Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless by Matt Hart
(Typecast Publishing, 2012) 

reviewed by Adam Love

    I raise my Black Flag to declare my dis-allegiance
    Always do the opposite of anything I tell you
    I’ll do it too    Whatever you say

Matt Hart’s newest collection, Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, is chock-full of opposites and a love/hate relationship for opposites. At times both Taoistic and sagacious, dark and brooding, the collection is honest and open—always in love with itself and its many worlds. It’s essentially a book that has been waiting to be written for the longest/shortest time. It attempts to re-define the entire human experience, or perhaps to reconnect with it, in the digital age: in this very time that defines us:

    How to grow and grow along without turning
    into a devil/red giant     Or if one must, how also to be
    a sequoia     One thing’s certain: I won’t do it typing
    The sun a sort of burning white hole in my pocket
    Better to spend life spending one’s life, shouting
    and rocketing, blasting the igloo

Hart argues that it’s “impossible to say anything for sure,” that all men are mortal—it’s as if his speaker is trying to tell its readers how short the human life can be. But one thing that nearly seems infinite is the idea that technology, and our use of it, will likely outlast us. However, it’s not necessarily something Hart seems to be confident in—and treats it more as a curse: “I wake up typing letters / Alphabet, alphabet—thought not to anyone in particular / To the circus     To Fluoride     Beelzebub or Beelzebubba.”

As a front-man of the punk band TRAVEL (the book is available with a full album by Hart’s band, with Hart himself shouting each poem over a discordant and harmonic wail of guitar and drum), the speaker throughout Hart’s book constantly references its own punk roots. Artists like Patti Smith and Alice Cooper, among others, are often conjured or quoted directly: “Buried / in the forest by seven singing dwarves, still waiting for a kiss / from The Slits or Patti Smith    But ‘When we die we go / to recess’ is the end, that’s it    Which seems perfect.”  And each of the five poems of the book surmount as a kind of private concert for the reader, where he/she may find themselves in the relentless urgency of their own moshpit on the page.

The book is perhaps best experienced in its entirety, as a cohesive piece, like an album. The collection is woven from the ashes of burnt vinyls and fistfuls of postmodern algorithms. What makes this such a stand out, fiery bundle of poetry is the substance between the quirks and tics of a neurotic and self-afflicted speaker, who might have more in common with contemporary language and the inner world, than most voices could strive for.

    Walking home drunk the other night, I said a bunch of weird, good things
    and you did, too and while it’s hard to remember exactly what,
    the shadows of what and the feelings still linger—even now,
    even sober—we were so fired up, because
    the night was so ridiculously in flower, so and so and me and you

    electrified and shocking, terrific and true, and we were laughing together,
    leaving our strung out presence like presents around the city,
    me an amplifier and you a defender.

The heart of the book seems to be the third poem, “Amplifier to Defender,” from which the above excerpt is taken, where the speaker suddenly jolts into a strikingly different tone separate from the punk-driven, near non-sequitor declarative sentences and brooding musings throughout the sections titled “Lamplighter” and “Sermons and Lectures.” Hart invites the speaker into a private arena, as if “Amplifier to Defender” were really a letter written to a lover and left on a kitchen counter. After realizing its clear and direct command, the poet merely diced it up with line breaks:
    Just back from running—it seems I am always writing to you
    when I’m just back from running, but that’s what happens:
    My mind in motion works better in motion, or maybe it only works
    more furiously. Or happily, clearly, seriously. My plan is to make a few notes

    on who we are/what we might be.

It is in this poem where Hart might be at his most poignant with lines like “As Matthew Rohrer / put it, / ‘I must learn to say the things I never intended to say,’ and then / I want to add: I also want to learn to say all the things I intended to say— / intended and unintended in the very same breath.” A dualistic view on both poetry and the act of creating poetry; vision and near desperation, as conflicted and complicated as a Jack Myers poem; verse that conjures up an almost William Carlos Williamsian sentiment that is completely devoid of sentimentality.

The syntax of the book alters between use of white space and non-sequitur lines; the speaker seems to remain keenly in tune with the trials and tribulations of a postmodern world, both in the literary and worldly sense, through the duration of the collection. It’s as if the speaker present throughout the entire collection treats the notion of postmodernism and its uncertainties—at some times absurdness—as a metaphor for the human condition he is perplexed by and obsessed with: “To live we keep living     Some minutes / The instructions     You read and you weep / Or you act and then curtain      I can’t stand / the suffering, so give ‘em enough rope, / then occupy my life with anthemic meander.” At times comical and nearly acrid, the final poem, “Blood Brothers, Weird Sisters,” seems to do exactly what the speaker is obsessed with: dis/re-connecting the human life to its own vague, infinite temporality. The speaker becomes a proselyte who doesn’t proselytize:
    At the root of human being
    is a dot disconnected, wishing to be connected in earnest
    to a mission, a set of instructions, a deep inflated thing,
    hissing and red with a nozzle and a label.
    You’re a rabbit painted sunset, so I speak of you fondly
    to anyone and everyone who will listen to the music.
    And whoever won’t listen will also have to listen,
    you can bet I’ll keep singing/find a way.

It’s easy to assume, while listening to the album version of Sermons and Lectures, that Hart might be referring to himself as the punk rock poet he is. The collection, in and of itself, is a grungy album in a dank basement of some shitty bar where kids with half-greased Mohawks sip PBR under the cold blue glow of a LaBatt sign. And this is where all the meaning is: the voice throughout Sermons and Lectures is a voice that will consistently keep singing and find a way to make its readers listen as well. Perhaps what’s most interesting is how the untraditional line breaks and use of white space mirror the untraditional music that classically defines punk rock—rhythm and discordance: “Nature awaits us, / and Nature’s got fire     I’ve been cool for too many / summers     Temperature is rising     Joe Strummer.”

Sermons and Lectures both Blank and Relentless is a book that will leave its readers both satiated and dissatisfied, as each reader will be moved by Hart’s darkly tender observations—at times to the point where they might feel as if they’re staring into a mirror and simultaneously frustrated that they will never be able to write poems the way Matt Hart does. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a book of poems the reader will want to return to again and again, constantly finding new meanings—as any good collection of verse (or album) should do.

Because, as Hart tells us,

    Nothing is perfectly nailed to the wall.
    I want as much as possible for the carnival of what is. Better worn out
    and wary, than a mannequin pretending. “The slightest loss of attention
    leads to death,” said Frank O’Hara. I say: “Be prepared for the darkness

    when it takes you, but stay alive and stay light
    for as long as you can.”
Shaking the Kaleidoscope by Kate Kingston
(Lost Horse Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Nancy Takacs

Kate Kingston weaves culture, language, and myth from Spain and Mexico, throughout her first book, Shaking the Kaleidoscope, in surprising ways, engaging the reader with images from her travels there, as well as from her childhood in Wisconsin and her adult life in the American west. Balancing her desire for humanity and beauty against a world of loss and violence, she observes with a level eye, and reconciles this looking at the world dead on, sometimes with humor, but always with verve.

The book begins with poems about Lorca. Kingston travels widely in Spain, was a Spanish professor, and is currently a poetry translator. Interspersed through her Lorca poems are sections of the title poem, which include memories of an accident when she fell as a child as well as one in which her son almost died. The voice throughout the five parts of this poem cannot suppress her memories of violence:

          I cannot recall violence […]
    I cannot recall pistachios,
    the way the shell cracks between my teeth,
    or myself dropping
    from a metal
    bar chipping my front
    tooth on happiness,
    the stain of blood in the sand,
    nothing like the matador
    gored in the groin,
    so that my lament rises
    up next to Lorca
    and smells of wet ashes.

The sections of the poem build with the thread of violent events we might witness in our everyday lives, such as a refusal to someone begging, and the near-death of a loved one in the powerful,“Shaking the Kaleidoscope III,” a piece about her young son’s near-asphyxiation, and the distance and paralysis felt when one force clashes violently against another:

          I cannot recall violence,
    but one morning my son’s face
    turned blue. I forced
    my own breath into his lungs,
    cannot recall the sound of waves
    claiming shore or the way
    his feet toed-in, only the cadence
    of silence, nothing like
    the chain of mountain peaks
    suffering from lack of rain.
           I cannot recall the way a knife
    slices coconut into quarter moon
    wedges, cannot recall cleats
    biting into cobblestone, nor the bull
    lifting his horns to the groin,
    the matador spilling onto sand,
    nothing like the pomegranate
    or the blue face of a child
    when his lungs will not pull air,
    nothing like exhaust filling
    my nostrils or pesetas
    dropping into an open palm.

The pulse of the five-section poem is violence, and it is unforgettable. This underscores her compassion for Lorca, his poetry, his perseverance in facing, and not fleeing from, possible assassination.

“What Does Lorca Own?,” placed in his summer home Huerta de San Vicente in Grenada, Spain, also shows Kingston’s connection with him as a writer, in the following lines:

    Lorca owns a room full of assonance placating
    his pen with ohs and ahs. He begins to float,
    and the room becomes a river, current and undertow…
    …Twenty-six boots cross
    the plaza, worn-down heels bring him men
    filled with bullets and lime. When he closes his eyes:

    he sees the stray dog approach his knee, the stray
    dog sniff his crotch, the stray dog lick his face…
    Lorca owns the word Green.

The poet discovers meaning for herself in both Spanish and English, in her interaction with the tangible, learning what is symbolic in one culture could have a different meaning in another, although in her own poetic language, she intersects them both, creates anew. For example, the word “green” connotes death in the Spanish language, as opposed to new life in English. In several of her poems, she uses this word, allowing both meanings to surface, not choosing one over the other, because both languages are on her tongue and in her consciousness. Both meanings add to the context. She also searches in her comparisons for evidence of one world inside the other, cultures skipping boundaries.

As an example, although many of her images in the book point to a less anxious and more gentle Mexico, while visiting Mayan ruins she learns how women were killed or sacrificed, brutality against women evident in this culture, with “bruised skulls / found in the cenote,” how the “the women were struck, pushed, / over an edge into the sweet water / this underground river, and she leaves “clutching the cabled rail ready to steady [her] descent.” Kingston returns to snorkel this underground river in “Mayan Riviera Wedding” after her daughter’s wedding there, alone, to a cave where she pulls out a vigil candle that she lights as she feels fish surface, and watches bats fly around her: “murceilagos, struggle[ing] / with light, not unlike my daughter—her complicated veil, / its lace teeth catching on doorknobs, on coat hangers.” This re-visitation of the place where the women were killed suggests her need to mourn them, as well as to celebrate their lives, to both mourn and celebrate her daughter’s marriage. She begins “a new altar, / a piece of stalagmite.”

Kingston directs our attention to an American misunderstanding of art, another kind of violence. In the poem “Concourse A Exhibit,” an airport art exhibiting Denver was screened and critiqued as “inappropriate” because some of the artists’ works had images of skeletons; however, the poem suggests looking at art for art’s sake is what is important. Travelers are aware of what could happen on a plane and don’t have to be protected from a painting’s “eye socket of the skeleton staring back / as [they] clutch [their] boarding pass and identification in one hand, / [their]carry-on in the other”; or from the image of “bones / when the country is in code orange…”

Kingston writes of the world’s inconsistencies and tragedies, but also writes as strongly about joy. In “History of My Body” she celebrates:

    This body remembers trick-or-treat, its Snickers bars
    and bruised apples. This body remembers the way dried leaves
    scratch the skin when I somersault into the pile
    of tattooed veins—oak, elm, maple—then wrap myself
    in a sarong of silver water. Inside this body, flies buzz,
    this body with cake on its tongue.

In the final poem of Shaking the Kaleidoscope, “When Anna Meets for Lunch,” she intimates to a friend: “We are pearls born in the clam’s lust for sand. We are / coal before the diamond. What can pressure make of us now / taking us by the hand into the kaleidoscope of dark?”

Kingston’s poems embody duende, a term invented by Lorca who believed all good art must have it, saying: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs inside you, from the inside of the feet.’” Christopher Maurer, editor of In Duende, says, “The duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience

, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort.” This is what Kate Kingston’s poetry does. With a forthright and fresh voice, dazzling imagery, and a conscience, it calls us home.
The Frame Called Ruin by Hadara Bar-Nadav
(New Issues, 2012) 

reviewed by Michael McLane

I should admit up front that I’ve been waiting for Hadara Bar-Nadav’s second collection of poems for some time. Her first collection, A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night (2007), was a relentless hunger of a book whose opening scenes of butchering were breathtaking and deeply unsettling. I return to them again and again. And so I’ll also readily admit that when I sat down to start distributing the review copies received from numerous presses at the end of the year and opened a New Issues package to find The Frame Called Ruin, I announced to the otherwise unoccupied room “this one is mine, all mine.” I was not disappointed.

The Frame Called Ruin is as much a study in place and space (and the tragedies that try to fracture the former from the latter) as it is an ekphrastic exercise. The “Frame” of the title envelops the confines created by buildings and cities, particularly those under siege, just as much as it does the edges of Rothko’s paintings, Nevelson’s sculptures, and the walls of Zaha Hadid’s architectural brilliance. It seems no small coincidence that the artists who receive the bulk of Bar-Nadav’s attention all hailed from places of long-running strife and revolution—Rothko and Nevelson from Czarist Russia and Hadid from Baghdad. Such places are claimed and reclaimed through violence, yet these artists transcend their fractured roots and identities through artistry in the same way that the love and humor and lyricism at which Bar-Nadav is so adept allows her speakers to transcend the horrors that surround them. Creation is the ever-present counterbalance to oblivion and hate as illustrated in her first poem for Nevelson, “Night, White and Gold,” when she writes “A wall has / certain mass and weight. Focus on forms and vacancies. I own my voids, deepest black. / And now my secret is out: I’m motherhouse” or in “III. Operatic Space,” where Hadid’s curving, effortless architectures illustrate how “Like any set of religious guides / these things are fluid, not rigid. Even building can allow / air and light. Through precision and interpretation / you can eliminate wasted space.”

There are small reclamations in so many of these poems. There is no wasted place, no matter how bombed or burned, as long as making and longing arise from the rubble. Likewise, there is no wasted space here, even when the terse, constrictive lines that make up much of the book give way to fluid prose of the artist persona poems. Even the transitional spaces in the poems—between peace and war, between calm and tumult, between one Rothko red and another—provide opportunity for reflection and to be engulfed, whether by passion or pain, as with the speaker in “III. The Art of Untitled” when she says

    A period says when to begin or end but who really knows. I spend hours and days
    inside red trying to solve syntax. Savage. Salve. Save.

Even within the labyrinth, the pinnacle of confinement and misdirection, the minotaur of the “Inside the Maze” series find ways to transcend the literal and categorical restraints placed upon him. The box forms of the poems belie the reflections and desires of a being that is as lonely as he is monstrous, as fanciful as he is ravenous

    In springtime, my lush season
    To  feed,  I  never  even  try to
    Leave. Berries (reds and deep
    blues) line the maze  plentiful
    and nipple sweet

                     […] I could
    Ram the walls and tunnel through
    But   where   would   I   live?   Exile.
    And  why  leave?   Pariah.  Derelict.
    My palatable palace

Nevelson and Hadid represent another site of constraint and violence in the collection that appear in many of Bar-Nadav’s less prominent characters as well—the female body. Both women overcame overt prejudices in their respective disciplines and Bar-Nadav addresses these conflicts both overtly, as in Nevelson’s question about her sculpture “If I were a man would you call it ‘dollhouse,’” and more subtly in the fluid and fertile images ascribed to Hadid’s buildings. However, women in other poems are subject to far more heinous kinds of violence that points back to an effort to frame, constrain, and reduce. In “Lust and Smoke,” the speaker begins “You overwhelm me with your dress / always lifting, always falling. / Velvet parting” only to lose all of the “you” except the dress “breathtaking on TV, the reporter bleeding from her mouth,” the ruin complete by the closing lines. Likewise, Snow White is disembodied to nothing more than a televised head in “I Used to Be Snow White” and the woman in “Show Me Yours” is reduced to

    The names you yell at night,
    In the day, The names
    You chew like pebbled break.

    Breakage is such sweet sorrow

Nonetheless, love and companionship are what keep the darkness at bay in these poems. Though it does not seem to have the personal immediacy of A Glass of Milk to Kiss Good Night, the new collection is every bit as unrelenting in its brutality, and also its healing, as Bar-Nadav’s earlier work. From the opening image of Tel Aviv’s face wearing “a makeup of ash,” we are in the heart of ruin that is simultaneously reiterated and renounced. The world explodes again and again, “Days crumble unceremoniously,” only to reveal some small blossoming in the bedlam.  In one of the book’s most startling moments, amidst the knifed and torn and mutated world of “Let Me Hold the Kaleidoscope,” two lovers rush to their room where
    Everything unbuttons and we
         forget about war,                 
                 its itchy apparatus.

    Romance nevertheless is true,
         The moon a cluster of shredded sequins,
         Deconstruction a song for two.
Likewise, in “Blur,” victims of the Eilat suicide bombing long for “wine / to drown this red day” and describe the aftermath of the explosion:
    lights and fire balloons,

                  a painterly gasoline blur. 
                 Let’s find a sailboat,
    bread, za’atar and figs

                  and watch the distance burn.

These moments, among many in the book, illustrate an unwillingness to be framed, both in terms of constraint and in terms of incrimination, by the horror humans are willing to visit upon one another. Life is affirmed again and again, in spite of the crumbling Twin Towers or the wreckage of a baby carriage abandoned on the beach, as in the speaker of “Meet Me (Breathless)” who begs a companion to “Bring your accordion mouth and your love / of emptiness. Bring a fire and the wild nest of your neck. Bring your open throat.”  Even in Bar-Nadav’s litanies that choose as their focal point phrases such as “my wife,” “less lonely,” and “to be dead,” we find that the commonalities and the finalities of being human bind more closely than any framework’s religion and geopolitics have to offer. We rise from ruin in the same impossible ways to watch, like Rothko “how slowly life eats. And so full of color.”

The Frame Called Ruin is, like the “impossible stairs” in one of its poems—kaleidoscopic, so much “torsion and thrust.” For every step, there is uncertain footing, a likely fall. The reader feels them equally, especially in the poet’s uncanny knack for condensation, for tiny couplets that explode in their oscillating humor and devastation. Bar-Nadav sums up our persistent cycle of failure and longing in one unfettered line:

    We love beyond all these drippings,
               a love that lasts.
Clangings by Steven Cramer
(Sarabande Books, 2012) 

reviewed by Dylan Mace

More than ten years ago, I worked in an emergency room as a clerk. With the flow of heart attacks and car crashes, strokes and lacerations, came the crisis patients. Mostly, they were suicidal. Ambulances rushed them in, brought them to the locked rooms where nurses fed them a slurry of charcoal to counteract whatever poison they had ingested. By the time I saw them, their eyes were red and swollen, their mouths stained black from vomiting charcoal. They were pitiable; and easily understood. Sometimes it seems better to end it. More rarely, the patients were psychotic.

One of the many symptoms sometimes displayed by people experiencing psychosis is clanging, which is typified by compulsive rhyming and alliteration, the use of words based on how their sounds relate to other words, rather than their meaning, and disorganized speech. In his book Clangings, Steven Cramer has taken this symptom as the basis for a collection of poems.

My first experience of clanging was in one of the crisis rooms, while attempting to get personal information from a schizophrenic patient. His eyes glanced around the room, and he incorporated the things that he saw into a rush of alliteration and rhyme. Even though I could see his sources, his speaking made little sense. I asked his name and he answered with a singsong rhyme, which, so far as I could tell, bore no information that I needed. Another patient was paranoid and psychotic, but was deemed by the doctor and social worker to not need inpatient care. So, in the middle of the night, during a rare downtime in the emergency room, he sat waiting in the lobby and talked to me until his cab arrived. He told me a little about his life, but he kept veering into concerns about aliens. There were moments of lucidity, then he’d plunge back into his rhythmic concerns about the aliens’ plans. The cab took terribly long to arrive. Reading Clangings, I had another experience of the rhythm, rhyme and alliteration

    feral sheikhs, in the sheets, amigo
    Wrecked rexes, they preach shrieks,
    refluxes inbred, steppe-tundra freeze reflex.
    A good sniff, out snorts an inner wooly rhino.

feels like a book-length poem rather than a collection. The entire collection is tightly rhythmed in more or less rhyming quatrains. This structure allows the reader a way through the chaos of the poetry, though it is not easy going (reading a few pages left me exhausted as those long-ago conversations). Cramer is acrobatic in his wordplay, and the reader is quickly caught up in this. The simple structure of the quatrains belies the difficult syntax and slang and creates the reading equivalent of running down a steep hill, when momentum is the way that the runner keeps their footing. Thrown into this, are moments of lucidity. After being battered by lines like:

    If an elf owl’s about to kill, he’ll nick
    its greedies in time, strafe my mouth,
    take a summer pump and cool off…
    Dickey’s what a tear in the eye’ll reflect

the reader suddenly comes across something like

    I’m speaking with my mother’s voice
    because she always told me what to say.
    Because he always told me what to say,
    I’m speaking with my father’s voice.

It may seem a welcome break, but in the rush of clangings that the reader is accustomed to, such clarity becomes alien. They trip the reader as much as they provide a point of relief, and are quickly followed by the difficult and perhaps nonsensical words that follow.

Throughout Clangings, in spite of the tumult of the narrator, Cramer manages to convey portions of the life of the character, though it is usually difficult to put a finger on specifics. The reader grasps at scraps and tries to cohere them into a narrative. Sometimes a relatively obvious meaning hides, easily, within a poem. Multiple readings bring clarity. I had to read passages such as

    Stashed my secret name in its haven.
    Think I mean dick when I say Dickey?—
    I do and I don’t; or did, but won’t say
    anyway. Makes a greener chameleon

at least twice before it struck how simple the meanings can be. The book contains a biography of casual abuse from parents, lost homosexual love and inability to maintain normal human relations because of mental illness. The themes of this biography are not particularly unusual. It is the clangings and confusion Cramer uses that give the reader a deeper understanding of the narrator, that give us some insight into his suffering and his inability to hold onto reality.

Cramer has done his research while writing this collection. Numerous lines come from books and articles about the disorganized thinking that manifests during psychotic mental illness. He has taken these phrases, modified and repurposed them for the poems. These lines, however, are inconspicuous within the poems. It was only when I finished reading that I noticed the citations at the end and knew that they were not Cramer’s. That the whole sounds so similar to these legitimately psychotic phrases shows that his research allowed him the ability to mimic the sounds and rhythm of speech of psychotic individuals. Cramer’s method also suggests that the human experience of any person,  be they mentally ill or not, is relatively similar to that of the rest of the species. Even when their communication is garbled and disjointed, we are able to glean meaning and understanding, and to empathize with their suffering.

I had not thought much of the time when I worked in the emergency room, until reading Clangings. Only a few pages into the collection, I remembered those experiences clearly, as if they had just happened, propelled by stanzas, such as:

    the outlets, swipe the prints
    off DVDs, weep up the tea
    stains where once were coffee.
    Not one seep from him since.

These moments pile up and overwhelm. I had this reaction initially, eager to get through the experience. This in itself would have made me declare Steven Cramer’s book a success—he hit close to the mark and was able to vividly recreate such disorienting, and often impossible, conversations. However, as I made my way through this collection, I realized that there were bits that I could connect together to find meaning and understanding in the confusion. Clangings made me remember the humanity of those people, to think again about the frustration and fear experienced when confronted by mental illness, no doubt to the greatest extent by those who are ill; to empathize with those patients who so confused and frightened me over a decade ago.
Commemoration by Lisa Dordal
(Finishing Line Press, 2012) 

reviewed by Patrick Thomas Henry

The seventeen poems in Lisa Dordal’s chapbook Commemoration strip remembrance and mourning of their ceremonial trappings and observe the practice of everyday living as a continuous recollection of those who have passed before us. But Dordal’s poems care little for honeyed nostalgia, for words and sentiments that are “hovering in the air between us / like some sweet angel of you, returned.” These poems are not elegies that lament the loss of the past, but calm meditations mulling over how we become ourselves because, and perhaps in spite, of the impediments to happiness, to easy explanations. This collection, quite understandably, is a wealthy store of sincere yet evocatively understated language, subtle yet precise euphemisms betraying concealed truths, and frank diction.

The chapbook opens with the seven-part “Holy Week,” an elegy in which the poetic persona treks through her mother’s depression, alcoholism, and death before arriving at her own spiritual and sexual awakenings. Such recurring images as hidden mason jars filled with bourbon, secreted notes, dyed hair, and makeup acquire symbolic freight in “Holy Week” and transmit the mother’s fears and insecurities to the speaker. “Passing On,” the sixth episode in this poem, meditates simultaneously on the mother’s death and the speaker’s inheritances via a note that the speaker discovers taped to the underside of a desk. The note relays how the mother came into possession of this piece of furniture:  “I received this desk from Sheila, today’s note begins, / who bought it from her co-worker, Beth McKinley / who inherited it from Helen Smith, a friend dear to us both.” Euphemism functions powerfully in these three lines, as elsewhere in “Holy Week”:  the lineage of women suggests the bequeathal of an estate and of identity, even as “a friend dear to us both” suggests sexual intimacy between the women—a precursor to the speaker’s own sexual orientation. These notes and reminders convey the mother’s latent homosexuality, addiction, and loneliness, and through these the speaker learns how each of these traits “passed on until it opened out inside of me / falling out of nothing.”

This process of searching, locating, and striving cycles throughout Dordal’s chapbook, yet it is often accompanied by stark reminders that the soul’s findings are invisible to other observers. This shifts somewhat in “On the Way to Emmaus,” when the speaker cannot penetrate the inner thoughts of Jesus and Cleopas, who are seen hiking to Emmaus:

    I know what it’s like not to be seen but, still,
    my eyes faltered and all I saw was two men walking,
    one of whom, true stranger in the text, was you.

Here, Dordal reminds us that sometimes we are the viewers—the outsiders—who cannot perceive a disguised reality. Still, her message comes across quietly, without blatant moralizing.

Dordal’s poems avoid chastising her readers only because of the collection’s greatest strength: her terse, yet sincere, diction. These poems challenge presumptions with a candidness that can only stem from common sense: of course, these poems seem to say, if others appear inscrutable to me, I must be equally impossible to read. This awareness charges the appeal in “A Dream for the Earth,” in which the persona pens a letter responding to Robert Hass’s inability to see beyond superficial details in his famous poem “State of the Planet.” Similarly, the two-parted “Christmas Pageant” plays with this in recalling a childhood pageant in the first section, while the second component depicts a visiting poet dissecting and misreading that reflection; the visiting poet continuously fails to navigate these lines about a Christmas pageant, and he paddles confusedly through a stream of thoughts with numerous strokes of “Unless of course, unless of course…”

The sparseness in the best of Dordal’s lines causes her more cumbersome phrases to sound foreign and heavy-handed, if not overwrought. “Small Metal Boy,” a poem that deftly chastises a culture that prizes male crudeness, is one site of this tension. The central conceit of this poem is a functional kitchen decoration—a metal Grecian boy that, when a button is pushed, urinates whiskey into a glass. The Greek child, the “Ancient Age” of the dispensed whiskey, and the “coliseum of Woodlawn Avenue” suggest that this male privilege is outmoded, but the second stanza’s figure of the speaker’s grandfather, who always pulls over by Al’s Market to urinate in the shrubs, informs us that this preference for masculinity is at least as insidious as Hellenic allusions in poetry. The three lines of the final stanza identify the inequality at work: these privileges would never be afforded to a girl due to the aesthetics of the patriarchy’s Old Boys’ Club. The whiskey-pissing statue and the grandfather

    Could never be a girl. The unseemly squat.
    Or standing there—naked and seductive—
    wet whiskey on her thighs.

While this closing stanza is indicative of Dordal’s acerbic frankness, the first two stanzas are redundant. Here, the repetition forcefully reminds us of easily remembered images. Dordal harps on the diminutive features of the statue, with “small” appearing three times in the body of the piece: “the small metal boy” with “the small metal penis,” a body part later referenced as the “small public part.”  Likewise, redundancy drums into the poem when the grandfather stops to “unzip his pants / and piss straight into the mess of scraggly bushes.” A few excisions in the first two stanzas could have amplified the speaker’s discontent, preparing readers for the last stanza’s articulation of the new aesthetic of the female body—an art that is “naked and seductive,” rendering all these bawdy, urinating men lewd at best.

The collection nonetheless reveals how we ultimately stumble into a self-awareness that remains invisible to others. Speaking precisely this message, “The Lies That Save Us” provides a fitting coda for Commemoration. Here, a pair of lovers has embarked on a road trip through Georgia, and the people they’ve encountered constantly ask, “Are you sisters?” The poem’s women respond in unison:

    Yes, we answer, Twins, even.
    Though we are dressed similarly

    [. . .]
    we look nothing alike.
    Thought so, people say,
    as if they have figured out
    some secret code.

The other characters only see confirmation of what they already believe and desire. To fulfill those values and yearnings, the climax of this poem hinges on the muddle of the “secret code.”  Have these people pegged the women as lesbians? Do they fall for the ruse of twinship, reading the matching clothes as a sign of sisterly closeness? It hardly matters. The lovers in “The Lies That Save Us” manipulate this ambiguity: it saves them from misinterpretations, from harsh Southern judgments.

What matters in this poem, as elsewhere in Dordal’s chapbook, are the unspoken sensations and the ghostly presences that form us—what Dordal depicts as “the power of things unseen: / of atoms, quarks, and auras / and all the love that lies between.” Commemoration avoids the easy resolution of surrendering to nostalgia and dreams of a fulfilling community. Though surrounded by lovers and friends and family, the poetic personae in Dordal’s book journey through their reflections alone. Progress, awareness, selfhood: these are private riches, acquired through introspection and stored in the soul, that will remain personal secrets, invisible to the world. Others will stare, oblivious to this inner self that her speakers celebrate simply by living. Closing the volume in another of those provocative ambiguities, Dordal at once dismisses and welcomes these ogling strangers: “all they can see,” she writes, “is something.”