Review by Eleanor Berry
Rending the Garment
by Willa Schneberg
Box Turtle Press
2014, 103 pp., $16
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.
Review by Penelope Scambly Schott
by John Sibley Williams
ISBN 978 – 1938853227
2013, 78 pp., $14.00
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
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:
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
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.
Review by Kelly Eastlund
Still Life with Judas and Lightning
by Dawn Diez Willis
2013, 71 pp, $15
When 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.
Review by A. Molotkov
by Annie Lighthart,
2013, 77pp, $15
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:
- What have you done to your hands to relieve the bird’s fear?
- Did you get a good look at yourself?
- 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.
Review by Larina Warnock
Willingly Would I Burn
by Laura LeHew
2013, 57 pp., $10
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]
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
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