north of oxford

Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot by D.S. Maolalai

havocNoble-Rot-book-cover-front-proof2-01-207x300
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By John Zheng
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D. S. Maolalai is a Dublin-based Irish poet. Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are his second and third books of poetry, published respectively in 2019 and 2022 by Turas Press in Ireland. Sad Havoc Among the Birds is a collection of free-verse poems, many having short lines heavily enjambed; some irregular lines moving from short to long. It is rich with visual comparisons pleasing to the eye. In “Low tide,” the poet visualizes the sea as “a visible line / like a glint / on the edge / of a coin;” in “Preparing to go out,” he compares the loose jacket flaps to “the thin arms on a scarecrow;” and in “A bottle of wine for the rockpool,” he imagines the summer sun through the working of sight, touch, taste, and smell:
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it was a weekend
long
into summer
and the sun had sloshed over like a bowl full of soup,
hot and
sticky and
making everyone smell of
ham.
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Observation is characteristic of Maolalai’s poetry, showing a peculiar way of looking at things, people, and places. Many poems are imagistic. “A bowl of oranges” describes a way of using imagination against loneliness as well as for creative expression:
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with you away
I sleep a lot
and not often alone.
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my bedroom is a bowl of oranges;
sweet flesh, sticky
and slowly being revealed
as peeled layers
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pile up,
dropped on the floor,
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fresh vitamins and easy sustenance,
good on the side
with tequila.
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Like “A bowl of oranges,” Maolalai’s poems shine with the influence of imagism or are in the steps of William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara in the use of short lines and personal tone. They are sketches with fresh images that present a moment, a person, and a place and by avoidance of pompous adjectives or big ideas. In “Lobster,” the poet first draws two mugs that are stained tannin-black, then he adds his friend Jack who stirs tea in his lifeguard’s shack. The view quickly shifts to the sand where imagination is on wings for the comparison of the two images (waves and trucks): “waves crash / like two-tonne trucks / on a highway.” The next image—wind—creates an effect not just auditory through its whistle but visual and tactile, as described below:
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and the wind
comes over the dune
with a whistle
and a hand
that would mess up your haircut.
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In a way, these images with the use of synesthesia enrich the aesthetic appreciation of the poem. The second stanza of “Lobster” focuses on Jack’s suggestion when he and the first-person narrator drink tea: to get drunk in town the next day or to pick up food for the barbecue, but the narrator’s indecision or hesitation to go for a drink is like the tea sipped, “hot and brown / and thick as bricks.” Instead, he likes to stay on the beach to continue his observation: someone walking a dog and “poking the seaweed with a stick” to look for the lost treasure. Then he shifts his eyes to birds that “pick their way / over the wet sand / shiny as glass / hunting lugworms” and to the sky that “hangs low / and milky grey / and sandy.” In the end, he shifts the view back to the milk offered by his friend, which “has sand in it,” the meaning of which seems as ambiguous as the title of the poem. Maybe that’s why poetry is challenging and open to interpretation.
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Moreover, the poem titled “Colette,” though an epitome of Colette’s life and writing, seems to mirror Maolalai’s attitude about poetry writing. These two lines especially reflect his attitude: ‘she was just describing people she had met / instead of bothering to make a story.” However, “My friend, the writer” is a poem carrying an ironic tone and a sense of humor. In the beginning, the first-person speaker says:
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he told me
he’d decided
to be a writer
so he’d started smoking cigarettes again,
unfiltered American Spirits,
and he told me he was drinking a bottle of wine each night now
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Maolalai’s poetry shows a way of poetry writing he has found: giving attention to plain things, common people, and daily life that can easily slip the notice, as shown in “What are you waiting for?” which tells in a boring tone about the bus and train to take to work, the short walk from the bus stop, the café, the street sounds like empty music, the dinner to cook, and the tea to make. All these routines recur every day and every week, showing boredom with life, so the speaker sighs at the end:
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on a clear night you can see the whole of next week
and it’s not just bright lights
that people shut their eyes against.
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It is interesting that the poem titled “The answer” in Maolalai’s third poetry collection, Noble Rot, seems to function like an answer to the boring life described in “What are you waiting for?” and we still hear the same desperate tone:
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it’s the job
and home
and the job again.
we move in crowds, flowing
like tides against shorelines.
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………
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every day
another day
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and I am tired. I
am tired.
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More or less, Noble Rot continues the style of Sad Havoc Among the Birds: no capital words except the pronoun I and a few proper nouns (some place names are lower-cased), smooth narration, rich use of figurative language, and fresh images, as in “Biting a penny,” “cars crumbled like coloured / handkerchiefs” and in “He’s cut down the last of the trees,” “the city lights glistened / like an over-moist cheese.” Yet, a poem that plays with fantastic imagination is “Sunflowers,” which associates lines of sunflowers to the movements of a ballet dancer:
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graceful as a dancer
in the russian
ballet, they turn
in short loops,
moving joists,
taking weight,
holding weight
as a balance.
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Like Sad Havoc Among the Birds, Noble Rot is also a collection of observations of daily life or plain things connected to places and people. Some poems are about traveling to other countries, and the views are impressionistic. For example, Dublin in “No skyline” offers only the horizon when seen from the coast at Kilbarrack, but in contrast, Toronto and New York leave an impression that the skylines there are like the “jagged, / key edged reliefs. then pulled sharply on the leash / and glanced downward.” In “Calgary,” the travelers “stopped at very fruit stand / in [their] wind around the mountains, / squeezing raspberries, / peeling oranges / and pausing by corners / to piss out / tomato juice.” Another poem, “Touching down in Istanbul,” has also an impressionistic touch. Maolalai paints Istanbul at sunrise:
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                                the streets
tinting orange. the buildings waking up;
if they were flowers
the petals would be opening. we touch down,
landing for a moment, like a bee
on a hot day.
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Maolalai’s Sad Havoc Among the Birds and Nobel Rot are two poetry books that increase immediacy to relate to the reader. The success of this connectedness lies in the poet’s eloquent narration, down-to-earth voice with no pretensions, and effort in using the language effectively and creatively. In short, they deserve reading.
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John (Jianqing) Zheng’s publications include A Way of Looking, Conversations with Dana Gioia, and African American Haiku: Cultural Visions. He is the editor of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature. His forthcoming poetry collection is titled The Dog Years of Reeducation from Madville Publishing.
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Casualty Reports  by Martha Collins

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Martha Collins’  new collection is dedicated to “the casualties of Covid-19; to the casualties of racism inflicted by the police and others in the United States and throughout the world.” The poems shine a light on the casual cruelties the powerful inflict upon the vulnerable, the exploitation, the inhumanity, the total lack of empathy.

The book is also dedicated to the memory of her father, William E. Collins, whose similar stories of exploitation in the coal industry are highlighted as part of the thematic thrust of Casualty Reports.

The tone is necessarily elegiac but the verse is written in a style that is at once allusive and expository, suggestive and explicit. Several poems in the final section, “And Also,” are indeed elegies for lost friends.  In fact, Casualty Reports is finally dedicated to Collins’ late friend, the peace activist/poet Lee Sharkey, whose collection I Will Not Name It Except to Say, which likewise addresses injustice and inhumanity, was published in 2021, after her death in October of the previous year.

Casualty Report is made up of five sections, two titled “Legacy,” which deal with coal – coal mining, coal miners and unions, pollution, propaganda – and two titled “Reports,” which focus on other injustices for which we have a collective accountability – racism, poverty, war, gun violence among them.

The first poem in the first Legacy section – the first poem in the collection – is called “In Illinois” and deals with her family’s history in the coal mining business, great-grandfather and grandfather dating back to 1871.
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             My father whose mother kept   him out of the mines kept
             his father’s fathers oil lamp   kept his father’s carbine
              & safety lamps kept a box   of wicks-picks-globes kept
              his father’s 50-year union   pin his first aid pin his
              flashlight safe for use kept   manuals papers This lamp\
              was given all labeled This pin    was given kept it all it was
              .
              his legacy labeled dated   1965 & signed & kept for me
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Two poems later is “A History of American Coal Through the Lens of Illinois,” largely a prose description of organized labor – United Mine Workers of America – with a mention of Mother Jones, and the largest private-sector coal company in the world, the Peabody Coal Company. Subsequent poems – “Du Quoin,” “Herrin,” “Virden” – highlight the brutal massacres of miners in parts of southern Illinois, union members and Blacks. Poems like “Store” and “Model Miners (2005)” allude to Merle Travis’ celebrated country song, “Sixteen Tons” (famously covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford) about the virtual slavery of the miners to the coal companies for which they worked (“Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store”).
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Collins does for coal mining what Herman Melville did for whaling in Moby-Dick, an exhaustive overview and close examination of its history and its global implications, from “A History,” which cites references to coal in the Oxford English Dictionary from as far back as 1387, to “Types of Coal Mines,” which include coal picked up from the surface, to mines going deeper and deeper, more intricate and elaborate, to the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining, which devastates the landscape, turning lush forests into barren moonscapes. “Burning” focuses on the poisons and pollution.
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            the mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen
            oxides from burning coal that fill
            our air & fall upon us as acid rain—
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            the selenium, arsenic, lead from coal
            ash stored in coal ash ponds that leak
            & spill & pollute our waters—
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            but most of all the carbon dioxide
            released by burning that captures
            heat that warms our air & melts
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            our glaciers, lifts our seas & warms
            them, dries our land & fuels fires,
            strengthens rainfalls & hurricanes….
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The previously mentioned “Model Miners (2005)” is a poetic transcript of a propaganda piece General Electric made to depict coal miners as sexy Marlboro men and women, who are concerned about the environment and global warming. The advertising clip can be seen here – https://pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/ge-model-miners-ad/.
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The poems in the two “Reports” sections concentrate on other forms of worldwide injustices. The five-part poem, “Lamentations,” modeled, Collins tells us in an endnote, after the Biblical Book of Lamentations, was written in response to an interdisciplinary project about guns and gun violence. The first part begins:
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            America   more guns   more   than us
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            Bullets   bullets   bullets   bullets   more
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            Children in school   boy in park   no sorrow
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The subsequent parts allude to Trayvon Martin, mass shootings in locations across America (El Paso, Dayton, Midland Odessa), hate crimes and gang violence. It ends, part five, echoing Lamentations, with a call to remember the dead:
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            Remember our people killed by guns
                                                                                    we have more guns than people

.             Remember our 100 people killed each day

                                                                                                      the shot and injured
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            Remember our 1000 killed each year by police….
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“For Gaza” is a poem about the shabby treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government. “Blue” is a poem that refers to the Vietnamese monks who set themselves on fire in protest in the 1960’s. The poem, “Like Her Body the World” sums up our inherent responsibility in the whole mess. Collins writes:
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            we are part of the body we forgot
            we thought we lived outside like a brain in a jar
            we thought we were pure like thought nothing to lose
            but we are losing too we are losing parts.

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The poems in the final section are more personal, saying goodbye to different friends who have passed on. Casualty Reports is a devastating indictment of our time, of our species, of our less than honorable stewardship of the earth.

You can find the book here: Casualty Reports – University of Pittsburgh Press

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

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Event Horizon  by Cate Marvin

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Event Horizon by Cate Marvin, published by Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, Washington, May 2022) is ninety pages of long, sometimes prose-like poems that deal with universal subjects such as relationships, memories and life problems.
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Rendezvous with Ghost on page eleven explores the possible sensual relationship with a ghost in an historic hotel filled with memories.
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Did it transpire to rise from beneath the floorboards?
Did it escape into the room through a heating vent?
Suddenly, my head palpable as an apple, felt its eyes.
The folding chairs woven into the room by their rows.
The shining caps of knees bent that belong to bodies
that sat with ears attentive as rabbits struck midfield
by a passing motor…
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The eerie scene is set.  The poem consists of twenty-six lines in a one-stanza form presented visibly like a newspaper column.  The narrator’s voice erupts in the last line in italics: But I love him, I love him, I love him.  All is made clear in this imaginative love story.
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Marvin’s poem Blue on pages forty-seven and forty-eight is dedicated to Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021)
and explores grief with the memory of shared observances in nature.
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I really like that joe-eyed weed.
Pictures of pretty pink wildflowers
can hinder sorrow for a second,
by the idea of filling my yard with
the distraction of blossoms whose
colors turn on like a hundred radio
stations all at once.  The problem
with plants for me is all the names I can’t remember….
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Marvin skillfully equates flowers, colors and one’s own yard to the alleviation of grief which she gives a time frame to—a second.  The reader can feel the loss through the carefully selected images of things a person wish they did, the lack of remembering things, and the wondering about where one was when death came for the loved one. All work extremely well partly because they are common to all of us.
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The poem has six stanzas all composed of nine lines.  This reminds me of Sylvia Plath who often used form to suggest a message.  I particularly like this.
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In the poem, My Mother Hangs Up, on pages eighty-four, eighty-five and eighty-six, is presented
in couplets mimicking the back- and -forth conversation between a daughter and a mother on the phone and the masks a daughter wears for her mother’s sake.
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I can feel my mind panting.
She asks me to save the program.
I almost convinced her to fly
to New York to see the performance
with me but her knee is stiff
and she can’t manage stairs.
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The daughter persuades, the mother resists. The poem continues in this venue.  Marvin sets up scenarios of her past, her mother’s reactions and the ultimate concern that her mother thinks she knows her.  It is a fine example of two people in a complicated relationship, a mother and a daughter,
who understand each other but not in the way they think they do.  Mother love does that.  Daughter love does that, and Marvin hits the target on this.
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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.

Poolside at the Dearborn Inn by Cal Freeman

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By Michael Collins
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Although the individual poems that congregate in Cal Freeman’s recent collection, Poolside at the Dearborn Inn, are often as subtle as they are profound, the constellations between them engage with even more subtle interconnections of psychological and spiritual mystery. Drawing on subject matter rooted in the daily and remembered worlds of family and community – and often nature – in and around working-class Detroit, the poems form associations that interrelate nuances ranging throughout global and historical affairs but maintain grounding in their abiding value of humbly upheld impressions of human compassion and resilience. The poems respond to our world through their own twin joys of language and music, their diction characterized by inventive, eclectic, and often overlooked or underappreciated words and phrases, reminding us of the diversity of expressive potential present in our inherited language while also allowing the more playful improvisations to celebrate what is yet and daily present to the eye, the ear, the mind, and the heart.
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Opening the collection to “An Ode to the Proprietor of the Eastern Great Lakes Window Washing Company,” we are confronted immediately with both the uncertain nature of images and the deeper revelatory value beneath their instability. The speaker clearly draws on an esoteric and thoroughly engaged faith in invisible connections between things and persons that can seem disparate on surface levels, their collisions chaotic, yet the poems turn back on nearly every page from reified forms of evangelism, rather evoking multiple possible lens of mystery through associations that span fields of human understanding and experience:
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…some images belie the substance
that composes everything
                                                                  or underpins it or
                                                                   slackens it.
Call that substance what you will:
quark or dark matter;
                                                                  carbon, basketball,
                                                                  or atom.
I have my theories and suspicions. (8)
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Following the poem’s associative meditation that leaps between basketball, poetry, prayer, and the “window washing business that’s hell / on his [bother-in-law’s] back,“ each of which to a degree recontextualizes the others, the poem arrives at a negative definition of the role of poetry in human life that is equal parts terse and welcoming:
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If vocation is all we have of meaning, dispassionate absurdity
is earned, and I am only tangentially alive. I could clean
this window and end up killing several birds over
the course of several days. It’s not the southwest wind
that makes a ladder or a tamarack sway.
It’s not the job of poems to be windows. (8-9)
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Poetry is not made of surface vision here, especially in the form of the literalistic view represented by the window, through which seeing “into” someone else’s world or perceiving “from” one’s own is accomplished by attention to the surfaces of the perceived images, even those surfaces that may seem to house mysteries by materially concealing, to a degree, other material surfaces. Or, from another perspective, perhaps, we are allowed the interpretation that Freeman’s negative definition of the poem implies that it simply cannot be the window in any case because it is itself a way of perceiving from both – or many – directions at once.
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One enlivening way in which a poem, both in rhetorical and musical form, complicates and bears witness to the “substance” that underlies and connects images is by presenting them on its own interrelating fields of meaning and complexity. “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians” is a lively example of using rhetorical forms to move the poem forward through weaving associations while maintaining a vital energy of open-ended exploration. We open with inversion both in word order and part of speech as the ubiquitous meme-maker and depth-flattener .gif is taken back into the realm of genuine creative practice: “Better to paint a gif than to gif a song, / to fail at aphorism than to whittle the world / to a disingenuous pith” (14). It may seem counterintuitive subject matter at first, but, if you think about it within the context of art history, there’s really no less reason to paint a gif than a bowl of fruit – or a can of soup. The word play invokes the playful joy of the transformation from an artifact of a digital wasteland to an object of perception lent dignity by the intention and practice of perceiving to honor the musician and invoke the music trapped in the .gif: creativity as a spiritual practice and vice versa.
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This playfulness overruns formal definitions in waves of trans-disciplinary synesthesia, again, a rebellion against the rubber stamping and schlock-piling of the uniqueness of any of the genuine creations or their creative modes by using one to express alogically the singularity of the next:
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F-holes warped
into bruised eye sockets, an SM-57 mic aimed
for a mess of pencil lines and paint.
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You’ve promised this won’t wind up
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being about love, but contour
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hatching is as devotional as prayer
or malediction if we’re to believe
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the baffled music or the leach
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of smurfy lichen. You’ve promised
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that this won’t wind up being about the road,
but you’ve taken the Kelly-green froth
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as horseback, the shambolic equitation
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for an unaccompanied progression
beneath which the air always seems
about to kick. If you trade prevention
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for elegy, you’ll be much more impactful,
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say the beer cozies with “Suck It, Suicide”
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printed on their stomachs. It’s hard to argue
anyone’s been saved but a precious few
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were named and then forgotten. (14)
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The self-reflexive refrain of negated promises deepens our sense of the speaker’s genuine enthrallment with prayerful, though not pious, creative activity as music becomes visual art before traveling on to the trope of the road, which we’re all familiar with from a song or two, and then we ride off on the contour hatching, which has become, in turn, “smurfy lichen,” then “Kelly-green froth” before returning to the road of the song’s own progressions, reassociated with the journey by horse “beneath which the air always seems / about to kick.” The conditional sentence that follows allows for the suspension of the reader’s realization that its cagey proverb is, in actuality a paraphrase of a beer cozy. The cozy, another quotidian creation, inverts a more probable daily phrase, “suicide sucks,” into an overt confrontation with despair through humor that both draws on the convivial illogic of the pub and the bulwark of human gathering against the nullifying isolation of modernity, which probably wasn’t that recent an invention if we’re being honest, just less efficiently mass produced.
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We arrive from our errant quest in the final statement, which uses misdirection, pun, and allusion to remind us that we need to read lines of poetry more than once, from more than one perspective, and often with more than one form of vision. At first glance it appears another negative statement about our prospects of salvation, until we arrive at hinge of hope when the compound sentence feints at reversal, but then we realize that the “precious few” we were being led to hold out hope for “were named and then forgotten.” Upon reflection, though, this ephemeral “naming” rather parallels the process by which the original song was born, probably titled or “named” (like a knight or a religious; sometimes musicians don’t go by their given names either…), only to be gif-ed into two-dimension underworld of internet flatland, only to inspire new creative life in the form of spontaneous artwork – never mind the poem itself, which finds occasion to revivify all of these other “named and forgotten” things along the way. Secondary, creatively constructed identities and fabricated artifacts are no less sacred, for they have inspired and been remade into this “shambolic” lyric of unfolding of visions, perhaps paradoxically all the more vital for the synergistic ingenuity necessary to do so. Things become sacred here when humans make and name them so as part of a continual process in which that which leads and returns to life identifies itself as such in vision and in practice.
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Wow, something unseen sure appears to have wanted me to go on a while longer than conventional about that poem; this stuff is contagious. Let’s read another poem to break up all of this reviewing:
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At Evergreen and Brace
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“The looking is what saves us”
—Simone Weil
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When my father would tell me
my eyes itched because they still
had sleep in them, I’d imagine
a slumbering boy intaglioed
in a communion wafer and wait
until the afternoon to scrape
their corners clean. Those morning
rides down unplowed Evergreen
in his two-door Escort to
St. Thomas Aquinas School
where each afternoon we were told
by a gentle old priest
that the soul would never die,
told to be selfless, told stories
about saints who tamed wolves
and gave away their clothes.
Eye and sacred heart,
road frictionless and cold,
yet textured like a birthday cake,
auguries of blood and wine —
the mind’s eye, maudlin
and injudicious, still visits
three consecutive empty lots
blanketed in white, a windbreak
of dead cedar protecting
a flame-licked northern wall,
thorny canes that droop
with raspberries in summer,
and traces crenulations
made by boots, as though the patterns
of those winter mornings
were their own theology, a path
down which we can return. (18)
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Here we see one branch of the psychic root system supporting the spirited connective celebrations of “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians.” Memory, here of a fortunate upbringing in which the child was protected, both by the safe transit represented by the car and the life-affirming worldview of the priest, from prematurely confronting certain of life’s eventual tragedies long enough to cultivate the relative practices of trust, grace, and fellowship in their developmental forms. The adult speaker is able to reflect upon all of the constructions put around us the adults and communities of our childhoods, the nurturing ones anyway, to allow us for a time to see, to learn to see, as children: illogically or from misunderstood axioms, but also from a sense of interconnection that protects from exposure to the elements and despair, that survives and balances the mature “mind’s eye, / maudlin and injudicious,” which still visits the “empty lots” of the child’s world as if by religious pilgrimage. This is, inherently, an “as though” return, the speaker balancing awareness of what has been irrevocably lost to time in the external world with what survives as a holy ghost in practices of gratitude that support creative generations like those in the previous piece, neither any less psychologically “real” or sustaining for their allowed subjunctive nature, poems of gentle complexity, living elegies, parcellates that watch over alphas born from omegas.
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These interdependent intrapsychic relationships are, to some degree mirrored in the macrocosmic mysteries of the poems in the collection with titles that respond to questions the reader has either just asked somewhere in the white space, or perhaps has asked at some point and then forgotten, or would have asked if they had known the answer would be a poem because, well, who wouldn’t call forth such a generous response? We may be simple, but we’re no fools. These titles are another way in which Freeman weaves creations from materials that, while no longer present if they ever were in any literal sense, support what emanates from their new communities of associations as their legacies, as if continuing a conversation that may or may not have ever begun, similar to the earlier dancing among those that were “named and then forgotten.” These titles also locate the reader a kind of lyric superposition that holds together connections across time and space, which, luckily for whatever can or cannot be said of the continuity of universal mysteries, seems to be something they seem to have always seemed to have done anyway.  This arrangement is mirrored within the longer poem “The Answer to Your Question Is, ‘Yes, but Not as Some Unremitting Paradise’” in the speaker’s address of the self “like a puzzled friend” in order to shift the perspective, and consequently the context, of a seemingly daunting moral-intellectual conundrum:
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I address myself like a puzzled friend:
With all of the atrocities taking place,
why are you concerned with the plight
of a washed-up union trucker on a fixed income?
There are far greater indignities
than fixing your neighbors’ foreign
cars in exchange for beer. (22-3)
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The poem further broadens in scope to include the other as mythic perspective through connections between classical text and present lifeworld that quicken the former and lend the inherited dignity of the myth to the latter:
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Demodocus fuses epithet to melody
and rests the lyre’s tortoise shell
against his stomach to feel
the exiled creature’s reverberating
voice, and in this gesture
we begin to understand
the subtle difference
between poetry and song.
Outside the hall, young Phaeacians
hold contests of skill
in honor of the gods.
A hook shot clanks
from a back rim, soles
squeak over maple planks. (40)
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This fusion of ancient form with quickening contemporary life is given a more musical incarnation, both in its cadences and reference to the evolved form itself, in “Mixolydian,” a catalogue of the collection’s signature negative statements which serve to invoke their opposites that resist definitional quantification.  In this case music is the poem’s enigma, divine in the sense that it reflects and performs being per se, continually reborn in performance, allowing and celebrating the new life of inherited cultural form:
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Not the clipper ships, creaking,
cruciform above the fog,
not the poplars whose leaves dangle
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like tongues of cows in summer,
not the ironing boards
and bent umbrellas chucked in the canal,
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not the water frothed by chemicals to spit,
not cliffs falling sheer to a bottle-green sea.
Neither the laughter gone unpunished
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nor the laughter limned in vein-blue smoke,
not the combers that roll
like sculpted copper shoulders in setting sun
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or the radiator tines destroyed
by rodents’ teeth. Not the antithesis of beauty
or the banyans sowing themselves
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in cinderblock, not the angels
you say you’re listening to
when you close your eyes to play. (41)
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As we read the incantation and sound play in these lines, the speaker saying the angels aren’t there merely denies, as we have seen throughout the collection, the reifying or literalizing entrapment of angels, recalling the images we opened the discussion with that “belie the substance / that composes everything,” kind of like saying “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” in a song that palpably embodies and thereby “means” each mutually affirming aspect of itself.
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You can find the book here: Poolside at the Dearborn Inn
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Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.
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Torohill by Donna Reis

toro
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By Karen Corinne Herceg
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Death and disappointment can be called life’s great equalizers. No amount of money, privilege, or cryogenics has yet found a way to exempt any of us. Grief spares no one, even in our best attempts at denial. It has arguably the most profound impact on our journey through life in everything from the smallest disappointment to larger tragedies and into death. No matter your perspective on life or religious beliefs, there is a universal depth of feeling that cannot be denied when we are faced with the hard truth of loss. The question remains: what do we do with it?
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Donna Reis knows a lot about loss. She’s known it since childhood. She’s known it when a horrific car accident at the age of seventeen left her disabled and struggling for years to recover the semblance of a normal life. She’s known it through failed relationships, an abusive marriage, and finally in the loss of a long-awaited life partner, a husband who passed from cancer several years ago, taken all too soon. But she’s spun gold from the threads of despair, just as she works so adeptly and laboriously over her needlepoint, and certainly as she’s done in her poetry, weaving her thoughts into the fabric of our consciousness.
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In her new book of poems, Torohill, Reis revisits her past in a very human way that is intensely reflective, sometimes brutally stark, and often quite humorous. If comedy is just the other face of tragedy, then our catharsis lies within the synthesis of both. Reis knows this instinctively and expertly weaves both through her poems. It renders them remarkably touching but not in a saccharin or intentional manner. She allows feelings to vacillate and often startle and surprise us organically and authentically. A life of such challenges and loss might create a poetic style that holds the emotions apart, examining them from the safety of distance, the perspective of an observer. But Reis participates and dives into the feelings and what she uncovers is a landscape of multi-faceted responses to death and tragedy: irony, humor, the savory sweetness of memories, all weaving our stories toward what is inevitable but with comfort in the real, in the truth, and the shared connectedness of our journeys. No matter their diversity and deviations, there is a similitude and combined solace in our unavoidable finales. We join hands in communion with the unavoidable destiny of finality. Reis’ poems convey integral parts of our emotional journey through life’s predicaments, and an honest response to navigating the precarious nature of it all. She recognizes that our best defense is always the creative impulse that outlives physical limitations and memorializes our spirit’s eternal imprint.
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Torohill is the name of the ancestral home of Reis’ late husband, Tom. Ironically, the hit and run car accident that took such a physical and mental toll on Reis occurred on the road at the bottom of that same property when she was just seventeen and still in high school. She wouldn’t meet Tom until several decades later, and it would challenge her psychologically to return to the scene of such a horrific memory, but it would be under much happier and life sustaining circumstances. There is an almost magical, fairy tale quality to the story, except she will sit alone in the house after Tom’s passing and eventually leave it.
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The opening poem, “Shoes,” reflects upon the many shoes found on the ocean floor from the sinking of the Titanic, that grand ship to be the greatest to ever sail, yet had only one disastrous, aborted voyage. Like items on view in Holocaust camps and museums, they represent at once many individual lives resting together that touch us with both their specificity and collective humanity. Reis concludes how they’ve never really left: “row after row, so still/still there.” If we were here, we were never gone, living inside one another in experiences, in memories, in life, and even in death. In “Answering Machine” the theme returns of items that remain after someone has passed, even the voice of Reis’ husband in the recorded phone message:
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Sometimes I’m jealous
you went first, as I tie
your loose ends,
dust your collections
and preserve your voice
for anyone who calls.
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In “Mexican Standoff” we learn Reis and her father, a pastor, were abandoned by her mother. Her father follows her mother to Mexico but is unsuccessful in bringing her back. Instead, he returns with a dress her mother sent, a poor replacement. Reis feels she will betray her father by wearing it but decides to wear it for her graduation from high school. Elaborately embroidered with flowers, ribbons, and two love birds, she is driven to the ceremony in an ambulance and a wheelchair as she continues to recover from the accident. The dress is slipped over her “sutured belly/fractured pelvis and casted legs, like Disney birds/dressing Cinderella” in an amazing contrast between a celebration and an incredibly challenging day. She concludes the image: “Two plaster feet peered/from the dress’s hem like white doves/legs elevated like wings.” The recurrent theme of Reis rising to meet adversity is evident in her choice of words such as “elevated” and “wings,” a persistent will to survive.
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The absence of maternal love and support are starkly evident in “How Do You Like Them Apples,” with a mother who spews platitudes that are meant to hurt, where “Compliments were doled out/when Hell froze over.” In “My Father Invents An Alternate Life” she imagines what he would have hoped for in a wife, a supportive one with “pies cooling in the larder,” who would “embroider cushioned kneelers/with Ecclesiastical petit point, a labor/of the finest love I could imagine.” That mother and wife did not exist, but Reis knows this and explores it. She often returns to the theme of needlepoint and stitching, metaphorically speaking to our desire to bind together, to hold together, despite what tears us apart. She visits this again in “Festival of Broken Needles” after the passing of her beloved husband. She stitches to piece together what is lost, to “sew them back together/as if they never parted.” She meets grief head on but is not immune to the lure and comfort of magical thinking. She balances this against the realization of hard facts. In “God’s Shepherd,” about her dying father, he sees that “he was already one/of many sheep crossing the plank/to a ship about to sail,” as she returns to face stark realities.
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In “Please Forward” Reis thinks back on her “last summer of innocence” before her body is marred by the accident and life changed forever both personally and in the wake of political and societal shifts dispelling the carefree illusions of youth. Her humor shines through in “Learning to Sail,” in which she misunderstands a word in class that changes her perception and leads to a litany of misperceptions we can all relate to, then delivers a punch in a final line: “And once I said hate when I meant love.” Reis will experience a host of misjudged and misguided relationships in her search for love and connection and never shies from naming names and places that bring a very personal yet universal imperative to her poems. She dreams of boyfriends and romanticizes “walking the moors, like Plath and Hughes” or meeting “in our secret/garden among ghostly irises” but also admits to the dark side of our dueling thoughts. In “Amber Bottles” she longs to be out and walking while recovering with “leg elevated for three years,” and later laments wanting that time back to read and rest, finally deciding her muse is drawn to “amber bottles, and a stranger/in the corner with a crooked smile.” Reis is always searching for that special connection but also recognizes the contradictions we face within ourselves, the wounds we carry that can easily distort the outcomes. “Botched Job” describes a dysfunctional marriage, a husband who tries to commit suicide, and her recognition that the relationship is over and “we were one breath from death.” Reis fights to live despite the tragedies and challenges. The dark side calls to her often in her thoughts or through others, but her refrain is “Not yet, not yet” as in these last lines from “The Reverend’s Irreverent Daughter.” The title of this poem aptly describes Reis, her rebellious spirit, her unwillingness to relent to misfortune, her desire to embrace life and hope. In her homage to poet John Berryman, she relates to his despair and early death, but that resignation does not live in Reis. She notes that had he lived and wrote longer, at this point in time he would have been dead anyway. We will all die, and here Reis tells us that hastening that moment is wrong and speaks to Berryman stating, “Your throat still had songs stirring/down deep.” Her life force is too strong and is not about giving up or giving in. In “Purgatory” she describes everyone’s present moment as one of loss through fear and imaginary thinking that remind us we live more by diminishment than expansion: “Most believe if they step off the ledge,/they’ll plummet to Hell.”
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Reis returns to the scene of her horrific accident when she marries Tom who lives in his ancestral home, Torohill. Ironically it is at the bottom of Torohill where the accident occurred thirty-one years prior. Despite her fears, she faces them and comes full circle in this new home and, finally, with a true love, sharing in the inheritance of the house’s history. Her “Letter to Jane Kenyon” parallels Kenyon’s joining poet Donald Hall at his home and making it her own as well. An assimilation takes place based on a shared love that overcomes apprehension of moving into someone else’s settled landscape. When Reis states, “Yet as I ascend, passing the old scene/I resurrected from to marry and live above,” she decides to move forward, to “realize I’ve come home.” The faith in her decision is evident in her choice of words such as “ascend,” “resurrected,” and “above.” These are words of triumph over tragedy, of life over death. “Grey Rock, Squirrel Island” presents us with another perspective on the meaning of houses and home. Reis and her husband pay a visit to his cousin’s home rife with antiques and nostalgic memorabilia, and Reis takes a bath sinking “into a claw-foot tub with a glass of wine to drink in the sunset.” Shortly they receive a visit from the caretaker who advises them they are in the wrong house. It’s a humorous moment, but the underlying message is that the people make the home.
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 “The Last Night” is a heart wrenching goodbye as Reis lies with her husband, curled into him with her back against him. She wants to turn but can’t. She concludes with “When I awoke/he was gone.” This short piece perfectly captures the conflict of denial and acceptance. In “Miracle Whip & Woolite” she writes of going to the lawyer’s office for probate. Little nuances and remembrances constantly trigger grief because they’re so personal and specific. She realizes she will have to ask someone else’s help to open a bottle of Woolite “because you won’t be here to help me.” Finality sets in with “You will never, ever be here again.” Later in “Orientation,” Tom appears to her two days after his death. Their “eyes locked and we/were too far away to speak.” There’s a sad triumph in this moment, of connection beyond time, but still “too far away.”
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The poems of loss morph back and forth as memories stir pleadings to “Come home, Baby. I have a place/set just for you.” In “You’ve Left” there is more resignation as she visits the grave and says, “I’m certain/you’ve left, seeing only parched/grass and a marker.” But in “Great Horned Owls,” which concludes the collection, she elevates his status in her life and memories and states, “You always knew/death would swoop in on grey wings/and carry you to the highest tree.” In this collection, Reis rises to that place in “the highest tree” both in creativity and in spirit. At the beginning of Torohill Reis quotes Rilke. It sums up all we have and all we must do:
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Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
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Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
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Give me your hand.
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In these poems Reis extends her hand, and we won’t be disappointed if we take it.
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Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays, and reviews. Her second book of poetry, Out From Calaboose, was released in 2017. A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with notable poets Philip Schultz, John Ashbery and William Packard. She lives in France. Her website is http://www.karencorinneherceg.com
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The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang

sunflower

By Alexis David

In Jackie Wang’s dreamy collection of poems, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (National Book Award Finalist), Wang casts her own spell over us, the reader. The book contains a series of dreams. When I was young, my sister would always tell my family her dreams at breakfast. Both my sister and Jackie Wang appear to have a deep intellectual inner life. Dreams are a way of sorting out the chaos of this rich interior life.

Wang writes her dreams in an immediate present tense that is both intoxicating and disorienting, “A woman is trying to kill me. At first she acts friendly but then turns on/me. She is spying on me” (33). When I review books of poetry, I spend a long time with them. I carry them around with me to the places I go. While reading Wang’s work, I found myself at a coffee shop with my husband and two of our friends. We were talking about ghosts. Suddenly, a woman with a tattoo of a ghost appeared in the line. We all noticed this and found it strange. My friend tells me that she believes in ghosts and she tells me that after a person dies, you have 40 days for them to stay in this realm and then they must go to the next sphere. I found this incredibly interesting. It reminds me of Jackie Wang’s work, which is so influential on the reader, that I found my syntax changing to replicate hers.

I bring up ghosts because Wang’s poetry is otherworldly. It is partly academic, partly fairy tale and partly just badass. In “Survivor Trauma,” the speaker wakes up from a dream, unhappy to be awake.  She says, “I like the person I was in the dream” (26). There is a sense that the speaker feels more truly herself in her dreams, even if they are, at times, unsettling and otherworldly.

I don’t read poetry in a New Criticism kind of way. I am deeply curious about the author. Because of this, I often search the web for biographical information. I found a talk by Jackie Wang about “the oceanic feeling.” Romain Rolland first used this phrase in 1927 in a letter to Sigmund Freud. It is the feeling of being one with eternity and appears to be related to the Lacanian theory where an infant does not perceive itself to be a different entity from its parents.

Wang’s interest in “the oceanic feeling” may in part dictate an entire book spent dreaming, “In the dream I mutter/Capitalism is not a bed of sunflowers/as I hobble around Wall Street/in broken high heels” (21). This image is beautifully encompassing of the book: undertones of dream states, of longing for a different economic system and oppression of women—the high heels that are broken.

Additionally, this is partly a book of pilgrimage, of a speaker who has “always been without country” (1). In “Life is a Place Where It’s Forbidden to Live,” the speaker is a traveler, someone who is on a journey to “The Asian market,” “the Palace of Snacks” (1). In “The Phantasmagoria of Failure” the speaker talks about “a fellow lost-girl” who “when I hear her speak another/language to her mother. . . it indicated she had been transplanted” (84). It is tempting to say that this is a collection of poems from a writer of color looking for identity; this may be partly true, but Wang writes with a disassociation that I am guessing comes from her view of “the oceanic.” Instead of the speaker trying to fit into a particular country or region, the speaker is searching for something better, a limitless feeling. However, there are also thematic impulses of not fitting in, “D calls to tell me I’m not a real person of color” (14). This book may also be addressing both the loneliness of dreams and the loneliness of perceiving yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in. In “[A Moment Breaking Loose from the Past Becomes the Voice Inside Your Head,” Wang writes, “Here/there is no Friend/just the soundless reverberations of/the disappeared, an errant herd/of revenants who roam the page in search of a body faithful/enough to hold the memory” (124).

Often from waking from a dream, I feel exhausted. My own dreams are strenuous and tiring. Wang’s dreams are more invigorating. They read like small police dramas, like journal recollections with the people in them going by letters instead of their real names.

Perhaps there is a constant need for dreaming: “I said we had a shared dream” (17) or a need for “the oceanic” as a means for connecting with other people, even if these people are, like a figure “Angela” who is a “decapitated angel”(23) that the speaker carries around with her. In writing down her dreams and turning them into poems, Wang plays with the idea of logic. Both dreams and poems don’t often follow our waking life logic. Wang’s poems unnerve us, but also soothe us. This book of poems will unsettle you and by the end of the book, you may feel that you have woken up into a strange new morning.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Sunflower-Cast-Spell-Save-Void/dp/1643620363

Alexis David is a fiction writer, poet, and illustrator. She has published the chapbook, The Names of Animals I Have Loved (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). She holds an MFA in fiction from New England College and a MA in education from Canisius College.

Two Poems by Alexander Lazarus Wolff

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Night Thoughts
-For Gabe
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The last light of the day drained away
            like the residue of water in a bath,
                        the sky declining from cobalt
                                    to an obsidian hue. I look
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out of my window at the empty streets,
            my eyes sweeping over the lifeless
                        landscape for a minute or two.
                                     What could possibly enliven this place?
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After all, the day fades away, and night
            robs the streets of life — yard after yard
                         of weathered tarmac, extending to the skyline.
                                        This is merely another night:
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the moon wanes, the seconds press forward,
            marching off with each tick of the clock,
                        and midnight hovers overhead. Moonlight leaks
                                    through my window, before settling
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 to a subtle luminescence, an inconspicuous
            strand of light, lying across my study’s floor.
                        The night confronts me with a quietude,
                                    and I wait, hoping for something to break this silence.
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 Snowfall
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The snowfall brushes the landscape white
and birds make faint arcs in the arctic air
before perching on branches
flecked with frost. Dusk paints the day
the color of lilacs, and I think of
that winter when I watched the snow fall
and accumulate into mounds. It was then—
after failing to kill myself for the second time—
that I pledged myself to life — to the scent
of violets and the streets anointed with ice.
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The spirit now reflects on the days
spent making marks in my skin with a razor,
each cut a straight line as If I was trying
to tally up the many days spent waiting
for a better time. Those nights when I wandered
around the catacombs of my mind, lost
and with no one in sight, hoarding
whatever shrapnel of light I could rummage
from that bleak landscape.
Now, four seasons removed, as the snow
continues falling, coating the grass,
and the night floods through my window,
I sink into the stillness in my bones. I watch the snow fall.
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alex
Alexander Lazarus Wolff is a student at the College of William & Mary. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Best American Poetry website, The Citron Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, South Florida Poetry Journal, Main Street Rag, Serotonin, and elsewhere. You can find him and more of his work on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wolffalex108/ and on Instagram: @wolffalex108 and http://www.alexanderlazaruswolff.com/
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Two Poems by Donna Pucciani

Hedgehog

Hedgehog
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I’ve seen a real hedgehog only once,
while coming home from the pub.
We’d pulled into the driveway,
and there, in the headlights,
a small, sculptured roly-poly
prickled and stared, breathing
its own Zodiac sign into our mutual
portion of dark.
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It had waddled right out
of an English storybook
with small woodland creatures
to scatter its magic in the moonless
garden of elves and trolls,
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daring me to become a child again,
to enter a world of spider webs, berries,
and a mythology of hidden gold
in a forest where indecipherable mammals
chatter among themselves in strange tongues.
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Turning its pointed snout
towards the car, it met my eyes
in a brief moment of quasi-recognition
before rustling back into the wild
geraniums, leaving the rhubarb
sleeping alongside the garage,
quivering.
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Another Country
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I am once again in a foreign country.
Clipped Anglo-Saxon is spoken here,
motorway traffic reversed, pubs
pull pints for the locals.
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The villages are the same,
yet marked by plague,
like Eyam’s doors, where
centuries ago, “x” chalked
on a cottage door meant malady,
where a virus took half the village,
sequestered as they were.
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The Vicar’s wife still haunts
the belfry of the parish church,
where death records now lie,
dusty and mildewed, but still
legible, in a book nobody
wants to read.
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But for me, this is homecoming
after several years, I who need
brothers and sisters and cousins,
boiled vegetables, seas of roadside
daffodils, birdsong falling like rain,
hillsides glowing neon green.
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The chimney swifts speak
the language of larks, and nightingales
answer in the deepening dusk.
Say your prayers.  Ask to die like this,
a blackbird asleep among the stars,
as the sun breathes its last among the rills,
and the moon comes out to find me.
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donna
Donna Pucciani, a Chicago-based writer, has published poetry in Shi Chao Poetry, Agenda, Meniscus, ParisLitUp, Poetry Salzburg, The Pedestal, and other journals. Her seventh and most recent book of poetry is EDGES.

Two Poems by Michael Gushue

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Screen Kiss: Frankenstein
(in memoriam the Westmont Theater, Haddon Twp., NJ)
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In the darkened castle
you’re alive, my Monster;
sintered flesh
roused by lightning,
hands of sutured
words, isolate
heart tongued in thunder.
Torment, my Monster,
births you headlong
into a world scorched
by kindling hate.
In the lake your reflection
is a broken face,
a drowned flower.
Men pursue you,
my Monster. What flickers
and surges through their blood?
You’ll never appease them.
Already the windmill
is burning around you.
Timbers scourge into flame,
collapse around you,
my Monster, around
your ill-fitting body
unsewn by loss. Black
waters close over you.
Then the lights come up
on the barren moors,
the exile of asphalt and gravel
outside the movie theater.
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Beauty’s Arsenal
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Terra Nova, where the jade of spruce trees
blankets a slope down to a cove’s blue water.
Why is there so much beauty?
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In summer, in a field of sunflowers, among
heads bowed by whorls of seed, countless
goldfinches stitch the air an ecstatic yellow.
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Or a conch shell’s glossy involute. Or Messier
3’s clustered diadem. Or songs without words,
soaked in presence. Or an autumnal night—
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we sat in a dark car. You traced a heart
on the fogged glass. Your eyes full of light.
Amber. Beauty’s knife neither wounds nor heals.
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It cuts free from all anchors, delivers us
to hazard, to the world’s wild, rolling swells.
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Michael Gushue Color
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.Michael Gushue is the co-founder of the heteronymic nanopress Poetry Mutual. His books are Pachinko Mouth (Plan B Press), Conrad (Silver Spoon Press), Gather Down Women (Pudding House Press), and, in collaboration with CL Bledsoe, I Never Promised You A Sea Monkey (Pretzelcoatl Press). He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C.