north of oxford poetry book review

American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo Montoya + A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum

A Camera Obscura CoverAmerican Quasar Cover

Two New Titles from Red Hen Press

By Greg Bem

As we continue to live our days through the latest chapter in our ever-unfolding, shared pandemic, and emerge from the darker months toward the light of the summer, two new titles from Red Hen Press arrive, and they are fantastic. These are not necessarily optimistic works of poetry, though they positively invite us to return inward and see the universe reflected within the self. I cannot recommend them enough.

The words of these poets who stare across the facets of existence, from the limitless sky to the great expanses of desert are pushing, pushing forward to question, reflect, and question further. These two distinct collections of verse, honoring many paths of the literary canon, are bountifully lyrical and entrancing. They arrive in our times of collective need, and shine upon the worlds that have continued to exist, worlds complex and beyond our human conflicts, burdens, and shadowy loss.

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“[. . .] plunging further into a continuum you recognize as your own.”

(from “[* * * *] No 4 [ Fata Morgana ]” in Carl Marcum’s A Camera Obscura¸ page 70)

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum is a book that feels full, feels like it is inspired by life itself (minutely and grandly) and the pact of pondering through a poet’s daily travels. This collection is filled with lines that stop us dead in our tracks, seek out the closest distance—the inevitable horizon—and beg to the nothing and the everything around us, “Why?”

It is an existential book, but it also takes the reader far from the gentleness of existentialism and philosophy. A sense of imperative action fills in the gaps between each stanza and leaves the stark poetry shivering in the zone of illumination, exposed like epiphany, insight, resolution. Poems often start with small keys that twist and unlock fuller worlds through textual portals. Insight is provided into recesses of our daily existence. One example is “Word Assimilation” (page 48):

If you’re looking for truth here, it’s only in passing.
If you’re looking for her, she’s in a room dreaming.
If you’re looking for them, imagine no English.
If you’re looking for work, see me at the door.

Marcum explores the border between the root of existence and the fringe, the tangential, the subtext. What is front-and-center and what is leftover, and why, becomes a series of questions that leads us to catharsis through their answers. All of this, provided in the narrative of the poems, opens further and further, a poetic field that is meta and direct at once.

Marcum’s work moves through the multilingual shadows, operating somewhere between Spanish and English, finding harmony (and harmony’s antithesis) within the translation of language and everything that occurs after. The poems in A Camera Obscura feel almost spontaneous. And yet they are process-oriented, just as the world is sculpted by infinite processes, infinite moments of translation, just as the hushed blend of cultures do their dance and the poet finds the self within that hush.

The poet’s voice is strongest in its acts of defiant questioning. Just as many before Marcum stared into the heavens and demanded answers, so too does he look upward and outward through his poetry. The cosmos is, throughout this collection, a grandiose muse, often starting and, subtly, ending each poem. In “Ojo de Dios” (page 60), Marcum begins: “Simple to understand: a star like our own that’s shed,” and closes: “Whose gaze is this? Whose soul growing exponential in darkness?” These are brilliant flashes calmed by darkness, by potential, by a sense of the beyond. The speaker grows through descriptions, through the process of describing, and by the ultimate loop into self-reference.

Time collapses into blank
& buzzing light. Something is bound to happen.

(from “Purgatory Adjacent: A Dreamscape,” page 39)

There is much to discuss with A Camera Obscura and, as its title alludes, much that alluded and cannot be directly seen. Overall, the book is an exceptional collection of elegant, intelligent verse. Each page, each poem unfolding, the lines felt monumental and momentous, creating worlds of text that last with flight and weight, paradoxically. Still, the joy resonates with the poet’s care intact upon each page. It leads to something, if not identifiable, still curiously certain in its sustained presence.

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All the mirrors are broken. and the sun refuses to show you my shadow.

(from “A Town Hall in America in Five Movements: II. The Condition of My Heart,” page 29)

There is also much to discuss with Red Hen’s additional release featured here, American Quasar. The work features visual art by Maceo Montoya and poetry by David Campos. It is a wholly different but familiar work, one that aligns well with Marcum in its concerns and forays. The cover of American Quasar features a figure, back to the viewer, hunched over and staring at some distant horizon, with stars spilling down into the frame. It is a mesmerizing image, and one that aligns with the core of the book and its many visceral images, which are scattered throughout the book, neither dominant nor submissive to the poetic text.

The book is divided into two sections: “American House Fire” and “Quasars.” The former includes distinct themes of transformation and disintegration within the poetry and its American images. The text focuses on ecology—namely drought and rain—and seeks to examine the objective and poet’s landscapes of America. Drought and rain, deprivation and provision, serve as accessible carriers for the larger conversations of the United States, the region, and beyond.

Within American Quasar is a world of dissipation and disappearance just as it is a world of discovery and identification. It is about seeing, about understanding through definition, and about incomplete and undiscernible truths. Campos’s work “This American House” (page 37) is a fantastic example of the poet’s commitments, as it evokes mixed desire and cynicism at once:

When I dream of America, it’s only as big as a house, a home where all our roles are left on the doormat. I don’t just wipe my feet, I scrape off the crumbs of my desires and leave as is my unkempt mouth.

The poem is attached to another image of a figure by Montoya, this one a silhouette, who is bathed in light or fire, and the image contains a single textual caption: “there was no judgment” (which is also in the poem). The tone contains multitudes: stoicism, fatigue, solitude, and reverence, to name a few.

Each poem draws out a core, undeniable question: how many stories within the context of America, of the United States, of the “house fire” proverbial and literal throughout the West, emerge through writings like these? Campos’s writings, alongside Montoya’s art, investigates humanity in an age of barred immigration, barred inclusion, militarized borders, and the ongoing narrative against connection, love, and compassion.

How long has it ben since America looked
into a mirror and saw its true reflection?

(from “Historian of Buried Stars,” page 45)

A later poem, “The Dormant Quasar in Our Center,” is matched with a similar figure to the one described above, but features a stronger, invigorated stance with vertical stripes that move upward and downward, dynamic and static together. The poem closes, “Please. Tell me / the unraveling sky hides no stars. // Tell me it gives all its breath to the empty.” (64).

Campos explores the world and, much like Marcum described above, reaches a newfound symbolism of the external and internal. Campos’s strength is in the visual, the image-oriented approach to crisp, clean verse. He connects to greater phenomena using extended metaphors and loops of images and ideas. It is a poetry capable of blending the microscopic and macroscopic into a single, unifying understanding. The result is the emergence of allegory, mystery, and beautifully complex imagery, as with the work “The Human Condition is a Drought” (page 17):

is this why the rain has stopped? Are there no more names left in our mouths?
The only water left is in our blood; everyone hides a knife in their pocket.

American Quasar holds a marvelous place in the contemporary Latinx poetry canon, one that can be examined again and again. Both it and A Camera Obscura make great readings as the sky opens up and beckons us into the possibility of life throughout the summer.

You can find the books here:

American Quasar with poems by David Campos and art by Maceo – https://redhen.org/book/american-quasar/

A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum – https://redhen.org/book/a-camera-obscura/

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.

Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse by Claudine Nash

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By Michael Collins
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Claudine Nash’s third full-length poetry collection, A Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse, is a subtle yet broadly relatable exploration of the psychological mysteries related to the presence(s) of the beloved in the human psyche. Each poem explores a speaker’s loss of a beloved in its own uniquely evolved universe.
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The eponyomish first poem establishes several of its signature approaches, most notably the poetic transformation of subject matter through metaphor and modulation of tone and syntax.  The poem is framed within an ironic fictional text, yet it begins in the mode of a first person affirmation:
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Beginner’s Guide to Loss in the Multiverse,
Universe 415
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Beginner’s Guide to Loss
in the Multiverse, page 26:
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I accept this challenge
of surrendering
all of you, every
notion of us
that could exist
in some other time
or space, (3)
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Is this a lyrical address to a specific lost beloved from the speaker’s own past, or a first-person utterance in the mode of the title, designed to be repeated by self-help readers? The speaker and addressee remain, as they often will in this collection, in a sort of superposition between possible constellations of relationship – and between the various modes of perceiving the world connected to each one.
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But, when it comes to the surrendering of all possible potential manifestations and memories of the relationship, we would be naive not to expect a bit of a diet cheat:
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but recklessly
allow myself
two pieces of light;
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the one that burst
from your eyes
the day we watched
the dust whirl
.
and saw all our
lives at once,
.
then later,
those particles that
slipped around you
as you stepped
into the distance. (3)
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As the material veers from group utterance to personal narrative, the overflowing syntax dramatizes the speaker’s self-described failure to fully relinquish the lost, in the process spilling into the complicated images at the center of the poem. First, we see the light in the “eye” of the beloved “the day we watched / the dust whirl / and saw all our / lives at once.” The image and its interpretation evoke the organizational trope of the book, a collection of many possible versions of a relationship, its ending, and its aftermath in alternate worlds, each with its own nuances of the moebius experiences of love and loss.
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Fittingly, in the second image, the beloved is subsumed into “those particles,” flipping figure to ground, “we” to “you,” the flux between worlds already underway. In the first, shared vision the material world is transcended in a mixture of love and a concurrent perception of mysterious connections among all things; in it’s corollary, or completion, part of the viewing “we” becomes the object of perception, and the mystery changes along with (due to?) the speaker’s separation from the beloved.
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Glimpses of these interconnected cycles in which the “eye” perceives the more archetypal levels of reality (love, loss, reflection, cyclic nature itself) and, in turn, apprehends a reflection of itself as perceived by greater mystery, constellate and disperse throughout the collection in locations across time and space, narrated or lyricized from different perspectives, shaded by ranging moods.
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Often these shifts in perspective are embedded in and facilitated by the tonal and syntactical movements of the poems. For example, the final stanzas contain three much shorter sentences and only one right branching clause, notably another example of psyche overflowing across the boundaries conscious thought attempts to set, similar to the long sentence with which the poem began:
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Weeks afterwards,
these memories
split into ten thousand
streams that flooded
my sleep,
.
spilling bands
of hazel and loss
into the night. (4)
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By contrast, in the simple sentence and sentence fragment, the speaker is attempting to regain control. First, there is an attempt to offer advice, which recalls the poem’s opening self-help parody:
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I tell you,
never try to pocket
a photon. (3-4)
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And we conclude with a gentle self-correction, appropriately in the form of a sentence fragment:
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Classic rookie
Mistake. (4)
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The tonal shift in these sentences from earnest and elegiac to playful, self-aware (and self-qualifying) is unmistakable. We’ve been prepared for it by the pastiche in the opening, but it registers nevertheless as a pronounced turn, balancing awareness of the paradox and interplay between absolutes such as ephemerality and interconnectedness and their inherent subjugation of the individual ego and narrative with a lightness that allows the speaker meet the world on its own terms nonetheless.
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Let’s also notice a couple of other fine subtleties before moving on. First, the humor in the final lines enacts a second kind of turn in that it also shifts to modern vernacular with terms like “pocket” and “rookie mistake,” usages that locate the speaker within the infinite possibilities of all imaginable worlds, as someone who, we suspect, has actually spent quite a bit of time, maybe even an entire life, in this one instance of earth that we happen to cohabitate, materially if not always cognitively. Hence, this speaker, already trustworthy on the basis of an ability to conceptualize and communicate cosmic mysteries through imagistic juxtaposition, also appeals to our sense of relatability through an understanding of shared, frail humility and a need for human community. This is communicated by sharing our language of daily use and allowing us to laugh.
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Finally, although the speaker is clearly referring to forces and laws that transcend and define human life, we greet their ubiquity in the form of an admonishment not to try to steal a photon, an infinitesimal, unquantifiable particle of light, a leaping, illuminating, unstable metaphor that lies at the center and heart of this collection’s multiverse – until it moves – and then once again. In all fairness to the unreliable photon, however, the speaker’s prohibition (or winking suggestion) not to try to “pocket” one, echoes the law transgressed by Prometheus in another kind of reality, and the speaker seems to understand human (and titan) psychology well enough to know that this guideline has about the same chance of being followed, which is probably for the best for all concerned. After all, fire itself rests by changing, if Heraclitus is to be believed.
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The subsequent poems continue to explore and complicate the central themes raised in the first and develop its formal strategies. The four sections each have their own substructures, in keeping with the “Many Worlds” “structure” of the book, as if each section were a larger fork of reality that gives rises to smaller branching in and between the titles, perspectives, and tones of the poems within.
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Wherever the lens shifts in this collection, loss of the beloved is the attendant mystery, even when not necessarily in the center of the frame, as in poems that are more about aspects of consciousness adjacent to loss, such as memory, which remains in the absence of the beloved to torment and console. Take, for example, three sections from “Strange but True: Universe 416”:
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1. Once I lifted
a piece of the light
that streamed
between us and
stuck it in a
moment only I
could open.
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3. A rogue stream
of particles once
slipped through this
moment. Once
you looked at me
and that same piece
of light poured
from your
pupils.
.
A year later,
I dream of
nothing but
dust.
.
4. Those photons
became encased
in crystal. I leave
fingerprints all
over its surface,
everything I touch
feels like glass. (42-3)
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Memory, combined with the sense of loss that animates it, functions here as a semi-autonomous factor in the psyche, as Jung originally defined the complex, casting its own influence over the ego – and fortified against the ego’s intervention. Through its influence over perception, it even succeeds in distancing the speaker from the experienced world, which it places behind glass in the metaphor that embodies the speaker’s point of view.
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This refraction of the perceived world is experienced both as the felt presence of the past shared with the lost – and the enduring presence of the lost as a partition from the present world in the speaker’s present consciousness, as we read in “Strange but True: Universe 7,893,459”:
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Think of this moment
as ninety-eight percent
glass:
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the light that spills
from your eyes as a
prism;
.
an infinite that unfolds
with the precision
of cut crystal;
.
the sudden transparency
in this glance.
.
Now step away
and hear the cracking
of chest muscles,
.
the separation of fibers,
.
a fracturing
.
as my heart sinks
through my bones
as a stone dropping. (44)
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Glass recurs here as the metaphorical lens through which the speaker perceives the world in the absence of the lost. Here, we notice this relationship’s considerable potential to transcend all containment, an inversion of the confining experience of such “glass” in the previous poem. However, temporal reality reasserts its rights after we “step away” at the poem’s turn. Now “chest muscles” are felt “fracturing” as the world that seemed to be shared with the lost within the speaker’s psyche shatters, leaving a heart of stone, a different material altogether from glass, one less breakable, and infinitely more difficult to see through. You’ll find myriad subtleties of this metaphorical constellation and its psychological implications to unpack as you read the collection – and as you experience the various layers of the psyche over the course of your lives.
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There is a word for the experience of a psychic content experienced as becoming its opposite, enantiodromia. Perhaps not coincidentally, this word can also be used in conversation as an ancient Greek form of spellcasting to turn friends who think they know everything instantly and spontaneously into friends trying not to respond in such as way as to not not show that they do not know what you just said and, more redoubtably, what you did not just say.
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Enantiodromia is also an important phenomenon to keep in mind in exploring, as this collection does, an archetype like Death. As we have seen here, death, whether literal or in another form of finality, remains a paradox in the consciousness of those left behind to experience the lost now as materially absent, now somehow psychically present “somewhere,” as in “Somewhere We Are Carpenters: Universe 69,693,” and full of promise:
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You lift
your eyes
.
and a home
.
bursts
from your
lips, (45-6)
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As in our examination of the glass metaphor, you can also see the vacillations between these poles evoked in many ways within and between the poems of this collection. Consistent throughout, however is the presence of tangible “light” as an impossibility, like the relationship itself, that the speaker refuses to relinquish, recalling and complicating the opening prohibition against shoplifting photons, as in “The Theory of Everything: Universe 4,752”:
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.Still I summon
that single moment
when you stood before me
and spoke a dialect
of silence
that had no such word
as never,
when you stared me
straight on
as the morning burst
around us,
and I swore
I heard the sound
of light. (47)
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Like the original photon, light, here, is unstable and unquantifiable, hence its expression through synesthesia in the final lines. Does the remembered moment manifest in such light within the speaker’s consciousness, or does the ineffable light return the lost to the speaker in memories that are impossible to narrate literally? Or is consciousness itself the light, present to itself –necessarily though the casting of shifting glances and shadows over the material world to which it offers both perception and mischaracterization?
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Context shifts widely throughout this collection, bringing out new contours and valences of these dynamics, versions and revisions of a eulogy that could go on as long as there is consciousness to grasp and slip from itself.  Loss, the central and irrevocable paradox that accompanies such “light,” assumes and transmogrifies the felt shape of the beloved as the mind alternates between thinking they somehow are still here and that they should be here, recalling the image of the “dust whirl,” the particles of which subsume the lost viewer. This paradox lends itself to – or demands – response via explorations of the impossible: imagination, defamiliarization, poetic embodiments of archetypal levels of experience. None of these things promise anything graspable, apprehendable, irrefutable – but, then, their subject was even while present their fugitive. And, just as in the opening excerpt, a “guide” that morphs from vow, to confession, to self-transcending elegiac mystery, humbles itself by claiming the whole enterprise as a “rookie mistake,” the guidance offered by this collection is an open-ended, provisional, and imaginative journey through all of the possibilities of the impossible empty space of loss, lighted always and again by love that transcends the temporal moments in which it is/was a shared experience. Take, for example, “A Space for Your Moments: Universe 3,082,019”:
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I would like to gift you a space,
a room without tile or board
.
or screen, but with corners
where moments dangle. Do
.
not needlessly paint its worn
walls in gold. Your name is laced
.
through these moments, may they
swell in your basket. May they
.
fill your room with ice or
storm or sand or whatever
.
matter lies in their pieces.
Here is an angle of light. I
.
will sit here while you lift each
one and inspect their sharp and
 .
beautiful edges. I will sit here
and we will let them all breathe. (17)
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Humor and elegy balance one another formally, emotionally and cognitively in this collection. Infinite possibility and irrevocable event intertwine inextricably. The speaker’s many universes, imaginatively formed, are based on psychological realities that will both resonate with a plurality of readers – and inspire corollary adventures, allowing for plenty of rookie mistakes along the way.
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Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University.
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Requisite by Tanya Holtland

requisite

By Greg Bem

“through each other we become”

(from “Inner River,” page 51)

Natalie Díaz, in her 2020 collection Postcolonial Love Poem, writes: “I am fluent in water. Water is fluent in my body– / it spoke my body into existence.” The water around us, fluid and encompassing, vital and nourishing, fills space, creates impressions, and harnesses stories. As the world changes, as the climate morphs, these stories—who we are, where we are, and how we are—shift too. Tanya Holtland’s first full-length collection of poetry, the glyphic and mesmerizing Requisite, explores these shifts in a full sense, in a sense that is aquatic and liquidous, heavy with weight and fluid with transition at once.

Holtland’s intentions, rooted in a “spiritual ecology” inspired by Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee’s book of the same title, contain reflection upon the changes of the world and its environments, and inquiry and observation into those changes. In this balanced and strong approach to an eco-poetics, Holtland applies meditative aspects to the exploration of the imperative: that the world is undergoing “dis-symbiosis” and the threat to wellness is real, and that comment is necessary.

Following a brief introduction to the text are four sequences of poetry. Each sequence connects with space, with life, with water, in a way that reflects our stories. Each sequence is a flush of the linear that also feels balanced between the open and the terrestrial—rooted in the daily practices of our lives. With Holtland’s speaker, the embodiment of life can be found in gazing through a window, conducting research and reading the stories of the world’s climate crisis, and pondering the memories of the self, the home, the community, and the global collective. This reflective range, when spread across the page, exhibits a powerful transformation between the concrete and the abstract, with abstraction serving as invitation for the reader to be present and to wonder, as Holtland does, of the imaginative and the possible.

I cascade down to the marrow of a thought

its parts—my parts

(from part four of “Fated,” page 13)

The first sequence in Requisite, titled “Fated,” is a four-section work originally written “as a libretto, set to music by conductor and composer Daniela Candillari and performed by mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae on November 1, 2017” (from the end notes, page 92). The work’s literary iteration is powerful, its lyrical origins connecting it to music are obvious. “Fated” takes a deep look at our relationship to the world and our relationship to life. It elevates an image of the people of Greenland who live with ice. It embodies early, indigenous knowledge, posing it as more than memory. It looks at time, and the moments of time, as being interrelated to the self and personal identity. “Fated” is a surge of an opening that closes with an image of the moon and the world as systems of communication and iteration knowable and curious.

the river giving way to all its water
part of a lifelong relationship to instability is this

(from “Inner River,” page 30)

Following, “Inner River” is the second sequence in the book, a single poem that stretches roughly 25 pages. The sequence was previously a chapbook, and holds space on its own as well as side-by-side the other works of Requisite. Holtland’s long meditation is concerned with the idea of the river, the symbol of the river, and all its properties. While reading it, I was reminded of Joy Harjo who wrote, in 2020’s American Sunrise, “Rivers are the old roads, as are songs, to traverse memory.  / I emerged from the story, dripping with the waters of memory.” Among her many considerations, Holtland examines the Duwamish River in this section, the river that was transformed by the colonial Europeans not long after they arrived to the area of the Pacific Northwest now containing the city of Seattle.

As much difficulty there is in the river, Holtland’s poetry examines it in a way that is compassionate. “imagine the cells of all your loving / loving a body of longing” she writes on page 34. These “songs, to traverse memory” are bound to and carried by and cleansed with a larger river, one that exists between and among and surrounding the collective memory. The spirit, or Spirit, of the world, which includes and is beyond humanity, makes many obvious and hidden appearances in “Inner River.”

The penultimate “Other Names for the Future” reads both as a long poem and a series of entries in a daybook or journal. The poem opens and closes with the sun. It opens up and acknowledges change, and the potential, natural violence within change: “It is more than a belief that we are changing. / The wind’s violence is in the trees.” (page 61). Prophetic and at ease, the tone carries sorrow and urgency as well. Holtland’s poetry is multifaceted, much as the way we as humans interpret the environments around us. While “Fated” and “Inner River” take shape over many pages, “Other Names for the Future” carries a form that feels sharp and instantaneous.

And yet it is full of more questions and considerations, it is subtle, and its pace continues from its predecessors. Themes include fate, include logic, include process. Holtland here is also concerned with life, death, and the renewal. The poem closes with “In front of us now / a tree grows in the city, / following through / on all its commitments.” (page 66). And the sentiment rings: to observe, to be present, to see hope but also to, more flatly, more plainly, see the beginning led to an end of multiple possibilities—is one of many lessons contained.

The central energy within Holtland’s closing sequence, “The Story,” is Brahma. Destruction is central here, with Brahma’s closing eye, which can remove and recreate in a blink. And it’s a fascinating concept Holtland describes: what is now, what is our reality, is just before the blink: “We are the story we watch / as the eye closes.” (page 79). There is a solemn, matter-of-fact approach to this destruction. Surrendering to what is and what will be, and acknowledging the power and powerlessness of that surrender is yet another invitation. It is also an invitation to act, in a way that resonates with communities of practice, communities of meditation, communities of being present and sharing experience.

The spiritual ecology to Holtland’s works finds a pause with “The Story,” and is a pause that feels modular and unclosed, in a way that asks for more, asks for action and activity, alongside acceptance and agreement. But these concepts are abstract, and they are bound to the medium of poetry, which, like a river, is capable of holding much—much interpretation, much understanding, much conversation.

Requisite is a book of many waters, and is a book of many insights. It is an outstanding and exceptional release from a poet who is deeply connected with, interested in, and invested in the rapidly changing world. It is both quiet and loud, both enduring and abrupt. It calls forth, but also listens. It is demonstrative of shifts the way the world is, and the world is better with this book’s presence.

You can find the book here: https://platypuspress.co.uk/requisite

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.

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Erotic by Alexis Rhone Fancher

erotic
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The term “erotica” is defined as literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire in the reader or viewer, not exactly “porn,” which is a loaded term, after all, but the word does evoke associations of sensual stimulation, sexual fulfillment, lust, craving. In Erotic, Alexis Rhone Fancher’s collection of new and selected poems, this is only part of the deal. There are explicit scenes of carnality, no punches pulled, to be sure, but the sex comes with so much more at stake. Including work from her previous collections – How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart stab poems (note to reader: not that Michael Cohen) and Enter Here – Fancher’s poems explore betrayal, abuse, guilt and anger as well as pleasure and excitement. At times, desire competes with revenge. At others, desire goes beyond craving pleasurable sensation to the thrill of risk-taking. You know you’re getting in deep when you read about a man asking a wild teenage girl: ¿Tienes ganas de morir?
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In this story, “His Full Attention,” the narrator tells us, “I am newly seventeen, sick to death of my vanilla life, my womanhood a bravado with no foundation.” She picks a guy up, Eduardo. “A Man I’d never run into after tonight.”  After they have sex at the summit of a mountain, Eduardo becomes ambiguous. Is he going to kill her? He scoffs at the gringa. “You like it rough, senorita? Is this what you expect from a man like me?” Spoiler alert: nobody dies, but that doesn’t make the story any less disturbing. Similarly, in “LARCENY: A Story in Eleven Parts,” two girls pick up a hitchhiker on their way to San Francisco. Nobody has pure designs, though the ending is a bit of a surprise.
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“There’s a reckless streak in me I can’t control,” the narrator of “Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera” confesses, and in “Tonight I Will Dream of Anjelica, My First Ex-Girlfriend, Who Taught Me the Rules of the Road…,” the narrator again confesses, “I admit, I’ve always been driven to sin.” But she goes on to clarify: “All I can say is, I’m a die-hard romantic. Anyone I do, I do for love.”
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The underlying erotic drive that sustains the menace gets its succinct expression in “Tonight We Will Bloom for One Night Only.” Fancher writes:
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We are each bodies, hard-wired for pleasure,
destined for momentary blooming,
the extinction.
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Carpe diem!
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Indeed, so many of these poems have an element of danger that both heightens and tempers the lust and promiscuity. “Sex, Guns and the Canadians Next Door…” underscores the point. “I play with myself while he plays with his gun, just out of frame. I’m hoping he’ll get the message, that I’m horny enough to make it up to him….”  “Divorce & Mass Shootings in the Time of Trump” exposes the darkness at the base:
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            If you buy a gun you must learn to shoot it.
            You almost have to shoot it.
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Family gets in the way of so much of the action, too, so it’s always much more than sex. Now it’s about transgression; now it’s about taboo. There’s the mother, of course. “You hardly know him! My mother’s voice is loud in my ear,” the seventeen-year-old girl in “His Full Attention” observes. In “Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera,” as she’s about to take nude selfies for Wayne, the Volkswagen repair shop owner, she notes: “My mother. I could never tell her, she’d never understand about this.” In “Out of Body,” a poem about betrayal, she writes:
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Her dead mother reaches through the wall,
throws the marriage in her face.
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Mom inevitably shows up in the dozen “sister” poems, whose central drama is sexual sibling rivalry, though there’s also some sisterly support. “Red-Handed in Canoga Park: Root Causes & How It Is All My Fault” starts the sequence, the sisters five and three, shoplifting. The older sister abandons the younger to save her own ass, and it all follows from there. “This day has defined our sisterhood. I was five for Christ’s sake. Forgive me.” “When I turned fourteen, my mother’s sister took me to lunch and said:,” and “when your mother convinces you to take in your homeless younger sister” involve mom, but mainly the sisters compete for lovers. “Boy Toy / Learning to Share,” “Roman Holiday,” “Double Date: The Quarterback, The Fullback, & the High Cost of Dinner,” “Casual Cruelty” and “Playing Dirty” are several that emphasize this: “we’re linked like galaxies, / till he walks away from us both.”
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And then there are the crazy relatives from Chicago! “The First Time I Made Cousin Lisa Come,” “Cousin Elaine from Chicago and I Are Naked,”  and “When I Turned Sixteen, Mother Let Uncle Kenny from Chicago Take Me for a Ride” introduce us to the extended family. About Uncle Kenny:
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When Uncle Kenny died soon after
in flagrante delicto, no one was surprised.
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I heard it was his heart, my mother said,
But I know he didn’t have one.
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Throw in a few ex-husbands (but husbands aren’t really “family,” are they? Blood?) and a few lovers, both male and female, and you have the ingredients for a juicy Raymond Chandler noir.  Erotic includes about twenty of Fancher’s atmospheric black and white photographs, too, that accentuate the noir mood she creates.
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Which brings us back to erotica in general. In the end, are these poems in Erotic truly erotic in the sense of arousing desire? Well, duh.
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You can find the book here: Erotic: New & Selected
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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.
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The Philosopher Savant Crosses The River by Rustin Larson

savant
By Lynette G. Esposito 
 
The Philosopher Savant Crosses the River published by New Chicago, reveals Rustin Larson’s sense of place, time and sense of humor in almost eighty pages of artistically controlled poems.
 
In, By Greyhound with Grandmother on page nine, the reader is immediately invited onto the bus with a safe companion.  Larson skillfully sets the scene with the title before he reveals the details in the text of the seven- stanza poem.
 
Quarters slid into the vending machine.
   It’s good to have a town in mind in California
        when you speak of death.
 
The scene is set, the location is clear and the action of eating from a vending machine shows the reader the circumstance.  But death? 
 
Subliminal messages: deviled ham
     On white bread.
           My grandmother handed me half.
 
The poem triggers the narrator’s memories of sound, taste and color. He mentions his grandmother again so the reader knows the narrator is with a safe traveling companion.
 
The ending, however is a surprise since there is a tone of calm and nourishment.  After remembering the taste of a drink that spoke of sunset and tasted like kisses, the last line brings an image of colossal meaning of his feeling for his grandmother and her role in his life.
 
My grandmother hugged me
 
The way a mountain hugs stone.
 
The poem is written in three- line stanzas except for the last line that stands alone.  The visual of the two traveling companions is built into a remembrance and an accolade for the safe feeling being with Grandmother.  This artistically transports these images into the universal feelings and observations one has of a protector.
 
On page twenty-one, the narrator is in second grade and speaks of First Love.  This is a time of innocence and surprise. The three-stanza poem shows a young boy discovering desire and longing.
 
In second grade, I stuck my paste-stiffened mittens on Donna Owen’s shoulders, then choked on my saliva.
 
The poem ends with:
…….The whole
 
tree quivered as it swallowed it down.  The goddess walked flowing
in silk.  She would take her chances.  The cool air shattered and sang.
 
The images are descriptive and lovely as this young second grader discovers the fleeting deep emotion of young love.
 
On page eighty, the poem, Neruda, demonstrates a wry twist life has. All is good in the five stanzas until the last line.
 
Neruda had the goddess scarf
     dangle what was over all
           in heaven again pounced
 
in a roar around the microscope
       about what the devil said.
 
The evangelist, red,
     complaining, is lit
         with Neruda’s returning,
 
white and blue, by the way,
     with happy people.
I’m contemplating;
   it occurs, it asks me
          and then it rains.
 
This poem has a serious and religious tone. The reader is drawn into the importance of what is happening here.  And as in life, no matter how serious, no matter how religious, nature takes over and puts one in his/her place.  In this case, it rains.  It is a fresh presentation on pomposity.
 
This tome has a wide variety of scenes, places, situations and images that seem to speak out loud of commentary on daily life both as it is lived and remembered.  I liked the conversational tone of the poems and the skilled clarity of the narrator’s observations.  This is a good read.
 
 
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.
 
 

This Is Not Your Moon by Matthew Woodman

moon wood
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By Don Thompson
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It takes nerve in the 21st century to write poetry about the moon—that or a puckish sense of humor.  Or both in Matthew Woodman’s case, whose This Is Not Your Moon, takes the ancient trope seriously while giving us an occasional wink and nudge.
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And despite the moonglow, these are poems of intellect rather than emotion—not categorically, but in emphasis: that is, the mind controls; it masks the emotions and provides ironic distancing from intense feelings—a distance as far as the moon is from the heart:
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                        Warning: Objects in the night sky are more
                        distant than they appear.
                                                                The same applies
                        to those you love.
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Throughout, the language is alert to its own sound—not the flat affect of so much poetry these days, which seems so indifferent to how it says what it feels entitled to say.  Woodman even risks occasional Eliotic rhymes, one suspects for the fun of it:
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                        We bear the tension as long as we’re able.
                        Without the darkness
                                                            there is no fable.
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Perhaps it’s the gravity of the moon that’s pulling him away from American plain style into an approach that by current standards is shamelessly stylized.  This is overdue.  Let’s confess that it’s no longer a sin to be openly intentional about diction—which will, of course, end in rococo followed by rediscovery of the vernacular.  And so it goes.  But for now, let’s enjoy more music and imagery with less blatant angst:
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                        Somewhere the moon is bound with baling wire
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                        We tend the garden with gasoline
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                        The arroyo awash with polished thirst
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This collection is filled with such lines that one enjoys for the sound, for the fresh images, and for that droll touch so typical of Woodman.  Another of his traits is a serious use of scientific terminology.
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Most of it is above my pay grade, sending me to the dictionary (well, to Google anyhow) to work it all out.  Somewhat.  What matters here, however, is that Woodman handles it very deftly so that the jargon, if still intimidating, becomes eloquent rather than stilted.  For instance:
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                        The selenographic coordinates
                        may be accurate, but the orthoclase
                        reveals your tendency to coalesce
                        stone and story, terra and tour.
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In “The Way Out”, one of the most interesting poems, we have:
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                                                Traverse the contiguous
                        gravity of exhaustion and paw
                        to reach the cradle of undisturbed gravel.
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                        Get busy.  Get gone.
                                                             Ignore the craw
                        rending the descent ephemeral,
                        escalate the spawn.
                                                             Paint the world redd
                        and glutinous.
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This effectively mixes levels of diction, and there’s a hanging curve ball that the punster in Woodman couldn’t resist, a “redd” being the gravel nest in which fish deposit their eggs.
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One notices a kind of surrealistic feel, and yet such imagery doesn’t quite seem to emerge from the subconscious through free association.  Rather, it could well be encrypted, as if consciously shifted a few degrees from common sense—or scientific discourse.  This is merely an impression, but Woodman seems sly enough to do it intentionally.  “Keep your thoughts where I can see them,” he warns—but doesn’t do so himself.
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                        Follow the magnetic confluence
                        of natal stream and anadromous chisel.
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Could this be encryption?  Could we break the code?  To change the metaphor abruptly, we might be caught up in a thimblerig game with a straightforward meaning hidden under one of the nutshells.  Here are a couple more puzzlers:
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                        There is no incandescent right of way
                        from which you have become estranged.
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                        Our hearts a patchwork of scars
                        and skull-shaped aquariums swimming in stars.
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Ultimately, whatever is going on, this is a book about the moon and therefore love has got to be under one of the nutshells.  Indeed, we do find allusions to a failing or failed relationship, but more ironic than confessional:
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                        The shrapnel of eggshells ensconced even
                        here, on the kitchen counter
                         We can love only the things we can lose.
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In “Salving the Tidewrack” Woodman provides instructions for “How to carve a driftwood lover”.  (Many of these poems are imperative or processes).  You must follow precise steps, even if now and then you have to “stifle the sobs” and
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                                                Ensure your blade is sharp
                        enough to get to the heart of the crimes
                        you each will commit against the other.
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So these are the poles that create the gravitational tension in Matthew Woodman’s poems: the actual satellite as subject of scientific study and the sneered-at but hardwired, almost inescapable timeless totem of—well, love: love and its losses, separation and death.  We have both intellect and heart constantly pulling at us until we seem two-faced:
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                        Which face will you show to the moon?
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You can find the book here: This Is Not Your Moon
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Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

 

Longer Thoughts by Theresa Rodriguez

RODRIGUEZ_LONGER_COVER_FRONT_SMALL
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By Lynette G. Esposito
In Longer Thoughts, published by Shanti Arts Publishing in Brunswick, Maine, Theresa Rodriguez presents a plethora of poems in varying lengths and forms that address universal themes, famous figures, and clever images.
Carol Smallwood, an interviewer, editor and literary judge, grasps the essence of Longer Thoughts: “While mastering classical poetry, Theresa Rodriguez expresses the deepest emotions; she reigns whether settings are in the past or present leaving us in awe.” 
 I think she is right on.  Rodriguez goes from free verse to villanelle to sonnet with ease and mixes her subjects with astute observation and skill.
On page seventeen in the poem Dance of two Spirits the narrator envisions a relationship both at peace and in conflict with a poem that moves and reads like musical lyrics. The first stanza sets the situation.
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                         As we swirl each other
                         each in and out-of-sync dance
                         with the other
                         our movements both
                        embrace and collide
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The poem proceeds with eleven more stanzas in free verse form revealing how the addresser and addressee are interacting. The stanzas have uneven lines which gives an uneven musical pace.  The three final stanzas provide closure and non closure at the same time which is very clever of Rodriguez.  The ending suggests how love is complex and distrustful but hopeful.  She reveals the universal ups and downs and uncertainty of people in love.
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                      And then we attempt again
                      the dance of two spirits
                      wondering if the meeting
                     will result in cacophony
                     and clash
                     or tunefulness and harmony.
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                    Always on alert,
                    always circling,
                    always fearful,
                   always cautious,
                   coming around again and
                   again,
                 checking, moving, eyeing swaying,
                 on tip-toe and quiet, steady breath,
                 to circle with you again in a questionable dance.
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On page twenty-eight, Rodriguez writes an ode to Johann Sebastian Bach and his music.  I touch the pages of your music, the poem begins.  In five stanzas the narrator praises Bach and how his music has affected her. She notes in stanza three So truly blessed, to know the forms In which you wrote.  The poem projects a sincere voice of appreciation and a deep knowledge of Bach’s music.  She closes this five- stanza poem with:
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                  And so I feel a part of you my own;
                  A touch of soul-mate, friend, the great Sebastian.
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She chooses a well-known and revered musician and skillfully makes it personal.
On a more common subject, Rodriguez addresses Insomnia on page thirty-eight.
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                   In this sleepless state of night
                   relief escapes me.  How I yearn to find
                   a rest that does not come.  Within my mind
                  are waking thoughts I have to fight.
In this poem, Rodriguez presents a situation that many go through in fighting to find sleep but must be awake during the day after a sleepless night.  The poem is clear and the images suggestive of that restless struggle to shut the mind down.
The tome is forty-five pages of poetic pleasure of introspection and reflection. It is good for a quiet read in a comfortable chair.
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Longer Thoughts is available from Shanti Arts — Nature, Art, Spirit
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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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Come-Hither Honeycomb by Erin Belieu

come
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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“If we’re lucky, it’s always a terrible time // to die,” Erin Belieu writes in “Pity the Doctor, Not the Disease,” one of the fifteen poems that make up her remarkable new collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb. It’s this ironic tone of dubious hope that characterizes much of the book; or, as the title of one the poems about the fragility of life puts it: “Dum Spiro Spero” (“While I breathe, I hope”).”
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As in her previous collection, Slant Six, Belieu kicks her observations of the everyday up to a higher metaphysical gear, muses about the deeper truths of existence.  The poem, “The Man Who Fills in Space,” about a clueless collector of things, is reminiscent of the Mister Jones character in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” or John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man.” The poem begins with an epigraph from Guy de Maupassant. “…and from the moment that everything is limitless, what remains?” She writes:
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But when he pokes the canker
of that great, blank whatever
he never hopes to find, he swears
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he hears it laugh, the terrible what
of what is not. It yawns
right back at him.
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There’s a kind of existential dread at work here. What are we doing here? Why are we alive? (You know something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?) The man who fills in space contemplates the sadness of the moon. It’s his loneliness, too. This theme of ungraspable purpose recurs again and again; in the poem, “In Which a Therapist Asks for the Gargoyle Who Sits on My Chest.” With subtle humor, Belieu writes, “It’s exhausting,
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how the whole’s designed to scrub
our greasy pan of sorrows to
a gleam in which we’ve actually paid
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to see ourselves. Caveat emptor?
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Buyer beware, indeed! Later in the poem she observes:
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Maybe it’s enough to recognize
ourselves unsolvable, half trash,
half glitter bomb, dropped along
the trench by dying stars.
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The French say, who can say?
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The epigraph to Come Hither Honeycomb, a quotation from Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans, expresses this same sense of the elusiveness of ultimate certainty. The villanelle that opens the collection, “Instructions for the Hostage,” likewise suggests this uncertainty at the base of our lives:
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You must accept the door is never shut.
You’re always free to leave at any time,
though the hostage will remain, no matter what.
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Escape is always an option, but – there really is no escape. We’re all hostage to time. Belieu makes this very personal, contemplating her age, as if calculating how much time she has left. Dedicated to her son (“Always”), she seems to gauge her own time in relation to him; as he grows up, she grows older; there’s an almost palpable awareness of the passage of time, as in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.”  The poem, “As for the Heart,” begins:
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I am come to the age
of pondering my lastness:
buying what seems likely
my final winter coat at Macy’s,
or when a glossy magazine
(so very blithely)
asks me to renew…
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This awareness of the fleeting, finite nature of time is especially at work in “Pity the Doctor, Not the Disease.” There’s nothing like being under scrutiny in a doctor’s office to reduce you to your mortality, after all, just another piece of meat. The poem begins:
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Science in its tedium reveals that every spirit
we spirit ganks a solid half hour from
our life spans. So says my doctor, a watery,
Jesus-eyed man, and hard to suffer
with his well-intended scrips for yoga
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Later in “As for the Heart,” contemplating maturity, she writes,
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Just yesterday,
while standing in the kitchen,
my son complained nonstop
about his AP psych class
while wolfing warmed up
bucatini from a crazed,
pink china bowl.
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Shiny, kvetching creature.
Even if I could tell him
what he doesn’t want to know,
I wouldn’t.
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It’s tempting to think Belieu has her son in mind when she writes the poem, “When I Am a Teenage Boy,” with its lovely opening lines:
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I am like my parents’ house, in a state
of constant remodel we can ill afford,
the noise behind a tarp producing little more
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than dust.
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Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken / of the soul… she quotes Longfellow to her doctor in “Pity the Doctor, Not the Disease.”
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What are we, ever? Always becoming. Until we aren’t. In “Loser Bait,” from which the collection’s title comes, Belieu writes
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Some of us
are chum.
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Some of us
are the come-hither
honeycomb
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gleamy in the middle
of the trap’s busted smile.
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Maybe the best we can hope for, indeed, is “If we’re lucky, it’s always a terrible time // to die.”  Carpe diem, dude!
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Erin Belieu’s poetry is vivid and original. In the final poem, “She Returns to the Water,” a naked woman, now past her youth, swims naked in a pool at three a.m. Belieu describes her dive like this:
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the arc of her
trajectory pretty
as any arrow’s
.
in Saint Sebastian’s
side.
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What a simile! Gobsmacking. Erin Belieu’s poetry is a delight to read, for its wit as well as its wisdom.
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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.

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Nostoc by Daraugh Breen

nostoc
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By Thomas E. Simmons
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Daraugh Breen is an Irish poet who hails from Cork. Nostoc (Shearsman Books) is his fourth published collection.
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In Nostoc, Breen’s poems are grouped under five headings, one on dogs, two for birds, and two untitled sections, one which grapples with Christ’s Crucifixion and the other staffed with ekphrases. The poems are also populated with additional birds of various species, a reindeer, an ox, and a wasp. Flight and fur are featured prominently. Lobsters, pigs, a hedgehog, and even a caterpillar make an appearance.
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The title Nostoc refers yet another mode of life; nostoc represents a genus of cyanobacteria which grows into gelatinous colonies after a fresh rain. Breen relays an assortment of nostoc’s folk names as a sort of introduction to his folklore-peppered poems. It reads like a list of ingredients preceding a time-worn recipe or a spell:
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witch’s butter, star jelly, angel’s poultice, wind-salmon spawn, pig rosettes, mist roses, 
Jesus’s blood, beggars’ pâté, pauper’s stew, and goblin hearts.
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Breen’s verse has been characterized as gothic. It is. But these poems also sparkle with the transcendent, as in “Fox Donned the God-Head” in which said masked fox discloses something to the reader which is like a throng of falling stars:
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Spring-revealed,
the Earth inheriting the meek
as angels, in their thousands,
            freefall
before re-emerging
                        from the waves
with snatches of struggling silver.
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Breen shows us both a withering and a blooming; a masking and an unmasking; descents followed by upswings; downs and ups. Some movement derives from the natural world, some is bred into it. Then, there is a magical flux sneaking into forms – such as the bitch “licking and chewing witch’s butter” in the collection’s eponymous poem. And often, the various sources of stirring are indistinguishable from one another.
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The repeating patterns of rising and falling seem linked to the corvids and other avifauna which flutter on nearly every page – this emphasis on the vertical; on heights; on what is above and what is below in relation to the observer.
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How do birds see? With their elevated perspective, do they perceive in greater measure; what is up and down, rising or falling? In “leaving Island Crematorium, ringed with birds,” a mind is likened to a frantic “horse swimming in water, as seen from beneath.” In “A Pair of Shell Cases,” a “seagull drops the shell from a height above the promenade.” Then in “Japanese Ghost Story,” movement is likened to snow fall while an “older self struggles upright.”
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Perhaps one eye of the poet’s peers from a bird’s eyepiece in order to see what birds see. In “a boat-shape of birds rows itself across the sky” – describing the death of Breen’s father in a crow-filled Cork – the poet squints out from within a sheep’s skull:
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knowing that the light had gone
to weed and would soon ivy
with night. But all that I saw
was dust, kicked-up by the
ghosts of white dancing Spanish
horses,
and as it fell, it was
briefly paused …
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Sheep, like us, are pegged at the level of dust, obscuring our vision. Humans cannot soar. In these poems, they consistently drag, walk, or shuffle, like Christ pulling his cross through the dirt. Here is the contrast: the gliding of feathered skeins above frames the plodding of we flightless below, colonizing a rich geography.
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There is much verse here to admire and enjoy. Nostoc successfully conjures a gothic menagerie baked with wit and imagery.
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You can find the book here: NOSTOC by Daraugh Breen – Shearsman Books
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Thomas E. Simmons is a professor at the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law in Vermillion, South Dakota. His scholarship deals primarily with inheritance, death, wealth, and fiduciaries. His first collection of poems, Tod Browning Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia, was published in 2020.
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