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Jennifer MacBain-Stephens

In Christopher Morgan’s Fables with Fangs, (Ghost City Press, 2016) a micro chap of eight poems delivers us into the inner workings of the home, the symbolic place of safety, but there are no picket fences here. Morgan’s poems weave surrealism, fear, and humor into a classic tapestry that reveals how  unsafe we all really are. The definition of a fable is a concise tale that intends to reveal a moral lesson by the end. Morgan tips his hat, signs off a good luck in those dark woods, friend, and leaves it at that. The lesson learned is watch out.

In the poem, “The Bear,” A bear literally walks through the hallways of a home, pauses outside a sister’s room, her door ajar.  Morgan writes:

 

“I’m opening my door just a crack.

I’m looking down the hall. My sister’s door is open.

And nothing else. Of course nothing else. Then

I stop. Something in the dark. Large. A couch,

slowly moving toward me. Two reflections.

Looking straight at me. Now I’m already inside

my sister’s room locking her door. But what can

locks do against a bear?”

 

Morgan notes the speaker says “Of course nothing else.” Just a door is open. When a danger is present all we want to do is seek out our loved ones and make sure they are safe. He does not see his sister, just a gateway to a violent attack. There is also a potent surreal element with the “two reflections.” Morgan sees himself and the bear looking back—he sees the bear in himself . The lumbering imposter in a childhood home, a seeker of  trouble and blood.

Morgan’s  poems get to the point quickly. Common visuals that exist in our every day, like a furnace or items that you wouldn’t give a second glance too, become threatening and terrible. When I mean common, I mean things you ignore because they are everywhere: walls.

In Morgan’s poem “The Wall,” a woman’s husband is eaten by the wall and it is gruesome. It is not cartoonish but breathing and horrific. Morgan builds tension slowly though. The house exhales smoke but there is no fire. There is no warning. It’s like the woman senses something is wrong and goes to look for her husband who is already being eaten by the wall.

 

“His body’s upright, immersed high.

Like the kitchen wall’s eating him. A leg dangles.

His warped lips stretch like taffy. Eyes puff, bubble…

She tries tugging his body back

from wherever it’s going—it tears.”

Like people who are taken from family members suddenly and without explanation, Morgan’s prose poem is a terse example of this helplessness. There is pure trepidation on the page and the husband does not even get the chance to say good bye or scream. When there is a scream, it comes from the wall: angry and bottomless.

If we are unnerved by adults getting eaten by walls, adults who have a remote sense of control and power in the world, even if this is a delusion, it is even more unsettling to read about the shadows who run amok at a children’s playground.

In “Under Control” It is Morgan’s speaker who claims “ I set my shadow loose on the playground again.” Not only is he the boogey man or pulling the strings of the darkness like a marionette, but this isn’t even the first time he’s done it. We get a sense of a dark habit-like game almost like portraying an addiction.

He makes this humorous excuse:  “ I’m sorry—never been a winner.”

It is when we are at our most vulnerable, our most lowdown that base human emotions rear their ugly heads: the ability to hurt, to lost empathy.  The mothers and fathers try to grab their children up before they are eaten, but it is a losing battle.  Morgan softens the blow with this:

 

“But the children thought the whole thing was a hoot.

Can’t blame them.

Little monsters.”

This poem is a monster playing with other “little monsters.” This  “scary” is more tongue in cheek but also like a warning.

The poem “Omen” feels more like a traditional fable with birds falling from the sky, deer “shrieking” and even a  cast of mob mentality filled “villagers,” who hammer off granite from a mountain and carry it back home in suitcases, literally attacking the earth.

I’m not going to give away what happens in this poem but just be warned “It was a bad night for sunsets—that night it almost didn’t happen.”  There is humor in these lines as well a perceived uneasiness.

The last poem of the collection, “Georgia” is very lyrical and different than the others. It is almost a place personified.  If Morgan states that we cannot feel safe in traditionally safe places (the home, the playground, etc) the solution is: internalize the place you want to be. Let the wholeness reside in you. Safety, after all, is a state of mind.

Here is an example of Georgia’s transient soul and personhood:

 

“Georgia dabs its neck and wrists with sweet tea cologne, then enters a bar to find a friend.”

 

“Georgia sits in a Denny’s at three in the morning, weighing out good and evil.”

 

“Georgia has a coral snake on one shoulder and a king snake on the other.”

No one is going to mess with Georgia— yet Georgia also seems alone, mingling with snakes and rats, the rare friend.  There is a warning at the end of Georgia, however, sort of proclaiming Georgia was hurt once and learned the hard way. Georgia, Morgan promises to readers, “will never be that fellow.” Georgia holds the snakes but knows how to avoid a bite. We should all be so lucky.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of two full length poetry collections (Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press.) Her chapbook “Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items,” is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and “She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro)” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work is at Lime Hawk, concis, and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Dappled Sunshine in the Forest

 

These days of summer fading into autumn mark the perfect moment for readers to enjoy Ariana D. Den Bleyker’s chapbook The Peace of Wild Things (Porkbelly Press, 2015). These, natural, purposive poems feel as if Den Bleyker has briefly emerged from years living in a forest, to whisper to us about the subtle violence of nature, crafting an ethereal environmental exchange between a woman and deer, swans—even the wind—that will make eager readers out of many.

 

In “The Future is an Animal,” Den Bleyker’s speaker dreams of transforming into a wolf. The resulting epiphany at the end of the poem that is most unsettling:

 

“My legs push, muscles scream against my own

shifting imprints, stirring layers of ankle, flank,

shoulder bones, knuckles, each organ a world-

without, hovering above obliteration. My lips draw

sustenance  from viscera, glean from the silence…

and suddenly, I’m willing to be eaten.”

 

Along with becoming a new animal form, the predator wolf also gives birth to “steam and maggots,” her body becoming a savage thing from storybooks. But the wolf also gives birth to butterflies: what is savage lives in balance with the delicate, is vulnerable in its willingness to be consumed. It is this struggle between savage and beauty that haunts the lines of all of these poems.

 

The touch of death—literally—is ever-present in this collection: dead deer in the forest, dark imagery surrounding a swan, and hunting wild boars. We can never touch these symbols of exquisite wildness while they are living; they are wily, and their survival depends on quick, evasive motion. We come across them quietly, by accident. Bodies in the woods give us pause and create awe.  In the poem “Something Breathed on a Dead Deer and the Hair Inside Its Ears Waved at Your,” Den Bleyker tries to get close, captures a feeling of longing in writing about the last moments of the deer, mapping its steps:

 

“                                               From

the simple order of the tracks you knew,

without looking, what place in the wild

night the animals came from the through

which of our windows they have gazed

into…”

 

We feed these creatures, place them near our homes, track them, touch them in our mind’s eye as they breathe their last breath. Like them, we humans have one foot in the grave and one poised to flee. Like the quickness of death, the animal faces change in just seconds from living to dead, reminding us of the fragility of life at any given second. This change is underscored by Den Bleyker asking us directly, “What do you recognize?” a question to which she offers a possible answer in “What We Learn From Skies,” stating:

 

“Sometimes we want birds to just be birds,

the sky to remain intact,

all the right places beautiful and untouched.”

 

And yet sometimes even the birds in this book represent dark, transformative forces; the crow itself is a shapeshifter that changes by the minute. Is it a body, or just a group of falling feathers? From the poem “Hard Winter:”

 

“The crow…

hovers as the deer lays down

her bones, soft bellied on the edge

of stone, hooves etched across

the moss, fetal…all limbs

drawn beneath her throat,

breath refusing to come back,

time locking her jaw…we dream

practice our own deaths, remind

ourselves all flesh is grass.”
The crow, the deer, the humans: we all return to the earth but we also return inward to reflect. We hide indoors and huddle against each other for warmth on short winter days, taking comfort in the “caves of our own bodies.” The peace of wild things, as Den Bleyker seems to suggest later in the book, may be death; yet these poems are respectful and curious, creating an awe in the reader as we witness these beasts passing away. Den Bleyker sees, and brings to the page, the quiet peace that we might all hope for someday for ourselves—for, after all, our own bodies, our own shells, also provide but temporary homes for our perhaps–wild spirits.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author two full length poetry collections (forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press.) Her chapbook “Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items,” is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and “She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro)” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Cup Your Body into Someone Else’s Longing

 

In Emily O’Neill’s Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, (Nostrovia! Press, 2016) the boys are sweet even when they are leading you by the hand to the back of the bar and the girls always know better. These poems are intimacy laid out on a conveyor belt—all parts are deconstructed and rebuilt. The intimacy is cataloged from kissing a stranger on a porch, to admiring a lover’s freckle colony, to justifying one’s job when meeting a date’s parents for the first time. O’Neill’s imagery travels around the block a few times and doesn’t apologize for it: her poems are harsh, gritty beauty.

 

O’Neill begins her dark walk with the poem “World’s Smallest Woman.” Her words are almost like those of an instruction manual:

 

“You can’t explain surprise

to yourself. Somebody else has to.

In the mirror your hair gets longer but

your eyes remain the same depth. Keep that

gulf to yourself.”

 

How many faces do we have to show others? To ourselves? O’Neill’s speaker knows about crappy first jobs, sharing drugs at work, making out in cars, knowing more about her own exit from a relationship than the other person in it.  She isn’t afraid to expose skin or call it like it is. One of the first poems that displays this distance in connection is “Your Boy Came By.” In the third stanza, aloofness plays a part but people still strip down the ankles at the end of it.

 

“Didn’t buy you a drink because why bother

bartering. Your boy, for free of you

won’t risk it…”

 

O’Neill’s speaker can only “fly away from the fire before (she’s) finished.” (From the poem “No Flinching.”) The details in racking up relationship bodies are staggering. Knives are a repeated image. Some knives are imagined as being planted in dirt and then growing trees on top of them. Let something lovely grow from weapons meant to cut. One knife is placed in the speaker’s hand by a shirtless boy who recites Coleridge. There is also blood (“I’m sure I’ve bled on sadder men,” is one memorable line from the poem “How To Whistle.”) In contrast, there are also multiple images of shoulders. We carry burdens on our shoulders and each poem in this collection is fighting a fight. We don’t know who wins but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fight feels important.

 

O’Neill never writes about intimacy in a clichéd way. In the revealing and almost confessional “Need to Know,” we witness exquisiteness. We recognize the exchange here between two people:

 

“I took my dress off for you—an invitation

to keep seeing what you shouldn’t take.

You won’t just take and I like that.

 

You hesitate and I bite harder. I want you

stuck like river bending in a valley…

Here, my fingers. Little ghosts. Here,

your fingers troubling me like rain

haunts the freeway in a dream.”

 

In such a hunger driven, spiny collection, this subtle moment is beautiful and haunting and gives the reader a glimpse into O’Neill’s softer side.

 

Here are some of O’Neill’s knowledgeable lines that are written like a manifesto, like we should be taking notes:

 

“Can’t be poor when you’re a killer.”  (“Lucky Like That.”)

 

“Give me a choice better than razor or grave.” (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“Leave marks or I won’t learn.”  (“Always a Sinner.”)

 

“You were falling asleep on camera as I was waking up on camera.” (“Orioles.”)

 

“Never liked men with guitars. How they need constant noise keeping them still.” (“Last Year’s Blues.”)

 

“Shoes make the man aware that he can leave at any moment.” (“How to Whistle.”)

 

O’Neill’s speaker instructs us on how to survive, but it’s tough.  In “Poem for Brunch with Your Family Where They Asked When We’d Be Married,” there is a whole world of characters revealed throughout the two page poem. Here is an example of the inner psyche of the speaker here:

 

“It wasn’t that they asked what I did for work and choked

at the utterance of waitress or your mother’s insistence

on grad school as unfortunate or your uncle demanding

a second glass for the beer in front of me…”

 

We witness O’Neill’s speaker as a prisoner at this uncomfortable table. We feel her skin

crawl at being judged by these people who do not know her and may never know her well. We empathize. We also want to run away.  The speaker confesses:

 

“Yes I have parents. No, you can’t meet them.

My father is dead and my mother needs coaching

on how not to kill what she loves.”

 

Then the poem takes another glorious turn with these lines:

 

“The disappointment I am for not dropping everything

to stand by my man…Part of womanhood is waiting for

your turn to speak and they wouldn’t give me one and that

tells me everything about weddings…”

 

This poem is a novel of voice and vigor and slaps us across the face, and we still want more. Whereas so many of these poems circle around the speaker’s relationships, there is a transience to the language and the actual fleetingness of the intimacy. Its breakneck pace is powerful and does not let up. (It is, “O’Neill writes “the dance nobody teaches:” (From “Need to Know.”) We cannot go to O’ Neill for answers though, even though she has already told us how to live. She reminds us in the last line of the very last poem “Not So Fast,”

 

“Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.”

 

Luckily we read her words, hold them, tread on them softly, because she deserves no less and we cannot stay away, even if we end up following her into the cold, dark night.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Review and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook “Clown Machine” recently came out from Grey Book Press this summer.  Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I know and have always known my body was mine.”

(from the poem “The Difference.”)

 

Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.

Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys.  The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:

 

“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.

 

If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”

 

Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:

 

“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.

You planted a tree

then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”

 

The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.

But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.

 

What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?

 

…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art?  How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?

Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of  “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems.  We are ready to launch our own battle cry.

For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:

 

“…the longing for something not there.

 

We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”

 

a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.

This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:

 

“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..

 

Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.

 

…I got more than my middle name from you.”

Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,

 

“As I knead the dough

 

the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips

and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children

….

my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.

 

I simply want to honor my mother with this task

Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”

 

Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit?  With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,”  “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Bear the Grief : Get Up and Try Again

 

In All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), Sarah Chavez’s narrator unlocks missives to a dead beloved, named Carole. These poems are so full in rich detail and experience, it can sometimes be difficult to remember, as a reader, that they should not be read as non-fiction.

 

In an interview with Les Femmes Folles, Chavez has acknowledged some biographical overlaps between her own lived experience and that of her narrator in this collection. At another point, Chavez noted, “There really was a Carole, she really died, and I do mourn her. I also grew up in Fresno in a working class environment. [However,] these poems, are more concerned with expressing an emotional truth and the details that best serve that emotional truth…”

 

We are increasingly aware, as contemporary readers, of the importance of not assuming that poetry based in biography is non-fiction; if we honor All Day, Talking by reading it as art, and not as confession or reportage, we gain: the work is an elegiac page-turner.  As the narrator mourns Carole, she also mourns herself. Our loved ones are our mirrors.

 

These poem-letter-monologues spike with heartbreak, anger, and humor: we play spectator to their hardcore honesty and relish the narrative stream of consciousness. If Carole is a ghost, she is alive on every page of this collection. We read the words as in a poem movie. The text sparkles with cinematic flare, the characters walk through scenes with fluidity whether hanging out at a bus stop, cleaning up dead beetles, or eating Twinkies. We hitch a ride with the narrator, ourselves visiting ghosts, witness the narrator’s shivering loneliness in buying a coffee:

 

“…the woman behind the counter,

she fucking looks like you. Tall,

round breasted, long stringy hair, skin

white, shining from the heat

off the espresso machine,

What can I get you hun, she says.

She calls me “hun.” You

would never call anyone that…

You hated false familiarity

that veneer of sweetness…I

miss you so much it’s like I swallowed

a bomb…”

 

 

This recreated action in the poem is so detailed, so signature of each page—they are every tiny action in the world and the narrator is just trying to hold it together. The narrator wants to tell many people to fuck off: those who slighted her, those who remind her of Carole. Yet she does not. She buys her coffee, her finger grazing the finger of the waitress who looked like Carole, almost cries. She goes to work. She gets a haircut. Through her days, she functions, because her lips are always moving, always talking to Carole, re-connecting, rebuilding.

 

The skinny format of these poems presents themselves like letters, or a grocery list. Of course, they are like a list. The narrator catalogues Carole. The bare bones of the words and mood are present: we want to, no we need to remember it all, like possessions lost in a fire. Make a list while everything is still fresh in your mind. There is no need for flowery language: these poems are crisp.

 

Chavez writes:

 

“Dear Carole, I finally did it

 

I cut it all off into a trendy bob

that fades up from the back. You told me

not to, said you loved my hair long.

Well you’re not here anymore.”

 

And then this two line poem on its own page:

 

 

“Dear Carole, Just a quick note

 

C Flat.”

 

These mini poems check mark off moments with Carole: a conversation about getting a haircut or not—the C flat comment comes off, potentially, as a private joke. We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter.  We witness these intimate moments, feel the bond between Carole and the narrator, reflect on our own bonds.  As the narrator informs us, these poems are about “Nothing./ Anything. Everything, really.”  Every phrase, bad joke, like, or dislike is catalogued. When Carole is gone, she still smokes, walks around, drives a Cadillac down the sun-blazed street.

 

We tick off Carole’s likes and dislikes with the narrator throwing in our own as well, thinking what will we remember when someone we love is gone? What will be the hardest memory to mourn?

 

Some letters and images have a vulnerable symbolism. Items symbolizing loss:  hair, teeth, a dog, and a ring.  Using commonplace objects further our feeling of loss for the narrator and for Carole herself. Every day descriptions also illustrate that perhaps we stay in similar routines with various people.  When that person is gone, we suddenly don’t know what to do with ourselves. In the poem referenced above, the narrator gets the haircut she wanted, maybe having mixed emotions about it. When the narrator goes to the dentist to get her wisdom teeth pulled, she is alone. She gets drunk the night before as a coping mechanism to “dull her brain.”  The narrator tells Carole about it:

 

“I want to yell at him: Don’t you know better

than to take from people who have nothing

but these relics, these baubles?

 

But he’s got my still slab of tongue in his hand

and the noise that comes from the back

of my throat is just choking, as if a person

could even choke an absence.”

 

The reader feels her isolation: having to complete stressful activities alone, not having that ride home from a loved one. The narrator mourns the loss of Carole through teeth getting pulled, wanting to yell at everyone who does not seem to understand. How could they?  We are all alone in our grief, or it feels that way.

 

Through the mentioning of the dog, “Shadow,” we experience a new kind of loss: regret. Chavez writes that the narrator sees a dog that looked like Shadow, who was sad to being with- (It was as if the universe had been playing mix-em ups with spare dog parts.) The narrator expresses:

 

“…I wish

we’d never brought him home.

If we’d never met him, never been licked

by his fat pink tongue, been warmed

by the heat of his solid body on the couch

watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer,

we’d never have known the desiccated

emptiness of every night

after the night we found

his bed vacant ad the back door

yawning in the stasis of moonlight.

 

It doesn’t matter how loud or late

into the night you call someone’s name,

if they are gone, they are gone.”

 

The loss of the dog reflects the narrator’s pain in losing Carole. She does not know what happened to Shadow: if he ran away because he was tired of living with them in their “filthy mobile home,” or if he was stolen by a “crack head.” It is the not knowing that exacerbates the pain of the loss. The mind plays tricks, questions if there was love present at all. The narrator regrets the dog and also, never saying thank you to Carole, once, when she splurged on pizza for them, when money was tight. Whether big or small, loss is loss.

 

These poems are not without humor. Despite the fact that the narrator admits that she cries at Folger commercials or goes weeks without touching another human being, we also laugh at the particular details that create a whole human. When we laugh, we forget pain momentarily.

 

An impressively descriptive poem begins with “Dear Carole, Today I’m wearing that ring…/ you stole for me at the art fair…”

 

It is in this poem that we travel with Carole and the narrator to the art fair, laugh as the narrator describes the “hot hippie without a bra” that Carole would roll her eyes at. It is poignant. When the narrator talks to the hippie vendor and covets a large red and black swirled ring: the hippie says: the ring wants to be a ring. I never take from the Earth without permission. The narrator feels nervous, says “Cool,” and walks away.  A few minutes later, at a cross walk, Carole presses something into the palm of the narrator’s hand. It is the ring. Carole then says:

 

“The stone told me to take it. It said it wanted you to wear it.”

 

We cannot help but smile.

Pages later when we learn that the ring breaks, we feel a heaviness in our chest.

 

These poems rise and fall with the everyday rush of a river current.  Even the mundane, the humorous episodes, the losses these women experienced together, all of it— we feel with gusto.

 

Chavez’s very last line of the collection is something we already know (we empathize with all of these poems), yet this last line comforts us. We simply recognize: “Always the talking is to you.”

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Beauty Broken and Decamped

The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,”  “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.

In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:

“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”

“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?

This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.

Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—

good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”

Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”

The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine)  in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.

Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –

please call me Livvie once more.”

In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:

“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,

the mirage of eternity between our lips.”

Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.

We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.

In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.

“…When I stole

my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s

knife to my throat, it scratched like that…

One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed

to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”

This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona.  The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit.  These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.

In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:

In Bergman’s thoughts:

“I spot a chapel in the shade

covered in lichen’s dull brocade.

No-one’s looking at me, kid.

Take a flake of rock, scratch the word

Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.

By the force of my hand.

I might earn permanency.

Let that plane leave without me.”

Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.

The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”

With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:

“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…

…becoming more anonymous with every step.”

With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”

“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,

follow me with their eyes.”

Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.

But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

She collects pieces, forms whole body slowly

 

In Movement No.1: Trains, by Hope Wabuke, (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) an abundance of unexpected, organic relationships power through this chapbook, transmitting energy between humans and people, sound, color, and movement. Like the line referenced in the title above, there are many bodies at play in this collection. The train is a body, and the people, parts, stored inside.

Using fluid language and an almost dream-like tone, Wabuke gives us glimpses of humanity’s core like spying on a commuting passenger through the windows of a subway car: intense yet indirect, witnessing a presence briefly. It’s how Wabuke wants us to see: life like “tiny match stick toys.”

The word “movement” in the title illustrates a dual meaning: physical movement and orchestral movements, the actual text caters to the ebb and flow of daily life while also illustrating the navigation through an urban jungle. The energy never stops.

Wabuke begins her first poem in mid-sentence— we are moving already—and the train is alive in all of its magnificent silver glory. We have all waited for a train but Wabuke’s writing anticipates an animal coming around the corner:

 

“…and when she waits, knowing its coming by the movement of light

across rusted metal, the dirty white tiles of tunnel wall almost

beautiful in the light sliding closer through darkness…she imagines the sound she hears is breathing.”

Like a mystical living force the train gives birth to shadow and light. Turning corners unseen, making noise, consuming space. We read these poems as blurryeyed infants seeking out black and white shapes, alternately lulled and startled by Wabuke’s insightful words and descriptions.

Metal is a wonderful detail that ties people together in this book. Who is holding the metal poles, who lets go of them to fall into each other as the train lurches ahead, who holds steady. The metal is a lifeline for all of the riders, forced to hold on and mesh their limbs into places that don’t mesh. There is other frenetic pops of color as well. The colors Wabuke uses are very specific: grey, (grey water, grey bridges, grey sky,) but also a relieving blue ink sky, a yellow moon piercing the night, and popping red seats are beacons of light and reprieve amongst the train’s cacophony.

 

“sometimes when she sits on the red plastic chair that is one among

many alternating rows of yellow and red seats bolted to the inside

walls of the train, she is not used to so much space below her…shifting

slightly against molded plastic shape that does not fit her form.”

 

It is through this image, trying to curve one’s body into a tiny plastic chair, that we meet “him.” He is mostly described in the past tense already, almost as soon as we meet him, he is gone.

At one time he used to bump arms against the girl in the poems, but no longer. We get the sense of “him” and time, whooshing by. He is there one second, gone the next, like a missed train.

 

“…he would hold her hand then, first pressing two fingers tight

to circle her wrist marking the point of meeting until, releasing, he

would hold the two fingers up to his eye, laugh and call her tiny…”

 

And then later:

 

“and on the day after his leaving. she notices his absence in the

awkward stillness of her legs, the way her arms hang stiffly at her

sides…”

His presence is secondary to the action of the train, the girl, and the crowds. The masses are always moving: dancing on the platform while waiting for the train to a hypnotic drum beat, hands waving above heads, eyes in heads looking up for rain. All of the senses blur together magnificently where one can never escape noise or people. This could be any city.

Wabuke captures an ethereal stillness amongst such noise and music. People sway and look and touch and never stop but it is beautiful. The masses moving and stopping is similar to an orchestral swell or street performer ten minute act. She writes:

 

“…he would touch drumsticks to upside-down white buckets to make beats, she would

see sound touch tile in tunnel walls and touch heels to ground.

rocking upward in tiny motions, she would lift hands lightly; she

would move her body in tiny circles of his rhythm.”

 

These masses move and strive to find a rhythm and a place in the world that makes sense. As Wabuke so accurately describes: “the pressing of a shape into something else.” Strangers mingling can be unsettling, but Wabuke joins them, links us to a higher power. These poems are so spiritual despite describing and participating in a commute, which is often a source of stress for most people. Wabuke writes:

 

“…in this space without sound or light, she will remember how in the

sounding of first explorations they would move parts to form one

body. so she will stand, rise and press close to half-open window,

push frame to crawl out. the train, restarting.”

Wabuke’s words transport us out of the train, into the pouring rain, into the sky. The water invades the tunnels and platforms. This natural element is not supposed to exist down here along the cement with the rats, sprawling puddles on concrete, dripping its own drum sound. Yet here it is. It finds a way in through rivulets, the ceiling breaks open, people push with one big surge to get out, escape into daylight, reborn. The water is a relief.

No matter what walls and tunnels are built, the boundaries of silence, not making eye contact with someone five inches from your face on a train, human-ness finds a way, rushes to the next stop, runs to get to the exit first to breathe the fresh air.Trains_cover

In these poems, Wabuke deftly explores that transition form “I” to “you” to “us” and back again. Leaving the inside to step outside is tough, but she tells us the movement will happen, whether we like it or not.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith Right Hand Pointing, Chiron Review, Cider Press Review and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

It’s Just that this Floor is Dirty. And I Can Never Say Anything

 

The Filaments of Heather (Sad Spell Press, 2015) reads like a tightly knit horror tale. These poems have no individual titles. The narrative arc centers around a girl: Heather. Like the above line indicates, Heather cannot keep the floor clean enough, but she also is steadily losing her voice.

Goodrich chooses to make “Heather” the speaker in the poems. Since this is the author’s name as well, an immediate intimacy is created with the reader as we recognize Heather as author and Heather as metaphor in a new universe. (In this case, the universe is filled with dust and hair.) Trusting in her story, Goodrich can do whatever she likes with her Heather avatar. “Speaker” Heather loses her sanity to reclaim a sense of self.

We begin in a domestic box. Heather is barefoot, wears a frayed dress, and sweeps for three days straight. She wants to do little else. Our first glimpse into the speaker’s world: crumbs on the floor strung together “with strands of our hair,” onion coats, dried noodles, a bobby pin stuck to egg white, and outside “a chunk of heather cut the sky, making foothills hard to see.”

Heather is dismantled already— there is literally a chunk of her outside on the horizon while the other heather is inside enduring a tenuous stream of consciousness and cleaning a filthy house, or, her mind. Heather’s hands only reach for the broom stick. There is something meditative about this opening, with the repetitive motion of sweeping, but also foreboding. The act of housework is feminine and traditionally domestic but in Heather’s world, here are various quotes about her dress:

“My threadbare dress hits at the knees, and its fraying hem tickles my calves.”

 

“The frayed hem of my dress rips slightly, caught on nothing, but rips nonetheless.”

 

“Clumps of my dress fall off.”

It is almost as if Heather’s dress were alive. Not only is it a delicate symbol of her mental state, but it does not protect or shield her, as clothes are sometimes wont to do: it is slowly betraying her, leaving her more vulnerable to the elements and to outsiders’ judging eyes. Still, Heather sweeps meticulously.

What is Heather attempting to find? In the following poems, she clears away space to see:

“my broom uncovers my initials that I carved into the laminated tile with an exacto knife, as a child. The slits now thick with dirt and rust…And my failed time capsule containing my treasures: a puka shell necklace, Ken Griffey, Jr. cards, and a letter for future earthlings warning them about the dangers of plastic and potatoes. Sweep, sweep. sweep.”

Goodrich forms this surreal planet of discovering childhood mementos just by sweeping the floor. Heather says that all of her “gems” reappear, some right away, some take years. The reader goes along for the ride. What does she want to stay buried? Nothing, apparently. She uncovers the rotting carcass of a warbler (again we jump into this world— knowing she is sweeping inside, not the backyard.)It is an easy leap for the reader to make—we imagine Heather sweeping anywhere.

She sees the bird and weeps “again,” feeling it’s death for a second time. She conducts a second funeral. Then amusingly, but also creating tension, her mother appears, disgusted, and pulls her into the house by the wrist. Following this scene are two amazing and memorable lines:

“Mother said all little girls with big eyes have big tears and can’t see anything right,” and then—

 

“She said it’s not polite to handle dead things.”

Goodrich then turns our attention to Heather’s mind, or the unravelling of it. She thinks someone is following her, someone wants to “make her quiet” or “make her stop.” The only respite Heather receives is through sweeping. She sweeps a path, she feels her house breathe again, come alive, and she is its maker. There is wonderful symbolism of being “made” or unmade, like a bed. With cleaning, something that didn’t exist before is created. A room is new. Heather sweeps faster and faster, since something is catching up to her, maybe trying to unmake her, unmake her work. Her hair is dirty, longer now, bouncing off her elbows. She says her dress is too thread bare now, shows too much of her body.

 

“How is this bulging, boxy, protruding body mine?”

Goodrich touches on female body image in this collection as well: not recognizing shapes, hiding and shaping a body, hinting at cutting skin. Our bodies do not do what we want them to do. They are a shell. She clues us in:

 

“The house is beginning to smell like rotten meat.”

For all of the cleaning, Heather’s world is aging and decomposing. The frayed dress continues to dangle threads along her bare heels.

The mother’s return to the poems makes us leave Heather’s brain for a bit and returns us to the present with an immediacy. Goodrich writes:

“Mother said my crazy months were July and August. September. She said this when I closed the windows in every room of the house, despite the heat, to silence the crickets. The sound felt like staccato pin pricks and snapping chicken necks.”

Goodrich introduces Heather’s sensitivity to sound with such violent descriptive imagery, alluding to what’s coming down the pike. The crickets have a voice but Heather does not. Heather has “aphonia” which literally means “no voice,” or when outside circumstances damage the vocal chords or voice box.

(She cannot negate anything when her Mother or other people who come to the house want to open the windows because it is so hot they cannot breathe. She protests inwardly. During these visits with her Mother, who is a registered nurse, Heather finally confides in her.) Heather stops focusing on the crickets because there is a larger sound, a more deafening thud she is forced to hear: her heartbeat. Heather tells her mother her heartbeat has moved from her toe to her left ear and she cannot hear movies or pay attention during class. It is overwhelming and awful.

No one believes her so Heather stops talking about it, all the while dreaming that little ticks are hatching in her ear tube.

Filaments_coverHeather goes to specialists. Clumps of her dress fall off. When she cannot sit quietly in her skin, she sweeps. She just craves silence. Heather says:

“That would mean I put the broom down. And I can’t yet.”

All of these themes, Heather not having a voice, talking to a Mother who does not listen, doctors not believing her about the shattering thumping sounds in her ear, pinpoints a lack of control, a lack of power. Heather confides in us, the reader:

“They don’t see. They don’t find a mess a mess. They don’t see a problem. When I scream, they say: Heather stop the drama.” It is heartbreaking.

On a deeper level, these poems are about female voice and power. How does one earn permission to be an authority, to inspire confidence in others, to be one’s own advocate? Heather wants to be seen, heard. She literally cannot speak about it.

Goodrich’s poems stomp all over each other like noisy plates balanced in the kitchen until they come crashing down to an effective yet shocking conclusion. I’m not going to give anything away with Heather’s powerful line here, at the end, but it is wonderful:

 

“But Mother, this is Evolution.”

This poem story is sparkling with a unique voice in Goodrich: gruesome and heartfelt. May we all cling to our sanity a little tighter and only clean once a week, or maybe not at all until ready, uncovering our gentle psyches one time capsule at a time.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Pith, Freezeray, So to Speak, Entropy, Right Hand Pointing, Chiron Review, Cider Press Review and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

 

It is Easy to Say Yes to Something That Wants You

 

In Angela Veronica Wong’s 25 little red poems (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), sparse, thought-bubble-like poems without titles deliver us into a dark thematic forest of growth, desire, and destruction. The wolfalways a symbol of appetite and lone freedom, and sometimes of destructionpads atop the pages, along with a bonewhite moon, and winter branches. Wong is no Little Red Riding Hood, however, and at times, she is the predator, the danger, wanting to rip at her own flesh or someone else’s.

Wong writes destruction beautifully, even if it is against herself. The destruction, or need for it, blends with the desire and the pain. As in poem #3:

…I want someone to bite down and hold on bite down

and chew through to bite down until it breaks until you can

find me a violent surrender endo becoming exo somewhere a

mess of marrow and bone bits.”

Wong suggests that, to feel alive, we endure a tearing up. In turn, this will bring about our rebirth: the heal following the break. Wong’s speaker is comfortable in this role of being bitten; and yet it makes sense, later, when she is the one pursing potential prey.

In Wong’s universe, growth is mysterious and un-pretty, but necessary: filled with tears and blood. The physical body blends effortlessly with the forest body. I envisioned these connections while reading: seed/flower, root/weed, baby/mother. The physical and emotional attachments grow inside of us, literally:childbirth, but outside the body as well. We grasp to understand our place in wildness. Wong goes into the woods: uses roots, flowers, trees. They are gangly, strange and unkind. She touches on pregnancy a few times, the ultimate growing of a belly with child to depict stretching into the eternity of discomfort. In poem #9:

want is the color

of ripe tomatoes engorged

on the vine, glistening skin stretched

over plump body, pregnant juices pulling

downward.

The above passage describes the growing tomatotoo plump for its own fortitude, robust and yearns to break from its vine. Wong also uses the color red gloriously through this collection: not only the engorged tomato (like a belly,) but a red tongue, blood, the red smudge on the cover of the chapbook could either be the back of retreating red cloak into the forest or a bloody fingerprint. The red is everywhere. Red, such a staid symbol of lust and anger ravages into its next state: desire. And with desire, comes gray areas, a swinging pendulum.

The reader starts to question if growth and desire are separate. Wong entwines these themes of growth and desire, sometimes braiding in images of destruction—as in poems 12 and 12a:

 

#12:

you

as the unknown

you as the tree trunk

I wrap my legs around

and climb.

 

 

#12a:

 

Let’s be truthful,

for once.

I have never

climbed

a tree,

never once latched

myself on a trunk

writing stories

onto my arms,

never balanced on a branch

casually testing it’s strength…”

 

Wong compares the tree trunk to the torso of a lover, exploring intimacy, testing boundaries, but also getting scratched by the rough bark. The growth of the literal tree is also the growth of the relationship. Wong’s simple language of the girl curling up in tree that protects her but also cuts her to the quick is so evocative of any fairy tale. It is natural and familiar (like the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, how when the Frog transports the Scorpion across the river the Scorpion still stings the Frog, drowning them both, because, the Scorpion says, it is my nature.) The girl cuddles up to the tree that could forsake her—meanwhile, the wolf lurks in the forest, hunting.

Wong moves into the wolf parts in the middle poems, which begin to discard grammatical convention—some lack punctuation, others are without proper capitalization; these poems are little wildlings. However, through their gestures at discarding artifice, they start to present themselves as facts. Is becomes clear that the reader is Little Red and Wong is the wolf. She seduces us with her short crisp inviting lines, barely covers her sharp teeth so we come in. The wolf does not disappoint. The sparsity of poem #16 reveals we all bring predisposed fear to the wolf. We know what the wolf did, what the wolf does. It eats.

 

#16:

 

what is a wolf

without a past –

 

And that’s it! It is true— we are but the choices we have made thus far, the treaded paths, the people we spend time with, or the ones we have left on the ground. It is the spaces between the words of poem #17 that are frightening and beautiful at the same time:

 

 

my neck is daintier than I hoped his

 

hands wrap a

 

round twice

 

was      surprising   tasting

 

his

pond

hockey

 

salt                   and                  ice.

 

The reader begins the poem thinking hands are wrapping around the speaker’s neck and that she in danger, but instantly the next line reveals the speaker is doing the tasting—almost as though she has used her neck to draw him in.

By the second half of the collection, Wong’s speaker is the pursuer, escaping death. When her speaker pounces on a body, we can’t be certain whether her urge is sexual or murderous, but it doesn’t seem to matter: to this predatory consciousness, they may well be equivalent impulses. The speaker herself acknowledges to her prey that “our roles switched.” In poem #22 she writes:

“…like the gods I spring forth, rising out

from death to trick-or-treat again

or is this the true fuck:

me in you with no help

from animal, vegetable

or mineral, me

for once,

the one

swallowed…”

 

Wong rips into these poems with power, irrelevance that shakes the page. She brings us girls in cloaks, snow, fauna, bloody footprints. We do not know who we will meet or how we will get out. But there is no turning back.

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. Recent chapbooks are out or forthcoming from Grey Book Press, Dancing Girl Press and Shirt Pocket Press. Her first full length collection is forthcoming from Lucky Bastard Press. Recent work can be seen at Jet Fuel Review, Pith, So to Speak, Entropy, Right Hand Pointing, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.