2009 Chapbook Reviews

Private Graveyard
By Arlene Naganawa
Gribble Press, 2009
Winner of the First Gribble Press Poetry Contest

Review by Susan Jo Russell

Private graveyards—we all have them. Arlene Naganawa shares hers with us—the literal place, as yet unhaunted for the children playing there in the title poem, and memories of the individual dead who exist now only in images.

The brief opening poem, “Compass,” almost an epigraph for the collection, which was the Gribble Press Poetry Chapbook Winner for 2009, draws the reader in with a question, as if to a friend met on the street, “Diane’s dead now, did you know?” The tone is deliberately too casual, too blunt—a cover for what the words can’t contain. “Compass” points to, encompasses, in its terse five lines, a central theme of this collection—it is not simply that we have become separated from those who once knew us, but that, in that separation, the very selves we once were are dead to us, as the devastating last line reveals, “and I’m not the girl in the flowered dress.”

Naganawa’s work shows an easy spinning of meter and line. One rarely stumbles in a reading of her poems—image is supported by sound, without fuss, as in the insistence of hard “c” sounds that undercuts what might otherwise be too sweet a memory in “Diane Mae 1951-2005” (whom I assume is also the Diane of the opening poem):

Your childhood friend
(her hair slicked back

with a headband, white plastic
stamped with rosebuds)

is standing barefoot
under the sprinkler.

It is not until the next couplet that the slight unease we already sense is made more explicit: “No one will give her/a map of her young heart . . . .”

In these poems what is gone remains as an emptiness, never filled in, an open grave in the private graveyard. The people we encounter here confront an unrelieved wanting (“want,” as a noun, occurs frequently), as in this poem, whose title is its first line:

It May Come As a Surprise

but you are not the center of the universe
anymore, not since your mother

buttoned up her blouse and walked away,
leaving you to watch pink clouds

circle the sky over your crib,
mobile turning on invisible wire. . . .

Not all of the poems are scenes from lost childhood. Two, in particular, open up into an examination of fear, greed, racism, and the power relations of U.S. history. “Great Northern Railroad” recounts a story of a Japanese farmer who never recovers his land, and the life that land would have enabled, after his internment in the U.S. camps. “Peaches in North Carolina” is a surprise in this book, a leap from the poems of loss that are closely connected with Naganawa’s own history. This ekphrastic poem is based on a photograph of the lynching of John Richards in 1916 from Without Sanctuary (edited by James Allen; the reference to this book might have been made more clearly). It is a remarkable interpretation of that photograph, juxtaposing the imagined dailiness of the lynchers and the lynched with the almost sensual violence of the act itself.

Although a poem or two did not lift me beyond a simple sadness for those who die too young, most often Naganawa’s imagery and deceptively straightforward language express a palpable longing and regret. The children in “One Afternoon” already yearn for something they can only describe by imagining objects they might find in the woods: “whole robin egg, shed snakeskin/mouse skull, perfect and clean.” Nagawana’s poetry reveals how the persistence and accumulation of loss, death, and unfulfilled promise claim pieces of the self, pieces of history and culture, leaving holes in the fabric that can’t be repaired.


From a Burning Building
by Kerry O’ Keefe
March Street Press, 2005.
25 pages, $9.00.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

I’ve never met an extended metaphor I liked, especially my own, as the device stretches easily to Cutetitude and the shallow reaches of self congratulation. This said, it is an old and not very bold image—the poem as plane. Frequent poetic flyers, we’ve all been on board the relentlessly ground bound object that rolls down the runway and never takes off. When what we want is transport - velocity, lift off and flight. Uncommonly, one encounters poems already airborne, your awareness coeval with their instantly at altitude attitude, a craft that has already passed several thresholds of thrust (V1, V2) and is immediately in its ideal poetic element, which is Ariel’s. The best poems in Kerry O’Keefe’s chapbook “From a Burning Building” are of this type.

Winter grass cracking under their shoes/ as they stand and look at the eight-paned/ window that blew off the house last fall./ The squirrels now able to scratch through/to the garbage on the porch …/ Their children throw a ball back and forth, not used / to seeing him there in the yard. The man and woman/ navigate all the familiar distances, less urgent.— from “Ex-Husband Comes to Pick Up Ladders”.

The topics are the usual destinations-estrangement, divorce, death, the consolations of children and new love. Yes, we’ve all been here and for good reason; these are the hubs of the human heart.

The day you learn the terrifying difference in the air/between the sound of a man quiet in another room,/ and one who has gone… Left to barter with pictures and helpless pets. / For a few weeks, the smell of the food you cooked./The fading world of the bed. Cigarette ashes left / for a while, then everything clean. The way, for years,/ you confuse each new, beautiful thing you encounter/with the casual habit of a weak and oblivious god. --- from “Worst Fear”

Such poems are not necessarily reliant on an exoskeleton of linked imagery (the best mechanical means for making Post-Metrical poetry). Rather, they occur within an epistic framework of testimony (lest this seem critically gratuitous, consider some alternatives: the meditative, the dramatic, the dialectical, the pastoral, etc...) where images aren’t so much produced and laid out as appearing and surfacing; imminent but determinate .(And this not to diminish the conscious artistry of such a method where judgment must be deployed at its extremist verge). Maybe I’m talking out of my critical hat, believe me, more Emmett Kelly’s than Adam Verver’s but consider the uncanny sequencing of

A sense of what is foreign./The leaves breaking. The hills/weighted down with guilt over /the yearly lewd display. Still/only able to do what they know./Endless reaches of geese/trying to look brave in their dissembling.// A lone traveler/trying to reach the gate before/ the plane takes off….the season left behind for all/of its reasons …
a passage that convinces us way before (yet literarily after) the convicting title “Before Signing the Papers.”

In a sense the poetry seems co-generated by a dually operative containment vessel consisting of an intense outward thrust to express surrounded by a constricting force, pressurizing the internal matter (or as the poet better puts it-“‘Let the unspeakable weight against the pleasure of a song, isn’t that how it is every day?’). When this pressure lessens, as this reader believes it does in the more “positive” poems about children and new friends, the lines flatten out, lacking, as I take it, a recombinant genesis that is strictly linguistic.

You could call this ambient force “history” or “Truth”, the seemingly more endurant element of Keats’ famous compound. It is Truth, in the conveyance of Poetry, that elevates these poems from the low lying arbitrations of so much chapbook verse and that makes this propellant little book worth reading. Which is what, to begin with, we booked the flight for.

And speaking of containment vessels, the March Street Press of Greensboro N.C. has produced an exemplary chapbook of the nonletter press variety, one right sized for the hands, with careful typography and layout including that rara avis of contemporary publishing- the chaste, alluring plumage of a title page properly set.


An Uncommon Accord
Poems by George Kraus, Marcia Arrieta, Pat Landreth Keller, and Michael Carman
Quartet Series, Toadlily Press, 2008
64 pages, $14.00

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Kudos to Toadlily Press for this excellent idea! Each book in their Quartet Series includes four different poets, with sections consisting of (in this book) anywhere from 10 to 14 poems by each poet. The reader can gain a good idea of each poet’s voice and subjects, while at the same time appreciating the volume as a whole--an interesting and rich tapestry in which four voices are joined together in a kind of mutual conversation.

This book is also very nicely designed--the typeface is the readable and elegant Sabon, the page layout is spacious, and the artwork on the cover (by Myrna Goodman) is repeated in an innovative way on each of the four section openers. Toadlily should also be commended for choosing a printer that’s a member of the Green Press Initiative, “a non-profit program dedicated to supporting authors, publishers, and suppliers in their efforts to reduce their use of fiber obtained from endangered forests.” According to Toadlily, printing this particular volume in this way saved 1 tree, 345 gallons of wastewater, 1 million BTUs of total energy, 44 pounds of solid waste, and 83 pounds of greenhouse gases--something all publishers should strive for, and an increasing necessity if books printed on paper are going to survive in the future.

The poems in this chapbook are powerful, characterized by intense and expressive language. George Kraus’s poems, with strong and compelling images, are filled with faces and bodies--a shipwreck survivor, a woman under the spell of a magician, dawn personified as a clown with a cracked and peeling mask. The bodies of passengers in the aftermath of a bus crash (possibly the bodies of all of us, at the end of life) are “so peaceful they seem asleep,/ without blood or bent bone./ . . . Now they no longer move,/ nor speak enigmatically in dialect,/ nor chatter busy as leaves/ when the wind strolls in a stand/ of eucalyptus trees. The air is pale/ without assurance of garlic,/ or the dark smells of soils/ black under fingernails.” Describing the skeleton of a woman who was tortured in El Salvador, he writes (in a strong villanelle): “A modesty a feast of birds did not strip,/ Suspended over other stark debris,/ I think it should be told another way. / . . . Upturned eyes that left the light of day,/ Her torturers I hope will always see,/ A perfect skeleton in weathered slip./ . . . I think it should be told another way.”

Marcia Arrieta’s poems are grouped under the title “The Curve Against the Linear,” and many of them play with this idea of opposites. The poems are constructed with short phrases (often just one or two words in a phrase), extra space in the interior of lines, ampersands, and no capitalization whatsoever (even for proper nouns). This can get a little repetitive, but when the language works, it really works. The juxtaposed phrases and lines are often evocative and moving, as in her opening poem, “it happened long ago”:

hermits & monks. eagle. rain.
the dream of the island.
. . . . .
could I ask you to reconsider?
the charity of yellow flowers in wind.
. . . . .
mansions of sense. mansions of silence.
learning to see. the ladder opens.
the gate closes. hourglass & field.

She uses the language of mathematics and physics, as well as a philosopher’s questioning of the world: “forest. three hills. nonlinear equations./ free oscillations. forced oscillations./ perturbation. significant. insignificant./ i analyze alone.” After reading her poems, I feel as if I’ve been on a journey: “between lives. between dreams./ ordinary./ sacred.”

Pat Landreth Keller’s poems are characterized by strong narratives. In the moving poem that opens her section, “Draglines,” she tells the story of two young girls, twins, who were murdered and drowned: “water lapping the willows/ barehanded man whipping wire into lassoes/ spinning those girls like sugar tied back to back.” And she ties this story to an old woman’s memory of being molested as a child:

she said she’d kept the taste of metal on her tongue
fingerprints on her thigh old as she was
said the twins never would quit turning in her mind

washing into the river out of the river
hair tangled in the willows
just like wanting she said just like words

In “Snowscape,” a poem about a small wedding in mid-winter, the realistic opening stanzas of a ceremony in a room shade into memory and the snowy world outside, as the couple gradually becomes part of the natural world: “We are being married in this room. In silence./ His breath moves like a glacier. We are being towed/ in its wake like trees./ Surely it will turn into water,/ and we will find ourselves on the edge of things, sending forth/ shoots and buds and little leaves.” Her language is beautiful and memorable.

Michael Carman’s poems have to do with intersections and meetings and connections. In the spare couplets of her opening poem, the speaker encounters two horses in a wild and deserted place. It’s a haunting poem, and the short enjambed lines keep it moving forward: “The North Sea has no direction/ here. It beats the rocks on all/ sides of this island. / . . . I see two horses/ shamble knee-deep in yellow grass./ They look at me as if I were the/ wild one. . . . Eyes on me, they stop/ where the grass stops. This/ is all they can do. This is/ as far as they can come.” In other poems, she traces traits that connect different generations of families, and she connects the personal and the political: in the strong and startling poem “Beets,” a woman preparing beets for dinner is connected in a very immediate way with another woman, a terrorist bomber in another country:

From my knife springs the radio
running underneath the faucet,
hot skin slipping off like a disguise.

Stems ribbed with grit light up
in veins while a rat-tailed root-string
burrows to the center of the earth

and out the other side of the
world where another woman straps
a bomb to her belly, explodes

a restaurant by the sea.

In “Opera House in Time of War,” an American flag draped over the front of the opera house is a visual reminder of the war, while inside “tuxedoed, cushioned/ in choice orchestra seats,/ men weep at the final thrilling scene/ as if Valhalla in flames/ could lick us clean.”

This volume is a reminder of the importance of the poet’s voice. There are common themes and subjects in the poems of all four poets--the natural world and its mysteries, narratives of pain, death, love--but each poet’s voice stands out clearly as a unique one, and together they have created a memorable chapbook.


What is Left
By Liz Ciampa-Leuzzi
Big Table Publishing
32 pages, $10.

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

Confession. I am a slightly too busy working parent. I read chapbooks in the orthodontist’s office, waiting in the car, while the pasta water is boiling (those are 8 good minutes!). If I have to spend too much time trying to decipher, unpack, unravel, or just understand the general gist of poem, well then, the whole endeavor becomes just another item on my to-do list. Less is more. Don’t drown me in thick language. I like haiku. I also like Liz Ciampa-Leuzzi’s chapbook "What is Left."

Ciampa-Leuzzi knows how to tell a story. Big Table Publishing likes to publish poets who tell it like it is, direct, no secrets or vague hints. They make a good team.

A Version of Relief:

One day, it just lifted –
The old, heavy sadness –
With the words of a friend,
Unwitting in his help,
Telling a story:
“My buddy – I grew up with him –
He has a crazy family:
They all hate each other…..

Dialogue is tricky. Italics or quotation marks? What form works best? Liz Ciampa-Leuzzi doesn’t sweat the small stuff, or so it seems, though her attention to line break, format on the page, and punctuation indicates otherwise. She makes writing a poetic line look easy. Like a smooth golf swing. Or perimeter shot - nothing but net! Her labor is hidden, well practiced, and I appreciate the lightness. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing superficial about "What is Left," but kudos to the poet who can make us feel the relentlessness of loss, whatever the kind, without feeling flattened or totally depressed.

It’s a Process

Mother does not love you.

She pushes you off a cliff
Is a cloud over your life
She leaves a bad taste
You try to do what they say
You try to detach, to leave her
And her vacuity
Where they belong:
Far away from you. You do try.

And she is funny. In "What is Left" there are 6 poems about writing poems - her own, her students – and others. It is both risky and bold business to include poems on writing poems, or that refer to the writer's insider world of submissions and rejections. I thoroughly enjoyed all six, but wondered, nevertheless, what a non-poet might think. From “The Business of Our Art:”

Submit outside our reading period and
Your manuscript will be summarily trashed-
Unread, of course.

Teachers should be this choosy
Lovers, too.
By the way, editing is now available
at twenty-five cents per word.

It isn’t that Ciampa-Leuzzi wants you to share her exact thoughts (although you might), it is that you sometimes have thoughts, exactly the way she describes her own.

Stealing Time

Today a stranger, a mailman, whistled at me
While I drove down the street
Minding my own business.
Surprised I looked in the sideview mirror
and saw his blue bag and long mailman’s chain
Swinging from his belt loop as he walked.
That’s how I knew he was a mailman.
Looking straight ahead again
I saw that the cross street in front of me
had the same name as one of my sisters.
And I thought: when was the last time I saw her?

Ciampa-Leuzzi offers up no heavy-handed theme, or obvious sequence in her debut chapbook. We are free to roam around, pick and choose, never doubting that we might be loosing the literary thread. What a relief! Think Globally/Act Locally. I kept thinking of this slogan as I read "What is Left." Ciampa-Leuzzi writes about the particulars of her life, and soon her particulars seem loosely related to your own.


by Nancy Pagh
Floating Bridge Press, 2008
25 pages. $12.50

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Spare, balanced, well-made—and that’s just the chapbook design! If you’re a poet, don’t write another line. Move directly to Washington State just for the chance to be published by Floating Bridge Press. The elegant cover of “After” by Nancy Pagh suggests the eye’s image and after-image having stared at a bright light or the sun. It’s just right since these poems bounce off a phrase or two from other writers.

Such extensive use of epigraph may suck the energy from one’s own work like a black hole, the inspiring lines might impose a mannered tone, or the rhythm set an awkward gait. Perhaps the imported text distorts the new poem by simply encouraging it to hew too closely even parasitically to that original perspective, voice, or style. In short, “After” is a bit of a high-wire act.

But if you like to see high-fliers fall, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Pagh skillfully avoids each trap in these technically interesting, lively, smart, and compactly complex poems. She builds on her sources allowing her own associations to take us to different insights carried along by her appealing voice. I know. Gush. Gush. Gush. Not as interesting as a little action with the tooth and claw. But really, the poems are fun, skilled, and (how rare is this) surprising.

Pagh doesn’t shy away from the big names. She engages Emily Dickinson in the title poem and wrestles TS Eliot in a wry poem called “Love Song,” where we find, “the virgins are thirty and forty and going/ to the sperm bank./ The medical technician witnesses/ immaculate conception every day,…This poem clings closely to the original in its rhythms, vocabulary, and subject matter (modernized of course), but somehow manages a poke at Eliot and deference to his poem without cringing subservience. It ends with a final look at the technician:

In the lab Monday afternoons
he stirs, dissolves, with sugar spoons
the Sweet’N Low, the saccharine, and then
imagines online sirens giving head
while women ring the waiting room.
I do not think he’ll sing to them.

In another poem, Pagh takes off from Pat Lowther’s observation that the octopus, “is beautifully functional as an umbrella; at rest a bag of rucked skin sags like an empty scrotum,” to explore a woman’s vulnerability to a certain type of male character observing:

…when you first
know them; the loss
of youth, integrity, or wife clear
in each lovely unsure gesture
you mistook for tenderness

Exact and apt, the line breaks lend delight to insight. And although Lowther’s images are so interesting and strong, Pagh isn’t overwhelmed instead opening out into something related yet fresh.

Fnally, in the poem “Before,” Pagh uses a snippet from a creation story, to tell her own story about desire and its origins:

…--all was oyster shell
and butterclam. The raven’s groak. The muskrat’s little hand,
a pattern pressed in crust of sand
was delible. No metaphor at all. We lived
each in our own body and happy there.

The poem continues to refuse metaphor, “No metaphor at all” and “Only the birds dreamed their falling,” while weaving concrete images suggesting desire, writing, and ending:

….You were likened
to no object whatsoever. That was our practice, also.
Then somebody said beautiful. Somebody wrote a poem.
And somebody wasn’t, and hurt.
I know fire was involved: we built the flame and made the char
that wrote it.

These days the poetry biz is sometimes awash in blather, low bars, lazy observation, and tatty notions. You’ll find none of that here. Pagh sets the bar high. Then she sails right over it.


The Loneliness of Dogs
By Tim Mayo
Pudding House Publications, 2008.
28 pages. $10.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Reading chapbooks, the physical act, is a kind of metaphor for the lexical process, the pages in open tension between the regulator of our thumbs, like the flexion of attention, open, in suspension between engagement and a dismissing closure. What sets the main spring of mind going is, I am convinced, the apprehension of “voice”. (Which is not to be conflated with “music”. The next time someone rhapsodizes about poetic music, recommend to them five minutes of Bach and when they say they meant a different kind of music, well, that conversation can be continued). So by poetic voice we mean something very different from our usual simian jabber, its finest quarter hour the shower’s aria. Voice is that strange positing identifier, both constituting the poem and constituted by it, an event at once a prior and a posteriori. (That’s enough Kant cant for one review. Nothing new here either. Please proceed- ed.) OK, I like “Tim Mayo’s” voice.

Now I see I lacked imagination/writing so many poems in that same person/until the I of my typewriter wore out,/and I was banished from the page, guilty of nothing more than my own experience.” (from “The Confessional Poet’s Confession”).

Here is an educated man who knows more than he shows and knows we know it (which is a high degree of refinement), who isn’t afraid to refer to Georges de La Tour, The Dark Lady, the Agora, “The Flea” or even tell us “ About spelling the human masters were never wrong”. (Nota bene: how one tires of unlettered poets or worse, those that leave their education behind as if it were a leash or muzzle that they might more authentically bay under some sub-prime moon.)

The master lyric poet of our day has written (somewhere) that the best poetry “comes from our deepest being, decision and self-forgetting” (reviewers, especially Y.T., take note!). But we can’t all be Seamus Heaney and in lesser hands the poetry of deep being becomes the monotonous boom -boom-boom of Forester’s Marabar caves.* Mayo is poet of quotidian and intelligent self- remembering, his aim not to take us where we’ve all been so old boldly before (say via zany spacing and page layout) but to use poetry’s received grain to communicate and put, in every sense, a lucid gloss on the matter in hand.

Only the lights’ greater clarity/and the subtle change in suits/seem to fall in spades on their faces, as if the painter suddenly knew/this story that repeats itself-/diamonds, clubs, it doesn’t matter-/ we are cheats at heart, suspicious/of the other who always wins.”
(From “The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, after de la Tour”).

A certain kind of reader may find some of the poems here metaphorically underdetermined. I thought a few of Mayo’s endings a bit pat, as if the poet couldn’t resist a “natural” conclusion, one too easily at hand as in “The Red Convertible” where the male as a type of pistoned motor, conclusively hopes “for the red convertible of your smile to pass by and give him a lift.” I don’t think that will quite pass a rigorous inspection.

Overall, Mayo’s judgments are consistently good in a free verse finding shape in sound, rhetoric and proposition. Most admirable is his vital balance between the freight of meaning and its engine of conveyance, what Heaney calls “stamina; the distribution of the argument over line ends and stanzas, more a matter of vertebrae than plasm.”

But I digress, for it was there I found this
seal of a warrior saying farewell to his wife.
The fine detail of his muscled calf as he turned
from his spear, shifting his concern to his wife’s
imploring arms, made me think Id found mine.

I didn’t know then that an art of significance
was what I was searching for, nor did I see
the true meaning of his implied turning back.
None of this was etched into that piece
of colored glass as I saw the sun flash through it
highlighting each muscle of his readiness to leave
for something he deemed more important than love.
(from “The Counterfeit Seal”)

There is more weight of meaning, at an almost Empsonian curvature, on this quarter page than in a whole box car of contemporary poetry, not to mention prose. But again it is the poet’s voice we react to, if we do, first and last, a vibration along the deepest lines of our linguistic being that resonates a responsive voice, one almost our own.

[*EMF’s translation of the caves’ speech as “Everything exists, nothing has value.” is perhaps not entirely literal.]
At Fiddler Crab we are inclined to comment upon the positive; “the rest is silence”, ever the most effective criticism. Thus preambled, as one who worked briefly (and unsuccessfully) in both computer and letter press production, I know there is always a good reason (and sometimes a good excuse) for mistakes in printing. So the good folks at Pudding House Press - dedicated as they are to chapbook production - may want to know that 7 of the 21 poems in my copy of The Loneliness of Dogs have typographical anomalies, mostly flawed letter fill. It’s the kind of thing a reader hardly notices the first time, which upon repetition makes for ever more anxiety and distraction, a glitch that’s an itch. Someone at the press needs to come up to scratch - so we don’t have to.


Poetic License
Adastra Press, 2004
20 pages, $14.00

The Wonder Bread Years

Pudding House Chapbook Series, 2009
30 pages, $10.00

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Susan Terris is a versatile poet, and these two very interesting chapbooks are quite different from each other. Poetic License, the earlier of the two, is a tribute to forty poets, divided into thematic groups like “On Love,” “On Fear,” “On Loss,” “On Consolation.” Each poet is represented by one 7-line poem, and four of these short poems make up each thematic group. In Terris’s words, she is attempting to “capture a fleeting, impressionistic view of how each of these poets speaks to the world,” using some of their characteristic vocabulary in each poem while at the same time writing her own new poem as an homage to the poet--a kind of snapshot of the poet’s themes and style. The poets are well known-- Bishop, Plath, Stevens, Auden, Roethke, Pinsky, Hirshfield, Collins, Dickinson, Frost, Glück, among others--and the reader has the enjoyable feeling of encountering old friends in new outfits. The poems are skillfully written and do a good job of evoking each poet--for example, here are some lines from the Jane Hirshfield poem: “Sometimes a snake coiled/ On a rock will flick out his tongue,/ Test the possibility of change.” And here is Billy Collins: “I am amazed/ By the hat, the gun, the sudden flash/ As water seeks its own level.”

It’s almost impossible to separate the pleasure of reading these poems from the pleasure of looking at this chapbook and holding it in the hand. Beautifully designed and hand-typeset by Gary Metras of Adastra Press, the book is letterpress printed on heavy cream paper, folded and sewn by hand. The lovely interior design accommodates the structure of this book perfectly: there are two 7-line poems on each page, separated by an ornament, and the title of each poem is the first name of the poet in a handsome italic font. In order to help the reader identify the poets (the style and the first name usually, but not always, provide enough clues), there are two foldout pages in the book--one at the beginning and one halfway through--that list the poets’ full names. I feel that this book is a labor of love--both the writing, as an homage to the forty poets, and the printed chapbook itself, as a beautiful example of the bookmaker’s art. It’s very good to know that this kind of bookmaking with patient hand labor still exists.

The Wonder Bread Years is very different in tone and appearance. This chapbook is centered in the 1950s, as represented by its material culture--the cover shows a mother and daughter in a typical kitchen of the time, putting the finishing touches on dinner while the father relaxes in the next room with the newspaper. A look at the Contents page is full of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that era: among the poem titles are “Carpet Sweeper,” “Brownie Box Camera,” “Shoe Fitting X-Ray Device,” “Soda Fountain,” “Double Feature,” “Victrola,” “Phone Booth,” “Skate Keys,” “Running Board,” “Laundry Chute.” (One could say that our culture is poorer, or at least very different, without all these wonderful objects and devices.) Terris is very good at evoking the look, feel, even the smell of these objects, as in the “sweet alcohol stink” of the ditto machine, or the “shadows of my foot bones/ moving inside the outlines of new Mary Janes” in the shoe-fitting X-ray device. Her voice is lively and humorous, and she also brings out what it was like to be female in that era, with painfully achieved permanent waves and constricting girdles and “tit enlargement machines,” as well as the unspoken “maxims for life” that girls absorbed from the culture: “Never take what you really want./ Do make do. Never ask for more.”

In the later poems in the book, the speaker is older--there are references to wedding presents, to the poet’s having a daughter, then three children. A recurring image in these last several poems is that of a key--for example, in “Running Board” she talks about watching “Father’s old movies . . . trying to find the key to who I was/am.” I would have liked to hear more about these connections between the speaker’s growing-up years and her adult life as a mother and poet. In “Smith-Corona Typewriter” we learn that the poet went to grad school and is a perfectionist about writing, and that now she has a daughter who marvels that there used to be typewriters that didn’t have a screen--but it’s a poem of reminiscence where we don’t hear much about the speaker’s feelings. In the final poem Terris constructs a “Rube Goldberg machine” from many of the objects described in the book--garter belt, metal curlers, film strip, skate key, reel, roller, bobby pin, etc.--and ends with these lines: “When I finish building/ My Rube machine, it won’t call my mother/ or feed the dog. But, with luck, if I find the key,/ it will, somehow, make up the last poem for this book.” Maybe the key that unlocks the past and explains who we are can’t ever really be found--but poetry is one of the best ways we have to try to do that, and these evocative poems are an interesting exploration of that territory.


Sotto Voce
by D. Antwan Stewart
Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series 2007

Reviewed by Susan Jo Russell

Sotto voce means to speak under one's breath or, in music, a dramatic lowering of tone—not a simple decrease in volume, but a hushed quality. D. Antwan Stewart’s poems are, indeed, hushed, yet full of emotion. They are about the whispering life, the internal patter that accompanies the daily wanderings of the soul—invisible to others but perhaps the strongest reality for the self.

The first poem opens with the hush of dusk that “begins with simple house cats/crouched/behind the queen palms.” It is perhaps the quietest poem in this book but, as its concluding lines suggest, a disquieting quietude pervades throughout: “the grass like clouds/before the gathering/of storms.”

Boundaries are everywhere in Stewart’s work—between love and hate (or, as one poem suggests, between love and apathy), between sleep and waking, evening and morning, reality and something that may not be reality. Often the speaker is moving between boundaries, trapped on one side, trying to reach for or understand the other. In the title poem, one lover listens to a violin played “horribly” in a neighboring apartment as the other sleeps, able to ignore, or pretend to ignore, what is amiss in the music and in the relationship. The sound of the violin is a hushed sound—it “whispers” into the room—but the emotion it incites is both strong and understated:

. . . I have to contend with

the snore caught in your throat,
which I suppose is your subtle way

of saying a duet with this indelicate
violinist is better than a conversation

with me. . . .

Stewart’s poems also deal with the hushed identity of a gay man—the young boy’s pretense to his buddies that he likes girls, his relationship to his family (“how I was caught once/prancing around in fluffy pink slippers”), the first adventurous, risky searches for sexual partners, the impact of HIV/AIDS. These poems are competently written, but I feel that I’ve read some of these stories before. It is when he pushes past the expected stories of young gay male experience to a more profound investigation of mind and body that Stewart’s strong, inventive language grabs the reader, as in his praise of the tongue in “Even Bones,” which ends with a passage describing how the tongue might reach

. . . those unknown places
where even bones quiver the way a river slicks
then swallows whole all the various stones.

Stewart has an ear for the rhythms of the language; his lines roll softly, but insistently, over the reader, carrying us along on a rush of words without overwhelming or drowning us. We are lifted just above the surface, just far enough to draw breath, as in his beautiful “Elegy” which captures the dailiness of survival and remembrance:

This is how I like to remember you—

not the mattress worn smooth, nor the dishes filling the cabinet
with dust. But the sun ravaging you with light,

those birds lost somewhere in your body’s cast shadow.

The poems hover, always, on the edge of sadness, or on the boundary between sadness and something that is not happiness but, at least, not quite as sad. In the final poem, “Coming to the End of My Sadness,”—another poem in which the edges of reality blur—the narrator has sunk so far into himself that even the dog refuses to acknowledge him (“She’ll bare/ her fangs if I dare touch/her, resist me holding/her warmth against/my belly”). Yet a frail hope surfaces on the border of despair—a self-mocking hope, it is true, but nonetheless a turning toward life.

This book is full of birds and music, of reaching out and turning in, of sadness—even bitterness—but a determination to persist. Stewart’s sotto voce words are worth listening for through the surrounding din.


In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do
Joseph P. Wood
Elixir Press, 2006

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

In a recent issue of Poetry, Jason Guriel gives an overdue caning to poetry that, “doesn’t so much describe its objects as obscure them with prefabricated language as airy as bubble wrap…” Since most of us can’t suppress a guilty flinch, then who the hell is Joseph P. Wood? I need to know ‘cause I want to lick his brain. And what relief to find “In What I Have Done & What I Have Failed to Do,” a smart book with enough craft, and no confusion between fresh and blood, no shortcuts to shock.

A quick jog through this chapbook reveals a title poem bristling with interesting abutment, followed by a poem in which Winslow Homer believed each American, “was a rowboat, a speck lost in the cosmos./ Collected, however, we were gathering/ waves: a repetitive brutality.” Later, “Total: A Biography,” plays with reductionism by presenting the measures and calculations needed to capture with absurd accuracy the speaker’s life.

We meet bilaterally justified poems, poems with short lines, with long lines, in blank verse, rhymed—all done with an easy light touch. So when a poem entitled, “A Half-Century Contemplating the Double Helix,” winds on the page, I admit it’s not unexpected, but there’s much here that is. And Wood can be funny—“I Was a Finalist// for wife ignorer of the year, for fat-man-in-too-tight-/dress-shirt becomes ninth-grade laughingstock,/ for pet obsesser of Vega County. I was chosen/” And in “Very Minor Elegies,” Woods takes us from the opening question, “To whom would I show my superfluous nipple?” through the Pope, dreams of camping, fears about time and change, to end on his punch line (I won’t spoil it).

“On Jasper Johns’ Targets,” first describes the painting’s “peripheries” before arriving at “the vanishing point, our dread/ exemplified by his busy brushwork.,” then bounces off the critical mis-reception before arriving at the painter--“If the world is to end, better to be luscious/ than panicked,” better to end up wearing the, “half-cocked grin of a fool”—a succinct framing of art’s perpetual unsolvable equation: dread + the appearance of ease + chronic uncertainty + pursuit of ‘the new’+ but-what-do-you-do-for-real-work = playing the fool (or maybe not but no one will be able to tell for a really really really really long time).

Part of the interest in this chapbook as I’ve implied is Wood’s range. Here is part of, “Girl Says I,”

was not the horse, lathered & fagged, dipping its mouth for drink
nor the river, the heavy noxious brown, the knee-deep murk
nor the swaying half-sawed elms, branches drooped & pollen-heavy
nor the stumbling mid-air bee, its hum-brake-hum, on wing severed
nor the severing, the cleaver’s cherry handle, the cattle’s flank grilling

Longer lines packed (but not over-packed) with vivid detail that subtly evolves meaning and feeling through image and word until the poem ends:

nor the language, the him-haw pleading, the take-me-back, the one-time
the never-again, the never, the nor

There’s no fluff or filler here. Not in individual poems and not in the collection as a whole. Wood’s poems poke, prod, smooch, dissect, hug, and pinch American politics, art, history, and culture.


Three Vanities
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
Pudding House Press, Chapbook Series
32 Pages, $10

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

I read poetry for different reasons: to relate, to be exposed, to widen my range. Recently I have been drawn to quieter, more modest chapbooks, the collections that lack shiny covers or clever titles, but instead seem mature, almost like they like themselves, if a chapbook could. Lori Desrosiers’ "Three Vanities" is such a chapbook. It arrived in the Fiddler Crab post office box with a simple stapled cover and nearly complete lack of color, yet the exquisite cover line drawing (by F.S. Praze, 1904) of a woman, dignified, fully clothed, with her eyes closed and leaning on a straight back chair was anything but dull. I wondered who is this closed-eyed woman? Is she tired? Content? She could be either 20 or 40 years old. She looks old-fashioned, yet modern too. And she is beautiful, almost handsome. No doubt Desrosiers’ poems would tell her story, or of a woman like her, like so many.

In "Three Vanities," Lori Desrosiers, not surprisingly, tells 3 stories in 26 poems: of her grandmother Beila, her mother Blanche, and herself. Desrosiers’ nameless daughters are present as well. However, it is the one story, universal, of generations of women circling each other, repeating patterns, that dominates the collection. From the poem “Little Toes,” the beginning and end stanzas:

I don’t remember/my grandmother’s feet/but my mother says/her little toe was crooked,
cuddling her fourth toe/just like my mother’s, /just like mine.

My mother chose/to wear pointy shoes/which disfigured her toes,/my daughters also
prefer fashionable heels./At the end of the day/they rub their crooked little toes.

The Beila poems, chronicling the grandmother’s experiences as an immigrant from Russia at the turn of the century, use well the concise line, and are some of the strongest. Desrosiers does at times veer slightly toward the sentimental, yet, without question, the overall tender honesty of these family portraits wins out. From the poem “Red Lipstick:”

She didn’t tell/until her last week:/she was ten years older/than my grandfather,/in fact, had been lying/for fifty years.

Desrosiers' consistantly direct tone, coupled with historical and geographical references, such as to the Triangle Waist Factory Fire in 1911 or the Ukraine's river long ago, grounds the collection, and further enhances the chronological and familial thread.

I always ask myself when reading or reviewing a poem, “Is the poem for the ear or the eye?” "Three Vanities" is a visual triptych that also makes for excellent performance poetry. In fact, to not read these poems aloud is to miss their energy, intonation, and how Desrosiers’ numerous musical allusions resonate in full voice. I would like to hear the author read them herself, but as a substitute, I recommend using your own voice. You will not be disappointed.


Postcard from P-Town
By Steven Riel
Seven Kitchens Press, 2009
Robin Becker Chapbook Series

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

These days conflicts of interest entangle us at every turn. So in the interest of full disclosure: Robin Becker was, one summer, my teacher…in P-town (which I love).

However, I do not know Steven Riel (though after reading his chapbook I wish I did). “Postcards from P-town,” is unapologetic, colorful, and fun—in other words, serious play. (That fabulous cover alone is worth the seven dollars!) Then there’s the If-you-are-here-to-judge-who-I-love-then-don’t-fucking-read-my-book dedication, “ …dear husband and best friend.” Bittersweet.

These are glittering surfaces under which we watch politics, love, identity, and hope skitter and flit. To be seen, known, and (dare Riel even hope?) accepted scuttles, darts, sways, and sashays through these poems. The collection is perhaps less bedizened by craft than I’d wish, but it’s still busy as a thriving tide pool.

I want these poems to be more successful. I hunger for form: wit in the structure, wicked enjambment, saucy puns, even the occasional sly anagram could work here (and I think Riel could carry it off). So intense was my desire, I searched for syllabics—no shit, counted on my fingers—but found none. Perhaps I missed something. So many poems in this collection succeed or partly succeed. And they always try hard. That’s a compliment (when did we all become cynics?).

The poems address, identify with, and speak from within famous persons: “Robert Goulet Is Dead!,” “Kitty Carlisle is Dead!,” “Ishmael’s Afterthoughts,” a poem about reading Tennessee William’s obituary. In several poems, Riel’s speaker channels then makes into his own aspects of Lena Horne, Chris Evert, and Cindi Lauper. These ventriloquisms convey an interesting mix of anger, humor, admiration, and the seemingly inevitable self-loathing of the outsider. In “Lena Horne,” a poem in multiple parts, Riel oscillates between Horne’s voice and his speaker’s. Here’s a sample of Horne:

Dixieland’s shears can’t snip me out.
Today’s houses have antennas.
MGM kept me out of the story
so the plot would splice nice if I were gone.
I have cause to dwell on it.

The going’s a little rough until that sinister line in which the voice suddenly clicks when threatening to “dwell on it”. It works for you or it doesn’t. The voice mixes opposition, injury, tenderness, and sometimes tells more than shows as the speaker tries to hit all the factual points while keeping all the plates spinning. It’s a project that sometimes ends up in pieces. But Riel is passionate and expects the reader to do at least some thinking, which I appreciate and celebrate.

Returning to “Lena Horne,” we have the speaker’s voice, “Days later, biographies/ fanned like feathers on my bed,/ I’m puzzling out your sorrows,/ trying on their contours.” And in “Chris Evert,” there’s this quiet, effective moment:

She was the perfect avenger,
a paper doll whose life had tabs
my scissors could trace.
After school, I’d try her on,
let her overlay
what was wrong.

Riel ends with a sonnet eased from constraint, “For Patrick, My New Nurse,” in which the speaker notices that Patrick:

…. remained unruffled
(I focused on the telling little
muscles at ease around his eyes)
when my hard-on rose in thanks, alive

Here Riel gathers force by playing off the loosened structure against the limitations imposed by illness. Gay identity is complicated, living is painful, being sick is humiliating, loving is sometimes at a distance and yet Riel brings it to us in this chapbook just as he finds it-- confusing, tender, enraging, agonized, vibrant, enduring—in short, damned difficult. Riel steps out to meet what comes with attitude. His next book? Looking forward to it.


Journal of Lovesickness, Vol. 11
by Steve Price
Burnside Review Press, 2009
24 pages, $5

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

When you first pick it up, this chapbook looks a little spartan--plain gray cover with black type, no author photo or blurbs on the back. But how can you not love the title--“Journal of Lovesickness, Vol. 11”--and especially the subtitle--“Advances in the Poetry of Heartbreak”--and the small drawing on the front, which looks like the logo of a medical journal at first glance but when examined closely appears to be the figure of a man playing a harp.

I’m not usually a fan of prose poems, but the 24 poems in this book soon drew me in with their rapid-paced language and surrealistic images. The speaker is in love (all the poems are addressed to “you”), but it’s a difficult love affair with many frustrations--perhaps because, as the poet says in “Live & Learn,” “I gave you my life before I lived it.” Here’s an example of the quirky but compelling language this poet uses, from the poem “No Bail”: “I’ve been charged with threatening to love you. They put me in a cell filled with tiger lilies and Tom Jones playing over and over. . . . Gary brought me a harp and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. They asked if I had any remorse, and when I said no, they ordered me to disperse my emotions instead of unloading them all on one person. . . . This is a letter I’m not allowed to send you.” Or this wonderful sequence from “The Space You Asked For”: “I just want to do something right. . . . You back away, fall backwards over a pile of beer cans and squash a chuckwalla. Your deranged neighbor’s daughter watches it not die, and I would gladly trade places with it. I know, I have no business being in your hemisphere.”

These prose poems are short--a quarter or a third of a page--but each one has a manic energy and a surrealistic yet coherent series of images and events. And there are moments of tenderness and optimism too--things get a little better as the book goes on: “I am yawning, and as I stretch I stretch in your direction, getting one pulse of a fingertip closer”; “Next time I hug you, I will not let you get away.” In the closing poem, the poet imagines his lover and his old car being “comfortable with one another, like old friends.” But this is far from a sentimental book--I would characterize the tone as one of fascinating weirdness.

I wish this chapbook had a table of contents--the titles of the poems are interesting and resonant, and it would be good to see them all listed on one page. But that’s a minor point. This book carries you along in the current of its language, and it’s well worth picking up.


Little Oceans
by Tony Hoagland.
Hollyridge Press. 2009.
39 pages. $10.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

The wacko right-wingers on shortwave radio are wrong – not necessarily about guns (everyman’s ideal son or Lost Father, I forget which) or taxation (legal robbery) or the Federal Reserve (semi-organized crime). No, they are wrong about paper money being worthless. In fact, your generic greenbuck has a commodity value of about 3 cents as a piece of competent (if aesthetically ghastly) engraving on good stock. And you’d do far worse than to send one of those odd objects (one denominated TEN) to Hollyridge press for the purchase of Tony Hoagland’s chapbook Little Oceans, though they will probably prefer Paypal, an oxymoron if there ever was one. And the point of this arch arabesque is that it is exactly the kind of gratuitous riff you won’t find in Hoagland’s sober, judicious (and for all that) engaging etudes.

Honest work, with the ego as a point of view, not a spotlit stage for narcissistic crooning of the ole mi-mi-mi. Of the 27 poems all have social or broader relational concerns, save one and that one, surely taxonomically, is entitled “Personal”. Audaciously, there are two poems (“Home of the Brave”, “The History of White People”) that address race dynamics from the now novel (one might almost say colorful) perspective of the straight white man.

‘After so long seeming right, as in/true, as in clean as in smart, / … after so long being visitors/ from the galaxy Caucasia/now they are starting to seem a little/deficient, leached out, spent, colorless/ thin blooded, indefinite as in being too far and too long / removed from the original source of whiteness.”

Hoagland understands that disciplined free-verse works when it is delineated to the shape of thought, measured by the poet’s distinctive (silent) voice; in this case, relatively short lines lenghtening unto long sentences. Not such a hard thing you'd think except so many makeurs-(did I say fakeurs?), do it poorly.

The chapbook is, in the best sense, a quick read, fluent, informing and fault free (which is perhaps a different state of grace from “flawless”). Lyric poets are easily classified as hard or soft landers: the former step into a pirouette and accelerate before spinning out to the resoundingly conclusive footfall. Soft types like Hoagland can fool you when you turn the page and find two more lines to a poem you thought was ended. Opps! But with Hoagland that’s a mere typographical accident and no misstep by a poet who eschews the Big Gesture and Five Act Structure; it is the quiet voice of a serious man who prefers to draw you in rather than call you out.

It’s a delicacy and refinement of a quintessentially and ever rarer American kind that is hard to represent adequately in short quotes.

"In summer there was something in the selfhood of the wasps /that wanted to get inside the screened-in porch./ It sent them buzzing against the wire mesh, / probing under the eaves,/ crawling in the cracks between the boards./Each day we’d find new bodies on the sill:/ little failures. Like struck matches:/shrunken in death, the yellow/color of cider or old varnish.”

A certain kind of entirely legitimate reader will miss the arc and buzz of stylistic fireworks. But flash-in-the-pan pyrotechnics illuminate, reflectively, only themselves while it is the pond itself, day-lit, even-tempered, capacious and world holding, deep, but calling not attention to its depth that we most value. A Little Ocean. This one well worth the sacrifice in passing trade of your $10 and three cent paper boat.


Your Whole Life
Poems by Douglas Goetsch
Slipstream, 2007

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

I read the author bios last. I do this not to keep the list of awards, fellowships, grants, and publication from placing its heavy thumb on the scales of my judgment, but rather to keep the inevitable irritation at bay when I discover yet again that even small “independent” presses take no risks. Alas, it’s no revelation that Douglas Goetsch has published just about everywhere a poet would like to be read. Or that he has at least two full-length books and three chapbooks already in print. And here is another.

So, Goetsch knows how to hold a reader’s interest. And he catches a scene, a character, and a time with some precision. Yet this collection is uneven. Was it perhaps compiled from a couple batches of older and newer poems loosely connected by reminiscence? Near the middle of the book we find ourselves in the horse latitudes—Vacuuming, Haiku, Bill, and Recess, each strikes its predictable, flat, prosey notes without force.

Even in otherwise successful poems like, Black People Can’t Swim where Goetsch sets the hook with, “When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y/ she said, ‘Oh, black people can’t swim,” he suddenly lets us off by telling too much, “We were all toddlers, or unborn, when Martin dreamed/of little black children and little white children/ going to school arm in arm.”

Still there’s mostly good stuff in Your Whole Life, though not great stuff. For one thing, Goetsch comes up with some interesting titles and keeps up the arresting starts: “Coming home to a destroyed mailbox/ you experience a recognition problem/ like hearing your name called in a foreign city/” (You’ve Never Won Anything), or “My best friend gave me a girl.” (Delia). Another strength is Goetsch’s focus on thoughts, feeling, and moments that deliver that private internal flick of the whip when they come (reluctantly) to mind. As a not-too-biting instance, a poem about spending Christmas with a friend’s family, A Guest for Christmas, gives us that ol’ awkward holiday feeling when having arrived without a gift you find, “… there was one for you/ an emergency gift, not too expensive/ for either gender, such as a journal/or photo frame, and it shamed you/ to receive it…”

Gone, one of the stronger poems, begins, “It’s easy to want someone dead./ Take this guy..” Goetsch ironically fumes, the impotent everyman behind the benignly blank face:

…or the dickhead
flicking a lit cigarette from his car
to the sidewalk. Something tells
me the woman tossing chicken
bones under the bus seat, now licking
her fingers, is of no use to the world.
Doubtless if they were weeping
in confessionals over their small
though highly revealing offenses,
or scribbling apologies in journals,
I’d feel differently…

In Poems You’re Not Allowed to Write, Sirens, New York City, and The Kingdom, Goetsch gives us a rough blank verse rhythm, an easy and believable voice, and a complex range of emotion—funny, angry, thoughtful. In these poems and others, the crisp detail works to show us specific people and places in a fine and familiar voice capturing the common awkward moment, the social lie, and the secret unwilling disappointment in poems that are skilled but not too ambitious or technically showy.


Sketches from the San Joaquin
by Michael McClintock
Turtle Light Press, 2009
27 pages, $15
Reviewed by Emily Scudder

Sketches from the San Joaquin by Michael McClintock, a collection of 41 haiku, is an art object. Whereas some chapbook publishers skimp on the physical product, Turtle Light Press values both form and content – much like a haiku itself. The cover photograph of the San Joaquin valley, along with the inside illustrations, visually establish a geographic tone to this collection before a single syllable is read. A mere 4.5 x 5.75 inches, this chapbook easily fits in the reader’s hand, and frankly, it feels good to the touch.

This object reads like a traveler’s well-worn notebook, since the traveler is wandering the fields he knows best, those of his home landscape, the family orchard. Themes of remembrance and family can be risky, prone to sentimentality and cliché, but McClintock mostly avoids this:

done for the day
my dad brings to supper
the smell of turned earth

Both modern and traditional in his handling of the haiku form, McClintock uses 3 lines, but not always 17 syllables. He regularly includes either a direct or implied seasonal reference (kigo), along with the requisite tinge of loneliness, which this reviewer, a haiku traditionalist, welcomed throughout.

not green itself
but the hint of it –
the slanting spring light

lingering over an egg
warm in its shell
winter deepens

McClintock’s skill with the cut or kireji (the place where the haiku is divided into two parts, images or events) is precise, and at times playful. His humorous tone, interspersed among more serious themes, harkens backs to the tradition of Basho, and makes for some of the most entertaining haiku of the 41.

sucking seeds
from pomegranates
our faces like fish

this is how life is –
hearing the cricket at dawn
just as it ceases

McClintock does get sentimental in the final haiku, providing the slightest of disappointments, in this otherwise pleasurable collection.

Tall pines -
I’ll never be ready
to go home.

Sketches from the San Joaquin clears a haiku path through a known and natural landscape. I doubt I will ever commit to memory the exact lines of a McClintock haiku, but I will recall this chapbook the next time I hear the phrase “a record crop” or buy a California red wine, and I am glad about that.

the fruit pickers
seem glum about it –
a record crop.

In an often over-stimulating world, it is a welcome relief to spend time with 41 haiku. Michael McClintock whittles life down to the bare bones of things. His poetic intention, disclosed in the epigraph, is realized in this tiny and well-crafted chapbook.

Ab initio, ad fontes…
Back to the beginning, to the sources.


A Stranger Here Myself
by Niki Nymark
Cherry Pie Press, 2008
40 pages, $10

Kiss Me Cold
by Donna Biffar
Cherry Pie Press, 2006
29 pages, $10

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Some poetry collections are expansive, taking on big topics and (if they succeed) giving the reader new insights into universal themes like love and death. Other collections are sharply focused on a single theme or time or place, giving the reader access into a particular experience that might be new or unfamiliar. A Stranger Here Myself by Niki Nymark belongs to the first category; her poems address the fullness of life with wisdom and humor. Although the topics are big--aging, love as we get older, family, death--her voice is direct and sympathetic; her lines are short but full of insight. In writing about a pregnant woman, a relative, so poor that she has to walk to the hospital when in labor, she writes: “A family story,/ I still carry the weight of it.” In the poem “A Daughter’s Kaddish” she writes memorably about her mother after a stroke, with alternating stanzas that contrast the mother now, in the hospital, weak and unable to remember, with the mother of her childhood, who was “tall as a sycamore,” a powerful swimmer, and “knew a million songs.”
In a moving prose poem near the end of the book, “The Report of My Death,” Nymark writes about the speaker’s discovery of her own death by reading her obituary in the newspaper; her trip to the funeral home to point out that she is not dead; her gradual acceptance of the idea and settling into the casket, which is “every bit as comfortable as it looked”; her children showing up, talking about how wonderful her funeral will be, and giving her books and a flashlight to keep her company in the casket. It’s a warm and human account of how the unacceptable--the idea of our own death--might come to seem something that we can after all accept.

The 24 poems in Donna Biffar’s collection belong to the second category: every poem is about a married woman’s affair with a lover, also married (though in the midst of a “lingering divorce”). This book is very unified in subject and tone, almost obsessively focused on the closed world of these two lovers, but the poet’s interesting language and images keep the poems from feeling repetitious. Biffar uses the sharp language of the flesh, metaphors of food and eating and appetite, and it keeps us reading. She contrasts the softness of her domestic life with husband and children (“my peach-cheeked children,/ my every day apple husband,” to the sharpness of her lover, “all muscle and sweat and bone.” The poem’s titles reflect these images of food-- “Breakfast,” “Low Carb Love Poem,” “Other Fruit,” “Milk Sex”--and there are several sonnets, a form that’s well suited to this closed world of the love affair. There’s a nervous, hungry, sharp quality to almost every poem: “our jittered caffeine sex among the trees”; “love/ may be a long walk. The arm of the pine/ is whittled to a dangerous point./A stake through the heart.” We believe this poet’s voice because she is unsentimental, unsparing, and direct. Although an affair between married lovers has been written about many times in poetry and fiction, these poems give us a new look at the situation--there are no clichés, only these bright, physical, direct, sharp images.

These two chapbooks are in Cherry Pie Press’s Midwest Women Poets Series, and both are well worth reading.


What Sound Does It Make
Poems by Erin Malone
Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series, 2007

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Concrete Wolf prefers chapbooks with a theme. The thread connecting the poems in Erin Malone’s, “What Sound Does It Make” is motherhood. But it’s not your 1950’s airbrushed TV version—it’s the real thing live from inside Mom’s head.

The eponymous poem, in up-close scattered exposures, reveals post-partum despair in un-consoling light. It begins, “There are pieces everywhere, splinters,” and continues its relentless course using abutment, fragmentation, and a mixture of first and third person to enact the speaker’s disconsolate, dislocated, nearly disarticulate state. Assonance and light repetition hold the poem tenuously together in the face of content that is self-flagellating (“My husband scrubs the floors, dishes, fixes/ locks to the cabinets, gates/the stairs & doors. He fixes, fixes—“), helpless (“Would you hurt yourself?”) and horrified; caught out in the lens of its own shatteredness:

Small cracks in the ceiling. If she could rest
she’d tilt the chair to watch
holes in the overturned bowl of her skull
emit their light, move
like slow-turning planets.

Would you hurt your baby?

He’s lighter when he sleeps.

The monitor’s eye is red, steady, unblinking.

Using form and sense Malone takes us into a broken world.

Not afraid—how could she be after that?—to take us to more ordinary places usually kept hidden from others and ourselves though secretly visited, Malone sketches landscapes in which regret, doubt, tenderness, and anger together form a nuanced topography. For instance in “Suspect,” the speaker asks, “Where’s my fill, my plush/ other, illustrated life?/that I tired of/ & traded, willing/ it seems & still/ I would”.

Her technique doesn’t work quite as well in, “At the Seams” or “Prehistory,” where it’s difficult to get a fix on what’s going on and what’s at stake. But in poems like “This & Thus Far” and “Spoke,” Malone’s got game. She uses line breaks, shape on the page, and subtle rhyme –even carrying off rhyming couplets in a natural voice— to emphasize or work in counterpoint to content. Again and again she grabs the golden ring of emotional depth and texture.

Here’s the beginning of “Pulling Up the Corners,” where Malone effectively catches an ironic internal second voice:

--said you don’t love me. He was sitting
in a flannel chair, the gray behind him hardly
a kind of light. I said
secondhand love.

Circle secondhand.
b/c how could I be first?

She takes risks, and though I don’t find the, b/c for “because” ( or in “”This & Thus Far,” the use of , /) overdone or intrusive, all readers may not agree that Malone gets away with her occasional mannered flourishes.

Malone gives us multiple voices again in “Black Forest,” where two intertwined voices compete for our attention without ever becoming muddled or indistinct. We emerge from the poem having heard both the inner and outer versions of the story, neither one having told the “truth:” on its own. My favorite poem in this strong collection, “Hush,” begins,

I lie and say there are no ghosts
when sleep’s stalled current draws him
near our bed, hair magnetized, shock
on blanket & pajamas in the too-dry air.
I could pat him, turn him toward the door,
But he has handfuls of language spilling—
Owl, moon, hoot--& just then a train

loans its lonely sound to the fences
of our neighborhood…

In this poem, and in the chapbook as a whole, Malone brings all her craft, insight, and feeling together with careful, lovingly objective observations and hard won insights said beautifully.


Toccata & Fugue
By Timothy Kelly.
Floating Bridge Press, 2005. 37 p. $10.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Timothy Kelly is a wordsmith which means if you prefer your poetry with crafty fittings and tolerances, you’ll probably like this guy who seems not only to think the poetic journey means as much as the arrival but that the merest vehicles of the trip, “used” words, signify most of all. That this is a flawed disposition can be demonstrated by the quick transport of a decisively contrarian poem. So I hereby quote an efficient one that violates this crabby site’s (unwritten) rule against self-promotion. The poem is my own -- “Blue”; “Blue” an immediate and may I say perfect work embodying in a very few words (er, one) the entire spectrum of Azurility from robin egg pale to intergalactic purple. What more could you want in a price to earnings ratio ("standard and poor") of reading?

But Kelly would insist on delivering beautiful, freighted lines …

‘ …like a well-
made tool, the palmed body
docks and snugs, convex to
concave, with heft centered
and a contouring, wraparound
grip. Nothing, not even the long
bones straight.” [ from “Voluptuosity”]

A calm, competent voice, pitched at a knowing middle distance but articulating tactility and actual ministrations of touch.

“we disarticulate our ankle
with a hundred circumferential cuts,
the crosslaced ligaments isolated,
appreciated, incised, the snug, bony
mortise and tenon. With effort prized
apart. [ from “On Anatomy Being Destiny”]

So is this author an enjambist or anatomist? In fact, he was trained and works as a physical therapist. Most of the twenty poems feature anatomical detailing and clinical vocabularies. There is even one semi-extended trope-ic pun…

“I’m thinking of a section of saxophonists
in an Ives concerto, in a passage where
birds lift from trees, not playing but
drumming their horn keys ten, fifteen seconds
with their fingers, so that the clatter, if you
close your eyes becomes the rising din
of beating wings [ from “Forearm Dissection”]

Fingering—geddit? In a book called “Toccata & Fugue”! That’s going for baroque. Well, what do you expect when the dedicatory epigram is from John Donne. Who was Dr (spiritual therapist) Donne, anyway? A Shakespeare wannabe whose less elaborated lyrics are sometimes quoted in wedding invitations (and dissertation dedicatia) of the more vaunting sort. (“I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I did til we loved”). A rake to rector type who believed that words in their complex quality of denotation, connotation, etymology and sound could be shaped and fitted into poetic volumes that have both a horizontal dimension of narrative and vertical one of intense semantical harmony.

Kelly is like that ["In the Garden, the stemwinder spoke sotto voce,/sibilant, tip-split, seedsowing, slying inclining Eve;/then the bite, the bright bath of juice, stars and/heavens scintillated: the browsing creatures pause, barely named; the world, in a swallow, remade."] and 'An Anatomy of the World' Donne is like that and the effect is a bit like looking through a pair of over prescribed spectacles, the focus so lucid you get a headache. Or call it a thought. Now that’s creepy or maybe really great.
The book, qua object, is handsome with a creamy letter press cover (depicting digital bones) that complements nicely the not quite white text paper, the text itself printed competently (high praise) in Adobe Garamond, offset printed in a edition of 500, perfect bound, sans ingratiating authorial photo and poetastery resume. This is a press exemplifying that in poetry, the medium matters as much as the message.

The unqualified laudation of the book’s materiality versus a more problematic appraisal of the contents might suggest a pose on the reviewer’s part, as if in this Jaded Age praise could only be signaled as a series of back handed slaps, doubling as salutes, as if the little extra artifice testified to this reviewer’s sincere and definite article of admiration. If so, then donne. Tocccata & Fugue was the winner of the 2005 Floating Bridge Press Poetry Chapbook Award.


by Diane Schenker
Finishing Line Press, 2009
27 pages, $12

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Diane Schenker’s book takes its title from her poem “Relation/Couch/Dreaming,” which was inspired by the (untitled) drawing on the cover of the book--a wonderfully suggestive black and white drawing by Morris Yarowsky depicting a man and woman on a couch, together yet apart, with an inset of a reclining nude woman above the seated woman’s head (a painting? her dream?) The title poem, with strong, spare language, makes the most of the ambiguities and mysteries in the drawing: “Thigh. / Line around under line. We. / Ground breaks space breaks line. Apart. / Couch. / Touching not feeling touching feeling.”

The poems in this collection have several recurring themes: family relationships, the natural world, death. The language is unsentimental and unsparing, but also vivid, with striking images. In Part I, the poems describe both the domestic interiors of loss (“What is it I keep bumping into / as I carom restlessly from room to room? / Not your corpse exactly though / it may as well be since your / deadness takes up so much space”) and confronting death in the natural world: “Sliding off / above treeline, face of the earth now faceless, dropping / off to nothing, leaving a bowl of sky and death”). The language is sharp, tough, and precise. The two final poems in Part III are about the speaker’s parents as they near the end of their lives. With characteristic emotional honesty, she concludes that the best thing she can do in the face of their illness and debility is to try to make them laugh.

Although a few of the poems shade off into less interesting language (“Spring’s busy clutter brings summer’s lethe / . . . Seasons past in a drawer / pulled out for occasional remembering”), the majority of these poems have strong, precise, compelling images grounded either in objects in the domestic world of indoors (“The mirror reflects on life, whether shades or real / stoic and glassy behind its spatter of spit / and toothpaste”) or in the natural world, especially the poems in Part II as in these lines from “Branches”: “Bright bones bristle out of the earth, stiff hair / twisting, scratch the sun’s eye blood red it / glares but with such a cry bones crack.” Many of the images have the intensity and magical quality of dreams, and in fact the collection as a whole can be seen as a series of meditations and variations on the three words in the title: relation (with family, with the natural world); couch (evoking the domestic space where we coexist with family members, together but sometimes apart); dreaming (what the poet, any poet, is constantly doing through language and images). Schenker’s chapbook is well worth reading.


Daphne and Jim: A choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse. Being a close examination of linear narrative, unexpected detail, and the forgotten art of context clues.
By Laurel Snyder
Burnside Review Press, 2005. 26 pages, $6.
Winner, Annual Poetry Chapbook Contest.

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

'This is an arithmetic. Of inaccuracies.
This begins in California. We’ll add to it later.

But first a preface. “This can’t be true,” says a critic,
an uncle, “Tuesday has to follow Monday. Always-"'

In Daphne and Jim: A choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse, Laurel Snyder is not interested in Tuesday following Monday. I like this. The reader roams the lives of two young lovers and too-soon-to-be parents, through Snyder’s purposefully non-chronological sequencing of poems that mirror well the way life in relationship feels, both linear and circular.

We are introduced to Daphne and Jim, young students at Pomona College in the late 1960s, and from then on, are given the choice at the bottom of each page, after the poem, where to next visit them :

'To quit school, pack up and move East with Jim, turn to page 12
To follow Daphne, fall in love with David instead, turn to page 26'

Sometimes there are no choices for the reader.

Sometimes there are no choices for Daphne and Jim, as after the poem titled “Wedding plans: Baltimore, MD, 1973.”

'There are no choices. Turn to Page 22'

Snyder’s approach is participatory, yet there is never a question as to who is in control of the narrative. Her poems are concise, without a wasted word. Her stanzas are short, and verse free. She explores complicated emotions, without succumbing to the temptation to unnecessarily complicate her language, such as in her poems about abortion:

“Birds-eye view of what happens: The Laurel Clinic, DC, 1973 – part I":

'There are things you do, the things you don’t,
the things you can do, but don’t – and then

there are the things you just can’t do. Daphne can’t.
The stirrups are cold and the walls are yellow.'

And in “Birds-eye view of the discussion in a diner: Baltimore, 1973 – part II":

'She wants someone else to say the thing. She doesn’t want to say
the word, call the word into the room like a dog. It’s an ugly word.

Daphne hates ugly. There’s no sun in the ugly things. There’s no
beauty in the hole she wants to make. She wants Jim to make it.'

At the bottom of the page the reader’s choices are:

'To see how Daphne deals, turn to page 15
To see how Jim deals, turn to page 14'

Reading Daphne and Jim is an active process. I followed Daphne, then Jim. I read the poems in order, then last to first. I was not once disappointed. Daphne and Jim: A choose-your-own-adventure biography in verse is exactly that – an adventure in choice.


bathe in it or sleep
by Kim Triedman,
Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2008. 40 pages, $10.
Winner, 2008 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Almost as a critical 'lark' one could categorize the flights of contemporary lyric as of two types: one pounces directly on its subject, the interest, then, in the subsequent dissections (and digestions); the other describes its quarry at a remove, circling, indicative. The best of Kim Triedman’s poems are of that kind. Here (quoted in part) is a poem about attraction:

‘Something about stains and time / and the color of sky- beauty, of course; / relentless. That phrase he used -- / “the very tint of inexperience --” / it made me want to bathe in it or sleep.’

From a poem about estrangement:

‘She could hear his voice, faraway as it was. / Between them: cold macadam and dried leaves, / the years flung out like line.’ [Distance]

A young girl’s sexual awareness:

‘She can feel them moving {hornets}--/the steady whine of them / in her teeth. They haven’t/ found her yet but the sun / is hot and she knows they are /coming. Beneath / her arms; the shameful/ seep of perspiration …’ [Almost Stung]

Mostly, the point of view is through the post Wordsworthian "I” (or Eye), in its late American evolution. If there are entire phyla of experience left out (not a glance towards the high terrains of Western Art), the method yet yields hard values—the alloyed gold of the personal, its witnessings and testimonies.

We cross the reading bar and this poet serves us straight shots of herself; we drink quickly and are deepened. For who would dispute that griefs are the deepest drafts of life, excepting one profane to name (and, of course, Art).

These are winter poems (’Every day an accusation,/even the trees: / branches like bones / pointing, / pewter shards of ice.’) [Choke-hold] ; under a cruelly lucid sky, losses are clearly etched.

Triedman is a new poet from whom one wishes, as reviewers used actually to say, “to hear more.” What did they mean by more? More for enjoyment, more to balance the weaker work, more in the sense of further development of what is here,valuable and imminent.
“Bathe in it or sleep” was the worthy winner of the 2008 Chapbook Contest sponsored by Main Street Rag , a magazine and regional press, with reach.
P. Nelson


Percussion, Salt & Honey
By Nehassaiu deGannes
Providence Athenaeum, 2001
Winner, 2001 Philbrick Poetry Award

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Funny how we’re different readers at different times isn’t it? I read Percussion, Salt & Honey several years ago with impatience and perplexity. And yet, re-reading it now, I must have mixed it up with another chapbook since I now find deGannes’ poems smart, skilled, interesting, and lively.

When it was published the style of Percussion, Salt & Honey wasn’t yet a mannerism. But by now our taste for dreamlike, visionary, evocative images presented in a rhythmic chant that includes snatches of other cultures, gristly English vocabulary (liberally mixed with various spices from other tongues), and garnished with a sprig of history, a dash of biography, and a sprinkle of autobiography is, perhaps, slightly jaded.

That’s not to say deGanne’s chapbook isn’t worth revisiting—it is. The writing is often abundant, sinuous, muscular, dense, compelling. It takes guts to do it well, as deGannes does, in “On the Fourteenth Floor,” which begins:

of a Scarborough high-rise
we eat boulliabaise Africanized: a yellow Carib collage
a post-colonial dish: distinctions Arawaks taught us…

and later:

down in an estate kitchen no two grow alike
granny’s ‘colored’ but not other so an iron pot can not refract
her copper-kettle image back: once we saw her

dip her whole head in
dyeing roots in a bucket of patent shoe-black
Garifuna mother: Scotts-Irish plantation owner dad

But Vincentian pepper-pot is not oil-black: is not
Petrol’s sun-scaled fish-back: Is not aloe-flesh…

This is a rich and seriously playful poem, where words like braf (in Welsh ‘fine’ or ‘delightful’), and nkisi (objects with spiritual power) appear tossed in with phrases in Bantu (kufa banganga simbi –most likely, since deGannes is an accommodating poet, ‘each spring I unearth what remains’.), and puns (appraise him/praise him)—all used in the service of texture, tone, voice, and meaning in an admirably complex and comprehensive art.

There are, for me, less successful poems in the series such as, “Boston Bridge Works, 1927” which contains the following:

for birds or the dead Slip off your shoes Feel
yourself rotting wood exhausted iron, oh that
saxophone sound Well it’s not worth repeating

but wind takes up residence
with power You know gates latching unlatching
shiver of light on rainsoaked wire.

That last image is a fine one. And I’m not tripped up by the use of space, lack of punctuation, or windy indentations. But what do the words say beyond playful, clichéd post-moderne and not-particularly-interesting observations? We’ve heard it before and are tempted to agree, ‘it’s not worth repeating’.

And in “Isis & Black Madonna On X-roads, N-roads, & the State of the Union ‘Address,’” we find something that trims sails uncomfortably close to blather:

a movement suggesting blackness: mass
against a cloud as if in sea foam
a coffin tossed not quite crow
not yet eagle somehow
a lung breathes in
now wing

It’s as if deGannes lost voice for a moment, then regains it in poems like, “Isis Prepares for Ressurrection” (your touch/doesn’t touch my flesh/ but finds my bracelet instead/ a ring of nehessi copper turning my wrist/green like and old woman’s arthritic arm…”

In ”Vortex,” the recurrence of phrases evolve in meaning with repetition to haunt the poem and enact a vortex of racism, identity-formation, and defamation ending with the death of a talented adolescent football star:

this feeling of being hunted persists
even after the hounds are called off
even after your high school’s been integrated
even after you rescue your dreams
from the pocket of another man’s coat


the propensity towards flatfootedness
among African-American males and some females
has been shown to have direct links
to class and religious affiliation
categories once defined as laws of natural selection
flatfooted males and some females
have a tendency to choose low-lying occupations
those not requiring flight
they are content really
to remain in fields….

In other poems in this collection the use of capitalization distracts and is of uncertain effect, but here it’s as if the loud voice of White Society booms its banal idiocies supporting and accompanying the unfolding tragedy.

I googled Nehassaiu DeGannes to check out what she’s been up to hoping to trace the evolution of her style. She’s written plays, but I found no poetry. A shame. But then, I’m not a very persistent googler, so I’ll hang onto the slim hope that there’s another book or three of poems out there I’ve missed. Let me know.

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt


Temporary Agency
By Michael Colonnese
The Ledge Press, 2007. 25 pgs. $8
Winner, 2007 Ledge Press Poetry Chapbook Award
Reviewed by Emily Scudder

Michael Colonnese writes straightforward, powerful poems about work – temporary work. In his aptly titled chapbook, Temporary Agency, Colonnese doles out worksites – loading docks, a doorknocker foundry, a night watchman’s chair, as if the reader, too, was in line waiting for the day’s work assignment. Mostly the sites are rough places inhabited by men, much like the b/w cover photograph of an abandoned factory with broken windows. The author, however, is not trapped in any type of work for long, and that is where the tension resides in Temporary Agency. In his poem titled “Scabs,” Colonnese’s insider/outsider stance is declared in the ending stanzas that describe his relationship with a Spanish-speaking coworker.

Mainly, we exchanged salt tablets
and white paper cones of water
that the foundry provided for free,
anxious to replace what was lost in sweat,
and somehow communicated as best
we could without a common language.

I think I was reading Marx that summer –
not that it matters now.
What remains for me
are his blood-flecked eyes
meeting mine for a few seconds,
and the molten anger of expendable men
in the glare of that ordinary pour.

Colonnese’s writing style suits his topic. His strong opening lines immediately place us, “at 19 I had a night watchman’s job” or “Supposedly, we were the lucky ones…” and yet emotional content – anger, boredom, failure, resignation – is equally well-served by his direct, accessible language, and use of short lines, such as in the poem “Inside the Bell.”

By five in the afternoon, a foreman
would promise me double overtime if I kept at it.
Up yours, I said, I quit.
Or rather that was what I didn’t say,
mistaking wordlessness for pride.

Interestingly, not all 14 poems in Temporary Agency are about work. A few poems, most notably “A Mercy” about his father’s final stroke, left me wanting to read more of Colonnese’s poetry, and wondering what other subjects might be on this poet’s mind.


Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday
By Justin Lacour
The Providence Athenaeum, $5
Winner, 2004 Philbrick Poetry Award

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Even if John Ashbery hadn’t written the blurb on the back of this chapbook, you’d have to eat the book instead of reading it to miss the influence. So, if you hate Ashbery and can’t follow—for this reader another seeming influence—Kenneth Koch, skip it.

What? Still reading? Then, don’t write Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday off as just another pallid imitation. Though you will find lines like these from “Rendezvous in the Anthology”: “The years had been reconfigured/ As if obscured by trapdoors,” that strike the ear as Ashbery’s often surprisingly moving absurdist-abutment-that-gets-to-meaning mode; though here we don’t get the pay-off. And a little later in the same poem we find Ashbery’s sentimental/lyric absurd, “In the fields of whiskey and starlight,” again without the sudden and surprising emotional kick-in-the-gut that Ashbery can deliver.

Luckily, Lacour has an engaging voice of his own and after verbally touching his hat a few times, he capers off along its own pleasing paths. For example “Ekphrastic” begins:

We both had high hopes for ironclads,
Though we’d been hood winked this way
Before: the desire for sudden curtsies,
The promise of more affordable flagpoles.

Or later in the same poem, we find the surprising, “So little ever changes,/Just the little ducks and gunboats here.”

Lacour uses language play to create a bit of mist that lifts just enough to make out the landscape. For instance skipping through sonnet III:

There was a small disaster with the marching band:
Someone’s pet was trapped, somehow, inside the red drum,
But the parade-goers tried to remain polite to us.
I existed in a purely ceremonial capacity,
Then the final couplet:
It was so embarrassing. If you hadn’t been there,
I don’t know how I would have told you.

He rewards us with the occasional laugh-out-loud abutment, or absurdly touching explanations as in these lines from “Gravity’s South,” “ Your story could be epic,/But it is hard to tell; the light is so bad here./ And I am saving my voice for now.”

Lacour also gives us enticing opening lines, “If you should suddenly become a swashbuckler,” and “Though the Welsh have the worst/Sort of folklore for our situation,” or even, “Well, I don’t like the look of that cloud.”

Finally Lacour has the capacity to write character through voice. With it he builds a story, or the impression of a story, about ultimately compelling and important passages in a relationship with a “you.”

In the end, the poetic style of Mr. Gravity’s Blue Holiday is poorly served by excerpting, so cut Lacour a bit of slack. If any of this appeals to you, let’s say it’s worth the five dollars.


I Lied All Winter
by Arline Levinson
Angelfish Press,Ithaca, N.Y., 1970. 18 pages.
Available at libraries and out-of- print online book vendors.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Arline Levinson’s “I Lied All Winter …” is an instance , at 7 inches tall and 18 poems in length, of how small a chapbook can be and a reminder of how small can be big.
Big because a chapbook can exemplify that rare thing in literary production, the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. This is because chapbook crafting allows a close collaboration between poet and book designers that’s impossible at larger “mainstream” presses.
In this case, wood engraver Gary Marcuse, pen artist Anna Shapiro and the anonymous printer who worked in letter press Garamond (ever the most elegant and legible of typefaces, though there are nearly as many various Garamonds as presses), have achieved an ensemble that’s more than pretty and perhaps less than beautiful; something authentic and aesthetic in a non-trivial way. (Bricks and leaves, respectively, being examples of the trivial way.)
The 18 poems, even as lyrics, are small; the longest at 16 lines and the shortest (several) at 6. This stakes the poems’ risk- and something always needs to be-at their peculiar point of brevity. Longer lyrics, like Larkin’s, place their chips on a different square of exposure: the initiating scaffolding, the arch of drama, the stretching nave of narrative. Short pieces, like Levinson’s are just there, exposed in their bare necessities, ‘poor and unaccommodated” (to almost misquote Shakespeare). There is no room for error, which is to say, there is great room for error.
And there are mis-takes here. A certain unconnected and conventionalized use of images “O untie the rainbow before the storm is done./ Over your brow, what wind shall flow?” [Ver Perpetuum] .There is a reaching for a/effect “who drags the blood through the vein until you softy come again? [My Pleasures].
But these flaws fade before a cardinal virtue: the poems are poetically conceived. Levinson may misstep but she knows the dance- that lyric poetry is intensified language, between and in literary tropes…”who crosses the bridge at twilight to darkness?/Entering the heart of it through the aorta of boughs …” . That poetry should not merely report perceptions but propose and propound them: “the thoughts deprived of ease/that have regained it make the poem, which like a double-note/holds the extracted thought/against the restlessness.’
There are two manifest influences here. One is A.R. Ammons, epigraphically twice flagged, in his short stanza-long enjambment phase. Characteristically, the poems are free-verse, with some syllabic discipline and terminal couplet riming, suggestive of more formal procedures.
The second influence then, lest we forget it in its distant obviousness, is sonnet Shakespeare’s monologic “dialogues” with a problematic beloved. ‘I Lied all Winter’s" thematic unity-and delight, is in the relating,via imagistic snapshot, of a relationship.
"The crayoned tulips not in beds, but rising out of the sweet grass.
Your appearence interrupted only my dream of you.
All drugs suspend their action in the spreading candlelight,
the blood's undertow." [Point Lobos]
One may be reminded of Wordsworth’s (another of Levinson’s tagged poets) short poem about the sonnet (and its Tudor master-maker) where he observes that bees, which can fly over mountains, are happiest in the cone of flower. Little can be sweet; in the context of poetry, little should always be big, as Levinson’s small book, satisfyingly, is.