Monday, December 12, 2022

Boats in the Attic

by Alison Powell
(Fordham University Press, 2022) 

Reviewed by Yoni Hammer-Kossoy

Poetry for the End Times: Boats in the Attic

After more than two exhausting years of pandemic atop a daily procession of environmental catastrophe, social and economic turmoil, war, terrorism, and political upheaval (and those are just the morning headlines), it’s no surprise to find the word apocalyptic bandied about almost reflexively to describe our current state of affairs. And while this isn’t exactly breaking news—people have been living through terrible times since time began—somehow these days  manage to feel even worse than usual. In this context, there’s something incredibly refreshing about Alison Powell’s second collection, Boats in the Attic, published by Fordham University Press in fall 2022. Winner of the 2021 Poetic Justice Institute Editor’s Prize, the book not only inhabits our fraught contemporary space without getting bogged down in artistic doom-scrolling, but, more importantly, points a way forward for living when it feels like the End Times have arrived. 

Boats in the Attic is divided into three sections, with a distinct pleasure in the balanced and confident way they unfold from one to the next. Thematically, much of the first section circles around the importance of naming and knowing as a means of connecting to the world. From Adam and Eve to middle-school journalism class, Powell evokes a primal and formative sense of exploration. In “Etymology: Heaven” the process of naming (and therefore knowing, or even possession) takes center stage: “Adam has a word for all— // even the beasts are given titles — / naming being the first form.” She returns to Adam and naming again in “Missing File #3: Panthera Leo Leo, Or, A Civics Lesson” with a more personal perspective:

          Sometimes I think of naming as a paternal act: Adam sits, petting the animals 

          as they come to him, making of them the first little zoo. Other times, I think 

          naming is about disbelief, our lack of faith—that if we don’t have a word for 

          something, it won’t let us hold it anymore.

The second section turns this process of naming and knowing inward and includes poems exploring parenthood, such as “The Book of Revelation,” “After the Birth of the First Child” and “Upon Turning Forty.” The litany “If We Speak of the Hurricane” bursts at the seams with lyric energy, and the incantation of “if”—with its dual sense of doubt and possibility—provides a touchingly grown-up echo to a child’s incessant “why”:

if he is just a boy

asking about justice at the mall;

if his father and I cannot help but love

his locomotive of curiosity, its erratic perpetuity,

shark, shots, Mars, if we wonder how it will end;

if zoo doctor, if astronomer, if madman 

The third section brings the internal and external worlds of experience together, making it clear that there isn’t really a binary between the two to begin with. In particular, the sprawling “Missing File #7: Nomen Nudum” tells about the discovery of a skeleton called “The Red Lady” by geologist, distinguished eater, and Oxford professor Rev. William Buckland in 1823. Along the way, the poem passes through summer camp memories, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word consume, a description of how Powell’s son “makes sense of death,” as well as what lab analysis in the 1950s actually discovered about the skeleton. 

Boats in the Attic illuminates repeatedly how today’s default understanding of the word apocalypse—referring to disaster or fiery destruction—must be reconsidered. As Powell writes in “The First Word” near the start of the book: “The First Word // of the Book of Revelation / is apokalypsis // meaning unveiling.” More than a friendly linguistic clarification, this reads as a statement of intent, applicable to the entire collection. Poetry, to the extent that it’s meant to “do something,” is an act of unveiling and discovery that we as readers are invited to join.

One delightful part of this unveiling is a series of prose poems appearing over the course of the book. These “Missing File” pieces illuminate topics as diverse as Paleolithic art, honeybees, Aristotle’s History of Animals, middle school, Larry King, Transhumanism, cryonics, ortolans and birdsong, 19th century archeology, and much, much more. Taken together, the poems reflect a vision of the world that is deeply curious and intellectually expansive. An ample notes section references the factual bona fides behind the poems, but the poems themselves never come off as feeling strictly documentary. Furthermore, the prose poem form is an effective choice for these pieces, as it enables a clear presentation of ideas while showcasing Powell’s ironic wit and associative range. What we get is a personal voice, even as the poems foreground the weird and wondrous:

When I was a child, I licked manuka honey off the spoon when sick. I yanked handfuls of honeysuckle from the neighbor’s vine…Together the girl and I would  collect horse apples in the front yard and examine them carefully for caterpillars. We’d return at dusk to her house, with its one room just for the birds, carpeted in newspaper, branches anchored to the windows and extending all around. (from “Missing File #2: A Few Facts About Bees”)

At the heart of Boats in the Attic is the poem “The Book of Revelation,” an extended meditation on parenthood and the early years of the poet’s children. As with the “Missing File” poems, keen observation combined with approachable language helps convey a deeper sense of lived experience. Watching Powell observe her children opening up to the world around them, I found myself nodding in recognition of the many moments she describes, such as her son’s love of dinosaurs or when he ponders the mysteries of stars and planets from the backseat of a car.

But beyond the small wonders of domestic life, what I find most engaging about “The Book of Revelation” is its embodiment that parenthood isn’t the end of the world but only a beginning. We are left with a defusing and reframing of apocalypse, from destruction to discovery: 

He that has an ear

let him hear it

I would fasten their small hearts

to my heart with reins

For now  let me watch

as their bones

slowly inch forth


as a farmer

or a new religion

The title poem “Boats in the Attic,” which appears in the third section, highlights the possibilities of this new understanding of apocalypse. It begins in familiarly grim territory: “It had been so dry. Wildfires / blooming into a continent of ash.” But the poem shifts to a resounding note of optimism and revelation: 

In the end, daughter, it was

the thing that was called for

years holy. You and me,

sitting criss-cross applesauce,

pretending to row

all the way to shore.

Here in a few short lines are all the reasons why we should keep coming back to Boats in the Attic: clear-eyed poetic vision, love, and the power of imagination enabling us to reach shore when the waters are stormy. 

Yoni Hammer-Kossoy is a poet, translator, and educator, whose writing appears in numerous international journals and anthologies. A graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff program in creative writing at Bar Ilan University, he is the winner of the 2020 Andrea Moriah Prize in Poetry. Yoni is originally from Brooklyn, NY, and has been living in Israel with his family for more than 25 years.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

No Small Comfort

by Brian Simoneau
(Black Lawrence, 2021) 

Reviewed by Todd Robinson

Brian Simoneau is a poet who paints in sound and sense, each image in his welter of a weltanschauung a shining thing-in-itself and an infected existential wound salved only by patient intellection. A native son of Massachusetts with as large a transparent eyeball as Emerson himself, he owes as much to puckish Thoreau, who punctured Ralph Waldo’s pretensions to grandeur and died first, as if to advance a theorem on loss. We’re all tap-dancing on trap doors, but hear the syncopation of our shoes on lacquer, Simoneau avers. Note the fine craftsmanship of the hinge:

  Like the sound you imagine a bone
makes as it breaks if you never broke
  a bone, atonal snap that’s nothing
like rifle crack or thunder clap 
  or knot in a crackling log. Like
a twig crunching underfoot only
  if you’re standing only on twigs
over a deep hole you didn’t know
  was waiting but are not certain is
studded with sharpened stakes, your breath

In this promising opening poem (“A Lake Opens Up Beneath Your Feet”), Simoneau shows his hand and takes the trick. The poem—like its brethren all through this collection—begs to be read aloud to catch the gush of sound that nearly lulls one into reverie with its chiming rhymes that in fact mask a trap: for while the braided indentations and assonance suggest sweetness, Simoneau’s poems inevitably return to his abiding obsession, one shared by honest folk of all persuasions: the imminence of infinity, the awful mystery of eternity, those fathomless scales of space and time which render our little dramas nigh unto nothing at all. Even the cosmic marbles in their long grooves succumb to endings which may or may not be known, Simoneau explains, telescoping from “the moon and stars, nebulae giving / birth, galaxies trailing to endless black / at their edges” down, down to an authorial iota: “I too become / part of a sun, even my darkness / only part of a star burning up.” From infinity to the infinitesimally small self, “we’re doomed, not because we never learn / but just because we are.” 

And so, not five poems into this bracing, beautiful collection, the big issues seem to be settled: nothing’s inescapable…we’re just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round. There’s something terrifying and sublime in Simoneau’s transcendental-adjacent “Semblance, similitude, synchronicity;” but one cannot dine on the sublime alone when “what’s happening escapes / what language we have.” Dead stars and astral voids intrigue and confound our poet, but he is equally perplexed and seduced by the teeming ground we daily pound, from city grids pocked by potholes and tow trucks to “hilltops weather-undressed” and a dozen still-wilder vistas of shore and forest, where for all the leaf-rot and “death in all / its disgraceful forms” eternal recurrence brings a peace which passeth understanding but nonetheless inspires:

                  Whatever tracks
you followed out will lead you back. Year by year a river’s 
zealous rise and fall will raze and restore your only holy ground.

A child appears late in these pages, and with her new care, a heightened awareness of tenderness heaving through the speaker’s blood, that learned astronomer laying aside his cold and telling instruments for “pockets filled, digging in grass / for granite and quartz, rock after rock / on the puddingstone poking from hilltops left behind.” The daughter is characterized, like her father, by “a singular searching, unshakable.” They stack rocks like “temple stones” just as Simoneau stacks his indented lines and half-rhymes, building spires or pyres to our burning selves and galaxies’ “infinite / expansion made to obey the laws / of coloring books”; ever and anon we face our days with wonder: “another / place to excavate, another stretch / of empty sky to fill up with our shapes.”

This book of wonders swaps the all-but-exhausted “I” of our self-revering age for the sage of Concord’s “eye” aimed squarely at the world(s), in fear and in wonder. The tone of alienated indifference that characterizes so many of my own poems is never once evinced in this journeyman’s collection. Simoneau is a scholar of earth and sky, of “flowers bursting / from mud at a river’s edge” who never reduces the biome to a trope of some human need or gilded truth. He is a seeker and a seer, a craftsman of taut poems that waste no words. Would I like to see more variation in his use of the page? I confess I would, for these latticed indentations he everywhere relies on do not promise aesthetic revelations commensurate with his poems’ profundities. And that is perhaps no small comfort in itself, for he is a poet steeped in tradition, building sturdy machines of language that sing and quake in diction and syntax, every sentence and caesura a well-made thing. These are not the dashed-off epiphanies of a drugstore shaman. Simoneau is a student of poets gone before (he acknowledges borrowings from Wilbur, Stevens, Dickinson, Emerson, and Williams), and they would surely recognize a kindred artificer committed to gleaning his teeming meanings with a nimble pen that still cannot quite strike through the mask Ahab sought to sunder, but which can with the grace of its sting commence a mighty ringing:

there’s no way of digging deep enough
to extract what it is that fastens
me, to say what chains any of us
to a place we forever circle
like a drain, a hole where once a star
shone, once turned like a god looking back
to drag us along the path we have
no hope of retracing in the dark.

Todd Robinson is the author of Mass for Shut-Ins (Backwaters/University of Nebraska Press, 2018) and a chapbook, Note at Heart Rock (Main Street Rag, 2012). His work has recently appeared in North American Review, Weber—The Contemporary West, I-70 Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Pinch. He records regular book reviews for classical radio station KVNO and is an assistant professor in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Occulus

by Stelios Mormoris
(Tupelo Press, 2022) 

Reviewed by Robert Dunsdon

Sometimes, more often when we are young, a revelation might be offered to us: a signifier of something other, if only we would use our eyes. Ignore it and nothing changes, acknowledge it for what it is and your outlook, indeed your very character, is transformed. A drift of nettles swinging rhythmically in the shadow of a low stone wall was enough for me; that, and the apparent sanctity of the light denied them. It taught me to look out and beyond, that a breath away from the limitations we impose on ourselves are the intricacies and subtleties of everyday life so often unnoticed in the contemporary fog of urgency. Whether the author intended the title of this fine collection to convey something of the above, I can’t say, but it seems that such a feeling hovers around these poems in the imagery and almost peripheral intimations employed. 
Stelios Mormoris holds dual Greek and US citizenship, but has spent much of his life in Paris, whose cultural heritage, you suspect, has played no small part in the development of his work. His is a delicate touch confidently applied, and his understanding of form and technique, allied to an appreciation of aesthetic values, lends his poetry an extra dimension; elevates it. Moments of enlightenment or recognition are enhanced by classical allusion, magnified in imagination, or detailed with a refreshing originality. His descriptive powers are considerable: throwaway lines, like his account of tourists “grazing on the excess grandeur of gargoyled boulevards” combine with the quietly moving, as when likening poinsettia leaves “fluttering in slips of breeze off Biscayne Bay” to the quivering of his mother’s lips on reading a devastating telegram.

The compensations and intrusions of memory feature strongly here, which is hardly surprising given the importance of a faculty which, as we get older, is our shadow and our guide. Among these, two poems in particular stand out, not only for their discretely emotional pull, but also in the structure of their telling. In one, Mormoris revisits a rented cabin in which his mother and four fatherless children once spent a hot, dry summer. The act of walking over the decayed and peeling linoleum feels indecent, “as if pressing the dead inside its board.” The other is a poem detailing a domestic scene which is brought wonderfully alive with old photographs, oregano and lavender, fresh mint on a wet green melon, and a blue porcelain bowl from which his mother lifts a spoonful of soup to:

a child’s lips and
she says agape mou
and her bracelet
is decidedly cold
and thrilling as
loneliness can be.

I’ve referred to the author’s understanding of the bits and pieces of his craft: the learned skills of syntax, pace, half-rhyme, assonance, and all the rest, without which a poem can become loose and woolly, or worse still, mere prose cut into sections. He knows that construction and content are, or rather should be, indivisible in the making of art. He also knows these devices should be applied sparingly and be barely discernible; a principle seen at its best in a charming piece about one of his dogs, Zeus. Comprising a string of twenty-three couplets, it’s a lovely depiction of a man and his dog growing old together, walking and playing. It’s a snapshot almost: a picture of companionship, love and momentary contentment produced with seemingly little effort, although the whole effect is only made possible by a disciplined sensibility.

That particular quality is used to good effect in a poem hinting at something you cannot immediately grasp, as a driver encounters fog and fears he is, or might become, lost. “You have passed this field / through pleats of time,” we are told, and the fog becomes a memory of fog. Nicely descriptive of the landscape, with spruce trees, “whose branches swung out / like the hems of ballerinas as they curtsied / in tension, quivering.” It’s an intriguing piece that probably needs, and certainly deserves, a second reading to fully appreciate its almost ethereal atmosphere.
There’s a mingling of sentiment, colorful experience, and acquired wisdom in this expansive collection, and leafing through it feels as if you are encroaching on a private odyssey. You might be blinking at a spirited sea or brushing up against bougainvillea; encountering disappointment and regret or picking up fragments of remembrance from the movement of air. You might savour: 

Tournedos of barley
    crammed into thick honey
laced with thyme, stubborn
in the roof of your mouth
    and how it grows on you,
after penitent flows of salad
      of cucumber and olive oil.

or feel:

the sea foam

like torn lingerie
wrapping your shins
as you wade towards the shore
to the intermittent clicks
of worry beads

and staccato cicadas.

These gently persuasive lines are just a taste of the poet’s expressive abilities; quite literally in the first example, when recalling a sermon for the dead where he cups the kernels of barley which had dropped to his plate “nimble as beads snapped from a necklace” and raises this “palmful of religion” to his mouth. “Kaiki Beach,” from which the breezy scene above is taken, begins “how necessary it is / to lose yourself  / in tangles” and recounts how a priest with a “pouring laugh” held court in a taverna, kissed a pregnant woman cradling her belly with one hand, and lifting a glass of sparkling quinine with the other, then cut into his filet of white fish “anointed with drops of lemon.” He is conveying in deceptively simple terms the feel of a moment whose impact will grow in later years, and doing so without fuss or exaggeration, with just the right word in just the right place. It’s an art not easily won.      

As I finished reading this first-rate collection, a poem by Louis MacNeice came to mind. He wrote of a baywindow “spawning snow and pink roses against it / Soundlessly collateral and incompatible” at which the room becomes suddenly rich. Something of that sense, of that impression of quiet illumination comes across in these poems which are beautifully composed and never less than thoroughly absorbing. 

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Purple Patch, Pennine Platform, The Blue Nib, Decanto, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Picaroon, Allegro, The Crank, and others. His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, and Poetry International Online.

Friday, December 9, 2022


a Year & other poems

by Jos Charles
(Milkweed Editions, 2022) 

Reviewed by Millie Tullis

In her third poetry collection, a Year & other poems, Jos Charles explores time, environment, and longing through her lyric, expansive forms. As its title suggests, this collection is built around a long poem, “a Year,” which is divided into twelve sections named after each month. Several shorter poems open and close the collection. Charles’ poems frequently echo across time and space, yet the images in her poems root the reader in the speaker’s localized environment. These are poems that recognize the speaker’s dead in her present, and collective history in the materiality of our language.

The collection’s first poem, “LIKE YOU” introduces the reader to the way many of Charles’ poems will move. Charles often utilizes imagistic short lines and informative leaps of white space. Charles’ collection offers forms that feel fresh and expansive throughout, and the widely spaced lines of “LIKE YOU” introduce her reader to this effect:

square pin calendars to walls

& hear, I have heard, of inventories of 

names dead unspoken

as if the first.

The speaker’s beloved you(s) haunt and echo throughout the collection, which Charles dedicated “for the lost—.” In the “January” section of “a Year,” Charles writes, 


dead Naomi at the clinic 

Leah in the hospice in bed

& debt   Throwing a book

to the thresher a poet read

So much less than our 

nakedness        a chorus

            a garland

            of changing names

Charles’ short, image-heavy lines collapse the space between present observation and the remembered absence of the lost beloveds. In the beginning of “February” the speaker seems prompted to remembrance by rhyme: “heard a pool deflate / Monday you would be / twenty-eight.” Charles reminds us that the dead are always tied to our sense of time. The powerful effect of quiet remembrance, “Monday you would be / twenty-eight,” also recalls the everyday nature of grief. 

Charles’ poems frequently give the reader a sense of rooted, localized time through her sharp, documenting images. The reader may feel that she too is walking past the “faded fence a pear / rot in the sun” and observing alongside the speaker. In “January,” Charles describes a woman on the beach: 

between us stooping

to rock a woman rises

armful of color of 



Charles creates effective images of these otherwise quotidian moments through her combination of careful sentences and the surprising, often energizing line breaks and rhythms that slow her reader and emphasize each detail of the unfolding image.

The smallness of many of her poems coupled with her informative use of white space allow readers to linger on these quiet images with the speaker. Charles begins “January” with an image-rooted landscape, “desert hills all / aflame.” She then allows the reader to step into the window and look through the screen at 

       The old hopes 

      an oak shook through a screen

Our separate smoke


  in the same ascent  Months

  I move in you

Charles’ frequent and carefully crafted use of white space lets her reader dwell in silence as well as language. Throughout this collection, Charles’ poems invite her reader to move a little slower, to listen longer, and to look.

The images in this collection often illustrate an intermingling between the self and her environment. The beginning of “July” might remind Charles’ reader of the opening of “January.” Six months later, California burns again:

      … California

a fire my mind

entirely a house of cinder in

a house of cinder

Charles’ forms and images often collapse the space between the speaker’s body and the images that compose her world. By bringing the fire into the speaker’s body, Charles powerfully reflects the significant, and increasingly damaging, relationship between our burning landscapes and ourselves. 

Charles’ poems speak through an “I” that is continually conscious of and interacting with her past through language. In “March,” she writes:

The hour has an understory

I was a child pulling grass in the understory

dissembling until we met   When I’d 

pull branch to ledge & sing all

afternoon one song

atop another

The strange and powerful image of “one song / atop another” reflects the frequent stacking effect of many of Charles’ lines, as well as the present’s intimate relationship with the past. Charles’ poems create lyric space where the personal past is rendered present. 

In “October,” Charles mingles the present with memory and myth to remarkable effect, showing the weight of cultural and historical memory on the self. She begins by asking, “& were you alive / last it rained”? The speaker then dips into a memory of “sisters ahead la la / they said if we could / la la no.” The speaker describes herself with a familiar image from myth, the Spartans hiding in the belly of the Trojan horse: “my brain la / a living horse wooden / soldiers in it.” In “December,” Charles writes, 

(Such silence sudden

now in the clearing   A tarp

chains the lot of our speech

                                          Sunday no women washing at the washing 

     stones  The past is the only 

    the only mutable thing)

By blending the past and present through image and attentive line work, Charles’ poems begin to embody the powerful ways we carry the past, personal and collective, with us. 

Charles’ poems are expansive in their language and forms, and gorgeously rendered. Reading these poems, I remembered May Swenson’s preface from Poems to Solve. Swenson describes how “a poem, read for the first time, can offer the same pleasure as opening a wrapped box. There is anticipation of untying an intriguing knot of words, of unloosing all their intimations like loops, of lifting out—as if from under cover—an unexpected idea or fresh sensation.” a Year & other poems is full of this “fresh sensation.” And like a box from myth, the contents expand far beyond their container. These poems are generally small on the page. They tread softly. And they create powerful lyric spaces in time where meaning lingers, echoes.

Millie Tullis is a poet and folklorist from northern Utah. She received an MFA from George Mason University in 2021 and is currently studying folklore at Utah State University. Her poetry has been published in Rock & Sling, Cimarron Review, Juked, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She is the editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyre, an online journal publishing literature at the intersection of faith and doubt. You can find her on twitter @millie_tullis.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds

by Peter Markus
(Wayne State University, 2021) 

Reviewed by Erica Goss

Encounters with birds carry a potent significance for human beings. Whether a goose chased us, or we tamed a crow, or kept parakeets in a cage, birds enhance our lives in countless and unpredictable ways. Birds embody contradictory beliefs; often seen as portents of menace and calamity, they also symbolize transformation and rebirth. Whether common or exotic, we’ve woven birds into our human mythology.
Peter Markus explores these connections in his first book of poems, When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds. Each poem in this taut, highly focused collection revolves around the decline and death of his father. Largely filtered through Markus’s experiences with birds during the years before and after his father died, the book examines this period of emotional travail recursively, revisiting the territory of loss and grief from a number of closely viewed perspectives. 
Birds haunt Markus. They come to him in the voice of the priest who gives his father last rites, in the eerie calls of loons at night, and in that common and too frequent encounter, “the bird that flew into the window,” from “More Birds Than I Know What to Do With.” As he disposes of the bird’s body, the speaker reflects:
     [ … ] when I walked the bird 
     over to the garbage can and dropped it gently in,
     it made a sound. The final note
     in its song.

In spite of the bird’s apparent weightlessness, its body makes a sound when it drops, a sound it will never hear. This fact reverberates with the speaker, who observes “I was held by it— / like when you hit your hand once on a drum.” In these lines, Markus evokes the physical presence of loss, a theme he will return to throughout the book.
Over the course of a long illness, the father loses his ability to speak. Markus gives him voice in “Look at Those Birds”:
     Whatever words my father might speak
     now that he is dead are obvious ones: look
     at those birds, he tells me.
The poem ends, “Father. Father. Father. Bird. Bird. Bird.” With these one-word statements, each ending in a period, Markus releases his father. The repetition suggests that letting go is bird-shaped—as his father’s presence diminishes over time, the existence of birds brings an unexpected comfort.
Although birds are named in the book—crow, swan, duck, seagull—the poems don’t describe them in detail. That they remain mostly mysterious emphasizes the unavoidable fact that even though our imaginations bestow fantastic abilities and power upon birds, we know little of their daily lives. In “We Just Wanted to Get Him Home,” Markus describes an encounter with a Great Blue Heron:
     [ … ] maybe he is waiting for me to see him,
     though as soon as I get too near his wings
     unfold open as though pulled by a string from above
[ … ]
     I stand and watch
     as he disappears.
The poem jumps to “the last time my father was in the hospital, / I told the doctor: We just want to get him home. / I did not have to end this sentence with / to die.” The departure of the bird, prompted by the speaker being physically too close, echoes the predicament we find ourselves in while watching a loved one decline and die: we’re with them, but still completely separate from their suffering.
In “I take a Walk with the Gods,” Markus writes,
     I take a walk with the gods down to the river
     to see if we might reach an agreement.

Those lines bring to mind one of the five stages of grief, specifically bargaining. In this case, however, the speaker doesn’t ask the gods to extend his father’s life: “I do not beg for one more day. / Those days are over.” The gods’ jaded attitudes, as they go through the motions of ferrying the dead, seem to echo the speaker’s understanding of the inescapable outcome of his father’s illness: “The gods have a job / to do. There is no pleasure in their actions.” The poem ends with a concession to the inevitable: “My father is a fish / who will swim away once we choose to release him.”
Several poems center on how grief observes its own unsettling schedule, doubling back and leaping forward, leaving the mourner stunned anew. In “What Was Never His to Begin With,” Markus describes keeping “a tiny silver urn / with his father’s ashes in it [ … ] / because / he isn’t yet ready to give / his father back.” At the end of the poem, the Great Blue Heron returns, auguring change that the speaker is only dimly aware of:
     its long yellow beak stabbing
     at the dark and muddy waters
     moving steady in between its legs.

Similarly, in the book’s title poem, “When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds,” the death of a friend’s father evokes awkwardness, an inability to comfort: “I had words to say back / but they’re never the right ones [ … ] / Maybe what’s best is to not say anything. / To let silence have its way with grief.” The poem ends with the reminder that no matter what, life goes on:
     And the stars will be there too, as they always are,
     as they always will be, when there’s nothing more to say.

Two poems, “For My Mother” and “What Did I Know about Work,” spotlight Markus’s mother’s role as primary caregiver for his father. In “For My Mother,” the father’s death is just one link in a long chain of coming tragedies:
     Now he’s dead. Now my mother sits alone in the quiet
     waiting to join him. I try to imagine what that must be like.
     But I can’t. I want to live. 
No matter how bad things were with his father, “nights / it was like something primal in him had been awoken,” Markus knows it’s worse for his mother, his father’s constant companion as he deteriorates. Even after a long day at work, Markus knows he can leave, a freedom his mother does not possess; this knowledge brings the uncomfortable realization: “Work, I would think. What did I know / about work? / [ ... ] I’d step outside, / [ … ] looking away from where the real work was taking place,” (from “What Did I Know about Work”).
Losing a loved one, whether suddenly or in the painfully protracted manner of Markus’s father, results in a new and precise awareness. For Markus, it’s the mysterious visits of birds, loaded with a meaning just beyond his grasp. No matter how terrible things are, whether Markus’s father is having a good day or a bad one, the birds appear, enigmatic, detached, ever-present. Markus doesn’t try to figure out whether these visits are random or not—he accepts them, gifts from the same forces that caused his father’s death.

Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Her flash essay, "Just a Big Cat," was one of Creative Nonfiction's top-read stories for 2021. Recent and upcoming publications include The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Spillway, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013–2016. She lives in Eugene, OR, where she teaches, writes, and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Uncertain Acrobats

by Rebecca Hart Olander
(CavanKerry Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Carla Panciera

Rebecca Hart Olander's memories of her father are of a man who “claimed Magician” when her birth certificate asked for his occupation, who was a teacher, a runner, someone equally at home naming birdsong and Motown artists. So it is no wonder that his death at sixty-eight inspires her debut full-length poetry collection, Uncertain Acrobats, poems that memorialize a life richly lived, a father deeply missed.

Hart Olander is herself a teacher, an editor of Perugia Press, and author of a previous chapbook, Dressing the Wounds (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). Perhaps this biography is part of her father’s legacy. But his influence doesn’t end there. Through his voracious tastes, Hart Olander is exposed to Thoreau, Cather, Aesop, Steely Dan, and something called a Beefaroni chess tournament. The poet recognizes that he was “that wide-awake man, / always craving something in the night, [his] appetite / so strong for life and all its delights.”      

When his cancer returns and his prognosis is grim, she can’t help but consider who he has been, the runner “in your sweaty, sun-worn baseball cap, / your skin browned from being in the world,” the “belter of songs / and strummer of chords / backgammon partner, the man who taught her how to drive and how to do algebra despite his own struggles with the subject. And while her father’s individuality clearly emerges based on her accumulation of images and memories, what is universal in these poems is the complex and long lasting nature of grief.

Amidst the chaos of emotions that is loss, there is a desire throughout this collection to be grounded in the concrete. Hart Olander is a truly New England poet and her images attest to this. Her poems reference Gloucester’s Good Harbor beach, cranberry bogs, yellow farmhouses, Fenway franks, and Heartbreak Hill. She recalls her father “wading in gaiters / through the snow” behind his house. Her poems are full of stone walls, cellar holes, yellow warblers, jelly tooth mushrooms, hawks and crabapples. These missives from the world around her, so present and alive, form a vivid contrast to what she is missing, this person both very real and mythical. In “The Whale,” she imagines her father as “that creature under the cold Atlantic blanket / migratory mammal, singing a complex song, / large heart beating in time with mine. But whatever she imagines, whatever images from this world stir her memory, she is left with the reality of his absence.

The collection is truly elegiac. Here are the characteristics of the loved one, memories as simple as him tossing coins in toll booth baskets, as poignant as singing happy birthday into his daughter’s answering machine, as painful as him being “rendered speechless, / on a gurney, clutching [his daughter’s] hand. There is also the consolation his bereaved finds: “my father, in the woods / like stars in the ether, spangling / everything in a wash of light. Finally, there is the daughter’s struggle between her private feelings and decorum. How does one move forward, resume whatever constitutes normal life? One way is to adhere to what has always guided poets through the most complex emotions. Hart Olander controls what she can control. These are carefully constructed poems of couplets or tercets, of balanced stanzas and measured lines. Free verse, yes, but meticulously handled, a blueprint, actually, for what it means to craft a poem, as in “There’s No Place Like Home,” composed in tercets about the speaker and her father finding a screech owl. Although there is some joy in the discovery, Olander’s speaker is not blind to omens:

Through doubled-glass we focus on the russet

bird, casting her as an avian wizard behind the curtain.

But some things can’t be known until we know them.


Like what kind of call we will make

as the predator descends, digs in her talons,

and shakes us until we are still. 

Finally, there are no easy answers in these poems or in the human struggle to live with loss. In “The Acolyte at My Door Asks Me, How Do You Pray,” she writes what we all wonder:

Father, now days go by when I don't think of you. I’m making

a life without, all the clocks ticking the same songs as when

you were alive. How does the world sound the same,

run by its consistent engine, though everything has changed?      


How, indeed? Though stumbling upon the words of someone who has felt as we have felt is more than small consolation and still a poet’s most important vocation.

Carla Panciera’s collection of short stories, Bewildered, received AWP’s 2013 Grace Paley Short Fiction Award. She has also published two collections of poetry: One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera). Her work has appeared in several journals including Poetry, The New England Review, Nimrod, Painted Bride, and Carolina Quarterly. A recipient of a 2022 Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in prose, Panciera’s second collection of short stories, Barnflower, will be published by Loom Press in 2023.