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BOOK REVIEWS

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

    April 1, 2020

    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

    March 15, 2020

    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

    March 1, 2020

    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

  • Chasing Down the Storm – by Charles R. Castle, Jr. reviewed by Joy McDowell

    January 14, 2020

    Improbable Press, 2019, 110 pages   $20

    ISBN 9781088457542

    Available at – www.amazon.com

    Fluidity is the word that came to mind as I read Charles Castle’s latest collection of poems. Divided into seven sections, Chasing Down the Storm does indeed chase a panorama of personal pathos and characters that utilize a bridge between nature and the human struggle to comprehend life.

    The author’s images enhance the combined fabric of those two elements. In “She Comes Like Candles,” his lines demonstrate this relaxed connection:

                                        My lover

                                        comes like candles

                                        on the snows

                                        of Christmas Eves.

    The reader moves inside the poet’s head in “Under a Green-leafed Sky,” with verse that celebrates the bliss and brevity of summer—a universal view that floats the lines:

    We count the days of June

    As if they could not end.

    We sleep our morning slumbers

    Rich as momentary thieves.

    In the poem “Hiking Sweet Creek,” the reader is moving through the countryside before making the hike up a route carved with waterfalls:

                                        A narrow road competes for space

    Where the creek flows between foothills

    Through what is less a valley

    Than a series of hollows

    Of pastureland and small farms.

    Having made this hike myself, I could not help smiling at the line All manner of dogs on

     leashes …

    Even a hint of malevolence is folded discreetly into an amusing scenario in the short seven-line offering “When the Truth Hurts. I found my head nodding in agreement.

                                        Load the gun son

                                        We’re going to shoot the messenger

                                        He’s hunting quail up on the Bixbee Road

                                        Accidents happen all the time

                                                    and his turn’s overdue

                                        Load the gun son

                                        I never liked what he had to say

    Castle is a romantic. On the couch we speak of things/ like fruit we cannot reach. This line from “Divine Therapy” turns over in a languid manner familiar to lovers. Hinted rhyme keeps the physical ardor in pace with the intellectual statement about the complexity of attraction and a reluctance to embrace love fully.

     Readers will find entertainment in tales about wild places, such as “Tequila up the Trapline.” This poem inserts the reader smack into the dysfunction of a Montana character. Imagine if you will, a Montana trapper singing Patsy Cline and driving through the snow while he tells the reader his hard luck story without complaint, just stating his facts. Image upon image dress the stage.

    The snow blows deep, it’s ten below

    The upper road ain’t clear

    My truck is totaled in a ditch

    My wife’s down south of here

    She’s shacked up flush in Bigfork

    With a Bozeman friend of mine 

    From the section titled Clouds and Clarity, Castle gives us a longer poem, If You See My Brother.” It takes the reader on a touching and timeless search for the lost portion of each family, each relationship pursued, each disappointment weathered.

    He might have joined a union once,

        mining coal or in the Merchant Marine,

        or packing alongside migrants

        pickin’ in the San Juaquin.

    Someone said they saw him in Alberta

        during Vietnam.

    I found Chasing Down the Storm delightful to read, worth rereading, and totally unpretentious.

    Charles Castle supervises the building of Conestoga Huts for the homeless. He donates all proceeds from the sale of his book to this cause. What a wonderful opportunity for OPA members to enjoy a good read and support a pressing need.

    Reviewer Bio:

    Joy McDowell is a poet who writes from Sky Mountain outside of Springfield, Oregon. She has been published by Uttered Chaos Press. A fourth chapbook is moving toward publication.

  • And if the Dead Do Dream by Anita Sullivan, reviewed by Gigi Cooper

    May 27, 2019
    EPSON MFP image

    Uttered Chaos, Laura LeHew

    ISBN# 978-0-9889366-6-9

    2016, 35 pp., $10.00

    www.utteredchaos.org

    In And if the Dead Do Dream, Anita Sullivan draws the reader into her personal realm: her house, her walks in the woods, her family. She answers “Where Did You Grow Up?” and signs her “Dear Baobab” letter “Love, Anita.” Fully two-thirds of the poems in this collection are in first person. Even the handful of poems told in second person are an interior dialogue, as in “Critical Mass” where Sullivan writes,

    Upon an early January afternoon/resolve to leave this house/ / you’ve stayed in far too long.

    And as much as she is trying to communicate with herself and her environment, Sullivan also attempts to interpret the world’s messages back to her as a way to exercise control. Even t-shirts on a clothesline in the aptly named “Messaging” do not escape scrutiny:

                   And I am the one

                                                 to decide

    if they have something to say

    for themselves in a way we are able

    to hear.

                   And since, at length

    I can discern no essentials to convey

                                                                               for them,

    a vacancy remains.

    In these poems, mundane acts like planting seeds, twirling a leaf, and driving to the store perforate our plane of existence to reveal domains with different physical laws where trees are mobile, the sun is rigid, and the deceased drive. For example, in “Common Ground,” Sullivan says:

    This time the tree steps forward

    half a dimension or so, and I spill

    into that framed unlidded vestibule

    And in “I Petition the Leaf” she contends that

    If we slipped a knife around all sunlight’s edges,

    lifted out

    the surrounding darks

    we too would know

                   sunlight as a shaped thing,

    For Sullivan, the baobab tree is the symbol of this reversed or upside down version of reality. She dedicates three poems to the tree. “Baobab: An Elegy,” is not so much a requiem as an endorsement of an alternative and ancient way of life. The trees’ inversion causes both amusement and bewilderment in her “Dear Baobab” letter. In “Prayer of a Refugee,” the baobab shelters the refugee from not only death, but the limbo of being displaced.

    These literal upendings make the poet not quite at ease in a natural setting. In her encounter with a squirrel in “The First Bridge,” her footsteps are “clumping,” and she cannot sense when the creature moves along. In contrast, the squirrel belongs there, where … everything/squirrel size down there, the stones arranged for his rummagings.

    Sullivan is an intruder into the natural world, even when it is just outside her doorstep. Her poems provide a roadmap to appreciate these microcosms, even though they are unpredictable.

    Death and grief also punctuate the collection. Sullivan’s notes on “A Taxonomy of Grieving” elucidate the transformative role of language in her grieving process. After her husband died, she realized that the cauldron ingredients in Macbeth are plants, not animals. She finds solace in the ability of words to have double meanings. Although it is only the fifth poem in the collection, “Taxonomy” feels like the lynchpin of the book. In a mere 16 lines, the poem culminates in the common elements of the collection: the poet as observer, the uncertain human-nature interface, finding meaning in the mundane, and processing grief.

    …Mortal peril steeps the air, yet air

    being fickle, frequently slackens

                                  (Bear to Lady)

    Question: How can a plant and an animal

    share the same parts?

    Answer: On a roof

    How far I have come after you stopped!

                   Sliding past you on my allotted track

                   I ride the soft yellow

                                  toe of frog

    (I pause often, looking back).

    You carry my seed.

    I carry your eye.

    And if the Dead Do Dream is a guidebook for a path through loss, to reconnect with our surroundings. It shows us a way to encounter the world fearlessly, even when we face the unexpected.

    Reviewer Bio: Gigi Cooper is a transportation and environmental planner and writer in Portland. Her poem “Field” was an honorable mention in the spring 2013 OPA contest.

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