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.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Poem366: “Body Falling, Sunday Morning” by Susana H. Case

Body Falling, Sunday Morning by Susana H. Case

Body Falling, Sunday Morning by Susana H. Case, Cincinnati, Ohio: Milk & Cake, 2019

Frances Glessner Lee was an artist who didn’t consider herself one. She specialized in forensic miniatures, her intricately detailed “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” which helped train crime scene investigators in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Glessner Lee’s dioramas are incredibly detailed, and a chapbook by Susana H. Case, Body Falling, Sunday Morning, describes Glessner Lee’s work in terms that begin to give her the credit she deserves as someone often referred to as the mother of forensic science.

Case starts with an intriguing premise, and photos of Lee’s dioramas are placed throughout the book to heighten the interest. Glessner Lee was known for her keen attention to detail, right down to functioning mousetraps.

The book includes titled poems, but in between some of them are prose sections that have poetic economy of language. These are not titled on the page (the table of contents labels them “Frances 1,” “Frances 2,” etc.), but the crafted language had me convinced that they were prose poems instead of mere background information. Here’s part of one:

Frequenting autopsies to verify the accuracy of her models, Glessner Lee notes the correct amount of bloating among those in her down-at-heels homes and rooms, victims led astray by desire and vice. The inherent vice of materials: degradation over time. Nail polish depicting blood turns purple.

The numbered “Frances” entries are very informative, but there’s something more than information at work here.

One poem, “End of the Affair,” does a nice job of showing how these miniatures functioned as crime-fighting tools. A man, dead by gunshot wound, is found at a hideaway cabin. A bullet is found in the rafters, Case reports:

He bent over and shot himself,
his mistress insists.
Knocked his hat clear off.
How the affair ends.
No matter that the gun’s not under him,
and her fingerprints are on the pistol.

I realized as I read the book that I had heard of Frances Glessner Lee and seen her work in the distant past—years and years ago. They came back to me right away when I saw the images Case had chosen for her book. In my opinion, Case does important work here, reminding readers of a woman of importance in her field and allowing us to appreciate the odd lyricism of her meticulous death scenes. It’s easy to forget our progenitors, especially our woman progenitors. I appreciate Case’s work to keep one of them front and center with this compelling collection.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Poem366: “Nursewifery” by Ruth Williams

Nursewifery by Ruth Williams

Nursewifery by Ruth Williams, Durham, North Carolina: Jacar Press, 2019

Ruth Williams’ elegant chapbook Nursewifery, from Jacar Press, is as clever and innovative collection as I’ve seen, and I hope that my introduction to it here might lead others to discover how special it is.

My mother was a nurse and my two sisters are, too, and I’m interested in the profession, though I was never in any danger of becoming a nurse myself. (Once, as a teenaged candystriper—which, admittedly, feels like the first line of a pornographic novel—I had the embarrassing experience of fainting on the job from witnessing something a little too intense for me. In a family of nurses, I ended up in the gift shop, in the very hospital where my mother was the night nursing supervisor. I’m sure she heard about my experience, but I can promise she didn’t hear it from me.)

Among the majority of the people in the world who are not nurses? Ruth Williams. But she is a feminist scholar with an interest in this woman-dominated profession, and she is also seemingly a student of history. The role of combat nurse captured her fascination acutely enough to produce this outstanding small collection about military field nurses from, seemingly, the era of Florence Nightingale—the Crimean War and thereafter. The nurse whose voice offers up the poems in Nursewifery wears a pinafore and works alongside horses, but the exact conflict in which she serves is unstated, unless I missed a clue somewhere.

The most fascinating thing Williams does is her focus on the different types of stitches nurses use to suture wounds. Some of the poems bear the names of stitches as titles—titles like “Vertical Mattress Suture,” “Locked Suture,” “Corset Plication Stitch,” “Far-Near Near-Far Modified Vertical Mattress Suture” (no, really …), and more.

It turns out that our means of repairing ripped or cut skin offer potent metaphors. She explains each stitch in an epigraph taken from the Medscape website. The quote to start “Deep Tip Stitch” offers a powerful example:

The deep tip stitch provides longer-term support than the traditional corner stitch and improves alignment of the tip with the sides of the closure.

The unnamed nurse persona who voices each poem identifies with this stitch:

We thought ourselves exceptional,
though we knew we were merely women

wearing uniforms to distinguish us, not as individuals,
but as a type of caring, a calm blue


Williams continues in this voice, saying, “We pulled together // what could not otherwise be touched,” adding that ability was the nurses’ “special softness, // our elegant way of aligning the world.” I offer a lot of this small poem, but I’m really fascinated by how Williams takes something so prosaic and makes it in to such a powerful symbol. The life of the nurse is exactly like the description of the deep tip stitch, and Williams proves it.

As I savored this chapbook, I took time out to hit YouTube, where there are quite a few stitching demonstration videos, most of them featuring thick, fatty squares of fake human flesh, sort of Caucasian-ish on top and yellow underneath. As I looked up demos of each of the stitches Williams named, the same calm male voice explained how to execute each suture, and a video showed a hooked sewing needle manipulated by forceps. Throughout, he peppered some of the same jargon used by Williams; for instance, the first poke of the sewing needle through the skin seems to be called “the bite”—another strong metaphor.

Williams has much more than a good concept going for her, though. This is also a powerful collection, with the suture poems “stitched” throughout the book, which offers a daming critique of war and the harm it does.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is called “The Suitor,” which recalls a first dance with an early beau of the battlefield nurse. It continues,

Later, you’ll
find him again

on the table

red weather
between you.

This is a small poem, but it packs a dramatic wallop, and damage from war being referred to as “red weather” is highly arresting to me.

Williams is the author of two other collections, so her work shouldn’t be hard to find. I recommend you read her work—stat.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Poem366: “The Last Mastodon” by Christina Olson

The Last Mastodon by Christina Olson

The Last Mastodon by Christina Olson, Studio City, California: Rattle, 2019

Since the book itself is an appreciation of relics, I suppose it’s OK to begin by singing the praises of an artifact: Christina Olson’s The Last Mastodon is a beautiful chapbook, with a deep teal, matte cover emblazoned with a hot-pink title and byline. Open it, and laaa! Crisp hot-pink endsheets envelop the text. It’s a slim volume, at only 36 pages, but the dimensions, 6 inches by 9 inches, are pretty big for a chap. The author photo on the back flap shows Olson sitting on the floor in shorts and an I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening grin beside a mastodon skull and a set of tusks.

I was disposed to like this book from the outset—and I did!

This is the third Rattle Chapbook Prize winner I’ve featured in this series, and it’s still January, so that’s weird. I happened to have some at home because I entered the contest a few times, and entrants receive a copy of the winning edition. With the death of my mother and some work make-up frenzy, I needed short books, and I really like physical copies. Hitting 2018 winners Mather Schneider and Raquel Vasquez Gilliland made sense for size reasons, and that’s partly why I chose to read Olson’s book, too. (I needed a chap today because I was nowhere near done with a gorgeous but difficult full-length collection that will need to percolate for a bit.)

Gosh, this is the most personal appreciation I’ve written so far, and I’ve said virtually nothing about Olson’s poems. I’m realizing, though, that Rattle has an unusually good chapbook series, and they’re three for three with me—not a stinker in the bunch.

The Last Mastodon was born during a three-day poetry residency Olson experienced in the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Olson got to spend time with and touch relics and talk to paleontologists at work there, and I can only imagine how inspiring that was. The resulting poems certainly are.

Olson is as playful as her cover photo promised she would be (although many poems or parts of poems are darkly philosophical, too). I like the poem that is framed in the form of a “how-to” manual, “How to Care for Your American Mastodon”:

An adult mastodon consumes nearly three pounds of coniferous twigs a day. They prefer the tender greens. Brittle twigs will stick in a mastodon’s throat. Your baby mastodon will spend most of its early life huddled against its mother in the cold spruce woodlands. Like you, it will learn to navigate. Or it will die.  Always lift at the midsection, not by the legs.

It’s fun, how committed she is to the concept. I forget for a moment that there’s zero chance I’ll accidentally pick up a mastodon by the legs.

Positioned alongside some truly funny moments are some gut-punches — more impactful, probably, because of the juxtaposition. I felt almost knocked over by some lines in “Among the Bones,” a rumination about the speaker’s tendency to collect bits of dead things (her dog’s hair, a skull, a sand dollar), set off by a memory of her father. Writes Olson,

The advantage to dead thins

is that you cannot hurt them
anymore. Instead, they hurt you,

over and over and over.

This is undeniably, inescapably true, delivered in a manner that only poetry can serve up.

Embedded in the book are details about the life of Thomas Jefferson (who believed his Louisiana Purchase would yield mastodons) and ecological messages. I like “Broken Sonnet on Teeth,” in which Olson describes the popularity of the sabre-tooth at the La Brea Tar Pits (“eight-inch knives in its mouth that / even now haunt our dreams”). Concludes Olson,

                                          We fear the knife
of the sabre-tooth, its name a clear warning, but we
miss its point—Smilodon died when its big prey
died out, but we’ll expire when the smallest life
on Earth does. Surely you’ve noticed the bees
have gone quiet? Forget teeth. Time to pray.

For a chapbook, The Lost Mastodon is a satisfying read, full of humor and insights. I recommend it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Poem366: “Present Values” by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Present Values by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Present Values by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes, Durham, North Carolina: Backbone Press, 2018

Reading José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes’ work reinforces on a gut level something that all reasoning people understand, and that is that exposure to diverse voices matters.

Reyes, who was born and raised in the Philippines, offers a clear-eyed cultural critique of the U.S., and elements from his first country pop up in images and linguistic artifacts; at one point he casts a skewed version of “The Lord’s Prayer” in Tagalog, to remarkable effect.

But this writer also offers diversity through his perspective. No bio I can find backs up this supposition, but I think he comes from a background in finance or economics. The title of the book, explained in the front, is a financial term; “present value,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “the current monetary value of a future payment or series of payments,” or, more specifically, “the present sum of money that will equal this when the income that the sum will generate and inflation are taken into account.”

I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, in a book review, of all places, but I can’t really make sense of that definition. I have a bit of a block when it comes to financial matters, and I feel flummoxed when I try to sort these matters out. What I take from the definition is that the financial term “present value” refers to the worth of something when we factor in its history (what it cost) and its future (how it will appreciate or depreciate).

That feels like a potent metaphor to me, but it’s also an unusual one. Most poets aren’t talking about money. (Despite my misgivings about the topic, I actually write about money all the time, as a way of coping with my discomfort or fear — but I have noticed that very few poets are willing to touch this fraught and complicated topic.)

And the poetic currencies found in this chapbook somewhat resemble the change jar I keep on my kitchen counter. Reyes offers so many different looks, including a ghazal, a sonnet, a villanelle — and this last offering imitates an important Filipino poet José Garcia Villa by including a comma after every word. My change jar is pretty picked over — completely empty of quarters, which are useful at the laundromat, but with the odd international coin settled at the bottom, designating pesos or drams or yuans.

The poem “Present Values,” coming near the end of its eponymous collection, shows the money-minded poet at his most complex and interesting:

From their towers
little gods wage wars,

deploying their red currencies.

                              Couched in possession,

each retort enlarges a world,
constricts another’s.

Reyes unflinchingly examines capitalistic values in this collection, and he finds them wanting. We all knew this, but he lays the evidence bare like a prosecutor:

Arbitrageur, hand poised
to level his skewed

balance; Speculator,
eyes wholly invested in the future.

Finance comes down to a matter of perspective, it would seem — and wars have been started over less.

Of course, when reading about another culture, there are sometimes delightful tidbits, too, like in “Boondocks”:

To show our appreciation for your gift
of language, we’d like to offer you one word
of our own, bundók, which means “mountain.”

In the context of Reyes’ poetry, we are reminded that money, too, is a kind of currency, its value set by the powerful.

While much of Reyes’ work is simply fascinating for the quality of its information, I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in without specifically praising the quality of his verse. I have a giant poetry crush on his vivid, precise, and frequently unusual vocabulary, and he has an intuitive sense of form, each line working beautifully as line, with the received forms perfectly chosen and occurring very naturally among its sisters in the collection.

But my favorite part of Reyes’ writing is his knock-your-socks-off imagery. In “Jardin des Plantes” is the very pinnacle of this feature, as Reyes describes two gulls fighting over a sparrow, which they ultimately pull apart, with the losing gull (I picture a short end of a wishbone kind of scenario) walking away and the winning bird feasting:

                  When he fishes out the intestine,
like a magician pulling from his pocket a braid of handkerchiefs,
those who have been watching cannot help
but cheer and applaud, even the schoolchildren.

“Like a magician.” Yeah, that works. And there is magic on every page of this excellent volume.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Poem366: “the ghost comes with me” by Letitia Trent

the ghost comes with me by Letitia Trent

the ghost comes with me by Letitia Trent, Syracuse, New York: Ghost City Press, 2019

So I’m sitting here in the half-dark of a cold evening in the Ozarks, and I’m reading poems about … what’s this? Ghosts in the Ozarks. This is a rare place — the wind, the weather, distinctive; the light pinning you in place like a moth.

It’s in this just-rightness that I encounter Letitia Trent through her chapbook the ghost comes with me, and I have to say, it’s an impressive book. It’s composed of a single poem in eleven parts, and all have something to do with ghosts or the other world.

Trent establishes her uneasy motif in the first numbered section, where she describes ghosts as “genderless / dead, but present.” Though it has left the body,

      … you are still
here, ceaselessly
moving and confusing
the smoke alarms
the silken curtains
the good, small dogs
the cat on the mantel
the television signal

What I get from this is the pervasiveness of the ghost — how it leaves its clammy mark on everything.

When Trent talks about ghosts, it’s clear she’s a believer; her bio explains that she lives in a haunted town, and she writes about hauntings as if they are facts. I like that she isn’t being artful, or at least not merely artful, when she invokes ghosts. This probably gives her a great deal of credibility with some readers. It does with me.

However, I don’t think Trent’s ghosts are necessarily spirits of departed humans. I suspect some of her ghosts are actually old hopes, or maybe regrets. But they resonate the same way, like a current in the floorboard that finds its way up your spine.

The ghost motif is sustained throughout the book, sometimes with a twist, wherein the speaker herself becomes a ghost to her son:

    when I’m dead maybe
my son will suddenly remember
the importance of roses, the smell of sandalwood,
maybe he’ll need to sit on the ground
sometimes because he know
that’s where I am.

I’m intrigued with a character who seems to daydream as she makes plans for her own future haunting.

It is deeply satisfying to read poems that demonstrate an almost supernatural vision—second sight into the after world. But such moments present themselves again and again in this impressive collection.

I am especially smitten with the fourth section, where the speaker muses on the nature of ghosts:

Maybe ghosts are the dead left in the places where they lived or died, attached to the world as we’re attached when alive, loving a particular place but never able to touch it fully, loving people who they can watch from a distance but never feel with their bodies or breath.

There’s this belief that the body and the real self are made of different stuff and one can slip off the other like a stocking from a pointed foot.

That image with its exquisite detail—stocking, pointed foot—is indicative of the power of the pictures Trent paints throughout this collection. It’s a lush and satisfying read.