Saturday, February 1, 2020

Poem366: “The People’s Field” by Haesong Kwon

The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon

The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon, Cape Girardeau, Missouri: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2019

It is a pleasure to feature a title from a Show-Me State press on today’s Poem366. The People’s Field by Haesong Kwon is the winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize from Southeast Missouri State University Press in the historic Mississippi River town of Cape Girardeau.

While the press is local to Missouri, poetry itself is transcendent of time and place, and Kwon lives in Shiprock, New Mexico. He teaches at Diné College, which serves the Navajo Nation, and many of these poems are about war-era Korea. Here’s a moving example, included in full because of its brevity:


A nest of sun rays
rattles about the grassed
tombstone of Hamchunk.
He wept so dearly
for the U.S. soldier
creamed in a booby trap.
There were fence
doves and leaves
to see his passage
to the next.

I have had a hard time finding any information about the poet, though one review by a writer who knows him acknowledges that he is elusive. A bio I found identifies him as being of Korean descent, having been born in Incheon, Korea, and moved to the United States when he was eight. A scene like that in “Beret” feels as immediate as if from personal observation, but I’m fairly certain the timeline doesn’t synch for that to be the case. This suggests that Kwon is writing about cultural, rather than personal, memory, and that’s a project that interests me very much.

More clues to his connection to Japan- and U.S.-occupied Korea are found in the long poem “The Kuomintang Had Been Duped,” where Kwon describes his grandfather:

Early, slow
to impose, resembling
his boy, my
father, watching
the sidewalk glow.

A mass of garish
phoenix birds
on backs
and arms
of U.S. soldiers.

This sort of imaginative DNA puts me in mind of recent research establishing how trauma can be passed down through generations via chemical tags on our genes. Storytelling gets us there more directly, I suppose, and in a Navajo community, Kwon spends his days steeped in a storytelling tradition. It’s no wonder he writes so evocatively about memory older than self.

I lost myself today in this beautiful collection. Connective tissue within and between poems is sheer; sometimes it’s a leap from one line or even one word to the next. But it’s rewarding to contemplate or invent the connection, and the effect is to involve the reader in meaning-making.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Poem366: “Our Lady of the Flood” by Alison Pelegrin

Our Lady of the Flood by Alison Pelegrin

Our Lady of the Flood by Alison Pelegrin, Richmond, Virginia: Diode Editions, 2018

I’m still haunted by mental images of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and I think I always will be — this despite the fact that I know the Gulf region only as a tourist. But Alison Pelegrin’s Our Lady of the Flood offers an inside view of life afterwards, in poems that bring the waters inside of us so that we can feel them:

                              This water
is no silvered mirage. It clings like tar.
It swallows everything we are.

So says “Quicksilver,” the final poem in the small collection, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in Independent Publishing.

In her endorsement of the book, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil notes, “This collection vibrates with candor and concern—forging a kinetic blaze into an emotional and physical terrain newly devastated by hurricane.” This is an accurate assessment, beginning with the first and title poem (one of five “Our Lady” poems in the chapbook):

Some saints are untouchable behind glass,
but you ride in open boats
with mildew on the edges of your gown,
a calm commander of the Cajun Navy’s fleet.
Your devotees worship outside
in a circle of ruined pews,
no incense but bug spray, their voices
a cappella because the music of the drowned piano
is too sad to sing to. …

Pelegrin recreates the ruined landscape and its vespers in moments like these.

The poems are also celebratory, like “Rituals for Serving Ambrosia.” I’m guessing a lot of sophisticated readers have never heard of this chilled salad dish, containing pineapple, Jell-O, marshmallows, coconut, and nuts, but I love it, and it’s a surprising pleasure to see a tribute to it, set up on a card table in the garage with the rest of the picnic feast.

In the fascinating “Excising a Memorial to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee,” Pelegrin contemplates the legacy of the South as captured in statuary, and makes no bones about it: “Of course he’s got to go,” she writes. Yet there are memories attached to these old artifacts:

                  So why the scrap
of rebel in me clinging to this piss-soaked ground

where his pillar stands, Mardi Gras memory lane, where
I puked through my nose, observed rats untie shoes

and tunnel up some guy’s pants empty where the leg
should be? I never paid attention to Lee himself ….

In a place like New Orleans, there are layers of history that are visible in everything.

I really love how this collection lets the light shine in, along with the water. “Anything We Want” is a poem that highlights the goodness of people, with its subtitle “Katrina, 2005.” The poem begins, “When they figure out where we are from / everyone wants to give us something.” She recounts servers bringing dessert and singing “Happy Birthday,” strangers plugging quarters into her dryer, people following her through stores to pay for her items: “They won’t quit asking, What do you want?” And as Pelegrin describes so movingly, what she wants is her home with her books, her solitary seat on a street car, and for her mother to speak to her in the Walmart where they are exiled:

I want her to look at me
but her gaze is a storm cloud
threatening from far away,
or else focused up close
as she studies the label on a can
of a strange food we don’t eat.

Where is their ambrosia in their land of refuge? The way Pelegrin has written her home helps me to feel this mother’s loss.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Poem366: “A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky” by Melissa Fite Johnson

A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky by Melissa Fite Johnson

A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky by Melissa Fite Johnson, Providence, Rhode Island: Paper Nautilus Books, 2018.

Melissa Fite Johnson dedicates A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky to her father, and with this, she begins a difficult dive into memories of childhood and her adult decisions about not having children.­­ In the set of poems that make up this chapbook, the defining characteristic is tenderness — even toward the self.

“Visiting My Sixteen-Year-Old Self” offers a beautiful example of this tenderness. She begins, “I want to smooth your hair / like a big sister as you sit on your bed / raw.” We meet her young self on the day of her dad’s funeral, pondering how she squandered the last days of her father’s life with a boy, “making you less than you were.”

The adult version of the self seems worried, though she knows how things will turn out. She writes,

I follow you, class to class,
a few steps behind, never quite able
to catch up, to touch the backpack
strapped to your shoulders,
a defective parachute.

There’s nothing the older consciousness can do for the teen, and the poem ends with the narrator of the poem saying words of comfort that the sixteen-year-old can’t hear. It’s a painful way to reflect on loss, and I’m probably not the only reader who goes down that dark well with Johnson through this haunting poem.

This one is followed by a heartbreaking moment of connection between the teenage speaker of a poem and her father, whom she must drive around following a stroke, and another that shows her experiencing a glimpse of what her father went through with immobility as she, at seventeen, deals with a broken leg. The love for this father is palpable, and the book is such a moving tribute to him.

The collection moves into reflections on family with “Apologia for Not Wanting Children,” in which the speaker seems both wistful and triumphant about a decision not to reproduce. If it seems that those moods are incompatible, I guess you have to read it:

Nothing is missing.
No baby cries from a blanket
spread on the floor as if for a picnic.
No chubby arms reach for me.
No hands open and close
like lips desperate for words.
But nothing is missing. You have
my full attention. I have yours.

Obviously, that’s a lot of clear, specific description of the nothing that is missing, though the idea of the two being fully available to one of the other at the end is enviable in its own right. I’d call this a pretty powerful love poem, and more a celebration of being part of a couple than a wistful expression of what could have been.

My favorite poem in the collection is the brief one from which the title is taken, “Visiting the Dead.” Here, the poet imagines a “crooked door / cut into the sky” and how she can use go through it to visit her father. Their interactions are tender:

                  I’d touch his Adam’s apple—
new, plugging the hole cancer made—
and hear his gravelly voice for the first time.

After visiting, though, the speaker is happy to leave — to return to the husband who waits to join her.

The poems here don’t shy away from big topics; most of it is thanatopsis, a deep reflection on death — but they never fail to be original as they probe what must be our oldest obsession. I was moved and inspired by this complex study.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Poem366: "autumn, presencing" by Liang Huichun

autumn, presencing by Liang Huichun

autumn, presencing by Liang Huichun, Strawberry Hedgehog, 2020

Welcome to Poem366 Central, our base of operations. The whole crew is here, test-driving poems and kicking some wheels. (Hi, I’m the whole crew — Karen, poet, lover of poetry.)

Maybe you don’t picture a Poem366 factory, but you probably envision an orderly process for a yearlong poetry appreciation project. One doesn’t jump into such a thing without a plan, right?

Wrong. My husband, the incredible Michael Czyzniejewski, has a Story366 blog that he likes to do on leap years — visit here: My two sons and I fully support his daily book review project, but I should note that it’s not easy. His commitment to his project is one he takes seriously, and so family things have to wait, occasionally, while he reads a book or finishes up a review.

I was inspired by his dedication in 2016, and I saw firsthand the benefits of such a project — staying absolutely current with the newest writers, building discipline in reading and considering what he’s read. Less than a week before the re-start of Mike’s Story366 blog, I decided I’d like to give it a try, too — but with poems, which are a thousand times cooler, obviously. (And shorter, I should add — not a small consideration when reading a book a day.)

A few days before Jan. 1, 2020, I posted a request for books to review to the four winds, and friends and fellow members of writing groups were generous in responding. I like paper copies, but some kind souls were able to zoom some electronic copies my way rather quickly so that I would have a library to draw on right away. I also contacted some presses and requested review copies from 2018 or later. (I must have worded my email in a weird way, because a lot have just sent me 2018 books, thinking that was what I was after.)

But I also have my mailing address on the right side of my blog (over there---à), and sometimes people send me a book or two without my asking, just because. That happened today, and what a delightful surprise it was to open my mail and find two books from a press I was unfamiliar with, Strawberry Hedgehog, by two writers who are from Missouri, which, of course, makes my heart sing.

For today, my focus will be one of these two books: “autumn, presencing” by Liang Huichun (with paintings by Steven Schroeder). Both are gorgeous, and I’m looking forward to reading the other, by Schroeder, soon.

The first thing I love about “autumn, presencing” is that it’s square. I’m a fool for square poetry books (by which I mean that they are exactly as tall as they are wide). Maybe this is a weird preference, but I think they look elegant, and they often signal shorter poems, which I tend to enjoy more than longer work.

I also love that second word, “presencing.” That’s certainly a focus in my life now — I have a daily meditation practice in addition to my daily reading and blogging practices (and momming and working and poeming, etc.) And when I factor in a third factor, the gorgeous cover, featuring a Schroeder watercolor, I am instantly hooked.

The book contains Chinese versions of poems alongside their English translations, and the first piece in the book is the title poem, presented with capital letters here: “Autumn, Presencing.” I am always interested in writers who join me in my effort to recognize the lyricism in everyday life, and Liang delivers:

My verse, still
waiting for winnowing
like wet rice, unharvested, still,
is a story behing told. But autumn
water is crystal clear, flowing
clouds and my mortgage
vanishing together.

She reifies the mortgage reference in the next set of lines: “Everything is in order, / only the four walls of my house standing.” The house is (is this a pun?) foundational to ideas of security, stability, and order, so I found this image very satisfying.

Another poem I enjoyed was “Loneliness,” which stair-stepped from familiar depictions of loneliness to a lovely, unexpected image: “Loneliness is a lane in evening / that can never forget sandals’ echoing.” The truth of that assessment was undeniable.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Poem366: “Almost Famous”­­ by Trish Hopkinson

Almost Famous by Trish Hopkinson

Almost Famous by Trish Hopkinson, Bangalore, India: Yavanika Press, 2019

In Almost Famous, the fourth chapbook by the consummate literary citizen, Trish Hopkinson, we find powerful and painful coming-of-age stories crafted as poems. The book starts with a vivid depiction of her own birth, written from her perspective, and it carries forward into the childhood and teen years, and every poem packs a potent gut-punch. While there were parts of my own life that diverged widely from the childhood Hopkinson describes, there was enough here that was familiar and shared.

For me, the strongest parts of the book were the first and last poems. The first, “Third Day, Third Month, 1972,” describes Hopkinson’s birth, which included the use of forceps:

                  A doctor,
or a man rather, pressed
a tool inside her, like the back

of a soup spoon reaching in
to a bowl of cold grits,
fished around for my tender

skull, and excised me for comfort.

The image here — forceps in a birth canal as a spoon in cold grits — casts the birth scene into an otherworldly sphere, I think mainly because the grits are cold. What kind of birth is this? It’s such a small touch, but a smart poetic decision because of its perfect not-quite-rightness.

At the end of “Third Day,” the poet looks down at her mother, “lying there / — as if dead. Her eyes still to the day, // anesthetized.” This was a startling notion as well, and it set up some questions at the start of the book: Are these biographical poems? Was the mother permanently damaged by the birthing incident? The mother performs ordinary acts, like conversations, through the rest of the chapbook, but the idea that there is no coming back from the birthing room seems to hold.

The dominate voice in the poem seems to cover a lot of ground — Missouri, the western mountains — but in “Kansas Flat,” Hopkinson writes evocatively of mobile home life in tornado country. She writes, “We drag this mobile home / from one town to another trying / to find a job my father can keep.” She offers perfect description of the trailer, with its “rows of science fiction paperbacks / double-parked to fit them all” (a telling detail of escapism), but she ends with the most stunning image of

                  mid-west trailer parks

where timid homes lie down like a dog
being scolded at the foot of a tornado —
sometimes, broken down in its wake,
collapsed like an empty cardboard box.

If any childhood scene is more fraught with danger than a Kansas trailer park, I don’t know what it is.

I mentioned that the first poem was one of my two favorites, but my very favorite — the place where Hopkinson comes into her full-throated own — is “Mixed Tape.” This poem is composed partly of lines from other poems in the collection and partly with new material, and the snippets are numbered and discrete, à la Wallace Stevens. Each section stands alone as its own perfect gem. I offer two favorites, just to give Hopkinson a chance to really strut her stuff here:

IV. I remember the fertile mud smell of the lake in Missouri where I learned to swim. If sense of smell worked underwater, it would smell of catfish and silt and long afternoons of treading water in the sun with the bluegills.

V. Should I ever grow a tail, my sacrum will connect it to my spine and wiggle when I walk or wag. For now, it holds my pelvis in place, gives each side a wall to lean on, like beatniks against a lamppost.

I am enchanted, body and soul, by those beatniks. It’s a perfect, and perfectly surprising, image from a rare talent.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Poem366: “Typing with e.e. cummings” by Lori Desrosiers

Typing with e.e. cummings by Lori Desrosiers

Typing with e.e. cummings by Lori Desrosiers, Glenview, Illinois: Glass Lyre Press, 2019

It is a genuine pleasure to turn my attention to the whimsical Typing with e.e. cummings by one of my favorite Facebook friends, Lori Desrosiers.

Desrosiers channels e.e. cummings in these poems, and I would note that there is a strange nostalgia in revisiting the poet, who provided most of us with our first taste of the possibility of radical experimentation with punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure. As edgy as cummings was during his time, we know him more from poems like “maggie and milly and molly and may” or “I sing of Olaf glad and big,” or, the greatest of his greatest hits, “in Just-,” where “the // goat-footed // ballonMan     whistles / far / and / wee.”

In her stellar collection, Desrosiers begins with a touching poem titled “my sweet old typist,” an appreciation of her mother’s 100 word per minute typing, which she used, twice, to type up her husband’s doctoral dissertation, once unsuccessfully and once successfully. Writes Desrosiers,


at 73
wrote and typed
2 novels
on her

It’s a beautiful tribute with a meta touch, as we don’t often see poems in praise of typing.

Desrosiers also remembers her father in the lovely poem, “Poem with first line from e.e. cummings.” She remembers a dad who read Whitman and walked the land until “his brain grew star tumors.” Writes Desrosiers,

his body folded like a bad book
voice quieted, hands gnarled
feet left stepless, cold
gone in winter.

Desrosiers also offers up the tenderest of love poems, as in “I have found what you are like.” She compares her love to “the mud / which gathers up my feet and cleaves / like nothing else.” She sings the praises of mud, and thus her love, by writing that it is

a fodder for flowers
home of worms who eat what we discard
service of soil-studded creatures
joy for dogs and pigs and children

This close attention to a surprising subject reminds me quite a bit of cummings, but Desrosiers is definitely writing her own poems here, despite her tribute.

I recommend this breezy, clever, yet frequently sad collection for its range and beauty.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Poem366: “A Live Thing, Clinging with Many Teeth” by Kolleen Carney Hoepfner

A Live Thing, Clinging with Many Teeth by Kolleen Carney Hoepfner

A Live Thing, Clinging with Many Teeth by Kolleen Carney Hoepfner, Indiana: Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2019

I just finished A Live Thing, Clinging with Many Teeth by Kolleen Carney Hoepfner, and it was a fascinating immersion into a world I both did and didn’t recognize.

The chapbook appears to be composed of one long poem, broken up into numbered sections and separate, untitled pieces. These parts of the poem have lush, imagistic language, but they don’t aim to answer any questions; they just offer a tense, worrisome scene with plenty of rather terrifying details.

In the book, a woman seems to be locked up in a place that isn’t clear. She seems to be alone, but then she doesn’t. There is a feeling that time is passing and she is losing hope, but still paying attention to her senses and trying to find ways to bolster her resolve:

The best she could do
was remember how fucking close
she had come
to escape

It’s easy to imagine the frustration that is the closest thing to hope one can have in a nearly hopeless situation. Writes Hoepfner,

She had underested the wind,
the scent of some beloved

but long-lost master

      (or, on the other hand,
shivering and wakeful,
                  the blood-smell
                  of a dream full of teeth,
   hungry but not yet desperate).

At this point, the literal was mostly lost to me (whose master? And who smells the blood?). The best plan of action I’ve found when lost in a poem is to lean in and accept its premises, while trusting that something will happen—there will be explanations, or the sense of the poem will be enough, or you’ll re-read it and everything will click. And this book captured tension better than any I could remember, from poetry at least; it read like a thriller, but with the deeper emotional resonance of a poem.

Something happens midway through the book and involves blood, and it feels like a clue to the literal:

Until clotted, blood
      was as slippery as oil. […]

Her agenda was not complicated:

a quick escape

unconsciousness               death

The growing feeling of fury:

She could feel
that hot, electrical tingle

like a live thing

with many teeth

There is real drama in the sparse syntax, and as a reader, I’m rooting for this woman, and wondering who she is and what kind of trouble she has found herself in.

All was made clear on the acknowledgments page, which explained, “This collection is comprised of found poetry, using Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game as a source.” In Gerald’s Game, as I recall, a woman’s husband dies after chaining her to a bed during sex, and she is left to figure out how to escape. I won’t spoil it for you, but the slippery blood is a relevant plot point.

What fascinated me about this collection was how accurate and familiar it felt to anyone who has experienced sexual violence and domination. King’s source material was not relevant to the deep appreciation I felt for the emotional truth and the tense quasi-narrative. Hoepfner is the artist at work here, and she is masterful at it.