Saturday, December 18, 2021

Dog-Walking in the Shadow of Pyongyang

by Devon Balwit
(Nixes Mate Books, 2021) 

Reviewed by Alan King  

Imagine watching a city burn. You’re far enough away from the blaze that you don’t hear the sirens. Everything plays out like a silent horror film. Then survivor’s guilt sets in: 

I know cars clog the roads

like unsaid things clot the throat, words

that would have changed everything.

That I thought them must be enough, 

like a weeping parent who beats her hands

on steering wheels, willing my children,

the cat, the dog beyond the mayhem. 

After the guilt comes denial when the mayhem is drowned out by “Bach spilling from the speakers” (from “Despite the Blaze”). These bizarre twists spill throughout Devon Balwit’s new poetry collection, Dog-Walking in the Shadow of Pyongyang.

The title has its own tale. If you know the history of Pyongyang—how that North Korean city was demolished and rebuilt, then devastated and revived again—you might think of it in two ways: 1) that it’s a city of misfortune or 2) that it’s a lesson in resilience. If we look at each poem through the first lens, one might think the speakers in this book are fools “dog-walking” themselves into one disastrous situation after the next. But I prefer the second view, which is an empowering one. In that sense, the characters populating Devon’s collection show the reader that—as the novelist Jodi Picoult once put it—“the human capacity for burden is like bamboo—far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” 

You see that bamboo bend of a mother burdened by her son’s question: “Is the U.S. Ready for a Nuclear Threat?”—which is also the poem’s title. In that piece, the mom manages by learning “the poetry of defense, / the naming of the deadly arc—boost, / midcourse, terminal.” She uses humor as another way of coping:

The first two stages 

sound almost hopeful; who doesn’t

want a boost? Mid-course, like me,

one feels still able to veer. The latter third

is bad, but surely there are therapies,

intercepts to spare us impact.

Balwit’s use of that tone here speaks directly to what the actor/comedian Mel Brooks once said about humor, how it’s “just another defense against the universe.” Balwit’s speaker elaborates on that point:

The problem is

the threat cloud. We know it well

from life, the way trouble comes

in clusters. 

We see a similar threat cloud in the book’s opening poem, “Demeter of the Ex-Urb.” In this scene, the speaker is a grass flower sprouting where she’s not welcomed. The so-called “mistress of spathe, spikelet, glume / and peduncle” is confronted by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. A standoff ensues, but the speaker stands her ground:

my green fuse


to near-guttering, barbarian weeds

creeping—before re-flaring, fierce

in a campaign of ripped roots …

The music of those lines intensifies the brawl with the alliteration (“stutter-stepping … flaring, fierce / … ripped roots”), popping like jabs, then the final blow: “me flailing the blunt trowel.” Poems like “Demeter of the Ex-Urb” and “Sarracenia, the Siren Singer” almost feel like trickster tales, where the protagonist uses their wits to survive. “Sarracenia” flips the predator-prey interaction:

You come to me, all the while thinking it

your own idea.

to stumble on my fluted lips. It’s almost too easy. 

With each conquest, I plump further. Waxing new traps.

What’s striking about this collection is Balwit’s ability to bring the reader into alternate realities, where they gain new insights. She does this in “East Egg,” a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The speaker—a “wide-eyed ingĂ©nue”—is in a rendezvous with Tom Buchanan in the East Egg, or old money part of the river:

He invited me here, and I came, already wet,

trailing him like fingers through condensation.

Daisy laughs, knowing what he is beneath skin.

Later, I’ll swear I also knew but didn’t care.

The last line of the second stanza almost reads like regret. This reader could imagine the speaker preparing for the walk of shame. That is until these lines:

Anything to shuck corset and slip

into a flappers’ insouciance, and, top down,

feel the rush of wind. Later, chastened

and headachy, I’ll stack vows like unread novels

by my bedside. Anyone can fetch and obey.

Even briefly, I wanted claws. 

That the speaker slips “into a flapper’s insouciance” makes the reader wonder who played who, who made whom “fetch and obey.” Then it becomes a poem about women’s sexual liberation, the speaker stacking her male conquests “like unread novels” by her bedside. That her lovers are unread novels could mean it’s not worth her time exploring something deeper within them. The speaker’s actions come with another kind of burden, especially in a society still policing women’s sexuality. 

A reader might assume as much from the poem “Sad Night,” where the speaker and possibly-a-lover flee from their “burdens across the causeways of night” until the road disappears, or “has ghosted.” Balwit’s sensory imagery shows a desperate situation: 

We bring each other down,

then use the twisted limbs to keep above dark water.

If we survive till dawn, it is because we are guilty.

The final lines evoke the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century. During that time, mostly women were accused of practicing witchcraft for acting out of the norm. The speaker in “East Egg” would certainly fit the grand juries’ descriptions of someone acting witch-like for being “stubborn,” “strange,” or exhibiting “forward behavior.” Those characteristics might also apply to the speaker and her partner in “Sad Night.” Witch trial victims were tortured by devices like the ducking stool—what looked like a seesaw with a stool. The accused would sit on the seat that hung over a local pond. Their accuser, on the other end, would dunk them in the water. If the accused survived, they were considered a witch. If they drowned, they were innocent. Hence the lines: “If we survive till dawn, it is because we are guilty.” Other sensory details add to that allusion: “Ravens clack from purple-black hoods, eyes fierce / with knowing” or “newlyweds twisting bright rings about captive fingers.” One can’t help but wonder if the speaker and her partner are not supposed to be together, if their relationship goes against the norms of a city casting them out, where:

We bruise beneath offal,

gag on the taste of iron. Grudgingly, dawn releases us

from where we sprawl in mud patterned by flailing.

That they love each other despite the consequences shows an attribute that the speakers in this collection have in common. They’re courageous enough to face their disasters head on—bruises and all—and emerge with a hero’s heart. After all, as Khalil Gibran put it, “the most massive characters are seared with scars.” 

The most important lesson that comes out of Dog-Walking in the Shadow of Pyongyang is that we’re measured by our courage, even when we curse the journey. We see that with Devon’s speakers in the poem “What We Are”: 

We blame our childhood

or the rough journey, but it may just be

the way we were made. A tracery

of brick, a careless daubing. Neither side

matches, but we have learned to celebrate

imbalance, not to care when eyes

peer in between our slipped slats.

Let them look. Even clouds

pause overhead for a glimpse. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

And Not to Break

by Janet Sylvester
(Bordighera Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Clarissa Adkins

Of the many brilliant aspects of Janet Sylvester’s poetics in her collection, And Not to Break, most notable is a masterful blend of narrative, imagery, and musicality that shimmers. The poet’s artful elixir of craft captivates readers from piece to piece. In her third collection of poems, Sylvester does what many poets dream of being able to do—flawlessly mix craft and creativity.

Sylvester’s poems immediately synthesize a trifecta of narrative, image, and lyricism, often doing so with a balance between grounded and ethereal descriptions of place and emotion. For example, in the first poem, “Marionette Lines,” Sylvester’s speaker provides longing, loneliness, and location in the span of a few lines: “Tonight it’s better not to look too far. Instead, / I focus on the oval the little Christmas tree, / untrimmed and living still in its green container.”  Then, personification intimately places the reader in the same cold room with the speaker as the tree “breathes clear into the window’s icy vapor.” This detailed imagery of the tree performs almost like a muse, inspiring nostalgia in the reader; yet, Sylvester immediately draws us away from “pretty snowflake-shapes” and the “sun / the weatherman assures us is on the way,” and offers a vulnerable assessment of the present moment: “Whatever / I used to know doesn’t matter.” 

What follows is a rising dynamic of emotional stakes: “a choking and unsayable distress” that Sylvester elevates with lyricism. In the last stanza, a physician is “lightly stroking / the little finger of the left, my writing hand, / in its ligament an indecipherable ache.” The meticulous content combined with the alliteration of “lightly,” “little,” “left,” and “ligament” accentuates the complexity of the speaker who painfully creates. A presumed arthritis in the speaker’s hands, and the lovely alliteration, suggest the speaker’s position—she is a poet experiencing professional disappointment that aging hands only compound. Sylvester herein accomplishes a smooth combination of poetic craft and expert account.

The poet continues to entice the reader with another seamless marriage of image and narrative in the first lines of the prose-style poem “Marais Des Cygnes (mare-uh-duy zeen)”: “Ralph, the closest neighbor on the road, hoisted a can of beer and / scanned his rabbits.” The reader visualizes the “car seat spewed innards” and “the picnic table beside the burr oak, dogs moved; catfish heads dangled / from its branches.” Sylvester divulges much about the people in the poem, but does so with such vivid images that the reader wants to know more. 

And Sylvester does not disappoint, creating lyrical lines that allow one to meet people through all the senses. In the second stanza, we learn about “Ralph’s hand, Rex’s hand, Pearlie’s, greased black to their / shirtsleeves, neatly rolled” and “her palm above a century of footprints.” Sylvester’s narrative-natured poems work masterfully as story, but also excel with their obvious abundance of lyricism: “downstream a doe and fawn fording the Marsh of Swans” and “sharp- / toothed gar idling in its currents.” The poet grounds the reader through these expert elements of craft. 

Likewise, in the autobiographical vulnerability of “Ragged Man,” the author pulls the reader into quantum telepathy, a tragic ex-husband, and alcoholism in the span of five stanzas without the reader having to question, even for a moment, whether they’re vested in the narrative. At the start, the poet creates intrigue:

Attention’s seed-pearl strand

snaps between eye and mind, I’m looking out

when reading, not down and through,

as I did in Virginia

Within these lines, one wonders why the perspective of the speaker snaps as it does, like tiny pearls, and why it changed from how it was in Virginia. Sylvester explains within the intensely specific imagery of the poem that harkens back to the delicate nature of life passing by too quickly: “My last image of you—dun / overcoat, hair a shade too long, your eyes / blinking hard, as I tipped my umbrella down.” The last stanza also expresses the fragility of existence; we can’t help but feel the painful nostalgia of the speaker:

I clicked on a page, gone now, devoted to

Maria Callas, in resplendent grief, singing

an aria from Butterfly, I think, out of tinny

speakers and there, clear as notes on a score,

your dates, 1948–2007, “always in my heart.” 

Sylvester finishes the braid of narrative and imagery by combining the universal emotion with the grief unique to this poem: “Stay in touch, we say, / when we’re afraid someone will travel great / distances through what separates us, and they do.”

Sylvester also hauntingly charms the reader with her expert world-building in the poetic realm with “Blue Dress Video,” a poem that explores the tumultuous life of the author Vladimir Nabokov. The reader sees him “in knickers and a flat cap” as he:

poses on a rocky summit, 

his net, long-handled, balanced in the crook of one arm.

It is 1957. Small butterflies, he writes, all of a kind, 

settled on a damp patch of sand.

The drama of the rocky summit joined with the net, which alludes to the predatory nature of this more persona-based poem, make the last lines of the final stanza even more jarring: “open, a needle of glass, a whipstitch / instant—you little tease.” Sylvester shocks, here, with her ability to blend setting and emotion into undeniably compelling imagery.

The same poetic world-building emerges in “Breakwater,” but Sylvester’s lyrical control shifts to wavy quatrains of lines, mostly consisting of nine, ten, or eleven syllables:

The Manufactory of copper paint,

              locked above its sum of antique pollutions,

and Ten Pound Island gulls, were quiet,

             stubbed like push-pins on a windward beach.

Sylvester’s exploration of whales and birds is allusive, lyrically, of  Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or narratively, of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as the speaker encounters a  Carolina warbler’s violent “plummet into the boat.” The small bird attempts to upright itself “around a pony tail,” or with a “balance on a sandal,” and we feel the helplessness of the speaker being  “Admonished not to touch it, we were instructed / that northeast gales had forced it // for days above the water.” The heightened emotion, syntax, and diction all come together in a single, breathtaking line: “breaking as a covenant once did, // sudden, brutal in the down-rush, beautiful.”

In “Unbinding,” Sylvester builds narrative in a less traditional but just as effective manner. The poet paints her relationship with her mother through a series of snapshot-like prose poems. The twenty-seven sections of “Unbinding” highlight Sylvester’s eclectic style and poetic talent. The piece collects the speaker’s familial moments through a loose, temporal construction, starting in the seventeenth century in the first section, “1 Mitochondrial”: “Pollen eddies in air, lilies sing beside a / stone fence mapped with moss” moving into more recent time, as in section four, “4 1947,” where the speaker has “a last-minute date for dinner and dancing at the best hotel in town.” The poet takes us through these images of a lifetime in a less straightforward manner, and then delights the reader with how the collective narrative is built: a “brittle newspaper clip,” “the snake’s spermatic head,” or “plumes of steam, / she’d never live to see.” 

The sections’ titles add to the atmospheric qualities and produce an eerie feel. For example, “Choking” follows “6 Hat, continued,” and all in third-person perspective. One title juxtaposes against the other. Together, these images and sections are dreamlike and subliminal, yet demonstrate the speaker’s complex awareness of her mother in fantastically radical pops of prose.

Sylvester seems to acknowledge the abstract narrative elements of “Unbridled” by following with the villanelle “Field Glasses.” In this poem, the poet brings the reader back to a focus on musicality within a more direct setting. This is particularly pronounced in the form’s required refrain by how it includes the word “refrain”: “Though birdsong shelters in the word refrain, / that stallion, several mares and pair of foals / the water meadows utter, stand in rain.”  This seems to imply that now the refrain is, in fact, the location for the birds’ music, finding shelter within it. Emotional undercurrents, which And Not to Break weave magically throughout, shine dramatically in the foreground in “Field Glasses”: “I know that loss has nothing left to gain / today from me. I’m made of parts and holes, / personified as standing water in the rain.” The rhythmic element contributes to the vulnerable content.

The reader enjoys a similar musicality in “Tu Shu and the Pear Tree”: “In peridot and yellow grass, in a xeroxed / photograph, one cedar at his right, healthily / greening.” Late in the poem, the ear gives way to all the senses in lines such as “live now in your grin, moist even in digital / reproduction, pink-tongued, open to take in / that lofty-scented incense and the musk.” Imagery craftily marries sound in each line.

In “Sea Smoke,” Sylvester develops context for the reader in a fanciful motion of lineation. This second-person poem double indents every two to three lines and thereby uses the white space to create the breath alluded to in the title:

Frost on a window, indistinguishable from roses

knotted into a curtain, burning

            as blue dawn drains into it

          from the backyard apple, its parabola

In subtle answer, another line seems to nod subconsciously to the author’s ability to weave together elements of poetic craft: 

Past the Square that plows

          have already heaped into drifts, 

          you slide onto the bridge

and—how can it be worded—the braiding tensions of the current, 

the light the world flows inside,

have turned to precious metals.

“How can it be worded” cuts to the heart of the poet’s task—how to navigate the “tensions” and “currents” of life’s ups and downs, to weave them together. All this, Sylvester realizes:

          Every register of platinum

          and rose gold issues into

the frigid channel, coaxed

by sun into thermal plumes, bright steam cooling to droplets 

The final poem of the collection, “Prologue,” returns to first person, a befitting gesture, given the detailed, personal nature of many of the works in this collection. However, Sylvester gives the reader everything they need to balance the confessional aspects because she provides the universal in the personal. This balance results in the poet’s unique brand of lyricism: “Last night we fell asleep before the end / of the world,” and “We opened the door to the porch / that hot ghost had pressed against for so long.” Sylvester’s poems are specific, unique, and planetary all at once. The entire collection manages to engage, shock, entertain, and sing exactly as the title suggests—without breaking the reader’s attention or rapture. And Not to Break is an expert blend of storytelling within the enchantment of lyricism and imagery.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Smallest of Bones

by Holly Lyn Walrath
(Clash Books, 2021) 

Reviewed by Jessica Drake-Thomas

Our bones can tell someone everything about us—our occupation, our habits, our illnesses. Even when all the flesh has been stripped away, our bones can tell someone everything about who we were and how we lived. Holly Lyn Walrath uses human bones in her poetry to discuss issues of body and gender. “If you strip me down to my bones / am I yours?” the speaker asks in Walrath’s collection of dark poems, The Smallest of Bones, suggesting that when someone reveals their innermost layers, ownership by the observer is implied. 

The book is in sections delineated by skeletal anatomy, such as the cranium, the mandible, the sternum, the sacrum, the spine, the calcaneus, and the temporal bone. Much like an anthropologist, Walrath uses the bones to demonstrate differences between men and women, exploring not only the physical, but the expectations and violence perpetrated against women. Of the mandible, Walrath says, “Fractures of this bone are the most common in cases of domestic violence. The fist is a favorite tool for assaults. The mandibles of the female of the species are smaller. Thinner. Rounder. More obtuse.” The poem shows how it is the female jawbone that is more susceptible to the violence of a physical assault.

Likewise, Walrath says of the spine: “Evolutionary psychology suggests that heterosexual men might be on the lookout for a very specific kind of spine in sexual partners. Are they looking for weakness or strength. Maybe we should stop looking for men as partners.” Her tone here is wry, weary; it’s an extreme that’s suggested, but the fact is, most women who are victims of murder or abuse are harmed by the men in their lives. The situation that exists in the world is an extreme in and of itself.  

In addition to lyrical essays on bones, each section contains brief, luminous free verse poems that further explore the different themes linked to specific skeletal parts. These poems balance out the matter-of-fact nature of the essays. The poems are short, but are pared down to perfection. In one untitled poem, the speaker says, “your mouth tastes like chaos bourbon-sweet / harder than obsidian […] where the demon’s tongue is rough like a cat’s / how I strain against it.” 

This piece is dark and alluring, drawing the reader into the world created within. It’s difficult to write such stripped-down poems. To say something in its entirety while simultaneously distilling it takes skill. The speaker says: 

I told the demon I loved you she stood over the water and whispered 
a word— brought down the mountain 

what is a demon anyway but a flushed girl 

with ocean eyes 

The paranormal aspect of this piece creates an interesting foil to the academic tone of the bone essays. It says that we are more than just the sum of our parts—there’s something deeper at play; something far more sinister and beautiful than just a body, existing. In other words, the body as a whole is an intelligent haunting. 

Furthermore, the presence of the female demon brings out the shadow-side of femininity. Often, women are presented as smiling, pleasant, docile. However, that which is feminine can also be dark, powerful, angry. There is female strength that patriarchal norms would deny, and I love that this piece draws that out through the demon who can bring down a mountain with a single magic word. 

In another poem, the speaker says, “there are few places left that man has not touched / we square cities, parks but long for wildness.” Here, the speaker is comparing a woman’s body to land. The parallel being made is indicating that men attempt to stake their claim on female bodies, just as they would the landscape. It’s been a common occurrence throughout history—men declared land for themselves, then built upon it. In a similar way, men staked their claim on the female body through marriage, through laws. They viewed women’s bodies much the same way they would the land they stood on. That is, they believed all they saw belonged to them without question. 

The speaker in this poem says, “let us not assign / too much power / to the virgins // buildings have ghosts but so do trees.” Throughout history, men have praised women who are what they consider to be “pure.” They have praised women who do not seek knowledge and pleasure of themselves and their own bodies. In this piece, Walrath continues the idea of the haunted body—the beautiful, natural haunting of the female body—the body that seeks to know itself, separate from what she is told that she needs to be. The speaker says: 

What is the price of water? 

I sink myself in the river at dawn

your words are the stones

in my pockets. 

In continually regulating women’s bodies, men and politicians are saying we are not smart, capable, or important enough to lay claim to our own bodies, to speak for ourselves and make our own choices; they are saying men must do it for us. Walrath’s book is a testament to the idea that our bodies are our own. That we are more than just bodies, more than just minds, but whole and complete people with desires and choices. 

In another untitled poem, the speaker talks about tearing off her breasts, an act symbolic of removing one’s womanhood. She says that: 

when one member of a social group

considers itself a burden it may commit


some parasites

infect their hosts

until they have control

of their minds

at which point

they drown themselves

This second reference to drowning and self-destruction is a refrain throughout the book. One where the speaker drowns, becomes a corpse, then ash and bone. 

Through the bones, Walrath indicates that there are differences in the way that female-identifying bodies manifest. She explores the relationship between the body and the metaphysical world, and how there’s more to the body than just what we can see.  

The Smallest of Bones is both smart and sexy—it’s an autopsy in verse, which reveals how bones give structure to our bodies and protect our organs, and how they also show evidence of our deepest injuries. Walrath’s poetry is dark and lovely; The Smallest of Bones is a lush, gruesome gem of a book. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Those Who Keep Arriving

by Julie Danho
(Silverfish Review Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Millie Tullis

Julie Danho’s Those Who Keep Arriving places intimate ekphrastic poems alongside poems that examine the bonds of family in the face of the reality of human violence. Danho zooms in and out with remarkable clarity, examining the details and imagining the processes of the art she encounters. The fragile bodies and powerful histories of family members, strangers, and the self are both studied and held in this expertly woven body of poems.

Danho’s collection opens with “Erased de Kooning,” which examines both a piece of art and an idea: “Robert Rauschenberg wanted to know if unmaking art / could make art.” The silent questions behind the poem and much of the collection may also be the most familiar and difficult ones: What is art? What is art for? What is the difference between art and idea? Between humans and their art? The speaker turns to the beloved, who is absent from, but intellectually imagined to be, studying the piece alongside the speaker. “If you were here, how you would / praise this, how we would argue over whether this was true, / over what, if anything, was.” But the speaker determines, “My love, Rauschenberg lied.” After studying the erased canvas, sprouting “de Kooning’s violet crayon” and seeing that “there are even eyes, / still looking” the speaker answers, “The idea, / yes. But how his arms must have ached afterwards.” After a month of Rauschenberg’s effortful unmaking, the canvas is changed, but it is not wiped clean.

While in “Erased de Kooning,” the speaker and her imagined love stand before a painting and an idea, in “Process Inspiration for the Final Piece,” a response to Carles Piera Claramunt’s installation from Inner Light: An Art and Therapy Experience at the End of Life, the speaker must enter and move through a room filled with lightbulbs in order to view the artwork. Instead of making light, the lightbulbs playfully interact with the observers-turned-participants, knocking “lightly against our faces, arms, even knees, / no matter how carefully we slip between. / Inside each, in place of the filament, // a feather.” While this room was once part of a Barcelona hospital, “where people came to be saved, or try // to be saved,” and lightbulbs were needed to provide light, now the peacock-feather-filled bulbs offer the participants something else:

now we stand here

amidst bulbs with no glow, no heat, useless

except for their glory, the way they bell

off our bodies, their feathers like tongues

either silent or ringing

at a register that’s too high to hear.

Danho’s poems are not afraid of this kind of wonder; these poems provide an understanding that is both ordinary, knocking against our bodies, and occasionally just beyond our reach. In “The Night Before Kindergarten,” the wonders coexist as the speaker and her husband share Saturn with their daughter through a telescope in their backyard. 

To her, the extraordinary 

is still ordinary, so why not planets shuttled to the eye 

by a tube tall as a sister? We’ve shut every light 

in the house to keep the night clean, to let her see

the show that’s all for her, the girl we made

then circled until she knew she was the sun.

Tomorrow, we’ll send her off to unlearn it, 

to discover, as we did, how small we are, 

how little we matter anywhere but here.

But Danho’s collection is not interested only in positions and perspectives that take place inside of art galleries and personal spaces—the family home, the pink-lead-paint bathroom, the couch, the bed, the night sky in the yard, or Saturn through the family telescope. These poems are as intensely political as they are intimate, as “It’s Terrible What’s Happening There” makes clear. This poem begins mid-sentence, continuing the title’s statement by drawing the details of a family name and a family’s food to the distancing term “There” in the title:

people say, if it comes up I’m Syrian 

when my daughter mentions her “Sito”

or I’m microwaving my kibbe at work.

And it is. But I don’t need to tell you.

You’ve heard the numbers of the dead. 

When the speaker’s great-grandparents “left Aleppo, / they carried their stories like gold / sewn inside clothes, but no one since / has pulled hard at the stitches.” The speaker’s daily horror, then, is not of a city “that bombs are skinning / down to concrete and bone,” but is instead “that of a woman who looks / at the sky and expects only blue—a luxury / my ancestors passed down to me.” Danho’s collection reminds that safety, or even just the illusion of safety, is a privilege of distance.

Horror and harm are measured and understood in terms of distance in this collection, not unlike the observer who shifts her perspective as she moves through an installation that is a room full of lightbulbs offering her something other than light. In “Distance” the speaker states, “it’s said that tragedy draws us closer, / yet we look for a rock to wedge between us”; when a woman is stabbed to death on the bus route the speaker takes to work, she interrogates our responses to such news. At the bus stop, “how quickly talk leapt / from shock to sympathy to did she / know him?” 

Did any of us

wake today and think we’d be dead

by today’s end? Maybe she did. After all,

it was her husband, which made us feel 

better. It’s always safer when someone 

is killed by someone they loved.

This brutal, simple diction rings true as it horrifies. Danho exposes our human instinct to distance ourselves from danger and pain and condemns this othering. In “The Museum of Broken Relationships,” she argues, “In the end, there’s no marvel / in how we suffer, only in how / we build skyscrapers out of rubble.” However, if this is the purpose of art, to build with what we have before us, experiencing art is never the experience itself. In “When the First Father Dies,” the first line answers the “When” of the title: “You’re glad it’s not your own.” Danho reminds us of the limitations of our imagination, 

But no matter the soft comforts you utter,

or the number of bodies you hold,

your turn will not be better. Seeing a mugging 

isn’t being mugged. Holding your breath 

isn’t a pillow held over your face.

Danho’s collection questions what spaces imagination and art allow us to access, and where we fail in the face of lived experience—in the face of both real love and real harm. In “Erased de Kooning,” she writes, “like much art, / its title tells me what to see.” Those Who Keep Arriving takes its title from “Early Marriage,” one of the book’s many love poems. Here, the speaker hypothesizes that if she catches “death’s wandering eye,” her love “won’t widow forever.” Still, she says, “death isn’t what I fear best. It’s the living / who must welcome those who keep arriving, / must open their arms to people who keep arriving.”