north of oxford book review

What Are the Chances? By Robert Scotellaro

By Charles Rammelkamp

In the story “Plink!” in Robert Scotellaro’s new collection a man stands at a window, mesmerized, watching diamond-like hailstones falling out of the sky, pelting the asphalt, the sidewalks, the sides of cars. “Then it stops. The way magic often does.” That’s an apt description of the sixty-eight marvelous little stories, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to no more than three pages, that make up What Are the Chances? First of all, they do feel magical, with so many strange characters, often costumed, popping off the page, snaring your attention – like hailstones – and then the payoff, the flash that makes “flash fiction” flash fiction, the sudden illumination of character or scene. And then the story stops.

Stories like “Mr. Nasty,” “The Cleaning” Girl,” “Bad-Boy Wannabe and the Cephalopod Empire,” and the single-paragraph, “Death’s Late-Night Walks,” among others, feature characters in dress-up; the German word maskenfreiheit – signaling the freedom conferred by masks – come to life. In “Mr. Nasty” a man flirts with a hired birthday party performer, who is dressing up as Snow White, the entertainment at a party for his daughter, while aware of the watchful eyes of his mother-in-law and wife. Nothing comes of it, of course, but the tension is like lightning. Similarly, the Bad-Boy Wannabe watches his devil’s mask blow away from his head in a breeze, exposing him, while he tries to impress a girl in a squid mask, the two sharing a joint. But, unmasked now as he is, she is out of his league. The cleaning girl dresses up in her employer’s jewels and furs while the homeowners are away, fantasizing the luxury, only to get a bad scare when the doorbell rings, sure she’s busted.  However briefly, we feel all of these characters’ illicit feelings, the lust, the covetousness, the fear.

Although some of the stories are truly grim, ominous, like the title story in which the protagonists come home to find their home robbed and a lethal butcher knife displayed on the bed, or “The Pencil,” in which a schoolkid hides in a bathroom stall while a shooter guns down his classmates, most are funny. They feature likable schmoes to whom we can all relate, walk in their shoes – in their masks – indeed. In “Those Eyes in the Rearview,” a man gets into the Uber he’s just called. “I saw his eyes in the rearview. They were red and crazed.” The driver tells his passenger that he’s just killed a man he caught sleeping with his wife, and the passenger is his hostage. Like the passenger, we feel our blood pressure rise, our pulses race; only, two-thirds of the way through the story, the driver “pulls off his mask,” reveals he is an aspiring actor and was just having the passenger on. “That was some top-notch acting, right?” he boasts. “Come on, give me that.”

In the story, “Flatware,” we encounter a similarly bizarre situation in which a man is sure his home is being broken into and stabs a fork into the neck of the “intruder,” only to learn that the intruder is the brother of his neighbor, come to retrieve a ball his nephew has knocked over the fence into the protagonist’s yard. A comic rush to the emergency room follows, the protagonist taking full responsibility. When they return, the protagonist apologizes again (and again), shakes the man’s hand, returns to the kitchen where he’d been eating his Chinese takeout (hence, the fork conveniently in his hand when the “burglar” came in), “wondering if I should call Tina at her sister’s, where she always went after one of our big blow-outs.” In a flash, then, we see the backstory, why this guy was on edge in the first place.

In the story, “Wise Sunglasses,” the lonely unnamed female protagonist collects sunglasses – her mask. In an aside, Scotellaro writes, “The heart-shaped pair were Pete’s favorites. ‘My Lolita,’ he’d say, though she was far from it, and he’d find the real thing soon enough.” That’s about all we hear about “Pete,” but in a flash we intuit the protagonist’s loneliness, the betrayal at its base. She’s wearing her owl sunglasses when the story concludes, “not feeling the least bit wise.”

In “A Disadvantage of Momentum” we encounter Phil and Nan, post-surgery in a hospital room where Phil lies, recuperating. At their weekly session with a couples counselor, Heidi, they’d been told to “spice it up” after they’d become empty-nesters, the last kid off to college. Nan goes along with one of Phil’s adolescent fantasies, while they are driving home from dinner, her face in his lap, but a sudden fender bender at a stoplight results in a bite too deep. Nan asks Phil, “Anything left?” “Enough,” he replies. The story ends:

They heard some laughter and watched as shadows gathered behind the curtain, grew. Then a hand reached in and swung it open.    

Of course, some stories are better than others. I’m not going to rank all sixty-eight, but every one of them does pack that flash punch. Robert Scotellaro is a master of this form. It’s magic!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Chances-Robert-Scotellaro/dp/1950413268

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

Cuban Health Care – The Ongoing Revolution by Don Fitz

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By g emil reutter

I am not a fan of the oppressive government of Cuba where there is no vote, no guarantee of freedoms we here in the United States take for granted. As with all the revolutions in the last century based on Marxist philosophy the Cuban revolution devolved into a cult of personality. Unlike the others, Russian elitism and Chinese embrace of corporate identity to support the establishment as opposed to utopia, Cuba did establish two elements foreign to other Marxist revolutions. Cuba established an outreach of medical care for the poor and rural and a literacy campaign to educate the population.

The United States began to assert care for the elderly and unemployed with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance under Roosevelt, morphed into Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid and finally the Affordable Care Act under O’Bama. Yet health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans. For profit health care seems to dominate the nation as drug companies charge outrageous prices for medicine although most all appear to be produced overseas at cheap rates. Health insurance rates remain high. Political attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue even as the programs continue to assist millions and for those who have forgotten we do pay our share for these programs through taxes.

Fitz provides a fascinating read of the history of Cuban health care and its outreach to the poor and needy. It is one of only two bright lights of Marxism in Cuba and coupled with the literacy program should be deemed replicable in other nations throughout the world and yes here in the United States. Health care and literacy are basic human rights.

Through a series of essays, Don Fitz lays out the amazing story of Cuban health care from its infancy, elimination of disease on the island to the export of health care to poor nations around the globe. In this time of corporate and university medical systems control of health care in the United States; the lack of basic health care and hospitals in rural areas, unaffordable care in urban areas, Fitz’s essays are timely and an essential read.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cuban-Health-Care-Ongoing-Revolution/dp/1583678603

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

Paula Regossy by Lynn Crawford

By Jim Feast

While in writing Lynn Crawford has veered between realism (as in Shankus & Kitto) and near sci fi (as in Fortification Resort), her new book, Paula Regossy, combines elements of both by mixing contemporary reportage into an imaginative novel  of spies and fairy tales.

The founding premise is one familiar from espionage fiction. The lead characters all work for an unnamed NGO, which is discreetly commissioned to bust crime. “We are contacted and hired by the few in the know. Our fees are high.” The operatives primarily investigate people who work for companies that balance on the knife edge between philanthropy and skullduggery. “Our marks are wealthy companies that wreak wide-scale damage yet contribute. For example, they authorize toxic dumps in waterways and launch and fund charitable and arts foundations.” Most of the chapters describe the experiences of Regossy and agents she has trained.

(Let me mention that in an email exchange with the author, Crawford said she sees these trained agents as aspects of the main character. She writes, “The book is titled Paula Regossy and is, in fact, a portrait of her. … No piece is ALL of her. Each one is PART of her. What we end with (in my head) is a picture of SOME of her but, of course, not ALL of her.)

Unlikely as this may seem, what is fundamentally a crime story is structured so as to allow Crawford a chance to display her knowledge of the Detroit arts scene. The title character has broken a rule of the agency by getting emotionally involved with a suspect and so has been reassigned to Detroit where, while getting her priorities back on track, she takes as her cover identity that of a Bohemian art maven, who supplies the reader with descriptions of the budding, bubbling creative community.  A note at the back of the book tells us that Crawford was inspired to compose this book by her viewing of a number of gallery shows, including some described by Regossy. She tells us, “Each chapter in this book is my personal (but faithful) response to works by various Detroit-based artists and spaces.”

In this way, the author grounds the cloak and dagger narrative in a world she knows well. However, if she gives it a realistic edge here, in other sections, she lets the story lift off into wild reaches of the imagination.  For instance, in a story that explains how Joan became an individual whose skills proved very useful in sleuthing, we learn of Joan’s devastation when her brother dies tragically in his youth. After this trauma, she develops odd physical symptoms. “For a while, I stopped growing. Then I shrank.” Next, her changes get even less explicable. “Another thing happened: my new body stopped respecting gravity. I was permanently airborne, hovering or flying. And I emitted a sound, a buzz.”

So far, I have dwelt on the novel’s extremes, from the most matter-of-fact depiction of art openings to the most fantastic, an agent moving from one species to another; but this might provide a slightly distorted picture as most of the book centers on more novelistic stories of the genesis and activities of agents. Most of these crime-busters have been touched early on by violent deaths, which oriented them to pursuing law enforcement careers. A few of these stories are almost procedurals where the detective explains how she or he nabbed a criminal, usually by employing unorthodox methods.

Another attribute of these agents touches on themes found earlier in Crawford’s Fortification Resort. There (with some tongue in cheek moments) she describes the activities of personal assistants, gym trainers, party curators, travel guides and others who work directly with a refined upper class clientele. This is a world slightly in the future where the hyper-sensitive services carried out for the elite have been enhanced. As I wrote, reviewing this book in Rain Taxi in 2005, Crawford’s “language is modeled on—and quietly spoofs—upscale New Age promotional writing, fluff that would extol a spa, new skin enhancer, Pilates program or other psychic or physical rehabilitation. Crawford never voices open criticism of the group, but offhandedly skewers the pretensions, muffled cruelty, and sometimes downright wackiness of her characters.”

The link to the present book is that this type of hyper-sensitive modulations of the self are not carried out for the elite but have become regimens used to attune agents to their jobs. Paula’s morning routine, for instance, is made up of “EXERCISE, BATHE, MEDITATE, EAT, DRESS, SOUL BUILD.” Each of these routines is precisely and subtly geared to her professional duties. As to her breakfast, “Morning meals vary, depending on what lies ahead. Desk days it is quinoa with butter and syrup. Push days usually mean a circle of nuts around something vegetarian.” She adds, “TANGENT: I do sometimes use nuts, usually almonds, to kill.”

While this theme links this book to the former novel, there is a perspectival shift. While Resort is a cutting, low-key satire on the New Age-y fads of the upper crust, in this book the trendy treatments are used to sustain and strengthen the principled fighters against abuse and corporate malfeasance. On this note, it might be suggested the novel is partly science fiction because at this point it nearly takes an alternate reality viewpoint to imagine an NGO facing off so resolutely (and effectively) against the corporate/governmental machine that is polluting the waters and air while killing off irreplaceable animals and plants. Paula Regossy is one of those creative works that reimagine social justice and ecological thinking. It is a vision within a forward movement, a forward movement that takes us backward to the world of indigenous, ecologically oriented   civilizations, where people were more in touch with Nature and willing (through prayer and ritual) to right the wrongs done to her.  

You can find the book here:  https://mocad.myshopify.com/collections/all/products/paula-regossy-by-lynn-crawford

Jim Feast is the author of the just published (August 2020) and long-titled poetry book A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn: Poems for Lady Bunny, Chicago: 1972-1975.

Dead Shark on The N Train by Susana H. Case

By Lynette Esposito

Released in June 2020 by Broadstone Books,  Dead Shark on the N Train by Susana H. Case is one of those volumes of poetry that reaches beyond the pale to explore gender. sexual politics and violence. The poetic range in this seventy-nine- page tome of poems is broad and compelling.
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Case divides the volume into three sections: Living Dolls, Crime Scenes, and Storm Clouds.  Each section carries the theme of the titles. For example, the poem Diva (After Maria Callas) on page five in The Living Dolls section explores the roll of an expensive and talented mistress who must sneak in a side door to see her dying lover. The poem is in two stanzas with the first stanza dominating in length.  The poem speaks of a songstress being forced to sing since she was a child and turning from it to love.  The first stanza ends with the power play of one lover over another.
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                        If the man you love leaves you
                        to woo the most famous woman in the world
                        because she represents America—more
                        refined and even thinner than you—you’ll hole up
                        in your apartment until he begs you
                        to take him back, threatening to crash
                        his Mercedes into your building if you won’t.
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The poem clearly represents the woman on the side who must sneak into the place where he is dying and calls herself his canary with her voice cracking on high C. The poem is successful in both implied and literal images that tells a story both of love and betrayal.
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In the Crimes Scene section, Jane Doe a short three-stanza poem on page thirty-seven, mixes the image of the unknown female cadavers who are tagged with the name Jane Doe with a Smith who is only a Smith a per centage of the time.  In the second stanza, aggression is hidden in the linen clarifies the situation. The third stanza of the poem is powerful in referencing the fragmented lives women lead– coordinated but undefined.
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                               Fashionable teal and beige heels
                               at the foot of the bed.
                               Matching jacket on the chair.
                               Under the blanket, who is she really?
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The stanza shows the image of a woman who outside of the bedroom presents one image but really is nothing more than a Jane Doe when protected by the bed clothes. Or is she?
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In the final section, Storm Clouds, her title poem is presented on page fifty-two, Dead Shark on the N Train. The narrator speaks of a dead fish being admired then left behind on the subway to smell it up.  Tongue in cheek, the narrator says nothing surprises New Yorkers.  The poem then turns to a confession of how the narrator escaped the place she grew up but only makes it across the river.  This is a clever way of showing how connected we are and that somehow, we don’t stray too far. The reader then sees a picture of not a dead fish on the N but a man on #1 who has a heart attack and dies. His corpse rode the loop.
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If life is about a journey, both the fish and the man were involved with a major difference, one was noticed and the other was not.
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                                 .. .Like a man
                                  in his habitat, he seemed to be napping
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The poem is effective in its presentation of human nature in an everyday setting with an ironic twist.
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I enjoyed this book.  Case takes a consistently fresh approach no matter what subject she addresses.  She has a light touch but profound meaning in her poetic work.
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You can find the book here: www.BroadstoneBooks.com

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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.

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The Tiger in the Grass by Harriet Doerr

tiger

By Ray Greenblatt

Introduction

          Harriet Doerr (1910-2002) grew up and married in California. For nearly twenty years she and her husband ran a mining company in Mexico. In 1984 at the age of 74 she published her first book Stones for Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. Her third and final book, a collection of short stories, The Tiger in the Grass was published in 1995. This review will be a discussion of how effectively she developed setting and character and the essence of her philosophy after such a long and fruitful life. And she used poetic prose to accomplish that.

California

In the story LIKE HEAVEN the major character Elizabeth has returned to a town she had summered in for years. She wondered if her memories matched the reality of the place. “Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and lemon yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.” Doerr’s use of color is always vivid and varied, often using flowers to represent a particular hue.

“Life on the hill had not been flawless. Elizabeth vaguely recalled the occasional tears of children and slammings of adult doors. But the immense peace of the place drowned out these events, leaving only a shimmering calm behind. Under its protection, summer days could scarcely be told apart and ran together. So that, even while being lived, they had seemed eternal.”

Mexico

Mexico plays an important role in Doerr’s life and writing. In the story THE SEASONS now in Mexico, color again plays a major role. “Yellow is the color of fall. The cottonwoods burn with it, and only flowers that are yellow go on blooming. At the edges of fields, against unmortared stone boundaries, in roadside ditches, grow all the wild daisies in the world.”

Sudden though infrequent storms punctuate the landscape. “When there is a storm, the thunder rolls up the mountain and down the cobbled street. It stifles the backfire of the passing truck and silences the church bell ringing for vespers. It mutters imprecations in the distance.”

“The lightning forks into an ash tree, into the windmill tower, and finally into the transformer, causing a power failure that may last all night. In the flash there is a second’s eternity of total exposure, the plow left in the furrow, the dented pot on the fire, the woman’s face in the cracked mirror.”

One Character

Some women in these stories are angry and depressed because they have not found who they really are, or in trying to live through their husbands the wives always come up short. Doerr can be very insightful focusing on one individual. In CARNATIONS Ann “lives with herself. They no longer speak. She can’t remember being shut away. Life, like a subway train, simply began to recede, taking the people she knew out of earshot. Either they have stopped listening or she has forgotten the words. In the case of Elliot, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.”

On a car trip through Italy with her husband she sees a flower seller who becomes a symbol of what she desires. “Ann supposes that their fragrance hangs about him like incense. He is hatless and wears sandals. They are about to pass him. She hasn’t had time to say ‘Stop.’

Then, in an impact as clear and sudden as the clash of cymbals, Ann’s eyes meet the eyes of the vendor. Their smiles meet and fuse. The second is held in timeless suspension, like a raindrop on a spiderweb.

His arms, lifting the carnations like lanterns, are open in an encompassing embrace. They hold the terraced vineyards and the twisted pines, they hold the marble figures in the tapestried palace walls, the tile on hillside houses and the stone on Roman roads.” This man is so much a Christ figure; and the brilliant flowers again are so important.

Characters

Doerr is also effective at handling multiple characters.  The story THE EXTINGUISHING OF GREAT-AUNT ALICE offers us several. “Weeping. It seemed chronic rather than acute, a way of life rather than a trauma.” Alice is old and sad but still retains a vigorous imagination. She shares “the same crystal vision” with her great-niece, eleven-year-old Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth brought strange maps she had drawn of India, France, and Peru, striped with rivers, crocheted with mountains, shaded with forests, dotted with wheat, rice, and corn, red-circled with capitals, and all bounded by shores of a thousand parentheses.”

We meet a kaleidoscope of people, old and young and in between. Alice’s middle-aged son Theo has not found himself and is trying to fit in socially. “He had made a thorough search of the anniversary classes and encountered only eight alumni of his year, all so altered by time and varying levels of despair that none recognized the others.”

Among these uncertain souls stands a solid citizen. “The driver of the station wagon wore thick brown-rimmed glasses and a lime-green pantsuit. She had planted both feet on the ground when she was one and a half, and an aura of common sense hung about her like the aroma of wholesome food. Today she had realized at once that she must pilot the rudderless into safe waters, and set off with purpose and without surprise.” A few strokes by a skilled writer fully rounds a character.

Mexicans

Some Mexican characters are distant as in the story WAY STATIONS.  “There was something in the old woman’s blackbird eyes, something about her slippered feet set parallel on the floor, that discouraged intimacy.”

Others are more outgoing as in SUN, PURE AIR, AND A VIEW. “’Consider this, senora,’ Carlos said, and from the edge of the terrace where they stood, he embraced the landscape, drawing to him the municipality of Santa Felicia, the presidencia, the cathedral, and the zoo, as well as all the plowed and wooded world beyond.”

And in what I think is the most shocking story in the collection, ironically SAINT’S DAY, we see tragic individuals. “Remembering the annoyances that have plagued his life, along with the great injustices, he allows rage to possess him, lets it burn hot and blind and pure, until at last he strikes the back of the bench and bloodies his good hand.”

His wife has been traumatized to near immobility. When her son Paco asks her for help, “she neither looked at him nor moved from where she sat on

the edge of the bed, her elbows on her knees, her thin fingers pressed to her eyes, rocking back and forth, as if the rocking itself might serve for something. As if it, more than tears, might speak for her.”

Paco is still a fanciful little boy. Strangely he reminds me of the little boy from John Updike’s short story You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You. Both boys love the thrill of the carnival. However, Updike’s character has the entire world ahead of him to look forward to. Paco is from a distressed environment without much hope for the future. His immediate goal is to ride on the carousel. “Now, for five minutes, Paco is a child without past. This interval contains his whole life. So his day ends almost as he had planned, riding a horse to music under stars.” Meanwhile, his sister is being raped by the father.

Philosophy

So many of these stories, and so many of these events that I believe actually happened to Harriet Doerr are involved with memories. Her five senses enable her to call up actions that occurred seventy-five years before. She remembers the walls of their house from A SLEEVE OF RAIN. “You knew them best by touching them, by moving along the half-finished wall, your hand sliding from one rough surface to the next. Dry, hard, complex, indifferent, they were the fiber of your world.”

She claims that she does not clearly know why these memories are dear to her, but I can guess that they recall when her family was close and solid.” Years later and possessing at last the long view, I cannot say whether I touched the wood to claim the house, to establish a connection, or simply for the sake of the shingles themselves, to feel their texture, to smell forest.”

It is an extreme advantage for a writer to have such vivid recall, especially of such positive moments in one’s life.  From LOW TIDE AT FOUR: “Back on the beach, our heads under the umbrella, we lie at compass points like a four-pointed star. The sun hangs hot and high. Small gusts of wind lift the children’s corn-straw hair. We taste salt. Face down, arms wide, we cling to the revolving earth.”

The child sometimes feels the center of the universe, but an author can achieve great power of creativity with this feeling. “I call up my interior reserves and gather strength from my blood and bones. Exerting the full force of my will, I command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the sun, hold back the wave. Long enough for me to paint and frame low tide.”

Conclusion

Harriet Doerr facetiously states that in a writing class she took “all we wanted was the perfect word in the perfect sentence that, when multiplied, would fill the pages of the perfect book.” It is what all writers hope. A symbol for her was THE TIGER IN THE GRASS.  A writer must persist through all uncertainties, all fears to achieve the best writing that she can. “I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.” Through her writing Harriet Doerr found her true self. Considering her style I am surprised that she never wrote poetry.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Grass-Stories-Other-Inventions/dp/0140251480

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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Library Rain by Rustin Larson

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Rustin Larson’s poetry volume, Library Rain, has 50 pages of poems that vary in length, style and subject matter. Many of the poems have been previously published in a wide variety of literary journals and other publications.   This volume has a good mix of Larson’s tightly focused and innovative images and literary skill.
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Larson, in his poem Man of The Future on pages four and five and first published in Saranac Review, focuses on a narrator who observes riders on a transit bus and gives them nicknames. One is named The Man of the Future and another is named Mrs. Rabbit. The two sit next to each other their thighs touching. Then, suddenly, they avoid each other. Larson ends this two-page seven stanza poem with:
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                                 I’m no genius. I’ve made plenty
                                 Of  mistakes.  If life gives you something,
                                 You take it, and you don’t ask any questions,
                                 And then when life takes it away
                                 Again,  then what?  There is no elegant way
                                 to put this.  If we’ve lived this far,
                                 We’ve become the future we once thought was distant.
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Life on the bus translates in figurative form, to a truth of gain and loss and time unexpectedly bringing the future to us too quickly.  Larson’s choice of place, a bus that carries people back and forth to work, also encapsulates the repetitive rhythm of a pentameter keeping time even as it moves forward.
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John Peterson of Wapsipinicon  Almanac says “Larson writes like an angel, but one who’s willing to work both sides of the street.” This can be seen in Larson’s poem Summer Vacation (The Iowa Source) on pages twenty-eight and twenty-nine. It is like many of Larson’s poems, a vignette in poetry. A young boy has his first sexual encounter with a girl and it is more fantasy than reality as others in the poem both congratulate and condemn the experience. The narrator of the poem presents the idea of someone who is there but not there as a reality check.  The following lines suggest our involvement in our own life plot.
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                              The miracle is that we each live a story
                              That really isn’t about us at all.
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The narrator comments that this is the plotline for every thing .I find this is a little on the negative side but also I hear the ring of truth to it.
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Many of Larson’s poems have this double edge to them with the common settings and place suggesting much more.  On page fifty, the poem, A Yet to Be Determined Painting, (Briar Cliff Review) has beautiful imagery but underneath the beauty, is broken machinery.
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                        Maple sees flickered down from the branches.
                       “We are replacements for butterflies,”
                        they said with their illusion of two wings.
                        They struck the boards of the deck
                        and then they just lay there broken machinery,
                        done, the pilot green, the current strong.
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These strong images encourage the reader to take a second look at nature and how it reflects on how one imagines life.
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The poems in this book are a pleasure to read and give the reader insight into the world around them. Larson’s complex inter mix of ideas and form work well throughout the book.
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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.

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

outer

By Ray Greenblatt

The Outermost House is one of my favorite books. I have read many Nature works , but this one is unique. I have read about the ocean, its types of fishes, and the underwater geology, but this book is light on science. It focuses on the beach; that is partly why I came to live by the waters of the Chesapeake. This book speaks to me and for me because it uses poetic language. Beston is able to probe the vastness of the sea and the heavens.

Henry Beston (1888-1868) decided to live close to nature as Thoreau did at Walden. In 1928 he built a house right on the beach of Cape Cod. The Walden cabin was 10 X 16; Beston’s structure named the Fo’castle was 20 X 16.  He lived there for a year, recording the change of seasons. In 1929 he married the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth, to whom he was married for forty years. They then went on with their lives living on a farm in Maine.

The Beach

Since Beston writes in such an orderly manner, we shall simply follow his Table of Contents commenting on the richness of his observations. His first chapter truly focuses on the beach. “The flux and reflux of ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the splendour of autumn and the holiness of spring—all these were part of the great beach.”

Beston was especially aware of the light of the beach and the colors it revealed. “It has many colours: old ivory here, peat here, and here old ivory darkened and enriched with rust. At twilight, its rim lifted to the splendour in the west, the face of the wall becomes a substance of shadow and dark descending to the eternal unquiet of the sea; at dawn the sun rising out of the ocean gilds it with a level silence of light which thins and rises and vanishes into day.”  He is also apt to point out miniscule things as well.  “There is always something poetic and mysterious to me about these tracks in the pits of the dunes; they begin at nowhere, sometimes with the faint impression of an alighting wing, and vanish as suddenly into the trackless nowhere of the sky.”

Autumn, Ocean, and Birds

This chapter is dedicated to his observation of birds. He is fascinated by the migrations. “Now comes the sea fowl and the wild fowl to the beach from the lonely and darkening north, from the Arctic Ocean and the advancing pack, from the continental fragments and great empty islands that lie between the continents and the pole, from the tundra and the barrens, from the forests, from the bright lakes, from the nest-strewn crevices and ledges of Atlantic rocks no man has ever named or scaled.”

“Standing on the beach, fresh claw marks at my feet, I watch the lovely sight of the group instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive Pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions; I watch the spiraling flight, the momentary tilt of the white bellies, the alternate shows of the clustered, grayish backs.” He is even in awe of individual birds. “I wonder where it was that she forsook her familiar earth for the grey ocean, an ocean she perhaps had never seen. What a gesture of ancient faith and present courage such a flight is, what a defiance of circumstance and death—land wing and hostile sea, the fading land behind, the unknown and the distant articulate and imperious in the bright, aerial blood.”

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

The Headlong Wave

In this chapter Beston tries to interpret the sound of waves, something only a poet would attempt. “Hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”

Midwinter

During midwinter Beston observes a variety of things. “To share in it, one must have a knowledge of the pilgrimage of the sun, and something of that natural sense of him and feeling for him which made even the most primitive people mark the summer limits of his advance and the last December ebb of his decline . . . We lose a great deal, I think, when we lose this sense and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.”

The sun is obscured by a storm.  “With the turn of the tide came fury unbelievable. The great rhythm of its waters now at one with the rhythm of the wind, the ocean rose out of the night to attack the ancient rivalry of earth, hurling breaker after thundering breaker against the long bulwark of the sands. The Fo’castle, being low and strongly built, stood solid as a rock, but its walls thrummed in the gale. I could feel the vibration in the bricks of the chimney, and the dune beneath the house trembled incessantly with the onslaught of the surf.”

Strange sights were to greet him after the storm was over. “There crumbled out the blackened skeleton of an ancient wreck which the dunes had buried long ago. As the tide rose this ghost floated and lifted itself free, and then washed south close along the dunes. There was something inconceivably spectral in the sight of this dead hulk thus stirring from its grave and yielding its bones again to the fury of the gale.”

Winter Visitors

In an earlier chapter “Headlong Wave” Henry Beston attempted to capture the sounds of the surf. In this chapter he speaks of bird sounds. “Sometimes wings whistle by in the darkness. The sound of a pair of ‘whistler’ ducks on the wing is a lovely, mysterious sound at such a time. It is a sound made with wings, a clear, sibilant note which increases as the birds draw near, and dies away in the distance like a faint and whistling sigh.” “Turning toward the marsh, I saw a flock of geese flying over the meadows along the rift of dying, golden light, their great wings beating with a slow and solemn beauty, their musical, bell-like cry filling the lonely levels and the dark.”

However, this chapter excels in word landscapes as vivid as any painting. “There are patches of snow on the hay fields and the marshes, and, on the dunes, nests of snow held up off the ground by wiry spears of beach grass bent over and tangled into a cup.  Such little pictures as this last are often to be seen on the winter dunes; I pause to enjoy them, for they have the quality and delicacy of Japanese painting. There is a blueness in the air, a blue coldness on the moors, and across the sky to the south, a pale streamer of cloud smoking from its upper edge.”

Then he expands his vision. “There was the ocean in all weathers and at all tides, now grey and lonely and veiled in winter rain, now sun-bright, coldly green, and marbled with dissolving foam; there was the marsh with its great congresses, its little companies, its wandering groups, and little family gatherings of winter birds; there was the glory of the winter sky rolling out of the ocean over and across the dunes, constellation by constellation, lonely star by star.”

Lanterns on the Beach

The author describes the wrecks that occur every year off Cape Cod. One has to remember that in the 1920’s many sailing ships were still used for transport. “Rigging freezes, sails freeze and tear—of a sudden the long booming undertone of the surf sounds under the lee bow—a moment’s drift, the feel of surf twisting the keel of the vessel, then a jarring, thundering crash and the upward drive of the bar . . . Stranded vessels soon begin to break up. Wrecks drag and pound on the shoals, the waves thunder inboard, decks splinter and crack like wooden glass , timbers part, and the iron rods bend over like candles in a heat.”

Despite their urgency, flares even have their aesthetic qualities. “The signal burns and sputters, the smoke is blown away almost ere it is born; the glassy bellies of the advancing breakers turn to volutes of rosy black, the seething foam to a strange vermilion-pink. In the night and rain beyond the hole of light an answering bellow sounds, ship lights dim as the vessel changes her course, the red flare dies to a sizzling, empty cartridge, the great dark of the beach returns to the solitary dunes.”

The men who prevent many wrecks and try to save those in peril are the local surfmen. “Winter and summer they pass and repass, now through the midnight sleet and fury of a great northeaster, now through August quiet and the reddish-golden radiance of an old moon rising after midnight from the sea, now through a world of  rain shaken with heavy thunder and stabbed through and through with lightning.”

An Inland Stroll in Spring

Beston began to live on Cape Cod in the autumn. Now that winter is over, he remarks on the ever-returning fecundity of spring. “I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the sea. Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life, pouring life into the dead, life into life itself. That immense, overwhelming, relentless, burning ardency of Nature for the stir of life! And all these her creatures, even as these thwarted lives, what travail, what hunger and cold, what bruising and slow-killing struggle will they not endure to accomplish the earth’s purpose?”

Night on the Great Beach

Different aspects of darkness are considered. “For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars—pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.”

A mystery occurs on the night beach. “Every spatter was a crumb of phosphorescence; I walked in a dust of stars. Behind me, in my footprints, luminous patches burned. With the double-ebb moonlight and tide, the deepening brims of the pools took shape in smouldering, wet fire. So strangely did the luminous speckles smoulder and die and glow that it seemed as if some wind were passing, by whose breath they were kindled and extinguished. Occasional whole breakers of phosphorescence rolled in out of the vague sea—the whole wave one ghostly motion, one creamy light—and, breaking against the bar, flung up pale sprays of fire.”

The savior in the night is the lighthouse. “A star of light which waxes and wanes three mathematical times, now as a lovely pale of light behind the rounded   summits of the dunes. The changes in the atmosphere change the colour of the beam; it is now whitish, now flame golden, now golden red; it changes its form as well, from a star to a blare of light, from a blare of light to a cone of radiance sweeping a circumference of fog.”

The Year at High Tide

What stands out most in this chapter is the author’s sense of smell. “I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly ploughed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, the clovelike aroma of our wild Cape Cod pinks, the morning perfume of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from these meadows late on summer afternoons.”

Orion Rises on the Dunes

A very apt final statement made by Henry Beston is found in this concluding chapter. “The creation is still going on, that the creative forces are as great and as active today as they have ever been, and that tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any of the world. Creation is here and now. So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will  be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science. It is as impossible to live without reverence as it is without joy.”

There were and always will be Nature writers—a most obvious statement that could be made about poets as well. They tell us about the state of the natural world that we are often unaware of or too busy to notice. Henry Beston’s book has a cosmic feeling—the sea and sky, the major characters, cannot be larger. That factor provides an energy that makes its reading so stimulating. Beston’s prose style is full of imagery that gives pungency and further aids in making the book mystically fly!.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Outermost-House-Year-Great-Beach/dp/080507368X

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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.

The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

dead kid
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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A companion to her collection, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, published four years earlier, The Dead Kid Poems hammers you with the grief and injustice of a child’s death just as relentlessly, if not more so, than the previous volume. The very title is like a blunt object, nothing allusive or metaphorical about it. Only, where The Joshua Elegies ends on an ambivalent note in the poem, “when her dead son is seven years,” the new collection seems to offer something like comfort, or redemption, at its close. In the first collection,
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a woman is skating barefoot on her sorrow,
her brain awash in the smell of his skin,
her arms shackled to the stars, a
pirouette of unmet promises,
regret. if she blames it on herself
she can fix it.
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Compare this searing guilt to the last lines of “Photo of My Dead Son, Taken at the DMV”: “Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket. / Sleep now, Mama, he said.”
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This is not to say that it’s any easier, that the mourning comes to an end, that there is “closure,” which is all too clear in poems like “My Dead Boy”:.
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Eleven years after, my boy’s still dead.
(I hold him in the rafters of my head.)
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His photo’s propped at the side of my bed.
(I kiss it on the nightstand near my head.)
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A letterman jacket hangs in his stead.
(I shelter him, so deep inside my head.)
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Are you over it? my clueless friend said.
(I nail her to a grim place in my head.)
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But maybe with time comes perspective. It’s clear from these verses just how internalized the pain has become. Inside my head, indeed.
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Or maybe, to put it another, way, “I’ve grown accustomed to dead kids,” as the sadly resigned satiric poem, “Accustomed to Dead Kids,” begins, a spoof of the song Rex Harrison sings in My Fair Lady.
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I’ve grown accustomed to their screams,
the ending of their dreams,
accustomed to dead kids.
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I’ve grown accustomed to the sobs,
of parents, frantic as they call.
I’ve grown accustomed to the terror
when their children don’t respond;
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the pleas, the cries,
unsaid goodbyes
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are second nature to me now,
like breathing out and breathing in.
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Written for her sister, this collection includes half a dozen poems about the poet’s niece, “Anna,” addicted to meth and in the midst of the chaotic life addiction entails, the car wrecks, the homelessness, the desperation, driven by the craving, the dependence; the emotional blackmail they extort from parents who feel responsible and desperate themselves. In “Back on Meth, Anna Dumps Her Dog at Her Mother’s,” Fancher writes,
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My daughter’s a bottomless pit, my sister says.
She thinks I’m made of money!
What makes her think she can sponge off me?
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You do, I answer.
I’m done, my sister swears.
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This time I almost believe her.
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There’s more of this sense of the inevitable in the poems, “There are worse things than a dead kid, I think,” “The only people who call it ‘Cali’ are from someplace else,” and “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds.
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I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say,
Don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.
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What a punch in the gut! But it’s not heartlessness that drives these reflections, it’s the wisdom of grief.  You can’t read a poem like “Every Day Is Mother’s Day,” with its Zen-koan-like opening stanza, and not feel the depth of her anguish, internalized though it may be.
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If you had only
one child and he died, are you
still a mother?
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It’s this kind of torment that provokes a poem like “Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom,” with its cautionary counsel, its unabashed invocation of superstitions in trying to make sense out of the totally meaningless cruelty life so often throws our way.
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Pass an egg above his body while he’s sleeping.
Make the mano fico over him with your fist.
Sew small mirrors into his clothes to reflect misfortune.
Tie a red string around his wildness.
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When someone gives him a compliment, spit over your shoulder three times.
Then touch wood.
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In an Afterword, Fancher confides, “My grief is not finite; eleven years and the poems about my boy keep coming. Even when the sadness ebbs, it returns with the deadliness of a tsunami.” But even in her distress, Fancher is able to write eloquent verse, like the extended metaphors that inform a poem like “”Residuals: An Elegy,” with its poignant allusions to television, or “Anna as a War Zone,” in which she describes her sister as a sort of angst aircraft divebombing to her daughter’s rescue.  Both collections contain a number of Fancher’s arresting photographs, including foreboding images of the raven, a bad luck sign in ancient mythology. The crow, in fact, adorns the cover of The Dead Kid Poems.
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So there may be a sort of “deliverance” for the reader at the conclusion of the book, but the warning for any parent or grandparent at the end of “Unsolicited Advice” is still so potent: “Don’t tempt the gods.”
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You can find the book here: KYSO Flash: Books
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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.

Soul Sister Revue: A Poetry Compilation by Cynthia Manick (editor)

SoulSisterRevue_72

By Charles Rammelkamp

Think of Cynthia Manick as an impresario, the mistress of ceremonies organizing the entertainment at this gorgeous revue, which is complete with an intermission halfway through – “When Soul and Poetry Meet, a Revue Takes Place” – in which Manick explains her inspiration behind the project, back in 2013.  Soul Sister Revue is a live show that takes place four times a year. This book represents the print analogy of the performance, with two poets from each of the twenty shows spanning the past five years represented.  While not all the poets in Soul Sister Revue are female, they are all of color and all exhibit soul.

Which of course provokes the question, What is Soul? Glad you asked. Each of the forty-one poets with work in this anthology (the forty selected plus Cynthia) has an answer. The format for each performer-on-the-page on the Revue stage is: 1) the poem; 2) an explication or elucidation of the poem in the poet’s own words; 3) a response to the question, “What Is Soul?”; 4) a response to the prompt, “Favorite soul performer or song?” and 5) a brief bio of the poet.

“Soul is what’s left after the world has worn you down,” Jeremy Michael Clark (“Dear Darkness”) writes. “Soul is duende,” Roberto Garcia (“Elegy in the Key of Life”) writes, “that inexplicable thing that connects human beings, that makes art true.” “Soul is memory, even when you don’t realize you are remembering,” Rio Cortez (“Writing Lately”) opines. Yasmin Blkhyr (“& I Mourned What I Could Not Name”) believes “Soul is the heart, the meaty heart & also the whistle of air in the lungs.” And my favorite is from Mia Kang (“Civitas”): “Soul is the thing under the thing.”

Not surprisingly, many of the poems – like Garcia’s mentioned above – address music. Freida Jones contemplates jazz in “No Maps in This Music”:
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Marion Brown rises
slender & ebony
lips wrapped around reeds
joined by Trane, Ayler and Ornette
fueled by Elvin drums
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Patricia Smith writes in “Why a Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong about Motown,” “We learned
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what we needed, not from our parents and their rumored
south, but from the gospel seeping through the sad gap
in Mary Well’s grin. Smokey slow-sketched pictures
of our husbands, their future skins flooded with white light,
their voices all remorse and atmospheric coo. Lil’ Stevie
squeezed his eyes shut on the soul notes, replacing his
dark with ours. Diana was the bone our mamas coveted,
the flow of slip silver they knew was buried deep beneath
their rollicking heft. Every lyric, growled or sweet from
perfect brown throats, was instruction:  Sit pert, pout, and
seamed silk. Then watch him beg….
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Joshua Bennett’s “Barber Song,” David Tomas Martinez’ “The/A Train” and others allude to or are inspired by song.  Similarly, a number of poems are inspired by or in homage to other works of art. Notably, two poems take their inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s musical, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.  These include Peggy Robles-Alvarado’s “Praise Poem for Bronx Girls Who Make Shopping at Rainbow More than Enough” and Pamela Sneed’s “When the Rainbow is Enuf / for Ntozake Shange,” which begins:
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The internet has transformed our grieving patterns
Everything comes and goes so quickly
After death there’s a tremendous outpouring and then a few
weeks later months years later nothing
I have come now to watch all who shaped me die
Never got to write about or even register Prince
Then Aretha
Ntozake
People without whom I couldn’t have formed my voice
my identity
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Grief is a potent theme throughout this collection. So many of these poems address mourning and loss, in an elegiac tone, from R. Erica Doyle’s “Winter Solstice” and Amber Atiya’s “The Skin South of My Collar Bone Burns” (“This poem is a kind of griefwork,” she comments in her “About” section) to Chris Slaughter’s “The Father,” Keisha-Gaye Anderson’s “To My Sisters” (“…a wave of motion / when grief slowly siphons breath”) and Lynne Procope’s stunning “Thirteen Assumptions and Seven Questions.” In her response to “What Is Soul?” Procope writes, “How do black folks persist? Our bodies distort to contain so many hurts. On a cellular level, we must have evolved to hold grief.”
The “Favorite Soul performer or song?” section of each poet’s entry is incredibly charming. Aretha Franklin is cited over and over again (Manick, Evie Shockley, Jeremy Michael Clark, Lynne Procope, Maria Fernanda Chamorro, and Mia Kang all mention her, one song or another), but Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Otis Redding, among others, are also mentioned more than once.   Beyoncé and Prince, Billie Holliday and Al Green also have their advocates, as well as others.  In her opening poem, “I Wish the Trees Could Sway to Marvin and Aretha,” Cynthia Manick partakes of the melancholy tone that’s a direct manifestation of “soul”:
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because sometimes I forget/ soil/ can do more than hold/
wooden or metal boxes….
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You get a sense of what real fun a performance of Soul Sister Revue must be.  Poetry and soul lovers can vicariously experience the Soul Sister Revue from reading this impressive collection.

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 You can find the book here: Anthologies — Jamii Publishing

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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.
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