north of oxford poetry book review

The Damages of Morning by J.C. Todd


By Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

J.C. Todd’s chapbook, The Damages of Morning, has been written to remind us of the horrors of the World Wars. You can’t escape it! Page after page, poem after poem, you are reminded of the terror; of the desolation; of the lost lives; of the inhumanity of war. Hell on earth.

Todd steps in (as time traveler) with her meditative, yet explosive poems about these silent horrors; perhaps her eleven poems (one of which is five parts) more like snapshots, each a poetic narrative of a frame-frozen moment captured in the history of wartime. She has gathered these poems (as photos) for you, through the lens of research and discussions with her students, and ultimately in her own silent musings of war and its fall-out.

These tragedies appearing understated on the silent page are nothing of the sort. For instance, in the poem “Pylimo Gatvė, Vilnius” (Gatvė: street in Lithuanian) we have the seemingly silent, giving fruits of nature, “the chestnuts” that “no one stoops now to gather.” So, at once you may think of starving women wanting to pick up a few chestnuts to eat later, but to do so, they would be taking a chance. But what kind of chance or risk, might they be taking?

“…In the midst of this history / imprinted in stone, along a street that bordered / Ghetto 2, the chestnuts fan their boughs / and bloom, the leaves brown and droop, the nuts / fall and no one stoops now to gather them / as women did then, slack shouldered and starved / to the pith of their bones, returning under / guard from the fields or factories, passing / through the gate into the ghetto each night, / the burning question, did Shulamith / or Menke make it through the day.  They risked / the boot, the rifle butt, the bullet, to scoop up / a few russet shells. Horse chestnuts… Eat, it’s food.

Raw horse chestnuts are toxic, that is, the fresh, unprocessed seeds contain esculin.  Therein lies the rub. These desperate and starved women risked death every day.  Chestnuts are healthy for the body, but not horse chestnuts, as they may cause death, if eaten raw. So, the question the poem presents to these women and to the reader as well, would be: Is it worth staying alive “to work one more day for the Germans” and “to want to outlive the war?” Knowing that physically outliving a war doesn’t necessarily mean that you can ever “outlive your sorrow or your death.” Here, “your death” as in a kind of living death, meaning that you live through each and every day physically starving, but worse than that you are already dead on the inside (inside your mind) living inside this captive life. Maybe, this is what Todd is saying, yet not saying at the start of her poem by cleverly using “chestnuts” and ending with the deliberate “horse chestnuts;” and the eerie lines that lead the reader to the end, “An act of will to chew and swallow, / to say to yourself, Eat, it’s food.” Food, no doubt to escape. As in the burning question: “Did Shulamith or Menke make it through the day?”

Dismal / dark.  Horrific times.  Even in “Country Living” there is:

“…the man-plowed fields of one-cow farms, /holdings that yield enough to keep the body / Alive, not more… Here, winter last for twelve months, / the rest of the year is summer.”

Another poem “Flayed,” metaphorically hints at the flaying of the speaker’s “my Oskar” and his “flapped open” vest and that of the flaying of a spring hare:

“…the night they took him into the forest. / Sternum cracked, yanked out with ribs attached, lifted into a cast iron / pot, laid on a bed of early greens and sorrel for a sour stock tomorrow.”

Subtle, the metaphor of Oskar, as the “flayed,” or not so subtle. On first read the poem leans more imagistically toward the preparation of “this one a spring hare. Not fat enough” with all of its crude culinary skinning and butchery, “the meal for today.”  Yet, on a closer second read, here, is where Todd’s craft is perfected. With no explanation, Oskar, no doubt, the hunted game for the death pot, cast iron, no less. Hunted and killed by the Germans as predators, upon the helpless prey. What really struck me was Todd’s choosing of the German name “Oskar” and how closely it resembles the word, “hare,” and also (intentionally or not) how ironically Oskar as in Schindler, the German industrialist (from the movie Schindler’s List), credited with saving the lives of over a thousand Jews. Deliberate or not? I think Todd’s choice.

There’s so much more to “Flayed,” but for the sake of space, I will return to Oskar and touch on the wonderfully crafted, double (quiet) meaning of the line (quoted above, yet worth repeating): “laid on a bed of early greens and sorrel for a sour stock tomorrow.” Yes, our Oskar and hare laid out (in death) on natural “greens and sorrel” and the sourness of it all, when death is felt more on the morrow.   And a line from the last stanza:

“…They took the chickens, eggs, the cow, the pretty girls, the men.”

Those living day to day, working for the Germans, lived in their own trenches of fear, starvation, and daily despair. Also, apparent in Todd’s succinct, poetic accounts of war’s abuse: “Daughter,” “Mother,” women, men, unborn, and children, all of the preyed upon and their predators (Doktor and “Commander”). This cast of characters caught in the ugliness of hellish war, as it tore apart basic fibers, scourged human-essence, and demeaned dignity of those whom should have been spared, yet made to endure the crippling torments of bare bone survival:  cruel, non-sacred war.

Every page a reminder of “Not our lives, but lives / of the dead, escaped / into us. Grave, / we open to them.”  J.C. Todd makes your gut wrench, brands you mind with horrific images—lest we grow too comfortable; lest we forget that freedom comes at an extremely high cost; lest we stop listening to the voices of all whom suffered cruel injustices, the brutalities of wartime. Beware: some of these same atrocities happening, even now, on “Earth.”


You can find the book here:

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Handheld Mirror of the Mind (Kelsay Press, July 2018) and Images of BeingLight’s Battered Edge; and Night Sweat. She has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer Many Mountains Moving, Indiana Journal, among others, with poems forthcoming from Sequestrum Journal of Literature and Arts. She is poetry editor at North of Oxford, an online literary journal. Visit her at


Masterplan by Eric Greinke and Alison Stone

By Lynette G. Esposito
The collaborative poetic voices of Eric Greinke and Alison Stone compliment each other in their co-authored 72 page tome, Masterplan published by Presa Press of Rockford, Michigan.
The poems do not credit either Greinke or Stone but both throughout the four sections entitled Emergency, Little Novels, Q & A and Tarps. The poems successfully vary in theme, form, and subject matter.
In the first section entitled Emergency, the eighteen poems cover emotive themes and situations that inspire unease and fear.  In the poem Bad Actor on page 22, the narrator puts the reader in a public place watching a live theater presentation. The twelve-line one-stanza poem visualizes a benign situation which characterizes the audience as innocent or totally oblivious depending on perception
                                           The gunman surprised us
                                           when he leapt on the stage.
                                           His eye were cold as he took aim
                                           at the man in the front
                                           row loudly unwrapping
                                           caramels, instead of at the actor
                                           pretending to menace
                                           the tied-up mayor and his wife.
                                           The other actors froze
                                           And the audience thought it
                                           part of the show, even after
                                           the real blood began to flow.
The contemporary and subtle commentary on seemingly both real and staged theater inter mix and confuse, not the reader, but an audience that was watching pretend evil  When the audience is confronted with real life evil, it has trouble recognizing and processing what is happening.  The poets have a light touch as those on the stage realize what is playing out in front of them while those who came to watch are now the ones being watched in a skillful switch.
In the section, Little Novels, the poems are each numbered (from 1 to 31) and are presented as poetic vignettes each telling an almost full story.  Poem 29 entitled The Beaten on page 40 is a good example.
                                          The sad marching band ran from the field, their
                                          plumed hats drooping, out-of-tune instruments
                                          held to their chests.  They’d practiced for weeks
                                         but their routine had been derailed by
                                         serial love affairs in the rhythm section.
The story line is almost complete but suggestive enough for the reader to imagine more
In Q & A, the third section, the first line of each poem begins with a question.  Of the six poems in this section, I favor two equally: Animals as well as Monkey Time.. IAnimals the question is: What don’t dogs tell us?  The answer is:  That we don’t deserve them.  In Monkey Time, the question is: What time is it?  The answer in the second line is:  Time for regret to give way to desire.  This technique of question and answer throughout the poems in this section is consistent and interesting with many twists on old adages sprinkled with touches of surprise irony.
In the final section, Tarps, The End? begins with the Double Rainbow was the first sign, and ends with: Atheists learned to pray, just in case.  My favorite line in the poem is The dogs meowed.  If the world were to end, wouldn’t there be signs and interpretations?  This poem presents contemporary images and uses a question mark in the title symbolically negating the suggested signs as a maybe.
The tome is full of both short and long poems of various forms that give clear images of modern life and relatable outcomes to how people react to and interpret situations.  I liked the seamless mixing of two voices in a clearly successful collaborative endeavor.

You can find the book here:


Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

Or Else By Diana Loercher Pazicky

or else

By Frank Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

There is a surprising range of thought and feeling encompassed in these few pages, all of it expressed with the sort of clear-eyed unsentimental observation one gets from someone like Basho. Do read it. Or else you’ll be missing out on something really worthwhile.


Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at

Playground by Joe Benevento

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

You can find the book here:


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

White Storm by Gary Metras

By Lynette G. Esposito
White Storm by Gary Metras, published by Presa Press, the reader is introduced to traditional form and images that walk, skip and run across the pages in common and uncommon images delighting in clarity and directness but holding a surprise insight that appears close to the end of each poem.
For example, the first poem entitled White Storm, the reader is surprised that although night is wheezing and the trees are pounding, it is a love poem  and a lament on lost youth and hope.
                             Old man night is unsettled
                             In his white haired sleep.
                             From my bed I hear him
                             wheezing in the trees, pounding
                             his fists on the brittle mountain.
The poem ends with
.                            …Where are the angels?
                            about to sing our praises and the praises
                            of light and grass and field solid under foot,
                            so we could rise from the bed:
                            and step into the simple day?
The word images demonstrate the precise language of winter and age and lost youth and it works well .
Robert Peters of The Connecticut Poetry Review says “Metras writes moving mediations on our lives and on his own.  His language is direct and unpretentious.   His music has a full and faultless sound…in every poem there is a surprising  insight,,,”  I found this so true.  On page 73,
The Melted Bell suggests so much.
                                Born in fire, the forged bell
                                Learned its pure song that rang
                                Sundays through slatted steeple
                                Down hill and across valley.
The poem has four stanzas with four lines each and each stanza details the power of the bell until it is melted and the sound can only be carried in the heart.  But still, although it can no longer ring, it is heard.
Metras celebrates women men love in his poem, Believing in Eyes ,on page 74 where he references the Beatles’ Lucy in the sky with diamonds to what men see in the eyes of  their beloved women. He mentions diamonds he sees in the eyes from wife to his daughter to his granddaughter in a way one can feel his joy .in knowing these girls.  He ends the poem with:
                                …So let us praise all the women
                                 who ever showed us that joy, that hope,
                                 which men by ourselves can’t know.
This poem clearly shows the complexity of the deep relationships between men an women.
I don’t have a favorite poem in this book.  I liked them all.  This is a good read.
You can find the book here: White Storm
Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

Enforced Rustication in the Cultural Revolution by Jianqing Zheng

By Charles Rammelkamp
Ezra Pound, that great Imagist,
said, “Memories
are the white hairs of the heart.”


So begins the poem, “Memories,” in Jianqing Zheng’s collection of poems about the time he spent after high school in the Chinese countryside, during the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s.  Launched by Chairman Mao, the goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society.  In keeping with this goal, urban high school graduates were sent to the country to be “re-educated” by the peasants.  These poems, then, are essentially Zheng’s memories of that time. They are also, notably, often written in the imagistic form, characteristic not only of Pound’s poetry but of traditional Chinese poetry as well.

Mao Zedong’s memory is central to this collection, as well. It opens with the poem, “Picture-taking in the Cultural Revolution,” on an image of the narrator having his graduation photograph taken, close to half a century ago. “With a Chairman Mao badge / pinned on my cotton coat,” he writes, the photographer directs him through the process, but just as the flashbulb goes off, Zheng blinks. “In the resulting picture // only Mao’s eyes were open, / not smiling.”.

The title of the penultimate poem in the collection, “Maostalgia,” a clever play on the concept of these memories, succinctly describes the whole rustication process he endured.

The art of losing wasn’t hard to get. I lost my voice in the Chinese Cultural
Revolution brandishing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and shouting
my heart out for his long, long life.
The process, for Zheng, goes from initial fervor – or at least accepting the validity of the goal of his rustication – to if not exactly bitterness, certainly to weary resignation.  The poem goes on:
One afternoon while I was picking cotton under the September sun, a
local peasant came over to tell in a casual voice that Mao died. “Oh!” I
responded and went on picking.  I was hungry; I cursed the sun for not
sinking faster…
The poem ends with a Pound-like image:
Great Wall tour –
each souvenir still sells
Chairman Mao badges.
In the poem that immediately precedes this one, “Responses,” Zheng writes:
We line up toward the Memorial Hall,
my four-year-old son twitters,
“Papa, who’s Chairman Mao?”

The short answer, of course, is “he’s the guy who completely shook up my life when I was a teenager.”  But Zheng merely points to the portrait above the gate of Tiananmen and replies, “He’s hanging over there.”  Zheng, who immigrated to the United States many years ago, now lives in Mississippi, where he works for the University of Mississippi Press.

But the bulk of the poems in this collection are indeed imagistic, without editorial comment, and take us through the daily and seasonal tedium of life in the country, working in rice paddies, planting and picking cotton, interacting with a variety of co-workers (Yi, Pigsy, Horse among them).  “Night Life on the Farm,” “Morning Chat,” “Lunchtime,” “Break,” “Before Supper,” “Rice Planting,” “Man on the Front Porch,” “Playing Solitaire”: the titles of these poems and many others like them tell you the quotidian subjects of the verse, the implicit tedium that is not without a certain serenity as well. “In the Cotton Fields” begins: “Cotton picking is as drab as reciting / Chairman Mao’s little red book.” If this wry observation is not enough to convey the thought, consider the gorgeous image of the final stanza, like something out of a French Impressionist painting:

My eyes blurring,
straw hats float like life preservers
in a white sea of cotton.
The food is as bland and uninspiring as the work. “ At / night, our life was as flat as our farm work, tasteless as rice and pickled / turnips we ate each day.” In “Lunchtime,” more of the same:
Back from the rice paddies for lunch, we slump down on the porch, listless
as dogs. Chopsticks stir slowly in bowls to pick out tiny rocks; white
rice and brined turnips are tasteless as day.

The poem “Hunger” continues this theme of bland tedium.

Are you hungry? If you are,
stop and graze by the creek.
I’ll try the sunset.
I don’t even have ten fens
to buy a bowl of re gan mian
in a roadside eatery.
The setting sun on the horizon
is like a piece of ham
my stomach keeps rumbling for.
Later on in the poem he writes:
The sky is growing ash-gray.
The sun has set within me.
I’m full, full of rumbles
in my stomach. I want to slip
into a dream, a dream of feast…

By the time we get to the poem, “Waiting,” we can feel the desolation brought on by the tedium. “When can I also go back to town? / I’ve been waiting the whole winter….” The poem concludes with his resignation: “I clench my desperation, listening / to frozen rain tinkling the roof….”

In the next poem, “Goodbye,” Zheng gets his wish.  He leaves the farm before dawn, his college admission letter in his pocket, going without fanfare, not wanting to endure the goodbyes of his workmates

Looking into Hu’s eyes
black as bullet holes and desperate
as if with claustrophobia,
I crook a faint smile,
my mouth twitching without words.
Last night he cried over wine
at my farewell party. A handshake,
I throw myself into drizzle.

There’s a calm stillness in these poems that belies the seriousness of this time for millions of lives, but the impact is nevertheless felt in these spare, imagistic verses.

You can find the book here:


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

The Mystery of Systems by Carl Rosentstock


By Michael T. Young

The poems in Carl Rosenstock’s collection The Mystery of Systems are reflective and move with a subtle lyricism, sometimes enchanting, as in the opening of “The Passport”:
In shadows, it seems I see things not quite seen —
The night breaking into scraps around
A sentry’s hands that hide a match flame
As I lean forward to accept the light.
The internal rhymes and slant rhymes of these lines accentuate the beauty of a poetry that probes and pushes toward difficult perceptions. While it tries to “see things not quite seen,” at times, this poetry also brings us to attention with a pointed insight, as when Rosenstock says, “There is no cure for that/Which is accomplished” (36).
The central metaphor of the collection is that of photography of which a prose passage in the collection declares,
Yet, almost from its inception, the photograph could be, has been, manipulated, to reproduce a most realistic image of something that, in fact, did not exist outside itself.
This idea of the photograph as a deception tells us much about the love poems that bookend the collection, as well as the title itself. All the artifice that goes into a photograph, a piece of music, a poem, and all the rules governing a system, lie outside those systems, are ulterior to the things those rules and artifices produce, like the frame around a painting. The proem to the collection, “For the Audience” ends:
                            I rise
To my feet as the music
Must surely be servant
To the dancer. Your dance
Grace and symmetry: this is love.
I applaud you. I love you.
Love, not trust:
Trust is madness.
The speaker here, though not yet known, is Paganini, who is the speaker of the final poem in the Afterword. In this opening poem, the split between love and trust, which one might call madness itself, is remade in the fractures of memory and manipulated perception inherent in the collection’s scrutiny. As “I Depend On You . . .” puts it,

Not the accretion

 Of detail, but the selection —
Order and moment discerned
Among casual things.
The “grace and symmetry” in the dance is choreography, another manipulation of art. The quandary is in the subtle equation of love and artifice. If our deepest affection is expressed in artistic form, which is artifice or manipulation, then love cannot be trusted. It recalls Orwell’s comment that “All art is propaganda.”


But Orwell also said, “not all propaganda is art.” However, if we are to learn from art, we must keep in mind that it’s manipulating us to perceive things a certain way; we must step back to find out where it’s taking us and what it teaches. In other words, don’t assume it’s benevolence or innocuousness. Unfortunately, we tend to believe what we see and so are susceptible to deception, the same way the one in love is. Hence the madness of trust and how, within the collection, certain things remain hidden, figures slip into legend, deaths are recounted as justified in self-defense, and words themselves sometimes become walls. The third section of the book is a masterful creation of 2 imaginary Russian poets, presented with translations of their poems and a history explained in the context of a photograph from the archive of a third poet who slipped out of view just as the photo was snapped, “the blur of his right leg in the lower right hand corner.” Wonderfully, this is the very poet whose style of poetry, “Maximalism,” is the largest influence on the 2 poets “translated.” He is that outside influence, the mystery of systems, the unseen or unacknowledged pressure framing the image.

We’re told, “the light writes surfaces; the rest, the depths, remains dark.” However, a song or music seems to persist in the ears of many in the collection. Reality cannot be wholly suppressed by artifice or lost in falsehood and it surfaces as a kind of unidentifiable tune. So, in the middle section of “Confessions of a Christ Killer,” the speaker says,

Even now I hear

 This song . . . I can’t
Remember the name.
And in the poem “Anonymity” by the fictional poet Lazarev, we read
In my head, I hear a tune
I heard once — a trick of memory.
I’ve forgotten whence this
Air has come, and search
For a few words to remind me
Where I heard it.
It’s the echo too from Paganini, from the first and last poems. Playing off the love of Paganini for the singer Antonia Bianchi, the concluding poem in the Afterword confesses what is the final sacrifice.
. . . once I made the wood sing, dark
Singing like a hummingbird’s wings, and for that
The tithe I’ll pay to Hell I fear is myself.
The love is the art, the form. What’s sacrificed to it, as often is the case with love, is the self. The art, the love, remains. What we have in these poems, in this collection, is a marvelously written poetry that looks deeply into the nature of art itself. It is a long elegy, perhaps we might say a lament to the inevitable sacrifice the artist makes but also the inherent problems of perception everyone confronts in just trying, as Matthew Arnold put it, to “be true/To one another!” Perhaps what the poem “8 X 10” says of shadows can be said of trust,
It is true, I suppose,
That, as you move closer
To your shadow, the ratio
Approaches one to one.
Poetry helps us move closer to that one to one ratio, and particularly poetry like this. Closing The Mystery of Systems, one senses that by looking long and closely at the artifice in art and everyday relationships, by moving with it in poems both beautiful and thoughtful, one might be able to be a little more honest. The collection is one of the many arguments for how poetry can make the world a little better.

You can find the book here:


Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. HIs other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Award. Young also received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Shrew, The Smart Set, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Young lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.