Review by Carter McKenzie
Anuk-Ité: Double-Face Woman, Poems
By Dorothy Black Crow
Turnstone Publishing (Corvallis, Oregon)
2012, 39 pp., $9.90 (on Amazon)
The poems in Anuk-Ité: Double-Face Woman by Dorothy Black Crow demonstrate the skill and wisdom of balance; through deft understatement they achieve the resonance of cumulative effect: they are weavings of one who knows how to reach into potent mystery “steady not pierced / by the black barb.” (“Double-Face Woman”)
Manifested through the physical and spiritual worlds, and informed by Lakota history and legend, these poems honor and explore the possibilities of familial interconnection even as they expose betrayals of a people. With the exception of one well-placed villanelle, the poems are narratives. They all bear witness in memorable ways both to a Lakota history of suffering and to the authority of survival and renewal. In the light of carefully crafted language, silence becomes fiercely active: omissions become revelations.
In “Marriage Proposal at Branding Iron Creek #1,” the dwelling place consisting of a “metal cot beyond the black / iron woodstove” is marked by the violence of the past, an “M-16 bullet hole / clean through the foot-wide cedar log.” The understatement of the second stanza, “ ‘They got their man, Peltier, in jail,’ ” in its reference to the 1975 Pine Ridge shootout and to the injustices that preceded and followed it, only deepens the impact of the scene created in the first stanza. Yet details in this poem also reveal the care of the past: “the faint glow of whitewashed log / cabin walls axe-planed smooth long ago.” And, although “old vision pits / crumble in Badlands shale” in the surrounding land, the calls of Spirit owls persist. The speaker identifies herself as having been an outsider to this world in the poem’s epigraph “Can I Live Here?,” as well as through the context of the poem that precedes this proposal, “Christmas at Upper Cut Meat.” That the answer to her question is affirmative is shown in what she notes beneath the spider webs over the open door: “red tobacco ties still bless this place.” Spiritual power actively recalled through attentiveness makes possible inclusive partnership.
Central in Anuk-Ité are poems of recovery and transformation through prayer. “Wind Cave I: Inside Grandmother Earth’s Lungs” and “Wind Cave II: Time of Emergence” evoke the Lakota creation story of their Buffalo Nation, and the shape-shifting power of recovery. The first poem concerns appropriation that disconnects the cave from its spiritual meaning for the Lakota of being the first people’s entryway to the earth’s surface. Here, the Black Hills journey into the interior of the famous Wind Cave is no more than voyeuristic tourism, unconscious violation for the sake of curiosity. The entry is a door “blasted” in the side of Grandmother Earth, and the cave is “songless, / speechless.” Those who wander into the cave do so without reverence: “Like a virus / we swarm the lungs, / creep past the silence…penetrate / dry air pockets” where there are “no / air sacs / left; / nothing.” Lack of attention to the sacred in this context has taken away the breath needed for the vitality of a people’s place of origin. In this poem, loss of vision is the loss of the entryway to the sacred center’s mystery. The lungs of the cave are lifeless.
In contrast, “Wind Cave II” resurrects the sacred power of place by remembering the stories of origin and disappearance, the buffalo that “sank into earth” after being slaughtered for their tongues, and who were said to have gone into hiding in caves, “waiting without grass, hooves / still in the rock.” The association of the earth and the buffalo with the Lakota people lies in a shared lineage “some say” exists: “the soft red rock… / is the blood of Mother Earth / is the blood of First People / is the blood of Mammoth Bison.” Regarding the Buffalo Nation, this speaker states: “When we rise up from the earth again / we will not need the stairs.” Certainty is declared through faith: “I know the Place of Emergence: / Center of All That Is— / this time, Wind Cave.” Consciousness of the sacred—recognition of what is possible in “this time”—becomes the location of the opening to the center that will hold.
The sharpness of details and subtlety of their placement throughout this collection of poems resemble the artistic power of quillworking that Anuk-Ité bestowed upon those women who dared to dream fiercely enough to withstand her gift, enabling them “to pull out all those designs / pricked in the night sky — / quilled whorls and stars —.” (“Double-Face Woman”) This poetry’s honoring of Native American wisdom is a gathering of voices that renews connection, sustaining an essential fire.
Reviewer Bio: Carter McKenzie’s work has appeared in a number of anthologies and journals. She is the author of the chapbook Naming Departure and a full-length book of poetry Out of Refusal. A founding member of the poetry collective Airlie Press, Carter teaches poetry sessions to children and adults in Eugene and in the surrounding rural areas and serves as a board member of Beyond Toxics. She lives with her youngest daughter in the Cascade foothills.
by Tiel Aisha Ansari
Barefoot Muse Press 2012
Paperback: 40 pages
Tiel Aisha Ansari’s poetry collection, High-Voltage Lines, lives up to its name. Like the conduits delivering strong electrical charges, sparking the air around them, her artful lines convey potent messages. Tiel treats the reader to a dazzling array of well-crafted formal verse poems including villanelles, pantoums, ghazals, sonnets, and sestinas. Her work is a tour de force of metrical and syntactical dexterity that delights the reader with its skilled blending of structure and meaning.
The collection’s first poem immediately invites us into a world of erudite fun:
The Author Introduces Herself
says that my cranium
shows I am dull.
Lethally boring, the
gal in the world, by the
bumps on my skull.
The narrator asserts she is “dull,” but the bouncy rhythm and high-level of language shown by such words and “cranium” and “lethally” as they contrast with silly, invented words like “O’Quakery” and “un-entertainingest” belie this message. She welcomes readers to a world of intelligent craft and word play.
The poetic landscape throughout the book is rhymed verse in set forms, but what might seem sing-songy or old-fashioned written by someone less adept, becomes fresh, lively and evocative in Tiel’s hands. Her pentameter lines remind me of Shakespeare.
Her compassion, spiritual reverence, concern for the nature, and humanity shine throughout this collection. Her literary knowledge allows her to re-imagine characters such as Edmund and Edgar from King Lear and Penelope from the Odyssey. The reader of Tiel’s poems gets to join her in zooming in, for example, on what Odysseus’ lonely wife endures in his absence, how Penelope protects herself from “louts… who quarrel over her with foolish boasts.”
Here are the first two stanzas of Tiel’s pantoum, “Penelope.”
Penelope, Ithaka’s lonesome Queen
is weaving web of excuse and deceit
to blind and bind the suitors she had seen
come crowding to her door on hasty feet.
She’s weaving webs of excuse and deceit
That she unravels every night, alone.
They crowd into her door on hasty feet
Each morn, to find her work is not yet done.
The selection of this form’s line repetition from one stanza to the next in a fixed pattern mimics Penelope’s actions of weaving and unraveling the same threads. The pantoum’s last line is the same as the first. The poem comes full circle just as Penelope’s work does.
The topics in Tiel’s expansive poetry repertoire delve into nature, politics, peace, daily life, news, homage, and her spirituality. David Hedges, president emeritus of the Oregon Poetry Association, describes High-Voltage Lines as “a wellspring of wordplay and wit, a feast of fresh images, a seamless blend of heart, mind, body and spirit.” I enthusiastically agree.
Tiel Aisha Ansari is the current president of the Oregon Poetry Association. She has been a dedicated, generous and gifted leader. This book provides us yet another example of her talent.
Reviewer Bio: Lois Rosen, of Salem, co-founded the Peregrine Writers. Traprock Books published her first book, Pigeons, in 2004. She’s taught ESL at Chemeketa Community College and Creative Writing at Willamette University. Her poetry has appeared most recently in VoiceCatcher, Calyx, Conversations Across Borders, and Alimentum: The Literature of Food.
Just This, Tanka
by Margaret Chula,
Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013
92 pages, $16.00
Imagine there is someone standing in front of you with a lifted hand and upstretched fingers. Two fingers are presenting a delicate object in order for you to see it clearly. Listen as the person whispers to you, “just this.” In that moment you will look at this single lifted object as if there were nothing else in the world. That’s how Margaret Chula’s poems work.
A tanka, in case you’ve forgotten, is a five-line lyrical poem. The name itself means “short poem” and the form is derived from ancient Japanese verse. Although much shorter, generally 31 syllables or fewer, the tanka works a little like a sonnet with a pivotal turn before the end. Unlike haiku which are generally nature poems, the tanka is more likely to deal with human relations.
This collection of 100 tanka, the classical number for such a gathering, is divided into five titled sections: Lingering Fragrance, Who Can Say What Loneliness Is, Hush of Crickets, Trying to Remember, and Yesterday’s Desire. Four sections open with a tanka by the Japanese woman poet Izumi Shikibu who was writing around 1000 A.D. and one opens with a poem by Ono no Komachi from a century earlier.
The book is dedicated “in loving memory of my mother” and here are the first two poems from Lingering Fragrance, the first by Izumi Shikibu and the second by Margaret Chula.
Wakened by the scent
of flowering plum…
of the spring night
fills me with longing.
– Izumi Shikibu
in the garden
just before dusk
touching leaves and flowers
as I never touched you
– Margaret Chula
Although Chula writes about lovers, childhood, lost youth, and other subjects, the book keeps circling back to the loss of the mother. Thus her first poem in the last section:
pale white light
shines through the window
it’s snowing again
and Mother is gone
The poems in this collection are often wistful, but sometimes also humorous:
those five pounds I lost
during my gallbladder attack
where did they go?
fourteen baby chicks
scamper in the sunshine
displayed in the window
of a consignment shop
my old evening gown
on a flaxen-haired manikin
the size I once was
Whatever the subject, these tanka are consistently evocative. Margaret Chula has lived in Japan and made a study of that poetic tradition. In this moving collection, she has taken the inherited form and successfully made it her own. Each small poem is exquisite in its own way, and over and over as you read, you will quietly see and appreciate “just this.”
Reviewer Bio: Penelope Scambly Schott’s verse biography A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth received an Oregon Book Award. Recent books are Lovesong for Dufur and Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore. Forthcoming Fall 2014 is How I Became an Historian. Penelope teaches an annual workshop in Dufur, Oregon.
Review by Carolyn Martin
Snow White, When No One Was Looking
by Donna Prinzmetal
CW Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2014
2014, 84 pages, $16.20
Reading Donna Prinzmetal’s collection of persona poems, Snow White, When No One Was Looking (Cincinnati, OH: CW Books, 2014) is like falling down a rabbit hole and landing in the midst of a Salvador Dali painting. While her fairytale heroine has been part of our collective consciousness for generations – from the Grimm brothers to Walt Disney to ABC’s Once Upon a Time – no one has ever met a Snow White quite like the one Prinzmetal creates. The poet invites us into the surreal inner world of this iconic heroine with language and images that are fresh and astonishing. In the process, she ensures that we will never look at this fairytale the same way again.
First of all, the foundation of this collection is built upon the original Grimms’ fairytale. The three sections dividing the poems – white as snow, red as a blood, black as ebony – reference the qualities Snow White’s birth mother wished for in a daughter. She got her wish but died in childbirth, thus setting the stage for the appearance of the evil stepmother, the compassionate huntsman, the protective dwarves, and, of course, the Prince.
But that traditional foundation begins to crack from the very first poem when Snow White announces, “I gotta tell you folks, I’ve been around the forest a time or two. Hold onto your flying sombrero because my America, the black forest, isn’t what you expect” (“Everyone Loves a Happy Ending: Snow White Has Her Own Show”).
From that moment on, we hear a voice we’ve never heard before; and every plot line, theme, and character we thought we knew in the fairytale is blown to smithereens. As Snow White proclaims in “Snow White Sets the Record Straight”:
It didn’t happen like everyone believed, in black
and white, dwarves in the cottage, a tsunami loose
in my body, then
unquenchable silence into my clear coffin sleep
while you were brooding over me ….
I never meant to start my own rumor.
Undoing that “rumor” is the driving force behind each poem and Snow White is securely enthroned in the driver’s seat.
For example, Prinzmetal’s Snow White is a time traveler. She doesn’t merely reside in the fairytale world of magic mirrors, poison apples, dwarves and crystal coffins but hops to contemporary settings. In one poem she sits in front of a TV watching Oprah and Jerry Springer (“Snow White Watches Daytime TV”); in another she admits, “I’m never on time./I forget my century” (“Snow White Sets the Record Straight”). That statement becomes clearer when we stumble upon her references to Joan of Arc, Debussy, Chopin, Kafka, Errol Flynn, Dali, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna.
This Snow White is a handful for any prince – charming or not – who would attempt to love her. In “Snow White: Taxidermy,” one of several love-themed poems, she says:
Let me confess
the ecstasy was temporary
as a tulip’s bloom.
You would be mortified to know
how often I pretended to love you
in that mango colored tuxedo
you called woe.
And this Snow White is a character both disturbed and disturbing. She wants “so desperately to speak the language/ of the insane without being insane … (“Snow White Meets Salvador Dali”). She claims, “I am your worst/nightmare” (“Snow White: Ventriloquism”). She wishes to “devour the raw and uncleansed flesh of everyone who has ever betrayed me” (“If I Could Sew: Snow White”).
While reading this collection, I kept asking myself, “What kind of poetic sensibility could have imagined and imaged this vision of this character?” Indeed, the depth and reach of Prinzmetal’s poetic imagination is nothing short of a revelation. Like Snow White, she could tell us, “I am tired of telling the same story” (“Snow White Revises Her Fairy Tale”), yet we feel she never tires of creating surreal landscapes filled with different versions of the same story that haunt and delight, horrify and mystify.
If one of the purposes of poetry is to make us slow down and see the world with new eyes, then Snow White, When No One Was Looking fulfills that purpose. After savoring this collection, we can only admit to ourselves – and to each other – we weren’t really looking after all. Now we are.
Reviewer Bio: Carolyn Martin is blissfully retired in Clackamas, OR, where she gardens, writes, and plays with communities of creative colleagues. Currently, she is president of the board of VoiceCatcher, a nonprofit that connects, inspires, and empowers women writers and artists in greater Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA.
The Unforgettables Press
Joan Dobbie’s Woodstock Baby is described on its cover as a Novel in Poetry, and while it is not technically a verse novel, with a formal structure (stanzas, rhyme scheme), it is composed of short free verse poems that tell a story.
The story is set in Boston in the late 60s/early 70s and documents the lives of a network of friends who are immersed in the counterculture of that time. It is an insular community, focused on the art of living, more than on making a living, and its characters are artists and dropouts, students and cab drivers, Viet Nam vets and young parents, particularly young mothers. As Joan Dobbie says in her Introduction, addressed to friends, her work is fiction and “like most fiction, it is based upon life.” In the work, Joan is named Ruth who marries a young man named Ryan and they soon have a daughter named Jenny Fay. In an Afterword, Dobbie lists the cast of characters whom we’ve come to know from reading the short poems. The list describes the characters’ roots, which display a range of cultures and class. But what connects the characters is their youthfulness and the lure of Boston (most of them are from someplace else). There is a compelling sense that the immediate is open to great possibility.
A central theme in Woodstock Baby is pregnancy and its attendant developments- childbirth and childrearing. The poem that is reprinted on the book’s back cover, with the following two-line title, captures the focus of much of the story:
Don’t let anybody tell you different
PREGNANCY IS CATCHING
All summer I stayed with Mitch
who was pregnant.
All summer I studied
the Pink Pregnant book, rested
my hand on her belly,
the salt spice of that baby.
That was the summer before
the summer my baby was born.
Dobbie’s poems are mostly short and use white space liberally, making for ease of reading. Often there is a central image that captures a scrap of time and easily conveys character, like the poem “Onion Soup,” presented early in the story:
Joby will never be poor
She will be a rich
& charismatic writer
cooks onion soup
which she says is the soup
of the wealthy
We top it with croutons & sharp
We hold our spoons
Sometimes a wry humor is presented in the snapshots of life in Boston, as in the following, one of the longer poems in the novel:
BEWARE OF MARRYING A PAINTER
If your new husband
is an artist
& you’re just beginning
& you’re still
then you may
end up spending a lot
of long shivering hours
standing absolutely stark naked
in the middle of the frigid
(which is your only room)
probably by the mantel
(& the fireplace boarded up)
probably with your right arm
like Miss Liberty
& your left
on your hip & your back
In addition to Ryan and Ruth’s friends and housemates, there are appearances made by her parents and her brother and sister, too. An inclusiveness prevails in the apparent casual living being experienced by Ruth in Boston. The poem “Jenny Talking to Grandma” is one such appearance of immediate family:
JENNY TALKING TO GRANDMA
on the phone,
the heavy black
to her ear,
her right leg
back & forth
back & forth
like little girls do
& her eyes
are the river
As the novel proceeds, there are challenges presented to many of the characters we’ve come to know, and Ruth of course is no exception. In small increments, we come to learn much about many of the inhabitants of the rundown house in Boston.
What seems like a casual collection of impressions does develop into the fabric of a story and builds to an ending that leaves Ruth in control but on the verge of a future that is filled with unknowns. Woodstock Baby documents a version of the 60s zeitgeist in a seemingly casual manner but the effect of all the short poems is one that stays with the reader. And upon completion, this reader found himself visiting the story again and gathering a greater sense of the characters as they engage in concerns of their youthful lives.
Copies of Woodstock Baby may be ordered directly from Joan Dobbie (firstname.lastname@example.org). The book is also available online through Amazon.
Reviewer Bio: Tim Volem is a member of the Lane Literary Guild in Eugene and has published poems in The English Journal, Tiger’s Eye, and Carapace.