Review: Heart in a Jar

Heart in a Jar

Kathleen McGookey

White Pine Press

Kathleen is at her best in this new collection of prose poems, fighting existential crisis with concrete, existential minutia. If we make paper hearts with the school children, if we care about the animals in the zoo, if we pay enough attention to the world and people around us, perhaps then we, like Kathleen, will be insulated against the cold of oblivion, of the forgotten, of meaninglessness. And when Death appears, expected or unannounced, we may also have prepared remarks at the ready to bully up a defense, no matter how refreshing or debilitating the arrival. For those readers searching for an honest connection, for poems that speak from the heart, to the heart, this collection is a must.


Review: The Bird-while

The Bird-while

Keith Taylor

Wayne State University Press

Science now tells us birds use a special light nerve to navigate, that birds see ultraviolet light even more than they perceive the visual light range we rely on. So, not being a bird, it would be easy to miss what a bird sees. But what if you could be a bird? A bird seeing another bird or a bear, or a person, even, and report back on the encounter for non-birds? In The Bird While, Keith has captured the fear of hollow bones, the whimsy of flight, the solitude of a quiet forest punctuated by a union of song and sun.

The Bird-while isn’t just a meter of time, it’s a pacing, the perception of time passing at a rate in which our senses are heightened and our memory is made supple. In the right light, the right pacing, we are transfixed, both outwardly observing and inwardly alive. In the spirit of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, Keith pins “moments [that] felt significant” to our minds eye without a hanging reason there.

Review: Objects May Appear Closer

Objects May Appear Closer

Janeen Pergrin Rastall

Celery City Chapbooks

I believe Objects May Appear Closer is proof of the goodness, the value, and process of poems about family, our past, and the counter-intuitive utility of nostalgia. I once heard, “never write poems about your family,” as an axiom touted by some significant writer. You might imagine how well it stuck. If I recall correctly, the reason given was that it was boring. In truth, I immediately railed against it. Not because I was so sure it was false, but because it took so little for me to imagine it were true. I could see us all sitting there, trying to leave our mark, leave our family’s mark on the world in a language spun from our own familial nebula, believing, perhaps, we could transcribe something important to everyone in the menial affairs of our parents, never to understand why publishers never took our most cherished work. Because it was all blah. I could see then mountains of papers disintegrating, never to be read, and certainly, never to be missed. Because family can blind us to what’s really important, one might easily wander aimlessly across such a poem seemingly convinced every detail as beautiful as the last. But, I’d argue, that shouldn’t mean a good family poem couldn’t be written, only that most people don’t, can’t write them. Janeen Rastall can.

In “Tend,” – what may be the most essential poem of this collection – Janeen asks, “What if you could propagate Time / …?” but her readers won’t think to ask “How?” Throughout Objects May Appear Closer, she achieves sadless nostalgia, taking moments from her own life and renewing them with the touch of a loving gardener “tending” to clones. Throughout the collection, her touch is as kind as it is deliberate. The resulting poems prove their mettle in an arena that often misses the relevance between the audience and the familial – where many might fall flat, Janeen’s work shines.

Review: Our Sudden Museum

Our Sudden Museum

Robert Fanning

Salmon Poetry

The title for Fanning’s new book comes from the poem “Staying the Night,” which witnesses the poet visiting his sister’s house the day after her death. The house is a “sudden museum” in that it represents its former occupant, though the museum is perishable: scents will fade, the produce will need to be thrown out. The poem is a moment of heightened awareness that invests everyday objects with intense significance: “I chose to eat / the peach she chose from the grocery’s / produce rows, not knowing it would outlive her.”

The poems in this collection are museum pieces in this sense. The title object in “The Beam” is from where the poet’s brother hung himself. “Go Ask The Lobsters” considers how to tell children the purpose of the live lobster tank at the grocery store. “Cuttings” observes “my children’s commingled curls” on a porch after home haircuts.

These otherwise mundane objects form a sort of museum of impermanence in that Fanning is struggling with the inexorable march of time. But it’s not all deadly serious. In fact, the persona throughout faces these existential questions with a mix of intellect, dread, and humor, best exemplified by the title of my favorite poem: “A Consideration of Potential Afterlives and the Ontological Interrelations of All Beings at Bedtime, or, The Ladybug Friend.” The poem ends with a child’s eulogy for a ladybug which resonates through the rest of the collection: “We love you. Please come back.”

Review: In Which We See Our Selves: American Ghazals

In Which We See Our Selves: American Ghazals

Eric Torgersen

Mayapple Press

The Ghazal is an ancient Arabic form that uses two-line stanzas, the second of which ends in a refrain: a repeated phrase. Like other refrain poems such as villanelles and pantoums, the point is to play with the refrain, to give it new meaning and context each time. Because Ghazals have so many refrains, the repetition itself is not exact, but playful, using rhymed substitutions for example. Besides the technical aspect, Ghazals traditionally are associated with love and lamentation.

Torgerson’s poems do all that and seem quite American as well. Consider the opening lines to “Before”:

I’ve heard the ringing of this bell before,
I never dreaded what it might foretell before.

Living with real if ordinary dangers,
I never had such fears I couldn’t quell before.

A bell here is a fitting subject for the droning sound of a refrain poem. The poems are more playful then melancholy on the whole. The poet imagines himself an imposter superhero in “Eric America.” Other poems visit the edge of cliche, such as “For a Change” which begins with the banal lines: “Let’s refuse to play the game for a change. / Suppose we live what we proclaim for a change.” And it ends with the self-deprecating persona departing on a horse: “Your poet mounts his tottering white horse / and hobbletrots off, not speaking his name for a change.” (And sadly, none of the refrains contain the word “hobbletrots.”)

But it’s difficult to represent the poems with mere snippets. The form depends on the sum total of the refrains, the net effect of the tone of the poem: these poems are meant to be read aloud.

Review: Stone Poems

Stone Poems

Don Cellini

FootHills Publishing

Don is a master of taking objects commonly overlooked and revealing the magic hidden within them. This new, hand-stitched chapbook demonstrates that skill with short, sparse poems that hold plenty of weight as he illuminates the many ways in which stones are more than we might think. And while these poems might not take much time to read, they’ll stick with you as reliably as a rock is hard.

Review: Necessary Clearings

Necessary Clearings

Jennifer Clark

Shabda Press

Often surreal, at their best, the poems in this book achieve the quality of dreams, discover in their exploration the same tensions, the same blinded belief that what is dreamed must be true. However, there is also a directness to these poems – a clear and honest resolve to uncover what lurks beneath the conscious mind, be it brilliant, terrifying, or ugly. These poems are unashamed of what they reveal, are focused on getting it out, on giving voice to moments that are forever ending.


Review: Dutiful Heart

Review: Dutiful Heart

Poems by Joy Gaines-Friedler

Broadkill River Press

The people in Gaines-Friedler’s collection are often stumbling through the poems, not hearing one another, or in the wrong place and time, and always running up against loss. The poem“Test Trials,” for example, laments that a friend’s AIDS reached its end before “the cocktail” of new drugs “caught up to you.” Or the lovers in “Universal Paradox”: “He said I love you, meaning, / I have a plan for showing you. // She heard, I need you, meaning, / she’s no good at folding sheets.” The poems are accessible yet often take a startling turn in imagery to let us know that Gaines-Friedler does not settle for conventional wisdom or melodrama when it comes to writing of loss. In “The Year of the Horse,” friends unwilling to talk about difficult subjects (while in a Chinese restaurant) are said to “bring ther mothers with them / breaded and covered in a tender wrap.”

Ironically, one of the few people at ease in the poems is a dementia-afflicted mother: “Mom’s mind is untangling. / Someone said she’s become delightful,” in the poem “One Has a Mind of Spring.” And in “Cigar Smoke Lifting,” a father is described as “Surprised . . . that forgiveness would come to you / in your last days.” These lines speak to a paradox that motivates many of the poems, that the meaning of our lives change as our lives evolve and to fix the meaning in place is to do so temporarily, and that there is no final place for us to stand and reflect because our stories outlive us. The speaker of the poems, then, craves a lasting connection, such as in “Luna Moth”: “I want you to think what I think, / see it as amazing…”

Note: Gaines-Friedler’s poem “Truth Be Told” appeared in The Michigan Poet in 2011.

Dutiful Heart cover

Review: Divining the Prime Meridian

Review: Divining the Prime Meridian

Poems by Carol Smallwood

WordTech Communications

The book itself is very well designed, boasting a lovely old map on its cover and, as exacting as the Prime Meridian, the contents are laid out flawlessly. But what of divination? The subject matter within the book ranges from a fastidious mind at McDonalds to a sentimental poet akin to the great Emily Dickenson, to a cancer survivor, and more. In this collection, Carol’s free verse and formal poems are equally skillful. She neither relies on form nor shies away from it, instead using whatever means she divines most appropriate. The poems are immediate and clear, if occasionally abstract. Throughout the book, there are moments when Carol reveals that beneath the surface of a caring, astute individual, there is a person who has overcome more than one trauma.