poetry book

Lines of Defense by Stephen Dunn

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

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          That powdered stranger
          lying there, that nobody I knew?
          I was far away, parsing grief,
          turning it over in my mind.
          He was simply gone, a dead thing,
          anybody’s sack of bones.
          Only when his son spoke,
          measuring with precise, slow-
          to-arrive language the father
          he had lost, did something in me move.
          There was my brother restored,
          abstracted, made of words now.
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          I knew nothing about Stephen Dunn. Perhaps years ago I read some of his poems but had completely forgotten them. I had heard that he taught in New Jersey. That was all: perhaps a good way to come at a work of art for a fresh impression. There are many poets out there. Poetry is a thriving sub-culture like antique collecting, gardening, cuisine, etc. Poetry is used in advertising and song lyrics. Our challenge is to find the best among the many. I’ll choose Stephen Dunn.
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Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).
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Everything You Hold Dear by Jamie Sharpe

everything

By Greg Bem

The J. Sharpe Award for Poetic Mediocrity
#Tomorrow’sSomethingElse

(from: “Bootstraps / And Where Best to Purchase Them,” pg. 17)

Following 2017’s Dazzle Ships, Jamie Sharpe’s latest collection of poetry is cunning, confusedly irresolute, and filled to the brim with a thinly-veiled sorrow-cum-cynicism towards poetry and the situations of living writers. Despite his outlashes toward the stereotypical situations that poets find themselves managing, Sharpe’s wit carries Everything You Hold Dear, which is compiled of 28 lyrical bursts and 27 micro-biographies. Often the anonymized vignettes and lessons that fill each page reflect a certain autobiography, alluding to Sharpe’s own struggles through the world of the literary, of publishing, and of poverty.

The book begins with the reflective “Turning the Alphabet Into a Band-Aid,” which in six lines informs the reader that this book is both within and beyond the deadpan of a poet’s futility and hopelessness. “When I was nobody, who I was / didn’t distract from what / I said.” (pg. 9) opens the poem, and the book. Admitting to ego and a history of self-determined success, Sharpe props the door for all manner of storytelling. This book, thus, is concerned with the problems and burdens of experience, and how experience damns us all.

Amongst poets I know,
wealth is “fiercely original.”

(pg. 16)

The manifestations of experience and the lived life of the writerly types are presented through an alphabetical concept of biography. Every other page is a poem about a writer who is only identified by their assigned letter within the alphabet, and each letter is represented both abruptly and distinctly. These stories, often allegorical and proclamatory in tone, exhibit a typification of the common situations poets find themselves in. It could be me, it could be you, it could be any of us who encounter the world of fame and recognition, advances and meager award money, and the many dead-ends of employment.

No job. Limited prospects. U, what’s to
be done with you?

I’d run

(if U weren’t a thinly veiled I).

(pg. 54)

As distanced and chiseled as they are, these alphabetical iterations also represent Sharpe’s own criticism and critical points of argument, at times scathing and at other times subdued, of the world keenly observed. That the book has been published during our time of supreme isolation, during a global pandemic, feels fitting, for the many of us who can only glance and gawk in a general, lamenting peanut gallery at the trials of our peers, as flat the failures and successes may be.

Interspersing these stories is a lazy string of poems that feels resonant of Sharpe and Sharpe’s own experiences. They are lyrical poems that often feel disconnected and irrelevant to Sharpe’s larger message within the alphabetical pieces. Many of the poems have occasional glimmers of potency, where the poet finds catharsis and, occasionally, self-actualization, but there is a thickened layer of ego fat that fills in all of the gaps. If Sharpe has been intending for a flighty sense of the mediocrity of experience to fill the spaces of insight, this intention has been accomplished.

Everything You Hold Dear, its title emblematic of an irony that haunts these pages, follows the many writers of the 19th and 20th centuries who have sarcastically engaged the canon and the general milieu of “the writer.” Sharpe follows in the shadowy footsteps of many relatively recent authors, like Joyce, Nabokov, Plath, Kerouac, and Bukowski, who have similar practices. These, and countless others, have gone to extreme lengths of fictionalization and memoirification to capture the feeling of the destitute and “alive” lifestyle of those damned, poetic souls. The ones who wander the earth in something between paralysis and determination. These salty critics often rely on sardonic methods to make their point regarding how ridiculous (and absurd? existential? nihilistic?) the writer’s world continues to be. Sharpe’s contemporary, Seattle-based Thomas Walton, operates in a similar manner through his recent lyrical essays.

At the end of the day, and the end of the collection, we are reminded that the world around us, the world for poets that must be dealt with by the poets, continues. Sharpe closes with a couplet, called “Foreword,” which symbolizes something greater (or, at least, mediocrely the same) around the corner. But that corner is not determined: it is not solidified and proven to be true other than the graying of a very Sisyphusian landscape

The book closes and turns our attention back onto itself, in a folding manner, encapsulated within the collection some vague, curious, greater offering. Sharpe is inadvertently contributing an ars poetica, stiff and defiant. It may be sloppy and blurry, but Sharpe, either consciously or not, is yearning for something more, something greater, something that contains fulfillment. As the book’s title suggests, Everything You Hold Dear is as much about the joy and a positive reason for being as it is for the shadow lurking behind. Thus the “dazzle” continues. Thus, Sharpe’s beautiful, quintessential poet’s damnation persists.

to view Alps
puke sour suns.

Thick, yellow voltas.

(from “Avalanche Kills One,” pg. 29)

You can find the book here: https://ecwpress.com/products/everything-you-hold-dear

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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Heaven is a Photograph by Christine Sloan Stoddard

heaven

By Alex Carrigan

In her newest poetry and photography collection from CLASH Books, author, artist, and filmmaker Christine Sloan Stoddard draws the connection between the creative processes behind creating a photograph and the necessity of female expression. Through a series of poems written from the viewpoint of a female photographer, Stoddard presents sixteen poems, each paired with an original photograph, that underscores the challenge and audacity that comes from capturing both literal and figurative essence through the camera’s lens.

The collection opens with “The Dead Girl Artist’s Scientific Method,” where Stoddard writes “have you ever read / an artist statement / written by a cadaver?” This long poem examines the photographer as both the subject and creator of the picture, especially as she is viewed by a man who doesn’t love her or appreciate her artfulness. “was it my curly hair? / did he long for straight? / was it my mayan nose? / did he want a ski slope? / was it my ripe olive tone? / did he prefer peaches and cream?” she writes.

Other pieces in the collection tackle similar subjects, with the narrator of the poems examining her subjects, who are often female, and attempts to capture them as photography subjects and as people in her sphere. Many of the poems in the collection attempt to examine hallmarks of girl- and womanhood, such as playing with dolls (“barbies only ever owned / a point-and-shoot / for photo albums / never seen beyond home” from “Daughter Behind the Lens”), attending important social events (“do not bring cameras to parties / people want freedom in / their tomfoolery” from “Camera for Company”), and continuing one’s education in more intense environments (“the lens obsessed / do not choose / medicine or law” from “BFA”).

The photographs Stoddard included with each poem are also quite fascinating. Many of the pictures are created through found objects and a good number of them seem to be taken on the same rooftop setting. Many of the objects are transformed with paint and other materials, and finding the connection between the pictures and the accompanying poems is quite a fascinating challenge for the reader, but also quite illuminating of Stoddard’s artistic eye.

For example, the poem “BFA” features a photo of a framed piece of artwork depicting an octopus, its canvas and frame looking as tagged as the brick wall behind it. The poem features lines like “the relentless grip of / societal expectations / could shatter / the skull” and “four years and / nobody knows / what is next,” which seem appropriate for a creature known for camouflaging and for its many suckered tentacles. Other pictures in the collection play with the rooftop setting, covering pipes with masks or drawing attention to the deep gray color of the setting.

Heaven is a Photograph puts the reader behind, in front of, and inside the camera through Stoddard’s evocative photography and poetry. Through the lens of her viewpoint character, the collection demonstrates the universal and personal appeal of photography in an impactful and vivid manner. Stoddard describes the art of photography as it relates to creation, legacy and memory in a way that makes the act of clicking the shutter button both a spiritual and artistic act.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Heaven-Photograph-Christine-Sloan-Stoddard/dp/194486637X

Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Alexandria, Virginia. He has edited and proofed the anthologies ‘CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing’ (C&R Press, 2018) and ‘Her Plumage: An Anthology of Women’s Writings from Quail Bell Magazine’ (Quail Bell Press & Productions 2019). He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Passionate Chic, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), ‘Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear’ (Et Alia Press, 2020), and ImageOutWrite Vol. 9. You can find his work at carriganak.wordpress.com.

Catastroika by Charles Rammelkamp Available for Pre-Order

9781627202985-Catastroika-COV.indd

“Whether Rasputin was charlatan or saint remains ambiguous, but Catastroika casts the larger-than-life character in new light (or shadow). Told from the perspectives of Rasputin’s daughter and a fictional Russian Jew –both settled in America–this book reflects on Russia’s past through their experiences. Intimate and insightful, Charles Rammelkamp will have you saying “da!” to Catastroika.” — Eric D. Goodman, author of Setting the Family Free, Womb: a novel in utero and Tracks: A Novel in Stories

“Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Charles Rammelkamp’s fictional witness to history, Sasha (Alexander Federmesser), was there, and can tell us lucky readers all about it, from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Revolution, through the murder of the Romanov family. Throw in Maria, Rasputin’s daughter and her amazingly picaresque real life in Russia, Europe, and Hollywood, and you’ve got a tale for the ages. Rammelkamp’s diction is pitch perfect for the times he writes about. Read this amazing collection, then read it again.” — Robert Cooperman, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry, for In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains

“What a fabulous witches’ borscht! It’s fabulous in a strict sense: what seems to be the stuff of fable is firmly rooted in the real world. Catastroika, a historical novel-in-verse opening with a poem in the author’s own voice–his response to viewing a famous part of Rasputin’s anatomy in a glass jar in a St. Petersburg museum–moves to a narrative alternating between the voice of Maria, Rasputin’s adoring daughter, and that of Sasha, a Russian Jew acquainted third-hand with Rasputin and first-hand with young Maria. Their stories take us from the Romanovs through the Bolshevik revolution to the present day in the US. Meticulously researched, Catastroika is peppered with shocks, from the horrors suffered by Jews and “White Russians” in post-Romanov Russia, to the astounding US careers of Maria Rasputin, first as a lion tamer with the Ringling Brothers circus and then–but no, I will commit no spoiler here by revealing her final career. Equally delicious is the later life of Sasha in the US city of –but no, that too would be a spoiler. Suffice it say that Catastroika, to borrow a show-biz phrase for a bravura performance, really brings it home.” — Clarinda Harriss, author of Innumerable Moons and other books of poetry and fiction

“Was recent Russian history a matter of perestroika (reform), or was it more of a catastrophe? It was a combination of both, as shown in Catastroika, a collection of poetic accounts of events that are sometimes ordinary, and other times shattering. The tellers of these deeply felt, often wrenching tales are Maria Rasputin, daughter of the mystic, healer, and ladies’ man Grigory Rasputin, and Sasha Federmesser, a Jew who lives through persecution, escapes Russia, and settles in Baltimore. These poems will open your eyes to truths about rulers, revolutionaries, and the people caught between them.” — Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of Border Crossings

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Catastoika-Charles-Rammelkamp/dp/1627202986/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=charles+rammelkamp&qid=1586693601&s=books&sr=1-1

The Dead Kid Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher

dead kid
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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A companion to her collection, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, published four years earlier, The Dead Kid Poems hammers you with the grief and injustice of a child’s death just as relentlessly, if not more so, than the previous volume. The very title is like a blunt object, nothing allusive or metaphorical about it. Only, where The Joshua Elegies ends on an ambivalent note in the poem, “when her dead son is seven years,” the new collection seems to offer something like comfort, or redemption, at its close. In the first collection,
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a woman is skating barefoot on her sorrow,
her brain awash in the smell of his skin,
her arms shackled to the stars, a
pirouette of unmet promises,
regret. if she blames it on herself
she can fix it.
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Compare this searing guilt to the last lines of “Photo of My Dead Son, Taken at the DMV”: “Last night as I finally drifted off, my dead boy covered me with his yellow baby blanket. / Sleep now, Mama, he said.”
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This is not to say that it’s any easier, that the mourning comes to an end, that there is “closure,” which is all too clear in poems like “My Dead Boy”:.
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Eleven years after, my boy’s still dead.
(I hold him in the rafters of my head.)
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His photo’s propped at the side of my bed.
(I kiss it on the nightstand near my head.)
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A letterman jacket hangs in his stead.
(I shelter him, so deep inside my head.)
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Are you over it? my clueless friend said.
(I nail her to a grim place in my head.)
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But maybe with time comes perspective. It’s clear from these verses just how internalized the pain has become. Inside my head, indeed.
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Or maybe, to put it another, way, “I’ve grown accustomed to dead kids,” as the sadly resigned satiric poem, “Accustomed to Dead Kids,” begins, a spoof of the song Rex Harrison sings in My Fair Lady.
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I’ve grown accustomed to their screams,
the ending of their dreams,
accustomed to dead kids.
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I’ve grown accustomed to the sobs,
of parents, frantic as they call.
I’ve grown accustomed to the terror
when their children don’t respond;
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the pleas, the cries,
unsaid goodbyes
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are second nature to me now,
like breathing out and breathing in.
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Written for her sister, this collection includes half a dozen poems about the poet’s niece, “Anna,” addicted to meth and in the midst of the chaotic life addiction entails, the car wrecks, the homelessness, the desperation, driven by the craving, the dependence; the emotional blackmail they extort from parents who feel responsible and desperate themselves. In “Back on Meth, Anna Dumps Her Dog at Her Mother’s,” Fancher writes,
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My daughter’s a bottomless pit, my sister says.
She thinks I’m made of money!
What makes her think she can sponge off me?
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You do, I answer.
I’m done, my sister swears.
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This time I almost believe her.
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There’s more of this sense of the inevitable in the poems, “There are worse things than a dead kid, I think,” “The only people who call it ‘Cali’ are from someplace else,” and “Today, in her garden, my sister says, This plant came from the birds.
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I want to tap my sister’s younger self on the shoulder, say,
Don’t worry; this will turn out badly,
no matter what you do.
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What a punch in the gut! But it’s not heartlessness that drives these reflections, it’s the wisdom of grief.  You can’t read a poem like “Every Day Is Mother’s Day,” with its Zen-koan-like opening stanza, and not feel the depth of her anguish, internalized though it may be.
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If you had only
one child and he died, are you
still a mother?
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It’s this kind of torment that provokes a poem like “Unsolicited Advice to a Facebook Mom,” with its cautionary counsel, its unabashed invocation of superstitions in trying to make sense out of the totally meaningless cruelty life so often throws our way.
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Pass an egg above his body while he’s sleeping.
Make the mano fico over him with your fist.
Sew small mirrors into his clothes to reflect misfortune.
Tie a red string around his wildness.
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When someone gives him a compliment, spit over your shoulder three times.
Then touch wood.
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In an Afterword, Fancher confides, “My grief is not finite; eleven years and the poems about my boy keep coming. Even when the sadness ebbs, it returns with the deadliness of a tsunami.” But even in her distress, Fancher is able to write eloquent verse, like the extended metaphors that inform a poem like “”Residuals: An Elegy,” with its poignant allusions to television, or “Anna as a War Zone,” in which she describes her sister as a sort of angst aircraft divebombing to her daughter’s rescue.  Both collections contain a number of Fancher’s arresting photographs, including foreboding images of the raven, a bad luck sign in ancient mythology. The crow, in fact, adorns the cover of The Dead Kid Poems.
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So there may be a sort of “deliverance” for the reader at the conclusion of the book, but the warning for any parent or grandparent at the end of “Unsolicited Advice” is still so potent: “Don’t tempt the gods.”
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You can find the book here: KYSO Flash: Books
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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.

Flow by Beth Kephart

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By Ray Greenblatt
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  This is a little book (109 pages): the typical length of a poetry collection. 79 short prose pieces capture the history of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. However, the author’s powerful poetics reveal themselves on every page. Following the rough chronological order, let us observe the river’s interaction with man.

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      PRELUDE. This section gives an overview of the river’s history. “It bent the reflection of the moon, then held it still. A man looked in, a woman did, then held it still.”
 “It will course many miles more and take a turn through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware River, which will empty into a long-nosed bay before yielding to the sea.”
 “The river is cumulative. It harbors the floating oddments of towns like Auburn, Reading, Birdsboro, and Valley Forge.”
 “There is dust in its waters, the churn of bones.”
 “You might find the cross-frame of a kite in its silt, or the last page of a diary, or the buckle of a soldier’s shoe, or the chunky afterthought of anthracite.”
“That’s the thing about this river. You have to imagine to see.” (9)
          After industrialization things changed. “The river had turned the color of mud, the color of the noise on city streets. But a river stands for something even after the silence is gone.”
“There are other stories, big as myths. A river still begins at covert springs, and it still flows out to sea. It still floats the moon on its back at night, still stares out at the faces staring in, still dreams.” (11)
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          RISING. Instead of the author speaking, Kephart personifies the river so that it thinks and feels.  “Blueback herring and eel, alewife and shad muscle in to my wide blue heart, and through.”
“Were there language, I’d be my own lone letter.” (16)
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         BEAR. “He is besieged by smells. The curls inside leaves. The green cracking the earth. The beginning of berries.”
“The moon is high, it is afloat—yellow and generous as fruit.” (17)

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GANSHOWAHANNA. That is the Lenape name for the Schuylkill, which means falling waters. “The sky is theirs: The hunter after the bear, the Thunderers and Horned Serpent of last night’s storm, and the souls on the long, white trail—rising.” (18)

          FLIGHT. The Lenape fish for the sturgeon, which seem to have the ability to fly. “Turning my surface the color of purpose—of fish backs and of the floating, painted man whose spear points down from the sky.”
“His hair swims away from him like so many black minnows.” (20)

 

          SWARM.  The wildlife was so abundant. “Pompous pheasants, the swans were absurdly full of themselves. Had you asked me, I would have called for an interregnum of birds.” (22)

          TEMPTATION. “I was another country then. I was temptation. And what precisely lay to my west? What lay beyond my falls?” (23)

          ICE STORM. “You want to blame me for how we together broke apart, abandoned the little rules we each lived by. You want me implicated in the fracture of time, in my viscous letting loose, my rising.”
“That moan you heard was my soul in repeated shatters. That cleaving apart was my remorse.” (24) This passage takes on a mythic quality that American writers have used like Barry Lopez and Joy Harjo.
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          COMET. “If I am envious of anything, it is of those who might ascend and watch as the stars settle in upon my scrim. To see myself from above myself, in the iris black on night.”
“The night sliding forward and the sky antique, and suddenly (though it must have been there before) a comet. Ice for its head. Dust and ions in the seeming whoosh of its aftermath. The smell of methane and ammonia and burn.” (26)
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         SKATING PARTY. Notice how Kephart employs word repetition and a series of phrases not only to suggest gliding over the ice but also to intensify the continuous flow of the river. “Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm. Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, tearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness. Imagine the skin giving way. That’s skating.” (32)
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          FORT MIFFLIN. Here is a dead Revolutionary War soldier. “He is lying on his back in the mud and seeing every star that hangs above me as a hole in the sky, a piercing. His lungs are smoke. His arms are emptied and hollow.”
This is an impression of General Washington. “But already his pockets are bloodied with the talismans of lost men, with the buttons from their uniforms, with letters written home. Already his lungs are vapors.” (36)
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          INDEPENDENCE. What it might feel like when the Revolutionary War is over. “It was one of those effulgent days. Everything seemed touched by the intimation of precious metal—platinum on the limbs of trees, silver in the tips of flowers, gold glinting.”
“Wind rush and weather. Eyes that actually see. A body attuned to
 the physics of life and weight, thrust and drag.” (37)

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         FOLLY. Over the years drownings occurred in the river. “Many years, a drowning. A body dashed into my white spit. Bones sunk down with the calculus of catfish and of beaver, with turtle shells and the bright gold ring that marks the unmade promise.” (39)

.          SOUL How the death of Benjamin Franklin affected the river.  “The difference between a man’s soul and a cumulus cloud is that the cloud rubs out of its own accord and a man’s soul never does. Yesterday, Benjamin Franklin died after a year of suffering, and his soul has already risen, its color the color of sun through leaf. There’s an eccentric quiver in the air, a strange disruption, and the idle talk along my banks is of him.” (43)

          UNPLUGGED. The river begins to be channeled by builders into pipes. “When they gush me on, when they yank me off. I am slivered into tears. I die of boredom in their buckets.”
“A young girl named Annie, who, tending a garden, chooses me. Pours me into a long-spouted can, carries me over her arm, and transports me out to the birds of paradise, the violet petals and sweet peas, the bath that has been drawn up for the swallows. Where I am let free. Where the sun is familiar and I transcend my usefulness.” (47)

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          NAVIGATION. “I was a fist, a scourge, a seductress—pulling stones and sludge through their grinding gears, making sounds they couldn’t account for, flooding them out where veins were cut.” (54)

          HAVEN. Some people as this one woman are attuned to the river. “She is keen to the hidden craving in all things: the yearning tucked inside the songs of birds, the unconfessed regrets of men, the permanent rage of an unfinished fire.” (55)

          ASYLUM. Disabled seamen are comforted by the river. “He’ll smell more like smoke than good breeding, and his lips will be pale and chewed into; his nose will have been burnished by the sun. The songs will come out the barrel of his chest. His stories will be for nobody but me.” (62)

          WASTE. The following sentence imitates a flood, with even a hint of rhyme to keep the flow. “Nothing would stay in its place; nothing was fixed. The bulbs of the trees, the piers, the docks, the locks, and the canal masters’ houses, the soft hats and vests of the masters, their dinner plates and tablecloths, the barges, the names of the barges, the Conshohocken Bridge and the Flat Rock Bridge, the keys that opened the doors to the mills, the mills, the equipment in the mills, the columns of smoke that puffed out of the mills.” (68)

          RESPECTS. The river commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s death. “The bells had pealed so long they’d become the weather, and the horses that had passed—with riders in their saddles or carriages dragged behind them—had been keeping their heads low.  The wharves had been blackened, and also the boats, and there were bolts of black unfurled from the windows in the buildings all up and down my banks. Above the dam, where spring had already set in, the bushes and the birds were somber. The machines, for the most part, had stopped—the ambush of noise from factories.” (70)

          STEAM. A locomotive is described. “At this hour the night seems intoxicated, the tinted lanterns swinging in some late-shift tune and the men passing through the bilious smoke above the tracks—passing through and disappearing. They’ve left on the eyes of the locomotives. They’ve left them breathing there—each so much bigger than a bear, so much blacker than the panther whose footprints are sunk in deep beneath those tracks, whose eyes needed only the moon for ignition. I can no longer tell you where the owls have gone. I can’t explain what a night alone is.” (76) The reader begins to feel the burden put upon the river, that once pure flowing water.

          ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS. Philadelphia had the first zoo in the country but at what cost. “The noise is killing—the hysterical chatter and proximate screams of animals slowly being robbed of their opinion. Last night lightning seared the underbelly of the sky and thunder moved in loud and fast. It would go from dark to a sick, pale green, then flame straight back to nothingness, and all I could think of were the cinnamon bears at the dancing poles, so far from wherever it was that they had come from. Suddenly I knew what is worse than having needs you cannot speak, and that is this: having no faith in being answered.” (78)

          KATHERINE ROWS. The first rowing club, eventually for women too, was formed in Philadelphia. “She favors the idea of the continuous. The continuous glide. The unobstructed move through time. The going on of my own self and soul—strong as a man, she says to me, and fluid as a mother’s song.” (80)
“Pulls the oars through the chokes, fastens the gates, and settles her heart. She plants her feet in the stretchers and oars her way out, her back facing forward. Shoulders to the sky, Katherine. Knees at an angle. Catch and drive and always finish. Feather the blades so you’ll fly. She leaves her hair loose, a dark burst about her face. She lets the breeze into her blouse. She listens to me and what I have to say, and she goes and she goes and she goes.” (81) Again, the author is very effective making the reader feel movement on the river.

 

          SUPPURATING. Historically by the nineteenth into the twentieth century the river is severely polluted. “It is the worst of you sloughed off into me—your refuse and oddments, your savage toxins and dross, your slicks that do not sink, your dirty yeast, your wrong-colored wools and the dyes that wronged them. How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession—the door you close to those parts of your self that you hope no one will see? Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave. Plant me a tombstone.” (89)

          ABIDING. Poetry can forcefully vivify the ugliness as well as the beauty around us. “You wouldn’t call it survival. All that time living with what became my own stench, my insufferable loneliness. All that time, forsaken. You turned your backs on me. You robbed me of my dignity and birdsong, of fat-fisted flowers and azalea springs. Mostly you robbed me of the idea of myself as a river, for what is a river but a conduit between spring and sea, a womb for underwater things, a chance of transcendence, and what did you make of me but a trough of shame, a festering disease you would not cure?  So that even the moon avoided me and my stories went dry as a bone and I was too clotted to see.” (92)

          LOVE. And yet in the twenty-first century there is hope. The return of the otter signifies the beginning of a return of wildlife to the river. “He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, with his dark pelt and his well-groomed ears, the sterling glimmer of his whiskers. He was audacious, bold, spectacularly witty, and when he looked at me he was looking into me, he was knowing my heart and all the places it has been to. He was not afraid of my complicated language, not afraid of my needs, not afraid of all that sinks or floats or ends with me. The bones in me, which are also seeds. The dust of distant life. The stories I carry, the color of my dreams, the weight of my confessions.” (108)

Beth Kephart is a published poet and prose writer; in this book FLOW she has finely balanced her skills. It must have taken much reading and research to immerse herself in the history of the Schuylkill River. By using many poetic devices, especially imagery, she has been able to magically don the persona of the river itself and bring it truly to life.

 You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Times-Philadelphias-Schuylkill-River-ebook/dp/B00ECK9XF2

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

 

 

The Weight of Bodily Touches by Joseph Zaccardi

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By Don Thompson

This is dark stuff.  The opening poem of Joseph Zaccardi’s new collection, The Weight of Bodily Touches, seems to be offered as a warning so that the tender-hearted might proceed no farther.  In “To Feast on the Flesh of Decay”, a farmer’s wife exhumes the bones of a miscarried baby to “suckle my loss” and then “eats the grave dust under her own nails”.  Some readers of this review will no doubt stop right here.

But I wonder about the source of such darkness.  Usually it’s a kind of posturing that intends to shock for its own sake—a variety of grand guignol.  But in these poems, it’s a genuine and almost compulsive response to the—well, horror that surrounds us.  Zaccardi looks closely at things most of us studiously ignore or see as social issues that provide an opportunity to do good from a distance. In these poems we witness human consciousness barely holding itself together in the face of suffering that just is.  No one to blame.  Not much to be done.

“The Sound the Tree Makes” turns out to be a scream and the answer to Bishop Berkeley’s question that even if no human hears it, the other trees do.  And this is only a tree—perhaps ridiculous if Zaccardi hadn’t given us such a vivid description of the tortures inflicted on logs in a lumber mill. When he focuses on human suffering in “ICU”,  we’re forced to see the awfulness of hospitals that we try to pretend isn’t there among the pastels and smooth jazz: “…a gurney casting chirps down a corridor…while IVs beep and air whistles from tap holes” and “a defibrillator delivers doses of electric current to undo a flatliner”.

In all this, Zaccardi exhibits a craftsman’s skill with the unpunctuated, run-on prose poem.  We are carried long by the ebb and flow of rhythms rather than bogged down in the usual unreadable clot.  This gives the poems tension—an odd exhilaration that runs counter to their grim subject matter.  And he does make an effort to reach some sort of quietness if not peace of mind in the final section, which shifts tone radically to pay homage to classical Chinese poetry.  But it’s too little too late to offset the preceding darkness.

And yet, like the spiders he writes about in “Circle and Alchemy”, his work is both “beautiful and hair-raising”.  Although their webs and our lives are fragile and tear apart easily, we “rebuild because there is so much left.”

You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/the-weight-of-bodily-touches

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

 

 

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Her Heartsongs by Joan Colby

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By Lynette G. Esposito
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Published by Presa Press of Rockford, Michigan, Joan Colby’s, Her Heartsongs, presents 69 pages of poems that create an intensity of emotion with fresh views of every day and familiar events
The lead poem on page nine entitled Her Heart, discusses the difference between a man’s heartbeat and a woman’s.
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                  The heart of a woman beats faster than the heart of a
                        man.
                  A billion heartbeats over a lifetime. No wonder a woman
                  Is tired.  No wonder she crawls into bed with a book\
                        before
                 The evening news arrives.  Her heart is misdiagnosed
                 Repeatedly.  The symptoms atypical.  Blockages in the
                        small
                 Arteries the tiny byways clogging unseen by the radiant
                         eye.
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The thirty-line single stanza poem points out how the great artery of a man’s heart is called the widow maker. Colby suggests there is no name for the woman’s.  The implication of what breaks a woman whose heart is made of  cut- velvet or satin , emblazoned with a scroll surrounded by cherubs suggests the gentle complexity that brings a woman’s heart to break.  The skillful presentation of the differences between men and women gives a fresh view through the imagery of the heart  and the way it beats through life then stops.  She has  a light touch that resonates.
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On page thirty-two, Colby’s poem Moving Men reveals how the things in ones life represent the past, present and future. Most of us have been through the common event of moving our things from one place to another so the reader is able to relate to the theme of the poem and understand the implications.  She begins the poem talking about keepsakes from a first love packed into sawdust and she ends the poem:
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                    Days of muscle and sweat.  You watch
                    The truck back out of tne drive.  Stow
                    Everything that is left, an inventory
                    of  tomorrows.
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The poem frames time in the things we move and the things we box up for later. Her use of the act of moving works well as a symbol both of time and the changes one goes through.
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Philip Dacey says the poems that Colby presents show an emotional intensity and large sympathies. I agree.  The book is a pleasure to read for the commonality of subject matter and the fresh perception of how every day events define the human conditionShe chooses such subjects as wash day, working, anniversaries and happiness to reveal and define individuals as works in progress. Colby is successful in her astute observations.
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Her Heartsongs is available through Baker and Taylor, The Book House, Coutts Information Services, Midwest Library Services, and directly from the publisher Ptesa Press at Presa Press
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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review, Bindweed Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, That Literary Review, The Remembered Arts Journal, and other literary magazines.
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Intersection on Neptune by Donna J. Gelagotis Lee

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By g emil reutter
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In this time when many in the United States have forgotten their lineage, of how they came to be in the United States, along comes Donna J. Gelagotis Lee to remind everyone of the immigrant experience, of native born children who have lived lives that those who came here hoped for. Intersection on Neptune brings us into the urban layering of Brooklyn, of family, of Coney Island, to family life and as she writes in the title poem, the country’ pivot point. In the second section the reader is transported New Jersey, the burbs, farms, and shore, of Seaside, of pastures, horses and trails even of a man making deliveries of eggs. Gelagotis Lee brings us into the rest stops, ballgames, writes of the pay phone and a homage to Trenton. She has had a lifelong love affair with Brooklyn and New Jersey. Her poems are blunt and truthful such as this in the second stanza of From a Rooftop in Brooklyn:
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Today, a sea of brick
buildings combs
the grey air,
green parks pushing them
aside, schools still
straining to meet
the goals of a touchdown
democracy. Silver birds
cluster like butterfilies
as they eagle-sweep over the
land they know, past faceless
windows, a country
below.
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So in the midst of grey air, brick, faceless windows she gives us hope, Silver birds cluster like butterflies.
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These poems by Gelagotis Lee read as a documentary of the American experience with love, family, of the difficult times, the good times. She captures the urban, suburban and rural experience in poems that will stay with you long after the read. Intersection on Neptune reminds us of from where we came, that the United States is a place that new arrivals can accomplish much, it is not an easy ride here, but you can make it.
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I end with the title poem that captures so much.
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Intersection on Neptune
               –Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn
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The sea smell rushes
in on a sudden breeze, like
that vehicle that veers into the space
just as someone pulls out. Older
couples, hearty Jamaicans,
Yiddish accents: land of Immigrants;
watch them claim it—
Chinese, Russians, ladies with thick
jewelry, men with yarmulkes;
the elderly line up at the strip
mall to trade stories, their props
canes and old-world hats. Yellow
lights let you cross only to the island.
Sirens interrupt talk. The sea breeze inter-
venes. The walk to the boardwalk is short.
But here, at this intersection, we
Have gathered, where the city turns.
And we find a parking space,
Crowded, a little tight, but afterwards
it’s enough; we all fit.
We smell the sea, the kosher bakery.
Our house is a high-rise
Our horizon, the Verrazano and the Empire
State. We’re on the finger
of New York City –the end
of the subway line, or the beginning—
the city starts and ends here,
on the country’s pivot point.