Wednesday, December 20, 2023

 Sugar Suggests—Mini Reviews from Sugar House Review Staff

The Descent

by Sophie Cabot Black

(Graywolf Press, 2004)

If you’ve ever been asked to describe a momentous event and found language wanting, consider this collection. In The Descent, Sophie Cabot Black distills love and loss into a tossed coin that refuses to land. The poetry equivalent of espresso, it makes everything else taste like soy latte.

—Neil Flatman

Quiet Orient Riot

by Nathalie Khankan

(Omnidawn, 2020)

This astonishing debut collection quietly traverses the embattled landscapes of Palestine and infertility. Khankan takes us from border crossing to border crossing, seeking motherhood while wrestling with the promise of sovereignty—for both body and country.

—Katherine Indermaur

The Kingdom of Surfaces

by Sally Wen Mao

(Graywolf Press, 2023)

Every line in Sally Wen Mao’s new collection of poetry oscillates between veneration and evisceration, calling her readers to the bodies of history (ancient Chinese and other) through bowel, breath, and skin. Her sisters “comb their hair, / part it sideways to promise a lifetime of celibacy.” 

—Shari Zollinger

Something I Might Say

by Stephanie Austin

(WTAW Press, 2023)

Stephanie Austin writes in a unique, authentic voice with such seeming ease that I know it is, in fact, her craft and skill that make it so, as the subject matter of multiple losses coupled with caretaking during the pandemic is incredibly difficult to write about effectively. If you're in for personal essay with emotion, you'll be in for this short, but not small, book. It has everything a reader needs.

—Natalie Padilla Young

In the Hands of the River

by Lucien Darjeun Meadows

(Hub City Press, 2022)

Meadows’ debut reads like a queer love letter to Appalachia. Like a good lover or a good trail through a beautiful place, these poems—rich with texture and image—will leave you thirsting for more. 

—Katherine Indermaur

American Scapegoat

by Enzo Silon Surin

(Black Lawrence Press, 2023)

Enzo Silon Surin’s works from American Scapegoat make you feel like you’re witnessing a poetic speaking in tongues. He portrays the human experience through the Black experience in brilliant stanzas, giving tribute to Black activists, poets, and victims of systemic racism. Speakers punch through reality and tell stories that overwhelm with their power and reverence. Surin’s voice, and the voices he presents must be heard and acknowledged in this “postscript of a furious sweat.”

—Clarissa Adkins

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Lying In

by Elizabeth Metzger
(Milkweed Editions, 2023) 

Reviewed by Katherine Indermaur

Elizabeth Metzger’s second poetry collection shows us what it looks like when new life starts with the threat of death. Lying In sparks with vulnerability. It pierces through the rose-colored glasses our culture so often slips over our faces when we talk about motherhood. Lying In is an especially important book in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling last year that abortion is no longer a right guaranteed for all Americans.

The titular phrase “lying in” refers to several periods of time around childbirth, from physician-ordered bed rest before the birth to the forty-day period after giving birth where, in many indigenous cultures around the world, new mothers are encouraged to recover by staying mostly in bed. As Lying In opens, Metzger begins with the former experience. While on bed rest, she writes about her son in utero: “In bed what time has done to me is / what it cannot do / to him.” She stays immobile for as much time as her son needs to develop and become ready for the world. The cruel math of parental sacrifice begins. The opening poem moves quickly through labor and birth to milk coming in. In the aftermath, “in some ways I am gone,” Metzger writes. The new life—both the baby’s and the mother’s—subsumes the old.

Perhaps surprising to readers who haven’t experienced postpartum mental health challenges, having a baby doesn’t guarantee the new parent a reason to stay alive. Those hazy and all-consuming first few months often raise more difficult questions than they answer. In “First Wound Kept Open,” Metzger asks:

Of everyone I’ve met 
on earth I always find
they got here first
and will they teach
me their good
reason for staying?

Yet in “Patient Mentality,” the speaker’s medicalized body seems built for persistence: “the voluntary nature of staying alive seemed / obvious / against the red ladder of my body.”

The pregnant, postpartum, or nursing body are a miraculous site not just of creation, but of constant threat and mystery. There is a black box quality to being pregnant. The womb isn’t even that safe or welcoming of a place for new life. In a 2021 episode of the public radio podcast Radiolab, reporter Heather Radke described pregnancy as “a cage match” wherein “on one side is the pregnant person, and on the other side is the fetus. And… in the corner, rubbing the shoulders of the fetus, is the placenta.” For Metzger’s speaker, the memory of that cage match lives on into the new child’s healthy life outside the womb. In “Not My Child,” she writes, “I wish / I could tell why my body appalls me // even though you have thrived. / Nobody died / but that’s just the luck of it.” Luck, black box—the illusion of control over one’s body is stripped away by pregnancy, and it is never fully restored.

Similarly, parenthood is no great force of certainty—no final, true answer. In Metzger’s and my experience, it opens you up to more ambiguity than you knew was possible. “The edges of your death are smudged and round / like ash or a watch / whose accuracy is the least of its worth,” she writes in “The Impossibility of Crows.” New life colored by death. And whether anyone actually died—death’s “accuracy”—is relatively unimportant to these poems’ speaker. Instead, this book upholds a different yet deeply honest kind of worth.

While reading Lying In, I kept thinking about Annie Lowrey’s 2022 Atlantic essay, “American Motherhood,” where she reflects on her two life-threatening pregnancies. In America, “one in five pregnant people experiences a significant complication. And one in 4,000 dies during pregnancy, in childbirth, or shortly after delivering, including one in 1,800 Black mothers,” she writes. Lowrey’s pregnancies left her “disabled, a word I am still struggling to come to terms with. They put my life at significant risk.” In other words, life-threatening and -altering experiences with pregnancy like Lowrey’s and Metzger’s are not uncommon in America. 

In perhaps my favorite poem of the book, “Mother Nothing,” mother speaks to child:

You made the water you broke.
You made me sicker than I could stand
to live a little longer.
For every night there is another night I’ve missed. 
Maybe it is my ambivalence
about being outlasted.
Whenever you are in your crib
my life feels final, or like it has never been.

But this isn’t the last word on the subtractive math new motherhood performs on our lives. There is, somehow, abundance. In one of my favorite images of the book, the speaker of the poem “Desire” says to her partner, after putting their children to bed, “What could you possibly do for my body / when I am in two // separate rooms, / breathing?”

Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022) and two chapbooks. She is an editor for Sugar House Review and the recipient of prizes from Black Warrior Review, the Academy of American Poets, and Colorado Humanities. Her writing has appeared in Ecotone, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, CO.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

As If Fire Could Hide Us

by Melanie Rae Thon
(Fiction Collective 2, 2023) 

Reviewed by Michelle Donahue

Imagine, for a moment, a consciousness that senses all beings. A vibrant presence that whirls from person to bird, from a stone on the forest floor to a deer with her head craned toward the sky to feel the warmth of sun or brisk whisk of rain. Before reading Melanie Rae Thon’s As If Fire Could Hide Us, I’d thought such a feat impossible, to craft such expansive and multiplicitous perceptions on the page. But journeying through Thon’s newest book is to be immersed in the terror and unyielding beauty of the earth and all its very alive presences—wind and water, bird and girl. 

As If Fire Could Hide Us creates its expansive consciousness through three thematically entwined movements. The first and longest section, “Orelia, in hiding,” follows a twelve-year-old girl who, on impulse, runs away from home and experiences the treacherous wonder that surrounds her. In the second section, “The 7th Man,” a prison guard must rehearse for inmate executions and witnesses a particularly prolonged and horrible lethal injection. In the final movement, “The Bodies of Birds,” a girl killed by a car crash is resurrected to become many humans as her organs find homes in new bodies. In each section, characters hover on the rough, raw edge between life and death, witness the chilling thrill of living, and inhabit a place of interconnected beings, which is to say the world with all its wondrous tangles.

Just as the narratorial perspective of As If Fire Could Hide Us is expansive, so too is the book itself. It is at once multiple sorts of texts; the subtitle describes it as “a love song in three movements,” and like a song, Thon engages image and sound to generate meaning beyond mere narrative. Italicized fragments like “white horses break and rise / rise and shatter” and “thought streaks as foam / across the ocean” meander through the pages and offer fleeting moments of sensory impressions. Key moments return again and again like a haunting chorus. The book begins, “I remember birds / or the shadow of birds / hundreds of hearts / trembling through my body,” a moment that chronologically likely occurs toward the end of the first section, when Orelia finds herself suffering in a forest, wounded from what might be called an accident. This moment recurs throughout her section, when she “slept or died,” when her “memory now leaks into the earth… now becomes the forest,” and so becomes a resonant and haunting refrain.

Some might call As If Fire Could Hide Us a novel, and certainly that capacious, heteroglossic genre could contain such a text. Though the work moves beyond narrative, compelling stories lie at its heart—a girl who seeks adventure and finds companionship and violence, parents desperately looking for their missing daughter, a man reckoning with the grim realities of his job and capital punishment, a girl who has died but finds continued life. These are certainly memorable stories.

Others might call the text hybrid or experimental, as it plays with form, mixing lineated, lyric sections with paragraphs, playing with white space and grammar. In “The 7th Man,” the only punctuation marks are colons and em dashes, a choice that keeps a reader galloping forward to the piece’s grizzly end, “I wasn’t hurt—I could crawl—I could stand—left leg weak but I could walk—I could climb—find a stick to support—." There is no time for breath in such utterances, no chance for singular stillness. The punctuation too has an effect that suggests an equality between pieces: “you can’t scare me now: I am always afraid”—a suggestion that both statements are equally true, that one can’t be frightened, not ever, not now, and also: one is always frightened. 

Others might think of the book as long-form poetry given its imagistic leaps through space and perspective, a text more interested in resonances between moments than providing straightforward context. In one instance we are with Orelia: “Here I am: in the fog, in the rain, flowing under the West Seattle Bridge—” and then the next we are swung to where “raccoons run / on the roof / even now / do you hear them,” a moment that is not as easily placed chronologically or spatially. The effect is that it feels as if Orelia and the raccoons are together, that because we are given knowledge, awareness of them both, that they exist intertwined, and it doesn’t matter where the raccoons run or where Orelia hides, because, yes, even now, we can hear them, girl and raccoon, creating their spectacular sounds. Such is the power of Thon’s words, of her chosen structures and echoing voices.

With all this talk of genre, I fear I’ve fallen into a familiar human trap. A tendency As If Fire Could Hide Us resists against—to categorize, to forge separations between entities, to believe such things are meaningful or even real. In a text where a girl becomes a forest, becomes multiple humans in death, distinction isn’t very meaningful. For we live in a world of connection, of multiplicity, an ecology of consciousness, of animate and inanimate forces—stone and human, the judicial system and winged bodies. As If Fire Could Hide Us is at once all genres, an experiential rumination whose form embodies its spiritual teachings, illuminates what we too often forget—the cosmos of connection in which we exist and the ramifications of this knowledge. For to be a being intertwined with others is to be one existing forever with compassion and empathy, to be an agent whose actions unfurl onto others, for good and for evil. May we remember this as we move through our world, may you, dear reader, cherish this as you live and laugh and vote and make choices. If I haven’t convinced you of this essential, ponderous, and wonderful connectivity, Thon’s words will. As If Fire Could Hide Us is a beautifully singular read; it will change your life—don’t miss it.

Michelle Donahue is an assistant professor at UNC Wilmington, where she is associate editor of Ecotone. Her prose has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and published in Passages North, CutBank, and Arts & Letters, among others. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah.

Monday, October 16, 2023


by Adam Scheffler
(Moon City Press, 2023) 

Reviewed by Matthew Murrey

Adam Scheffler is a poet who wrestles with the current fraught times that he (and the rest of us) are living through. Heartworm, his second poetry collection and winner of the 2021 Moon City Prize, takes on a wide range of contemporary topics such as the weirdness revealed by autocomplete during a Google search, (“Autocomplete”), the wickedly incantatory nature of the name of the 45th President of the United States (“45”), the sadness of low-wage work (“Checkout”), and the presence of the dead evoked by the “six feet left between us” of social distancing during the pandemic (“The Dead”). 

Though Scheffler often turns his focus on common or mundane subjects—e.g. Walmart, Facebook, old TVs, swarms of insects, his own legs (!)—what he finds there is at once unsettling, sacred, and even moving. In “Checkout,” a cashier finds themself “manning the conveyor as it / rattles its barren Torah / through miles of product.”

In “What to Fear,” the beneficial and harmful potential of one’s own hands are exposed in the metaphor of “your hands / those double agents,” while in “Charade” a medical examination is where doctors keep “covering us in the butcher / paper of gowns.” Scheffler lures his readers in with a straightforward approach and plain language, then sends them careening into a descriptive landscape striking in its strangeness, profundity, and existential questions. 

There is an arc to this fine collection. It is a movement from near despair in unjust details of modern life where “waiting room TVs / spin despair’s golden honey” (“Florence, Kentucky”) to the kind of redemption found contemplating Kentucky horses in a field where the poet’s “nothing to offer meeting their / offering nothing but beauty” ends on an image where the grassy fields in the evening “become a kind of / Galilee anyone can walk upon” (“Ode to Kentucky Horses”).  

From beginning to end, there is much to admire in Heartworm. The title gives a good hint at what the reader is in for—there’s a lot of heart in the poems, but like the parasite of the same name, the harshness of contemporary life is always there, dead center. These poems sympathize with Walmart workers, but curse the Walton family that thrives off their heartbreaking labor. Scheffler visits an idyllic sanctuary for old racehorses while stinging the reader with the fact that most racehorses are sent to slaughter after they’re no longer competitive. And throughout this collection, you’ll encounter a playfully serious sense of humor. Whether it’s the poet finding other “Adam Schefflers / besmirching my good name” in “Googling Myself,” or the absurdity of a Florida roadside sign offering an “All Day Happy Hour” in “Tamiami Trail Signs: a Collage Poem,” or the poet, in “Objet D’art,” musing on his rear end, that “most humble and taken-for- / granted part, my greatest asset,” as a “piece of art” after his lover describes it that way. 

Scheffler is adept with a poet’s sense of the possibilities of language. He employs variations of stanzaic poems and poems with no breaks. He has short, pithy poems and longer meditative poems. He includes poems he has built on anaphora, and they are fresh and surprising. And always Scheffler is generous with word play: cash register beeps are “the secret / name each of us will never / be sweetly called” (“Checkout”), “joy / is a hive that you have to / be tiny and pure to enter” (“How to Party”), and a used condom is “a good omen [ ... ] reaching / down to us from a filthy / star” (“Ode to a Used Condom in a Park”).

In his poem, “I Want to be Jeff Goldblum,” Scheffler writes, “I want you to sneer at me, then laugh and feel good in spite / of yourself.” After reading the accessible, smart, and pointed poems of Heartworm you won’t find yourself sneering at Adam Scheffler, but you will laugh, and you will feel good—in spite of yourself or not.

Matthew Murrey is the author of Bulletproof (Jacar Press, 2019). He's an NEA Fellowship recipient, and his poems have appeared widely, most recently in The Shore, Whale Road Review, and EcoTheo Review. He was a public school librarian for over twenty years and lives in Urbana, IL. His website is at he can be found on Twitter and Instagram @mytwords.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Cure for Pain: A Review of
Aisle 228

by Sandra Marchetti
(Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2023) 

Reviewed by Krystal Languell

Poetry is the cure for loneliness. Baseball is the cause. So goes the first section of Sandy Marchetti's Aisle 228. Titled "Losers," this half of the book portrays the trials and tribulations of a fan whose patrilineal inheritance includes allegiance to the "lovable losers" commonly known as the Chicago Cubs. Spare and sharp, Marchetti's work unfurls moments of grief, inviting the reader to feel alongside her speaker. Disappointment needs a witness to carry on. Take the poem “Cross Country,” quoted in its entirety here:
    At 15,000 feet
    and climbing,
    I look down
    from Seat 7A
    into a suburban
    swimming pool
    and feel my
    glasses splash.
    Whenever I
    fly I search
    for the baseball
    There are so many
    in the Midwest
    and you can
    always spot them—
    how the dust plumes,
    how green the grass,
    how there is so much
    good land for them.

The speaker searches for signs that the tie to her beloved game is unbroken. She seeks the same reassurance in the next poem “AM,” in which she turns on the radios in her home to create surround sound. She gathers her squad.
Frequently, Marchetti uses the volta as an opportunity to open a door to the reader. The poem "Praise" describes the movement of a stadium crowd, which sits and stands roughly in unison. The poem ends, "Tell me, / what do you do at church?" creating an opportunity for the reader to compare their own spiritual activity to a series of sporting rituals. Moreover, the form, a loose sonnet, echoes the traditional mood. 
Often, too, Marchetti uses the pronoun "you," though the identity of that "you" varies from one piece to another. "You dictate my stillness / and my bend" evokes a strong sense of physicality. It's a little sexy. And yet this line is directed not at a lover, but at long-time Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes. Marchetti subtly provides the contextualizing images we need to be able to quickly change gears with her. Her reliance on images suggests the book is not driven by character and narrative, despite what you might expect from a book centered on sports. Rather, this collection is driven by emotion—not the mind, but the heart.  
As part of a poetic system, Marchetti's imagery creates surprise; a rabbit leaps out of a hat in the middle of some poems. Later, "Distortion" describes a road trip into Wisconsin with AM radio tuned to the Brewers game:
    The signal glowed 
    fainter with each ray
    disappearing, I was
    northing with Bob Uecker.

Denominalization is a fancy word for what Marchetti does to the word "north" here; you could just call it verbing the noun, too. The line also compactly suggests the image of a car traveling north on an unbending Midwest highway. Marchetti otherwise conforms to conventional grammar, making the moment appear in sharp relief. I could see the bug guts on the windshield as the radio signal faded along with sun. 
Baseball is the cure for loneliness. Poetry is the cause. Writing can be isolating, pulling poets away from our communities and loved ones to toil at our desks. What a welcome diversion the ballpark can be, especially when the home team is doing well. "Winners," the second half of Aisle 228, follows the 2016 Chicago Cubs, who opened a portal to hell by winning the World Series that year. As Obvious Shirts, a new t-shirt company founded by a Cubs fan to proudly state obvious opinions, phrases it: "The greatest game ever played was on a Wednesday in Cleveland." How odd! Communal celebration, alongside a sense of the supernatural, inhabits this section of the book.
Marchetti skillfully renders the emotional rollercoaster of being a fan. The important moments of a game happen quickly. In a double play, "hands work the blur." In a poem about defensive plays, a little magic has to be invited in. There is magic, but crying as well. Myths are busted. As the final play of the World Series concludes, she notes "silencethen / a bursting beat." The em dash and the gerund seem to invoke Emily Dickinson, whose “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” is resonant with the moment of epiphany. The poem ends, “First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go.” Even though the Dickinson poem illustrates death, it suits the victorious situation well too. Certainly, Cubs fans felt a great pain in the 108-year drought between championships. And stupor definitely followed.
Baseball and poetry offer escape from the quotidian, an opportunity to immerse ourselves in larger, if metaphorical, struggles. Forming a sort of binary star, each also offers a window into the other. Think of the poetic language sports broadcasting has given us in just the last few years, ranging from Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” to Thom Brennaman’s “drive into deep left field from Castellanos.” Out of huge data sets in the world of sports, artful moments emerge like precious gems. In Aisle 228, Marchetti uses the Cubs’ historic victory as a lens on the emotional range of a life-long fan. Of the pivotal memories she highlights, many are experienced alone. Readers find that winning and losing can both be lonely, but connecting with other fans is a cure for pain.

Krystal Languell is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Systems Thinking with Flowers (fonograf editions, 2022). She works for a family foundation and in her unpaid time participates in dynamic resource mobilization with and for recently arrived and formerly unhoused folks in Chicago.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Coming into Grace Harbor

by Jan Minich
(Broadstone Books, 2023) 

Reviewed by Kate Kingston

With Jan Minich as your guide, be prepared to hike dry arroyos and see their new life, to pause at the pond’s edge and smell the decay of leaves. Be prepared to raft whitewater, meander alongside snowmelt in desert, inhale the canyons first light, and finally break through the fog “Coming into Grace Harbor.” These poems emerge through water, effervescing with a sense of diffusion, condensation, precipitation. They flow from puddle to pond, from canyon to arroyo, from river to ocean, so that one experiences the fluidity of water alongside its gathering force and its ability to reshape everything it touches as expressed in the poem “When So Little is Left.”
    I hear the power of the wind 
    and water in these canyons
    and out alone on Superior
    one last distinct 
    but distant drum,
It’s as if Minich has picked up the thread Henry David Thoreau wove for us on Walden Pond in 1854: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things / which he can afford to let alone.Minich selected this quote to introduce his book which attests to the premise that nature makes us rich, that honoring each of its components whether it be the black-shelled turtles, the wintering elk, or the dragonflies. From juniper, hemlocks, and giant oaks, to lichened rocks or the blue-green shallows, each poem attests to our environmental richness. Yet in all this beauty there is an underlying tension, a deep concern for environmental impact—carbon footprints, global warning—affecting our wilderness as well as ourselves. This tension resonates in the lines “one last distinct / but distant drum,” warning us of the precarious need for caution. In the same poem, he expresses his concern:  

    I think I would like to die 
    before the coral’s all turned white 
    and the last sharks 
    swim between glass walls
    before the last polar bear has drowned
    and the last cougar’s shot,
    more like Heathcliff at his window now
    than Hayduke with his wrench. 

Again Minich picks up threads woven through our literary consciousness by writers who have preceded us as he engages references to characters from Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (1847) and Edward Abbey’s  Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). Here in 2023, the character is contemporary, a bridge between wildness and what it is to be human. His is a unique, timeless voice that persists through the bedlam of our everyday culture, comparable to the cadence of waves lapping the bow of a boat, waves breaking on shore or scuttling over pebbles. Primarily he appeals to the “silence between waves” to give the reader time to process images that lap at our consciousness. From the last lines in the poem “Following Arroyos” white space between stanzas offers us this silence to pause and absorb a certain truth.    
    we need to know more of the green
    clear-cut for another development
    the junipers we uprooted
    with chains between bulldozers  
    we need to feel for something not human
    to take away our fear of dying
Minich, river guide and naturalist, guides us through current, a steady hand on the pen, his strength anchored in the image, his eye on the surface as he reads the undertow to comprehend what is hidden. This poet’s strength is in his ability to pause and listen, to observe his surroundings in detail, to bring us images that resonate with the voices of nature which he clearly identifies in the poem “Return to Courtland” where he offers us the language of rocks:
    the sudden storms still miles away
    flashing down through arroyos
    the voices of loosening rock
    and rips of being sucked downstream,  
    a dark sound the rocks make
    as they find one another along the bottom.

These poems take us through waterscapes in their seasonal shifting—flood and drought. They take us back to an Ohio childhood of ponds and lakes and onto the waters of Lake Superior. They take us to the San Rafael Swell, the whitewater of the Colorado and Green. Nothing lies still in these poems, not even when “a bell-buoy / at a harbor far away leaves you / with this one last sense / to navigate in the heavy fog.”  This is a voice that walks in solitude, a voice that seeks quiet, speaks through silence, and convinces without argument.

Kate Kingston is the author of five collections of poetry. Her most recent book, The Future Wears Camouflage, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2024. She is the recipient of the Karen Chamberlain Award, the W.D Snodgrass Award for Poetic Endeavor and Excellence, the Ruth Stone Prize, and the Atlanta Review International Publication Prize. Kingston has been awarded fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts, Harwood Museum, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, Ucross, and Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain, among others. Several of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Sugar Suggests—Mini Reviews from Sugar House Review Staff

Believers and Seven Sermons from the Bacchae 

by John Tipton 

(Flood Editions, 2022)

This book intersperses new translations of the Gospel of Mark with the ancient Greek tragedy Euripides’ Bacchae and Tipton’s own poetry. Believers will change the way you think about ancient texts and broaden your perspective on time.

—Katherine Indermaur

Be With 

by Forrest Gander

(New Directions, 2018)

Forrest Gander dares to expose shortcomings and grief, revelations, and regrets after the death of his wife (poet C.D. Wright). In Be With, he takes every imaginable color of pain and hurls it through the line until, sometimes screaming and other times in reflection, it says, This is what it’s like to look out at the world in this moment. 

If you want to read a poem once and know everything it has to offer, this isn’t for you. But if you want something that dares you to suggest it might fail, you won’t regret picking up this Pulitzer Prize-winner. 

 —Neil Flatman

Arboretum in a Jar 

by Frances Donovan

(Lily Poetry Review Books, 2023)

“ … I wanna do what I want," from the last line of “Pastoral, Poughkeepsie,” encapsulates Donovan's success at writing poems that, ironically, cannot be contained. She writes a new niche by building up, breaking down, and twisting around the modern fairy tale via her intelligent lens, sharing a unique blend of intimacy and hindsight in this melodious collection. The poet reveals “complicated laces”and "coded secrets" via themes of family, sexuality, and identity, and does so the way she wants—masterfully and beyond comparison. 

—Clarissa Adkins

Our Cancers

by Dan O’Brien  

(Acre Books, 2021)

Twenty years after the events of 9/11, the dust continues to settle—in the Battery Park apartment and surrounding neighborhoods where Dan O’Brien and his wife lived and worked, in their breath and bodies, and in the brief 24 hours in which the one cancer journey concludes only to find another lying in wait. Love and nothingness curl around the enjambments and white space of these 101 terse lyric poems, each of which finds O’Brien acknowledging in new ways that “I must find / my way / to live here.”

—Michael McLane

A Book of Days 

by Patti Smith 

(Penguin Random House, 2022)

A Book of Days includes a picture and a caption for every day of the year, revealing music icon and poet Patti Smith’s solid practice of finding beauty within the mundane and imbuing both the objects and people in her world with a special kind of magic, designating all aspects of her life worthy of inspiration. With spare language and dreamy Polaroids, Patti Smith lays her ardor upon the altar. 

 —Shari Zollinger


by Sarah Bates

(New Michigan Press, 2020)

Do you ever tire of poems forcing tidy revelations onto things/states that are defined by disorder? (Hi entropy, have a nice bow!) If the answer is yes, check out this mini-collection. Bates’ availability to the all-too-much-ed-ness of both tragedy and minutiae, and her conveyance of “always starting over”—in topic, in form, and in the act of observation—is breathtaking.

 —Nano Taggart

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Drift Migration

by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
(Ashland Poetry Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Michael McLane

The constituent parts of Danielle Beazer Dubrasky’s collection Drift Migration are, in equal measure, myth and sand. From the retelling of lost loves in the section “Eurydice’s Mirror” to the sandstone compacted over millions of years in Utah and Arizona, from Arachne and the Sand Man to the glint of first sun on the desert, timeless things impose themselves again and again on everyday life and loss in these poems. Labyrinths and their endless choices, made or abandoned, shape Drift Migration, as well. They appear as a book of Borges in the Daedalus Bookshop in her childhood home of Charlottesville, Virginia, as red rock canyons of her adopted Utah home, and as her mother unraveling as if thread, “into remnants we skirt around / to disappear each into our own labyrinth.” At the heart of each, laying in wait to devour reader and speaker whole, is time. It is scaled up and scaled down—the slow unfurling of creosote and fossils in desert rock, myths born a few millennia ago, or the passing of half a century of loss. Whether deep and geologic or the cycle of seasons, miniature or sublime, its appetite remains bottomless, at times monstrous. 

Dubrasky’s poems bring all these varied scales to bear upon lives diverted or blown off course in unexpected ways, as the drift migration of the book’s title suggests, and in its finest moments, superimposes them upon one another in ways that offer up our stories of ourselves, our history, and our planet in a constant state of subversion and revision, at times fragmenting in real time. In “Winter Solstice in the Gorge,” Dubrasky begins:

Our myths turn long nights into cut evergreen

sold on grocery store parking lots, a continent away

from reindeer starving as the Arctic ice dissolves.

Only one star guides the way for diesels lit like Christmas—

miles of commerce that thread the Mojave.

Later in the poem, the face of Norse goddess Freya appears in red rock and dawn comes to a standstill “on a plateau of Kaibab sediment.” Myth rests on the surface of the land like the highway itself, a tangle of desires and needs, a route in constant need of repair and revision at mercy to powers and spectacle beyond our understanding.  

Likewise, in the book’s opening poem, “Phosphenes,” Dubrasky explores the eponymous flashes of light behind our eyelids, maneuvering from the ocean’s photic zone to “starlings in murmuration over fields in autumn” to a prisoner in solitary confinement, their loss of time and its concept manifesting in dreams and hallucinations, “phantom light projected / by cells firing in the retina.” “Phosphenes” is a perfect segue to the first section of the book, titled “The Sand Man,” its last line disappearing “around a curve through the only passage you have ever known.” This is fitting not only because of the importance of the eyes (as well as sleep and dreams) to nearly all versions of traditional Sand Man myths, whether they be the malicious or the innocuous iterations, but because Dubrasky’s version of the Sand Man is in many respects a founding myth of her life, the way in which she navigates the death of her brother which, despite her dreaming him back to existence in various ways, remains a crucible, the only passage she has ever known. The section begins with the title poem, which locates the reader immediately in the harsh desert where the Sand Man dwells:

A billboard: Stardust Motel. The exit sign: Valley of Fire.

Sand and creosote, broken bottles sparkling before his head

smashes the windshield near rows of telephone poles.

His name thrives in a desert as open as the sky

that rains down dry-throated gullies, soaks cleft mud flats.

His name lies flat on the grass near a copper vase filled

with flowers where the road ends in wind and Joshua trees. 

The poems that follow, including the ten-part poem “The Sand Man” that makes up the bulk of the section, move in and out of the siblings’ childhood in Char-lottesville, where they are happy if distant, and a revisioning of Hansel and Gretel, a desert dreamscape or hallucination where the Sand Man is a witch both beneficent and cruel:

He spins music on a turntable, snaps a dance with his fingers,

Pulls a rainbow of scarves through a ring, shades them from the sun 

[ … ]

He pours fire down the brother’s throat

and leaves him pushing grit between his teeth.

While the sister sleeps he steals her eyes

so when she wakes years later

she can’t see the split

he left in her heart.

The timelines conflate repeatedly and it is unclear how much of the speaker’s life with her brother is real and how much imagined. This is part of the Sand Man’s modus operandi, “he appears as an ordinary man taking an evening walk / except for the small bag of sand he carries. // He looks at her as though no time has passed, / as though there is not one where there were two.” Time is cruel, or at the very least indifferent, and Dubrasky perceives the desert in much the same way, at least in the early poems of the book, though there are glimmers of changes ahead, a drift towards a desert time and mindset that encompasses these more immediate losses into something both larger and more delicate. In part ten of “The Sand Man,” she writes:

There are some who wait all their lives to see

The Queen of the Desert bloom at midnight

Heady perfume opens across the desert

And she sees them all now:

Ghost flower, evening snow, Venus shooting star.

Their grace thrives despite the arid soil. 

She feels more than sees the moon-white petals

Expand in her dark place of sand and blood. 

This is not a change that occurs without many adjustments, as later poems such as “Leaving Virginia” make clear when Dubrasky describes how “Utah houses soften their angles at dusk, / hollyhocks blend with the larkspur. / Women disappear behind graciousness—a smile that tells nothing.” Later in the same poem where the Sand Man and the glass around her brother’s accident are recalled in “the grid streets of a Mormon town. / My first night in the desert, / stars I had only glimpsed through / a humid haze now glitter bright as ice.” But by the time the reader reaches the book’s final section, “Vespers in the Great Basin,” her now longtime home has changed, has unfurled in its impossibly slow way, the remnants of a now-extinct inland sea revealing themselves, as in “Retrieval,” where “in another epoch, creatures in limestone / will taste this new salt abrading / their locked beds—a trail toward home,” or in “Great Basin,” where “the sea left behind is the desert I walk through, / a sorrow slipped between trilobites and shale.” 

While old myths abound in Dubrasky’s work, their contemporary counterparts arise and revise and unravel with the same elegance and heartache as anything in the stories of Eurydice or Arachne. In “One Shot,” she describes going with her family to The Deer Hunter, the theater so crowded they are forced to scatter around the room with the speaker seated next to men who “laughed at the Viet Cong soldiers screaming at De Niro / to pull the trigger in Russian Roulette” only to find that, “when the last scene closed with a toast to that town’s lost son, // the theater silent except one of the men / beside me who wept into his hands.”

The opening night of the film coincided with the suicide of writer Breece D’J Pancake, who shot himself on the property of Dubrasky’s neighbor. The film, the suicide, the war, and the stories we tell ourselves about it, they all leave the community scattered as her family in their seats, leave “a town too stunned to speak.” The night at the theater is only one of numerous moments to subvert the more idyllic memories of Dubrasky’s childhood home, a town that has more recently become infamous for more horrific events. “Daedalus Bookshop” is a poem that is both an ode to the magic of books and bookshops and elegy for innocence, its use of James Agee’s lines about Icarus, “little child take no fright / in that shadow where you are,” taking on far more tragic connotations when we learn in the notes that the shop is just down Fourth Street from the spot where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist, on a street now named in her honor. 

As such unraveling of stories suggests, home is a nebulous concept in much of Drift Migration, a thing both mythical and literally set in (sand)stone, at once fractured and adaptable. Though Dubrasky states in “Metamorphic” that “perhaps it is too much to carry two places at once,” it doesn’t feel as if that is the end of things, that our lives are so finite or linear. The book’s final poem, “Petroglyphs at Parowan Gap” attests to this, in its assertion and its final question: 

All things crisscross before they disappear into silence

throbbing between jutted rocks…

If we live in dreams, our eyes opening and closing to vistas we create

Unless we step into someone else’s meditation, then which ancient one

Dreamt this intersection of lines—the distant trucker, the men, and myself,

who wander past a length of road into spirals so carefully engraved?

Michael McLane is the author of the chapbooks Fume and Trace Elements. He is a founding editor of the journal saltfront, the review editor for Sugar House Review, and a poetry editor for Dark Mountain. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Western Humanities Review, Colorado Review, Laurel Review, Interim, Utah Historical Quarterly, and South Dakota Review. He currently lives in rural New Zealand where he is completing a PhD at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.