north of oxford book review

The Dog Seated Next to Me by Meg Pokrass

the dog

By Charles Rammelkamp

Meg Pokrass’s flash fictions are like puzzles whose pieces you have to consider individually and together, to see how it all fits, twisting the kaleidoscope to consider the patterns. Often humorous, witty, they nevertheless touch on a sadness at the heart of the human experience. But if the fictions are often searing with a sort of alienation, estrangement, loneliness, they nevertheless also hint at joy. Indeed, the epigraph to this new collection, is an apt quotation from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov: “Even in Siberia there is happiness.”

Pokrass’ writing is always fresh with insight and image. Sentence by sentence you can never be sure where she might take you next. Take this observation from the story, “Spider”: “We humans and insects are all in the same boat, hoping for food, praying for love.” As in so many of her stories in this collection, the female protagonist of this story has fallen out of love with her husband, though she remembers how he used to make her feel safe and implicitly misses that warmth of human connection.

Or take the story, “Cured.” It begins: “He tasted like a bologna sandwich.” How can you not read on to see what that means? We learn that the man has lost his wife, is saturated with grief. “Grief was not angular, it was soft, droopy wet.” The protagonist of the story, a woman whom we understand is likewise on the rebound, wants to comfort him, with her sex, yes, but not only. Yet the task just seems too elusive, in the end. So many of the women in these stories go on dates with guys they meet at internet dating sites, almost always with sad results.  “For months she’d ignore the stabbing feeling of her recent divorce,” she writes in “Hi, Hi, Hi,” a story about a futile email relationship that’s a reaction to the protagonist’s situation.

As the title of the collection might suggest, dogs have a metaphorical potency in these stories. Indeed, all pets do; rescue animals in particular are a sort of metaphor for the discarded partners who populate the stories. Nowhere is this more stark than in the story, “The Bite,” which begins, “You didn’t know he had escaped. You thought he was a terrific dog, smitten with you….” It becomes clear (sort of) that this stray is actually a man.  (First hint is when he follows her: “If he could talk, he may have said something about the ‘view’ (meaning your ass).”) He has a wife (“his owner”) who goes ballistic when she discovers the affair.  The woman “…screamed at you, growled a death cry that would stop chopped ice. Told you that you were ruining her life.”

A similar confusion between human and canine is found in “What the Dog Thinks.” The story starts: “Today she seemed to be chasing her tail. I mean, chasing herself into a bad mood. At 11AM she was wearing her astral nightgown and her Jupiter slippers.”  What appears to the reader as a dog at first crystallizes into a human being, like a photograph in a developer tray. Later in the story, the protagonist reflects, “I’m tired of being a wife. It’s not a job I’m good at.”

Dogs are mentioned in about eighteen of these stories (cats in about 7; a blue-tongued skink, otters and parakeets, too), including a labradoodle in “In the Middle of Nowhere.” (“Sometimes she wanted to run away from her husband, but she could not live without their labradoodle, Timmy.”) In “New Dog,” the protagonist reflects on the replacement dog a man she recognizes is walking in the park; the old one has recently died. It’s not as gentle as the original dog, but “She believes that one must dispose of the past. That dogs are similar to ex-husbands. Moving on is critical.” Recently divorced, it becomes apparent that the woman is coping. “”She’s learning how to be thankful rather than grateful.”

In the eponymous story, another marriage has fallen apart, but as in many of the stories, the protagonist has not actually been able to “dispose of the past.” Indeed, she finds herself with “the man who used to want me but is now my friend.” They are sharing a salad. “He is seeing a much younger woman now, so I talk to the dog seated next to me.”

Not surprisingly, several of the women at the center of these little stories are in therapy. In the story, “Margaret Thatcher,” “You talk to your therapist about all the guys you’ve loved. You charm her, a weekly comedy act.”  Grief as performance art. In the story “Prescription,” indeed, a dog figures into the therapist plot! It begins, “The last appointment, my doctor popped the question – asked me to pet-sit and house-sit for him while he traveled to Florence.” The doctor has an arthritic dog named Jeeves. The protagonist cares for the doctor’s garden while he is away. The story ends: “Jeeves waddles out and plunks next to me to sit in the sun.”

There’s so much unspoken emotion in Meg Pokrass’s fiction. It makes talking about her work difficult because you feel like you’re missing so much in the analysis and description. Joy? The joy is in the writing itself! You have to read her book to see what I mean! And you’ll be so grateful that you did! And thankful!

You can find the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781949790238/the-dog-seated-next-to-me.aspx

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems by Aileen I. Cassinetto

pink

By Lynette G. Esposito

The poems in The Pink House of Purple Yam Preserves & Other Poems by Aileen I. Cassinetto published by Little Dove Books are skillfully presented in a plain language that suggests complex visuals and contexts.

For example, in the poem from “The Enormous River Encircling the World” on page 15, the reader is drawn into visual language that not only makes the ocean smaller but the concept larger
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                          In ocean- speak
                          learn the art of camouflage
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The title changes the concept of ocean to river, from big to small to encircling the world. The visual is massive.  The reader looks and looks again to see the context of water linguistically defined. What a marvelous poetic skill Cassinetto has in this 102 page soft cover tome.
In The Promise on page 34, Cassinetto (dedicated to Carol and Erik) speaks in clear terms of the beginning pledge on one’s wedding day in two-line stanzas and well-placed punctuation.  The form and punctuation control the poem.
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                           Take these symbols of love.
                           to be perfect and unbroken,
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                           all ends joining
                           and curved, as though
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                            yielding, for love
                           is unconditional, and marriage.
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                           a compromise:
                           Golden-spun rings
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                           to wear from this day forward,
                          morsels of cake
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The two- line form is suggestive of the marriage coupling and of vows taken.

Included in this collection is a section of unfinished prose and a section of selected essays.  Cassinetto brings her amazing control of language to both theses sections..

In the unfinished prose section, there is just one article and it is full of description as the narrator travels to a wedding. Many suggestions are made about the quality of a woman’s life. After describing the lavish wedding and the sacrifices of both rich and poor, Cassinetto comments.
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                                This is also a country where one in every 400 women
                                worked as a prostitute. Most will never live to be a bride.
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Cassinetto has used her skill to draw both large and small experiences with referential contexts successfully.  The rich have weddings; the poor sell their blood.
In the selected essays section, Cassinetto provides several essays intermixed with poetry.   In the essay, The Color of Kalamunding, she starts with THERE IS NO GENTLENESS in the way I pick a fruit. The discussion becomes of lemonade, grandmothers and perfection. The essay is interesting and makes a strong point at the end of how we judge ourselves as she addresses the reader.
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                               You must have surmised who I am by now. Not quite
                                lime, not quite orange.  In the world of fruits, and flowers,
                                I am excessively flawed.  Such is my myth.
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I ask myself do I like this mixture of poetry, prose and essays in one book.  I find it a little unfocused and fragmented while at the same time enjoying the high quality of the writing.
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review, Bindweed Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, That Literary Review, The Remembered Arts Journal, and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.
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The Imaginative Prose of Peter Fleming

news

By Ray Greenblatt

–NEWS FROM TARTARY–

Peter Fleming’s younger brother was Ian Fleming—of James Bond fame—who idolized his older brother. Peter was a journalist for the London Times who had been assigned to investigate events in China in 1936. Information about encroachments by Russia and Japan as well as Communists vs Nationalists in China itself was not forthcoming in the world at large. These world powers would contribute to the explosion in a few scant years that would become Word War Two.

Peter had originally traveled from Moscow to Beijing; covered by his book One’s Company. Now he would continue from Beijing, over the Himalayas, to India in seven months at a distance of three thousand miles. This second book would be called Travels in Tartary; both books were combined under one cover titled News from Tartary. On this second adventure Peter would go with Kini Maillart, a Swiss Olympic ice hockey player, sailor, and skier, who worked for a French newspaper.

Landscape

If you consult a map of China, roughly drawing a diagonal line from Beijing  across the Himalayas to Lahore India, you will realize that Peter Fleming traveled the entire breadth of China.  Terrain, including parts of the Gobi Desert, were difficult, to say the least. “The sun was well up now; the heat seemed to us terrific and was in fact considerable. The world around us jigged liquidly in a haze.” (455) “The valley narrowed, and we found ourselves marching down a gully whose walls were pock-marked with smooth caves like the flanks of a Gruyere cheese.” (452) “A yellow country, streaked here and there with red. Everywhere startlingly terraced hills of loess, grotesquer than the most outlandish ant-hills.” (282) Yet some relief existed: “Everything was deathly still; only a little bird from time to time uttered a short and plaintive song whose sweet notes echoed anomalously under those frowning cliffs.” (453) “The melodramatic mountains and the lake which glittered with a vulgar, picture-postcard blue.” (432)

Night held different fascinations: “Smoke rose with great deliberation in the sparkling air. At night footsteps fell with a curious and sullen emphasis upon the frosty ground.” (266) “The sand was silver, and the dust we breathed hung like an emanation, as of steam, around the caravan.” (370) Then the environment could quickly alter: “The wind was the curse of our life; ubiquitous and inescapable, it played the same part on the Tibetan plateau as insects do in the tropical jungle.” (359) “A dun, vaporous, impalpable wall marched up across the sky and bore slowly down on us from the west. From the dunes pale writhing snakes of sand licked out across the dark grey desert, and almost before we realized what was happening the sand storm was upon us.” (413)

Some man-made creations grounded the travelers. Their tent “looked like an abstruse practical joke.” (332) “We walked behind the lorries over a precarious bridge whose architecture seemed to be an affair of mud and mass-hypnotism.” (291) A monastery: “The maze of buildings whose small trapezoid windows, wider at the top than at the bottom, seemed to frown down on us from under lowering brows.” (325) Some villages functioned: “From behind the mud walls of a farm unseen winnowers threw up a lovely rhythmic series of golden jets which spread into fine golden clouds, then settled slowly.” (257) Others not so: “As we arrived at the inn, the building next to it—an eating-house where we had breakfasted—quietly and rather sadly collapsed, crumbling into rubble in a cloud of dust.” (294) Another town: “An unsightly, unexpected cluster of walls and roofs which grew like a wart in the middle of a vast bare plain. “ (372)

Animals played an important part in their lives. “In our empty world the animals that served us, revealing their characters by tricks of temperament or gait, bulked almost as large as human beings.” (434) “If camels can appear Byronic. Detached and skeptical, he seemed always to be something more than a camel: perhaps a prince unluckily metamorphosed.” (440) “Shining like seals, with thick necks arched heraldically, they towered over us, two splendid Badakshani chargers from Afghanistan.” (460) “There is something about a donkey which keeps your mind and spirits earth-bound. On a horse, on a camel, even on a yak, your imagination soars without much difficulty.” (504) They even meet “ Marmots, their red coats very gay in the sunshine, whistled defiance and perplexity, then scampered into their burrows with a curious flouncing gait.” (441)

Personalities

Fleming learned many Chinese character traits: “I knew how swiftly the beanstalk of procrastination grows in the soil of Asia, and how easily another day, or two or three more days, could lose themselves in the intricate Chinese labyrinth of delay.” (290) “Harrows were being dragged along with a man standing on them like a chariot-driver.” (310) “The women hobble round the puddles on bound feet, their sleek heads shining like the shards of beetles.” (301) On public conveyances: “It had struck me as odd that a large crowd had gathered to see us off. I now realized that they were not seeing us off; they were coming too.” (296) “Making one cubic foot into two and turning the Black Hole of Calcutta into an only slightly over-crowded debating hall. Sixty-eight of the seventy-two people present were impervious to the lack of elbow-room, and except in our corner the intricate pattern of humanity had a surface as smooth and harmonious as a completed jigsaw puzzle.” (283)

Our journalist observes individuals in unique ways: “One was an oldish man with a fierce dignity and an abstracted manner which cloaked, at first, his ineffectualness.” (430)  “He wore a black three-cornered hat and a rusty bottle-green coat tied round the waist with a scarf which might have been a dirty tricolour; thus clad, he looked, as he slouched along, like a minor and unsympathetic character in a play about the French Revolution.” (492) “A crude young man with a pock-marked face, whose ungovernable passion for song found expression in a deplorably limited repertoire.” (494) “He used to eke out his meaning by closing his eyes, thrusting forward his face, and waving it blindly to and fro, like a snake in a glass case. It was impossible not to like the gawkish and pathetic dolt.” (521)

People came from faraway places:  “The assistant was a raffish but charming Afghan who, with his Homburg hat tilted wildly, his defiantly folded arms, and his over-truculent stance, looked exactly like a wag in a house-party snapshot.” (508) “A Russian ‘adviser’–-dressed for the backblocks but not in uniform, admirably mounted-–trotted down the street; the bulge in his pocket, his penetrating but evasive stare, his air of furtive consequence conformed splendidly to the standards of discreet melodrama.” (543)

Tibetans were especially interesting to Fleming. “Both races dressed in the Tibetan style. Huge sheepskin robes, worn with the wool inside, were gathered round the waist by a sash, above which, and concealing it, capacious folds overhung , making  a kind of pocket in which all personal possessions, from the inevitable wooden bowl to a litter of mastiff puppies were carried.” (316) “The women’s plaits of hair were burdened with superfluous silverware like a Victorian sideboard.” (368) Two priests: “The chief lama was a fat, merry man; he had rolling eyes and a little moustache and looked exactly like a Frenchman in a farce.  The other was much thinner—a jerky cadaverous creature who hooded himself with his robe against the sun and corresponded very closely to my idea of a Martian.” (387)

“We crawled down that endless valley, a string of small, jaded automata under  the dwarfing hills.” (444) “Presently the caravan arrived, long and deliberate, eating up distance as a caterpillar eats a leaf.” (367) The people who aided Fleming and Maillart the most were Christian missionaries from all over Europe. ”The Catholic Fathers gave us a riotous reception. They were nine enormous Spaniards, of whom the younger ones looked, in their large new beards and medieval habit, like supers in a Shakespeare production. They gave us cakes and chocolate and roared with laughter at everything we said.” (295)

Style

Peter Fleming recounts quite an adventure, but his vivid style brings all elements to life. We have been witness to a number of his writing techniques; now we shall try to define them. Word choice is often striking: “He had with him a white and equally venerable pony, and on its back, wrapped in a tattered greatcoat, he rode hunched in a coma, protecting us.” (323) Describing an ancient man in an ancient region, you would never expect a relatively modern psychological word like ‘coma.’ It also stresses the irony that this feeble man could protect them? Here is a more direct look at irony. As the group of travelers was descending a dangerously steep ‘S’ turn, the Chinese road sign was unusual: “As we hurtled downwards the recurrent ‘!’ atoned for its inadequacy as a warning by its charming aptness as a comment.” (297) Understatement is closely linked to irony: “Sitting in a small ornate room containing no fewer than eight far from unanimous clocks.” (329)

Fleming’s imagery is strong. Here is a reference to chickens not generally known but true: “Sinkiang seemed much farther away even than it had in Peking, and we had already become like a hen with its beak to a chalk line, hypnotized by the next step, blind to all beyond it.”  (288) A more direct use of simile: “The flames licked through the camp as swiftly as a striking snake.” (364) The author has used a snake comparison in different ways throughout the book. Sometimes an entire scene becomes a symbol:  “ A carter who was taking a very elaborately decorated coffin up the road, and for part of the afternoon we travelled behind this gaudy and impressive object, in company with a little boy riding on a donkey and carrying a white rabbit in his arms. It was all like some sort of fable.” (310)

The author’s beginning to a chapter is often powerful: “June opened with a villain’s smile.” (433) His closing is as striking: “It was a good moment: the last of its kind for a long time.” (313) Sounds: “Bugles brayed thinly.” (313) Not only is alliteration strong tying the bugle to its sound; but bugles are often played on the back of donkey or mule. Repetition: “We were sick of suspense, sick of unprofitably collating rumours, sick of the jungle of bureaucracy in which we were benighted.” (322) ‘Sick’ reinforces how difficulties had piled upon them.  And yet, through all these travails Fleming is not without humor.  His traveling clothes are filthy, but he has saved some clothes for visiting. However, the box containing them has fallen into green gutter water: “I had now to decide whether to enter Kashgar disguised as a lettuce, or looking like something that had escaped from Devil’s Island.” (534)

Philosophy

For a young man in mid-twenties, Peter Fleming was not only courageous to take on this assignment but wise beyond his years. Here are some observations he made on a wide variety of topics in his unique manner:

“Here everything that was not of local manufacture had a history behind it, a long itinerary and an outlandish pedigree of owners.” (489)

“We were always hungry all the time.” (367)

“We were on our own; the odds against us had lengthened fantastically, but from now on, every stage, every ruse, every guess that helped us towards the west would be a very personal triumph.” (309)

“A hard journey makes you curiously tender to even your most maddening companions.” (392)

“There had been a long prelude to this comic expedition, but it had yielded a sufficiency of far-fetched generalizations couched in three-pile, fire-proof, Printing House Square prose.” (258)

“To pose rigidly before a faded, tattered, manorial back-cloth on which segments of unimaginable architecture framed startling gouts of boskage.” (318)

“A large crowd, most of whom had for us—I liked to think—the ephemerally proprietorial fondness which menagerie elephants inspire.” (332)

“There are times when this base craft, this pushing of a pencil across a piece of paper, stands suddenly justified.” (336)

“You fell sometimes into a meditation which blotted out a segment of the march, so that when you returned from the far-off things and places that had filled your mind you remembered the country you had passed through hazily.” (360)

“Just outside, our horses munched their barley, making as charming and soporific as the sound of running water or of waves upon a beach.” (363)

“We were both adaptable and fairly phlegmatic; and we were both fatalists, as all travelers, and especially travelers in Asia, ought to be.” (398)

“You knew by now the technique of enduring long marches—how helpful is a train of thought, how it pays to have a half-remembered quotation, a half-worked-out idea, as iron rations for the intellect: something on which the mind can dwell, ignoring the body.” (447)

“They stood for freedom and backblocks; they stood for the luck which had always dogged me while I wore them. And it is not, after all, every pair of boots in which you can travel, sockless, for several months without discomfort.” (589)

“Anglo-India, starched and glossy, stared at us with horror and disgust.” (594)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/News-Tartary-Journey-Across-Central/dp/1838600345

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) wrote a book, Brazilian Adventure, about exploring Brazil in 1933. He then wrote two books about traversing China in 1936. He went on to fight bravely in World War II as a captain receiving an OBE. In the 1950’s he wrote articles for the Spectator Magazine, collected into four books of essays. All of his writing offers poetic insights into the world at large. Ironically, he died of a heart attack at age sixty-four while hunting in Scotland.

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

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Playlist: A Poem by David Lehman

Lehman_playlist_comp-1-380x570
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Reminiscent of his 2000 collection, The Daily Mirror, which is a kind of daily diary of poems, Playlist is also a collection of daily poems, these written from November 20, 2017, through January 15, 2018.  But more so than the previous collection, these poems are conceived of as a single work, a single poem in homage to and an elegy for his friend, the poet A. R. Ammons (“Archie”). As in the previous collection, but perhaps with a greater emphasis, more in the foreground – as indicated by the title – jazz and classical music form a sort of soundtrack to his thoughts and impressions. Movies, the weather, and poets are also recurring themes in both works.
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Lehman explains his long acquaintance and collaboration with Ammons in a foreword. Indeed, the form of Playlist is itself an homage to his mentor, whose 1964 Tape for the Turn of the Year is also a long diary poem. Like Ammons, too, Lehman uses punctuation sparingly, basically just commas. This style mimics the free flow of jazz notes, a musical style to which both were devoted. Ammons taught at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, and Lehman a hundred miles away in Clinton, where he is on the faculty at Hamilton College.  They met in 1974 and enjoyed a long, warm, collaborative friendship until Ammons’ death in 2001.
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Several of Lehman’s verses directly address his friend, starting with the first, 11/20/2017, which begins:
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Dear Archie, today
I drove past 606 Hanshaw Road
where you haven’t lived
since 1993…
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Noting Archie had “left us // in February 2001, a week before / you would have turned seventy-five,” Lehman goes on:
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I thought of your coil
of tape for the turn
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of the year while I was driving
and listening to the radio
and deciding I would write
this poem to you, old friend.
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Ten days later he writes, on 11/30/2017
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Hey Archie,
I thought of dialing your phone number today
257-6181
to see if I can still make you laugh…
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He goes on to recall a joke they’d shared.  In 12/4/2017, there’s another joke, following a direct, loving poetic invocation:
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Archie you must be my guide now
be to me what Virgil
was to Dante, what Rousseau
was to Shelley. I made you laugh
today we were talking about Lolita
the movie, with Shelley Winters
as the poor mother of the nymphet
and I said, “If Shelley Winters comes,
can spring be far behind?”
Archie, your guide was the wind
Mine is the voice
of Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Nothing
like you has ever been seen before”
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Lehman refers to other female jazz vocalists throughout. On consecutive days, 11/24/2017 and 1/25/2017, it is Peggy Lee. Subtitled “Comes Love,” 11/25/17 begins:
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I’d be a beggar or a knave for you
Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
and why Lee Wiley?
you’ll find my reasoning is logically sound
and if that isn’t love it’ll have to do
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Ella Fitzgerald, June Hutton, Rosemary Clooney, Billie Holiday and others make appearances, as do movie stars. December 15, 16 and 17 are meditations on Alfred Hitchcock films and their stars. “I Live in Hitchcock’s America,” begins 12/17/17 . “Hitchcock’s America” is the title of an essay Lehman once wrote:
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As one who has written on “Hitchcock’s America”
I keep waiting for a magazine editor to ask me to write
“Hitchcock’s Blondes”
who was the most beautiful of all
Stacey says Grace Kelly and I guess I agree though Ingrid Bergman…
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The poem goes on to mention Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie).
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Similarly, The Godfather is alluded to in several poems (11/26/17 and 12/26/17). “‘One O’Clock Jump’ with Count Basie now / that’ll grab your attention…” the latter begins before muting the sound to listen to dialogue from The Godfather, and we can hear Marlon Brando: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. / Blood is a big expense….”
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On 1/8/18 and 1/10/18, there’s a focus on the stock market. “Jazz is the music of the stock market / As it zigs and zags…” in 1/8 and in 1/10: “and the Dow is now / in positive territory / erasing earlier losses”: ah, there’s the reason for the interest! That poem goes on: “The two most boring words / in the language are / ‘Russia investigation’”
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Is it any wonder that the next day’s poem, 1/11/18, is subtitled “Fake News”?
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On the last day, 1/15/18, Lehman laments he is
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happy to be alive
sad to bring this
poem to an end,
propose a toast to Archie
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and concludes sweetly
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the music was great
from Ithaca to New York City
with you beside me.
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On top of an impressive knowledge of music and movies, though never in the form of “lecture,” Playlist entertains and engages the reader and is a sweet accolade for a dear old friend.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf
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Or Else By Diana Loercher Pazicky

or else

By Frank Wilson

The first poem in this collection, titled “Else” — not “Or Else,” as the book is — explores the implications of said modifier (it can be either an adverb or an adjective). An epigraph reminds us that the word derives from the Old English word elles, meaning “other.” The exploration is anything but academic. “Else,” the speaker tells us, “encompasses the unknown / the alternatives that impinge / upon our constricted lives.” It is “an enchanted island … inhabited by sirens singing, / Where else? Who else? What else?”
A couple of pages later there is “Meditation on the Pencil, While Grading Papers” (Diana Loercher Pazicky is a former English professor at Temple University). “The pencil allows one to reconsider,” the speaker tells us, “stop time and go back, / undo that hasty judgment ….” Moreover,
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Erasers are soft, forgiving,
leave only a faint smudge,
a chance to correct oneself
         before presuming
         to judge another.
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This is whimsy segueing into the humane, and is characteristic of much in these pages, leading one to suspect that Pazicky’s former students remember her fondly. She wears her learning lightly as well. Most of the poems in the second of the three suites gathered here make reference to the gods and goddesses of mythology, though in ways that are far from solemn. “Venus Redux,” the first of these, is really about the speaker’s mother. “Venus had nothing on you, Mom,” it begins. The thought of her mother’s perfect body calls to the speaker’s mind the works of Praxiteles, Botticelli, Titian, and more. But in those she sees “only the memory of your body … as you paraded naked through the house, / and I hung back in the shadows, furious, / knowing such perfection could never be mine.”

This poem comes poignantly to mind when one arrives at the third suite. “Seaside Victorian” tells us that “The house she inhabited / slowly inhabited her. / Memories yellowed, hardened, / like the doilies and antimacassars ….”

“As she sank into solitude / the house acquired breath, /even speech, children’s voices, / and her husband calling her ….”

The “she” in that poem is never named. But we soon read, in “Actively Dying,” that “My mother is ‘actively dying’ / as opposed to passively dying, / which is what the rest of us / are doing every day.”  The speaker elaborates:
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Actively dying really means
the body has staged a coup
against the arrogant mind,
that delusional tyrant
twirling and whirling
his hollow scepter
like a child spinning a top,
who thinks he’ll live forever
until the body revolts,
brings the old fool down.
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“Ashes” makes things even more plain:
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The marble urn is heavy,
its contents weightless.
I unscrew the lid, pour
my father into a bag,
turn my head away
to avoid inhaling the dust.
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That last image seems to say it all, but not quite. “Next I open the wooden box / containing my mother … I empty the box into the same bag.” And then, “I take them / to the bay they gazed at every day /from the windows of our house ….”

All is united — husband and wife, father and mother, daughter and house.

There is a surprising range of thought and feeling encompassed in these few pages, all of it expressed with the sort of clear-eyed unsentimental observation one gets from someone like Basho. Do read it. Or else you’ll be missing out on something really worthwhile.
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Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com

Playground by Joe Benevento

play
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The themes of regret and longing are so potent in Joe Benevento’s work. From his rueful observations about his father’s life and mortality in “Stay-at-Home Dad” (“At 89, a cane reliant diabetic”) to his memory of a girl he had a crush on in school (“Marilyn Meshak”), you can feel his heart aching:
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Maybe she lives like me an anonymous life,
maybe she died young and is all the more my ghost,
either way, we are as far from our days
sharing a school building, a bus stop,
a neighborhood as it’s possible to be,
more time past only making my dreams more
redundant, pained, to wake up and uncover
how I’ll never tell her
what I felt, and, so, still feel,
how I’ll never know her, and, so
somehow making everyone unknowable,
unreachable, whether awake, alone
or, finally,
asleep together.
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The poet recognizes this penchant for grief and remorse, with some ambivalence. “Miami Night with Marjorie and Todd” concludes:
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            a suspension of my disbelief in the magical
            realness of my future possibilities, from this city
            with too much music, friendship and night
            life for me to insist any longer
            on my regret.
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Life is so fleeting; how do we not regret its losses? Indeed, this is so succinctly spelled out in his sonnet, “Loser,” which begins with an epigraph from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”
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The qualities of loss often conceal
how winning is a limit and a lie,
since human nature would much rather deal
with touchdown dances than with kids who cry
their disbelief we just want them to try
their best. They know better, they know too well
winning gets parades, applause, proud eyes
that say well done, instead of damn it, hell,
how did you miss that pitch, that pass, oh, well,
            we’ll practice more, or send you to a camp,
some place where they do all they can to sell
you on the notion that there’s just one stamp,
one way to court the dark drug of winning,
to hide how life is loss from the beginning.
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And so we feel the sting of his awareness that nothing is permanent, in another poem prefaced by a line from Whitman, this time from “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d”: “In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later delicate death.” In this poem Benevento is walking his ancient dog on the rain-dampened streets that are crawling with earthworms; it is his father’s 91st birthday, and the poet is “derailed by the near / certainty Dad will never see ninety-two.” The dog’s imminent mortality weighs on him as well; “and a tear trickles down for my dad, my dog, / myself, even for the worms I may be running over.”
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As in his 2015 book, Expecting Songbirds, another sweetheart from his youth, Sylvia Ramos, makes an appearance and provokes his yearning. Even more than Marilyn Meshak, Sylvia’s memory fills him with longing and a sense of missed opportunities. In “After Driving to See Sylvia in Nebraska,” the poet encounters his ex-flame from his youth in Queens, a “mixture of beguiling beauty tempered by modesty,” and struggles with his feelings of what might have been but resolves “to remain // the faithful knight to her maddening Dulcinea,” a reference to Don Quixote’s ideal in Cervantes’ novel.
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Another kind of regret is humorously expressed in “After I Realized I Didn’t Have Enough Money,” a poem about college tuition for his children, in which his longing and lament come back to haunt him when his daughter wants to go away to college: “she has spent her first eighteen years listening / to my nostalgia for a larger world.”  Call it poetic justice! The poem’s ending likewise brings a smile:
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…I’m wishing I was bankrupt
enough to become an administrator,
or foolish enough to believe in the lottery,
some other magic means to protect my long
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cherished claim money doesn’t matter.
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There are eight “After” poems in this collection (“After Zoraida Martinez Saved Me from Divine Word Seminary” is an example); the very construction of such a sentiment, regarding an event in the rearview mirror, is likewise a trigger for misgivings and second guesses.
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Poems, such as “No Competition,” “‘I’m never going to dream of fairies’,” and “After Math” are ones in which Benevento’s heart aches for his children, their expectations and future, let alone their well-being. In “Unsettled” he observes, he “never underestimates / the odds of disease, accident, or, at least / the predicted contempt of their teenaged years.”
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 But in the final poem, “Physical Therapy,” the poet acknowledges his good fortune in the midst of all the inevitable loss that life entails. He’s getting help from a young therapist for “a right ‘shoulder impingement’” whose “shooting pain” is bearable, but in the long-run, compared to his siblings and mother-in-law, afflicted by various cancers, he’s been pretty lucky. He concedes:
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I can live with the pain, or better still,
avoid it almost entirely, if I remember
evermore not to reach too far above
or for anything behind.
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Keep your expectations low, and don’t go rooting around in the past for things you can never change? Is this the cautionary message? Physician, heal thyself!
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You can find the book here: http://www.unsolicitedpress.com/store/p212/playgroundJB.html

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

Howling Enigma by Rustin Larson

howling-enigma
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By Hélène Cardona
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Rustin Larson’s Howling Enigma begins with a cornucopia of fruit and flowers amid the snow filled landscape of Iowa, where “Beowulf lives.” He describes it at times welcoming, in bloom, with “herbs / the Gerber daisies, the fall violets, the dandelion greens” and “mulberry seedlings,” and at times stark, with “pale frost on the window,” “the snow’s endless and cascading curtain” and where “sitting / in the sun is just a fantasy. / It’s six above zero.”\
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A deeply moving tribute to his parents and ancestors, this is a haunted collection where Larson spends “time with those who have gone on before me.” Memories, photos and dreams bring his kin back: “I still talk to my father in dreams. / Sometimes I see my mother from a distance.” Emotions are sparse yet hit you hard: “My grandmother hugged me / the way a mountain hugs stone.”
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Like a leitmotiv, underneath it all, solitude.
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“I wind up in places
that just seem to underline
the nature of solitude.”
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And what a treat for the reader to share Larson’s solitude, which echoes Rilke:
“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
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Larson has gifted us a book of mournful love, filled with nature and animals, a far-reaching goodness that permeates all in spite of the darkness he embraces.
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GOLDEN BUDDHA
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You are Golden Buddha. You are the light
Of the world. I say this in my head to
Everyone. A fine electrical night
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Hums with water, carbon molecules, through-
Out the Eastern Seabord. Computers fail
In the morning, a cool day, a brilliant blue,
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For miles. I don’t see you much in the pale
Light. You are my other soul. In the night,
We lie next to each other for hours: ale
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Bottles, groves of trees dripping with light,
A waterfall lit by lanterns: babies
Cry in their own language lit by the tight
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Hooks and loops of alphabet, flower dyes
Soaked to color the body, soul, and sky.
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Such an ode keeps the darkness at bay.
“At night, I sit on my lawn an stare into the darkness.”
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Larson’s poems are bridges, hovering between the living and the dead, light and dark, where the past and the future are intertwined, and a guitar plays in the background. Like Berryman’s ghost, Larson casts a spell with poems full of “imagination, love, intellect—and pain.”
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The poet’s meticulous observations of his surroundings and every day life, such as the “patterns in the wind” read like tender – at times disquieted – unfolding stories, his vast spirit and benevolence permeating everything.
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Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Larson’s words “always ring true” to her. They do. There is never a false note in Larson’s poetry. They slow time to a more propitious pacing, acting as a balm. What a wondrous meditation, from which the reader returns soothed, and vibrant.
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You can find the book here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/howling-enigma-rustin-larson/1128895309

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Hélène Cardona is a poet, actor & translator, the author of 7 books, including the award-winning Life in Suspension and the translations Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona), Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant, Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. She wrote her thesis on Henry James for her masters in American Literature from the Sorbonne, taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University, and worked as an interpreter for the Canadian Embassy in Paris. Her work has been translated into 16 languages. She has contributed to The London MagazineWashington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote, The Irish Literary Times, Los Angeles Review, The Warwick Review & elsewhere. http://helenecardona.com/