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:

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

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.

Bobish by Magdalena Ball

By Charles Rammelkamp
An imaginative recreation of Magdalena Ball’s great-grandmother’s life, from migrating, alone, at the age of fourteen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, from Russia to New York, prompted by the terror of pogroms, through her life of immigrant hardship, the grueling twelve-hour days in the garment-worker sweatshops, escaping certain death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in March of 1911 by the sheer dumb luck of not going to work that day (for which she was fired), living through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 (“La Grippe”), and more, including a violent, abusive husband, this vivid, lyrical sequence feels like an act of love as much as the necessary preservation of a life before it disappears into the oblivion of time.  Its lessons and examples of quiet courage in the face of crushing despair elevate this collection to something verging on the heroic.
Though she never met Rivka in her lifetime – already dead by the time of Magdalena Ball’s birth – the affectionate nickname (“Bobish” is a variation on the Yiddish word for grandma, “Bubbe”) tells the reader how vital the family connection is. Ball spells this out in the very second poem of the collection, “Footprints,” in which writes:
Why go so far
              leave behind everything 
              mother, father, siblings, home
              time being what it was
              back then.
Later in the poem she explicitly defines the project:  “I wanted to know what it felt like / and you, Bobish / you needed to tell me / even after so many years.” Even though Rivka “kept her head low / left few footprints,” her great-granddaughter uses her prodigious imagination to bring her ancestor vividly back to life.
The story begins in “The Pale of Settlement,” the area of the Russian Empire to which Jews were banished, poverty-stricken towns (shtetls) that were subject to pogroms, campaigns of violence orchestrated by groups like The Black Hundreds, an extremist rightwing group devoted to the Tsar. 
Brutal signs were everywhere 
blood, skin, broken bodies 
lintel hanging off windows. 
Her mother gave her a bag of coins 
the brass samovar, told her to pack 
And so, at the age of fourteen, Rivka goes alone, across the ocean, in steerage (Zwischendeck)  promising to send back money, but with so little control over her destiny. (“Ocean Mandala”: “When she earned enough she would // send a ticket for her parents / if she could find them again.”) This first section is titled “Arrival,” and sets the conditions. “Two kopeks” begins:
Seven of them   one room
           grandparents crouched    small alcove below
                                   broken stove    no daylight.
Ball goes on to describe the constant trauma of the pogroms (“The piano burned    in the first pogrom”) and the desperate search for a solution, for escape. She writes in “Taken with Time”:
the worn trajectory of terror
voices in the distance, banging, barking
          the doppler as they moved closer
          sound increasing in pitch
                      like a freight train of atrocities.
Poverty and pariahhood bring other obstacles as well; what we call being “illegal” in today’s discussions of immigration policies. Ball explains in “Double Migrant”:
Before she left the largest
            ghetto in the word
                       a small woman on a big ship
                                   she was already a migrant
                                                 in the margins of legality
                                    crouching in the space
                         between integration
            and segregation
watching, waiting.
Ball occasionally breaks up her vivid, allusive, short-lined verse with longer, prose-like pieces such as “Mother of Exiles,” in which Rivka encounters the Statue of Liberty and reflects on her status and future, as well in selections like “Manhattan, Assembly District 8,” from the second section, a description of upper Manhattan, in which Rivka finds work at the Shirtwaist Factory.

In the second section, “Azure,” Rivka is more or less settled in her new life, trying to adjust while at the same time hang on to her previous identity – her “Mamaloshen,” “mother tongue.”
From the very first poem, “A Voice to Shatter Glass,” Rivka has been described as a kind of fortune teller, a seer, reader of tea leaves, diviner of the future. We see it again in “Divination,” which foretells her lucky escape from the factory fire.
Poems like “Azure,” “Cairn,” “A Devout Child” describe her nostalgic homesickness for the imagined comforts of that homeland from which, we know, she fled for good reason.

In the third section, “Fish Smoker,” Rivka meets her husband, for better or worse but mainly worse. “Third Avenue EL,” “Peddlers,” “Bear of a Man” vividly portray the conditions of her New York life and the man she marries.  “He was studying to become a Rabbi / until he lost his faith.”  “La Grippe” is another prose piece that describes the Spanish Flu, its effects and stigma for immigrants accused of being responsible for bringing the plague to America. We see her own fate at the shirtwaist factory, in “Potatoes”: “She bent over, her young back hunched as she / leaned into the machine trying to forget the pain / that followed her like a faithful dog / the rest of her life…”
Ball imagines Rivka’s grim New York family life (“Silence and Monkeys,” “Love Wounds,” “Words and Bullets”) but also some of the simple pleasures (“Tar Beach (Kelly Street),” “Nickel Empire,” “Spoons”), and then the Second World War breaks out, and her anxieties about the family left behind torture her. “Operation Barbarossa,” “Memorial Fountain (Bryant Park),” and “News from the Old World” hint at the tragedies of the Holocaust.
The final section of Bobish, “Tikkun Olam,” suggests a kind of redemption. Invoking the Zohar and other mystical Jewish traditions, Ball again taps into Rivka’s “otherworldly” persona. Tikkun Olam means “repairing the world.” It’s central to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, so the redemption Ball writes about goes beyond the personal, to the universal. 
Bobish certainly succeeds in bringing Magdalena Ball’s great-grandmother vividly back to life. As she writes in “The Consequences of Silence,” she succeeds in her quest to “Unstitch the moment connecting her to me,” a lovely allusion to Rivka as a seamstress but also suggesting the fabric that is a family. Bobish is compelling and poignant, a true tour de force.
You can find the book here: Bobish
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:

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



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

Beyond Repair by J.C. Todd

beyon repair

By Michael Collins 

“In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” the opening poem in J. C. Todd’s Beyond Repair, initiates several interwoven themes in the collection, including the roles and perspectives of various mothers and women experiencing different aspects of conflict and displacement, the complicated psychological plights of survivors of such mass traumas, and the roles of imagination and empathy in attempts at healing. The poem opens with the juxtaposition of “cells / churning toward brain / just as a vacuole / opened to become a mouth” while “Hafez, father of Bashar” (3) orders a precursor of recent headlines: “the troops of Hafez attacked / the people that Hafez ruled. Twenty thousand dead” (4). Between these two worlds, speaker subtly invokes awakening to these complexities:

It happened in Hama
while I gestated, TV off,
newspapers unread,
in Harrisburg, my thinking
sludgy, speech cut back,
consumed by what I fed. (3)
The speaker’s reflective stance juxtaposes an authoritarian, patriarchal lineage of violence with a cellular-level imagining of maternity: “Loved, she grew, singular / anarchic, safe in the province /of my body, and Hama was razed” (4). The two perspectives differ, crucially, in how they imagine their role in others’ lives, or life, over which they have a degree of control, the speaker focusing on a self-image as a haven for the inchoate life and self-determination of her child, the dictator creating a public image of obliterating all life that opposes his rule.
Engagement with images – journalistic, artistic, and psychological – will become a theme of the collection’s larger meditation. Several poems focus on women who are prevented by political circumstances from keeping their own children and themselves safe – as well as a moral exploration of the role and limits of media in presenting their stories. “The Girl in the Square” recalls a woman who was beaten and partially exposed in public during the protests in Egypt, highlighting along with the assault itself, her ephemeral appearance within media coverage and viewers’ awareness

among flotsam, snagged
in the stream of a video
that holds her up
to memory
although the torrent
has swept her away” (10-11)
The portrayal in “Cover Shot” of refugees welcomed by a meal in safety shares an acute awareness of the boundaries of the image, in this case spatial rather than temporal:
mother and child
buoyed on a current of mercy
beyond the cropped shot
into the open field
of a good story
that reseeds in each of us
as a perennial hope or wish
but the background resists
and we too
feel the world
askew (14)

These poems’ dual awareness of the scarred and endangered lives presented in the reporting that reaches us and these presentations’ mere representation of thousands or millions of other lives certainly has elements of social critique. However, within the context of the opening poem they also have a quality of self-reflective practice: The speaker’s awareness of suffering is linked with awareness of the mind’s own inability to quantify it. Therefore, yes, the reports are cropped, edited, and insubstantial, but there are also qualifying understandings. For one, the idea of whole story is really just an abstraction. Further, even more comprehensive storytelling, such as the wide lens the poem itself offers, is far more complex and daunting than the “perennial hope” we also require.

What the collection offers in the absence of mythical objectivity is flexibility of perspective; its meditation on war and its aftereffects continues by exploring a plurality of experiences in forms and expressions appropriate to the distances at which they are encountered. The sonnet crown “FUBAR’d” employs a close third person of a female American medic, and its tone and diction reflect the mental and emotional fatigue of seeing one after another “soldier who didn’t come through” (27), often due to circumstances beyond her control. Her gallows humor reflects the need to remain unsentimentally resilient against threats both foreign and domestic: “A stiff prick, / how’s it like an IED? Makes you meat” (30). The shift to formal poems itself adds range to the collection; however, the leaping recurrences from final to opening lines in the sequence also grow to seem expressively necessary in their quiet evocation of the paradoxical comorbidity of feeling constantly on alert for new danger while at the same time experiencing the crises’ permutations as interminable. This seems a quite appropriate presentation of a perspective of one near in proximity to the effects of war yet distanced by necessity on a psychic level by the nature of her own suffering as a witnessing participant and her need to maintain daily equilibrium.
This sequence segues into poems that focus on experiences of surviving war that are both common and, cruelly, trapped within. “Debriding” is one such treatment of the inability to release traumatic experiences: “you’ve survived, but your will will not release / the scream, your wound will not heal / in the mind that daily eats it raw” (40). The run-on sentence and rephrasing line breaks formally mirror the circular and disjointing psychological effects of trauma. Notably, the speaker also shifts to second person here, allowing the sufferer and the reader to be concurrently and interchangeably addressed, perhaps the beginning of fostering potential bridges of understanding and healing. “In Late Summer the Sea Comes to the City” presents another such opening, arising from the common experience of looking down into a puddle: “You are a reflection in / the gutter’s standing water, and the flat-you, / swept up in traffic, an image looking back.” This passage recalls the earlier pictures found in reports of foreign affairs, yet the fleeting image we encounter here is our own. In response, the speaker asks,

Imagine – what is it like to be left
with a solitary thought, uprooted,
pulled out from beneath you
by unfathomed undertow?
Every last cell lost. In this way
you learn to distance from your memory. (48)
The imperative to imagine here is an even more direct outreach to the reader’s awareness of their own self-reflexive experience; correspondingly, the suggestion invokes more objective aspects of the psyche than any of the external stories encountered in the collection, in the sense that the self-reflective contents can be confirmed in the experience of each reader. All of our memories, identities, and daily realities are, on a deeper level, similarly insubstantial. In a counterintuitive corollary, though we may not comprehend individual trauma by direct external experience of each situation, we may, to a degree, have imaginative compassion for them due to the shared temporary and contingent nature of life itself, if we are open to our own awareness of it even – or especially, perhaps – on more existential levels. Here, we should note how “every last cell” is lost in our momentary experience of annihilation, recalling the earlier imagining of the autonomous self-arranging of cells that would grow into a person in the first place. The cell-level imagery here seems to point toward a healthy depersonalization that allows for holding of psychic phenomena as such, rather than carrying them as aspects of identity.
Other poems reexamine and complicate this cell-level imagery through differing perspectives. In “Sonogram” the first-person speaker reconnects to empathetic pain from an article read in childhood, contrasting the objective, metaphorically medical perspective with the individual experience of empathetic consciousness, “echoing internals / image by image.” An aspect of such pain that has been implied throughout the collection emerges here explicitly: The “place” the speaker’s empathic suffering appears is in consciousness, presented in the poems themselves:
Bursting in me, insurgent memory
walled off for thirty years.
Where is the sonogram,
CAT scan, MRI to locate
rogue cells that refuse to forget?
This is where the sorrow lodges.
Here. Where it hurts. (65)
The wish to “locate” and see the “rogue cells” of the internal “insurgent” presents an alternative to the drive of Hafez in the opening poem to eradicate such experiences by projecting them onto political opposition. However, this personal tracking of such experiences allows the speaker to deal with them in their psychic reality. Perhaps such practice also allows the imagining of its pathological opposite, in which empathy is barred from the imagining of cellular life in “Herr Doktor Mengele Considers the Fetal Brain”:
Why not colonize beginning with the brain?
Sort the neurons one by one to link
in clear-cut lines that radiate like spokes
of force. Iconic, like a painted state-
house dome: commander top and center, displayed
above lieutenants, lackeys, messengers.
Redesign the circuitry for worker,
each cell imprinted to obey. (80)
The poem uses persona to characterize the way authoritarian mental illness remakes itself, trauma manifesting as idealized ideation and imagination of the world that, if allowed, organizes both the brain and the world in its image. The terrifying part, and one contribution of the poems to our understanding of the mind, is that all of the minds presented in these poems are our shared potentialities.
The later poems gravitate toward the humble potentials of art for the interrelated pursuits of survival, witnessing, and cultivation of consciousness. Artistic practice provides a measure of solace for those suffering under inhuman – or all too human – oppression in “What’s Left”:
root twigs broken from an unknown tree
braided into a box that holds nothing
discernible under its lid. Oils from
the hands that wone it stained the roots,
but DNA analysis did not reveal
the maker, who may have – who knows?
– entered the exhibit and spotted the box
whose weaving had kept her together
enough to stay alive, enough to say
she knows this box, here, is hers. (85)
The vision of the maker sees itself in the work of the other – in an inverted way to that of the authoritarian, which seeks impossibly to mirror its illusion of power the world over. The making of the cared for object, whether the box in its most basic (though no less creative) form or in the poem with its intersubjective complexities, though it mounts no defense against external brutality, models a practice through which one hopes to survive it and supplant its internal moorings.
Such practices, though noble, are not without limitation, as the collection’s coda, “In Bruges,” acknowledges: “The Old Masters called it still life. In Bruges, the phrase inverts to / life stilled, the burnish of a grieving too particulate to dissipate. / It darkens a lyric voice to contralto, a lullaby to requiem” (89). And, yet, the relative lasting of art, its refusal to “dissipate” like news stories, provides a measure of companionship for consciousness and compassion when they arise within us, just as the ordering consciousness of this collection operates from an understanding that the world’s shadows are our own mind’s, a connection which opens psychologically to some mitigation of its sufferings.
You can find the book here: Beyond Repair: Poems
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.

Pacific Light by David Mason 

By g emil reutter
Mason is a poet defined by place, if it is Southeast Asia on the Pacific Rim or Northwest America, his poems breathe life of the people around him as well as the nature he observes and partakes in. Careful observation and craft abounds in these poems. The poet tells us in The Voices:
I came to a wood where dark trees were talking,
their voices sparking in the shadows, near
or distant, singly and in chorus, and I thought:
This is the way of trees, to wait until we least
expect it of them, then to speak from their depths,
the nerves strung out in lines with each new flash. 
Voices sparking in shadows, nerves strung out in lines with each new flash. Trees talking. There has been some study indicating trees communicate through the root system, this poet see it and tells us about it. There is no doubting here.
In the poem, The Work, he offers up a beautiful description of time:
Time is the hillside falling away in grass and gum trees,
the current of water, the island behind the cloud,
and there is more of it and less of it than we know. 
Pacific Light, the title poem is a paean to the Pacific by a poet who embraced the light and moved south. In the second and third stanzas the poet wraps himself around the Northwest:
I remember now. The light in my mother’s house
above a bay, a virile western sun
bleaching the spines of books, fading furniture
and making the candles we lit at dinnertime
doubly sad. I’ve watched for sixty years
the sun on the western water, islands, clouds
the mud flats, oyster beds, fishing masts–
the light I thought a poem should be infused with,
the light a man might die by in his bed,
the light remembered women leave behind
and children recollect like broken dolls,
the light destroyers cut with their gray prows
in my father’s war, light the lava died in
the massive gouts of steam, and spouts of whales,
So much captured in just two stanzas. His mothers house, sun bleaching, mud flats, fishing masts, broken dolls, father’s war, spouts of whales. It is a lyrical intensity rarely seen, packed with images, metaphors and observation. He ends the poem:
No pill or whisky and no burning weed
can touch the light, nor can the blue flame
of the struck match or lightning’s jagged stroke
that sets the woods aflame. A passing light
that holds us watching motionless as seals
till night returns us to our element. 
The words speak for themselves.
Mason writes of the nurses who care for those passing to the other side and leads off the poem, The Garden and The Library, with beautiful images of the dead in the garden:
A gardener grows familiar with the dead
and dying, each tree with its own way of letting go,
the oak leaves brittle and difficult to heap,
while beech let down their arms to the hold the dead.
He ends the poem with this:
I think about those nurses, and their speed
and silence in the face of miracles.
I think of all the weeping, all the books
in tiers of shelves. I think of all the leaves.
It is the trees, the nurses, the weeping, books in tiers of shelves. It is us.
There is much to this poet, this book. David Mason has arrived and we should all have a look. Get the book, watch the video and be prepared to be amazed.
Watch the poet reading from the collection here:
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at:

A Summoning by Nicole McCarthy


By Greg Bem

How deep can a poet dive into their own memory? What can selections of memory become when brought together, when affixed, when sharing the same intentional space? Nicole McCarthy, in her debut, cross-genre book, answers this question with prose, journaling, erasure, and generative text. The result is an experimental landscape that explores the psyche. Memories atrophic and recessed form an exquisite topography.

The poet touches upon what is lost, what is found, and what is present. The book is a mélange of possibility; it is a fixation of multiple realities. She grasps trauma, grasps the structural damage of Alzheimer’s, she brings to bear what can be cherished and finds niche intersections with what is necessary.

Memories that haven’t gone through the consolidation process yet are like clay waiting to dry—they’re vulnerable to malleability. (page 21)

As memory is fluidic and staggered, so is the McCarthy’s form. The book opens with paragraph of memory, the summoning process of the poet emerging from the first page. The work immediately becomes a blurry flux of the ecstatic, the pensive, and the sorrowful; tone is temporary and a totality.

Though it’s not ever announced, the book expands page by page by way of experiment and investigation. The poet’s process remains veiled, but McCarthy’s ethereal fragments further open and push through a commitment to exploration. An exploration of personal and shared history. Of family. Of past partners. Of self. But it is more than a mere push, more than force. The poet undergoes a process of submersion. Textual works transform into visual. Visuals splice back to text. Collage appears and disappears.

I was just crumpled bones in a moonlit room. (page 73)

Out of the pages comes consistency. Comes acceleration. Comes phasing forward. Comes being in sync. But occasionally a title appears: Manipulate. Falsify. Manipulate. Falsify. Otherwise, the reader is left submerged alongside the poet, the blur book-length, moment-to-moment, obfuscation adjoined to clarification.

McCarthy raises questions of authenticity and integrity; when we don’t have the whole picture, what does the whole picture we do have mean? How do we reconcile with memories spliced together? To what do we owe their thematic presence, their trends, the string of memories as a story that feels bound but is tenuous, always collapsing and restructuring?

Can I clear the state then? (page 36)

The poet’s prescription is one of endurance until the abstracted emergence arrives: by the book’s end, any sense of conclusion is warped and undesirable. The book as document, as entity, was always conclusive. Our journey through McCarthy’s archival wandering is satisfying because it is a whole, it has been put together, it was, poetically, summoned.

You can find the book here: 

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




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.