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BOOK REVIEWS

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

    September 28, 2014

    Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

    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…
    The darkness
    of the spring night
    fills me with longing.

    – Izumi Shikibu

    late summer
    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:

    this morning
    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

    or

    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.

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

    August 23, 2014

    Review by Carolyn Martin

    "Snow White, When No One Was Looking" by Donna Prinzmetal

    “Snow White, When No One Was Looking” by Donna Prinzmetal

    Snow White, When No One Was Looking
    by Donna Prinzmetal

    CW Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2014
    ISBN: 978-1625490841
    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.

     

     

  • Woodstock Baby, by Joan Dobbie, reviewed by Tim Volem

    July 23, 2014

    Woodstock Baby
    by Joan Dobbie

    The Unforgettables Press
    (dobbiejoan@yahoo.com)
    ISBN 978-1-4923138-3-0
    2013, $9.00

    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
    & Marlene
    who was pregnant.

    All summer I studied
    the Pink Pregnant book, rested
    my hand on her belly,
    breathed
    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:

    ONION SOUP

    Joby will never be poor
    hates

    She will be a rich
    & charismatic writer

    & so

    cooks onion soup
    which she says is the soup
    of the wealthy

    & grand.

    We top it with croutons & sharp
    cheddar cheese.

    We hold our spoons
    with pinkies

    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
    to show
    & you’re still
    very young
    & tight
    & pretty

    then you may
    end up spending a lot
    of long shivering hours

    standing absolutely stark naked

    (absolutely
    no moving)

    in the middle of the frigid
    landlord-green
    living room

    (which is your only room)

    probably by the mantel
    (& the fireplace boarded up)

    probably with your right arm
    raised
    like Miss Liberty

    & your left
    on your hip & your back

    arched seductively.

    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,
    she presses

    the heavy black
    receiver

    to her ear,
    swinging

    her right leg
    back & forth

    back & forth

    like little girls do
    & her eyes

    are the river
    at night.

    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 (dobbiejoan@yahoo.com). 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.

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

    June 26, 2014

     

    Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

    The Parachute Jump Effect
    by Judith Arcana

    Uttered Chaos Press (www.utteredchaos.org)
    ISBN 978-0-9823716-9-5
    2012, $10.00

    Unless you are of a certain age and grew up in Chicago, you won’t understand the title of this chapbook until you get to the final poem, a shared recollection of a long-gone ride in a vanished amusement park.

                                              Riverview’s gone.
    It’s been disappeared.  This is all about history –
    that’s where the parachute jump is now.

    The ride was about choosing to rise in order to fall – the poet felt the fall in her heart, the woman she is addressing felt the fall in her throat.  This was the thrill of anxiety.

    Throughout Judith Arcana’s chapbook, we hear the voice of a wryly urban poet playing with questions and anxiety.  The book opens with two scary dream poems leading to a poem which dissects uncertainty.

    Ok, All Right, Yes

    You think you know what’s going to happen
    but you don’t, you know only what you think
    is going to happen –

    After examples of expectations that may or may not come true, the poem concludes:

    you think you’ll live until you die
    and hey – ok, all right, yes
    you can have that one
    that one’s got to come true.

    Much of the pleasure of these poems lies in their tone, serious but often witty.  Even when Arcana becomes dark and philosophical, as in “Lois, Questions” where she addresses the dead friend to whom she has dedicated the book, she is also playing with ideas.  Here are some of her questions:

    What’s it like out where you are?

    Is there music? Is there eating? Sleeping?

    Can you fly?  Can you see me?  Are you coming back?

    Will you be someone else?  A wolverine, or a stalk of corn?

    Do you still have cancer when you’re dead?
    Or does it go away after it kills you?  Are you angry?

    In this collection Arcana is not angry but she is chronically perplexed – and never in an abstract way.  Whether she writes about safety matches or bakeries, she is exploring and reporting back on the mind at work.  You will want to follow her journey.

    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.

  • Rending the Garment by Willa Schneberg, reviewed by Eleanor Berry

    May 22, 2014

    Review by Eleanor Berry

    Rending the Garment
    by Willa Schneberg

    Box Turtle Press
    ISBN 978-1-893654-14-3
    2014, 103 pp., $16

    RendingtheGarment-Cover

    The couple in the cover photograph compel our gaze. “Should I recognize them?” we may wonder, thinking they must be stars in a classic film of the 1940s. As we read, we discover that they made much the same impression on their contemporaries:

    At family affairs distant relatives
    asked if they were on the stage,
    and my parents flattered and tired
    would shake their heads, no,
    as they left the floor to look for their table.

    Superimposed on the cover photograph of the vivacious young woman and debonair young man, clearly entranced by each other as they clink their glasses in a toast, is the book’s title, Rending the Garment. That is what this book does. The poems in various voices and the documents in various hands that compose it are like so many scraps of clothes torn in mourning. Together, they tell a family story with an adequate complexity that no narrative from a single point of view could convey.

    The characters are Ben, Esther, and Willa—the New York Jewish parents and the poet, their only child. The book’s three-part structure—“Ben, Esther & Willa,” “Esther & Willa,” “Willa”—tells, in the starkest terms, how time has dealt with them.

    Reading this book, I learn to know Ben, Esther, and Willa in somewhat the way I learn to know people in the actual world. I piece together a sense of their characters and a story of their lives from fragmentary encounters. But the book differs from the world in that it reveals the episodes of their lives chronologically: much more than is typical for a collection of short poems, this one induces readers to read it in order. In the book, again unlike the world, the speakers change unpredictably, and it isn’t always immediately evident who is speaking in a given poem. I found that the shifts kept me alert and attentive.

    Before reading this book, I had already met Esther—in The Books of Esther, Willa’s 2012 exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum, which powerfully documented and memorialized her mother’s life, especially through her writings in a succession of notebooks when surgery for throat cancer had “cut out her voice,” and in a small, exquisite collection of associated poems from Paper Crane Press. I remembered how, without voice, she had made writing her way of speaking, her “words—wise, fierce, raucous / filling up the pages of the world.” I remembered her in an airplane restroom, literally deaf to the impatient knocks and shouts of fellow passengers, efficiently grinding her pills and pouring the powder, along with her liquid nutrition, into her jejunostomy port.

    Through Rending the Garment, I learn more of Esther before and during her marriage to Ben. I meet her as an 11-year-old winner of an essay contest on fire prevention, who knew that she couldn’t write about boys “lighting matches underneath swing sets.” I meet her as a young mother, half-heartedly playing mahjong with other young Jewish mothers, not revealing “that I have a B.A. and / don’t care about mastering this game.” I meet her as a striking teacher, cringing to hear “some fellow strikers / call scabs ‘nigger lovers.’” I meet her in the hospital while her husband is dying in another part of the same hospital, and at his funeral, where, she can’t hear her daughter who is speaking for her.

    Besides learning more of Esther, I meet Ben and am drawn into his struggles to be the person that he imagines himself, the person that Esther and Willa, for a time, believe him to be. Loveless conception, trauma of work in a civil service job patrolling in the Holland Tunnel, frustration and failure as a teacher, humiliation of working as a waiter, hospitalization for depression, struggle to overcome tunnel phobia, betrayal by age: all these circumstances and experiences of a difficult and particular life make the man with the matinee-idol looks in the cover photograph a fellow human for whom I feel both exasperation and empathy. They are conveyed mostly through persona poems in Ben’s voice.

    For me, the most heartbreaking of the poems in Ben’s voice is “Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Seaview Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library,” where he speaks of playing James Tyrone, Sr., “failed Shakespearean actor, / who went for the bucks rather than greatness,” in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic masterpiece portraying his own parents and the family from which he emerged. “Holding the script in [his] hand,” Ben imagines himself “not here in the conference room / of a backwater branch of the library,” but “at the Helen Hayes electrifying the audience.”

    Even without that poem, I would have thought of Long Day’s Journey into Night and of O’Neill’s dedication of that play to his wife in gratitude for her love, which enabled him to “face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness.” Willa, likewise, has faced her dead, and written of them with deep empathy. What she has done in Rending the Garment reminds me also of the final lines of Robert Lowell’s book-length sequence Day by Day:

    We are poor passing facts,
    warned by that to give
    each figure in the photograph
    his living name.

    She has given the woman and man in the photograph on the book’s front cover their living names—and voices.

    On the back cover of the book there is another, smaller photograph—of a small girl seen from behind as she walks away, holding a book. This is apparently the young Willa. The way she appears on the cover reflects the supporting role she plays in a book dominated by the figures of her parents. The final section, “Willa,” functions as a sort of coda after the climax of the title poem. Its most poignant poem, “Willa’s Hairs,” seems to be spoken in the voice of her husband, Robin: “I wonder… after she is gone, / could my green-eyed one be made again / from a single long white hair.”

    Some books of poetry leave memories of particular images or specific lines; others leave impressions of a certain emotional tone. Rending the Garment leaves me with the remarkable individuals to which it has given voice.

    Reviewer Bio: Eleanor Berry moved to the Salem area from Wisconsin in 1994. A former teacher of writing and literature at Willamette University, Marquette University, and other colleges, she is a past president of the Oregon Poetry Association, and serves on the boards of the Marion Cultural Development Corporation and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Her poetry and essays on poetry have been widely published in journals and anthologies. Her book Green November (Traprock Books, 2007) is a collection of poems derived from her acclimation to western Oregon.

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