Mortality, with Pronoun Shifts, by Don Colburn, reviewed by Shawn Aveningo-Sanders

Mortality with Pronoun Shifts by Don Colburn

Winner of the 2018 Cathy Smith Bowers Chapbook Contest

Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2019, 40 pages, $12

ISBN: 978-1-59948-732-8

Available at https://mainstreetragbookstore.com

Mortality. It’s a mighty word that has the potential to haunt each of us on our walk through life, forcing us to face the inevitable. Yet somehow, in his prize-winning chapbook Mortality with Pronoun Shifts, Don Colburn has not only made our impermanence more palatable, but almost endearing.

For instance, in “En Plein Air” he takes the reader on a trek through fields only to return to a favorite spot in which to immortalize the day’s offerings on canvas:

Out here, you paint what the eye sees,

not a memory in the studio. Urgency

the only rule …

It’s as if by honing in on nature’s transient beauty—perhaps a bloom that lasts only for the morning—we learn to live in the present, more fully, more alive.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate our desire to escape our fate. Instead, we are led to ponder the “Bristlecone Pines” and call its twisted beauty/ beautiful only to realize we may have been duped. What makes a good story/ maybe a fable might only be our own great reluctance to expire.

Our expiration is closer than you think in this very moment. This becomes crystal clear in the book’s title poem, where the pronouns do indeed shift from the ubiquitous you to that most personal I. HereColburn shares with us a series of close-calls, such as the ice axe a lightning rod in your right hand, and an undeniable grace as he woke up this morning, still lucky.

So why then would a reader be drawn to a collection of poems about death? And why would a poet set out to even write on such a seemingly gloomy theme? Aside from examining this impending truth, these poems can guide us to reconcile our present with our past—whether it be regret for our own missteps or, like in the poem,“Going for Tests,” a chance to compare our plight— a horse pill/ whose side effects run two pages— to a dear friend’s prognosis:

Year, year and a half, if he’s lucky—

a word so fickle it puts on a fresh disguise

in time for each new round.

The poet nudges us to re-examine with deeper reflection what we learned in school. In “Abe Lincoln’s Hat,” the speaker visits the Smithsonian where he can see barely, darkness on darkness,/ the black silk band that he added after Willie died.

Subject matter aside, Colburn has a remarkable gift for sneaking in a bit of wordplay and injecting his wry sense of humor at just the right moment. For instance, he takes on an ironic turn onto Icicle Road in 97-degree heat in “Agenda for Getting Away at 69” where, despite severe fire alerts, he will:

Unload pack, wrestle it on. Tighten belt. Wince.

Tap altimeter, ditto fucking out-of-service phone.

Look up, sniff for smoke, start walking anyway.

Like most good poetry, brilliance is found in the quiet details of observation. And Colburn proves to be a master of quiet details—like a dusky little nameless bird, until it sings. (“Along Mink Brook, Early Spring”)His poetry urges us to live in the now, in the presence of beauty, as in the same closing poem he reminds us:

The day after the funeral, we walk out

into the cold light of this early world

which goes on unmoved by our need to name it.

I found Don Colburn’s Mortality with Pronoun Shifts to be an enjoyable, thought-provoking collection—one that revealed new nuances with each reading. And I have an inkling, you will wholeheartedly agree.

—————–

Reviewer Bio:

Shawn Aveningo-Sanders grew up in Missouri and, after a bit of globetrotting, finally landed in Portland, Oregon, where she overcame her fear of birds upon meeting two baby juncos in her backyard. Her most recent chapbook, What She Was Wearing, was released in November 2019. Shawn’s work has appeared globally in over 140 literary journals and anthologies. She’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, Best of the Net nominee, co-founder of The Poetry Box press, as well as managing editor for The Poeming Pigeon. Shawn is a proud mother of three amazing adults and shares the creative life with her husband Robert.

In These Voices by Sherri Levine, Reviewed by Paul Telles

In These Voices by Sherri Levine

The Poetry Box (August 29, 2018), 42 pp $12

ISBN #: 978-1948461115

Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/in-these-voices

True to its title, Sherri Levine’s In These Voices deftly explores personae ranging from a squirrel to an English teacher to ruminating lovers and parents. Throughout this collection of 22 short poems, Levine employs supple, confident verse that maintains stylistic consistency while giving each character a distinct voice. She seems equally at home with plainspoken vignettes and song-like outbursts.

The range of Levine’s ambitions is suggested by “I Ate a Raymond Carver,” which begins with its speaker wondering, If I ate you, / Raymond Carver / would I write like you? The speaker praises Carver’s skill at carving and chiseling / characters. However, after a stanza expressing admiration for specific Carver stories, the speaker wonders if writing like Carver would lead to a cancerous death. The end of the poem finds her considering a richer poetic. She takes a bite of Henry Miller and Anais Nin and finds they taste of Nutella, candied nuts, whipped cream.

The rest of the book shows Levine striving successfully to unify these stylistic impulses. She displays her sympathy with Carver in “Orange Crush,” a brief poem that begins with a matter-of-fact description of an everyday frustration:

I saw my man

put a dollar

in the soda machine

to buy a Coke

but the Coke didn’t come out

instead

what

came

out

was an Orange Crush.

After banging the machine with his fists and yelling, the man decides to drink the unwanted soda. The puzzled speaker asks Why? The man’s answer delivers an ending worthy of a Carver story or poem:

Cause it’s here

and I’m thirsty.

You get used to it—

You get used to a lot of things, he said.

I’ll never get used to losing you, I told him.

When Levine reaches for the candied nuts, she doesn’t emulate the elaborate diction of Miller or Nin. Instead, she breaks out into free-verse song. For instance, “Only Cowboys Can Make” begins with an outburst appropriate for its subject:

Alberta July swings her hula-hoop hips

around her cherry chocolate thighs,

bubblegum bubbles go smack! Crack!

The poem’s title becomes a refrain as Levine employs rhymes and song-like rhythm to portray an ambiguous relationship. Alberta repeatedly calls the speaker’s name:

“Joleeeen,” she sings my name

in a high-pitched cry

only cowboys can make.

Eventually, Jolene pleads with Alberta to “please stop singing / my name, you’re making me cry.” But, in a burst of rhymed couplets, Alberta persists until she gets a new response:

She’s shaking her head with her purple pink bows,

and silver-framed glasses sliding down her pug nose.

I throw up my arms, roll on my back, then cover my eyes

I sing, “Jolleeeeen! Jolleeeen!” in a high-pitched cry

Only cowboys can make.

As I read, I was tempted to speculate about which poems express Levine’s personal voice. For instance, because she teaches English in Portland, it would be easy to conclude that she is the speaker in “Grammar Lessons,” a first-person poem that shows a teacher conjugating love. On the other hand, it may seem obvious that Levine is not the “Gray-Haired Squirrel” who frets about his inability to remember where he buries his nuts. Ultimately, this speculation proved to be pointless: In These Voices does not enable or demand any demarcation between self-expression and empathy. Instead, Levine appears to find herself in all of these voices and to find all of these voices in herself.

In These Voices adds a fine first book to Levine’s poetic resume, which includes a first-place prize in one of the Oregon Poetry Association’s 2017 contests and multiple appearances in small-press publications. Levine’s poems are fun to read, thought-provoking, and rich in feeling, observation, and linguistic texture. I’ll be looking out for more of her work.

Reviewer Bio:

Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.

The Rhythm of It, Poetry’s Hidden Dance by Anita Sullivan, Reviewed by Katie Eberhart

The Rhythm of It, Poetry’s Hidden Dance by Anita Sullivan

Shanti Arts Publishing, 2019, 118 pages, $14.95

ISBN: 978-1-951651-03-9 (softcover)

Available at http://shantiarts.com

Author web site: https://www.anitasullivan.org

The Rhythm of It, Poetry’s Hidden Dance by Anita Sullivan is a collection of essays brimming with ideas that accompany the author’s mindful and body-movement exploration of poetry. These seventeen essays offer glimpses into the physical experience of poetry, often bringing forth aspects that seem to be hidden in plain sight—and that may help us find our own route into writing new poems.

In the essay “Tai Chi Time,” Sullivan finds herself distracted by the rhythmic ticking of a wall clock:

What does this mean about Time? I briefly wonder.

Humans do rhythm, which is connected to a different kind of time than what this hapless

device insists upon … (16)

Reading these ruminations, I frequently paused to consider my own experiences. I also have been distracted by an eerily clicking wall clock that, once noticed, became the only sound in the room; yet, I did not think to write that experience into anything more. Throughout this book, Sullivan demonstrates determination to find more meaning. The sound of the clock ticking turns out to be a useful distraction. Shifting focus to the silence between the ticks, she considers how poems arise and how they convey the value of silence. Within this line of inquiry, she moves on to consider the distinction between silence and quiet. While searching for places where poems arise, she tracks across a terrain of feelings, rhythms, and sound—and, like the elephant in the room, the ticking clock periodically reappears.

In The Pulse,” Sullivan considers the difference between clock-time and the human-time in which we breathe and move:

The clock is not making pulses that constantly quiver with the possibilities for slight variance; rather it is pounding equidistant stakes into the ocean of time. (20)

Like following a breadcrumb trail of ideas, I lingered here, contemplating time as an ocean rather than a line, and appreciated being surprised by each new perspective. Even when I was certain that all the meaning had been prodded from a point of reflection, Sullivan doubled back, rotating her original premise just enough to reveal another aspect.  

Rhythm is a big deal for poems whether through rhyme or “a skillful laying on of numerically-guided metric frameworks …” (25); and, yet, after a nod to prosody, Sullivan questions her reaction to a new poem:

Do I start to sway in a dance that draws upon old patterns scratched onto my bones like petroglyphs? (26)

I appreciate that, in our current time of gilded technology, Sullivan asks probing questions as if we might relearn our profound ties to the past.

The Rhythm of It offers a language-rich journey through ideas and possibilities and––as if I’m the subversive one­­––I notice opportunities to extend, borrow, or repurpose. I see essay titles begging to be written into a poem, or into a thousand poems: “We Spin.”  “A Nod to Whim.” “The Pulse.” “Plain Speech.” “Why Rhythm and Not Something Else Instead or Also.” Several essays also include epigraphs which thoughtfully highlight aspects of the essay as well as suggesting more opportunities for reflection or reuse.

Each essay also includes a page of artwork that relates to deep history or nature: a line drawing resembling a petroglyph with a humanoid figure engaged in some activity, or a graphically strong photograph that might be a river or bay, or trees—and, like a poem, may be interpreted in more than one way.

The Rhythm of It is a lovely book laced with questions and insightful meditations. Sullivan shares her stories and ideas as she engages in an intellectual and body-movement adventure with language—through Tai Chi, clocks, mathematics, music, chant, deep history, and walking. She demonstrates asking questions and “feeling” rhythm so that it’s as if language fleetingly plays 2ndfiddle to the subconscious—which, of course, is somewhere that poems hide.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Rhythm of It to everyone who has a thoughtful relationship with language and is mindful about life. Something will come of it.

Reviewer Bio:

Katie Eberhart’s book Cabin 135, A Memoir of Alaska will be available from University of Alaska Press in August 2020. Katie has an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop (PLU). Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared in Cirque Journal, Sand Journal, Crab Creek Review, Northwest Accordion News, and other places. Uttered Chaos Press (Eugene, OR) published her chapbook Unbound: Alaska Poems in 2013. Katie currently resides in Oregon where she studies accordion, arranges music, plays 2nd violin in the Bend Pops Orchestra, and is finding her way back to writing poetry. Katie’s web site is http://katieeberhart.com