north of oxford poetry book review

Content Warning: Everything by Akwaeke Emezi

content

By Greg Bem

Akwaeke Emezi’s Content Warning: Everything is both deceptive and illuminating. It begins with the appearance of a typical poetry collection but grows through its breadth into so much more. Unfolding like a quilt, the book’s patterns and stories develop with each new layer, each new title, each new line, each new image. That does not make it an easy book or necessarily an enjoyable book, as its title might suggest, but it one of surprise and utter engagement.

Many of the poems investigate the horror and trauma of human experience across gender, race, family, and religious history. The poems contribute to a milieu of both pain and catharsis, often with intense and intricate images serving as foundational markers intellectually jaw-dropping and capable of carrying awe within the otherwise morose silences. The breath and its absence is amazingly intricate in all of the poems. Form occupies attention throughout the book, with the anticipated short length of the collection (39 poems) expanding in size like an accordion through dense poems that can be read in multiple ways. The effect of subtle and effective innovations in structure leave us with questions and the urge to dive deeper.

Emezi’s stanzas often make use of splicing by way of the forward slash (“/”), affording the reader with an outstanding degree of complexity that makes a single read of the poem barely an introduction to its fullness. I was particularly affected structurally by the poem “Self-Portrait as an Abuser,” which takes the form in question and duplicates it into two columns. The poem is like two voices speaking to one another, or two cameras positioned away from one another, documenting multiple spaces on conjunction. The power of such an approach is that additional interpretations and readings are both imperative and guaranteed.

A favorite sequence in the aforementioned poem pairs the following, difficult to display here and worth viewing in its original visualization within the book:

she trusted me / i am fresh water /
dark instinct / against abandoning /
i choose when it’s over / i have to choose
she won’t release you / while you’re useful
you’re so useful / my love, i remember /
what it was like / how easy it is

(page 41)

Emezi’s works are halting. Their works are often electrifyingly photographic and deal with the exquisite nature of combining multiple perspectives, images and internal reflections, often starting in one position and actively moving through a scene or snapshot of an experience to a new position. The active movement of the image in this way vibrates with energy and only adds to the curious captivation of the line. Poems like “What if My Father Called Jesus a Bastard” exemplify this method:

he looks at me with those eyes / they scared my mother / almost as much as the
dead bird beating / its wings under his hand

(page 38)

As the title of this poem suggests, the book as a whole connects the poet’s life experiences to biblical themes, stories, and characters. While not overtly critical of Christianity, biblical motifs and their implications are deconstructed through a complex lens bringing together both the poet’s experiences and feelings. Often these come through the speaker’s voice in the context of religious structures and literary relationships. “Christening” opens with priests who “spat” the speaker’s name back and closes with a self-affirming embodiment: “but my throat is a river / full of the holiest water” (page 5). Juxtapositions like this are both helpful and quizzical. In other poems, Emezi’s poetry displaces the speaker’s point of view with a more abstract voice. For example, in “Healing,” Christ is examined through exaggerated and enveloping language:

the son of god says / imagine your chest as a soapy bubble / your collarbone as
a landscape / a horizon stretching [. . .]

(page 26)

The movement between the characterization of the speaker(s) within the book is yet another quality of the complexities the poet brings to the table. Each poem is stunning, and often feels uproarious immediately upon its completion, demanding another read, another look, a step or two back or to the side, to second guess, question, and feel. Occasionally this process carries additional mesmerizing effects when their writing is even more astounding. In “Scraps,” a poem that references Toni Morrison and Freddie Gray in nearly the same breath, the speaker’s lines close with a figurative ellipses indicative of our irresolute world:

there is a story somewhere here,
lost in blood and ash. i don’t have
enough air to dig it out.

(page 23)

The book’s title directly implies the traumatic difficulties faced by those under systemic oppression both past and present. Emezi writes through multiple lineages and of multiple identities, which further solidifies this book as a must-read for anyone who cares about the crossroads of poetics and social justice. The poetry blends difficult subjects into the fold, often flipping the pace of the book through an embedded presence of racism, gender oppression, and sexual violence. The appearance of “everything” is not formulaic; it often reflects reality in that it is both sporadic and universal in appearance and tone, and the poetry reflects the persistence of violence and horror in a matter-of-fact way, again reflective of the systemic reality so many face.

And the book foils horror with hope. “Salvation” opens with some of my favorite lines from the book:

i believe in new skins, even nightmares
can be maps, the space between existence
and function, between performance and effect

(page 42)

“Salvation” in my mind is not a poem of absolution as much as it is possibility, the possibility of individuality and the possibility of process. It is one of critical existence, just as all the poems speak to the possibility for growth; illumination as a result of difficulty and complexity. Like an awakening, the newness that arrives with the beginning and end, and the rereading, of each poem affords not only new experiences but new possibilities. It is an outlook of the perpetual and exponential, with roots of autonomy and self-control.

Content Warning: Everything arrives to the world as books are continued to be banned, Black folks are continued to be murdered, and the world continues to deny Trans people their presence and livelihood. It is a book that confronts these brutal circumstances while also offering the reader a glimpse into Emezi’s unique experiences (and storytelling) by way of diverse, rapidly-shifting points of view in accelerated sequences of events. It is a book you must read but it is a book you should read, and it is a book we can all benefit from reading more than once.

You can find the book here: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/content-warning-everything-by-akwaeke-emezi/

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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Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene

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By Greg Bem

I enclose a radical simplicity, which could be taken or mistaken as art.

(from “Gift” in “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” on page 67)

Across seven distinct sections and over two hundred pages in length, John Keene’s Punks is a book of poetry worth the investment of time and focus. A collection to fall in love with, it chronicles a poet’s wanderings across a textured milieu of urban and pastoral landscapes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and it chronicles the poet’s maturity across decades. It reflects a commitment to a poetry of the queer and Black soul. It is a testimony to a soulfulness that it is exquisitely intimate. Keene’s is a poetry derivative of and channeled through human connection and proximity, the range of which takes many hours of reading Punks to see in range.

Relationships are powerfully described from poem to poem, reflected in a poetry that is, at times, outwardly sensual, and, at others, deeply hermetic. The poetry thus is a terrain, a landscape through which hold snapshots and recounting of Keene alongside a large cast of people who have filled his life. The living documentation is marvelous as a collection. At times the individuals are vague and fuzzy in their presence, almost as ghosts or blurs in the totality of human experience. Keene’s expressions feels like result of a liminal proclamation or curiosity in the annals of memory:

until dawn fills
our eyes with sighs
allow me these
tattoos your funk

(from “Western Avenue” in “Playland,” page 17)

At other times, Keene’s focus is distinct and quite specific, as with another early poem in the book, “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford,” where Keene exquisitely offers,

[…] though every lyric is a voucher
of our failure there are times
when only a poem
like daydreams or a lover’s arms
can satisfy a certain quality of hunger

(from “A Sonnet to Tyson Beckford” in “Playland,” page 26)

Often intimacies like these feel natural, humble, and fixed in time as if there was no other way they could be. This confidence, across time and poem, feels inspired by other voices that preceded Keene. Amidst the book’s third section, “Ten Things I Do Every Day,” Keene channels Whitman via the title of the poem, “The Soul is Always Beautiful,” (page 89). Open and absorbed with the audacity of human experience, Keene certainly feels Whitmanesque. His spotlight travels across many corners of Americana, and its many communities, feels at once universal and undeniably personable. And often there is a blur between the lines, as we read of Keene’s muse and subjects: “you speak in / a song – so low I / have heard – in dreams / between us – […]” (from “Scatter” in “Trees” on page 109).

Much like the line that opened this review, Keene’s work is often easily accessed through deconstruction and dissection, his lines often a collection of aphoristic glances and moments and conclusions. In the poem “Underground,” Keene writes: “On the other side of this weeping / is a world built of blood” (on page 140 in “Dark to Themselves”), a line that cuts and crops. In the prose poem “Postcard: Decadence,” the poet mysteriously asks, “Does the newness of you make the darkness gleam more greedily?” (in “Ten Things I Do Every Day” on page 76). Sometimes the statements and questions are mysterious, and sometimes that is all the reader needs to feel how their presence stems from the poet’s consciousness.

Musings like these are many across Punks, a collection ultimately so large it implies the power and accessibility of Keene’s fragments above all. Each poem, when sliced, connects further to Keene’s own dreamlike trance, when otherwise we see walls of text and poems that read like epics. When taken on their own, each poem tells a story and posits a reality; but en masse there is phantasmagoria and a distinct leaning toward the surreal, toward bending across and between lines.

Punks poems originate from multiple decades, and when together in a single collection it’s fascinating to watch Keene grow from poem to poem, milestones or celebrations in tandem. The historical effect is a remarkable representation and one not always found in selected works. The last two sections of Punks, “Dark to Themselves” and “Words,” spin the end of the collection in a new, exciting direction. Keene’s poems take forms and distinctly move away from lyric and storytelling found in the book’s earlier sections. Experimentation and playfulness are central, and there are often elements of performance that enter the work.

In “Blackness,” Keene writes a collective consideration of Black folks and ends nearly every line with “black people,” who are literally and symbolically present in each line from start to finish. Within this poem of presence and consistency, there is the mantra: “When I begin a poem I often do so/ because I love black people” he writes (in “Dark to Themselves” on page 175). Keene’s poem “Words” also pulls together a list, opening with “When you said people did you mean punish? / When you said friend did you mean fraud?” (page 181) and continues powerfully across multiple pages.

Keene’s conceptual leanings are substantially rooted in music as well. An early lyric poem, “Apostate” in “Dark to Themselves,” describes the experience of being within performance, of witnessing it and its energy:

Tonight: amped to decibels to blow
the eardrums clear of hearing,
bassists and keyboardists
whose names you never learned
or cannot remember […]

The poem moves through the emotions and tribulations of being audience, arriving to an elegant and blunt description of power, energy, and impact of musical performance for both Keene and the performer:

Passion is a song you sing
on your own terms: the set opens,
and you hold your breath
to map the evening’s destiny: sound.
Death, get ready.

(on pages 162 and 163)

The lyrical examples found earlier in Punks lead to experimental poems like “Dear Trane (Lecture on Something)” (page 171) and “Grind” (page 197), which evoke musical scores by projecting fragments like matrixes across the page. Across multiple columns and stanzas, the improvisational and conversational are reinforced through visual patterns and an open flow. Like Coltrane’s whimsically spiritual foray across space and time, so too do we have examinations from Keene, though the literary presence leaves a performance of the work by Keene desired.

Punks ranges from start to finish with stories and introspection, but it takes the book’s entirety (from start to finish) to truly begin an understanding of Keene’s poetics. Tyehimba Jess writes of Punks, “Keene’s masterfully inventive inquiry of self and history is queered, Blackened, and joyously thick with multitudes of voice and valence.”

The book’s final poem, a final cry of love, passion, and intimacy also, contains a resounding reflection on this poetry, as it speaks to identity, as it speaks to emergence, as it brings forward a lifetime of multitudes: “Love your and others’ chatter and its proof of the expansiveness / of nothingness” (in “Beatitude” in “Words” on page 202). A line as starkly positioned as this offers strong advice: dive back into the intimacies of Punks for another look, another story, another moment with the poet.

You will stay and write until

your heart runs out. You will take this

dark knowledge and spread it.

(from “Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall” in “Dark to Themselves” on page 155)

You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/punks-by-john-keene

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 www.gregbem.com 

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Sufficient Emptiness by Marjorie Power

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Reading Marjorie Power’s Sufficient Emptiness is like hearing a loud whisper throughout her ninety- four pages of poetry.  The poems appear to begin softly suggesting meaning then crescendo until she is right in your ear telling you this is the way it is.
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Sufficient Emptiness, published by Deerbrook Editions of Cumberland, ME, is divided into five sections: Season Tickets, The New Chickens, The Eyes: An Elephant Sequence, Sufficient Emptiness, and Walk Signal. Her poems vary in length and form but the whisper is always there saying pay attention, I am going to tell you something important.
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For example, the poem, To Larry, on page nineteen is only five lines but the reader is treated to the intimacy of a treasured relationship.
                      we two
                      wander, white-haired,
                      a heartbeat between us,
                      its pulsing silence our teenaged
                      brother
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The image is clear of two who seem as one.  The form supports the image with its lack of punctuation or any capital letters.  It appears as a quick love note with the complexity of growing old but hovering near them is the passion of youth,
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Another poem, that whispers loudly at the end is Dust Motes on page seventy-four.
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     We guess at what the moon might hide
     even when she stares roundly
     past a small cloud, a scraggly branch,
     a street disturbance where she wants to cast her glow.
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She skillfully has the reader looking both up and down at the same time while suggesting something is hidden and the moon is doing the hiding even when she is shedding light. The seventeen-line poem is written in couplets and three-line stanzas. This gives a successful uneven pacing to the poem and strong end -line breaks, the interior of the poem holds the stanzas and the poem both begins with couplets and ends with a couplet.
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The poem explores how different it is when the sun comes out.
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     Under the sun we speak
     confidently to those in the room
     and any others who dangle elsewhere,
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She suggests subtly the secretive moon by the open actions and free speech during day time. She ends the poem with a couplet reminding the reader how we forget certain things and what happens.
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     We forget to keep our eye on dust motes
     that sift out of our talk, into our meaning.  We let drift
      all we can, as if there’s a clear space beyond us
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      and they’ve already settled there
      and been vacuumed up.
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Depending on how you define dust mote, opens the poem to more than one interpretation.
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Power is able to write poems of length as seen in Dust Motes as well as compact small poems.  The poem, White, Falling Rapidly in Clumps, is only five lines but again seems like a loud whisper.
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      Snow slips
      from a bare branch—
      red-tipped, ready to bud.
      No time left to process winter’s
      hushed thefts.
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When the poem opens, the reader is focused on winter.  When the poem ends, the reader is focused on spring, Power is a skillful controlled writer who leads the reader to water and makes him drink.
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Sufficient Emptiness has many themes, images, and poetic forms. The poetry is a pleasure to read and to think about later.
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You can find the book here: Sufficient Emptiness
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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.

Shellback by Jeanne-Marie Osterman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In the eponymous poem of this powerful collection, Jeanne-Marie Osterman, reflecting on the cruel, ghastly hazing her father received from his crewmates on their way home from the war in the Pacific in 1945 – an “initiation” administered to sailors crossing the equator for the first time – writes:
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This is one shellback’s daughter
trying to find that wiser self within
who can forgive these men,
for they’ve come from Okinawa
where they watched a buddy’s skull
blow out of his head,
teeth still gripping his last cigarette.
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This collection of poetry about her father’s long life and slow death (1919-2017) is steeped in blood and violence.  JDO, as he was known, experienced the most horrific things in the war, from an attack by a kamikaze pilot that killed a dozen men and maimed and injured many others to the grim day-to-day duties of the killing business, and he returns home to Washington state a damaged man. Not always the easiest person to live with, prone to spasms of violent behavior and cruelty, he ages into a tough old bird who resists acknowledging his pain and physical decline, in a way that’s both admirable and tragic. As Osterman writes in the poem, “Forgive,”
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I let memories I can’t erase
rest in peace,
knowing no one is only
their sins.
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The collection opens cleverly with the poem, “Epilogue”:
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He’s losing his grip.
Last Saturday night,
trying to shave for church,
my father cut his face so deep
it bled till 2 AM.
He couldn’t reach the Band-Aids
to stanch the blood.
He fell down trying.
He wouldn’t ring for help.
He didn’t make church.
He won’t wear his hearing aid,
so I shout the small talk –
think it’ll rain today?
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This introduces JDO perfectly. The rest of the collection shows us the man in his perpetual state of denial, suppressing his trauma, as he navigates fatherhood and old age, and indeed, our end always marks our beginning. The final poems deal with her father in the hospital, dying, pivoting from this “epilogue” that opens the book. Osterman is with him during his final days.
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Osterman really knows how to start a poem with a bang. For instance, “The String” begins:
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            I go to my father’s room to take him to dinner and find him
            face down on the floor. Thinking he’s dead, I say, Daddy?
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            I think I’m at the end of my string, he says, so I call 911.
            He wants me to pick him up, but he’s dead weight. 
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Right away, the reader is involved in the drama, compelled to read on. “Get the Body You Want” similarly begins: “Middle of the night, on your way to the bathroom, / you trip and fall on the wheelchair we insisted on / to keep you from falling.” A poem early in the collection, “Third Girl,” starts, “I was my father’s third girl. / Sundays I tried to be his boy.” Again, we are drawn into the drama. She is writing here about the great American pastime of watching NFL football on TV, but it highlights one of the heartbreaking themes of the collection, the child’s desire to be loved by her parent and the casual neglect he often shows. “On the Stillaguamish River,” a few poems later, poignantly addresses the same yearning. “I just wanted to take up your time, see how // you, once a sailor, would row, save me from drowning….”
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The poem, “Polaroid,” in which an emotional eight-year-old Osterman poses for a family photo, describes JDO, his jaw clenched, holding the camera and warning his daughter not to cry, “or I’ll give you something // to cry about. I was happy / at least he didn’t tell me to smile.”
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The poems that vividly address JDO’s wartime experience are truly jaw-dropping, drenched in blood and gore, from “End Like a Sponge,” “Wing and a Prayer” and “Theater of War” to “Fukuryu” and “Think of It,” which deals with the battle of Okinawa, in which 50,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese died. What a horrific experience for a teenager to have to live through! On top of that, the hazing by his crewmates in “Shellback” reinforces the permanent psychological scarring.   And as she writes in a later poem, “Patterns,” “You might think that holding it in / kept it from us, but we / could feel it.”
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In the midst of the grimness, Osterman displays a sense of humor at times, while illuminating her father’s character. “Horny Goat Weed” is a poem about discovering a package of one of those (quack?) medications that you see in the snack kiosks at gasoline stations, meant to enhance a man’s libido, “a remedy for erectile dysfunction.” “My father’s ninety-six. My mother’s been dead for years,” she writes; another poignant example of JDO’s refusal to concede weakness.
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Just as this tender elegy starts with an “Epilogue,” it concludes with “The Living Always Leave You, but the Dead Stay with You Forever,” which is the true epilogue to this sequence. Her father has been dead six months, but reminders keep popping up.
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Perhaps the most touching poem in Shellback is a poem toward the end called “Yay.” Her father’s body is beyond salvageable; it’s only a matter of time. He is thirsty but he can’t drink. Droppers are not allowed, and water dripped from a spoon only rolls off his lip and soaks his hospital gown. JDO’s daughter soaks a piece of cloth and squeezes it slowly onto his lips.  The gratitude is heartfelt.
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            Yay, he whispers.
                          Yay.
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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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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

beg
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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;
.
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.
.
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:
 .
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:
.
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”:
.
.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”:
.
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.