north of oxford

Celestial Elbow by D.R. James

moon
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Celestial Elbow
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The sky wore the regalia of flames but
turned lavender-violet quietude
in a moment’s romance. And the breeze, how
it finessed everything and cradled me.
Awakened by the dazzle, I reposed—
riveted, infused, imbued by satin.
Gift after gift from ginger tongues, then glow
audible like visions. It was never
a coddling. The nod from the heavens
judged some memories mere indulgence—and grudge.
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D. R. James’s latest of nine collections are Flip Requiem (Dos Madres, 2020), Surreal Expulsion (Poetry Box, 2019), and If god were gentle (Dos Madres, 2017), and his micro-chapbook All Her Jazz is free, fun, and printable-for-folding at Origami Poems Project. He lives in the woods near Saugatuck, Michigan.

Two Poems by John Dorroh

oliver
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For Mary Oliver Who Loved Dogs
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We are learning new things
about the history of dog bones,
how they permeate the soil
on every continent, a gauge
of the manner in which civilizations
have flourished and failed, burying
their own bones beside them.
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The collective souls of canine
beings – wolves and chihuahua,
beagles and basset, mixed breeds
and the paperless hound – form a cool
gray layer that only those who’ve
fallen in love with them ever sense
or see. It’s in our marrow, saturating
the pulp of existence.
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We’ve always loved them, even
as they crouched on the perimeters
of pre-historic fires, inching forward,
cowering on bellies that kissed
the cold ground, stealing bits of skin
and meat while humans slept under
the stars.
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Reluctant Crow
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There’s a reluctant crow stuck in my throat,
unable or unwilling to recognize my face.
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How could he not remember these acid-etched
furrows, this cute pink nose, such rosy cheeks
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and a head the shape of a cube? He’s not trying,
that’s all. Sad bird. If I can remember the way
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that green bottle flies entered the dead man’s mouth
at the river when I was 8, their drone-like metallic
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buzzing, the way the lemon sun felt on my neck,
and the excitement when we pulled up obsidian
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glass shards from the bottom of the gravel pit,
then why can’t this crow remember me? Perhaps
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he harbors some gene for resilience, or experienced
a traumatic avian childhood with blood-drenched
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scenes that he can’t get out of his head: witnessing
a bald eagle being shot from the sky, or seeing
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his father murdered?  Hundreds of articles
documenting the intelligence of crows and cousins
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of crows, feathered beings worthy of scientific literature,
of behavioral antics that defy description: Betty,
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a New Caledonian, picks up a piece of wire
in her cage, uses an object to bend it, like a junior
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engineer, into a hooked tool that she uses to lift
a chunk of scrumptious pig heart up into her beak.
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Instead, I have the special crow, the one who doesn’t
fit the mold, the one who grew up just like me.
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John Dorroh’s poetry has appeared in about 75 journals, including Feral, Dime Show Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Os Pressan, and Selcouth Station. He also writes short fiction and the occasional rant.
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Pages Come and Go By Carla Sarett

 
capponi
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Pages Come and Go
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Joyfully broke, I enter
The Frick, frayed Rimbaud
in hand. I leave a man I wouldn’t
call a lover for my mannerist
Sunday appointment. I can’t
resist Bronzino’s portrait,
Ludovico Capponi.
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That small head, hooded lids,
witchy green eyes asymmetric. 
The right eye strays
with youth’s erotic chill,
worthy of Rimbaud.
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The boyish mouth sulks,
bored as September
Vogue’s cover model.
Maybe he’s lost favor
with the Florentine court.
.  
Pages come and go.
His sort of beauty gets
roughed up in women’s laps.
That risqué codpiece, small defense 
against commonplace loss.
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My brother wore my Victorian
ruby, with crushed red velvet.
If he saw Bronzino’s work,
he’d love the violence of the green,
the sheen of brocades, stark
contrast of black and white.
As for boredom, he’d ignore it.
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I wish Bronzino could have painted
my brother, but I’m glad he caught
Ludovico just before life started
to make sense or wear him down.
He was perfect as falling rain.
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Carla Sarett’s recent work appears in San Pedro River Review, Words and Whispers, The Virginia Normal and elsewhere.  Her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart and Best American Essays.  Her novella, The Looking Glass, will be published in October (Propertius Press), and A Closet Feminist, a full-length novel, will be published in 2022 (Unsolicited Press.) Carla lives in San Francisco.

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A first step in a strange dance By Arlyn LaBelle

IMG_4205 (3)
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A first step in a strange dance
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I jitter open the window, air mixing in a surge,
some of the song I hummed yesterday thinning
by the birds, thrumming like loose guitar strings,
and then this is death, the exhale, the bleed,
an insult, like I didn’t know.
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But it is kind, that I will
mingle with the grass below
one day. That after
all by breathing I will grow.
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So I do not close the window in disgust
First impulse
So I leave it open.
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Headshot(1)
Arlyn LaBelle is a queer poet and writer living in Austin, Texas. Their work has appeared in the Badgerdog summer anthologies as well as  North of Oxford, The Oddville Press, Songs of Eretz, Grey Sparrow Press, Cease, Cows, Panoply Zine and The Southern Poetry Review. Their premiere book of poetry, Measurable Terms, is available through The Main Street Rag. You can find more of them and their work at www.arlynlabelle.com
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Impressions By Douglas Cole

IMG_9632 (2)
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Impressions
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vicious end of the cove,
black rock and broken trees
tough green seaweed
muscles and hard barnacles
everything picks a spot
to survive
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no more transmissions
cell tower whistling silent
over Mount Constitution
I am gathering firewood
someone’s shadow bends
in the oyster garden
sun low over the hills
green black forest dipping
its limbs into the sea
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the seagull rises and lets go
the clam falls and shatters on a rock
the gull descends and feeds
centuries of this design
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from here all you can see are trees
nothing of the shape of the land
but if you run               then
through the gaps you see everything
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oyster gardener banging sand from his traps
sounds like a slow drum or the faltering
heartbeat of the earth
.
warm sunlight
a father and son walking
down by the edge of the water
I was once both of them
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a little kid with a stick
on the beach beating a rock
digging a hole
writing his name in the sand
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wind braids the water surface
and cloud palisades look permanent
how many ways we misuse the word
like death and sunrise
from what I see
through these narrow eyes
.
the ragged sleeve of care
dark night oblivion home everywhere
smoke assembling and torn
and without a flicker of a doubt
accept the moment you are born
.
the innkeeper says a ghost stole her lunch
in a split second when she wasn’t looking
the cleaning staff say they see Emma
she’s the second from the right
in the photograph next to the bay window
and from the shadowless chair on deck
I leap from a cold passing still life
with a head cloud of unknowing
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Douglas Cole has published six collections of poetry, a novella, and The White Field, a novel. His work has appeared in several anthologies as well as The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Galway Review, Bitter Oleander, Louisiana Literature and Slipstream. He received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry. He lives and teaches in Seattle. His website is www.douglastcole.com/

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Just A Thought by Frank Wilson

Arrest_of_Christ

Arrest of Jesus” by the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion

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Just A Thought
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Out of the blackest blue a terror seized
His soul. A thought had swiftly crossed his mind:
The Savior’s torturers had likely been
Just guys like him, who afterward enjoyed
A drink and laughs. The terror that embraced
His soul, he feared, is what that night informed
Gethsemane, far worse perhaps than thorns
And nails and scourging: Evil’s commonness.
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frank
Frank Wilson is a poet from Philadelphia. He is the retired books editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and blogs at Books, Inq. — The Epilogue
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Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

mary jane

By Charles Rammelkamp

Narrated in the first person by a 14-year-old girl in 1975, Mary Jane isn’t so much a coming-of-age novel as it is a coming-into-consciousness novel, which may be a quibbling way of saying the same thing since “coming of age” is ultimately all about a character’s self-awareness, but over and over again in this charming, often laugh-out-loud-funny story, the protagonist, Mary Jane Dillard, notices things for the first time, such as her parents’ racism and anti-Semitism, and comes to conclusions about what things are actually valuable and meaningful in a person’s life, as if she is waking up from a long, long sleepwalk.

Mary Jane is the only child of a conventional Republican father and a humorless, church-going homemaker mother. A framed color photograph of Gerald Ford hangs on their dining room wall, visible over her father’s head as he sits at the head of the table reading the newspaper while his wife and daughter serve the meals. Mary Jane has been hired as the summer nanny of the five-year-old daughter of Richard and Bonnie Cone, a psychiatrist and his wife who likewise live in Roland Park but are the opposite of her parents. (Bumper stickers declaring, IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever are plastered on a door.)

The child’s name is Izzy. (“Our neighbor, Mrs. Riley, had told me her name was Isabelle. But I liked Izzy better, the way it fizzed on my tongue.”) Mary Jane immediately takes to the child. Like Izzy, another only child, Mary Jane has no real friends, feels awkward around girls her age and has absolutely no interest in going to sleepaway camp with her contemporaries. “When I did have to socialize with kids my age,” Mary Jane confides, “I felt like I was from another country. How did girls know what to whisper about? Why were they all thinking about the same things?”

In contrast to her own orderly home – a place for everything and everything in its place – the Cone household is chaotic, books and clothing piled everywhere, food rotting in the refrigerator. Bonnie is not a homemaker, and her shrink husband is a luftmensch, his head in his work, not his home. Mary Jane will bring order to the household over the course of the summer, but the more relaxed and loving environment of the Cone family will have a profound effect on her as well.

Later in the novel, Mary Jane reflects, “In my own house, each day was a perfectly contained lineup of hours where nothing unusual or unsettling was ever said.” By contrast, the Cones are loud, intense, emotional, and Mary Jane always feels a little afraid. “But along with that terror, my fondness for the Cones only grew. To feel something was to feel alive. And to feel live was starting to feel like love.”

When the story starts, Richard Cone has cleared his calendar for the summer to care for a recovering rock star, Jimmy Bendinger, lead singer of Running Water, who has a heroin addiction. He is accompanied by his celebrity wife Sheba, known all over the world for the popular television variety show she’d hosted with her brothers called Family First! Jimmy and Sheba are in Baltimore incognito, and in one of her first acts of rebellion, Mary Jane doesn’t let her parents know about them. While Bonnie entertains Sheba and Mary Jane runs the household (eventually she takes over the grocery-shopping, cooking and cleaning duties), Dr. Cone and Jimmy do their work out behind the house, in a garage converted to Dr. Cone’s office.

Blau’s characters are as quirky as Anne Tyler’s memorable Baltimore characters, though not as complex, but then, they are seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who still sees things in black or white and either/or terms. There’s Beanie Jones, the nosy neighbor who keeps popping up in comic relief but who precipitates the climactic therapy scene on the beach, whose conclusion provides the novel’s real surprise plot twist. The Cones and her parents are vivid in their own ways, the parents for being so conventional, uptight, anti-Semitic and racist. But the real bigger-than-life character is Sheba, the former TV star celebrity bombshell. The story lights up whenever she’s around.

There’s also plenty of humor in Mary Jane, much of it involving Mary Jane’s ignorance and squeamishness about sex, her fear that she is a “sex addict,” even though she is a virgin who has never even kissed a boy. She overhears Dr. Cone use the term and it sticks in her head. She wonders if there is something wrong with her for seeing a penis when she sees a cucumber. It’s like a running gag through much of the novel, and part of Mary Jane’s “coming of age” is resolving this issue at the group therapy session on the beach.

All of the women, Bonnie Cone, Sheba and Mary Jane, have “mommy issues,” conflicts with their mothers about their social roles and behavior.  Bonnie’s mother is horrified when Bonnie marries a Jew; Sheba’s mother continually slut-shamed her daughter when she was growing up.

This mother-daughter tension is especially spotlighted in Mary Jane’s case. We’ve seen that her mother and father are cold, distant, but her mother can also be mean.  When Mrs. Cone and Sheba enter the kitchen after Mary Jane and Izzy have cleaned out the refrigerator, “Mrs. Cone leaned in and kissed the top of my head. No one had ever kissed me like that. Not my mom and not my dad.” Mary Jane remembers an incident when her mother caught her drinking milk from the carton, slapped her head, which caused the milk to spill, and ordered her daughter to mop the kitchen floor. Her mother provides specific instructions for buttoning a blouse, to ensure her modesty. When Mary Jane gets her period, her mother supplies the napkins and belt but does not discuss any of it.

But at the end of the summer, after Mary Jane’s deceptions catch up with her and the double life blows up in her face, she is able to resolve her conflicts with her mother (her father remains remote), but we saw that coming all along. Mary Jane is the real “adult” in Mary Jane, truly a heroine. This novel is such fun to read!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Jane-Jessica-Anya-Blau/dp/0063052296

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio, Translated by Jeannine Marie

CARNATION-web

By Greg Bem

There exists a most beautiful language whose words look like little houses made out of mushrooms. The loveliest runic letters pale beside it.

(page 19)

The Uruguayan surrealist Marosa di Giorgio has seen much poetry arrive in contemporary English over the last several years and a strong selection thanks to the work of translator Jeannine Marie Pitas. In 2010, Ugly Duckling Presse released Pitas’s translation of Giorgio’s History of Violets, and in 2017 I Remember Nightfall. Though we knew not then during their publication, these pivotal translations of some of South America’s most stunning, uprooting poetry served as portals inviting us to receive the newest release: Carnation and Tenebrae Candle. This long, episodic work reflects and refracts the fantastical, exploring the transcendent and otherworldly landscape of di Giorgio’s childhood in Salto, Uruguay. And yet as specific as this bizarre world often feels, it pulls and pulls the reader toward its rhythmic center, keeping stability in question and understanding a challenging process.

Now, I was a branch, a broom plant; I saw that I was nearly a rose. The wind rocked me gently. But at the same time I was firmly attached to the ground.

That was the way I died as a child in that mysterious part of the garden.

(page 39)

The book is long and staggering. At times it feels like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. At other times like Alice in Wonderland. And at times like Grimm’s. At other times, the book feels balanced and mature in its reflections and wording, strangely aligned with some of the other recent surrealist and expressionist translations: Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase comes to mind, as does Salgado Maranhão’s Consecration of the Wolves. And it feels entrancing! I found myself throughout the book consistently mesmerized as though it was my first exposure to Lautréamont. Pitas points out in her afterword that, in addition to Lautréamont, di Giorgio was well-read and carried influences from Blake, the Brontë sisters, Poe, and Dickinson. I see their voices and faces in this book acutely.

In the end, I managed to turn around; on tiptoe, walking backwards, I arrived home. The wind was shining in the enormous windows; a silence floated over all the rooms. There were narcissi in all the vases. The fairy slipped away gently, round and gold like an egg.

(page 97)

But despite the similarities to other writers, Carnation and Tenebrae is a body of work unto its own, a poetry that contains substantial innocence, intimacy, and the potential for anything to happen—in a way that surprises and shocks even in 2021. That Pitas has concerted efforts at a time in our collective history where digital world-building is at its most prolific, where Minecraft is an alternate reality for most young people (and old people alike!), where virtual reality is finally accessible and desirable, where more people than ever are included in the conversations of creativity and construction, holds striking coincidence.

Carnation and Tenebrae Candle was originally published in 1979, but feels wildly new and also reminiscent of expressionist writers from 100 years back. The format, a numerical sequence of 124 sections (or entries) flows between prose and poetry in a way that feels natural, and reminds me of how one might approach jotting and scratching across a notebook as new ideas are born.

The sections are short (most are less than a page), allowing the book to be read in a flow that suits the reader’s needs and capacity. In this sense it feels like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Ease is important in the context of the book’s density: di Giorgio’s genre might as well be called fantasy surrealism, or supernatural surrealism. The acclimation to these uncanny and beautiful snapshots or impressions takes time for the reader and often exhausts. There is a flirting with capacity and a tension with the stability of truth at play in almost all these poems.

Until you reach the immemorial garden of gladioli, the garden where I always knelt down, weeping and sobbing . . . But you remain omnipotent, ruling over those infinite flowers.

You took control of everything
even my memories of the time when I didn’t know you.

(page 55)

Within the long, rolling form of the book is a loose narrative that includes familiar, familial figures who come and go through domestic and filial circumstance, often (as seen in the quotes above) including elements of the pastoral or of gardens and natural objects. There is a theme of marriage as well, which is carried across many poems and raises questions, even if indirectly. The book’s origins are resounding of small town (or village) life—the perfect staging for the exploratory and imaginative inwardness of the narrator. I am reminded of Narnia, of the Upside Down, and of spaces of otherness that carry us away time and time again, generation to generation. And yet the fantastical breaks down those dichotomous framings and creates a more nuanced blend of realities. It is a mutant-like transformation of time and space; it is ideally surrealist as it moves back and forth between realities through some curious sensory connector left just beyond the reader’s awareness. It is a writing that finds a measured space between both worlds as one world, one unifying and captivating experience.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Carnation-and-Tenebrae-Candle-by-Marosa-di-Giorgio

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com

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Lines of Defense by Stephen Dunn

lines
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By Ray Greenblatt 
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         This is a very mature and yet somber book of poetry often with gleams of warmth and humor. This is Mr. Dunn’s most recent collection published in 2014. The poet employs the persona of an older man; we can never be sure what is the mask or the poet himself behind it. The man has worked through many obstacles and suffering, but over and over he manages to find life-giving resolution.
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          I like his technique of juxtaposing two opposed views. He explores the age-old question, in this poem, of THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG:
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          The chicken for dinner with earnest friends, the egg for breakfast
          with folks who like to play with their food before they eat it.
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          The chicken fills you up so you can’t move,
          The egg cracks open, and choices begin— . .
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           Yet sometimes the chicken is both necessary and sufficient 
          and sometimes your earnest friends instruct you
          about how to live with the beak and the gizzard.
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          The egg allows itself to be hard-boiled or deviled.
          It doesn’t worry. To live right isn’t an issue.
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Here you observe the obvious light humor but the philosophical observations are thought provoking. 
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In similar fashion he compares a poet to a priest in IF THE POET to achieve even more fascinating possibilities:
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          Would a good priest find the right words,
          as the good poet would, in among the many words
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          passed down for centuries
          on what to think, what to believe? . . .
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          That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
          makes them pass hard tests . . .
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          wouldn’t he,
          although self-ordained, be more reliable?
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          But what if the villagers believed
          they were saved by a prayer the priest said
          one Sunday among the ruins? And all the poet
          could do was elegize the ruins? . . .
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          things got worse
          and prayers proved useless,  and poems
          merely decorated the debris where a house
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          once was? Would it be time for the priest
          to admit he’d known but one book? For the poet
          to say he’d read many, and look, it hasn’t helped?
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The questioner in the poem ultimately decides that in this world of unclear answers just trying might be enough.
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        Another striking technique Dunn uses to further his philosophic probing is to focus on a strong woman. In BETTY FRIEDAN’S FINAL ADVICE this historical feminist gives her opinions:
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          Don’t let
          a ship’s captain marry you
          unless he’s adept at changing course . . .
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          Say the words you must say,
          but be sure to violate all the stupid stuff.
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          After the ceremony, change into that funky
          outfit that drives only the right men crazy.
          Hope your husband will be one of them . . .
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          Tell him also you have nothing
          against God, but remember only an insecure God,
          like an insecure man, insists that a woman
          must obey . . .
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          Your job now
          is to define what heavenly is, and heaven itself,
          and find ways to let him in.
          In the last poem a strong woman gives her opinions about relationships. However, in FOR MY SON a father warns his son about a woman strong in the wrong direction:
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          To marry Alison, Robert, will be to haul water
          from a deep well for the rest of your life.
          It will be to worry about beauty
          instead of enjoying it . . .
          You love her soul, you say,
          but Robert, a soul is unmapped territory . . .
          Well, you’ll have to learn a new language,
          hers, which she expects to be understood
          before it’s spoken . . .
          I just try to make things that last.
          I’ve  made you up; I’ve given you a chance.
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          Dunn revels in ways to use the Word IN LOVE, HIS GRAMMAR GREW:
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          In love, his grammar grew
          rich with intensifiers, and adverbs fell
          madly from the sky like pheasants
          for the peasantry . . .
          until roused my moonlight
          and the beautiful fraternal twins
          ‘and’ and ‘but.’ Oh that was when
          he knew he couldn’t resist
          a conjunction of any kind.
          For love
          he wanted to break all the rules,
          light a candle behind a sentence
          named Sheila, always running on
          and wishing to be stopped
          by the hard button of a period.
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          We have seen the shadows and the light in Dunn’s poetics. I’ll close with a very moving ending to his poem A COLDNESS:

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          That powdered stranger
          lying there, that nobody I knew?
          I was far away, parsing grief,
          turning it over in my mind.
          He was simply gone, a dead thing,
          anybody’s sack of bones.
          Only when his son spoke,
          measuring with precise, slow-
          to-arrive language the father
          he had lost, did something in me move.
          There was my brother restored,
          abstracted, made of words now.
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          I knew nothing about Stephen Dunn. Perhaps years ago I read some of his poems but had completely forgotten them. I had heard that he taught in New Jersey. That was all: perhaps a good way to come at a work of art for a fresh impression. There are many poets out there. Poetry is a thriving sub-culture like antique collecting, gardening, cuisine, etc. Poetry is used in advertising and song lyrics. Our challenge is to find the best among the many. I’ll choose Stephen Dunn.
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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. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).
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