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 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.

Friday, June 23, 2023


by Leila Chatti
(Copper Canyon Press, 2020) 

Reviewed by Melody Wilson

The poem “Tumor” appears about a third of the way through Leila Chatti’s Deluge. It’s a concrete poem that takes the form of a spiral, or in this case, a grapefruit-sized tumor. The spiral begins with an MRI scan and takes the reader through all the challenges a woman faces when dealing with such tumors. The description, the definition, the process of acceptance, the question of naming the mass—of deciding how to deal with it—are all present in this poem, taking us from the “indiscernible” to the ultimate betrayal. As the spiral winds tighter, the font diminishing, the speaker—working to understand—tries on the various images, a chthonic pomegranate, a Pompeian fig, “the dark countenance of the moon,” but by the center of the spiral the tumor is a “motherless stone” bestowed upon the speaker by a “God of No” and “Never.”

Still, the tumor must be dealt with. The speaker introduces us to the process of morcellation in a poem of the same name. We learn “little slits” will be cut so it can be broken into pieces, “little morsels.” But it is also possible that the tumor could be “malignant, could already be / everywhere and all / at once.”

Eventually we learn the tumor is benign, but it has influenced every part of the speaker’s life. Deluge unreels in a body of poems in which the ramifications of this disease, if not the tumor itself, have metastasized, broken into shards. These shards infiltrate the speaker’s past, her confidence in both medicine and the medical community, her understanding of religion—both Islam and Catholicism, her ability to become a mother. The speaker’s long and arduous medical interval opens all these wounds. 

The deluge is manifested in literal bleeding, but also in a flood of perceptions that must be reconsidered. One such perception is her experience of growing to adulthood as a woman: menarche, sexuality, and the loss of her virginity. The proem to the book is “Confession,” in which Mary laments her plight in the Holy Qur’an, but the first poem in the book proper is “Mubtadiyah,” which we are told in the epigraph means “beginner; one who sees blood for the first time.” This meditation on a first menstrual event sets the stage for what follows. Initially, the speaker, having started her first period in the stall of a women’s restroom, feels kinship with the women she watches “washing / through the interstice of the door, / their veils slipping off like water.” She believes her first blood a “summons … a scarlet membership card slid from [her] innermost pocket.” But the anxiety of womanhood arises soon after when she takes stock: “I had not been good / all my life but until this first vermilion drip / I lived unobserved, my sins not sins / because no one looked.” This poem, first a celebration of this rite of passage, immediately turns to an ominous reminder of social and spiritual ramifications.

Several poems later, we revisit this experience in “Haemorrhoissa’s Menarche.” This spare poem echoes the speaker’s experience, that she “wanted to be a woman” until she became one. The speaker claims the pain of her cycle, and her belief that she might die. After the bleeding subsides, Haemorrhoissa believes she is “cured,” that she could “go back / to being a child.” Unfortunately, it begins again the next month. Menstruation has been couched in euphemism or glossed over entirely since women could read, but Haemorrhoissa’s experience is as relatable as breathing. And the decision to frame it as a persona poem serves not just the idea, but the arc of the collection. 

We see her again in the poem “Haemorrhoissa,” this time an adult. She is now presented as a character from the Bible known as “the bleeding woman.” Chatti uses her to describe all the indignities of difficult menstruation—the shame, the work of managing it. The speaker aligns herself with this Biblical figure. Many women can relate to the experiences in the poem. But unlike other women, Haemorrhoissa finds herself in the right place at the right time, the day the “god walked by, all boyish good / looks,” and she “did what [the speaker] couldn’t do,” recognize “a miracle within her reach [and] took it.” She throws herself at Christ’s hem and is relieved of her affliction.

One of the genuine pleasures of this book is the affiliation forged between poet and reader by decentering language. Beginning with Mubtadiyah and Haemorrhoissa, but moving along through hemorrhage, nulligravida, morcellation, myomectomy, postdiluvian, and back to exegesis, annunciation, odalisque, menarche, and of course the critical distinction between menorrhagia and metrorrhagia, a change of two letters in a word that meant everything to the speaker, the reader is kept off balance, trapped in the arc of the narrative. Is this a medical term? A religious term? What is external to this experience? 

During the course of reading, we accompany the poet in a world so private many of these words have never been uttered in our presence: an innocuous oversight when we encounter the names of religious figures, or the medical and religious terminologies over which we have glossed, but the description of blood on underwear, on sheets, seeping through gardening pants had been our secret, and seeing it exposed on the page is surprising and, as a woman, gratifying. It’s an incredible experience, and I could not put the book down—except to get the dictionary.

In a 2022 Rumpus interview, Chris Abani said: “the architecture of a book [of poetry] is … like building a cathedral, which direction to orient the building for light, dome or no dome, chapels off the main church to saints and Mary; it’s about guiding readers in subtle ways such that any order in which they read yields a narrative of meaning.”

Chatti’s Deluge beautifully fulfills this vision. I have left the poems that tell Mary’s story for the reader to discover, but from Mary lamenting her plight in “Confession” (the first poem in the book) to “Questions Directed Toward the Idea of Mary” (one of the last), we trace at least five arcs through the collection—the speaker’s illness, her sexuality, her treatment by the medical community, the representation of women in religion as a whole, as well as the Virgin Mary’s representation. We hold them all in the air throughout. Each poem is beautiful, each occupies its own space in its particular arc and in the collection as a whole. Deluge is a masterwork of writing about this most intimate edge of the female experience, and Leila Chatti is the perfect poet to have handled it.

Melody Wilson’s work appears or is forthcoming in The Mantle, VerseDaily, The Fiddlehead, Kestrel, Crab Creek Review, and Archetype Magazine. She received 2022 Pushcart nominations from Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and Red Rock Review, and was semifinalist for the Pablo Neruda Award. Her chapbook Spineless: Memoir in Invertebrates comes out in August 2023. She’s pursuing her MFA at Pacific University. Find her work at

Thursday, June 22, 2023

All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes

by Jennifer Martelli
(Harbor Editions, 2023) 

Reviewed by Carla Panciera

Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook, All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes, requires you to leave your inhibitions at home. In the collection’s opening poem, the speaker declares that she can build a moat overnight “with the shoulder blades of a larger mammal to dig up sedges,” and once it is completed, she can fill it with alligator shoes and purses. Clearly, this is a poet ready to test your powers to imagine—a writer determined to create a world you might mistake for mythical and a perspective that might seem impenetrably singular.

There is a quirky and idiosyncratic curator involved here, one enthralled by oddities such as kewpie dolls, gargoyles, owl chopsticks, even a collection of sterling forks, each of which “was a woman once, punished or saved.” The speaker admits, “something in me takes things in its quiet talons, swoops, / leaves whole bones, and once, the long vertebrae of a snake.” I imagine this conservator resides in the kind of cottage that would have attracted dangerous attention from her neighbors circa 1692 if they spied her packing ice about her Queen of Night bulbs, say, or witnessed her penchant for owls, or saw the altars she built filled with “root-food, the gourd; / tools; a knife, a sickle; an orange yarn God’s eye.” At first, these objects seem to set the speaker apart, to declare her as other, until we look around at our own strange accumulations. Yes, we are marked as individuals by our specific choices, but we are also part of a tribe of gatherers. Jennifer Martelli’s poems remind us that we, too, are both otherworldly and of this world. 

This is one of the book’s and the poet’s strengths. Martelli’s poems don’t sound like anyone else’s. She is a lyricist, and her voice on the page is as distinctive as her Boston (specifically Revere) accent. When you read a Martelli poem, you can’t confuse it with anyone else’s, but that voice, as unique as it is, invites you into a sisterhood. Martelli is also the author of My Tarantella and The Queen of Queens (both from Bordighera). In earlier volumes, she pays tribute to Kitty Genovese, Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm, and Kamala Harris. This time, she invokes sister-poets. Several poems begin with epigraphs by Sylvia Plath. One derives its title from Anne Sexton. Martelli mentions Jane Kenyon, Jean Valentine, Lucie Brock-Broido. There is something dark and magical about a group of women, about the curatives and curses we inherit and bequeath, about how one generation depends on the voices of those who have come before her, both those women whose words we have and those whose words are lost to us. 

Women witness enormous change in their bodies: menstruation and menopause, giving birth, nursing and then drying up. We watch our own mothers age and forget us. But this intimacy with shapeshifting allows us to recognize that it is the nature of everything to change. Bulbs become flowers; fruit ripens and goes bad; rocks wear down to grit; tree limbs snap off in the cold. Even the Queen of Night tulip bulbs that arrive “airless and misshapen” are described as women who “grip their own toxin / and beauty in a tight fist.” The bulbs understand the nature of things, know “they need to lie dormant, / sleep dreamlessly, slow their memory of bloom.” If we are all part of cycles we cannot control, then at least we know we are not alone with them, we can hope something better awaits. 

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t afraid. In this collection, even fears grow to gigantic proportions. In a world where Walgreens is next to the gallows where the victims of the Salem witch trials hanged, where a woman is “made famous for fellating her boss,” or where, despite having raped a thirteen-year-old girl, Roman Polanski continues to film Tess in a place where “from the barrow mounds beyond the chalk circle, they dug up arrows, a bronze torque around / a child’s neck bones, dolerite axe handles, bone blades,” how can anyone derive any lasting comfort?

The speaker’s own fears are made clear in “Women Who Can’t Breathe (Featuring Women from The Mummy; The Handmaid’s Tale; Kill Bill, Vol. 2)”: 

I am obsessed with women suffocated.

First, there were the Vestal Virgins buried alive in that honeycomb

field outside of Rome. Next, the little walled wife

in that Balkan church with the hole in her tomb

to nurse her son through those first few days of her burial.

Then, the Scottish nun’s bones found in the wall of an abbey.

This poem, in six parts, examines all of the ways in which women have been silenced and the communal effort it takes to achieve that. Just as Martelli fills some poems with charms and objects, in this one, she gathers allusions from mythology, ancient history, Hollywood, and Netflix. We are all disparate, but we are also connected, and understanding that, we don’t have to look away or remain silent. 

More than anything, this collection, with its haunting cover art by Fay Ku, feels like a book of spells. Readers derive some comfort in the idea that we, too, are conjurers. Here are the secrets, these poems seem to say. Here are the reasons why we must persist in creating. We, who also levitated girls off basement floors, who felt the Ouija’s planchette slide, who built altars filled with talismans. We who felt our connection to the moon, who felt the things of this world watching us: owls and trees and strangers whose stories we think we know. Whose stories we can’t unknow. Whose stories deserve our acknowledgement. 

When readers look up from this chapbook, they might be surprised to see daylight, the mundane view of a neighbor’s slumbering beds of tulips that will bloom yellow and red, cars with drivers who would never think to pause before a crosswalk to study a woman’s face and witness her pain, bicyclists whose paths no doubt traverse old bones. “A poem is not a list of pretty things,” Martelli declares, nor is life, though the pages of this stunning collection remind us we are not alone with this truth.

Carla Panciera has published two poetry collections, One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera Press). Her short story collection, Bewildered, received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her latest book is Barnflower: A Rhode Island Farm Memoir (forthcoming from Loom Press). Panciera’s work has been featured in many journals including Poetry, New England Review, and Clackamas. She is the recipient of a Mass Cultural Council Grant in Creative Nonfiction and lives in Rowley, MA.