poetry collection

Contra natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza Translated by Anthony Seidman

diseno de tapa echavarren paperback

By Greg Bem

And by then Reality was / an impetuous phantasmagoria

(from “King’s Gambit,” page 15)

At long last, the Peruvian poet Rodolfo Hinostroza’s majestic Contra natura is available to the English-speaking audience. This work is a crucial component of late 20th-century poetry attuned to the modernist collecting, the surrealist melting, and the complex humor that follows the community footsteps of poets throughout South America. Contra natura is not a long sequence of poetry, at roughly 60 pages, but it is packed with stunning lines, overlapping themes and symbols, and the voice of Hinostroza himself, a witty and multifaceted master of poetic ceremonies who bridges a range of tones and examinations within the heart of the book’s sequence.

Goodbye fucked dreams, goodbye your pulse,
brilliant carver

(from “King’s Gambit,” page 17)

The text was originally published in 1970, having been acknowledged and awarded by Octavio Paz via the Maldoror Prize in Barcelona. The storied history of the poet and his work is worth examining in the book’s extensive introduction, graciously provided by the book’s translator, US-based Anthony Seidman. One might find elements of Paz’s distillation in the text, just as one might find the devouring essence of Lautreamont himself, but more prominently we have a book of wholly original and undeniably impenetrable poetry that both fits and stands unencumbered without comparison.

In many moments, this incomparable core matches the poet’s consciousness and intentions, flighty and sturdy and beckoning: “the world for which I fancied myself mediator / never existed,” he writes in “Imitation of Propertius,” page 31. It is awesome indeed to see the poet call forth the style and concerns of Sextus Propertius in this example, though one needn’t dive deeply into the history of Latin poetry to understand the calm binding to history within the Peruvian’s lines. The layers between word and reference remind me of exploring Olson or Pound at length, wondering and wandering, exploring how deep each reference might go.

The uniqueness and brevity of this book fits well within a relatively straightforward translation; straightforward in the sense that the poetry makes sense, is digestible, and tends to match the Spanish succinctly in a masterful though playful way. Seidman has done a marvelous job at capturing Hinostroza’s energy and making it feel freshly contemporary, arriving today, and yet it maintains a touch of the late modernist period as well, moving around the essence of culture and community through which the book was originally written.

A wave of migratory birds flew over your forehead
you were the girl of the orange trees

(from “Problems of Brabantio,” page 55)

Visually stunning, the poems often read like a descent taken down a magnificent staircase toward some destination of rest. (The poet himself remarks, in another section of “Imitation of Propertius,” “there is only one singer for the ascent / and a thousand for the descent” (page 43). So true in the application of style and form from poem to poem.

Often stanzas last dozens of lines, only cut off by way of subsections within each poem, or new poems entirely. I was taken by lines like: “and that summer we stretched out on the beaches of Spain / incandescence of eyes,” which open and shut an image in a single breath (from “Celebration of Lysistrata,” page 47). Later in the book, where the poet begins to bring in visual symbols and explore limits of the written word, we see Hinostroza’s internal comments fulfill and instill a density to the image: “it was not the vibration of the protoplasm / not a shapeless thing not a swamp / confused libraries yellowing beneath the sun” (from “Hommage à Vasaraely,” page 65). The splicing cluster comes as quickly as it goes, powerfully incising like a haiku, relieving, and confounding, all the same.

Images often make up natural divisions in theme and structure, though they are not kept to a line, a couplet, or other traditional boundaries. The poems read with a sense of ecstasy or exasperation, reflecting the energy of Hinostroza and his peers. The attractiveness seems to logically connect with the poet’s fame in younger and current generations of poets in Peru.

Still, the book is no cakewalk and is as difficult as it is accessible. For each image that feels astounding, there results a sequence of questions over the image’s placement and inclusion, a puzzlement muddying the overall trajectory of each poem. This messiness, a beautiful, organized chaos, is what Charles Bernstein describes in the book’s opening review quotes as a “a gift to English.” Even Paz once remarked to Hinostroza that the book would change Hinostroza’s life. The whole book is a treasure, but often the value, I think, is within its mysteries, its complexities, its nuances, similar to the work of Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio.

A desert, no doubt, something sun-scorched. The sun. Remember it?
There’s a sun outside!

(from “Dialogue Between a Prisoner and Deaf Man,” page 25)

It is impossible to succinctly describe the folds that go into the content, both of scope and meaning, in Contra natura, so instead I invite you, reader, to find this book and explore on your own. Like Blaser, like Spicer, like Waldman, like Baraka, there will explode within the confines of the page lines pluming and spinning and expanding. It may or may not feel as of or against the natural, but it will catch your focus all the same. It is an optimistic book, one that captures attention and imposes drive, imposes will. Moments of chaos are often closed with a vibrance or slow fade into harmony (if not a forlorn form of it), as we see in the book’s title poem: “the peace and beauty of this world have spread over me / our bodies / successive timeless hommages to the daybreak of life” (page 111). It is in these moments, inclusive of all the emotion bound to history and compilation, that we can read a permanence in Hinostroza’s work.

You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Contra-Natura-Rodolfo-Hinostroza

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.

From The Editors

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

covid 19 2020


 g emil reutter

thunder cover




Red Truck Bear by Richard Nester

red truck

By Mary C McCarthy

In “Red Truck Bear” Richard Nester asks the most necessary of questions: what, like the moon, is in plain sight, yet unfathomable? The moon hides nothing, thinks nothing of us, looks back at us “with no discovery on its mind at all/ and even less concealment.” The moon, like the world we inhabit, is opaque in its stubborn “thingness,” cares nothing for us as we weave our webs of choice and action in its reflected light. In the wickedly funny “Wild”, forsythia, that early flowering plant often welcomed as harbinger of the new season, becomes a devouring nightmare, product “from a mating of kudzu with barbed wire.” Here nature is neither benign nor indifferent but actively malevolent. We are counseled to “Forget its pastoral sham,” beauty disguising the fact that “Forsythia hates you,” intends only its own good, and will gleefully overrun all your hopes and plans, punish you with slashes, poke out your eyes, finally even “devour houses and spit out the bricks.” Completely unsympathetic to us and our cherished sensitivities “It will eat your dog.”

All a hilarious exaggeration, yet the kernel of truth it proclaims can’t be denied. Empathy is only possible in the human world, not inherent in nature, and when it exists at all it is an “itty-bitty seed,” rare and hard, small and yet essential for any dream of the future. The job of the poet and storyteller is to make something out of the “Indecipherable,” to “convince you of your own indecipherable worth.”–”so you can go on and not give up.” Poetry may be like prayer, holy and essential, a saving grace.

Humanity, empathy, justice, love, all the hard things these poems strive to find and define, while illuminating their complexity and challenge. What we know is that “broke things stay broken,” and the enormous task of healing is an arduous process, where the damaged “have to be cleaned one breathing bird at a time” The theme of restoration occurs again and again in the idea of cleaning, of making things clean, even though “Clean” is an invitation to dirt, and “Too much cleaning up and one starts to see dirt everywhere.” To clean something becomes an act of faith and love, an insistence on hope. It is interesting that the principal character in the poems who does this restorative act is the poet’s “Dementia Stricken Mother, “who could make already clean things sparkle, and “shine like gospel in a new revelation.” Maybe we should all aspire to the kind of saintly “industrious joy” that loves the world so well “everything can be restored.”

In the series of shorter pieces under “Grudge” Nester demonstrates the power of inertia,

The stubborn resistance to change that keeps broken things broken. In stories about his father he explores the result of remaining mired in old and ungenerous assumptions. Stuck, his father cannot change, and the generations remain strangers unable to meet, share or collaborate on a future. The result is “nothing coming of nothing” unhealed, persistent isolation.

How can we escape this separation, plumb the indescribable space between the self and the world? That challenge comes from a cultural habit, the “Science Method.” To the Cherokee shaman that space doesn’t exist, he is never alone, but continuous with the natural world. For Western man, the existentialist, that space is an unbridgeable chasm, “our gift, only the gray form of a penetrating ignorance we were proud of.” Habit and theory are prisons, “not the key, but the lock.” Freedom is threatened by the familiar, though that familiar may be terrible, it is what we’re used to, what imagination chokes on.

As we live always hungry, always “at the starving end of something” we may only have a choice of addictions, where “Everything that lives is addicted to something.” The best we can do may be to choose our addiction purposefully, eyes wide open. Love something, “bite hard on the hook of something you love that loves you back and doesn’t lie.” We are like the praying mantis who chewed a frame for his head from a leaf, always seeing the world as frame for our image. Can we do more than preen, are we the universe reflecting on itself while “munching our green hopes”?

Perhaps our place is not in death and distance, but in love, which “keeps no calendar.”

Love can be our mirror, and the stories we share, even reluctantly, the fires to warm us. Stories are powerful acts, and shouldn’t be told “with your back turned.” A good novel carries us off and returns the world to us new, remade, and reimagined. In “Reckoning” singing birds teach us to reckon as they do, to see ourselves as “of little consequence beside important song, as by a great river.” Ultimately what we have and what persists is there always outside the window, “the exquisite world,” a wonder we are also part of, that might even “for the smallest instant” have depended on us being there, seeing, reflecting, loving and creating. There lies true restoration.

You can get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Red-Truck-Bear-Richard-Nester/dp/1950462749/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&qid=1635534873&qsid=140-5063485-5152802&refinements=p_27%3ARichard+Nester&s=books&sr=1-3&sres=B096TN7H7W%2C1909916315%2C1950462749%2C1949229319%2C1909916110%2C0615951864%2C0692743626%2CB0006QVHPK%2CB001GTABCQ%2C1718192878&text=Richard+Nester

Mary McCarthy is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Third Wednesday, Verse Virtual, Earth’s Daughters and The Ekphrastic Review.

Poems from Argentina by David Francis

Poems from Argentina by David Francis
By Patricia Carragon
We travel by train, boat, plane, car, or on foot. In Poems from Argentina, David Francis shows us another way—by poetry, in four segments—Tucumán, Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and Honeymoon Hitchhike. But this is not an ordinary travelogue that details superficial expectations and experiences of tourists from the United States. This is an independent traveler’s journal; a modern-day troubadour traveling deeper into the daily throes of a country at war with the United Kingdom back in the early 80’s. Mr. Francis, a poet and singer-songwriter, writes about the tensions he saw and sensed in the Argentinean people, even while doing the most mundane tasks. Being a poet, he has empathy. His poems are conduits for a nation’s sorrow. Yet at the same time, his personal life experiences discord, making it difficult to balance the pressure, giving credence and flavor to his work.
In his first poem “A Window in front of the Mountain,” Mr. Francis picks up on foreboding karma in the atmosphere.
A window in front of the mountain
but from that window you cannot see
the mountain . . . Clouds themselves like
towels fray and mildew, are impure
because the air is not a vacuum.
Even the cypresses will not last but
turn to sticks, a slight discolored
stain on the grass.
He sets the metaphoric tone for his stories to unravel. War is waging, and Argentina is dealing with a military dictatorship. You can’t see the mountain in front of you. Clouds aren’t pure, and the cypresses will die. Nature in pain like its inhabitants.
In “A Rainy Night,” fear is everywhere and grips the people of Tucumán.
but the wires are black
but then forms start to emerge
sharing no umbrella they hurry across
the street to one of their houses
leaving behind a house with no lights
then – the shadow of the inside of a kitchen
on a neighboring house – a face in silhouette –
in the darkness a horrible white face –
then nothing – back to bed
We move on to the section called Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, famous for the tango and its European architecture and culture, has its dark side. In “Apology for the Seamen,” we read about how sailors react to the city.
There is a logical reason
seamen are so gray and bored and
redundant and their endless card
games have the insensitive traveler’s
flipping-through-postcards flatness.
There are certain calls they won’t
answer and ports they wouldn’t
go to if you gave them a million
dollars.  They are tired of
meeting begging children on the
first land they see.
And in “Drops Falling after a Downpour,” the author is miserable in his hotel room. He writes:
Stick my head
                       out the window
from our hotel room
                                 into the alley
so dark
            with a bad smell
and feel
             the drops falling
catch one
               in my hand
one on
           my eyelid
am I
the present
The author, like the sailors, impoverished children, and nature itself, lives in the ever-present gloom encompassing the city and nation. As you read on, the balconies get darker, rain becomes incessant currents, and the author goes deeper into battle with himself. An old man nods to something Mr. Francis fears.
Mr. Francis takes us to Mar del Plata, a section where he writes his truth behind a pretty postcard seaside resort. He is lonely and sees that he is not alone as we learn in “Mirror of Loneliness.”
The loneliest rooms facing the sea
the opposite of what people say
the sea is a mirror of loneliness . . .
. . .  and an old man walks his dog
runs him across the street
then takes off the leash
and sets him free
                           on the beach
and the man picks up the bread
for the birds and throws it
and the little dog ignores him
                           for a sand castle
The ocean in “The Sea Is Peaceful” tends to be calming but to the author, its rhythmic tides synchronize with the flow of soldiers marching off to the Falklands War.
oh we say the sea
is violent
but it’s just an expression
the sea is peaceful
but always, always
old waves rolling
young men marching,
young men.
Lastly, in Honeymoon Hitchhike, Mr. Francis and his bride travel through a myriad of landscapes, ranging from hills, pampas, deserts, to the southernmost tip of Argentina. This final chapter does end on a more hopeful note.
We feel the iciness of “A Wall in Río Gallegos.”
Woman in black walking along the white wall,
holding her purse tightly as though in a stall,
ignoring the signs advertising the city
as though they were so much graffiti,
huddling in the chill of the South . . .
. . . I had seen her before proudly enter the café
as the men froze their dice and glowered her way:
what made her move to this cold town
like a black rose by a sudden snow weighed down?
And his final poem “Ushuaia” almost sums up Mr. Francis’ Argentinean adventure.
the shadow of the stovepipe
on the snow is like a toadstool
but neither the frozen wires
nor the frozen antenna
that balances like a cat
have shadows or reflections
and the reason is
buried things have no reflection
and the snow buries
even the clouds
sometimes even the stars
However, there are reasons for hope, since the chill and bleakness of snow and sorrow are temporary in the last stanza.
A twisted tree
on the side of a hill
and behind a yellow falling torrent
and bushes with orange thorns
stranded on streaked snow
sea gulls congregate on an isthmus
and cows listen
strange buds start reddening
one ahead of the others
in the distance
To summarize, Poems from Argentina is a traveler’s journal set to poetry. With his troubadour poet wisdom and vision, David Francis delves into the depths of situations, going beyond his world to understand nature and the Argentinean people, while watching history take another ugly step into the future.


Patricia Carragon’s debut novel, Angel Fire, is from Alien Buddha Press and her latest book from Poets Wear Prada is Meowku. Patricia hosts Brownstone Poets and is the editor-in-chief of its annual anthology. She is an executive editor for Home Planet News Online.  She lives in Brooklyn, NY. For more information about Ms. Carragon and her reading series, www.brownstonepoets.blogspot.com  and at patriciacarragon8.wordpress.com  

Farmers, Queens, Trains and Clowns by g emil reutter


Please share with others who may have an interest 

Alien Buddha Press has just released g emil reutter’s poetry collection, Farmers, Queens, Trains and Clowns.

The collection is available on Amazon at this link:


What Others Say about Farmers, Queens, Trains and Clowns by g emil reutter

In g emil reutter’s Farmers, Queens, Trains, and Clowns we are treated to a panorama of a fractured Americana. The singer/seer/poet weaves the celebratory and the lament in his masterful “Philadelphia.” The ghost of a railway station is conjured along with the past majesty of derelict neighborhoods. Gut-wrenching abandonment abounds—turkey buzzards on rooftops, icy furnaces,  vacant-eyed buildings, carp that float sideways next to legless frogs. Laced through the graffiti-scarred souls who wander these poems, the moon’s splendor shines as does the richness of family and the poet’s compassion. reutter blesses us with a raw poetry of savage beauty like his bees encased in a silken coffin. His acute powers of observation witness the spider’s captive brown butterfly as well as what is ensnared in the vibrating strands of a divided America.  We are left with the haunting image of Orion frozen with his back to the earth as if an entire civilization has been discarded.

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

Red, white, and blue-collar—g emil reutter champions the past glory of America, finding triumph in his avid, dead-on descriptions. Suicide, cancer, abandoned tracks, those down-at-the-heels and down on their luck—these are the subjects this poet describes with boundless compassion, flawless cadence, and drum-tight metaphors. Here is a distinctive, authentic, and powerful voice. And beautiful. He makes rust sing.

            -– Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, author of Party Everywhere 

You can get the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08MN3GH95/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&qid=1604506678&refinements=p_27%3AG+Emil+Reutter&s=books&sr=1-1&text=G+Emil+Reutter

A reading from 2018

Journeyman’s Suitcase by Mike James

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

What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

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

You can find the book here:  https://sites.google.com/a/lapwingpublications.com/lapwing-store/home

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

Reviewing Jennifer Firestone’s Two Latest Books of Poetry: Ten and Story


By Greg Ben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Slim fish, films.”


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


“Waves crack, pour.” (Story, page 32)

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

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

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

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

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

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


“With grace, murmurs.” (page 72)

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

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

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

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

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




Obit by Victoria Chang

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