Book Reviews

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BOOK REVIEWS

  • 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.

  • Litany for Wound and Bloom by Judith H. Montgomery, reviewed by Catherine McGuire

    April 29, 2019

    Uttered Chaos Press, 2018, 80 pages, $19

    ISBN 978-0-9998334-1-4

    https://www.utteredchaos.org

    As I often do when I start a book of poetry, I opened Judith Montgomery’s Litany for Wound and Bloom at random and dove in. The poems are startling and beautiful, standing on their own even without the arc of the arrangement, though that had its own pleasing form.

    “Listen” drew me in first, repeating some lines like a refrain (if the moon had been tatter and fogif I lived in green valleys of wheat), making the unfolding story even more appalling, like a lullaby turned horror story.  

    In the three evenly-divided sections – (Womb), (Word), (Witness) – which concern motherhood – all the joy and the pain, especially in our violent world, I found many deeply moving poems, some difficult to read because the pain is so vividly communicated.

    While most of the poems are free verse, they are consciously shaped: often couplets, triplets or quatrains, with clearly much thought given to shaping lines in complement to the content.

    A poet works to make form, word choice, and sound fly under the radar as we read, and yet it is a big part of what makes a poem memorable. Throughout the book, Montgomery creates musical arrangements (if the moon had been tatter and fog rather than if the moon had been tattered and foggy) in what seems an effortless, but very skilled, technique of creating rhythms and music in the reader’s mind. A mother’s tragedy seems more horrific for being described in this elegant way.

    The first section (Womb) speaks of the longing for motherhood, the failure to achieve it, the success at last which carries its own fear and wounding. The poems helped me, a childless woman, to get a better sense of motherhood. I am sure it will resonate even more deeply with mothers. But more than that, these poems speak to how life wounds all of us, often in a place we’re most vulnerable:

                                                    each scar’s a scarlet witness on or

                                             in the body, inscribing its stubborn

                                                   devotion: Hurt. Hurry. Heal.

                                                                      (“Yet Praise the Scar”)

    The details of menstruation, ovulation, conception are presented in lyrical terms:

                                                    …one packed golden drop releases, lit seed

                                        slipping down the sleek chute until that fortunate

                                        fall into the womb’s open heart…

                                                                                                    (“Apoptosis”)  

    Poems like “Expectant: I,” detail a different kind of anticipation and contribute to the deep exploration of this timeframe in many women’s lives. In addition, Montgomery explores this timeframe’s parallel to writing, summed up with the last line in this section: “All words uncoil to bloom in the womb of the poem.” Say that line out loud and you will hear some of the musicality this book contains.

    The second segment (Word) concerns many different women, individually and in groups. It is in this section that the title of the book seems most appropriate, because this is indeed a litany of wounding and also the blooming of women, real and mythological. For example, in “Black Seed,” the poet describes Persephone in haunting and multi-sensory triplets interspersed by strong single lines:

                                                    My right hand, reckless, sought a second

                                                     flamed bloom, its dab of deckled gold, its

                                                     bottomless black velvet cup. Dragon-

                                                    flies were gilding river air…

    The poems describing the poet’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s employ symbol and detail to move the experience beyond the mundane. In “Sometimes,” she writes:

                                                    An indigo cloak clasped at her paper throat,

                                                    my mother is stepping

                                                    deep and deeper into a mute forest wing-lit with

                                                    birds, a basket of seeds

                                                    clutched in her hand. Once in a while, she

                                                    remembers…

    The last section (Witness) contains both poems of a deeply personal nature and those that touch on wider themes like war from a mother’s point of view. The section moves from a poem about a family’s pet burial ground to a courthouse where a teen is given into state custody to the speaker examining an oil painting about WWI. It links feelings of love and fear that mothers can’t separate. In “Bearing/Bearing Down,” the speaker says:

                                                    to be turned inside-out,

                                                    laid open for the universe to witness bairn emerge

                                                    from a body that was barren …

    and in “A Blessing”:

                                                                     … Child who

                                                    tore from my body, who blooms

                                        now most beautiful…

    The narratives in this section are gripping. “But You My Son” had me speeding through the first time as if it were a thriller. I was holding my breath as the nurse raced to the son’s apartment to try and revive him, not knowing if this poem was addressed to a living or dead son.  

    she gears through stop and flashing lights

    to thrust the fail-safe key

    into your apartment

    lock, she bursts into the tossing dark

    where the great factory

    of your breath…

    I appreciated the end-notes Montgomery provides as they give some background, and confirm some of my guesses, and also the acknowledgments. The latter offers a glimpse into the community of poets within which she works.

    All in all, this is a rich collection of poems celebrating and lamenting women’s lives, with intimate glimpses into some of the deepest pain women endure, and full of vivid wonder at the miracle of birth, of life.

    BIO:

    Catherine McGuire is a writer/artist with a deep interest in Nature, both human and otherwise. She’s had four decades of poetry in publications such as New Verse News, FutureCycle, Portland Lights, Fireweed, andon a bus for Poetry In Motion. She has four chapbooks out: Palimpsests (Uttered Chaos) and three self-published (www.cathymcguire.com). She also has a full-length book of poetry, Elegy for the 21st Century (FutureCycle Press) and a deindustrial science fiction novel Lifeline (Founders House Publishing). A new chapbook, An Inner Quicksand, will be published next year by Finishing Line Press, and more short stories and Lifeline’s sequel are due out from Founders House Publishing.

  • The Moon’s Soul Shimmering on the Water by Doug Stone , reviewed by Erik Muller

    February 25, 2019

    Self-published book, 2018, 53 pages, $12.00

    ISBN 978-1724418180

    Available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

    To write 21st century poems in the manner of 20th century English translations of Chinese poems by Ezra Pound or Gary Snyder may seem an affectation  ­– I use this word knowing that I, too, write this way. In Doug Stone’s second collection,  however, the manner becomes a means to realize poems on important themes and to create a distinctly imagined world.

    Here are many props of Chinese originals: lots of moon, a cup not a glass of wine, a hut, a well, fishermen, an old woman packing firewood, a small fire burning to ash. Central is the white-haired old poet, accurate to Doug Stone of Albany.

    The question is, What can the poet make of such materials?

    The book’s title suggests these are reflective poems, and the poet speaker is a fine companion through the changes of seasons and daily routines, even the impacts of war. He sits, gazes, sips his wine. He accepts calmly a scene that is not particularized by a local name, yet is specified by image:

    Heavy fog has rubbed the landscape away.

    (“First Morning of Spring”)

    Thunder cracks like storm-snapped pines.

    (“Catching Snowflakes in My Wine Cup”)

    A brood of baby rabbits shiver in the rib cage

    of a horse where his heart should be.

    (“Another Battlefield”)

    If you’ve read Chinese translations, you’ve felt a general effort at the calm unfolding of sequences that begin with external observation and move to the speaker’s state of mind, which is allied with the description. The three sections of “Autumn Reflections of an Old Poet” illustrate this, two of them beginning, “From my window.” The distant hill, which the poet describes in moonlight, is where he earlier wrote poetry, yet he now assures himself “new poems are just / another cup of wine away.” Watching crows for hours “preen away / crusted blood until they shine,” the poet wonders

    What is it about my life

    that I find beauty in a flock

    of polished crows?

    Sharing wine in the third section, he listens as his friend speaks of his wife:

    Each time he says her name

    something flickers in his eyes

    like a flame wakened

    in a bed of straw.

    Friendship is a theme in the poetry Doug Stone emulates. The book’s last section makes a startling leap: it presents his original poems as an exchange between the great Du Fu and Li Bai. This is as daring as adding several more sonnets to the Shakespeare canon! The book has prepared for this to be credible, to complete Stone’s imaginative grasp of a world. Here are traditional moments in Chinese poetry: poems of parting, of reading the distant friend’s poems, of receiving the traveler’s answer, of recalling the long-dead friend while pausing at the sound of a death knell.

    These poems sound accurate given what little we know of these poets’ friendship. Du Fu whispers his friend’s poems

    to the willows who recited

    them to the crickets, frogs, and nightingales.

    How they sang the night alive with your words!

    (“When I Read You New Poems Tonight”)

    In straits, Li Bai reports, “My donkey skuffs a skiff of snow / for the last sweet blades of grass.” (“These Withered Autumn Wastes”) Years later, Du Fu laments his friend’s death, consoled by memories of youth spent together and by “the moon’s soul shimmering on the water, / the soul Li Bai was trying to gather in his arms.” (“Du Fu: On the Death of Li Bai”)

    Doug Stone’s first book, The Season of Distress and Clarity  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), supplied some of the strong Chinese-inflected poems included in the second. That book ranged across several of the poet’s interests. It touched upon Russian writers, U.S. cities, and desert and ocean – usually not part of Chinese lyrics. Close to home were the hard drinking and driving found in persona poems of his actual, though imagined, Albany. So, Doug Stone’s new work can resume any of these. Whatever material this poet elects to write about, he will surely use it in an imaginatively compelling way.

    Biography

    OPA Board member Erik Muller is a poet living and working in Eugene. His book of essays Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets was published by Mountains and Rivers Press, 2017.

  • Before Dreaming: Poems by Arn Strasser, reviewed by Gigi Cooper

    April 23, 2018

    Before Dreaming

    EPSON MFP image

    by Arn Strasser

     

    Budding Branch Books, an imprint of Asher & Merriman Publishers

    ISBN# 978-0-9841874-1-6

    2015, 89 pp., $19.95

    www.buddingbranchbooks.com

     

    Before Dreaming almost is correct; Between Dreaming would be accurate. Arn Strasser’s collection investigates the interaction between the dream state and wakefulness. He approaches the enigma of the dream world with both wonder and dread, exploring the boundaries between living and dead, youth and age, adventure and solace. Without magniloquence, he takes the reader on a journey from as close as the dining room and sofa to the markets and shores of Sardinia.

    For Strasser, sleep is not a separate condition, but a way to access both memories and the future. Dream and memory inextricably intertwine in the book, most literally in the penultimate set of poems

    called “The Wanderers.”

     

    1. Night

    … so we may wander

    the landscapes

    of our dreams … .

     

    these constellations of our

    desires, a twilight of

    remembrances.

     

    1. Awakening

    Do you hear

    voices

    of the dead,

     

    who speak in memory … .

     

    In this book, memories are more permanent than transitory life, but they are frustratingly unreliable and elusive. Several poems in the collection are lamentations — an effort to conjure and recapture that which is lost, which here is undiminished memories. The strongest poems are these first-person meditations.

    I am trying, trying to bring you forward

    even to see your eyes

    but the song the song, I remember.

    (“Your Irish Heart”)

    Dreams in fact may substitute for memories. As for sleep, on the one hand, one suffers from an unstated fear of not waking (“A European Sets the Table”) from the dreams [that] are the dark energy of the night (“Silence Room”). On the other hand, the author looks forward to the repose of wandering, even though a dream is a creature of wonderment, longing and fear” (“Before Dreaming”).

    Gardens, and fruit in particular, like dreams, serve as a mechanism for looking into the past and connecting to the present. “The Fig Tree” conjures a couple from “long ago”:

    she feels the strength of truth

    and when he hands her a fig

    she bites deeply into the dark skin

    Ripening fruit is a persistent theme, with poems featuring ripe plums, cherries, apricots, figs, olives, and apples. Ripeness is that perfect, ephemeral moment before a dream ends, before a memory fades.

    While Strasser’s poems focus little on meter – and only one rhymes – he uses anaphora and refrain effectively and extensively, as in do not be afraid in “The Prayer.” The less compelling poems are descriptive landscapes such as “The Beach at Manzanita.” When tackling love, Strasser falters, verging on cloying recitations of emotions.

    The “Three Tales” that close the book are a humorous departure. In the first, the writer worries needlessly over a cat. The second is a hilarious take on the contemporary preoccupations and proclivities of the Greek gods. Appropriately, the final poem finds an insomniac hotel guest sarcastically entreating boisterous Rome to keep him awake, ending the collection in a flourish.

    Whether reflecting on a lifetime or invoking a generation past, the reader will not find answers here, but will find:

    a tenderness, a kindness of

    strangers, the milk of gracious

    laughing, laughing.

    (“Along the Path of Sycamores”)

     

    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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