2010 Chapbook Reviews

by John Surowiecki
Illustrated by Terry Rentzepis

Review by Laurie Rosenblatt

Small in size, text in Cochin with titles in Copperplate, printed on soft paper, and bound with a hand tied brown hempen string—ok, I don’t really know it’s hemp, I didn’t try to smoke it or anything—still, Further Adventures of my Nose, is gorgeous. And Ugly Duckling Presse doesn’t rest on its laurels, they throw in color illustrations by Terry Rentzepis to boot! So, what’s the catch?

John Surowiecki’s chapbook is, let me say it again, beautiful, but it is not, if our reviewers are a representative sample, for everyone. Some readers may find Rentzepis’ surreal illustrations frightening. Ok, ok there is a nose standing in a field--grass below, trees behind, sky above—a nose free from its face looking at the reader with asymmetrically placed eyes. There is also a print of The Beloved with her cello (she has no nose), and a nose posed with several noses painted by Picasso. Finally, yes Virginia that is a tumor penning a postcard.

For some readers the poems may be hard going as well. If you don’t like Gogol and Sterne, if Ionesco and Durang set your teeth on edge then Surowiecki’s chapbook is not for you.

In addition, some readers may find Surowiecki’s poems unpleasing simply for taking on, as they do, cancer of the nose.

On the other hand Further Adventures of My Nose, is definitely for some people, me included. And, Surowiecki should be required reading for anyone working with people being treated for cancers of the head and neck.

Though serious in intent, the poems do not speak in earnest tones. Nor is this chapbook sentimental or upliftingly courageous in the manner of a Lifetime Special or a Disney film. So if you’re looking for a cancer story to make you feel cancer might be tolerable all the while dutifully providing that little frisson, that small taste of suffering that makes the telling believable, Surowiecki is not your poet.

“My nose/walks the world while I’m only a mirror to it...,” the absurd premise concretizes that me-not-me feeling when the body betrays through cancer. It’s a shock when some part of your body goes solo, revolts, seems to develop independent intentions, a purpose of its own. In “Epigraph & Epigram” the speaker first quotes Sartre—

But in order for this absolute
exteriority to be given in the form
of the “there is,” there must be a

He then gives us the view from where he stands, “Either everything exists except my nose/ or nothing exists except my nose which/ somehow amounts to the same thing.”

Just so. The nose goes through some indelicate changes, it grows colorful, grows a tumor; then takes off, travels, and starts a family. Finding itself far from home, and perhaps feeling a bit guilty, the nose writes e-mail from Egypt:

Sphinges have no noses no larynges, either.
They remain silent on the subject of everyday life
& refuse to covet the stir & wealth that lingers
closest to the ground.

Sphinges are ¼ Pharaoh & ¾ housecat.
They behave like antimatter. A nose,
on the other hand, connects the causeless world
to another lacking consequences

ABC. Always be cartilaginous.

How else would the speaker show us his mutilated face, his horror and shame, without sending the reader right out of his or her chair?

In, “A Nose of Color,” the speaker eludes feeling, dissociates rather than taking inventory and unbundling his feelings for us:

He has become a nose of color’
unfortunately, that color is purple,
darkening to ruby unparagoned,
color of the Crab, of shadows sliding
along fresh morning snow,
of a plum hastily stolen, flesh to flesh,
stone to heart, skin to livid skin.

Dr. S**p points out pustules,
papules, rhinnorrhea, ______,
_____, _________, & _______.
Current has spilled somewhere,….

(A Nose of Color)

Now a separate individual, the nose has become heedlessly, recklessly colorful. The betrayed speaker attempts to deny the consequences—first by comparing the hideously abnormal color to shadows on snow, then to a plum—chasing solace through lyrical description and sensuous associations. The word livid brings us back to reality—and sends us back to that plum. Stripped of, “hastily stolen” and “flesh to flesh,” the plum has a nasty exactness and tormenting clarity (like the Sphinges). When, Dr. S**p speaks, the reader gets only a couple of technical terms before running into blanks—anguish and fear deafen us as well.

Somewhere current has indeed spilled in this chapbook where playful word choice and an artful, almost light voice give the poems an edge, a false bravado whistling in the dark. This tightly wound speaker, made nearly insane by horror and suffering, reveals the terrified depths sounded during treatment for cancer. He lets us watch him sweat and spin punning, ironic, absurdist attempts to distance himself from pain. We end up face to face with agony.

And sometimes, for instance in “Daydream No. 2: Speaking of Oral Sex” or even more starkly in “A World w/o Odors,” only small stylistic flourishes such as, “w/o” and “&,” provide an anemic feint before we take it on the nose (as it were):

There is a darkness of another kind, a place
of dead shapes & flat sounds where nothing
rides on the air, where lilacs & the ocean
are only sad movies of themselves.

In this same vein, the final poem, “Follow Up” speaks plainly and truthfully about the human inability to sustain intense feeling:

Dread is a vague sensation of discomfort
from a barely remembered dream.
Joy has slipped away, H2O thru fingers.
Sublime purple skies are pushed aside.
Floods recede & droughts are quenched.
You know, it really lasts only so long----
----this new appreciation for life.

This is a gutsy chapbook about a terrifying illness by a skilled and humane poet. It’s worth the trouble.

Moon Journal Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

thought-fish. If the title isn't intriguing enough, then the cover art seals the deal. You can hardly help yourself – the color, the geometry, this ethereal woman ascending to where? Who cares! The design by Moon Press Journal, the cover illustration by the poet Ruan Wright herself, establishes a mood – experimental, optimistic, unique.

Recently I read a publisher’s lament that out of 50 chapbook contest finalists, over 20 of the manuscripts were almost indistinguishable, lacked a distinctive “voice.” The poems seemed workshopped to death - rough edges smoothed, loose ends tightened, exclamations muted. A poet gives something up when toning down, but this is not Wright’s problem.

Ruan Wright gives up nothing! “Oh Earth! Give way and let me in…” Wright exclaims in the opening line of her poem titled “Insomnia.” She illustrates her four yoga poems – “Balasana,” “Dandasana,” “Shavasana,”” Tadasana.” She shapes and breaks lines to her own liking, steps into a male chauvinist’s shoes, then drops a dead sparrow on your doorstep – stunning and still. After each poem I had absolutely no idea what was coming next. Two playful short poems appear. Why? Because they do.


In my dreams
I’m a cat
and lithe
with nine
each of them

thought-fish is no New Age Yoga poetry collection, yet it does have something of that eclectic feel. I almost found myself looking for a yoga CD tucked inside the back cover, but the thought vanished when Mary and Jesus appeared. The few poems deeply based in the Christian tradition strengthen the contemplative grain of the whole collection rather than disrupt. “Worm” is one of Wright’s best, and for anyone who has ever sat in a childhood Sunday School class and wondered exactly what it meant when instructed “Jesus died for our sins,”- it’s a flashback, skillfully carried forward.


Was it the lie I told in Fourth Grade,
That saved my skin, but gave Clyde hell –
Is that the sin you saved me from?

Or the time I told Mum I’d cleaned my teeth
But hadn’t – she must have known,
She always did – was that the one?

Or the lie I tell myself each day
That I am OK and everyone else is wrong
Or just as bad, so it’s all the same?

So what’s next? How about board games? “We Played Monopoly” and “Tiddlywinks” take us right into Wright’s childhood in 1960s England. Her direct language, not folksy but comforting nevertheless, mirrors the nostalgia of rainy days stuck inside a grandmother’s house, or the reassurance of worn 500 pound notes, game-money hoarded and counted. Mostly, Wright reminds us why any of this matters at all. It is what good poets do.


Do you remember how we played
Monopoly the long days of summer?
You were always the racing car,
I was always the flat iron, ….

And does it matter if you don’t remember?

Well, yes,
it does now,
now that our childhood home is gone
along with our parents,
and our childish selves are buried
under the dirt of so many years of work
and child rearing and
trying not to go bankrupt or end up in jail.

For all her play and unpredictability, there is a pervasive quietude throughout thought-fish that weights it. Remember the woman on the cover? Look again. She seems to ascend unencumbered. To do so requires an interior launch pad, confident and known. Annie Dilliard’s book title “Holy the Firm” comes to mind and easily describes a place Wright herself seems to inhabit. Each poem is a bit of this world – reeled in. thought-fish.

by Dian Duchin Reed
27 pages. $14.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

“Don’t be stupid.”

This might be the prime moral exhortation were it not for the many one word negations, such as “Goebbels”, by all accounts, a very intelligent man. So OK, “let’s not be verbally stupid”; there is never, ever, virtue in that. Possibly the chief value of Poetry is as a kind of reciprocating engine, producing and recycling verbal intelligence, more effectively as container and medium than for any particular content or message, a perpetual notion machine that makes the reader smarter simultaneously with his investment of that intelligence in the poem’s own potentiality for meaning. And so it goes, the most ascendant of Hegel’s Aufhebung, a Convolvulus, and yes, it really is that simple! We pause, dear reader (always assume one reader) for rebuttal and to assert that this unintegrated arabesque is not nearly as detached as it must appear but derives from the work in hand.

Because the poems in Dian Duchin Reed’s’ "Medusa Discovers Styling Gel" are intelligent* (and nothing rebarbative, as when the Brits say “clever”, in the praise), instantiating a verbal alertness where words reflect and refract in arrangements that compose the unified object of many facets.

Can we count on Space? But it was less / than nothing before the Big Bang ./ Even now, confronted by a massive object, / it bends the truth, stretches the facts.//And that trickster Time,/ as dependent on speed as any junkie,/ always relies on someone else’s /perspective, having none of its own.//Perhaps Truth does not exist. Perhaps /the universe is composed of Consequences/ instead. And perhaps Consequences / are the only path to an honest universe./No matter how long it takes, no matter/ how far from the sources, Consequences / will always catch up with us./Then, the Big Bust.( from The Search for Truth).

“Matter” being a pun that matters.

Most of the poems explore an argument that extends, for force and effect, through one long sentence so that redaction does this work a disservice.

Yet every map moves me/from metaphor to mystery//my own town shrunk down/to a dot, all spheres turned to/ a series of concentric circles. //Evenings, the swish and crash/ of sea onshore reminds me/of cymbals, of the hopeless // hope of symbols. I need no flowers, my only rose/the compass rose.//in whose petalled points / I lose myself/to show the better ways. (from “The Mapmaker Muses )
At its best, the writing is vectored in that perfect location of inevitability and surprise, reminiscent of Heather McHugh or at a more distance remove of prose, Donald Barthelme.

Among Reed’s big subjects are fate, loneliness, truth, the Medusa, Epicurus, all sat down and effectively interrogated in a focused light as if she knows what most contemporary poets forget: every poem is guilty, guilty of the gravest crime, Existence, its only possible expiation being the transcript of the transgression, the poem itself. ‘Lucifer’s reaction to his own dizzying/descent, the kind of cosmic crash/that lovers of commotion might/consider dazzling, a work the meek /cache to praise the sun’s daily glissade / to music that’s so subtle, its silent.” /(From Dazzled)

If there is a criticism of Reed’s brilliant successes, it is, as usually the case with persons, along the line of their virtues. There’s a sometimes relentless, working-it-too-hard monotonic quality, though this persistence and pursuit is also, subtextually, a pointing to and moral insistence that in a world exiled from its own best garden where “Fame and her best friend Fortune strut down the street arm in arm with their double dates, Pain and Fear", we must do better, be brighter.

Only an old bold critic (careless of crashing) would prescribe a writer’s next book, suggest that Reed’s further advance might involve a step backwards to the bad poetry badlands of  looseness, inexactitude and dreamy relinquishment. But something like that drift is what makes Tennyson deeper than Browning, Coleridge more compelling than Byron, Thomas’ plainsong more plaintive than ... Never mind.

We await the next turn of this author’s poetic karma-dharma wheel.

*[And by "intelligent" one means capacity and capability, verbal mindfulness in its many modes, including the emotive. For the most exhaustive (some say exhausting) study of intelligence as moral moderator, succeeding and failing, see Henry James, The Golden Bowl.]

39 pages including Afterword

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Family history can be a rich vein for poets to mine, and this chapbook by Bert Stern is filled with voices from the past--his wife’s great-great-grandfather, a nineteenth-century silk trader, and his own parents and grandparents, who came to America from Moldavia early in the twentieth century to escape the pogroms. The poems are memorable, direct, and moving--the voices speak to us in an immediate way.

Part I of the book contains seven poems about Stern’s wife’s ancestor, Frank Woodbridge Cheney, who went to China in the mid-19th century to trade for raw silk for the family business in Connecticut. Stern explains in the Afterword that he wrote these poems while living in a house that had been in his wife’s family for three generations--a house that was full of “benevolent ghosts” which he finally had to write about. These poems--some in the first person, some in the third person--give a vivid picture of the strangeness of Hong Kong and Shanghai through the eyes of a foreigner, someone who was there to conduct business but who was haunted by the memory of his dead mother, Waitsill, and his three sisters, who had died while the family lived in Ohio before returning to Connecticut:

Father said God damn Ohio and we came back,
to Connecticut and true settlement.
The wilderness killed Waitsill, then the girls.
This left a tear in him and me.
. . . . . . .
Our destiny was silk.

The details of the life Frank observes in China are fascinating and strange, but the strongest emotion of these poems lies in the speaker’s constant awareness, all through his travels, of his lost family members:

Death had followed him 6000 miles
and never had been a stranger. In a clasp
of memory as in a cameo locket, he still held
his mother’s and his sisters’ dying faces.

In the final poem of the series, standing on the deck of a boat in an icy wind, Frank thinks about the contrast between his cold isolation and the sweet smoothness of silk:

he would stand here forever in this desolation
without companionship or any kindness of heart,
and he was driven here by silk, the fineness of fabric,
the sweet lingering of the fingers as they caressed it.

Part II of the chapbook, which consists of nine poems about Stern’s parents and grandparents, was more difficult for him to write, as he says in the Afterword: “It was harder for me to make peace with my own family ghosts than with the ghosts of strangers.” He goes on to say: “I myself became American by turning away from my own dead, who had left me only a few scattered tales of their old lives and little of their lore. But when the time came that I needed them, with a real aching, the fulfillment came, as it always does, through the imagination, where alone we can have knowing.” From that emotional turning point came the poems in The Ragpicker’s Grandson, many of them written in the voices of Stern’s mother, aunt, and grandfather, as he imagines their past and their journey to America. (Several of these poems also appear in Steerage, Stern’s more recent book-length collection, another remarkable book.) His mother’s journey through life was perilous from the very beginning, starting in the womb when her mother was threatened by a muzhik with a knife; she “ didn’t want to be born” and was turned upside down before birth; she was so sick with a fever on the boat to America that her family didn’t think she would live. But, as Stern writes,

My mother
who wanted not to be born grew up,
married, was my mother, suffered. All
suffered to bring me here to this room
bigger than the house she was born in.

In the moving and memorable poem “Steerage,” Stern’s mother speaks in the first person about what the boat trip to America was like--the crowdedness, the smells, the sickness, the endless rocking. And then the sighting of a bird when they were almost there: “There was a bird I liked, / its name was I don’t remember./ It skimmed the waves when we were a day from shore./ . . . When the ship came into the harbor/ my spirit was waiting for me./ It was dancing on the sand,/ like a bird at the edge of water.”

Two other poems are about Stern’s grandfather, who sold rags and old clothes after he came to America. We hear his voice in a poignant prose poem: “In the afternoon the cart is full of rags, the clean ones I’m selling, the dirty ones I buy. Once a week when I come to the Hertel section I drive by the house of my son who won’t talk to me. He’s ashamed. I disgrace him. Sometimes the grandson is in the street playing games with a ball. I don’t talk to him, he don’t talk either. . . . Who am I to be ashamed of? A man making a living, driving a horse and cart, looking out at the world.”

The chapbook closes with a short third section--two poems which, as Stern says, “bind me in a circle with my ancestors.” The last one, “A Little Poem” (which appears again, with a few revisions, as the opening poem in the later volume Steerage) is one that I immediately added to my list of all-time favorite poems--the poet’s voice is so wise, and so tender, and so humorous:

Oy, Gott, send me a little poem,
you’ll never miss it.
Sweet gottenyu!
You know how I could use it.
Not Paradise Lost, noch,
or the Book of Job I’m asking,
only something normal,
a little poem proper to me.
. . . . . . .
Did I say I want to hear the earth thumping in it
like in the beginning, on the third day?
. . . . . . .
No, a little poem only,
to watch water flowing through rocks,
fishes still in the current,
geese flying over,
noisy, like children.

Eleni Sikelianos

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Every once in a while you find an unusual chapbook. The Abstracted Heart of Hours & Days, kept me busy with its allusive, disjointed, psychology of hours. These fragments carry labels (not really titles) such as, “Second Experiment with an Hour” that seem to apply to complex and lovely drawings of flower-like structures surrounded by tiny illegible script. Below these drawings are oddly evocative poems. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say broken pieces of this chapbook-length poem.  For instance, the third section of “(Second Hour’s Residue) (Public)”:

with rations, reasons

“old as I look,’ says the hour,
speaking through a woman at the counter

I would like this petal-edge hour to reassemble a ranunculus, to
white out portions of the hour that please us less   Stand back and

look at this hour       its hands waving at the out   out edges

But, the experiment doesn’t always work. At times the language becomes so abstract and strange that the phrases mean anything and nothing, seemingly lost in their own rhetoric. But for the most part Sikelianos uses skillful language juxtaposed with her obsessively detailed drawings to allude to something that we can never capture—the phenomenological experience of time passing. Her project fascinates and often astonishes. Leaving behind the ubiquitous narratives found in most chapbooks, The Abstracted Heart of Hours & Days is an event engaging the reader in active and invigorating ways. And Sikelianos’ method may be the only way to approximate the experience of consciousness adrift in time.

By Reginald Gibbons

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

A short chapbook review is better than a long one when a series of poems is so carefully interwoven that they become an event in which an intimate conversation unfolds between the reader’s inner voice and the poems. But, Fern-Texts is actually a three-way conversation since Gibbons invites S.T. Coleridge, as represented by his journals covering roughly 1772-1834, to join us.

As you may imagine, Fern-Texts is therefore impossible to excerpt and even more daunting to explicate since neither can be done without marring and diminishing the work. Sadly, this is a review, so a small excerpt and a few observations are required. 

The chapbook is, it seems to me, one long poem divided into eleven sections. The lines are most often seven syllables long interdigitating down the page like fern fronds or ice crystals ferning on glass. In his first two poems, Gibbons places a quote from Coleridge’s journals at or near the poem’s opening, then associates in an interesting, autobiographical way that never becomes too idiosyncratic or cloyingly confessional. For example, the second poem begins:

“Love transforms the souls into
                                       a conformity with the
object loved—"  And when I too                                           [1796?]
                                       was twenty-four I had my   [1971]
own experience of such self-
                                       transformation that I could
not yet seize or recognize—

Once we have the idea, Gibbons sprinkles Coleridge’s thoughts, musings, and observations here and there throughout the poems. Gibbon's is completely at ease joining himself and Coleridge in a fluid progression that seamlessly builds a serious and thought-provoking conversation.  Buy it. Read it. You won't be sorry.

Beautiful/Brutal : Poems About Cats
by Amy Miller
Cyclone Press, Ashland Oregon, 2009
34 p., $4

Reviewed by P. Nelson

Would it be critical “overkill” to write a very serious review of a book of poetry about cats? Let us see.

The history of animals on the planet—sorry! the history of animals in literature is, not news in either case, not good. While there is much serviceable and entertaining prose, most animal themed poetry is well intended dreck and if you don’t believe me, check out even a good anthology, such as “The Great Cat” (Knopf, 2005). The almost intractable problem is this—animals, even domesticated ones, are “Other”. Hard to get inside their heads. (Though there have been commendable efforts, the best often least known, such as Will James’ semi-stream of equine consciousness “Smoky” and Jefferies’ magisterial allegory, animated by a lifetime of forest and game keeping, “Wood Magic”. Mostly, we have recourse to facile mythologizing –(my cat Isis or Loki) or simple sentiment (and some say the same deflection “informs” our dealing with another utterly Other, God).* An entire book could be written on the stupendous disappointments of animal themed literature and reader, I hope you do it, taking, please, my title “No Paradise, No Paragon” while you are at it. Are we beating around the bush here? Yes. Because the fate of animals makes me sad and the status of animals in literature makes me (less) sad. And of course, I dislike having been wrong about the chapbook in hand, Amy Miller’s “Beautiful/ Brutal”.

A very nicely printed little number. 11 x 13 cm., with good typography, sporting a stylish cover and maroon fly leaves, the kind of attractive article, too small for the regular shelves, you’d expect right at the cash register, the hope being you will pick it up in lieu of the change you’ll be getting from you $15.95 purchase of the latest Billy Collins. “Cat Poems” right next to “Sayings of the Buddha”, “The Tiny Book of Haiku”, and “Pocket Sonnets”, a cute, “niche” book, easy to buy and easier to forget.

Such archness IS beside the point. Except as indicating how this reviewer was wrong. Time, in other words, to let the critical cat out of the bag. Miller’s book is not just a good book of cat poetry, it is a good book of poetry.

She has looked carefully at cat/human relations, the familiar-strange middle ground of contact, done the hard work of close perception and then shaped this coming-to- knowledge into free verse that is effective, informing; at times affectionate but not sentimental.

She was sleek and frightened/and slick as oil under the flatbed,/ sliding backward to a corner./ I reached a finger into the dark./ She purred, took a step, waited./ My finger found her ear, soft as a bird, and she bit- a savage sudden grab.” (from Stray)

There is an almost Herbertian quality or turn to some of the poems and curiously, it is this artificial, slightly baroque touch that grounds and confirms the naturalness and rightness of this work.

You look at them/differently now… the cat, alert on the windowsill,/ has no eye for horizons./ With legions of limp gophers/and cottonball quail chicks,/she has made you understand this./ You have wiped blood from her bowel /.... You came to this island / to drink the world,/ but the brew is bitter:/ nutmeg and brine,/ camphor and salt,/ the rind of the melon./ Animal medicine./ And you/ drink. (from Animal Medicine)

All of us, poets, at various way stations of our lives, have written of desire, betrayal, death, loneliness, of Auden’s unholy trinity of Terror, Concupiscence and Pride. These are our intimates and familiars. But to write well about another creature whose reputed favorite activities are grooming and sleeping is a rare achievement. (In the act of focus upon the creature, the poet can return to deeper themes, clarified and enriched by the glance of self-forgetting.)

There is no destination./He plays with a light orange ball/that is all turnabout,/banked off a baseboard,/sideways off his paw, his tail, coming round /like a boom. Ball and cat/and house ignite a universe/of acceleration, tangents struck /at random, every outcome / branched with outcomes of its own,/ every turn a life begun,/every pause a brink /before the infinite.” (from The Cat Instructs)

Miller’s book, keepsake sized, is indeed a keeper.
* For an assertion that the human is likewise chiefly & inaccessibly "Other", see Nietzsche.


Statutory disclosure : the reviewer shares his life with a cat, “Storri”, “For she counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.” (Chris. Smart).

24 pages, $12

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

What is it about the sonnet that has given it such staying power? Just seeing one on the page provokes an instant leap of recognition, a feeling of greeting an old friend with pleasure and looking forward to seeing the new clothes she is dressed in. Unlike some of the other poetic forms (villanelle, sestina, pantoum), which can often feel forced or artificial, or at least can reflect the great effort that went into confining the poem’s natural movement into a constraining form, the sonnet is a more elastic form that can have endless variations. Even the different possible arrangements of the lines can result in poems that look very different on the page--the octave plus sestet has a whole different feeling from the three quatrains plus rhymed couplet, or from seven unrhymed couplets. Another attraction of the sonnet is its length--with only 14 lines there’s no time for introductions or digressions; the poet has to get to the heart of things quickly and has to write economically, with great compression and concentration of words and images.

Kathleen Kirk’s chapbook consists of 22 sonnets and is a strong collection. The title might lead us to expect variation or violation of the sonnet form, but this is mostly not the case. With a few interesting exceptions, the sonnets have the traditional number of lines (although there is variation in the layout of stanzas), and several of them are rhymed. I think the title refers more to the recurring themes of the poems, as in the chapbook’s opening poem, “Damage.” It’s worth quoting in full because it’s a strong poem, and it introduces many of the recurring themes and images of the book--loss, pain, love, light:

            To be broken is to be whole again
            with the full power of the mind. This is what
            the poets will make me cross out. Listen,
            then, before the damage is done--the cut

            made permanent in print. I stood on the back
            porch, pounding on the brown door--not
            to get in, not to get out, not to get back
            at anyone for harm done. It wasn’t shut--

            it stood wide open like my mouth. Hung
            there on its hinges like my wide open
            silent mouth. Pain is a song I’ve sung
            so long you can’t even hear it now. Open

            your own broken heart. Look! Look how I’ve split
            the wood! Look at the golden, streaming light!

The image of light occurs throughout the book, as can be seen in many of the poem titles: “Light/Falling,” “Light Is,” “At Dusk,” “Day in Night.” These are poems grounded in the life of a family; we read about moments of love and loss--the death of a parent, the mystery of children, the love of a husband (including the humorous poem “My Husband the Electrician,” and the two poems that close the book, with their beautiful evocations of erotic love).

There’s a lot of variation in the arrangement of stanzas in these poems--in addition to the traditional octave plus sestet and the three quatrains plus couplet, there are several poems with no stanza breaks, several arranged in stanzas of 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 lines,  a few with 7 (or in one case 8) couplets, and one with the unusual arrangement of 7 + 1 + 7 lines. The poem that departs most from the sonnet form is a prose poem called “Prose Sonnet to the Silent Father.” It consists of 14 short numbered sections, some self-contained and some enjambed; the theme of the poem is the speaker’s inability to communicate with her father. As an example, here are the last five sections:

            10.  I need to learn how to say the opposite of what I mean but without irony

            11.  (a prose tactic, yours).

            12.  I need to learn how to leave silence at the center

            13.  and still be able to sign my name to it

            14.  as if it were written by me.

In a very interesting move, section 7 of this poem is a blank line.

I like the way images of dreaming intersect with the everyday world in these poems, as in “Interpretation of Dreams” when the poet is trying to explain the meaning of a dream to her children: “I can show them symbols in the living world:/ ‘Here is green holly hidden in the hedge,/ with its sharp dark leaves and its berries, blood red.’” And in the poem “Dreaming in Couplets,” the speaker moves from a mundane scene of slicing bread for dinner into a dream sequence: “Over the water, I remember how/ to fly, the secret hidden for so long/ . . . Here we are in the leaves/ of grass again, flying toward our griefs.”

In short, if you like sonnets, this book will give you a lot of pleasurable reading.

by Rick Black
32 pages. $15

Reviewed by Emily Scudder

Israel is in the news again just as I am sitting down to review Rick Black’s chapbook Peace & War.  Rick Black was a news reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times for 3 years, and he lived in Israel for 6.  Israel is complicated.  He knows that. Haiku is not. He knows that too. In his own words Rick Black assembled this chapbook for the following reason: I never felt like I was able to capture the essence of the country, its paradoxes and contradictions, in my reportage… These haiku are both a protest against war and an attempt to live with the paradoxes of life in Israel.

Peace & War is a well-crafted chapbook. Not all chapbooks are. The binding is in dos-a-dos (back-to-back) style, with the "Peace" poems on one side and the "War" poems on the other.  So where do you begin reading?  Rick Black makes us choose. Am I in a Peace mood right now or a War mood?  The design is deliberate. Black, a book artist and founder of Turtle Light Press, along with being a journalist and poet, puts his talents to good use in the making of this miniature chapbook. Just 3 1/2" x 4 1/2" with 32 haiku, hand-held, you can’t help but flip it.  Form meets function.  Back to front, peace to war, front to back, war to peace.  This tiny chap becomes the physical representation of the paradoxes of life in Israel. You can feel it. I like that.

From War:

just buried soldier-
too soon for his mother to
notice the crocus

empty sandbox –
a mortar shell explodes
nearby harmlessly 

Not all Black’s haiku follow the strict haiku form, 5-7-5, but most do.  He anchors his imagery in traditional themes of geography and nature, and handles the cut or kireji (the place where the haiku is divided into two parts, images or events) with ease.  This is not an experimental collection of American haiku. Black’s haiku are not about Black.  Each haiku ushers us past the finger pointing to the precise object of his attention - an army bulldozer, teens playing soccer in the moslem quarter, an Air Force cadet absorbed by Love’s Labor Lost.  

From Peace:

great blue herons
heading south like f-16s
autumn maneuvers

two old veterans
revisit the battleground
arm in arm

At times there is a sense of disorientation in this collection that I found appealing.  Am I in the War section or the Peace section? It is easy to get turned around, lose one’s bearings for a page or two in Peace & War, and this, perhaps, is intentional.  If not, it is the natural outcome of the subject at hand.  Either way I found myself handling this chapbook, retracing my steps through its pages, and in doing so becoming a witness to Israel’s particular landscape. I noticed the chapbook’s edges had become worn, the soft cover curled almost - a sure sign of engagement, not a reader’s retreat.

not yet abloom
planted in the army boots:
pink geraniums

In war there are moments of peace, in peace reminders of war. Rick Black’s miniature collection of 32 haiku gets at the essence of things as he sees them in Israel - universal, cyclical, flipped. 

By John W. Evans

Reviewed by Susan Jo Russell

As I flip through the pages of a new chapbook, if I find an intelligent poem about baseball, you’ve got me. As a Red Sox fan who has just lived through a particularly dreary April (although things are looking up in May and June), I am even happier when said intelligent poem knows my pain, as only another Red Sox fan or a Cubs fan can. At least I have the comfort of, as our partisan Boston announcers remind us, rooting for a team with two World Series wins in the 21st century. But, ah, the unrequited longings of fans of the Cubbies . . .

John W. Evans’ “Poem Written outside Wrigley Field,” with its tongue-in-cheek nod to Bishop’s “One Art,” is not only a baseball poem—it is about going on in “an autumn,/inconsequential as the previous hundred/or so.” It is about loving what we must love and staying where we must stay, maintaining hope when we have no choice.

Evans’ Zugzwang take its title (and a wonderful word it is on the tongue) from the situation in chess in which any move is a bad one—the player is forced to make a move that will worsen the player’s position in the game. Sounds like a Cubs fan—every move, every year, every game, and hopes dashed again. In the title poem, a relationship is mired in its habits, but it can be easier to remain with those than to look beyond them:

. . . It felt good to keep playing,
to do one thing well over and over again.
Maybe that’s why I liked
the pizza place around the block that burnt our crusts . . . .

Evans is well-traveled—he spent time in Bangladesh in the Peace Corps and in India—and although the more personal poems are rooted in the Midwest, he also has a wider view as in the four-part poem, “The Five-Dollar Shirt,” that pieces together the lives and experience of factory workers in India and asks us to reflect on the consumption of cheap goods made possible by the low pay and unsafe conditions of the workers.

The poems move from Chicago to Dhaka, from personal accounts of his uncles and friends and nieces to a meditation on black pepper and cardamom to a dramatic monologue of Hobbes to Calvin. There are one or two slighter poems in the collection, but the core is strong. Each poem provides something to ponder. The collection deals with failure, yes, with the inability to move forward, but it is layered with a stance towards life that says, “it is what it is” and stretches toward “restoration and withstanding.” You have to take life as it comes, the poems tell us. Sometimes we go through the motions only because some action is required, however fruitless, but sometimes “the sweetness of mango overwhelms our afternoon.”

[Unfortunately, this collection is already out of print. Maybe a deluge of requests will encourage Rock Saw to reprint it.]

15 DECEMBER 2010

The Schwenkfelders by Rebecca Lauren

The Schwenkfelders
By Rebecca Lauren
Co-winner, 2009 Keystone Chapbook Prize
Seven Kitchens Press

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

Rebecca Lauren's The Schwenkfelders collects stories from her German ancestors' migration, a journey that ends in Pennsylvania. The Schwenkfelders' tale attracts and keeps a reader's attention. The narrative line is strong. But Rebecca Lauren keeps the narrative's structure fluid using metaphoric and allusive language. I couldn't put this chapbook down.

The collection weaves a fine fabric out of letters sent back and forth between separated sisters, stories about life lived in an insulated community, and family history spun into myth. In the first poem "Soaring over Spitzberg" the Devil stuffs,

     Schwenkfelders' followers into a sack
     spindly Santa Claus in red with no sleigh.

They're on their way to hell along the epic trajectory. But Lauren turns in a different direction signaling a fairy tale instead,

     While soaring over Spitzberg,
     snow caps gleaming beneath him,
     the Devil snagged a corner
     on the mountain's peak.

     Burlap seams split, spilling
     Schwenkfeldersers into the valley.
     Men's bodies bounced like jacks;
     women's spun and splayed like unfurling yarn.

In some poems, the speaker stops to reflect on the inevitable blank spaces faced when recreating a family's history:

     My grandfather's boots still hammer in the attic. Agitated,
     he turns over boxes and bins and trunks to find
     the blue ribbon or that old newspaper clipping
     of his father pulling two boys from the river.

     But he'll never unearth the genealogy, safely
     tucked away by my grandmother years before—

And a little further on:

     I cannot breathe in this upper room, but outside
     a car idles at the end of the block with its windows
     rolled down. I watch as the driver rummages
     for an address she used to know by heart.

All the Schwenkfelder women weave—some with yarn and some with words.

In "The Spinsters, 1770," we have an epigram from Mary Daly that defines "spinster" as a woman who spins. Spinster also refers to a woman who chooses to define herself as a distinct person, someone who escapes the narrow social definition that depends on men and children. In Lauren's words, "a whirling dervish." The poem begins with the men of Skippack finding Eva Heidrich "cheerful in her widowhood. " She spins through her days "trying not to burn/the food/ or her paper-thin skin." We see her rolling egg noodles, baking bread, and finally entering her spinning room, the stüblein, where, "She is far too old to prick/ her finger on a spindle." Even the poem's lines shuttle back and forth,

     I greet Eva Heidrich
     as one who understands
               the pull of the loom
               the blur of color in fading light.
               I too spin straw
                                      for an iron man
                          who pulls back
                  at my hands, sparks
                  flaring in the open air.

                          Some nights, he goes slack as yarn
                          and I forget
              how to spin—
                                     night blackening to
              cinders in my hands.

The poems in The Schwenkfelders use slant rhyme, repeated lines, even variations on the villanelle and other song forms as sonic devices. In the poem "Stüblein," printed in justified lines like a newspaper clipping, capital letters beat in rhythm.

     Logs squared on two sides only,
     double-boarded floor, a strong shingle
     roof above my head Small stove room
     Roving room of looms Daughter at
     the oven, son in the barn out back
     Stocking yarn spread long like flower
     Garlands Mother's spun coverlet Just a
     wall between—this wall and memory

Arrgh. Technical issues have again had their way with me, the lines imperfectly justified. But, if we look past the reviewer's technical idiocy, we see at first glance no punctuation. Instead the capital letters cut-in to end sentences and phrases. It's well done. We don't lose the thread. But wait. What about those commas?

We're nearly mid-way through the chapbook, so we know by now it's not an oversight during revision. Instead we hear the shuttle's continuity followed by the beaters firm thump in this loom-song.

The German language has a history of alliterative poetics, or so I've heard. So, again, it's no accident that poems here use assonance and alliteration as substitutes for rhyme. Let me try the reader's patience for one pedantic moment to remember that in contrast to alliteration (which occurs primarily at the front of the word), assonance is generally medial and so not aided by the eye. Whew! In short, assonance is more purely an ear thing echoing through the poems in the way predecessors' lives echo through the speaker's identity.

These subtle touches are typical of the deft use of formal elements in Lauren's chapbook. Yet another reason I couldn't stop reading The Schwenkfelders.

28 NOVEMBER 2010

Investigating Nancy Drew

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer
Nancy Drew has had a long career in popular fiction, and even though many things about the novels seem very dated now, she is still a character that many readers remember with admiration and affection. Especially readers, like me, who grew up in the 1950s. It was the decade of postwar complacency, and the role models for teenage girls were limited in that pre-Feminine Mystique era when we couldn’t even imagine the changes the 1960s would bring. Our mothers mostly stayed at home, and many of us had little independence before we went to college. Nancy Drew offered a picture of a different kind of life. Not only was she smart, attractive, independent, and resourceful, but she had no mother telling her what to do! Her father, the prominent attorney Carson Drew, supported her sleuthing activities, admired her intellect, and financed her lifestyle--including her sporty blue roadster, her impressive array of outfits for every occasion, and her constant road trips with her friends--without ever a complaint. Even though there was no mother to run the household, Nancy had no duties in that area because Hannah Gruen, the Drews’ efficient housekeeper, took care of everything. In short, an enviable situation!
But it wasn’t just Nancy’s comfortable life and freedom that we envied, it was her job--even though she was still in high school, she spent much of her time as a very competent detective. She could recognize clues when she saw them, and she knew how to interpret them. She got to the heart of things. She tracked down evildoers and miscreants, and brought justice to the innocent. This, I think, was her real attraction: she could solve mysteries.

For all these reasons, I was delighted to come across Kathleen Aguero’s chapbook, which consists of nineteen poems that are all inspired in one way or another by Nancy Drew. But there’s more to these poems than nostalgia--many of them move quickly into other territory, and Aguero writes with humor and insight about a variety of situations. In the poem “Ambition” she shows the kind of independence that Nancy represented for her readers:
            Nancy, like Athena,
            must have been born
            straight from her father’s head.
            .  .  .  .  .
            out of windows, hiding
            in dark cellars, hardly
            a woman at all, at least
            not like our mothers,
            hair in rollers, lipstick
            smears on coffee cups.
            Go into law or business,
            my mother told me,
            meaning I might have a chance
            to call the shots,
            meaning, she’d also
            wanted to be Nancy.

In other poems Aguero acknowledges the privileged life that Nancy led, as when the faithful housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, speaks to Nancy’s readers in one poem: “How could Nancy get to be Nancy/ without me, a flowered apron/ doing magic tricks--food appears,/ dishes disappear--but not quite a mother/ reigning her in? How many of you/ were born in a house with a live-in housekeeper?” And in “No Parking” she refers to one of the most dated aspects of the novels, the fact that the criminals Nancy pursued were always from the lower social classes: Nancy walks confidently on the beach in a shorefront town where she belongs to the country club, while the “swarthy criminals/ . . . circle in their pick-ups,/ searching for legal parking./ . . . Let them park in Revere and hitchhike here.”
Whereas in the novels Nancy never fails to solve a mystery, in many of these poems she is unsuccessful, as in “Stumped,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “Mystery of the Tolling Bell.” And in the poem “Mammogram,” Nancy is confronted by a situation unlike anything she’s had to deal with in her investigations:
            The clue, a small lump
            she finds sleuthing
            in her own breast.
            .  .  .  .  .
            She’s felt baffled before,
            but what is this drop in her gut
            like an elevator going down?
            Her own pale breast
            withholds its secrets.
We are in very different territory now. And in the poems toward the end of the book, Aguero leaves Nancy Drew behind to explore more general situations, all of them mysteries where we have no certain answers. In “Suppose” the poet asks how it is that teenagers, even one’s own children, can do things that hurt others, or can be victims. In “The Case of the Suicidal Friend,” she writes about the helplessness of those left behind after a suicide, and the way the living search for clues to the reason for the death. Three of the book’s most moving poems are about the speaker’s mother, who is suffering from dementia and eventually has to live in a nursing home. Dementia is certainly one of life’s biggest mysteries, as Aguero says at the beginning of “The Case of the Impersonator”:
            The first clue is she doesn’t know me.
            The mystery is that she looks just like my mother.
In these three strong poems the language of mysteries and clues takes on a whole new resonance.
In the book’s final poem, “Zen Nancy,” Aguero returns to Nancy Drew, but this is a very different Nancy who has gone beyond the solving of mysteries and has reached a new level of consciousness: “What curiosity/ she feels is inner, quiet./ The mysteries she solved, so innocent/ they hardly seem crimes at all.” These days, Nancy is solving “more difficult cases”:
            the code of the aurora borealis,
            the trail of the horseshoe crab, the sound
            of stone, the color of air,
            the vast and clueless sky.
I love this picture of a new, enlightened Nancy. It’s a satisfying ending to a very enjoyable book.

14 NOVEMBER 2010

Things of the Weather by Wendy Barker

Things of the Weather by Wendy Barker Pudding House Publications, 2008 30 p. $10
Reviewed by P. Nelson
In a mood*, it can seem Poetry is under assault-and “the Perps”?-- its best friends, poets. The old bromide that more people write poetry than read it (stale news by at least 1600) has reached a more toxic distillation -- more poets write than read it. Here, Cher Reader, you’d be right to ask “how can you possibly know such a thing, Pew Poll perhaps?” But proofs can proceed by theorem; thus: IF poets were reading work worse than they write, THEN they’d write better by repulsion, if the same quality, they’d write better by competitiveness and if reading better quality, by aspiration. And so by a series of reactive reformations, the curve of poetry would be rising, which isn’t the case.
Many contemporary poems are really short-short stories, yearning for the bulked up lineaments of prose. The leading cause of poetic pallor is “trope-ic anemia” (sometimes called Levine’s Disease or Updike’s Disorder) but which critical clinicians properly call “metaphorosis”.So it is good to be able to present a healthy specimen, Wendy Barker’s “Things of the Weather”.
Condensation Nuclei
Sea salt, pollen and smoke./Particles the air / needs to form a cloud./A pebble in the palm./Phrase dropped on a plate./Your words I’ve collected/ and lined up like bowls/of ash, or sand, /stared at, and wept /or like our lidded glass/containers: oats, wheat,/ and opalescent grains/ we use to knead/our bread, yeasty /loaves with raisins./Rain, relief, the irritants/washed back to loam./Saliva, the body’s/juices that digest /grit between our teeth.
There’s a coolness here, a detachment and distance, the “personal” almost off stage, oblique, toned down. The attraction is in the elusiveness, the allusiveness. Baker, a “makeur” gets it: a poet (ever, optimally, a title conferred, not claimed) is not a maker of poems (almost anyone can do that) but a shaper of language; a distinction that is (and should be) critical. 
High Sky
The sky has slipped its stitches,/the feathered cirrus, wool of cumulus,/ gauze shreds of layered stratus /gone with the unexpected guests/who left this morning/after a night of pelted rain./Now the sun flashes and shears/the few seams left/ till bare skin bursts through/and we’re down to ourselves,/ Two loose threads, the knot undone.
Now this is perhaps not as coolly removed as some might prefer, composure here softening into comfort. But the important thing is this : a poetic organization that is essentially vertical and harmonic rather than prosaic, horizontal and narratising. Harmony over melody, i.e., anybody’s “Late Quartets”.
Because, really, nobody cares about the raw testimony of your personal experience except your mother and the courts. The relationship of “experience” to poetry is like that of clay to pots, substantive but not defining.(Experiences, rhetorically rendered and imagistically enhanced are another thing entirely.)[See Susan -Jo Russell’s review of Soot.]
If I’ve inadvertently taken poets to task, I don’t mean to privilege critics and reviewers.
Reading reviews is like watching French people talk on Euro TV, never mind the jabber, it’s the gestures! Turn down the sound and watch the hands. As to major critics, its time that lowers the volume. The great critics- Burke, Richards, Empson and Auerbach are less recalled than rusting hulks of battleships. Perused by, at best, a lifeboat’s worth of professors,what’s enduring is not what they said but what, in urgent words, they were pointing to. What Fiddler Crab does with its own little claw.What we, the memorious remnant of readers, can turn to and briefly look.(Put another way, the long term value of criticism, provided it makes the proper signs, is indicative rather than constitutive.)
A bone, too, to pick with some responsible party. The cover engraving, as apposite as the properly cited titular epigram, isn’t credited. While its style is so individual as to be widely recognized, not one reader in a hundred will connect the cover with its only begetter, that typically short lived and unhappy 19th century genius, J. J. Grandville ( aka Jean Ignace-Isidore Gerard) whose plate 70 from Un Autre Monde of lightning rods grounding thunderbolts should perpetuate his fame.
Finally, lest Barker’s chapbook seem shorted in these critical circuits, one of its pleasures is its organizing and titular mechanics, chiefly cloud names that befit these definite but shape shifting poems. Turning pages, I was reminded more than once of days passing and more than once needed to consult,with delight, Day’s classic reference work, “ Clouds and Weather.” ______________________________________________________________________
*See Richard III, (I.2, 248)

31 OCTOBER 2010

Kilimanjaro On My Lap

Kilimanjaro on my Lap
by Epiphanie Mukasano
Dakini, 2010 
45 pages. ZAR90

Reviewed by Moira Richards
Kilimanjaro on my Lap – Africa’s highest mountain in someone’s lap? What an intriguing title… is this metaphor of unbearable burden? I turn immediately to the contents page in search of a title poem with clue to the mystery. But no, decide rather to begin at the beginning. 
I examine the cover, look close at the detail. There, amid masks and musical instruments superimposed on the African continent, are books, some snippets of text, and a name – ‘Black Moses’. Black Moses? Harriet Tubman, the courageous and determined woman who not only escaped oppression but returned again and again to help hundreds of other US slaves, including her own parents, to their freedom…? More puzzles. Impatiently I skip the introductory matter to find the poetry.  
The book opens with a poem celebrating Mother Earth, followed by another, chant-like piece, that celebrates Mother Africa and then, starkly, the narrator introduces herself as daughter of these two mothers but also,

I am a rootless tree
standing as if by magic
swinging back and forth
yet battling not to crumble
                                                  (I am from)
A couple of pages on, a poem of grief makes mention of the Rutare mountains. Rutare is one of the regions in Rwanda that bore the brunt of the 1994 genocide which saw the massacre of (some estimates say) 800 000 people in the space of 100 days. 8 000 men, women, children killed every day for a quarter of a year. With a slow chill, the context of this collection begins to emerge. And then makes itself clear, in a series of stanzas narrated with unflinching directness…

We scattered like bees
from a troubled hive
my mother died a pig's death
a beetroot crushed
no looking back
amid the frenzied shootings
a decade and more later
I'm still on the run
night and day I dream of her
her last minute stirs my mind
night and day I pray to God
to save the mothers of Africa
                                                (Answers from the unknown child)

Poems, songs of heartbreak follow. What else is there to say? 
But Mount Kilimanjaro, symbol of strength and liberty, appears as the title of a poem of promise – the poem in which,

I will come back full-handed
my blue backpack a blessing
Black Moses returned
a dream come real
I will sit on a woven mat
I will gobble a yellow plate
of banana plantain
mixed with mountain beans
tender onions in palm oil
a mound of my mother's food
Mount Kilimanjaro on my lap 
                                                (Mount Kilimanjaro) 
The narration becomes one of resilience, the narrator begins a re-discovery of joy, the rediscovery of herself although a new life in a new country is not easy. The poetry takes the reader by the hand to show the hardships, the blessings, the new friendships until in the end, the sense of peace regained…

then in the silent dark
somewhere from within
a song finds its way
light comes in the night
the moon relents
and you sing of beauty of life
                                               (Light in the night)
I read Epiphanie Mukasano’s book on the day that the last of thirty-three Chilean miners emerged from that underground prison; the day when the world celebrated the ability of the human spirit to rise in triumph above circumstance. The poetry of Kilimanjaro on my Lap  demonstrates too, that triumph of spirit.   

16 OCTOBER 2010

Soot by Jeff Walt


Review by Susan Jo Russell

From a batch of chapbooks in which many poems struck me as either too expected or too obscure, Mr. Walt’s collection rose to the top, grabbing my attention with the first poem, “All Day I Have Been Afraid.”  Afraid of what?  Afraid, like we are now, not knowing of what we are afraid: 
I heard Mrs. Lee scream Kill me! Kill me!
from inside her house and I did not move.
At noon, all the dogs in the neighborhood
began barking wildly.  Was an unbearable truth
told in a pitch only they could hear?

Opening a book with a title like Soot, the reader expects a certain amount of grit.  And there is grit, for sure, in Walt’s rural, working class landscape. The people in these poems work at (and lose) dirty jobs in dirty places—strip mine, paper mill, greasy diner.  They smoke, they drink, they take a joyride, hang out at the local bar or the porno shop, looking for camaraderie, eking out pleasure from the familiar and undemanding.  In “The Wayside,” the cooks end their shift: “Before mopping up/the last soiled hour, someone always//pulled out a joint or two.  Sitting on cases of Bud/out back, we smoked and bitched,//plotted to steal Delmonico steaks.”
I’m not a guy.  I don’t (and haven’t) worked at these jobs or hung out swilling Bud Light.  But Walt’s poems speak—to me, to anyone. While many of the poems are personal—about particular people in a sooty world of hard work, chronic exhaustion, few pleasures—they also capture the malaise of a society only rarely redeemed by love.  Listen to how “The Wayside” ends:  “each toke/like inhaling an ineffable love that we kept/passing around and around.”  Yeah, we get that; whether a joint, a bottle of cheap wine, or even a pint of Häagen-Dazs, we’ve been there—the fleeting joy of the taste, the smell, the way we focus on that swallow of pleasure and let it blot out whatever we choose not to face.
There is a host of unseen and non-human presences in Walt’s world—angels, the dead—who lurk at the edge of vision; even the sidewalk and the fire hydrant have some kind of consciousness.  They act as a sort of chorus.  The dogs in these poems see more than most of the people do, like those dogs in “All Day I Have Been Afraid,” with their sense of something pervasive and wrong. In a later poem, a dog watches the soul of a suicide rise; in another, the dog can see the drunk angels who lounge in the shadows, avoiding their work as escorts for the dead. With their inability to imagine or desire a different life, they look at what the world is, while the humans blunt their senses against reality.  
What do I read these poems for?  Is it to confirm an inevitably grim view of a world in which even the angels have been pulled into its squalor?  It can’t be only to commiserate about hopelessness.   So then, what?  It is to know these characters—and therefore myself—better.  It is to walk with the author’s brother searching for an escaped dog he doesn’t even like because he must.  It is to be reminded of the ways in which we create the easy camaraderies that substitute for deeper connections or don’t recognize the deeper connections that might be found in those comfortable niches where we’ve “become a regular.”  It is to examine the varieties of dailiness in which we confront or avoid our deep fears.  One of the poems in the book that haunts me is “Next,” in which the narrator searches in vain for something under the bed, finding mementoes of his past, but not able to remember what it is he is trying to find and why the need is so urgent:  “A cockroach blinking back,//but I don’t have time to kill,/not today, not with this need to find/winding me like a toy.”
What Walt’s poetry illuminates is the insidiousness of despair—not only how it works in the lives of this man or that woman, but how the accumulation of despairing lives affects our perceptions of the world or, perhaps, not only perceptions, but the fabric of the world itself.  Is the best we can do to remove ourselves from that world, if only temporarily?  “I want to put the brakes on /my longing, fill my tub.  Soak in my final stop.  The world’s noise/and people who need me wrung from my body/like water squeezed out of a sponge.” [from “Bus Ride”] 
Only the final poem gives a glimpse of love with a partner that—we shouldn’t be surprised—is not glamorized, not idyllic, not ecstatic, but, after all, what one can hope for: “My pulse against your back//reminds me how alive I am.  Our exquisite/middle-aged bodies spooned, flawed, and used.” 
I hope Walt is already working on his next collection.