Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger
Airlie Press, Portland, OR
2017, 79 pp., $16.00
Reviewed by Anita Sullivan
When you pick up a copy of this remarkable book, stop! Look at the cover – really look at it. Across the bottom rests a narrow strip of seashore in vivid blues, whites and browns. Above that, sky takes up the rest of the space. The ratio of sky to seashore is 5 to 1, which may resonate slightly in your vision as a very satisfying relationship. Yet the placidity of this image is interrupted near the top of the page by an odd little island with some old-fashioned people on it who seem to have no idea their small piece of ground has been detached from its own world and inserted into another one. Two distinct realities inhabiting a single place. Already, you might feel the center of your forehead humming with anticipation.
Then you read the title words: Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key. And the humming grows louder. If you squint a little and move the words around in your mind, you may recognize them as similar to an Anglo-Saxon kenning – an ancient word puzzle where certain words can be mixed and matched in ways that allow them to strike sparks off one another and reveal hidden meanings. For example:
- The king is a hall-dragon.
- The dragon is a cave-king.
- The hall is the king’s cave.
- The cave is the dragon’s hall.
Such simple word-sets formed the underlying structure of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Although the four words in Terwilliger’s title don’t fall neatly into this particular pattern, I feel them making a close quadrille with one another: A riddle can be a key, a fish-hook can be a thorn; a riddle can hook you, a key can pierce your heart. Thorn and Fish Hook stand between Riddle and its Key.
Throughout the book, true to the cover’s promise, these and other words shape-shift into one another in ways that are always surprising, but always completely appropriate to the underlying pattern the original magic formula has ordained.
The opening section, “Air” is also about water, about breathing and folding, taking in and letting out, jumping into. Entire poems breathe in as one thing, breathe out as another as when one sound shifts in a word/and summons another.
In “Handkerchief” the poet remembers a father, who sneezed and carried/this crumpled peony in his pocket.
Folding her father’s handkerchiefs, warm from the dryer, clinging together/like pages of a fragile book, she goes back to the flower image as she folds
halving and halving. What if I’d just kept going?
Blossoms unblooming, reversing
to a single point
with everything inside them.
In “Night Song” she feels her way into the longing of the owl’s call:
Not sorrow, but the overflow
of wanting to live, to break open
all those feathers into night …
The second section, “Body,” intensifies the theme of falling apart and coming back together to live again (which recalls the ancient enactment of death by dismemberment and burial as a rite of spiritual renewal).
The first poem begins big – imagining how a whale might die at sea:
turning softly within
to something like cream, until
the skin splits, the rest
The poet then brings the whale body onto shore.
What then, strange coat. . . .
A hill of skin
enough to hide a house.
But the poem does not end there: a man rides down the beach on a horse; a group of people stand around the carcass, waiting for him. Where is the whale? Here on the sand, yes, but at the same time forever out at sea:
bones still falling.
I’m sure of it. Slipped from the skin
they descend through the sea’s green rooms …
Later in the section, in “Gift Horse,” the horse itself is now dead on the beach, like an old sail blown in.
The poet, looking at the horse, feels herself changing into an animal: I begin to wear fur. I feel hairs on my skin,/between my teeth, in every breath.
Half animal now, she reaches into the horse’s mouth, and behind the tongue/ that isn’t there, something jiggles./Riddle, fish hook, thorn, key –
Two more observations about this amazingly coherent and luminous book:
First, at the core of all the poems, whether there are people in them or not, is a steadfast and palpable love. The poet’s father is sometimes directly present, as are her two sons, and once they have been introduced, you realize they are, in some sense, inhabiting every poem. “Beyond Swans” begins
My friend once ate a swan,
the only thing she was ashamed to admit
she’d gladly do again.
And the poem, after immersing itself fully into the magnificence of this bird as cloud god, with its intimacy of weight, slips easily into a memory of the poet being tenderly carried as a sleeping child, up from the beach at night by her father,
He climbed up and over the rocks,
and my body felt loose and safe.
After which, turning back to the swan, she says
This is how I’d carry her
the one-who-ate-a-swan, who probably
never will again, whose burdens now
have changed their shapes, as burdens do.
Second, in my own reading of poetry, I especially look out for how much distance a poet is able to maintain between what she is trying to say, and what she actually ends up saying. If this distance is too close, the poem may feel “controlled,” and tend to be merely descriptive or informational. If the distance is too wide, the poem risks veering off into blind alleys of personal symbols or getting trapped in a kind of feedback loop of seductive images or sounds that have detached themselves from actual experience. In Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key, I believe Kelly Terwilliger has managed – partly due perhaps to her long experience as a professional storyteller – to maintain a perfect distance, thus allowing The Mystery to be doing its essential work to keep the poems honest, beautiful, and strange.
Anita Sullivan is a poet and essayist who has been part of Oregon’s literary community for 35 years. Information about her work can be found at www.anitasullivan.org
No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter
Southern Illinois University Press
2016, 67 pp, $15.95
Author website: www.jenniferrichterpoet.com
Reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael
From Disease to Ease: Transforming Pain into Resilience
Jennifer Richter’s second full-length collection, No Acute Distress, was published in 2016 by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Editor’s Selection. Following her first collection, Threshold, which won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Open Competition, No Acute Distress centers around family, un/health, chronic disease, and the way in which these forces shape identity. The collection follows a single speaker in an arc of transformation, looking for the universal through the lens of intensely personal – and physical – experiences.
Structurally, the book is divided into sections – “Family History,” “Admission,” “Examination,” “Complications,” “Release” – mirroring the inpatient intake and treatment process. Medical terminology is explored in all its surrealism from the title itself to PICC lines, from visual pain scales to a list that highlights the bizarre naming of pharmaceuticals:
I’ve tried Depakote, Sinequan,
Zomig, Xanax, Toradol: fuck you. Fuck
your side effects, your scripts fanned out then dealt
to me for years. And Midrin, Flexeril,
Vicodin, Axert, Celebrex, Frova
that hooked me – what the fuck?
– “Eighteen Seconds”
Throughout the collection, the body is alternately cataloged with clinical efficiency or given the extreme tenderness of an intimate or caregiver, treating language-lovers to a subtle lexicon that includes femurs, veins, spines, and the wild labor of birth. In the long poem “Eighteen Seconds,” Richter writes, My body’s dragging like a plastic sack /of batteries: they’re dead or not, can’t tell.
Indeed, the body plays such a central role in No Acute Distress because Richter uses it as both a vehicle for action and agency and as a limiting force: Lately I feel my body’s felt docked, as in: all aboard (“I’m Used to Feeling Like I’m Moving Even When I’m Still”). The plurality of strength and weakness, vulnerability and ferocity, is particularly noticeable in Richter’s poems about children. For example in “My Daughter Brings Home Bones,” she writes about the bright future of a young daughter on the cusp:
In this next decade, she’ll go: head off like
today, take into her arms all she’s curious about. Her line of bones
makes an arrow; sun lights them like a sign.
In contrast, in “My Boy, My Body: When I Type I Always Mix Them Up,” Richter describes a sick child and the pain of parental guilt.
The surgeon finally
emerges with photos: the shadowed terrain inside my son like a
moonscape if the moon were smooth. He slides a pen from his
pocket. I fidget like I’m starved. With the tip he traces exactly
where my body, when I made Luke’s, made it wrong.
The further one gets into No Acute Distress, the more one notes the role of pain, in both its physical and emotional manifestations. In these poems, Richter asks difficult questions about the nature of pain, how it shapes the individual and whether or not that pain brings people closer in shared experience or pushes them toward isolation. In “My Own Blood,” the speaker discusses her mother’s ill health, Our pain’s the same, behind one eye. She knows /some studies trace mine back to her.
As she explores the experience of disease, one’s own and that of others, Richter creates a collection permeated with a specific sense of unease, even in times of relative wellness: I’m fine if you mean satisfactory (“Eighteen Seconds”). However, by the final section of the collection, “Release,” the tone of the poems changes towards one of transformation. In the poem “Imagine,” the speaker mourns what has been lost in her journey:
Children’s mouths sigh open in the dark. They’re not surprised:
The healer touched me, and it worked. They’ve seen magicians –
Beneath the sheet that’s pulled away, something’s always gone.
However, in the next poem, “Synesthesia: The Way I See It,” the speaker shows herself to be in a place of more peaceful acceptance: I’m better now;/Still trying to make sense of everything. By the final poem, “No Joke,” Richter’s speaker reflects on her transformation and pauses in a state of gratitude: Even the quality of the light is new. I’ve come so far.
Readers, too, will find themselves grateful for the experience of sitting with Richter’s rich poems. Illness is a universal experience and, shaped by Richter’s deft hand, one that gives readers a way into the most complex questions about body, being, and selfhood.
Tiah Lindner Raphael is an obsessive gardener and writer living in Portland, Oregon. A frequent volunteer with the journal VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, her poems have most recently appeared in Cloudbank, Pretty Owl Poetry and Spoon River Poetry Review.
Everything is Shining By Jan David Madsen
Reviewed by Emily Pittman Newberry
When Carolyn Martin sent out a call for poets to write reviews of books, I scanned the list of books on the OPA website and was drawn to Everything is Shining just by the sound of the title. As I read it through the first two times, I loved many of the poems.
The book opens with some intriguing pieces. “Dust To Dust” is a nicely done meditation on the concept of no thing. No thing is the belief in a deeper reality that is neither what we think of as nothing nor made up of stuff. It is more real than the material world around us. The poem begins, Ask when I first knew that everything/was shining, all at once, like the sun … and ends, That it is the dust in which I Am/ dancing forever. This line – with the capitalized I Am – leaves us with the mystery of whom is being referred to: the speaker or pure Beingness, the nonmaterial world out of which we are all made.
In “Ever Again,” we are treated to a prose poem that is interspersed with a more traditionally formatted, three-stanza poem. In the prose sections the speaker is present with his internal state. The poetry weaves in the felt and seen world around him. The single word Silence at the end invited me to be present with internal and external physical experiences in a way that transcends the boundary we normally perceive as solid.
In addition, this poem repeats words from an earlier poem, “That Day,” which describes a similar experience, but one that is not exactly the same. The words of a saint, “Ever Again” says, retrieved and read many, many times. In “That Day” the saint’s words appear as a pantomime: the stream seems to mummer the words of the saint. In “Ever Again” these same words peek through worn-thin papers to speak of this dissolving leap into reality from the depth of silence beneath. I found this intermixing and repetition to be almost a conversation between the two poems. It drew me in and motivated me to re-read both.
Other poems use sweet language to engage the reader. In “Mist,” the speaker says, Let me evaporate/ like the dew on the leaves, and “Moment In A Meadow” opens with Bright sun dappling green-dance in the trees.
Given how much I liked many of the poems, others left me wishing they had been reworked. For example, “A Real Poser” begins with a very dark blind and the very bright lamp. Then in the third and fourth stanzas the speaker throws out a series of questions: What is it?/Where is this place?/Is it day or night? and What’s going on?/Is it some kind of trick?/An illusion? He then answers, Yes, yes it is! And, of course, Everyone is in on it! Here we are spoon fed the questions and the answers are handed to us on a silver platter.
The poem “Draw” does the same thing. It begins with two stanzas in which the speaker asks to be literally drawn on paper, ending with the poetic, The surface upon which I am drawn is still upon a blank and empty page. Then the poem ends with a line of questions in which the speaker again tells us the answers we are to reach rather than showing them poetically.
I hope this author keeps writing and that we will see more from him with poems like “Dust To Dust,” “Ever Again,” “Mist,” and “Moment In A Meadow.”
Emily Pittman Newberry is a performance poet living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing explores the challenges of living as spiritual beings in a human world. OneSpirit Press published her first full book of poetry, Butterfly A Rose, and a chapbook, Nature Speaking, Naturally, now used in art therapy classes for elders. She wrote poetry for the artist’s book Water by Shu-Ju Wang. Her work has appeared in journals such as VoiceCatcher, The Tishman Review, and Kind Of A Hurricane Press. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Her website is www.butterflyarose.com
Here From Somewhere Else by Judith Arcana
Left Fork Press, 2015, 26 pages, $10
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.
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
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.
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).