Book Reviews

OPA BOOK REVIEWS: GUIDELINES AND POLICIES: 
We welcome both members and non-members to send us reviews, but the books themselves need to be published by an OPA member… more information about submitting a book review  | Books Needing Review  |  List of Book Reviews


BOOK REVIEWS

  • Firefly Lanterns: Twelve Years in Kyōto, by Margaret Chula, reviewed by Ce Rosenow

    August 15, 2022

    Firefly Lanterns: Twelve Years in Kyōto by Margaret Chula
    Shanti Arts Publishing, 2021, 138 pages, 24 full-color images, $24.95
    ISBN: 978-1-951651-98-5 (print; softcover; perfect bound)
    For a signed copy and free shipping, please order directly from the author at [email protected]

    I have known Maggie for almost thirty years, having met shortly after her return from living in Japan. I found several of the stories in Firefly Lanterns to be familiar tales she shared while we visited beneath the copper beech in her back meadow in Portland or shared a meal. Other stories were new to me, and even the ones I had heard before took on new life because of her decision to write them as haibun. This Japanese form began as a type of travel writing, making it particularly appropriate for sharing Chula’s memories of her time abroad. It combines prose paragraphs with haiku, allowing the poet to craft detailed vignettes punctuated with crystalized images in the haiku. Chula is a longtime practitioner of haibun and even invented the form of linked haibun with Rich Youmans in their book Shadow Lines. In Firefly Lanterns, she takes varied approaches, sometimes concluding the haibun with haiku and other times interspersing haiku throughout a longer prose narrative.

    The book is beautifully produced and contains twenty-four full-color original photographs and drawings that enhance the details of the haibun. It also contains many Japanese words that simply don’t translate accurately into English, and there is a glossary at the back for readers unfamiliar with these terms.

    A major strength of this collection is Chula’s ability to select key experiences out of the many options she had to choose from over her twelve-year stay in Kyoto. She shares what is most meaningful to her and also what will give the reader the truest insight into her time in Japan. Rather than acquiescing to nostalgia, she strives for accuracy, providing precise details that create highly evocative renderings of her experiences. For instance, in the title haibun, she describes visiting her friends in Ayabe, which is a roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kyoto. The fireflies are out, and everyone is outside at night catching them:

           Tomoko plucks a bellflower for me and explains that hotaru means firefly and bukuro is
    sack. With our butterfly nets, we scoop the air and capture a net full of fireflies. Carefully
    we transfer them to the
    hotaru bukuro by opening the blossoms and inserting the fireflies
    into their petal-soft cage. Soon the flowers begin to take on the glow of the fireflies’
    light….

    After returning to the house, they release the fireflies into the room:

           lying on tatami / in a room full of fireflies / the evening cool

           In the darkened room, we drink sake and talk softly, speak of gentle things, the
    importance of  friendship, the natural abundance of life….

           When it’s finally time to retire, Murayama-san opens the shoji and releases the fireflies
    into the night. By morning they will have scattered far and wide, specks of darkness
    against the overcast sky.

    An additional accomplishment is Chula’s skill at drawing the reader into the unfamiliar, crafting present-tense descriptions that make the reader feel they are sharing her experiences and feelings in real time rather than in the past.

    Yet another impressive element of this collection is Chula’s decision to construct the book in two parts. The first focuses on her life in Kyoto during the 1980s. The second part describes the return trip she took with her husband in 1997. After immersing the reader in her Japanese life, this second part skillfully conveys Chula’s feelings when encountering the many changes and losses that have occurred after only five years away. Readers, too, will find themselves emotionally impacted by these changes.

    One of the most heartfelt sections of the book is its final series of haibun focusing on Chula’s ikebana sensei (flower arrangement teacher), with whom she studied for the entire twelve years she lived in Japan. On returning to Kyoto, Chula learns that Sensei has Alzheimer’s and visits her in the Alzheimer’s Home only to realize that her teacher has no memory. It is a poignant conclusion to a collection that preserves Chula’s memories of her life in Japan and the changes that occur there once she leaves. Chula’s memories of Sensei and of Kyoto will not be lost as the student returns to Oregon and carries on the tradition of the teacher: clipping camellias /with Sensei’s old scissors /a new year begins.

    In many ways, this collection is like Sensei’s scissors: a haibun master at the height of her ability preserving stories of her time in Japan and modeling the many approaches to the haibun form for others to follow. Don’t miss this master at work. Firefly Lanterns is a wonderful collection I highly recommend.

    Reviewer Bio:

    Ce Rosenow’s books and chapbooks include The Backs of Angels, Even If, North Lake, Pacific, A Year Longer, and Spectral Forms. She is one of the eight authors of Beyond Within: A Collection of Rengay, and co-editor of The Next One Thousand Years, The Selected Poems of Cid Corman with Bob Arnold. She co-authored Care Ethics and Poetry with Maurice Hamington, and her book Lenard D. Moore and African American Haiku: Merging Traditions is forthcoming from Lexington Books. She is also the former President of the Haiku Society of America.

  • making oxygen, remaining inside this pure hollow note, by M. Ann Reed, reviewed by Sakina B. Fakhri

    August 2, 2022

    making oxygen, remaining inside this pure hollow note by M. Ann Reed
    Finishing Line Press, 2020, 34 pages, $14.99
    ISBN: 978-1-64662-236-8
    Available at Finishing Line Press

    The poems in M. Ann Reed’s making oxygen, remaining inside this pure hollow note invite the reader into the hollow growing point we share with plants – the silent note through which, as the author says in the Preface, we breathe soul-life into words, words into musical patterns, musical patterns into images, all literary features into meaning. And so this book unravels, teaching the reader how to read it as it proceeds with a sense of movement without propulsion – a sense of moving-with instead of moving-towards. The words do not merely transform, but transform with the reader.

    The final note of each poem lingers into the beginning of the next one, and thus all contribute to an intricately composed respiration, one that satisfies the journey promised in the Preface: that uncanny, fraught, beautiful, holy act of making oxygen.

    Reed’s musical speech delivers an alliterated conduit to an intimate, perhaps unexpected experience – a brave exercise in relentless compassion. We wait for the critique that does not come, until we find permission to settle into these uninterrupted rhythms and images that connect the very vast – the Whirlpool Galaxy Madonna’s lit candle—to the very small—a phoenix-flame inside drops of rain (“Did you rise or fall from the cloud of unknowing?). Each poem adds a layer and yet somehow contributes to a lightness in the whole.

    Consider how the initial poems move us beyond honoring the dream of a child bringing oxygen, escape, and restoration to victims of a Nazi concentration camp into “Van Cliburn’s page-turner,” celebrating a Rosh Hashanah song praying the music

    to shatter
                   remake us

           alone
               amourtized
                   into time is not.

    The music leads us into the dense poem, “Rain-forest ecstasy”: the climax of the book’s musical pattern beginning with

           tangerine monkeys                  spring              on ancient banana feet                                                                               applaud(dash)ing
                                  ecstatic
                                  starCries.         announcing
                                                            trape(zery)

    Following this entrance,

                                                 Hummingbirdtelegrams twist
           (choose) rush of breath    a blueprint electric            of dots and dash
                                                                                        across apricot tiger flats

    All voices join the hush at the center of the page where Quetzal feathers whisper

       come hug
            the chanting edge of Dolphins
           their erotic brother wears a coat of rain
    knows        

           it takes the swaddling stillness of Penguins    to keep the balance of living beings

    After participating in the ecstasy of rainforest animals, we may contemplate

    the title, “Did you rise or fall from the cloud of unknowing?” Words and letters are disarranged and rearranged by their shifting context throughout the poem, smoothed through delicate alliteration:

           Rain sings tonight.
           Each drop holds a pear-shaped flame.
           Paradrops fall to form fluent silk screens.
           . . .

           Pears fall from the sky.
           . . .

           You are a paradox.

    The poet cares for these threads for us; we can trust that they will gently fall to the bottom of the poem like a light rain, so we are content to follow them—to watch the “pear” drift in all of its forms, to feel the grandness and the ephemerality––the act of making meaningful music through the sounds of words.

    The shaped meaning—the idea that a spiritual flame can survive in water––evokes the question: so where else can what else survive? Much survives––including Rumi’s Guesthouse, Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina” beginning with a horrifying vestige of destruction and loss:

           Ancient stones had received the bullets,
                    ejected hostile guests. Still
           (mason’s lace rudely interrupted, kindly intact)
                    foundation and framework hold true—accept
           the redolent arms they had once restricted­­––accept
                    earth’s green embrace.

    The caesura at the end of the second line is nothing short of striking—and yet we must wait past the parenthetical, we must be still, for what still exists—the contrast to the bullets is followed by another pause: accept. The acceptance of the poem is an opening of arms to the life, the verdancy that time returns to the ruins. The roof ripped away to open sky; moss on the edifice. The halting cadence soon opens a gate to a poetic movement that feels like plucked harp strings—

           wings
                  dithrambic struck strings
                           comings and goings

           of fluttering things,
                ringed chrystograph
                  of tree,
           harp
               piano

    ––short lines that vibrate sweetly—that fall into an unanticipated rhyming pattern as one relaxes into celebrating a new music shaped by syncopated steps. And where do the steps lead us? Through a growing point to realization that we are

           not made of stone
               but fragile flesh
           and bone

           challenged to grow
           more supple,
           more nimble-minded and humane.

    The collection rounds to the closing poem, “Reclaiming Night Persephone’s choice,” a critical and compassionate reflection on the fall of Icarus and the plight of Andromeda.

    As a whole, making oxygen: remaining inside this pure hollow note carries us to a place to breathe differently and to look at ourselves and our universe with a compassionate vulnerability. It does what I feel meaningful art should: In the wise words of Zadie Smith, it rewires [our] inner circuitry.

    Reviewer’s bio:

    Sakina B. Fakhri is the editor of AZURE: A Journal of Literary Thought and co-founder of Lazuli Literary Group. Committed to language in all of its forms, she believes that—given enough time and creativity—nothing need be expressed in quite the same way twice. Since the publication of her novel The Speech of Flowers and Voiceless Things, she has been crafting a second piece of literary fiction that intertwines themes drawn from ballet, history, and mythology.

  • With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget, by Emmett Wheatfall, reviewed by Carolyn Martin

    July 15, 2022

    With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget by Emmett Wheatfall
    Fernwood Press, 2022, 105 pages, $17.00
    ISBN: 978-1-59498-088-6
    Available at Fernwood Press

    As a poet astutely aware of the challenges facing 21st century America, Emmett Wheatfall has never shied away from the in-your-face-truths all of us need to hear. With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget is his latest foray into truth-telling. This collection bears witness to the history of the COVID-19 pandemic which Wheatfall elegantly describes as The greatest hitchhiker on earth…/making its rounds (“Every Nation Under The Sun”).

    In poem after poem, he explores both the ongoing fear of a disease that has taken so many lives as well as the hope for the brighter future we all yearn for. The opening poem, “For All We Lose,” sets up this interplay:

           For all we lose,
           never to come again,
           the lighthouse remains,
           the channels flow,
           and humanity
           will go on

    Aware of his own mortality, Wheatfall is not afraid to show his vulnerability. In “For the Most Part,” he lays himself bare:

           For the record I am a black male
           whose legs continue to grow weak,
           whose knees incessantly throb and ache
           despite Copper Fit compression sleeves….
           On occasion, a shot of bourbon rocks my senses,
           infrequent sex stiffens my joints,
           an 81 mg aspirin tablet—a daily necessity

    And, in typical Wheatfall fashion, the poem lands on an upbeat note: For the most part, in the sweet by-and-by,/I hope to live forever.

    The poet is not only physically vulnerable but also admits to emotional vulnerability. In “World War C” he says, I am scared, man––/oh, how I am scared. In “Beyond the Shadows” he writes, We know despair/and despair knows us. And, in “Freddy’s Stimulus Check,”

    In this the days of COVID-19––
                            The Smiths cannot pay their rent;
                a lawn service mows my lawn.
                            Freddy has not received his stimulus check;
                I will periodically reallocate my investments.
                            A homeless family has not eaten;
                Karen and I are eating three meals a day….
                            All over the world, people are dying;
                I am alive here in Portland, Oregon.
                            I feel guilty.

    How authentic: this fear, despair, and guilt of a poet who was not afraid to share his feelings at the beginning of the pandemic and would attest to them now.

    Throughout this collection, Wheatfall surprises us with allusions to Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Patrick Henry, Leonard Cohen, and Charles Bukowski. He also delights us with unexpected images that emerge from his plain-spoken poems. For example, in “The Man on Earth’s Moon,” he writes:

                        Wait for it.
           Watch for it. Stars will shine again.
           And the man on earth’s moon?
           He will look back and smile.

    and in “Summer Day,”

           The cowgirl
           Wearing cowgirl boots
           Is hot-hot on the heels
           Of so much fun

    The bottom line of Without Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget is that COVID-19 is no match for hope–– three years ago or now. Eventually, the vagabond will die, Wheatfall proclaims inSing Like Italy.” Then,

           seniors will rejoice in mercy that is grace,
           some will visit the gravesite of the less fortunate,
           Sally will again hang washcloths on clotheslines,
           Sam will return to his rickety rocking chair,
           sisters will sob in their mother’s arms
           sons will man-up and hug their father

    Wheatfall’s poetic honesty reminds me of Galway Kinnell who said, To me, poetry is somebody standing up … and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.

    With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget suggests we look back in time––with as little concealment as possible­­–– at the poet’s observations of the early years of living with COVID-19. He offers us hard and hopeful truths: the hallmark not of one single poem in this collection but of the entire body of Wheatfall’s inspiring and captivating work.

    (This review is adapted from the “Foreward” of With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget written by Carolyn Martin)

    Reviewer’s Bio

    Carolyn Martin is a lover of gardening and snorkeling, feral cats and backyard birds, writing and photography. Her poems have appeared in more than 150 journals throughout North America, Australia, and the UK. Since the only poem she wrote in high school was red-penned “extremely maudlin,” she is amazed she has continued to write. She is the poetry editor of Kosmos Quarterlyjournal for global transformation and OPA’s book review editor. Find out more at www.carolynmartinpoet.com.

  • Transition Thunderstorms, by Beth Bonness, reviewed by Roxanne Colyer

    July 1, 2022

    Transition Thunderstorms by Beth Bonness,
    Reviewed by Roxanne Colyer
    The Poetry Box, 2022, 50 pages, $14
    ISBN 978-1-956285-07-9
    Available at https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/thunderstorms

    In Transition Thunderstorms, Beth Bonness offers breathtaking insights into life events we find hard to talk about with the people we love most. This book is a tender and honest lifeline to reconnection.

    Bonness grew up in the Midwest where thunderstorms are plentiful. During summers, heavy rains pour down in sheets soaking anyone caught in the deluge. This collection of poems shares events in Beth’s life when she was soaked to the bone by her life’s transitions: her little sister’s death, her wedding day, and series of unexplained strokes.

    The spine of the collection, “thanksgiving with a side of no thank you,” fragments Bonness’s experience on the morning of one of her strokes into eight connected pieces. She invites us on a private ride-a-long with commentary from voices both inside her head and outside in the world.

    Before a nurse arrives, Bonness wakes up in the hospital and doesn’t realize she’s had another stroke. She says, “left arm doesn’t work!/left arm doesn’t work!/ she can’t hear me.”

    As the nurse checks her BP for the umpteenth time, she tells Beth to “stop holding your breath/it only makes the numbers go up” and Beth responds from inside her head, “i can’t, my heart’s racing too fast.”

    In #8, the final segment in the stroke series, Bonness is taken to the basement of the mostly empty-of-staff hospital on Thanksgiving for yet another MRI.  She experiences “extra silence with a side of heart racing” and loneliness for her husband: “where’s jeff?/how will he know i’m down here?”

    Interspersed with perfect pacing throughout “thanksgiving with a side of no thank you,” Bonness serves up additional poems like dressing and jello at a Thanksgiving dinner.

    In “the night she died,” we huddle with her as she peers through the upstairs railing at her father cradling her little sister’s dead body: “a lace bonnet with blond/curls scotch-taped inside/her legs to his right … still …” The death of a child is wrenching, yet more so when the witness is a child herself, the elder sibling confused by the presence of police cars.

    The nature of Bonness’s thoughts and poetry seem the perfect container to share the experience of searching for ways to express feelings when the words won’t come out. In the poem “wrong word dinner,” she describes how a brain attacked by stroke jumbles language:

           words in my head stand in line ready for their turn
           only they get all mixed up when they come out
           someone at camp stopping abruptly

    To temper the weight of the storms, Bonness delights us with poems like “nose piercing”––a visual e. e. cummings-inspired reveal to memorialize the day she pierced her nose.

           quick
           cRunCH
           through cartilage

    Thanksgiving would be incomplete without a delightful dessert, and “behind the mirror of someone else” is a rich experience where we definitely need to suspend disbelief. This offering may be a bit strenuous for those of us who are more literal yet, if we have the courage to look behind the mirror, the charm of this more avant garde work is swirling and accessible.

           black slips out of a car and walks into the living room with a
           lit cigar in his mouth, eyeballs blinking in opposite rhythms to
           each other, a tray of bacon-covered dates dare you to eat them

    Bonness writes from the depths of her soul’s experience. With the finesse of a true poet, she invites the reader to the pinch point of their pain then, having walked the path herself, coaxes the reader through to greater understanding and self-acceptance. With extraordinary alchemy, and a shared sense of empathy and relief, she leaves the reader transformed as she articulates truths of stroke recovery with gentleness, compassion, and words resonate with hope.

    After reading Transition Thunderstorms, I searched the author’s website and discovered she’s facilitating a writing group with other survivors. Begin with the book and then explore the ways the poet is using her experiences to contribute to the world ( www.bethbonness.com).

    Reviewer Bio:

    Roxanne Colyer is an artist, writer, and healer who divides her residence and studio work between winters at her Alaska birth home and summers in her adopted abode near Portland, Oregon. Roxanne has professional certifications in bio-energy applications and is a former fine art gallery owner. She shares a blog about art, healing, spiritual possibilities, and what makes life interesting on this planet at roxannecolyer.art

  • Perigee Moon, by Margaret Chula, reviewed by Jeanne Yu

    June 15, 2022

    Perigee Moon by Margaret Chula,
    Reviewed by Jeanne Yu
    Red Mountain Press, 2021, 89 pages, $22
    ISBN:978-1-952204-07-4
    Available at https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781952204074/perigee-moon.aspx

    In her collection, Perígee Moon, Margaret Chula invites us closer into the luminous light of tanka, a poetic form rooted in the Japanese Heian era (790 –1180 A.D.) Tanka, meaning literally “short song,” has captured the imagination of lovers, warriors, and emperors over the centuries. Today tanka remains popular in weekly Japanese newspaper columns and as a mainstay in imperial family customs.

    In the modern English form, the tanka structure has evolved to five lines. The first two often capture a moment in nature, followed by a third germane to the first two lines. Then the tanka culminates in a two-line illumination. Chula’s talent shines in her empowered pivot of this center line. Additionally, her attention to musicality, astute sense of observation, invitation to intimacy, and playfulness pay homage to the tanka tradition while pushing the boundaries to what tanka can be.

    Paralleling tanka origins, Chula begins her collection with themes of love. In the first section, “All Those Words for Love,” Chula follows the trajectory of love: what it is and how it can transform, all the while accepting its messiness and reality.

                            spring peepers
                            and their sad cheeping
                            keep me awake
                            all those sweet nothings
                            I once thought were something  

    The musical sounds echo as peepers and cheeping pull you into this spring morning, but the sad hint followed by the keep me awake pivots and uncovers those sweet nothings that present interior emotions.

    Chula approaches the tanka both as a stand-alone and as part of a larger group weaving song into an integrated story. The subsequent sections in the Perígee Moon, “Spots of Rust” and “Keepsakes,” carry the theme of the lived life, aging, and even memoir. Chula accomplishes this by stringing together tanka stanzas in conversation with one another as profundity is unraveled. In “Obon at the Portland Japanese Garden” ––Obon being a Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors––the tanka spirit guides you, poem by poem within a poem. For example, here are the first and last stanzas:

                            preparing to light
                            a commemorative candle
                            for my mother –
                            the unexpected giggle
                            when the wick comes out
                                        …

                            walking on the path
                            through the silent garden
                            we pass stone lanterns
                            still holding the light
                            of those we’ve loved

    The great influential Japanese poet, Fujiwara no Teika, once summarized a letter of the ten elements of tanka, among these being mystery and depth, clever treatment of conventional topics, and exquisite detail “so that it seems to glide as smoothly as a drop of water rolling down the length of a five-foot iris leaf.” [1] Chula does not disappoint as you experience all these elements and more in this collection. In the following tanka, Chula takes two Teika hallmark elements––well-chosen metaphors and the conviction of feeling–– and glides them seamlessly into the world:

                            the tireless squirrel
                            finally tips over the suet
                            peppered with chili –
                            those forbidden things that left
                            a bitter taste in my mouth

    This bitter taste carries so much while leaving much unsaid said in this perfect balance. The tireless squirrel reinforces distraction and the lolling “l’s” of tireless, squirrel, finally, chili, stand in contrast to the other side of the tanka allowing the hard sounding peppered, forbidden, and bitter to carry these emotions in deeper meaning tuned to the troubles of heart.

    Chula’s artful use of syntax on both sides of the tanka, along with her sense of humor, readily brings you into intimacy. In continuous familiarity, Chula’s playfulness extends to tanka that can also feel like simple fun that delights your senses and moods at once:

                            writing retreat
                            I walk the labyrinth
                            for the last time
                            resisting the urge
                            to pull up weed

    Throughout this luminous collection, the musicality of cohesive sounds and beauty surface in Chula’s tanka images, permitting sentimentality that is so difficult to put words to. Instead, they find a way to rest on the pleasures of the tongue until the full meaning is landed.

                            just a few blooms
                            of white trillium
                            on the Wildwood Trail
                            how to hold back the blossoms
                            until you arrive

    There is much to contemplate and enjoy in Perígee Moon. There is too much here to share, and there is too much here to give away. It is best that you just go there yourself, as close to the moon as you can. The tanka will hold back the blossoms/until you arrive.

    [1] Reichhold, Jane. Ribbons, Journal of the Tanka Society of America 6:1 Spring 2010.

    Reviewer Bio:
    Jeanne Yu is a poet, environmentalist, mom, engineer, and coach, who is currently pursuing an MFA at Pacific University. She was a recently selected as a semi-finalist in Rattle’s 2021 poetry contest. Her inspiration is to “write from a place of my hope for the world.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top