Friday, June 25, 2021

My German Dictionary

by Katherine Hollander
(The Waywiser Press, 2019) 

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke 


It takes skilled wordcrafting, an ear for clarity, and a penchant for multiple levels of meaning to hone syntax into diction as rich as one’s country of origin. Katherine Hollander applies those traits to rouse language from an uncomfortable heritage, fashioning stanzas that expand into layers of national and ancestral history defined with elegant simplicity, intricate imagery, and complex metaphor. 

The introductory poem in My German Dictionary first presents a simple fact of the speaker’s personality:

I couldn’t be a good Jew, so I tried

to be a good historian. I couldn’t be

a good historian, so I wrote poems.

Then the poem complicates its assertion by insisting on what the speaker can and cannot write about, not the “Shoah” but the “Somme,” not the “heart” as “pocket watch,” but “swans / snails, stars, and mud.” Images arrive and gather intricacy with each stanza’s plea, asking “oak-owls” and “grandfather clocks” to help find her country, and handing readers a “good traveling coat” adorned with “fox fur collar / and a fat gold tassel,” along with the enticement of an irresistible metaphor:

Pull it on, and from the wide sleeve a little

cedar ladder nudges out, ready to take you away.

The first few rungs of that aromatic ladder are taken up by the seminal poem in Section I, “Answers to the Question Europe,” a series of sonnet-like scenes in a life with the last line of each section set apart in denial or affirmation, as in “dumplings” that “floated like little boats // not making a path I could follow home,” or a “half-dead” black cat that “showed me / its beautiful paws, which it held out // pink as soap, like little cameos.”  

Four connected poems comprise the middle of Section I, layering on scenes that pull readers further up the ladder: two German Jewish sisters who look alike and live together amiably except when fighting over “one another’s political affiliations” (“Sophie and Escha, 1929”); a young girl and her parents who live through the Berlin blackouts “at the stove, one burner on / a blue water lily of light” (“General Strike, Berlin 1920”); “dead youths” who “come in, / dragging their next war behind them” (“Great War”);  and a wounded soldier taken in by a family of bears in his delirium, bears who took off their skins “and hung them up in the hallway, and without them / they looked just like men” (“The Wounded Soldier”). 

To complete this suite of stories on the first few rungs of the ladder, the speaker asserts “Why I Don’t Do Genealogical Research”—assertion in the title, but not in the poem. Here we are treated to a lovely and fragile image, “the soul / like a translucent little figurine,” sustained through multiple other images as refracted and gradual as daylight glinting and graying with sunset, the beams and then the colors and then the soft, dark, descending souls of children whose lives were “very brief” and whose souls, the speaker wishes, 

    might have been lifted, 

and tucked, and zipped inside the thick  

impossibly soft fur buntings 

that are the striped trousers

and silken hoods of my two

cats, Henry and Christopher,

housecats whose lives are “gentle,” who are beloved, whose eyes reflect the souls of those children who began transitioning so beautifully in the poem, into the speaker’s “own murdered kinspeople,” and therefore her attitude against genealogical research.

Section II demands a strong and steady hand to hold the ladder, first for “War Suite,” a short poem series of excruciating contrasts, as in “The Family of Skeletons,” all those innocents killed in every war, who “wore our hearts in our breasts like red purses” and “used to eat blackberries / and bouillabaisse, falafel and cherries,” but who now “wear nothing, drink bowlfuls / of air.” Or “The Recruiter” whose heart “cramps like a fist,” who “lures the beautiful boys.” Or “The Parents” who “let the devil in the front door,” whose regret cannot be restrained:

Our son’s face looked into his face

like a bird charmed by a serpent,

a flower mesmerized by sun.

I know now I should have

let loose the unfriendly dogs.

I should have barred the door

with my own body.

“War Suite” then gives way to the “Book of Icons,” addresses to particular characters from the annals of European history, rendered with intricate description and infinite care. “Rosa Luxemburg,” for instance, who “crossed the border from Germany,” to make “an uneasy home, a mouse / in a knife drawer,” who was killed for her “murderous red language,” but “hush now—here you are”:

    in the meadow you loved so much,

up to your waist in the deep grass

and wild flowers, your eyes covered

with a bright visor of light.   

“Book of Ikons” melds with “Exile Diptych,” a poet-historian’s fancy for imagining Bertolt Brecht “abstracted” in Svenborg and searching for “something true” in Hollywood. The final poem of Section II, “Dear Union,” is in protest of Marine Le Pen and is written as an apology to the European Union, which the speaker describes as a lush, benevolent beast with “raisin-scented paws,” a spine “made of bridges,” and “solar panels” for a hat. 

Hollander’s skill in storytelling is enhanced by the creative accuracy of a poet/scholar, so that the first two sections of the book have already prepared readers for the third, in which the titles are in German, but there is no translation of the titles inside the poems. Instead, we get definitions in story-like images that impart knowledge of a time and a people we need to recognize if we are to live in a world that goes beyond the trauma of a dark and needlessly oblivious past. 

Here are just two poem excerpts, for example. “Die Courage” defines a concept, endowing it with human traits:

Everything soft or tender,

be banished. Anything that asks 

mercy, be exiled. A hard

cheese, that’s what you are,

sinewy, and with a voice

like smoke or a spice grater.

The speaker follows Courage “through the woods,” through poverty and illness, until the concept transforms into human action: “Foolish woman. / Go find your son.”

In “Verliebt,” young lovers begin as innocent creatures destined for a tragic fate:

Oracular valentine, with the drunk

little black milk snakes curled up

on your forehead. Their tongues

lapped the saucer and they fell

fast asleep. Your heart a black

heart, buttoned on with a mitten.

These 25 poems of definition tempt and thrill with adept imagery. Hollander is one of those rare wordsmiths who can place three or four adjectives in a row and make them work like magic. (See “drunk / little black milk snakes” in “Verliebt,” above, and check out the three-adjective detail in “Ohne,” where “seals sleep on the slick / black living lace that coats the rocks.”) 

Hollander’s techniques extend beyond the elements of language, syntax, and imagery. She has organized a manuscript that moves with meaningful intention from the moment that little cedar ladder extends from the sleeve of the traveling coat, “ready to take you away,” to the final moment of the final poem, “Zusammen,” imploring, “Call everyone. Call everything loved. / Take my hand. Let’s go.”

What a privilege to be led by this writer of inspiring intellect into a collection that reveals ever-intensifying histories of people and events, each unfolding in poem after poem, section after section, to culminate in a memorable volume that begs rereading, time after time, like all good tales of seemingly impossible human nature.


Thursday, June 24, 2021


by Elizabeth A. I. Powell
(Louisiana State University Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Jamie Wendt 


Elizabeth A. I. Powell’s newest collection of poetry, Atomizer, is a lyrically critical examination of American culture with a specific (and often humorous) critique of online dating and the associations of smells; odors and sensuous scents drift into poems from memory and art, connecting humans to each other. Readers of Powell’s previous works, especially her poetry collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter, and her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues, will notice her continued fascination with how art builds a collective memory for future generations and how memory and relationships expose the way humans react to their environment. 

Within the title poem “Atomizer,” Powell begins many stanzas with the label “(Memory)” interspersed with sensory experiences relating to dating and the scents associated with love and specific romances. Powell’s ability to transition from explicit childhood memories to ideas about the power of scent helps the poem build upon the speaker’s experiences of searching for her own identity. As the poem continues, it becomes more critical of online dating:

A formula means to build a form that contains sensual interplays that      exist within sense.

(Memory): Sometimes we argued under the hot sun of coriander and      citrus, or an 

orchard of pomegranates that tried to set us free from algorithms that      market us.

The base notes bring depth, solidity to a scent, an associative connection.

This poem introduces some of the associative leaps that Powell will continue to make throughout the rest of the book as she repeatedly uses smells and other sensory language to question the speaker’s frequent desire for romance and love despite the lack of a suitable partner.

Powell mixes dark imagery with humor, particularly when writing about men’s sexuality, including an “insemination man” who comes to her grandmother’s farm and is described as “Mysterycow juice God.” The speaker knows that she “will read The Handmaid’s Tale soon enough” and then reflects on how much American society loves milk: “Starbucks… make[s] baby formula for grown-ups.” Her cheeky comments about cultural obsessions, from Starbucks to sex, fuse together with the peculiarities of the situations she creates, whether it’s an insemination man coming to the farm or other childhood moments, like getting her mouth washed out with soap in “Ars Poetica,” due to the speaker’s 

[ … ] nasty sentiments: 

how I loved the world so hard I hated it. 

Things either clean or dirty, 

smelled lovely or nasty, 

my mother tried to make me say it nicely. I couldn’t. 

There is a consistent tension within Powell’s poems from how the speaker wants to express her views of the world compared to how society refuses her ideas and neglects her. In “Killing Rabbits,” Powell confronts the confusing, contradictory information about sex and puberty to which children are exposed and how they are then left to fend for themselves, resulting in “killed rabbits,” which becomes a metaphor for unborn babies. Powell circles around images to tell a story, so that scattered throughout the poem are phrases such as: “I have killed a rabbit,” “this is before the abortion clinic bombings,” “Peter Rabbit was almost killed,” “Peter Rabbit ate soporific lettuces,” “everything I touch wilts,” “we use pull out methods,” “we fuck like rabbits,” and “death is everywhere and pretends to be life.” Powell’s stream-of-consciousness associations build layers of meaning throughout her poems, folding cultural references into the traumas of the speaker.

Powell is successful at writing long poems that extend for a few pages, as many of her poems do, often divided into sections. One such poem, “E-Diptych,” highlights the constructed narratives of online dating sites users as a means to create a digital identity for both themselves and their potential matches:

[ … ] And when he 

writes me, he makes me,

and when I make him, I write him.

We are invented, by the wanting

and not having of others.

Adding to her critique of the way people view online dating sites, Powell writes in the second section of this poem, “you live in this little box spread across / the screen of pixelated desires.” She builds on the loneliness of the dating site’s patrons who are disappointed when someone’s hair doesn’t actually match the photograph, and Powell plays with the truth and lies of these online profiles, despite the fact that the speaker does feel desperate and wants to find a lover and companion in many of her poems, including “Shulammite,” where the speaker swipes through photographs of potential dates on her phone, but finding someone honest is nearly impossible.

Powell elaborates on the power of odors in connection to memory as she moves into a series of poems focused on specific family history, such as “In Vilnius,” and poems about Vermont, including “Burlington Is Nuts Today” and “Lying Perfume Bottle of Chanel Pour Monsieur.” The latter poem begins with the sensual line, “tell me everything,’ he said” as if the reader has entered a romantic encounter of a man eager to learn about his new lover’s past. Powell continues with the statement that “odor is identity’s first ardor,” and later, “there’s something familiar / about the animalistic scent, the refined contradiction.” She concludes:

Fantasy is what we create when we have nothing 

            left to say about a world that has left us trendy, 

fetishized, and empty. He researched me as an olfactory 

curator might, my social media Lysol life, 

how to turn moments into hyperrealism.

Powell’s criticism of some of the foundations of modern American culture are particularly acute, as she continues threading sensory details emphasizing scents that allow the reader to inhale each memory and moment. Powell sporadically includes ekphrastic responses that often include mentions of perfumes and atomizers as a means for women to assert their identity or achieve a particular purpose, as in “Judith Perfumes Herself,” after Judith Chicago’s Judith setting at The Dinner Party, whose “elegance of ritual” involves “behead[ing] Holofernes” while “bearing / her fragrant skin, newly perfumed, like a soul.” She emphasizes Judith’s power through her actions as well as her fragrance and its power of seduction. 

Elaborating on her critique of dating culture, Powell makes fun of stationary exercise equipment, which has TV as “its only scenery” and “beeps phony miles and pretends hills,” seemingly gifted to the speaker so that she “won’t morph into your ex-wife instead of your trophy.” 

Powell’s blunt, humorous explorations of American values, healthy lifestyles, as well as relationships and dating, keep each poem fresh and interesting as this collection builds and culminates. 


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod

by Kathryn Smith
(Milkweed Editions, 2021) 

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke 


Kathryn Smith accomplishes a balance of mystery, hard truth, and lyrical sensibility in this volume whose poems teem with mammalian peculiarities (“our young feeding on us”) and oceanic transmutations (“intricate reefs of plastic / and dread.)” She sets out the syllabus on page one in “Ode to Super Friends and Nature Television” (from which the previous lines are quoted) by donning her “anthropocene coping mechanism,” a “cephalopod T-shirt,” and “ring.” 

This is our first hint that we will need a dictionary and a heightened curiosity about the planet we live on to get us through the course. Why cephalopod? It’s a marine mollusk, with tentacles, large eyes, and a beak. It squirts ink as a defense mechanism. Wearing her “octopus shirt” and “pants the color of a sea cucumber,” the speaker in “Ode” calls to her superhero friends for help (“Wonder Twin powers, activate!”), because nothing is in her control. Or is it? 

“On a planet poised for disaster,” our human reach is its destruction. The speaker’s “tentacles” may not be able to stop the hands that sign away our lands and waters to industrial disaster, but they can write poems. A poet’s “large eyes” are capable of taking in the whole picture and recording it in intricately damning detail. The “beak” of cephalopod poet is chitinous: tough, protective, semitransparent, the main component of arthropod exoskeletons, or, in this case, the poet’s tough outer shell. Smith speaks through her writing, “squirts ink” to defend the world she sees too well. 

The entire collection is a marvel, a wonderment of how to live with such creatures of mystery as those in the sea and the soil, as well as those in human form. The quandary of our mortal existence in the anthropogenic age to which we are forever bound appears in poem after poem, line after line, alongside the creatures and the elements that bind us, as in “When I Stepped on the Mouth of Other Creatures, I Did Not Apologize”:

        I consider it constantly,

in every cliff where roots strain to hang on, 

every chamber spiraled with sand. First

the snail died, then the crab. I offer my finger

to the anemone’s blind suckle. I can’t

feed anything. The tide carries its living

and its dead together, lets the shore

reveal and retreat. When does the body 

become distinct from the mind?

The narrator of sea and sand has journeyed home with creatures “cradled / in tissue,” only to discover the stench of death upon unwrapping her parcel. She realizes the inevitability of ocean tides and what they carry, which leads her to question the body/mind connection, how they flow together and when they might not. 

These body/mind connections extend from creatures of the ocean to things of the garden. “Self-Portrait with Cephalopod and Digitalis Purpurea” begins with the narrator musing, “a girl doesn’t need a reason to place / a foxglove blossom on her tongue. It’s enough / to like the idea that the heart could stop because / of flowers.” 

The heart of the girl and the poem is the narrator at an eighth-grade prom, dressed in a homemade gown with a ridiculous “seafoam bow,” her date leaving without her and ignoring her for the next four years of high school. It brings her to deeper considerations than the “risk” of trying to achieve beauty, or “knowing how little meets our expectations.” 

        Have you ever wondered 

what’s beneath the skin, working? I know

so little, I wouldn’t recognize my own heart if I saw it

outside my body. I wouldn’t know my own bones

arranged in an ocean bed, an octopus coaxing

them to root in the sea floor until their stalks 

grew thick with mouthlike blooms.

In all these poems, questions of the universe are framed in questions of body and ocean, with a good measure of human history thrown in. Smith’s questioning nature honors the millennia of sciences that bring her to such poems as “Situs Inversus,” an eleven-part examination of what makes us mortal. It moves from physical placement of the heart to what it means aside from its pure physicality, in which it might have a spiritual companion, perhaps the soul. 

I was considering the soul

and where it resides and whether 

it’s like an organ, and if so,

if the body’s functioning

requires it, like the heart, lungs, 

etc., or if the soul, like the spleen

or the gall bladder or the eyes,

is something the body

can live without. 

The speaker asks, “do you know where your heart is?” As a schoolgirl, she has dissected a squid “to know where among the tentacled mess / lay its center.” After class, the students fried it in a skillet. “It tasted like everything I didn’t know / about the world’s inner workings.” As Smith delves deeper into the workings of sea creatures and human creatures in this poem of science, history, and gastronomy, she brings us to the crux: “the heart isn’t shaped / like its symbol. The soul is a mystery.” Like the ocean, the body holds a secret knowledge. We still do not know all there is below the surface.

This deep questioning of human mortality takes up the fourth and final part of the collection. It builds from Part 1, where we get the wry social critic of the tech age who “implore[s] our screens to refresh” with some hard truths of current times in opposition to our biblical “Creation Myth,” looks askance at our old-fashioned take on “Dumb Beasts,” and pushes us beyond our “Job Qualifications” for living in a world where “There Are So Many Ways to Decide What to Kill and What to Rescue.”

Part 2 gives us spells, psalms, and parables, all slightly skewed for effect. “Spell to Turn the World Around” works like the superhero we met in the introductory poem, called to thwart tragedies that occur before the hero can don her powerful costume. She calls on her friends to “collect” all who are “battered / in the night by creatures bent on malice.” 

In “Psalm Formula: Anti-Epistle,” humor vies with sarcasm for an all-too-knowing take on the anthropogenic age we live in. 

I am fearfully and wonderfully 

made, made wonderfully



I will dwell 

in the house of the Lord,


where the tables

are all overturned.

The psalms and parables section ends with “Meditation Among the Fragments,” with the speaker collecting “ancient litter” on the ocean’s shore. “[I]n such a vast / calcifying tumbler,” she asks, “who could keep / what’s necessary?” Understanding the fragility of “life / lived at the edges,” she feels the sand slip beneath her feet. “Let the tide, as it / will, draw in.”

The poet as activist has a mix of roles and obligations to fulfill. One of them, as Smith lays out so lyrically in Part 3, is to inform others of danger, not only dangers that await us by fate or accident, but dangers we bring on ourselves. Some of these are byproducts of technology, as in the poem “Sulfur,” about the invention of wood milling machinery to make paper, with its “belching / hell-stench.” Smith places “brimstone” next to “god,” turns “sulfurous air” into “white plumes,” trades “explosive powder” for “immortality,” and bathes the “byproduct of danger” in “healing waters.” Ironies are magnified in Smith’s poetics.

In a world heavily skewed to human existence, where industry and technology have tipped the planet to a place that feels entirely beyond our control, Smith’s poems call on our deeper senses of body/mind/soul as counterweights to the paradoxes of what science has wrought. These are poems of sorrow, yes, but also of marvel and wonderment. They ask us to honor mystery, to give up all we thought was possible and try on our new knowledge like a shield. 


Friday, June 18, 2021


by Britt Allen
(Finishing Line Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Star Coulbrooke 


To bring to harvest is to plant, nurture, and sustain to ripeness, then reap the result of all that care. But the reaper in Britt Allen’s Harvest expects rewards beyond reason, beyond any ethical sensibility. He has reaped the soul of the young narrator through a brutal act that repeats and repeats, physically and psychically, upon the narrator and in varying degrees upon her family. 

Allen tells the story from two perspectives, as an eleven-year-old whose stepfather abuses her sexually (and eventually abuses her siblings) with her mother’s knowledge (and denial), and as a young wife whose intimacy with her husband is compromised by the abuse and betrayal she suffered as a child and into adulthood. And yet, this is not a narrative of sorrow and waste but a work that carries its own fruitful harvest. 

“[I]n the act of making a poem,” writes Gregory Orr in Poetry as Survival, “at least two crucial things have taken place that are different from ordinary life. First, we have shifted the crisis to a bearable distance from us: removed it to the symbolic but vivid world of language. Secondly, we have actively made and shaped this model of our situation rather than passively endured it as lived experience.” 

With this collection of twenty-one poems, Allen shifts the crisis of her childhood to a narrator who relates each lived experience in vivid, excruciating detail, the language of poetry making raw truth bearable. The situation takes shape from the outset with “Harvest,” the introductory poem: “My family split up in the cornfield.” The narrator has “paired off” with her stepfather “in the maze.” The maze is symbolic for what follows, from the stepfather’s initial act of violence (“his stone hand reaped my chest” … “his cold erection pawing my spine”) to the mother’s inexplicable complicity: “Mom could have been an acre away / or doe-still behind the next stalk.”

To further shape the trajectory of parental transgression and betrayal, Allen crafts an erasure poem from a 1961 how-to guide, Life with Women. By taking one page from the now-archaic text and blackening all but a few stark words, she turns the survival guide on its head. The old cliché, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” gets retitled, “Can this Marriage be Avoided?” Gleaned from its sixties' context, the “irresistible urge to mate” becomes a “horrendous transformation” wherein:

        the woman

        can hope


        vents his lust fo

        murder upon

        her daughters. 

Fearing for her own life has corrupted the mother’s ability to stand up for her daughters. But the daughters are not the only ones affected by their mother’s unfortunate second marriage. Now we have the younger brother to consider:

        I swear 

        to god I want to save him. 

                   But for some 

        lie that lives inside

        my mind I cannot raise my cry

        for his small,

        gap-toothed smile.

        My baby brother pissed himself

every night last week while

        I slept between clean sheets

        labelled “selfish” and “free.”

Titled “Selfish,” this poem seems to end in guilt and remorse for the narrator. Not so for the poet, who has shaped and reshaped the scene into art, performance-worthy, ready for the microphone. Allen is a talented reader of her work, with the confidence of artistic rigor and no small amount of therapy. She illustrates what Louise DeSalvo, in Writing as a Way of Healing, teaches about the process of writing, that if it is done right, “profound behavioral and emotional changes take place in the writer’s life. There is self-acceptance and expiation (of guilt, self-blame, self-hatred, and self-reproach.)” 

It takes a while for the narrator to get through some of that self-recrimination as the poems move through varying effects of sexual abuse, including self-abuse, promiscuity, and loss of libido:

        I am twenty-four and realize I’ve been 

        giving my life to the brutest bidder since

        my stepfather fucked my childhood away.

        If I married a man like my Daddy and got

        him to mark me, I could win.

—from “To My Husband”

        I have named my fear of men and quit

        feeling for you all.

—from “To My Husband”

These “husband” poems, three of them titled “To My Husband,” make up almost half of the collection. One of them confesses the narrator’s obsession with proving her stepfather’s guilt:

        He lifted the flap of my rose—

        bud panties when I was eleven.

        I still have the panties, bunched

        At the bottom of a lingerie bag, proof.

—from “To My Husband”

Another husband poem brings in a therapist to conjure the narrator’s inner child: 

        […] She needs

        to know he didn’t mean to hurt 

        her, not really, he knows girls 

        made of stone don’t bleed.

—from “Inscape”

And another one falls back to self-disparagement, because as anyone in therapy knows, the stages of recovery are recursive:

        I can feel 


        his need, slumming

        behind my hipbone

        on Saturday morning.


        This marriage is my fault.

—from “Too Awake”

With each hard look these poems take at what an abuser has wrought, the picture of a life beyond abuse gains more clarity. Allen has crafted a narrative that spares no reader from what needs to be told, a harvest of truth that moves inevitably toward hope and healing:

        […] Once

        I raced home with

        a berry on my fist

        for you, a small 

        heart lolling

        in my palm.

        You taught me 

        the universe tastes

        like raspberries.

        Today there is

        Nothing blooming

        Over a backyard fence:

        The world


        in snow.


        I will turn the ashes into snowflakes

        where I can.

—from “January”

The narrator’s resolve to make life better for herself and her family is the poet’s resolve. It comes from the work of reentering that place of trauma, looking deeply into its existence, and creating a “new story,” as the final poem, “Alaska,” does for the narrator and two her sisters:

There will be no fathers

        For us, only love, only streams

        Of bright summer fish, midnights laced

        With gold ribbon. The mountain

        Will hold us to her earthen breast, all warm

        Breath, three bears bumping noses through

        The night. Safe.

And it is here that we find evidence of what DeSalvo promotes at the heart of her book: the “transformative qualities” of a healing narrative.” Britt Allen is destined to bring more of that harvest into the world.