By Greg Bem
The J. Sharpe Award for Poetic Mediocrity
(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.”
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?
(if U weren’t a thinly veiled I).
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
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.
“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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.