poems

Sojourners of the In-Between By Gregory Djanikian

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

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

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

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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Refuse by Julian Randall

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By Lynette G. Esposito

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

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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Journeyman’s Suitcase by Mike James

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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In Journeyman’s Suitcase by Mike James, published by Luchador Press, clear questions and observations open a literary window of perspective and viewpoint. The fifty-two pages of this short tome are mostly one-stanza experiences that read like someone’s notebook as the writer interprets representative images into logical conclusions.
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For example, in the poem False Confessions on page three, James presents things that never happened in a one-stanza truncated sentence form.
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                   The time you panhandled for tattoos. The monthly
                   payments for transcendence.  All the famous people waived at or
                   had orgies with.  The time you found the burnt wreckage
                   of flaming shoes.  Childhood spent tossing pennies behind the
                   Red Dirt Cabaret.  The mother who worked as both a nun and a
                   stripper. The medical journal contribution about aspirin as a
                   cure for love sick penguins.  How you were the first o capitalize
                   and conjugate KAPOW.  That ability to translate any fairy
                   language into Yiddish.  The parakeets who sang duets while
                   you scrambled and re-scrambled the eggs from the plain white
                   chickens you raised. The prize-winning rooster from Borneo.
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The choices of the false confessions suggest bravado and humor as well as serving a good dose of how our memory works and what we are willing to confess to even if there is little truth in it.
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James uses this same tone and technique in the poem, She Could Have been a Seller of Indulgences on page twenty-one This poem shows a perception of time as it controls and/or influences one’s choices.  The poem is presented in a two–stanza format.
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                        It was never easy for her especially on Tuesdays, as we know
                        how Tuesdays are with their leftover promises from the start
                        from the start of the week and the day before.  It’s probably not enough
                        that every third day she wore a sun dress to keep the sun
                        interested and nearby.
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The reader is introduced to the she of the poem by what she wears and on what day. she wears it.  There is a certain tonal sorrow for this SHE as the unnamed person who seems to be holding on by the thread of a perhaps unneeded sun dress on a specific day of the week. The answer the narrator gives is to keep the sun near and interested. This is almost like a Don Quixote scene without windmills.  In its place is the sun.
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The second stanza gives details of her life and the dry chardonnay she shares at her dining room court with her nail technicians and everyone else.  It is like a short story without unnecessary details.
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In part two of this volume, the journey continues as James explores the everyday symbols that define everyday life. The image of a map is used in Too Far on page thirty-nine.
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                               A map keeps you from too far.
                               That’s a map’s job.
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                               The best map would reflect stars.
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This poem like so many of the poems in this book, suggest in a direct way the meaning, both literal and figurative, of everyday objects that guide us.
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James demonstrates his prowess in observing and analyzing poetically how the world works.  The book is a pleasure to read and quick paced.
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.
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What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

What the Owl Taught Me
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By Byron Beynon
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In this, her first full collection, Annest Gwilym makes an impressive debut. She brings to life, through rich observation, her deeply felt connection with the natural world. She inhabits this world with an objective and sympathetic eye. Landscape and place are important to an understanding of what Gwilym is trying to say in these poems. The creatures that inhabit them become the primary focus, whether they are mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, fish and marine life, they all play a part in the delicate balance and rhythm of a world we all share and live in.
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As Ted Hughes discovered as a teenager, animals have a “vivid life of their own, outside mine” and he began to “look at them……from their own point of view.” Gwilym’s poem “Last Night I Became An Emperor Moth” begins with this view in mind:
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“I rode through the liquid night,
as a melon-slice moon crested a bank of cloud.
Part of the hush and curve of the universe;
Pleiades above me a diamond cluster ring.
Clothed in starlight, wings powdered,
furry belly glossy and plump.”
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Gwilym also casts an innocent eye in the poem “Whelk Shell” when
“As a child they looked like ice-cream cones”……and “Held to the ear I hear/the rushing blood and heartbeat/of a living being.”
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There are several focused observations in her work such as:
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“sheep like drops of candlewax/Spilled over bare green hills.” (Driving Through Sheep Country)
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“Hair-thin legs on stilts” (Daddy Longlegs in the Attic)
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“They huddle like conspirators/in slick black suits…” (Crows)
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“they crest/ like the pure notes of a clarinet.” (Dolphins At Porthdinllaen)
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and from the poem “Great Crested Newt” she takes us to a world inhabited by a “Creature of two elements,/he waves his dinosaur tail /at his chosen one, beguiles/her with cologne/in his brightest spring suit.”
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There is also that sense of fate which many creatures have little or no choice to determine:
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“Ear-tags show these beasts are marked for death;” (September Cattle) and again where trees are uprooted and houses built “foxes /stalk the shrinking woods.” (The Fox Road)
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As the Anglo-American writer Stephen Pain says we “experience a whole range of feelings towards animals, and hope and believe that they are reciprocated. They produce, to paraphrase David Hume (author of A Treatise of Human Nature), “a sensible concern” in us. The birth and death of animals (not all of course) elicit from us sympathy. The nature and extent of this sympathy has evolved over centuries into something complex and provides the foundation for our appreciation of animal verse.”
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This concern can be heard in the poet’s voice as she looks outside late at night from a bedroom window at a family of foxes “a swirl of autumn,/with a feline leap from a fence they landed,/velvet-footed, spangle-faced, a mother/and kits who rolled and played…”(City Foxes)
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Gwilym has two patterned poems, “Wasps’ Nest” and “Golden Child”, both arranged in interesting shapes on the page. In her poem “Golden Child” the endangered Undulate Ray is: “Beauty queen of rays,/she hides her cartoon face underneath where she/grins with 50 teeth. She bears children in a purse/fit for a mermaid.”
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We are closer to the poet’s home territory in “Seal At Play” where in the marina she perceives the unfamiliar in familiar surroundings;
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“A water-slick head surfaces and his eyes
watch the watchers, as sunlight glosses him.
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Later, the retreating tide will lead him away,
dragged by the moon and stars.”
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In “Encounter” an unexpected meeting with a mare unfolds “she is as polished as a chestnut just out of its thorny armour,” when the horse is offered some grass to eat a trust develops as:
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“the mare lowers her head
and eats, lipping my hand
as ears flick away flies.”
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This is a mature, accessible first collection of forty poems, written with imagination and craft.  Her keen perception allows the reader to experience an understanding of familiar creatures in a receding and threatened world from a different slant.
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You can find the book here: WHAT THE OWL TAUGHT ME

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Byron Beynon’s work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, The London Magazine, Agenda, San Pedro River Review, Planet, Poetry New Zealand, Wasafiri and the anthology Moments of Vision (Seren).  A former co-editor of Roundyhouse poetry magazine.  Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions). His selected poems appeared in 2018 (Bilingual: English/Romanian – published by Bibliotecha Universalis/Collectiile/ Revistei “Orizont Literar Contemporan”, translations by Dr Monica Manolachi, University of Bucharest)
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Reviewing Jennifer Firestone’s Two Latest Books of Poetry: Ten and Story

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By Greg Ben

Within six months, poet Jennifer Firestone published two pivotal works: Ten and Story. Both books of poetry follow 2017’s remarkable Gates & Fields (published via Belladonna*), and both resemble a conceptual understanding of their predecessor’s interest in poetic movement and observation, voice, and the poet’s relationship to time and space.

The two leafless trees operate by wind,
look happy.
When one behaves the brain responds, the gesture
absorbed. (Ten, page 11)

In Ten, the first of the two published works, Firestone presents a series of 10-line poems that were written during her time restricted to a single room. In circumstances that follow knee surgery, these poems of constraint are matched with and blended through a second sequence of prose narratives exploring the underlying architecture of emotion, livelihood, and creative liberation.

While the 10-line poems are fascinating on their own, the prose interjects and offers context, and clues into the why of the writing and the how of the writer. The earliest section of prose describe the moments leading into the surgery, which would result in the 10-line project: “What you can say is there was a burning, up, up the body. They had given you the meds too late. Isn’t that basic, make sure the patient gets her meds before pain kicks in. You cried right before going in. Yes it’s knee surgery, but you pleased, ‘I have kids!’ It was genuine but you also thought maybe your tears accompanied with saying ‘kids’ would get extra attention.”

As the quote reveals, Firestone’s writing is closely aligned with the lived, daily experiences she encounters pre- and post-surger. The short journey of Ten is not just summation; Firestone is concerned with an examination of self-determination, exercising power and action within constraint, and exploring the openness of possibility within an explicit physical environment. The result? Firestone’s creeping sense of wonder glides between concrete and abstract observations:

The setting shifts. I am a tiresome sea.
Surely, sight has value. Say it. Thoughts
quaking. Quietly I shift,
anxiously awaiting the end.
“I am infinity,” claims he. (page 17)

The world within her room crosses through the window to the world just outside, and the poems only expand from there. Within the 10-line poems especially, undefined characters with their own fragments of language support the liminal and the ambiguous within Firestone’s project. The tone is cryptic and shifting. Firestone’s poems contain rhythms seen and unseen, as hinted at through this moment ars poetica: “The idea is to freshen up, give things a twist. When you’ve stretched out each menial task as far as they might extend, putty that becomes so thin it’s stringy, you look at Ten. There it is, bricks stacking. Its tidiness deceiving. The words rush, then slip” (page 51)

While in many of its moments the book feels like a day log composed of curious observations and poetic maneuvering, Ten is also a longitudinal expression of life within recovery. There is imperative and there is urgency and there is, really, a longing to overcome and thrive. While reading Ten, I was reminded of Frida Kahlo’s life working with spina bifida. I was also reminded of David Wolach’s 2013 examinations of chronic illness and the “Hospital Industrial Complex” in Hospitalogy. I also thought of my own, similar history as an artist—in 2013 I suffered a blood clot, and was bound to my home under physical recovery, while engaging with an incessant opiate addiction. Far from melodramatic, Firestone’s work is ever-personal, a clear portrayal of self, a chiseled proclamation of experience, and it also feels incredibly relatable.

To have a book from 2019 concerned with questions on how to be an artist in times of constraint feels oddly like a premonition or foreshadowing. Today, under COVID-19, many of us see the same rooms, stare at the same trees, hear the same voices each and every day. Our world shrinks. The world becomes cyclical, repetitive. As a result, our minds deflate, become tired, and the world melts, becomes more abstract. Blurs and blends. Is Firestone’s book of poems, then, a representation of what we are currently experiencing? Or perhaps it is a rhetoric, a blueprint, for how we can respond. Either way, Ten is an applicable, evolving document that I cannot recommend more in mid-2020.

If Ten explores the power behind and overcoming of constraint, then its follow-up, Story, exercises the inverse. It is a book more rooted in the future, more concerned with the past. It is a book about remembering, about defining memory, and about the construction of reality through language, through poetry. It is also a book about trauma and traumatic experience, and how we—as individuals and as groups—respond to trauma during its initialization and presence.

The book’s story is also nearly inverse the story of Ten: the protagonist and her partner are tourists in a tropical locale when they encounter a terrible accident, an event of such violence that the tension of juxtaposition is ever-present. The book is about that violence, just as it is about arriving to that violence and trying to live beyond that violence. Story is also that locale, that setting, and the implications inform the book’s narrative. Story pushes the world into a meaningful constraint, an identifiable form, though through filters of glaze and dream.

Like Ten, Story shows Firestone’s attention to form and container as significant and prioritized. A much different book visually, Story contains mostly pages of four lines, listed in the following order: a statement unbound by quotation marks, a statement bound by quotation marks, a statement unbound by quotation marks, and a statement bound by quotation marks, as with the following:

When the body wriggled like a fish on land, lines of logic dissipated.

 

“Slim fish, films.”

 

It was like this: she wondered is this my narrative?

 

“Waves crack, pour.” (Story, page 32)

Lines are distanced from one another. Each inform each other in more or less direct ways. There are themes between the quotes and the unquoted. The voices are never defined. There is puzzle building and puzzle solving. There is synchronicity and asynchronicity. As the book unfolds, the observations from the past surface. It is fascinating to look at the weaving between the two strands of thought, and wonder where these strands originated. Perhaps there are more than two strands—the ambiguity is intelligent and concerning, keeping the book pinned open, keeping a narrative from reaching any level of comfort as it develops.

While a book completed through just the patterned language described above would be captivating, Firestone splices her work on multiple occasions with variance of form. Story, like Ten, also contains a strong sense of rhythm. The first splice in the book, for example, breaks down the form from the four lines into a single line: “To my dear story      gristling in the wind” (page 48). Two pages later, a set statements are listed in rapid succession on the page, including:

The bar man prepared several ornate tropical drinks repeatedly.
Presumably the ambulance crew patiently rattled protocol while lifting.
Presumably another tourist couple hopped into the back with humanitarian kindness. (page 52)

This falling and rising through language mimics thought processes and memory: from the focus on a single image that can sit in consciousness for what feels like an eternity, to the focus on a barrage of images that feels relentless and overwhelming, trauma is never so simple as ebb and flow. With memory systems within Story driven by images of the locale’s water, tide, and beaches, Firestone’s language is compelling. It is empirical while also feeling distant. It is focused while also feeling spread thin. The poet explores these movements of trauma, the approachability and untouchability of it, through the content and its form. And there are many surprises to both, which are worth discovering through a read of the book directly rather than second-hand, here.

When considering what is said versus what is quoted, when thinking about what is proven and final versus what is felt and squishy, Firestone considers larger constructs of polarization and contentious relationships in how we learn, how we feel, and how we know. Where Ten held a much more lenient understanding of the connection between concrete and abstract, the weight of both feels much more intense in Story. Knowing what is concrete and knowing what is abstract suddenly is filled with implications: what happened that day, on the beach, and what does it matter? How is it processable? In thinking about process, I was reminded of White Noise by Don DeLillo, of Staying Alive by Laura Sims, of Things That Go by Laura Eve Engel. In each of these works, there is a “large something,” and understanding that something is the point, and the point can only be reached by reaching forward, by attempting to grasp. In a way that differs completely from Ten in intention, Story too is about power.

Did she emerge wet and coronated, past the sorrows of her human face?

 

“With grace, murmurs.” (page 72)

Much can be said about Story and I hope a lot is; the work is significant and complex and there’s nothing quite like it. And there is so much about it as a collection and as a paradigm that feels important to our world today, right now. To say it too is timely would be an understatement; that so many are struggling to learn, understand, and even identify the source of the global public health crisis is applicable to this text. And derivable from this text.

Firestone’s writing feels as if it was written about our world right now, with each day feeling like a distant memory and each moment of thinking and feeling combined into a mixture of the exhausting and the enthralling. When thought of alongside Ten, a book of so much “stay alive, stay inside,” I find incredible lengths of beauty and intelligence.

It would be a disservice to not mention that like Gates & Fields, both of Firestone’s latest books are precisely and adamantly feminist. Jennifer Firestone is front and center. Her voice is front and center. And her work contains comments on gender—via presence, authority, and relationships. It is exciting to me to see Firestone’s trajectory, her personal canon, continue to explore the world, personally and generally, while also honoring her personal experiences and her voice. We have strong works to keep us company while in anticipation of Firestone’s future creative projects.

You can find the books here: https://uglyducklingpresse.org/publications/story/  and http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/ten-by-jennifer-firestone-518/

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

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Obit by Victoria Chang

obit
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Written in the slender, right-justified form of newspaper columns, so familiar to readers of obituaries, these poems are no less lyrical for their journalistic form. Two events inform these poems.  “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” the first poem, begins:
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My   Father’s   Frontal  Lobe  –     died
unpeacefully  of  a  stroke  on June 24,
2009 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in
San Diego, California.
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The second poem, “My Mother,” begins:
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My Mother died unpeacefully  on  August 3, 2015 in her room at Walnut Village Assisted Living in Anaheim, California, of pulmonary fibrosis.
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These two dates, June 24, 2009, and especially August 3, 2015, recur again and again as Chang writes the obituaries for what has been lost – “Victoria Chang” died June 24, 2009: “Because he did / not die but all of his words did.”  In the first poem, “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” she has written:
.                                                   When the
frontal lobe died, it sucked in its lips like a window pulled  shut.  At the funeral for his words, my father wouldn’t stop   talking, and his love passed through me….
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“Voice Mail,” “The Future,” “Civility” (“Maybe / this is what happens when language / fails, a last breath inward but no breath / outward.”); “Reason” (“My father’s words / taken out of his brain and left downstairs.”), “The Clock” also died on June 24, 2009, the circumstances of their loss and the questions their loss provokes noted in separate obits.
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Things that died August 3, 2015, for which she writes obits, include “My Mother’s Teeth” (“…died twice, once in / 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. / Once again on August 3, 2015.”); “Ambition” (“I buried ambition in / the forest, next to distress.”); “Chair,” “Approval” (“I love so many things I / have never touched: the moon, a shiver, / my mother’s heart.”); “Form,” “Optimism,” “Friendships” (“…died a slow death after / August 3, 2015.”) ; “The Doctors,” “Time,” “The Situation” (“at least part of the situation; my father / was the other situation.”); “The Head,” “Hindsight,” “The Priest,” “Similes” (“There was nothing like death, just / death. Nothing like grief, just grief.”); “Language,” “Clothes” and “The Face.”
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There are plenty of other dates and other things whose passing is noted in their own obits, because the overarching themes in these poems are grief and language and their intricate intersections. “Grief,” indeed, gets its own obit (“Grief – as I knew it, died many times.”).  But there are so many insights into the grieving process throughout these poems.  “…our sadness is plural, but grief is / singular,” she writes in the obit for “Tears.” In one of the several obits for “Victoria Chang” she notes, “When someone / dies, there is a constant feeling of / wanting to speak to someone….”  In the obit for “Oxygen,” she recalls her mother’s difficulty with breathing that the pulmonary fibrosis caused (“I’m not sure / when I began to notice her panic / without the oxygen….”) and reflects:
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Like   grief,  the   way   it  dangles   from
everything like earrings.  The  way   grief
needs oxygen. The way every once in a while   it   catches   the  light   and   starts
smoking. The way my grief will die  with
me.
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Juxtaposed against her obit poems for the death of her mother and the crippling of her father are tankas written about her own motherhood, for her own children. This Japanese five-line form is so appropriate for these brief reflections. Each of these intervals contains two such stanzas. Several of them begin with the line, “I tell my children,” and several others with “My children, children.” The very first of the tanka intervals reads:
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My children, children,
there’s applesauce everywhere,
but it’s not for you.
It is strange to help someone
grow while helping someone die.
.
*
.
Each time I write hope,
the letters fray and scatter.
The hopeful poets
never seem to have dreams,
never seem to have children.
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Indeed, “hope” is so entangled with “grief” that it’s tough sometimes to distinguish the two. In an obit for “Hope,” which “died on October 15, 2014 when / the FDA approved two drugs, Esbriet / and Ofev for pulmonary fibrosis,” Chang alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) when she writes:
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                    Hope is the wildest bird,
the one that flies so fast it will either
disappear or burst into flames.
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OBIT concludes on a wider angle, as if, as in a movie, the lens widens to include a more expansive vision.  For the final obit is for “America,” which “died on February 14, 2018, / and my dead mother doesn’t know.” That’s the date of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, in which seventeen people, most of them children, were gunned down, and over a dozen others were injured. Though certainly not the last school shooting, in many ways the Parkland shooting marked a change when the children themselves said enough is enough and began to protest the insanity of guns in the United States.  And thus, after so much grief, so much noting of loss after loss after loss, Victoria Chang concludes her collection on a redemptive note, with the final tanka:
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I am ready to
admit I love my children.
To admit this is
to admit that they will die.
Die: no one knows this but words.
.
*.
My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope, hope, hope,
see how the mouth stays open?
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –
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The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora by Tanya Ko Hong

the war
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Tanya Ko Hong’s heartbreaking collection of poems is all about bearing witness and the need to testify to a truth against all the forces of silence from both without and within that try to suppress its expression. This truth is all about treachery and betrayal. Interestingly, it is in the very last stanza of the final poem in the book, “At Tara Station in Dublin,” where we find an invitation to speak.  The speaker in the poem finds herself stranded in an Irish pub drinking coffee when she is approached by a “sweet-looking girl” who asks,
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not in Gaelic but in fluent English:
“Love! I am a hungry angel of the street.
Get me a McDonald’s hamburger and a cup of coffee,
and tell me a story of your star,
the land where you came from, please.”
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All the poems that precede this one are the story. So much of the horror of the story Tanya Ko Hung tells is suppressed – hence the title of the collection, because the war rages within the heart of the Korean woman.  These poems, then, are the cathartic expression of these cruel truths.
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There are so many forces that tell the Korean woman to be quiet, to “suck it up.” There are the long cultural expectations for Korean girls. The poem, “Asian Woman” begins:
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This is what you do with your life:
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Take what your father gives you
care, food, shelter
Learn to be wife
cook, sew, maintain your household
Obey orders, serve your family…
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In a word, the Asian woman is expected to submit. She also writes in “The Cost of Breath”:
.
Nice girls don’t speak
their minds or
question men…
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In the three-part poem, “Look Back,” the speaker of the poem, who has immigrated to America, tells her daughter that the reason she came was for “better education, better opportunities, / and a better life,” which is only part of the truth of why she’d fled, and her daughter knows. “‘Oma, it’s so boring. All Asians in my class / have the same answers.’” “I didn’t want to look back,” the speaker confesses.  She goes on, “to survive, I learned / to pretend not to know.” Similarly, in “Mother Tongue,” she writes, “life’s not so bad / if you don’t pay attention.” Denial, then, is another force holding the Asian woman back.
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And besides, nobody will hear her anyway.  She writes in the title poem, “The War Still Within”:
.
White man said
             No one listens to you
             No one sees
             Open your mouth
.
I said
               Go ahead
Cut and burn my tongue
You can’t set fire to my secrets
My other tongue
will speak
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Against all this, balance the need to tell the story of “the land where you came from.”  But it takes courage, fortitude. The brief aphoristic poem that begins the collection, “The Way to Cross the Desert,” reads:
.

Do not think about

the oasis.

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The truth that Tanya Ko Hong is compelled to tell involves the inhumane treatment of Korean women, their betrayal by their families and countrymen. The epigraph to the poem, “Asian Woman,” comes from Na Hye-sok, the twentieth century Korean feminist: “Isn’t it about time Chosŏn women lived like humans?”
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At the heart of this inhumanity is the legacy of the Comfort Women – Wianbu in Korean – the 200,000 Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 that Hak Soon Kim came forward to denounce the Japanese. The horror had been suppressed for over three decades. In a stunning suite of poems entitled “Comfort Woman,” Tanya Ko Hong shows us the horror. In “1941, That Autumn”:
.
They put a long stick between my legs –
Open up, open, Baka Chosengjing!
they rage, spraying
their sperm
the smell of
burning dog
burning life
.
In “1943, Shanghai, China”:
.
One night
a soldier asked all the girls
.
Who can do one hundred men?
.
I raised my hand
Soonja did not
.
The soldiers put her in boiling water
alive
and fed us
.
The horror continues beyond the Japanese occupation.  The poem “Yang Kong Ju” about a Korean woman trying to survive in American occupied Korea starts:
.
Koreans called her
Yang kalbo
Yankee’s whore
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The fallout from all of this is the scorn and disdain of one’s countrymen, perhaps the most compelling reason to flee. “Tiki Boy” is a poem about a Korean woman who has an American G.I.’s son.
.
The women said, You’re so pretty –
but when she wasn’t there:
That yang kalbo,
her lips look
like she’s eaten mice.
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We read the sad story of a homeless elderly woman in “Grandmother Talks of Camptowns” in which betrayal follows betrayal, first by the government, then by the children, the brother, the sister, the lover.
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In a footnote to the poem, “A Blonde Whispers Korean in My Ear,”  the poet writes, “As an immigrant of the Korean diaspora, I know what it feels like being invisible, voiceless and powerless.” Coming to America is not easy, either.  We read about the difficulties of the immigrant in poems like “Second Period,” about the classroom experience, and “American Dream,” which ends with the poignant question:
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Who am I to you,
America?
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The War Still Within is moving and enlightening at the same time, a compelling collection of poems.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.

 

Paper Bells by Phan Nhiên Hạo (Translated by Hai-Dang Phan

paper_bells_1_530x

By Greg Bem

It rains morning to night
I still have enough to survive a hundred more years
so I’ll just lie down and sing
man’s forever song
about the infinite horizon
vast enough for countless cemeteries
don’t stress
we have a million lives

(from “Rainy Day Song,” page 1)

Through the mists and the murk of our global crisis, the current COVID-19 pandemic, a book of poetry arrives and may be able to inform and console, to demonstrate and guide. Paper Bells, a collection of poems written in Vietnamese by Phan Nhiên Hạo and translated into English by Hai-Dang Phan, is now available via The Song Cave. It is a collection rotating between storytelling and moments of rejuvenation that never loses its vision and momentum. The collection is a “selected” from his previous publications in  Vietnamese and the poems he has written since he arrived to the United States in the early 1990’s. Most of the works come from the Summer Radio (published in 2019 in Vietnamese), which followed the 2005 Linh Dinh-translated Nigh, Fish, and Charlie Parker. Overall a combination of older and newer works, Paper Bells as a collection contain variations on visions of survival and what it means to thrive after difficulty. They share what has long been of interest to Phan Nhiên Hạo: documenting the lived experience of a Vietnamese refugee and exiled poet who has sought and continues to seek that thriving through poetry.

Thematically in this collection, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s works move back and forth between microscopic and macroscopic worlds within Vietnam and within the United States. A prose poem near the end of the book reflects the worlds in the context of time and memory. The poet writes: “Once on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street I saw an old woman squatting against one of the high walls of the hospital, weeping, tears pouring out of her face like fresh juice squeezed from a sugar cane machine” (from “Saigon on a Good Day,” page 48). Many of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems contain images like this: remarkable moments of interruption and awe spurred on by the anonymous world around us, or a world surreally distanced in time and space. This convergence of experience and identity find life within their center and unity. There is a sense of the allegory, of the symbolic story, of the world that opens and blossoms sending into breath, or is rung, like a bell, sending reverberations from poem to poem. These reverberations also feel like brutal logic, feel of an urgent commonsense, as in “Fragments,” which calls forward the nihilism of machines and weaponry: “A rusty gun is still capable of killing someone, / but a feeble mind can’t do shit” (page 39).

Indeed, from within their logical core, line by line, to their larger impressions as individual works, the poems feel linked, and delicate, and unpacking the book of a poet who has seen and felt many worlds, many difficulties, and many moments in between, takes time. Time ultimately informs the poetry itself, which often uses rain as a circumstantial image, an image of transformation, and, like an ellipses, an image of pause. Included in this collection is Phan Nhiên Hạo’s “Seattle Memory,” which uses a city familiar with rain to serve as pin for connecting and opening vast distances: “Day rains, stops, afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat” (page 5). Lines like this one reveal the poet’s interest in juxtapositions. The self may exist now, but continues to exist in other forms and locations.

Examining location and presence through Paper Bells is extremely fulfilling. I write this review in social isolation, in a world that is “on lockdown,” this lens seems to only widen as I engage with Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry. When he writes of “man’s forever song” in the poem “Rainy Day Song” quoted above, I think about my own longitudinal story in space, in community, in life and being. Though different, as all stories are, I cannot help but think of the world that becomes cushioned by patience, compassion, and rest. I think also of Jennifer Cheng’s House A, and her time spent moving around the continental United States with her parents, who as immigrants explored and discovered (and rediscovered) identity, location, and stability.

While positivity and success tend to show up in many stories of survival, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s words are far from universally pleasant and straightforward. The poet here has crafted works founded in struggle that cannot be unbound from death and disruption. There is movement, flight, and escape, but a final sense of stability or rest seems impossible. Here we have a Catch-22, a schism that is profound and worth a dozen examinations: the poet’s commitment to rebirth, and the incessant loss of identity and heritage for that continued life. This poet figures this loss into his poetry in many ways. Typically, I examined loss in Paper Bells through the poet’s highlights of absurdity; they struck me as both feeling commonplace and containing multitudes of emotion:

the swampy city a breeding ground for mosquitoes
where breasts are squeezed in the beery halls until broken
and thrown into the bloody river with hyacinths

(from “Wash Your Hands,” page 31)

Phan Nhiên Hạo intercepts any sense of complacency with surprise, disorder, and decay. Nothing is perfect and rebirth will always come with a cost: again, the world is delicate and can be creased, and those creases are our memories.

Though dismal, the book is not a morass of challenge. Tension is alleviated; still, there is the rain. The rain that cleanses is also the rain that keeps us inside, keeps us at rest, keeps us centered to where our minds can transport through memory and commitment to our former selves, situations, and locations. And remain stable, fervent, integral.

As I read Phan Nhiên Hạo and think about his bus ride across the country, his time working as a delivery man and janitor, and the many other movements literal and symbolic contains in the poems and also described before and within this book’s incredible introduction, I think of the world within and beyond these poems. I refocus on COVID-19 and the crossing over from the poetry’s contained reality to the reality where the poetry is contained. While the spotlight on the virus does not equate to or replace war, oppression, and forced removal of peoples and cultures, I cannot help but think about the poet’s stories and how they seem relevant to our own shifting society. Much like Phan Nhiên Hạo demonstrates in Paper Bells, each of us can take the moments afforded to us to look at our own journey, our own stories, and the world’s rotations and rejuvenations. With that I ask, what are the greater implications of works like Paper Bells?

As long-time collaborator and translator Hai-Dang Phan puts it in the introduction: “The dissident politics of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry resound precisely at a historical moment when the United States and Vietnam are reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations, and in the cultural and literary sphere much of the talk is about peace and reconciliation” (page xi). This publication of Phan Nhiên Hạo works, as translated into a thorough, indefatigable contemporary English by Hai-Dang Phan, feels of the very present, of these very days which we can learn to breathe deep and relearn, as both necessity and opportunity, our entire selves. It also feels of the future, of what can be, and where being can take us, as individuals and as a collective.

You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-h-o-translated-by-hai-dang-phan

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.