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
Review by Carolyn Martin
To That Mythic Country Called Closure
A Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Award Winner
Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series
2013, 38 pp., $10.00
First, 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.
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.
Review by Tim Pfau
TOMORROW TOO: The Brenda Monologues
By Don Colburn
Don Colburn is an award winning journalist and poet from Portland, Oregon. His newest book, TOMORROW TOO: The Brenda Monologues, is a deeply moving collection which rose from a news story he covered while reporting for The Oregonian.
The narrative is deceptively simple. Brenda, a talented actress, became pregnant in the interval between her breast cancer’s onset and its discovery. A year-long struggle to save herself and her developing daughter followed.
After Brenda’s death, Colburn remained emotionally entwined in the story and searched for its fuller expression of its triumph and tragedy. He found it in this magnificent book. He takes the reader beyond spare journalism deep into the human lives swept up by such currents.
Seven identified voices, including Brenda, daughter, family members, Doctors and Cancer itself, speak their experiences in 14-liners −twenty-four unrhymed sonnets. They flow, through the silences following each, into a coherent statement of truths we all share in the isolation of our lives.
Lines between journalism, theater, poetry and story dissolve. A spoken opera of life evolves aria by aria and is delivered with great elegance. Clear and subtle, harmonies and discords sing on the pages.
One poem, written in dialect, did grate at first. But reading the pieces aloud placed that sonnet firmly and beautifully into the arc of the book. Full appreciation for TOMORROW TOO’s art may require it be read aloud at least once.
Beyond the depth and range of emotions Colburn delivers, there are also highly skilled elements of poetic craft. Two, of many, deserve comment of their own.
The first centers on the power of form. The lyric balance between the voices eases their transformation into a coherent whole. His chosen form’s 14-line constraints drive an equal weighting of voices. Each statement stands alone as a well written poem. None stand out as more, or less, important to the theme. They can be played against the others individually, or in groups, as we trace Colburn’s semantic map to find our destinations.
The second, seemingly contradictory, lesson is that there are no borders in art. Elements of journalism, poetry, and theater run through this book and all are necessary. Colburn’s breadth of understanding these arts is a key to his success. His carefully crafted use of each enhances them all.
This book stands as a single beautiful poem which might come to be seen as one of our century’s great works. It expanded the room in my heart for joy and may likewise enrich yours.
Tim Pfau is a Salem poet who’s read, written and occasionally published poetry since his childhood. He has served on the OPA Board and as Membership Chair. He says that he is most moved by the human stories shared in poetry.
Review by Erik Muller
2013, 92pp., $18
Elizabeth McLagan, a determined poet in an indeterminate world, sets up early the terms of her collection, In the White Room. The poet takes the preface page to offer definitions of “room,” some restraining, some liberating, some opening out to synonyms one would not necessarily associate with the word. So here’s focus, yet also leeway and latitude and play. The other key term of the title, “white,” occurs throughout with a variety of applications—of course, with snow and the Far North, yet also with “the moon’s tombstone” and “the lung’s white tree.” So McLagan is our determined guide to an undetermined destination, along an undetermined route.
Imagery is one of this poetry’s chief excitements because often the images do not serve realistic depiction or clearly progressive narrative. Not that McLagan cannot sketch deftly and exactly: “That park where twig light//tattooed her arm” (“Slow Lens Narrowing”). The poet presents images that often go beyond realism, as illustrated in “Midnight under the Mouths of Chimneys,” a night strangely animating household objects: “Be kind/bent tongue of a blue shoe,” the crockery “all white of the eye, no lips.” Energy in such imagery enacts the entire book’s straining among competing definitions of “room” and among the contrasting values assigned to white. There is no settling down here.
In a similar spirit, the sequencing in these poems is also shifting, thus demanding and involving as well. Some poems are built with sequences of imagery that create atmosphere, a peculiar room or landscape. Some begin with a question to be explored. Commonly, the imagery is disjunctive, expansive, widely-referencing, as seen in the closing of “Visitation in the Form of a Blue Feather”:
One rung of a ladder we could climb
against the long-hipped swells of heat’s
invisible body. Hollow and stinging,
a plumage of knives. We’d preen
and flare. We’d vex the evening.
Just now the feather’s lonely kisses
meet the ground. While we’re elsewhere
launching sadness, it rests in the curve
of itself, beckoning madly.
What a rich collocation! Ladders, heat, knives, kisses. Especially intriguing is the relationship between the feather and the speaker who begins this meditation by asking:
What does it mean, this arrow of flesh,
a bright trim dropped from sky—
if we fail to touch, it’s failure
prickly with barbs . . .
Who might fail to touch, speaker and feather, speaker and the other(s) of this “we”? And possibly without touching the feather, the speaker and companion(s) move off, missing out on the feather’s gift. So not only the attempts at catching the feather in an image seem inconclusive, the dramatic scene finally shows even the speaker not attentive to this visitation.
In poems about painters, imagined paintings, and, of course, rooms, McLagan reveals some of her own poetics. In “Kandinsky’s Hunger,” after a tour de force describing one of his paintings, the painter’s voice or the poet’s concludes, “Let everything enter. Shut nothing out.” A nocturnal speaker of “Some Life” tells how “The bone moon raises its hackles./Everywhere a white seething.” While form in “Still Life with Oranges” can appear as “imposition and restraint,” such limits are finally pushed against: “from form and its blackened edge, the heart/clamors from a body that can only partly contain it.”
The body itself a room, the room full of words, uncertainty about whether to stay outside or go in—what does it mean? what could happen? So, the poet of In the White Room is both sophisticated about poetry and candid about her perplexities. This mesh of knowing and not knowing does not freeze up the work. Instead, it propels these poems into varied excitements–a wide, yet precarious, freedom of image, sequence, thought, and emotion.
A note on copyediting: I am unsure if wider spaces between some words are exceptions made by the poet or lapses of the copyeditor. The norm in these poems seems to be conventional spacing between words, so this wider spacing is noisy. And this one is at the feet of the copyeditor: In citations for gratitude, the names of both Paulann Petersen and Stanley Plumly are misspelled.
Erik Muller is a poet and editor living in Eugene.
Review by John Sibley Williams
By Paulann Petersen
Lost Horse Press
2013, 196 pp., $21.95
Before even opening Paulann Petersen’s latest collection, Understory, I was greeted with a haunting question: what is an “understory”? My mind raced with potential metaphors, each speaking directly to the core of all Petersen’s works—the unspoken, natural story writhing silently beneath her words. Her poems have always been a digging and an uncovering. And the words she carefully selects to uncover what lies beneath have always been a celebration of humanity and humanity’s part in the world.
But “understory” has another definition also: an underlying layer of vegetation; specifically: the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover. What better metaphor for Petersen’s poetry than that which grows between the highest, sky-raking trees and the hard earth below our feet? The one word title, so specific in its literal definition, provides the perfect perspective from which to approach this book—there will be glimpses of sparkling firmament and black soil, and the creations of our hands and the interpretations of our eyes will be what brings them together.
Featuring a vast array of natural observations and philosophical inquiries all rooted in acceptance and admiration, Understory’s 140 poems can be seen as Petersen’s magnum opus, her love song to the world, a trail of breadcrumbs for the endless external path that leads us ever closer to ourselves.
In “As if Each Breath Were the Last”, Petersen writes:
is a small seed of sky let go,
headed up—each outbound breath
less rich in what my blood
gleans from air, more laden with what
my lungs release.
There are outside forces in our lives, I read into this metaphor, that influence how we perceive ourselves. There is an innate unity of the other and the self, as primal and necessary as breath. We take in the world, translate it, experience it, make it our own, and the world is both changed and unchanged by our touch.
But all this, Petersen says, is something:
I have to give away.
Is this a personal statement or a universal rule of our existence? Does she mean a heart that remains open is always returning what it borrows or is it an unalterable state of humankind to be temporary? Further, does this temporariness imply that we end with our last breath or that in the unity of having lived we are in a sense eternal? In just one short poem I was left with beautifully answerable questions, each that speak to the nature of existence.
Although far reaching in its scope, each pondering in Understory is firmly rooted in tactile images and sensual perception. There are lush colors and monochromatic shadows. We are able to pick up each poem with our flesh and blood hands, understand it, and yet in understanding realize we have never been so far from knowing. Petersen’s world is not one of cement roads and concrete pillars. We are placed on a muddy, forested path, vast canopy overhead through which slices of sky illuminate our steps.
The interconnectedness of experience is perfectly captured in the collection’s first poem, “Daily Cosmology”:
A tree names itself Creation, and having done so,
reaches above, yet never breaks
the horizon’s line. Its trunk
makes a vertical road, way for a voyage
Petersen presents us with a self-created world, a self-striving world, capable of independent motivation and action, capable of naming itself. And what it creates is exactly what we endeavor to create—personal ascension. Both by body and by will, by merely existing and by force of resolve, nature becomes our mirror. Petersen speaks to our core beliefs, fears, and dreams by illustrating them in what we traditionally consider “the other”. And in doing so, Petersen makes a bold, quiet claim: there is no “other”.
Be a leaf, learn
to eat with your skin,
swallow sun’s rankness
wherever it strikes you.
So begins “Synesthesia”, a poem that speaks directly to the reader, pleading without desperation for a greater understanding of what it means to be one part of a greater whole. Yet, each part is necessary. The tapestry is not just outside us nor can it be defined exclusively from the inside. It bends to our will as we bend to its. And in bending together, nothing breaks.
Each poem in Understory is at heart a song. There is a musicality of language and of themes in every line. At times elegiac, at times celebratory, Petersen’s poems shine with an internal light reminiscent of Octavio Paz’ The Tree Within.
In “Exhalation”, Petersen says:
This alphabet, you say,
is spoken in the order
its sounds come from the body.
Petersen’s introspection is dazzlingly complex. The harmony she exposes in the human elements—body, breath, song, and creation—are so intertwined with natural elements that it’s impossible to clearly delineate where one begins and ends. Is Petersen implying that nothing really ends? Is she making a subtle case for the arbitrariness of walls? The poems never leave us with easy answers. They are paths we must choose to walk on our own terms, toward whatever destination, and it’s my belief that Petersen seeks less the destination than the journey, less the answers than their questions. In fact, I’d argue, she’s not even demanding of us specific questions but more a change in our thought process. She merely asks us to remain open and inquisitive. She reminds us over and again through her grand embrace of darkness and light that the world is interactive, that it exists without us and for us.
In “Letters Toward the End”, she connects this vast, circular, questioning world to her own writing process:
I could write a hundred messages more
each ending with the same line
It is up to each of us, in reading Understory, to figure out that last line for ourselves.
John Sibley Williams is the author of Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013) and six poetry chapbooks. He is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart, Rumi, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review, co-director of the Walt Whitman 150 project, and Marketing Director of Inkwater Press. A few previous publishing credits include: Third Coast, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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From Understory: Poems by Paulann Petersen — Letterpress-printed Broadside of Danae Recalls Her Undoing
Letterpress printed on Lana Royal paper using hand-set type: VanDijck (title & body), Centaur (drop-cap), and Bembo (colophon). Ornament is hand-set as well. Designed and printed by Carla Girard, Mercuria Press. Each copy is hand-printed, numbered and signed. Edition of 75 signed and numbered copies.
Shipping is $3.50 anywhere in the U.S. Carla is willing to deliver broadsides to you if you live within Portland. (Standard discount for resellers and institutions is 20%, negotiable.) 10” x 14.5” / $25