Book Reviews

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BOOK REVIEWS

  • Controlled Hallucinations by John Sibley Williams, reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott

    March 27, 2014

    Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

    Controlled Hallucinations
    by John Sibley Williams

    FutureCycle Press
    ISBN 978 – 1938853227
    2013, 78 pp., $14.00
    http://johnsibleywilliams.wordpress.com

    This book is well-titled. It contains the poetry of allusion. Williams’ go-to symbols are such elements as the sea, mirrors, birds, or even gravity itself. These appear frequently in this poetry of transparent mystery.

    What is there is almost there. I don’t mean that the poems are vague – though they are short on specifics – if there is a tree we don’t know what kind of tree, if there is a bird, it is rarely named – but the poems create a hallucinatory aura of magic where everything stands for more than itself. Perhaps this is the quality that John Sibley Williams and Anatoly Molotov are embracing in the new journal The Inflectionist Review.

    The poems themselves are numbered rather than titled, thus coming at us like dreams without giving us any prompt or shove as to how to read or interpret. We do not gloss so much as experience. The magic of this world is not hidden but lurks near the surface.

    Williams is obsessed with language. Several poems in this volume might serve as an ars poetica. In poem XXI he says that even as a child when a storm was approaching and others did practical things,

    I would cry out a list of synonyms
    for what was to come:

    tempest blizzard gale squall cloudburst
    chaos
    upheaval

    He would survive via words and he can still “take comfort in their distance.”

    Here in its entirety is one of my favorite poems about his explorations of language:

    XLVIII

    Forks and knives dull,
    teeth worn down,
    I am left to eat
    in broken English.

    I try to step around the flavors
    passed through so many mouths,
    around the stacks
    of overused plates
    that have cracked with wear–
    the only plates at the table.
    I try to trace each cliche back
    to a curious hand
    tapping a white cane
    in hopes of rediscovering
    my blindness.

    How better to describe a search for the original freshness of English?

    Williams’ approach to defining the undefinable works especially well in his poems about love, that front-runner in indescribable human experiences. He asks, in poem IX,

    When does it end,
    this search for a more intimate gravity,
    this need to replicate embrace?

    Perhaps XLII offers a semi-answer: “Most of me/attended/the Big Bang/just to ask it/if other theories/were possible.” The speaker stomps around the cosmos waiting for an answer which he then can’t hear because “I’d left/my ears/far below/on your/sleeping chest.”

    Controlled Hallucinations is one of those unusual books that teaches you how to read it. Once I could let go and be taken up in the hallucinatory process, I learned to enjoy where it took me. You might too.

     

    Reviewer Bio: Penelope Scambly Schott’s most recent books are LOVESONG FOR DUFUR and LILLIE WAS A GODDESS, LILLIE WAS A WHORE.  Her verse biography A IS FOR ANNE: MISTRESS HUTCHINSON DISTURBS THE COMMONWEALTH received an Oregon Book Award.  She teaches an annual workshop in Dufur, Oregon.

  • Still Life with Judas and Lightning by Dawn Diez Willis, reviewed by Kelly Eastlund

    February 19, 2014

    Review by Kelly Eastlund

    Still Life with Judas and Lightning
    by Dawn Diez Willis

    Airlie Press
    ISBN 978-0-9821066-8-6
    2013, 71 pp, $15
    http://airliepress.org/still-life

    StillLifeWhen the title of a poetry book feels like a poem in itself, you know you are in for an enriching read. Still Life with Judas and Lightning, Dawn Diez Willis’s first full-length collection, fulfills that expectation, with poems that artfully explore big themes, including faith, loss, betrayal, death, and love.

    Nearly all the poems in the collection are free-verse narratives in third-person – a point of view that might feel detached in another poet’s hands, but which Willis brings to life with intimacy. I use the label “narrative” loosely, as the stories are not tidy arcs with clear resolution. Yet many of the poems could easily blossom into short stories or even novels. The characters she introduces, whether pulled from Biblical stories, history, art, personal experience or her imagination, feel achingly real and hook the reader into caring about them.

    Willis delves into the complexity of family relationships in many of the poems, particularly the pain of separation, both through death and estrangement. She beautifully expresses the human bonds that tie us even in the midst of abandonment and abuse, as illustrated in the heartbreaking “Second Week in Foster Care”:

    They want their own mother.
    blood-bonded and love-hobbled,
    the mother of fault and foil and belt,

    and in “Girl with Greenstick Fracture”:

    Still, it is not all purpled eye and cracked teeth
    knuckles unsheathed and time punched dumb.
    It is also love-struck palms on sheets,

    The book is rife with tragedy, but also hope and compassion. Flawed and fragile characters find comfort in the natural world and in their own strength. For example, in “Keith Decides to Live Anyway,” the reader can only guess “what he did and what was done to him,” but his shame is tempered by grace in the powerful closing lines:

    Even as he walks, he is surprised to wonder
    Where isn’t beauty hidden?

    Many of the characters in the poems also take comfort in religion (or try to). As one might expect from the book’s title, the Bible and faith figure prominently in the collection. Willis’s approach, however, is askance; the characters tend to be caught between longing for faith and the starkness of a seemingly random universe. In “Alma in the Camposantos” for example, Alma “tries to pray”:

    o splinter keeping company with splinter
    o air within a rinsed jar
    o nail and wrist fastened in loneliness
    something contain me
    fasten me, house me

    Willis has taught introductory art courses in addition to poetry and often draws inspiration from visual art. With keen curiosity, she explores the act of creation as well as the peripheral elements of art – the tools and materials from which art is made possible. In “After Rodin’s Danaϊd,” Willis turns her lens on the imagined model. Even readers unfamiliar with the sculpture will appreciate the magic of the art-life connection expressed here:

    When he is finished, she unfurls again into existence,
    remade from the person
    drowsing in the white load of rock.

    And of course, art and religion merge in the title poem, a startling word painting depicting the Biblical story of Judas’s suicide. As with all her subjects, Willis treats this one with enormous empathy. She portrays Judas not as villain but as human:

    His tongue lies burning in his mouth.
    What can words do now?

    The branch offers sanctuary from the world
    and its endless choosing,

    A cadre of outlaws weaves through the collection as well. Several iconic figures from the Wild West, including Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and Billy the Kid make appearances. And again Willis takes a “behind the scenes” view, illuminating the contrast between romanticized personas and the haunted, broken lives they most likely led.

    I’ve focused more on subjects and themes here than on craft, but as you can glimpse from the excerpts above, Willis masterfully employs sound, rhythm, slant rhymes, dazzling language, and vivid imagery throughout the collection.

    As already mentioned, there’s a pervasive use of third person perspective. Willis offers a convincing and beautiful argument for that choice in her poem “Third Person Sacred” (which, interestingly, is written in the second person):

    Sometimes you think of your own story
    and it is both familiar and not,
    and you must question the details,
    the slant, the cant of its little roof and shutters,
    the home of what you know about yourself,

    Light spills down on the diorama
    and something has brought you here to witness
    the holy moment, any moment,

    Still Life with Judas and Lightning does exactly that – spilling light on moments both holy and ordinary, calling the reader to witness and to question the details of their own story. And I, for one, was grateful for that opportunity.

    ###

    Kelly Eastlund is a member of OPA, Lane Literary Guild, and the Red Sofa Poets critique group. Her poems have appeared in several journals, including Shot Glass Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and The Whistling Fire. She lives in Springfield, Oregon, with her husband and two dogs.

  • Iron String by Annie Lighthart, reviewed by A. Molotkov

    January 1, 2014

    Review by A. Molotkov

    Iron String by Annie Lighthart

    Iron String by Annie Lighthart

    Iron String
    by Annie Lighthart,

    Airlie Press
    ISBN 978-0-9821066-7-9
    2013, 77pp, $15
    http://airliepress.org/iron-string

     

    Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
    one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

    lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
    yet always present.

    Annie Lighthart’s exceptional collection contains some of the freshest and most unexpected work I have read in recent years. It begins with this epiphany, this invitation to open our ears to the second music. We know it’s there – we’ve heard it before. We still hear it now and then. Throughout Iron String, this duality of hearing/vision – the empirical and the metaphorical – this possibility to engage with our experiences investigatively, with a self-critical eye – explodes into a series of deeply human, intelligent, inventive poetic queries.

    When I need to, I go into my mind, close a little door, and begin to paint
    a white barn. It is huge . . .

    Yes, the barn is huge if one has an imagination for a huge barn – time and again, Lighthart’s marvelous book reminds us about poetry’s potential to expand into world’s vastest, yet most intricate, most difficult spaces. This is poetry about accountability and failure, about death, about love and its painful lack, its insufficiency of power. There are no anecdotal poems here – they cut to the core. There are no selfish poems either – the kind that describes, leaving no room for interpretation. Instead, Lighthart’s words summon one into an inquisitive state, where the work is absorbed intuitively and emotionally, via its metaphorical level vs. its overt message.

    There were horses in all our days.
    An open white page in any book was a lean white horse.

    The white horse from the barn poem gallops through the manuscript, fluid, transparent like time itself. But the open page remains: a responsibility, an invitation. How do we learn to write ourselves correctly?

    And the space between – what lives there? In the middle
    of the in-breath and out – where are we just then?
    Is there more than silence between chorus and verse?
    Is it a compressed galaxy? A pocket of time? Or perhaps
    it is more like the comma, dark little hook
    on which many things turn. Sometimes it’s enough
    to slip into that darkness and just stand there, looking around.

    Indeed, the space between. Sometimes, words describe, paint portraits, landscapes, scenes. Other times, words attempt to explore gray areas outside description. Occasionally, a silence harbors more than the sound surrounding it. Lighthart is unafraid of the space between, willing to cast an uncompromising, honest look at that mysterious territory rich with meaning – the zone that plays such a role in our existence, all the while eluding definition. After all, most of us spend our lives trying to understand ourselves – yet how many of us succeed?

    The poet doesn’t answer any of the marvelous questions posed in the excerpt above. The lines flow on, happy with questions, unconcerned about answers – the kind of writing that appeals to this reviewer, who feels enriched by the opportunity to ponder the questions and to answer them in his own way.

    The wrinkled towel you left on the counter
    is joyously so. The loaf of bread is carefully thinking.
    Sliced, it yields multiple voices.

    Yes, if we are open to these voices. Are we? Can we embrace the possibility of treating even the smallest things with respect and attention – acknowledging the wrinkled towel’s authentic value and the bread’s choir? We must be truly open to the world to allow its minute manifestations to shine in their full significance.

    But how do we approach this openness?

    Iron String reminds us: as we explore, as we look into the spaces between, we must ensure that we are rooted in being truly human, each of us responsible for the entire human endeavor. The poet explains:

    What matters most in the world – it has been tenderness all along.

    We recognize two components of Annie Lighthart’s magic recipe: a hunger for the world’s most imaginary corners, and a tender touch in their exploration. Time and again, she reinforces this refined understanding of our gentle, painful role in life.

    In the green drift of an afternoon,
    the body is not root but wick:
    the press of light surrounds it.

    We are not so much rooted in the past, where we think we belong – no, our true home is the future: the light, the smoke we emit. The effect of our presence, the memory of our being. The light defines us, the only way our lives are relevant to others, reminding us of Viktor E. Frankl’s conclusion, “What is to give light must endure burning.” And perhaps, to go one step further: to be real, we must enjoy burning.

    . . . suffering

    – how it might momentarily ease, leaving you time to notice a field
    where someone walks and seeing you, turns. You see yourself:
    You stand holding a bird. It waits unafraid in your opening hand.

    Many things are true, and this is one:
    You were there in the great tree at morning. You were who watched
    the green time unfolding. You are and were there the whole length of the song.

    As your homework, consider three questions:

    1. What have you done to your hands to relieve the bird’s fear?
    2. Did you get a good look at yourself?
    3. How does the poet know you are endless in this song?

    Iron String leaves us with an optimistic, inclusive message reminiscent of Rumi and Walt Whitman:

    Nothing has been forgotten
    Within the branches, the flowers wear your eyes.
    To look at even one petal is to see your life hidden everywhere.

    Knowing this about our eyes, we can carefully proceed through life with imagination and tenderness, listening to both melodies to ensure that our barn is as huge and as white as possible, with more than enough space for a happy bird and a joyful white horse.

    Two melodies, one poet, one reader, one life, one vibrating polyphonic iron string.

     

    A. Molotkov moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993.  Accepted by the Kenyon Review, Mad Hatters Review, 2River, Perihelion, Word Riot, Identity Theory, and many more, Molotkov is winner of New Millennium Writings and Koeppel fiction contests, among others. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Visit him at AMolotkov.com.

     

  • Willingly Would I Burn by Laura LeHew reviewed by Larina Warnock

    December 5, 2013

    Review by Larina Warnock

    Willingly Would I Burn
    by Laura LeHew

    MoonPath Press
    ISBN 978-1-936657-08-7
    2013, 57 pp., $10
    http://www.lauralehew.com/

    "Willingly Would I Burn" by Laura LeHew

    “Willingly Would I Burn” by Laura LeHew

    On a surface level, mathematics and poetry couldn’t be more different. Mathematics comes to conclusions using logical reasoning; poetry uses emotional reasoning. Mathematics adheres strictly to universal rules; poetry subverts rules believed to be universal. Mathematics leads to a single right answer, poetry to a million answers that may or may not be right. Laura LeHew breaks all of the stereotypes as these two unlikely subjects collide in Willingly Would I Burn.

    It is impossible to describe reading this collection as anything less than a cerebral experience. Like most writers of poetry, I tend to analyze the way words come together as I read, but LeHew’s collection forced me out of that habit early and easily. In poems with titles like “The Tension of Triangulation,” “Adjacent Angles,” and “Logomachy,” LeHew uses the tools of mathematics to demonstrate the complexity of human problems.

    Prose poems disguised as word problems deal with issues of financial choice, but are complicated by uncontrollable variables that make a “right answer” impossible. In “A Word Problem, 6,” for example, the narrator asks “If Angela / makes $3,775 annually (plus tips) and Issiah has asthma / what is the cost of a National Health Insurance Plan?” and follows immediately with, “Bonus If a woman’s right to choose is taken from her, / what will be the cost?” These lines follow the story of Angela trying to get treatment for her son Issiah’s broken arm and an explanation of unemployment, safety, and air pollution in their home city. In the same way that LeHew uses mathematics to complicate her poems, here she uses the tools of poetry to complicate what is, on the surface, a simple math problem. The result for the reader is a left brain/right brain dance through the page that conjoins thinking and feeling as if they belong together.

    Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection is its careful attention to a wide range of current social issues in the United States and especially issues related to women. In “Why Aren’t There More Women (aka Girls) in Math and Science?” LeHew creates a timeline that shows us how women are affected from without:

    guys naming the email server gang so that my email
    would be gang!laura@…
    [“!” is a bang] = [gang-bang-laura@…]

    LeHew also shows us how it happens from within:

    [because they could]
    [because they can]
    [– we—let—them—]

    Not every poem dives into the political and readers who love romance won’t be disappointed by LeHew’s innovative mode of managing this traditional subject. Poems like “The Parameter of Regret” remind us that sometimes any attempt to solve an irrational problem rationally may lead us to something unexpected like:

    gardenia = kiss1/(1-regret).

    Note that if regret > 1, then we have to add the solution
    gardenia = 0 to the solutions found via the technique
    described above

    While the casual poetry reader might find the unorthodox structures of many of the poems in this collection (surveys and flowcharts to name just two) difficult, anyone with a love of mathematics, science, and playful language will appreciate LeHew’s careful, intense treatment of the broad range of subjects covered in this book. The experience is both cognitive and philosophical, layered in the humanity of math.

     

    Reviewer Bio: Larina Warnock is an author and poet living in Corvallis, Oregon. Co-founder of The Externalist and Writers on the River, Warnock’s work has appeared in VoiceCatcher, Touch: The Journal of Healing, Poet’s Market, The Oregonian, Threshold, Space & Time Magazine, and others and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, a memoir-in-poetry titled Guitar Without Strings is available from The Lives You Touch Publications. Website: www.larinawarnock.com

  • To That Mythic Country Called Closure by M, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

    October 30, 2013

    Review by Carolyn Martin

    To That Mythic Country Called Closure
    By M

    A Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Award Winner

    Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series
    ISBN# 978-0-9797137-7-4
    2013, 38 pp., $10.00
    http://concretewolf.com/publications/publications.htm

    To That Mythic Country Called Closure by MFirst, it’s the in-your-face narrator who grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Then it’s the imagery – visual and auditory – that plunges you into a grief so painful you put the book down to catch your breath. Finally, it’s the realization that the author is one of those rare artists Anaïs Nin described when she said, “The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.”

    To That Mythic Country Called Closure is not merely a collection of poems about grief. It’s an experience – both visceral and reasonable, universal and personal – that you will not forget.

    M hints at the chapbook’s stance on grief in the epigraph where she cites Michael Bloomberg’s 2002 recollection of his experience with women who had lost spouses on 9/11:

    “… It’s not my business to say … to a woman, ‘Suck it up and get going,’ but that is the way I feel. You’ve got to look to the future.”

    She then proceeds to create a narrator who challenges all those “suck-it-up” stalwarts who can’t conceive that grief can rage and paralyze so pervasively. A young widow admitting – without apology – that her “only addiction is a dead man,” this narrator embraces grief as a tribute to the husband who died at the age of forty-eight. Simultaneously, she stands in solidarity with those whose inconsolable loss makes the notion of any future nearly impossible.

    In the opening poem – a two-stanza piece called “Yes, we the young widows” – the book’s themes unfold. The narrator sets the reader up with a list of “reasonable” antidotes widows use to ease their pain: Ambien, Ativan, Celexa. She follows with details that are understandable:

    . . .We wear wedding bands
    too large for thumbs, make a bathroom fixture
    of his dirty coffee mug, buy towels
    to match. We sit in his chair,
    stare at our own vacant one.

    But then, in typical M fashion, the narrator clobbers us at the end of the first stanza with the first of many raw details about her husband’s death:

    We’d never tell you we performed
    CPR while he vomited in our mouths.
    And that we’d do it again.
    What would erase that taste?

    Take a breath. This is only the first poem!

    (Later in the poem “In 80 Days,” she’ll add,

    I woke that morning in bed with him
    dead, his shoulder pressing my arm,
    deflated on a fistful of needles and pins.

    And in “You.    Her.” she’ll say,

    That April morning in this bed,
    attempting to beat the life back into the body
    of your beloved with a fist folded in on itself, trying
    mouth-to-mouth with whatever was left
    after the screaming.      Alone,
    with bodily proof that you’d failed.)

    Back to the opening poem: The second stanza hurls the first of the narrator’s diatribes at us. It’s worth quoting in its entirety as a primer about how not to approach someone who’s lost a loved one. In a society skittish about death, much less talking to a woman about her loss, the lines are brutal and instructive:

    We hate your sad eyes, your Teleflora
    delivery vans, cards telling us
    our “insert Name of Deceased”
    will remain forever in your hearts
    where they don’t belong. Please don’t send
    God’s love to enfold us. We hate God.
    We’d hate God less if,
    while he was snatching our husbands,
    he’s had the courtesy to set the garage
    on fire. We hate having to comfort
    you when you call. Hate you simply
    because we once were you, convinced
    we were prepared.

    The narrator takes us to her husband’s memorial service, to her own stint in a mental hospital, to grief counseling sessions, to her own kitchen. She pulls no punches about her own breakdown. In the opening of the prose poem “To the One I’ve Hurt (letter to Nick I’ll burn on a borrowed barbecue next Friday),” she writes:

    Would you think it ironic I’ve landed where I once
    committed you? This city holds no other rehab for widows
    strung out on grief, who refuse food and sleep as if they were
    poison, who lie on highways counting on a Peterbilt with a driver
    blind from an 18-hour run, new Hondas stacked like cord word
    for the dealership on Kietzke Lane.

    Neither does she shy away from letting the reader know she still talks to – and receives messages from – her dead husband. In the poem aptly titled “Communing with the dead,” she complains to him about attending his memorial service in Eagle, Colorado with people who “knew you better/ than they know me.”

    And in “Husbands of widows have it easy,” she admits:

    … he’s still hanging around the apartment
    like drapery, swaying from a rod, filtering
    the undertones, bringing his brand of shadowing
    to everything that goes on there. Changing songs
    on the CD player so you’re forced to stop
    in the middle of private conversations to say,
    See, see! It’s like a sign. That song meant something to us.

    Her “addiction” to a dead man ensures that the nirvana of closure remains a myth.

    To say that To That Mythic Country Called Closure is the real poetic deal is an understatement. It offers not only lessons on how poems and prose poems of lasting power and beauty can be crafted, but how they can weave themselves into a sequence that proclaims grief has no expiration date and no one who’s lost a loved one ever loses loss. In the process, M’s collection becomes a monument to all widows – and, for that matter, to any one who has experienced the death of a parent, child, sibling, friend – by saying what most cannot say.

     

    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.

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