north of oxford poetry book review

Soft Targets by Deborah Landau

soft
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Deborah Landau’s new collection continues themes from her previous book, Uses of the Body, which explores the inevitable decline of our physical selves, the body’s vulnerability, its exposure to pain, while celebrating the creative aspects of our beings, the intimate intertwining of pleasure and death. Like that collection, too, there are only eight titles (seven in Uses of the Body), with many of these poems composed of parts which build upon themselves.
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Unlike the previous collection, these poems add an urgency of political turmoil on top of the individual defenselessness/helplessness, the existential equation. The metaphor of the “soft target” recurs throughout. The first title, “when it comes to this fleshed neck,” begins:
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When it comes to this fleshed neck
even a finger could do it
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even a sharp stick,
a blunt blow, a fall –
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my jugular
there’s a soft target
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What an image, the soft exposed throat; you can see the vein throbbing under the thin skin, practically begging for violation. This poem ends with the vision of a suicide bomber on a subway train.  Everybody is vulnerable.
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The next three poems, multi-part suites, focus on Paris (“there were real officers in the streets”), site of so many terrorist attacks; Frankfurt, Germany, as the Holocaust goes into full swing (“those Nazis, they knew what to do with a soft”), and America (“America wants it soft”).  “Existence is killing us,” she writes in the first, with bitter irony.  Paris, the city of love, romance, Eros. “…in Paris we stayed all night / in a seraphic cocktail haze,” she writes, when one may be at her most exposed, least vigilant, not to say at the same time triumphant in her possibilities.
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Tonight we’re the most tender of soft targets,
pulpy with alcohol and all asloth.
Monsieur, can we get a few more?
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A few pages later:
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I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target,
and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs;
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the pervious skin, the softness of the face,
the wrist inners, the hips, the lips, the tongue,
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the global body,
its infinite permutable softnesses…
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And indeed, this section of the poem likewise ends with a vision of a terrorist’s arsenal: “The bad news is Kalashnikov assault rifles / submachine guns, pistols, ammunition….”
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Later in this poem come the lines:
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I rolled over and tried to sleep
thinking mostly of self-preservation,
how it makes everything else irrelevant….
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Keep your wits about you! The next poem is exactly about self-preservation, the author’s Jewish grandmother escaping Nazi Germany at the end of the 1930’s.  The poem begins:
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I don’t know
what’s so neo
about neo-nazis
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they seem a lot
like the old
nazis to me
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“Those Nazis, they knew / what to do with a soft” – those lines that make up the title of the piece – “an adagio of soft”: a slow, orchestrated movement, deliberate. Yet she escapes, “when, how, when would she / get to New York, St. Louis, Detroit?
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(the swiftest bike to bike
a frantic Frankfurt, her wits
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the manifold papers
certified stamped correct)

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And then we come to America wants it soft, which is again the current political moment, when “To be female on coronation night was a difficulty. / Her skin under his thumb was a sickhouse was too much.” This sounds so familiar in the Donald Trump era, doesn’t it? Even before the Alabama and Georgia abortion laws. And again, keep your wits about you! Note the escape routes, be familiar with the exit strategy:

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Keep your passport handy, keep cash

keep water and batteries, collect your meds

and loved ones, just in case,

and silence your phone.

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This poem ends with a sort of elegy for our dying democracy:
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The end of America, no one knew how to manage it

but we tried the typical ways of numbing pain –

my daughter painted tiny flowers on her toenails,

I mixed honey and vodka, squeezing in a lime,

and we carried on with our breathing –

my father was still alive, my body kept aging,

the pills helped a little, not a lot.
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The final poems are no less powerful, contemplating the responsibility of giving birth to a child in these times, a daughter no less, while celebrating the creative act (“Such a reckless act, to pop out a human, / with the jaws of the world set to kill.”); and contemplating, too, the sheer inevitability of death, no matter how we try to forestall or circumvent it.
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I’ll antioxidize as best I can
bat away death with berries and flax
but there’s no surviving
this slick merciless world
a bucket of guts we’ll be
full-blown dead
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Deborah Landau’s subtle, mordant wit is evident throughout these passages, as is her lyrical skill with words and sounds (“alcohol and all asloth”; “wrist inners, the hips, the lips”; “the swiftest bike to bike / a frantic Frankfurt, her wits” to cite a few examples).  Soft Targets is relevant and gorgeous at the same time.
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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. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –

http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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Intersection on Neptune by Donna J. Gelagotis Lee

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By g emil reutter
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In this time when many in the United States have forgotten their lineage, of how they came to be in the United States, along comes Donna J. Gelagotis Lee to remind everyone of the immigrant experience, of native born children who have lived lives that those who came here hoped for. Intersection on Neptune brings us into the urban layering of Brooklyn, of family, of Coney Island, to family life and as she writes in the title poem, the country’ pivot point. In the second section the reader is transported New Jersey, the burbs, farms, and shore, of Seaside, of pastures, horses and trails even of a man making deliveries of eggs. Gelagotis Lee brings us into the rest stops, ballgames, writes of the pay phone and a homage to Trenton. She has had a lifelong love affair with Brooklyn and New Jersey. Her poems are blunt and truthful such as this in the second stanza of From a Rooftop in Brooklyn:
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Today, a sea of brick
buildings combs
the grey air,
green parks pushing them
aside, schools still
straining to meet
the goals of a touchdown
democracy. Silver birds
cluster like butterfilies
as they eagle-sweep over the
land they know, past faceless
windows, a country
below.
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So in the midst of grey air, brick, faceless windows she gives us hope, Silver birds cluster like butterflies.
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These poems by Gelagotis Lee read as a documentary of the American experience with love, family, of the difficult times, the good times. She captures the urban, suburban and rural experience in poems that will stay with you long after the read. Intersection on Neptune reminds us of from where we came, that the United States is a place that new arrivals can accomplish much, it is not an easy ride here, but you can make it.
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I end with the title poem that captures so much.
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Intersection on Neptune
               –Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn
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The sea smell rushes
in on a sudden breeze, like
that vehicle that veers into the space
just as someone pulls out. Older
couples, hearty Jamaicans,
Yiddish accents: land of Immigrants;
watch them claim it—
Chinese, Russians, ladies with thick
jewelry, men with yarmulkes;
the elderly line up at the strip
mall to trade stories, their props
canes and old-world hats. Yellow
lights let you cross only to the island.
Sirens interrupt talk. The sea breeze inter-
venes. The walk to the boardwalk is short.
But here, at this intersection, we
Have gathered, where the city turns.
And we find a parking space,
Crowded, a little tight, but afterwards
it’s enough; we all fit.
We smell the sea, the kosher bakery.
Our house is a high-rise
Our horizon, the Verrazano and the Empire
State. We’re on the finger
of New York City –the end
of the subway line, or the beginning—
the city starts and ends here,
on the country’s pivot point.

Birnam Wood/ El Bosque De Birnam by Jose Manuel Cardona – Translated by Hélène Cardona

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By Mark Eisner

This book is a forest of love, the richness grown from the shared familiar roots in the fertile Spanish soil of poetry, then spread around the world.

This remarkable forest is a trove of love, grown from shared roots, originating in the fertile Spanish tierra de poesia. The love of a daughter translating her father’s words for all eternity, published just at his death. A renaissance man, and his daughter, a renaissance woman, all of their wonders, all of their life, all of their art now fused together even more through the act of translation. Both have placed their lives in the service of poetry, and it shows. José Manuel’s poetry is informed by the generation in Spain just before him –– Lorca, Machado, it’s evident in the flavors he evokes –– but he takes the baton to create his own voice, inspiring and insightful voice, propelling yet grounding, salted by his experience in political exile.

Above all, “Ode to a Young Mariner” moved me the most, its qualities emblematic of what makes this book work so well. The poem dedicated to the poet’s brother, who at the same time is the translator’s uncle –– movingly and convincingly so that it rowed my heart with warm, resonating, lingering strokes: the endearment and respect for a sibling, the duty as a mariner like the duty as a poet, the reverence that roots this family, the love that lights the words, the woods of this book.

And what a treat for those who don’t read Spanish to be able to have this collection of this truly special poet’s work finally available, accessible for their easy enrichment.

You can find the book here: https://amzn.to/2w8e5kV

Mark Eisner has spent most of the past two decades working on creative works related to Pablo Neruda. They include Neruda: The Biography of a Poet (Ecco, 2018), a finalist for the PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography. He also edited and was one of the principal translators for The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (City Lights, 2004) and is currently producing a documentary film on the poet. A bilingual anthology of Latin American Poetry in Resistance Eisner co-edited is forthcoming  in 2020. More info at www.markeisner.net.

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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My first impression, reading Tishani Doshi’s poems, is what a charming, arch, witty, mischievous writer she is. The imagery can be so violent, so alarming, so depressing, but something about the expression makes you want to snicker.  Take the poem, “Everyone Loves a Dead Girl.” The very title makes you pause.  “Even those people who do nothing,” she writes,
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but make love in the grass all day long. Benevolent people.
Their hearts leap when they hear a story of a dead girl,
and when they tell it to someone (how could they not?)
the telling is a kind of nourishing – all the dormant bits
inside them charge around like Bolshoi dancers re-entering
the world alive, and with wonder.
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Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but giggle a little at the Bolshoi dancers.
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A survey of some of the titles in Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods bolsters my claim. Forget the title poem, there’s also “Ode to Patrick Swayze,” “To My First White Hairs,” “Your Body Language Is Not Indian! or Where I Am Snubbed at a Cocktail Party by a Bharatnatyam Dancer,” “Meeting Elizabeth Bishop in Madras,” and “The View from Inside My Coffin,” to cite only a handful. Doshi is so urbane, so clever, so droll.
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And so educated. The poems sing with references to artists, writers, science and culture. “Jungian Postcard,” for example, is written as if writing a tourist card to the great founder of analytic psychology; she takes on the star-struck tone of someone on vacation.
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Dear Carl, the days here are impossible:
all silence, and the sea. Yesterday we saw
the horizon unstitch itself from the sky
so delicately, and further down the beach,
two stray dogs materialized like lost souls
from a genie’s lamp. I just had to cry.
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Several poems are prefaced with epigraphs from poets like Dean Young, Wole Soyinka  and Wislaw Szymborska. There are Golden Shovels, a form invented by Terrence Hayes, including one called “The Leather of Love,” which is after John Berger, the English poet and art critic.
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“Love in the Time of Autolysis” plays on one of Doshi’s favorite themes, the decay of the  body.  The poem begins so charmingly as a promise to a lover, reminiscent of the Metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell:
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When you die, Love, I will leave you out
like a Zoroastrian, listen to the hiss
of oxygen withdraw, watch your blood
pool and glister…
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…as your body morphs from man to farm. / It will almost kill me to see the swarms / of blowflies….”  Gross … but funny!
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A native Indian, Doshi lives in Tamil Nadu, India, and her poetry is lush with the atmosphere of the subcontinent. “Summer in Madras,” “Monsoon Poem” (“Let me tell you how little / is written of mud, how it sneaks up / like a sleek-gilled vandal to catch hold / of your ankles.”), “Calcutta Canzone,” “Coastal Life” (“All night the electricity surges and stops, / smothering wires  and fuses, while lizards / plop.”): the poems are artful travelogues in themselves while plundering Doshi’s deeper themes of lust and decay.
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And speaking of travelogues, a number of Doshi’s poems are set in various exotic locations around the world. “The Women of the Shin Yang Park Sauna, Gwangju,” for instance is an amusing poem about sitting in a public bath with strangers who speak a different language. “Hello, I’m naked, the bubble above my head /says, translated into Korean for their benefit.” “Encounters with a Swedish Burglar” is a fantasy of a break-in during “the unbearable brightness of 3 a.m.” (“I think I scared you more – an apparition / in a white nightgown, bolted upright in bed / like that kid from The Exorcist.”). “Understanding My Fate in a Mexican Museum” begins “I met my past and future selves in a museum in Mexico.” She addresses these selves: “In time, // dear past and future selves – in time
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we will resolve our joint concerns. Just leave me
for a moment with these Aztec gods to listen
at the crossroads. I may never hold creation in my skin
but I will always dream it.
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Dreams are a recurring leitmotif, and a number of poems allude to the vulnerability of women in the world. The poem “Disco Biscuits” highlights both of these elements. The poem begins:
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We were talking about the subject of Quaaludes,
of which I know nothing except back in the 70’s,
when I was being born, Bill Cosby slipped them
to a bunch of women.
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She goes on, “most of us have known a man / who arrived like Bill – sleek and proud as a July thunderstorm.”  The memory always comes back, like a dream. “And how it works is a kind of time-warp / that bitch-slaps you when you’re at your innocent best…and suddenly, kablam, I’m seventeen, and everyone has / something to hide…” The poem concludes:
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All our old selves are parading the beach, whispering how
there should be a museum for this kind of installation.
They’re crushing bits of nostalgia in their heels. They grow
photophobic and bendy. They splinter. They shirr.
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Doshi’s skill with rhyme, internal and end-rhymes, is apparent from the foregoing excerpts, graceful as dance (she danced with the Chandralekha troupe for fifteen years). From “The Day Night Died”:
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Stars exposed themselves like pervs.
Forests under duress released
nyctohylophobia from their nerves.
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Tishani Doshi’s poetry is a delight to read. Do yourself a favor.
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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. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –
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The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong

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A Desire for Wholeness, the Wholeness of Desire: The World Began with Yes by Erica Jong
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by Larissa Shmailo
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In the nineteenth century, literary women who made their sexual desires known died gruesome deaths, such as the arsenic anguish of Emma Bovary and the decapitation by bourgeois rail of Anna Karenina. In Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s second-wave feminist classic of sexual liberation, Isadora Wing gets away with sexual exploration with her body and soul intact, one of the first major heroines to do so. However, twenty-first century #metoo messages confirm that female sexuality remains a place fraught with danger and a rising tide of antiabortion laws warn that women’s bodies are still not their own. Safe physical desire is still an intellectual and grey-shaded literary exercise, and Jong’s fantasy of the “zipless fuck” with no deleterious sequelae is still mostly fantasy:
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The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving”. No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.
— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
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Jong goes on to explain that it is “zipless” because “when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well.” Perhaps because as real men often can’t hear a woman’s no, they may also be unable to hear her yes. Jong ensures that they will with The World Began with Yes.
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Like Isadora Wing, we search for wholeness – physical, intellectual, sexual, and spiritual. And with Jong, we demand a place in the world for our bodies, free and unfettered, alive and abounding in zipless pleasure. The World Began with Yes guides that search, and frequently and successfully finds that happy terra firma where a woman may be whole, body and soul. Like the Rumi of the book’s epigraph, Jong’s poems are sensual and simple, philosophical and drunk with life. They eagerly and ebulliently engage the other. With no little joy, we find that here the zipless fuck has evolved: we can know the object of our desire and be known, have our lust and eat it, too, and from that dialectic, create an interdependent synthesis, a greater us:
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It was always yes,
come in, welcome, eat me
merge with me, love,
let’s join to make another
little bubble of us
who will seem like us combined
but turn out to be another.
— “The World Began with Yes.”
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The 77-year-old Jong sings a joie de vivre absent in the depressing muses of younger poets. Her themes are from an existence that is both every day and sacred, personal and universal. Grandchildren and goddesses cohabitate. The main thrust of all the poems is a dervishing passion, an elemental dance of mysticism incarnate:
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If we could imagine
beyond our body’s
borders,
we would remember
our connection
to the sea —
how we join
molecule to molecule
in the rush
to be together. …
—“One”
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To bring her happy news home (she rejects the televised type), Jong employs wonderful sound values: assonances, consonances, internal and end rhymes. Elegantly arrayed, these emphasize the sensuality of the “Yes” poems and their celebration of the “fierce force of life.” Insistently of the body, the poems banish shame and guilt.:
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We are made

to break each

other’s boundaries &

save each other’s
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skin

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for sin

does not exist

unless you insist

on death.
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—“Spanking”
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Connection, physical connection is the path to the soul and disembodied phantoms may type, but do not love:
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What is a Facebook friend?

Without smell, without taste,

Without smile, without guile.

Is a Friend a friend?

—“Facebook Friend”
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True to her avocation as writer, language, that physical portal of the psyche, that spiritual touch, is a leit motif in the Yes collection. Like Rumi, Jong has drunk the wine of her poetry:
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Poetry is
the most important
meal of the day,
without which
we sicken,
we starve.

—“Your Eggs”
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And
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Language

is more than a garment.

It is the poet’s skin.

It is hair.

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It is flesh.

It is us:

—“Emily Dickinson: A New Daguerreotype”

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Poetry is truly for Jong “the Word made flesh,” a tactile and universal transubstantiation; Jong concludes in “Writing Poetry,” “we r all / writing / one poem.” And as William Carlos Williams had it, you may indeed die miserably spiritually and sensually for want of what is found there.
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In The World Began with Yes, it is as though Jong is trying to physically touch us with her words, to wake us, hug us, spank us. The Yes poems go mano a mano, toe to toe, skin to skin with their readers and are a right continuation of Jong’s mission to free the female body, to claim the full rights of our physicality, to endow us with the zipless joy of communion, union, sex. There is a transcendence beyond the fears of #metoo and the defiant waves of feminism, a hope for a joyous and liberating us. If we are to fight, then we are to remember what we fight for, the rush of dandelions, the effortless fall of rose petals, the knowledge of ourselves and the other as we dance the poet’s Sufi dance.
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Larissa Shmailo is a poet, novelist, translator, editor, and critic. Her new novel is Sly Bang (Spuyten Duyvil). She is the author of three collections of poetry and is the original English-language translator of the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun.

http://www.larissashmailo.com/

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The Salty River Bleeds by Stephen Page

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By g emil reutter
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Stephen Page provides the reader a look into an unfamiliar life in this fictional account of life on the ranch. He tells us in The Legend of Wood:
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We all have our stories to tell.
The weak and the strong, the rich
And the poor, the old and the young.
Which story do you have to tell, and
From which point-of-view do you wish to person?
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Page has a poetic story to tell. He captures the beauty of nature, violence of the ranch, love of a spouse and of course his muse. These beautiful images are from the first two stanzas of this poem:
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Muse in Different Forms:
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I see you walking through Wood,
though your image is ephemeral:
yellow eyes and blood-blonde hair,
linen robe and leather sandals dissolve
as I enter the tree line then solve as suns.
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One day as Teresa and I drive through
Santa Ana’s gates, we see Old Man
shimmering upon the dirt road wearing
a tattered coat, and as we approach him
his unshaven face and he disappear.
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Here we have the beautiful muse, ephemeral, linen robe and dissolving leather sandals, of the old man shimmering upon the dirt road. Simply beautiful writing.
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In the poem Fauna he captures the beauty of nature in the third and fifth stanza with fresh images of rosemary, sough of Delphi’s cloud, bumblebee with red clover tongue and Artemis with sunburnt face and parched lips:
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Rosemary outside my matera window
Scents the sough of Delphi’s cloud
Buzzed northerly by the bumblebee
Brandishing his long red clover tongue.
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And never touching barefoot Delos
Artemis leaned over fresh cut grass
With sunburnt face and parchment lips.
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Page does not shy away from the violence of the ranch as in the excerpt from Cattle Rustler:
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In the shade of the trees next to the chute
you glared at us and unsheathed
your silver facón and sharpened it,
then shaved a calf’s hindquarter
looking for the brand
you knew was not there.
You were calm and meticulous in your shaving
but when Notary whispered to Advisor
that that calf and the other ten
were much fatter than the other calves on the ranch
you jerked your hand,
slicing the calf’s flank, cutting off
any denial.
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He captures the calmness of the shade tree coupled with impending violence of the silver facón, the cutting of the meat of the innocent in a calm and meticulous manner. Yet, here it is without any denial. He returns to nature in the first stanza of the poem, Satellites:
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The tree frogs called the rain last night,
but the rain did not answer.
The intermittent croaking, about
every hour or so, was followed by
a gust of wind and the scent
of water, but no sprinkle, no pour.
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The image of tree frogs calling the rain is not one we think of often, but a rancher might. Yet there was no rain, just a gust of wind and scent of water. Hope for rejuvenation.
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In this collection, Page captures ranch life and the woodlands that surround the ranch. In the midst of nature, man’s violence, of rustlers, tattler’s, of gaucho’s he writes of the queen of his kingdom in this beautiful poem:
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Teresa: Translator
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You are the translator of my day.
I fall into your graphite eyes
When we transmute,
I find your hands
The hands of a maker:
Soft and crafting.
I want to caress the curve
Of your lip,
Speak to your breasts.
Become my left ear
And I shall remain my right—
Where we meet we will middle.
The spider feasts
In the web of my thoughts,
And pastures modern
The corners of your culture—
Remove the weeds
Of your socialization.
Idiom me,
Invite me into the woods of your words,
Seat me at your banquet table.
You are the coffee of my mornings,
The mate of my afternoons.
Why do you hide your syllables
Under your tongue?
Don’t you ever question
The power of words,
The meaning of sleep?
Yes, I know you do,
In nightmares—
And in this I second your revival.
The grass grows at night,
And in the heat of mosquitoes,
So let the windflowers grow.
Language me inside Wood,
Ranch me where the city
Has not yet encroached.
Marsh me where the ranch cannot reach.
You are the queen of my kingdom,
That I have so temporally created.
You are the singer of my verse.
Interpret my dreams.
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The Salty River Bleeds is a collection of poetry built in harsh realism, myth, nature and love. Page is a master of his surroundings as he is a rancher. His powerful use of images blended with the reality of ranch life marinates throughout the collection. Get the book, you will be better for it.
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g emil reutter is a writer of stories and poems. His latest release is: Stale Bread and Coffee

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