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BOOK REVIEWS

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

    March 22, 2017

    Here From Somewhere Else by Judith Arcana
    Left Fork Press, 2015, 26 pages, $10
    ISBN 978-0692589526
    Available at https://leftfork.org/books/

    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.

    Website: http://www.juditharcana.com

     

    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.

  • Setting the Fires by Darlene Pagán, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

    November 20, 2016

    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

    October 16, 2016

    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

    August 21, 2016

    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.

  • Avenida Uriburu by Michael Hanner, reviewed by Sara Burant

    June 1, 2016

    Avenida Uriburu by Michael Hanner
    Chandelier Galaxy Books, 2015
    Available on Amazon.com for $6.00 plus s & h

    Avenida Uriburu Reviewed by Sara Burant

    Perhaps not coincidentally I was reading Avenida Uriburu on a train. It was raining steadily. Outside, shapes and colors ran together. I forgot where I was then remembered a jacket I wore as a child. Seeing the jacket that wasn’t there but curiously was, I regained my bearings: reading a book of poems situated in Buenos Aires on a train heading into Oakland, California. “Without images we tend to lose our way,” wrote James Hillman. Avenida Uriburu is a book concerned with images and bearings, with the extent to which one can and cannot orient oneself in territory at once familiar and strange. In lieu of compass and map, poet Michael Hanner both engages the art of noticing and constructs imaginative spaces, inviting gesture, object and persona to inhabit them.

    Notitia is the capacity to form true notions of things from the act of attentive noticing. The word notice is related to the words connoisseur, incognito, recognize and gnosis. Each of these words finds resonance in this collection. In many of the poems the speaker is a connoisseur of the sensual, of red wine, chorizo, the scent of jacarandas, color and touch: “Opposites are sewn into your life,/buttons on a dress someone else/must button and unbutton for you./Hold still, they say; and you feel their fingers/moving behind you like butterflies.” Sensual experience is a kind of guide, leading the speaker to glimpse, at times even to inhabit, albeit briefly, the soul of the place.

    Governing these poems is an intelligence which resists drawing conclusions. The poems are far more interested in alchemy, in the buzz and hum produced by the proximity of things. In the poem “La Biela,” for example, the speaker is sitting on or near the terrace of a hotel’s cafe, noting what he sees: “The ancient gum shades/the well-heeled diners and riffraff/sucking eggs and medialunas…” But more than that, he is pairing things, letting them rub against each other, creating a static effect. The poem goes on:

    Before the entry is a fiberglass statue
    of one of the race car drivers
    who patronized the cafe
    a half century ago
    before people began disappearing
    into the windy delta.
    The whiff of dyed red hair, the chameleons,
    the English spaniels sleeping under our feet.

    In just a few lines we receive a sense of the strangeness of the ordinary in Buenos Aires. The kitschy fiberglass statue of a pop-culture icon whom we imagine racing over open spaces makes way for the ghosts of those who disappeared into the windy delta in the last century’s political upheavals.

    The speaker of another poem, “Avenida Ayacucho,” observes a man presumably a member of the Argentine elite: “The tan is flawless./The face has seen everything./The eyes so like a serpent,/impersonal as Switzerland, perhaps they are only cameras.” Implicit is a sense that by cunning, luck or complicity this man survived the terrible years of 1976-83. In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino notes, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows…the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” In these poem we find enactments of Calvino’s observation. The past, including the dead and disappeared, not only hovers over but is woven into Hanner’s Buenos Aires.

    As well, the poems often evoke a sense of precariousness and contingency: “Here in the south of the world/the power fails/in a city where I speak not the language./We could use the strange key the landlord gave us…/The door knob doesn’t move./The elevators are dead./The mountains hem us in.” Syntax inverts. The same chord plays over and over. Stasis and repetition become species of instability. This is not the first world, and the keys the speaker’s been given are not the right ones. Still, the poet recognizes a kind of kinship with the place through possible fictions, possible lives.

    The prose poem The Window postulates a life in a nondescript slab of a building, the poem accompanied by an intriguing photograph of one such building, taken from the ground and angling up, rendering a sense of vertigo. The speaker of this poem lives incognito, resident or traveler, and watches with intense interest the only neighbor he ever sees, entranced by her watering the flowers: “In that entire space the only real color is the red of her impatiens.” Yet in the end this speaker cannot bear the pressure of being recognized, or rejected, and stays away from the window “like the other people who don’t live here.” The city invites and enthralls, and the city withholds. It is itself a kind of tango dance, choreographed by suggestion and nuance, as much by what is not there as by what is.

    Again, Calvino provides perspective: “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” Hanner deftly manages this tension. A wise traveler, he realizes his knowledge is limited: “Then Yesterday, vain and harsh, humped home,/dark falling, its work of not knowing/complete without knowing.” Gnosis is achieved but it is not an apotheosis of understanding, not revelation. It has to do with being open to sur/reality, experience whose fabric blends memory, history, dream, and the physical world.

    The book’s final poem is an afterword, mapping the vicinity of Avenida President Jose Evaristo Uriburu. Whereas the rest of the poems seek to orient us psychically and emotionally, this last poem locates us spatially: “Two blocks one way is a shopping mall abutting Recoleta cemetery. Two blocks the other way is Avenida Santa Fe….” Rather than summing up the place, this poem allows us to linger with its familiarity, its laundromats, kindergartens, street vendors and grocery stores. We have been somewhere that seemed often strange, a place that offered pleasures and kept back potent secrets and pain that nonetheless bled from the bandaged wounds, a place “drunk with its own ooze and babel.” Perhaps we can never fully orient ourselves. The best we can do involves noticing and creating brief habitations. Our understanding is necessarily limited. These poems suggest that Buenos Aires is both unique and Everyplace, that what beckons and disturbs the traveler on the road, beckons and disturbs the traveler at home and is the condition of being alive at this, or any, historical moment.

     

    Reviewer bio: 

    Sara Burant is the author of the chapbook Verge. Having temporarily relocated to the Bay Area to pursue an MFA in Poetry at St. Mary’s College, she looks forward to returning to Oregon and its vibrant literary community in 2017.

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