Friday, May 30, 2014

The Sleeve Waves - Angela Sorby (University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Sleeve Waves.  Angela Sorby.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2014.


Angela Sorby is crazy talented.  These poems catapult off of the page with intelligent energy.


Party at the beach,
but J refuses to go
because he can't swim.
11 years old. All day
I watch his cuteness
break open and fall away.
He finds Etta James
on YouTube and says,
"When I'm sad, only sad
songs make me better."
Already a needle
in his heart knows
how to find the chords
for all he's missing:
direct sunlight, easy listening.
Already the wax
cylinder's spinning
its old technology of longing,
and I recognize the boys I knew
in the '80s and '90s,
who dragged me to Fallout Records
so they could "look for something."
What? It has no name, this sadness
that feels like happiness.


"...It has no name, this sadness
that feels like happiness."

Who writes that sort of line?  I could type that line, over and over, all day long.

Call me crazy, and I don't care if you do, I hear Carson McCullers in these poems, I hear Harper Lee.  It is a voice I have heard before.  Angela Sorby has the crystal clear voice of knowing.

Blood Relative

When my grandmother
was cremated she relaxed
enough to dissolve
off the Pacific shelf,

but alive she moved
neck-deep in nerves
the way a spiny dogfish swims
even when it slumbers,

picking up electromagnetic
fields from the sea
She'd disappear
to jump off the Aurora bridge,

and though she never did,
I still sense her slow surreal
fall in my chest. She always said
Light up to make the bus come,

which makes me miss smoking,
how it fills the lungs
with poison
that feels like heaven:

one suck on a Winston
will draw the Ballard #10,
its driver seeking
fire in the fog.


Sorby's poems are smart the way you wish you were smart.  Clever, witty, informed.  The Sleeve Waves has plenty to say about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, H.D. harmonicas, politics, and a strange comforting litany of things you didn't know you needed to know until you opened these pages.


In medieval allegories,
Death's like us, but smarter.
He covers his face

to block his rank
odor. Last night
a raccoon-corpse

flooded the yard.
No visible body,
just a scent so fishy

it plunged us
into a pre-human
anoxic ocean. We fought

to breathe.
Why didn't we go indoors?
Why did we sit

in deck chairs
letting it come—
this wave we couldn't begin

to grasp
with our tiny
opposable thumbs?


Couldn't find a video of Angela Sorby so I will treat you readers to a fourth poem that is hilarious, musical and masterful.  Sorby can be sublime and sassy at the same time.  There is nothing better than smart.

Sacred Grove

David Shields appears
on PBS to proclaim
the death of the novel,

but I always knew
the library was a repository
of corpses. By third

grade their silence
attracted: so pasty, so inky,
so compliantly unreal,

so unlike the reconstituted
orange juice smell
that took dominion

over us children
recalling our obligation
to grow, to thrive, to speak.

The novel, bloodless
and cadaverous,
could keep secrets

which is why it's tempting
to worship trees:

so many pages,
poised to leap,
like Daphne,

from sap to text—
the second-best kind
of little death.


Angela Sorby has a totally bemused and adoring new fan in Ottawa.

Angela Sorby is an associate professor of English at Marquette University. She is the author of three books: Distance Learning: Poems; Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry; and Bird Skin Coat, winner of the 2009 Brittingham Prize in Poetry.

"Has anyone written a funnier, more terrifying poem about Sylvia Plath that 'Epistle?' Or caught the delicate complexities among generations better than 'A Walk across the Ice?' From Seattle to Wisconsin to Hunan, these poems register the inscape and soundscape of a mind both ferocious and generous."
     —Maureen McLane

"Angela Sorby's poems move quickly, yet they contain depths: 'there's a new world floating / behind the painting,' as one says. If happiness lurks beneath sadness and vice versa, that's the point: these supple, savvy poems say the world is richer than we know and infinitely more beautiful."
     —David Kirby

"Sometimes, if you're very patient and a little lucky, a set of truly original poems will jolt you upright again, and you will read their unexpected, eccentric turns, their mesmerizing content and cadence, with gratitude and amazement and feel so glad you're still alive."
     —Naimi Shihab Nye,
         Felix Pollack Prize judge


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

RedShift - Patrick White (Ekstasis Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
RedShift.  Patrick White.  Ekstasis Editions.  Victoria, B.C.  2013.

I expect there are boxes and boxes of undiscovered Patrick White poems.  He used up every word in the English language and then some.  Patrick White wrote poems like an essential bodily function. Towards the end of his life he wrote with a ferocity of purpose and the candor of a pure burning flame. 

Patrick White really wasn't writing poems like any other Canadian poet.

I rue my own ignorance

I rue my own ignorance trying to get somebody
to lighten up, live, blow it off, forgive, move on,
get out the snakepit or at least teach the snakes to dance.
Stop thinking about it. Start living it. What
do the stars taste like shining in your blood?
Have you forgotten we're all innocently culpable?
Alone together with everyone on the same lifeboat,
or dogpaddling in the abyss until we're buoyant enough
to float for ourselves again, not dying of thirst
like fish in a freshwater lake? Wish I had the herbs,
wish I had the words, the keys, the open sesame
to say to the time locks on the vaults of brighter stars
that might illuminate the hidden agendas of your dark matter,
I truly do. Pain's not to be disregarded because, because,

and I can see you're hurting. I can feel the agony
of being you, I can see the rage and the beauty
and the ugliness of the human ego labouring to compensate
for its devastation, whether it be ethically sanctioned or not,
you caught a mirage that's evolved into a fever,
persecuted, betrayed, wounded, ignored, Narcissus
taking it out on all the mirrors he can't drown in,
you plead for rescue then you pray for death.

And maybe it's a dress rehearsal for something serious
you'll make us all live to regret, if you don't
enslave us first to the nose rings of our compassion,
makes us the dupes of our own ideals like
the conceptual nets it's easy enough to get caught in
like dolphins who've lost their sense of direction,
and most people cling to their best second guesses
like flypaper and fridge magnets, they're not likely
to understand it on the inside the way you do.
What do you know, for example, about what
makes my cry when I'm on the nightwatch alone
singing three bells all's well on the upper decks
of the shipwrecks deep in my own sea of awareness?

Even when I write them down, do you see
the same pictures I do, or is more left out of the translation
than even the most vehement expressionist
could possibly include base-jumping
from his precipitous solitude without a parachute,
a wing, a prayer? Maybe one day we'll all meet
at the speed of light but it occurs to me
we have to take the training wheels off first,
ditch the crutches, stop mytho-poeticizing our alibis
into the paranoid metadata of our reversible screening myths.

There's no starmap on the other side of the umbrellas
or the eclipses we use to keep the rain off our heads,
and even if there were, look what happened to the moon
when her subconscious watershed froze up inside
and her ideals were no longer fed like tributaries
by her tears, in joy or disappointment, the former
younger than yesterday, and the latter, old and finished
way before its time, out of synch with its prime.

The pill punching drugstore cowboys of the mind
have ferret souls and holes in their noses and tongues.
Star-nosed moles accusing everyone else
of being blind to the light at the end of the tunnel
as if a firefly of insight were coming at them like a freight train.
Maybe so. Maybe so. Everything makes a private impact
on the familiar witness we made up to testify
to the secret lives even our eyes only aren't cleared
to breathe a word of like picture-music
in the corneas of the rain, every drop an eye-transplant.

I've never met Jesus, but I've met ten thousand messiahs just like him
over a lifetime of trying to save myself in a wilderness
as most of the living do, living on bees and locusts,
among thorns and scorpions, and the pharmaceutical vipers
dispensing opioids like the honey of killer bees in Lotusland.
How does the Hill of Skulls in Jerusalem stack up against
the knoll of heads the Mongols piled up before the city walls
to encourage it to surrender? The distinction's lost upon the dead.

And I hear voices like the swarming of blackflies sometimes,
and others, Salomes, mermaids and lamias singing
so intriguingly with their bodies and their minds
in the desert of mirages unveiling the stars,
it's as if the night were using my skull as a vessel
for the black grail magic they held it out to me and said, here, drink.
You'll never be the same after this, if you're shameless enough.

Like so many poets, huddled in their immensities
declaiming some local muse who blew in their ears
like the ashen firepits of their embering intensities,
you've immunized our life and works with sacred syllables
against the very thing you're afraid of killing you
deeper into the unknown darkness of your own shadowless eyes.

Your Mummy doesn't love you and your Daddy's
a stretch of the imagination, and you're strung out
like pilot lights of vetch entwined like barbed wire
around the towers of common mullein tangled
in the strangle hold of your fishing lines snagged on the moon
hooked to the lures and the flies of the lies we tell ourselves
to explain why we shriek like a three alarm fire
in the house of life whenever someone turns on the lights,
and it's only another false dawn flaming out
in the usual phoney sunsets of the lamp-posts and daylilies.

You task me with drawing up a starmap of the firing squad
of deranged constellations you're standing blindfolded in front of
trying to carve a chandelier out of the one good third glass eye
you've got left to focus your own inner light on
until all these fallen leaves withering at your feet
like pages of your life you keep tearing out as if autumn were a threat,
break into fire again, as if a choir of arsonists had asked for an encore,
as you have said yourself, you spent the first half of your life
being loved, brilliant, and beautiful, and this is what you get for it.

So I summon the fireflies, illusory cures for illusory diseases,
though by that only the fools would think I meant something unreal,
to a seance in a hall of black mirrors in a palatial labyrinth
of cul de sacs and dead ends, black holes in the hearts of the galaxies,
and I speak to each of them like an intimate insight
into my own human nature, shadowed by what I think
like a mindscape it's harder than a tarpit to shake:

You see this man here, he's a friend, and he was once
loving, brilliant, and beautiful, a lantern, a lighthouse, a star
shining like a beacon on a coast of shipwrecks,
and just look at what he gets, a porchlight with insects
buzzing in the ripped spiderwebs dripping from his panicked windows.
And knowing the thieves of fire they are I'll never be,
I ask them if them might condition a bit of chaos
into a myth of origin for him that's a little more of a moonrise
and a little less of that gazelle of light he's enthroned in a wheelchair.
Cool the fever his eyes have caught, uproot the nettles, and treat him
to a sweeter dream of chaos than the one's he's most likely to get lost in.


This is poetry from a life fully lived and a journey expressed through verse.  White brings back the troubadour, the town crier, the oracle.

It's hard for me to be completely rational about Patrick White's poetry.  I met him over thirty years ago, the first time we met we sat and talked most of the night.

Patrick White was relentless in his pursuit of the perfect line and he had a lot of information to impart. 
Think a more rational Allen Ginsberg, a more verbose and lengthy Irving Layton.  Patrick White wrote big ideas into very big poems.

These roller-coaster amusement park ride anthems are his holy music to the world he loved.

The stars keep happening faster than I can remember them

The stars keep happening faster than I can remember them.
So is everything else, exponentially. Memory makes me
a continuum I'm always creating and calling myself.
Memory cross-references its matrix like the web of a spider
and soon I mistake the habit of the web for me, continuously.
I'm attached like a badge or a bird to the strings of my own guitar.
The seeing isn't in my eyes. Neither is the music in the instrument.

I keep giving the stars new names every night
just to keep up with the possibilities of what they're becoming.
Nor have they ever shone down upon the same man
looking up at them two nights in a row. I rearrange them
into different constellations and give them symbolic meanings
they never knew they had before. I step through the door
and every house in the zodiac changes. The sun
is less lucid at dawn than when it started the nightshift.
There isn't a point on the ecliptic that isn't the equinox
of a prayer bead that gets its way by not asking for anything.

Watching the world, I witness my own creation
as it's happening. The star becomes aware of the eye
that's observing it and it begins to see things
as if it had its own imagination. We celebrate
each other's possibilities and awareness is born
of the binary of your and me, so we can dance,
not two, like a happy secret that can't be known
by anyone else. No one has ever lifted the veils of Isis,
not even unity, which is to say, if you see her face covered
it means you haven't opened your eyes far enough
to realize the Queen of Heaven is the shining
you've been looking for her with. Astronomy for fireflies.

This world is so interdependently originated
I'm the lifework of a star. I'm the masterpiece
of a bacterium. Starmud, I garden among the galaxies
that blow like the dishevelled heads of flowers in the wind.
My work done. I'm the only weed that's been uprooted.
The pulse of my bloodstream is the waterclock of the stars.
The moon is in the corals having sex. I'm listening
to discrete variations on a theme of discontinuity
my ears are turning into music like the rain on the plectra
of the thorns and leaves that ping like the G-spots
of the roses in heat that want to go on blooming forever.


Patrick White gave his last poetry reading on Sunday, February 16, 2014, at Books of Beechwood Bookstore.  He was both resplendent and desperately holding back death.  We were old friends, but not close friends, sincere and affectionate.  When I shook his hand that day I knew it would be for the last time.

Patrick White died on March 1, 2014, fifteen days later.  He was 66.

Patrick White is the former Poet Laureate of Ottawa.  He published eight books of poetry.  His work was translated into several languages and has appeared in hundreds of journals, magazines and anthologies, both Canadian and International.  White was the winner of the Archibald Lampman Award, the Canadian Literature Award and the Benny Nicholas Award for Creative Writing.

"He promises to be one of our best respected poets."
     —George Woodcock

"He might well win the Nobel Prize one day in his own inimitable way."
     —Sharon Drache

"Whether wandering in mythic fields or flying too close to the abyss, the creatures of Patrick White's world are unbearably tender and lucid shapeshifters, carriers of light. Patrick White returns fire to the gods and takes you with him on the journey. He deftly reinvents the metaphor restoring poetry to its rightful place in a world gone dry."
     —Paulette Claire-Turcotte

"His images are strong, lyrical, moving. He dares and achieves."

Conversations with Patrick White, December 9, 2013

Patrick White - On Anthos, Portrait of a Poet


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Now Lays The Sunshine By - Andrew Hughes (Book Thug)

Today's book of poetry:
Now Lays The Sunshine By.  Andrew Hughes.  Book Thug.  Toronto, Ontario.  2010.

Andrew Hughes is hilarious.  This is where Richard Brautigan sensibilities meet up with Ricky Gervais wit (read smart and wicked).

& The Gold Of Their Bodies
                                         Breton Girls By The Sea)

empty coffee can strung
from flagpole clanks
in wind
the voltage stencil of yr hummingbird
vertigo a colorful about brought
one of many stunning features
of my landscape
while golden Breton girls by the sea
go spinal
go nipples up
in the cathedral
& another bacteria Saturday
when the evening sun goes down


These short terse poems have a rat-a-tat-tat swagger, kind of like machine gun poems.  Hughes doesn't stop for breath much when he's throwing punches.

The New Wave Of American Heavy Metal

                                                for Russell Dillon

we fuckt up
  & we hate you
     for making us admit it

   but you were
a shining example
     of honest songwriting
          that night
               together     alone
                  onstage in
           the Grand Ballroom
                & what you thought
                         were dreams

                      just rags we used
                          to stop the bleeding


Andrew Hughes has the quick patter of a carny, the mind of a magi and a sense of humour of a dark Willie Nelson binging with Nick Cave.  This is fun stuff.

Pure Country

the best book of spaceships
kept me up all night
those first one thousand winters
a aspect of childhood &
a blast pattern
lost in the glass between days
w/ snowforce
it's yr first kiss Charlie
Brown & scale calls
into question so many things
what would I do w/o
the geese to mark the seasons

isn't it beautiful
the black hole at the center of every galaxy


Jay MillAr reading from Andrew Hughes book, Now Lays the Sunshine By

Andrew Hughes divides his time between New York City and Boston.  His work has appeared in Forklift, Ohio, Cannibal, Spell, Can We Have Our Ball Back, Bimbo Jim, PUPPYFLOWERS, and others.  He is the author of Sweethearts of the Great Migration.

"This is the way to "go nipples / up in the cathedral" with the America of everyday resistance against the everyday America. Andrew Hughes brings outlaw poetry back like a magically reattached foreskin! YES! Thank you for putting that THERE! Little in this world is more beautiful than a poet saying I could become / A new music to take w/ me after the summerlong. We love our poets if we have any sense, and Hughes deserves A LOT OF OUR love, deserves that we name our babies after him, Andrew girls and Andrew boys! They'll grow up to be the kids who bring the world the trouble it deserves, like the love our poets deserve. But this book or don't call me anymore! SERIOUSLY!"

"The poetry of Andy Hughes is wickedly funny, and frequently just plain wicked.  It is unselfconsciously of the time, and therefore alive to the movement of every moment. But he also possesses a strong sense of the classic lyric. This guy is clearly someone to watch."
     —Mac Wellman

"In Andrew Hughes' poetry a crackling diction meets a fear of ordinary things, but the pressure exerted by the reality of these things does not dissuade the poems from their bright chromatic sincerity or their mob deep engagement with imagination. Moving through a range of forms designed to hold together a body angling against unflinching troubles good and bad, Now Lays The Sunshine By makes for a sweet set of songs to carry. Though the darkness may surround us, in these pages risking emoticon folklore it isn't going to win."
     —Anselm Berrigan


Friday, May 23, 2014

Placeholder - Charmaine Cadeau (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Placeholder.  Charmaine Cadeau.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2013.

Charmaine Cadeau is one of those "slow-down" poets.  These are the poets where subtle craft and sublime movement parry for attention.


We tend toward disintegration like grace
notes, half-apparent, ash becoming

air. Slow loss we can't prevent is the hardest
to grieve. The wedding band wrought to bone

smoothness, colours we chose and can't quite remember
how they gleamed before being

bleached in the living room sunlight. Bluebottle flies
drone as if they've forgotten the words.

One is caught between glass panes.
The small struggle their way into seeing, and we'd

help, if we could. If only the heart had
antennae. If only the heart had antennae to tap

out the way to the safest places, the ones
run by the slowest clocks. Alongside sowbugs

curling in the damp beneath the woodpile.
The chopping block, a blossom of scars.

Below my knee, a thin white stroke
waving like lightning stays numb when touched.

If only tenderness was always so exquisitely roofed
under thickened skin. If only there was room enough to tuck

away our losses instead of having them fall like calendar
days in movies, aspen leaves fluttering at our feet.


Wow.  What we, as readers, can appreciate is that time can slow down — these poems create patience and in those contemplative moments — there is both suspense and tension.

Not to worry, it is framed with the certainty that Cadeau will bring it home.

Reading ahead to see how it ends

Shoved in kitchen cupboards jars of
dim brine, buttons, and tea leaves
wait—heavy cocoons dreaming ways out.
This witch doesn't keep lures like
apples, candy, a penny too light
for the wish it promises. Back

at home, the future reflects back
in bowls, spoons, the sleekness of
clockfaces. In the lake, tucked light
as a straw, she floats, leaves
spasming above her, face-up and
trying not to read ahead, out

herself. Clouds bloom, dye seeping out
in laundry water. Against her back,
tangling her legs is something like
what she imagines intuition's made of:
sedge and rushes, bass weed leaves
distorted by the surface, their light

feline sweep, fur against calf. Light
pods sway, ready to break out,
sinuous. She's drawn to what leaves
nothing behind: lilies can't go back
once they explode—fragrant stars of
skies spilled, a wild language, like

small knots netting the throat, like
after-effects of blindfolded kisses or light
warning strokes across the soles of
her feet as they slip out
from under her. She thinks back
to how the old story leaves

off, the mewling woman Gretel leaves
blackening in the oven becoming like
fingerprints on glass, oily creosote, back
to seeing her own death: firelight,
the skin of rope stretching out,
skewed pine shadows, the mother-of-

pearl dusk. The waiting crowd shifts,
a heap of stones settling into
relief, everything in its place.


This is Cadeau's second book of poems, she published What You Used To Wear with Goose Lane in 2004.  With any luck there won't be quite as long a wait until her next book.  Poems this fine are poems worth reading, and then some.

Other people

Other people's children are best taken with their snarly
hair and flouncing thank-yous and grimy hands jammed in
grimy pockets. Give a half smile for a round of peekaboo, the
story about what happened next with grandma, her cheeks 
like soggy tea bags, and how many words rhyme with blue.
If you too have children, your very own set of other people,
take other other people's children gladly into your home on
school vacation days, the summer months when you start
to run out of ideas. They'll dig holes, chase each other, eat
savagely. And if you're raising other people's people, not
blood relations, all the same rules apply. Buck against the 
old joke that mothers smother and tame a swatch of space for
you alone: they may have been raised by wolves after all, and
how are you to know.


Charmaine Cadeau reads from Placeholder (Brick Books)

Charmaine Cadeau was born in Toronto, Ontario, she now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she teaches and works as an editor.  She holds a PhD in literature and writing.

"The poetry in Placeholder is intriguing in the materiality and intensity of its language. But one wants to slow read to relish the lush assemblage and careful juxtapositions and collisions of syllables, sounds, images. These poems/placeholders invite us to dawdle the 'whole while' and ponder the ordered melange of this poetic curiosity shop."
     —Fred Wah

"I praise these poems for their assured and complex music, but also for offering their assured and complex music. but also for offering a rich logopoeia, combining into a dance of thought, a meditative passacaglia joyfully crossing the street in a mirror dance of comparisons where the seams/seems of the poem's 'as if' redouble in another 'as if' revealing the real behind the mirror."
     —Pierre Joris


Monday, May 19, 2014

Talismans - Maudelle Driskell (Hobblebush Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Talismans.  Maudelle Driskell.  The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, Volume VIII.  Hobblebush Books.  Brookline, NH.  2014.

Wait until you get a load of Maudelle Driskell.  This woman writes poetry like Wayne Gretzky played hockey, an entirely disproportionate amount of glee amazingly apparent in her contrails.

Forget bad hockey analogies.

Try this, Maudelle Driskell's Talismans is so satisfying to read because it makes the reader feel instantly smarter.  Driskell's poems have the effect of making the reader feel they've just joined a new club: those who've read Driskell, and to feel sad for those who haven't had the pleasure yet.

Koans of a Different Order

I make it a practice to write with my finger
on every fogged motel bathroom mirror,
squeaking out messages overlooked
by hotel staff. The oils of my skin battle
water molecules for years to come,
bringing truth to naked strangers.

Your dog will make a gruesome discovery.

The Gideons left their bible in that drawer.
You may choose to open and read it.
The millions of skin cells dusting the mattress pad,
find their way into your body with each breath,
and I am stamped across your forehead
as you face your naked self in the mirror.

If you can hear your heart beating, there is a problem.

You lean close to line your eyes, trim your nose hair,
check the back of your tongue for mucous,
or your neck for hickies. We will always have our moments.
And so it should be. This is how the truth comes
upon you, when you are naked, staring and startled.

Saliva is a carcinogen when swallowed over time.

Time is catching you. Once it overtakes you,
there is nothing. Subtract the hours in this room
from the hours you have left. Go and get that book
from the drawer. Tear two pages out for each heartbeat.
When the two covers touch, you're gone.


As first books go, this is a stone-cold killer.  Every page has a pure hearted assassin of poetry at the helm.  I promise joyous enthusiasm to everyone who reads this book.

Driskell is the most human of human beings and her compelling poetry tells us so.


Here is where I cut myself.
Bicep. Horizon of the nipple. The skin
puckers, lips perpetually waiting.
The white-handled knife
is long gone but the purple ridges remain,
tighten to a kiss when I fold my arms.

I think of it as a fossil
from the pre-metastatic era.
The ridges humping the skin on my thigh
trouble your finger like a knobby starfish
or the business end of a sea cucumber.
The hardness in the center is my large
leg bone. This thing went deep.

Before I knew she was crazy,
before I slept with the dogs on top of the attic door,
which opened up, to be safe, for our first date,
I took her to the quarry on my Yamaha Seca
to swim and picnic. I was walking the bike down
the loose rock path to the edge of the water
when she took off her shirt and her shorts
and she beckoned. It was nothing really, but to me
it seemed like a promise, my first promise,
and watching her I slid down, fell
beneath the motorcycle.
The muffler burned me to the meat.
I couldn't cry but I couldn't stay,
and I rode all the way back to Athens
with the wind worrying the wound.


Maudelle Driskell offers up these poems as parables, the illuminated steps to her kind of knowledge. These poems are have a sense of humour that is distilled, trickled down through the bones of the rest of us into gold.  This might not be as good as it gets - but it is very hard for me to imagine a better debut book of poetry.  This is up there in Suzannah Showler territory, her debut book, also this spring, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press), was equally out of this world good.

Trailer Fire

Finally, an alarm; no longer an emergency, just a removal.
The mobile home was half gone, roughed and sooted.

Stan and I went in with full gear and oxygen, a gurney and body bag.
I could smell it through the mask, a new smell, peanut butter cooking
on an overheated curling iron, the smell of fat and hair.
I took the feet, Stan the shoulders. On three. We lifted.

Expecting him to be heavy, and not wanted to be weak,
the only woman in the firehouse, I pulled hard.
But most of him had melted and fused with the sofa. He tore
and came away in parts.

The report
would read "Decedent caudally separated."
Stan wrote that way in reports. When it happened,
Stan's eyes turned white all around, then he vomited into his mask.
And for an instant, I felt the lightness and confusion, then I was clear.
I led Stan outside and helped to bag the cushions, the pieces.

There had been a rightness to the moment, above everything,
the way a guitar string comes into tune:
sometimes you can hear the harmonic,
sometimes you feel it when it comes.


Driskell is bold and brave, clever and witty, panache with precision.  These poems will make other poets jealous.

Gender politic raises its' head in this collection and like every other sea she swims in Driskell skips through this with aplomb.  Driskell keeps her ship and the readers' excellent attention at full throttle as she navigates the shallows of our misconceptions.

Fine, fine work.

Maudelle Driskell grew up in rural southern Georgia and lived most of her adult life in Atlanta where she was a founding editor of The Atlanta Review. She now lives in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and is the executive director of The Frost Place. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and she is the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, awarded by Poetry and the Modern Language Association. Her work has been published in many literary reviews and anthologies.

"Maudelle Driskell calls these poems "talismans," and talismans they are. Alternately sleek for the long flight or overflowing with the abundant images of a bleak but fecund world, the poems read as if every word has been considered, weighed, and found worthy. Such care to create such beauty. From chemotherapy's to Elvis's wart impaled upon a stickpin, to Herman Melville's superfluous obituary, these fine poems all ring true."
     —Leon Stokesbury

"That the imagination is not just a faculty but a force of nature is nowhere more apparent than in these fierce, protean, startling poems that stare, unblinking into the deepest wounds, and, with rural certainty, know that the harrow waits for creatures who run toward the light. With vivid, indelible images, Driskell's powerful intelligence and playful invention reveal and revile our naked vulnerability, and, against it, the desire to become 'the pit of the fruit that breaks / teeth.'"
     —Eleanor Whilner

"At its heart, this is a book about the autonomy of the body—its surprises and horrors, its desires and sexuality, its implacable urges toward nonbeing—and the inability of the will to control it. 'My mind is all alone in the dark,' says Driskell in these astringent, highly polished poems. Her eye is fixed as much on the specifically detailed, paradoxical world as on the approximate discoveries of selfhood.  The body interferes and determines: a mysterious, evolving entity caught up in what the poet sees not only in herself but in animals and other humans around her.
     Quirky, often grimly funny, Driskell's clarity draws the reader to her insistence on the uncertain "other." Mature and provocative, this is a stunning first book.
     —Cleopatra Mathis


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Otherwise Unseeable - Betsy Sholl (University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Otherwise Unseeable.  Betsy Sholl.  Four Lakes Poetry Series.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2014

Otherwise Unseeable is the winner of the 2014 Four Lakes Poetry Prize*.

Betsy Sholl sure can throw down the line.  She can be crisp and clean and concise or she can take that long, slow dance.  Either way the reader wins.  These are accomplished poems by a very confident author.  And rightly so, as my dear friend Mary Brett would say.

Take this tribute to the great jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk:


The sun sets off a whole lot of vibrations...
Sometimes on the tenor I try to get a sun sound.

"You think I'm a clown?" He hits the switch
and the dressing room goes blind. Now who's
master of lights out, guide through the starless night?

Inside that vivid pitch, he hears flute-talk,
half goldfinch, half wheeze, hears a horn his dream
calls moon zellar, its banged-up metallic mouth.

Though sound has no weight, it needs a bell
and reed, needs muscle, breath, two puffed cheeks.
It can use a man with a bag full of horns,

willing to walk the rim between trickster
and sage, a man with the grit to keep going
if a stroke nails one hand down.

Certain sounds lie buried, heaped up, unheard,
till someone comes along with a cellar
behind his eyes, and inside that

a furnace blaze of dreams, a rush of notes
like coal shuttling into its metal house,
sound of flashlit siren-scan catching the gleam

of brash, a high C's shattered glass—
a man who says, "You want to hear sun vibes,
wind in B-flat? Well, shut your damn eyes."


This is poetry with humour, pathos, grit and eloquence.

There is a dark undercurrent at work in these poems as Sholl attempts to, as Maryse Holder said, "give sorrow words".  Sholl isn't afraid to look at our hostile nature or the bargains we make to endure.


No one's left who watched the crop
go to rot, till even its eye roots oozed.

And the stench—like something the ground
spat out, then worse, the fields caught,

infected right to the doorstep,.
knobby lumps gone to mush in the hand.

No one's let of all those who trudged
toward the sea, stomachs so hollow

every inedible rock along the road
must have looked like a bitter potato

they'd gladly break their teeth on.


Now at the market varieties are heaped
in bin after bin, dirt-spackled bulbs,

aortas of earth—some from Peru
called papa, so I think of my father's heart

that gave out before I knew him, arteries
clogged in early blight. Sometimes

making dinner, I lift a potato
to my ear as if even the drub

of absolute silence could be a root.
Later I drink the cooled cooking broth

as I've been taught, so nothing is lost.


Sholl's Otherwise Unseeable resonates with a jazz lover's heart and a world weary clouded humour.  These sad poems are so joyously alive.  These joyous poem are all so jazz solo sad.  Take your pick.

What I really liked was feeling swallowed by it all.  Sholl is completely committed and the reader gets that.

Atlantic City, Midmorning,

and a woman still dressed in last evening's
green sequinned gown looks pale, spent,
in this harsher light, as if all night

she's been chasing, reaching too far, grabbing
for any stone or shell or salted glass the tide
tumbles in. Now, without lifting her eyes,

she pushes more chips onto the felt.
Outside the city's glittering windowless rooms,
waves rise to a curl, then calmly subside.

But what if the ocean got tired
of being no more than a nightclub logo,
a peeling billboard on stilts, got tired

of people gazing through glazed fixations?
What if those green fathoms gathered themselves
into one enormous swell?

It could rage through this town,
or if it wanted, just rough up one woman
already shedding sequins along a split seam.

The rubble line's all about loss, loss rolling
through waves that toss their load of shattered dice,
loss seeping up the hem of the green gown,

as if that's what she wanted all along—
loss like the turned-out silk of a pocket
when luck goes cold and there's nothing left

but noon light gleaming on boardwalk slats,
glinting across the simmer of waves, light
erasing all but its own brilliant self.


Betsy Sholl is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Late Psalm and Don't Explain, 1997 winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. A former poet laureate of Maine. Sholl teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College. She lives in Portland, Maine.

"For a good four decades now, Betsy Sholl has been producing a poetry of stern self-reflection, risky lyrical fluency, and a deeply empathetic social consciousness. With Otherwise Unseeable, she gives us her finest collection thus far, a book which has refined itself into something I can only call wisdom—sometimes rueful, sometimes fierce. This is work in which, as one poem memorably puts it, we must 'unlatch our wounds and love our ruins.'"
     -David Wojahn

"Betsy Sholl's new book, Otherwise Unseeable, is faithful, as is all her work, to the contradictions we live with from day to day.  These deeply earned, masterful poems take in the full range of human nature, looking unflinchingly at human evil and human suffering, while also acknowledging the gound-note of joy that waits to be heard in our daily lives. Sholl's poems can be elegiac and mournful; they can riff and fly on the force and spirit of their own language as they chart a path between despair and hope, making seeable what is 'otherwise unseeable,' as they give us glimpses of a 'kingdom' which is always here and always to come."
     -Robert Cording

"It's a haunting thing, this new book by Betsy Sholl—a haunted sequence of grievings for the dead, dying, and otherwise unnoticed. Even lowly wildflowers—'chicory, ironweed, aster, thistle, joe-pye, /poorest of the poor'—are honored here, as is a whole horde of literal and figurative gypsies with 'a voice of pocket lint.' Haunting to is this book's tribute to music's power to build 'a bridge from verse to verse' across our ruins. This poet's erudite compassion for everyone and everything—her unwavering humanity—what a wonder that is! What a gift to us."
     -Adrian Blevins

Betsy Sholl Maine's Poet Laureate reads at His Gifts and Presence 

*The Four Lakes Prize in Poetry is given annually to one new book of poetry submitted by a past winner of either the Brittingham and Pollak competitions, and is selected by an editorial board comprised of poets in the University of Wisconsin’s creative writing program. Submissions to the Brittingham and Pollak competitions by previous winners are automatically considered for The Four Lakes Prize. With this prize the Press will continue to welcome poets new to the Series through its annual competitions, while supporting the winners’ further development by publishing new works.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Speaking of Power - The Poetry of Di Brandt - selected and with an introduction by Tanis MacDonald (Wilfrid Laurier University Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Speaking of Power - The Poetry of Di Brandt - selected with an introduction by Tanis MacDonald.  Wilfrid Laurier University Press.  Waterloo, ON.  2006.

"There is what Don McKay calls "poetic intention" to the beauty and ugliness, joy and suffering, of everything around you."
     Di Brandt, You pray for the rare flower to appear

Di Brandt observes, absorbs and explains our world to us in language that is both instantly recognizable and an assertion of a particular power.

missionary position (1)

let me tell you what it's like
having God for a father & Jesus
for a lover on this old mother
earth you who no longer know
the old story the part about the
Virgin being of course a myth
made up by Catholics for an easy
way out it's not that easy i can
tell you right off the old man
in his room demands bloody hard
work he with his rod & his hard
crooked staff well jesus he's
different he's a good enough lay
it's just that he prefers miracles
to fishing & sometimes i get tired
waiting all day for his bit of
magic though late at night i burn
with his fire & the old mother
shudders & quakes under us when
God's not looking.


Di Brandt's Afterword in Speaking of Power is an elegant, heartstrong and loving manifesto.  A declaration of the hows and whys of the real need to create poetry.

The Afterword alone is worth the price of admission.

Speaking of Power is from the excellent Wilfrid Laurier University Press — Laurier Poetry Series.

"The Laurier Poetry series introduces the excitement of contemporary Canadian poetry to an audience that might not otherwise have access to it. Selected and introduced by a prominent critic, each volume presents a range of poems from across the poet's career and afterword by the poet him- or herself. Economically priced, these volumes offer readers in and out of classrooms useful, provocative, and comprehensive introductions to and contexts for a poet's work." (Laurier Poetry Series Website:

Each of the Laurier Poetry Series titles is a treasure.  These volumes give the reader an educated introduction to each poet.  In Brandt's case Tanis MacDonald handles the selection and introduction with aplomb.

What is clearest in this short volume is that Brandt's clarity of vision and pure resonant voice are worth revisiting.


completely seduced
by motherhood,

this is how you got
through the day.

without sleep,
without pay,

without help,

a break,

your mind bouncing
off walls,

& the ceiling
& the floor,

eyes blurred
with exhaustion.

you weren't thinking
about that.

you weren't thinking
about your stretched


you saw yourself
in the dark pool

of your baby's eyes

a goddess, the source,
the very planet.

your breaths flowing

your breasts filled
with milk & honey.

all night, you were
the earth,


(later, you shrank
into an ordinary

middle-aged woman,
enjoying sleep.

amused by the ordinary

half mother,
half not mother.

bewildered by time
& place,

& wrinkled skin.
& missing children.)


I love an honest poem and Di Brandt is all over that.  I've admired her work for a long time.  This little volume, Speaking of Power, is a good introduction to those who haven't read Di Brandt.  For those of us who have it is a good reminder of all the things the rest of us can aspire to.

Prairie hymn

what i want is the shape of the story of the blood
jolting seasonally to & from the heart underneath
the small gestures of our hands the words spoken
& unspoken between us i want the huge narrative
of the river the curved cry of the land i want the
straight blowing birch leaves in strong wind
the whistling of prairie grass your lit face in the
distance coming to meet me your arms hot like
August prairie sky all around me


(lifted lock, stock and barrel from Wikipedia)
Di Brandt has published eight collections of poetry:
  • SHE: Poems inspired by Laozi, with ink drawings by Lin Xu (Brandon, MB: Radish Press, 2012). Chapbook.
  • The Lottery of History (Brandon, MB: Radish Press, 2009). Chapbook.
  • Walking to Mojacar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2010),
  • Now You Care (Toronto: Coach House, 2003),
  • Jerusalem, beloved (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1995),
  • mother, not mother (Toronto: Mercury Press, 1992),
  • Agnes in the sky (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1990), and
  • questions i asked my mother (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987).
Di Brandt's poetry has been adapted for television, radio, video, dance, sculpture and theatre. questions i asked my mother was a bestseller in Canada. Di Brandt's poetry has been the subject of numerous scholarly essays and monographs.
Di Brandt's essay collections and literary critical studies are:
  • So this is the world & here I am in it (Edmonton: NeWest Press 2007).
  • Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries (Toronto: Mercury Press 1996).
  • Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narrative in Canadian Literature (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press 1993).
  • Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2011), ed. with Barbara Godard.
  • Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press 2006), ed. with Barbara Godard.
Di Brandt's collaborations include:
Di Brandt's numerous prizes and recognitions include:
Di Brandt served as Poetry Editor at Prairie Fire Magazine and Contemporary Verse 2 during the 1980s and 90s. She also served as Manitoba and Prairie Rep at the League of Canadian Poets National Council and the Writers' Union of Canada National Council for several years during these same years.


Di Brandt reads from Now You Care - video from Griffin Trust

Monday, May 12, 2014

Trace - Simone Muench (Black Lawrence Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Trace.  Simone Muench.  Black Lawrence Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2014.

"Hence, my writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils,
                a kind of collection of flies in amber..
                               —Marianne Moore

The poems in Trace are made up of a curious mix of lines from other poets.  Yet Simone Muench has no problem mining her LoboHeart nature and delivers us a staccato sharp missive about live and love and death.

Wolf Cento

I saw my life like a wolf loping along the road—
a glint of bone, visible & then gone,
a landscape altered.
Ideas, hair, fingers
fall & come to naught.
A shirt blows across the field.
A shrug of stars as flowers go out on the sea.
Maybe the whole world is absentminded
or floating. The flower, the weather,
the room empties its mind of me,
the sea-pulse of my utterance.
I have stood for a long time
at the edge of a river, unknown, nameless,
hands groping for the shape of the animal.
Not knowing what all the music had been hiding.


These poems are a quest, an imploring search to discover our animal nature and they are a stained glass type exploration of the nature of creativity.

These poems, made up of fragments, lines, phrases, from other people's poetry, sing as one voice. Muench has borrowed hundreds of fragments to find the right shard, the right colour, the right hue. And it works.

These poems do not read like a quilt made of patches - this is the finest seamstress action going. Muench has seamlessly brought many disparate voices into unison.

Wolf Cento

Stunned by gold, we see coming
in full gallop, at vertiginous speed, the last sun,
frail orbits, green tries, games of starts.
We are looking for a way to live
as the she-wolf of these clouds tumbles
down through stricken dawn-dark, slanting
through the quadrant seasons, deep
between vineyards rows. With her teeth
the she-wolf reaches the blonde braid of a star,
a thing of gleaming: a radiant evanescence
the blue dogs paw.       Lick the dew
opening beautifully inside my brain
where everything is green like quetzal flowers
or the light in the skull of a bird
or a thousand tropics in an apple blossom—
What's there: the endless clear country road,
a cold drink before sunset & then a bed.
We are looking for a way to live.


Simone Muench's Trace won the Black River Chapbook Competition.

Wolf Cento

What do we leave, living?
Always the silence remains kneeling—
each letter a closed house.
& what comes after, looking back
on the mind itself, looking for home
as night drifts up like a little boat
or a pattern of small flowers.
There a screen of vertical timber,
trees fade over into fog
just as bodies flow
safe from the wolf's black jaw.


Simone Muench is the author of The Air Lost in Breathing (Marianne Moore Prize; Helicon Nine, 2000), Lampblack & Ash (Kathryn A. Morton Prize; Sarabande, 2005), OrangeCrush (Sarabande, 2010) and Disappearing Address, co-written with Philip Jenks (BlazeVOX, 2010).  some of her honors include a 2013 NEA Poetry Fellowship, A Yaddo residency, 2011 and 2012 Vermont Studio Center Fellowships, Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, a Lewis Faculty Scholar Award, and PSA's Bright Lights Big Verse Award.  She received her Ph.D from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is an associate professor at Lewis University where she teaches creative writing and film studies, and serves as chief faculty advisor for Jet Fuel Review.

"Simone Muench's wolf centos are an astonishing poetic achievement.  They are both gorgeous and dangerous, powerful and sleek, elusive yet alluring.  Ultimately, the poems are like wolves themselves—they are mysterious, we want to see them and to know them.  What is most amazing is how Muench manages to construct poems from lines and fragments of other poems that are as intense, as charged, and as revelatory as a typical Simone Muench poem.  I wonder if there is anything she cannot do.  This is one of the most intriguing books of poems I've read in the last several years."
     Dean Rader

"Simone Muench traces the outline of loss in the shape of a wolf.  Part howl, part flower, this brilliant and passionate new collection of poetry combines quotations with memory.  Muench leaves traces of other writers' lines on the forest floor for readers to follow, path to a fairy tale in which animals swallow human emotions and humans turn feral by starlight.  Trace highlights Muench's dazzling delirious wordplay, her poems double as musical notation, sound detached from referent that exists purely for the pleasures of the tongue."
     Carol Guess

Simone Muench, reading in a video with Mathais Svaliner and Jason Koo.  This video is from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  Simone Muench starts from the beginning and reads until 15:10.