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BOOK REVIEWS

  • Easter Creek, by Gary Lark, reviewed by Tony Greiner

    March 1, 2022

    Reviewed by Tony Greiner

    Easter Creek by Gary Lark

    Main Street Rag, 2021, 80 pages
    ISBN: 978-1-59948-897-4
    Available from: https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/easter-creek-gary-lark/

    Gary Lark has long been a favorite poet of mine, starting over 20 years ago when I heard him at a reading. Lark read one of his poems “Fishing” and another by Clemens Starck. I thought it generous of him to spend some of his time celebrating another poet’s work. Lark’s poetry also has this kind and accepting spirit, a heart-softening quality that embraces the humanity of even those who err.

    This is not to say the poetry is sticky-sweet or namby-pamby. Take, for example, “Jacket,” from his latest collection, Easter Creek:

         I was born into a racist family
         in a racist town, in a county
         that took its bigotry for granted.
         I was born into a loving family
         in a community of generous folks
         who gave me all they could.
         These were the same places,
         the same people, mostly.
         The racism lived in mechanisms of thought,
         carried from place to place
         like great-grandma’s quilt.
         Yet, these were the people
         I knew to be kind and willing
         to help. They lived quiet lives
         hoping to have enough in the bank
         to bury them when the time came.
         Racism was woven into the fabric
         like a smoldering thread.
         To dismiss or deny is to hand down
         the garment from generation to generation
         like some immutable heritage.
         It puts a straitjacket on everyone.
         I find it in the closet
         when I’m looking for my boots.
         I swear I’ve burned it
         a dozen times.

    Lark doesn’t shy away from recognizing the racism of his homeplace, but he doesn’t blame, he doesn’t point fingers. He does recognize that these fundamentally good people who have a fundamental flaw, and that he does, too. I find that generous.

    Lark’s poetry is accessible. It doesn’t take multiple readings and a pile of reference books to figure out what he is trying to say; but, on the other hand, it isn’t simple. Look at the closing lines of “Jacket” again. The poet finds his own racism “in the closet”––the place where things are kept safe, but also the place where things are kept hidden; hence, the phrase in another context of “coming out of the closet.”

    It is this combination of accessibility and depth that has led to Lark winning several awards, and being featured on three different occasions on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Easter Creek is in that tradition, but it is a step forward for in his career. The poems in this collection are mostly set in a fictional small town in Oregon, named for a stream in the Coast Range. The collection opens with “Decking,” in which the poet, a carpenter, is building a deck around a swimming pool at an upscale house. Although the carpenter has long been a resident of the community, things are changing––and he doesn’t always fit in. This is conveyed within a couple of lines: It’s a money job, building the deck around a pool/I will never swim in and The gate clanks shut. I know the code today/but I won’t in a week.

    Having established his bona fides as a person with roots in the community, we go on to a series of poems grouped by season, some in third person, some in first. We meet a range of people, and witness some events, including a motorcycle riding bad-boy who interrupts a wedding to call a willing bridesmaid to him. Sometimes these people and events return in later poems giving an effect something like a more upbeat cross of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

    This structure is sound, rewarding, and calls for re-reading. I just checked my copy and I still have five dog-eared pages to study, ponder, and enjoy.

    Reviewer Bio:
    Tony Greiner is a life-long reader of poetry. Aside from Gary Lark, other Oregon poets he likes are Clemens Starck, Kim Stafford, Flamur Vehapi, and Christopher Rose.

  • Roadworthy, by Dave Mehler, reviewed by Zeke Sanchez

    February 15, 2022

    Reviewed by Zeke Sanchez

    Roadworthy by Dave Mehler

    Aubade Publishing, 2020, 90 pages
    ISBN: 978-1-951547-12-7
    Available at Barnes and Nobel/Thriftbooks online/Amazon/Aubade Publishing
    https://aubadepublishing.com/books/roadworthy/

    Dave Mehler is a good writer, a good poet. He writes about his life as a long-haul truck driver. He writes about people struggling with a real life of sequential cigarette breaks between stretches with a hand truck or a forklift, lifting with their arms and backs. Nothing grand. No Great Captains of Industry, no millionaire heart surgeons, no war heroes.

    In Roadworthy, we never know for certain when the poet is being autobiographical. For example, in “a cougar’s death on a blizzard-shadowed road,” readers learn the majestic cat is dead and lying by the side of the road. Strong hands dragged it to the shoulder of the road. The poet tells us it was dragged there. Who would have taken the time? It had to be the driver of the semi. He stopped, skidded on the road, got out into the cold winter night to drag the animal to the side of the road. He witnesses how marvelous the creature is, even in death.

    Mehler goes far beyond what a journalist writing about truckers or trucking companies would know. He’s really, in a way, writing about a universe of experiences he’s had as a trucker. It’s the universe in a drop of water, to paraphrase the poet Rumi.

    He has a style in the interstice between poetry and encouraging prose. Not as style-driven as Hemingway, but more of himself in the flow of language than somebody like V.S. Naipaul who eschews style completely in favor of the story. With Mehler, style IS the muscle and sinew in addition to the stories that come out of the darkness beside the road, on the road, out of the glittering forest, through the radio airwaves. And the stories come out at us come from the struggle of the driver himself.

    Being a long-haul truck driver is like anything else: sometimes he has to take a breather. In “Back to back runs in the Rockies,” Mehler says,

         … And of course the old standby, slapping your
         face, hard, repeatedly. And if you really have to,
         stopping the truck to get rid of the coffee,
         then lapping the rig once or
         twice, again, most effective when sub-zero.

    It’s what a soldier has to do pulling guard duty in the military as the midnight hour drags by in pitch black and silence. He might not slap himself, but he’ll find ways to keep himself awake, because being a soldier or poet or writer or truck driver is not always adrenalin charged. Not always.

    Dealing with the “inanities and ineptitudes” in life, even that in itself can fill out the contours of a person’s life if our antennae is set to the right frequency. In “Sometime After 3 a.m. at the Dollar Tree in Vancouver, WA,” the protagonist has arrived, presumably tired from a journey of long duration across the Great Plains. He has been listening to a radio program that is deep and meaningful for a change, and he is trying to check in at a loading dock. He is confronted at the entrance gate by a

         … security guard from the 19th century in age and habits who can’t see or hear and must
         painstakingly peck at the keyboard with one finger after writing everything down three
         times in three different places, slowly.

    The narrator grits his teeth at missing salient parts of the radio program.

         Then there are the commercial breaks which are always airing while I’m listening in the cab, but much of the body of

         the interview takes place while I’m in the guard shack or cranking the landing gear as I swap trailers.

    The miracle of our being here is evident in “Smoke Break.”

         Because, in this same universe as Dollar Tree, ancient galaxies have collided
         —will collide—
         whatever wonders they were or contained, changed in a gaudy crowded instant
         of unimaginable light and gravity
         like the projected light of it beaming away to us here.

         Yet, here we are, still here …9 billion light years from the direction of the Virgo constellation
         a gamma-ray burster sterilized that quadrant of the universe, but we are here.

    Yes, we are here as normal, everyday people. Not doctor’s sons, never a silver spoon to be seen anywhere in this constellation of trucker stories. Even in Hemingway’s short stories, Nick Adams is the son of a physician: a humble, honest, weak man but still a doctor. Not so in these stories coming to us over the hum of the 18-wheeler, the buzz of the radio. We are here as loaders on the loading docks, as coffee-drinking overweight truckers, as silent witnesses or irascible strivers.

    Reveiwer’s Bio:
    Zeke Sanchez is originally from Idaho but now lives and writes in Eastern Tennessee. Zeke wrote The Fire With The Two Dragon Smokes, a fictional account of his summers fighting forest fires as a young man. He won contests in the online The Critical Poet publications. He is a former Senior Engineer in the nuclear industry and served in Army Intelligence during the Vietnam War. Zeke has an English degree and an MBA.

  • Daybreak on the Water, by Gary Lark, reviewed by Vince Wixon

    February 1, 2022

    Reviewed by Vince Wixon

    Daybreak on the Water by Gary Lark

    Flowstone Press, 2020
    ISBN: 978-1-945824-39-5
    Available at Left Fork Books/Flowstone Press
    https://leftforkbooks.com/flowstone/
    and Amazon

    The epigraph, “I am haunted by waters,” from Norman Maclean’s masterpiece novella, A River Runs through It, prepares readers of Gary Lark’s Daybreak on the Water for a book about fishing and family. As in Maclean’s book, the water is fresh and, in Daybreak’s case, so is the Umpqua River and its tributaries in Southern Oregon where Lark grew up. Water in various locations––rivers, estuaries, the Pacific ocean—runs through all of Lark’s books of poetry. In fact, four of the seven include water in the title: Tasting the River in the Salmon’s Flesh, River of Solace, Easter Creek, and Daybreak on the Water.

    “I am haunted by waters” meets its counterpart in the first poem, “Golden Mean,” quoted here in full, and in another poem early in the book, “Copeland Creek.”

         To be
         at once the mountain
         the valley
         and the trout
         that swims between.

    From “Copeland Creek”:

         We camped where the creek spills
         into the North Umpqua.
         I was eight years old
         and the river sang.
         . . .
         There’s a part of me still there
         surrounded by enormous trees
         the river singing me alive.

    Early on readers realize that this will be a devotional book in which the human subject attempts to inhabit and commune fully with his world, and that world is rural: lumber camps, woods, small towns with hard working families—the narrator learning by spending time with adults, fishing the rivers and streams with men and pals. As poet Henry Hughes—a fisherman himself—writes in his blurb for Daybreak on the Water, “We meet many colorful characters—loggers, anglers, clammers, boatbuilders, poachers, sheriffs, sweethearts and old friends.” The events and people in Lark’s poems are written about with authority and grace.

    For example, through the easy rhythm and familiarity with terms in the opening of “Phantom, readers are aware they are in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing.

         It was spring going into summer,
         after a brief storm, the river up
         a bit and milky,
         but I was throwing a spinner anyway …

    In “Rock Creek Camp”:

         On countless mornings
         men crawl into a crummy
         and head for the show—
         to fall, buck and load
         the receding timber.
         Donkey engines and high leads
         winch giant Douglas fir
         to the landing
         where trucks line up
         ready to roll down the mountain.
         At a cold sunrise
         the whip of the choker cable
         can whisper your name.

    Lark gives readers just enough about people, their talk, actions, desires, to involve them in the scenes and fill in more themselves.

    From “Last Time,” a poem about his father:

         He has emphysema and a bad heart valve
         the last time we fish the mountain water.
         He knows the valve can go anytime,
         refuses replacement surgery,
         says he’s had enough of that.
         . . .
         I watch my father catch a fish
         before I get to where the rapids tail out.
         It’s a big river with fish holding
         near the current’s edge, behind rocks
         and under shadows, waiting for life
         to deliver what it will.

    The poem has gone from the specific ailments of the father to a general statement delivered through lovely images about all of us––it’s a big world with us holding on––not having much control––waiting to see what life will bring.

    In the final poem in Daybreak on the Water, life brings a “small infinity.”

         The fish jump and roll
         as I breathe the living air.
         I will be here at seventeen
         and seventy, life washing
         through me, this small infinity.

    Former Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, in a comment on Lark’s book, Easter Creek, puts him in company with “John Prine, Ted Kooser, Edgar Lee Masters.” I would add Oregon treasure Clemens Starck, another poet who writes about working folk with humor, respect, and finely honed details. To end, I want to make it clear that readers don’t have to fish to enjoy these poems and draw meaning from them for their lives. I don’t fish and I read and reread Gary Lark’s poems. They contain music, stories, and wisdom.

    Bio:
    Vince Wixon’s latest book of poems is Laying By, published by Flowstone Press in 2017. He has coedited four books by William Stafford, including Sound of the Ax, a collection of Stafford’s aphorisms and aphoristic poems, published in the Pitt Poetry Series. In 2014, Vince and his wife Patty received the Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award for contributions to the literary life of Oregon. Vince Wixon lives in Ashland.

  • Callie Comes of Age, by Dale Champlin, reviewed by Jackie McManus

    January 4, 2022

    Reviewed by Jackie McManus

    Callie Comes of Age by Dale Champlin

    Cirque Press (August 21, 2021), 148 pp $15
    ISBN #: 978-168524706-5
    Available at: [email protected]

    Callie Comes of Age is a haunting coming-of-age story that could fool you with its lyrical, almost casual language. Prepare your heart. It is full of a staggering anguish. When significant people die, it is a shattering experience for Callie, the young protagonist of Dale Champlin’s collection, who had already lost the three great loves of her life/and she’s just turned fifteen (“Callie Writes the Novel of Her Life”).

    Grief has all the markings of a girl acting out: pornography (in this case as close as she could get to it with a Cosmos article), masturbation, promiscuity, sex with an adult, drinking, hard work, and thoughts of suicide. Six years old when she experiences the first loss, twelve with the second, and a young teen with the third: the suicide of a boy she loved, Callie is reeling. You could argue some of these things are “normal” teenager behavior. You’d be wrong. Here is Callie at twelve years old in the poem “What Happened Next”:

         I rooted around under
         the kitchen sink…
         nabbed the bottle of Jack Daniel’s,
         admired the black label, took the
         almost full bottle into the bedroom,
         and gulped down a couple of swigs.

         “10 Best Sex Tips Ever,” was the title.
         The first tip was, “masturbate
         every morning.” I missed this morning
         because of my Dad’s funeral.
         So I better get on it.

         To get off I recalled how mother’s hair
         fell past her butt…
         And I remembered the beauty
         of Diego’s slow smile.

    In “A Trace of Wind,” Callie’s mother depicts her marriage that had become life-threatening and, before she could convert her new knowledge to power, she journaled the truth for Callie before she disappeared.

         The day Daniel set me
         down in his landscape,
         my first day on the range,
         I didn’t recognize the swinging
         ranch sign overhead
         as the sword of Damocles or
         the nightmare of a guillotine
         ready to chop me in half.

         I was fooled by spring–

    Contrary to what our society likes to peddle, grief does not have closure. Grief comes with us; it is not left behind. Callie integrates grief into every little thing she does. We hear its quiet voice in “It’s Amazing What Leaves and You Don’t Miss It”:

         The next day Callie was stretching wire…

         Somehow a whiff of juniper–something like
         her mother’s jasmine shampoo-or a bluebird
         perched on top of a near post singing its heart out

         distracted Callie just enough that the whip-end
         of barbed wire snapped taut and dug
         into her muscle…

    And then “In Her Brain Castle,”

         Callie has no sense of how she has come
         to such a pretty pass. Even now she has no idea
         of the fragility of her day-to-day condition.

         Do you remember me, Mother? Callie howls.

    But there are always gifts in a story. Yours, mine. In Callie Comes of Age, Callie’s mother has gifted her with knowledge and the power that comes with a name. Whether Callie is Callie or Kali, she embraces both. The language will at turns comfort you until the story tears you apart.
    In “A Reckoning,”

         Callie knows
         her existence is a gift.
         She sees herself
         there in the stream,

         a thing to be caught or cupped,
         a whirl of water in rushed fall–

                                       …Held.

    Champlin employs quotes from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which Callie had read at least seven times. Gender role restrictions are pushed against in Bronte’s novel just as they are here, and we might be tempted to equate Callie with the heroine, Catherine. That is fair to a point but I would argue sensual gender stereotypes remain, and Callie is less sensual than sexualized and traumatized, which changes everything. Every male she came in contact with, save the boy she loved who killed himself, failed her. In “Callie Knew She Was Hot,” we hear:

         It didn’t faze her a bit
         The way boys, middle-aged men,
         And old geezers stopped dead in their tracks.

    Callie even felt an ambivalence about her father, some place between anticipation and fear. Wuthering Heights is a novel caught between an old way of life and a new world. In Callie Comes Of Age, Champlin has written such a book, one accomplished poem after another, all of it complicated, nuanced, and stunning.

    Tillie Olsen said, “Every woman who writes is a survivor.” Callie is the heroine of her story yet that empowerment does not happen until the end. I longed to know more. I longed for the story to continue and answer, What next? What happens to Callie?

    What we do know is that Callie took the truth her mother gave her, took the deaths, murder, domestic violence, the hard work and drinking and sex, and the staggering fatigue of grief, all of it, stacked cairns, (“Her Mother Speaks”) to build anew. Truths aren’t easy.

    Reviewer’s Bio:

    Jackie McManus is the author of The Earthmover’s Daughter, Related to Loon: a first year teacher in Tuluksak, and the forthcoming Tell It To The Water.

  • Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors, by Sherri Levine, reviewed by Paul Telles

    January 4, 2022

    Reviewed by Paul Telles

    Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors by Sherri Levine
    Kelsay Books (August 8, 2021), 90 pp, $19
    ISBN #: 978-1639800100
    Available at: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/stealing-flowers-from-the-neighbors?_pos=1&_sid=5cef90b89&_ss=r

    In Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors, Portland poet Sherri Levine proves that she understands the Rumi epigram that introduces her book: You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens. The result is a series of 53 poems that testify about difficult themes that include mental illness and the death of a parent.

    Organized into two sections, Stealing Flowers builds gradually toward its central themes with masterful poems that stand on their own while also foreshadowing the heartbreaking—and heart opening—poems that lie ahead.
    In the first section, Levine portrays a woman reflecting on her girlhood while contending with adult issues of gender, sexuality, and the role of art in daily life. In “Girl,” which is the section’s title poem, we meet a young woman who steps out / of the subway / in her shimmy / shine short shorts to meet her boyfriend. Along the way, she encounters a host of ordinary, but threatening, obstacles, including a phone that is B-R-O-K-E. More troubling, she must run a gauntlet of sticky-stank / double dip dumb / fuckers. Still, she perseveres in her effort to meet the boy who waits for her / in the dark.

    Other poems describe her relationship with her parents. In “Where My Father Stands,” Levine uses an everyday situation to illustrate the emotional distance between a father and daughter. As they rake their yard, the father tells his daughter to retrieve paper bags from the garage so she can stuff them with leaves. The girl, however, is afraid she might get bitten by a recluse. The father is unsympathetic, warning that she should not kill the spiders because “they eat insects for lunch.”

    As she stuffs the bags with leaves, the girl notices how a warm wind kicks up a whirlwind of dust and willow leaves and asks her father if he’s ever seen leaves / dance like that? However, he’s already gone.

    As good as it is, the first section of Stealing Flowers ultimately is a scene-setter for the second part. Titled “Unleashed,” the section adroitly explores two parallel arcs: her struggles with mental illness and her mother’s descent into illness and death.

    In “I Remember Not Sleeping,” Levine describes her experience in a behavioral health facility:

         I remember, on the psychiatric ward, thinking that the patients
         were doctors who were there to save me because I was dying.

         A flashlight shone in my eyes every two hours during the night,
         a needle poked in my arm.

    In “Tell Me What It’s Like,” she bravely gives us a peek into the experience of mental illness. It’s as if my brain traveled / a long way across the Arizona /desert, she begins. Her brain, she says, is dehydrated, worn, / deviled by dirt and sand, / pierced by prickly pear spines. A javelina sniffs it and turns away. A wolf pisses on it. In the end, in a passage both frightening and liberating, a hawk snags it and drops it into a small stream / where shade / feels like spring.

    Other poems describe the process of her recovery, the powerful therapeutic value of making art, and the eventual understanding that madness is not necessary for creativity.

    At the same time, Levine takes a clear but sympathetic look at her mother’s emotional and physical problems. In “Rummaging,” she learns of her mother’s emotional difficulties during a visit to a bank. After her mother waves a finger at a teller and abruptly asks for the chubby one, Levine tugs her arm and attempts to pull her away. When her mother refuses to relent, Levine notices that the bank’s staff are taking the episode in stride. Behind the window, the manager nods to me. / He says to her: “It’s okay, Mrs Levine.”

    Later poems focus on her mother’s hospice center. In “Camellia’s Bloom,” Levine provides a compassionate but unflinching look at her mother’s condition as she lies in her final bed.

         At the hospice center,
         Mom lies exhausted in bed,
         stares absently through
         the sky’s broken blue.

    Other poems, including “My Questions for the Hospice Nurse,” focus on Levine’s own struggles as she simultaneously cares for her mother and herself. This remarkable poem consists entirely of commonplace questions that add up to a compelling picture. In one typically poignant passage she asks, Did I wipe her? Did I wash myself? Did I brush her teeth? / Have I brushed my teeth? Combed my hair? Gradually the poem moves deeper into the mother’s inner life. The final lines focus on the two women’s spiritual lives and problems:

         When the rabbi with the Invisalign braces came to visit, he said
         there are no new prayers. Is this God’s will? Her will?

    Fittingly, the book ends with poems of elegy and contemplation. In “Unleashed,” the title poem for the section, Levine describes her feelings of loss:

         Since my mother died, I haven’t been able to read.
         The words on the page blur
         like a child blowing ink through a straw,
         the image, a black splotch with branches
         of tiny arms, hands, and feet.

    Almost two years ago, in a review of Levine’s first chapbook, In These Voices, I commented that I would look eagerly for her next work. Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors delivers on her first book’s promise, demonstrating Levine’s skill in using simple syntax and diction to depict complex feelings and situations. Now I’m looking forward to her third book!

    Reviewer’s Bio:
    Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in several online and print publications, including Book of Matches, Pif Magazine, and Rat’s Ass Review. 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.

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