Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Marriage of the Moon and the Field

by Sunni Brown Wilkinson
(Black Lawrence Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Nancy Takacs

In this superb debut collection, Sunni Brown Wilkinson offers poems of compassion and wonder. This is an accessible, yet wonderfully complex book. In many of the poems, Wilkinson focuses on family and the acts that bind hers together, such as her children finding a plastic turtle on a beach, naming it Crawley, and carrying it with them in the car to “all the lakes we know.” Likewise, while burying a dead bird her son finds in their yard, she writes, “We cradle its head a moment before / the darkness comes.” She remembers an unselfish act of her husband: “[We] are close and you are quiet / and more than ever that man who lifted / my dying friend last summer / into the sunlight and carried her in your arms.” Wilkinson is present too, cooking soup for its goodness, smell, and fairy-tale history. “Maybe I’m a witch,” she says, at night stealing out “onto the wet grass / and danc[ing] wildly under the stars / still smelling of soup.” While family and marriage are a polestar, the poet is also drawn to the lives of others, to myth, and to nature’s convergences.


The word “marriage” in the book’s title also implies her strong affinity for others around the world, from various cultural and religious backgrounds, from Chiapas, Vienna, Juarez, and Mozambique. Wilkinson shows much empathy for those who are ill, murdered, abused, or displaced. She weaves religious mythology throughout the book in some poems that spring from and value the stories, and in others revealing the hypocrisy in organized religion. It appears Wilkinson deepens her spiritual philosophy, which is that all life including nature’s, is braided, wedded, far beyond a cinching to our own families, religions, and beyond selfish concerns.


Many of those she writes about are female. “The Body Carries Its Own Light” is about an eight-year-old girl in Chiapas, who hails from a large polygamist family. Young Mary is eating unattended and chokes on walnuts, blacks out, and stops breathing temporarily. She suffers serious brain damage as a result. The poet tenderly brushes her hair much later on, when she meets Mary, as if she is brushing out the memory of the event: “Dark horses, Mary. Dark shoulders in the dusk of your long hair.”

 

Throughout the poem, Wilkinson nimbly weaves images of horses bred on the farm, alternating metaphors of death, birth, and strength. As the poet addresses Mary and unfolds her story, there are “Black horses in the darkness that covered the farm where your mother found you / slumped and breathless,” while a mare in the barn “lay back wearily” with a “strange sac / between her legs / torn and white / once encasing her foal.” The breathless foal appears reminiscent of Mary’s near-death state.


Although the sister-wives call a doctor who comes on foot to help, he cannot, and somehow Mary is brought to another country, to a care facility, where she meets Cecey, a woman recently having escaped her country in a truck under a tarp. Cecey lovingly tends to the girl, and believes Mary will walk “through the gates of Paradise / before us all, not contrite / but like a terrible horse, trampling the last embers of the dark/with your tiny hooves.” This reiterates what the poet believes—that Mary will be strong in her next life, embodying the fury of a horse, and carrying her own light, as the poem’s title states. The poem suggests compassion is a force in this life, not just a chore performed to lead us to the next.


The light in the book’s title carries many meanings. Although moonlight is associated with lovers, and is how one finds one’s way in the dark, it also creates shadows and hidden turns, like the dark turns in Wilkinson’s other poems about women’s lives. The poems stir these lives, these images, into a concentrate that is archetypal, illuminating the connections between myth and reality.


For example, in “Approaching the Threshold,” Wilkinson’s young son has questions as he reads myths about women, while she unfolds the story of a Juarez doctor, who places cut-up body pieces of murdered women in a chemical solution that restores them, so DNA can help identify them and possibly their killers. The doctor is paradoxically a savior and a Victor Frankenstein, one with misogynistic tendencies as he plays: 


               [ . . . ] ballads, love songs,

               woos and comforts dead women in a den

               of puce liquids and glycerin. “I take many girls

               to bed,” he jokes, holding their bodies at night, “but not

               the way you think.”  He carries them to the bath

               the way a man carries his bride

               over the threshold.


In an alternate section, Wilkinson’s son asks how Persephone, “trapped in the underworld,” got out. “Did she climb / underground volcanoes, swim up / the whole ocean, dodge the sea beast and pull / herself fingernail by shoulder onto shore? Or was there a door?” This poem’s collection of lives in myth and modernity make the irony clear: women have always been vulnerable to entrapment, or reduced to their body parts. Beyond the cruelty to women that has happened and is still happening, what is so striking about the poem is that the poet realizes her son, in his innocence, does not yet know some women will never find their door. 


Wilkinson also channels female voices in “My Possible Pasts,” in which she imagines herself as women from other countries. In section one, she is a Roma girl: 


I am two steps away from the sleep that turns me gray. 

Each nightfall, mother’s lanterns

hang in a neat row: faery lights,

she says, trailing

to the end of the earth.


In section two, the speaker is a Northern European woman: 


My unborn children lost,

my mother far away.

In the longest of summer days

I hear the fir tree seeding,

the reaching of each upright needle.

The planets sing their silence.

Earth is a coin

cast for luck. 


Reaching and reseeding like the fir trees, under the distant cosmos, or looking at her mother’s lanterns, each of these women looks to mothers or nature for comfort, amidst lives that appear to be unsatisfying. These themes of mothering, the unborn, and birth are crucial and recur throughout the book. 


Two poems reveal Wilkinson’s own emotional state while pregnant. “Nesting Dolls” begins with Russian Matryoshka dolls that nest inside one another, and how “the biggest one carries all that weight / inside her it’s a wonder / she doesn’t fall over.” This is a humorous start to a poem while her baby is in utero, and the poet’s protection of her family during a storm. She feels a “tap” from her unborn child, and hears another son whisper as he hears the train whistle, “Someone is calling your name.” As a mother, her nurturing is automatic, yet there is always that longing for self-definition.


In “My Son Says He Has an Owl Inside Him,” the poet is pregnant, and sees her baby in utero as a vulnerable orchid slowly unfolding during an exam, and she wonders about her unborn child, asking, “What will he find when he comes?” and “[ … ] all day I wonder / if the world is enough.” 


The last line in the book, “The owls inside us open their wide eyes,” suggests that she is also pregnant with a need for awareness, as an owl is aware, for the baby, and for her as his watchful mother.  I am reminded of a line in Sylvia Plath’s poem “You’re,” that addresses her unborn baby: “Wrapped up in yourself like a spool, / Trawling your dark as owls do.” The inhuman owl-baby in both poems is depicted as very much alive and strong, yet there is a loneliness projected by each poet on life in the darkness of the womb. 


Wilkinson’s love of domestic life is set against her own hunger, as in “Honey on the Bread, Bread on the Honey.” She delights in the natural while breastfeeding: “Flanked by his cries / I shift the T-shirt, everything in the way of the breast / that opens itself like a flower.” The poem’s wonderful tension comes as she sees herself rising like bread, like milk in her body, foods of this world associated with women and domestic tethering. She questions what happens to appetite,

in religious myth, after one rises from the dead:


                I’m practiced in the art

                of rising. Like my son, I’m hungry

                for what I don’t have.

                Jesus called death the sting

                and we understand. After he raised the dead,

                what would they eat

                the body

                and the spirit fresh with empty?

                . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

                In the end

                of the mouth it’s the tongue

                searching, the tongue

                that finds what’s sweet.


Wilkinson looks for how to live her life with kindness, a sweeping ethic, and her own continual search for manna in the language of poetry. I am taken by her honest depiction of women’s lives.


Arundhathi Subramaniam, a contemporary Indian poet, says in her description of good poetry: 


Of course the poet has to be sensitive and alert to the world  around her—its history, its politics, its ecology, its culture, you name it. But poetry is born when all that she has absorbed has been so deeply internalised that it is an utterance that arises from her marrow, her bloodstream. Poetry is verbal magma. That’s why it’s so explosive, so magical, so incredibly alive, and has to be handled with such care. It’s language that’s subtle and dangerous all at once.


This verbal magma is in Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poems; her readers will be both shaken and lifted by her luminous rendering of humanity and left with a hope for the spirit to have peace in some type of rebirth. 

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Facts + Figures

by Rob Carney
(Hoot n Waddle, 2020)

Reviewed by Diane Raptosh

Revamping Creation's Calculus: A Review of Rob Carney's Facts + Figures


In this particularly rough patch of American anti-factual post-reality, it is heartening—if not the keenest form of bliss—to come across a poetry collection such as Rob Carney’s Facts + Figures. We all know those lines from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” So, what is found there, in the poetry? In Carney’s case, a first-rate listening, a strain of gentle prophecy, a full-on process of myth making. Moreover, all of this is true, the poet himself announces in “Fact 1,” the book’s opening poem. And frankly, thankfully, it is.


Divided into five sections, the book traverses earth, ocean, and sky, dealing in the fins and wings of this world while highlighting the scope of what awaits, of what could be. The first section of the book, “Thirteen Facts,” comes in the form of prose poems spun from a voice both humble and wise: “I know what I’m talking about: lightning strikes are memory—sometimes sharp enough to sheer off branches—and rolling clouds are bison.” The poem “Fact 10” exemplifies the section’s leitmotif: the fragile dance between creation and destruction. Here is that poem in its entirety: “Now that orchard is a golf course. Money always wants a water view. If you’re ever there, putting on third green, that’s where we were.” Some of the these “facts” get broken into different parts, splintered into monostich: “No love means no Creation Story.” Or split into a single word against the page-scape, thus: 


    Logging.

         ~


The main heartbeat of the book drums out the difficulties of living in a world insufficiently buoyed by ethics, empathy, and awareness of beauty—the stuff Carney’s work boasts in super abundance. Such a dearth-based society has surely lost its way, the book suggests, and the arc of its poems aims to inform and reconceive, through drafting new, more compassionate calculi. In section II, “13 Figures,” the poem “21st-Century Math Exam” (by my reckoning, one of the strongest pieces in the collection), grapples with, among other things, “7 Payday Cash-Advance Lenders and a handful of stations for Auto-Emissions Inspections, / x   no doctor’s office, no shoe store, nowhere to swim, / + all the neighborhood housing is rental, / – I.C.E. keeps taking people.” Even so, the creator-fervor buried in these words—indeed, some of the later poems’ robust whimsicality—serves to ease our collective despair. Take these lines from one of several fourteeners in section two:


    After They Resurrect the Mastodon,


    I hope I win a golden ticket

    ‘cause rides are awesome, but who likes waiting in line?


    Imagine the view from atop its shoulders—

    all the way to the parking lot,


    And eye to eye with the mastodon balloons

    that pretty vendor is selling.


    In a former life, she was a lifeguard

    but dropped that to be a part of history.


    I want that too, 

    my name below a photograph


    titled “Man as Ice-Age Astronaut.”


The book features sustained figurations of childhood memories and themes, none of which, the poet admits, “comes with citation, of course, / and I’ve had to fill in most of it myself.” Midway through the book, the poet finds the homework of a boy named Jesús Valenzuela. This particular series of poems rings with an intimate, disarming lyricism: “But why was your backpack scattered in my yard? / And where’d you go?” Fueled by wonder, amusement, and dismay, these poems do the difficult work of hearing what is real and making the saying look easy:


    I don’t know where you’ve gone, Jesús,

    but I hope wherever it is


    you get to be a kid,

    and someone is showing you which dot is Mars.


    My own son says he wants to go there,

    be an astronaut.


    He doesn’t know it’s a one-way trip,

    an empty rock without Christmas trees,


    and he’d walk eight years without seeing a river or cat.


The poems in Facts + Figures come to us in varied modes and formations (the blue jay’s Screek!, the “green scents carried from the north”), at myriad velocities (the fox’s zigzag, the bear cub’s future: too soon, too soon), and in a variety of attitudes (“Because Summer Has Fourteen Kinds of Orange,” “It Only Looks Like Leaving to Someone Standing Still,” and “Not Your Olden-Days Wolf[!]”). Even so, the book reads like a whole note struck and held, start to finish—each poem formed, in the poet’s own words, by “the shape of possibilities.”



Diane Raptosh’s fourth book of poetry, American Amnesiac (Etruscan Press), was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. The recipient of three fellowships in literature from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, she served as the Boise Poet Laureate (2013) as well as the Idaho Writer-in-Residence (2013–2016). In 2018 she won the Idaho Governor’s Arts Award in Excellence. A highly active ambassador for poetry, she has given poetry workshops everywhere from riverbanks to maximum security prisons. She teaches literature and creative writing and co-directs the program in Criminal Justice/Prison Studies at the College of Idaho. Her sixth book, Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles, was published by Etruscan press in July 2020. DianeRaptosh.com 

Child Ward of the Commonwealth

by Eileen Cleary
(Main Street Rag, 2019)

Reviewed by Christine Jones

How to tell the truth when the truth hurts? How to open a wound that’s been scabbed over? Eileen Cleary, author of Child Ward of the Commonwealth, knows. In her debut, autobiographical collection of poetry, she tears at the wounds and traumas of being a child ward of the state.  


It is important, as humans, to feel another’s pain so we may understand the universal connection we share. But it’s also necessary, like a good cry, to share in the relief. Child Ward of the Commonwealth is this poet’s relief.  


She shares with her readers some of her bleakest moments, such as when she recalls hiding under a table in “On What to Forget” while her sister was caught in flames:


Start out four years old

under a table.


A silent movie,

your brother’s legs


rushing past and then,

the afghan he uses to smother


your sister’s flames.

Melting skin in sheets hangs

….


Grow older, grow smaller

because you did nothing, you


did nothing but hide, […]


While doubt and guilt resonate throughout, Cleary thankfully trusts her readers enough to include these devastating times, allowing us to help carry her pain like a dead baby. The clarity with which Cleary writes tells us she understands the sacredness of sorrow and fear. Her stark cinematic imagery forces the reader’s attention to see, really see, what it must be like to feel such loss. She brings us to the scene of when she was taken away in “When the Social Worker Took Me”:


Mom wears a sundress in December,

rocks herself to sleep. I watch…

…poke holes in my tights, pull snarls

from my hair, toss and catch

a puppy on the stairs—


We hear the confusion further on in the poem with the question, “are they scared / by the poor?” and her wondering why the neighbors stay “shut behind their doors,” call her “feral.” 


In other poems, we’re able to walk with her to school, following the “cloud-breaths” to feel the chill through the “double thin shirts,” to slurp noodles “straight from the pan,” leaving the reader, too, hungry for more.


Fortunately, Cleary continues to feed her reader extraordinary images throughout the book. “A sack dress, its jute thread emptied of potatoes,” or five kids stuffed in the backseat of the car “like boots / into bulging luggage.” In “Foster Child” we see her left to “stuff liverwurst through porch slats.” In this poem, we also learn the author lived in multiple homes, shared multiple names. Now, as an adult, it’s obvious she’s found her home in poetry. Steadfast in her writing, she is concise, careful not to take up too much room—an economy it seems she learned being a ward of the state. 


As a reader, it’s difficult not to become attached to the little girl, especially when you read of her yearning in “First Germantown Summer Without My Mother”:


Crisscross applesauce at the lawn’s edge

I want to feel her core, to hold her

soft dough of her. Bring her.

Dear God, let her recognize

me, her littlest one, […]


Yet, this girl, while timid and insecure, is anything but weak, as illustrated in this excerpt from “Sea Wings”:


My shoulder


flint melts to feathers,

myself into myself.

  

Despite the sadness that’s present throughout, there’s a confidence in Cleary’s craft that is admirable. This is evident in her trilogy of “Child Ward of the Commonwealth” poems—“The Removal,” “The Living Through,” and “The After”—which serve to provide subtle section breaks to the collection’s chronology and illustrate the dynamic voice that Cleary sustains. This is also observed in her series of “Jane Doe” poems, taking on the persona of a girl without an identity. The repetitiveness of these titles anchors the reader and provides safeholds amidst the disturbing content that follows.  Her use of the persona poem is apt, as in “Come Back Jane Doe,” where the desire to forgive is clear:


into that sky in which some small plane has written Marry Me

above Missing Child posters plastering the Equinox.

Jane, forgive us. Come home.


There’s comfort, too, in her lyricism, often because of her prosody and rhythm. They are, however, so subtle you might miss them, hiding within the disturbing scenes, such as this one from  “Jane Doe Becomes That Which Surrounds Her”:


If found in the grasslands or the wild,

her given name’s as blameless as the skies.

She’s the bluest iris if she dies with child.

If no family claims or tries to find


her afterwards, the cypress names her kin.

If she’ll never grow to woman, she stems

from scented pine and soft wood resin.

No matter her address, no wren condemns


her or the carefree yarrow where she lies.


Or in the mushed sounds of “Hurricane Provisions” that create a sense of togetherness:


Me and my little sister

    out in a flood,

to buy food with nickels Dad

     missed in his rummage


through the couch to buy his gin.


Or here, in “Leenie’s Ginny Doll Speaks,” where her choice of mixing hard with soft vowels allows space to feel both the heaviness of despair and the lightness of hope.


God calls me by name

Just under my paint-brushed hair.


A refugee from the state of empty air.


Though quiet in voice, this verse calls attention to the forlorn, the neglected, and the abused, but also to the survivor. This voice has been silent for too long and is ready to be heard. Resilience resonates on every page. The reader is taken from that scared child hiding under a table, to the hopeful little girl in “Dear Mummy” asking her mother to come get her, to the woman who has become a hospice nurse helping others process loss in “Rounds.”


Child Ward of the Commonwealth will haunt the reader with its composed and graceful spirit. Cleary had no control over being taken away as a child and placed in foster care, but these poems, now, are hers and no one can take them away. Fortunately for us, this poet is here to stay.

Friday, August 7, 2020

If Mother Braids a Waterfall

by Dayna Patterson
(Signature Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke

A poet’s vocabulary is more than a tool, more than personality. Its origin and culmination are familial and cultural. Dayna Patterson grew up in a bookstore, a devout reader, a Mormon girl of polygamous ancestry who served a mission for her church and who was thirty years old when her mother came out to her.


It slips from your mouth, Mom,

hits, finally, in the clothing store,

one seismic word—


bisexual.


Although her mother’s truth is vital to this collection because it leads, as Dayna says in her virtual book launch on May 23, 2020, to her own “de-conversion from Mormonism,” only two poems of 52 in the book are for and about her mother. They are enough. The plain speech of “Revision” (above and below) lays out a daughter’s confusion and sorrow:


Thirty years of Sunday lessons learned,

rules for heaven, hell,

made me a person you couldn’t tell.


“Revision” describes the coming out as an “earthquake,” with “whole mountains / made low.” In the next poem, “Dear Mom,” vocabulary builds and the mountain metaphor contracts to a musty cave, wherein a clawed beast avoids the bleak, white season of not yet knowing.


December lady, the day you came out to me I was in my 

hibernacle, so comfortable in the warm smell of my own 

pelt and the cave’s dry envelope where I slept in a ball.  


Teeth and claws bared, the “startled” daughter-beast does not want to hear the “news,” but her mother “took me by the paw,” taught her daughter “to forage / for winterberry,” taught her about pain and compassion and forgiveness. “I took off my thick coat, felt cold’s blow, what you’d borne these / hush-mouth years,” and knew “no need to devour your heart.”

“Hibernacle” seems to be a melding of the words “hibernate” and “tabernacle,” both steeped in cultural meaning. Many words in this volume seem as though they might be coined from the author’s trove of words and concepts, but look them up. The most interesting and mysterious are real artifacts from early Mormon history, such as the architectural terms, “hunky-punks,” “oubliette,” “claire-voie,” or terms from Star Trek, such as “Betazoid empathic powers” or “Pon Farr,” the Vulcan time of mating, veiled in mystery and secrecy, much like Mormon temple rituals.


Ritual is a recurring element in the collection, as are the earthly elements of Mormon culture. Precious metals and everyday minerals are as varied as diamonds to motes of dust or golden nuggets to salt crystals. In the first poem of the book, “The Mormons are coming,” ancestors “donated their / china for crushing to make the temple’s stucco sparkle.” They “pass silver plates of torn / Wonder Bread.” Or “they arrange a / room of plinths with the bronze busts of their prophets.”


Ancestors are as prevalent in the poems as minerals, some of them recurring in a series of letters from the author, others appearing only once, but with lasting impressions. In “Contrails,” a deceased grandfather causes Dayna (the author is the speaker in many of these poems) to ask “What is the truth?” She speculates on the idea of a “gentle, pearlescent heaven” that pretends to “soften thoughts of oblivion.” She wonders if elements of her grandfather might somehow remain, “leave / pieces in our memories like glowing stones?”


The “glowing stones” call to mind the Urim and Thummim, said to be ancient seer stones through which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. They recur later in the book, in the culturally and historically expansive poem, “Former Mormons Catechize Their Kids,” with “Joseph Smith peering into a dark hat at the / peep stone, words floating up to his eyes in / phosphorescing light.” 


Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith get death masks in the book, and Brigham Young, another early prophet of the church, is named only in reference to a chronological list of his 55 wives. The real punch in the collection is not its rightful dressing-down of a strong religious patriarchy, but its rebellious matriarchal revelry in regard to the “Heavenly Mother,” of whom Mormon prophets say their members must not speak because she is “too sacred.” This rebellion begins with poems of reverence toward her pioneer grandmother, “first kin to convert.”


In “Dear Ellen, 1852,” Dayna imagines trying on her four-great grandmother’s essence by trying on her clothes. 

I know

my feet wouldn’t fit your winter 

shoes, my waist would burst

your laces. Still,

I slip on your secondhand cotton,

whalebone,


          shoehorn into your leather.


Imagining her grandmother’s life means imagining why she would convert to a church that asked her to travel far from her home country. With “better marriage prospects” and the promise of no more “whiskey prints on your wrist,” along with “golden plates,” “and the spillway of heaven,” Dayna asks, “what part of you could resist?”


In “Dear Ellen, 1855,” the impact of pioneer life leads to more questions about Grandmother Ellen from Dayna, whose middle name is Ellen. 


On the clipper ship Charles Buck

I wonder if you carried a spider

in a walnut shell for luck, or if your new faith


was enough.


Did you keep your children

close, below deck, sewing tents

and wagon covers for the trek?


At least you and yours were whole—

until Mary Ann tumbled from the wagon.

The oxen pulled the first wheel


over her chest, puncturing lung,

the hind wheel over her jaw, shattering bone.

Did her disfigured face make you ask,


What are you up to, God

Almighty?


Questioning the faith in which Dayna Ellen spent the first three decades of her life, has given rise to a book rich with doubt, resolve, and praise. The Heavenly Mother, of whom Dayna was forbidden to speak, is now named “Eloher,” a feminine god. She is “Mother,” who “has a Degree in Exterior Design,” and she is “a shrine,” “a book,” “the One and Only,” who 


Braids a Waterfall 


in a country where no one speaks

Her language.


Except for Dayna, whose extensive vocabulary and lyrical narrative dares the mystery and secrecy of a religion she has cast off while it embraces the quirky, sexy, comforting, and exasperating culture in which she still quite happily belongs. 


As she told attendees at the book launch, she began writing poetry in earnest as a young Mormon wife, when she and her husband could not conceive a child. But she did not write as therapy (and they did eventually have children), even when they left the church together. Through it all, she says, she hoped her writing was “elevated to the moment of art.” Oh, yes. Every page, every line.