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The Moment We Finds Ourselves In: A Review of John Amen’s Illusion of an Overwhelm

John Amen—Illusion of an Overwhelm

NYQ Books, 2017

Page Length: 89

Retail: $15

John Amen’s Illusion of an Overwhelm continues the experimentation in language that was evident in his last few collections of poems, especially The New Arcana (NYQ Books), co-authored with Daniel Y. Harris, and strange theater (NYQ Books). Amen’s latest is a collage of voices and personas, a mix of the physical world and metaphysical one, and an examination of where we are in this present moment, specifically in the way that it addresses hyper-consumerism and carefully incorporates everyday speech into the stanzas, including text speak.

At times, it can be difficult to keep track of all the voices within the collection. The first section, “Hallelujah Anima,” contains a number of forms, including prose poems and narratives that veer into surrealism. It also includes several references to American consumerism, such as images of the American suburbs, strip malls, and gas stations. The second stanza in the 9th poem reads, “I bargain with a salesman/saying I won’t be a servant,/the salesman riffing who do you think you serve?/I have to admit I serve myself./Someone pumps a car horn, I turn my head,/I’m shouting your name into a cellphone,/condos & gas stations as far as I can see.” In the 16th poem, the speaker admits, “I’m not Odysseus or Iago, rather/a prime number running his errands, shuffling/through the strip mall, through bloom & wither,/ which is to say my souvenirs remind me/I don’t actually exist.” In past collections, Amen has mixed references to literature or art with the everyday or pop culture, and he does it especially well in “Hallelujah Anima,” drawing attention to our hyper-consumer culture and notions of identify lost in the American ‘burbs.

The second section, “The American Myths,” is just as layered as the first and introduces a new cast of characters to address the undercurrent of racial issues and greed that permeate the American political system. The 7th poem in particular left me wondering if it was written in response to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, more specifically the way that Obama’s image became a staple of pop culture, a black face plastered on Shepard Fairey posters, with the word HOPE in large letters. There is reference to a “shrine erected in 2008 in honor of the lost boy” in the first stanza, and the poem concludes:

Now’s his chance to sway public opinion, white

God as his personal Super PAC. The black son

thumbs-up for the camera, toothy on the billboard.

The black son roaring on Super Bowl Sunday.

This is how he storms the world; that’s payback,

baby, manifest destiny, that’s o bless America.

The third section, “My Gallery Days,” contains voices of hipster artist characters and isn’t afraid to address how capitalism and favoritism have infected that world, too, namely who obtains grants, who doesn’t, and who lands showings at big-name galleries. The final section, “Portrait of Us,” contains long, meditative poems that combine the physical and metaphysical worlds. Again, images of everyday domestic space populate some of these final poems. The second stanza of the fourth poem reads:

A moment ago,

you were tending a potted amaryllis,

we were discussing a menu for Friday,

whether fish or chicken, beans or broccoli.

I yearn for the details once disdained,

a sugar pack under the leg of the dining-room table,

the Persian rug we moved an inch to the right,

lightbulbs that needed changing.

Heartbreak’s the beauty

we’re handed is already seizing:

I’m in love with what I call you,

but these illusions, so hypnotic,

have no place in the clouds.

Like several other poems in the book, that stanza illustrates how Amen’s work is able to root itself in common images, in this case, the American ‘burbs, and then suddenly push to something deeper, in this case, notions of love and identity, before the poem concludes with the lines, “All I remember is how it destroyed me/to think no trace of our love could endure.”

As I read and re-read Illusion of an Overwhelm, I continually thought about this moment in American history, a moment that has given rise to a president who reduces his thoughts to 140 characters, a moment when a former president can make $400,000 for giving a speech to Wall Street execs while his party claims to be connected to the working-class, a moment so dominated by pop culture that it has produced a celebrity president. The book again proves that Amen’s ear is attuned to American language, including text speak, similar to the way that Whitman, Ginsberg, and Williams were able to capture the American idiom in their body of work. If they were writing today, they would probably be using hashtags and emojis.


Dianne Borsenik   Age of Aquarius: Collected Poems 1991-2016  Crisis Chronicles Press 978-1-940996-34-9


Dianne Borsenik is a kind of Cleveland Poetry legend.  She attends everyone’s readings, travels with her buddy John Burroughs to read at Cafes and Coffeehouses all over the Midwest, runs a small press herself, and performs with a rare kind of energy that echoes so many forms of populism.  Often funny, her poems are a kind off mix of heartbreak and comedy.   She uses language that is clear, accessible and often uses rhetorical shifts.   She can be bluesy, she can tell stories, she can write small imagistic poems, and she can make you laugh out loud, something rare in a poet.  She isn’t scared of risking sentimentality and she can be directly political at times.  She is musical.  She can be unapologetically Reto-Beat.  And she is…. Well, she is a fun poet.  In the best manner a poet can be.  She is the kind of poet you could take your friend who had never been to a poetry reading, and they would have a blast hearing her perform.   Perhaps she is who Lucille Ball would have been if Lucille Ball had been a poet and not a comedian.    

In this book, put out by Burroughs fine small Cleveland press Crisis Chronicles,  Borsenik collects her “Greatest hits” as she says.  The author of numerous chapbooks, this is  her first big book and it is a good one.  Buy this and take these poems and read them on street corners, share these poems at work, at the hospital, at the bus stop.  Here is a small lyrically prose poem, as much about sound and wit as anything:  


Everybody Must Get Stoned


—Bob Dylan “Rainy Day Women”#12 & 35


It’s time to turn it on time to rock hard rock solid rock steady rock-a-bye baby time to rock out with your cock out rock and roll rock around the clock throw away the rocking chair and move it like you mean it time to rocket to the moon to mars to a comet to an asteroid they’re just bigger rocks anyway don’t take this time for granite



Christopher Bakken  Eternity & Oranges  University of Pittsburgh Press ISBN-13: 978-0822964049


Christopher Bakken has been writing a spare eloquent formalist poem for decades.  His formalism presents a deft combination of image and rhetoric with precise metrical maneuvers.  He has one of the quietest and most precise ears in American poetry. His poems often occur in rooms and the small intimate venues where people laugh, drink, love, and grieve. One of the interesting things about Bakken’s subject matter and landscape is his ongoing love affair with Greece, particularly with his half adopted home of Thessaloniki where he spends his summers.  Like Gilbert, there is a sense off the expatriate in Bakken, as his heart even when home is over there, on a cobblestoned street, or walking with the goat herders on a Greek Isle.  And because of this, to speak of Bakken’s work I often want to evoke Greek poets rather than American poets—particularly C.P Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos: Cavafy for his exploration and detail and use of the miasmic and labyrinthine Alexandrian streets he lived in; Ritsos for the politics and sense of time that informed his work.  Bakken’s work arguably draws both from these two grand Greek rivers, and yet calligraphies an alphabet all his own, one that is both mythic and intimate in the same breath.   Here he is at his best in the poem that draws the book’s title:




Night came to hurt us from across the island,

resurrecting crickets in the old well.

You’d removed both of your arms and your hair

had turned to ash by the time I touched it.


If you go, I asked, how will we speak to those dead?

I said this knowing we couldn’t ever.

Yet monks had put out a wooden table

and were waiting for the blood and bread.


All day, the mountain.  Talking and falling apart.

I had to carry you most of the way.

All day: eternity and oranges,

stones and some fear I could and couldn’t see.


Now, a half moon and the stars were roaring.

The orchard behind us was roaring too.

I couldn’t bear their chanting anymore

and urged myself to disappear, like you.


Karen Craigo  No More Milk Sundress Publications  ISBN 978-1-939675-39-2


I have known Karen Craigo for nearly 20 years now.  She’s been slugging it out in the trenches of poetry for decades as an editor, an organizer, an English lecturer, a comrade.  The author of two fine chapbooks this is her first full length collection.  What is impressive about this book is it does not feel like a first collection, but like a third or fourth collection.  There is a sure maturity to these poems. This book has received a number of positive reviews.  In Cleaver magazine Shaun Turner wrote . “Craigo’s poems are not barriers, but rather structures from which she explores the female body in relation to itself and to other bodies, and to our collective body as a people.”   Turner is dead on here in identifying Craigo’s poetic exploration as grounded in the body “I love how it sits roundly,/ a warm stone, when it is calm/ its waters stilled, (What I Love About My Body);   or in unflinching motherhood, “My son wakes to tell me/ I terrify” (Hours After Anger, He Wakes Me).  In her powerful death sequence, Craigo shows such a deep and varied approach to the poem and its capacity for real, true emotional range and complexity.   In addition, there is—dare I say for use of a better word—a holiness to these poems that rises from the body into a kind of light:




Last night, a baby cried

outside my window and I knew

I should be holding it.

I was pretty sure

she was talking to me, my own baby

a thousand miles away,

grown hazy, not as clear

as the music from the courtyard.

I brought the hand pump

in my backpack and it took all day

to draw an ounce.

My baby and I are near the end.

It’s no one’s fault—each day

I have less to give,

less milk, I mean.

There’s a magnet in me—

it’s just a metaphor, so it’s OK

that the pull is stronger

over distance. Let me return

to that baby in the courtyard,

to its terrible music

and how I wanted to go

to her, give to her.

And I cried a little, the way

mothers cry, and catch it,

and place it in smallest mouths,

so this morning there was a glass of it,

of milk—what the body repels

as it pulls the other to us.

The world is dense with hunger.

Sometimes I have to pull his fist

from my baby’s mouth

just to feed him,

and I am mindful that hunger for some

is a fist that never stops

being a fist. What I’m trying to say

is I couldn’t dump that milk.

For the baby in the courtyard,

for my baby, for all

the babies, I drank it down.

Cheryl Dumesnil  Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes  University of Pittsburgh PressISBN-13: 978-0822964315


Cheryl Dumesnil is one of those writers who writes slowly, chiseling out a small body of exquisite poems over the decades.  I went to graduate school at Syracuse University with her many years ago.  She was a year ahead of me and she was by far the best writer in our program.   This is Dumesnil’s second fine collection from the University of Pittsburgh Press.  Her first book received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize.   This is one of the books I blurbed and highly recommend:


“Dumesnil navigates the hallways of illness and childbirth with grit and grace. She offers us soaring birds, revolutions and plums. Odes to October, memoirs to tampons, sea snails and Tsunamis, air guitar with Eddie Van Halen, Ritalin and Pink Floyd and Facebook, a book hinged at the end of the last century and the beginning of this new bloody one. This is a book full of the love of women and sons, drag queens and last calls, and always the gospel of the body, and its constant prayer of falling. A kind of faith in falling, a performance against failure as a way to get us somewhere else, through words, or as Dumesnil urges us, ‘Say it again, say it again, as if your voice could rewrite the code.’”


Lake Dharma


You arrive at the lake, expecting
to meet grief on the trail.
Instead: a fleet of white pelicans
patrolling the shallows, steam
rising off the water glow.
Cormorants on the watchtower
moan and tick, indifferent
wings shrugged toward the sun.
Not even the day moon, having
dusted off last week’s rusty eclipse,
cares to hear your story
of a marriage slowly crumbling,
a young friend lost to cancer.
Then another. And another.
This whole forest depends
on that felled tree rotting into
home for salamander eggs,
centipedes, six varieties of moss.
Black phoebes rattle winter
thistles, swollen throats percussing:
this isthis isthis is . . .

Martin Espada  Vivas to Those Who Failed  W. W Norton & Company  ISBN-13: 978-0393249033


I love to read the work of an older poet at the height of his powers.  Martin Espada reminds me of  other great political poets such as Joy Harjo, Naomi Shahib Nye, Adrienne Rich and  Philip Levine in that all were writing or wrote their best poems well after the age of 50.  Espada’s powerful tomes have always directly engaged the social realities and interactions of the world.  He is truly our North American Neruda.  And like Neruda he shows a formal and investigative range that is unmatched.  But in Vivas to Those Who Failed he has surpassed himself. The title comes from Walt Whitman and is the title for a cycle of sonnets on the Paterson Silk strike of 1913.  Like Shahib Nye, who wrote some of her greatest poems about the death and life of her father, Espada offers some of his most moving poems in the ten poems on the death of his father Frank, who was a community organizer and a wonderful photographer.   The book also includes some off Espada’s best poems about baseball and brotherhood.   The micro detail and use of poetic image in this book is deft.  In a 2016 review in the Progressive, Jeremy Shaffenberger wrote, “Hands have always been resonant poetic images for Espada, not least because they’re able to carry the weight of so much symbolic, metaphorical, and metonymic significance. In a 2010 interview, he said that in such working environments “you’re only seen for what your hands can do. The rest of you is rendered invisible.” Espada’s poetics involves advocating for these invisible people, bringing “the rest” of them out of the darkness.”

And I concur these are poems that reach a hand of verbs to lead us his readers and fellow citizens out of darkness and despair.  Espada is one of our best storyteller poets and these book is full of powerful narratives, that when collaged side by side, offer us a quilt of grief and gunpowder, a tapestry of resistance to study and learn from, to teach us how to survive and fight, like all those who failed before us, whose legacy will lead us to victory, during these oppressive times.


The title poem of the collection can be found here:

Yao Glover  Inheritance   Aquarius Books , Detroit


Conversational and musical in the same breath, Yao Glover writes poems that engage the political and social realities of this nation, of his family, and his Inheritance and what that means in all the personal and cultural significance of the term.  Mixing poems both lyrical and rhetorical he explores the intimate landscapes of who makes us who we are.  In the poem “Buttoning my Shirt,” Yao remembers his father getting for work in the morning and then realizes/ “i’m staring /you in the eyes/ daddy, i got your back/ and your face/ in the mirror. /it’s morning/ i’m buttoning my shirt.”  That moment when the grown son’s face becomes the father’s”.  In the terrifically titled,” the art of war as fried fish in the house of my mother” Glover intones, “when the belly gets coated/ with the blues, feed on this.”   Glover’s range blows from blues to small cantatas.  He is a mix of many registers, with the politics say of a Baraka but even with the small strange surrealism say of someone like Serbian Vasko Popa who he reminds me of with his disjunctive repetition and cadence as in these syncopated lines from “Guitar”:

a box of strings

a wooden box

a box made of wood

with strings a


a walk with strings

walk these strings

this wood,

walk with me talk


with these strings


A longtime book proprietor and former founder and owner of Karibu Books in DC, Yao is one of those cultural workers who has worked for decades too promoting others through his book space and online with his Afrocentric cultural blog Free Black Space.  But more than anything Yao is a poet, giving us a kind of radical spiritualism, so necessary for these oppressive times:



i have tried 
to be beautiful
i have sung
when singing 
was brother to pain 

i have run 
with my arms stretched out
and it slowed me down

i have called you 
ever and lasting
and done and begin

i have held you 
in a lullaby 
when there was no sunrise
when my beliefs became 
dry and brittle like bread
in the sun 

i have shed many songs
that the birds came and ate

and this

is the only one 
i remember

Les Kay  At Whatever Front  Sundress Publications ISBN-13: 978-1939675439


Les Kay is another one who has been slugging it out in the trenches of poetry for decades.  I met him first briefly when he was an undergraduate in Jim Daniel’s class when I was a visiting reader in the mid 1990s.  Since then he has gone on to graduate degrees and years living a precarious economic existence as an underpaid cultural worker in the academy and as a freelance writer.  He is the author of two excellent chapbooks, one I blurbed is a long narrative poem titled Bad Ass.  At Whatever Front is his very first full length collection and one worthy of much notice.  In many ways this a book about working class men, and an investigation into constructions of masculinity.  Like the best poems of social engagement, Kay brings us into the lives we don’t read about in the news.  This book is full of “war stories,” both literal and metaphorical, but where Kay impresses me most in some of the surest and most memorable lyric poems I have read in some time that are scattered throughout the collection like small measures of metaphysical pause.  Perhaps to remind us as he says in his very 21st century poem “Google as Mememto Mori”: “I know this, at least:/our lives are beautiful/in their loss and/this is beauty.”   But what Kay shares with so many writers on this list is that beauty is not enough. There is real engagement with the social and political realities of the world in this collection.    One of my favorites is this powerful portrait that opens the book:


Blue Memento


The warehouse heat seeped

through his shirt, pushed temperature

up like typhoid; pneumatics whirled

and presses clanked steel and wood

with enough force to slam razored

dies into cardboard or an errant hand.

On busy days, his ears hummed

like alarm clocks, his blue uniform

darkened with sweat, fresh paper cuts

remapped the calluses of forty years

with tributaries of blood, and his eyes

blurred with the repetition of movement,

but after each twelve-hour shift, my father

gathered the mistakes which were a fraction

of an inch off and folded the boxes himself,

so that he might have a memento of each

account to display along the shelves

of his trailer, so that he might cradle

baseball card boxes, glazed like enamel,

and hold them out to me saying:

Look, Son, look.


Jennifer Militello  A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments Tupelo Press ISBN-13: 978-1936797752


Jennifer Militello’s third book takes her lyric exploration to the next level, using a varied structure of epistolary poems and prose poems as well as anaphoric structures.   But here she goes to places in tone and depth of emotional range that I rarely see in the prose poem, as if she turns the sentences inside out to become lyric.   Her series of “Dictionary entries” shows her imaginative and exploratory range.  This is very much a poet’s book, as Militello is a poet’s poet in the best sense of the word.  With her surrealist leaps and bitterly ironic drenched lines, she seems more Eastern European than American.  As I’ve written in a longer review elsewhere “This is a book of ecstatic revelations, griefs and betrayals.  Relationships and narratives are implied within a lyric framework.  It has been a long time since I read a book of poems that seems less about meaning and more about sound.”  And yet that sound drives us towards elusive revelations and meanings, or perhaps more precise is to say pieces of meanings, which we fill in with our own lives, or the tatters of them.


A Dictionary at the Periphery

On the day I was born, the moon’s phase 
was waning crescent. No death
to sweeten like a side dish. No infant

to ease from its roughhewn crib and lay
among the savage rushes. No soft words. No
mouth to feed. No rope to hang from. No barn

to raze. The shock of me was an utter root,
cruel in parts. Gone as a body, vacuous and 
black. Left bankrupt by the witnessing

I’d done, I made a fist and shook it
toward the world. Often blighted. Often
cold. Jagged, late, matted with moons,

aping a gray aroma of flesh,  eyeteeth
of a she-wolf, urn of human ash.
A torn god, sad as seasons. Burnt offerings,

poured libations: the remedies I invented 
were scented with abyss. Tongues to mourn
wonder with. A flex like heaven’s wings

to lash me to the mast, unmask me,
cradle me to sleep. The day I was made,
I was made veiled. Knee-deep in eucalyptus.

I was made scarved. To understand my wax
and wane, the hint of a sword mood stitching 
in my breath, give me a heart of wastelands 
or dirt. Eyes mutiny, bland mysteries
of anisette, hunting the char lodged within me.
Things drop stinking into beasts.

One cannot wilt. One shall not want.
I was the last animal at the lamp the night
man was born. Record me in the morgue’s lost books. 

Sean Singer   Honey & Smoke  Eyewear Publications ISBN-13: 978-1908998439


Nearly 20 years ago Sean Singer seemed destined to begin a vibrant and profitable literary career.  He was publishing his miraculous and investigative poems in some of our finest journals. His poems, though they exhibited many of the so called elliptical facets of the time, and the exploratory moves, also showed a kind of street wise social awareness.  His book Discography gathered together his first poems of music, jazz, and showed the promise of his deft ear.  This book was awarded the 2001 Yale Younger Poet’s Prize and was widely reviewed.  But Singer is a singular poet and somehow the tone of where he was going didn’t catch.  It was like trying to explain later Coltrane to someone who only loved Kind of Blue.  Singer’s poems are ambitious, and cut across aesthetic lines.  There is something both archaic and futuristic in his poems at the same time.  So his second collection, despite such an auspicious literary debut, proved difficult to place.  When I first came upon his poems I felt a kinship immediately with this young gun.  He seemed to fulfill perhaps the more exploratory notions in the long lined worked of later Lynda Hull.  Perhaps Singer was writing the poems Hull might have written if she had lived, with her shared love of Jazz and urban landscape.  And like an avant-garde Jazz musician, Singer often shows the seams of the making of the poem as a made-thing unfolding in real time. This is a part of Singer’s song, part of his making while unmaking a made-thing to show the seams.  Singer is the anti-magician, giving us The Reveal in the act of pulling back the poem’s curtain.  In an interview in the journal Memorius, Singer said of his process, “My subject is often the meaning of creativity, or the process of making a piece of writing, or a piece of art. The figures you mention are sometimes characters through whom I can talk about the project of writing, the project of making poems, and the questions of being a writer or an artist. I resist the first person singular and would like to make a poem where there almost is no speaker at all, or a minimal one. Perhaps these figures are masks or voices through which I can let the speaker come through.”


Living On Nothing But Honey And Smoke

for Albert Ayler (1936-70) & Cleveland

Evergreen leather winterwear and a honky-tonk, but salty glissando,
a man revealing his baby-life in the dark, when the dark was a scattered ambrosia,
but opening plaints with dynamite, and a grill and a tremolo and hard plastic reed.
What is self-evident, he said, was a colored disk, a sword, the cup of indignation.
I have seen the bright wall of the universe, magnified ten times, and eat only green
things. But when President Johnson was a spooky longhorn, the Pope got the message,
a clicking sound with his tongue, the spirit’s balafon hymnic, the freak bearing.
As the saxophone wends and balloons, so the vision. It wasn’t funny anymore.
Flowering in the very field, his legit sneers, he has sucked the air out of the room,
mesmerized hyena, and brought us back on a kind of ship, afloat & afflatus driftwood…
and the East River took us to the foot of Congress Street Pier where our lungs had dried.
Become Ashtabula, taxonomic, a burned running, a fur peeling, a pure feeling, an orange.
Become an admirer.
Become Olmstead, Parma, and Ashtabula, where translucent quays burn with fox-oil,
overweight drivers, gray mosquitoes, a wood flushed with the lashing waves of pine.
Her brunette radar zoned me, gathering buckeye, rucksack, and eyeglass cloth
we became river: Ashtabula was the orange wreck of bricks, boards, a nurse.
The mud slung me, part of the forest, to a new river. This isn’t tenderness, you know:—
it’s worn. The river, Little Cricket Neck, was burning mineral, iron filing, flies, and tires.
A marvel how rectangular fires make unearned past efforts, so we blazed, filthy nuggets,
to the utter gully, wherewith sky like Gethsemane, we sneaked into the guestroom, all cushiony.
At any rate, we were pierced. The clumps of soot hit the windows, all black now, & I exhaled.
Become a wizard, a ghost, a spirit, a saint, a bell, a Cleveland, the final cadence, two octaves up.
Become an admirer.
Become Ashtabula or become assiento, the darkness of river, aspergillic breaking into ashunch.
Become, yes, admirer.

Francine Witte   Not All Fires Burn the Same. Slipstream Press Chapbook Winner


Francine Witte is a long time school teacher who has been writing really engaged poems for decades so I was happy to hear when she won the Slipstream chapbook contest.  Witte is deceptive.  A poet who is domestic, but also very streetwise.  Quiet and yet unflinching.  This is the second of the books I blurbed: “Francine Witte narrates the lives of men and women searching through the losses, leaning towards one another through the flames.  Brazen and beautiful, gritty and full of smart shifts, uppercuts and angles, or do I mean “angels flying south for the winter.” Or when, “A piece of the sky breaks off/ and falls into your coffee cup.”  Lost girls, tired working class wives, wolfs and weather,  divorces on mars, instructions on what to do when facing a bear, or unflinching remembrances of rapes rendered and not withheld, Witte’s range is imaginative or real when needed, precisely piercing, full of metaphorical moves and narrative epiphanies.  This small book has enough punch to break the heart’s teeth,  driving us down streets “woven with bones and ash and anything else leftover when a dream dies.” And yet what is left, after the dream is dead is perhaps these poems:  with their deft directions for survival.”

Not All Fires Burn the Same 

Take the ones on the evening news,
forest scorch, flames like wolf tongues.
You are watching, safe behind your TV tray, 
feeling smug and oh so cool. Not at all 
like those fires you started as a kid, stolen
matches, newspaper in the sink. Sparks
flying under the cabinets and you could have
burned the kitchen down. But that 
was nothing like the fire of your husband
and his other woman, how you thought
he should be strong enough to reason 
her away. You didn’t see his fingers
and how burnt they already were. Dark
and scarred as that TV forest you thought
was so far off, where the fire had to eat
its fill before it could go home. And when
your husband finally limped back to you, 
hands full of dead smoke and regret, 
you let him into your lukewarm
bed, and when he kissed you, you 
could taste the ashes still in his mouth.

Patrick Rosal Brooklyn Antediluvian ISBN-13: 978-0892554744


I first met Patrick Rosal exactly twenty years ago when he was a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.   I was invited to read at a small festival at Bloomfield College with Patricia Smith, Joe Weil, and someone I didn’t know that turned out to be Patrick.  Even then, at such a young age, I knew Rosal was something special. The way he walked to the mic, the way he mixed languages and moved effortlessly from the chiseled and exquisitely formal to the colloquial. As someone who grew up in the very first wave of hip hop in the late 70s and early 80s, I was so amazed to hear finally a second generation poet who fully embraced hip hop too.  You have to remember how rare it was to hear this 20 years ago.  His ear was finely turned for the subtleties of syntax and his heart spun like two complementary turn-tables.  Rosal was writing even then poems that unapologetically were exploring not just who he was, but were saving the lives of friends and family he had lost along the way, poems that sang both his native town of Edison, NJ and his Filipino heritege.  He was really beginning to ask questions and become deeply exploratory about his Filipino heritage in a way that saw the links to broader colonial and indigenous struggles. In the books he wrote to follow, these threads were expanded and deepened with ever increasing complexity as he grew not only as an artist, but as a man, and a human being who asked questions of what that means.   His line lengthened to a Whitmanesque-like line at times.  A kind of mix of Larry Levis, Amira Baraka and Jessica Hagedorn.  He blew longer, stronger, better.  


In this, his fourth book Brooklyn Antediluvian, Rosal deepens and adds complexity to his themes of urban, ethnic, and ontological exploration.  He uses a managed and meticulous attention to syntax and sound to create his odes, elegies and antiphonal progressions through various dictions and discourses.   All told with a situated class awareness. Rather than individual lyrics, these are a kind of collective psalm.   He gathers the raiment of his childhood and neighborhood and mixes them with influences from the world.  There are echoes of Neruda in his odes such as the marvelously titled,    “A Scavenger’s Ode to the Turntable (Or a Note to Thomas Alva Edison):


… Me and my boys—sons of cops, bookkeepers

and ex-priests—picked up gear other DJs didn’t want


no more. One prep-school kid, who just bought

a shiny new mixer, tossed out his two-month-old


Numark which we picked from the garbage and

Hoisted home.  We harvested the slider from the rich


kid’s rig.  I stripped the wires’ tips and soldered them

to pitch contacts.  In a basement of a maple split


in Edison, NJ, we were learning to turn anything

into anything else, while our mothers played


mah jong in the sala, and our fathers bet

slow horses and the government bombed Iraqu.


The lines are revealing for so much.  The re-appropriation of discarded gear is almost an Ars Poetica for Rosal’s poems themselves— able to rework any territory—that which another poet might discard— to make something beautiful and important. These lines show the class and cultural perspective of Rosal’s poems.  People have jobs in his poems, live in specific places in his poems and are aware, even if obliquely of the larger politics of the world around them.  In this poem we move deftly from boys rebuilding the detritus of turn tables, to mothers playing mah jobs to father’s betting on horses, and then the big move to the Iraq war.
The sixteen page phenomenal title poem can he found here.


Joe Weil—A Night in Duluth

NYQ Books, 2016

Page Length: 104 Pages

Retail: $15

After recently re-reading Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, a book that isn’t afraid to criticize the current state of academia, contemporary American poetry, and the pressure to publish or perish, I can’t help but find similarities between Hammond’s work and Weil’s latest collection of poems, A Night in Duluth, at least in terms of argument. The key similarity between the books is their willingness to take on the contemporary American poetry scene, namely all of the hobnobbing that goes on and the rapid speed at which some poems are churned out in order to fill a CV or earn tenure. Yet, the final pages of Weil’s book remind us of the power that poetry can still have, especially when it elevates the everyday image as something of beauty.

Hammond and Weil’s books are completely different forms. Initially his MA thesis at NYU, Hammond’s book is broken into chapters and can be viewed as a collection of essays on the current state of American poetry, one that references everyone from Aristotle to Robert Bly to make its points about the proliferation of M.F.A. programs and “workshop poems” cranked out in creative writing classes. Weil’s collection employs a language that blends the high and low brow and seamlessly references Edith Wharton and Henry James in the opening stanza of “I Want to Lick Your Knee and Weep for Rahoon,” and then asks at the beginning of the second stanza, “Where the fuck is Rahoon?” The mix of working-class language and references to literary giants or theorists (another poem references Adorno) has become a staple of Weil’s work. The working-class mixes with academic culture, and the speaker isn’t afraid to criticize some of the absurdities of academia or the po-biz, which is why Weil’s book reminds me so much of Poetic Amusement.

In “What Editors Are Looking For Is,” Weil writes:

I have noticed that the poems

and the editors, and much

of the scenery surrounding

the poems and the editors is

beginning to look the same—

fixed so to speak in an “Excellence”

that does not quite cohere.

In the previous lines, Weil imagines editors who are rarely pleased, with brittle faces, eventually smiling, somewhat, with a “pinched gladness that says/I believe this poem and I can/do lunch together. This poem will/not embarrass me should we be/caught in the camera’s eyes.” This poem and the point it makes again reminds me of Poetic Amusement, specifically that there is such a pressure to publish that sometimes academic poets pen safe poems merely to add to their publication records. The gatekeepers of literary magazines, meanwhile, are also careful what they publish in order to preserve their reputations and not offend.

The final pages of Weil’s book shift away from criticism of academia and the poetry scene and are exactly the type of poems Hammond imagines are possible, if we move away from a committee mindset and teach students to deepen their reading knowledge, place their poems in historical context, and draw on rich, lived experiences, even painful memories. One of the book’s last poems, “I Was a Good Son,” is one of the most confessional in the book, but it is also the opposite of the poems that Weil and Hammond rail against. It isn’t a safe poem, but one marked with brutal honesty, as the speaker recounts the last moments with his mother. The second stanza reads:

How do I tell her I wanted to fuck girls. I wanted to

escape into flannel shirts and beer, becoming whatever

it was that was not her dying. Even now I am

ashamed, and say: I was a good soon. I was a good soon.

What I was is love and love is not good. It is not dutiful.

It does not “Stay the course.” It breaks like a cheap watch.

I was a cheap watch. Ma, forgive me. I was a cheap watch

And both of us were lying.

After reading that poem, I had to set the book down and take a deep breath, reminded of the power poetry can still have, especially when it draws on a lived experience. There are other poems that remind me of Emerson, William Carlos Williams, and the American poetic tradition, not necessarily because of their form, but in the way they praise the everyday image, including the wind in a lover’s hair, as recounted in “Vibrant Monday Poem in Which Certain Things Almost Occur,” or a childhood memory about peeling chestnut shells in “Horse Chestnut.” That poem also shifts after a few stanzas to recall Anne Frank’s story, before finally confessing that a sort of spiritual beauty exists in the most common images in this world, including trees and chestnuts.

 A Night in Duluth doesn’t hold back. It pokes fun at the po-biz and academia. It also reads like a journey about a working-class poet who ended up in academia and knows that he’s a strong teacher, but doesn’t want to play the game of hobnobbing that the profession sometimes requires. The final pages, however, show Weil’s knowledge of the American poetic tradition, in that his poems reflect Whitman, Emerson, and William Carlos Williams’ theories that the everyday image, including working-class language, belong in American poetry, and there is a poetic energy and spirituality that can be found there.

Jason Allen—A Meditation on Fire

Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2016

Page Length: 71

Retail: $14

Poems of Survival: A Review of Jason Allen’s A Meditation on Fire

Jason Allen’s debut full-length collection of poems, A Meditation on Fire, reminds me of what remains in a boxing ring after the final round. The poems spin tales of mental and physical bruises, blood, scars, and shadowboxing. Yet, even in the most confessional, sobering work, poems that speak to addiction and sobriety, the book is not without its humor and salvation.

Several of the poems are so visceral that we feel what the speaker feels as we thumb through the collection. The opening poem, “Blues Before Sunrise,” for instance, loosely plays with the blues form, namely the repetition, not the rhyme scheme and meter, to give us insight into the speaker’s troubled mind, as he listens to Muddy Waters.

I’ve got nothing

to do but listen to the rain

while a dead man named Muddy

sings the blues inside my skull

Immediately, within the short, unrhymed, four-line stanza, the poet does much to establish the mood. There is the physical aspect of the rain, but there is also the haunting quality of the music, which pounds the speaker’s skull like rain to pavement. The rest of the poem takes the reader for quite a ride, with images of a burned-up couch, a rusty canteen, a one-eyed mutt with ribs showing, and vials crushed beneath the speaker’s boots. The imagery does much to set the tone and drop the reader into an uneasy setting. By the end, the speaker states he will leave as soon as he is allowed to leave and he has been waiting for a midnight train. The rest of the collection is a journey of sorts, through drug houses, family memories, and ultimately, sobriety and newfound love.

Much of the book also addresses father/son relationships. “Gunmetal Blue” is sorrowful in its opening, set in the late fall, when the trees are bare and scrape against the speaker’s window, but the poem shifts midway from the image of the outside world to a dream in which the speaker is seated at a bar with his father, making apologies for pulling splinters out of his hand, perhaps after a fight. He is even sorry for forgetting his father’s face. Despite the complicated history, however, the speaker concludes with the powerful declaration, “I’m not one bit sorry/to have survived.”

There is another thread that runs through the collection: the idea of prayer and meditation as a means of salvation. To be clear, none of the poems in the collection are religious, but they do find salvation, either in love or through thankfulness. The way Allen uses repetition throughout the book also resembles the act of prayer. “Angels at Dawn” is another poem set in winter, but it is about overcoming winter, a metaphor for overcoming addiction and other life struggles. Like other poems, the opening stanza immediately establishes a clear, concrete setting:


This winter I feel lucky

to have survived

the thousands of miles

of white knuckles on the wheel

the bald tires on snow and ice.

A few stanzas later, however, the speaker confesses:

This winter I may have died

but for a moment I am at peace

weightless in this montage—


her sleeping face

the falling snow

the shopping cart man

calling out

to angels at dawn

the morning light

against the frost

on my neighbor’s

stained glass window

the feel of her hand

as she tows the dream-line

and sleepily says goodbye.

In the hands of a less careful poet, the poems of survival and prayer in A Meditation on Fire would not have worked, but Allen is able to mine personal memory without being sentimental. He also constructs vivid images so that we are there with him during his childhood, as he gets in fights with neighborhood boys. We are there in the punk houses, as Black Flag songs blast from the radio, and we are there when the speaker feels the warm breath of a lover against his cheek. A Meditation on Fire is a fine celebration of life and personal triumph.







(For Alfred)

Edgar Allen Poe, Oh-Poe is established as foundational in American literature, as a classic of the New Voice that has hallmarked the reverberative roar of American artistic influence, but his legacy is one that is gravely compressed: most textbooks will feature a work of prose and a poem–usually “The Raven”–and texts for the lower levels will also feature illustrations that are as lurid as 1950s science fiction cinema posters. Instructional editions for secondary education put more emphasis on an unfortunately short life than they do on brief comments reducing Poe’s work to that of America’s brief Gothic tradition. Although Poe still appears in classrooms, his is a legacy that is now a cliché of corvids and black lipstick, an autumn lesson that is augmented by store displays for Halloween. It is more than unfortunate that scholastic views of Poe have been mostly reduced to either emotive demonstrations, or as an opportunity for evidence of classical allusion in poetry.

It might just be that this truncation of pleasure offered by Poe to our descendant culture is born of sacrifice to standardized testing in public educational institutions; it might be that miserly offerings in collegiate anthologies are the result of Committee written Curriculum of texts overall, it might be that attention that might be paid to Poe in advanced work is still constrained by the Overview of buffet anthology style of syllabus design–always also segregated by the Corset of region or historical time–and, alas, professorial prejudice, but even advanced readers stumble over Poe, tumble over the density of his sentencing, and stagger about or his deft use of tore.

Given Poe’s position in American literary history, it is sad, ever pathetic, that a crucial aspect of his work has been so consistently overlooked his sly and distinctive use of humor.

Humor is, at its core, a moment of shared perspective. There’s an inherent similarity between the “Aha” of philosophical enlightenment and the “Ha Ha” response of a joke–in both cases, the listener is electrified with the bolt of an unexpected idea, and atingle with the immediate internalization of that current of thought coming to ground. Since Poe was prolific, it’s not difficult to find roaring examples of absurdist humor that delights still, and which then and now are groundwork for whole movements in literature, in painting, in cinema, in music. Still, the tendency is to be overly convinced of Poe’s work as a sermon of a serious mind, and to overlook the joy of his jokes.

It might be that a further look into two of his pieces might yield an even more profound respect for Poe’s brilliance, and greater appreciation overall. Certainly, even secondary students who have been pointed toward the more physical aspects of Poe’s humor find a satisfaction, a first flower of critical euphoria that is far superior to the deflated disappointment offered by standardized views. Undergraduates, although often resentful of how Poe illuminates lapses in their reading level, will find in Poe an increased sensitivity to language, structure, setting that can carry them to increased critical ability overall.

In this direction, allow a rereading of “To Helen”–three stanzas of five lines with an interesting rhyme structure: specifically, the introduction of a shift in line 9 of the large vowel.

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gerity, o’er perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wandered bore

To his own native shore.


On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.


Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hard

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!

Depending on pronunciation, this longe appears to repeat the rhyme in lines 1 and 3, and echoed in line 11, however, if the vowel of “Greece” is felt as a rhyme with “niche”, then it is unlikely to rhyme with the “which” in line 14. This jarring of the rhyme unsettles the ear, and might be seen as a bit of a poke for whoever slept through the quadruple alliteration in line 3 of “weary, way-worn wanderer”. Having established the poem as one of direct address in the first line, the aural sense of this alliteration is of breath, of breathing: Poe is breathing on Helen. Whether or not modern courting techniques have undergone modification in subsequent centuries, biology hasn’t–breathing a bit much tends to indicate some rise in internal physical pressure. Poe is breathing a bit heavily or Helen here. While this may or may not amuse, Poe is also fairly thorough or his classical allusions here–so much so that the poem has become a favorite of instructors of literature as an illustration of that device. Given the direct address of the poem, and the references to flowers, seductive mythic females, and ancient civilizations, Poe’s technique here is that dark Comedic trick of hyperbole–a technique still used in verbal foreplay. While a hormonal infusion will put a glow around object of passion, Poe’s choices here are absurdly elevated–any view of Baltimore (or any of Poe’s cities of residence) are rarely of glory or grandeur; however, the occurrence of three consonant Gs within two lines, a continental rhyme, once again gives an aural effect of verbalized breath, of grunting. It is at this point, Poe gives us the poem’s most concrete image of a woman standing in a window holding a lamp, specifically an “agate lamp”, which has not much color but which makes for rice assonance with “hand”, so that the focus is or her hand. The point of view here is amusing–the Voice of the poem is on the other side of the Window, he is Outside. Despite the intimacies of the previous thirteen lines, the voice of the poem is not in physical proximity to the inspiration for these devotions. In modern parlance, he could be stalking her, or otherwise viewing her vicariously. The poem closes with two lines of introspection from the point of view of the poem’s vision, and a charge in direct address to that of thought, or Psyche. The charge in direct address is the clue to the purch line, so to speak: “the regions / which Are Holy-land!”. While line 15 end line rhymes with that of line 13’s “hard”, the meter climaxes with four syllables and two stresses. Poe literally climaxes the poem with a bit of blasphemy.

While the humor in “To Helen” might not be of the rough and nasty variety that is vogue at the time of this rereading, still it serves everyone to be aware of the breathing, grunting and blasphemy inspired by the poem’s person of direct address. The humor here is assly as Poe’s structure: subtle in shifts of rhyme, aural, allusive, and complicated in a meter that suggest symbolic structures. This sort of humor-slightly wicked-is not a Corsisteritstance in Poe’s work, although humor is present in all of his writings, both prose and poetic inform. Poe seems to wary the tone of his humor to suit his topic, as a form of emphasis of his point; it may well be that the reader insensate to the “Ha” might still get the “Aha,” but without the lilt of laughter.

But ah, it might be that an inflexible reader, a puff of wooden importance, might still laze about with dismissive gestures about Poe’s mere romantic tones. Generic summations of romanticism emphasize the sensate as incertive for the swells of narrative plot, but such similar claims are applied by to a synopsis too of the Symbolists, as well as to their “successors” the Surrealists—once again, shuttling off vibrant poems to some old folks home of historical literature. Given the cultural influence of the post atomic age, even an acknowledgment of these days of techno-barbarism, Allow then a rereading of Poe’s “Sonnet-To Science”:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

  Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

  Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

  Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

  Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,

  And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

  Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Once again, Poe uses direct address in his first line, lestthätsimplest point be clouded. Here, Poe’s tore is more bitter, as evidenced by his harsh verb choices in lines 2 and 3 of “alterest” and “preyest”. In case the violence of these verbs is missed, Poe directly addresses the poem’s object with the pejorative “Vulture” at the beginning of line 4, and Continues with line 5 “How should he love thee?”. The point of view here is an attempt to love something unsavory, potentially repugnant. Poe does not ask how could, but instead asks how should he takes on science’s very point of view-an inspection of the unlovely. Poe enumerates Science’s misdeeds by Once again using widlentwerbs:”dragged Diane”, “driven the Hamadryad”, “torn the Naiad” in conjunction with the lofty sense given by the allusions.

Obviously, the energetic verb choices here give Poe a tone of passion consistent with his Carlor; however, his wry laughter is still present. Consider the poem’s adept conclusion, that begins online 2 and is signaled by the slant rhyme of “flood”, which ought to match the vowel of line IO’s “wood” but does not. A first glance yields the standard rhyming couplet of the end two lines, but the difficulty of construction has “torn”working in appositive constructions still enumerating science’s misdeeds. Softly enough, Poe utilizes “Elfin”, and the allusions in the poem bear the weight of this reference, except for the implication of elfin as being similar to children. Poe’s accusations now include the destruction of childhood’s innocence, and yet he continues or with a reference to his own self for the poem’s concluding note. By now, “torn” is operative for the last line, which sings an assonance of vowels, including the alliterative “tamarind tree”. The image is of a drowsy mind in a pleasant position being forcefully removed, and a modern mind might speculate or how Poe would view deforestation. Yet, there’s much afoot the use of tamarind tree, for its allusion is to that of the Budda, as tamarind is native to the Budda’s geographical origins. Poe’s posited dichotomy is of science versus spirit- an argument that rages Centuries later, however, Poe is positioning himself as Budda, and one  treated with violence. The humor here is far more dark, a sort of self-deprecating hyperbole. Given that Science is an activity, a mode of thought, Poe’s accusations to Science are absurd-therein the bitter laugh: Science is a Criminal of no substance, but much afoul is done in its name. This humor might strike some as jaded, but it accomplishes the goal of understanding, of a seen point of view. Although Science was a new citizen of the western Culture in Poe’s time, his view of it is presentiert from a modern context. It is a more macabre laugh in modern times for our “Ha Ha,” as our polluted waters sully the Naiad realms, but “Aha” is certainly present.

And yes, it might still be that Poe’s language alone is too much of a challenge for the ear all too accustomed to the computerized beat box prosaic to the modern soundscape. In a culture of crude questions that quantify inquiries into multiple guess responses for supposedly educated thinking, and mob response for the not more than sensate populace, such turns of phrase are not even tackled by the most masterfully adept griots of the flickering media.

But ah, let the lower of literature succumb once again to the sensual sweep of Poe’s language, and yet singer wiser eyes on his gift to letters. While the work of Poe has been given a place in history, and Poe himself credited with the invention of genres still in use, Poe’s influence or art- already acknowledged to Symbolism, Horror, Surrealism but also thus to the connective ligaments of the modern body of thought, the influential sweep of DaDa, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism-car be tied to his dark humor. Ary modern viewer of the paintings of Ivan Albright or of German Expressionism, is viewing the progeny of Poe, Additionally, and perhaps more obviously, is the influence Poe has had or our modern griots: Comediaris. Certainly, the self-deprecation, the cynicism, the hyperbole evidenced in Poe’s work are easily found in a pantheon of Comediaris. While modern allusions have charged, the rhyme of rap music and its jaded point of view have antecedents in Poe. We owe Poe, and we owe far more than is offered in reductionist textbooks, flyover anthologies, and emo-oriented Pinterest offerings. His is a prepotency that has influenced far more in western Culture than is currently credited. If finding the jokes is a step toward acknowledging that potency, then it’s one that ought to be both taken and taught.

A Railroad Puja

In the stampede at Godhra, the first child is trampled.
The Sabarmati Express stalls at the platform

like a suitcase bursting. The bogie’s coupling is cut,

the railcar isolated, sprinkled with kerosene.
Look what happens. When we collide

a struck match drops. Our arms flail

from shattered windows. Charred chappals
graze the rails. Dusty pant legs flutter, brimmed

with flames. Our mouths gasp small choking

o’s. Now the whole city smells like paan,
a gritty red splatter on gravel-strewn sidewalk.

We know we are too many. When the burnt bodies

are swathed in faded salwars, tossed in the bed
of a rusted pickup, and carried to the Ganga,

we want only the warm silt of flour dusted over

a chapatti. We turn the fan on high, cup a tea light
in our hands. Watch our prayer flicker.





his hood flares out, spectacle pattern
like tessellations, the glint of him gilded just so

in the light. the cobra is a garland—no, the cobra
is a man’s knuckles, a girl’s hair clumped
between them, & you

are the girl. you hold your sadness
with both hands & know
how to drive a shovel between your body
& venom, know the heft

of the handle, splintering your palm.
this isn’t your first time.

you killed the last one as he came
toward you, zigzagging, his tracks in the sand
like a graph or table

showing how many more women died
alone this year, in your village
this year, as babies this year, walked
toward him thinking spectacle

& his snake-blood made the sand blacken,
made it curdle, almost, made your blood

curdle, to hear the slicing, to feel his neck
shorn by the blade, & you stared as blood worked
its way back out of his body, thought

of the man who watched you bleed
on his bed the first time & didn’t offer
to help. the cobra veers right & you lift the shovel,
pewter almost humming, almost alive,

the blade trembling as you wait
for the snake to change its course—





As a noun, it’s a word that makes most girls I know cringe.
A word whose synonyms—motion, flux, current—
remind me of the Cooper, the Ashley, the steady, continuous rivers
I swam in at sixteen, the first time I ever
wore a bikini. I wonder if those girls
think of a body of water—or just of bodies, of boys
who poke fun at cycles. It gets tricky for me
with the verb. As in to go along with a series of actions
you may not feel totally comfortable with. To move
in a steady, continuous stream toward or away from a certain
vanishing point of action. As in a lover saying “go with the flow”
was sort of his approach to relationships. I have gone with the flow
all the way up to the moment when time
slows & you see the thing you love
being taken from you. Resistance to the flow is often met
with an impression of me as steady, as in going steady, or why
are you so uptight? I went with the flow once
at a party in college & the next day threw away all
of my tank tops, every strappy thing
I could find. Flow can also refer to blood
between legs, to menstrual cycles, to any kind
of wound & what comes from it. As in no blood was spilled
when he stung my cheek but I felt something flow
out of me—steady, continuous. I felt it as I bolted
home, & again when I burrowed into piles of laundry.
We say a poem does or does not flow, that things either move forward
or not at all; fish are carried with the river down or upstream;
there’s this liquid motion that’s steady, continuous,
predictable. Something that cannot be stopped.




Indian American poet Raena Shirali grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she currently lives and teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming in 2017 with YesYes Books, and her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades, and many more. Her other honors include a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. She is currently a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine & will be the Spring 2017 Philip Roth Resident at the Stadler Center for Poetry.  You can find more of her work at

During 2016, the Spotlight Series has (usually) focused on the work of (approximately) two poets per month. This month’s second poet, whose feature concludes this series, is Raena Shirali.


Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Raena Shirali: Much of my motivation on a poem-by-poem basis comes from a resistance against silence, as well as a desire to enter into and provide a new understanding of various psychologies. I first fell in love with poetry because of persona, because it provided opportunity to escape my own thoughts (at least, that’s what I thought persona was offering me as a young poet), and I still return to persona or ekphrasis whenever I get stuck. But I think persona provides more than self-discovery by means of vicarious experience. It’s an opportunity to create and cultivate empathy. That’s what makes poetry such a powerful medium—a medium I can’t imagine life without. To loosely quote Casey Jarrin, one of my most influential teachers, poetry is an empathy machine, and everything that fosters empathy is not just worthwhile, but necessary. I think that’s closely related to why I’m excited about the poebiz landscape right now. We’re seeing so many more POC voices, LGBTQ+ voices, marginalized and oppressed voices getting recognition at the Poetry Foundation and Teen Vogue and beyond. That motivates me not just to keep writing, keep remaining dedicated to writing poetry for and alongside my fellow POCs, my fellow women, anyone who has questioned or struggled with their heritage or sexuality—but further motivates me to read and promote those authors actively. How do our fragmented experiences, our traumas, our flawed attempts to articulate those traumas, ultimately add up to our collective consciousness? Our collective empathy? Our capacity to praise, or mourn, or change?

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
RS: That really depends on where I am in my writing process, but I do make a point to consume art that isn’t poetry every day—whether that’s compiling art on my Tumblr, listening to podcasts, stopping by the Halsey gallery, or reading in a sculpture garden. I’m a firm believer in indirect influence—the confluence of experiences and art forms as the real generative space—as opposed to reading an article and having an immediate reaction in the form of a poem. Don’t get me wrong—social and political issues completely drive my work, but I’ve had to train myself to not let my impulse or initial emotional response take charge in the poem. I have too fierce a reaction to things like gang rape in India—a topic my book addresses extensively—to write the first thing I feel. I have to sit with that violence, and ask how it can speak to, say, a red sculpture smattered with white bird shit I saw a few months ago, or the girls in sorority tees sitting underneath it, talking quietly. I guess my creative influences are those of association and accumulation, which makes sense, considering my experiences with assimilation and camouflaging as a woman of color writing in the South.

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?
RS: Aesthetically, I’m always thinking about lineation and enjambment first and foremost, and I especially prioritize fragmentation over symmetry. To me, no poem is really the final word, even if the poem is fulsome in its articulation and conception. It seems almost haphazard to call the poems in GILT complete, in a way, when the notions of fracture, chaos, and fear are so integral to the project. I think that’s my central challenge and preoccupation—to allow individual poems as well as the book to be a liminal space, where answers aren’t accessible to us, because in any instance of violence, what is the answer, really? How do we explore such barren landscapes— landscapes fraught with the aftermath of violence, landscapes where girls aren’t welcome, where girls are the fear-riddled creatures we’ve brought them up to be, no matter the country?

I’ll say that recently, I’ve moved away from more conceptual poetry, and instead, selectively read work with discernible stake. I’m more drawn to art that allows violence its gruesome elements, while also investigating and implicating lyricism in conversation with that violence. That kind of art—poems like Tarfia Faizullah’s in Seam come to mind—should be as visceral as the event it seeks to expand and mold for the reader. Rape, for instance, shouldn’t fit into a template or a box, and we shouldn’t only be willing to engage with similar subject matters when they fit into outlines that make us, as readers, comfortable. I try to practice that belief in my reading, writing, and teaching, but that isn’t to say it’s not hard, uncomfortable work.

Deconstructing language and experience is cool to me. Poems like Franny Choi’s “Pussy Monster” are cool to me, because they’re risky and fun, while also being succinct and brilliant critiques. Any work that challenges convention is cool to me, too. For instance, I’m enjoying watching the lyric essay as a mode shift and mutate and resist definition even more defiantly, especially in work that engages pop culture and is written with the attention to detail and capacity for empathy of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “On Serena Williams and the Policing of Imagined Arrogance”. It’s super interesting to me when poetry gets circulated on social media, especially lately around the utterly unfathomable violence against black men and women & the LGBTQ+ population in America. I love that these pieces feel and are more immediate, necessary, and laudable than some of what we, as a culture, still praise canonically. I love watching and being a part (in whatever small way) of that change.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

RS: Language barriers have shaped me more than I care to admit. Growing up, my parents spoke English in the house; and since they actually speak two different dialects of Hindi (Gujaratri and Konkani), and English was more comfortable for them, they rarely spoke Hindi (though, props to my mom, who tried pretty hard to teach us the basics for a year or so in there). So throughout my childhood and adolescence, taking trips to India or visiting family (most of whom speak Gujaratri), I felt this sense of alienation, coupled with a deep desire to fit in (a pretty common narrative for first generation immigrants). It’s interesting because, on the one hand, growing up so blatantly not-white in South Carolina, I wanted desperately to be the antithesis of my family, my heritage, my skin—but on the other hand, I craved a sense of belonging that I must have known, innately, couldn’t be attained by assimilating. I feel that sense of not-belonging in my poems as strongly as I do in my sense of self, and it’s taken years to accept that not-belonging does not mean I have no identity, but rather, that liminality is likely the most significant aspect of my being.

I finally had that realization when I was 22, seeing Fred Wilson’s “Iago’s Mirror” at the Boston MFA, and that was a real turning point in both my poetry and my conceptualization of identity and otherness. “Iago’s Mirror” is this gorgeously ornate series of stacked Murano glass mirrors, but the whole piece is entirely black. Of course, it’s a comment on Othello and blackness above all, but it made me become obsessed with the idea that the act of looking at myself, as a child of immigrants, had been completely altered by the fact of my brownness as other. I mean, at some point growing up, I just stopped explaining what being “Indian” meant. I was always going to be not-quite, and kids explained me away as “definitely being half-white” or “really light skinned for a black girl.” It was exhausting explaining myself, so I just grew totally apathetic. I stopped owning my skin—stopped owning my body, really—and that period of my life is one marked by depression and eating disorders, as a result (subjects that GILT engages with, by the way). “Iago’s Mirror” flipped the lens for me. I was 22, finishing out my first year of grad school, had finally left the South and found a community I felt a part of. And then I saw this piece—one that, it seemed to me, spoke to issues of colorism and diaspora and intersectionality—and I just realized I wasn’t writing about the shit that needed to be written about. I could make the choice to actively embody and promote my identity, not just in my life, but, perhaps more importantly, in my poems. In doing so, I could own the parts of myself that were “too dark.” I hadn’t written a single poem involving my own identity before that point, and now I can’t imagine what my poetry would be without it. That piece of art changed everything for me.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
RS: It almost feels silly to plug it at this point, but given the state of our current political climate, I feel it bears repeating: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is, by far, the most important text I’ve read in the last year, not just because of its exploration of America’s race issues, but because that is a book that, every time I read it, pushes me—in terms of genre, self-evaluation, grief, cultural critique, praise. It asks that we own the microaggressions committed against us, as well as those that we—inevitably, unintentionally—are implicated in the perpetuation of. I think that’s incredibly brave and important work, and am always thinking about how I can navigate a similar space in my poems. Parts of GILT address the aspects of my upbringing that were and are incredibly privileged, while simultaneously engaging in the racialized body as alienated, perhaps as a direct result of the community that privilege entails or bestows. So, I guess I’ll say that Citizen isn’t just important as a text to hold up in order to say, “Racism exists!” but more so for us to examine our own day to day engagement with and movement through our world, and to be willing to change it, to open the door for other POCs, other LGBTQ+ writers, anyone who has been and continues to be disenfranchised in seemingly quiet ways.

The second book I’ll recommend is a stretch, not because it isn’t an amazing collection of poems, but because it is incredibly hard to get your hands on. Morocco by Matthew Savoca and Kendra Malone Grant was released by Dark Sky Books in 2011, and is currently priced at $361 on Amazon. No joke. So it feels a bit ridiculous to even tell people to seek Morocco out, but I can’t answer this question without doing just that. Morocco is scathingly minimalist, and doesn’t fuck around when talking about fucking around. It taught me to truly own how the body can be equally wrecked by grief, love, and heritage. It’s raw and tender and full of slippery things, and both voices in the affair are represented honestly enough to make the reader uncomfortable. You know how sometimes you see a movie or read a book (The Sun Also Rises comes to mind) where the central relationship is so fucked up that it’s somehow appealing? That’s what these poems are. They’re gorgeous, bright, dead spaces. You can’t help but fall in love with them, even though they’re poisonous and addicting. And you don’t regret falling for them once you have. Find this book. Seriously.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

RS: I guess this is the place where I plug the book! My first collection of poems, GILT, is coming out with Yes Yes Books.

And as an end note, I think it’s important to mention that several of the poems in GILT are persona poems dealing with incredible violence and trauma—something that I am cautious and wary of throughout the drafting and composition process. Leslie Jamison, in The Empathy Exams, borrows this little bit of wisdom from Faulkner that I’ve been obsessing over: “It isn’t enough, but it’s something.” I feel that applies to all art, but to poems where the author has to reach beyond their own set of experiences especially. And I think that’s how I feel about GILT. It isn’t enough to write one collection about this truly wide-ranging set of issues, but it’s a start. It’s something.



Indian American poet Raena Shirali grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she currently lives and teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming in 2017 with YesYes Books, and her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades, and many more. Her other honors include a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. She is currently a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine & will be the Spring 2017 Philip Roth Resident at the Stadler Center for Poetry.  You can find more of her work at

Maria Mazziotti Gillan— What Blooms in Winter

NYQ Books, 2016

Page Length: 116

Retail: $15

The last several months have been trying as an American citizen. Donald Trump’s candidacy has used xenophobic rhetoric to demonize minority groups and immigrants. In these times, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s body of work, which often focuses on her Italian-American family heritage and celebrating the immigrant experience, is especially relevant. Her newest collection, What Blooms in Winter, draws on the deeply personal to vocalize her story and also give praise to the melting pot aspect that has always been a foundation of American culture.

Gillan’s latest collection continues to draw on the narrative form, and most of the poems use personal memory to address broader issues, including the immigrant experience, climate change, and global terrorism. The early part of the collection moves through grade school, before shifting to her teenage/twenty-something years, during the 1960s and 1970s. The book then addresses a number of losses in the poet’s life, including close family. Finally, the book concludes with a number of poems about Italy and her parents’ immigrant experience. The language is accessible, but the content is never simple.

Because of this election season and national dialogue, I was most drawn to poems that explore what it means to be an American. In “The First Day of High School,”  the speaker recounts trying so hard to look like an “American middle-class girl,” including wearing the right clothes. Soon, however, the speaker learns that preppy clothes can’t hide who she really is or mask her “lower-class accent.” The poem then weaves in and out of memory, navigating to a moment when a famous poet told the speaker to hire a voice coach to erase her accent. The speaker refused and concludes her poem in defiance against any notion that she is not American.

Another poem, “Our First TV,” addresses manufactured notions of the American dream. The speaker lists various images from TV shows she watched growing up and their portrayal of the American success story, including the big white house and huge living and dining rooms on “Father Knows Best.” The speaker goes back even further to Dick and Jane books that taught her about “the other America” with a “pipe-smoking father raking leaves/in his cardigan and brown dress pants.” It was that first TV in the living room, however, that taught the speaker about class divide and how her living situation, a “cold-water flat” with small rooms and Italian chatter, was different than the upper-middle class American homes she viewed on TV. The poem concludes with one final reality about class divide in America, and the lines resonate especially well post-Great Recession:

All the TV programs in the world

could not have prepared me

for the invisible walls

that protected those people

from people like me.

Other poems cry out in frustration against global terrorism or climate change. “The Catskills in Mid-September,” for example, celebrates the beauty of the northeastern mountains, but ends with the lines, “As the weather swings from downpour/to drought, I know we are all to blame/know there is so much that has to change.” Other work centers on family and recalls the poet’s sister, parents, and even more recent interactions with grandchildren in bucolic settings of Italy.

Overall, What Blooms in Winter places the poet squarely on the side of the immigrant and the underdog. The book never strays from the narrative mode and frequently draws on the poet’s personal memories, either to merge the personal with the political, or to honor the memory of those who have come and gone in her life.  I am grateful for Maria’s voice. Her work stands as a protester banner, waving boldly against anyone who wants to make the country less inclusive.



Cannibal Island Housing

Everyone who moves to Cannibal Island is given a house.

The houses are okay.

On one hand, the houses all have Thermo-Twin windows, which are very expensive and come with 3 full pages of warranties.

On the other hand, everyone who sleeps in the houses on Cannibal Island has nightmares in which their fingernails fall off and there is a dead ferret under the sofa in the living room that they can’t seem to remember to call animal control about.

But it’s all right, because every Tuesday the cannibals go door to door handing out cake!

Cannibals make very good cake. Surprisingly, (and no one ever believes this at first), the cake is vegan.

The cannibals also have excellent memories because if a non-cannibal expresses that they have a peanut allergy or a penchant for red velvet, the following Tuesday the cannibals make sure to accommodate.

The cannibals teach each new resident of Cannibal Island that cool trick they all first learned from a Buzzfeed video where you cut out the center of the cake, then push the remaining halves of the cake together so the cake does not go stale during the week.

After all, cannibals hate waste and always do their best to be good Earth citizens, forming good communities with housing, weekly cake, and gleaming teeth.




Becoming a Cannibal

Non-cannibals who live on Cannibal Island can sometimes become cannibals.

Many believe the process simple as knocking the postman unconscious, removing his leg with a bone saw, and eating the leg.

But it is not.

First, you must be a resident of Cannibal Island for a minimum of 7 years.

If you are a woman, the cannibals strongly prefer you do not have children before you become a cannibal.

But if you have them after, that’s okay.

Next, you must perform a series of secret tests. Statistically speaking, non-cannibals who are popular within their peer group tend to perform better on these tests than their unpopular counterparts, and white non-cannibals tend to become cannibals at a higher rate than their non-white non-cannibal counterparts. But as the cannibals like to remind anyone who brings this up, correlation is not causation. And they are definitely not racists.

After passing the series of secret tests, the non-cannibals must all, at once, attempt to jump off a small footbridge, even though logistically speaking less than half of them will fit on the bridge, so that thins the herd, too.

And then the cannibals choose from the non-cannibal cannibal wannabes who managed to jump off the bridge.

If anyone asks the cannibals how they choose, if that person is lucky the cannibals are silent. But if that person is unlucky, the cannibal closest to them bites off their smallest finger, spits it at their feet, and walks away.




Margaret Bashaar’s first book of poetry, Stationed Near the Gateway, was released by Sundress Publications in early 2015. She has chapbooks from Grey Book Press, Blood Pudding Press, and Tilt Press, and her poetry has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including New South, Caketrain, The Southeast Review, Copper Nickel, and Menacing Hedge, among others. Her most recent chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, was released by Agape Editions earlier this year and is available through THEThe Poetry Blog. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she edits Hyacinth Girl Press and encourages art anarchy.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Margaret Bashaar.

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Margaret Bashaar: As far as I can recall I’ve always been driven to create—I think most people are, honestly, it’s just a matter of cultivating that drive. I’ve created in a lot of different mediums—I used to sing for many years (I took voice lessons for almost 10 years), I played the violin when I was younger, I used to draw and paint a lot—but poetry was always the medium that I carried with me no matter what other art form I was dabbling in. And honestly it’s the one I’m best at and I’ve been most able to grow and develop within. There was always a ceiling to my ability with other art forms. I have yet to find an endpoint to my growth and curiosity in poetry.

I hate the “poebiz landscape,” truthfully. I think the landscape as it currently stands is detrimental to art and the creation of art. I could rant about why and how all day, but to specifically answer your question, I navigate the poebiz landscape because if I want to share my work, it is part of what I must do. I also routinely work around the poebiz world to share and create poetry and promote and celebrate the poetry of others, so I think part of my motivation in navigating the poebiz landscape is to find new and exciting ways to try to subvert it.


FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

MB: I always cite T.S. Eliot as one of my influences, because reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” when I was in the 6th grade was what made me want to be a poet. Now having a child who is in the 6th grade, I also realize how ridiculous I was to be a 6th grade fan of that poem.

I draw a lot on horror imagery—I’m a fairly delicate, sensitive soul (I swear) and when I was a child I was exceptionally fearful. Like, lie awake at night almost every night genuinely afraid that some unseen horror was lurking in my closet ready to devour me levels of fearful. I think there is a part of me that still has those fears, and so rather than lie around worrying about them, I write them into poems. So there’s a lot of body horror and a lot of people being eaten in my poetry. I’ve had my work compared to films like Trouble Every Day and Martyrs (the original 2008 version).

Though on the subject of body horror, I got an infection in my brain when I was about 12 years old. It affected my basal ganglia, and made me unable to walk or talk for a bit over 6 months. I think some of my desire to dissect the body in my work comes from that—seeing my body as this weird alien thing that wouldn’t do anything I wanted it to at a very formative time in my life. I have some brain damage from that, and while I cannot tell you exactly where that comes out in my poetry, I know that it does—it’s this sort of floating constant, having my brain/body connection always a tiny bit out of my control. It definitely causes me to focus on the body in my work.


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

MB: A professor of mine in college introduced me to Dadaism and Surrealism, and the work both of those movements did in regards to drawing unexpected, startling imagery into poetry and creating unexpected equivalencies in work has stuck with me. I think that really helped shape my aesthetics quite a bit.

If I am being honest, though, most of what I have been trying to do with my poetry anymore is just fucking have fun. If I don’t step away from something I wrote with at least some level of glee at having written, lately I have been questioning why I even spent the time writing that particular piece. I write because I love the act of writing, and I write because I need to write. The writing is the important part—that act of creation and spell-work. And I look for that as a reader, too—if I read a poem or a collection and it feels urgent and it feels like some manner of euphoria came from the creation of the work, I am more likely to enjoy that piece.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

MB: A few years ago I met this woman in my local artist community and we HATED each other. I thought she was a bitch, she thought I was a stuck-up cunt and we were each annoyed that the other’s friends were also our friends. But somehow, in spite of this, our mutual friend Skot saw something about both of us that made him think we would make the best of friends. So he sort of shoved us together and demanded that we get along. I guess we both like Skot enough that we played nice with each other for long enough to realize that we actually DID like each other and that our initial impressions had been totally and completely wrong. And the woman I thought was a bitch is Rachael Deacon and she’s actually the best human person friend I know and now we run FREE POEMS together and make arts anarchy and I wrote about her in my first book, Stationed Near the Gateway (Sundress Publications, 2015) and she painted the cover art for the book, and I think the moral of the story is that Rachael Deacon is awesome. In all seriousness, though, Rachael IS great, and I feel like it’s really easy to miss that person who jives with you and your philosophy and work over petty crap or an awkward first impression. I feel very fortunate to have a friend like Skot who saw that Rachael and I would get along and cared enough to work to get us to see that too, and to have had the opportunity to try again with someone who has become an amazing friend and the best collaborator in art and arts event creation I ever could have asked for.


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

MB: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it is one of those books that, whenever someone asks me about poetry that I think is truly great I always mention. She’s such an amazing poet—I feel like far too much of poetry right now is focused on perfecting craft at the expense of musicality and movement, and Espinoza’s work really is some of the most gorgeous, musical writing I have come across in years. I cried reading this book, and I’m not a crier when it comes to poetry. Her writing is THAT moving.

I also really love Deathless, by Catherynne Valente. It’s not necessarily poetry, but Valente’s prose is so gorgeous in Deathless that I would read a few lines and then go back and reread it just because the writing is that deliciously beautiful. It’s pleasurable and satisfying to read in a way that I’d not before experienced with prose. It’s poetic, but without losing its sense of story and movement, which I find is often a problem in fiction that is going for poetic language.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

MB: I’m good! These were pretty solid questions that made me go all think-y. So that’s enough thinking for a bit, there


Margaret Bashaar’s first book of poetry, Stationed Near the Gateway, was released by Sundress Publications in early 2015. She has chapbooks from Grey Book Press, Blood Pudding Press, and Tilt Press, and her poetry has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including New South, Caketrain, The Southeast Review, Copper Nickel, and Menacing Hedge, among others. Her most recent chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, was released by Agape Editions earlier this year and is available through THEThe Poetry Blog. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she edits Hyacinth Girl Press and encourages art anarchy.

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:



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Yolanda J. Franklin’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in African American Review, Sugar House ReviewCrab Orchard Review’s American South Issue, and The Hoot & Howl of the Owl Anthology of Hurston Wright Writers’ Week. Her awards include a 2012 and 2014 Cave Canem fellowship, the 2013 Kingsbury Award, two nominations from FSU for Best New Poets (2013 & 2014). She is the recipient of several writing retreat scholarships, including a summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s, Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Manuscript Conference at VCFA, the Callaloo Poetry Workshop in Barbados and Colrain’s Poetry Manuscript Workshop. Her collection of poems, Ruined Nylons, was a finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Award. She is also a graduate of Lesley University’s MFA Writing Program and is a third-year PhD student at Florida State University.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Yolanda J. Franklin.


Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Yolanda J. Franklin: I am not motivated to write poems. It’s more of a luring, calling, or purpose. I live poems and life is unwritten poetry. Being a working poet, for me, is more about establishing and cultivating friendships with other poets, celebrating their successes and cultivating with a community of writers who are dedicated to developing a craft of poetry as a vehicle for social change.


FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically? 3. Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

YJF: On how my poetry speaks to the current state of race relations, I must say that my aesthetic must always signal beauty, the political, even terror. My poems respond with a notion that each of these positions must exist ubiquitously in order to correctly right, create, and historicize the black experience as a whole. As the poet Vivee Francis notes, “The whole of me is so many things and I have to cover the spectrum in my work.” Therefore, my poetry engages in a discourse that exculpates Cornelius Eady’s claims that, “We are only seen through the brutal imagination. If you want to push back, then write the imagination unbrutal.” Decisively, my poetics fosters a discourse that contemplates this “terrible beauty” and my duty as a female poet of color to interrogate both Francis’s and Eady’s assertions while analyzing the benefits of diverse poetry that I can produce.

What’s cool in literature/art and most important to me in a poem is seeing something I’m familiar with in an unfamiliar way, having an emotion evoked that I’m only used to experiencing arise from images and metaphors on the page, and unique innovations with craft that intrigue me sonically.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

YJF: Currently, I am creating poems that address and interrogate the relationship between white first wave feminists and black second wave womanists. I am interested in “the trouble between us.” For me, this trouble is centered on the silencing of black women’s voices by some white liberal feminists’ blind plight towards their “belief that they really are progressive.”


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

YJF: I am going to reinterpret this question by sharing poets that I think everyone should read. First, everyone should read Natasha Trethewey’s oeuvre, who as a poet in many ways captures all of the characteristics of what makes Zora Neale Hurston the “Genius of the South,” and like Toni Morrison, she interrogates race and deconstructs monolithic notions of Blackness while utilizing historiography with the Ekphrastic form. Secondly, I think that everyone should read Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec because of her personal mythology building; her persona poems that capture her own personal historiography and her astonishing love poems. Finally, everyone should be reading Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Nikky Finney, Claudia Rankine, and so many more….


Yolanda J. Franklin
’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in African American Review, Sugar House ReviewCrab Orchard Review’s American South Issue, and The Hoot & Howl of the Owl Anthology of Hurston Wright Writers’ Week. Her awards include a 2012 and 2014 Cave Canem fellowship, the 2013 Kingsbury Award, two nominations from FSU for Best New Poets (2013 & 2014). She is the recipient of several writing retreat scholarships, including a summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s, Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Manuscript Conference at VCFA, the Callaloo Poetry Workshop in Barbados and Colrain’s Poetry Manuscript Workshop. Her collection of poems, Ruined Nylons, was a finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Award. She is also a graduate of Lesley University’s MFA Writing Program and is a third-year PhD student at Florida State University.

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Saba Syed Razvi is the author of In the Crocodile Gardens (Agape Editions, 2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX. Her poems have appeared journals and such as The Offending Adam, Diner, THEThe Poetry Blog, The Homestead Review, NonBinary Review, 10×3 plus, 13th Warrior Review, The Arbor Vitae Review, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, as well as in anthologies such as Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War Faith and Sexuality, The Loudest Voice Anthology: Volume 1, The Liddell Book of Poetry, and is forthcoming in Political Punch: The Poetics of Identity. She has been honored by James A. Michener, Fania Kruger, and Virginia C Middleton Fellowships. She earned a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing in 2012 at the University of Southern California. Her chapbook Of Divining and the Dead was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her chapbook Limerence & Lux was published by Chax Press in 2016.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Saba Syed Razvi.

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Saba Syed Razvi: Every person alive experiences the world according to his or her own unique circumstances, resources, inherent dispositions, and choices—and, yet, our societies and our media often paint what is seen as successful in narrow and limited terms. Measuring life’s experiences by its successes can be misleading, especially when so much of life’s appeal comes from its broader and more nebulous approaches. What I am most interested in is the liminal, the spaces that are rooted not in collective approval or expression but in individual approaches to life and the things in it—desire and dream and longing, fear and despair, the beautiful and the grotesque, the sublime and the strange, the ephemeral, the in-between, the echoes. Often, these things feel more true and more universal than things expressed as universal to begin with. I think that this sense of a truth beyond fact and praxis finds resonance in myth and fairytale, in folklore and in our ideas about the divine and the seductive. So, I guess I am interested in the knowledge of gnosis and noesis, in the epistemological shadows cast upon the primal experiences longing and the unknown, dream and mystery. Poetry is not a practical choice in a world concerned with money, nor is inherently a tool of another experience of reality, and its aims are to reach between psyches to make connections; I find this nebulous but deeply meaningful connection made possible by art is crucial to the experience of humanity in a world which is, at this time, so filled with darkness and disconnection, with the willing turning of a gaze away from the experiences of deep and impossible suffering.

Any art has the ability to connect people to each other in ways that honor their individual experiences of life, but poetry has special meaning for me, and I gravitate toward it with a kind of personal bias. Words carry layers. They hold ideas and sounds, utterances, feelings, evocations, invocations. They bind us and they revile us. They reveal almost as much as they obfuscate, or perhaps the other way around. A painting or a song feels to me like a game taken into the self, but poetry feels like a game which includes the self and the other, a game of overlapping dimensions and infinite possibilities for both experience and expression. The ideas that we can make an art of something like language that can be used for so many less artful things makes every statement a puzzle; in doing so, it makes it possible to give voice to the impossible, the ineffable, and the otherworldly. For its potential and its potency, poetry is the art that most appeals to me – though I have to say that a good story, a good painting or song or sculpture or dance or film can be just as captivating when done by one whose favor lies that way.

The poebiz landscape both delights and puzzles me. It is at once an arena in which possibility and collaboration is possible, and one in which competition and power struggle is common. I am often surprised to see the ways in which the issues of our ages are advanced through the channels of poetic outrage and uncertainty, but it is also in these spaces that I learn to recognize the intimacies of social value. I applaud the social justice and discourse that has been made possible by the poebiz scene, especially on issues of gender, race, religion, otherness and belonging, sexuality, and accountability. It is delightful to see such progress and such lively, courageous ideological engagement and contest in this arena that is often not associated with such moxie and such potency. I appreciate the ways in which the poebiz arena reminds us that words are powerful and that artfulness can matter, especially when it comes to the things that mark as as human rather than machine or animal.


FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SSR: I think my answer to this changes based on my moods. I tend to find myself writing and taking notes all the time, whether I am scribbling in a pocket notebook on a hike or tapping on an app on my phone while listening to life bustle around me. I find that various parts of my life—real or imagined, find their way into the shape at the base of a poem or other. Music of all kinds. Painting. Nature. Social Issues. Dreams. Divination. Myth. Artifacts from Ancient Civilizations. Unsolved Mysteries. Folklore and Legend. Superstitions. World Literature. Graphic Novels and Comic Books. Psychology. Space. Astronomy. Riddles. Lullabies. Scientific Innovation. One of my favorite things to do is wander through museums and look at the various artifacts there, examine the descriptions, research the topics myself and imagine a world that contained them. Lately, my interests also include politics, specifically those politics related to human rights and fair representation of all people.


FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SSR: This is a really interesting question to me for a lot of reasons, in part because the idea of aesthetic can be so malleable and varied. What I see as lush, indulgent and intimate might be seen as too much for some readers or not enough for some readers; it all depends on preferences, I suppose, and on value. That’s why I love that you followed up the question of aesthetic with value. I personally prefer my language ornate and playful. I like things that feel baroque and multivalent, multifaceted, multidimensional. I like literary art that seeks to invoke what its about and create an atmosphere or mode. I like work that feels incantatory and immersive, a little wild and impulsive. I tend to enjoy work that doesn’t give in to restraint unless it wants to give in to restraint, the excess over the minimalist. But, I also like work that has energy and that feels powerful, that feels like a dream that won’t let you go or a nightmare that you are compelled to explore and relive in the telling of it. I like nostalgia and reverie, ambiguity. I suppose that because I enjoy these things, I sometimes find them in my work—and that’s definitely true of some of my work, especially In the Crocodile Gardens, which invites the reader into a sumptuous experience, or my chapbook Of the Divining and the Dead. I would like to think that the approach I seek is one juxtaposition, of a dark veil of lace through which bright, neon colors shine upward, or like a stained glass window lit by a candle from the other side, the refraction of light and shadow on a wall upon which patterns are cast, a woodcut printed with India ink on silk dyed in swirls of color, and the hint of pattern on the underside of softness. The idea of phosphorescence and luminosity, specifically that in contrast with shadow, drove much of my first manuscript of poems, heliophobia, some of which might be found in my chapbook by Chax Press called Limerence & Lux. I would like to say that my poems reflect my attitude toward hospitality, there is much value in giving opulently and generously, in welcoming your guest to the best of what you can offer, the most that you can give. However, I should also say that I think it depends on the project. For a long time, I have also been working on a collection of poems inspired by advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive theory; many of these poems focus on restraint and specificity, rather than opportunity and possibility. For me, aesthetic depends on purpose and on the project at hand. My current work seeks to draw from the opulence and decadence of beauty, the intensity which makes the grotesque alluring and seductive, the gaze that can invite as much as it can slice through an intimate moment, the violent assertion of self that the world demands of our waking experiences and the freedom of dream. Perhaps the easiest way to describe how I see my own aesthetic is to say that I imagine writing with luminous color on shadow and waiting for it to fade from sight and to rest on the inside of the eyelids in memory. I hope that my poems will, in some way, make the world seem as unreal and as real as it never can in fact, but always does in the fantastic epiphany of a truth that is felt in the bones.


FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SSR: I grew up in the Houston metropolitan area where it is possible to find a myriad of cultural and artistic events to attend and experience. My parents often took me and my sisters to various events with them. Among the museums, wildflowers, orchards, symphonies, plays, and libraries, we attended parties held by the Hyderabad Association, such as mushairas. If you’ve never been to a mushaira (or, never heard of one), it’s essentially a gathering of poets which feels like a cross between a featured reading, a poetry slam, and a spontaneous concert. It was at these occasional mushairas, filled with words and forms I didn’t really understand yet and with literary traditions I only later studied, that I was immersed with a love of the communal and joyful aspect of poetry. Often, the younger children and teens would retreat to the back of the ballrooms or auditoriums, or into some lobby or anteroom, and build a sort of commentary apart from and parallel to that of the larger audience. We would tell stories of ghosts or djinni, share dreams and wishes and crushes and struggles, bond over our hybrid cultural identities, our cultural in-betweenness and our ordinary lives, or simply fall into what seemed like an absurdly big family party with its familiarity and its fun and its secret intrigues. People we met here were friends that lived all over the country, friends that we only really spent time with at these events. A floating community, a temporary zone of shared time, a confluence of coincidence. I learned the power of the word in this way, of song—and it reinforced the various stories and songs and performances of my childhood, too. I learned that poetry could be a thing that binds people together who would never otherwise have cause to connect. I learned that community can be joyful as well as judgmental, that life is all about the adventures you choose to create in the spaces created by others around you. Somewhere, in the overlap of these things, I found that poetry had woven itself into my earliest impressions of what it means to connect to other human beings. Even now, when I attend conferences or readings or festivals, I am reminded about the possibility of transcending the ordinary spaces of life by way of words that access the fantastical, the frightful, the intimate, and the beautiful.


FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SSR: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Conference of the Birds. I think that the former reminds us to value delight and open-mindedness, especially in the face of the unexpected; the latter reminds us that all of our experiences are multifaceted and that mindful reflection upon them creates an awareness that leads to confidence and connection. I have so many favorite books, and I change my mind daily on what I love the most, but today, I think that these are the lessons that we don’t get enough of in our hyper-connected and still alienating experiences of the world.


FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SSR: I didn’t talk much about the role of popular culture or cultural criticism, yet, but I do think it’s important—not because of the authority that it contains, but because of its potential for compulsion of the heart and mind. I didn’t talk very much about narrative or academic scholarship, but I have to say that a great deal of my experience as a writer has been shaped by my experiences in the academy and my experience in rebelling against a narrative imposed upon me by the world, rather than presented by myself. I think that a lot of really wonderful poetry is being written today, that much of it contends not only with the worth of one’s voice, but also with the structures of knowledge the seek to contain it. I would like to think that this informs not just my own work, but that of the poets whose work I love to read, the journals and books I most appreciate. Sure, there is a lot of work out that there that seems to be stuck in a past that isn’t as concerned with a real kind of fairness, but I think there’s a lot out there that has chosen to transcend that attitude—and I would like to hope that my voice is among the ones that people will want to hear. The things that people want to hear tend to fall like echoes over the crests and peaks of the terrain that makes up every horizon. Some of the most interesting narrative that is being written today tends to find a place in Speculative or Science Fictional spaces, spaces of popular culture, and I think that’s worth thinking about: what holds resonance on a large scale. One of the things I really love is the television program Doctor Who (and the world of spinoffs and characters and ideas it’s created), and there’s an episode in which The Doctor says something like, “We’re all stories in the end; just make it a good one,” and there’s another episode in which he says, “Nobody really understands where the music comes from . . . when wind stands fair and the night is perfect, when you least expect it, but always, when you need it the most, there is a song.” I just wanted to end on those two statements because I think that in this current moment, poetry lives between story and song—maybe it always has—and, that is just where I want to be, as well because it feels like a space that is full of dynamism and hope, life and dream; I hope that pocket outside of time is where my poems will take readers or listeners, too—and that they enjoy being there, inside those words.


Saba Syed Razvi is the author of In the Crocodile Gardens (Agape Editions, 2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX. Her poems have appeared journals and such as The Offending Adam, Diner, THEThe Poetry Blog, The Homestead Review, NonBinary Review, 10×3 plus, 13th Warrior Review, The Arbor Vitae Review, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, as well as in anthologies such as Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War Faith and Sexuality, The Loudest Voice Anthology: Volume 1, The Liddell Book of Poetry, and is forthcoming in Political Punch: The Poetics of Identity. She has been honored by James A. Michener, Fania Kruger, and Virginia C Middleton Fellowships. She earned a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing in 2012 at the University of Southern California. Her chapbook Of Divining and the Dead was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her chapbook Limerence & Lux was published by Chax Press in 2016.

James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
Retail: $16


How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?

A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.

In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.

None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.

In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.

The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.

But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.

The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:

A Ceremony

My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)

Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.

Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.

I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them

To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)

Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.

One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.

He sports gold-sequined tights and
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
two miracles.
Her smile is, well, blinding.

On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.

They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.

They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
part.” (13-4)

The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.

When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.

The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.

The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.

One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:

What It’s Like

Horseback in an old burn.
Deadfall everywhere.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)

What It’s Like

A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)

The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.


It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.