Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Museum of False Starts - Chip Livingston (Gival Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Museum of False Starts.  Chip Livingston.  Gival Press.  Arlington, Virginia.  2010.

Museum of False Starts is an anthology of the multiple voices of Chip Livingston.  Oh, you can tell he's behind them all, it's a consistent, powerful, moving forward voice—Livingston has much to say and many different ways to say it.

Everything is in here from the secrets of eating mangoes, the real rules to fraternities, lots of spiders and "the anticipated echoes of loons".

Nelson Family Dance, 1911

Two bodies swinging like a portrait of breathing
Shadows on the North Canadian River
Live oak leaves rasping over gravel
And bird song impossibly still
Scoring the hush of reason
A moment spent imagining our future

Their heads turned as if hedging against futures
The Nelsons danced in silhouettes stopped breathing
Laura's arms loose by her sides like twice as many reasons
Her skirt torn thistledown light — she was river
Walking, free of gravity that anchored me to gravel
And my private rite of standing still

Hung between black water and the bridge's steel
Half-inch hemp rope noosed a woman from her future
Vigilante justice struck without a gavel
Okemah's court all there to see this thing
Night terror witnessed by the river
Where I memorized the swollen face of Laura Nelson

And 20 feet away — 14 and yellow — her son
L.D. swayed to face his mother and a mob no longer hostile
I prayed for them beside the river
Betting deeds to lay as tokens on our future
And begged to never witness anything
Again so grave

As a boy cattled-stringed above the grave
Hands behind his back — kept from reaching for his mother
or for reason
My conscience could not settle this, my first lesson in
But I joined the crowd and climbed the mount of steel
Posing for the photo bridging judgment to the future
Sealing purgatory there above the river

If history is as long as this river
And my vision isn't buried in my grave
Let the untried present fair-effect the future
And speak to a territory's daughters and sons
I was smiling as the Nelson family's dancing stilled
I was standing on the bridge, I was breathing

Be a secret thing beside the river
Under gravel, hanging still
Above the brittle steel of reason's future


Livingston really mixes it up with poems that read historic, family symphonies,  and erotic melodies.    
Livingston dances in and out of social mores and "sings the body electric" as that old Whitman cat might have subscribed, maybe Ray Bradbury too.


        That spiders fall like stars on strings from trees and
ceilings of garages scares the shit out of my tough little
sister, a chemist with a PhD who got a pistol from her
husband for her twenty-sixth birthday. My little sister,
who played in darts tournaments with mustached gay
cowboys at the Round Up on Thursdays, and "whipped
their asses," who used to hunt deer with our father and
race motorcycles with her boyfriends. She sees spiders
now when she closes her eyes. She doesn't sleep at night.
She stays inside and dusts the closets. She won't sit down
until she pounds the cushions on the couch. She shakes
out her throw blanket and pulls her legs beneath her lap —
the way a spider folds its legs when it's about to pounce.
My little sister is ready to jump out of her skin. My little
sister thinks spiders sense her fear and are drawn to it,
spiders who thought her up. So she won't garden; her cats
have allergies; she has sit exterminators on rotation. My
little sister is afraid one exterminator will find out about
another, at a convention or an expo. Her husband doesn't
even know because she uses her own money. But his head
aches behind his eyes when he gets home. He thinks it's


These poems resonate when you put down the book, call you back to affirm what you've read.  Chip Livingston marks his ground.

Boca al Lupo

Red Ridinghood
broke blueberries
against the wolf's canines,
let their juice
purple her fingers.

To sweeten his nose,
Red Ridinghood chewed
cloves and ginger..

To sweeten his ears
she sirened lullabies.

To sweeten his eyes,
she removed her cloak,
angled her head,
and let her maple hair
fall to reveal
her long Etruscan neck.

To sweeten his mouth
Red Ridinghood
bathed in oleander.


Reading Museum of False Starts is a rewarding trip with the advertised detours, although none of these myriad starts feels false.  Livingston hammers these out with authority.

Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston's poems and stories appear widely in literary journals such as New York Quarterly, Ploughshares, Mississippi Review, Cincinnati Review, McSweeney's, and New American Writing. He has received awards from Native Writers' Circle of the Americas, AABB Foundation, and Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. He has taught writing for the University of Colorado, the University of the Virgin Islands, Brooklyn College, and Gotham Writers Workshops. He lives in New York City.

"...Chip Livingston makes the ordinary exotic, erotic and extraordinary."

"...Not a false start at all, this first book is a distant drum announcing a fresh vision and an original approach to craft in our poetry."
     —Alfred Corn

"All poets must juggle the sacred and profane and each must make some kind of peace with the paradox, fight it, or find a unique road in the up and down. Chip Livingston, in his first book, Museum of False Starts, makes a distinct trail of poems, through Mvskoke ancestral country, through the maze of American myths, through bars and parties at the edge, through disturbance and awe. What an auspicious beginning!"
     —Joy Harjo, Mvskoke poet, musician and performer

Chip Livingston reads his poem "Evolution"
from his book CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK
at Innisfree Poetry


Monday, July 28, 2014

Any Psalm You Want - Khary Jackson (Write Bloody Publishing)

Today's book of poetry:
Any Psalm You Want.  Khary Jackson.  A Write Bloody Book.  Write Bloody Publishing.  Austin, Texas.  2013.

Khary Jackson has an exciting and articulate voice that sounds like you've heard it before.  You haven't.

This particular lexicon is precisely Jackson's alone.  This is muscular, jaunty poetry — and brave poetry too.

Jackson time travels in these poems, he jousts historic and his epic tales are peppered with icons both past and present.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Dre and doing the same line dance in service to Jackson.  It all works.


A hundred years from now, Civil War re-enactments will
be dead. In their place: every Juneteenth, solemn young
hands will wrap red (or blue) bandanas around their heads,
warm up the low rider, polish off the AKs and .45s,
and cruise around the 'hood with Snoop (Doggy) Dogg on blast.
The faces of old black women will, on cue, peer through their
windows at the bobbing car, and upon seeing the boys and their guns and
their gyrating arms, the old black women will dive to the floor
and mouth a prayer to the Lawd. An unfortunate black boy
standing in the front yard, unable to escape in time, will twist
his torso, yank his limbs to the choreographed puncture
of lungs, thump the grass without bracing his fall. His eyes
will flicker shut. He will imagine he can no longer breathe.
And from somewhere near, from everywhere, a forty-year-old
black woman will howl for her boy. Her hands will shred the air.

At the corner, in the liquor store, the cashier is calmly shaking
his head, preparing to tell the first listener that boy was
a good boy. In the store is a forty-ounce bottle, waiting to be opened.
Waiting for its moment to dance the blood.


This is hellaciously joyous stuff that will break your heart.

It occurs to me that my wife has the last name Jackson but as far as I can tell there is no relation to Mr Khary.  More's the pity.  Any Psalm You Want revisits territory we thought we knew, answers questions we just discovered were important to us.

How to Break a Bedpost in 1960

You are a thick-boned black man
with little awareness of history.
You do not know your place in it,
feel no trace of the reverence your grand-
children will bestow you. You are only
soul and flesh. You only breathe an air
that daily wants to choke you. This
is not about heroics in the face of rope. This
is about the growling black woman in your arms,
her hungry hips, everything your tongue has been dying
to do, I mean, hell, it ain't like you was marchin' all the time.
Jim Crow didn't always feel your foot in his ass.
Your favorite nights
are not the bedtime prayers for the last friend
that was burned. It was when you and your woman
dragged yourselves to that shack, where the razor voice
of that singer was lusty supreme, the band
thumpin' in time to your grip on her ass. Her nose
burrows into your throat as the singer wails,
you dance like one body undressing itself,
seeming to say, Hey baby, neither of us
is dancing from a tree; lord looks like we make it again!
When that band finally tucks the music away,
you hustle yourselves back home, ready to fuck,
not thinkin' that somewhere Malcolm X
is doin' the same thing, not thinkin' that Mahalia Jackson
is doin' the same thing, 'cause this ain't about history
but bodies, slick, colliding, and in the fourteen seconds
it takes to remove your tattered fabric, you've already
uttered our prayers: this tongue is for you, and for our
sake I held it all day; these arms are for you, 'cause they
chose to carry more peace than fist. And when her breasts
dove into your grateful face, every pair of Caucasian eyes
that stared her down today just caught fire, their owners
rose from their dinner tables and screamed out of
their houses, but you and your woman were too busy
to notice. 'Cause both of your know there's a purpose
to this, that you ain't nonviolent just 'cause of a Dr. King speech. It's
these bodies, this heart, this bonding that keeps you from killin' a muthafucka.
Somewhere, someone's having a dream. While you fuck.
Someone's singing they'll overcome. While you fuck. This is
my black history month. This is how I roll on my holiday.
This is why I smile at a black power fist; I know where those
knuckles have been. Before we are history, we are bodies,
collision. The right of every living mouth to lick.
Here, you are nothing of a social studies relic.
You're a starving pair of arms with a woman to grip.


Khary Jacksons' Any Psalm You Want is loud like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, you know — all that frantic beauty and exposed soul.  Then you've got that Dick Gregory humour and truth stuff underneath.  It's telling stuff, make you laugh and cry wisdom.  All good things to have in your poems.

The Borrowed Mouth

In the 1780's, George Washington was nearly toothless,
and hired a dentist to transplant new teeth into his jaw.
These teeth were (willingly) extracted from the mouths of his slaves.

It is a wonder that his speeches were delivered without incident,
that some soul possession did not occur in the pawnshop of his mouth,

that an audience of men did not return home from an officers' meeting
with ashen face and hastened voice, did not whisper to their wives
how Washington spoke as if gripped by a puppet master,

how his words jumped jagged between my countrymen and lord,
we convene today and my baby, in the interest of Congress and
please God bring him back. It is a wonder that his eyes

did not cross themselves in horror, as his jaw snapped open beyond
the limits the Lord designed, that his lower lip did not drip a litany
of blood, that no negro colored hand reached out from his throat,

escaping grave soil after being buried, mid-thrash.


Write Bloody Publishing out of Austin, Texas put out lovely books — that bite like sharks.  Any Psalm You Want pulsates with humanities anxious hope, reminds us that prayer is not enough.

Khary Jackson

Khary Jackson is a performance poet, playwright, dancer and musician. A Detroit native, he currently resides in the Twin Cities where he serves as a teaching artist and writer. He is a Cave Canem Fellow, and as a result has further reason to adore black people. He has written 12 full length plays, one of which (Water) was produced in 2009 at Ink and Pulp Theatre in Chicago. He has been a recipient of several grants, including the 2010 Artist Initiative Grant for poetry from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the 2009 VERVE Spoken Word Grant fro Intermedia Arts, and the Many Voices Residency from the Playwrights' Center, in 2005-06 and 2007-08. As a performance poet, he has enjoyed great success in national competition, ranking nationally in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as well as winning the National Poetry Slam with the St. Paul team in 2009 and 2010. 

"Khary Jackson's work is terrifyingly wonderful, like a scorpion hiding in the shoe of your worst enemy."
     —Shane Hawley, Author

Khary Jackson, aka "6 is 9", performing "Her Name" 
at the 2009 St. Paul Grand Slam


Saturday, July 26, 2014

I Take Back the Sponge Cake - A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure - Loren Erdrich & Sierra Nelson (Rose Metal Press)

Today's book of poetry:
I Take Back the Sponge Cake.  A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.   Loren Erdrich & Sierra Nelson.  Rose Metal Press.  Brookline, MA.  2012.

I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a swim in a different lake than ones I usually lounge in.  The tricks these two get up to will astonish you.  It could feel like a gimmick if it weren't so perfectly charmingly rendered.  At first I thought I would have to be very patient reading this book but as so often happens, I was wrong.  As soon as you read the first poem you are HOOKED.

This book is a puzzle with almost unlimited solutions.  This is interactive poetry without every being burdensome to the reader, you skip ahead with anticipatory delight, circle back and tell yourself a different story.

Erdrich and Nelson use very clever word play and choices made by the reader to navigate the terrain of I Take Back the Sponge Cake.  It's tasty.

This is giddy play and adult fun—but I shouldn't mislead you.  These aren't nursery rythmes, this isn't Walt Disney.

To explain, here is what the reader finds on page one:

To Use This Book:

Read each poem and image. Then choose which word you prefer from the given
pair, using the provided sentence as a guide, and flip to the appropriate page.
Continue the adventure. If you become lost, or would like to return somewhere
that you have already been, please refer to the map on page 52.


Idiot me, I forget to mention that this is an illustrated book.  More on that to follow.

Here is the first poem:

You Will Go Back Again

We have seen your future, and it's all eyes,
you crazy head of bees.

Hurry, while they're still sleepy—
get out the gate.

     Wait: to stay
     Weight: heaviness

     _________, my heart is breaking.

     If you choose wait, go to page 6.
     If you choose weight, go to page 4.


Today's book of poetry chooses wait, and this is what ensues:

Your Eyes Are Closed But You Aren't Dreaming

You are traveling slowly,
like a great shipwreck still sailing.
Almost tenderly, the sun puts a hand to your forehead.
Yes, you think, I've been unwell. You sink into the feeling.
But the sun is blind and must touch everything:
always feeling its gold way forward towards the dark.


And there you have it.  "always feeling its gold way forward towards the dark".  Stunning line.  This book is the sum of its' excellent parts.  Very fine poetry wrapped up with the compelling art work of Loren Erdrich.  She seems to hail from a land where Ralph Steadman, Gahan Wilson and Dr. Seus hold court, a marvelous comic darkness where there's always a little vinegar in the wine.
Sierra Nelson and Loren Erdrich shared the writing but there is no feel of a committee at work.  These two work as one, the resulting I Take Back the Sponge Cake is that rare feat, it is unique.

A Dose of

Precisely these outward circumstances
could cause a heart to falter:
a lesson hard for humans.

     Hide: to conceal
     Hied: hastened

     Unable to be everywhere, the gods ________________.

     If you choose hide, go to page 38.
     If you choose hied, go to page 32.


Today's book of poetry chooses hied:

For I Have Done More Delving
Into Death Than You

And for another thing.
I have taken
the fierce wood
with its long
antlered shadows,
and with
throat cry given
myself to
its trample.


I haven't seen this sort of collection before but I certainly hope to see more of this soon.  For sheer inventive whimsy Erdrich and Nelson score big points here.  I liked this book for its' wit and charm, I loved it for the poems.

Loren Erdrich

Loren Erdrich is a mixed-media visual artist working primarily in drawing, sculpture, performance, and video.  She has exhibited nationally and internationally, both individually and as part of CultureLab Collective. A 2011 show at the Joan Cole Mitte Gallery in Texas featured her work alongside that of Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Loren completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a BA and BFA respectively.  She received her MFA in 2007 from the Burren College of Art and the National University of Ireland.  She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Sierra Nelson

Sierra Nelson's poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Poetry Northwest, City Arts Magazine, Forklift Ohio, Painted Bride Quarterly, and DIAGRAM, among others.  For over a decade she has collaboratively written and performed as co-founder of The Typing Explosion and the Vis-a-Vis Society, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale and on the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour.  She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington and is a MacDowell fellow.  She currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

Sierra Nelson, 100 Thousand Poets for Change 
Video courtesy of Richard Hugo House



Thursday, July 24, 2014

Congress of Strange People - Stephanie Lenox (Airlie Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Congress of Strange People.  Stephanie Lenox.  Airlie Press.  Monmouth, Oregon.  USA.  2012.

Books like Stephanie Lenox's Congress of Strange People are a precious find.  Lenox mines the Guinness Book of World Records like a pilgrim with their first Bible.  The stories she relates confirm the strangeness in us all, familiarizes us with what is human in everyone.

This book vibrates in your hands when you are reading it.  Screams bloody murder when you put it down.


Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
The Guinness Book, dog-earing our favorites:

Mike, the headless chicken that lived eighteen months
before dying in an Arizona hotel room;

the man whose arm was severed and reconnected
three separate times—Lazarus, Jesus, and the lame girl combined.

Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking.
I scanned the Medical Marvels, Extreme bodies

for the woman he said could balance a piano on the tip
of her tongue. I stared at each smudged photo

until every woman began to look like family,
same eyes squinting against amazing burden.

Other times we huddled over the family tree,
its names branching out on butcher paper, me captivated

by the word genealogy as if it contained the power to grant
my three greatest wishes, while he plotted everything,

traced us back to Sing-Go-Wah, chief of a tribe
of pranksters. He pinched my skin until the blood rose.

See, you are red.  Then he showed me how to cup my hand
over my mouth to make a war cry.

Once before leaving, he said he had a present for me
and dropped something weightless, invisible in my hand.

The world's smallest guitar, he explained,
like the one we read about, size of a human blood cell,

completely functional. Now, play me a song.
My pulse picked up as I tried to think of what I could do.

Leaning over, with the tip of his fingernail he strummed once
the center of my palm, told me to press my ear against it.


There is an old-fashioned and comforting, down to the basics feel to these poems, but make no mistake, Lenox has a sophisticated voice full of marvels.  The "strange" are not so strange and we are not what we think either.

It occurs to me that Lenox is clearly lying about her current age and this being her first book.  Neither of those things are really possible.  These poems have centuries buried in them.

No One Gets Hurt

                             According to Guinness World Records,
                                      Dean Sheldon earned titles in 2000 for
                                      holding both the largest scorpion and the
                                      most scorpions in his mouth at one time.

I can't say what I was thinking
the first time I unhinged my jaw
to see what I'd kept so quietly there.

We have an unspoken agreement.
Even the largest arachnid curls
close to my patient breath.

I open my mouth so wide
that my fear escapes, wide enough
it becomes a desert, and my teeth

so many wind-shaped stones.
I can't tell you what it's like
to feel those lives shifting inside me.

It's not unlike the man who ate steel
hotter than the surface of Venus
and let it cool in his mouth.

To those who say I do it for a name,
I say, So? Who isn't prey to that hunger?
And to the man who spat a cricket—

dead—thirty feet, one question:
Was it alive when it first went it?
The way I hold these creatures,

venomous tails, four pairs of legs
folded lightly as if in prayer,
no one gets hurt. Can you say that?

What better way to know strength
than to hold that carapace of space
on the soft bed of the tongue.

Twenty is not nearly enough to show
the dark distances great inside me.
Inside my mouth, I can hold anything.


Congress of Strange People made me laugh out loud, made me open my dictionary, made me reconsider, made me change my mind and made me a new follower of Stephanie Lenox.


Recycling Pornography

I find her, hopeful as a student
in a yearbook photo, showing off
her odd trick. Legs pinned
behind ears, in white lace,
almost lovely, almost graceful
below a neon title and date—
as if it could be different
each month, wilder contortions,
a new secret message spelled out
in limbs and lips. How tedious
it must be to sit like that
while the camera searches
day after day for a fresh angle,
eyes begging to see more.
How easily the legs fold back.
She is a wishbone, a horseshoe,
a charm of glossy flesh. Her eyes
tell me she does not care who I am.
She is not a textbook or footnote.
Spread-eagle across the page
she refuses to be overlooked.
I need to understand this desire—
to stretch it out until it becomes
ordinary. What new use
can I make of this? Show me, I ask
her teetering form, what more
can be done? I will not turn away.
Show me something still frightening
or so beautiful it will shock me again.


Photo Credit: Sabina Samiee/Oregon Arts Commission

Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. She is the author  of The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, an award-winning poetry chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. Her work has appeared widely in literary journals, and she has been honored with fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission. Her web site is

"To write so thoughtfully, humorously, zanily, and beautifully about dogs and cats, remorseful sisters and fumbling fathers, crazy record-holders and sexy snake charmers—every body and thing around us—is to live poetry. Lenox's life is animated into a colorful, deeply felt spectrum of discovery that spans 'a suspension bridge of disbelief' that we willingly believe and dive from, risking that splitting heart of fear and joy. A smart, surprising, and audacious book."
     —Henry Hughes, author of Moist Meridian

Stephanie Lenox reads poems from Congress of Strange People, Meadowlake Studios


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The House of the Easily Amused - Shelley A. Leedahl (Oolichan Books)

Today's book of poetry:
The House of the Easily Amused.  Shelley A. Leedahl.  Oolichan Books.  Lantzville, BC.  2008.

The House of the Easily Amused is quite a read and I don't say that lightly.  Leedahl carries a big bag of impressive tricks as well as deep reservoir of unbridled honesty.

You hardly knew me

Now I understand why it hurts

to see myself
on the photo you shot
on the vacuous street.

                   You captured me

as Alfred Stieglitz
caught his Georgia
in 1918.

        I am the shape of a woman
inclined against rock. A photograph

that says Here I am,
this is who I am,
                               this is the way

you should remember me.


This book is divided into four roughly equal parts.  Each section concentrates on a different narrative and geography, whether physical or emotional.  What binds the collection is Leedahls' consistent voice whether exasperated about a Mexican lover or trailing big game into the snowy woods with her son.


Pitahaya. One probing finger inside your colours,
I pull your white meat out.

Every morning past the painters on scaffolds;
we always say hello.

My map of the world slides off the wall
because it does not believe in me.

Hook, line and thinker. I am
sinking about you.

Why in all these languages
do you not love me yet?


Leedahl exposes herself to life with gusto and then her life to the page with similar elan.  I truly enjoyed this broad and revelatory collection.  Shelley A. Leedahl surprised this reader with her candor and her stunning combination of wit and pathos, humour and harsh truth.  There are moments of poignancy that left me stamping my feet.

Driving at night away from the city, the sky

is an infinite game of Lite-Brite. We forget
to be cautious of deer, the gravel road's ruffle

of deeper snow. Pots of verdigris light—
eyes trapped beneath pond ice—

define the runway near Cudworth and moon
hovers nowhere above.

No reason to speak. Village streets are empty,
snow like vanilla pudding

tempers front steps and rooftops.
Smoke rises from chimneys into polar bears.

                     This is what I believe in. You
pausing to gaze at the light show

before trenching a path to the door. Each time
the house smells like strangers

and we sleep as warm children
under tossed coats in a car. Between white fields,

below the black
punctured paper of night.


"below the black punctured paper of night", I love that line.

The first section of The House of the Easily Amused evoked some of the Mexico that Maryse Holder explored in her great book Give Sorrow Words.  Hard for me to gush any more than that.

When you decide you must buy yourself flowers
(melancholy is a raincoat)

Think of Lester Young playing sax to an empty room.
That first girl in grade four
to pierce her ears. Picnics in sweaters
and the small leaves that ride home on sleeves
and hair. a checkerboard of shadows.
An old or current lover invoking a Transylvanian accent:
Come, I want to embrace you
Redheads wearing green. Men who love women
in glasses, and photographs
that caught you dancing. Three-year-old ballerinas.
Anyone who says they are interested in your process.
Words in the dictionary no one ever looks up.
The distance between swimming and drowning.


And it is not like Leedahl takes her foot off of the gas — this volume is packed with killer poems.
Normally Today's Book of Poetry only includes three poems but I simply couldn't decide which of these I enjoyed more.  Good books will do that to you.

Shelley A. Leedahl is the author of two novels, two short story collections, two previous books of poetry, and an illustrated children's book. She has been awarded the John V. Hicks Manuscript Award, a Short Grain Award, Foreword Magazine's "Book of the Year", and more than a dozen Saskatchewan Writers Guild awards in various genres, including literary non-fiction. Two of her titles have been shortlisted for "Book of the Year" (Saskatchewan Book Awards).
Leedahl has been the recipient of the Wallace Stegner Grant for the Arts and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences in Georgia, and Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers.  As well, she was one of five Canadian writers selected for the Canada-Mexico Writing/Photography Exchange in Merida (Mexico) and Banff. She lives in the village of Middle Lake, Saskatchewan, and travels regularly to conduct author visits and creative writing workshops.

"Amidst the banality of suburban life, the ordinariness of domesticity, (Leedahl) grounds a fierce love of beauty, of the moment's transcendence, of the lonely soul making its peace with the world. She's not saying, Look at me, she's saying, Look at this.  Out of love, and care for the reader, as evidenced by her careful craft and camera eye, her poems show us a way to see, and an admirable way to be in the world."
     —John Donlan, author of Domestic Economy, Baysville, Green Man and Spirit Engine


Sunday, July 20, 2014

All You Ask For Is Longing - New and Selected Poems - Sean Thomas Dougherty (BOA Editions Ltd.)

Today's book of poetry:
All You Ask For Is Longing.  New and Selected Poems.  Sean Thomas Dougherty.  BOA Editions Ltd.  Rochester, NY.  2014.

Terrance Hayes hears Lorca in the poetry of Sean Thomas Dougherty, O'Hara and Akhmatova as well. And I guess they are in here but the truth of it is — of the three (and I have read some of each), I'm only really familiar with Anna Akhmatova.

What I hear in All You Ask For Is Longing is a very eloquent Charles Bukowski with some top notch Raymond Carver type editing.

At Mike's Pub and Grub

        Free coffee and donuts every morning at six a.m.
                                  from an advertisement in
                                  Manchester Union Leader, 1991

They're not the best—
These day-old stale
Diameters of dough—but
The coffee's good
And the waitress's
Grimace is only the thin
Disguise of grace
Amid grease;
She carries an empty pot
By the truck driver
As he wipes vanilla cream
From his thick mustache,
The laid-off machinist
Inhaling French twists,
And the two bums
With no teeth, politely
Asking for jellies;
It looks as if that Great American
Edward Hopper himself might've
Painted this gathering
At the corner of Lake
And Pine—the streetlight,
The stools, the truck
Driver's tip left behind
On his plate: two dimes.


These poems are Andrew Wyeth precise and Richard Pryor sharp.  There is so much to admire in this collection.  Dougherty mixes it up with prose poems, list poems, it doesn't matter—at this level of excellence it is all first rate.

Dear L, The Moon is White and Blue as Ripped-up Lottery Tickets

A door without desire, a distant light.  What I am soon the fire
escape from a third-story flat, a falling thing.  A radio from a high
window spilling Salsa onto the street.  What power no one could
impede or spell is what they fear and make our hell.  What requiem
recoils through the winding wind and perhaps a word withheld.
The labor of being obediently alive?  When I was so old so I could
not stand after my shift, I once worked a summer laying sod.  We
worked at different speeds, but sometimes I looked up from the
black earth to see us bending our backs together.  Our foreman
cursed us for moving slow.  Paid too little under the table.  How
many shifts without a name or number?  It touches my shoulder
and I know that I have changed.  We do not have one life in this
life we have so many we could think we have reached the afterlife
and returned as the damned.  Dog shit frozen on the lawn that
winter I left my wife, when my son was small, and I would carry
him through the slush, pressing his face into my chest.  What secret
lament?  What is the child in the park chanting?  I am little more
than a tiny cloud lost in a giant blue sky.  To lie on the grass without
fear of police and stare at the clouds.  The long invisible chains we
carry.  One must be careful not to kiss grief.  The cars come and go
like the women talking of Michelangelo.  My neighbor's oldest son
is dealing drugs.  We run with our arms outstretched wide.  But I
am a leaf tumbling along the lake, I tell my daughter.  In the bar
I wipe the counter of spilled beer of men in suits I want to knife.
My neighbor works the second shift at the frozen food factory.
He works until his hands are raw and bleed.  We the invisible, we
the beggars, we they call losers and cheats and lazy, with our 12-
hours shifts, with our long staring factory gaze.  Scarcely even a
murmur of smoke, rising from a chimney, the way it squints and
curls the way sorrow winds itself across and through our chests.
Mail this to the office of the Ambassador of Laments.  More and
more we do not see, how can we?  What is a child's hand reaching
on the 59th Street subway platform?  What is a cobblestone to a
bare foot?  The gypsy children are begging in the morning light of
the old city.  Both our daughters asleep in their beds.  The moon is
white and blue as ripped-up lottery tickets.  I am without a name
or faraway as this country I can no longer claim without sorrow.
Against the dread the motel signs release their neon to the night.  I
want to tell you the opposite of dread, but I keep driving off the
road to get there.  We found another bullet at the playground today.
My daughter and I like to walk on the train tracks and balance
with our arms outstretched.  How many bullet-strewn bodies does
my Bosnian neighbor carry?  The moon is but a lamentation.  Or
an eye, watching us.  As we die.  Across the roofs of the sky, I pick
up the butts he leaves after dark, chain-smoking alone on the
curb.  What star is his witness?  I want to tell you something more,
something to carry us out of this shit.  But the dirt and grime is like
a grease I cannot wash off my hands.  My daughter is five.  In the
backyard I teach her how to throw a jab, lean her shoulder into
the hook, when all she wants to do is imitate the starlings.  What
we can recall is what travels with us.  The old comic books of our
childhoods.  The dead on street corners and the ditch.  How casual
such great suffering becomes with time.  I push my daughter in a
swing.  I run a comb through her tangled hair.  When we lay down
on the lawn, side by side and squint up at the clouds, I become a
fire truck, a penguin, a unicorn, a fish—whatever she draws with
the outstretched pencil of her fingertip.  We we close our eyes,
she becomes the one word the grass sighs.


If you don't think that is a great poem please stop reading my blog!  Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" is echoed all through there and masterfully.

Dougherty's poetry has an authority that it both demands and breathes.  This work gives tremendous respect to the lives of those people who shape these poems and respects the demands of the readers. Done and done.

Sean Thomas Dougherty is in rare company.  Here's my convoluted compliment to the man (whom I've never met):  the best poet to ever grace the silver screen was Paul Newman's "Fast Eddie Felson".
When Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) tells Eddie that he shoots a good game of pool—you know it is true with a clarity, a certainty.  I call on the poet Gods to proclaim loudly, "Mr. Dougherty, you play a real cool game".


Why are you frowning? Unfold out your palms: you've trained me

You are quietly resting all morning on the window of what I did wrong: come look outside, I say, come hear what you've never heard:

You are all the way home I looked your way and you didn't become the music

You are not the I you say, I am: you are the orchard and the pool hall and the ink

You are somehow the one written who went before I could not spell what

You are saying, and the dealers outside shouting: and the rain scribbling curses against the screen

You are not the constellation of shotgun holes in the wall

You are and one of us will continue

You are the first time a hotel room, Times Square long after midnight, the banished places the pimps were sent, the joint we shared by the basketball court, and the shard of glass you held up to the moon by the East River

You are unbuttoning my body

You are coffee and oranges in autumn, hushed recess: the sound of eating candy

You are alone the only voice that can keep me orphaned:

You are a saint's medallion in a small girl's hands

You are the one wrong joy transfigured

You are when there if there is nothing you tell me we can repeat ourselves

You are barefoot running by the blue barn

You are somehow crayon singing:

U r the only letters of the alphabet uninvented

You are the last language I will ever learn


It is rare for me to find a poet I find so utterly pleasing to read, so completely compelled to turn the page, not wanting to leave what I've read behind.  I plowed through All You Ask For is Longing as though it were a dying man's last meal.  Sean Thomas Dougherty is mining a rich vein of pure gold when so many others are playing in the dust.

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of twelve books, including Nightshift Belonging to Lorca, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize; Except by Falling, winner of the 2000 Pinyon Press Poetry Prize from Mesa State College; and his two previous BOA Editions collections, Broken Hallelujahs and Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line. His awards include a Fulbright Lectureship to the Balkans and two Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowships in Poetry.  Known for his electrifying performances, he has toured extensively across North America and Europe.  He received an MFA in poetry from Syracuse University and lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he works at Gold Crown Billiards.

Sean Thomas Dougherty reading his poem "Against Grief"

"Sean Thomas Dougherty's poems vibrate with 'red and blue braids of light', in a voice that resonates and transports. Arresting, precise imagery from a poet of grand and memorable vision, this is the gypsy punk heart of American poetry."
     —Dorianne Laux

"Dougherty's brave poems transport us to the fault lines of our lives...where Kundera and Lorca meet the world of the holding cell and the chain-link fence."
     —Jan Beatty

"The poems of Sean Thomas Dougherty are full of intelligence and energy, myth and music, moving in surreal, jagged streams. There is a remarkable range of references here, from Edith Piaf to Biggie Smalls, from Jackson Pollock to Killer Kowalski. Above all, however, there is empathy, that essential element of poetry and humanity, for a dying grandfather, for the insomniacs of the city, for all the forgotten histories the poet cannot forget. To him I say: Keep singing."
     —Martin Espada

"These soul-infused, deftly crafted stanzas pulse with the rhythms of a poet who lives his life out loud. Sean Thomas Dougherty has always shunned convention in favor of is fresher landscapes—and this book will be the one that stamps his defiant signature on the
     —Patricia Smith

"Yes, these poems glow with what is most tender in Lorca, but they also strut with what is most wiseass in O'Hara; they brood with what is most earnest in Akhmatova. In this book, one hears the footsteps of all the teachers and friends and loved ones and strangers that people Sean Thomas Dougherty's mind (the blood's library) and heart (the blood's dancehall)."
     —Terrance Hayes


Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lemon Bars of Parnassus - Lee Kisling (Parallel Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Lemon Bars of Parnassus.  Lee Kisling.  Parallel Press.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2013.

The Lemon Bar of Parnassus by Lee Kisling is a travelogue through trailer parks filled with Vernon's and those lost in the sad adoration of Peggy Lee.

There are moments of the seriously surreal in these poems as Kisling rhapsodizes over Helen of Troy and skies that rain anvils.

These are not distractions, but neon signs that show the way, traffic direction signals for navigating this strange earth.

A Town Full of Owls

This town is full of owls.
It seems unnatural—there being so many.
They flew down from the north in search of food.
They are watching the corner grocery store,
swivel-heads following the delivery boy.

They watch the unlanded farmers and the unhusbanded women
and the men who fish to be at peace,
the swaying alcoholic and the doubting priest.
They see the man on the corner with his hands in his pockets,
a man who built on high ground but thinks of the sea,
the immigrant with an unspeakable language.
They watch the family in the front room watching nature reruns.
They see tattoo boys and apron mothers with wooden spoons,
unfinished dinners, tire tracks on the back road
and the illumination of radio dials.
They see empty clothes hanging from clotheslines
and the barber sweeping the hair from his floor.

There is an owl-dog who follows the mailman.
There is a drooping willow, toys left in the yard
and gray smoke curling from the chimneys
of the houses in this town so full of owls.
There are elbow-on-the-bar owls,
faded sports glory owls and long story owls.
There is a night owl poet with tattered notebooks.

Darkness, closing the day, brings them out—
call and answer hoots from front porch to widow's walk.
A deep, deep and wild repetition—
owls with headaches, owls with crutches,
upstairs owls, back yard owls, full moon owls,
can't go home again owls.


As I read on, I found Kisling's voice strangely reassuring.  His range and choice of song is both esoteric and endearing, ultimately it is familiar in unexpected ways.

Picnic Rain

Where does the picnic rain come from?
Is it the water evaporated from the great sea,
or water spilled over the dikes
that hold in rivers?
Does it come from dripping faucets in old houses,
from leaking pipes, or the sweat of laborers?
Was it once the breath that fogged the windows
of cold-morning cars? Was it beer spilled
on Saturday nights in dance halls?

Is picnic rain the water once flung
from firemen's hoses at burning buildings?
Is it water from the plastic bottles thrown in ditches
or the garden hose spraying the roses?
It it cups poured too full
or the last drops from the medicine bottle?

Is picnic rain the answered prayers of ants?
Is it a gift from a generous god who blesses
by saturation the too-happy
or the too-dry?

Does picnic rain lengthen the weeds?
Does it kiss the tangled root of living things
on its way to dark underground streams?
Does it remember the wind and the sky,
the snap of lightning
and the long descent onto the cushion of umbrellas
or the shingles of houses all in a row?

Do the teardrops of so many
rise again to form clouds
which assemble with purpose
over the plains and picnics
of we, the just and the unjust,
who thirst always and again
for the fair summer days of love?


The Parallel Press series of chapbooks published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries are consistently strong and vibrant choices.  The editors have culled, winnowed the chaff, and it shows.

Lee Kisling is doing his part.  These smart poems have a vibrancy all their own.  They tease at the surreal on occasion but that is playful misdirection, the magician making you watch the left hand while the right hand settles the score.

Waiting for the Sun

Maybe because we are so full of water—
muscle and guts and brains,
but mostly water; maybe that's why
we go always to water, to rivers and lakes,
to pools and ponds and dishpans.
We scan the sky. We look for clouds.
Maybe because we are so many we need more water,
why rain has fallen for days and weeks,
why it comes pouring down
in splashing torrents—black waves of rain
flooding the streets, filling the fields,
tumbling bridges, turning cars into boats.

Maybe because we are full of air—
breath and beliefs and a thousand words,
but mostly air; maybe that's why the wind finds us,
this Jezebel wind,
bending the trees, shaking the windows,
taking the roof, bringing with it
the rain because
we need the air and water.

Maybe because we are so full of dissatisfaction
we conjure the storm. We fear and desire
this furious pelting rain, the howling wind,
the rising tide. Maybe we need to stand and face
the sodden wreckage of our possessions,
of our past, our plans,
to pick through the ruin, the ruin of us.

Maybe because we are so full of longing
we pray for change, a fresh start—
but first, oh merciful heaven, please
rip all this to pieces, push over the house,
shatter the windows, topple the chimney.
Drive us bawling for high ground
to stand huddled with strangers,
wet and afraid through the gray-black night
waiting for the sun.


Lee Kisling, an Iowa native, is an engineer, writer, husband, and father of two who has lived in Hudson, Wisconsin for twenty-five years. In 1992, his first juvenile fiction novel, The Fools’ War, was published by Harper Collins. He has written many songs and poems, plays the piano, and in 2008 had a series of cartoons published in the Wisconsin poetry journal, Free Verse. The poems in this collection are from 2006–2010. He is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing Department at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Whiteout - George Murray (ECW Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Whiteout.  George Murray.  Misfit.  ECW Press.  Toronto, Ontario. 2012.

It's not that George Murray doesn't have a sense of humour but he's so pared down bare-boned to the core clean and concise that he doesn't leave too much room for speculation.

These very precise poems lay out all the contradictions that make us human.  Murray's Whiteout has a similar effect as the real weather condition — this sort of honesty can be breathtakingly blinding.

You know you've just been told a basic truth.

The New Weather

Just before the key catches in the lock
a snowflake lands on your eyelash and blurs
the scene; stretching the instant an instant
longer, slurring outer and inner worlds.

A moment, a moment more; you dare not
move, and so pause on the sill, wait for the tear
that will form in either the new weather
hot from the house, or your eye's open stare.


Murray is unerringly correct and it is a welcome purge, turn the page and find something else you must proclaim agreement with.

There's a vigorous intellect at work and play in these poems but there are no "show off" moments, none of the "watch me" tricks, instead — here is a voice you want to follow, hear more of.


Between every two people runs a fuse,
a line from head to heart or crotch,
cunt to mouth, eye to navel, hand to throat;
short or long, strung this way or that, welding

one desire to another love, one need
to another want, hate to deeper hate,
fear to loyalty, tremble to light touch,
flame to a bucket, fall to a turned back.

What's unique isn't its length or course,
whether travelling from one side or both,
or even who's stood at either end,
but ignition: just how and when it got lit.


These little poems are big poems full of big ideas.  Murray uses palatable tension in his poems like a high wire connecting ideas.  Murray is also aware that too much tension will snap the readers' attention. No problems here as this Whiteout is navigated with Murray firmly piloting, his passengers, the readers, safely to their destination.

St. John's

The rooftop's stammered Morse code, dot-dashing.
Inside it's pews and chairs. Closer down,
nail crowns crater in hardwood floorboards,
satellite imagery of all our hung heads.

Hibachi outside the corner store strip joint.
Today's drunk steady at it, as opposed
to yesterday's spectacular fellow.
Foam rises in the glass, the beer's prayer

to be more than it is, to overflow
itself, flesh from the tops of jeans, chatter
among the locals. Fat people roll down
gangplanks and point, the fog lifts on occasion,

the sewer's end posing for pictures.
Oiled pigeons hold off dry gulls, anoint
the sidewalk again and again. Storefronts close
around the club, girls pacing outside.

Your future could lean in that door and you
might not recognize it as anything
but the next in another series of nows.
They stand on the walk, many highway billboards

read as one: distinct markets, general moods.
On the ocean, waves exchange momentum,
wait their chance to go rogue. Somewhere under
every inch of skin is a Venn diagram

with lovers overlapping just so,
and it's here I want us to be. No one asked,
What if there's only one universe?
If it turns out there is, then one is enough.


George Murray's five previous volumes of poetry include the bestselling Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms, which won an Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry, as well as The Rush to Here and The Hunter.  From 2003 to 2011 he owned and operated the successful Bookninja website.  He lives in St. John's, Newfoundland, with his two sons.

"One of Canada's best young poets."
     —Vancouver Province

"George Murray remakes the world with a frightening and evocative music."
     —The Globe and Mail

George Murray - Tree Reading Series - Ottawa


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Crooning Wing - Three Greenlandic Poets - Torkilk Morch, Gerda Hvisterdahl, Innunquaq Larsen. Translated by Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt (New American Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Crooning Wind - Three Greenlandic Poets.
Torkilk Morch, Gerda Hvisterdahl, Innunquaq Larsen.  Translated by Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt.  New American Press.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin-Urbana, Illinois.  2012.

This all too short collection, compiled and translated by Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt leads this reader to believe that the poetry being written in Greenland is an all too secret joy.  Although all three of these poets, Torkilk Morch, Gerda Hvisterdahl and Innunquag Larsen are no longer with us, are in fact, long dead, these thoroughly modern poems read as contemporary as wet ink.

Torkilk Morch - Greenland Sharks

They are slow, they swim very deep, and catch what they can
by ambush more likely than not. The meat of this shark
is poison. Of course it is. But then what desperate
fisherman or his wife decided, despite
what they had learned, or seen with their own eyes
of their neighbors' deaths, that maybe if you boiled it,
not once, but several times, or if you dried it
and ate it then, it wouldn't kill you. It's true:
both methods work, but what grim necessity drove them
to such an experiment as to win this knowledge?


Torkilk Morch - Slush

The ice softens
as the earth comes into her season.
The reindeer revive and the caribou,
the bears in their lairs wake,
and we give thanks to them and for them,
whose helplessness we share.
But only we bear the burden
of knowing our lives are short.


Morch says more with less, and with great clarity.  The concerns he has are universal, the helplessness of being human, the perilous certainty that human warmth is our greatest gift.

Gerda Hvisterdahl - Where

The herds are there somewhere. They have to be.
But they know that I'm coming and run away to hide.
Where can they go? Where could they have gone?
In all this glare and metaphysical whiteness,
how can they not be seen?
                                              But the answer is
that they can see me, a hopeless hungry man
trudging slowing across the landscape. They move
a little further on. If they could, they'd laugh.


Gerda Hvisterdahl - Wake

A good lover gives way as the water gives way
to the boat's prow, but also, like the water,
cradles, supports, caresses the length of the keel,
and then gives thanks in the celebrating wake
that lets the rest of the sea see what it was.

Gerda Hvisterdahl - Insult Poem

There are sled dogs, hard working but not so bright,
but still brighter than you.
There are also guard dogs, testy, hostile, but useful.
You are like them, except that you are not useful.
And then there are dogs that roam the village for scraps
and seem to be good only for leaving shit
wherever people walk.
       You are just like them.


Gerda Hvisterdahl, in these three short poems, simply dazzles with humour, wit, and humanity.  These timeless poems are laser focused and casually clever, old time lore and eternal longing.

Innunquaq Larsen - Senses

The five we agree on,  but what of the other subtle
information systems the brain relies on?
Balance is surely a sense. And kinesthetics,
the knowledge of where the parts of the body are
and how much an object weighs upon the muscles
that lift it to learn how heavy it is. Distention
is also a sense, the need to shit or pee
or fart. At the other end, the vagus nerve
announces nausea, doesn't merely report
but predicts, which is what our senses are for. And fear?
Is that an emotion? Or, when our hair stands up,
a part of the sensorium? Sleepiness?
Vertigo? The meat and bone rely
on the nerves' news for survival, and we should acknowledge
how, on a certain street, in a certain room,
where it doesn't feel right, something dismal impends,
and if we are smart we'll try to get away.


Innunquaq Larsen - Breath

You can see them in winter,
each breath making a cloud as it hits the cold
so that it is visible, seems alive,
and you watch a poem form and disappear,
or is it a prayer?

In the summer you also breathe.
You cannot see your breath,
but you know it is there,
can remember what it looked like
enough to believe.


All three of these poets amazed me in the most pleasurable ways.  The concise, clean line all three employ suggest it might be part of the Greenlandic fabric - no nonsense, straight ahead wisdom.  I don't pretend to know anything about Greenland and to my shame, even less about it's literature.  But if this sampling of Greenlandic poetry is in any way indicative of what is on offer - zounds!

Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt have done an amazing job translating these works so that they feel right in English, feel like they were written in English.  Makes me wish I spoke Greenlandic.

TORKILK MORCH (1894-1940) a native of Nuuk (formerly Godthab), was a pioneer in Greenlandic poetry, combining the archaic rhythms of native culture with the sophistication of cosmopolitan modernism that opened the doors of literature to the generations that followed him. He was educated in Copenhagen, Paris, and Bucharest. His three slender volumes are Aurora Borealis (1916), The Herring Elegies (1927), and The Beckoning Foghorns (1934). Inger Christensen said that Morch "understood the world and the universe as a continuum of correspondences." He disappeared into a crevasse in 1940, reportedly with a nearly complete book of poems that he carried with him in a small sealskin notebook.

GERDA HVISTERDAHL (1916-1994) was born and raised in Qaqortoq. She was an autodidact, a mystic, and well-known stone carver. Rebelling against Vangardist formulas, she wrote traditional poems about the complexities of man-in-nature. Her Signs of Habitation (1952) was awarded the Thule Prize of the Greenlandic Academy of Arts and Letters. Musk Ox Meat (1961), which broods about the island's traditional hunter-gatherer culture and the impact upon it of the money economy, was included in the Arctic Cultural Counsel's list of 50 Great Greenlandic books.

INNUNQUAQ LARSEN (1935-2002) was born in Qeqertarsuatsiaat on the southwestern coast. His long narrative poem about the seeress porkell is widely studied in Greenlandic secondary schools and esteemed among literary critics for its keen understanding of the pagan culture and the celebration of objects that were a part of the island's spiritual history. He was fluent in both Greenlandic and Danish, but his poetry was entirely in Greenlandic. Aside from his Porkell's Knife (1960) his work appeared in a series of eleven Fascicles that were published in letter-press pamphlet form from 1971 until the onset of his deep depression in 1978, during which he was hospitalized and from which he never recovered.

NIVE GRONKJAER is professor of Inuit Studies at the University of Baffin Island and director of the Knut Rasmussen Kalaalit Nunaat Institute.

DAVID R. SLAVITT is an established translator of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese and Sanskrit.



Friday, July 11, 2014

Falling Ash - Haibun, Haiku, Senryu & Other Poems - James Fowler (Hobblebush Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Falling Ashes - Haibun, Haiku, Senryu & Other Poems.  James Fowler.  The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, Volume VII.  Hobblebush Books.  Brookline, New Hampshire.  2013

Those who read this blog with any regularity will know that in general I am not a big fan of any sort of formalism — but good poetry is always good poetry.  Joseph Bathanti showed us something entirely new with the sonnet in Sonnets of the Cross and here, James Fowler utterly astounds with haibun, haiku, senryu and other poems.

A Sailor On Weekend Pass

I met my blind date Friday afternoon on an underground street in
Chicago where she talked the bouncer into letting me into the bar.
Over PBRs she asked if I'd read Ginsberg or Snyder. I said I read
Asimov and Heinlein. After shots of tequila, she told me of her nights
in jail for protesting the war. I told her I was afraid she'd make me
lose my clearance. She walked me back to the train station where the
setting sun cast our silhouette on the wall as I kissed her, once. Two
months later I was in Nam.—I'm still fond of the scent of limes.—I'd
like to tell her that I've read Ginsberg and can recite Snyder's
Turtle Island.—Maybe she remembers when the sun went down.

                                     car lights
                                     flash through the bar windows

By writing poems of such perfect and precise balance Fowler is clearly demonstrating the place and the beauty for formal poems of this fashion.  Not one word should, or could, be altered without blemishing a facet.

A Poem Made in the Shape of a Burning Buddhist Monk

          in memory of Thich Quang Duc

This poem is made to be read aloud
on a crowded street and dropped,
with a match, into a beggar's bowl.

This poem will lift up in a cloud
of flames. High above, the fire
will burst and feather down upon
the shoulders of those pushing by.

There will be many poems read
in the memory of burning monks.
Tears will streak the sooty faces
of the ghosts. Ash will fill their cups.


Fowler's Falling Ashes really is a beautiful book to read, his poetry as surprising in content as in form.

There are edgy, highly political and decisively polarizing poems in this sterling collection along with all the beauty.  Each and every one as perfect and precious as a snowflake.


                                   after the rain
                                   a thousand moons
                                   on the street


Reading books like James Fowler's Falling Ashes is as refreshing as it is liberating.  James Fowler has given us something of beauty that is rewarding to read.

James Fowler retired from the US Navy after 25 years as a Senior Chief and used his GI Bill to get a master's degree in Environmental Science, majoring in Nature Writing, from Antioch University in New England in Keene, New Hampshire. He has been privately teaching poetry for ten years and edited Heartbeat of New England: An Anthology of Nature Poems (Tiger Moon Publications, 2000). He has been a judge for Poetry Out Loud.
Over two hundred and fifty of James Fowler's poems in various forms have been published in such journals as Bitter Oleander, Sentence, Connecticut Review, Worcester Review and others.

"A sculptor lives with a piece of wood and studies its color, imperfections and grain in order to bring forth the beauty of its final form.  Fowler's haiku and haibun remind one of tiny pieces of modern sculpture devoid of everything except what is necessary to reveal both life's imperfections and grain. This he does with skill and artistry.  A book you will want to read and reread."
     —Wanda D. Cook.

"Jim Fowler's fine collection of haiku, haibun and a few poems is dominated by a stark sense engendered by experience in war, work abroad, his wife, and nature.  One cannot but be moved by his evocation of war and love and the rest."
     —Bruce Ross



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sonnets of the Cross - Joseph Bathanti (Jacar Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Sonnets of the Cross.  Joseph Bathanti.  Jacar Press.  Durham, North Carolina.  2013.

If Mark Twain were a Baptist minister and he was narrating the biblical baptism by fire of one of the "Our Gang" characters — maybe that's the feeling I'm getting from Joseph Bathanti's most excellent Sonnets of the Cross.

Or try this one — you've got Thomas Hart Benton painting the background for a Catholic pavilion populated by questionable louts of dubious faith and the ghost of Bill Hicks.  None of these people actually appear in these poems.  What I am trying to do is share some of the feeling these poems create.

Jesus Falls The First Time

He came late to walking and I fretted
lest the blue yield of my virginity
was flawed in marrow and sinew whetted
by innocence whelping Divinity.
He could speak, but refused. He knew His name,
knew Iscariot was His betrayer,
the psalter's achieve portending His fame,
had committed to memory Isaiah.
His first toys were hammer, nails, adze and awl,
His own apprentice bench from which he pitched
and split a cleft above his eye, a fall
that would have killed another child, I stitched
my pretty baby while he read a poem
about bands of angels bearing him home.


It has been a long time since I've read the Bible and it will probably be a long before I read it again - but if I were going to I would want it translated by Bathanti.  I find his language, idiom, dialogue all utterly sublime.

These fable like sonnets are perfectly twisted to fit your ear.

Jesus Meets The Woman

They bump into Him shopping in Bloomfield.
It's how many years?  He's skin and bone.
The hair.  The beard.  Some kind of radical.
But still He shows respect, kisses each one,
inquires about their health, tells them to pray,
ask anything in His name and it's theirs.
They laugh.  He's probably on drugs, they say.
His poor widowed mother.  Thirty-three years
old, a grown man, and still can't settle down.
The little bit He makes He gives away,
while poor Mary sits in one room downtown,
practically on welfare, day after day.
they don't mention the thorns or bloody cross.
He's not a bad kid, just a little lost.


Sometimes you find poems and sometimes they find you.  Joseph Bathanit's Sonnets of the Cross may be an instructional manual for an introduction to faith or a guide to writing better poetry.  Take your pick.  I found these solid poems thoroughly entertaining, full of deprecating humour and a particular charm, wit and intelligence.

Jesus's Body Is Removed From The Cross

My father, Paul, and Ronnie Villani
laddered up to cut Him down at 3 sharp
in flouts of lightning.  The Allegheny
caught on fire, its banks brimmed in boiled carp.
With claw hammer and crowbar, my dad pried
the spikes from His hands and feet.  In the end
he hack-sawed the rusted pig iron, and cried,
working quickly because the Pinkertons
the strike-breakers had hired to execute
the Union Christ sped back to Golgotha
to jail them.  Ronnie bore Him to the boot
of Paul's blood-red Oldsmobile Electra.
They drank to the Savior: Corpus Christi.
Shots of Black Velvet chased with Iron City.


This beautiful limited edition chapbook was designed by Dave Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press in Durham, North Carolina.  The images used to illustrate this book were created by Ron Moss.

Joseph Bathanti is the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. He is the author of six books of poetry:  Communion Partners, Anson County, The Feast of All Saints, This Metal, Land of Amnesia, and Restoring Sacred Art.  He is the recipient of two Literature Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, the Linda Flowers Prize, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the Carolina Novel Award, the Novello Literary Award, the Spokane Prize, the Roanoke Chowan Prize, the Ragan-Rubin Award for Literary Achievement, and the 2013 Mary Frances Hobson Prize.  Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing and Writer-in-Residence of Watauga Global Community at Appalachian State University,

Meet Joseph Bathanti