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
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.