north of oxford

Sojourners of the In-Between By Gregory Djanikian

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By Frank Wilson
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The opening lines of “Even During the Slightest Changes,” Gregory Djanikian’s poem in memory of James Tate, could well serve as an epigraph for this latest collection of  Djanikian’s poems:
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Everything is in flux, Heraclitus said,
and I believe him with my ragged heart.
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Heraclitus also said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  Djanikian seems to have taken this to his ragged heart as well, even wondering who that man is now. As he puts it at the end of “Loose Ends”:
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Someone, come knock on my door.
Let’s see who’s inside.
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He’s already confronted this question in “Nostalgia,” the poem that precedes “Loose Ends,” when he thinks “if I had a photograph of every second / of the life I’ve already lived / I might feel bedraggled by it. // Or maybe not, maybe I’d pore over every snapshot, nuance, every shade of gray …”
Like all of us who reach three score and ten and beyond, he is supremely aware of time passing and past, with the future growing ever foreshortened — “the past / coursing into the present, the then / and the there / into the here I am.”Again and again the words hand and touch figure decisively:  “Therefore,” the first in  suite of poems titled  “Uneven Dozen,” begins:
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The hand at the end of my arm,
how far away it feels
from what I think I am.
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But another poem in the suite, “Without Saying,” concludes thus:
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Little magical hand
I am attached to,
waving in the rain.
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Then, on the facing page, in “Reconstitutions, Dispersions,” the speaker tells us “I smell the earth in a handful of earth,/ touch the atoms I might one day be colluding with.”In “Therefore” the speaker’s hand is somehow detached from the speaker’s self, the same self that feels attached to the hand that seems magical in “Without Saying,” the self that may amount one day to a handful of dust.
This is quite a step away from “Sometimes”:
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… what is it about holding the hand
         of your best girl and feeling at 14
     nothing of the past or future
just the desire of a boy
              who’s lost all his marbles
somewhere between a touch and a kiss?
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“Body to Body,” a couple of pages after “Sometimes,” concludes with a reference to “the sufficient touch / of the touch.”
Lest you think this is all morose brooding on mortality and possible oblivion, rest assured there’s more than that to be found here. Take “Beauty,” for instance:
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Sometimes it’s almost nothing at all,
a long whistle in the distance,
a startle of new rain,
a woman’s delicate hand appearing
in a window, then disappearing
before any implication. 
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There’s also  “Poem With Clouds.” The speaker’s wife “mentioned in passing / that what they were really feeling / each time they kissed /were her electrons, his electrons, /repulsing each other without touching.”
So the speaker starts kissing everything — tree bark, cat’s fur, piano keys:
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He wanted to see why one cloud
of electrons was mystifyingly different
from another, why he could distinguish
just by kissing, a potato from a peach pit.
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“After a while, his lips grew inflamed … // One day, a tree fell and he heard it. /Then, he kicked at a rock and it hurt.” And so …
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He went back to his wife
and gave her a kiss everywhere.
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And then there is Djanikian’s mother. This wondrous lady has made appearances in Djanikian’s other collections, always stealing the show. She makes two appearances here. “My 90-Year-Old Mother Would Be an Alpinist” tells of her “climbing my high porch stairs /pulling herself up by the railing.” With each step she calls out the name of a famous mountain peak:
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“Jungfrau,” she says, without stopping
to take a rest, “Kilimanjaro.”
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He tells us “I’ve offered her my arm / but she loves saying the name / of each difficult mountain….”
She has transfigured a chore into an adventure and more:
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Here, too, where steepness is a stairway
leading only to my front door,
every breath is hard won and holy,
Every step, a kind of prayer.
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“My Mother Considers Her Death During Cocktail Hour” wastes no time making plain her viewpoint: “It will be a sleep without dreams, she thinks.” Either that, “Or someone ushering her into a plush limo. … though she’d like the limo / to carry a full bar.”
It is, in fact, cocktail time, and “she’s after a dollop of bourbon.” A toast is raised:
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… here’s to the sheer improbability
of being where we are, making
a small place in the world
where a history of our loves and losses
shapes us into who we are.
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The tone of these poems varies a good deal, sometimes humorous, at other times almost testy, unavoidable sadness redeemed by tenderness.
But let us give the canny Mrs. Djanikian the final word:
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“Here’s to forgetfulness, too,” she says,
turning on the lights, “give me an absence
that stays absent without any trouble.”

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Subtitled A Biography-in-Poems, Juditha Dowd’s insightful collection concentrates on the famous naturalist’s wife, Lucy Bakewell, showing us the incredible hardships both she and her husband endured. While some of the poems are in John James’ voice, most are from Lucy’s perspective, in the form of diary entries and letters as well as lyrics that reveal her mind. Audobon himself lived to the age of 65, dying in 1851 after suffering a stroke several years earlier and slipping into dementia, and Lucy survived another couple of decades after him, but the arc of these poems covers the twenty-five years from their meeting, in 1804, to their departure for England in 1829, when Audubon’s success was just at its start.
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When they meet in their rural eastern Pennsylvania community near the Schuylkill River, Audubon is only nineteen years old, Lucy seventeen. Born into a wealthy English family that were friends with the distinguished Priestly and Darwin families, Lucy Bakewell had come to America only two years before. John James Audubon, whose ancestry was a bit less genteel, had a French background, via San Domingue (Haiti).  The second poem, an 1804 letter to her cousin Euphemia, concludes with a decorous allusion to their growing mutual affection.
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As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised
to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.
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Lucy affectionately refers to John James as “La Forest,” suggesting his love of the outdoors, his vigorous nature. He’s a lively young man who charms her mother and her younger siblings with his swaggering liveliness. As Lucy says in another letter to her cousin, “Mr. A. is fond of dancing. He treats us to his fiddle
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or accompanies me on pianoforte, and he’s taught us all
some charming French chansons.
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For this reason, Lucy’s father is skeptical of him, but for better or worse, they marry three years later.  Soon after, they head west, into the frontier.  Dowd likens John James to Papageno, the comic character in Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, at once playful and wise“To tell you all this truth in simple words,” Papageno famously says, “I make my living catching birds.”  
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While his primary drive is always collecting specimens and drawing them in detail, for the next ten years, Audubon makes a brave effort to support his family through various business ventures. He and Lucy have four children, though two of them, Lucy and Rose, die in infancy. In Kentucky, he goes into business with his brother-in-law running supply stores, a sawmill, but they lose everything in the Panic of 1819.  In a poem set around three years earlier, “Audubon at the Window,” Dowd shows us John James musing to himself:
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I do not dissemble when I say that I’m a happy man,
though something weak within me says I’m not.
Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,
and ice has skimmed the creek beyond that stand of holly.
I cannot see it, for I’m here amid the bales and boxes,
flour bins and raisins, and the woolen socks,
hoes and skillets, twine and carriage straps,
the cabinet where we keep the guns and shot.
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I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,
while something in me sighs that I am not.
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Oy, what poet or painter hasn’t felt the same, toiling away at his or her clerical job, or serving customers in a store or restaurant?  But after the business failure, John James devotes himself to his passion, first at the Western Museum in Cincinnati, then in New Orleans and eventually Europe. These next ten years are tough ones and put a real strain on the marriage. Lucy and her husband spend years apart while he is in Scotland and England trying to get his work published.  Except for fleeting journal entries and occasional desperate letters to Lucy, we do not enter Audubon’s thoughts as much as we do Lucy’s, on whom the burden of supporting the family falls. She becomes a teacher at a plantation in Louisiana for an imperious Southern family and then later sets up teaching on her own. Correspondence between husband and wife is intermittent and overlapping.  Poems like “I Put Aside Pride” indicate the humiliations Lucy endures for her husband’s sake, just as in an earlier episode, when the family’s finances are falling apart in Kentucky, in a poem called “I Remind Myself about Gossip,” she reflects: “What wife escapes a husband’s reputation?”
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The sequence ends on a happy note with their reunion in Louisiana after years apart, but more tragedies, as well as triumph, fame and financial success, will follow over the next 40 years. Dowd includes  all of this information in a Preface, an Afterword and a Timeline, but the essential drama in Audubon’s Sparrow focuses on the sacrifices of the early years and the love that sustains them.
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Audubon’s Sparrow – the title refers to the swamp sparrow Audubon had inscribed with Lucy’s name in The Birds of America – is satisfying on so many levels, for its lyricism, the love story, the history, the sense of life in early nineteenth century America. The book also includes five illustrations from Audubon’s work, including hawks, a downy woodpecker, the mocking bird, and not least, that swamp sparrow.
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You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/

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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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The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka

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By Greg Bem

But at some point, I stop dancing
and start poking meat.

At some point, I stop wondering
and start looking.

(from “High Tea,” page 47)

Kim Vodicka’s third book, The Elvis Machine, is the follow-up to 2018’s rambunctious Psychic Privates. It contains an explosion and a resulting silence—a collection of poems worth feeling uncomfortable by only to slowly be empowered by moments later. Featuring a myriad of ecstatic tones, collages of images and ideas that wander through and between each poem, The Elvis Machine is a collection of intensely beautiful feminist poetry that ruptures and coats. It is a book that takes up time and does not give it back: each poem features narratives with a sense of the imperative—these are Vodicka’s speakers’ moments, at once intimate and relentless.

I wrote a note near the beginning of the book that describes a cursory understanding of how the poetry is working in The Elvis Machine: “balance between delicate and chaotic—juxtaposed.” On one hand, Vodicka reaches a totality that blends between these qualities. But that’s also a superficial way of describing her work. There is much more going on from moment to moment, from poem to poem. The poems’ speakers, which tend to feel both similar and distant from one another, contribute to the collective; The Elvis Machine embodies a choral quality, and with it comes empathy and a sense of reflective endurance.

The rage of the wounded feminine lifts me.

I vow to be a famous mass murderess.

I vow to let you clean up the carnage.

I vow to grasp without ever even reaching.

I vow to wear wicked withc shoes for the rest of my days.

(from “Blue Flowers (Reprise),” page 61)

What is being endured? Systemic misogyny, for one. These poems contain a lot of love, but that love is persistent across time and space of pure, awful agony and difficulty. Plights and oppressions galore await the casual or intentional reader of Vodicka’s works. These bounds never sit still in their horror, their trauma, and any of the bravery behind the confessions. Many of these poems contain language that disturbs, sickens, and twists the guts into a rigidity or spasm. It is the type of work that could force one reader to shake their head in disbelief and another reader to throw up their lunch. Because Vodicka does not hold back.

But she isn’t only out to provide the grotesque. Much of the highlighting concerns active, dynamic sexuality that arouses. The stimulation edges the reader along, maintaining concentration, deepening satisfaction. As rhetoric, as pedagogy, Vodicka’s work is an alignment emphasized by viscera and an ultra-realism. It is this visceral work that produces lingering effects, effects of insight and inspiration. Readers of Vodicka’s previous books will know these feelings well—The Elvis Machine is further refinement of techniques perfected in earlier works.

But I will fight to the death
to retain my sensitivity.

Which means I’ll die of love.

Eaten alive by those who say right
but mean wrong.

(from “Babalon Fantasy,” page 114)

Despite the work being “ultra-real,” some readers may relate and feel the resulting elements of survival contained within. That chorus calling for new minds and voices within the readership. The stories, while holding that imperative, are much more than a series of urgent “calls to arms.” They are also uniquely positioned as vignettes that illustrate a fluidity concerning sexuality and relationships. Vodicka’s speakers blend in their own form of identity collage. This is a unique collective of humanity that, while at its core resembling a distinct feminine energy, contains many folks with many identities. That fluidity moves through gender, moves through sexuality and sexual orientation, and is wonderfully queer. The risks that are taken here, in what sometimes comes off as a freefall or dance between each poem, are immense. But Vodicka’s poetry satisfies that immensity with humor, ironic crassness, and a profound attraction toward the guttural. Some of the most complex differences between humans end up being solved with our shared ability to laugh, mate, orgasm, and produce bodily substances.

What The Elvis Machine reflects is a commitment to exploring the self of selves. Vodicka’s work is an ongoing epic meta-narrative that fits well into an era of distraction and hyper-consumption. I believe it carries a poetics that embraces technology and emerged senses of knowing with unsolved, systemic issues faced by women for millennia. I believe it also connects to the issues faced by trans, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming folks as well.

Cuz the moon is a rogue,
and the muse I on repeat,
and my gaze has been thusly affected.

Respectable receptable, man-infested.

Kingly queen with delusions of infamy.

(from “Milk PTSD,” page 41)

Vodicka’s poems are not solely concerned with solving those issues but rather, like the trickster hero(ine), concerned with pointing them out and doing so in a powerful, incessant, and beautiful way. The language is as crisp as a lake’s edge, as rigid as daggers, and it sweetens the world like a brief lick of blood. It is poetry capable of challenging and chiseling. It calls and it crumbles. And it knows what it is capable of from cover to cover, allowing risk to manifest as subtle, tense experimentation.

Whether readers have a history with feminism or have never heard the word, whether they have read feminist poetry or have never imagined they could, The Elvis Machine is a great place to start. And with as many doors as it shuts in its forceful, chaotic elegance, it opens just as many for us to depart, screaming all along, only to sit still, rest, grow, and sigh empathetically. Vodicka has once again, through effort that bridges gaps between chaos and delicacy, between formalities and madness, crafted a gift of a collection that will educate, will infatuate, and will salivate the gentle reader’s understanding of, and belonging to poetry.

You can find the book here: https://www.clashbooks.com/new-products-2/kim-vodicka-the-elvis-machine

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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Refuse by Julian Randall

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By Lynette G. Esposito

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In Refuse published by the University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, Julian Randall, as many poets do, explores the tortured vision of the self as he makes his way through an unsettled world exposing biases and rules which a person attempts to fit into.  In the eighty-five pages of introspective and sometimes raw poetry, themes of self- examination; sorrow and parental connections are presented in various lengths and forms.
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In his poem, Elegy for the Winter After Taina was Cancelled on page thirteen, he uses images of photographs, even if they aren’t real, to depict his relationship to his mother, her skin color and children at play.
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                         In the photograph     which never existed
                         I am roughly 7
                         on a block somewhere
                         near Michigan Ave.
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                                                                           It is worth noting
                                                                           that even in the photographs
                                                                          I look exactly like my mother                                                                        
                                                                         except for the skin
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Randall adjusts the form of the poem to represent what is there and not there using indentations and spacings in a suggestive way to fit his narrative and skillfully presents a time and place where things are connected and disconnected at the same.  He speaks of the white children playing Bestial with joy.  It is a complicated poem open to many interpretations but has a light touch in tone, situation and place.
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In his poem On the Night I Fear Coming Out to My Parents on page forty-one, Randall weighs the pros and cons of his parental reactions.  He not only has concern for himself but also for the ones he cares about.  It is a one-stanza prose poem concerning self- reflection.
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                        I am afraid of something I am and have never named.  My tongue
                       is a refuge for secrets. How does one fear banishment if they were
                       born in exile?
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The poem succeeds in posing outcomes of unmasking yourself and its consequences.  It also shows Randall’s skill in writing a variety of poetic forms.
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On page seventy-five, Randall presents a Tanka for the 4th of July. Again, Randall shows his skillful poetic control and raw commentary. He gives this poem time and place independent of the holiday mentioned in the title. The narrator is not explicit in meaning but the tone suggests a resiliency of the narrator on a day that celebrates freedom.
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                                         I will spend the day
                                         surviving which is the most
                                         un-American
                                         use of my body since I
                                         spat loose a bullet and laughed.
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This tome is not for everyone.  The poem’s subjects can be raw and direct.  I like the book because of the sincere clarity of the narrator’s voice that shows both vulnerability and strength in being. Randall is a talented writer with a broad range.
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The book is available from www.upress.pitt.edu

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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The Minor Virtues by Lynn Levin

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By Maggie Paul

A sharp intellect coupled with compassion contributes to the wry yet tender tone of The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky Press, 2020), the fifth collection by poet, translator, and author, Lynn Levin. Levin’s new collection contains a trove of poems that courageously traverse a wide range of subjects including, the seduction of a drug that removes a patient’s fear of death, a criminal finally turning himself in “for a bed and some chow,” and the practicality of habits (organizing, offering small kindnesses to strangers) that structure our days. An alchemy of ordinary gestures, pieces of memory, and echoes of a pre-digital world rise up in poem after poem to reveal who we really are, what we value, and ultimately, what we call our lives. In Levin’s world, form and meaning are intertwined. There is nothing trite in the execution of these poems.

Levin’s work incorporates traditional form and word play to great effect. She is adept at rondels, villanelles, ballads, lyrics and narratives. Her use of end-rhyme, off-rhyme, and internal rhyme is delightfully embedded in the music of the line. Yet these techniques are so skillfully handled, they do not obscure the edgy subject matter and multiple layers of meaning in each poem; rather, they enhance it. In this poet’s hands, form and meter are not constrictive containers, but vehicles barely visible carrying the reader to surprising and evocative ends.

When addressing the challenges of living in the virtual world of cell phones, online dating, and social media, Levin, with a unique un-pedantic approach, explores how 21st century devices alter the nature of relationship – both with one’s self and others. To do so, she calls upon such predecessors as Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman, as in “Song of My Cell Phone,” a play on Whitman’s “Song of My Self.” Here the narrator proclaims, “I sing the life electronic,” and invites the reader to enter into the poem with echoes of Ginsburg’s “Howl:”  “I saw the best minds of my generation,/clunking into buildings and strolling into traffic….” Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry” provides the impetus for Levin’s “Sex:” “I too, dislike it,” as the poem proceeds to explore the primal yearning of the body and ultimately turns to conclude, as Moore did regarding the art of poetry, that the value of sex is ineffable.

Some of the poems elegize aspects of a former time. In “Writing in Longhand,” the narrator, after “decluttering” Maria Kondo-style, discovers hand-written letters she’d not looked at in years: “And there I found my old friends alive/in their script.” It is not just finding the letters that moves the narrator to fondly recall the old art of letter writing, but the way the cursive style of each friend reveals their personality: “Exuberant Nancy/with her flourishes and bubble-dotted i’s./Tammy, her cursive half-sized/as if the soul witheld.” Emails and texts notoriously exclude the unique individuality of their correspondents. One must sometimes guess at tone and meaning, and therein we find a loss.

One sign of a strong collection is the desire to turn to it again and again. Successive readings of The Minor Virtues yields more than the number of pages in the book. The poems never fail to re-open, like water lilies known to open at day and close at night. The undeniable magic of multiple meanings and witty conceits occurs without clutter or fluff. Each poem delivers; the possibilities are laid plain.

Among the most moving poems in this collection are those in which the narrator addresses and examines the self, both specific and general, from a philosophical if not existential point of view. The Lilith poems are a carry over from Levin’s previous books. In The Minor Virtues, the Lilith poems continue to mythologize the experiences of a female persona. These poems address the power dynamic between men and women as in “Lilith and Adam,” the writer “before a keyboard and screen” who remembers fondly the writing implements of stylus and quill in “Lilith, the Scribe,” and the trials and tribulations of seeking the intimacy of love in the public sphere of online dating in “Lilith Tries Online Dating.” These poems are at once humorous and yet, full of pathos. As post-modern elegies for how humans communicated in the past, they shed light on a type of beauty the digital world has all but erased.

Is the speed of the digital, technological world worth the sacrifice of in-person relationship, the touching of hands that occurs when a customer pays with small change, the kindness of a woman sharing her breast milk with “…a new mother who is not producing enough milk for her infant?” a new mother whose milk is not producing enough for her infant?  Has it enhanced or deepened our awareness and appreciation for how we spend our time? In “My Hours,” the narrator drives these questions home: “All my life I have passed/through curtains of mist./When have I lived and why?/I have spent so much/of my life in aimless hours—lost in weeds, lost in flowers.” How many of us privately hold these same questions? It takes a tightrope walker, a dancer of both classical ballet and hip hop, to weave examinations of our eternal nature with those of the edgy, fast-paced post-modern world we find ourselves in. Levin’s poems perform a seamless duet between the physical and metaphysical, humor and tragedy, joy and loathing.

It is satisfying, no gratifying, to read poems that so eloquently and astutely address the issues of our time. When you enter the poems in The Minor Virtues, prepare to travel the full spectrum of experience lived, lost, and still to come. You just may find yourself…dancing.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1933974354/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2

Maggie Paul is the author of Scrimshaw (Hummingbird Press 2020), Borrowed World, (Hummingbird Press 2011), and the chapbook, Stones from the Baskets of Others (Black Dirt Press 2000). Her poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the Catamaran Literary Reader, Rattle, The Monterey Poetry Review, Porter Gulch Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and Phren-Z, SALT, and others. She is an education consultant and writing instructor in Santa Cruz, California. For information on Maggie’s publications go to: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/hummingbirdpress

A DRAUGHT OF VINTAGE

Keats 1Fanny Brawne.

Towards John Keats’s Third Collection of Poetry by Byron Beynon

Two hundred years ago in July 1820, John Keats’s third book of poems “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems” was published by Taylor and Hessey, of Fleet Street, London.

His two previous collections “Poems” (1817), and “Endymion” (1818), had either been ignored or reviewed with savage scorn. This third collection contained most of the major work and is rightly considered his greatest collection.

The eighteen months or so leading up to the book’s publication had been for Keats a rollercoaster of different emotions, with the death of his brother Tom from TB, anxiety over money, personal illness, interspersed with periods of calm, inspiration, and fresh landscapes. However, he managed to create in a relatively short time (between January and September 1819) a body of work which challenged comparison with those of John Milton in his maturity.

This outpouring of major poetry in 1819 produced “The Eve of St Agnes”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to Psyche”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “La Belle Dans sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “To Autumn”. Poetry full of atmosphere, with wonderful delicacy and reserve. It was also a time when his older brother George had already left England and emigrated to America, he’d also met the love of his life Fanny Brawne, not forgetting he had to catch up on and digest several scathing reviews of his previous collections.

These reviews, as John Barnard points out in his book on Keats, were the product of “snobbery and class-consciousness….”. He also noted that “Keats’s aspirations had touched a nerve. Keats represented a threat.” Undaunted Keats would have the strength of mind to continue with his writing.

In his journal letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina written during December/January 1818/1819 Keats recalled:

“The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang – I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o (r) other- neither had Tom….. Sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you.”

George had sailed in June 1818 from Liverpool to Philadelphia, onto Pittsburgh, then to Illinois territory, and the frontier settlement of Henderson in western Kentucky. After several years he eventually moved to Louisville. By the early 1830s, with a successful lumber mill and flour mill, he prospered, and built a large house in Louisville in 1835.

Keats, after the death of his brother Tom on 1st December 1818, moved into Wentworth Place, (now called Keats House), Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown. He had been writing and working on the poem “Hyperion” but put it to one side as the year drew to a close due the stress of his brother’s illness and death.

It was also in his journal letter to George on the 16th December 1818 that Keats first mentions Fanny Brawne:

“Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer, still resides in Hampstead – she is a very nice woman – and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange – we have a little tiff now and then- and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.”

Two days later, on the 18th he wrote “shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height- with a fine style of countenance of the lenghthen’d sort – she wants sentiment in every feature-she manages to make her hair look well- her nostrils are fine- ……her full-face which indeed not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements….”

Through the encouragement of friends like Charles and Maria Dilke, Keats decided that  a change of scene might do him good, and by mid January 1819 he travelled and stayed in Chichester, and then onto Bedhampton, to the old Mill House, where he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes” (January/early February 1819). It was another friend, Isabella Jones, who probably suggested to Keats that he should write this poem, a short romance, based on a legend. He had also been working again on the poem “Hyperion”, but the going was slow, and he finally abandoned it before or during April 1819. In mid February he began something new, the unfinished “The Eve of St Mark” where he pictures a cathedral town on a Sunday evening. At the time he worked on this poem he was suffering from a sore throat and was confined to his rooms.

He was now heading towards a golden period when the great odes of late April and early May would come. Back in London, on 11th April Keats took a walk across Hampstead Heath and met Mr Green an acquaintance from Guy’s Hospital in conversation with Coleridge, he joined them on their walk and as Keats said “In those two miles he (C) broached a thousand things……Nightingales, Poetry, – on Practical Sensation- Metaphysics- Different genera and species of Dreams….”

Soon after he wrote “Fancy”, and then on 21st April the ballad “La Belle dame sans Merci” (not included in his third volume). Within another nine days he had completed “To Sleep”, two sonnets “On Fame” and then “Ode to Psyche” the first of the great odes which was written by 30th April. “Ode to Psyche” proved to be a valuable springboard, within two or three weeks all the five remaining odes except “To Autumn” were written. His mind open and restored again with a fluency of purpose after a period of uncertainty and anxiety.

His friend Charles Brown wrote that “Ode to a Nightingale” was written soon after “Ode to Psyche” and composed in a single morning, he described the time of composition as lasting “two or three hours”. Brown also wrote:

“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continued joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of papers in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.”

Richard Holmes in his essay on Keats reflects on the poet’s survival in popular imagination via the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and how in the twentieth century “Scott Fitzgerald revealed a lifelong obsession with Keats, which produced not only the theme and title of “Tender is the Night” (1934), but also inspired his late pedagogic attempt to become a literature professor, as movingly recounted in Sheilah Graham’s “College of One” (1967), which began when Fitzgerald started reciting Keats to her as they drove back from a Hollywood film premier in his ancient Ford.”

Between July and September 1819 Keats stayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, he would also move to Winchester, working on the play “Otho the Great”, and the poems “Lamia” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. That July, Keats who was by then engaged to Fanny Brawne, wrote to her from Shanklin:

“My Sweet Girl,

Your letter gave me more delight, than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe it it, …I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else – I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”

At Winchester, in September he wrote the sensuous and richly powerful “To Autumn”, and on the 19th he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds and mentioned:

“How beautiful the season is now- How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it…I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm- this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

During the winter of 1819/1820 and back in Hampstead, Keats became unwell. His increasing ill health would continue throughout 1820, and his doctor ordered him to go to Italy, hoping that a warmer climate would aid his recovery. In July his third book, after revisions, was published by Taylor and Hessey. With an intuition for sound Keats had produced a body of work unmatched by a poet who had not quite reached the age of twenty-four. As RS White stated in his “John Keats – A Literary Life” the poet did have the “satisfaction of seeing into print a new volume of his poems, containing mainly the fruit of his astonishing creative output in 1819, its title emphasising the romances:”. White further adds that “the 1820 volume is a sublime artistic success, comparable to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in its significance for literary history.”

By September, along with Joseph Severn, Keats set sail for Italy on the Maria Crowther. There in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821, the 25 year old poet died from TB. Joseph Severn later reflected “Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undernote of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind.”

When I lived in London I took advantage of visiting the restored house in Hampstead where Keats once lived and wrote several of his poems and letters. On display inside were first editions of his three books of poetry. These books were once owned by his good friend Charles Brown, and they bear his signature. They were originally issued in drab grey paper covers but Brown had them re-bound in leather to match other books in his library. All three volumes went out of print and they were not available again until 1840. However pirated editions appeared in Paris in 1829 and also in Philadelphia in 1837.

For further reading and sources on John Keats:

John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Bernard Penguin Books 2006

Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings Oxford UP 1986

John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate Harvard UP 1963

John Keats by Robert Gittings Penguin Books 1979

John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale UP 2012

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes William Collins 2016

Keats and his Circle – An Album of Portraits compiled & presented by Joanna Richardson

published by Cassell London 1980

John Keats A Literary Life by RS White Palgrave/MacMillan 2012

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Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Poetry Wales, The London Magazine, San Pedro River Review, Poetry Salzburg, Agenda and the anthology Moments of Vision (Seren).  Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and the Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)

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Dearest Nature By James E. Diamond

kodiak

PRELUDE: After a four-day visit to Kodiak, Alaska, during August 2018, I witnessed Mother Nature’s stunning beauty that is difficult to describe in words. It is fortunate that the flora and fauna featured in Kodiak’s breathtaking beauty is protected by the laws of nature and those imposed by humankind. Natural physical forces (earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, tsunamis) cause and regulate these phenomena. The natural forests, landscapes, oceans, seashores, mountains, gentle breezes, powerful winds, tumbling streams, singing birds, fresh clean air, changing cumulus clouds, warm sunshine, falling rains and other features made me feel very blessed that I was able to walk and experience the ambiance of such peaceful creations. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, in her book “Molly Bawn” (1878), states “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I was inspired to write this essay titled “Dearest Nature” as a feeble attempt to put into words my thoughts and feelings as I experienced being the eye of the beholder viewing the beauty of nature while meandering within nature’s abode.

Dearest Nature

Dearest nature, I hope that you never know that I was here! I hope I did not leave even a single footprint that would indicate my one-time presence. Nature is for all humankind to view, appreciate and protect by leaving behind no unsightly symbols of human existence.

English Romantic lyric poet John Keats once wrote, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” The poetry of Kodiak Island’s beauty is very much alive, and I would not want to risk disfiguring or marring it by my being there. The beauty portrayed before me on Kodiak Island cannot be replicated by humankind. Only the laws of nature can effectively change, modify, alter or improve the landscape. Nature’s law is stronger than any law humans have ever composed and implemented.

I felt my asthmatic lungs enjoying my breathing in clean fresh air. German-born diarist Anne Frank once wrote, “I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” My late wife always knew I was distressed when she would see me going off for a long walk in the woodlot on our farm.

Visiting nature in its purest form was like being home even though it was just a short drop-in visit. American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once stated, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” As I meandered in Kodiak’s Forest, I felt heaven was surrounding me with peacefulness, serenity and calmness. The emotions of nearby seas varied with calmness and perilousness. Calm seas dominated two ravishing days of fishing with dear friends. Hazardous seas fraught with danger impeded an additional two days of fishing.

Both calm and hazardous seas were beautiful in their own natural way. Calm seas were ruled by clear blue skies sprinkled with white cumulus clouds. Hazardous seas were commanded by high winds, fast moving white capped waves and rain noisily crashing against rocky and sandy coast lines.

In that part of the world winter can be harsh and gruff but dazzling in its own way. I was confident cold temperatures, freezing winds and snow unrolled their frigid wrath over trees on mountains and valleys with a snow white blanket while they slept during winter months. Rachel Carson once said in her book “Silent Spring,” “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

To appreciate and understand the traits of nature’s pace, her secretive wherewithal virtues include patience, persistence and perseverance. My love of nature in Alaska evolved because I found pleasure in trail-less woodlands, bliss on isolated shores, a culture where no one disturbs nature’s beauty and the roaring euphonic music of the deep sea. Naturalist and conservationist John Muir wrote, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while never-ending cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Let me close this essay with a prominent Latin proverb, “Nature is our mother!”

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James E. Diamond, Ph.D. Dean Emeritus (Agricultural and Environmental Sciences) retired after a 47-year career as an agricultural educator.  With Dr. Diamond’s extensive agricultural, academic and international background he felt a need to write prose poetry as a way to put his life experiences into perspective.  He does not profess to be a renowned poet, however his writings are a sincere attempt to express his inner feelings without shame or inhibition.  He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science at Delaware Valley University; Master’s Degree in Education at Lehigh University; and his Ph.D. in Agricultural Education at Pennsylvania State University.  Dr. Diamond has worked, studied and traveled in 58 countries on five continents as a farmer, agricultural educator and international consultant for Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

 

 

Wear A Mask – Do the Right Thing

Diane and George April 2020

We wish all well during these troubling times and ask with great sincerity that when you go out to be safe, stay six feet apart, and wear a mask. Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it is a way for all of us to protect each other from this virus which is unrelenting in its pursuit of human beings. Be safe and stay home when at all possible. Let us be hopeful that a vaccine is on the horizon in the near future. Simply put, DO THE RIGHT THING!

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Call for Submissions

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North of Oxford is open for submissions of poetry, book reviews, and essays/commentary. When submitting please follow our guidelines located here: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

 

 

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