By Mary C McCarthy
In “Red Truck Bear” Richard Nester asks the most necessary of questions: what, like the moon, is in plain sight, yet unfathomable? The moon hides nothing, thinks nothing of us, looks back at us “with no discovery on its mind at all/ and even less concealment.” The moon, like the world we inhabit, is opaque in its stubborn “thingness,” cares nothing for us as we weave our webs of choice and action in its reflected light. In the wickedly funny “Wild”, forsythia, that early flowering plant often welcomed as harbinger of the new season, becomes a devouring nightmare, product “from a mating of kudzu with barbed wire.” Here nature is neither benign nor indifferent but actively malevolent. We are counseled to “Forget its pastoral sham,” beauty disguising the fact that “Forsythia hates you,” intends only its own good, and will gleefully overrun all your hopes and plans, punish you with slashes, poke out your eyes, finally even “devour houses and spit out the bricks.” Completely unsympathetic to us and our cherished sensitivities “It will eat your dog.”
All a hilarious exaggeration, yet the kernel of truth it proclaims can’t be denied. Empathy is only possible in the human world, not inherent in nature, and when it exists at all it is an “itty-bitty seed,” rare and hard, small and yet essential for any dream of the future. The job of the poet and storyteller is to make something out of the “Indecipherable,” to “convince you of your own indecipherable worth.”–”so you can go on and not give up.” Poetry may be like prayer, holy and essential, a saving grace.
Humanity, empathy, justice, love, all the hard things these poems strive to find and define, while illuminating their complexity and challenge. What we know is that “broke things stay broken,” and the enormous task of healing is an arduous process, where the damaged “have to be cleaned one breathing bird at a time” The theme of restoration occurs again and again in the idea of cleaning, of making things clean, even though “Clean” is an invitation to dirt, and “Too much cleaning up and one starts to see dirt everywhere.” To clean something becomes an act of faith and love, an insistence on hope. It is interesting that the principal character in the poems who does this restorative act is the poet’s “Dementia Stricken Mother, “who could make already clean things sparkle, and “shine like gospel in a new revelation.” Maybe we should all aspire to the kind of saintly “industrious joy” that loves the world so well “everything can be restored.”
In the series of shorter pieces under “Grudge” Nester demonstrates the power of inertia,
The stubborn resistance to change that keeps broken things broken. In stories about his father he explores the result of remaining mired in old and ungenerous assumptions. Stuck, his father cannot change, and the generations remain strangers unable to meet, share or collaborate on a future. The result is “nothing coming of nothing” unhealed, persistent isolation.
How can we escape this separation, plumb the indescribable space between the self and the world? That challenge comes from a cultural habit, the “Science Method.” To the Cherokee shaman that space doesn’t exist, he is never alone, but continuous with the natural world. For Western man, the existentialist, that space is an unbridgeable chasm, “our gift, only the gray form of a penetrating ignorance we were proud of.” Habit and theory are prisons, “not the key, but the lock.” Freedom is threatened by the familiar, though that familiar may be terrible, it is what we’re used to, what imagination chokes on.
As we live always hungry, always “at the starving end of something” we may only have a choice of addictions, where “Everything that lives is addicted to something.” The best we can do may be to choose our addiction purposefully, eyes wide open. Love something, “bite hard on the hook of something you love that loves you back and doesn’t lie.” We are like the praying mantis who chewed a frame for his head from a leaf, always seeing the world as frame for our image. Can we do more than preen, are we the universe reflecting on itself while “munching our green hopes”?
Perhaps our place is not in death and distance, but in love, which “keeps no calendar.”
Love can be our mirror, and the stories we share, even reluctantly, the fires to warm us. Stories are powerful acts, and shouldn’t be told “with your back turned.” A good novel carries us off and returns the world to us new, remade, and reimagined. In “Reckoning” singing birds teach us to reckon as they do, to see ourselves as “of little consequence beside important song, as by a great river.” Ultimately what we have and what persists is there always outside the window, “the exquisite world,” a wonder we are also part of, that might even “for the smallest instant” have depended on us being there, seeing, reflecting, loving and creating. There lies true restoration.
You can get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Red-Truck-Bear-Richard-Nester/dp/1950462749/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&qid=1635534873&qsid=140-5063485-5152802&refinements=p_27%3ARichard+Nester&s=books&sr=1-3&sres=B096TN7H7W%2C1909916315%2C1950462749%2C1949229319%2C1909916110%2C0615951864%2C0692743626%2CB0006QVHPK%2CB001GTABCQ%2C1718192878&text=Richard+Nester
Mary McCarthy is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Third Wednesday, Verse Virtual, Earth’s Daughters and The Ekphrastic Review.
By Yamini Pathak
John Bing’s debut poetry collection, Time Signatures (Kelsay Books, 2021), comes into the world in a year filled with pain – a global pandemic, the ugly aftermath of an ugly election, and too many expressions of racial violence. The poems in this book feel like a long, cool drink of water. They bring me to a place of stillness and healing.
Bing’s Afghan poems bring to light the rugged character and rough beauty of a place that nowadays is so often associated with violence and trauma. The poet came to Afghanistan as a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer, and the poems shine with an awareness of gifts both received and given. In “The Water Carrier”, he writes,
“I sat with new friends in full winter, eating dried fruits on a low covered table
While underneath, a bukhari with hot embers kept the cold at bay.”
In Afghan Pantoum, he captures the sweetness of finding a temporary home in unlikely places:
“Then spring came, mulberry trees in bloom.
After sitting in a hidden garden in Herat
I began to feel at home.”
On the opposite end of the world, just as faithfully captured, are the landscape of New Mexico and the cycle of seasons in the desert. Bing’s language is as brightly colored as the “turquoise glints” and the “blue flax flowers” that await the monsoon. I am possessed with the energies of the land as he rejoices,
“when at last the sky turns to gray
and water horsetails down in sheets
the arroyos run.”
Like “a long pendulum swinging between my past and my future”, the poems swing between past and present and carry intimations of the future. They trace his grandparents’ escape from Nazi Germany to the US. With his characteristic empathy, Bing turns our attention to those whose families were not lucky enough to have made it out alive. Throughout this collection, we are reminded how delicate the border is between life and death. Bing’s compassion extends to the natural world, as he mourns big and small losses. In “Moving On or Entropy”, he names “the black rhino, the ibex lost in the slime” and talks of forest fires “that blacken and cinder the oak and pine.” He realizes that time takes all, even loved voices, “rich as vintage wine.” Especially moving are love poems written to his grandparents, father, and his wife.
The author incorporates challenging traditional forms such as villanelles and a pantoum as well as a series of ekphrastic poems. One of my favorites, “Near the Borders,” is based on a painting by Frida Kahlo. It issues a warning:
“everybody lives near the border,
Especially those who believe they live safely
on the right side.”
These poems notice and praise small wonders, the “bright blue bowl of dark-red cherries,” that we encounter in our lives, all the while carrying an awareness of the inevitable mortality of all things, especially ourselves. Yet this knowledge of the end is not in the least disturbing. It is held gently, with the ease of acceptance and revealed to us, his readers, like a gift.
You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/time-signatures
Yamini Pathak is the author of the chapbook, Atlas of Lost Places (Milk and Cake Press). Her micro-chapbook Breath Fire Water Song is forthcoming in the Ghost City Press Summer 2021 Micro Chapbook Series. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Waxwing, Anomaly, The Kenyon Review blog, Jaggery, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor for the Inch chapbook series published by Bull City Press and an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Yamini is an alumnus of VONA/Voices (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) and Community of Writers.
By Charles Rammelkamp
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poems-Argentina-David-Francis/dp/1950462404
Patricia Carragon’s debut novel, Angel Fire, is from Alien Buddha Press and her latest book from Poets Wear Prada is Meowku. Patricia hosts Brownstone Poets and is the editor-in-chief of its annual anthology. She is an executive editor for Home Planet News Online. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. For more information about Ms. Carragon and her reading series, www.brownstonepoets.blogspot.com and at
At The Northeast Times
At The Philadelphia Inquirer
What others say about The Handheld Mirror of the Mind:
Poetry of global dreaming. Life on earth is under threat and Diane Sahms-Guarnieri makes a poetic call for the survival of humans and all animal species, life on the endangered list. We are all connected and interdependent. Our past teaches us core lessons for the future. Now is the time to take action to preserve life on the global home we share. Diane’s poetry is a celebration of this life, inside and out.
—Martin Chipperfield, 34thParallel Magazine
Diane Sahms-Guarnieri is a stunning wordsmith. In her collection, The Handheld Mirror of the Mind, we journey through themes of loss, grief, our shared humanity, and the complexities of the inner life. With great tenderness and lyricism, Guarnieri skillfully navigates these topics. Her graceful descriptions of the natural world provide a vivid magic, as if painting with words. In one poem, Guarnieri refers to stars, “as pinprick diamonds mined out of/night’s cave—luminous studs/riveted through black velvet.” She deals with death and the expectation of loss with care, infusing the life of nature, as in the line, “Your dusty voice rising as spirit leaving mimosa.” There is also great comfort, as in the refrain of the poem, “As long as a heart is beating someone is always alive.” While dealing with human struggles, this collection offers hope. Guarnieri invites us to honor all beings, all creatures, and all understandings of faith by joining together, “as global dreamers in coexistence.”
—Cristina M. R. Norcross, Editor of Blue Heron Review; author of Amnesia and Awakenings and Still Life Stories, among others.
“What does a heart know anyway?” Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s lucid and brave fourth full-length collection The Handheld Mirror of the Mind wrestles with this question, as love and loss pass as naturally as the seasons. Through elegy and aubade, the speaker turns her gaze inward, interrogating the darkness. However, as she sifts through memory’s wreckage, there are patches of light and hope, of song. As the speaker reconciles: “I carry their song inside my body,/inside rhapsody of thoughts….To them I sing this easy truth.”
—Emari DiGiorgio, author of Girl Torpedo and The Things a Body Might Become
The Handheld Mirror of the Mind:
By Don Thompson
This is dark stuff. The opening poem of Joseph Zaccardi’s new collection, The Weight of Bodily Touches, seems to be offered as a warning so that the tender-hearted might proceed no farther. In “To Feast on the Flesh of Decay”, a farmer’s wife exhumes the bones of a miscarried baby to “suckle my loss” and then “eats the grave dust under her own nails”. Some readers of this review will no doubt stop right here.
But I wonder about the source of such darkness. Usually it’s a kind of posturing that intends to shock for its own sake—a variety of grand guignol. But in these poems, it’s a genuine and almost compulsive response to the—well, horror that surrounds us. Zaccardi looks closely at things most of us studiously ignore or see as social issues that provide an opportunity to do good from a distance. In these poems we witness human consciousness barely holding itself together in the face of suffering that just is. No one to blame. Not much to be done.
“The Sound the Tree Makes” turns out to be a scream and the answer to Bishop Berkeley’s question that even if no human hears it, the other trees do. And this is only a tree—perhaps ridiculous if Zaccardi hadn’t given us such a vivid description of the tortures inflicted on logs in a lumber mill. When he focuses on human suffering in “ICU”, we’re forced to see the awfulness of hospitals that we try to pretend isn’t there among the pastels and smooth jazz: “…a gurney casting chirps down a corridor…while IVs beep and air whistles from tap holes” and “a defibrillator delivers doses of electric current to undo a flatliner”.
In all this, Zaccardi exhibits a craftsman’s skill with the unpunctuated, run-on prose poem. We are carried long by the ebb and flow of rhythms rather than bogged down in the usual unreadable clot. This gives the poems tension—an odd exhilaration that runs counter to their grim subject matter. And he does make an effort to reach some sort of quietness if not peace of mind in the final section, which shifts tone radically to pay homage to classical Chinese poetry. But it’s too little too late to offset the preceding darkness.
And yet, like the spiders he writes about in “Circle and Alchemy”, his work is both “beautiful and hair-raising”. Although their webs and our lives are fragile and tear apart easily, we “rebuild because there is so much left.”
You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/the-weight-of-bodily-touches
Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks. For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.