poetry book

Lilith Walks by Susan M. Schultz


By Greg Bem

In Susan M. Schultz’s pandemic volume, we confront one artist’s engagement with and description of daily life. What we do with our time every day is an illuminating question, and Schultz uses the form of the “dog walk” to document and present her own findings.

Each entry in Lilith Walks is approximately a page in length, describing the poet’s walk with her curious and empathetic companion Lilith. The setting spans multiple locations in Hawaii, a landscape Schultz knows well from decades lived there. A zooming in toward the texture of daily life is blushed with natural beauty and a description of the environment through which the walk occurs. In “Chemistry Professor,” the walk begins within a cemetery:

Lilith and I walked farther into the cemetery than new usually do today, past the black tombs with Japanese names on them, around the corner, and up the hill toward a loop built around fountains and a garden (with stones and plaques in it, including some to the still living). (page 76)

A brief read of Schultz’s descriptions comes off as ordinary, even perhaps mundane, but in sum they build an arousing context through which the work becomes more whole, more complete, filled with issues, subtexts, and questions. The environment fills in the periphery, but the pressing themes mostly concern what other dogs and their humans are doing as they are encountered.

These characters show up once, or twice, or many times, and many are not without their own problems. Whether it’s on presidential leadership or on teaching remote or on surviving a pandemic, the conversations are not without tension. The fleeting nature of the “dog walk” amplifies the allegorical qualities behind the encounters and discussions, such as this one from “Lilith and the Cop’s Pug”:

He says there’s no leadership from the top of the police department. No advisories on how to deal with the public. He asks me how on-line education is going. I tell him some of my quiet students have come to the fore on discussion boards; other students have gone missing. Sangha has a missing professor. I tell him I’m worried that the crisis will become an excuse to convert us all to on-line from now on. He nods. Everything’s changing. (page 41)

Schultz’s reflective processes are acute and endearing, and with each piece there’s a sense the poet is sharing with us a secret, an illumination into an otherwise impossible space and interaction. This continues with her writings of observation, which often walk the line between the literal and the absurd, painting an image of the book’s corner of Hawaii as a land of extremes:

On our way back down Kahekili I see a young man in swim trunks ,dancing at the light; his movements awkward, head bobbing up and down. I also see someone with long brown legs carrying a large black plastic bag, a black piece of luggage and an umbrella. (from “Embodiment,” page 25)

The realm of human to human interaction is pervasive in Lilith Walks, but it must be said that dog walks also involve dogs. And so, while Lilith serves her human as a Beatrice-Virgil dualism guiding toward instinct, reason, and a profound sense of life, Lilith also is a dog who has her own world. And what a world it is! Schultz commits vast space and time to describing Lilith’s relationships and behaviors. Interaction leads to description, new layers and complexities evolving with every turn, as seen in “A Death in the Neighborhood”:

Her older dog, Buddy, made her anxious interacting with Lilith (as usual). A smallish brown dog with black snout, Buddy had had a tooth out, and that was after he had eye surgery. Buddy was costing her some money. But Buddy’s eyes looked better, far less bloodshot, and he didn’t seem to be in distress over the missing tooth. My neighbor had her wide-brimmed tan hat on, but didn’t answer directly when I asked how she was. On Sunday, she died. (page 13)

In Lilith Walks, no description lasts long, though, because of the remarkable temporary qualities of the “dog walk.” As a literary form, a dog walk feels like a remarkable hybrid between inspiration and constraint. The “dog walk” is descriptive yet concise. It balances deep engagement with time and place and often relies on a lightheartedness to carry forth the spontaneous flashes of experience. Even the usual and ordinary are elevated because dog walking is often about established routines and norms. In Schultz’s approach, the form is opportunity to document where norms are broken, where the exceptional occurs.

It is important to note that the activity of walking the dog appears to be exquisitely aligned with the pandemic. As we were all figuring out the world and our place in it, we often were doing so outdoors, in the comfort of our shared isolation across outside spaces. Thus, Schultz’s work doubly serves as fantastic pandemic literature. Published in late 2022 alongside a variety of other pandemic collections, Lilith Walks includes writings running from 9/10/17 to 11/12/21, making it exceptionally above and beyond most other pandemic literature and offering insight into what life was like immediately before. It is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a person living their life and continuing to live their life as the world is upended, with the help of a trusty, loveable canine in the lead.

You can find the book here: http://wp.blazevox.org/product/lilith-walks-by-susan-m-schultz/

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

Stop Lying by Aaron Smith

By Charles Rammelkamp
Two-thirds of the way through Stop Lying, Aaron Smith begins the poem, “The World of Men,” in which he is talking to his psychiatrist,
I’m a therapist’s wet dream, I say, and he writes
in his notebook, probably, that I’m using humor,
again, to cope.
Self-deception, deflection: there are so many ways of “lying” – to ourselves and others. Humor is certainly one of Smith’s gifts, as he comes to terms with his mother’s death from cancer. In his previous 2019 collection, The Book of Daniel, also dedicated to his mom, he is likewise coming to terms with her sickness, her mortality. Now she is dead. The drama of her death is central to Stop Lying.
Other forms of lying include withholding information and changing the subject. As Smith writes in “The Only Thing,”
                I never told my mother
I wrote books, and as far as I know,
she never saw one. She Googled me,
once, and found an essay I wrote about
being gay. She called my sister and cried,
begged her to ask me to take it down.
I didn’t, and we pretended it never
happened. She loved me without looking.
at me.
Or sometimes the lies are what sound false, boilerplate, as when we struggle toward being authentic and come up short. In “Letter to My Sister,” in which he realizes “Anyone, I now know, // can be lived without (I feel guilty for knowing that.),” Smith writes:
I hate the words we use –
especially numb, or how grief comes
in waves because it’s not true
but it is, and there’s no language
that belongs only to us, how it feels
to miss her, nothing someone else
hasn’t already thought of.
In the title poem, his mother is in Intensive Care. It’s the last week of her life, and the cancer has spread to her brain. Of course, her loved ones are trying to be encouraging, comforting, but to her it feels like deception. Smith writes, “In the ICU, my mother
asked: Is this a dream, or am I really dying? She asked
my father for a kiss, said: tell me the truth, stop lying.
A short poem, “When We Know My Mother Will Never Wake up Again,” reads:
My sister says:
           Aaron’s a really talented poet, Mom.  He’s published four books.
My sister says:
          I thought it was important she know.
In a tender moment of frank honesty, in the penultimate poem, “Fourteen Mondays,” Smith remembers sitting in a restaurant with his mother only months before her death, on his birthday.


She looked beautiful those last months, and I told her,
and not because she was my mother and sick,
but because she was beautiful,
as if the illness had made her more herself.
Similarly, in “Three Months Before She Died We Went to Dollywood,” he writes,
We watched roller coasters, and she said you’d
probably rather be here with friends, and I said no,
and it was the truth. She bought me a mug
with my name printed below Dolly’s perfectly
painted face. She wanted me to remember the day.
But it’s also true that for years both his mother and father, West Virginia fundamentalist Christians, tormented him for his lifestyle. The poem, “Afterlife” sums it up:
the hardest part
is wondering
if my mother died
I would go
to hell
But Smith is funny, witty. “My Father Was Frank O’Hara” is a poem about discovering the love letters his father had written to his mother when they were in high school. Smith calls his sister to read them to her. He notes:
there’s an O’Hara quality
if O’Hara was straight
and in high school
and couldn’t spell. Okay,
they’re not that good.
“God Is Not Mocked” is a satirical poem that contains lines like:
             Three Gods walk into a bar…
             There was a farmer’s daughter named Mary…
 Knock, knocketh…
                Who’s there?
How many Gods does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
        One, because I am the Great and Powerful Oz!
As the title suggests, “Plathoholic: A Party Game” is another clever poem. And then there’s “Some Days Everything I Do I Do,” which is both funny and heartbreaking:
with a broken heart.
Today, for example,
I threw away
the ceramic red
wheelbarrow she left
in the yard last
winter; it froze
and cracked beside
the abandoned
birdbath. I know,
I’m writing a poem
that mentions
a red wheelbarrow—
fuck off!
As when his dying mother demands it, Stop Lying is also Aaron Smith’s plea for his own sense of identity. This is who I am!
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.

Refugee by Pamela Uschuk


By Greg Bem

Dreams are a way out as much as a way in to the labyrinth.

(“Toward Wings,” page 54)

Refugee, the latest collection by Pamela Uschuk, is a fantastic explorations and reflections that consider the nature of “refugees” and “refuges” through life experiences and circumstances. The poet has crafted a fantastic and large, if not sweeping, world of poems that dive into the core of place and place’s inhabitants. It is a book that is precise; each line feels like an induction of truth, like a piece of process or puzzle, contributing to the overall illumination and the poet’s summation of beauty and catharsis.

The book is divided into several sections, each quizzical and provocative. The opening section, “Skull Song,” is a pensive exploration that brings together thoughts on family, politics, and wildlife under a stark backdrop of oppression. The book’s opening poem, “A History of Morning Clouds and Contrails,” is full of distinct images that draw the reader in while also resounding ominously line to line:

Each morning, ravens carve black questions
that go unanswered by light. Assailed
by headwinds, they sheer, intent on laughter
as they bank nearly upside down to sing.

(page 13)

The juxtapositions found across Uschuk’s book are subtle and rarely glamorous or glamorizing. There is both profundity and grit lingering as subtext. This provocation rises and falls in an established pattern. More than a motif, there is a regulation of both thought and tone throughout the book. Only a few poems later, Uschuk writes in “Bulk”:

I am thinking about bulk, my brother’s six-foot, three-inch
bulk, his large hands stroking the manatee’s face, both
of them weighing less in water than a bale of straw,
squinting at one another, their graceful
balancing, lithe as clouds.

(page 16)

The poet’s magical approach to this collection brings forth exquisite lines that may or may not be sensible, because there is an invitation to the intimate here, the readers as intimates, that poet as establishing trust and invoking privacy of and through memory. But like similar feminist writers, such as Rebecca Solnit and Adrienne Rich, the exquisitely personal is balanced with robust comments on the adversely public. As the book’s title alludes, many of these public illuminations have to do with migration and transition, where the poet focuses intensively on the USA and its borders, and the forever sense of liminality.

Far from the Statue of, ICE confiscates
thousands of toddlers and children wrenched screaming from
the arms of mothers seeking asylum, our history of shame
hooked on the coiled razor-wire laws of inhumanity.

(page 21)

Poems like the one that houses the lines above, “Aggravated Child Theft,” trade subtext for directness, offering steady, concentrated descriptions of the authoritarian approach to the refugees arriving to the country’s southern border. I find these moments to be accelerants to the collection, which pick up the pace and smugly push past the Keatsian ambiguity towards honest, acknowledgeable truth.

Refugee is a dynamic collection, if it hasn’t already come off as such, and one that includes so much it’s impossible to generalize in a single review. The surprises that emerge build upon themselves, revealing, like a card of the sleeve, secret methods and strategies for awe and elevation.

For example, in the second section of the book, “Axis,” which includes poems mostly concerned with the natural world, Uschuk includes a poem on horses filled with energy and a cubist eye for movement: “Give me the huff of a thoroughbred, black / legs pumping through loose sod, hackles / collapsing the far track’s curve, ears / tucked back to her own lunging heartbeat, / dawn fog / smelling of clover and sawdust, the steady chuff / of thunder hooves thudding into earth’s flesh / the sexual joy of speed, flexed shoulders / and thighs gleaming sweat, sweat,” (“Beyond Oxygen,” page 31).

Refugee is not a wholly joyous book. There are moments of pain. There is great sorrow. This is a book that exists in yet another phase of the USA’s failures to its people and tremors of oppression. The poet is not reserved in her explorations of this topography of national sickness. But the poet is also not reserved in being, and being includes being astute, being distinct, and providing the reader with an ongoing invitation to seek and admit depth from the world.

The mountains are burning and we cannot sleep.

(“After the Election, the Super Moon Rises Over the Rincon Mountains,” page 89”)

Refugee is a book that offers succinct stories and mesmerizing images, and it consistently does so from its opening to its close. As such, I find myself grateful for the book as an experience toward poetic enlightenment and the challenge to learn more about myself as a reader and be more aware of the world not so far away.

You can find the book here: https://redhen.org/book_author/pamela-uschuk/

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



Flutter, Kick by Anna V. Q. Ross

By Lynette G, Esposito
Flutter, Kick by Anna V. Q. Ross features poetry that explores the human aspects of the feminist voice that deals with hurt, loss and solution. Ross observes from complex angles and touches, with a light hand, issues that affect women’s lives.
In her poem, Milk Teeth on page twenty-two, she speaks of her problems in conceiving and the kindness of friends who suggest she should foster. Later in other poems, she reveals she has a son and a daughter transcending the hurt and loss to solution. 
While her friends could not predict her future, she demonstrates in her poem, Passenger Pigeon on page thirty-three, how short-sighted people can be in other ways. She opens the poem with:
I read they traveled
in flocks big as hurricanes, and fast
She purposely suggests the past in the tense of her verb and how her knowledge of the pigeons is from research. The one- stanza poem says a person could reach up and grab a bird there were so many flying so low. Her view of how we see what we want to see and the lack of seeing the outcome is clear.
Who was the passenger?
Or is passage the important part–
the routes they moved through air.
We care so much about who
belongs where, arm ourselves
against the imaginary. No one
believed they could die out.
There were so many.
The poem is short, only eighteen lines, but the message suggests the outcome of how many can become few and then none without anyone predicting it.
Ross explores memories and scenes as she uses everyday reminders of the good and the bad. On a train ride she pictures the beautiful school her children attend but drowns the thought in sorrow of a shooter. This is a poem brought from the headlines that breaks a heart.
She addresses another headline issue on page sixty-five in her poem The Crossing, where Ross suggests how people depersonalize migrants.
In this morning’s paper thirteen women
Drowned off the coast of Lampedusa–
The mothers, fathers, babies were called migrants by the Italian coast card that came to their rescue as if they were different from people. The one-stanza poem observes that help is not always helpful and good intentions do not always provide good results.
In this poem, Ross has taken current problems and made them personal in how one views others.  She uses the image of the water opening up to those fallen from the boat and closing over them because the rush of water from the fast- moving coast guard vessel caused the water to rise like a hand in greeting and scuttled the boat.
The volume is divided into four unnamed sections.  Ross explores both personal issues and subjects that are in the modern news cycle.  She has a contemporary voice that intermixes universal issues with personal ones.  This works well throughout the ninety-one pages of verse.  It has an earthy and realistic tone as if she raised chickens in her backyard and named every one of them.
You can find the book here: https://redhen.org/book/flutter-kick/
 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.

A Magician Among the Spirits by Charles Rammelkamp

By Stewart Florsheim
When I think about contemporary poetry books that focus on one story, I think about Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate. It’s a novel in verse comprised of 590 Onegin stanzas (sonnets written in iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme). The novel, set in San Francisco in the 1980’s, is about the relationships within a group of young friends. The story is engaging, and the formal style underlies the humor in Seth’s descriptions of San Francisco, as well as his insights.
Although Charles Rammelkamp’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, is not written in a formal poetic style, it tells an equally compelling story. It’s about Harry Houdini, the well-known Hungarian-American escape artist who was born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1874, and died in the US in 1926. In 55 poems—all written in the first person–Rammelkamp captures the highlights of Houdini’s life and achievements.
From the start, Rammelkamp brings his own magic into the book. In the first poem, Alternative Facts, when Houdini describes his immigration experience, he invokes Whitman:
I am an American!As Walt Whitman once asked,
Do I contradict myself ?Very well then,
I contradict myself.
I contain multitudes!
As the book unfolds, the reader will begin to see just how complex Houdini is. He’s a refugee who will save himself again and again—his escape acts a metaphor for his own survival.
Rammelkamp does a very good job capturing the historical context of the times. In My Father Flees, Houdini explains why his father lost his job as a Reform rabbi:
But he fell out of favor with the machers 
too old-fashioned, didn’t speak English,
resisted assimilation, too attached
to his Old World ways.
In the early twentieth century, the Reform movement in the US was still in its early stages. One of the hallmarks of the movement was to promote Judaism, but in an American context. As a result, for example, many of the prayers were recited in English instead of Hebrew.
When Houdini’s father leaves Appleton, Wisconsin, he tries to make his living as a mohel (a rabbi who performs the rites of circumcision) and a shochet (a rabbi who supervises the koshering process). He can’t make a living, and finally moves to New York, where he finds employment cutting linings for a necktie manufacturer:
So Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss,
now with seven kids to care for,
out of a job, moved us to Milwaukee,
where he offered his services
as a mohel and a shochet 
various cuts of meat
that never added up to rent.
The story of Houdini and his family’s refugee experience is engaging, but the poems that follow capture what makes Houdini unique: his journey from joining a circus to becoming a world-renowned escape artist. Throughout the story, Houdini refers back to the importance of his family. He is close to his father (“A failure? No, he was an inspiration.”), his siblings, and, especially, to his mother. In Mama, Houdini writes:
It was my sainted mother
to whom I was most devoted,
all my life, even married to Bess.
Houdini takes us on a journey through his acts, from performing magic to donning handcuffs and straitjackets. Although he has some setbacks, he eventually gets noticed in the Midwest by the theatre owner, Martin Beck, and is invited to open a show in Omaha. The breakthrough is described in Jailbreak!:
Beck sent several pairs of handcuffs backstage.
I escaped without breaking a sweat.
A few weeks later, he sent me a telegram.
“You can open Omaha March twenty-sixth,
sixty dollars. Will make a proposition
for all next season.”
No more dime museums or beer halls
for Bess and me!
We’d made the big time!
An escape into success!
Houdini’s success continues, from making $400 week in the US, to $1000 a week after he hits London. All along, he never forgets his roots as a refugee. From Houdini Amazes Detectives:
After a year I was making $400 a week,
more than half Papa’s annual salary at the Appleton shul.
I’d escaped the shackles of poverty.
Houdini eventually comes back home (“I especially liked London/but America was my home”), and buys a brownstone in Harlem and a family burial plot in a Jewish cemetery. The large brownstone has enough room for his mother, mother-in-law, and “various siblings”.
Houdini continues to explore new acts, from the underwater escape, to the Chinese Water Torture Cell, to the jailbreaks. He also tries his hand at being a pilot and movie actor. In an interesting twist, he takes on the Spiritualist movement, explaining that “Professional magicians have always been at war/with Spiritualists.” Clearly not one for seances, in Spiritualism, he says:
I hated the way these dimestore frauds
played on the vulnerabilities of their followers.
I yearned so much to speak with Mama,
knowing it was impossible in this life,
infuriated by the cruelty, taking advantage of grief.
Fakery demeans mourning, and mourning is sacred.
The focus of his disdain becomes Lady Conan Doyle, the wife of the famous writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes. Houdini writes a book called A Magician Among the Spirits (no coincidence with the title of this collection!), where he exposes the movement. Some of the people he attacks try discrediting him as a Jew. From Margery at the Charlesgate:
Bird tried discrediting me by “revealing”
that I was a Jew. Conan Doyle did the same,
calling me “as Oriental as our own Disraeli.”
Even Margery’d sing-songed in Walter’s voice, “
Harry Houdini, he sure is a sheeny.”
But who got the last laugh?
After my lecture at the New York Police Academy
on “How to Catch Fake Spiritualists,”
Edmund Wilson praised me in the New Republic,
a highbrow intellectual journal.
Sweet vindication!
Take that, you anti-Semitic frauds!
At the end of the collection, his wife, Bess, talks about his untimely death, most likely from an acute appendicitis. She tries—insincerely at best—to reach her husband through a séance. In The Great Escape she writes:
Would we ever meet? I wondered, remembering
the letter I wrote to Sir Arthur.
“It was Houdini himself that was the secret,”
I’d explained, no need for “psychic help”
to perform his escapes.
Rammelkamp does an excellent job describing the highlights of Houdini’s life in the first person. He does it with grace and humor. His writing is clear and direct, allowing Houdini to simply tell his amazing story. By the end of the collection, we still don’t know how Houdini pulled off his acts, but I’m not sure anyone knows. It’s part of the magic of his life. Says Bess at the end of the poem:
Ah, escape!
Every escape is a success story, no?
Now you see me,
now you don’t.
You can find the book here:A Magician Among the Spirits
 Stewart Florsheim’s poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. He was the editor of Ghosts of the Holocaust, an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors (Wayne State University Press, 1989). He wrote the poetry chapbook, The Girl Eating Oysters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stewart won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His collection, A Split Second of Light, was published by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival, honoring the best books published in the Spring of 2011. Stewart’s new collection, Amusing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.
Transparency Notice: Charles Rammelkamp is a regular contributor to North of Oxford

Portable Light – New and Selected Poems by Mike James

By Lynette G, Esposito
Portable Light New and Selected Poems 1991-2021 by Mike James published by Redhawk Publications (The Catawba Valley Community College Press) Hickory, North Carolina features one hundred and twenty-three pages of poetry that interweaves common images with uncommon juxtapositions presenting old themes in new ways.
The volume is divided into two sections including New Poems and Selected Poems. In the New Poems section on page twenty- three, James presents sunlight and one’s expectation of it in his poem In This Place.
I expect the morning light to end
And it does.
It does.
The sun reminds me which way is west,
One less thing to guess about,
Take me away from my plowed down routine
I’m mostly lost.
His narrative voice brings the reader into his morning observations, drawing without unnecessary details, how quickly morning disappears. In choosing the word end, the impression is direct and stark.  Something is over just as it begins. The final stanza of the three-stanza poem concludes:
The dreams I wake with don’t stay close.
Last night I dreamed about walking among flowers.
This morning, one window frames
The consolation of an empty field.
James skillfully guides the message with a light touch. Dreams are as fleeting as the morning sunlight. We have all been there.
His poem Sitting on the Back Porch, in Summer at Dusk in the Selected Poems Section on page forty-eight, works with juxtaposing an observation of nature and a human response.  The poem is made up of mostly unrhymed couplets and feels as if one is having a conversation with oneself.
my children play in the neighbor’s field
games they make up themselves
my wife somewhere else
wherever that is
James has established the place through his title and the situation by putting his family away from where he is alone on the porch. The narrator observes the crow and suggests the crow observes him.
A crow lands and human and bird stare.
after a few minutes he makes his loud cry
then flies away
I can’t repeat the cry he makes
only the silence he leaves
This is a skillful poem that visualizes a quiet lonely moment on a back porch and shapes its message into a comment on the ability of nature compared to the silence of man.
James explores carnal knowledge in his poem Questions for Genesis. This is one of those long skinny poems that slides down the page like a string.
did eve’s lips
grow lustful
after the first
bite of the
apple did she
inhale in
of adam’s
scent think
of her own
which she
barely knew
did she
quickly look
over each
see if animals
saw her
before she chewed
In the series of questions, the focus is clearly on eve but the bigger question becomes obvious in the last lines. Is she perceived different now? Again, James is skillful in focus and in drawing the reader into the world he creates.  He does not rely on capitalization or punctuation but on image and message.
This tome is well worth a read and reread.  The themes are varied as well as the poetic forms. James has excellent control in his poetic works and is able to lead the reader to places they don’t realize they are going.
 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.

Commonplace by Hugo Garcia Manríquez (trans. NAFTA)

By Michael Collins 
Hugo Garcia Manríquez begins Commonplace with a unique hybrid of invocation and manifesto, clearly announcing its meta-poetic intentions in the use of both generally conceptual language and semiotic terminology. The reader is therefore immediately arranged into a mode of engagement that requires applying considerable thought. The approach is necessitated by poem’s subject matter, the connection between the aesthetic and lethal aspects of modern political power and its role in the environmental crisis, which requires not merely seeing through cultural and aesthetic facades but altering inherited modes of perceiving, considering, and valuing lives previously thought “subaltern” and therefore “dead matter.” Hence, there is a clear warrant for the poem to require concurrent thinking about how we think about poetry:
We push history to the side
Turn it into our own indexicality
Aspects, ones from others
The world that produced us
Moments. Moments to intonate aspects


I read the opening lines’ reference to “our own indexicality” as saying that we look at our history within our own context, as part of our own meaning making process within that context. This can be interpreted in two ways that inform one another. First, our world is so different from historical worlds that we, to some degree, can only accurately view it within its own context. Second, this worldview that ends at the boundaries of our own context is itself the form of myopia through which we usually approach reality, which requires continual reframing or complicating of context..

The poem then sets out to consider the aspects of our world within the context of various “moments” of “the world that produced us.” This sounds a lot like a very abstract description of a lyric poem: We are, ourselves aspects of the world, considering other aspects by separating them from one another in discrete poetic moments. However, Manríquez then moves into “discussions about poetry / that are in the end discussions / about politics”: “in those moments / the poems intonate aspects // Aspects gathered and aspects kept apart.” It’s difficult to imagine a poem approaching poetry itself from any more detached, more objective position and language, and it creates an affect toward poetry itself that is distinctly unsentimental and rational. This succeeded in making me curious about why someone would open with such an unexpected tone and perspective, and I wanted to read on. Hence, it was a successful first page.

Continuing, it becomes clear that the objective meta-poetic position is essential to establish because the reader will be asked to question assumptions about the role of literature in our culture and politics. We are often required to think through connections between the parts of an assertion and question its validity for ourselves: “When we read literature we read the budget / of the Mexican army (21). Here we see an early glimpse of the connection the poem will elaborate between the aesthetics within which power shrouds itself and the violence that enforces it. A similar construction invites the reader to connect this constellation of power with what we think are “our private lives” – and the poem’s potential role in them:

A poem is part documentary
part inferno
But first something
about our private lives:
The budget of SEDENA (75)

In order to interrogate this aesthetic-military complex, the poem invokes the Dantean moral quality of guiding the reader through its hellscape, the process modernized by focusing on litanies of documentary evidence. The sardonic aside to “something / about our private lives,” which are constituted by the defense budget, is perhaps a modern echo of “abandon hope all ye who enter here” that evokes the voiding personal meaning by a culture based on subordinating heterogeneity. In this context poetry serves to document not hope but the truth of the hollowness of lives constructed and defined by arms sales and the power they underwrite.

However, this recognition of emptiness is foundational, not nihilistic. The empty space previously assumed to be “our private lives” becomes one in which peoples and cultures previously silenced might approach voice and listening, perhaps a more polyphonic world – or at least an approach to the world that understands that it is polyphonic already:

a new nothing
traverses the poem
as capital
traverses the century
reactivating insurrection
the insurrection
of objects
the uprising
of matter (71)
Manríquez articulates a poetics given life by what have been assumed to be “objects” and “matter” by the perspective of the dominant culture. Poems being cultural products, this revisioning necessitates the degree of self-definition we noted at the opening of the book, in order to differentiate from the inherited cultural expectations of poetry itself.
Arriving at this “new nothing” involves “new articulations” that “are inserted / with constant moments” (23), which seem to replace the personal lyric moment in a corollary to our inner lives having been replaced by military budgets. The oxymoronic phrase “constant moments” highlights both the vapid and generic qualities of these instances, as in the “11,231 constant moments” involving guns sales “designed, produced, and sold / to the Secretary of National Defense” (25). However, in juxtaposition, “constant moments” are also produced by the biome’s endemic wildlife, for example, the
monkey (Alouatta palliata) with its specialized
oral apparatus with its hybrid bones
and larynx developed
forming with the mandible a resonating chamber
that allows the powerful amplification of
the sounds, aspects gathered together
aspects kept apart (25)
Placing the military budget language on the same level as the objective zoological description has the effect of establishing each as an independent world. Yet, we know from the rest of the poem that these worlds cannot coexist. Again, we are asked to think through the ramifications, in this case of the zoological language that acts as a mirror of the scientific aspects of our thinking, describing the creature in ways that from its perspective bring forth some of the wonders of the creature’s organism, but are also quite foreign to its being.
The pathos of this section, which we can only arrive at by thinking though the logical parallels in subject-object relationships, is that we are the creatures defined by our defense budget in the same way that the monkey is described by anatomical jargon. We are still connected to the natural world as was the case in the romantic worldview left far behind in this poem, yet no longer by of a shared soul, so much as a shared subjugation that we can logically comprehend by the examination of the “aspects gathered together / aspects kept apart” that interestingly echo the poem’s opening disclosure of its own processes. Unfortunately, there is far more complexity here than this short piece can address; fortunately, the book is in print.
The poem’s conception of the lyric as a contemplative space also necessitates consideration of the relationship between poetry and time, which we see in the elaboration of “Constant moments / that seem to begin and only begin” (33), such as:
Bombers that are an extension
of the impact on my mother’s cheekbone
when I was 17
I haven’t thought about this situation
for a long time a time that is non-transferable (31-3)
Time in this poem does not stop, reverse, repeat, or any of the other things it may appear to do in consciousness. We inhabit the perspective of chronological time, in which we know that consciousness cannot bring back species that are made extinct or people blown up by bombers no matter how timeless it may appear evoke them in poems.
Perhaps the most pointed result of these reexaminations is Manríquez’s conception of the writing as a continual choice that his poem has endeavored to clarify:
When writing, we do not
romantically confront the blank page
Rather, the confrontation
is historical:
take the side of Sigűenza y Góngora
and protect the Library from the masses
as Mexican letters have done
for centuries
                take the side of lifeforms
the side of the forms of language that
sprout from the riot (57)
Here again, taking the side of nature no longer means to loaf and invite one’s soul, but to think self-reflexively about the threats posed by our own cultural complexes to other perspectives and creatures with whom one shares the world.
One approach to this cultural reflection is to seek out and amplify dissonant perspectives from history such as those contained in the Popol Vuh, which “records the rebellion / of the objects and animals / against human endeavors” (63). The history of Western civilization’s creation of such histories as byproducts of its subjugations gives rise to this role of Manríquez’s poem in our contemporary world:
The historical forms of the continental imaginary
recorded the rebellion of that irrational, subaltern
dead matter
Those forms registered the basic
operation of poetry: the interruption
Within that revolt exists an immanent historical lesson (65)
The “immanent historical lesson” is the way that the forms of “subaltern / dead matter” manage to interrupt the dominant discourse that subsumes them. In their “interruption” of even the texts that contain them, they represent the countercultural basis of poetry, the “immanent historical lesson” about which beings we identify as alive.
Reading these lines, it is apparent that the emphasis on thought in the poem does not render it devoid of emotion or empathy. The reference to the colonial view of whole peoples and biomes as “irrational, subaltern / dead matter” evokes both the degradation inherent in this view and the chilling way in which such thoughts formed – and form – themselves into prophesies that can become self-fulfilling if allowed to continue unchecked in their own self-confirmation due to the failure to recognize counterarguments. The pathos of the poem arises in conjunction with our apprehending from the outside of such a perspective, aspects of which perhaps at one point were unwittingly assumed as our own.
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.

The Girl Who Quit at Leviticus by Suzanne Rhodenbaugh

By Lynette G. Esposito
The Girl Who Quit at Leviticus by Suzanne Rhodenbaugh is a slim tome published by Homestead Lighthouse Press in Grants Pass, Oregon. In fifty-seven pages of thoughtful. irreverent, and unsentimental observation, Rhodenbaugh explores universal themes of faith love, death in addition to flowers in a mixed variety of poetic forms.
In her poem, Religious Preference on page five, Rhodenbaugh presents two stanzas and an ending couplet that explores a relationship with God but suggests an earthy connection. The poem is evocative, focused and well controlled reversing the one who is face down on the ground with the worshipped God.  Are we talking faith here or is this poem suggestive of desire and lust or both? Word choices such as trough of love and manageable tick suggest animals and bugs which are not usually associated with love.  But the poem gives attitude.  The narrator in the poem is not just a beast feeding or kneeling, but a thinking being who is demanding. I like the clarity and form of the poem.  It put a smile on my face as I visualized God in tight jeans at a Biker Bar ready for game.
I don’t want to feed
at the trough of love.
I don’t want to wait or stand.
I don’t want to kneel
before a prostrate God,
or a manageable tick
in a blurred white sky.
I want a sky that is hot and blue,
God in pants, and full of the devil.
In her StoryFlowers poem beginning on page fourteen, she gives the reader a series of definitions
that tell flower stories.  The first stanza titled Iris is just two lines.
Once I was all lips and tongue.
Now I am a fist.
She continues this story telling through fourteen different flowers for example Petunias on page seventeen.
Droopy Daliesque trumpets,
until the sun plays them
All the stanzas are short in this poem and focus on an observable suggestion of a flower’s personality in the garden.  This is both a fun and serious poem.
The title poem, The Girl Who Quit at Leviticus, on page fifty, begins at a day camp.
A blue spot shone on the Methodist Youth Camp
Counselors acting out
Smoking, Drinking, Cussing,
sin blue as a saloon. …
The narrator, after observing the actions of the holy counselors in the first stanza, resolves in the second to read the whole Bible in one year.  In the third stanza, the speaker says:
The Devil, who wasn’t big on Methodists,
never took me.  There was no Big Fall.
In seven stanzas the narrator goes from a pony tailed girl who strays into other good books like The Black Stallion and The Return of the Black Stallion to a young woman who becomes more aware of life through reading.  She reads tales of mystery and slaughter, Into love and dark achievement.  Because of these other readings separate from the Good Book, she says in the last stanza:
whereby I missed the angels,
and the pale horses of Revelations.
The poem is well controlled using the common space and time of an innocent girl with a big goal becoming distracted with the love of reading as she grows up. The poem represents faith interrupted but not abandoned.  Rhodenbaugh has a light touch with a serious subject, and it works.
Rhodenbaugh has an unsentimental approach to traditionally sentimental themes.  Her attention to both detail and form works well throughout.  The poems mix levity with solemn subjects which creates a question of how loud you should laugh, how quiet should you cry. This is an interesting group of poems worth traveling through.
The Girl Who Quit at Leviticus is available from www.homesteadlighthousepress.com
 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.

City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia) by Diane Sahms

city shadow amazon

City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia) by Diane Sahms has just been released by Alien Buddha Press. You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BMSZ8NV8/ref=sr_1_2?qid=1668816380&refinements=p_27%3ADiane+Sahms&s=books&sr=1-2&text=Diane+Sahms 

What Others Say About  City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia)

In Diane Sahms’s ambitious City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia) there are classical elements, the prominence of the elegiac as well as the lyrical and an oracular power that echoes back to Greece, yet remains rooted in Philadelphia.  The language soars—blooms, although with a dark undertone, illuminating the shadow and shading the light.  The meticulous pairing of the shadow and light allows the reader to explore the connective tissue between the seemingly unalike. Sahms’ syntax alone imparts a musicality and a dissonance to her work. Readers are jarred into a heightened realm of acuity.  Heroin’s inner arm of a clawing dragon/he never slew and Blue Heron’s Blue-gray architecture wades slowly, deliberately/leads slavish eyes knee-deep into still waters. They are yoked together like duets.  In her “Suite for Iris” the poet’s persona explores the world from the perspective of Iris who exists in the liminal zone of part human-part flora, a fertile intersection of the primeval and the reasoned. Iris, tall stalk before shears, /rhizome’s roots as heart’s arteries. Sahms’ often heretical visions push brilliantly into an unseen darkness.

Stephanie Dickinson, author of The Emily Fables and Big Headed Anna Imagines Herself. 

Wade into the mirror with Diane Sahms as she unveils and unravels identities—probing for meaning and finding connections. Different life forms fuse into a “universal soul” in these “heart shuttling” sojourns that sonically imagine the magic of “spirits united.” Morality and mortality yield their secrets in exhilarating lyric passages in which emptiness is purified via resolute perception and consequent insight. —Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

In City of Shadow and Light (Philadelphia), Diane Sahms looks upward to the cosmic, then comes back to the personal, in poems that are full of natural imagery and (often) mystery. The focal point is the “first city,” Philadelphia, and its inhabitants, particularly those connected to the poet. We meet ones who create and others who struggle. What brings them together is the poet’s care for each and every one. Through these poems, you will gain a new appreciation for a place and some of its ordinary (and extraordinary) people. This is an eye-opening, heart-tugging collection. —Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of Tricks of Light

Diane Sahms’s City of Shadow & Light opens with the loss of two sons and continues to hearken more challenges as the book unfolds. But as she quotes from Jung in one epigraph, dark shadows only heighten the brightness of light. Thus, the book’s ending of “light” is hard-earned, and the fortitude is as inspiring as the “brave Raven, who stole light / from total darkness // for everyone.” The reader is left gladdened that this poet managed to retain her voice and that, despite everything, that “voice, still sings.”—Eileen R. Tabios


City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia) by Diane Sahms – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BMSZ8NV8/ref=sr_1_2?qid=1668816380&refinements=p_27%3ADiane+Sahms&s=books&sr=1-2&text=Diane+Sahms