north of oxford poetry book review

Getting to Philadelphia: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Devaney

getting
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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In his Preface, Thomas Devaney references W.C. Fields’ snarky comment, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Urban legend has it that this is the epitaph on Fields’ gravestone, though that’s not actually so. But the comment highlights Devaney’s own relation to the City of Brotherly Love, where he grew up and currently lives (he teaches at Haverford College). In other words, “It’s complicated.” And yet, Getting to Philadelphia might easily be described as a love song to his native city. He writes in one of the new poems, “The Home Book”:
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The Quaker City, City of Brotherly Love, Home of the Lenni-Lenape, City of
Neighborhoods, Bicentennial City, Death Headquarters, the Hidden City.
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Not only a city of hard-luck and History, but how the heart and the fist
beat together as echoing impulse.
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Five of the poems are new, The other thirty-eight come from five previous volumes. So this is truly a selection based on a lifetime, on an idea, on a theme.  What is that theme? Beyond a catchall “Philadelphia,” which might be a copout, the theme is no less “À la recherche du temps perdu” than is Marcel Proust’s masterwork.  Only, as the title one of the poems tells us, “Memory Corkscrews So You Can’t Remember It”: “Philly makes, Philly breaks.”  More generally, though, he notes in “The Blue Stoop,” “They say, Don’t forget where you’re from, /  but I don’t have to, I never left.” Not forgetting isn’t exactly the same as remembering, though, we learn.
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So many of these poems take place in transit. The scenery flashes by , either from car or train or simply from the perspective of a Baudelairean flaneur strolling through the city. The title poem, from 1999’s The American Pragmatist Fell in Love, describes a train trip on Thanksgiving Day from New York to Philadelphia, the year a strong wind created havoc and caused injury during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From Penn Station to Trenton, Trenton to the SEPTA train, and
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Finally Aunt Sharon’s for dinner. Everyone there
and you say hello
and you say you were at the parade
and they ask, touching your arm, if you’re all right
because you’re told and will see footage
one of those gigantic balloons, Cat in the Hat, got loose
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In other poems, the narrator is in a car, noticing: a “hobbled ’74 Pinto” in “Memory Corkscrews,” driving in circles; a Ford Focus in “OREGON AVE”; a Buick Special in “The Picture that Remains,” that “clicks, starts and goes.” In “Saturday Night Special” it’s a “’64 Caddie,” which may reappear in “Don Cook’s Brother’s Cadillac.” In “Rear Window” Devaney laments “The collapse of tenderness / and no place to park,” gazing through the rear window of his car.  In “River Song,” one of the new poems, the narrator is driving through New Jersey, which jumps past the window “like a hand-held film.”
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Other poems are from street view, the perspective of the flaneur strolling through the neighborhoods of his youth: “Algon Avenue,” “Mr. Uska and His Dog, 1973,” “That Old Block,” “Heads Up,” “Sessler’s or Hibberd’s Bookstore?” “The Legend of Cornbread,” one of the new poems, details the search for an elusive graffiti artist.
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I remember most the piece between the Schuylkill Expressway and 30th Street
Station. A very tall, long-lettered piece. Who knows, a self-portrait? How the
flat red-fade and the dusty Krylon yellow disappear into each other.
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In “The Home Book” we encounter Cornbread again.
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Remembering a lunch cart at 19th and the Parkway. The guy ahead of me
says, “All right, Cornbread, see you tomorrow.” And there I am, next. Place
my order and work-up the courage, and, finally: “Are you Cornbread?”
“Yes I am,” he almost smiles. “That’s me,” he says. “Cornbread the writer?”
“Hell no,” Cornbread laughs. “That’s the North Philly Cornbread. I’m the
West Philly Cornbread!”
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So many of Devaney’s lines and images seem like camera snapshots, and indeed, photography is an important element in his work. Not only are there photographs by Zoe Strauss, Will Brown and Léki Dago, but there’s also a poem entitled “Darkroom Diaries” (from Runaway Goat Cart), which we are told in a note was “found in a darkroom at Moore College of Art dated 1972. In “Pete Rose Meets Zoe Strauss” the poet talks baseball and the glory of the 1980 Phillies with his photographer friend.  Devaney collaborated with Will Brown on The Picture that Remains, his book of poems based on Brown’s photographs of Philadelphia in the 1970’s, from which nearly a dozen of these poems are collected.
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Devaney gives a shout-out to a number of other Philadelphia poets and artists as well. In “The Home Book” he gives a nod to Kevin Varrone and his wife, Pattie McCarthy, prize-winning poets who teach at Temple University.  Getting to Philadelphia is dedicated to poet Francis Ryan.
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In its detail, does Getting to Philadelphia succeed in recovering the past, corkscrewed though memory is?  The “wild marching band of memory” he mentions in “Morning in Runnemede”? The answer is, well, yes, I guess so, to the extent anybody ever can. As Devaney writes in “That Old Block,”
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Everyone knows and nobody does.
Even back then it was far away;
Even to the blocks not far off,
It was another world. It always was.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
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Tricks of Light – New and Selected Poems by Thaddeus Rutkowski

tricks

By g emil reutter

Thaddeus Rutkowski is a man of small town America and a man of urban America. His poetry is written from the lens of his unique experience in both places at a time in the nation when small town and urban are in constant conflict. Yet, Rutkowski is not in conflict as he equally embraces both in his poetry in honest, forthright and at times humorous verse. He is an observer of life and these poems are the embodiment of what he has witnessed and thus an immediate connection with the reader and we are better for it.
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He tells us in the poem, One-Tenth:
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A Chinese philosopher said:
“Live to an old age.
There remains three-tenths that cannot be known”
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I am on my way to old age, I am still studying,
And I don’t know one-tenth of what can be known.
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I inch ahead, adding, bit by bit, to what I know.
But as I add, other things slip away.
I hope I add more that I lose.
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Who knows? Maybe the sand in the hourglass
is running out faster than I’m replenishing it.
There isn’t much I can do about that,
except to turn the hourglass over.
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He writes of riding his bicycle in Manhattan and of people yelling for him to move out of the way of their cars, tells of us his daughter’s marathon run, of his wife and him dumpster diving for candles from a corner shop. He turns to the rural in the poem, Farmers and Dove, of the harvest of corn by the farmer, husking as they travel in a small pickup and of the Dove on the wires above, cooing, For those of us who know what’s missing, the sounds of the bird remind us of what’s lost. And again in the poem, Claw Marks:
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The trunk of this beech tree
is scored with dents just far enough apart
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to indicate fingernails, or an animal’s nails,
or the claws of a bear, hungry for beechnuts.
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The small, oily nuts, covered in burrs,
will help sustain a bear through winter.
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The nuts are high up in the tree,
but a bear is a good climber,
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with claws that can pierce the bark
on a smooth, iron –like trunk.
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The bear is long gone. It’s winter now,
too cold for bears and other hibernators.
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The bear’s marks remain in the bark,
at just the right distance to mark its reach.
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Rutkowski the observer is clearly evident in the details in this poem, description of the iron-like trunk, oily nuts covered in burrs, the trunk scored with dents just far enough apart. Although the bear is gone, the reader can still see the bear in the tree.
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He returns to the urban in the poem Noise to my Ears. Of the street musicians who populate subway concourses, of how he admires their talent, that they make him happy and of the posers who randomly blow in horns or beat on drums until he feels trapped in the unpleasant. In the poem, Hit Again, Rutkowski writes of his adventures riding a bike in Manhattan and the indifference of a cab driver who he has encountered:
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I drift to the left to avoid a biker
coming the wrong way, toward me,
and a car hits me with its side door.
It’s a yellow cab that was speeding past
as I drifted toward it.
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I hear and feel the impact against my arm,
And I think, “”Not again”
It is the second time
I’ve been hit in a couple of weeks;
the first was on my other arm.
But I can use the arm that was hit now.
I can lift and move it. I feel nothing
beyond a dull pain in the elbow.
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I see the cab has stopped.
Maybe the driver heard the impact, too,
and wants to see if I am all right,
or maybe he has stopped for a traffic light.
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Tricks of Light is an eclectic collection of poems about family, about life in the city and life in small towns. It is a collection of poems about the forgotten, the found, of birds and fisherman, of loss and aging and of nature.
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Yellow-Green Hills of Pennsylvania
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The mountains—the hills really—
are yellow-green, in transition
from bare trees to leafed trees.
I don’t know how long this color will last.
If I were fishing now,
I could walk to the water and cast my line
without getting it tangled in leaves.
If I want to see something distant, a house, say,
I can see it through the trees.
These yellow-green constellations
are only buds, and when the sun hits,
the whole mountain lights up.
That is, assuming the mountain—a hill, really—
is not covered in fog.
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You can find the book here: Tricks of Light — great weather for MEDIA
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g emil reutter can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Wherever I Look I am Never There by Allen Brafman

wherever
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By g emil reutter
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Allen Brafman is a poet of careful observation. His poems are quiet yet all have a strong undercurrent of passion of life and death. In the poem, Mirror, the poet reminds us how we carry with us all those who came before:
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This is my father’s beard
His face has become mine
My grandfather
chuckles inside the parlor mirror
His hand comes forth
He is about to pinch our cheek.
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A poet of deep reflection Brafman holds his memories close in what appears to be a simple poem yet is complex, the poem, This Morning:
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I found our first kiss
forty some years, hundreds
and hundreds of times
remembered, lost
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in the breast pocket of
a denim shirts, back
of the closet, shirt that
just about fits me again
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On the surface it appears to be a memory of a first kiss, but it is much more. The poet writes of a love of forty years, a memory that comes to him often over the years only once again to surface when trying on a shirt from the back of his closet. A gentle and beautiful love poem.
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The poet tells us in the poem, Birds Thick as WaterEach newly acquired loss/added/to all the losses/ lost and tallied before. He is a poet who writes of the reality of loss and what it means to those left behind such as this from the poem, Lost and Found:
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I don’t want to
talk about people
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I’ve spoken to on
the phone who
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died before I
got there
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This poem reflects the stark realism of life. It is not adorned in fanciful words, it is simply the truth, blocking out of their departure and our final destination.
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Brafman treats us to a beautiful surreal poem, Butterfly’s Child with haunting, majestic imagery.
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A yellow butterfly lifts a little
girl from the front yard
to a forest of marigolds burning
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In a third-floor window box. Explosive
winds hurl the butterly off
course,  put a cinder in the child’s
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eye. The child falls back to the yard, free
of the butterfly, the rain that follows.
Fed by water, flame that can never
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extinguish, she has become the daughter
of that butterfly, large black eyes
growing on yellow wing ferociously
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she sometimes flutters
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Brafman writes of a panhandler as a carnival barker in the poem, Playing the Odds. He tells us of a drunken escalator in the poem, Attacked from Within, and in the poem, Time is not Enough, he writes Lonely as a bar stool/in a crowded bar. There is nothing stale about this collection as Brafman fills his poems with fresh imagery. In the first stanza of Anna, he returns to stark realism of what we all know to be true on the subway:
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That woman’s
talking to herself,
don’t let her
see you
looking at her,
she might
start talking to you.
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Wherever I Look, I am Never There is a collection of poems that reflects life in realism, at times surreal. Of love, of loss, of the lonely, of family, of the will to go on. Brafman gives voice to those who live on the edges, of those departed in sometimes gentle and stark observations of a poet who loves life and those he encounters.
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g emil reutter can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/

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Flow by Beth Kephart

flow
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By Ray Greenblatt
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  This is a little book (109 pages): the typical length of a poetry collection. 79 short prose pieces capture the history of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. However, the author’s powerful poetics reveal themselves on every page. Following the rough chronological order, let us observe the river’s interaction with man.

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      PRELUDE. This section gives an overview of the river’s history. “It bent the reflection of the moon, then held it still. A man looked in, a woman did, then held it still.”
 “It will course many miles more and take a turn through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware River, which will empty into a long-nosed bay before yielding to the sea.”
 “The river is cumulative. It harbors the floating oddments of towns like Auburn, Reading, Birdsboro, and Valley Forge.”
 “There is dust in its waters, the churn of bones.”
 “You might find the cross-frame of a kite in its silt, or the last page of a diary, or the buckle of a soldier’s shoe, or the chunky afterthought of anthracite.”
“That’s the thing about this river. You have to imagine to see.” (9)
          After industrialization things changed. “The river had turned the color of mud, the color of the noise on city streets. But a river stands for something even after the silence is gone.”
“There are other stories, big as myths. A river still begins at covert springs, and it still flows out to sea. It still floats the moon on its back at night, still stares out at the faces staring in, still dreams.” (11)
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          RISING. Instead of the author speaking, Kephart personifies the river so that it thinks and feels.  “Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in to my wide blue heart, and through.”
“Were there language, I’d be my own lone letter.” (16)
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         BEAR. “He is besieged by smells. The curls inside leaves. The green cracking the earth. The beginning of berries.”
“The moon is high, it is afloat—yellow and generous as fruit.” (17)

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GANSHOWAHANNA. That is the Lenape name for the Schuylkill, which means falling waters. “The sky is theirs: The hunter after the bear, the Thunderers and Horned Serpent of last night’s storm, and the souls on the long, white trail—rising.” (18)

          FLIGHT. The Lenape fish for the sturgeon, which seem to have the ability to fly. “Turning my surface the color of purpose—of fish backs and of the floating, painted man whose spear points down from the sky.”
“His hair swims away from him like so many black minnows.” (20)

 

          SWARM.  The wildlife was so abundant. “Pompous pheasants, the swans were absurdly full of themselves. Had you asked me, I would have called for an interregnum of birds.” (22)

          TEMPTATION. “I was another country then. I was temptation. And what precisely lay to my west? What lay beyond my falls?” (23)

          ICE STORM. “You want to blame me for how we together broke apart, abandoned the little rules we each lived by. You want me implicated in the fracture of time, in my viscous letting loose, my rising.”
“That moan you heard was my soul in repeated shatters. That cleaving apart was my remorse.” (24) This passage takes on a mythic quality that American writers have used like Barry Lopez and Joy Harjo.
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          COMET. “If I am envious of anything, it is of those who might ascend and watch as the stars settle in upon my scrim. To see myself from above myself, in the iris black on night.”
“The night sliding forward and the sky antique, and suddenly (though it must have been there before) a comet. Ice for its head. Dust and ions in the seeming whoosh of its aftermath. The smell of methane and ammonia and burn.” (26)
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         SKATING PARTY. Notice how Kephart employs word repetition and a series of phrases not only to suggest gliding over the ice but also to intensify the continuous flow of the river. “Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm. Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, tearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness. Imagine the skin giving way. That’s skating.” (32)
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          FORT MIFFLIN. Here is a dead Revolutionary War soldier. “He is lying on his back in the mud and seeing every star that hangs above me as a hole in the sky, a piercing. His lungs are smoke. His arms are emptied and hollow.”
This is an impression of General Washington. “But already his pockets are bloodied with the talismans of lost men, with the buttons from their uniforms, with letters written home. Already his lungs are vapors.” (36)
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          INDEPENDENCE. What it might feel like when the Revolutionary War is over. “It was one of those effulgent days. Everything seemed touched by the intimation of precious metal—platinum on the limbs of trees, silver in the tips of flowers, gold glinting.”
“Wind rush and weather. Eyes that actually see. A body attuned to
 the physics of life and weight, thrust and drag.” (37)

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         FOLLY. Over the years drownings occurred in the river. “Many years, a drowning. A body dashed into my white spit. Bones sunk down with the calculus of catfish and of beaver, with turtle shells and the bright gold ring that marks the unmade promise.” (39)

.          SOUL How the death of Benjamin Franklin affected the river.  “The difference between a man’s soul and a cumulus cloud is that the cloud rubs out of its own accord and a man’s soul never does. Yesterday, Benjamin Franklin died after a year of suffering, and his soul has already risen, its color the color of sun through leaf. There’s an eccentric quiver in the air, a strange disruption, and the idle talk along my banks is of him.” (43)

          UNPLUGGED. The river begins to be channeled by builders into pipes. “When they gush me on, when they yank me off. I am slivered into tears. I die of boredom in their buckets.”
“A young girl named Annie, who, tending a garden, chooses me. Pours me into a long-spouted can, carries me over her arm, and transports me out to the birds of paradise, the violet petals and sweet peas, the bath that has been drawn up for the swallows. Where I am let free. Where the sun is familiar and I transcend my usefulness.” (47)

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          NAVIGATION. “I was a fist, a scourge, a seductress—pulling stones and sludge through their grinding gears, making sounds they couldn’t account for, flooding them out where veins were cut.” (54)

          HAVEN. Some people as this one woman are attuned to the river. “She is keen to the hidden craving in all things: the yearning tucked inside the songs of birds, the unconfessed regrets of men, the permanent rage of an unfinished fire.” (55)

          ASYLUM. Disabled seamen are comforted by the river. “He’ll smell more like smoke than good breeding, and his lips will be pale and chewed into; his nose will have been burnished by the sun. The songs will come out the barrel of his chest. His stories will be for nobody but me.” (62)

          WASTE. The following sentence imitates a flood, with even a hint of rhyme to keep the flow. “Nothing would stay in its place; nothing was fixed. The bulbs of the trees, the piers, the docks, the locks, and the canal masters’ houses, the soft hats and vests of the masters, their dinner plates and tablecloths, the barges, the names of the barges, the Conshohocken Bridge and the Flat Rock Bridge, the keys that opened the doors to the mills, the mills, the equipment in the mills, the columns of smoke that puffed out of the mills.” (68)

          RESPECTS. The river commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s death. “The bells had pealed so long they’d become the weather, and the horses that had passed—with riders in their saddles or carriages dragged behind them—had been keeping their heads low.  The wharves had been blackened, and also the boats, and there were bolts of black unfurled from the windows in the buildings all up and down my banks. Above the dam, where spring had already set in, the bushes and the birds were somber. The machines, for the most part, had stopped—the ambush of noise from factories.” (70)

          STEAM. A locomotive is described. “At this hour the night seems intoxicated, the tinted lanterns swinging in some late-shift tune and the men passing through the bilious smoke above the tracks—passing through and disappearing. They’ve left on the eyes of the locomotives. They’ve left them breathing there—each so much bigger than a bear, so much blacker than the panther whose footprints are sunk in deep beneath those tracks, whose eyes needed only the moon for ignition. I can no longer tell you where the owls have gone. I can’t explain what a night alone is.” (76) The reader begins to feel the burden put upon the river, that once pure flowing water.

          ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS. Philadelphia had the first zoo in the country but at what cost. “The noise is killing—the hysterical chatter and proximate screams of animals slowly being robbed of their opinion. Last night lightning seared the underbelly of the sky and thunder moved in loud and fast. It would go from dark to a sick, pale green, then flame straight back to nothingness, and all I could think of were the cinnamon bears at the dancing poles, so far from wherever it was that they had come from. Suddenly I knew what is worse than having needs you cannot speak, and that is this: having no faith in being answered.” (78)

          KATHERINE ROWS. The first rowing club, eventually for women too, was formed in Philadelphia. “She favors the idea of the continuous. The continuous glide. The unobstructed move through time. The going on of my own self and soul—strong as a man, she says to me, and fluid as a mother’s song.” (80)
“Pulls the oars through the chokes, fastens the gates, and settles her heart. She plants her feet in the stretchers and oars her way out, her back facing forward. Shoulders to the sky, Katherine. Knees at an angle. Catch and drive and always finish. Feather the blades so you’ll fly. She leaves her hair loose, a dark burst about her face. She lets the breeze into her blouse. She listens to me and what I have to say, and she goes and she goes and she goes.” (81) Again, the author is very effective making the reader feel movement on the river.

 

          SUPPURATING. Historically by the nineteenth into the twentieth century the river is severely polluted. “It is the worst of you sloughed off into me—your refuse and oddments, your savage toxins and dross, your slicks that do not sink, your dirty yeast, your wrong-colored wools and the dyes that wronged them. How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession—the door you close to those parts of your self that you hope no one will see? Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave. Plant me a tombstone.” (89)

          ABIDING. Poetry can forcefully vivify the ugliness as well as the beauty around us. “You wouldn’t call it survival. All that time living with what became my own stench, my insufferable loneliness. All that time, forsaken. You turned your backs on me. You robbed me of my dignity and birdsong, of fat-fisted flowers and azalea springs. Mostly you robbed me of the idea of myself as a river, for what is a river but a conduit between spring and sea, a womb for underwater things, a chance of transcendence, and what did you make of me but a trough of shame, a festering disease you would not cure?  So that even the moon avoided me and my stories went dry as a bone and I was too clotted to see.” (92)

          LOVE. And yet in the twenty-first century there is hope. The return of the otter signifies the beginning of a return of wildlife to the river. “He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, with his dark pelt and his well-groomed ears, the sterling glimmer of his whiskers. He was audacious, bold, spectacularly witty, and when he looked at me he was looking into me, he was knowing my heart and all the places it has been to. He was not afraid of my complicated language, not afraid of my needs, not afraid of all that sinks or floats or ends with me. The bones in me, which are also seeds. The dust of distant life. The stories I carry, the color of my dreams, the weight of my confessions.” (108)

Beth Kephart is a published poet and prose writer; in this book FLOW she has finely balanced her skills. It must have taken much reading and research to immerse herself in the history of the Schuylkill River. By using many poetic devices, especially imagery, she has been able to magically don the persona of the river itself and bring it truly to life.

 You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Times-Philadelphias-Schuylkill-River-ebook/dp/B00ECK9XF2

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

 

 

Someone’s Utopia by Joe Hall

Joe Hall - Someone's Utopia - Cover
By Greg Bem
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to give a heavy falling all things do but I keep time
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will push through the wall where you stand alone on the conveyer line
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of a massive retailer of a baby’s mouth as who looks back on a man’s violent desire
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of milligrams in dosage of poem stop singing
it all   together—through yourself—it can fall
if there’s someone to catch it
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(from “Amnesia, 1997 / Closing the Vents,” pg. 31)
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Someone’s Utopia is a mess of poetry that careens through the sordid faces of history both recent and not-so, across into the present, with unspoken truths lingering on the tip of the tongues of the future. It is deeply chasmic, almost impossible to approach at points, and carries a blankness at once riotous and shackling. It is difficult and with its difficulty, and its commitment, is triumphs as a howl and as a whisper, but nothing tolerably-in-between.

Hall’s trailer-strewn, antiquity-as-proclivity atmosphere returns following in the bloodied, entrenched, mouth-foaming footsteps of his formers Pigafetta Is My Wife and The Devotional Poems. The atmosphere is one of suffocation and distraction in its images of longing that bridge desperation and exasperation. It is an atmosphere that rages with a poetics driven by defensive structures in language, lingual nihilism, and a self-made pathfinding/wayfinding sentiment to grind the reader from one parapet to the next. It is filled with love, and not filled with love, simultaneously:

It is a world, a built environment, a fortress that is founded on history, founded on text found, founded on collage and ekphrasis. For example, some of this fortress of letters harkens at times back to the quasi-colonial-cum-industrial, anti-or-faux-spiritual ridiculousness of Oneida’s John H. Noyes (late 1800s) and his targeted efforts as patriarch and disciple of or for agony. It also includes ekphrastic derivations from Tirzah Miller’s journals, she who is Noyes’s niece, she who was suffering acutely from the utter misogynistic ownership of women by their abusers. It also includes more contemporary though gritty conversational approaches to industrialism and poverty a la a conversation with a one Mary Scire.
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There’s also, most brutally, the transcriptions and echoes of transcription of time Hall spent in manual labor, or documented of (perceivably proximal) peers who did the same. The factories and warehouses and oppressive architecture of the endless machines punches across the page and sputters and flows in tandem.
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My wife stares at the sun. Her scabs turn to birds
Dyed red after red until black.
A opossum tooth is in my fist. In my mind is the man
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Choking on his nephew’s fingernails
After eating the live from his belly.
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(from “Someone’s Utopia: Love as Refusal,” pg. 142)
drain games small moves whorl
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reed bone color can’t say next
move to fiber in the morning planet
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shaves cell seep fill sleep formation
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Ever Ever Ever the unvarying word
itself thunder overrun under
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(from “Amnesia, 2007 / Nightshift, Mandatory Overtime I,” pg. 99)
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Hall’s mastery of giving into form and theme, a practice that arrived much earlier in his story as poet and artist, is seen here. It is a bleak shower of numbness across time, space, and project. Worlds upon worlds collide, requiring information but being deprived it. The rumble and rubble of chaos is protected through its own relentlessness, a Catch-22 of corrosion that entrances, enthralls, and brutalizes.

These texts of what could be late-stage humanity seep with drama, with utterances that can suck us in and whip us dry, as the collision of our inabilities to our necessities, universal and forever, remains striking and paralytic.

Throbbing across the book is the resemblance of love. This love is cloaked in the maddening disorder already stated, but it’s there, there to read, there to seek out, there to latch onto. It is the heart and the guts of the otherwise wretch of rudiments spewing from the covers. Love opens the book with an absurd sequence entitled “Greetings: Play for 2 Voices,” a 9-poem-long first section of the book that reveals attraction, attachment, and obsession amidst the whirrs and sonic ripples:
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[. . .] 1: You can’t

hurt—as a Player at the Keys. 2: Now I want you to do something for me.

I want you to close your eyes. The back of your head is resting
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in someone’s hands. 3: Someone is holding your head, and you rest
like that, like a buoy in waves. Who is it? Who is
holding your head like a buoy folded in faves? [Often a communicating spirit cannot
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(from “Unfoldment,” pg. 11)
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Later on, in “Talk Piece: David” contained within the second section of the book, “$ ∞ / HR,” we encounter discourse between Joe Hall and “David Hall,” (the specific David goes undefined), which reflects bonding, reflects initiation, reflects bondage.

The piece with Scire, “Talk Piece: Mary,” extends this flittering socializing process. Again, the love, the need, the presence, the indefatigable. The book hints at it throughout, and this spattering song balances text while provoking the reader into a cruel sense of hypnotic submission: the perfect situation for the muck and the crack of a nuanced poetics of tear and wrought, tare and rot. “Talk Piece: Mary,” affords the reader with excellence in the grotesque nature of our split affections by mildly erasing (a la the strikethrough) all of the verse in the “piece,” and leaves fully intact a distributed interview with Mary Scire. The effect is uncanny, though resolute, as seen below:

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in mind never to the nearest hold my finger slips eggs foam slow useless to
the nest I know people strokes my hair a man pays heavy with some virus
to eat centipede song thousand legged
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so you see a new basis you still got to do something about it
 
[. . .]
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M: When my parents built their house in Virginia, in Shenandoah Shores, we spent or summers down there working as a group. It was cheap labor. We all worked together to help build that house, from the little kids getting water or stones. [. . .]
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(from “Talk Piece: Mary,” pg. 105)
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Lest not we ignore the fountainhead of love itself, “Someone’s Utopia: Love as a Fountain,” a poem that strikes the reader, barrages them, with the poet’s reflections on enduring connectivity. Despite “the cannery,” despite the alchemical and industrial transformations of life and substance, there is the direction outward, the direction inclusive of bond-making, sharing, collectivity:
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We cut three names into a tree.
And when I burned my wrist in the cannery
So badly it began to bubble,
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You were there with a bucket of cold water.
Among tons of softening apples
You smelled like cinnamon burning.
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(from “Someone’s Utopia: Love as a Fountain,” pg. 129)
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The balance between the creep of chaos and form, between cavern and home, between polarity and proximity: these are Hall’s points and counterpoints, these are the poet’s arrival to disturbance and peace. In an odd, disfigured, brutish way there is harmony following fulcrum, transformation above stasis, and reflection beyond the juxtaposition. There is light between the cracks.

When I think of Joe Hall, I envision the human behind the phalanx of writ, the maestro commanding a presence of stacks of lines of poetry in darkly-lit theaters. This book has etched this image, in conjunction with the former works. It is a crude image, and it is one that supplements a book that needs its keeper, a keeper that needs its book, both illuminated, rhythmically in the dark.

While the stage’s pit coughs up that which is despicable from the world outside, and the floor runs slick with the sweat of the efforts of our sordid and malnourished collective: Someone’s Utopia instills the brittle, angry reactant to a truth we can always try to and never quite fully imagine, never quite realize completely. It is a challenging truth in being partial. It is difficult to accept though there is power in it being a beginning. It is more alive, this book, than not. And some readers might have a hard time accepting the universality within.

You can find the book here: http://www.blackocean.org/catalog1/someonesutopia

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.

The Weight of Bodily Touches by Joseph Zaccardi

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By Don Thompson

This is dark stuff.  The opening poem of Joseph Zaccardi’s new collection, The Weight of Bodily Touches, seems to be offered as a warning so that the tender-hearted might proceed no farther.  In “To Feast on the Flesh of Decay”, a farmer’s wife exhumes the bones of a miscarried baby to “suckle my loss” and then “eats the grave dust under her own nails”.  Some readers of this review will no doubt stop right here.

But I wonder about the source of such darkness.  Usually it’s a kind of posturing that intends to shock for its own sake—a variety of grand guignol.  But in these poems, it’s a genuine and almost compulsive response to the—well, horror that surrounds us.  Zaccardi looks closely at things most of us studiously ignore or see as social issues that provide an opportunity to do good from a distance. In these poems we witness human consciousness barely holding itself together in the face of suffering that just is.  No one to blame.  Not much to be done.

“The Sound the Tree Makes” turns out to be a scream and the answer to Bishop Berkeley’s question that even if no human hears it, the other trees do.  And this is only a tree—perhaps ridiculous if Zaccardi hadn’t given us such a vivid description of the tortures inflicted on logs in a lumber mill. When he focuses on human suffering in “ICU”,  we’re forced to see the awfulness of hospitals that we try to pretend isn’t there among the pastels and smooth jazz: “…a gurney casting chirps down a corridor…while IVs beep and air whistles from tap holes” and “a defibrillator delivers doses of electric current to undo a flatliner”.

In all this, Zaccardi exhibits a craftsman’s skill with the unpunctuated, run-on prose poem.  We are carried long by the ebb and flow of rhythms rather than bogged down in the usual unreadable clot.  This gives the poems tension—an odd exhilaration that runs counter to their grim subject matter.  And he does make an effort to reach some sort of quietness if not peace of mind in the final section, which shifts tone radically to pay homage to classical Chinese poetry.  But it’s too little too late to offset the preceding darkness.

And yet, like the spiders he writes about in “Circle and Alchemy”, his work is both “beautiful and hair-raising”.  Although their webs and our lives are fragile and tear apart easily, we “rebuild because there is so much left.”

You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/the-weight-of-bodily-touches

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

 

 

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

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By Charles Rammelkamp

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

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

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

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

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 You can find the book here: Anthologies — Jamii Publishing

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.
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