Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast: Poems by Quinton Hallett, reviewed by Alan Contreras

Uttered Chaos, 2015, 74 pages, $10


ISBN 978-0988936645


Available via Amazon


Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast is one of the most complex and carefully layered collections of poetry that most of us will ever read. I wondered, when I saw the title, whether this was a feminist restatement of Woody Allen being chased over the cinematic hills by a forty-foot mega-mammary. Hallett has a spiky sense of humor (in previous collections she asked Joan of Arc “what’s at stake” and had scientist Rosalind Franklin refer to DNA Nobelists Crick and Watson as “that base pair”), but I could not see her devoting poetic energy to such a project.


I then speculated whether Hallett, a noted gold-panner of human subtlety, had found some connection with physicist Erwin Schrödinger, whose hypothetical Cat that can be assumed simultaneously dead and alive has become well-known. Yes, it’s that Mrs. S., one Anny, apparently a woman of social vigor and marital flexibility. The poet’s connective tissue, set forth with glowing clarity in a short, moving “Afterword,” was her own potential cancer. This collection is built around potential: that which may or not be.  A more macabre or less serious poet might have called the collection Cat Scan.


What Hallett has done is build a triple helix of her own experience, the life of Anny, and the theories of Erwin. This allows her to use the device of Erwin Schrödinger’s uncertain Cat, particularly for the many poems that are part of the main themes. We not only follow the unique circumstance of waiting for news of a biopsy in “Deadlock,” but we find frequent visions in these poems – sometimes in the path, sometimes in the mirror – of alternatives: things that may or may not happen, or exist.


Let’s look at “Deadlock” in its entirety.


Pre –


Under a tarnished sky, one moss-freighted limb

 hunkers like a pathologist over the road to the lab


 A petri dish is tonged from its stack

 a left breast, unpowdered, awaits its probe


 The pet cat wandered off a week earlier,

 climbed into a box at the neighbor’s



Post –


The pathologist swivels her microscope

dice are in mid-roll, coin’s in the air


Results = Pending


Crest and trough

holding heavy the simultaneous upshots


  The marked breast is carried to bed,

  patted down under the press of blankets


  The old cat’s dreamt alive


  Regardless of outcome, every passage underneath

  the laden maple will be a new snag in the chest


What weight on two words and a symbol: Results = Pending. These words are the mirror image of the Cat That (Is/Not) Dead, reflected inside the poet’s body. Results = Pending carries the weight of the potential of cancer on a yin-yang fulcrum – an equals sign, less than a word but in this poem so much more – in the center of the poem. The discerning eye might add a flickering arrow pointing each way.


This is poetic art at the highest level. It is the considered benchwork of a master crafter.  Like a maker of swords, she adds how many layers? How many folds? How much flex here, and there? How many directions or outcomes? What will cause the balance to shift one way or another? I can’t help but think of James Merrill’s masterpiece “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace,” in which  … the sword that, never falling, kills … hangs over the bed of his friend, the Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, whose pending death everyone in the room notionally denies.


How many of these poems are really about the mammiform protuberance in question? The answer – the uniquely suitable and beautifully surprising answer – is: it depends. It depends on the reader, in some cases. We find what we wish to find or are capable of finding. I may find something you do not, and vice versa. Hallett has always been a master of experience-oriented, multi-layered human life, both daily and profound. Here, we have at least two stories running simultaneously through a sizable, varied, and robust assemblage of poetry. Included is a series of poetic miniatures that refer more or less expressly to the titular breast, as well as some larger works.


There are other poems in this collection that allow us to sense that the Cat of Destiny is/isn’t in the room. Here is one of the Anny poems that do not have individual titles as they form a sort of bubbling rivulet flowing through the collection:


Anny Schrödinger has adventures

in marital architecture with Erwin and Hilde.

She/they are jealous or not jealous.

An affair or no affair? Without seeing the lover as lover,

there is no possibility of betrayal.


And another:


Mrs. Schrödinger’s breast has no standard cup size.

Is the cup half full or half empty?

Handful or sweaterful, a more fitting gauge.

To measure or contain is an insult

if volume is ever to be increased or diminished.


This particular poem recalls the late Hannah Wilson’s poem “The White Sweater” about a long-gone sweater that once may have overemphasized teenage breasts, but now, if replaced, might fit again because those breasts have been removed. Wilson, a friend of Hallett’s, was my high school English teacher forty-odd years ago: a circle quietly closes.


There is more to this collection than Anny Schrödinger or allusions to her husband’s invisible feline. When I first read through it, I thought perhaps all of the Schrödinger material should be in one section and all of the unrelated poems in another. Yet what, after all, does “unrelated” mean? We see many connections; some we may not see.


A few of the poems have a somewhat more casual feel to them, but a couple that seem a little too light at first develop a Merwinesque tone on careful re-reading. In these more delicate poems, there is someone in the whispering gallery; the ferns move in the breath of no wind. The collection includes poems written in a variety of layouts – I’m not sure “forms” is quite the right word in this context.


The collection begins with “Self-Portrait as a Bruise,” a poem that is not really part of the core “story” of the collection (or is it?), but which is such a precise, tightly wound coil of meaning that I will close with its last six lines here. (You’ll have to buy the book for the full experience.) This poem is one of Hallett’s all-time best, a garnet mine of meanings and ideas compressed into a single work.


Thumb-print or thunderhead,

my longing will never be taken

for love, though it is similar


in the way it uses quiet fury

to aggravate intention

and pools with me in one place far too long.


Quinton Hallett has always found good stories about us, as people, to share via her poetry. That’s true of many poets. Few take such care in folding their word-layers to make swords worthy of the title craft master. Such work is revealed to us in Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast. Did I see St. Julian of Norwich, patron saint of cats, leaning down from her stained glass to have a closer read? Maybe. Felis ex Machina.


Also by Quinton Hallett: Refuge from Flux (2010), Shiver, Quench, Slake (2004) and Quarry (1992).


Reviewers Bio

Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.

Broadfork Farm by Tricia Knoll, reviewed by Wallace Kaufman

ISBN-13 978-0-9980999-4-1

The Poetry Box

2017, 73 pp, $12.00

On her web site,, Tricia Knoll speaks of herself in the third person. She is a tree hugging . . . Master Gardener who routinely talks to crows who ignore her. She also calls herself an eco-poet. In the opening line of “The Klickitats,” the first selection in Broadfork Farm, she says, I’m a farmsitter, once or twice a year, a few weeks. The farm is across the river from Mt. Hood and about 20 miles north near the village of Trout Lake. And there you have the setting and the character who inhabits these pieces.


In “Buddha Nestled in White and Pink Sweet Peas on the Fencepost at Broadfork Gate,”

Knoll says of the Broadfork Farm,



                        The farm is not for everyman.

                        In the old house, there’s no white sugar,

                        no microwave and when the first money

                        slapped down for land, no tractor, just a U-bar

                        digging fork with as many tines

                        as a March hare has fancies and that

                        was how it would be.


Those lines, like most of the selections in this volume, are the kind of free verse that could as well be prose. Expect no prosody here except for the thoughts and images broken into lines with no discernable aesthetic or logic. Perhaps read aloud by the author, the breaks would be justified by the reading; but this is a book, not a recording.


Two of Knoll’s pieces are written in traditional prose paragraphs, “Gloucestershire Old Spots” about visiting kids who are fascinated by pigs and “An Uncommon Prayer for the Farm,” which is more like a spoken hymn to the life and death, hardships and rewards of farm life than it is a prayer in any familiar sense.


What distinguishes these meditations about farm life and nature from so much contemporary “poetry” is their directness. Knoll does not struggle for novel metaphors. She doesn’t try to pass off obscurity as mysticism or intellect. She is almost always immediately intelligible. A reader can even learn a few lessons about animal husbandry and gardening.


The 37 poems in the 50 pages of text and photos are vignettes of farm life and surrounding nature. The photographs are nice companions to the writing, but not particularly good compositions or well reproduced. Together they capture the author’s love of the area and of this small organic farm that nourishes her body and soul.


Readers who know Knoll’s political writing – main line feminism and anti-Trump – won’t find it here. She writes in “Left with the Care,”


                        The banty rooster’s strident call

                        is light years from grinding war, spinning news,

                        suspicions of sects and warring politicians.


Broadfork Farm is her retreat from all that. Or, as she concludes in “An Uncommon Prayer for the Farm,” it is Repair of gratitude.


Urban readers will find here a usually gentle window into a certain kind of rural life. It may inspire the desire to get “back to the land” that inspires so many Woofers and some refugees from high stress jobs.



Reviewer bio.

Newport writer Wallace Kaufman has written several books, including Coming Out of the Woods (Perseus Books), a memoir of 22 years in a North Carolina forest. He is an award-winning science writer who has published poetry in the US and England in magazines that include Encounter, Agenda, Carcanet, Oxford Today, and Carolina Quarterly. His fiction has appeared in Sewanee Review, Encounter, Redbook, Mademoiselle, and North American Review. His latest book is FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel (Springer International, 2016) co-authored with astrobiologist and biomolecular engineer David Deamer. He recently taught Poetry for Everyone at Oregon Coast Community College.

Cascade-Siskiyou: Poems by Pepper Trail, reviewed by Alan Contreras

Painted Thrush Press, 2015, 65 pages, $12

ISBN 978-1508484356

Available via Amazon at

The Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California are what writers of stories of the west, both historic and fictional, call “rough country.” It is in fact about as rough as anyone might ask for in the lower 48 states, particularly in the steep tangled chasms of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the western end of the complex. The whole region has in recent years become a land in transition as its history of winter snows is now matched by summer fires of brutal proportions.


This is the home range, if you will, of Pepper Trail, a forensic biologist and one of the nation’s experts on the identification of feathers. It is this country of a thousand borders, this land of stony pockets, hard-faced shrubbery, and random defensive trees, that he inhabits with such poems as “The Border,” which ends with the stanza:


      In this world of solid things

      Of wood and stone, rough ground

      And green enduring leaves

      My fingers reach, reach past the real

      Forever seek the border

      Crossed, again and again

      But never found.


Like every poem in this highly local collection, “The Border” is linked to a specific site, Soda Mountain. The entire collection was written on-site and there is a definite sense of immediate experience and hands-on knowledge in most of them.


The great poet of human experience J. D. McClatchy once wrote that the natural world is an “uncongenial” source for poetic inspiration. Setting aside the fact that nature is, as Gary Snyder put it, home, not a foreign place, I can’t help but doubt whether congeniality makes for the best poetic experience. This collection stands for the primacy of what is rooted in the ground, as does the work of Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Loren Eiseley, and others.


Some poets assemble poems with some structural similarity in order to create the theme of a collection. Trail has instead gathered poems with a commonality of place, so we go from a set of seasonal haiku to longer ruminations on winter survival, human passage, the movements of deer. The genuineness of the poet’s connection to place is obvious in “Haiku – Winter,” which perfectly describes the way kinglets move through the forest:


      A drift of kinglets

      Passes, leaves behind only

      Sound of falling snow.


This is knowledge gained from the forest, not read in a book somewhere. There are few birds in the montane forest in winter – there are few human observers, either. There is also in this collection a profound sense of the seasons, necessary for the haiku and densely informative in other poems as well, such as “The Berry Woods”:


      How secret and alive, the berry-woods

      All song stilled, the boasting season done

      Nothing to be heard but murmurs and calls

      Bursts of flutter, birds lost within the leaves

      Swallowing the pin-cherries, bright as rubies

      The Oregon grapes, hard and full of spice

      The manzanitas, their little apples sweet

      Today, the world balances dark and light

      The agitations of spring long past

      Summer’s full schedule forgotten

      This autumn work is simply gathering

      Feasting, growing fat beneath the feathers

      Preparing to fly before the cold

      Before winter opens its empty hands.


Let’s unpack this characteristic Trail poem and see what’s in it. First, it is profoundly regional in the sense that the presence of Oregon grape and manzanita in the same place breathes of the collision-space of the moister climate of the coastal northwest with the more sere shrub-forests of California. Then it is about as seasonal as a poem can be, clearly written on or near the autumnal equinox (set forth where it should be, halfway through the poem). We digest (pardon the expression) an evocatively restated outline of recent seasons.


Then the poem, which has to this point been an amiable, detail-rich meander on a ridgeline filled with fruit-nibbling birds, ends with the oxygen-sucking hammer fall of what winter really means in the high country: death. This bold tonal shift in the last line changes the meaning of every previous word: all this cheerful chewing is not a casual avian picnic. It is a desperate bid for continued life by way of energy-hungry migration.


There is some variation in craft and weight among these poems, but the best among them are very good indeed. A review should not reveal all the goodies, of course, as readers should read the real thing, but I’ll mention “False Hellebore,” “To a Young Lizard,” and “Late Riders” as among the most fully realized and thoroughly carved of the collection.


The lizard poem is a reptilian cognate of “The Berry Woods,” but more tightly focused and directive throughout, as though Trail is urging the lizard to get into a safe hole pretty quickly. False hellebore and “real” hellebore get a mutual apology and a taxonomic dusting-off in what is perhaps the best poem in the collection. “Late Riders” is one of the last poems in the book and is, in truth, the natural closer for the collection because the sun descends and the human observers, having seen all the day permits, feel their way home in darkness. Yet, the concluding poem, “Juniper Years,” makes its own claim, concluding:


      Time enough to accomplish our own perfection

      To grow, to express in the shape of our lives

      The beauty of our afflictions

      The worth of all the time there is.


I am told that Pepper Trail was named the official poet laureate of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2013. And why not?



Reviewer’s Bio


Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.