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).


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

Nice and Loud by Lois Rosen
Tebot Bach, 2015, $16.00
Reviewed by Susan Clayton Goldner

Nice and Loud, a collection of beautifully crafted poetry by Lois Rosen, is authentic and yet tender. It is intimate, unselfconscious and introspective. Her story takes the reader into the world of a young Jewish girl growing up in a cramped, Yonkers apartment after World War II. In the poet’s own words:

Forever is how long our family will be stuck in that fourth-floor walkup.

Nice and Loud is inhabited by colorful and real characters. One of the most powerful is the writer’s father. He has cancer – a death sentence hovering over him, all the days of her childhood: . . .that bomb of my father’s possible relapse. Rosen paints her father in a way that balances the hard and the soft, and the reader finds him utterly endearing. But the dreaded cancer didn’t kill him:

One night he slipped into a diabetic coma/ the next day he was dead.

In one of my favorite poems, “Provider,” her father promises, You will be well provided for.

In the final stanza, Rosen says:

After the funeral we found bank books, bonds,
those dollars, we flipped through like cards,
screamed, clapped, giggled like hell,
our blouses soaked with tears.

 The author writes about an uncle who comes home whole from the war, in her poem “After the War”

He’d fought in France where Lanvin
created Arpege, Rumeur and My Sin,
where Bartholdi and Eiffel
designed Liberty, the statue
our family watched for a nickel
from the Staten Island Ferry,
my father holding my hand
where the ocean smell, gulls
and the view of Manhattan
belonged to us no matter
who we were.

In this collection, Lois Rosen takes us to the profound place where language and emotion merge. The work is sometimes humorous, but always honest and hopeful. Read the book from start to finish and take this important journey with her. You will be far richer for the experience. Rosen’s first collection of poetry, Pigeons, was published in 2004 by Traprock Books of Eugene.


Reviewer bio:

Susan Clayton-Goldner’s poetry has appeared in literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. She is the author of a collection of poetry entitled, A Question of Mortality.


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

a question of mortality by Susan Clayton Goldner
Wellstone Press 2014 $15.00

Reviewed by Lois Rosen

cover_a question of moralityI first had the joy of meeting Susan Clayton-Goldner at a novel-writing workshop led by Marjorie Reynolds in Portland, Oregon years ago. Susan shone as an astute critic and author of family-centered mystery novels. She’s published three: Finding a Way Back, Just Another Heartbeat, and Murder at Cape Foulweather. Since childhood, Susan has devoted herself to honing her craft. Besides being an award-winning novelist and popular blogger, she’s an accomplished poet whose work has appeared in literary journals for decades. This year, finally, her heartfelt poems have been gathered into her first poetry collection, a question of mortality, published by Wellstone Press.

Breaking from convention, all the words in the title on the cover begin with lowercase letters. Perhaps Goldner chose this to symbolize mortality humbling us. A black background frames women in a dark room. Dressed in black with her back to the reader, the central figure seems turned from tragedy, as if Goldner wishes to escape agonizing memories, but forces herself to confront them. Beyond glass, grey sky reveals light breaking through.

In the poems as in the picture, there is a sense that tragedy has transformative effects. In the poem “An Eternity of Hope,” after a brother’s suicide brings pain like “broken glass,” hope does “simmer.” Her grief never disintegrates, but a daffodil poking up from “frosted earth” symbolizes beauty coming back like flames rekindled.

Death softens the poet’s heart, makes her more vulnerable, yet more empathetic. For example, in “When My Father Slipped into His Death,” Goldner writes:

Near the foot of his bed, I expect fear,
But the face and hands are too familiar.

In a rush of lost affection, I uncurl
his fingers, pet a ruffled arch of brow…

and the years of rage, too hot to touch,
cool at once into this mourning.

The words “mourning,” “longing,” and “memory” echo through this book. Fresh images and powerful lines move the reader through profound experiences of love and loss. Regret, loneliness, forgiveness, fury, sadness—the many stages of grief recur. The book pays tribute to complicated, flawed but cherished family members who have died, leaving their survivor bereft yet determined to write these moving, elegiac poems honoring them.

Many of the poems employ nature and weather to convey inner landscapes.

But one season bleeds into the next
And what nurtures can also strip away.
Soon the wildflowers will
fold in their perfect petals and disappear
into the pine-scented earth.
Only their memory will flicker
across the quiet face of time.

…pointing that bullet
toward the empty hole in yourself.

In closing, I’ll point out a powerhouse poem: “In My Favorite Easter Memory of Lillian Nell.” She is: “Chanel # 5 and whiskey,” “stiletto heels,” “spider-leg lashes.” I won’t give away the poem’s stunning end. Read it and this whole collection for narrative poetry strikingly passionate, honest and profound.


Reviewer bio: 

Lois Rosen’s poems and stories have appeared in over a hundred periodicals. Traprock Books published her poetry book Pigeons in 2004. Tebot Bach Publishers published her second collection Nice and Loud in 2015.