Sunday, August 30, 2015

When We Were Old - Peter Unwin (Cormorant Books)

Today's book of poetry:
When We Were Old.  Peter Unwin.  Cormorant Books Inc.  Toronto, Ontario. 2014.

When We Were Old not only echoes the title of the great and under-appreciated Raymond Souster's When We Were Young, the poetry contained within maintains the high standards of Saint Raymond of Souster's work.  That is no small accomplishment.

But it is another excellent Canadian writer that comes to mind when I read and reread these hard packed gems.  Many years ago I had the honour of sharing a scotch or two with Alistar MacLeod. MacLeod  is absolutely one of the best writers ever and I'm willing to bust heads on this one. MacLeod is sacred territory in this house so when I tell you that Peter Unwin's poems impart some of that same sense of hard earned wisdom, that sense of urgency towards kindness, I am not giving faint praise.

The Family Place

The children are up
even if we are not.

The dew is on the land
even if we are somewhere else.

The mice are in the traps,
even if we prefer to think

otherwise about ourselves.
The brush is in the hair, the birds

are at it, the coffee's cooked
and the day

is about to get cracked
by us.

Unwin writes with a great sweetness that is entirely devoid of saccharine.  These poems are never sentimental but they are deeply tender and moving.

There is also a feeling of hope and we here at Today's book of poetry are big fans of optimism of any kind.  These poems make clear that it's a thin, thin line, perhaps even that old razor's edge that Somerset ranted so eloquently about - but there are reasons to hope.  We do have a chance.

As I'm typing this blog up from the tatters of the notes my staff confettied I realized Unwin has a dark sense of whimsy under his encyclopedic noggin'.  Dark whimsy and hope, that's the ticket.

The Cost of Life

It doesn't get any cheaper than this;
to be wide awake at an early hour, partnered
to a sleeping woman who snores softly,
the cat yawning from the corner
of the bed, the stupid but inoffensive
dawn chatter of birds who mean no harm
unless you're a worm. The children
are spent, but soon they will bolt from bed
in search of Cheerios and tales of Athena;
the part where she explodes from Zeus's
head is irresistible to them and they can't
get enough of it. Outside the window
the sunlight puts poetry on the leaves
of the maple tree. I am enriched by this but
I can't describe it, it beggars both
the imagination and the family budget.
We are set for now; there is no milk
in the fridge, the washing machine
is broken and the clock ticks too loudly
but all of the household cancers
are in remission, the medical bills
getting paid by an imaginary uncle
who made a fortune in the Maldives.


Unwin's When We Were Old is his first volume of poetry although he is well established in other writing fields - we will be wanting much more from Mr. Unwin.  It is clear he has much to say and now that we know how excellently he says it - we want more.

This is mature poetry and it sings an adult song with humour, grace and intelligent candor.  Raymond Souster would be tickled.

Cabin at Night

At night this cabin is a ship
captained by you and me
lit by kerosene
and lurching to the North Star.

Over us the constellations fall
like harpoons. We have survived
every phase of the moon
you and me, but we will drown

with the smell of each other's hair
in our nostrils. This cabin
will wreck for generations
without us

but it will sail, it will lurch on
with another you tapping
at the face of a compass
and another me, straining at the pumps.


Today's book of poetry is very fond of the poetry of Peter Unwin.  Once you read When We Were Old you will be too.

Peter Unwin

Peter Unwin was born in Sheffield, England, and raised in Southern Ontario. He studied at Carleton University in Ottawa.
His previous fiction includes the short story collection The Rock Farmers, which was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and the novel Nine Bells for a Man.
His non-fiction includes The Wolf’s Head: Writing Lake Superior and Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road.   Peter published a collection of short stories, LIFE WITHOUT DEATH (2013) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in 2014.
He has travelled extensively in the Canadian north. Currently, he is a Master’s candidate in Culture and Communications at York and Ryerson universities. An avid practitioner of martial arts, baseball, and literature, he lives in Toronto with his wife and two daughters.

Peter Unwin
Reading his poem "Fighting in Poetry"
Video: clipin

* * *

Today's book of poetry would like to acknowledge our recent sporadic posts.  I'd like to blame it on my horrid staff of lolligagers and miscreants, but in fact, it is all my doing.  My father, Russell William White, passed away recently and as a result there have been some logistical difficulties.  A great door has closed and in my mind a great man has passed.  My father was as kind as any man you've ever met.  The world is slightly off kilter but we are righting our ship.

We will continue with a flexible schedule for another couple of weeks and then it is back to our regularly scheduled program

* * *


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Music from Small Towns - Al Maginnes (Jacar Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Music from Small Towns.  Al Maginnes.  Jacar Press. Durham, North Carolina.  2014.

Almost every poem in Al Maginnes' fine Music from Small Towns has previously been published in a magazine or journal that you and I would be tickled pink to appear in.  That is an enormous accomplishment, colour me green.

These poems are tremendous machines of muscle galloping across the page like a red-haired Secretariat.

Mingus and Stars

I am writing this on my 56th birthday.
On my father's 56th birthday, he died,
leaving little to measure my steps against
from this day forward. This day when I'm afraid
to close my eyes. The day Charles Mingus died
fifty six sperm whales died on the beaches in Baja.
And Mingus was 56. He left behind
a garden as sweet and thorny as the fields
father and sons have warred in since the first
measure of time, since stick or rock
first pounded imitation of the human heart.
Tonight, presents and phone calls, the prizes
for completing a year, done, the little cake I can
be allowed, gone, I should listen to music

instead of watching a movie whose outcome
I know, turning pages in books I read last year.
I'm old enough now for real listening, to close
my eyes and let music have its way with me.
"I want to be a star," said Mingus after he knew
he was dying, meaning not the faces on magazines
or the metal shapes in Hollywood sidewalks,
but the burning orbs or rock and gas we see
only at a distance, whose light continues long after
they go out, the way music continues after
the hand that wrote it is done. When I close my eyes,
fields of stars unfurl there. Those are the stars, bright,
unreachable, each singular as bass notes, stars
I want to shine among, but not today.


These poems say too much, go on too long, have streamers in their tails -- but they do sing.

Milo, our office crank and technical wizard, always claims to hate jazz but unabashedly loves poems that he calls "Charlie Rich voice ditties", that Milo is a romantic at heart.  And so is Al Maginnes.

Maginnes calls on various Gods both large and small to pepper these poems with notes hard as hammers, soft as your heart.

Something Words Will Not Say
                                    For Don Adock, 1926-2011

How long will it be before I buy
some jazz or see an announcement
for a show without thinking I need
to burn it for you or call to see
if you want to go. Last night, I listened
to different piano players until
I told myself I could hear the difference
in the pressure of fingers, could tell
their signature licks, small decorations
of melody, apart. Perhaps I can,
but it's knowledge that only lasts
until the next disc comes on.
One night you came in the bookstore
where I worked between semesters, pointed
to the speaker and said "That's Cedar Walton,"
and when, a few nights later, it was
Red Garland, you knew it too.
One evening while we watched a quartet
work through "Body and Soul,"
the piano player stumbled on his solo.
"He doesn't know what to do with it."
You elbowed me as the hapless pianist
nodded it to the sax player,
whose playing all night had surged
with invention. "He knows what to do
with it," you chuckled and leaned back.
Watching you was a lesson
in how to listen. There are chords
underneath the chords being played.
There are leaves blowing down sidewalks,
alleys filled with wind, the sound
of a name broken into three long notes.
I have always believed music was
trying to tell me something
words will not say. When I drive
at night, I sometimes listen to CDs
you copied for me--there are enough
to fill a shoebox--and those hours
are empty enough for the searching horns,
the splash of drums, the piano waiting
to drive, empty enough for me
to listen until I think I hear you say,
"He knows what to do with it."


Al Maginnes gets it.  Marcus Aurielius might be walking around in these suckers along with Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, the Prez, John Keats, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm too.  Thomas Edison and Peter Coyote drop in.  You just cannot predict who is going to sit in on something to make it just right, but everyone plays nice.  The quartets and quintets Maginnes finesses out of his noggin astound just a little.

You get the drift though, these poems are full of hard-edged knowing and charm.

Passage Through the Body of Fire

Impossible to fathom lightning without
          dark and silence. One of our commandments
is contrast. There is silence so deep
          words, even thunder, will not find
the end of it. The house burning down
          on the news might be the church
of your childhood, dissolving in fire
          while half the town watches.

Can't faith crumble the same way?
          The nameless man pulled from the lake
offers the same excuse to break
          our soft code of silence as rain
or any weather we can name but can
          do nothing to change. Give us anything,
and we learn to make language,
          the way prisoners invent code to send

shorthand messages tapping through stones
          or flashing in bolts of light from mirrors.
His eyes were still open, said a woman
          at the bank; his body showed
he was not in the water long.
          The finger of lightning that touched
the church into flame, the ragged scars
          across the drowned man's chest

hold us in a place language will not
          free us from. Words will never be
all we have of language, as flame
          cannot be the whole of fire. The stare
of the drowned man, the architectures
          of burning wood might be signals from
the unspeaking world, like sullen braids
          of smoke rising from the ruin

of the church the night after the fire
          did its work, shards of metal, glass,
even wood still undigested after
          their passage through the body of fire,
the ghost of what had been there
          more real than when the door could be
opened, the body entered. Some prayers
          outlast every vow to forget them.

What you have of the fire-eaten church
          is smoke so thick it was language
all its own, body that might insist
          on seeking its own path,
as you resisted the hand that seized you,
          shoved you into the soundlessness
of water, making an unreachable heaven of
          the surface you suddenly prayed for.


We here at Today's book of poetry are especially fond of narrative poetry.  We love poems that tell a good story.  Al Maginnes is a master storyteller and they are rarer then hen's teeth.

Maginnes has a voice we want to listen to.

Al Maginnes

Al Maginnes was born in Quincy, Massachusetts and teaches at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, NC. His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Poetry, The New England Review, The Georgia Review, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah and Quarterly West. He has been the recipient of a Writer’s Fellowship from the NC Arts Council and is the author of two collections: Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews Press, 1997) and The Light in Our Houses (Pleiades Press, 2000), which won Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize.

“What I love about these poems is how they manage to be so eloquent without being pretentious. I’m also drawn to the way Maginnes juxtaposes fire and its quick losses with fire’s complement, slow vanishing. Not all the poems in this collection directly address either of those ideas — Maginnes is too smart for that — but I finished these pages thinking it was change that infuses the finest of them and that Maginnes, like so many of us, has striven to accept what is, even when it’s transition, and through that acceptance find peace. I admire that, and this book.”
— Lola Haskins, The Grace to Leave, Still the Mountain, Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems

Al Maginnes
Reading at Poetry Hickory
Video:  T. Peeler



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Monday, August 24, 2015

For Your Own Good - Leah Horlick (Caitlin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
For Your Own Good.  Leah Horlick.  Caitlin Press.  Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia.  2015.

If a collection of poetry starts with a quote from Sharon Olds I generally sit up a bit straighter and pay a little more attention.  Sharon Olds holds a lot of weight at Today's book of poetry.

We've always believed the maxim that what you read isn't as interesting as what you read twice.  We read Sharon Olds every chance we get.  And now we'll do the same with Leah Horlick.  Not for using the Olds blurb, no, for hammer and chiseling this heart of darkness to share with us.


There's an alleyway, and a secret place,
     and you know it's right because the books

tell you as an invert, all your love stories begin
     in hiding. And you love her because she is angles

and shoulders, twin blue yard lights for eyes. How her teeth gleam
     sharp when she throws those hoops in the air, how the listeners

leap to twist through them, flames so close they singe
     your hair. She wears a horse's bridle on her

left wrist to signal she is not to be kept, and she blisters
     under its chafe. One night you reel her

into a corner with a bandage. She says she thought you
     were going to kiss her, she doesn't love women

but anything could happen. She has a talent, dreams
     the future, won't reveal the one

that wakes her with you in it. But it's closing night. She has an empty
     seat, passenger side, with your name on it. You say of course,

because you have a backpack, a matching ring of red
     skin around your wrist, and you thought you'd never find her.


These poems blister gentle as they get under your skin.  Leah Horlick is doing us all a favour in For Your Own Good, these poems snap you alert like the first crack from Billy the Kid's pistol.

Let me take another shot at that -- I was thinking about the German film Lola und Bilidikid (Lola and Billy the Kid, 1999).  In that spectacular film, Lola and Bili are fighting a battle of sexual identity in a world that is not openly welcome to their particular disparity.

Leah Horlick's poems are a coming of age tapestry of punk circus and shadowed violence colliding in a rich vein of sexual tension.  These poems trace a journey through self doubt brought about by sexual abuse.  Our protagonist moves quickly through the animated joy of her first sexual discovery headlong into an abusive relationship that deteriorates into a dismal hell.

These poems delve into that murky water of guilt and desire and fear, but even at the lowest ebb you always sense that Horlick is swimming towards clear, clean water.

Little Voice

That morning in the motel
     where your best friend lived,
new snow outside, at least in the memory

and the stranger--he was eighteen,
     you were alone, she was downstairs
at the pop machine or something

while you watched the snow, the nest
     of beached antlers in the yard
behind the pine trees and then he was there, too

in the room, telling you about
     a guitar, or something useless
and you thought

empty room, you thought quiet house
      you were a very smart girl and you felt
the footstep he took one step closer behind you

at the window, and from the rising star
     of your gut you heard it, like twin
drops of water--you have to leave the room

Right. Now. And quietly, and you did.
     That was smart. You were a smart
girl, and you did not tell anyone

not when they found out he was
     in her room at night, not
when they sent him away, not

until you were a grown woman, and what
     you wouldn't give
for that little voice again, now


Leah Horlick's For Your Own Good may be the best book of poetry to come out of Canada this year. I've read hundreds of 'em and this is as good as any,  Had the rest of the staff read it out loud.  Great, now Milo is in a funk, two other interns are crying, that might be over something else.  But consensus was excellent.

These poems are Fran Lebowitz smart and that is damned smart indeed.  They are Dorothy Parker funny and that is wicked,  They are Erica Jong horny and it is as zipless as it gets.  Add a Sapho/Lesbian undercarriage, some time at the circus, a sassy pseudo-masochistic mistress, some Sharon Olds wisdom and that is one hell of a Grand Old Opera.

Fran Lebowitz and Sharon Olds.  I can't throw out any higher compliments.


In the dream of the new house, I have my own window
     facing west; cherry blossom and fig trees,

monkey puzzle and magnolia. Everything flowers.
     Whatever city this is will be good to me.

And then, the crows, tiny shreds of black cloth
     thrown over the sunset, and I think the world

is ending. A kind hand tells me, this is the largest murder
      in North America. If I ride my bike far enough,

I can roost with them at night, east beneath the mountain.
     A stray crow wings away from the path of feathers, back

towards the squares of land I imagine, flat and brooding.
     You're going the wrong way, crow! Come Back!

But she was never really going, and I watch as she returns
     with that other bird, as dark and near as her own shadow.


This is a book about survival.  And survive Horlick does.  It's the reader who is in danger of being spun out of control.  These fierce poems deserve your attention.

Leah Horlick

Leah Horlick is a writer and poet from Saskatoon. A 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, she holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her first collection of poetry, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good, comes out Spring 2015. She lives on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver, where she co-curates REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series.

“Reading Leah Horlick’s collection, I felt a sense of relief. Finally, we’re here. Finally, we’re talking about this.”
     –Mette Bach, Plenitude magazine

“It is not often that a collection of poems can be read like a book; For You Own Good will grab you by the collar and demand consumption. It is a page turner in the most literal sense of the term…readers will venture through the narrator’s experiences with enough ease to make it consumable and enough complication to leave room for thought and interpretation. The more you read, the more you want to read. You will feel what she feels. You will want for her to heal, but you will know she may not. You will find solace in her escape, but you will feel the anguish of her past as it remains in her present. But, still, you read because you are invested in her journey.”
     –Emily McGaughy, After Ellen
“Arresting poems…[these] impassioned but meditative pieces explore uneven power dynamics and the confused interior life of the solitary young woman who blames herself and is trying to make sense of a suddenly restrictive and harmful relationship.”
     –Brett Josef Grubisic, Xtra West

“Sometimes it feels as though there are Poems About Important Issues and Good Poems, and the two camps rarely meet. For Your Own Good is a startling combination of the two, skillful poems both defiant and self-aware, and close to my femme heart. We need this book.”
     –Zoe Whittall, Holding Still for as Long as Possible
“‘Magic,’ which is the title of one of the poems in this collection, is a word I’d use to describe Leah Horlick’s work. Each piece takes us through a transmutation–from frightened girl to woman, from lover to abuser, from audience to performer, from alone to beloved. Horlick doesn’t back away from hard realities, deep longing or fierce desire, and drapes language around them like fitted silk–revealing and reflecting.”
     –Jewelle Gomez, author of Waiting for Giovanni

‘These poems are beautiful. Solid and glittering as ice or crystal, they hold secrets and hard truths in their core. The wonder and lushness of Horlick’s voice imparts a loveliness to countless hidden tragedies, never sugaring them but bearing an elegant, whispering witness.”
–Michelle Tea, author of How to Grow Up

“Leah Horlick’s most recent collection of poetry is a beautiful rendering of grief, love and survival. This poignant poetic offering left me feeling the sensitive grace of her words long after I finished reading. The way she weaves stories into poetry is both haunting and powerful, elegant and unsettling. While reading, I had to keep reminding myself to breathe!”
     –Lishai Peel, author of Why Birds and Wolves Don’t Trade Stones

Leah Horlick
Vancouver Poetry Slam
video courtesy of: Vancouver Poetry Slam



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Today's book of poetry - Update

Today's book of poetry will be absent for a few days.

A funeral and a wedding.  Almost like in the movies.

Back soon.

Michael Dennis

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Before OnStar - Sarah Carson (Etched Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Before OnStar.  Sarah Carson.  Etched Press.  Wilmington, North Carolina.  2010.

Today's book of poetry frequently writes this blog from his late night bed, my beautiful wife sound asleep beside me.  So it wasn't until this morning that I was able to do some Sarah Carson searching.
First thing in the morning my staff are useless as old pasta left in a watery pot so this was all they could come up with.  Since publishing Before OnStar in 2010 Carson has published at least four other books/chapbooks, Twenty-Two (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Whey You Leave (H_NGM_N, 2012), Poems In Which You Die (BatCat Press), and Buick City (Mayapple Press, 2015).  Good on her, we'll be looking for these - because Before OnStar hits like a brick through the window.

These short pugnacious prose poems glitter.  Sarah Carson writes poems as good as the best Johnny Carson stand-up, as good as Carson McCullers painting a sad and sweet corner of love.  These short little suckers are atomic bombs.

Every single poem in Before OnStar rattles around the corner like a firetruck on three wheels, siren blarring.

The Half-Trailer

When the investment firm bought the trailer park, they
decided they could make more money if they remodeled
the mobile homes into two rental units each, with a wall
straight down the middle that separated the spaces. I
shared my half trailer for about a year with a part-time
hairdresser named Donna until she got picked up for
trying to hire a hit man outside the Pick Quick. It took me
nearly a month to notice she was gone. It wasn't long
after that Jimmy came strolling through, balancing an
armchair on top of a wheelbarrow and stopping every few
feet to pull his jean shorts back up around his waist. That
night I came home from work and stayed awake for hours
listening to the movies he was watching, full of
explosions and gun fire, underscored by the gentle
rumble of his smoker's cough, the flick of his lighter, the
sweet smell of his fat girlfriend's Family Dollar perfume.


Once I had my staff awake these poems had them dancing around their desks again.  Carson's touch is so cheerfully maudlin it's startling.  These poems come straight at you and still surprise.  These characters are so tragic, so comic, as they relentlessly embrace hope regardless of their poetic trajectory.

Reading Sarah Carson's poems is like watching a bunch of short movies, or accidents, where you see the collision coming and just can't turn away.  In this sad cafe these emotionally fragile roustabouts fight hard to keep their heads above water.  So why do these poems taste so good?  Today's book of poetry will say it is because they are as clear as water gets, entirely see-through, without disguise.

The Twenty-Four Hour Grocery Store, Part I

Ron Bowman got fired from the twenty-four hour grocery
store for no-call-no-shows after his girlfriend had him
arrested for trying to kill her with his Tupac chain. They'd
been trying to fire him for months. They thought he'd
been carving swastikas into the card table in the smoking
break room, but the smokers knew it wasn't him. Joe
Fischer took full credit for it the night he quit, telling Matt
from bottles while they were smoking cigarillos beneath
the black lights in his living room, and Matt told everyone.
That's the way Matt is. Someday Matt'll end up dead
behind a jewelry store.


Before OnStar is a little like reading a script for a grown up version of "Spanky and Our Gang."  The lovable imps fully grown into impoverished disappointment, not quite losers but each attractively crippled by things unknown to us, remembered by time.

Carson writes with authority, a nuanced clarity that TBOP really likes.

The Twenty-Four Hour Grocery Store, Part III

His wife found out the week before Christmas, and he
ended up dragging both of his daughters through the
twenty-four hour grocery store in search of the cashier
who was causing all of his problems, each little girl with a
tiny hand wrapped around one of his index fingers, the
bells their mother had tied to their snow boots a flurry of
quiet jingling as they hurried awkwardly down the soda
aisle like late entrants in a three-legged race.

In the front yard that night the cops told the grown-ups to
scatter, but the cashier felt like she was the only one who
listened. For months she'd find herself pulling up next to
the payphone outside the Speedy Q off the highway,
dialing their number and listening intently to the chatter in
the background before they'd hang up. Something they'd
let one of the girls answer, and it was all she could do not
to tell them who their father was, the kind of things he did
when they weren't around.


Before OnStar is a chapbook of modest appearance from the small Etched Press.  As modest as it is in appearance -- Carson and Etched Press can take a deep bow and hold their heads high in any company.  This is first rate stuff,

Sarah Carson

Sarah Carson was born and raised in Michigan but now lives in Chicago where she works at a church. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Cream City Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Diagram, Guernica, and the Nashville Review, among others. She is also the author of three chapbooks and the full-length collection: Poems in which You Die (Bat Cat Press).

Sarah Carson has an imaginative gift for transporting us within the nuances & netherworld of her hometown. I can’t imagine are more dead-eye illumination of the region—told with incredible wit & a rough-minded passion. Many might steer you from the town itself, but missing out on Buick City would be a decidedly wrong turn. I will gladly enjoy returning to these pages—and often. 
     — Ben Hamper

Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Ever - Poems 2000-2014 - Ralph Adamo - (Lavender Ink)

Today's book of poetry:
Ever - Poems 2000-2014.  Ralph Adamo.  Lavender Ink.  New Orleans, Louisiana.  2014.

Ralph Adamo talks a damned good line in Ever.  His long prose-poem "Solecisms" starts with this hammer throw:

     "Although we have no right to hurt one another this poem yanks you out of your chair with
     one hand and slaps you silly with the other all the while saying see it didn't have to come to
     this we could have chosen justice over property, the heart's idea of what's right over the idea
     formed when two heads or more get together and make a plan."

He says it right out loud, we don't mean to hurt one another but we do anyway.  Adams tackles all the big subjects with vigour.  These poems are searching for more understanding, more humanity.


The ruined body excites the ruined mind.
Or anyway that's today's de(layed) construction
of an old ache in which the bent form struggles
to reveal its cancelations (or conceal its
revelations), I'm all in, twisted to the core the other
being inglory, a retching from the center of my earth.
I dive divine into the end of things she dis-
plays, lewd an anterior lead is all, and then--

oh, I am over god, except for sentiment.
Begin again where things once thought
now learn to tell yourself
be quiet, especially when you are
screaming...bad listener, you, hearing
it all. The form relays herself.
Each dying day recombines, a
light, breeze, you whom I am granted,
I'd break this face wide open if I could.


Today's book of poetry is fairly certain that Ever is Adamo opening up his rather rich veins in an attempt to understand war, wonder and the weary weight the world bestows on hope.

Adamo's poems have weight, literally, the books feels heavy and dense in your hands.  The poems are easy to enter but hard to leave.  His voice in these poems is always considered but never pompous enough to pretend to be clairvoyant.  Adamo is strong enough to pose questions without necessarily having any answer.  Adamo is searching for more, let us say that he is searching for the truth.

The Forgetting

The forgetting is ferocious and takes
all my time. In the whatevereth year
this is time stands me up as always
with a kick to the groin, as if I'd
made this plan in the beginning:
be lost in fullness, found without--

The words I carry now are so heavy
I fear that I will fall down and -- boom!--
will disappear, my moods in wild disorder
staring at the old goddamned moon again an equal--

forty years I had not read her inscription.
What was I waiting for?

Joy surprises the way love incorporates
there it is -- two colors muting, the sounding
interior shade, the loosened lip, shred
of the lost world the dream wakes up in.

Suffused in a glow of pre-happines,
I read my friend's book in bed, and
one night woke to a sky-full of geese honking
for the long time of being startled, then
amazed. You ask me even now I'll
admit I was worried, afraid, dread layered
on the ecstatic idea of happiness sus-
tained my new routines, but my heart
hurt deep in my chest, for real,
so I could feel each breath for weeks.

I wouldn't know how to live here
in a country like this where the sky
is everywhere like a flute below ground
unholy ticking, sharp sigh moistening,
stared down by an infant in a bakery,
I wonder where the string ends, my
luminous luck soft-headed as a teddy.

I throw up my hands light dripping,
a hundred books later, and after,
the song delight designed away again,
wanting to come to, wanting an end
to, coming to want for the love of it.


When S died I was beside myself
grieving, amazed, bereft, untouched.

When is it one learns to be careful?
almost from the first and never.


and now I've started repeating the names of the dead
to myself, in my mind, over and again, I think so
I won't forget which ones are dead and that they are,
not always starting from any beginning or with the same
name, but always a name -- the new ones sometimes first, so
Dusty, but then Russ, and Mary my own sister and Susan...
Robert who was crazy, Bob Woolf, imagined speaking
in my memory of him, Russ too, speaking, not Bob (Robert, in
this confusion of Bobs) who comes to me gazing,
a little wildly, as if in fatal knowledge sworn to
secrecy, Susan not speaking but always with a start somewhere deeper --

oh I haven't run out of them just sometimes they
repeat -- Maxine, and her Joe, wise from having had to let go
so long before, a young soldier in a giant war outliving, outliving
-- and so it is sometimes I know there's one I'm not recalling,
not the past -- Frank, or my father (Joe too, Joseph, whose people called
him Joey), go back too far and the other side of death appears, so
maybe I repeat and recall to keep the bloom clear death stalks...
did I forget yet, Everette whom all call Rette? who else
out there needs is or her name called? I am on duty until...
Brian! I forgot you! Others, speak --


We've all seen through everything by now haven't we?
Love, certainly, no matter how the residue stings. Death
we'd like to think, But work! oh, especially that --
I was startled thirty years ago to hear my father
on his deathbed, say -- a mix of irritation & awe here--
you and your friends, too smart to work...


still possible to overwhelm the odds
with oddities he thinks


The freight on waiting's heavy
The wait's a stretch, too long
to keep the garden thriving,
fish and fuel and song
arrival and depart(ure)
domestic to denature
such waiting wears a ring
fire can't climb, lives within
an estuary broken on a levee.


We have no way of explaining death, do we,
no protection from it, we who have understood
god's place as a romantic figure from
a foregone age -- no one to whom to drag
our broken bodies, no place to lie still
and wait --


Searching for the truth is one hard ask.  Adamo is searching for more and that may be the most admirable reason to write poems.

Nancy Lemann, the author of Lives of the Saints had this to say about Ralph Adamo's Ever:

     "Reading Ralph Adamo's poetry puts you in a country brooding world where the
       truth comes driving through the gloom like elegance."

Like she said.


I hate that you are on the other side this evening

If I go somewhere to cry for you how will I stop

I hope this finds you well, It's been too long,
I typed when you were already gone.

Listening to you talk
over there is like
listening to water

I compose
you are here
music breaking whitely
one track crossing over another
to reach disaster
Shooed from the blues I stand
against one breeze
and feel the summer's cascade
buggy and wet in my blood

I a sunken man with an old nose and long eyes
used to the way little becomes less
unprepared for bounty
whittling sorrow down to its toothsome size


The little house of my dead first wife
blows me a kiss as I go past
on wheels, the sidewalk cracks
one more lame joke to boot, and
then I am on the other side, again.


Sometimes Today's book of poetry has the best job in the world and sometimes it is the saddest. Reading Ralph Adamo's Ever is a visit to a sage uncle who has seen more of the world than you.

The answers aren't necessarily his domain, but oh, he asks a lovely question, muses with saintly illumination.

Ralph Adamo
Photo: Camille Bullock

A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Ralph Adamo has published six collections of poetry, most recently Waterblind: New and Selected Poems from Portals Press (2002). His book Sadness At the Private University was among the first six published by Lost Roads Publishers in 1977; his book-length poem Desire, Death, All of Them (formerly titled The Bicameralization) is seeking a publisher. Adamo edited New Orleans Review at Loyola University for most of the 90s; he teaches at LSU and Tulane Universities and at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Academy. He and his wife Kay have a two-year old son, Jack, and an infant daughter, Lily. - See more at:

An I relays the story in its not-story way. With traces of story. The sound is uniquely of its city in a nearly, not-named way. Attuned to its humidfied breezes and the fan blade’s indispensable turning. Home is the sole locale, the nucleus, ever so. The voice struggles ‘to end its own noise,’ not to inventory only regrets and losses, rattled and battered; cycling through the dead, friends and kin, pictures, ‘the stalactites of memory’ and bars in which years must have passed, stumbled through, a survivor, “godly,/of one mind, learning too late whatever/was on offer, outlasting fabulous destinies…” A work, a worksong, not of an illusory life, but of a life, in a body, a family, on wheels, rubber-side down, that works, miraculously.
     —C.D. Wright, author of One With Others, National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

Ralph Adamo has lived his three-score-plus years in New Orleans. To say that the poems in Ever are about that city of the dead, the dying, and the coming-to-be would be a great disservice. These are the poems of man who has become his city. To be sure, the jazz, the floods, the drunks, and the turbulence of despair are here, but they exist in the words of one who has absorbed them into himself. If “the blinked-smile the non-survivor wears / toward peace” describes one overwhelmed by it all, Adamo, ever looking forward, brings comfort, like words whispered in the ear of a drowsy child.
     —R.S. (Sam) Gwynn, author of No Word of Farewell: Poems 1970-2000.

Reading Ralph Adamo’s poetry puts you in a courtly brooding world where the truth comes driving through the gloom like elegance. You picture him “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” as E.M. Forster described Cavafy.
    —Nancy Lemann, author of Lives of the Saints and Ritz of the Bayou.

For more than forty years, while “arguing words against / The constant threat: forgetting,” Ralph Adamo has published poems as original as any I know. In his seventh collection, Ever, in which sometimes “a word is as far from a fact / as fever can burn it,” a speaker whittles “the little lies down to / The nuance of perfect teeth in a closed mouth.” Another speaker whispers to his young children, “My children are exhausting” and “’riddle’ means ‘dark language’” in order to help spirit them to bed. In another poem, retrospection makes a speaker “sag like an old bookshelf and sigh like the door beyond it.” And in another, a speaker prays for adolescent boys in their lostness—“world without hearing, amen.” Such phrasings hint at greater recognitions to come—for instance, that poetry is “just listening to the world.” What may be most original and satisfying about the thirteen years of poems in Ever is that reading and rereading them is to experience the art and diverse craft of a master, one who would wince at the accolade and never accept it.
     —Randy Bates, author of Rings: On the Life and Family of a Southern Fighter.

In Ever, Ralph Adamo has focused his poetic lens on the small moments that make life bittersweet and profound. Whether he is describing the banter of children at play or words uttered on a deathbed, Adamo puts the reader in the room and hands him a magnifying glass. The poet is asking us to watch life closely as it swiftly passes.
He gives very specific metaphors of pain, familiar to any New Orleanian “like stinging caterpillars down from ghostly cocoons en masse to prey on the bare feet of us all.” The book contains many precisely chosen words and well-considered passages. But he also offers some less concrete, more esoteric and slightly sardonic observations “Some things have always fallen through time and space to land god knows where.”
Adamo writes confidently about the value in dysfunction and skeptically about pure redemption. “I was going to get older someday. I was going to blame somebody.” Sometimes the work seems so personal that it should be reworked in the reader’s mind. In “Visiting the Marker, After the Flood,” the narrator asks “What did you expect to happen clawing through the chicken wire at the top of the 20th century.” To understand this poem about death and life, the reader must step back and watch the words flow past.
Adamo’s narrator laments the people who have disappeared without ceremony. He names them in a list broken by undisguised feelings – among them that he cannot properly remember all the names. But the spirits of the dead emerge and disappear throughout the book, allowing readers the experience of tangible and fleeting memories too.
Written in dense beautiful language, Ever is about temporal, conscious and self-conscious experiences. UnderlyingEver is a question of whether we will find the perfect afterlife. This is a book without any neat, simple answers. Still, Adamo seems to be telling us that happily ever after, our Ever, is here.
     —Fatima Shaik, author of Melitte and On Mardi Gras Day.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Mars Is For Poems - Aaron Bushkowsky (Oolichan Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Mars Is For Poems.  Aaron Bushkowsky.  Oolichan Books.  Lantzville, British Columbia.  2002.

Today Today's book of poetry is continuing with our tradition of stepping back in time, so to speak.
In our queries to publishers we always ask about older or back-catalogue titles.  Our theory here is that until we see them -- they are all new books.

Mars Is For Poems was published thirteen years ago but it reads like it appeared yesterday, it reads like it has read today's newspaper.

Bushkowsky gets it all said lickety-split and with elan.  These poems are sports cars when most people are driving trucks.

don't ask

circling stories about children
dying in the middle east
which she clips and deposits
in her big book of secrets
i wait it out in the kitchen with the newspapers

she has stormed down
to the dark world of the basement
to feel safe again

then when she emerges
she stares past my head
where i think she has spotted a sniper in the garden

don't ask don't ask

in the after world of innocence where we quietly exist
above flowers painted on bed sheets
draped on the chocolate walls of the downstairs

it's nothing she says
it's nothing don't worry
happy tomorrow


Bushkowsky is masterful, I keep thinking I see the grinning face of Kurt Vonnegut/Richard Brautigan leaning over the shoulder of some of these poems but I strongly suspect that those are my biases more than Aaron's influences.

I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy of Bushkowsky's earlier book of poetry, Ed and Mabel Go To The Moon (Oolichan Books, 1994) but I'm looking - and I am going to gamble certain when I say I know I would love it.

It should come as no surprise, Aaron Bushkowsky is a multiple award winning playwrite.  Here's a short list: 
Farewell, My Lovely
Play With Monsters
After Jerusalem
The Project
My Chernobyl
Landscapes of the Dead

and so on...

Bushkowsky writes fiction and movies as well.  I suspect, were he asked, he could write a spectacular grocery list.  He is a pro and that is a big compliment.  All my underlings here at TBOP know that if they want to butter me up - they should include a reference to my "pro-ness" in their request.

solar flare

by the sea  she said  by
and by i'll be gone and then
nothing  she looked at the clouds
and she looked down the shore
and the spray caught by sun was quick
a watery solar flare  and she smiled
and said  one has to admire that
my imagination running wild
rolling over and over
each flash another wave
catching light and burying it
with green so deep you're never quite sure
what you've seen  now holding her hands
out across the waves
as if greeting them or quieting perhaps
she knew the poem already
rolling over in her mind  washing up
the shore to brim in her own green eyes
now and then saying those words
by the sea  by the sea
then closing them
as if to keep the sea in


Let's just say that TBOP wishes there was a lot more poetry like Bushkowky's Mars Is For Poems.  Reading these poems  - Guy Vanderhaeghe comes to mind.  Why?  HE IS A PRO.

I loved these excellent poems.

At this point my only complaint, request, is to Mr. Bushkowsky.  We all know that poetry won't keep the fridge full or the lights on at night, but Aaron, you are so damned good at it...

alien lover

i'm watching alien
the movie
with a friend on a windy friday night
who tells me during the commercial
she has slept with her ex-husband
to teach his current wife a lesson

yes i say
this is something we all dream of
only human to teach people important sexual lessons

during the next commercial
she tells me she has beat her neighbours' dog
because he trusted her too much
over the weekend

yes i say
this is something we all consider
only human to think
of ways to teach animals important lessons about trust

during the last commercial
she confesses she hates babies
and once slapped her sister's child
because it wouldn't stop crying

why was it crying
i asked
it was crying she said
because i wouldn't touch her hair

yes i say
there is something about hair
in all of us

and she smiles and kisses me on the cheek

you understand perfectly
she says thru her perfectly white teeth

and i do

when the show is over
we finish the popcorn
and she notices blood
at the bottom of the white bowl

that's strange she says
one of us has been bleeding all night


so, please publish more poetry.  I know you've written it.

And we here at TBOP are equally certain that it is good.

Milo, our resident curmudgeon, loved the cover of Mars Is For Poems.  He said that more books of poetry should look like science-fiction.

Aaron Bushkowsky
Photo:  Emily Cooper
Aaron writes and publishes in many genres: film, theatre, poetry, prose, and non-fiction. A prolific writer, Aaron has 8 published books and over a dozen professional play productions. Aaron teaches at Kwantlen University, Langara College, Studio 58, and Vancouver Film School and works independently as a film story editor and playwriting dramaturge. He is the artistic director of Solo Collective, a professional Vancouver theatre company.
Over the past 16 years, Aaron has been nominated for Jessie Theatre Awards for Outstanding Original Play nine times, more than any other playwright. He has won two Jessies. In 2012, Aaron's play "After Jerusalem" was nominated for the prestigious Carol Bolt Award -- Canada's national playing competition. He's also served as playwright-in-residence atTouchstone Theatre, The Playhouse, Rumble Theatre and as a resident film-writer at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto.
Other nominations: Leo Award (Screenwriting -- Short), Sterling Theatre Award (Writing), Stephen Leacock Award (Curtains for Roy, 2015), Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (ed and mabel go to the moon, 1995).
Aaron completed his MFA in Creative Writing at UBC (2002) after receiving his BA and BEd from the University of Alberta. He is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas member (LMDA).


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Blood Work - Matthew Siegel (The University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Blood Work.  Matthew Siegel.  The University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2015.

Winner of The Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry

Matthew Siegel bleeds sad and tragic/romantic all over every page of this fine book.  Sometimes his mother's blood does a Stanley Kubrick moment from The Shining, the walls all glimmering crimson.

Siegel is engaged in a battle with blood and body that he cannot win, only endure.

The poems in Blood Work go in like a quick/smart/sharp prick from an experienced and talented nurse taking blood - but they linger like bruises, both big and bigger.

We here at Today's book of poetry aren't the only admirers of Siegel.  A goodly number of these poems have appeared in journals and magazines of note.  It is no wonder, these poems are tight and often tender, never maudlin and thank our lucky stars, Siegel has a sense of humour.  Poetry without some humour can be a grim ride.

"Fox Goes to the Fox Hospital"

And look there he is back in the hospital
in the easy blue dressing gown, at this facility
with a delicate floral print on the walls.
He'd always had an affinity for flowers.
Healthy yet being repaired, he is back
in this gown and it is like an old costume
pulled out of a locked trunk in the attic
of bad dreams. In the gown he feels naked,
notices his softness, how his sex has never seemed
     less willing
to rise. As if there could be such a cause in this place.
He is healthy but writing a poem.
It is called "going back to the hospital" and written
in lowercase, most notably the first person "I"
which so often had stood properly capitalized
but for some reason today feels diminished.
He's writing a poem called "going back to the hospital"
but really he wishes he could draw a comic
featuring a small mammal version of himself.
His animal would be a fox, he decides, and promptly
changes the title to "fox goes to the fox hospital."


Today in our office, here at Today's book of poetry, we are listening to Dexter Gordon's sublime One Flight Up.  In particular we have been listening to the song "Tanya".  Milo is complaining because we will not give him equal time for whatever German-march-techno-blackhead-death-funk he has most recently discovered.  Milo is one strange cat, but he's beautiful and brilliant.  And today even Milo liked the poetry, he called it "sublime, not like Dexter, but subtle in it's own bloody way, so sad, so strong."  Milo is hard to impress.

Blood Work

The white sky presses a gauze pad
over my vein as the needle slips out.

The woman who draws from me smiles, always
remembers me, no matter how skinny I get.

No matter how dark the circles under my eyes,
she remembers me and how easy my veins are,

so visible, so thick, she doesn't even have to tie my arm,
but she does, and takes the smaller vein

the bigger one too easy. I don't tell her
the best to take my blood was a woman

who used to draw blood from animals,
part their fur, find their blue tap and drain.

She lets me play with my filled tubes. Can you feel
how warm they are? That's how warm you are inside

and I nod, think about condoms, tissues,
all the things that contain us but cannot.


You don't really hear any fear in the steady voice of Matthew Siegel but you feel the weariness in the bones of these poems.  The reader also learns some lessons in resilience.

This next poem is a stone-cold killer.  Wait for the ending, it falls like a feather, lands like a punch.

[In the Kitchen Mom Stands
With Her Back to Me]

In the kitchen Mom stands with her back to me
facing the window, a joint between her fingers
entranced by Enya. I ask her way she's crying
when I see a single wet trail on her cheek.

She says it is not a tear but I touch it with my finger
and taste it. It tastes like a tear, I say, but she smiles
and passes me the joint. Isn't it beautiful, she says,
it's in Gaelic, her smile as real as her pain.

Her pain that touches my chest with its fingers.
I almost want to hold the fingers but I don't, instead
I puff the joint, look out the window beside her. Rain
all day until now, the sky a dark cream color

almost backlit with orange--mist tumbles
over wet black pavement.  Her eyes, switched-off
depositories for this light, tell a story I cannot bear.
The memory of him rises with this music
and she smiles as if the hurt is the balm.


"and she smiles as if the hurt is the balm."

That is my new favourite line of poetry.  It is almost bleak enough to be an outburst from the excellent Canadian poet Eva H.D., or perhaps a line from the ghost of Edith Piaf, even a pouty Judy Garland.

And if you are paying real attention, and I am not mistaken, there might even be a nod to Ezra's Metro.  I had Milo look it up.

Siegel's Blood Work is a dark portal to a world where survive, survivor and survival all take on new meaning, they may even be tinged with hope.

And you all know how much we love any evidence of hope here at TBOP.

Matthew Siegel

Matthew Siegel was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He teaches literature and creative writing at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“This unexpected book—a genuine contribution to the literature of illness—centers on containment: how we contain our blood, how blood is contained in tubes and vials, how sometimes we do not seem contained by our bodies, and sometimes the body seems to contain nothing, and even how in the face of control or self-reliance leaking away, we might manage to contain ourselves, to feel held, to feel held in place. The deceptive directness of Siegel’s debut is remarkable; in his capable hands, illness reveals how barely contained any human being is, and how we reach, alone and together, for whatever will hold us.”
     —Mark Doty, author of Sweet Machine

“Siegel’s poems see the world with an immediacy and compassion that could only come from the decision to be vulnerable. It’s such a simple-seeming principle of poetry—yet it is as rare as hen’s teeth. I honor this young poet for the freshness and skill in these poems, his allegiance to the most unpretentious areas of experience, and his courage-teaching heart.Blood Work is a wonderful first book.”
     —Tony Hoagland, author of Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Sweet Ruin

“These poems resist the dualities of lyric versus narrative, confessional versus impersonal, real against surreal, formal/improvisational, comic/sad. Matthew Siegel manages to tick off all the boxes at once, while remaining compulsively readable. The trick that he’s pulled off is to make a book that simultaneously tickles you and shakes you by the scruff of your neck.”
     —Lucia Perillo, Felix Pollak Prize judge

Matthew Siegel
Reads his poem "On your birthday," featured in the fall 2013 issue of Southern Indiana Review.
video:  SolnRev


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Patient - Bettina Judd (Black Lawrence Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Patient.  Bettina Judd.  Black Lawrence Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2014.
Winner of the 2013 Hudson Prize

I'm not black and I'm not a woman so with these incendiary poems by Bettina Judd I am definitely on the outside looking in.  Patient has me riveted.

These poems are specific in their lineage, they are tightly tied to the ghosts of four women; Betsey Harris, Joice Heth, Lucy Zimmerman and Anarcha Wescott.  These women visit Judd in her hospital bed, we hear their voices loud and clear.

These women's names are unknown to most of us regardless of their deeply earned sorrow.  What makes this book, these poems, interesting and necessary to us is the visceral and haunting honesty of Bettina Judd.

Lucy on the Train

I didn't want to go back. Not just to be cured but to
never have to take the train again. Mister Z cackled
said I won't run since he don't need a bloodhound to
track my scent.

The car had crates and a floor for chairs. If I were to sit
I would saturate myself more.         A jolt flung me into
the lap of a man who smelled it and tossed me into the
movement of the train. I hit the floor and the dark spot
began to expand. He snarled something about how
filthy women be.

I smoothed my dress. So not to trap his disgust inside.


Heth, Zimmerman, Harris and Wescott were enslaved women subjected to unthinkable gynecological experiments.  Bettina Judd's Patient gives them voice.

These poems come to us as high-pitched and justified screaming, low-voiced and liturgical laments whispered as incantations against the dark.  These poems are the bright red accusations, the broken blisters and snarling residue of unclaimed history.

Betsey Invents the Speculum
Fall 1845

Introducing the bent handle of the spoon I saw everything, as no
man had ever seen before.
    --from The Story of My Life by J. Marion Sims

I have bent in other ways
to open the body     make space

More pliable than pewter,
my skin may be less giving

Great discoveries are made
on cushioned lessons and hard falls

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the wincing

the if you must of it
the looking away

the here of discovery


Bettina Judd's voice is controlled, exact, precise and angry/sad.  She modulates her considerable and righteous anger so that her tempered reason never boils over.  These poems are not going to make you happy.

This is one of those books of poetry you are going to be happy you read but it won't make you smile.

Earlier this morning I was reading an essay by the excellent Steven Heighton entitled "In the Suburbs of the Heart" from his book The Admen Move on Lhasa.  Heighton was lamenting that a certain cowardice and gentility had overtaken contemporary poetry, those are my words not his.  What he did say was that "by feigning niceness for too long men and women can douse their vital flame."  Bettina Judd has done the opposite -- she embraces her vital flame and spits gasoline.

She has connected with the lives and horrors of these four forgotten Saints and given their stories light.  And that is always a fine step, towards truth, light.

At [The Teaching Hospital]
For The Second Time
April 27, 2006

To each doctor a speculum.

No time for a room with walls.
No procedure. No apologies. No
apologies all mine.

I have not yet learned
how to look
when I am entered.

Not yet learned
where to turn.
The barrel of myself?

Or, to the patient beside me
who, in his sleep,
i'm going nigger hunting,
i'm gon' get you, nigger.


Patient is not just the sad past.  Judd's ire is not simply historical, how would that be possible.  These poems hum and pulse like the air around a transformer during a heat wave.

These haunting poems are brave and bloody and bound to guilty truths that Judd artfully turn to balm. Patient is a book you can love, admire, extol.

Bettina Judd
photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Bettina Judd was born in Baltimore and raised in Southern California. She teaches courses in Black women’s art, Black culture, and Black feminist thought. She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, the Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry by Mythium Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at and

"J. Marion Sims, the legendary, now controversial, 19th century gynecologist looms large in Bettina Judd's recent collection Patient. Sophisticated, complex, haunting, Patient. beckons readers to remember, to feel, to think deeply, to discover, to probe. Slavery's stench, the bodies of Black women, death, scientific racism, memory—these themes link the poems in extraordinary ways. Judd is a masterful new poet. Patient. is unforgettable!!"
     —Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Founding Director and Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies,                                              Spelman College

"In Patient Bettina Judd beautifully (and horrifically) draws on historical evidence of nineteenth-century medical experimentation on black women, scholarly explorations of the body and the archive, and personal medical history. The result is haunting in its insistence on laying bare these stories as they not only articulate experiences of the past but also resonate deeply with black women’s experiences with the U.S. medical complex in the present. Patient is a brilliant meditation on race, gender, and science and a thrilling anthem to black women’s self-knowledge."
     —Elsa Barkley Brown, University of Maryland

"Joice Heth. Lucy Zimmerman. Betsey Harris. Anarcha Wescott. Bettina Judd ensures you will remember the names of four women assaulted by science, violated by curiosity--survivors of physical invasion and torturous experiments. She presents their dignity, heretofore denied, as imagined in their own voices in conversation and parallel with a modern speaker, similarly (coldly) ensnared by a medical machine powered by detachment at best, cruelty at worst. Judd re-centers the narrative, however, to where it belongs--on the person(s) confronted, examined, in pain—not on the problem to be studied or solved. In visceral language that indicts, worships, haunts, and empowers, Patient illuminates 'a dynasty, a bloodline, a body' imbued with the full human spectrum of emotion and brilliance."
     —Khadijah Queen, author of Conduit and Black Peculiar

"Bettina Judd’s stunning poetry invites us to imagine the experiences of enslaved women subjected to gynecological experiments—the blood, pain, loss, shame, and survival. Linking past and present, Patient brilliantly condemns the inhumanity of professionals who infringe black women’s bodies and celebrates the humanity of those who resist them. It will disturb and move your spirit."
     —Dorothy Roberts, Author, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of                                                           Liberty

"Bettina Judd’s phenomenal debut poetry collection, Patient., is about recovery in many senses: recovery of the subjectivity of several historical figures, through the recovery, reconstitution, and telling of their stories—among them Anarcha Westcott, Betsey Harris, Lucy Zimmerman, Joice Heth, Saartjie Baartman, and Henrietta Lacks, who were infamously 'patients' or subjects of inspection and 'plunder' by, among others, J. Marion Sims, the controversial gynecologist, and P.T. Barnum, showman and circus founder. Sims (and the speculum) and Barnum are the featured antagonists in many of these flawlessly empathetic poems, but an unnamed speaker who adds a contemporary voice to the lyric chorus implicates those in charge of her care during a present-day hospital stay at Johns Hopkins—suggesting the linkage of modern medical treatment to the traumas vulnerable Black women, enslaved and not, suffered at the hands of unethical scientists and physicians in earlier eras. In the collection’s opening poem, the speaker reckons, '…verdicts come in a bloodline” and she determines “to recover' from 'an ordeal with medicine' by “learn[ing] why ghosts come to me.' She ends her testimony by asking, 'Why am I patient?' (Read that line in however many nuanced ways you want.) In this profoundly layered witnessing, the subject might be “in the dark ghetto of my body,' or 'an idea of metaphors that live where bodies cannot.' Yet even as Judd vividly evokes the precise brutalities visited upon the Black female body and psyche—letting us see and hear women who 'quieted/ broke into many pieces'—these poems also speak of “shedding something, ' 'another kind of sloughing.' Ultimately, Patient. enacts a healing and move toward wholeness, recovery of, as one speaker puts it, 'spirit [that] flees the body and/ its treacherous/ tearing.'”
     —Sharan Strange, author of Ash, and creative writing faculty at Spelman College
Bettina Judd
Reads from "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine
video: Katy Richey



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.