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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door

The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door

Poems by Ken Meisel

FutureCycle Press

Somewhere in my memory is a poet I knew who would complain of “thou poems”: unsuccessful poems about love harking back to Shakepeare’s sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day….” I, too, am suspicious of love poems because most of the time they lack the intensity that they supposedly intend to express. How are love poems that don’t even try to say something new supposed to demonstrate passion? Or devotion?

By contrast, Ken Meisel’s collection successfully takes on the challenge of the thou poem. While the poems here do not all fall into the ode mode, they do as rule center on the otherness of love: what it’s like for one person to love or lust another in many iterations, from teenage boys leering through windows at literally unattainable girls in “The Girls at the Vista Maria Home for Truants,” to a nun (sort of) teaching sex ed (“Love was joining./Death was letting go./ Life was the math of it.”), to the composer Robert Schumann desolately telling his wife among war ruins “you are not the red rose / anymore,” to the poet’s own connections and disconnections to love/lust interests. For Meisel, “Devotion is the aerobics of love,” i.e., it has to be exercised regularly, and the poem of that title embodies the otherness explored in the whole collection: “A woman is another country and so is a man” and marriage is “yet another Country that two / must walk sure-footed in.”

Even though there are plenty of lovey-dovey stock props (violins, roses, chocolate, and, well, tongues) they are employed in unexpected ways, such as the aforementioned nun caressing a rose during the “math” lesson thus confusing the heck out of the young narrator. In fact, the collection prevents itself from falling into clichés by not always taking itself too seriously. The poem “My Wedding” starts as such:

My wedding was a fish. It roused itself awake

by leaping out of calm water.

It flip-flopped all over the grass

on a steamy August morning in 1988.

The oddly apt metaphor serves to offset more declarative lines such as “A wedding ceremony is a healing” and says that Meisel has conviction enough to look (and love) deeply.

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Review: Mended

Mended

Chapbook by Kathleen McGookey

Kattywompus Press

In the title poem, the narrator says, “today my life seems mended,” but this collection suggests otherwise. This chapbook of prose poems belies an uneasy truce with death, disease, and dying. The word “ache” recurs throughout. The poems are unsettled by unanswerable questions, such as in “Grief III,” where the poet asks of Grief “wherever my mother and father have gone, do you leave them alone there?” The collection varies from works that read like flash memoir to more surreal works that use the odd juxtapositions of dream logic. For example, the poem “Dear Death” asserts “I have had enough of you. I’d rather learn facts about penguins….”

The subjects of the poems are often aging and dying parents and the vulnerability of an infant daughter. Also, the poet’s dislike of possums: “After I hear the possum eating garbage in the garage, I plan to kill it. It’s no comfort knowing the killing gets easier each time.” Many of the poems are direct and accessible, and many of the others take more work to read, circling the subject. As a whole the poems take on fragility from many different directions. In the best moments, McGookey melds the surreal and the direct, in poems like “Another Ache,” which ends as such:

Then the suitcase fell off and the tire exploded. Then the driver got out to look at the lake, it’s calm expanse. Everyone felt worse because nothing had been predicted, no sign of trouble on such a sunny day, while road salt glittered its million cheap promises, and strands of videotape flashed down, then bright, in that clean light.

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Review: Practicing to Walk Like a Heron

Review: Practicing to Walk Like a Heron

Poems by Jack Ridl

Wayne State University Press

A four section book topping out at a whopping 158 pages, this tome’s poems engage without bombastics. There’s no need for painstaking quadruple readings (though any reader would enjoy re-reading) – these are immediate poems at an even pace. They glide with all the grace of the title bird, a river of words steadily, surely flowing in a wide, long rutted guttural bed. “Guttural” because these are poems of the body, of its hungers and gratifications, residual as muscle memory, as natural as flesh knowledge. And then, surprise – “Interlude: “Hey Skinny, the Circus is in Town!”” “Interlude” being a perfect word for the third section which departs from the personal-made-public prior themes for a stint under the big top. The entire section enjoys a circus-inspired color graphic header and trades Christmas ornaments, weeding, and old dogs for transient lion tamers, roustabouts, and trapeze artists. The book then winds down with a final section (“The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow”) that returns to themes from the first two sections. Despite the section title’s connotations, these are not overwrought downer poems. Ridl fluidly blends love and clarity, rendering poems that transcend distance between poet and reader.

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This review originally appeared in our July 2013 newsletter.

Review: Before the Snow Moon

Review: Before the Snow Moon

A chapbook by Alison Swan

Alice Greene & Company

Throughout Before the Snow Moon there are neither page numbers nor punctuation. Alison chooses instead the natural pause of a line break or syllabic accent to pace readers. Subtle, but apt, as is her subject and voice. The opening lines of her poem: “In Medias Res” immediately call to mind similar lines from William Stafford’s famous poem, “Traveling Through the Dark.” However, where Stafford contemplates the impact and value of human life vs non-human life. Swan’s perspective reads much less anthropocentrically. She is not apart from nature, she is of it. Her communion is her default mode, and to join society is only a pause. In the closing lines of the title poem, the speaker, having been awakened mid-slumber, has gone to the window in search of an owl: “Cold air carried hoots and soughs across the sill / I climbed back under to listen to everything”. These are poems from a grateful, humble, careful poet, one who marvels at the depth of
the world and feels greater responsibility than power.

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Review: Candidates for Sainthood and Other Sinners

Review: Candidates for Sainthood and Other Sinners

Poems by Don Cellini

Mayapple Press

As the title suggests, this is not your typical foray into the realm of church and saints. It opens with a prose poem introducing an unlikely preacher, then jaunts out on a far reaching tour, finding in each place a moment or two so striking, a few well chosen words fill the page. Don’s vivid account of Haitian mothers’ preparation of sun baked dirt cookies, the only thing they have to feed their children is heart wrenching. “Where are the / guardian angels / to prevent this?” he asks, not as an accusation but as a plea. So it seems fitting this book came out in 2013, the same year the papacy changed. This new Pope, Francis, might well admire the work this book wrestles with. The community of it. How it offers finely crafted moments to both English and Spanish speakers, how it champions the poor, the weary, downtrodden, how it offers a few glimmers of love in a largely dark, moonless sky. The book revisits the unlikely preacher in the final poem, explaining how the list of
his good deeds grew long, and then, after his passing, “they began to forget. And finally the did.” While good deeds may be forgotten, the voice here will stay with you like a good friend.

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Review: Magnolia & Lotus

Review:Magnolia & Lotus

Selected Poems of Hyesim

Translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ

White Pine Press

Chin’gak Kuska Hyesim’s Buddhist poetry survives from 13th century Korea and arrives in this present translation, which includes tightly-phrased imagistic poetry that draws its spiritualism equally from nature and social settings. This collection offers layers of meaning, both from the Buddhist unfolding of significance and from the pairing of the introductory notes with the text of the translated poems.

The opening notes are instructive in how poetry seeks to embody meaning through image and metaphor instead of through direct statement. For example, Haight explains how the boiling tea kettle is a frequent metaphor for meditation in Hyesim. With that one bit of information, the deceivingly simple poems take on new layers. Many water images appear in the nature poems: flowing, frozen, and misty. It’s an easy leap to see water as states of consciousness. “Tea-Spring” brings these images together:

Old moss conceals pine roots–

From a granite hole, a spring gushes its spirit-fountain.

Opportune refreshment is not easy to find–

in this place, I’ll try to brew tea.

Translation in poetry is not transliteration; it is always a creative act, and especially so given the distance from Hyesim’s time and language to contemporary English. The end notes reveal this distance: one poem contains a “six-eyebrowed monk” about whom the translators say “the meaning of ‘six-eyebrowed’ is unknown at this time.” This and other notes offer insight in the meaning of meaning, in terms of both translation and the nature of the universe.

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