poetry book review

A Way of Looking by Jianqing Zheng

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Jianqing Zheng’s new book of poems, winner of the 2019 Gerald Cable Book Award, is a collection of haibun, a Japanese literary form first used by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century that combines prose and haiku juxtaposed to provide a fresh “way of looking” at an event, a scene, a character, an anecdote, a sort of “double vision.” The form is inherently reflective, meditative, while being descriptive in brief but vivid prose and incorporates elements of autobiography, essay, flash fiction/nonfiction. The accompanying haiku may be seen as a subtle commentary or summation of the prose passage.  A Way of Looking is divided into four sections, “On the Road,” “Farewell,” “Momentary Stay” and “Forever,” which feels almost like the cycle of seasons, so that the reader has a sense of coming “full circle,” experiencing the writing, which indeed has many seasonal referents.
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Just as Bashō’s haibun were originally travel accounts from his various journeys, so many of Zheng’s are the same, as is evident from the title of the first section. In many of these, Zheng, who lives in Mississippi, drives around the Deep South region in search of the places where famous bluesmen performed.  As he writes in “Weekend Drive, 1998”:
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After landing a university job in the Mississippi Delta, I fell in love with photographing blues sites for my research. One Saturday I went to grab shots in Moorhead where W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues” immortalized the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo Delta railroads.

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            juke joint blues
            a sluggish creek crosses
            through town
            by a lean-to shack
            blooming wisteria
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He drives on to Inverness, hometown of Little Milton, another bluesman, looking for Arcola. He gets lost, asks directions from various people, one of whom suggests Zheng, who looks a little bewildered by the instructions, follow him in his truck, until he finally finds the fork to Arcola.  He rolls down his window and thanks the man. “Oh, brother, the back road wasn’t that hard to find.” In “Birds of Passage” he is driving to the airport in Memphis, just before dawn. “We cross the Yazoo River Bridge, pass Baptist Town where the bluesman Robert Johnson died of poison,” eventually passing Avalon, “where the blues marker for Mississippi John Hurt looms above the roadside high weeds.”   As day starts to break, he slows down, “to catch this gorgeous flight:

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            crack of dawn
            thousands of snow geese
            honk off the fields”
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His travels take him to Helena, Arkansas, New Orleans, Tokyo, Wuhan and Canton, China, where the protagonist of the haibun encounters

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            a rooster’s crow
            headstone
            of a Chinese railroad builder
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The haibun in the “Farewell” section are more third-person sketches and anecdotes than personal reflections or reminiscences. They are all located in China. “Mediation in Changsha, China,” “Moon Festival,”  “Home,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” an amusing anecdote about a man named Seng whose snoring disturbs his wife, are some of the titles. The accompanying haiku to this latter reads: “spring equinox— / a cat’s nocturnal yowl / in the front yard.” The title is a sly reference to the popular belief that the romance in a marriage dies with sustained familiarity. You can feel the wife’s frustration!  There’s even a haibun called “Responses” that recalls an inane song in praise of Chairman Mao that he was forced to sing during the Cultural Revolution. The selection ends with the humorous haiku:

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            riverside hip hop
            even the water
            starts twerking

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“Fish Debate,” another haibun from this second section, has a very Taoist point-of-view. Two ancient Chinese philosophers, Zhuang Zi and Hui Si, walk by a river and see fish. Zhuang Zi (known also in literature as Chuang Tzu) thinks they look happy, but Hui Si says it’s not possible to know if fish are happy. Zhuang Zi replies, “You are not me; how do you know I don’t know the fish are happy?” This is so much like the other famous Taoist about Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. The accompanying haiku reads:
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which came first,
the hen or the egg? –
endless rain

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The “Momentary Stay” section brings us back to Mississippi. “Night in the Mississippi Delta,” “Road to Vicksburg,” “The Bayou by the Home in the Woods” are some of the titles of haibun that take us to specific scenes. In “Road to Vicksburg” the narrator sees a dead armadillo in the road and, momentarily distracted, nearly collides with an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

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by the blues highway
to casino
a wreathed cross tilts in wind

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In “Delta Wind,” Zheng writes with an almost Kerouac-like flair, “the wind rises like the saddest blues blown from a sax in a lean-to juke joint.” The accompanying haiku reads:

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autumn night
a freight train chugging
across the Yazoo

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A Way of Looking is dedicated to the memory of Don and Nell George. The final section, “Forever,” includes several tender haibun written in their memory. The Georges welcomed Zheng to Hattiesburg, Mississippi when he came to the United States from China as a young man, and he feels a great love for them, a sadness at their death, but the haibun express an enduring connection that itself reflects back on the section title.
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Many of Zheng’s haibun include more than one verse passage. Many of the haiku contain seasonal references, and this is true of the three included in “Eulogy,” written in memory of Don George. The first reads:

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            summer visit –
            in the town where
            I was born
            I’m asked
            where I’m from
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The second follows the reflection, “He taught me to pronounce a word in English, how to mow the grass, and more importantly, how to be a man in my life.” The verse that follows reads:

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            spring morning
            mom and dad chat
            over coffee
            memory an aroma
            of old times
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Finally, after thanking both Don and Nell for their kindness and guidance, he concludes the haibun:

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            autumn dusk
            an empty recliner
            in the den
            a lonely cat
            at the window
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The section and the book end with a short haibun called “Waiting for spring” that sums up not only the section but Zheng’s overarching philosophy as well:
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When life stops clicking, body – a mass of elements – can be turned to ashes, used as fertilizer for flowerbeds.
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                        autumn dusk
                        a worn-out jacket
                        on a peg
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Jianqing Zheng’s A Way of Looking alters the reader’s own vision, providing a view of reality that’s more peaceful, more benevolent, more thoughtful.
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You can find the book here: A Way of Looking
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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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Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners by Sarah Mangold

Her Wilderness Cover

By Greg Bem

They put our body
into the text

and there we are
made to wonder

(from Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, page 1)

Back in 2016, I was made aware of Sarah Mangold’s extensive catalog by way of the publication of her latest book at the time, Giraffes of Devotion. I ended up reviewing four of her works altogether, and occasionally came across her readings and engagements in the Seattle literary community between then and now. Giraffes in particular stuck with me as a book filled with the engagements of ghosts. A powerful feminist exploration of historical found text and the channeling of voices from eras past, Mangold’s work created a sort of time traveling choir that (at the time) left my gawking and to this moment has made me think about poets’ enduring capacity as archivists and historians.

Now we’re into 2021, and I have come across Mangold’s latest volume, Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press, and “out loud” only begins to describe this exquisite return to the form of ghosts, near and far, lost and found. In this book, generally speaking, Mangold’s aim is to bring attention to taxidermist Martha Maxwell and “the wife of the father of modern taxidermy,” Dalia Akeley, and their realities, otherwise faded or ignored. Mangold approaches natural history texts and other sources, funneling their words into a repurposing. This is a project of presence and one in which Mangold responds to the problem of absence. In fields dominated by men, Mangold provides an investigation into the possibility of, and the reality of, women in those spaces.

What interested me was
the way ladies survive
as acknowledgments
in other people’s prefaces

(from Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, page 14)

There are several types of poems that fill the book’s pages. From elegantly aged lyric to blocks of prose poetry to lists to spacey and less formal additions, the book includes a lot of range, and a single reading will definitely not uncover the many patterns and constructions Mangold has included. Despite the collage effect of the found texts, the poems are undeniably easy and enjoyable to read, their subject matter intellectually challenging and emotionally dynamic. As I read, I felt like Mangold is offering certain forms of accessibility to the reader: the layers may run deep, but the surface of these poems is inviting and contains enjoyable qualities at the onset.

As the book unwinds and the poems continue, challenges are offered and afforded. Mangold has provided an extensive (to say the least) bibliography of the source and inspiration of the text as a whole, a field of portals waiting to be entered. The archivist, the historian, the poet: the forms converge and coalesce into a document that feels incredibly alive. This is “the choir” that Mangold has championed and led in past works, reconstructed. Or, unusually and amazingly, the taxidermy construct crafted by Martha Maxwell, or an alter-ego, a benefactor, a promoter. The representation is a cluster formed of erasure and assemblage, a polyvocal reality from history to the present. And at its forefront? Sarah Mangold, who spent years conducting the research that would feed the poems of Her Wilderness.

My own chosen world
of intellectual development

and feminist action
might indeed unstring

unnerve
and unfit me

(from Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, page 23)

There is an exquisite conceptual balance between the found and the authored, where Mangold herself becomes the subject in some of the investigations. Indeed, Mangold’s presence within the works continues what I last investigated in 2016: a commitment to not only be for the research but to be of it, to have a stake in it, and to embed. Mangold has created collages of images that explore taxidermist Martha Maxwell’s collections. Metaphorically and literally, Mangold has offered an abrupt and present dualism: she has applied a collage method to create stereographic images. It is worth looking at the images through the flow of the book’s poetry, but I found myself paging back through the book time and time again to revisit these images as moments of process and result; they are, as much as the text, reflective of Mangold’s process of work.

In Her Wilderness, Mangold is providing images and text derivative of the past. The poet wants to fill the masculine void with a feminist revisiting, crafting a life out of a static, oppressive history. There is much that should (and will) be said about this project, and for me I found Mangold’s presence in the work to be the most fascinating. The poems flit and jump between the pulling at the strings of found text, but Mangold’s voice is undeniable. It creeps in, manages to find a place, and is defiantly present. Most found poems lose the author’s voice and tone, but not here, not within Her Wilderness, and as I read the book cover to cover, I kept thinking: perhaps the book’s truths are just as much rooted in Mangold’s reality as the goal of the restructure and positioned text.

she braced against the inequalities of the bark and drew

herself up among branches

(from Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, page 41)

You can find the book here: https://www.fordhampress.com/9780823297702/her-wilderness-will-be-her-manners/

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

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Reefer Madness by Robert Cooperman

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The title of Robert Cooperman’s hilarious new collection comes from the 1936 melodrama about high school students lured by drug pushers. Reefer Madness became a cult classic in the 1970’s among the younger hip generation, for its unintentionally campy humor.  The lurid movie poster, warning ADULTS ONLY contained phrases like “The sweet pill that makes life bitter” and “drug-crazed abandon.” “Youthful marihuana victims. See what really happens.” In part one of this collection, Cooperman shows us what really happened, at least to him, and his experiences are so familiar to anybody born before 1960 and probably beyond.
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After a poem about the meaning of “420,” the code for smoking dope, Cooperman launches into “The First Time I Tried Weed: Brooklyn College,” about his initiation into the rite. Though citing the familiar “Refer Madness” warnings in the very first stanza – “In high school, it was gospel / that one ‘puff’ would turn us / into groveling heroin addicts” – curiosity wins out, and just as the response to the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” – “satisfaction brought him back” – that first time smoking with a college friend was glorious.  The poem ends with another nod to Refer Madness:
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            Giggling at a joke only I could get,
            I fell into bed, the room a tilting merry-
            go-round in a Hitchcock mystery,
            but no desperation, thank god,
            to shoot smack.
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  Then in one entertaining poem after the next, Cooperman details the whole project of “getting high”: The rituals of rolling joints, the exclamations of “I’m really wrecked!” that came almost like a testimony at an evangelical religious service, only instead of “Praise Jesus!” it’s “I am so stoned!” We read about the psychedelic songs of the era that were a necessary component to the experience – “White Rabbit,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Jimi Hendrix.  There are poems about the various drugs on the menu of our youth – hash, angel dust, psychedelic mushrooms. “Worse” vividly describes a bad trip on mushrooms in the otherwise idyllic setting of the Catskill Mountains. “It’s in the Bag” is a poem about snorting cocaine and the energy-burst it provides – and recognizing how easily one could become addicted to it, reefers or not.
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“Smoking Dope Outside the Keats Museum: Hampstead Heath” tells the story of two friends sneaking a joint outside the building while their wives linger inside, “maybe beside the very tree / where Keats had heard / his immortal nightingale.” Their spouses bust them, making them feel like kids caught breaking a window, but at least they avoid the surveillance cameras!
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As the first section winds down, marijuana has become legal in Colorado, where Cooperman currently resides, though now in late middle-age, a little late to really take advantage. He recognizes his dope-smoking days are over, though he still enjoys the occasional “contact high” from the skunk-stink of marijuana drifting from the pothead neighbors or when walking by the school kids passing joints around. In “The Weed Tree,” he and his wife stroll up a hill after passing the kids,
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            me floating a bit, pointing out to Beth,
            the red-tailed hawk making lazy, lovely,
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            merciless circles above the lake.
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“Got Pot?” and “AAA and the AA” explore the further implications of legalized weed, in the Trump era, when we all needed a crutch to make it through.
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In “Now That It’s Legal” and “Now That Colorado,” he laments the loss of the risk-taking scoring dope used to entail, which added a frisson of “sticking it to the Man” to the alteration of one’s consciousness, an added bonus. “Now That Colorado” ends the first section and sets us up for the equally hilarious second part.
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            In my day – geezer that I am – it took
            some discernment to score primo weed,
            and always the fear that the dealer was a narc,
            or if you sweated sauntering past beat cops,
            they’d stop you faster than Killer Kowalski’s
            professional-wrestler Atomic-Drop-Kick move.
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           And now the Girl Scouts will sell cookies
           outside pot shops! I ask you, is nothing sacred?
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“There are eight million stories  in the Naked City,” the iconic line at the end of every episode of the long-running TV series from the early 1960’s went. “This has been one of them.” Just so, Cooperman gives us over three dozen angles on the scene outside of The Wild Weed Dispensary in Denver as a Girl Scout troop sets up outside to sell cookies, in the second part of this hysterical collection. “The Girl Scouts of Colorado have decided it’s now cool to peddle their baked goods outside marijuana dispensaries,” a story from The Denver Post informs – the epigraph to the section – and Cooperman is off and running!
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There’s the Larsen family, the jilted wife Wilhelmina, chaperoning her Girl Scout daughter Melissa outside the Wild Weed Dispensary, while the wayward husband Ron holes up with his sex kitten Clair. There are Leonard and Marissa Millstein, a public defender and corporate lawyer at ideological (and marital) loggerheads, and their Girl Scout daughter Emily, caught in the middle. There’s the cop, Malcolm Sanders, whose daughter Kelly is also a Girl Scout and remembers the note her mother left when she walked out on Kelly’s father, no longer able to be a policeman’s wife.  Poor Fiona Terry, shoved into the Girl Scouts by her mother, hates being there at all, always the odd-girl-out. Cindy Bartlett, another Girl Scout, is the daughter of Sonny, a Hell’s Angel-style motorcycle gang member whose ex-wife Jo-Jo is having an affair with the tattoo parlor owner Nick Breeze, all here while the Girl Scouts sell their cookies. Each uproarious poem adds a soap-opera-like tale to the afternoon sale.
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Reefer Madness is a rollercoaster high, and the melodramatic warnings about pot? Still potent in the twenty-first century, as little Melissa Larsen tells us:
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            Tiffany’s older brother tried to get us to smoke,
            but our teacher warned us we’d become maniacs
            and have to live in straitjackets, like forever.
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So do yourself a favor and read this collection about “drug-crazed abandon.”  But a warning: read just a couple of these poems and you will probably be hooked!
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You can find the book here: Reefer Madness
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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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the deering hour by Karen Elizabeth Bishop

the deering hour cover

By Greg Bem

confession is built mouth
to open mouth until water

(from “honeyhive,” page 3)

In the deering hour, there is buried between an awesome and ecstatic lyric poetry is a timely poetics of isolation and survival capable of carrying a pandemic readership toward honest, patient movement. the deering hour is a book that feels as crafted by quarantine and introspective society as it feels a conduit for the ever-expansive world just beyond our walls. Throughout, Karen Elizabeth Bishop follows many veins, many threads, and finds her own natural space for foraging the wispy peripheries of a breathing world.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, of which the book’s title comes, is “the deering hour.” This sequence is a welcome beacon and blueprint in this cagey global moment, filled with discoveries and dances, flirtations and flashes that are utterly American in their experimentation, but also feel spread across space and time and culture.

as she falls we all fall hers is the history of
flight the future of lyric the winter of our ash

(from “the history of flight,” page 34)

Collective and personal, the general appeal of “the deering hour” as a section and as a book is the feeling of roots, of being bound as reader (through writer) to the primal or ancient. Ecologically, the verse often flutters through natural imagery and a spirited presence takes shape by way of the world’s many forms and their relationships. Even when poems concern movement, either forward or backward, inward or outward, there is a slow and mature consideration within the poem’s subtext; a peaceful tone of ritual, of intention lingers.

[. . .] here the surface
does not hold. where the final
hanging on comes to a close,
wea are sound receding in
waves, four hearts quiet
ascending, the light at the
border dark increasing [. . .]

(from “the deering hour,” page 13)

Poems vary in size and shape, but there is a propulsion to most of them. This rush within Bishop’s work can be thanked to the poems’ elemental foundations. Water upon stone, for example, is one of the most prevalent carriers of energy and ideas within the deering hour, and its emblematic presence demonstrates the timeliness of water’s power. It is also, in Bishop’s writing, reflective of a more sacred, finite resource. Ecology and the flight of the world that surrounds us may feel overwhelming in reality, but in the book we see transformation as humbling. This is a tempered and tempering volume that keeps reality in a perspective somewhere between balancing and revealing.

Following “the deering hour” is “Kilpisjärvi,” a shorter sequence that takes its name from a village in Northern Finland, where Bishop recently visited and stayed as a resident at the “Biological Station.” Unfortunately we do not know too much more than that, as a fuller description of this place is missing. Still, the mysterious presence and existence of this place lends itself to the writing Bishop does include.

While at first glance this second, closing sequence feels thrown at the end of the book as an addendum or “extra,” a deeper read reveals Bishop’s cunning: the prose and verse here demonstrates an example of source material, where the work and the mindset of “the deering hour” stem. Reading it reminded me of the works of Craig Childs and Terry Tempest Williams, who have sought the truth by being embedded by place and experience, by living through relationships and convictions: “We watch from the shore of the moraine as the future recedes,” Bishop writes in part IV (page 59) and: “Under cover, we speak in surprises, measure the fell in objects and action” she writes in part IX (page 72) are examples of Bishop’s relational journaling.

Near the beginning of “Kilpisjärvi,” Bishop writes, “I don’t need to get to the end to know I’m already living my future” (page 54). This is the illumination that rounds out a poetics of the pandemic so well. It is new and yet established, emerging yet defined. But the illumination can occasionally be too bright; aside from serving us with this well-rounded close, some of the book’s moments cascade into realms of twist and obscurity:

you didn’t say if you gave over, a last present
amidst our famine, or if you sought the wild
wasting of our white nights, the pleading scar,
fingers in the welt, the searing blightburn. [. . .]

(from “inflorescence,” page 15)

There is a play with abstraction that occasionally feels maddening in its confusion and disconnection, but it is ever-so-present and just barely heavy enough to be problematic. Instead, I took the abstraction to be an element of introduction and arrival, Bishop’s writing beginning its dance across a longer form of time. Overall, Bishop’s the deering hour is an enduring book of juxtaposition the succeeds in bringing two ends of experience together at once.

You can find the book here: https://www.ornithopterpress.com/store/p15/the_deering_hour.html

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

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Slap by Rustin Larson

slap

By Lynette G. Esposito

Rustin Larson’s poetry volume Slap offers a wide variety of poetry lengths, forms and images. Published by Alien Buddha Press, it is ninety-two pages of insightful messages in poetic form.

For example, the poem Four Steps on page twenty-four, creates in thirteen stanzas, a situation of how many steps lead away from home when at the train stop and what it represents. Larson turns this image into the constant life journey of taking steps to all the doors that lead to or away from home.
                  Four steps, please. Four steps
                  into the train’s platform
                  in the middle of the night.
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                 Four steps before you trip
                 and fall down the basement.
                Four steps into the bower
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               of wild roses.  Four steps in fever
               into your mother’s arms
              in the cool kitchen of your childhood.  Four steps
Larson has used the image of four steps and varied situations to portray how close so many things in life are and what a difference this makes.  His exquisite use of the F sound and his skillful use of repetition control the poem to the closing single-line stanza:
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              steps from all the doors you called home.
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In contrast to this lengthily poem, Larson presents a little humor in his one- stanza, five-line poem Discard on page thirty-two.
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                  Although I might be a discard,
                  like the man who believes
                  in extraterrestrials,
                  I say to myself
                 I am not alone.
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The brevity of the poem does not reduce its effectiveness.  It takes a twist on the concept of the populace of Earth seeking other intelligent beings in other galaxies and looks clear sightedly at those who are perceived as discards on this planet. I find this poem hilarious. 
When the Shark Bites, is a one stanza poem on page sixty-two that presents a moment-in- time when Larson remembers having burritos with his daughters at Taco Bell in Iowa City and when his one daughter was little, how he put her to sleep with an unusual song. He begins the poem with:
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                   Not to disagree with the song’s lyrics
                   but sharks don’t have
                   molars.  They rip and swallow
                   rather than grind and chew.  It’s
                   a fine point, but important I
                   think….
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It is interesting that he begins this poem with facts then throughout the poem remembers wonderful instances with his children.  He brings a time frame in, 1996 and calls it a premium year.  The poem suggests it is about one thing but when Larson calls his daughters my little sweethearts the reader can feel how full Larson’s heart is remembering this time with his daughters. It is a skillful poem with musical references that some of a certain age will appreciate.
 
Slap is an interesting tome with some poems being stronger than others.  The poems vary widely in subject matter and with interesting twists.  It is well worth a read while sitting in a comfortable chair.
You can find the book here: Slap
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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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Etching the Ghost by Cathleen Cohen

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Etching the Ghost by Cathleen Cohen, published by Atmosphere Press, is an interesting collection of poems about the art of painting and other subjects.  The voice in the poems Is honest and direct and the poetry illustrates skillfully how closely related the literary and visual arts are.
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The tome is divided into four sections:  If Released, Magnificent, The Weight of the Press, No Mistakes in Art, and As Witness, As Echo. Each section has a particular focus.  The volume spans sixty-five pages and covers topics relating to relationships, art, landscapes and personal experiences.
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In the first section, If Released, Magnificent, the poem Possibly wind on page nine uses visual metaphors to show situation and place in dealing with a daughter’s relationship to her parents.
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            fans us out past dark.
           Fathers shout our names from doorways.
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            In hedges we crouch,
           plan forays and small rebellions.
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           I tear my yellow dress
          in a dirt fight, then lie
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          to my mother’s shocked face.
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The way the poem is set up suggests the fragmented steps a young person would take when doing something they know they shouldn’t do.  It is clear the parents care but children will be children.  The closure is direct and clear as the daughter faces her mother with a lie.  The poem is effective in presenting a common situation between parents and their kids.  It is interesting that the narrator is wearing the color yellow and a dress.  Her mother would not expect her daughter to be in a dirt fight let alone wearing a dress or, perhaps, lie.   The suggested conflict is clear and the poem works well.
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The poem, No Mistakes in Art on page thirty-nine, has some of the same rebellious traits as Possibly wind.  The school tries to restrain and control the children but they are so of full life, they jostle and proclaim.
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                 A quince breaks into bloom
                 outside the school
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                where I sketch
               (between classes)
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               trying to capture the tangle of citrus
               in rooted stance
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               against brick walls
               that can’t contain children
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                from chanting, jostling
               down stairwells, proclaiming
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              poems,
                       vivid and delicious.
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Cohen cleverly inserts her artistic self into the observation of school children as if they are not only visual art but semi out of control poems that are not only vivid—a sight—but delicious poems connecting the literary to the visual art form.  The poem is strong in its setting and situation.  It makes the readers feel as if they are observing along with the narrator just to the corner of the poem’s edge.  I also like the way the stanzas are set up as if implying the stair steps the children are coming down.
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Some of the poems in this book seem almost interactive like the poem No Mistakes in Art.  This volume has many strengths but I find it is uneven in tone and perhaps tries too hard to link art forms.  I wonder if the book had sketches next to the poems how this would affect the reader.  I bet it would be a positive.
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You can find the book here: Etching the Ghost

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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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And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey by Amy Beeder

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By Greg Bem

Where to locate on that over-fingers lacquer speech?
Over boundaries of corruption, the physics of corpse or ash?

(from “Ouija Blink” on page 9)

Sprawling across 36 poems divided between three distinct sections, Amy Beeder’s latest published poetic voice has concocted and presented a vast array of personas and lingual variations that feel, in a short span, like living history. And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey is a book that brings forward the medieval, the gothic, the pioneer, the ancient, the contemporary, and more into an alchemical, prismatic collection that collects with each page flipped.

Beeder’s poetry shifts and morphs in front of the reader, states of the perceived reality as ephemeral as time itself. Never feeling without, never feeling of lack, this is a book of captivation, rallying, and an undeniable memento. It features explorers, witches, linguists, novelists, philosophers, and gravediggers, to name a slice of the cast. And it is global, covering grounds from many places and many cultures.

When quarantines are lifted we’ll play Marco Polo

in the empty wards & by lamplight study ancient methods
of beekeeping: mud hive & yeast cake, the tendering

of tiny crowns & tiny homes of sedge.

(from “And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey Out of the Tears of Re” on page 8)

The poems are senselessly arousing, moving between tangible and tangential from breath to breath. It is a book that is mischievous and keen, gripping and confounding, and ultimately visceral in its aural estimations and proximities. And So Was Wax contains some description, some explanation, and yet never enough. There are allusions and wayfinding, some intentionally exposed and some buried within subtext, yet there is mystery, and it is strong and strange and lingering.

One of the endnotes calls forth a reference to Ezra Pound, and I could not help being reminded of the complexities, challenges, and illuminations of the Modernists at large in texts nearly 100 years old. Still, I was also reminded of Black Mountain, Naropa, and also, I was reminded of the epic poems and parables of ages and eras many, many years’ past.

your tongue thicken to an ox’s, pronouncing words
that only through your industry still merit this translation:
I sometimes feel I am liquifying like an Old Camembert.

(from “Flaubert & the Chancre” on page 33)

Such is Beeder’s work. It never relents and it always offers more, the further one dips their head (and their mind) inward. Ultimately, the book sits on the precipice of greatness with a feeling of necessitated muddiness: to leave out direction leads to inherent incoherence, but never without confidence, without the sense that the poet is in full control, and knowingly looking upward, into the sky, the stars, and all directions of time at once.

A book of questions and yet a book of documentation and storytelling, it is a collection that may, at length, feel connected to something larger, above and beyond its own covers. I am reminded of the longer works of Caroline Bergvall, Anne Carson, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, whose books are woven together like intense strands.

Dear
Drought our summer corn was overrun again
with weed & cheat; the bitter zinnias fell to bits.

Dear yearlings our harvest is lattice & husk.

(from “Dear Drought” on page 30)

Reminisces and ruminations on form aside, Beeder’s third book is distinctly her own. She brings forward wisdom derivative of many ages, and yet the comments feel current to the urgencies of today. From climate change to spirituality to a belief of women, Beeder captures the moment by deferring to the relevance of the past. All told, the timelessness is timeliness, and the poet serves as a firm but quizzical reminder that we have much to learn by adjusting our gaze.

I am waiting at the crossroads, here at your broken gate
where barbed acacias stoop to shade my trespass.

(from “For Fresno’s Best Process Service Call Hermes” on page 56)

You can find the book here: https://www.tupelopress.org/product/and-so-wax-was-made-also-honey/

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

Poisons & Antidotes by Andrea L. Fry

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By Charles Rammelkamp
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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” go the lyrics of a hit song by Kelly Clarkson, the same paradox at the heart of Andrea L. Fry’s impressive collection in which she explores the clash of the nutric and the toxic,  the safe and the perilous: the noxious and the obnoxious, as the title of the book’s first section sums up.
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“Oh, I would divide the world into binaries,” she begins the poem called “The Glitter of the Simple,” but the dichotomy is never so clear, as she captures so beautifully later in the poem:
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The sacred passion flower,
ringed by purple filaments,
though its cool smile nests in leaves
of cyanide.
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Later in the poem, after having archly declared her intention to judge by appearances only, Fry more sagely notes the deceptive malleability of the world’s contents in an observation from which the collection takes its name:
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Both substance and creature slink
over a delicate border,
can so easily pass
from poison to antidote.
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Some of Fry’s poems are so deliciously specific in spelling out the world’s almost oxymoronic inconsistencies. “Jimsonweed” and “Mothballs,” which open the book, focus on these two modest objects to tease out the point. “The Flower Maker” tells the story of the accidental poisoning of a person who makes beautiful bouquets for ladies’ hair using a chemical like Scheele’s Green, a mixture containing arsenic. “She shaped the flowers, / and pinned them, // loved them like / little green children.”  Unfortunately, the flower maker got the poison all over herself, too, her hair and lashes, and eventually into her stomach and liver.
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“The Snake Charmer” is another poem that plays on the ambiguity of the safe and the dangerous. Inspired by a magazine article about an Indian snake charmer who “attempted suicide by cobra” (“your nemesis / and livelihood coiled in a basket”), she describes the man considered an “entertainer” by some and a “beggar” by others:
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Yours was like a prophet’s
mission, to travel to villages
and festivals – like a marshal
out in front, townspeople cowering
behind – to challenge peril,
dare it to come out from its
hiding, show itself.
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An oncology nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Fry knows what she’s talking about when she evaluates the risks and benefits of different drugs and therapies. “Tomfoolery” brings a smile with its curmudgeonly expression, but she speaks truth:
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Harrumph, I say!
Your cure’s as toxic as the bug itself.
A panacea that kills the lymph.
Amphotericin destroys both fungus and the host;
camphor kills moths, gives us emphysema.
Amphetamines make depressives
leap the fence….
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“Narcan,” a poem about the emergency drug used to treat opioid overdose, expresses a similar ambivalence; the “miracle” comes with a warning, “the burden / of pure gift.” “Therapy” continues the idea of the fragility of the body in response to drugs, “fondling kidneys / like pottery.”  And so we encounter “Amir” “holding / the sample of urine with a slight tremor, as if asking for alms,” as uncertain and terrified as any other anonymous patient.
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This mixture of promise and peril is particularly potent in “Return,” a poem dedicated to “the Babushkas of Chernobyl,” the old women coming back to tend to the radioactive land, “to your home, / to what they said would be uninhabitable.” The birds, the bees, even, for a time, the wolves, moose and boars were gone. “But you would not grieve.  / There was work to be done.”
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My favorite poem is the one called “The Renderer,” in which a farm mother cushions the death of a beloved ancient horse with a vision of Patsy grazing happily in Heaven, much like the story parents tell their children about the dead family pet going away to live on a bucolic farm. Unfortunately, before she can take the kids away, the renderer drives up, jerking “the brake up like he was snapping / something’s neck” and proceeds to describe how he will have to saw Patsy’s legs off before hooking her up and driving the carcass away. The mother hastily rolls up the window and starts to leave the property. They drive away in silence for a few minutes, and then:
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“Mama?”
“Yes, Jack,” I said.
“Was that God?”
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Fry’s sense of humor shines throughout many of these poems, while expanding on her theme. “Don’t Let Anyone Dull Your Sparkle!” channels the snarky colleague who manages to undercut her co-workers while smiling her fake smile. “Help Desk” is a sort of surreal take on the recorded telephone message that “directs your call.” “The Show Dog” anthropomorphizes the competitors in competitions like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “The Death of Rhetoric” humorously analyzes how language has been poisoned. It starts out:
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Take whatever.
Once royal, now it dwells
like a fallen angel
in the most ignoble realm:
the syntax of a sullen teen.
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These marvelous poems brim with wit, imagination and intelligence. What doesn’t simply charm or enchant you will make you wiser. (Am I right, Kelly Clarkson?)
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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Planetary Motions by William Seaton

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By Karen Corinne Herceg
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William Seaton possesses a poetic voice whose sage and steady delivery comforts yet challenges us simultaneously. These qualities are on fine display in his latest book Planetary Motions. This collection’s combination of astute observational wisdom and inquisitive introspection allows us to explore the wonders and mysteries of the world with joy in spite of our frustrating inability to ever fully comprehend it. A critical component is to compel our powers of observation and reflection despite whether we receive satisfactory answers or any answers at all. His poems are beguiling expeditions that spur us on to deeper examinations of the human condition. It’s refreshing to find such an erudite voice that incorporates the humor and pathos of the quotidian so very well. A deep satisfaction that comes from reading these poems is their ability to make familiar things new and new things surprising.
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Formally trained and accomplished in translating Greek, Latin, German, and French, Seaton has a formidable background firmly entrenched in the history of poetry. It’s an art he not only practices but has taught and a craft he takes quite seriously in the tradition of such heady influences as Ezra Pound and poets who worked laboriously upon each word and phrase as being integral to the integrity of an entire piece. Nothing is viewed as superfluous. And in spite of this studied and precise attention to the importance of each word, he avoids a didactic, uninspired mindset and transforms that precision into music. The result is a lovely song to enjoy in its entirety without the obvious dissection of each note in its composition. We might be interested in the ingredients of a great meal, but it is the colors, textures, and tastes we appreciate in the final presentation.
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Seaton takes his knowledge on the road, both literally and figuratively, which speaks to his expansive and varied ability to make so many strange worlds seem quite familiar. A graduate in English Literature of the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa’s Comparative Literature Program, he could have remained entrenched in his Midwestern American roots, safely ensconced in academia. However, he chose the life of a bohemian traveler fused with a solid, scholarly foundation and literary acumen. He’s taught in prisons and in the Nigerian bush and has hosted several series and events, particularly in his home base of Orange County in the Hudson Valley of New York State where he resides.
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Seaton’s antiquarian references come alive against a soundtrack of contemporary musings that might often be compared to the rhythmic undercurrents of  jazz with its roots in both blues and ragtime. It’s an intoxicating blend of melancholy ruminations and playful ebullience that makes jazz so compelling, and this is also true of Seaton’s poetry. Interestingly, Planetary Motions is published by Giant Steps Press, which takes its name from the song and album of famed jazz musician John Coltrane. There’s an immense substantiation of poetic tradition in drawing upon a diverse lineage of history and so gracefully integrating it with the subtle and often soul-disturbing notes of such a modern art form. But it is evocative of Seaton’s work which brings the past alive by connecting it so deftly to the present.
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His expansive, global perspective can best be summed up in his own words. In a 2021 interview with Rubee Rancourt, an editor at Giant Steps, Seaton referred to earlier days he spent in Haight Ashbery saying, “We declaimed poetry in the streets and strove to make each act of daily life into art.” He adds, “As for academe, some may conceive the ivied halls as an isolated and remote realm, but for me it opened up the globe and the centuries past. The traditional canon is not, however, sufficient. To learn the real nature of literature requires familiarity with work outside the English Literature curriculum.” He makes note of the many ways we come together in commonality as human beings by exploring and integrating the vast scope of multi-cultural literature. The poet or artist brings a myriad of emotions, personal history, and individual perspectives to what manifests as a poem or a work of art but elevates it further with a universal inclusiveness. At the same time one must maintain reverence and humility. As he states in his Foreword to Planetary Motions, he promises “…only a few snapshots of consciousness reflecting glints of shattered truth which I wave in the dark like a blessedly naïve child with a sparkler.” It is more about presenting possibilities than absolutes.
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Planetary Motions is divided into seven very diverse sections and includes a Foreword and an Afterword. In Section One’s Other Scenes, we see a good example of Seaton’s ability to juxtapose and highlight the dichotomies of life in a variety of different cultures. In Men’s Clubhouse in Chihuahua he presents the subtle image of a young boy who absorbs the imprint and harshness of the local neighborhood while holding a Coke that is emblematic of external influences that tarnish that very culture. We see this theme again in the analogy of red feathers to blood and the historical and ongoing threat of violence contrasted with a quiet, pastoral scene in Macaws by the Gate of Copán, and in Mahashamsana where the Ganges River flows with shit, chemicals, and corpses but also with candles afloat that represent wishes of worshippers.
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On Ganges Shore he explores further the distance between appearance and intention when he states:
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…though aren’t they brothers in their con:
guru, priest, imam, rabbi,
passing the plate
and running the concern.
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There’s no question mark added at the end, since it is more of a statement that underscores its truth while asking us to consider this for ourselves. The striving of humans to impose our intricate and often convoluted thought patterns on the world as compared to the uncomplicated acceptance of other creatures is summed up succinctly in The Turkish Cats. He tells us that “…their cogitation seems a simple thing/and yet their gaze is sharp and clear and true” and without doubt.
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In Andean Day Seaton offers us marvelous physical imagery that underpins more ethereal experiences:
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A bowl of coca leaves can soften some
the stones and bones of every passing hour.
Thin air sublimes my thoughts and makes them rare,
for heaven tells no more than these high peaks.
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The inner rhythm of “stones and bones” so strongly impacts our awareness of time that measures our lives. It is mitigated to some degree by certain comforts that buffer harsher realities. And the jarring use of  sublime used as a verb, as in “sublimes my thoughts,” or the unexpected adjective “purling” paired with “water” in Walking in Aguirre Springs—adds new and refreshing perspectives.
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The next section, Divagations, gives us the mind wandering in the freedom of various reveries. In the Metaphysics of Everyday Life, we’re asked if the abstract thoughts and intrusions on our reality are truly abstruse or is reality the illusion?  In this poem the mind wanders as it truly does in each of us. There is no linear, rational pattern that informs our constant perambulations. We see the interruptions of the mind imposing various observations and seeming order into random impressions and broken connections:
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I carry my household gods from place to place and put their
            images on the walls to contain me, still horizons.
And the line will, despite horizons, propagate itself in any
direction and look to   its rights.
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This theme is echoed again in His Thoughts Flowed:
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…those thoughts flowed very like the wind
that takes each turn that comes along the way
and skims on top of fast food sheds and cars and busy men,
seeking some Zephyr in the stratosphere, some sweet high air
above the birds and plans, with which to mix and drift
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and effortless glide on.
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The so whimsically titled Wheee almost belies the gravitas of its message of connection and connectedness that fairly stretches into the realm of Shakespearean worthiness in its conjunction of colloquial yet elevated language and expression. Yet it is aptly named as it emphasizes the frequent comic elements that underpin our perceptions and conclusions:
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Beginning from the reverent and deeply held belief
            that matter and anti-matter must, in the end, be equal,
                        as positive and negative charges are equal,
and in this way the cosmic doughnut was
always already eaten and if my dream is a map of the stars, the
stars must dream always of me –
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Further fragments provide insights into our efforts to reconcile ourselves to inevitabilities and death:
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And just as the truth of a birth is concealed behind jubilation
 that, in spite of mortality, we are keeping abreast of the game
through efforts strenuous and strongly felt through the entire
human race…
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And the following fragment elevates death to its proper place in the scheme of life and reality:
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 And the sum of all things is precisely nothing at all, when
positive charges meet negative and matter meets antimatter and
finds annihilation perfect and sweet and a most elegant end…
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In the section Appetites, Seaton brings a palpable, organic sensibility to his observations of various foods and other physical elements with insights that assault our traditional and more complacent interpretations as in Cherry, where it becomes more of a transubstantiation than a comparison:
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Whence the gravity of your deep, deep red, o cherry?
You’re some vestigially corporeal internal organ of an angel
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There are descriptions of ordinary elements that birth startling contrasts:
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The highway cars,
a procession of dark stones
on the night’s sash,
the contained explosions
of their iron hearts
a constant tide
coursing down the lanes of night
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The following lines are reminiscent of the grandeur of classical soliloquy:
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An ego’s flame may burn or cook or warm,
ignite the incense of a devotee.
It’s rooted firm in metamorphosis.
O what hot changes rung upon the world
which may tomorrow be but ash and dust
but which right now is hot with change and pain.
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Songs gives us a section that is playful and lighter, some poems like the grand rhymes of bygone times, sometimes with a naughty twist as in:
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The force made a stand by enigma’s land.
The horses paused; he marshaled the band.
They  sought  to  breach  the  gate
behind which the queen was reclining in state.
They made it no further the chroniclers wrote
than the ripple of an aureole,
the nipple’s guardian moat.
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Seaton’s use of foreign or more obscure words achieves the difficult task of inviting us in rather than excluding us. His turn of phrase, inherent humor, and rhyming schemes create an inviting cocoon in which to feel expansive rather than marginalized:
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The early earthworm twisted his tail
and glistened his part that was glad to be male.
Vermicular lust began to rise
when the male part caught sight of his feminine side.
Before the morning was halfway done:
a hermaphroditical orgy of one.
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Further, he takes some literary license with pieces one could consider as limericks:
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Under the counterpane’s tropical heat
it’s torrid and humid down under the sheet
where natives go naked and nuzzle at will
down each damp valley, up each fertile hill.
We’ve sailed past the Cape, we’re rounding the Horn,
we’re starboard of Cancer below Capricorn!
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Or as in It Won’t Belong, even a sort of tongue twister:
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Giblet wonton,
new tot goblin,
neon blog twit,
boil tent gown,
blown ego tint,
no betting owl,
bent wing tool.
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And, just for fun:
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Another Charm
wait
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ha dinga bolooya mabit!
la linga ha hatnee zooo
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there
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These pieces are so clever and enjoyable we can readily accept them among the more serious and studied poems. After all, it’s the poet’s choice in a somewhat ‘take it or leave it’ attitude as evidenced in the final word of Another Charm: “there” which, in its definitive defiance, doesn’t even need the validation of an exclamation point.
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As its title suggests, the section Momento Mori brings us back to more sober considerations. A study on the inevitability of death is exemplified in these lines from Bullfight when the bull falls defeated and dying:
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One can avert one’s eyes right now,
tomorrow, too, but in the end one can’t.
The estocada comes for every beating heart.
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Estocada is an intriguing word choice translating akin to “lunge” in English, emphasizing that the final stroke is never gentle no matter what our expectations or circumstances.
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Seaton reminds us there are many kinds of deaths as exemplified in end of the world, very much a political statement but quite apropos in this section. It is a condemnation of the fleeting rewards of greed that will ultimately bring about destruction and loss:
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choking on bilious consumer goods
constipated by warehouses
with goods that just must move
swollen with inflammation
and cancerous economic growth
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In a bow to surrealism, and the cabaret series of new and alternative art he hosted at the Seligmann studio in Sugar Loaf, New York, Seaton presents a sort of alter ego in this section called Lama Swine Toil. He’s presented as the “Surrealist chaplain” who satirically dissects the misleading lure of gurus and spiritual leaders, and the false sense that any of us mortals can contain and offer divine wisdom. His disdain for such faux personas is clear in these lines from The Old Lama:
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My master said that he became a lama in order to avoid selling
snacks in the market. As good a reason, he thought, as any.
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He puts a final, hard stop to it with this proclamation from the comically titled The Lama’s Parable of the Not-OK Corral:
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Suddenly he heard from behind the voice of the cosmos, deep
and unmistakable,
“Drop your ego on the ground right there, I’ve got you
covered.”
And he knew the jig was finally up.
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With no conclusive words to placate our desire for resolutions, we are left with an acceptance of an ultimately unknowable and fluctuating dynamic but one which we all share. Herein lies the solace of capitulation to our common experience. As Seaton sums up in these lines from Apothegms of the Backbrain:
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In the end we all are in the same boat, and we know it has
sprung a leak, and we hold hands in dread and in this way our
comfort and our fear are as one.
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The final section of Planetary Motions is Translations, which treats us to a host of work by poets from various cultures and historical time periods aptly rendered by Seaton’s expert and intuitively inspired interpretations. These translations serve to further underscore the connectivity of the human experience in what is essentially a global home of shared commonality undiminished by language or locale. Planetary Motions shows us that Seaton is a true citizen not only of the planet but perhaps of other worlds as well.
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You can find the book here: Planetary Motions
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Karen Corinne Herceg graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a B.A. in Literature/Writing and has graduate credits in editing, revision and psychology. Her first volume of poetry is Inner Sanctions, and her second volume, Out From Calaboose, was published in Fall 2016 by Nirala Publications. She publishes poetry, prose and essays in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including American Book Review, Compulsive Reader, North of Oxford, LiveMag!  https://www.karencorinneherceg.com/