These Days of Simple Mooring by Florence Weinberger

By Charles Rammelkamp
In “My Very Own Opera,” one of the new poems in These Days of Simple Mooring, Florence Weinberger writes:
            A cantor’s wail becomes a lullaby my father sang which kicks off
            Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody which triggers La Boheme, shaky
            bridges over troubled waters. It’s all in the shuffle.
This is an apt description of Weinberger’s creative process, how her poems develop, the associations that drive her verse. It’s all in the shuffle, indeed. In another new poem, “The Prescription,” she writes about her doctor suggesting she eat something salty to combat sluggishness (“Are you kidding me?” Salt, after all, has been a no-no for years – bad for kidney stones, blood pressure, tissues and organs, right?), but –
            It licks me back home
            to my mother’s kitchen.
            I don’t compare
            the slick of fat.
            I don’t care. I’m told
            to eat salt, to taste
            total recall…
Memory is a key ingredient to her poetry. At ninety, Florence Weinberger has a long life to draw on.   In a poem from 2010’s Sacred Graffiti called “The reason I don’t visit your grave,” she asks her dead husband, “Are you still listening? I tend to digress.” (“God, I’d love to make a date / to drink wine with your ghost,” she writes earlier in the poem.) Digression is her crabwise approach to meaning, the memories that pile on one another like hamsters in a nest of cedar shavings.
These Days of Simple Mooring includes selections from four previous collections, The Invisible Telling Its Shape (1997) Breathing Like a Jew (1997), Sacred Graffiti and Ghost Tattoo (2018).  “Mame Loshen, The Mother Tongue,” from Breathing Like a Jew, takes her back to her childhood.
            Yiddish, my first language,
            you were given to me whole, your wild colors
            intact, your bent humor, centuries
            of bottled-up rage and richly-imagined revenge.
The poem’s a memory of her father. She writes that she believed in him, believed “his dazzling litany of dirty jokes,” “his poker-player’s paranoia,”
            because out of this avalanche of language,
            punctuated by deep painful rasps of breath
            as he battled bronchitis and then emphysema,
            still smoking those pungent Turkish cigarettes,
            came the rhythm of my poems, like hard slaps
            with an open palm….
The rhythm of Weinberger’s poems certainly whacks a reader out of his complacency. “As if all the gods have slashed their wrists at once / your inexhaustible waters pour and pour,” she begins “Iguazu Falls,” an ode to the Argentine waterfall, one of the new poems. “Where are this century’s muses, have they abandoned their vocation, / are they hefting Berettas instead of bone flutes?” she starts another new poem, “”Renew Us to the Mercy of Lyres and Flutes.” Got your attention yet?  How can you help but read on?
The poem, “Hitchhiker,” from Sacred Graffiti, quintessentially evinces Weinberger’s style. She’s driving her car past “one of those lost unkempt souls  / you see stranded at bus benches trailing / their parcels of loose ends.” Reflexively waving her away and driving on, Weinberger has second thoughts. The girl wasn’t a gang member, after all; she just needed a lift. Weinberger feels a pang guilt.
            No sooner had I fled the scene,
            I began to play the game of what if.
            I began to take credit
            for that spontaneous kindness.
“I began to play with a memory already receding,” she writes, “I can no longer tell you what she was wearing.” Memory and imagination conspire to create a poem that a guilty conscience inspired.
Weinberger’s mother and father – her whole family – are never far from her mind. They are inspirations for so many of these poems, as are Judaism and art. “Mother’s Blood,” a new poem, is a memory of her mother’s help when as a young girl she began menstruating. “My Mother’s House,” from Ghost Tattoo, is a poem about her joy at tracking down the house in Ukraine where her mother grew up, though the actual house is long gone. The joy lies in understanding her mother’s childhood,
            what it is to live in snow and planting seasons,
                        what it is to dig into the earth, milk a cow,
            fear soldiers on horses,
            drunken neighbors with mouths full of curses,
                        that’s still here, I feel it, her fear,
            I feel her here.

Weinberger writes in “The Power of My Mother’s Arms”:
My mother’s death changed the alchemy of food.
Holidays run together now like ungrooved rivers.
I forget what they are for.
I buy bakery goods.
They look dead under the blue lights.
I forget what they are for.
I buy bakery goods.
They look dead under the blue lights.
“What’s mine was my mother’s first,” Weinberger concludes the poem “Whole Grains and Hard, Harmonious Ways.” “How do I spend these final years?”
“Smoking with My Father” from Sacred Tattoo is another affectionate memory of her father, teaching her how to smoke cigarettes. “Years later
a man in a Max Beckmann painting
holding a cigarette European style
reminded me how my father and I
bonded, when I was sixteen….
A mother herself, her two daughters and their offspring also figure prominently in the poems. “My Daughters Tell Their Friends,” one the new ones, and “My two daughters drop me off at the museum” are two titles, the latter poem, from Ghost Tattoo, also highlighting Weinberger’s interest in art, as the poem weaves in and out of various thoughts, with Weinberger-esque association.
These Days of Simple Mooring includes at least a half dozen ekphrastic poems, including “A Common Grayness Silvers Everything,” with references to Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and other photographers; “Unraveling Darkness,” which, like “My two daughters drop me off at the museum,” involves Mark Rothko; “Picasso’s Four Bulls”; “Ejaculate Trajectory I, II, III,” works by the transgressive photographer Andres Serrano; “Revisiting Ozymandias,” sculptures by Albert Szukalski; “You Remind Me of Someone,” Maria Lassnig’s painting, Du Odor Ich.
Judaism and Jewishness are important themes in the poems as well. The rituals of mourning, of eating (“Let me fashion prayer from a piece of dough,” she writes in “The Power of My Mother’s Arms”), references to the Torah, survivors of the Nazi death machine, modern-day Israel. “Where I Was When Yitzhak Rabin Was Assassinated,” an elegy for the murdered peacemaker, is a memory of being in Las Vegas at the time. “I am in the city of chance, city of sham and amnesia.”
These Days of Simple Mooring concludes with “Announcement,” a musing about a sort of DIY obituary, like rescuing her own memory: her very own opera, indeed!  Florence Weinberger’s unique voice and verse make for an impressive read.
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.

The Girl Who Quit at Leviticus by Suzanne Rhodenbaugh

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

Under the Raging Moon – A Drama in Four Acts by Peter Thabit Jones


By Byron Beynon

The late poet and editor, Ian Hamilton, once wrote that “Had Dylan Thomas survived, he would almost certainly have claimed a role in the impending triumph of pop culture. All too easily one can imagine him on platforms in the 1960s. And television, it seems certain, would have reckoned him to be a natural.”

Peter Thabit Jones in his new play, imagines and skilfully evokes the last hours of Dylan’s life, as the poet visits the bars of Greenwich Village shortly before he is taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The play has a strong grain of truth echoing through it, amusing, poignant, and tragic; it unfolds, focuses, and brings alive those last, precious hours which perceptive audiences will appreciate and respond to with empathy.

In October 1953, Dylan Thomas is a sick man, and on his fourth and fatal visit to America.  He had a wife, Caitlin, and three children in Wales to support and, harassed by debtors, he undertook these tours to earn the cash to pay them. In America, whiskies (Old Grandad was his favourite brand of American whisky) became irresistible, hard liquor relief to push away anxiety, loneliness and exhaustion only made matters worse. His tour there had been organised by John Malcolm Brinnin, Director at the YWHA Poetry Center in New York.

The play opens with Dylan getting out of a taxi after an altercation with Liz Reitell, Brinnin’s assistant. The taxi is on its way to Greenwich Village, and Dylan, after a shouting match with Reitell is left to his own devices.  Alone, he enters the first of several bars, where he mainly meets people unknown to him. Conversations flow as he meets a range of New Yorkers, various bartenders, a young man who has just become a father, a middle-aged and wealthy company manager, a married couple, an elderly man, and various hangers-on.  In the bars he meets and speaks openly to all these people with different responses and reactions.

In Act One he’s asked by a young man “Do you like America?” Dylan replies “I have dragged my chubby body across the map of the American dream, New York to California. I have seen the inside of too many colleges and venues in my three previous visits to this new empire of giant refrigerators and cars as long as alligators. So, alas, my leisure time has been mostly in the nearest bars to wherever John Malcolm Brinnin, my tour organiser, has housed me.”

Throughout the play there is an active and imaginative slant on Dylan’s interaction with characters he’s never met. The play leaves one reeling with a sense of loss, helpless to save an energy and a genius with words, that the literary world lost at the age of just thirty-nine.

At the end of the final act when the poet has left his favourite bar, The White Horse Tavern, he walks several steps and sits down on the sidewalk, and movingly and defiantly says:

“I want to live. I want to see Caitlin again, to have her care for me when I’m unwell or broken one of my chicken bones. To hear my dear daughter Aeronwy and her friends trying to be quiet as they pass my writing shed. I want to see angelic-faced Colm and my dear Llewellyn. I want to live. I want to see my mother in her cosy widow’s home. I want to sit in Browns Hotel and hear the small town gossip from Ivy and see the happy drunks come and go. I want to live. I want to write new word-wrestled poems that I’ll boom on the BBC and on stages in America………..”.

Peter Thabit Jones has presented before us a play with a clear understanding and insight for his subject, with dialogue that is direct, alive and heartfelt.

Available from:

Small Press Distribution

UK and Europe:

Byron Beynon, author of A View From the Other Side and 14 other collections of poetry including Cuffs and The Echoing Coastline,  coordinated Wales’s contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His poems and essays have featured in several publications including The Independent, Agenda, Wasafiri, The London Magazine, North of Oxford, San Pedro River Review and the human rights anthology In Protest.

Muddying the Holy Waters by Chocolate Waters


By Charles Rammelkamp

Without putting too much emphasis on the cleverness of the title, the words “muddying” and “holy” stand out as the labels of Chocolate Waters’ new collection. “Holy” is an apt description of her outlook, an almost spiritual, if comic and irreverent, voice that spins the narrative of her life; “muddying” certainly pinpoints the details of growing up in a dysfunctional family in the strangling conformity of a Republican small town, being the outsider everywhere, generally.

Muddying the Holy Waters is made up of two parts. “Impossible” is about an unrequited love affair with an unnamed woman. “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” subtitled “(the Curse and the Blessing of Mount Joy, PA),” is about her family, about growing up. Consisting of poems, essays and photographs (mostly in the second part, snapshots of her parents, siblings and herself), the collection is a retrospective of her life, as she enters her 70’s. Her goal in putting this collection together, she tells us in concluding essay, “The End is the Beginning – Muddying Your Own Holy Waters,” is to get to “the authentic bottom line of [my] life experiences,” to “explain how difficult it is for me to be vulnerable, to go beyond expressing my default reaction which is just to be majorly pissed off.”

“My life has been about rejection,” Waters writes in her introduction to “Impossible.” She also tells us about the origin of her name, the taunts of her classmates calling her “Choc-o-lotta Weirdo,” but also, living less than half an hour away from Hershey, named for “the religious racist chocolate magnate,” had something to do with it. (Spoiler alert: her parents named her Marianne, which I learned from reading the caption to a newspaper photograph of her as the Douglas High School spelling bee champion, in the second part.)

But rejection is at the heart of “Impossible,” in which she describes the evolution of her sexuality, from rejection by high school boys to eventually identifying as lesbian. She’s one of the first openly lesbian poets to publish in the United States, part of Second-wave feminism, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. First-wave feminism focused on voting and property rights; second-wave expanded the debate to include issues of sexuality, the workplace, and family.

As a front-line warrior, she experienced plenty of rejection. But this sequence focuses on a particular love interest that never developed the way she wanted. From poems like “Encounter #1” and “First Rush” (“longing to / ingest you / whole or / bit by bit”), in which her desire takes hold, to “Apology” and “Dirty Karma” she confesses her hopes, only to have them dashed in “Things I Won’t Have to Do (since I’ll never see you again)” and “Bang Bang” (“She shot me down / as I was talking on the phone / She shot me down as I was washing the dishes / as I was watching Netflix / as I was peeing”). The bitter reactions morph: “You Don’t Deserve Me” begins:

You know you don’t
The nights I howled over your rejection
What tossing me out the window did

Then, in the “Afterthoughts” section come the episodes of drunk dialing. The rejection still hurts.

The first section also contains a sometimes-funny, mostly sad series of poems about the dead animals in her life, from a favorite collie to her faithful cat Scruff-o (“for seven years he loved me”). We’ve all lost pets. Waters captures the heartbreak with real sensitivity.

The second section, “I’d Rather Be a Toad,” is by far the more affecting sequence, starting with the essay, “How Mount Joy Transformed Me into a Pisser Poet.” This section is all about her parents and siblings. If she is often unsentimental in her assessments of family members, she is always forgiving, affectionate. To her brother Bob she writes:

you are so terrified
of me
pagan dyke poet telling my truth in a bar
as i am
of you
good christian
telling yours in a church

Chocolate confesses her shortcomings as an older sibling, growing up in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, her impatience, but she concludes her short essay, “What Good Are Brothers?”:  “So what good are brothers? More than I thought, more than I have the ability to say.”

But it’s the poems about her mother and father that cut the deepest.  Her dad was a bigamist, a second family they only learned about later. He was also a real prick to his wife. They both essentially hated each other but stayed married.  When her father died, Chocolate was heartbroken. He was her favorite. She writes in “waiting room”:

I was in the waiting room w/uncle billy
down on my knees in public
crying unabashedly
gasping so hard
my tears strangled me
praying to a god I didn’t believe in

About her mother, she is not so teary. Though she recognizes her mother was a victim, she still can’t quite forgive. In “pauline’s daughter” she writes,

it was impossible having you for a mom
no way you could have mothered wild-child
melancholic me
i ran more circles around you
than a venn diagram
but what was it like for you
left alone to parent four young children

abandoned by your husband
who preferred the company
of any woman but you

In “Mommie Dearest” she addresses Pauline who is lying in her coffin: “”What do I say to your dead body?” No breast-beating at this bedside.

The Mount Joy poems are bookended by the “Curse” poem – “I ran away / oh the freedom in escaping / the christian republican evangelists” – and the blessing:

two kinda of people live here
the ones who go to church and
the ones who go to the bar
had i stayed
i’d become a raging alcoholic
or a hallelujah

Chocolate Waters clarifies her muddied waters in this affecting collection, so we can see ourselves down there at the bottom as well.

You can find the book here:

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.

Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines by Ed Werstein

By Edward Morin
Ed Werstein’s first full-length collection, A Tar Pit to Dye In (2018), showed a jaunty bent for wordplay, commitment to poetry as vocation, and uncommon insight into human relationships and societal concerns. His new book, Communiqué: Poems From The Headlines (Waters Edge Press, 2021), builds on this foundation. It restates commitment in an opening epigraph from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Insurgent Art:

“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

Communiqué distributes over five dozen poems into sections named for thematic categories used by the full-service newspapers: National and Local News, International News, Weather Report, Sports Report, Business News, Politics, Special: The War Report, Science and Religion, and Obituaries.” Citing the headline and media source for each poem, Werstein segues from the original coverage into his personal insights, feelings, and interpolations.
On the National and Local front, “A Couple from Massachusetts” tells of hikers who slip off an icy cliff and fall to their death. At first, the poet asks:
With news of war, mass shootings, a pandemic
and a looming environmental disaster,
Why do I need to know about this?
He decides that, of the 7,500 people who die each day in the U.S., these two are special to more than just their relatives and friends because they died “in each other’s arms doing something they love to do. / I should be so lucky.” The interplay of public and deeply personal themes is continually present throughout the book.
Ranging from very recent news to that of bygone eras, headlines are the dock from which Captain Werstein launches his flotilla of poems. “Transportation Blues,” uses stock phrases from blues lyrics in complaints about Governor Scott Walker’s veto of high-speed rail in Wisconsin and the overall degradation of railroad passenger service in the U.S. In “Dear Emmett,” the woman linked to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till admits six decades later that she gave false testimony, underscoring the slow pace of racial justice. The personal compulsions driving these poems prevent them from treading water as rhetorical propaganda.
For International News, Werstein draws on his experience living in Latin America as he portrays a deadly earthquake, Chilean miners rescued after weeks trapped underground, and the politics of Pablo Neruda’s body being exhumed. “Teaching Women How to Fly” compares America’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 with a similar industrial atrocity in Bangladesh, where the women “flying” to their deaths were sewing clothes Americans buy at Walmart. Working people’s perspectives are prominent throughout the collection.
Weather Report features “Junkman’s Wet Dream,” about a Milwaukee flood of biblical proportions and the aftermath:
Today, in the sunshine, people all over the city
are hauling water-soaked hutches, cabinets
and carpets to the curb as old pickup trucks,
driven by junkyard vultures, circle
like Conestogas making camp,
like planes over La Guardia,
like toms around a cat in heat,
ready to pounce.
The poem “It’s Not God, It’s Us” epitomizes America’s apathy in the face of global warming: “[Don’t] take any action, except maybe sending a few bucks: / our only way to make up for a strangled government.”
The emotional tone of poems in Sports News are by turns acerbic or heartwarming. They spotlight injuries in football games, Trump’s censure of NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem, and celebrations of the poet’s hometown Milwaukee Brewers and the legendary Detroit Tiger broadcaster, Ernie Harwell.  In Business News, the poem “Mine” plays upon that word as a corporate representative urges the reopening of an environmentally dangerous iron mine in the Penokee Ridges, then asserts rights of ownership over incalculable assets:
The oil is mine, the water, mine,
even the wind. I’ll meter it and sell it to you
as soon as you buy all my oil.
The speaker’s exaggerations in favor of corporate greed reduce his arguments to absurdity.
The poet himself becomes playfully absurd in the poem “Austerity,” which addresses the world’s debt problem. He asks naively,
What if, like other states, the state of poetry were in default?
Poets everywhere would be in debt.
A word lifted here, a phrase there, . . .
and pretty soon it would start to add up.
Lenders would keep monetized words like “gold,” “estates,” “offshore bank accounts” to themselves and
[w]e would be left with only titles,
signifying not our ownership
but our mounting debts,
and these few words: austerity
crisis, foreclosure, unemployment,
hunger, poverty, war.
Words that would never be taken from us.
Communiqué includes four villanelles—a stanza form that usually hampers rhetorical purpose; the best of these is “Second Thoughts” in the Politics section. Responding to the headline, “Virginia Legislature Turns Down Ban on Military-style Weapons,” a gun-rights advocate asserts:
Above all else on Earth I love my guns.
They’re symbols of my freedom and my rights. . . .
            *          *          *
Above my wife, my daughters and my sons
whose lives my guns protect throughout the night.
            *          *          *
Opposing points of view I always shun.
There’s only one amendment I can cite.
The speaker’s romance with firearms has become his ruling passion:
Some poems of Special: The War Report visit U. S. military incursions into Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, others poems treat related domestic outbreaks of gun violence. The poet hasn’t met a war he doesn’t dislike. Science and Religion offers lighter fare. “The Picture of Dorian Redwood” exults in longevity, “The Voices at Chauvet Cave” imagines artists of primitive drawings speaking to us, and “Pan-Demonic” is a Bacchanalian paeon to lovers’ sensual joys during Covid-enforced sequestration.
Obituaries, the book’s final section, pays tribute to Werstein’s idols—Hank Aaron, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek. It also commemorates executed convict, Troy Davis. The piéce de resistance of this section is the charming “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” It cites the headline announcing the legendary child star’s demise and begins:
Let no alcohol be poured today.
Shirley Temple is dead at eighty-five.
Let us raise eponymous sweet concoctions
of fruit and bubbles and toast Clark Gable,
whose Hollywood star was eclipsed
by a six-year-old supernova
who earned 1,200 dollars a week
during the Depression.
Recommending that we honor Shirley’s memory as contemporaries did by imitating her hairstyle, donning sailor suit and tap dance shoes, and becoming “ambassador to foreign lands,” the mourner concludes,
Shirley Temple is dead at almost eighty-six.
The Good Ship Lollipop has sailed the River Styx.
Communiqué’s unconventional, if not unique, amalgam of poetry and mass culture is a “people’s history” with something of value for nearly everybody. The poet makes what interests him tantalizing through finely honed paradox and sheer verbal legerdemain. Theodore Roethke told poets, “Get to your compulsions”; I had fun watching Ed Werstein display his. He examines contemporary phenomena such as global warming, income and racial inequality, and corporate control of government with provocative wit reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw.
Edward Morin is a poet, song writer and translator whose work has been published in Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner and three poetry collections including The Bold News of Birdcalls (2021).  His co-translations of contemporary poems from Greek, Chinese, and Arabic have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His book reviews have been published in Georgia Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Detroit News.

Primitive Mood by David Moolten


By Ray Greenblatt

David Moolten’s poetic lines vibrate and sing. His poems are mostly in Blank Verse because storytelling is a strong poetic technique. He is a profound thinker: his topics are far reaching from the romance of Tristan to the Enola Gay to Rwanda; from Van Gogh to the 30’s Depression to Garcia Lorca; from Nijinsky to Mount Rushmore to Medusa.

          I found his poems about Jewish events to be the most compelling because of my similar family background. I will concentrate on six of these poems that will highlight many of the poet’s techniques: Columbarium, Yellow Star, Story, Klezmer, Soup, and Dybbuk.


          A dove is a recurring image throughout this very moving poem about children caught in the holocaust.

         “Legend says doves saved the Altneu synagogue
          In Prague in 1558, really
          Angles in disguise who hovered cooing
          Along the roof while the ghetto burned.
          You can imagine the faint creak as their wings fanned
          The flames away from Europe’s oldest shul
          The obdurate roost of tradition.”

The Jews were saved then. Earlier in ancient Rome if a Jew died, at least he was allowed entrance into a columbarium, a room where funeral urns are stored.

          But in World War II all was denied Jewry. The interned children were forced to move boxes of human ashes. “To cloud and clot the current” intensifies the gruesome task.

          There never was a way to contain such truth.
          Though as they scattered handfuls of gray silt
          To cloud and clot the current they must
          Have fluttered a little, carried in the wind
          As when a flock is released and wheels
          With calm restraint over a city’s spires and eaves
          Before returning to its niches.”

Moolten combines the doves with the ashes both of which are in flight in their own way. The “truth” will out no matter how indirect.

         The poem concludes by considering the present; the symbols of dove and columbarium continue until the end. Now living Jews will keep the memory of injustice and the possibility of hope alive.

          “Perhaps when you stand
          In the synagogue on a Friday night
          Once the crowds disperse, listening to the past
          Quietly murmured in a dead language
          You are that small opening, that repository
          Of memory, which is its own homing
          Crossing the impossible distance like a dove,”
David Moolten’s endings are conclusive and powerful.

                                                              “Yellow Star”.

          This poem is about life after surviving the prison camps. The Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear, gathers many metaphors about it.

          “He saved it like a captured butterfly,
          A medal decorating a box of yellowed black
          And white snapshots, a souvenir of his first
          Lost life, infernal and exquisite, a flared match
          His hand could tolerate just a moment . . .
          In the torah that made him
          Who he was, a noxious star, a hexagram,
          Petaled like a sunflower, a saffron dahlia.”

He rationalizes by seeing beauty in the star as a butterfly, medal, sunflower, dahlia. But it also stands for the pain of humiliation: “a flared match his hand could tolerate just a moment,” or “a noxious star.”

          The poem infers that he has lost his wife, a greatly beloved person, in the holocaust; his life was “exquisite” but became “infernal.” She was an:

          “Ordinary, singular soul, which imbued
           Whatever her fingers touched, made it
          Less horrific, less contemptible
          Like the apple had Eve grown the tree herself.”

This yellow star with its mixed associations was his memory of her.


          This poem is also about a man who has survived the holocaust. However, the horrific story he brings with him—almost too terrible for people to believe, even his own wife—becomes a character in its own right and takes over the poem.

         “A story which stalks him across the slant of light
          Of years like his own long shadow
          On the veranda, an evil twin with a past
          Who stares in their windows.”
          The “story” gains all the attributes of a person.
          “Questioned, attacked
           As a crazy, the story has traveled far,
           Has grown old just getting here. But at night,
          The story dreams in a made-up tongue
          Not unlike Yiddish, full of fustian
          And folly.”
Moolten fittingly ties words almost opposite in import together through alliteration; how can a durable cloth be silly—can language? So many Yiddish words have been adopted into English these days because of the interplay of their vigorous sound and meaning.

          The poor Story cannot stand happiness because that has not been his experience.

          “Tonight, when the man hummed
          In the kitchen with his wife, the story
          Felt hands clapped across its ears.
          Like parenthesis on a tombstone.”
What a marvelous simile; parentheses almost the last thing to be found on a tombstone
          “When they ate codfish and green bananas
          Fried and dipped in sauce, the story starved.
          Tonight, when the man caressed her cheek,
         The story staggered, struck across the face.”
The couple has moved to South America to get away from the European devastation they have suffered. Yet, the Story holds only that brutal background he is destined to reveal over and over.


           This could be just a simple poem about how wonderful Klezmer music is, especially the lead violin.

          “A violin is just wood and catgut but cunning
          In its persuasion; no instrument comes
          Closer to the human voice, such exquisite wailing,
          And when a klezmer troubadour strokes his,
          He almost sounds that good, tunes so forlorn
          They scratch at you, so jubilant they leave you
          Giddy as sparkling wine.”
          The poet’s grandfather cannot help but dance to it; my Jewish grandfather played the mandolin.
          “A staid man, a learned man would rise helpless
          Like someone jerked around on strings in a story
          By someone else. He’d nod and tap his shoe,
          A whole village in his veins, hoofing
         On their cloven feet, spinning and dropping
          Knees bent, still kicking at the scraped-out strains.”

          But Moolten knows how to add salt to the tale; the hook he knows how to often employ. The poem hinges on a Christian fiddler who got revenge on a Jew by making him dance to a frenzy.

          “Dancing in the underbrush until he’s naked
          And gasping, excoriated by roses.
          It’s a lie of course, blood libel, a fairy tale
         To tell children so they go to sleep
          In fear of witches or monsters or people
          Who get the better of them, mainly through lies.”
Some lovely lines cannot be overlooked. The poet describes his grandfather’s 78: “An old record, the past scarred and warped/And repeating itself.” And why do some people dance: “The breathless/Urge to celebrate what was endured.”


           Like the grandfather the poet’s great aunt, like my Jewish grandmother, carries the ancient past with her. She is a “squat vat,” onomatopoeia at its most vivid.

          “She treated the modern world
         As her endlessly sighed-over pogrom
          With its blaring appliances and disobeyed traditions,
          Time alone a forced exodus, a rushed immigration
          For a woman who’d spent forty years
          In the same junk cramped apartment. She too
          Was a leftover, a squat vat of garbled English
          And malapropisms, of dire stories about boots
          With a sound like cracking ribs, of towns lost
          To mist and their own queer ways.”
          It is food that makes this poem go; the stuff of life we cannot live without.
          “She chewed us out for squandering
          The wondrous carcass that one should gnaw on
          Or scavenge for parts with which to engineer
          The concoction she soon had stirring in a pot,
          Gizzards and grease, a dab of horseradish
          And kosher salt, her recipe for polite excuses
          And pruning faces at what we feared more
          Than cow’s tongue or chopped liver.”

“What else but bones did she have to hold onto?”


           If we take this storytelling as truth, the poet’s father, from a Polish Jewish background, married a Puerto Rican Catholic woman. The grandparents thought her a dybbuk, an evil spirit.
          “My grandparents performed
          The exorcism, laying out the tea service
          And the kugel, incredulous, confronting
          My father to save him, though gently, only
          In the spirit of polite conversation
         Questioning what possessed him
          To bring home a Puerto Rican shiksa.”
          However, the young couple’s love was deep and unswerving.
          “She hung on against all judgment. Her soul
          Cohabited with his even as she devoutly
          Wouldn’t let his hands near, her body already
          His shtetl house, his shack in a field.
          How soon forgotten the superstition of love,
          That faith in one another strong as a God
          Not yet jilted by enlightenment.”
           The grandparents, still skeptical, thought the woman was only doing supernatural things to bind him to her.
             “She said
              What he said, bosomed his words in her accent,
              A delusion of magic, of something charmed, conspired
              From nothing, shawl of tomb dust, blown ash,
              Burnt offering of the synagogue the world
              Might not dissipate, if they only believed enough.”
The older people are still wrapped in those ancient beliefs they carried from the Old World into the Modern Age. Clashes were inevitable; my Christian mother was not accepted into the Jewish side of the family for ten years.
          It is so difficult for a writer to create fresh language; poetry is the major medium through which to do so. These six poems alone out of thirty that comprise the book Primitive Mood suggest so many techniques that the poet uses in his work: of course alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, metaphor and simile but also recurring symbolism, historical reference, multiple story lines as well as sudden swerves in narrative . . . the techniques are many and so skillfully employed. Most of all I sense a deep caring for humanity in so many of these poems. It doesn’t surprise me that David Moolten is a Medical Director of the American Red Cross in Philadelphia.
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).

Something Kindred by Nicole Tallman


By Alex Carrigan

In Nicole Tallman’s chapbook Something Kindred, she responds to the passing of her mother through a series of poems and prose pieces that examine the immediate effects of the loss. As Tallman’s foreword states, these are pieces about grief in “a timeless sense.” While they read as anecdotes and rumination following her mother’s death, it becomes clear that each of these pieces could exist at any point in time, showcasing how grief is sometimes something that is experienced for the rest of one’s life.

The collection begins with the passing of Tallman’s mother, Nancy, written as a disjointed prose piece detailing the final moments as Nancy’s family witnessed her passing. This piece, “On the Last Moments Leading to Your Death,” has its paragraphs spread out and spaced several lines down on the page. It feels like a slow descent into the final moment, punctuated by recollections on helping clean Nancy or feeding her a popsicle.

This is then followed by “On Surviving in the Early Days Following Your Death,” where Tallman writes about the aftermath of her mother’s passing. This heartbreaking piece shows the banality of life as it continues following loss, with Tallman and her father replacing their home’s microwave after it breaks and Tallman dividing her mother’s ashes. Many of these moments have an underlying sense of uncertainty and confusion, such as when Tallman writes,

Dad and I take a trip in the snow to get the rings you left me resized. Dad also asks me if he should take off his wedding ring. He isn’t sure of the proper thing to do. I tell him not to worry about what’s proper. He should just do what feels right. He isn’t sure what to do with that. He says 45 years of marriage is a long time.

It’s also here that we begin to see the confessional aspect of the collection. In between each piece in the chapbook, Tallman includes a “confession” where she admits to things like taking photos of her mother after she died or the melancholy that came from the first holidays without Nancy. It’s here where the collection reveals probably its strongest response to grief: where Tallman finds now is the time to be honest and admit things she may never say otherwise. This includes one passage, where Tallman is dividing her mother’s ashes and writes,

I don’t portion out any for your mother. Grandma says she should have gone first. I don’t disagree with her. Dad says he should have gone first too. I don’t disagree with him either.

After that, the collection drifts into poems where Tallman responds to something that reminds her of her mother. These pieces include poetry about her mother’s ashes spilling in her suitcase, or how her search for poems about bereavement led to her discovering Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Sylvia Plath who is now an artist. “Frieda Hughes, I want to eat all of your mother’s poems / and all of your paintings. // It’s hard not to look at Frieda and feel / something kindred— / us daughters of dead mothers” Tallman writes in “On Reading Poems, I Now Sympathize With Daughters Of Dead Mothers.”

While the beginning of the chapbook contains pieces that are specific in their relationship to the author’s experience, yet universal in their themes and images, it’s towards the end that Tallman begins to move to the more experimental and unique. “On Grieving” is a poem that has to be read by turning the page and squinting to make out the message of “Grief is a blurry imperfect circle.” The final piece in the collection, “On Love,” reads as a mission statement on Tallman, as if she had to catalogue herself.

The poem, inspired by Alex Dimitrov’s “Love,” is a series of statements, many of which are linked, such as I love a wood-burning fire. / I love people who own fireplaces in Miami. / I love that a Miami summer can feel more brutal than a Michigan winter. / I love going to the beach when there’s no sun.” “On Love” reads like many of these loves of Tallman are specific moments or visuals that could have emerged upon recollecting about her mother, and it’s the sort of piece that could make the reader want to catalog about a loved one.

Something Kindred is a tearjerking, powerful examination of grief. Tallman’s ability to make personal, individualized moments feel grand and universal speaks to her expert use of detail and language. It’s a collection that asks for confession and exhalation following loss, and it’s one that will likely leave the reader feeling lighter after reading as they begin to truly take in what’s left behind after death.

You can find the book here:

Alex Carrigan (he/him; @carriganak) is an editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. His debut poetry chapbook, May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), was longlisted for Perennial Press’ 2022 Chapbook Awards. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review,  Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more.

Poolside at the Dearborn Inn by Cal Freeman

By Michael Collins
Although the individual poems that congregate in Cal Freeman’s recent collection, Poolside at the Dearborn Inn, are often as subtle as they are profound, the constellations between them engage with even more subtle interconnections of psychological and spiritual mystery. Drawing on subject matter rooted in the daily and remembered worlds of family and community – and often nature – in and around working-class Detroit, the poems form associations that interrelate nuances ranging throughout global and historical affairs but maintain grounding in their abiding value of humbly upheld impressions of human compassion and resilience. The poems respond to our world through their own twin joys of language and music, their diction characterized by inventive, eclectic, and often overlooked or underappreciated words and phrases, reminding us of the diversity of expressive potential present in our inherited language while also allowing the more playful improvisations to celebrate what is yet and daily present to the eye, the ear, the mind, and the heart.
Opening the collection to “An Ode to the Proprietor of the Eastern Great Lakes Window Washing Company,” we are confronted immediately with both the uncertain nature of images and the deeper revelatory value beneath their instability. The speaker clearly draws on an esoteric and thoroughly engaged faith in invisible connections between things and persons that can seem disparate on surface levels, their collisions chaotic, yet the poems turn back on nearly every page from reified forms of evangelism, rather evoking multiple possible lens of mystery through associations that span fields of human understanding and experience:
…some images belie the substance
that composes everything
                                                                  or underpins it or
                                                                   slackens it.
Call that substance what you will:
quark or dark matter;
                                                                  carbon, basketball,
                                                                  or atom.
I have my theories and suspicions. (8)
Following the poem’s associative meditation that leaps between basketball, poetry, prayer, and the “window washing business that’s hell / on his [bother-in-law’s] back,“ each of which to a degree recontextualizes the others, the poem arrives at a negative definition of the role of poetry in human life that is equal parts terse and welcoming:
If vocation is all we have of meaning, dispassionate absurdity
is earned, and I am only tangentially alive. I could clean
this window and end up killing several birds over
the course of several days. It’s not the southwest wind
that makes a ladder or a tamarack sway.
It’s not the job of poems to be windows. (8-9)
Poetry is not made of surface vision here, especially in the form of the literalistic view represented by the window, through which seeing “into” someone else’s world or perceiving “from” one’s own is accomplished by attention to the surfaces of the perceived images, even those surfaces that may seem to house mysteries by materially concealing, to a degree, other material surfaces. Or, from another perspective, perhaps, we are allowed the interpretation that Freeman’s negative definition of the poem implies that it simply cannot be the window in any case because it is itself a way of perceiving from both – or many – directions at once.
One enlivening way in which a poem, both in rhetorical and musical form, complicates and bears witness to the “substance” that underlies and connects images is by presenting them on its own interrelating fields of meaning and complexity. “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians” is a lively example of using rhetorical forms to move the poem forward through weaving associations while maintaining a vital energy of open-ended exploration. We open with inversion both in word order and part of speech as the ubiquitous meme-maker and depth-flattener .gif is taken back into the realm of genuine creative practice: “Better to paint a gif than to gif a song, / to fail at aphorism than to whittle the world / to a disingenuous pith” (14). It may seem counterintuitive subject matter at first, but, if you think about it within the context of art history, there’s really no less reason to paint a gif than a bowl of fruit – or a can of soup. The word play invokes the playful joy of the transformation from an artifact of a digital wasteland to an object of perception lent dignity by the intention and practice of perceiving to honor the musician and invoke the music trapped in the .gif: creativity as a spiritual practice and vice versa.
This playfulness overruns formal definitions in waves of trans-disciplinary synesthesia, again, a rebellion against the rubber stamping and schlock-piling of the uniqueness of any of the genuine creations or their creative modes by using one to express alogically the singularity of the next:
F-holes warped
into bruised eye sockets, an SM-57 mic aimed
for a mess of pencil lines and paint.
You’ve promised this won’t wind up
being about love, but contour
hatching is as devotional as prayer
or malediction if we’re to believe
the baffled music or the leach
of smurfy lichen. You’ve promised
that this won’t wind up being about the road,
but you’ve taken the Kelly-green froth
as horseback, the shambolic equitation
for an unaccompanied progression
beneath which the air always seems
about to kick. If you trade prevention
for elegy, you’ll be much more impactful,
say the beer cozies with “Suck It, Suicide”
printed on their stomachs. It’s hard to argue
anyone’s been saved but a precious few
were named and then forgotten. (14)
The self-reflexive refrain of negated promises deepens our sense of the speaker’s genuine enthrallment with prayerful, though not pious, creative activity as music becomes visual art before traveling on to the trope of the road, which we’re all familiar with from a song or two, and then we ride off on the contour hatching, which has become, in turn, “smurfy lichen,” then “Kelly-green froth” before returning to the road of the song’s own progressions, reassociated with the journey by horse “beneath which the air always seems / about to kick.” The conditional sentence that follows allows for the suspension of the reader’s realization that its cagey proverb is, in actuality a paraphrase of a beer cozy. The cozy, another quotidian creation, inverts a more probable daily phrase, “suicide sucks,” into an overt confrontation with despair through humor that both draws on the convivial illogic of the pub and the bulwark of human gathering against the nullifying isolation of modernity, which probably wasn’t that recent an invention if we’re being honest, just less efficiently mass produced.
We arrive from our errant quest in the final statement, which uses misdirection, pun, and allusion to remind us that we need to read lines of poetry more than once, from more than one perspective, and often with more than one form of vision. At first glance it appears another negative statement about our prospects of salvation, until we arrive at hinge of hope when the compound sentence feints at reversal, but then we realize that the “precious few” we were being led to hold out hope for “were named and then forgotten.” Upon reflection, though, this ephemeral “naming” rather parallels the process by which the original song was born, probably titled or “named” (like a knight or a religious; sometimes musicians don’t go by their given names either…), only to be gif-ed into two-dimension underworld of internet flatland, only to inspire new creative life in the form of spontaneous artwork – never mind the poem itself, which finds occasion to revivify all of these other “named and forgotten” things along the way. Secondary, creatively constructed identities and fabricated artifacts are no less sacred, for they have inspired and been remade into this “shambolic” lyric of unfolding of visions, perhaps paradoxically all the more vital for the synergistic ingenuity necessary to do so. Things become sacred here when humans make and name them so as part of a continual process in which that which leads and returns to life identifies itself as such in vision and in practice.
Wow, something unseen sure appears to have wanted me to go on a while longer than conventional about that poem; this stuff is contagious. Let’s read another poem to break up all of this reviewing:
At Evergreen and Brace
“The looking is what saves us”
—Simone Weil
When my father would tell me
my eyes itched because they still
had sleep in them, I’d imagine
a slumbering boy intaglioed
in a communion wafer and wait
until the afternoon to scrape
their corners clean. Those morning
rides down unplowed Evergreen
in his two-door Escort to
St. Thomas Aquinas School
where each afternoon we were told
by a gentle old priest
that the soul would never die,
told to be selfless, told stories
about saints who tamed wolves
and gave away their clothes.
Eye and sacred heart,
road frictionless and cold,
yet textured like a birthday cake,
auguries of blood and wine —
the mind’s eye, maudlin
and injudicious, still visits
three consecutive empty lots
blanketed in white, a windbreak
of dead cedar protecting
a flame-licked northern wall,
thorny canes that droop
with raspberries in summer,
and traces crenulations
made by boots, as though the patterns
of those winter mornings
were their own theology, a path
down which we can return. (18)
Here we see one branch of the psychic root system supporting the spirited connective celebrations of “Static GIFs for Broken Musicians.” Memory, here of a fortunate upbringing in which the child was protected, both by the safe transit represented by the car and the life-affirming worldview of the priest, from prematurely confronting certain of life’s eventual tragedies long enough to cultivate the relative practices of trust, grace, and fellowship in their developmental forms. The adult speaker is able to reflect upon all of the constructions put around us the adults and communities of our childhoods, the nurturing ones anyway, to allow us for a time to see, to learn to see, as children: illogically or from misunderstood axioms, but also from a sense of interconnection that protects from exposure to the elements and despair, that survives and balances the mature “mind’s eye, / maudlin and injudicious,” which still visits the “empty lots” of the child’s world as if by religious pilgrimage. This is, inherently, an “as though” return, the speaker balancing awareness of what has been irrevocably lost to time in the external world with what survives as a holy ghost in practices of gratitude that support creative generations like those in the previous piece, neither any less psychologically “real” or sustaining for their allowed subjunctive nature, poems of gentle complexity, living elegies, parcellates that watch over alphas born from omegas.
These interdependent intrapsychic relationships are, to some degree mirrored in the macrocosmic mysteries of the poems in the collection with titles that respond to questions the reader has either just asked somewhere in the white space, or perhaps has asked at some point and then forgotten, or would have asked if they had known the answer would be a poem because, well, who wouldn’t call forth such a generous response? We may be simple, but we’re no fools. These titles are another way in which Freeman weaves creations from materials that, while no longer present if they ever were in any literal sense, support what emanates from their new communities of associations as their legacies, as if continuing a conversation that may or may not have ever begun, similar to the earlier dancing among those that were “named and then forgotten.” These titles also locate the reader a kind of lyric superposition that holds together connections across time and space, which, luckily for whatever can or cannot be said of the continuity of universal mysteries, seems to be something they seem to have always seemed to have done anyway.  This arrangement is mirrored within the longer poem “The Answer to Your Question Is, ‘Yes, but Not as Some Unremitting Paradise’” in the speaker’s address of the self “like a puzzled friend” in order to shift the perspective, and consequently the context, of a seemingly daunting moral-intellectual conundrum:
I address myself like a puzzled friend:
With all of the atrocities taking place,
why are you concerned with the plight
of a washed-up union trucker on a fixed income?
There are far greater indignities
than fixing your neighbors’ foreign
cars in exchange for beer. (22-3)
The poem further broadens in scope to include the other as mythic perspective through connections between classical text and present lifeworld that quicken the former and lend the inherited dignity of the myth to the latter:
Demodocus fuses epithet to melody
and rests the lyre’s tortoise shell
against his stomach to feel
the exiled creature’s reverberating
voice, and in this gesture
we begin to understand
the subtle difference
between poetry and song.
Outside the hall, young Phaeacians
hold contests of skill
in honor of the gods.
A hook shot clanks
from a back rim, soles
squeak over maple planks. (40)
This fusion of ancient form with quickening contemporary life is given a more musical incarnation, both in its cadences and reference to the evolved form itself, in “Mixolydian,” a catalogue of the collection’s signature negative statements which serve to invoke their opposites that resist definitional quantification.  In this case music is the poem’s enigma, divine in the sense that it reflects and performs being per se, continually reborn in performance, allowing and celebrating the new life of inherited cultural form:
Not the clipper ships, creaking,
cruciform above the fog,
not the poplars whose leaves dangle
like tongues of cows in summer,
not the ironing boards
and bent umbrellas chucked in the canal,
not the water frothed by chemicals to spit,
not cliffs falling sheer to a bottle-green sea.
Neither the laughter gone unpunished
nor the laughter limned in vein-blue smoke,
not the combers that roll
like sculpted copper shoulders in setting sun
or the radiator tines destroyed
by rodents’ teeth. Not the antithesis of beauty
or the banyans sowing themselves
in cinderblock, not the angels
you say you’re listening to
when you close your eyes to play. (41)
As we read the incantation and sound play in these lines, the speaker saying the angels aren’t there merely denies, as we have seen throughout the collection, the reifying or literalizing entrapment of angels, recalling the images we opened the discussion with that “belie the substance / that composes everything,” kind of like saying “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” in a song that palpably embodies and thereby “means” each mutually affirming aspect of itself.
You can find the book here: Poolside at the Dearborn Inn
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.

Torohill by Donna Reis

By Karen Corinne Herceg
Death and disappointment can be called life’s great equalizers. No amount of money, privilege, or cryogenics has yet found a way to exempt any of us. Grief spares no one, even in our best attempts at denial. It has arguably the most profound impact on our journey through life in everything from the smallest disappointment to larger tragedies and into death. No matter your perspective on life or religious beliefs, there is a universal depth of feeling that cannot be denied when we are faced with the hard truth of loss. The question remains: what do we do with it?
Donna Reis knows a lot about loss. She’s known it since childhood. She’s known it when a horrific car accident at the age of seventeen left her disabled and struggling for years to recover the semblance of a normal life. She’s known it through failed relationships, an abusive marriage, and finally in the loss of a long-awaited life partner, a husband who passed from cancer several years ago, taken all too soon. But she’s spun gold from the threads of despair, just as she works so adeptly and laboriously over her needlepoint, and certainly as she’s done in her poetry, weaving her thoughts into the fabric of our consciousness.
In her new book of poems, Torohill, Reis revisits her past in a very human way that is intensely reflective, sometimes brutally stark, and often quite humorous. If comedy is just the other face of tragedy, then our catharsis lies within the synthesis of both. Reis knows this instinctively and expertly weaves both through her poems. It renders them remarkably touching but not in a saccharin or intentional manner. She allows feelings to vacillate and often startle and surprise us organically and authentically. A life of such challenges and loss might create a poetic style that holds the emotions apart, examining them from the safety of distance, the perspective of an observer. But Reis participates and dives into the feelings and what she uncovers is a landscape of multi-faceted responses to death and tragedy: irony, humor, the savory sweetness of memories, all weaving our stories toward what is inevitable but with comfort in the real, in the truth, and the shared connectedness of our journeys. No matter their diversity and deviations, there is a similitude and combined solace in our unavoidable finales. We join hands in communion with the unavoidable destiny of finality. Reis’ poems convey integral parts of our emotional journey through life’s predicaments, and an honest response to navigating the precarious nature of it all. She recognizes that our best defense is always the creative impulse that outlives physical limitations and memorializes our spirit’s eternal imprint.
Torohill is the name of the ancestral home of Reis’ late husband, Tom. Ironically, the hit and run car accident that took such a physical and mental toll on Reis occurred on the road at the bottom of that same property when she was just seventeen and still in high school. She wouldn’t meet Tom until several decades later, and it would challenge her psychologically to return to the scene of such a horrific memory, but it would be under much happier and life sustaining circumstances. There is an almost magical, fairy tale quality to the story, except she will sit alone in the house after Tom’s passing and eventually leave it.
The opening poem, “Shoes,” reflects upon the many shoes found on the ocean floor from the sinking of the Titanic, that grand ship to be the greatest to ever sail, yet had only one disastrous, aborted voyage. Like items on view in Holocaust camps and museums, they represent at once many individual lives resting together that touch us with both their specificity and collective humanity. Reis concludes how they’ve never really left: “row after row, so still/still there.” If we were here, we were never gone, living inside one another in experiences, in memories, in life, and even in death. In “Answering Machine” the theme returns of items that remain after someone has passed, even the voice of Reis’ husband in the recorded phone message:
Sometimes I’m jealous
you went first, as I tie
your loose ends,
dust your collections
and preserve your voice
for anyone who calls.
In “Mexican Standoff” we learn Reis and her father, a pastor, were abandoned by her mother. Her father follows her mother to Mexico but is unsuccessful in bringing her back. Instead, he returns with a dress her mother sent, a poor replacement. Reis feels she will betray her father by wearing it but decides to wear it for her graduation from high school. Elaborately embroidered with flowers, ribbons, and two love birds, she is driven to the ceremony in an ambulance and a wheelchair as she continues to recover from the accident. The dress is slipped over her “sutured belly/fractured pelvis and casted legs, like Disney birds/dressing Cinderella” in an amazing contrast between a celebration and an incredibly challenging day. She concludes the image: “Two plaster feet peered/from the dress’s hem like white doves/legs elevated like wings.” The recurrent theme of Reis rising to meet adversity is evident in her choice of words such as “elevated” and “wings,” a persistent will to survive.
The absence of maternal love and support are starkly evident in “How Do You Like Them Apples,” with a mother who spews platitudes that are meant to hurt, where “Compliments were doled out/when Hell froze over.” In “My Father Invents An Alternate Life” she imagines what he would have hoped for in a wife, a supportive one with “pies cooling in the larder,” who would “embroider cushioned kneelers/with Ecclesiastical petit point, a labor/of the finest love I could imagine.” That mother and wife did not exist, but Reis knows this and explores it. She often returns to the theme of needlepoint and stitching, metaphorically speaking to our desire to bind together, to hold together, despite what tears us apart. She visits this again in “Festival of Broken Needles” after the passing of her beloved husband. She stitches to piece together what is lost, to “sew them back together/as if they never parted.” She meets grief head on but is not immune to the lure and comfort of magical thinking. She balances this against the realization of hard facts. In “God’s Shepherd,” about her dying father, he sees that “he was already one/of many sheep crossing the plank/to a ship about to sail,” as she returns to face stark realities.
In “Please Forward” Reis thinks back on her “last summer of innocence” before her body is marred by the accident and life changed forever both personally and in the wake of political and societal shifts dispelling the carefree illusions of youth. Her humor shines through in “Learning to Sail,” in which she misunderstands a word in class that changes her perception and leads to a litany of misperceptions we can all relate to, then delivers a punch in a final line: “And once I said hate when I meant love.” Reis will experience a host of misjudged and misguided relationships in her search for love and connection and never shies from naming names and places that bring a very personal yet universal imperative to her poems. She dreams of boyfriends and romanticizes “walking the moors, like Plath and Hughes” or meeting “in our secret/garden among ghostly irises” but also admits to the dark side of our dueling thoughts. In “Amber Bottles” she longs to be out and walking while recovering with “leg elevated for three years,” and later laments wanting that time back to read and rest, finally deciding her muse is drawn to “amber bottles, and a stranger/in the corner with a crooked smile.” Reis is always searching for that special connection but also recognizes the contradictions we face within ourselves, the wounds we carry that can easily distort the outcomes. “Botched Job” describes a dysfunctional marriage, a husband who tries to commit suicide, and her recognition that the relationship is over and “we were one breath from death.” Reis fights to live despite the tragedies and challenges. The dark side calls to her often in her thoughts or through others, but her refrain is “Not yet, not yet” as in these last lines from “The Reverend’s Irreverent Daughter.” The title of this poem aptly describes Reis, her rebellious spirit, her unwillingness to relent to misfortune, her desire to embrace life and hope. In her homage to poet John Berryman, she relates to his despair and early death, but that resignation does not live in Reis. She notes that had he lived and wrote longer, at this point in time he would have been dead anyway. We will all die, and here Reis tells us that hastening that moment is wrong and speaks to Berryman stating, “Your throat still had songs stirring/down deep.” Her life force is too strong and is not about giving up or giving in. In “Purgatory” she describes everyone’s present moment as one of loss through fear and imaginary thinking that remind us we live more by diminishment than expansion: “Most believe if they step off the ledge,/they’ll plummet to Hell.”
Reis returns to the scene of her horrific accident when she marries Tom who lives in his ancestral home, Torohill. Ironically it is at the bottom of Torohill where the accident occurred thirty-one years prior. Despite her fears, she faces them and comes full circle in this new home and, finally, with a true love, sharing in the inheritance of the house’s history. Her “Letter to Jane Kenyon” parallels Kenyon’s joining poet Donald Hall at his home and making it her own as well. An assimilation takes place based on a shared love that overcomes apprehension of moving into someone else’s settled landscape. When Reis states, “Yet as I ascend, passing the old scene/I resurrected from to marry and live above,” she decides to move forward, to “realize I’ve come home.” The faith in her decision is evident in her choice of words such as “ascend,” “resurrected,” and “above.” These are words of triumph over tragedy, of life over death. “Grey Rock, Squirrel Island” presents us with another perspective on the meaning of houses and home. Reis and her husband pay a visit to his cousin’s home rife with antiques and nostalgic memorabilia, and Reis takes a bath sinking “into a claw-foot tub with a glass of wine to drink in the sunset.” Shortly they receive a visit from the caretaker who advises them they are in the wrong house. It’s a humorous moment, but the underlying message is that the people make the home.
 “The Last Night” is a heart wrenching goodbye as Reis lies with her husband, curled into him with her back against him. She wants to turn but can’t. She concludes with “When I awoke/he was gone.” This short piece perfectly captures the conflict of denial and acceptance. In “Miracle Whip & Woolite” she writes of going to the lawyer’s office for probate. Little nuances and remembrances constantly trigger grief because they’re so personal and specific. She realizes she will have to ask someone else’s help to open a bottle of Woolite “because you won’t be here to help me.” Finality sets in with “You will never, ever be here again.” Later in “Orientation,” Tom appears to her two days after his death. Their “eyes locked and we/were too far away to speak.” There’s a sad triumph in this moment, of connection beyond time, but still “too far away.”
The poems of loss morph back and forth as memories stir pleadings to “Come home, Baby. I have a place/set just for you.” In “You’ve Left” there is more resignation as she visits the grave and says, “I’m certain/you’ve left, seeing only parched/grass and a marker.” But in “Great Horned Owls,” which concludes the collection, she elevates his status in her life and memories and states, “You always knew/death would swoop in on grey wings/and carry you to the highest tree.” In this collection, Reis rises to that place in “the highest tree” both in creativity and in spirit. At the beginning of Torohill Reis quotes Rilke. It sums up all we have and all we must do:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
In these poems Reis extends her hand, and we won’t be disappointed if we take it.
Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays, and reviews. Her second book of poetry, Out From Calaboose, was released in 2017. A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with notable poets Philip Schultz, John Ashbery and William Packard. She lives in France. Her website is