north of oxford book review

Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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Redaction and Inquiry
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There has been a trend in recent decades of what has popularly been called New Age thinking and the idea that science and spirituality are not antithetical, challenging approaches to traditional Western thought purported since the dawn of The Enlightenment. Prior to that time of bustling scientific discoveries, technological advancements and industrialization, humans were much more intricately linked between the machinations of the physical world and the workings of the cosmos. More current views are harkening back to that conventional wisdom and, in many ways, modern inquiry can now substantiate the facts of our interconnectedness, spirit and science yoked together intricately within our experience of the cosmos. 
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There is extensive debate about the efficacy of theories supporting these assumptions, with much inability to reach consensus. Magdalena Ball’s new poetry collection, “Unmaking Atoms,” might just be the kind of unifying force that is needed. Bridging the hard, concrete world with our abstract interior one, Ball seeks to deconstruct what we use from the physical environment as confirmation and ballast for our existence in contrast to the illusive, mystical world of the unknown. She juxtaposes emotions and memory with sensory perceptions evoking a quantum leap of sorts, seeking a crossroads where answers might be possible. We need poetry to explore these seemingly inaccessible and polarized forces, amidst a mass of contradictions, in ways theses and academic abstracts often cannot.
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“Unmaking Atoms” is a very ambitious work of seven sections and ninety-one poems. There is a relentless insistency and emotional intensity in these poems, a genuine and heartfelt plea that implicates us and demands our engagement. In “The Last Report of the Day,” the opening poem, Ball invokes poetic lineage in Adrienne Rich with an deference to maternal guidance. Addressing Rich she states, “…you became every mother/I had ever lost” (P. 6, ll.13-14). In facing the inevitable demise of physical loss, this is Ball’s anchor—to grieve, seek solace and often acceptance in the creative landscape of the poet. Throughout the book Ball derives substantiation in the words of other poets and writers such as Elizabeth Bishop in “Charitable Crumb” and Edna St. Vincent Millay in “Luminous Air,” and many others in an effort to reside in good company in a world without definitive resolution. In the lovely prose poem “Essential Whites,” Ball expresses the angst and striving of a writer, the conflicts and challenges, and the endless hope for inspiration: “Writing this way, while waiting for transition is like the swipe of a hand against my face: that blessed sting” (P. 93, ll. 1-2).
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The constant tension in these poems is inherent in the exploration between perception and reality, “…as if this alien moon were the moon” (“Right Angles to Reality,” P. 10, l. 8), and with some resignation, in “Catalyst,” we remain “…subject to reactivity/and mathematical constructs.” (P. 13, ll. 28-29). But Ball continues to strive for resolution between two worlds as evidenced in the wonderful tactile imagery of “Salting the Wound” as she reflects, “A memory of moon settles/liquid and silvery into my skin” (P. 19, ll. 17-18). In “Encroachment Spells Erosion” (after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake) the geocentric title attempts to yoke us to solid evidence as in the lines “…the world’s a cell/very ordinarily designed/a song of alibi…” (P. 32 ll. 5-7). In “Life Dreaming” she says this more directly, a scientist’s desire to see life in basic, clear terms in opposition to the discomfort of the doubtful mind: “…a secular prayer to calm the pain of change” (P. 34, l. 24). Often there is further acceptance as in “Harnessing Wind” which captures optimism in natural wonder and acknowledgement of mysteries.
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There are many poems that might have worked well as a completely separate 
volume on loss, specifically maternal loss. “Irrational Heart” is a soulful, exquisite elegy with the supplication “…anything to negotiate the hurt” (P. 26, l. 69) and with homage to lineage in “I might share this knowing with my daughter/when she’s in need of a god/and no male/armed with a pocket full of tools/will do…” (P. 26, ll. 137-141). An example of a very long poem that keeps us moving through it effortlessly with anticipation and empathy is “Hieroglyphics,” and in “Nature’s Observatory” in a reversal of inheritance, “…the air took your breath/a reverse offering” (P. 88, ll. 2-3). “Probability Waves” expresses the frustration of loss with a stubborn resistance against all reason and outcomes: “…if I never know/then all things are possible” (P. 92, ll. 26-27), and “In Situ” highlights this frustration in juxtaposed images: “…there was much to do/but nothing more to be done” (P. 94, l. 3) and serves as a nice complement to “…an aging child/counting losses” in “Image of the day” (P. 107, ll. 21-22). The theme of impermanency gathers momentum in “Past Life” with stars as hypergiants “…burning through billions of lives” (P. 12, l. 22) asking “Is the connection between us/me in this life/you in another/so tenuous/un-tethered by those bonds/we once thought permanent?” (ll. 33-38). As Ball asks us in “Atomic Mess” in direct, plaintive language, “…does inheritance/provide solace” (P. 11, ll. 25-26)? The maternal loss might best be expressed with a good balance of emotion and imagery in “Mourner’s Kaddish”:
“For me you’ll always be in motion,/standing in the bright/light of your kitchen,/the percolated aroma,/cut cake,/a ready joke” (P. 70, ll. 27-29). Ball excavates deeply in an essential and noble undertaking of dismantling bereavement, meaning and recovery.
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There are many words and expressions throughout the book that are illuminating but will likely require the reader to be curious enough to look them up, some being more accessible within the context of the poem and others less so. For example, “Mandlebrot” referring to absolute numbers (P. 9, l. 19), “Enceladus,” the sixth largest moon of Saturn (P. 10, l. 9), and “synecdoche,” (P. 10, l. 25), a part of something referring to the whole. In “Trojan Horse” there are obscure references throughout, at least to most of us, as in (P. 24, l. 15 ) “…on a Gantt or Pareto” but then followed by the incisive “…the waiting executive team/of the soul” (P. 24, ll. 16-17). “Mirror Neurons” has words like “thigmonasty,” (the response of a plant to touch or movement) quite dense to linguistically integrate for the less energetic reader.
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Occasionally there is a somewhat inaccessible joining of imagery and language such as “…running, like Buddha himself/into glory…” (P. 18, ll. 16-17) and the obvious rhyme scheme of “…from perception to conception” (P. 18, l. 6), Herceg/Ball Review/P. 6 both from “Beginner’s Mind,” but then the lovely “…leaving me with all this/responsibility/all this breath” (P. 18, ll. 19-21). Alliteration is used effectively as in “Irrational Heart” in the lines “With closed eyes, I watered the weeping/willow…” (P. 26, ll. 1-2). Imagery works well in “Static” between shocks of ghostly memories and physical evidence of those memories, and “Landscape at Pentecost” is a good example of conveying an emotion and impression through concise, accessible symbolism. “In The Frame” evokes nicely a snapshot of memory with clear, simple visuals like “…olive-hued chain” (P. 37, l. 11) and “…dusky teal” (P. 37, l. 14). And scientific references work well as in these lines from “Walking Into Eternity” which are precise yet defining: “…all things change under pressure/silica and calcium carbonate/call it entropy/that elegant word for chaos/disorder, decay…” (P. 33, ll. 6-10).
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There is the ongoing hint of conflict between the poet’s vocation and the mundane obligations of daily life in motherhood, children, running a household: “I could put something/in place to serve/a replica/doing dishes/with the same earnest/lack of care” (“Planet Nine,” P. 108, ll. 4-9). “Ascetic Stitch” expresses this dilemma of maternity, being stuck in the ordinary and commonplace, hording provisions against potential disasters, deceiving oneself: “I keep pretending I’m different” (P. 51, l. 22), often putting aspirations aside while justifying obligations. In “Orthonym” there is the poet’s potential unraveling back, possibly only to find she is  “…lost in that lonely place/where skin meets bone” (P. 17, ll. 40-41), with maternal confusion amidst marriages, names and identities. “A Cloud Withdrew” conveys a genuine sense of detriment and missed connection and has a sensuality to it: “…slippery like liquid,” (P. 72, l. 7), “…your elemental self/water vapour/my face wet/the sky empty” (P. 72, ll. 15-18); “…finding you only through redaction” (P. 72, ll. 23-24). In “Möbius Strip,” a surface with only one side and one boundary, the desire to look to the corporeal world for affirmations and how they fall short of answers bemoans loss that cannot be quantified: “…I crawl, an unborn child, blind and hungry/back around the fold towards this place of darkness/this gap” (P. 57, ll. 20-22) and, in “Dark Matter Wants to be Alone,” Ball echoes again this unknown place with options open: “As dark matter’s mysterious ghost/I inhabit two worlds/feed two hearts,/hedging bets/just in case one proves to be real/the beater; the keeper” (P. 64, ll. 37-41).
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This subtle confidence continues in “inanimate,” a wonderfully concise poem, words parsed judiciously, a hesitant homage to optimism in the observation of our interconnectedness with the elements. In fact we join in this communion and do not hold the rights to benevolence in “…that all things/even the inanimate/responded to compassion” (P. 63, ll. 20-22). Ball states directly in “Stargazy” that we are the stuff as made from stars, buoyed by science and spiritual implication, as when she observes, ”In the end,/we’re all like you/burning up our fuel/collapsing after what feels like/ten thousand years…” (P. 69, ll. 7-10). And in “Venus in the East Before Sunrise” she tells us the uninvited is “still beautiful” (P. 73, ll. 35-36).
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Unmaking Atoms is a thought-provoking work, its natural inclination to scientific inquiry applying a probative and penetrating analysis of our vast universe and the limitless spectrum of its human inhabitants without sacrificing genuine emotion.  A nostalgic longing permeates these poems, where the pragmatic mind examines and the poetic one questions. Practical applications that attempt to explain the inexplicable as in “Most of Everything is Nothing,” emphasize the striving: “I watched my tools float/soundless down some river” (P. 41, ll. 7-8). Ball navigates the frustrations well and laments “…there are some places/even a poet can’t go” (P. 92, ll. 15-16). She even states directly, in “Fractals of Fractals,” that “I wrote this book myself/at the atomic scale of pain” (P. 110, ll. 12-13). With “Intelligent Equations,” the last poem of the book, the poet confesses she is “…lost in time/waiting for answers” (P. 114, ll. 29-30), an honest, heartfelt admission. Ball manages to examine and rest in that space most admirably.
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You can find the book here:
 
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About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.
 

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

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Reviewed by Stephen Page

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As I am browsing around a bookstore, I pick up Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, because another writer recommended the book to me.  It is simplistically written. It is geared for high-school or freshmen-college students (but, I am sure that is Oliver’s intent). The first couple of chapters are short and low-attention spanning, but by chapter 7 they expand and deepen.  There are some important points made in the book, even in the first six chapters:

Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is also true of painters, sculptors, musicians.,  something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious . . . still, painters, sculptors (poets) and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  Whatever can’t be taught, and there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned . . . This book is about the things that can be learned.  It is about matters of craft . . . this book is written in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills.

The book is written with the idea of teaching basic poetic skills, philosophies, and exercises, so it’s a great book for novice writers, or for teachers of novice writers.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Handbook-Mary-Oliver/dp/0156724006/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

 

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

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Review by Richard Nester
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Judy Kronenfeld’s narrative powers are on full display in her latest collection, Bird Flying through the Banquet, a book whose central concerns are signaled by its cover art, a recasting of Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Peasant Wedding. Kronenfeld’s approach is ekphrastic with regard to multiple mediums, primarily visual, but musical also, as the book’s cover art presents a complex chord that the book’s contents both riff on and elaborate.
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A close look at this opening chord shows how complicated it is. Two ideas stand out: first, there is the Venerable Bede’s assertion found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England (731 AD) that man’s life can be compared to the flight of a sparrow through a mead-hall on a winter night from dark to dark, unknown to unknown; second, is the way that Kronenfeld applies that metaphor to Bruegel’s painting, where the darkness is represented by the graying-out of two strips at the left and right margins and the sparrow is added as a silhouette.
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Both of these ideas find a place in Bird Flying. Sometimes Kronenfeld’s subject is the ineffable itself, the permanent in the transitory, the missing in what remains—the sparrow’s all too brief but still exquisite journey. At other times, she foregrounds her immigrant experience, captured in the trope of the peasant gathering of Bruegel’s painting, which differs in one important way from the mead-hall gathering addressed by Bede. Bede was speaking to an audience of nobles, whereas Bruegel portrays a peasant banquet, more pot-luck than fine dining, an image Kronenfeld uses to bring together a series of poems that are both celebratory and richly peopled by person and places from her memory cupboard.
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Bird Flying is an intensely visual collection with a palette that ranges from the concrete to the imaginary,  from the “cracked sidewalks flashing mica” of “My Long-Left Birth City,” where the “newsstand, candy store, barbershop” are “utterly, beautifully, unremarkable,” to the mental vista of “Rothko Dark,” where after “long looking . . . giving oneself to darkness / faintly lightens it.” This poem does not refer to any particular Rothko work, but rather, to the optical vibrations created by the painter’s characteristic methodology, an effect Kronenfeld mimes in her memory portraits. The careful reader will note that “Rothko Dark” contains but one sentence, elegantly formed, as graceful in its lines as it is in its forward movement. So composed, it mirrors the book as a whole and the way individual poems propel it forward, while not sacrificing any of their individuality.
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 Kronenfeld’s fascination with time is constant. Examples include timepieces, her father’s alarm clock in “Ten Minutes,” times of day as in the lyrical “The Braille of Evening” with its “last coins of sunlight” and “darkness-gathering trees,” important dates such as yahrzeit in “Neighborly Sorrow” where the memorial candle “burns now in my agnostic /house, three thousand miles /from the Bronx,”  or time itself, as in “Grief-Shock.” “Grief-Shock” is worth careful study both with regard to its imagery and its sound. In the first place, this is not time as an abstract entity, but a particular kind of time, that is “grief” time, which simultaneously rushes our sorrows forward and stacks them up in a series of “after[s]”that leave us “stranded” and “despoiled.” At the same time that the imagery strands us—a clever but nonetheless organic wordplay (Kronenfeld is never witty for wit’s sake) on the shore, its language propels us relentlessly forward by a series of “s” sounds—“spot,” “homestead,” “stomped.” Every line has at least one “s” with one telling exception: the line that sets up the poem’s conceit in the first place “but time—like the metronome clicking,” a reference to time’s twin character as both object—  metronome—and process.
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Kronenfeld is seldom overtly political, but when she is, the effect is startling. The poem “What We’re Reduced To” offers such a moment, one where Kronenfeld’s husband is “reduced” to filing his protest on a scrap of paper shoved into a sidewalk crack, a comic rendering of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall, where worshipers place rolled up paper messages in crevices between the wall’s stones. Overt politics aside, her poems possess a high degree of civic involvement of a kind not reducible to slogans, as if they have decided to conduct politics by other means, those of language, family, and neighborhood.
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In this regard, I find itj instructive to contrast Kronenfeld’s use of Bruegel with that made by Auden in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” one of poetry’s the better known ekphrastic poems. Auden references Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and his verdict with regard to art and its influence on the larger world is the same in “Musee des Beau Arts” as it is in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats, ” where he says that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Art can call attention to the “astounding” moment and the way that it is ignored by the demands of commerce but that is all. In Icarus, the ship witnesses suffering, “a boy falling out of the sky,” but ignores it in pursuit of business as usual. In fact, the witnessing agent is not animate, not the sailors on board, but the ship itself, and all art can do is record that indifference.
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In contrast, Kronenfeld offers us a different Bruegel painting, Peasant Wedding, and a different set of conclusions about the human community and its resources. In “Ten Minutes” she shows us that business as usual is accompanied by bone-weary sacrifice, a poem in which suffering takes the form of an alarm clock whose demands can only be bought off for a few minutes. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld closes the emotional distance between art and suffering by offering us a father and daughter with a common set of problems. One way or another both are bullied, the father by the necessities of earning a working class living (witness the living room hide-a-bed) and the daughter by school yard injustice. Kronenfeld folds their two experiences together while merging the strategies each uses to cope, the father’s snooze alarm, which offers him a middle ground between sleep and waking, and the daughter’s cupcakes. Kronenfeld mines this memory only with great effort:
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            It’s terrifying how far back
            this memory goes. I feel as if
            I’ve had to lie on my belly
            with a head lamp and inch forward
            in the dark to see it.
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Nevertheless, the ore recovered is precious “as if / ten minutes would sweeten arm-twisting /death, or gentle me into braving his.” The minutes gained are a reminder of the celebratory meal of Peasant Wedding, where time is suspended by a community event that weds not just a couple but a community.
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Another back-channel source of recollection occurs during a dream recounted in “Lives of the Dead” where Kronenfeld’s parents, neither of whom can spell, play an “anarchic” game of Scrabble while she attempts to inform them that she has been robbed. They are suitably non-plussed, because after all they are dead, and, thus, immune to time’s persistent robberies, taking place downstairs and outdoors in the waking world. What makes this dream convincing is its intensely visual nature combined with the narrative grace Kronenfeld employs in steering her parents “to their little pocket of moored time.” The poem opens with a typical Kronenfeld canvas that renders the mundane beautiful: “Alive in my dreams, and serene /they sit in our 40-watt /dim Bronx kitchen on the lollipop-red /dinette set leatherette chairs.” Again, as in so many of her poems, the speaker is confident in her resources, able to gather the ingredients she needs, emotionally and linguistically, to serve and participate in time’s banquet.
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Mercy and compassion are far more prominent in these poems than complaint, which is not to say that the speaker is always content—far from it. There is a restless, probing energy in every poem, exploring and seeking answers, however elusive. Nevertheless, Kronenfeld locates the grandeur and consequence in apparently inconsequential lives, and in so doing, rescues us all. You will feel more alive for having read her poems.
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Richard Nester has twice been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published poetry in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Callaloo and Seneca Review and essays in the Catholic Agitator. His work has appeared most recently in Floyd County Moonshine.
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The Way Back by Joyce Meyers

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Review by David P. Kozinski
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The title of Joyce Meyers’ first full-length book of poems points to the various journeys that the contents convey. The Way Back (Kelsay Books) presents tableaux of travels to other lands, through history and life’s challenges in language that is mostly spare and straightforward and always elegantly rendered.
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The book begins where life on Earth began, in “Water”, then touches on evolution in “Darwin’s Finches” and “Beginnings” and sojourns briefly in ancient history, as well as in the studios and lives of artists like Michelangelo and Frida Kahlo. Meyers explores family history and relationships, celebrations of life and the challenges of aging and facing death, nature and the threatened environment with clarity and precision, through a consciousness well aware of the ephemeral nature of everything we can see and touch, cherish and imagine.
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The personal and specific lead the reader to contemplations of universal subjects, with careful attention to the music of words. The first stanza of “Cooking School” reads
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                        Here you learn to peel
                        yourself like an onion. Start
                        with the skin, translucent,
                        crisp as parchment.
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Later, the Tuscan chef guides the narrator’s fingers, “as I shape the pasta dough / in the shadow / of my mother’s hands.” Her mother, aging and frail, waits far away, “hands fluttering in her lap / like broken wings.” In “Nursing Home” the narrator surprises her mother with a plate of shrimp cocktail and olives. The poem concludes
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                        Too much, she says
                        before she eats it all.
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                        When we wheel her back
                        to the day room, she grabs
                        my hand and won’t let go.
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The strong sentiments, familiar to those who have experienced parents’ decline, are deftly conveyed through images of hands and without sentimentality.
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“Impermanence” is both the title of a poem in The Way Back and a theme that streams through it. The poem begins, “opening the door to morning / the sky rinsed clean // the shroud of grief lifted / by the wind” and touches on the cycles that have long fascinated scientist and poet alike: “yet you were once / a mountain, a star // and will be again.”
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Poems like “Aubergine” and “Ajar” deal with the nature of existence – its impermanence and fragility. In the former, we find the narrator preparing ratatouille on a winter morning with Mozart playing on the radio, but are abruptly pulled from the tranquil scene in the second stanza, which presents a neighbor, assaulted by her son, facing, “a choice between his intolerable behavior / and the impossible side effects / of the only drug known to control it.”  The contrast of the two stanzas is echoed within the end of the second, starting with violence in Israel and “a glimpse / of how it will be when that tinder box ignites,” and concludes by letting us know that, during that same week, the narrator “fell in love again / and again with my husband.” Despite living in a world that knows much horror and sorrow, she will serve the ratatouille to her grandson, hoping it will help him forget for a while his parents’ divorce and later, practice dance steps she and her husband are learning as, “We take our nourishment where we can.”
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Set at the end of December, “Ajar” offers an image of a door that may be “opening or closing, / poised to shut in or set free.” The third-person narrator notes how
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                        … A new year
                        waits like a two-headed
god hovering undecided
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which way to turn, like words
that would change everything
yet hang unsaid …
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In a dynamic world, nothing is as fixed and clear as we might wish it.
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                        … We think we know
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                        what we are. A river
                        caught by a camera will never
                        be that river again …
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The poet leads us through her husband’s successful bout with cancer, through eye-opening travels to Russia, Kenya and Thailand, and arrives at “East”:
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                        I keep going east,
                        pulled toward the place
                        where morning springs,
                        where the sun sleeps at night.
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The journey proceeds from place to place and through time, “past ancient monuments / to ego and engineering,” and past China’s Great Wall – a wonder of the world that nevertheless could not resist the world’s intrusions. Seeking wisdom, the narrator wants “to follow the sun back / and back, all the way / to its mother’s womb, bow / to her in gratitude for light // and warmth…” She longs to ask this mother, “why stars and species // must be born to die,” and why nothing “travels faster than light / but thought,” and “what happened / before time began.”
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Many poets have tackled important subjects, and some have been able to do so while balancing the extremes of experience with the quotidian, but few have the ability to illuminate the profound with such concision, and through such original and natural-sounding language. Meyers accomplishes this and more in The Way Back. The poems resonate long after the book is closed.
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David P. Kozinski’s first full-length book of poems, Tripping Over Memorial Day (Kelsay Books) was published in January. He won the Delaware Literary Connection’s 2015 spring poetry contest and the Seventh Annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which included publication of his chapbook, Loopholes. Publications include Apiary, Cheat River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Rasputin.