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Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0

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Jackleg Opera is the fourth collection by BJ Ward and is a collected poems gathering together over twenty years of amazing work. It was published at the end of 2013 by North Atlantic Books and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Ward’s poetry is an incredible blend of wit, intelligence, playfulness and insight. He is a poet that not only loves language and craft but loves humanity, the adept phrasing that reflects the hidden emotional realities, charting what Emily Dickinson called the “internal difference where the meanings are.” His own words describe the accomplishment of his poetry, for his poems are

a net to capture the moment
but release the energy
–Suzuki Dance

This is appropriate for a poet who often writes about poetry, its power and purpose. That’s not to mistake his work for merely academic word wizardry. For his primary concern is with how we connect with other people, and language is one of the essential tools for that connection. So in a clever poem about the purpose of poetry called “Portrait of the Artist as Egg Salad,” the speaker is eating an egg salad sandwich which, of course, the reader can’t taste and in this context, he’s

. . . reminded of the thickest-

headed student I ever had—Debra—
who, when I told her her poem conveyed
nothing, said, “But I really feel this.”

So here we are,
Debra invoked yet long gone,
just writer and reader liaising
in the rectangular dining room of the page,
me still eating my egg salad sandwich,
you beginning to cross your arms and get upset

because I haven’t offered you anything yet
and you’re still hungry and it’s all my fault.

So poetry offers us or is supposed to offer us something that feeds us and nourishes us. In it, we often find the courage to face—or simple the ability to admit—the darker or wilder side of our own nature. It gives us a palatable way to assimilate the unavoidable darkness that is a part of our condition. These are what another poem calls “the molded hollows / in us worn from containing / and releasing, holding and letting be” (A Note to Karen). But those molded hollows are more than simply allowed to exist in the end; they are what make us who we are. Avoiding them is what a life of repression is built on and Blake’s specters are born of. But Ward is a wise poet and tries to guide us aright, for he tells us straight, as a Jersey poet would, “The more rocks we hit, / the louder we sing” (For Those Who Grew Up on a River). This embracing of the forces that wound us or are untamed within us, takes on many shapes in the poems. So in “The Noise I Make,” Ward declares, “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Or in “New Jersey,” it’s “the short, imperfect loveliness of groundhogs.” Or in “Spring Begins in Hinckley, Ohio,” it’s “a wrenching into tenderness.” That last phrase might contain the beautiful power of his poetry, for it is in understanding the deep wounds in us that we come to embrace the full extent of our humanity.

The poem “Compassion,” brings these elements together: that of the difficulty of intimacy in a modern metropolis and the compassion born of the deep wounding that defines a person. The poem opens

Out in this profane city,
sometimes sidewalks
seem the only cement that connects us

As the poem focuses in on a central figure living in this “profane city,” he is in his apartment “checking your scars / which spell your real name.” Later in the poem, the figure gives a dollar to a homeless man, and confronts the various voices that would condemn this compassion since the homeless man will simply “spend it on booze,” and “spend it on his / own death.” But in the end, though the central figure is a dollar poorer and isolated by his compassion from the callous voices that would deny the act,

. . . your inner
walls feel emblazoned by a song
rising from the fathomless depths,
a rosined bow rubbing
its awfully taut body
against catgut

to make music.

Here is one of the rocks that makes us sing from the inner depths. This is the point of it all, the sine qua non of poetry, music—art in general, that, as Stevens put it, makes it a “dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” But, of course, at the other extreme, Ward also explores what separates us and, not surprisingly, it is often technology or symbolized by technology. Don’t presume he’s a Luddite for he does have a website. But, for instance, in the poem “No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend,” a person with an answering machine blinking to let them know he has a call, recites a litany of the various ways this means the world is reaching out to connect to him. But that expectation is destroyed when he presses the button and

a single electronic static train,
its boxcars full of emptiness,
departs from the speaker,
routes through my chest,
and out the front door—

. . . . . . . click

. . . giving me another hang-up.)

A wonderful double-entendre in which the language of our technology multiplies the emotional turmoil of the speaker. And technology has only accommodated this distancing with irony in something like Facebook, something Ward taps into with his poem “Upon Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a Smart Phone,” which ends,

My friends are so thirsty with water in their eyes
so back to the well we’ll crawl:
Tell Plato to rise and rephilosophize—
Facebook is the new cave wall—

Our most popular social media for connecting with people is merely a shadow play of reality. Our connections are only phantoms of the truth as in Plato’s famous allegory. It’s also notable that here we find the relation of this disconnection to a thirst, that is, something primal in us that needs to be nourished since “my friends are so thirsty.” What poetry provides is lost in this network of virtual connections. Poetry, by using language in striking ways, reveals the hidden realities within us and provides a real, emotional connection to others across great distances and sometimes across impossible time. Most forms of social media, tethered and defined by the speed and rush of technology, often have a leveling influence on our language and interactions, and create connections that are as often fleeting and superficial as a single electrical spark. It is a problem Ward states with a kind of epigrammatic precision in “After Googling Myself, I Pour Myself Some Scotch and Step Out onto My Front Porch.” In it he says, “What a sum freedom plus apathy have equaled.”

But countering that apathy, that disconnection, is this collection of twenty-three years of great poetry and something to be deeply grateful for. It is among the best antidotes out there and should be marked by that peculiar phrase in his poem “Cross-Pollination,” which attaches to

. . . one of those rare moments in life
one would never get rid of.

These poems will strike you with their humor, their honesty, their emotional depth and their music. Like me, you may find yourself turning to someone and saying, “You have to hear this.”


Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?

BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.

Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?

BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.

Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Michael T. Young:  The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?

BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”

Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?

BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.

Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?

BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?

BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.

Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.

BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?

BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.

BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.

And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt

(x, x, x)

whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?

Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,

and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips

as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love

but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,

knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,

the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?

            (from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])


You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website:



I asked poet and tattoo artist Ruth Awad to share some of her favorite pieces she’s done with us in our most Infoxicated of internet Corners. The results are so fabulous. Check out these samples of her tattoo work, as well as a poem by her that she says is her current favorite! I couldn’t be happier to feature her here. Enjoy!







Lessons in Grief

If you’re gone I mean
really gone, then whose
voice is that veining through
the shower drain – no, it’s
only water, but here I am,
half wet and stung
with the mercy of living
where your robe trailed
like a thought across
the kitchen floor
and my hands are filling
with dirt. Or is it water?
Tell me a well is enough
to hold me. Or is it just
the bats sweeping low
enough to feel like comfort?
I’m a clockwork animal tied
to fading light, but the days
never stop coming.

Hear the audio version of this poem here.


Ruth Awad has a MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, Southern Indiana Review, CALYX, Diode, Anti-, Rattle, The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week, Vinyl Poetry, Epiphany, The Drunken Boat, Copper Nickel, RHINO, KYSO Flash, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She won the 2013 and 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her two Pomeranians.

Amorak Huey


Your breasts at the surface of the roiling water. The smell of chlorine
and desire. We divide and assign the space between us.

Your specialty is keeping score, mine is pretending not to.
We are not supposed to stay in water this hot

more than 15 minutes. Plenty of time to pretend
we could not drown here or anywhere

in the middle of our own lives. Three walls away
our children dream of life without us,

your parents sleep with their television on. One of us
slides closer. One of us places a finger in the other’s mouth,

one of us stands, dripping, to reach for a towel.
The tub’s motor falls quiet. The air suddenly cold

against overheated skin. Absence swells to fill absence,
water closes in over the holes our bodies once filled.

Amorak Huey is author of the chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and the forthcoming poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015). A former newspaper editor and reporter, he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, Gargoyle, The Southern Review, Baltimore Review, Stirring, and many other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.

Jen Stein

The Size of Things, Decreasing Scale

1) An invitation
2) The gap between the door open and latched
3) Your open hand resting on my hip
4) Kittens past weaning
5) This human heart quickening
6) A young fist full of garden dirt
7) The curve of your lips
8) The tip of my finger brushing your ear
9) Flat headed worms aerating the soil
10) An avian heart beating
11) Your pupils grown wide soaking light
12) A bean seed to be planted
13) My pupils when fixated
14) The distance between your thumb and my neck
15) Bristles on my paint brush, dried slate clinging
16) Strawberry seeds set to germinate
17) How close my lips hover above yours
18) Capillaries dilating
19) Rushing red blood cells
20) A droplet of sweat drawn from the pores
21) The width of a strand of spider silk
22) The wavelength of an x-ray
23) The distance between nuclei in a white dwarf star
24) Any hope that the children will sleep for just fifteen more minutes

Jen Stein is a writer, advocate, mother and finder of lost things. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia where she works in family homeless services. Her work has recently appeared in Rogue Agent Journal, Menacing Hedge, Luna Luna Magazine, Nonbinary Review and Stirring. Upcoming work will be featured in Cider Press Review. Jen is currently serving as assistant editor for Rogue Agent Journal and for ELJ Publications. You can find her on the web at

Sara Biggs Chaney

Letter from the Back Porch

Quiet things are passageways
to other quiet things.

One cracks, another grows.
Grass gives up to dust.

Somewhere, clocks advance
while other clocks reverse,

the hissing continuous,
a slow release.

I would never ask you
to come back

as I don’t contain ideas
like come back

or I,
or you.

In the space below, snouting
visitors, they come, they go.

Something scrapes and once–
the hollow beat of dancing.

Sara Biggs Chaney received her Ph.D. in English in 2008 and currently teaches first-year and upper-level writing in Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Her most recent chapbook, Ann Coulter’s Letter to the Young Poets, was released from dancing girl press in November, 2014. Sara’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, Sugar House Review, Columbia Poetry Review, [PANK], Juked, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. You can catch up with Sara at

Alisa Golden

Better Than Television

Her ankles swole up
and she leaned on a
sprinkler key like a cane.
My husband and me
had separate beds, she said,
but the rug was
wore out between ‘em.

Will’s White Hen

He carried her under
his arm but when he
found her with her feet
up in the air he couldn’t
eat her. Of 150 lifetime
eggs she’d laid 108.

Alisa Golden writes, makes art, and teaches bookmaking with a side of letterpress printing at California College of the Arts in Oakland. She founded and edits
Star 82 Review, and her work has been published in several magazines including 100 Word Story, NANO Fiction, Nanoism, and DIAGRAM, among others. She is the author of Making Handmade Books and lives in the one-square-mile city of Albany, California.


A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.




Food Addiction

When you look at me what do you look at?
At the outer shell?
The fat, the rolls, the flesh?
The over-abundance of what I am?
Do you see gluttony? Do you see sloth?
Do you look beyond? Can you see what is inside?
The heart, the mind, the soul? The over-abundance of who I am?
Do you ever question the looks you make? Do you ever question your eyes?
Ask them why they can only see the outside?
Do you ever question your brain? Ask it why it feels the need to ridicule?
Do you ever question your mouth? Ask it why it frowns?
Look inside my depression.
Do you see my hurt?
Can you feel my pain?
Can you heal my self-esteem?
Can you look beyond the outer?
Too many questions? Can I let go?
Only when you stop saying…
You would look so much better if…
That statement only starts the process all over again.
Addicted to food you question. How can that be?
I don’t know it just is.
Addicted to alcohol? You can live without.
Addicted to drugs? You can live without.
Addicted to food?
Have you ever tried to not eat?
Have you ever fasted?
The need over-powers the brain.
Don’t you have any will power?
I don’t drink, I don’t drug.
Food keeps everyone alive. Or so they say.
Food is killing me.

June Desmond lives and works in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire. She is inspired by her children and her fantastical surroundings. Ms. Desmond is a member of the prestigious Berlin Writers’ Group.

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No Longer

I am rails no longer.
I have hips now,
and breasts that stick out past my ribs,
though the alchemy of metabolism
makes them protrude, too.

I am no longer whittled,
though my fingers still get cold,
but there is something to me now, some substance.
I have content—more than just skin and bones.
Meat on my bones, I signify something,
am able to create.

That this body could now produce a child scares me,
but it’s less frightening than passing out,
than the jut of hips and wristbone and no ass.

And, now, when he holds me,
I know it’s not just to cling to my body,
but to grasp onto what’s inside.

And the starved girl, the one within me,
weeps, for she is filled.

An alumna of Barnard College, Marissa Mazek is currently a Creative Writing MFA candidate at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Emma Press Anthology of Homesickness and Exile, Watershed Review, and The Rampallian, among others, and has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s December 2013 Fiction Open.

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I’ve got the loveliest bones. Ivory sticks
______clink -clinking, bones
go with any outfit small enough not to cinch skeleton elbows,
knees creak when I walk, rivals run scared when they see bones coming—
______I’ve got the loveliest bones.
Toothpick-ing my place at the tented freak-show,
eyes comb over these blue-ribbon bones.
Cheeky endorsements by
____________Mary Kay
__________________Cover Girl
clink-clinging to Mark Ecko’s mirror mirror on the wall,
who’s got the loveliest bones of all? He’ll say,
______My dear you have the whitest bones,
____________the thinnest hair,
____________skin cold as stone,
____________eroding teeth,
____________a weak heartbeat,
____________chronic fatigue, but…
______you sure do have the loveliest bones….

Playhouse glass twists a sinister smile, s t r e t c h i n g my thigh gap for runway miles.
Skeletons waltz in my closet clink-clatter all night
______the mattress grinds my scorpion spine;
weak and lethargic these bones are so tired,
______calcium craters clank-clanking between a rock and my skull space
______the only place I feel at home is at Victoria’s Convention,
______viewers ooohhh and aahhhh
____________at my symmetry of structure,
__________________whisper to each other…
________________________she’s got the loveliest bones.

Sarah McMahon
a senior at Bradley University majoring in English Creative Writing. Her poetry has appeared in the campus literary journal for 8 consecutive semesters, and has garnered attention at open mics in and around Peoria. One primary topic she explores via poetry is eating disorders – forms of which she struggles with personally. In addition to writing, she also runs Cross Country and Track for Bradley and enjoys life talks on long runs every Sunday morning.

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Forward Reflection

I once thought,
someday I’ll outrun this skin.
That someday body love will win.

Dreamed of acceptance,
met with rejection at almost every turn I made.
My tears kept me company through the haze.

I carved through me,
pushed my flesh to the edge.
I found freedom in water,
and eventually this skin.

My curves have grown and sagged some,
but I won’t let shame keep me undone.
For it’s not the tomorrows that should win,
or the somedays.

It’s this ever cycling present moment,
of mindful reflection.
Of a body positive mind,
pushing me in a better direction.

So I put my mirror back on the wall.
I stopped wishing through it,
and learned not to just dream it,
but do it.
To radically accept the person I am now.

In the end, it’s always progression not perfection,
that keeps me moving in a forward direction.

Jennafur Lee Parks is a thirty-something feminist zinester who graduated with a BA in Sociology and an Individually designed degree in Women’s Studies. Nowadays, she would have asked it to be labeled Gender Studies. Like her zines, Jen’s life has taken momentous journeys and unraveled far more than she ever thought possible when she was a teenager. Jen works in the community as a direct support professional to students with various developmental delays and special needs. She also works with the high-risk population. Jen truly loves her job and plans to get a graduate degree in the near future. Jen currently resides on the seacoast in New Hampshire with her family.

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Lee Ann Roripaugh


tsunami as misguided kwannon

her hypervigilance such that

everything becomes a piercing

a harrowing she can’t turn off


her superpower a wound

a lightning rod / and sponge / speaking

the language of wounds to wounds


like echolocation that dopplers

the contours of another’s sorrow

against her own ricocheted song


or touch subtle as the naked push broom

of a star-nosed mole’s tentacles

nuzzling the bruised flesh of worms


or a nose for muscling out fresh blood

old ghosts / the sweet fat of lost dreams

like a winter-lean bear come spring

or feathery antennae’s raw quiver

pinched to ash by the hot sparks

of disconsolate pheromones


her nervous system a glitter

of neurotransmitters on fire


an electric-chaired switchboard

short circuited / fuse blown


she’s the exposed nerve:


exuviated snake / hulled bean

husked cicada / chaffed seed

peeled grape / shucked clam

she’s the conduit / aperture / cracked

mirror to all that’s scintillant and broken


until her compassion mushroom clouds

and swells like a fever / a red infection

a rising tide of salt tears

for the world’s fractured core


how could she possibly stop herself

from sweeping it all into her broken cradle

to soothe and rock and weep over ?


(her fingers itchy to pilfer and spare

what’s plush and tender

like the rabbit stolen by the moon)


how could she possibly stop herself

from the mercy of washing it all clean

in her terrible estuary of lamentations ?

First appeared in Sugar House Review.

Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry, the most recent of which, Dandarians, was released by Milkweed Editions in September 2014. Her second volume, Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press), was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and her first book, Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin Books), was a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The recipient of a 2003 Archibald Bush Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship, she was also named the 2004 winner of the Prairie Schooner Strousse Award, the 2001 winner of the Frederick Manfred Award for Best Creative Writing awarded by the Western Literature Association, and the 1995 winner of the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize.


Her short stories have been shortlisted as stories of note in the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and two of her essays have been shortlisted as essays of note for the Best American Essays anthology. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Roripaugh is currently a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. She is also a faculty mentor for the University of Nebraska low-residency M.F.A. in Writing, and served as a 2012 Kundiman faculty mentor alongside Li-Young Lee and Srikanth Reddy.



Detail shot from Medusa in her Sunday Best, oil on canvas.

MANDEM is the art name shared by Maize Arendsee (an art instructor and Studio Art MFA student at Florida State University) and her life-partner, Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Drawing on an academic background in classical mythology, gender studies, and critical theory, MANDEM works across media and materials (painting, assemblage/collage, film, sculpture, and book-making), intentionally destabilizing genre in terms of content and media. MANDEM has received numerous art awards, including Juror’s Merit at the LaGrange National XXVII (2014) and First Place at the FSU Museum of Fine Art Summer Annual Exhibition (2014). While being widely published and nationally exhibited, MANDEM remains actively involved in the Tallahassee art scene. (
Artist Statement:

We are a transdigital artist. Our art is an exercise in categorical violations, simulation, and narrative (translation: we are makers, rule-breakers, tricksters, and storytellers). We work across media and materials: painting, assemblage/collage, film, sculpture, and book-making, and purposefully refuse to discriminate between physical and digital tools. (This is an integration we refer to as “transdigital”).

The final products are a union of digital and physical medium such that the two become indistinguishable, and this ambiguity of medium is utterly intentional. This is a both-neither art — a cyborg art — half digital and half organic.

Our work intentionally destabilizes genre, both in terms of content and media, an intention born out of personal identity as a queer feminists. We are interested in subtle ways to defy comfortable expectations. Our subject matter is also liminal, often featuring characters of uncertain biological identity (blurring the lines between genders and between humans, animals, and machines), or objects caught between two states of being. We create work that is simultaneously repulsive and beautiful, and use this uncomfortable dichotomy to pull our audience in to the polyphonic narratives embedded in our work.

The work is deeply informed by our academic background in antiquities, mythography, intellectual history, and literary theory — our paintings, assemblages, and films transform the foundational myths and metaphors of Western culture to hint at a new post-postmodern (and quite often post-apocalyptic and post-human) mythos.


People I’d Like to Meet

Ken Singleton & Emerson Boozer. Wait, I already met Ken Singleton &
Emerson Boozer signing autographs at some kind of auto show when I was a kid.

Haixia Zheng, Otis Birdsong, World B. Free.
Nancy Kerrigan & Tonya Harding. Surya Bonaly.

The Flash. Lucille Ball. Rosemarie Waldrop.
A helicopter. A litter of kittens. A pair of mittens.

A bolt of lightning. Ellen Page, Kesha. Martellus Bennett.
Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, & the Blue Marvel.

A raindrop. A footprint. 2,000 years.
An image of an image of Billie Holiday.

Yayoi Kusama, Robert Smithson, Jenny Holzer.
(I already met Henry Rollins & Mike Watt & Vincent Price in bookstores.)

Jane Freilicher. James Schuyler.
A dozen roses or slices of bread.

The He & She from the That’s What They Said jokes.
The They & Them from They’re Making Me Do Things statements.

Kathleen Hanna. Ian Curtis. Yolandi Visser. MIA.
Lana Turner, named after the journal. After Frank O’Hara. John Cage.

Vanilla, almond, cardamom, & coconut.
A poor excuse. A field of wheat.

Edward Field. Some kind of statement. A lemon tree.
Kafka. An undocumented week.



Bruce Covey’s sixth book of poetry, Change Machine, was published by Noemi Press in 2014. He lives in Atlanta, GA, where he publishes and edits Coconut magazine and Coconut Books and curates the What’s New in Poetry video reading series for the literary web community Real Pants. He also serves as Small Press Editor for Boog City and has taught at Yale, Emory, and the Atlanta College of Art.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

The Human Zoo

Soon I appear through the fog, my face presses against the cage. There is a scrim of dark edging the metal. You are there, pushing life toward my mouth with your fingers. Now I reach without biting. In the dark my own hands grasp how small & tame I am. You say, stay wild with your eyes & ideas. But imagine if my hand could not find your hand. Through the skin of what has survived. If I come up for air but then slip again beneath the current, remember how I glittered, with water pouring from every pore. You would walk down into our earth & watch me race behind the captive green glass. I leave you the gills of my faith, the jaw of my empathy. The flowers will remember my rain & my murmurs. How absurd I am. Even the thunderheads will remember a woman who shook with fire. You sink my net to the floor & work fast. It is how we must perform kindness. My flesh opens like a black claw. Why are you still not afraid of me? I want to see how close the sun will near the water. How the end will hold a woman’s wings above the flames.


Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. She is the recipient of fellowships including the Cave Canem Foundation, Millay Colony, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her visual and literary work has appeared widely. Griffiths is the creator and director of P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), a video series of contemporary poets featured by the Academy of American Poets. Griffiths’ fourth collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow, will be published by Four Way Books in 2015. Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lighting the Shadow is now available: