Monday, June 27, 2022

Ladies' Abecedary

by Arden Levine
(Harbor Editions, 2021) 

Reviewed by Jennifer Keith

Ladies’ Abecedary opens with two epigrams. The first is by Thomas Wentworth Higginson from his 1859 op-ed in The Atlantic. Higginson, alluding to an earlier “daring, keen, sarcastic” work by Sylvain Marchal, wonders if women learning the alphabet would grease the skids toward some unspeakable chaos. The second is a blood-tinged spit of lyric from Bikini Kill, a feminist punk band, about lives that can’t be spelled out in any traditional way. Ladies’ Abecedary draws from both energies. 


The polite title belies the deep dive of these poems into the real lives of girls and women. It’s rich territory for Levine, whose poems are like snapshots that suddenly extend into a third dimension when you hold them in your hand. “Abecedary” speaks to the structure of the book, each poem represents a piece in a sequence, with Levine titling poems with letters of the alphabet and arranging them in an order. 


But there’s more to those solitary glyphs announcing each poem. The letters are initials, substitutions for women’s names like you’d see in police reports, case studies. The poems are introductions to deeper narratives where the reader can fill in the details. From the excruciating-but-healing “tourniquets” applied by “A” to the metamorphosis of “Z”’s brokenness, the subject of each poem is a very particular female identity who lives, breathes, and takes up residence in the consciousness.


Two of the poems pair letters, so there are 24 poems altogether in Ladies’ Abecedary, a perfect circle of hours. The book is slim, modest in format, but many of the poems go surprisingly deep, and, taken together, put bright pins in a large map, hinting at the breadth of women’s experience. There’s a child who plays God and is answered by a parent bearing the brunt of being at her mercy. Two teen friends stride into their future with a new sense of physical power and purpose, while a pie baker’s failure and redemption hints at a private loss and acceptance.


Some of the poems’ subjects seem recognizable. “M” could be Marie Curie, who suffered public shame and xenophobia when, as a widow, she fell in love with a married man. “L” might well stand for Lilith, a personification of untamable sensuality and dangerous seduction. “U” is a homophone, directed at the reader, a terse warning of assuming 


1) that you can find the missing

either with maps or with technology. 


2) that words will keep you safe.


There is an “I” poem with these lines:


She got

Levi’s blue jeans, too, and wise 

to how fast a girl can go 

when the fabric wraps around both legs.


But the “I” of first-person is absent in Abecedary. Whereas other women poets fall to the temptation of trying to define large swaths of women’s realities through their own thoughts and episodes, Levine creates a mosaic of the stories of other women and girls, some fanciful, some terrifying, some difficult, some triumphant—and all believable. Levine doesn’t have just one story about women; she has two dozen, and doesn’t attempt to shoe-horn them into fitting together in a tidy set. The ease with which Levine holds contrasting and conflicting truths reflects both depth and empathy. The poems are free in both content and form to grow and expand as individuals.

The poems dealing with physical vulnerability in Ladies’ Abecedary leave a particular mark. “R” takes on maternal mortality as erasing a fully formed human as well as the mother of a newborn. “E” moves in a circle from subservient calm to the horrors of medical invasion involving blood and the extraction of “a condition,” after which the poem itself, like E’s fingertips, forms a circuit and returns to baseline, emptied and still. What’s happened to E is horrific, but Levine’s control of the poem keeps the reader present and unblinking. 


Immediately afterward, “F,” the poem about the pie baker, also touches on blood-like destruction that hints at pregnancy loss. But the poem ends with its subject embracing the cycles that define women’s physical lives and their attendant agonies and hopes: 


And what did you do? they ask.

Roll dough. She places that reply so casually down,
as if she had described knocking over a cup of water in her sleep

and waking to find the floor already near dry; this, and not a story

of toil in making, toil in cleaning, toil in remaking, mourning loss.


“F” and the other heroines in Levine’s alphabet don’t dazzle with CGI superpowers. Instead, they endure with quiet dignity. “H” is a portrait of a lonely docent embracing (and embodying) the passage of time. In another way, the solitary exile in “N” abides and even nurtures another, finite form of life:


Here, they brought her

the last zinnia and some water 

to hold it for a day or two. 

After that, she will

hang it by its heels

so blood rushes to its head.


“K” is a longer poem that reads like a fairy tale. A phalanx of sisters moving as one unit, in height order, carry stones through the carnivorous snow of “a cold land” to test the firmness of the earth beneath their feet. 


Levine’s figures include women suffering and strictured by obsessions of mind and body. The fascinating “P”


cant have any part of her 

body touching any other 

part of her body. It’s hard 


for more reasons that youd expect. 


“S”’s pretty dress is also a “silken tourniquet”, and the echoing of words and phrases (“drumbeat,” “tongue,” “wings”) creates music while also speaking to the obsessive inner dialog and ritual of her disorder.


Several short entries in Ladies’ Abecedary introduce women who are not just at the mercy of nature but engaging with it, letting it inform them with a deeper awareness of how the world works. “O” is a chilling six-line metaphor on the occasional missteps of evolution, and the subject of “V” unwittingly conducts an experiment that shakes up both the cycle of time and the natural order that depends on it.


Women’s sexuality appears in the darkly seductive “L,” the bawdy, bouncing “Q” and the easy, watery bath of “W and X.” But the one that induces shivers is “T.” Levine uses white space to create two entities in the poem, bucket seats where “T” and her lover-or-abductor are riding together, their past in the rearview. The tension of the poem captures a breathless, burgeoning female sexuality, where danger and adventure are riding in the same car:


There is some place he took her from,    or some place
she left with him, perhaps
they were tossed out

of the sky, lost their lease on God.           So, El Camino
the drive, the unruly asphalt gardens, 
the tailpipe fumes

like a long exhale, the tapering 
of their history.


Higginson’s Atlantic essay, quoted in the book’s first epigram, ends with a suggestion: “First give woman, if you dare, the alphabet, then summon her to her career.” In Ladies’ Abecedary, Levine has used her alphabet and skill to create a haunting index of women’s anonymous, yet recognizable, lives. 

Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Fledgling Rag, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem 'Eating Walnuts' was selected by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. In 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace and another poem received honorable mention in Passager’s poetry contest. She lives in Baltimore, MD.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Dearest Water

by Nancy Takacs
(Mayapple Press, 2022) 

Reviewed by Kevin Miller

Nancy Takacs’ new collection Dearest Water reveres life’s wild, jeweled beauty. The title’s opening endearment is language to fit the times. Beloved, these poems consider precious resources, people, and places with a fury to fight extinction. Takacs’ keen sensibilities and exact language combine with a painter’s eye for color and texture to showcase natural, sacred places. Her poems are diverse in approach including lyric, narrative, direct address, and persona poems. These poems are affirmations edged with tenderness, steeped in compassion, wary of danger. 

The section “For Women Only” opens with a poem after Tony Hoagland’s “For Men Only.” Takacs’ poem, also the section title, responds with a sleek confidence, “it wasn’t easy inventing the language, / turning our mmm’s and ahh’s / into hummingbirds and gardens.” She finds strength in the women’s ‘wings’: 

My mothers and I went on

to invent many gardens,

rambling roses, apple trees.

We fluttered in the honeysuckle

trailing our green wings behind us. 

This poem shows the hollow-bone strength of women, the beauty of the garden, the transformation to strength, and recurring wings: 

We ate outside listening

to the sparrows and chickadees,

on our glass table that shattered

once when lightning struck it. 

It was then we invented

the portable table,

sprang it open near lakes

where we swam the butterfly

to the deep, and back a couple of times. 

It highlights resilience, the ability to soar, and humor. The women of section one “dwell in possibility,” the windows numerous, the doors are “Superior Doors.” In a timely “supply-chain” phrase, they are “out of doors” and into the wild.  

In “Remnants,” aunt and niece share a special after-Mass trip to the garment district. Takacs’ tactile sense is a recurring touch throughout the collection: 

she was so good

at her own designs

and invisible seams

she became loose with pleasure

as our palms felt the prickles

of weave, our wrists the feather

of selvage.

Over our arms

we hung watered silks

and sheer chiffons

The result of the shared knowledge that aunt teaches niece is as strong as the toughest fabric: “I learned about luxury / for almost nothing, how to eye / the sharp store owner, / and bargain bitterly / for whatever I love.”

Takacs blends practical knowing with the niece’s fierce learning, and “bargain bitterly for whatever I love” is the poet at her finest. Another example of the felt image occurs in “Making Up.” She captures the reconnection of lovers after an argument. In this deft, tactile image, Takacs describes a tentative reconciliation: “holding a hand can be like a hornet in a balloon.” The sting in relationships comes with the territory as she ends “Fossil Fish,” a poem about parents after a day of fishing ends with its own sharp truth: “some days / they baited their lines / and never argued.” 

In “The Beekeeper,” Takacs praises the woman artist, keeper, and student who “watches to see what they will do.” And what the keeper learns from the bees, she uses to teach us: “she has learned the word let, the word inter, // leaves the bees more / than enough honey for winter.” And this line instructs us: “She is careful / not to walk between the beelines / from heather to hives.” Pay attention. 

Interspersed with her work with the bees, the artist-beekeeper returns to sculpting “the girl / who has been all along cradling the bird / in her light-filled studio.” In a sense the description of the keeper mirrors the work of the poet. “She is in love with the work / that has come from flowers” is apt for keeper and poet. As the artist beekeeper moves from bees to sculpting, Takacs deftly shifts between precious resources, people, places, and things wild.

The poet respects the beeline, finds her way around, her way out of the way with care for what is wild. Poems meander into discovery, praise, and surprise. In “Amethysts” a neighbor, Diane, faces a series of physical setbacks with charms and wisdom. “Once a union negotiator, / Diane flew the world, / working her charm.” Diane says, “I’m a good witch, careful with amethysts. I drink / two glasses of wine each day at six.” 

The wonders of the path reveal gems, foreshadow the weave of the wild and hidden jewels in later sections. In the poem “Utah Garden,” “poppies are the ones raising hell… their flaming crepe, / their centers dark / and alive as bees.” The opening section ends with the speaker sitting in her son’s room, in her mother’s maple chair, where she reflects on the story of her conception. In "Resurfacing," she paints:

in a warm bath, I stab and swirl

my brushes in Forest, Viridian, Spring,

letting them bleed new leaves

that wander into a desert April,

drift and burst into stars.

The poet is in the comfort of dearest water alive with possibilities and watercolor. 

The section “Wildness” opens with the poem “Wolverine,” a work of praise and wit as the speaker tells the skunk bear they are alike, loners, then admits being “too soft, lounging on her futon... digesting tasty memories of Proust.” Takacs’ self-effacing humor is refreshing. She shows scorn for those boiling lobsters alive and chagrin for her own eating the eyed scallops. It is a complex journey from sweater wool to wolf hunts. 

“The Garden State” moves between New Jersey and Wisconsin, and it ends with two couplets searing a kept memory: 

my mother always knowing where I was

as she eased open the window screen,

pinning our swimsuits on the line,

not yet calling me in for supper. 

The image of the mother pinning suits is powerful, the sacred moments between the call for dinner, perfect. 

In keeping with the beekeeper and the notion of women who know and show the way, “the oldest woman in Minocqua” walks on water and knows the difference between ICE and ice and tells. In “Ice,” the talkative store owner at lakeside: 

cleats across it till spring, earrings dangling

beneath her earmuffs, to talk politics, telling

others over their sausage gravy that climate

change is on our doorsteps, and now ICE

is using our taxpayer money to deport

all the good people in cities

The path out of the beeline winds to precious resources. The collection’s title poem, “Dearest Water,” is its most haunting poem. In twenty-two lines, a direct and unwavering thump to the chest makes clear how dear water can be. 

The poem “Meditation” ends with this stanza:

Or when I say a prayer

why I always think of what is woven.

Not a prickly pear, alone.

The weave continues in these poems. The prickly pear’s fruit bears striking resemblance to the votive candle. A focused offering, lovely in its image, still the prayer we have in this collection is “what is woven.” Takacs makes loose ties, airy in their plait, as the final stanza in the section on hidden jewels shows:

It’s not a long way off,

this end not really an end

but a way of going wholly

into our wings, into

the hearts of our bodies.

Wholly and holy, the collection closes with two longer poems in a section called “Notes to God from County Road H.” The first of the two, “Drought,” continues the emphasis on dearest water. Takacs’ note-like style offers a series of short, conversational prayers, “Notes to God,” or notes to self in their own prayer-like consideration: 

I watch the soft mouths

of range cows,

in the hot desert, eating the last

bale of alfalfa.

They are black,

so beautifully black,

breaths wet and green

as they sway toward

my empty hands.

Nancy Takacs’ poems continue the care and keeping of sacred beings, places, and resources. Dearest Water is a reverent bow to water, to what is precious and essential until the end, “which is not really an end / but a way of going wholly / into our wings, into / the hearts of our bodies.”


by Kirsten Ihns
(Propeller Books, 2020) 

Reviewed by Eran Eads 

“There’s something to be said about not saying anything.” 

—Janet Jackson

“I know / I don’t know / that’s what I do know” 

—also Janet Jackson

Sans serif on the hard pink shell of the cover greets the reader of Kirsten Ihns’ debut poetry collection sundaey. The flamingo-milk-stained edges of the book are ostentatious and cube the rectangulation of the outer presentation; this dimensionality further brings it to life. I know, I know, a book, its cover… judging! But the performance of the color captivates like a robin’s egg.

Note: I know Ihns and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with her. For the purposes of transparency and ethical behavior, that must be known.  I consider this to be a re-view versus a review, and I consider that distinction to not only allow but to explain my compulsion to write.

Perched in the “day,” a block text in limbo between the table of contents and numbered pages, “sun” then “daey” are presented. More of these block-text poems will emerge throughout the pages, almost migratory in their return back to meaning and with something small flitting in to disturb them. 

The introductory poem is “yes, hello.” It is a strange beginning. It is rattling to begin with a confirmed response. In my own rereadings, I gloss the first couplet then read “I was taken out to dance and click.” Here and throughout the book, Ihns boggles with her specificity. I want to laugh at it as a line. It feels like all it can be doing is humorous. The last two words stretch the sincerity of the entire line. This is later followed by “mostly, I like things I can find.” This seems to be a crucial creation method for Ihns, her ability to listen and find, yet before the line can even end it plunges back into “by means of batherwater / behavior.” With the turn, she is no longer nest-collecting an identity but bobbing in bathwater to find. What bird is this?

The “i have left The Amazing Hair Day, for you” first line of the second poem, “the world of flying motor objects,” is instantly humanoid and shifts with the following lines into a demand. It is lyric, it is appealing, and it is “v” self-aware. However, it is not self-identifying. Much of the collection is self-aware and even alights momentarily near self-conscious. In “of the five senses, desire is the sixth,” the creature-speaker acknowledges creatureness but admits “sometimes it’s hard to know one is.” Yes.     

Sometimes the poems preen and carefully tumble line by line, but mostly they dart around as if trapped in/on the cage/page. Line uniformity seems to scare the speaker; it is avoided. In its place, sound is prioritized. Sometimes words seem to only exist because of their sound. Each a careful tweet (and often tweetable) moment that builds into song. Then “lol wat.”

The warble of the longer forms, while grounding the sometimes-flighty collection, blends seamlessly into the smaller chirping one-page poems that are sonically strongest. These poems are “the kind of pleasure you can gnaw and not diminish,” and it is often difficult to differentiate between their playful sensuality and their playfulness. Each so wholly convinces the reader to get caught up in the rapture of their sound.

Speaking of “rapture,” after a book-length deluge of good and great poetry, this poem is something beyond. It is a spectacular poem that I still find surprising three years after its publication (originally online in BOAAT). A person could spend years with this poem. I did. I will continue to. Each time I teach it, students are marveled by its seeming simplicity and eventual density. And the last three lines! After experiencing “rapture,” one can return to the page before page one and see in block text of “day” a door of “sun” and “dae.” This is what the book is, “a new door” leading to “the same building / as the others.” It’s a bird’s-eye-view of the door and it is also an invitation inside.

There are moments to openly chortle: I don’t know how to read the title “quat swan” and not laugh. That is the grammar of Ihns’ debut. And by “quat swan” it is all beginning to be a language of its own, understandable when one follows the flight. Then the Greek mythological figure Leda appears in the poem, or actually, the speaker commands the reader not to be “reading that in.” The repetitive negative command is a trick to the human mind and a confirmation that one should “reference to leda in the swan” regardless of what the speaker says. Again specificity turns the entire myth on its head with the replacement of “and” with “in.” As if Yeats’ sonnet needed further complications, Ihns steps in and complicates. This poem begins by engaging in hilarity and sacrificing then resurrecting the swan “on the lawn / like geese.”

This is the part where the ruse of the lyric-rouged lines begins to truly glimmer through. The speaker seems most “honest” as a bird, as a creature, as anything that is not human. Even inanimate objects have believable sentience in her lines.

The eye feathers of I-statements are a wonderful vehicle to guide the reader along a carefully curated flight path. Any other thing with eyes knows how to follow. When lines like “i refuge like my body is adornment” come it is both definitely contrived and certainly sincere. Then there are  lines that are a way for the reader to “fix it how you like it,” although this writer cedes no control.

A desperate bird will lure predators away from a nest with hopping and singing—any successful distraction. In this debut, Ihns is birdlike, though her distraction-song is not desperate, but consciously useful. By the end, a reader may be encouraged to lean away from trusting her “I.” The lyric continues to appear on the page but it is mostly pecked to near-death, cannibalized to serve the sound of each line. Trusting the musicality of the Ihns' lines is far more successful.

Out of the pink shell of sundaey hatches a knowledgeable bird: capable of human imitation like a crow, yet tropically showy. Even when contemporary means a time and not the now we know it, Ihns will never be accused of writing contemporary poetry. Instead she offers sundaey, “a new door,” a novel method for meaning makers to experience the strange.

What does it all mean? Sometimes it’s warning. Sometimes mourning. Sometimes it’s a playful morning tune. Most of the time it flutters between f**king and I-don’t-f**king-get-it. In that fluttering, the music of the verse remains undeniable. This is a strong first collection and an important debut. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Scale Model of a Country at Dawn

by John Sibley Williams
(Cider Press Review, 2022) 

Reviewed by Linda Scheller 

The landscape of loss is a personal topography we traverse when those who are dear to us die. In his new book of poetry, Scale Model of a Country at Dawn, John Sibley Williams contemplates loss and its aftermath in poems that depict life’s evanescence and beauty with clarity and grace. Winner of the 2020 Cider Press Review Book Award, this collection offers nuanced perspectives on mortality that suggested to me a glass paperweight containing a microcosm. The reader encounters the crumbling houses of childhood, dark forests, a cliff, burning barns, the “multi-colored living field,” islands. These archetypal landmarks effectively connect the speaker’s experiences with memories and emotions from the reader’s own life.

Scale Model of a Country at Dawn opens with “The Gift,” a prologue in which the speaker pledges to make and give “something the light must struggle to enter.” Throughout the book there are allusions to profound losses in a muted elegiac tone. Williams’ studied restraint creates enigmas of loss so that reading the poems is akin to unearthing the bones that once comprised a body’s architecture, or smelling the smoke that lingers after fire. Carefully placed hints snagged my attention, and I felt compelled to read and then reread the entire book to better understand these losses and their ramifications.

The book’s eponymous poem begins with an epigraph defining a Hobson’s choice, the decision to accept or refuse the one thing offered. Time offers the quintessential Hobson’s choice: move forward or not at all. The only possible way to return to the past is through memory, a model of dubious verisimilitude by virtue of limited perspective and emotional refraction. It is important to note the time chosen for regarding this model of the past, since dawn implies the rebirth of hope, perhaps even joy, as the world of light, color, and clarity returns following a period of darkness.

The title poem consists of unrhymed couplets, the form Williams uses in the book’s first and last poem and in almost one-third of the collection. Enjambment spills images over lines and across the spaces between stanzas in a cleaving that severs, then connects thought: 

Either side of a saw, either a beheaded mountain

or not enough coal to last the winter; a startled

horse beats itself against an open barn door,

imitating flight, while the hay catches fire, &

emptied of organs, painted to look less still,

my mother has never looked more herself.

After a parent, caregiver, or another person integral to one’s life dies, memories and unanswered questions are likely to become focal points in which the relationship’s dynamics as well as the survivor’s self-regard are scrutinized. Scale Model of a Country at Dawn conveys these struggles and complicated emotions with admirable honesty. These beginning lines from “Controlled Burn” convey dread and doubt with ominous imagery and terse analogies:

Acre after acre left unburnt.

Full families of wolves gone

unshot. & the chickens we keep

to teach our children where meat

comes from are getting nervous.

The wire-thin pen cannot stop

the world from entering. Like how

quitting cigarettes only delays

a mother’s cancer. Like all those

desperate prayers that refuse

to restrain night.

Williams employs an ampersand in place of the word “and” even at the beginning of an utterance that culminates in a full stop, as seen in the excerpt above. The use of a symbol to represent this conjunction echoes the poet’s skill at weaving symbolic meaning into myriad images of animals, objects, and geographic features. There is, however, one poem about two-thirds of the way through the book that didn’t have ampersands nor the double slashes that appear in some other poems. The switch to formality gave me pause. I was curious to know the reason behind this choice, and the change caused me to slow down and read more carefully. “Fever” begins: 

When you hold your child’s body like this,

cold as unexcavated earth, wet with want,

making oaths to anything that will listen, please

and god and the usual silences, so much useless

splendor cradled fetally between raw open hands.

When the field just keeps going without you. 

The poem is stunning in its heartbreaking vulnerability. Of all the memories considered in this collection, the formality in this particular poem bespeaks exceptional anguish. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” The frame of reference in “Fever” may well be, in Dickinson’s words, “the Hour of Lead— / Remembered, if outlived.”

The terror and shame in “Fever” are associated with “dark steepled night” and “gut-shot worship.” Left with “the usual silences” after a terrible event or devastating loss, even the most stalwart believers might well question their convictions. Certainly I did with the death of my grandmother, and then decades later when I lost my father and youngest brother. The poems in Scale Model of a Country at Dawn alluding to death and doubt resonated. Williams conveys the anguish of loss and the memory of trauma with extraordinary sensitivity. As I read these poems, I felt an empathic kinship with the speaker whose experiences of loss and doubt were superimposed on my own. 

The contemplation of one’s own mortality is given vivid evocation in “Synonyms for Paradise,” a poem near the beginning of the book. Williams writes:

It hurts me to do it, but let’s let the synonyms

for joy & for grief bleed together, like salt

& fresh water, like poles of a magnet.

That we all die before we’re finished

is no excuse to abandon this worn-out

car by the side of some nameless road,

flipped over, only partially on fire.

That we should know when we see it

is not the same thing as a promise.

The stark truth “we all die before we’re finished” is followed by a whimsical metaphor comparing life to an old car “flipped over, only partially on fire.” The dry humor conjured by that description never fails to make me smile, yet the next statement is a profound challenge. Within the poem and throughout the book, juxtaposed opposites like “joy” and “grief,” “salt,” and “fresh water” perfectly balance one another.

As in all the poems in this book, musical intonation carries the reader through “Parallax,” a gorgeous poem that combines the profound and the ordinary in shifting perspectives and indentation: 

     One could almost say

     illusion, that all this seeing

     is a trick the light plays to keep us

     rooted in place. In this case,

     driver, subject. If things worked out

     differently, we’d be out there wandering the object-heavy night

     dreaming that our raised thumb meant

     you can trust me & unarmed, then drinking

     the moon from crushed cans rusting by the road.

The last section of the book, “Object Permanence,” is notable for poems that seek resolution and find endurance in a considered acceptance. Tentative joy emerges from the ashes and regrets, and gradually the sharp outlines of loss begin to blur. The speaker regards his own children with wonder akin to breath caught in surprise and released in awe. In one of the book’s last poems, “Restoration,” we read:

In the absence of repair, I’ll make due

with telling my children this failing house

& the country we planted it in & the world

that refuses to stop blooming around us

& the stars can be shelter enough.

During our lifetime, each of us travels through our own little country with its own particular landscape. Yes, there is loss, but there is also love, beauty, and hope. As the poem “Larynx” proclaims, “the world is worth singing into.” In Scale Model of a Country at Dawn, John Sibley Williams urges us to savor the journey and cherish those with whom we travel. 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Tidal Wave

by Dennis H. Lee
(Passager Books, 2020) 

Reviewed by Erica Goss 

Dennis H. Lee’s award-winning collection Tidal Wave opens with a quote from Captain Newman, M.D., Leo Rosten’s 1961 novel about a World-War-II-army psychiatrist. In the quote, a cynic, a mystic, and a “man who loved reason” are asked what they would do if the island they were on disappeared under a tidal wave. The cynic would indulge his carnal desires, the mystic would make sacrifices and pray, and the man who loved reason would immediately “study how to live under water.” Tidal Wave reflects all three attitudes, with poems that focus on humor, food, and above all, a pragmatic view of the past.

Beginning in early childhood, the poems in Tidal Wave follow the trajectory of a long, well-lived life. In the book’s first poem, “Coney Island–July 4, 1952,” a summer day unfolds, with carefully chosen details describing a comfortable if slightly cloying atmosphere: “Grandma’s beef smoke / oils the underside of leaves” and “chicken fat soaks into brown paper bags.” The poem’s last lines evoke summer’s appeal, as well as its torpor, as seen through the eyes of a child:

I sit on the fire escape with kosher chicken and comics.

Grandma speaks Yiddish into the soup.

Tonight’s sky will be brighter than the Ferris wheel.

These lines evoke childhood in a specific place at a specific time, and a way of life that no longer exists except in the fragments of memory. 

Tidal Wave is not especially nostalgic in tone—the poems don’t reveal an overriding longing for the past, nor do they romanticize it. Instead, they offer a glimpse into how memory operates, as in “Leaning in my tired seat.” As the speaker falls into a half-sleep while riding on a subway train, memories unspool from the present to the recent, and then the very distant past. In that half-awake, half-asleep state, he recalls a grandfather “dreaming of Russia, / of cows in a small fenced pasture along the road he walks carrying / eggs in a basket for his grandmother who had kind blue eyes. Sad, / but kind.” 

The rituals of preparing and consuming food play a major role in this book. In “Arpeggio,” Lee details the sensual qualities of bread:

I liked to tear clumps of challah

from the round braided pile of bread,

squinching the piece in my hand to help

leverage the tearing, then watch it 

slowly rise back to fluff.

The action of “squinching” the bread and watching it rise again is as important as eating it. In the poem, food and its savory delights open a floodgate of potent memories: malteds, bagels, and Maxwell House instant coffee, to which his grandmother added “three teaspoons of / sugar, then slowly poured in heavy cream / so I could watch it spiral and cloud its way down.” The poem reminds us that the taste, aroma, and texture of food have the power to bring back memories.

Eating is not always pleasurable, however. In “Lunch,” the speaker can’t find a group he feels comfortable with, “the accountants are talking baseball / … I don’t know sports,” “the secretaries / … know too much,” “the guys from the plant are too / down-to-earth … / They might just eat you.” The poem brings to mind the classic high school lunchroom scene where an unpopular kid searches for a group to sit with. Similarly, the anticipation of eating something delicious can quickly sour; in “The hand sanitizer at my new bar,” the penetrating odor of hand sanitizer ruins the flavor of peanuts: “my scotch won’t kill it. Not even / jalapeƱos.”

In “Eating Crab,” Lee compares reading the Bible to eating crab: “I have been tearing through the Bible, / looking for those morsels people / talk about.” The process of eating a crab, with its cracking and pulling meat from small cavities, is an apt metaphor for attempting to glean meaning from a dense and difficult text. As Lee writes about reading the Bible, “the little that reaches my mouth— / well, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.” By the end of the poem, however, he’s found something that justifies that effort:

A few little strands, sweet and succulent,

and I draw them through my lips slowly,

savoring. My hands need washing.

I do not wear a bib. My plate

is filled with cracked discards.

Lee has an ear for the absurd, as in “My Doctor’s Dog,” which expounds on physicians having animals in their offices—a dog, a horse, chickens—following, presumably, the therapy-animal model intended to put their patients at ease. It has the opposite effect on the speaker, who objects to “slobber on the pen” or the way the doctor’s dog “sniffs all over my legs.” He concludes that he’ll need to start a program of “self-healing.” 

“Before you write from the heart” is an irreverent take on the gatekeepers of the literary world. In the poem, the speaker receives advice from an imaginary medical team. We quickly understand that they are editors posing as doctors:

          We will inject

a dye that…will show when you begin

writing from the heart and when you stop.

The patient has no choice but to agree with the findings, “which will have no effect on the content / of any subsequent rejection slips we send.”

Some of these poems veer into darker territory. In “On Dark Wings,” the speaker holds the hand of his dying wife; her impending death filters through the poem with his gradual comprehension. From the “anticipation / … of a vacation” to “her dead hand” with its “gold meaningless band,” the poem gathers itself into grief as it ends, with the speaker too stunned to “even ask the questions.”

In “The Blood Room,” a child observes a patient “knitting needles in your hands, / IV needles stuck into your flesh.” The child’s curiosity regarding the woman knitting is at odds with her shyness; the knitter stays focused on her craft. The poem captures the absurd yet somehow appropriate pairing of IV and knitting needles; the child’s reaction holds these elements together.

Looking back at experiences doesn’t always bring understanding. In the collection’s title poem, “Tidal Wave,” an event that occurred at a beloved lake still mystifies, even after so many years: “what looked like a wall / of water, a giant wave, was coming right at me.” Unprepared for this catastrophe, he simply reacts: “I / dropped my rod and ran for the hotel,” unlike the measured responses of the cynic, the mystic, and the man who loved reason. The poem also reminds us that age doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom—sometimes reflection just intensifies the confusion.

Tidal Wave shows us how memories lie in wait, so often surfacing during moments when we are otherwise engaged. Accessible and straightforward, and imbued with a wry sense of humor, this book is the work of a poet who’s witnessed an enormous amount of change, and whose memories’ power and energy have not diminished.