sighs at the end:
on a clear night you can see the whole of next week
and it’s not just bright lights
that people shut their eyes against.
It is interesting that the poem titled “The answer” in Maolalai’s third poetry collection, Noble Rot, seems to function like an answer to the boring life described in “What are you waiting for?” and we still hear the same desperate tone:
it’s the job
and home
and the job again.
we move in crowds, flowing
like tides against shorelines.
every day
another day
and I am tired. I
am tired.
More or less, Noble Rot continues the style of Sad Havoc Among the Birds: no capital words except the pronoun I and a few proper nouns (some place names are lower-cased), smooth narration, rich use of figurative language, and fresh images, as in “Biting a penny,” “cars crumbled like coloured / handkerchiefs” and in “He’s cut down the last of the trees,” “the city lights glistened / like an over-moist cheese.” Yet, a poem that plays with fantastic imagination is “Sunflowers,” which associates lines of sunflowers to the movements of a ballet dancer:
graceful as a dancer
in the russian
ballet, they turn
in short loops,
moving joists,
taking weight,
holding weight
as a balance.
Like Sad Havoc Among the Birds, Noble Rot is also a collection of observations of daily life or plain things connected to places and people. Some poems are about traveling to other countries, and the views are impressionistic. For example, Dublin in “No skyline” offers only the horizon when seen from the coast at Kilbarrack, but in contrast, Toronto and New York leave an impression that the skylines there are like the “jagged, / key edged reliefs. then pulled sharply on the leash / and glanced downward.” In “Calgary,” the travelers “stopped at very fruit stand / in [their] wind around the mountains, / squeezing raspberries, / peeling oranges / and pausing by corners / to piss out / tomato juice.” Another poem, “Touching down in Istanbul,” has also an impressionistic touch. Maolalai paints Istanbul at sunrise:
                                the streets
tinting orange. the buildings waking up;
if they were flowers
the petals would be opening. we touch down,
landing for a moment, like a bee
on a hot day.
Maolalai’s Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are two poetry books that increase immediacy to relate to the reader. The success of this connectedness lies in the poet’s eloquent narration, down-to-earth voice with no pretensions, and effort in using the language effectively and creatively. In short, they deserve reading.
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit by Judy Grahn

By John Zheng
Judy Grahn’s Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit is a thought-provoking study of relationships between human and nonhuman creatures and spirits. It collects ten nonfiction essays, divided into three parts, with a vivid record of Grahn’s observations and contemplations of the sentient world, a historical track of her metaformic consciousness, and a personal encounter with creatures and spirits presenting nature and human nature. As Jenny Factor points out in her introduction, this study is “about capturing a world—our whole interconnected, living world—before it has slipped out of our consciousness and into realms beyond our possible reclamation” (p. 11). Its purpose is to raise an awareness of the world that belongs to both human and non-human creatures.
Grahn is a pioneer in metaformic theory. Her essay, “The Emergence of Metaformic Consciousness,” discusses four varieties of metaform. The first one is wilderness, referring to, in Grahn’s words, “the use of, or more accurately, being in relation with, creatures, formations, and elements of nature to describe menstrual ideas” ( What then are Grahn’s menstrual ideas? Grahn believes that ancient rituals embody ideas through menstrual instruction, which she terms metaform—a physical presence of an idea with menstruation as its fundamental source. Because menstruation is associated with blood, Grahn argues or proudly proclaims in her poem, “All blood is menstrual blood” (
Menstrual blood is the only source of blood
that is not traumatically induced.
Menstrual blood, like water,
just flows.
Its fountain existed
long before knives or flint.
is the original source of blood.
Menstrual is blood’s secret name.
Grahn’s belief reflects her feminist attitude toward mystics and wilderness. She thinks that the metaform of wilderness contains a creature attracted to the menstrual blood or the feminine shape, like the legendary snake mentioned in “The Emergence of Metaformic Consciousness”:
Anthropologists currently believe that the oldest continuous religion on earth is among Australian aborigines, some of whom have a deity named Rainbow Snake. According to legend, two sisters, the Wawilak Sisters, were the first to be swallowed by the Snake. This happened on the occasion when the older sister was giving birth. The younger sister began to dance while they waited for the afterbirth, and suddenly she began her first blood flow. At this instant, the Snake came out of the waterhole and wrapped itself around both of them and their newborn child. Anthropologist Chris Knight has hypothesized that the idea of the Rainbow Snake, coming from the “womb” of the waterhole, and said to
“swallow” a woman when she menstruates, is an example of menstrual synchrony, evidently
so central to these people—at least at one time—that “menstrual blood of three women” is a topic of
women’s cats-radle games, and most rituals include “menstrual” flows.
The use of the snake reflects Grahn’s idea that animals, like us humans, have emotion, thinking, consciousness, communication, and social life. With this idea held firmly in mind, Grahn develops an “interest in how to process the encounters with creature consciousness, involving intentional interactions and communications from nonhuman beings, as well as encounters with that even more mysterious aspect we call spirit” (p. 16). For example, Grahn describes a spirit cat seen by her and her friends in the house. It is a light-colored, female cat that comes up the porch steps, brushes past their legs, and goes inside the house. This unpredictable encounter immediately associates her thinking with human-nonhuman interrelatedness because it feeds her “sense of profound delight at the interconnectedness of life: we are not just random dust motes blowing around, when, anyway, maybe dust motes aren’t so disconnected either” (49). What Grahn says keeps a mysterious touch, an interactive response between humans and nonhuman creatures/spirits.
Grahn is not just a conscious observer but one who records and reflects her experiences with nature and human nature. She takes a notebook with her for her physical experience, like lovemaking on a broad smooth stone one night on a ranch, and later contemplates the experience aesthetically with detailed notes about it when she needs to develop her metaformic consciousness (p. 190). In a way, Grahn’s observation and experience show her understanding of self and other creatures and spirits, both human and nonhuman.
Furthermore, this book shows a new sense of self in Grahn, as she says, “I have always said I am she, her, hers. But after this exploration of levels of consciousness, I have a new awareness that creeps into my speech…. The pronouns that are appropriate for this sense of ‘me’ as a ‘self’ must surely be extended. The pronouns should be ‘we, us, ours’” because “‘we’ interact, the radiance impacts us, co-creating our state of being” (pp. 205-206). In short, reading Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit makes one reconsider the being of self in a large realm of “us” through the touch of human and nonhuman creatures. It provides a psychic and empathic way to understand not just us humans but, more importantly, nonhuman creatures around us. There is a touch to be needed and nurtured; there is an emergency of raising awareness of our existence in and with nature.
John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

The Path to Kindness – Poems of Connection and Joy

By John Zheng

The title of The Path to Kindness suggests that kindness is a goal or a destination to reach for an individual’s self-cultivation and for a society’s harmonious environment. Although dictionaries provide descriptions of the word meanings, they don’t offer a sensible opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the thingness of kindness. Therefore, the core of kindness lies in the act of doing things in kind ways. Also, kindness is not an innate virtue; it is what one learns and possesses; it is part of a person’s life; it is an act flowing like water, as in Lao Tzu’s words from Tao Te Ching: “True goodness is like water.”

This anthology is a gathering of voices worth hearing. Poets share their ideas and stories about kindness with vivid and concrete descriptions. In “Small Kindnesses,” Danusha Laméris tells that kindness can be as small as “when you walk / down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs / to let you by.” It can also be as common as a kind word, a touch, or a smile, which is, however, “a bit of beauty” planted in someone to grow, as expected in Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s “Kindness”:


And years later, in that inner soil,
that beauty emerges again,
pushing aside the dead leaves,
insisting on loveliness,
a celebration of the one who planted it,
the one who perceives it, and
the fertile place where it has grown.


Truly, small or common things can tell a lot about a person’s personality. On the other hand, Kindness can be a bittersweet ordeal before one knows its true value, as Naomi Shihab Nye says philosophically in her poem “Kindness”: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” In other words, kindness can be a poignant experience one must gain before celebrating it. And there is no shortcut or expressway to reach it.

However, it is important to realize that kindness, as a human virtue, is an idea in things that can be done in a child’s coming of age. Planting it as a seed in oneself should start early as part of a child’s education. A child who grows up to be a kind person learns to possess this virtue from his parents, so it is a like-father-like-son relay from generation to generation. In “Most Important Word,” Laura Grace Weldon regards love as the first word to learn so the child will be kind to love. She shares her story of teaching her four-year-old son how to write and speak the word love because she believes learning to love is the first step to becoming a kind person. She further describes that love remains the same “first magical word” to learn for her granddaughter who “concentrates, / lines rollicking onto the paper, / tongue curled against her lip.”

Further, to love and be kind should be an inseparable part of a person’s life, and doing kind things does not mean expecting recognition from others. Rather, it is a voluntary way to enrich one’s spiritual life, to keep “a little warmth” within the self, and to give “a little warmth” to faith and time, as related by Ted Kooser in “Filling the Candles”:


The eight candles that stand at the altar
aren’t candles at all, but oil lamps
in the waxy white raiment of candles.
A woman has come, through snow, alone
on Saturday, to fill them, a plastic jug
in one hand, a funnel and rag in the other.
From a high window, soft hands of light,
in reds, blues and greens, pat snow
from the sleeves of her winter parka,
brush flakes from her silvery hair
as she moves from wick to wick to wick,
lifting the brass caps, trickling the oil.
The church is otherwise empty, dark
and cold, but now those eight flames burn
within her as she caps and tilts the jug
into the light to see how much is gone,
the day, too, halfway gone, not spilled
but used, a little warmth within it.

When people do kind things without letting others know, the community will shape itself in a better way, and human beings will wear more smiles than concerns.

There are all kinds of poetry anthologies, but The Path to Kindness is a timely pocket anthology with a single, important theme since kindness is needed for an individual, a community, and the country especially when hate crimes and racism have erupted in and smeared the cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and elsewhere, showing the absence of goodness, peace, harmony, and safety in these places dominated by fear, disorder, and murder.

Reading is a beautiful act and can make a person mindful. This anthology gathers different voices about kindness, love, and connection. Of 112 poets, 13 have two poems, 4 have three, and 1 (the editor himself) has four. It would be kind to include more poets if each has just one poem in the book.

You can find the book here:

John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

Head-On by Rich Youmans


By John Zheng 

Rich Youmans’s Head-On is a fine, hand-sewn collection of 13 well-crafted haibun stories, each presenting an exquisite part strung together like sequences.

The title poem is about a couple driving one evening on the back road to the concert, but “the slow procession of cars” ahead of them “stretches through deepening twilight.” Youmans is good at describing the situation they are trapped in and using the couple’s dialogue as different responses to the slow traffic. While the husband mutters “Oh God,” the wife guesses, “Accident, maybe road work” Then the husband sounds a bit anxious, uttering “An hour at least.” Ironically, on the opposite lane, “white headlights rush them from around the bend—prisoners set free, running wild eyed into the night.” The metaphoric comparison enriches the poetic quality of this haibun. Then the haiku following the first paragraph complements the image of “white headlights” and extends what the husband sees in the side view mirror by juxtaposing the fading and flaring taillights with the steady star in the sky:

taillights fade

and flare . . .

            one steady star

The poet is skillful in using the concrete description to suggest the growth of anxiety. As the headlights behind them accumulate, and the situation becomes a stain on the whole wonderful day spent joyfully doing morning chores, watching the Red Sox game, and having a favorite dinner, the husband sounds even more impatient, “This is ridiculous.” Yet, the procession of cars barely crawls, and twilight fades into sparse stars. Forty minutes later, they just round the bend where they notice the accident suggested in the second haiku (“red lights beating / through soft pine—/ his pulse”), followed by a more vivid description of the tragic scene: “a station wagon, its front end nearly gone, its entire windshield burst; glass glitters across the blacktop as if all the stars had dropped. A rear door is open; near it, three white-shirted medics huddle over a sheeted figure.” Yet, the more tragic spot about this head-on is pointed to by the wife—

by the bright flare

a child’s sneaker,

its laces still tied

—which leads to an imagined detail of what has happened to the family in the accident. The couple seems to have a mood switch. The man is no longer concerned about the concert; instead, he keeps his eyes wide open on the road, and even “the insects flicking through the headlight beams” cannot escape his concentration. The wife “no longer hums her favorite Bach. They feel the pain of head-on. There comes a sudden realization of the importance of life, togetherness, and consciousness of each other, as shown in their hand touch.

“Odds” is again a poem about the tragic head-on. The title is proper as it is an odd thing that a small plane made an emergency landing on the highway and hit a minivan. The poem starts and ends with a one-line haiku respectively, each having a star image. In the first one, the star, which means the first morning light, is also the last wish to hold probably for the pilot and the van’s passengers. The second haiku functions like a continuation of the first haibun as if after the concert, while “taking the backroad home,” the man sees a single star that keeps pace or that reminds him to drive carefully. The prose part, however, weaves the persona’s breakfast cooking and his associative thinking of odd things coming to his mind one after another to reveal his psychological activity, thus establishing the conflict between the quiet breakfast time and the more stories of odd deaths flashing back.

The third haibun starts the poem itself with the title, which uses the concluding sentence “you cannot turn.” Since the ending doesn’t have a period, the word “turn” has a double meaning: The driver cannot turn to look at the person who taps on the window at the end of the poem nor can he turn the key in the ignition. Therefore, the ending without a period leaves a question to the reader about what has happened to the driver. In other words, it leaves a space for imagination to fill in, like the technique of empty space used in Chinese painting. Also, this shows how Youmans is good at crafting his title. He must know that a good title not only corresponds to what is presented in prose and haiku but also introduces the reader into the poem with a curious approach.

Stylistically, this poem uses flashbacks to connect the present situation to what happened in the past. The driver, who may be drunken or lost in the painful thought on a rainy night, recalls the woman he fell in love with at first sight when he sees in the rearview mirror “the starblue neon of the bar” where “her moss-green eyes” met his head-on.

Another stylistic technique that distinguishes this poem is that Youmans groups three one-line haiku together to highlight the romance of the two lovers:

      small talk   she turns all the loose change heads up

      shoulder to shoulder   sound of ice settling in her glass

      last call   her perfume and the stars lead you home

Then the vivid description of the time spent together leads to a surprise: another head-on which occurred after a drink one night at the bar: “in a single missed turn, all the lines were crossed and her hand slipped free.” Again, Youmans groups three one-line haiku to highlight the crash:

windshield   through a jagged hole, night rushes in

on your tongue   the taste of iron and her name

after the funeral   all the ceiling cracks lead nowhere

The two kinds of head-on, though the poet does not specify the second, seem to serve as suspense. The romantic head-on keeps the reader interested but leads to an unexpected, tragic head-on. The next characteristic is that Youmans uses no uppercase letters in the title and at the beginning of each sentence. His intention, I guess, is to keep a smooth flow of the story woven with flashbacks.

Also, one prominent characteristic of Head-On is the use of one-line haiku. Out of 38 haiku, 25 are one-liners. Some of Youmans’s haiku serve as both preludes and postludes, as in “Odds” and “Long After Eye Surgery, the Blind Woman Daydreams,” some as interludes, as in “you cannot turn” and “Depth Perception,” and the rest of them as interludes and postludes in the traditional way, as in the other 9 haibun.

Another impressive technique is the memorable, metaphoric comparisons. In “Head-On,” “glass glitters across the blacktop as if all the stars had dropped;” in “you cannot turn,” “her eyelids snapped shut, quick as a lizard’s;” in “Finding Bach in the Pine Barrens,” points of light of the house lamps behind trees are fireflies; and in “Dance with Me,” the “shoulder aches like a bad tooth.”

Youmans is an excellent storyteller. His stories, though short in one or four paragraphs, are full of details, concrete descriptions, vivid visual images, surprises with aha moments, and suggestions. In a word, Head-On deserves a reading head-on.

You can find the book here:

John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.

Indebted to Wind by L.R. Berger


By John Zheng

What flows through L.R. Berger’s Indebted to Wind is the sensibility presented in each poem. It is a physical and emotional response to what the poet sees, experiences, and feels, a visual chord struck in her senses. This sensibility urges Berger to express through images and evokes the reader to experience or revisualize what she gains through her conscious looking.

The title poem, “Indebted to Wind,” brings what the wind carries: the “dandelion silk dispatching seed” and the “neighbor’s trashcan lid… / hurled in a tempest / against the bedroom window.” The definitions that wind offers are “howling, love cry, / lamentation,” inviting associative thinking about the human characteristics of wind. This sensibility juxtaposes nature with human nature with such a visual effect in this stanza:

When love unbuttoned your blouse
wind did the rest
fumbling through the aspens

Here, the wind functions like a gentle lover. If it evokes a memorable scene in the past, it also blows to the future and “tutors your own breath / to extinguish the flame” of an unhappy relationship or an unrequited love.

Wind has been a favorite image for poets. My favorite poems are Emily Dickinson’s “The Wind Tapped Like a Tired Man” and James Stephens’ “The Wind.” Both poets personify the wind to show weariness and temper. In Berger’s poem, wind, as an element of nature, acts kinetically. It dispatches, wakes, hurls, howls, cries, tutors, extinguishes, fumbles, stings, whips, and lifts, activating the human experiences or encounters with nature. Therefore, what Berger presents through the image of wind is the visual sensibility to nature and human nature.

“Wind Breaks into the House” is another wind poem. It is a lyric that describes the mess caused by the wind: papers driven off the desk, paragraphs plastered against walls, and stanzas blown into corners of chaos. But the poet catches the moment to experience the wind by unzipping her sweatshirt to let it sweep through her body with whatever it picks from the fields it passes. This unzipping is then a way to open the mind to nature, to be with nature, and to be a part of nature.

“38th and Chicago” is a poem using the image of the personified wind. It is a tribute to the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The title mentions the two street names, at the intersection of which the murder occurred. The poet re-envisions the murder with the focus on the knee that kills Floyd. The humanized wind which embodies the killed begs the police not to clench tight, but the officer refuses to give an opening for the wind to wedge. The poet smartly sets up the contrast of the sympathetic wind against the brutal knee. While the wind becomes humanized, the officer becomes dehumanized by clenching tight. Wind, as the poet says in another poem, “Ask Anybody,” is “God’s great source / of subsequently / visible gestures.” Yet, the personified wind in “38th and Chicago” is killed by the knee on its neck, revealing a conflict between nature and human nature.

While poems about wind are apparent in Berger’s collection, other poems about sensibility are also worth reading. “Palliative Care” is one that describes human nature in a difficult situation. It uses the apostrophe to address Hal to express a feeling and an experience both sweet and bitter. It is divided into eight numbered sections, each focusing on a part of the patient’s physical, emotional, or spiritual state, as seen in section 1:


And God could sometimes be found
in your final watercolor
propped up and facing us
on the sill of the hospital window—
its suggestion of wintered trees
fracturing banks of blue
while under a tent of white sheet
you faded like fugitive colors.


The speaker consciously seeks a way of showing concerns and a way of optimizing the quality of life through palliative care. In a sense, this poem deals with the difficult time of death and the sensibility to the true meaning of existence.

The second section focuses on the spiritual state of the patient who, though lying on the sickbed like fugitive colors of Hal’s final watercolor, smiles with the shining eyes which “were steady blue flares up ahead / on the gravel of night’s back road.” His smile is contagious and has the power to change everybody’s mood. His good spirit or optimism makes him strong in dealing

Wearing the face of the jilted
you woke each morning
to find death stood you up.

In the next section, the speaker imagines the daily changes in the health condition of the patient imagined as a wooden broom, a sleeping prince, and one “fallen nestling, featherless, / still breathing splayed” or one with “a living face / of Christ crucified.” Here, wind appears as an image of death, trying to take him away by “circling the hospital / with something like intention, whirlpool of winter…” Section 5 presents the thought of the speaker, her exhaustion from caring for the sick, and her dream “about birds [they] don’t have.” But whatever comes next is inevitable and must be faced. The last two stanzas of section 5 are repeated in the last section.

A reader may notice that blue is the color in section 6. With its function to string all sections, blue adds a touch of sadness when the blue sky is fractured by winter trees in section 1, shines in the patient’s eyes in section 2, and offers a blurry sheen like chicory weed and forget-me-not. To both characters, each is a forget-me-not in each other’s eyes, as their life is a companionship of blue, shining, blooming, tolling till their last conversation.

Section 7 is like the speaker’s confession in a bitter and difficult tone:

Once you stopped breathing so long
I crossed the room
whispering finale, meaning finally.
Then you gasped like a newborn
gulping his first fist of air.


It is ironic that while death is an inevitable finale of life, the dying person’s desire to live is still as strong as a newborn’s. The palliative care lasts for forty days and nights. During this time, “sometimes the heft of a word’s / true meaning comes to find us.” Yet, when death finally comes, the meaning of the word is just a moment of now, a finale whispered, or metaphorically, the dappled light of the virgin forest finally leaves. Sadness stays and departs at the same time as the light of blue finally fades. “Palliative Care” deserves careful reading, yet one question that haunts this reviewer is why a couple of stanzas reappear in different sections. I guess the poet must have a reason for that.

In brief, Berger’s poems are indebted to nature and reveal human sensibility, something that seems to have gradually faded in today’s human society.

You can find the book here:

John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.



Delta Tears by Philip Kolin

By John  Zheng
Since his retirement a few years ago, Philip Kolin has been steadily adding to his prolific canon of 40 books on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and African American playwrights as well as his poetry. With his 11th book of poems, Delta Tears, Kolin has once more explored the Mississippi River and its poetic tributaries.

The first poem, titled “The Mississippi River’s Proclamations,” is written in the first-person exclamation: “I am the Father of Rivers…. I am the heart of remembrance…. I am a road with infinite shores…. I sing bottomless blues for porous shadows.” The personified river switches its role in another poem, “The River’s Music,” which “plays in its dark depths… / still and sad, shriveled waves, / a procession of mourners” for the sorrow of the people living in the Mississippi Delta, yet it also “turns into a flowing symphony / dressed for a storied night of revelries.”

In contrast to the proud voice or the sad voice heard from “The Mississippi River’s Proclamations” and “The River’s Music,” the one heard from “You Can Trust a River” carries an ironic tone. The Mississippi no longer utters in a definite voice; instead, it becomes a silent listener. In a sense, it functions like a confessional for humans, good or bad, to reveal their secrets, as the poet narrates,
You can trust the Mississippi
with your secrets.
It speaks the language of silence
to protect voices even when
they are blindfolded.
Sinners have confessed deeply to the river—
betrayals and crimes
never to come to light in this world;
words from shriven mouths
stored in muddy vaults
and weed-anchored banks.


Can sins be washed away by the silent river? Can sinners feel peace from their confessions? The answer can be found in the following stanza:

The Mississippi is a coroner, too,
stacking the secrets of rubbery bodies
on top of each other; unweaned infants;
love-thwarted suicides;
black men lynched at sundown;
drowned fugitives; capsized sailors,
eyes gouged out by garfish and snapping turtles.

Here Kolin imagines the Mississippi as a coroner stacking the bodies from the suffering, the killing, and the missing, suggesting that the river can be “the darkest place on earth” in the sinners’ hearts as well as “the longest tear duct in America / filled with unshared sorrows / and lost dreams…” The concluding one-line stanza emphasizes that the river never asks the reason for these sorrows, but it does associate the river with a killing scene where dark things are done by humans.

Two poems restage the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After months of heavy rain, the flood-swollen river breached its levee at Mound Landing in the Mississippi Delta. The destructive waters affected especially the life of African Americans. Many of them were drowned when they were ordered to stay on the levee fighting the flood. Kolin describes a vivid scene in the first-person narration in “The Great Flood of 1927.” The narrator tells in a black voice that his father “swilled cotton dust / all his sharecropper life” but

When the flood came he was worse off
than the creosote-hide mule that
got a reserved seat on a rescue barge
when the river evacuated white folks
This stanza sets up a striking contrast between a black man and a mule to sharpen our minds on the sufferings and the meaning of existence in a sorrowful time in history in the Mississippi Delta. The second contrast is set up between the whites and the blacks. While the white folks can escape by a rescue boat, the black people can only be drowned as they try to save the white people’s belongings, as presented in the following two stanzas:
while we black men were ordered to stay
on the levee grabbing sandbags
with our hands, arms, and shoulders
as we tried pushing the Mississippi
back from frowning white fields
and houses all night long—we heaved
the waves back while our mouths
filled with mud and blood.
Isn’t this description of African Americans’ miseries also an elegy of humanities, the river, the Mississippi Delta, or the memory forsaken by time?

In brief, Kolin’s Delta Tears is a place that stores memories, reminding us of the history and life in the Mississippi Delta. Many poems are muddy tears “lengthening the suits of sorrow” with “generations of misery;” they are also pearls coated in silt.” Therefore, reading this book is a process to heighten the perception of history.

You can find the book here:

John (Jianqing) Zheng published A Way of Looking and Conversations with Dana Gioia in 2021. His poetry has appeared in Hanging Loose, Mississippi Review, Poetry South, Tar River among others. He is the editor of Journal of Ethnic American Literature.

All The Songs We Sing – Edited by Lenard D. Moore

book cover
By John Zheng
All the Songs We Sing is an anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective founded and directed by Lenard D. Moore, a noted poet and ardent community leader. It includes forty-one authors, out of the total of the Collective’s eighty-four members.
The editor selects works with diverse themes—civil rights, social justice, culture, pride, tradition, history, and race—which provide different angles to see and ponder the human world and happenings. For example, Kim Arrington’s “When I Consider the Open Casket” reiterates the murder of Emmitt Till with a description of the mutilated corpse in the casket which shocked the whole world, while Janice W. Hodges’ “Love Poem” written for E. Ethelbert Miller is a song reflecting Black Arts aesthetic:
dark-faced child
your history beats
like saturated love songs
dripping innocent slave boy’s blood
sorrow and sweetness
as rich as Africa’s ethos
like a dying eye
for hollow trees
dried kinked and knotted
like aging lovers’ hands
where darkness
is as beautiful
A favorite song is Adrienne Christian’s “portrait of pin, or blush.” It’s like a snapshot about an elderly couple at a bistro. They are “in jeans, leather / bomber jackets, and heeled boots” and getting up from their stools to leave. The images in stanzas 2 and 3 suggest an appreciation for love:
him behind her,
his bomber jacket zipper
a spine at her back,
him wrapping on her scarf
the heart-shaped cookie she nibbled
the shape of her mouth,
that cookie, puffy,
with still-soft icing white and rose.
Images function to suggest so that a reader sees or feels through the mind’s eye. The association of the heart-shaped cookie with the shape of the mouth shifts to the soft and colorful icing offers a moment to enlighten the observer to ponder in the final stanza, “I learned / the anthropology of blush.”
This anthology includes haiku and haibun, two Japanese poetic forms, which catch moments of sensibility to nature and human nature, as exemplified by “hiking trail / sweet smell of gardenias / enters my nose” by Valeria Bullock, “near the ruins / of St. Agnes Hospital / magnolia blooms” by Sheila Smith McKoy, and “plantation tour— / I follow the swallowtail / to the slave house” by Crystal Simone Smith. It also includes sonnets. Camille T. Dungy’s “What to Eat, What to Drink, and What to Leave for Poison” distinguishes itself as a sonnet corona, a sequence of seven linked by using the last line of the previous sonnet as the beginning line of the next and concluded with the first line of the first sonnet as the last line of the final sonnet. Dungy’s sequence sings for the beauty of spring, as the last sonnet presents:
Daffodils are up, my God! What beauty
concerted down on us last night. And if
I sleep again, I’ll wake to a louder
blossoming, the symphony smashing down
hothouse walls, and into the world: music
something like the birds’ return, each morning’s
crescendo rising toward its brightest pitch,
colors unfurling, petals alluring.
The song, the color, the rising ecstasy
of spring. My God. This beauty. This, this
is what I’ve hoped for. All my life is here
in the unnamed core—dogwood, daffodil,
tulip poplar, crab apple, crepe myrtle—
only now, in spring, can the place be named.
In the fiction section, the catchy title of Tracie M. Feller’s “When the Stars Begin to Fall” is a line of an African American spiritual. It reads like a memoir that takes a reader back to history: a girl growing up, singing in the church, attending school, taking a walk with a young man who is part of her world, and filling Nana’s shoes to run the household. The surprise ending with the young man appearing at her door suggests an expectation that all’s well that ends well.
In the nonfiction section, Lenard D. Moore’s “An Onslow County Tradition” brings us fond memories of eating good food, gardening, fishing, and cooking. Food is fresh and delicious with the joy of gardening. Read this description:
I tended the garden—weeding, hilling, watering, and raking—until the waist-high and shoulder-high plants yielded their output. Always on the ground, cucumber, watermelon and cantaloupe vines sprawled all over the plot. Pole beans wrapped around the slender poles…. Like others in our African American community, we often ate from our garden. There was no talk of going to the grocery store for vegetables. After harvesting what we wanted from the garden, we sat on the front porch where we snapped or shelled beans and shucked corn with our father. All we knew was eating fresh food out of the garden.
The celebration of food surely presents a view of family gathering and harmonious kinship. Moore reminisces that his father exemplifies himself for manhood and fatherhood: “I knew that he knew what fatherhood was all about, and he demonstrated how to be a good provider and a great father.” His father cooked delicious food for him, and now he cooks for his own child and siblings. In a sense, Moore’s piece shows a continuation of tradition through the celebration of food.
In conclusion, All the Songs We Sing symbolizes an accomplishment of a literary mission through the collective voices of the Carolina African American writers. It’s a great addition to contemporary American literature, a tapestry woven with language, imagery, and genres, and an album of songs about “Black existence, Black memory, and all the liminal spaces in-between,” as Jaki Shelton Green says in the foreword. It’s worth reading indeed.
John (Jianqing) Zheng published A Way of Looking and Conversations with Dana Gioia in 2021. His poetry has appeared in Hanging Loose, Mississippi Review, Poetry South, Tar River among others. He is the editor of Journal of Ethnic American Literature.