Here From Somewhere Else by Judith Arcana, reviewed by Tricia Knoll

Here From Somewhere Else by Judith Arcana
Left Fork Press, 2015, 26 pages, $10
ISBN 978-0692589526
Available at

Reviewed by Tricia Knoll

Judith Arcana’s chapbook Here From Somewhere Else was a perfect choice for the Turtle Island Quarterly’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. The press focuses on deepening connections to the natural world. The eighteen poems in the collection take the reader from observations of nature in cityscapes (primarily Chicago and other Great Lake Towns where Arcana lived for more than 25 years) to the forests, trees, and birds of the Pacific Northwest.

Arcana begins the collection exploring how an urban mind can open up to the natural world. One route is the imagination. A short poem, “Dreaming the Indian Ocean,” describes a childhood dream of flying in her bed to where whales swim in green deep water. She uses close observation to describe the appearance of nature in the urban landscape – the sky darkens over garages, birds speak to each other in graveyards, the rhythm of a train races through Queen Ann’s lace and milkweed, and the mica sparkles in sidewalks – what the poet compares to stars falling from the urban sky. Middle-aged women on sidewalks and lawns watch crows on picnic tables and fountains. Her poem “City River” asks, Does the river know it once was wild? and questions what people watching a river may have lost with the taming of an urban waterway.

The narrative arc of the collection is movement. Arcana now lives in Portland. The poems move away from Chicago lakefront cityscapes into places familiar to people of the Pacific Northwest. As a transition, the poet is sitting in the woods in “Soon.” Her cell phone rings, a reminder of the world she recently moved away from. The news concerning her father’s health is not good.

This poem continues a motif of lyric observations of how light plays on natural surfaces. Sprinkled throughout the poems are compounds words like fireclouds, waterhearts, goldsilver, and riverlight. Light flashes through graceful branches and falls on the rushing river not as diamonds and gold but as diamonds and gold wish they could reflect light. Arcana asks, Can I be in love with the light on the water? The answer is yes.

That vision carries forward how the poems progress. In “Metamorphoses” Arcana plays with all the possibilities her connections might mean. Can the narrator be an old woman in a cottage deep in the woods? Or an ivory owl swooping at squirrels? The dark bird watching children march to the school bus? In “Wild River Sister,” the identification between the poet and a wild river includes both light and the churning river which feels like the poet’s mind.

These poems are long on wonder. “The Man Who Loves Trees feels the heart of a tree like his own pumping dark liquid to limbs. The affinity with trees in “This Side of the River” concludes with a question:

Do you understand the language of trees? Most of us can’t
ask them these questions; we can only raise our eyes, worship
their solemnity, their reach, their rough skin made of rain.

Oregonians can celebrate that Arcana chose to come here from somewhere else. She hosts a monthly poetry show on KBOO community radio in Oregon and online. She writes poems, stories, essays and books, some of which are available through the Multnomah County Library.

Beside the small press award for this book, her fiction collection reflecting the history of reproductive rights Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture was the 2014 winning prose chapbook from Minerva Rising Press. Arcana is a “Jane,” a member of Chicago’s pre-Roe underground abortion service and a long-time supporter of reproductive justice.



Reviewer bio:

Tricia Knoll is an Oregon poet whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies. Her collections include Ocean’s Laughter (Aldrich Press) and Urban Wild (Finishing Line Press). In Summer 2017, The Poetry Box, a Portland-based press, will release Broadfork Farm.

Books Needing Review and Past Reviews

For information on submitting a book review see the OPA book review guidelines and policies.
Contact the book review editor.

Books Needing Reviewers

Judith Arcana – Soon to be a Major Motion Picture
Deborah Akers – partly fallen
Eleanor Berry – No Constant Hues
Adam Brown – Musings of a Madman
Nancy Christopherson – The Leaf
T.L. Cooper – Vulnerability in Silhouette
Nancy Flynn – Great Hunger
John Haislip – Seal Rock
Quinton Hallett – Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast
Laura LeHew – Becoming
Carolyn Martin – The Way a Woman Knows
Shirley Plummer – The Task of Falling Rain
Arn Strasser – Before Dreaming
Anita Sullivan – And if the Dead Do Dream
Pepper Trail – Cascade-Siskiyou: Poems (finalist for Oregon Book Award)
Christopher M. Wicks – 365 Sonnets


Past Reviews

Setting the Fires by Darlene Pagán, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

Nice and Loud by Lois Rosen, reviewed by Susan Clayton-Goldner

a question of mortality by Susan Clayton Goldner, reviewed by Lois Rosen

Avenida Uriburu by Michael Hanner, reviewed by Sara Burant

Ocean’s Laughter by Tricia Knoll, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

Every Door Recklessly Ajar by Nancy Flynn, reviewed by Ann Staley

Reverberations from Fukushima: 50 Japanese Poets Speak Out, reviewed by Ruthy Kanagy

Anuk-Ité: Double-Face Woman by Dorothy Black Crow, reviewed by Carter McKenzie

High-Voltage Lines by Tiel Aisha Ansari, reviewed by Lois Rosen

Just This, Tanka by Margaret Chula, reviewed by Penelope Schott

Snow White, When No One Was Looking by Donna Prinzmetal, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

Woodstock Baby, by Joan Dobbie, reviewed by Tim Volem

The Parachute Jump Effect by Judith Arcana, reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott

Rending the Garment by Willa Schneberg, reviewed by Eleanor Berry

Controlled Hallucinations by John Sibley Williams, reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott

Still Life with Judas and Lightning by Dawn Diez Willis, reviewed by Kelly Eastlund

Iron String by Annie Lighthart, reviewed by A. Molotkov

Willingly Would I Burn by Laura LeHew reviewed by Larina Warnock

To That Mythic Country Called Closure by M, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

Tomorrow Too by Don Colburn, reviewed by Tim Pfau

In the White Room by Elizabeth McLagan, reviewed by Erik Muller

Understory: Poems by Paulann Petersen, reviewed by John Sibley Williams

Motionless from the Iron Bridge: A Northwest Anthology of Bridge Poems

Verge by Sara Burant, Comment by Erik Muller

Photograph With Girls: Poems by Nancy Carol Moody reviewed by Toni Van Dusen

At This Distance by Bette Lynch Husted reviewed by Erik Muller

Setting the Fires by Darlene Pagán, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

Setting the Fires by Darlene Pagán
Airlie Press, 2015, $15.00
Reviewed by Carolyn Martin

When Randall Jarrell defined a poet as someone “who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times,” he could have been describing Darlene Pagán.

In Setting the Fires, lightning strikes this talented poet dozens of times in poems that sizzle and smolder, delight and engage, surprise and move.

For starters, what is so striking about this collection is its structure. Pagán has adeptly arranged her forty-three poems into three sections– “Fuel,”  “Heat,” and “Breath” – with fire, both literal and metaphoric, as the unifying image.

For example, the opening poem, “How It All Started,” immediately announces this intent. It tells the story of a female camper who has exasperated her male companion because she forgot the lantern, the towels, the hot dog buns,/the matches. She can’t fry an egg/over an open flame, dumps her companion out of a canoe into the river, and fails to extinguish the campfire. The last two stanzas contain the driving impulse of the collection:

                                              Again and again,
she buried the stubborn coals, watched them
gasp for air and reignite. He slammed a car door

as an ember opened its smoking eye and trained it
on her like a dare. The ember woke another
and another as she turned to walk away.

The stubborn ember of poetic imagination continues to open its smoking eye in such poems as “Wife Still a Suspect in Blaze that Claims Husband,” “Things I’ve Taken a Match To,” and “A Sage Advises How to Firewalk.” It morphs into the burn of desire in “St. Mary’s Catholic School for Girls,” “The Quarry,” and “Blackout.” It smolders in poems about loss and grief such as “The Uses of Grief,” “In College, I Job Shadow My Mother, A Hospice Nurse,” and “The Lamp.”

Setting the Fires, then, could easily serve as a model for how to structure a poetry collection, but it’s much more than that. A second and third reading – and this collection will lure readers back again and again – uncover a master poet who peoples her poems with unforgettable characters and imagery that pass the Emily Dickinson test: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

For example, in “St. Anthony’s Bread,” a chance – and initially uncomfortable – encounter on a bus results in a moment of communion between the narrator and a stranger in faded fatigues …/who lumbers down the aisle/with a yellow blanket tucked under his arm/like a baby he’s ransacked from a stroller.

He sits down beside the wary narrator, unwraps a monstrous sandwich, and, to her dismay, offers her a bite. Although his slick, black hair [is] speckled with crumbs/and woven with lettuce and His eclipsed eyes/give [her] vertigo, the narrator is engaged. She says

… I do not flinch when
he tears off a chunk and extends
his open hand under my nose
as if I were a bird hovering
at the open window. I take
the bread in my mouth and hold it
like a promise, an offering, a secret
I will keep without knowing the terms. 

The beauty of this lyrical landing is one of the hallmarks of Pagán’s art: her ability to raise the poetry stakes from the concrete details of narrative to the heights of metaphor.

In “The Farrier,” one of the most touching and powerful narratives in the collection, a young girl contrasts her father – a blunt-edged shovel of a man. A dry/ spigot of a man – to the farrier: With his full beard/and chocolate gaze, he looked like a lean Grizzly Adams.

She observes how her mother curls her hair when this man is scheduled to come, and she listens to the whinnies of laughter emanating from the barn as her mother stroked the horses’ manes and the farrier/cradled one, then another hoof, his voice milky.

Since Dad is off working two shifts, the girl and her mother are left under the spell of a man so unlike him. The last two stanzas are filled with the girl’s yearning to have the farrier in their lives forever:

He greeted me with Howdy Do, Little Lady. I shared
the news that played all day and night from the barn,
like how it snowed in the Sahara Desert for thirty minutes
and gas prices were expected to hit $1.00 a gallon by summer.

He searched my eyes the way only the horses did as he shook
his head and whistled disbelief. Just once, I wanted him
to sit down for supper, chew the fat, then ride the horses so
hard beside us, their shoes would wear out and he’d have to stay.

While readers can commiserate with the absent father who is off supporting his family, they also can feel the burning desire for the connection and intimacy that the farrier provides. The narrator leaves us to wonder if Mom running off with the farrier would, indeed, make all the sense in the world.

Pagán fills out the pages of Setting the Fires with poems on topics like a failed driver’s test, a visit to a shooting range, knife-throwing lessons, death, the joys and heartbreaks of motherhood. She leaves us with so many memorable, well-crafted poems that readers will be hard-pressed to pick favorites. Lightning strikes every page.


Reviewer’s bio:

After forty years in the academic and business worlds, Carolyn Martin is blissfully retired in Clackamas, OR, where she gardens, writes, and plays. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in journals throughout the US and UK, and her second collection, The Way a Woman Knows, was released by The Poetry Box in 2015 (www.thewayawomanknows).