Reviewed by Alicia Hoffman
Grim Honey by Jessica Barksdale
Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2021
Available at https://sheilanagigblog.com/sheila-na-gig-editions-quick-shopping/jessica-barksdale/
Exigence and Apocalypse
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner
Like the horrific tragedy of 9/11, everyone will remember where they were when Covid19 shut down the globe. In early March 2020, days before nation-wide school closures, I was standing in a room full of maskless high schoolers, reviewing for the upcoming AP Language exams. We were studying the rhetorical concept of exigence, the idea that writers often come up against a situation that demands action or remedy. It is this impulse, this urgency, that often calls us to act, that prompts utterance, that begs us to better understand our place in the world’s vast and complicated chess game.
When the pandemic came like a queen swooping up our pawns and knocking our rooks to the ground, it felt, at the time, apocalyptic. Nothing so egregious or hyperbolic as the end times, but in the true sense of the word. In ancient Greek, apocalypse literally means an uncovering. And while the world was put on pause, the poets picked up their pens. The pandemic serves as both exigence and apocalypse in Jessica Barksdale’s poetry collection Grim Honey, a deft assemblage of poems revealing and uncovering an open generosity of spirit and a reckoning of the past that is never quite past.
In “Unripped” Barksdale writes everything hums, your hopes, your uncancelled plans /your dirt hidden under bookshelves and behind couches. Tuned to the music of her own life’s humming, Barksdale welcomes the sound and examines the crumbs. In “Cold Enough to Break Bones,” she ends with the telling lines: My skin shivers/and clacks with nerves and blood, everything, all at once, coming to the surface. And come up, it does. A father’s death, a mother’s abandonment, divorce, childhood, friendship, motherhood, cancer, aging, mortality. For Barksdale, the exigence of the pandemic, that unwelcome, slick guest…viral king, moves her to take stock and reckon with memory, loss, grief; all the particulars and pains that are the moving pieces of a life.
In “This is It,” she observes we don’t progress to human/but bound like pool balls/across the green velvet of experience. The image of experience as green velvet is an apt one for this collection, which manages to balance the tension and grit of life with a soft humor and beautiful grace. This is a poet who understands it is difficult to be alive, to interrogate with a clear lens the hard truth of the past. She doesn’t turn away from what is ugly, as in “Yahrtzeit,” which begins:
For hours, I gripped her body to mine
as she moaned and shat, moaned and shat.
Her daughter piped morphine into her mouth
as we waited for the hospice nurse.
Or take the following lines from “My Mother Read”:
Then, one year, long after one sister developed
diabetes and refused to cooperate
with doctors, hiding first Snickers
and then Smirnoff under her pillow,
and another threw up her dinner
into a Tupperware bowl she kept under her bed
and another gained and lost so much weight
she had three sizes of pants in the closet,
our mother put down her books
and turned to us, her children, one now dead,
one moved across the country, one resentful
of having had to watch it all.
In this collection, the reader witnesses Barksdale’s past come alive like a Faulknerian ghost haunts the living hours as she grapples and attempts reconciliation with time’s wounds. But through this sifting of hard memories, there are undercurrents of pure joy at being able to witness experience in all its blood and grit. This is a poet who loves the broken as well as the whole, those bursting through puberty in scary breast blooms, grease, and/hair. Those who hide in bathrooms with gushing periods. It is this love of the world in all its gory realness that illuminates the apt title of the collection. Though we may not invite the grim realities of the world, we can find soothing in their sweetness.
Grim Honey is an indispensable book. If we can take any honey from this grim year, it is that we have been given a necessary space to uncover our own life’s movements through time. This year invited us to reflect, and through Barksdale’s own recollections and reckonings, we are prompted to examine our own life, sans blindfold. If there is a lesson in this collection, it is that we can hold each experience dear. This book reminds us that what is bitter is sweet, and only when we acknowledge and hold space for our blunders and impasses can we move towards the endgame, as an arrow arcing up, never/complete, arrow flying, flying home.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Alicia Hoffman now lives, writes, and teaches in Rochester, New York. She received her MA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Brockport and her MFA in Poetry at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two poetry collections: Like Stardust in the Peat Moss (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Railroad Phoenix (Kelsay Books, 2017). Her new book, ANIMAL, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press (May 2021). Find out more at https://www.aliciamariehoffman.com.
Reviewed by Paul Telles
This Swarm of Light by Suzanne Sigafoos
I-Beam Books (2020), 65 pp $16
ISBN #: 978-1-938928-10-9
Available at: https://shop.spybeambooks.com/product/this-swarm-of-light
In her first full-length collection, Portland poet Suzanne Sigafoos delivers on her book’s title with an enchanting swarm of poems that moves fluidly through a garden of themes that include mortality and the joys to be found in nature and art. Published in 2020, This Swarm of Light consists of 43 poems sorted into three sections that offer illuminating perspectives on each theme while introducing new topics and concepts of their own. The result is a loosely autobiographical meditation, focused more on emotions and insights than personal history.
Although This Swarm of Light does not follow a strict narrative arc, the thematic center of the collection comes in the middle section, titled “Bloodlines,” that chronicles the unique story of Sigafoos’s recovery from spinal surgery while she cared for her mother who was dying of cancer. These touching poems show the women growing progressively closer as Sigafoos regains her strength and her mother nears her end. “Uncharted Terrain” finds them living together under one roof, shared.
One of her daughters, I’m strong again, and able.
Mother, lighter, smaller, has no strength,
her bad days longer by a mile, no — by a tundra.
The two women grow closer through their suffering. Although she says plain talk is not our custom, Sigafoos shares her deep-set fear that she will die alone. After the mother reassures her, they bond over an atlas and their shared lack of sleep.
I offer her valerian. If sleep’s a thing that can’t be found,
I hold the atlas open to the pages she prefers:
maps of oceans, maps of plains.
The mother’s final moments are portrayed in “Break,” an elegant poem reminiscent of Frank O’Hara. However, they are foreshadowed in the book’s first section, “Light Swarms,” a series of 14 poems that connect human suffering and loss with nature and its consolations. “March – April – May” presents the mother’s death as a one of several painful events Sigafoos experienced in springtime.
The Ides were easy – April was the cruelest,
two years in a row. My mother died. I wasn’t there
my sister called me with the news. April, next —
a suicide, a friend, who inked my name on
his exit note. Police were on the phone to me at 3 a.m.
Night fractured. Furious, I flew from room to room.
By the poem’s end, Sigafoos finds solace in nature’s cycles and seasons. I am eager now, for spring’s relentless orbits –, she says in the penultimate stanza. She concludes:
Daphne, tulips, Stars of Persia, tulips, tulips –
then dicentra, Bleeding Hearts, in May. Any day gets better
if you look through branches at the sky.
The book’s final section, “Landscapes, Seascapes, Soundscapes,” celebrates the arts. Many of the section’s 15 poems are ekphrastic, while others focus on the spiritual and emotional experience of art-making. “Art Class, 1957,” for instance, depicts a woman’s immersion in the process of filling page after page with new / versions of “Moonlight on Water.” As her engagement with this work deepens, she finds release from the burdens of selfhood. Even with color, the speaker says:
nothing is lost – ocean, night, immensity, depth,
her wish to walk that wide, bright path,
her wish to disappear.
The ekphrastic poems go beyond mere description to enact the joy and exaltation that can come from encounters with great art. “Still Life, or A Surface, Teeming” begins with an impassioned, but straightforward, description of Jean Brusselmans’ “Still Life with a Fan”:
What pleasure to look at still life paintings – pear and apple
beauties, fallen petals, a dewdrop bright on variegated rind,
open, offering melon flesh and seeds.
As the poem describes the painting’s many elements, including a checkerboard, a black-and-white photograph, and a conch shell, the speaker gradually reveals a broader vision of the arts. After quoting poet Robert Penn Warren’s observation that a poem is a hazardous attempt at self-understanding, the speaker concludes by observing that all genuine art requires risk. There you are, painter. There you are, poet. Two of you joined / in your hazardous longings.
Even though these poems do not directly address issues of mortality, their proximity to the poems describing the death of Sigafoos’s mother gives them a special poignancy, as if they represent a return to life after a harrowing journey through an emotional underworld. This feeling is underscored by the final poem, “Departure,” a quiet, 12-line piece about a couple parting as one boards a train. The poem reaches its climax as the speaker reflects on her own death in a way that recalls Sigafoos’s earlier fear that she would die alone.
I want death to be like this:
one on a platform, one on the train,
both closer to a foretold, lonely beauty.
Written in accomplished but unobtrusive free verse, This Swarm of Light often reads like a thoughtful and super-literate journal, touching on a wide range of emotions and experiences that include a reminiscence about a childhood mentor, a visit to a Christo installation, and auditioning for roles in New York theater. The poems cast light upon each other and the world, swarming to form a mature and expressive collection that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Paul Telles’s poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Pif Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Book of Matches and other print and online publications. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in Fall 2020. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.
Reviewed by Paul Telles
What She Was Wearing by Shawn Aveningo Sanders
The Poetry Box (November 5, 2019), 48 pp, $12
ISBN #: 978-1-948461-32-0
Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/what-she-was-wearing
In What She Was Wearing, Portland poet Shawn Aveningo Sanders bravely reveals her experience as a rape victim. In a series of 29 muscular poems, Sanders recounts the horrific experience of being raped during a fraternity party in the 1980s. As well as offering a heart-rending description of the rape itself, the collection delves into the trauma’s influence on the rest of Sanders’ life, exploring its ramifications for her identity as a mother, a wife, and a woman.
The 2019 chapbook uses its title as a refrain, repeatedly deploying the phrase to reveal, ridicule, and lament the hypocritical assumption that women’s clothing attracts and justifies rape. The book’s third poem, “What She Was Wearing,” introduces the theme by describing Sanders’ innocence as she readied herself for the party. Excited and eager to fit in, Sanders assembled an outfit that included a pink sheet twisted into a toga / over a one-piece swimsuit, / pink chiffon bow in my hair /… and a big smile.
By the end of the poem, Sanders’ innocence is ruined and her outfit is soiled with blood and depravity:
And then I woke up to a strap
falling off one shoulder,
the other strap cut
revealing my breast,
a drop of blood
where the knife
nicked my flesh, the crotch
of my swimsuit sliced in half…
This is what I wore running home.
Frank and uncompromising, the rest of the poems provide intimate insight into feelings of helplessness, alienation, and fear. Some poems explore Sanders’ inability to talk to others about her experience and her reluctance to go to authorities. Others show how the rape can be recalled to consciousness by random events such as hearing that a football player on TV has the same name as her rapist. “How to Survive Suicide” laughs at itself while staring into the abyss:
Wash the pills down
with a Yoohoo.
No need to count calories now.
In one of the book’s most touching poems, “Prepping My Kids of College,” Sanders deftly portrays her conflicted emotions when she felt obliged to let my secret out, / tell my story. / For ignorance is dangerous, / not bliss. She chose not to teach her daughters how to avoid rape that day.
I didn’t buy them a whistle.
Instead, I taught my son
the horrid ugliness of the crime
against a woman, a girl, a mother, a sister.
The children react sympathetically, bowing their heads like wilting roses, hugging and crying with their mother until she feels her shame morph into courage. Sadly, though, the poem ends with a troubling response from the children’s father: … he asked me if I told them / what I was wearing.
In the end, Sanders finds some peace and healing, but it still feels tentative and unsure. In “There Will Be Days,” she accepts that she can still be reminded of the rape by fragrances, songs, or even the accidental scrape of fingernail / against a crisp, white-linen tablecloth. Still, she takes solace in everyday life—the weddings, anniversaries, graduations—and in the special moments that come unbidden, such as the wonder in your son’s eyes / meeting his twin baby sisters.
Unornamented and unvarnished, What She Was Wearing skillfully blends art and testimony. Reading the poems, I felt angry, tearful, and sometimes overwhelmed by sadness. In the end, though, I rejoiced in one of my favorite poetic pleasures: the ability to briefly experience another person’s suffering as if it were my own. All I really have to say is, “Thank you.”
Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in BoomerLitMag, 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 Barbie Diaries by Dale Champlin
Just a Lark Books (November 17, 2019), 65 pp $14
ISBN #: 978-1708450267
Available at: [email protected]
Is it possible to say anything new about Barbie? Since her introduction in 1959, the PVC fashionista has been reviled and revered, loved and loathed. Her literary footprint includes adoring preteen blogs, scathing doctoral theses, and an authorized biography from Random House.
Still, I’d be willing to bet that Oregon poet Dale Champlin is almost alone in considering Barbie a fit hero for epic poetry. In her 2019 book, The Barbie Diaries, Champlin presents a sequence of 57 poems that portray the inner life of a Barbie doll who is both typical of her kind and a compelling individual. Aware she’s both sentient and plastic, this Barbie wrestles with several troubled relationships including her unequal marriage to a Ken doll, the doomed love of her girl owner, and the sadistic depredations of the girl’s brother. The result is a free-verse dramedy that is thought-provoking, literate, and awake to the absurdities on display in American Pop Culture.
The Barbie Diaries cleverly invokes the epic tradition with a three-part narrative that begins by portraying Barbie in the context of her suburban milieu. In the second part, Barbie undergoes her hero’s ordeal when she spends a year submerged in a backyard swimming pool. Rescued by a pool cleaner, she returns home in the third part, wiser and more self-assured, but not entirely relieved of her issues.
The book begins with an ironic take on the epic argument in a short poem titled “Writing Weird” that introduces Barbie’s inner turmoil and ambivalence about her hopeless marriage. Since you’ve left I’ve been writing weird, Barbie says before describing her unique existential predicament:
Alone in lostness, with my new Barbie body,
I teeter across the four-lane in my six-inch stilettos,
without a blink of my swimming-pool blue eyes.
She recalls the good times in her marriage, including a camping trip to Reno in my bubblegum-pink convertible camper. She waxes nostalgic about how she and Ken squatted in the motel / and swilled dry martinis, then recalls that Ken is now gone. Where are you Ken? I miss your square jaw, she concludes.
Much of the book’s first section tells us why the marriage is over. In “Terrible Fun,” Barbie recalls a premarital date whenthe couple had sex in Ken’s apartment. I should have guessed by your plastic pompadour / that you’d be into S&M, Barbie comments before describing how Ken tied her hands with a twist tie, then slid a bit between her teeth.
You rode me like a demon—
clenched me in a choke hold, snakebit my neck
and hard-knuckled my thighs.
Fearing Ken has finished with her, Barbie worries that he will sell her on eBay. The poem concludes with a terrifying image of sexual abuse:
After you flipped me over,
you told me my tits
looked like dead rabbits.
As her marriage careens toward divorce, Barbie also contends with the family who owns her. In “Possession,” Barbie recalls how she began her life as a little girl’s treasure, only to see this relationship fade as the girl grew up. At first, she remembers, the girl carried her everywhere and even shared chocolate ice cream with her. However, as Barbie begins to fall apart under the wear and tear of daily play, the relationship with the girl becomes less certain. Once again, Barbie finds she is an object in a disposable culture.
After her mom’s hairdryer
scorched my hair
she cut off the burnt ends.
It was not an improvement.
I thought I was priceless,
but I was replaceable.
Like many Barbies throughout the decades, Champlin’s hero must deal with her girl’s brother, whose boyish hi-jinks are revealed to be cruel and misogynistic. At various points throughout the book, the brother kicks Barbie into a gutter, buries her in the backyard, and hangs her from a silver thread / compelling as spider silk.
The rest of the book explores and expands on these relationships and themes. In the second section, the year spent in the swimming pool gives Barbie a chance to face her demons. As she feels her polyvinyl chloride off-gassing in the chlorinated water, Barbie reflects on her life and relationships and recognizes some unpleasant realities about her family.
“The Day All I Could Think of Was Suburbia” begins with a deft lyrical landscape that offers an example of how The Barbie Diaries paints Barbie as a convincing character:
I remember looking out the picture window
the sprinkler on the lawn twirled,
rainbows gleamed in the fine mist,
robins tugged worms from the damp turf.
Noting there was a fire hydrant on every corner, Barbie portrays the security of the American middle-class lifestyle before turning toward its darker side:
My little girl’s mother clutched
her first drink of the morning
in her white-knuckled manicured hand.
Rescued unceremoniously by a pool cleaner, Barbie goes “Home At Last” in the final section. In a mere eight poems, we learn that Barbie, like all epic heroes, has grown and matured because of her ordeal in the pool. In the book’s final poem, “I Feel I Understand Existence,” Barbie considers all of her relationships from a stance of hard-earned self-knowledge. She accepts she is a discarded plaything while also expressing her sense of agency.
Although I may be no more than a tchotchke
on a shelf gathering dust that I will never return to—
my thoughts resurface as artifacts
lured to the present by something
I don’t quite understand.
Still, she ends by hoping the girl will once again turn her way.
When will she remember where she’s
concealed me? What box, what chest,
As The Barbie Diaries tells their peculiar tale, Barbie flirts with religion, falls in love with a frog, and parties in a Motel 6. Still, the book succeeds in connecting Barbie’s anxieties and struggles to larger questions of identity, gender, and sexuality. Even as I laughed at her ridiculous situations, I empathized with her struggle to balance her need for independence with her need for love. Against the odds, Champlin enabled me to relate to Barbie as a real person.
Paul Telles’s poems have appeared in several print and digital publications, including BoomerLitMag, Verseweavers, and Children, Churches, and Daddies. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019.
The Leaf by Nancy Christopherson
Nancy Christopherson (July 13, 2015), 66 pp $8
ISBN #: 978-0-692-42433-9
Available at: http://www.nancychristophersonpoetry.com/
In her 2015 book, The Leaf, Oregon poet Nancy Christopherson showcases uncommon poems about one of the most common human sufferings—the loss of a parent. In poems deployed throughout her self-published collection, Christopherson builds a loose thematic arc that poignantly explores her mother’s loss of independence, her death in an assisted care facility, and its implications for those she left behind.
This thematic development reaches its climax near the middle of the book with a series of six consecutive poems filled with keenly observed imagery that conveys deep feeling without lapsing into sentiment.
“Reconciliation on Blue Mountain,” for instance, finds Christopherson reviewing her relationship with her mother as the woman approaches her final days. The poem begins with Christopherson and her son looking for a spot to bury his pet rabbit in the mountains near their home in Eastern Oregon. Noting that her son was angry and bitter, / not about the rabbit, / but about other things, Christopherson gradually picks up on his mood as she drifts into reverie about her mother. At first, she shows fondness for the ailing woman, remembering how her lips tremble sometimes when / she searches my eyes with her gentle / blue eyes for her lost memories. As the poem proceeds, however, Christopherson turns to bleak recollections of betrayal and abandonment:
… On my thirteenth
birthday she married Dick, who hawked
insurance and everything else, took his
thick leather belt to my brother, then
took our mother away in his ugly
Jeep pickup, all the way to Alaska,
leaving my brother and me behind.
How could she do that? Go with him.
Reminding herself that these events occurred a long time ago, Christopherson finds reconciliation by recalling my mother’s pain. / My father’s pain and even Dick’s pain as he lay dying of cancer. She counsels her son that we must learn certain things like patience, / forgiveness, perseverance. After the rabbit is consigned to a grave festooned with wild flowers, the poem ends with imagery that suggests a new basis for Christopherson’s relationship with her dying mother.
And besides, I love to brush her hair, it’s thick
and white and soft.
“When My Mother Died,” arguably the climax of the entire book, begins with a stark observation:
When My Mother Died
Her right eyelid didn’t close all the way,
leaving a shallow band of opaque
at the bottom
Christopherson describes how she unsuccessfully tried to close her mother’s eye by using my right fingertips / the way they used to do in the movies. When her mother’s eye refused to stay closed, Christopherson pressed it back open, but the eyelid returned to its half-closed position.
It would only slide slowly back down,
leaving that same shallow band
of opaque at the bottom
In the end, Christopherson accepts her mother’s eye—and death—as they are:
not her choice, not mine,
but some other.
The last of the six poems, “Putting Things Right,” shows Christopherson’s family growing close after the mother’s death. Dedicated to Christopherson’s brother, Allen, the poem focuses on moments immediately after the funeral when the siblings sit on a lawn watching nieces and nephews play. Reminded how she and Allen played on lawns as children, Christopherson fondly recalls tumbling / head over heels and grass in our hair, / bits of thatch, / laughter. Sadly but inevitably, Christopherson’s thoughts turn back to the childhood trauma described in “Reconciliation.” This time, though, she pays tribute to Allen, who is described as tender and loving despite his suffering.
You, who were abandoned too soon
by your mother, who got down anyway
onto your hands
and knees to lower mom’s urn into dirt,
and who so patiently now
holds urn above dirt while I snap, briefly, the
The Leaf’s poems about death and dying are interwoven with skillful poems on other themes, such as the relationship between nature and human creativity, travel, and ars poetica. Many of the 38 poems in The Leaf portray moments when the Eastern Oregon landscape intersects meaningfully with Christopherson’s inner life. One of my favorites was “Master Heron,” one of three poems that contemplate the Great Blue Heron. This 13-line poem begins with Christopherson observing a Heron standing tall on the rocky bar / deep in his own contemplation of water / and of fish.
Calling the bird a monk / in smoky grey feathers, Christopherson admires its patience so much that she takes it as a spiritual master. She aspires to the same patience, watching him carefully with the hope she can become heron. The poet ends by observing the bird’s majestic aloofness: He sometimes allows this.
Unfortunately, despite the obvious quality of Christopherson’s work, I felt the collection lost some of its energy and focus in the second half. The first half of the book foreshadowed the climactic series with vivid, intimate poems. One of the most striking was “Mending My Mother’s Clothes,” an understated lament in which Christopherson lovingly recalls sewing sessions with her mother while performing simple repairs the woman can no longer do for herself. In the second half, however, poems approach death dramatically, historically, and symbolically. “Mona Lisa” and “Death on the Farm” are third-person poems about women grieving and confronting their own mortality. The final poem, “Blizzard at Ground Zero,” uses a rich description of a snow-filled landscape to warn of an impending white where the imagination falls silent. While each of these poems has its heartfelt virtues, they seemed to emotionally distance the collection from realities it had bravely confronted earlier.
This minor complaint did not detract from the genuine poetic pleasure I found on every page of The Leaf. Christopherson’s poems are sharply observed and musically composed. They convey a strong sense of place immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Eastern Oregon. And they display genuine human feeling and wisdom in the face of one of our greatest shared sufferings.
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.