Book Reviews

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  • High-Voltage Lines by Tiel Aisha Ansari, reviewed by Lois Rosen

    November 8, 2014

    Review by Lois Rosen

    High-Voltage Lines
    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

    Phrenologue dialogue:
    Doctor O’Quackery
    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, 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


    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
    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

    All summer I stayed with Mitch
    & Marlene
    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

    & 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:


    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

    no moving)

    in the middle of the frigid
    living room

    (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

    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:


    on the phone,
    she presses

    the heavy black

    to her ear,

    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 ( 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 (
    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.

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