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Suicide Hotline Hold Music

by Jessy Randall

Red Hen Press, 2016


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Sometimes it seems as if the poetry world is forever on a search for the New. Or I should say, New! Going further, the highest praise for poetry these days is to say it “reinvents language.” As if the English language has been basically used up, and poets are tasked with making it work again, from the ground up. Or maybe it’s that poetry itself no longer draws the audiences of yore: “yore” being…Elizabethan theater? Homer’s Greece? Perhaps Kennedy’s inauguration? In any case, one can safely say that there are two tribes in the poetry world: the highbrow, dominated by academia, and the lowbrow, dominated by pop music lyrics, poetry slams, rap, and greeting card/ Internet poetry. The former is held to high standards, divided into genres, and is judged by editorial and “established” peer discretion. The latter is held to to the standard of popularity (and/or monetary success). The search for the New! is part of highbrow poetry’s search for a validation of its existence, at odds with what have become the Western values of profit and popularity über alles. Enter Jessy Randall in the middle of all this with her third poetry collection, Suicide Hotline Hold Music. Not only does she not reinvent language, she uses the same vernacular we hear in sit-coms, grocery checkout lines, and the corridors of middle school. Yet manages to put our brains on “refresh” mode, looking at ourselves and the world differently. I attribute this to her unique voice; perfectly balanced (funny but not too funny; weird yet recognizable; whimsically satirical) to fulfill the directive for suicide hotlines, as stated in her title poem: “the main thing is to keep them on the line.”


On this point, Randall’s voice permeates both the comics and the poetry, managing through her playfulness, subtle wit, and counterpoint between “normal” and wacky, to keep us with her. Her poetry is not so much about the astounding phrase or unheard-of imagery, but rather about a tension between revelation and restraint, the commonplace and the outrageous, a low-key, ordinary walk through a surprising otherworld within. With comics as simple and basic as one could imagine added to mostly brief poems and unassuming diction, she manages to present a surprising and satisfying array of experiential wisdom. Like this example from “Pool Rules,” a list poem whose elements jump from the expected to those which speak apparently to a wider pool:


No smoking. No horseplay. There will be

no stealing of your best friend’s boyfriend.

No nose-picking. Say please. In sexual matters,

be generous, but do not think of it that way.

No watch-wearing. No digital clocks. No

t-shirts with sayings on them. Spell *ketchup*

with a *k*. Do not drink to excess. If you must

read a book in the bathtub, be careful. Turn off

cell phones unless you enjoy subtle disdain.


This is how I like my rules, in what seems like no particular order, yet whose order gives it the element of surprise. But in case that strikes you as too suburban, she already admitted to suburbanizing New York (“I Ruined New York”: “I’m the one who wrecked … the alive, excited state of the streets, the way the museums embraced everyone who came in”) and has passed through the “Nine Circles of Motherhood Hell” (a poetry cartoon), the best defense of mothers I’ve seen in a long while. (See below.)


The title’s mention of “suicide,” couched as it is in “hold music,” almost imperceptibly acknowledges the human condition, its necessity to deal with death and despair. If this book was meant as a sort of antidote, it may well have succeeded. I found myself drawn back to it when, sans hotline, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Maybe it was the wisdom of the “Food Diary of Gark the Troll.” Or more likely, knowing things could be worse—knowing I could have been “The Girlfriend of Time,” who ended up with “a face full/ of ectoplasm and no one to cry to.”


The unspoken element here is that her poems ring true. Social commentary slips through the comedic approach with a sleight of hand in which neither overwhelms the other. One of my favorites is this:


The Practice Children


“assignments might include divvying up responsibilities in a ‘practice house’ that sometimes even included ‘practice children’ borrowed from local orphanages.” —Emily McCombs, “Home sweet Home ec,” Bust, August/September 2009.


We know we’re only for practice. It’s

a comfort to us. Nothing we do has any

long-term effect, so we can behave perfectly,

for a time, win prizes for our goodness and then

it’s right back on the bus home again,

regular life waiting for us, the bunk beds,

the dinner trays, the horrible bathrooms.

We’re practicing, too. We’re practicing on you.


Here she explores the word “practice” itself and the psychological cruelty of its use through the voice of the children, “we.” This in itself acts as both a rebuttal to and exposition of the callous negation of the children’s individuality in the quote. Without showing anger or speaking out of character, the children’s voice creates a subtle jab at the quote’s moral vacuity with “earn prizes for our goodness” and “regular life waiting for us.” Here the words “goodness,” “regular” and “perfect” are used to poignant and satiric effect. Of course, the best part is the last line, where the “practice children” turn the tables. We can only guess what that involves.


Part of what’s trending in poetry now is genre-bending. By including poetry comics, Randall can certainly check that box. What interests me most is that although poetry comics is an amalgam of words and graphics, with the latter usually dominant, her voice remains a constant in both. The simple and down-to-earth (or TV) language is the same in both. The graphics too are simple and down-to-earth, giving the sense that anyone could do it. It’s a matter of the same wit and casual tone interspersed with quirkiness, applied differently. That the poems are mostly short and the comics simple certainly holds the notoriously short modern attention span. She fills that short space with observations that keep us reading. As one might imagine, in experimenting with a medium, some efforts will be more successful than others. In her quest for brevity, for packing subtle meaning into the simplest and most rudimentary of graphic and verbal juxtapositions, a few of her poems and comics fall flat in their restatement of the obvious. If she was banking on sparsity itself as a poetic device juxtaposed with the humor of oversimplification, it works sometimes but not all of the time—although this is more a matter of subjectivity and taste than fatal flaw. What we get in return from her “investment” is that even what doesn’t seem to say much does so out of understatement. So you’re underwhelmed? Turn the freaking page..!.. Now that’s better.  It may be a letdown in the sense that one, expecting a ladybug, finds a potato bug. But was that really so bad?


Which brings up the issue of what we hope to find in literature. Since Randall’s work really takes on some of the features of what I described above as “lowbrow”—accessibility, common language, comics (as opposed to the Visual Poetry use of blurry typeface as Art), humor, and brevity—she may find herself not only straddling genres, but worlds as well: the Art world as opposed to the Pop world. Rewinding history a bit, this has been done successfully by no less than Shakespeare, who wrote plays for the common man, not a literate culture, made accessible via theatre. There has always been a back-and-forth between the Cultured and the Boor; education (think middle school) forms an equalizer in modern society. By harkening back to a younger school age, Randall leaves the post-grads in a quandary: this is not your MFA-certified material, so is it Poetry? Even poetry comics can be done with more finesse, in technicolor no less. It’s…well, what is it? Whatever it is, it’s New! And that means unique.


So here we are, in this era of depression and despair, Trump looming like a giant bully on the horizon, the 99% counting yachts while we count imaginary sheep, suicide hotlines sprouting everywhere, and I do not, on certain days, really want to hear long odes by Jorie Graham. I want to hear the sound of  “Everybody’s Hair in Middle School.” Literally. A couple of awkward pie graphs of love and I’m good to go. This may not be what Jason Guriel hoped for when he complained in “Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?” about how the world needs “a poem, not just poetry. That’s what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits. . . .” Randall may not write the Great American Poem, her work may not be what some say ought to be done, but she does write “self-contained” original pieces and collects them into her book like (her cartoon of) boyfriends in a candy box. There’s a place on my bookshelf for that.photo2 (1)



Barbara Elovic_final (2)
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Barbara, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection is called Other People’s Stories. I wondered if you could tell us a little about the significance of the title and how it relates to the theme of the collection.

Barbara Elovic: Other People’s Stories serves as the title and the underlying theme of my poetry collection for a few reasons. As a young poet I wrote mostly confessional material. As I got older I found myself less interesting as subject matter and was intrigued by the idea of telling stories that weren’t about me. Philip Levine said long ago in an interview that even though the audience for poetry is small he wanted his poems not to be so recondite that someone had to be a regular poetry reader to understand what he was talking about. That idea appeals to me greatly. I also was lucky enough to have both as a friend and teacher the underacknowledged brilliant poet, Enid Dame. She taught me about the craft of midrash poetry in which the writer chooses stories from the Bible as subject matter to retell with one’s own understanding, insight, and spin.

Even though some of the poems’ subjects are imaginary creatures or people I’ve only read about, I’m telling their stories not mine. Of course, my perspective influences the telling and clues about me are revealed, but the I of the poem is someone other than Barbara Elovic.

Michael T. Young: The collection seems to explore the complex and often plastic way stories are told. I think of the last lines of the poem “Arshile Gorky,” which go, “the stories he told about himself/were just another work of art.” I wonder if you could talk a little about the art of storytelling and its importance in the collection.

Barbara Elovic: I believe that as people live through their days part of their consciousness is the story of the life they believe themselves to be leading. We as individuals tell stories to ourselves, not necessarily as they happen. Perhaps after a day or a much longer period of time an introspective person sits quietly and thinks about what he or she has been doing and what it adds up to. This was an idea featured in feminist thought a few decades back when women were acknowledged to think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories; specifically as regards the Western literary canon in which male heroes and protagonists predominate. Or the idea that what Hemingway wrote was full of big ideas about the world and women who wrote about what happened in individuals’ homes were not doing something equally important.

Michael T. Young: A number of the poems hinge on a shift of perspective or alternative points of view as, for example, “Eve’s Version,” or “You Think You Got Problems?” I wondered if you might address the significance of these alternatives in the collection and its theme.

Barbara Elovic: “Eve’s Story,” and “You Think You’ve Got Problems?” are written in the first person because I wanted the poems to have immediacy for the reader. I come from an Orthodox Jewish background from which I’ve lapsed, but I was taught stories from the book of Genesis when I was a very young girl. When a person learns something as a child it sticks with them on an almost subliminal level. So I had both what I learned as a small God-fearing child in mind when I wrote both poems and my adult re-evaluation of the biblical stories referenced at play. I believe now that Eve was portrayed as a temptress and a troublemaker. Now I think being a troublemaker can be heroic.

To Order Other People's Stories, click the image.

To Order Other People’s Stories, click the image.

Michael T. Young: The collection takes up a number of political and socio-economic issues. There are the overt poems about Robert Moses or Susan B. Anthony. But there’s also the poem about Dorothea Lange. Could you tell us a little about these political and socio-economic issues and how they relate to the collection’s theme?

Barbara Elovic: Robert Moses and Susan B. Anthony were clearly the kind of brave troublemakers I just mentioned. And Dorothea Lange is best known for the pictures she took while working for the WPA Artists Project that Franklin Roosevelt established to help the country out of the Great Depression. Her compassion for her subjects make her photos breathtaking. She composed her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” with the subject at the center. The mother’s hair is dark, but her face is deeply lined and she’s probably younger than she appears to be in the picture. Two small children with their backs to the camera bury their heads on both of the mother’s shoulders, framing her. We as viewers can only see the mother’s eyes. The photo makes explicit that she bears the weight for the care of her kids literally. Long after I had seen the photograph, a documentary aired on public television about Dorothea Lange and helped explain at least one source of her compassion. She had suffered from polio years earlier and that pain helped her identify with the suffering of people from a less-privileged class than hers.

Michael T. Young: What do you see as the relationship between imagination and history? How is it important for us today, dealing with current issues in the world?

Barbara Elovic: It took me decades to learn that the history taught me up until high school was only one version of America’s story. Now that I embrace left-wing politics I would say that in fact what I was taught was a combination of propaganda and lies. In fourth grade we talked a little about racism and slavery, but nothing much that I remember was said about the persistence of racism. The story of Thanksgiving was a pallid, happy story worthy of a bank calendar; Native Americans and the Pilgrims sitting down to dinner and being good neighbors. Indian reservations were still to come and the imminent theft of their land appeared nowhere in my social studies textbook.

Imagination at least in part is what one thinks for herself when ranging outside of the conventional boundaries of a shared narrative. American Exceptionalism, which many people in this country take as a given, is a myth to me that excuses the murder of the indigenous population of this country and the second-class citizenship of people of color. And then there’s the right to interfere in other countries’ politics because we’re inherently better than they are when all we’re really doing is adding to global corporations’ profits.

Cell phone cameras have only recently revealed what American cops see as unquestionably appropriate behavior when harassing, wounding and even murdering black men and boys. We now at the very least have some cognitive dissonance popping up, but I don’t see police training or tactics adapting. In fact right-wing politicians blame the group Black Lives Matter for inciting murder of police, which is malarkey to be blunt. They are demanding equal treatment from law officers, but the cops have tin ears and see them as a threat. And too many politicians back them up.

Michael T. Young: In reading the collection and considering the importance of telling our own story and even the freedom to remain anonymous, I also wondered where those needs come together with our need for friends, for companionship. Is that intersection where we share a common story or is it in some other place?

Barbara Elovic: I think in today’s political climate in which rancor predominates we tend to have many friends with whom we share ideas about what’s going on around us. I have friends really annoyed at me for not being a Hillary Clinton supporter. That disappoints me greatly. I’ve learned of late to nod and make sympathetic noises because I don’t want to argue anymore. I was the captain of the debating team in my high school, but that was a long time ago.

I have this Jules-Feiffer-inspired notion of adults as aging bodies encrusting little children inside them riding tricycles whose feet don’t quite reach the pedals. I think it’s the rare person who actually grows up as she grows older. I think artists, those that interest me anyway, are truth tellers. That doesn’t mean they have outstanding social skills, but it makes their ideas more interesting. It also doesn’t make me want to be friends with great artists.

I was very young when I went to graduate school in creative writing and I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to behave among the professors. Most of them weren’t very kind and too many of them had serious drinking problems, which brought out the nastiness in them. Their best selves were in their poems, not in the personae they paraded around among us lowly students.

It’s wonderful to have friends from different backgrounds. Today my poet friends fill some of that bill.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories and why is it significant for you?

Barbara Elovic: My favorite poem in the collection is the last, “Leap of Faith.” My father died when he was in his early sixties after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than twenty years. When I was young and naïve I assumed I’d have a book published by the time I was thirty because I would calculate the ages of the contemporary poets’ whose first books I admired. They were usually in their early thirties. Easy peasy. I’ve written many poems about my father and had hoped to make his story better known because my poems would be widely read. Ha!

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

Barbara Elovic: For this collection biographies had direct influence on some of the poems I wrote. I also wrote some of these poems many years ago. Biographies of Robert Moses and Arshile Gorky supplied some of the information for the poems about them. I loved the Curious George books as a kid. I learned the improbable story of his creators from an exhibit at New York City’s Jewish Museum. That’s a very specific answer to your question. In a more general sense I assume that every book that I read and enjoy influences me. I won’t read beyond page fifty of any book of prose that displeases me because there’s always so much more to read and life is short.

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

Barbara Elovic: I enjoy teaching the Pilates exercises as well practicing on my own. I love taking long walks. I also love to travel and gain the perspective that I get from seeing other places and talking with the people living there.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, Barbara. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories.

Leap of Faith

Whether I light Sabbath candles
on time or not at all
is only my affair.
So when the eager young woman
comes between my friend and me
on the street to ask
Excuse me are you Jewish?
I always lie.

What I love and whom I believe
is strictly up to me.
My prayers are only mine and always private.
But my father who died years ago
took his faith with him across the ocean.
Running from the Nazis kept him motivated
the rest of his short life.
On his yahrzeit I light a candle
that blazes while I sleep.

If you would like to read a review of Other People’s Stories, you can find it here:


Christopher Gilbert – Turning into Dwelling

Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series 2015

Page Length: 187

Retail: $16


“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”

This is the question Terrance Hayes asks at the beginning of and throughout his Introduction to Turning into Dwelling, the collection most recently published by Graywolf’s Poetry Re/View Series. It’s a simple question with a few answers. Most of the answers, though, only produce more and larger questions.

The question, of course, is really two questions. The first is relatively easy to answer: Christopher Gilbert was a poet born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, who then died in 2007 after a twenty-year battle with polycystic kidney disease. The only book he published during his lifetime was Across the Mutual Landscape, winner of the 1983 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. A student and then friend of Etheridge Knight, Gilbert was an active member of the American Poetry community through the late-70s and 80s, and received a number of distinctions for his work including an NEA Fellowship in 1986.

The second question, though, is probably impossible to answer. I only heard about him a couple months ago, and there’s a pretty good chance you’re hearing his name now for the first time. Why? Well, one answer to the question is that he only published one book during his lifetime. In the world of American Poetry, it is no small accomplishment to publish a book of poems, and this is especially true when that book wins a prestigious first book prize and attracts, over the years, a considerable following. Across the Mutual Landscape is as promising a debut as one could hope to find from an up-and-coming poet: a bit uneven, as first books are expected and allowed to be, but brilliant, fierce, extraordinarily intelligent, and, most importantly: wrought from an original voice packed with surprising turns of syntax, unexpected grammatical tinkering, and sharp diction stretched across the page in unique and strange constellations. Readers in the mid-80s would have been delighted with the collection and, I would imagine, anxiously anticipated Gilbert’s follow-up.

But this is where the story gets muddy, and the question of why we’d never heard of him until now becomes a bit sobering: for the remainder of his life (over twenty years) Gilbert never published another collection. Why not? Was Gilbert, like James Tate and Anthony Hecht, a bit overcome by the success of his first collection, which became something like a creative burden even as it initiated a rather promising professional trajectory? It seems plausible to me that if Christopher Gilbert had continued publishing books he would have been rendered ineligible for the extraordinary Graywolf Re/View Series that brings Turning into Dwelling back into the American Poetry mainstream.

The series, edited by Mark Doty, is four books into a noble and necessary mission to:

“Bring essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print. Each volume—chosen by series editor Mark Doty—is introduced by a poet who comes to the work with a passionate admiration. The Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series offers all-but-lost masterworks of recent American poetry to a new generation of readers.” (quoted from the Graywolf website)

Gilbert is hardly the only poet to have published a single, successful book of poems before receding into the backdrop of the poetry world. The Re/View Series is brilliantly conceived and urgently needed in an American Poetry landscape increasingly crowded by unknown up-and-comers. The multitude of voices we find in our current climate is not something to bemoan: far from it! Like other artistic forms adapting to the Internet age of inexpensive publication and decentralized avenues of promotion, American Poetry has never been more diverse in terms of whose voices get heard and how. Certainly this is something to celebrate. But it comes at a price: because the traditional “gate-keeper” roles have been radically undercut, we have more poets writing and publishing poems than ever before, which leaves the critic/reader with simply too many books to read with any reasonable degree of “authority” regarding what’s “out there.” Whether this was ever actually true or not, the perception is that, at one point in American literary history, a critic could cleanly distinguish the truly great from the rest, made possible only by that critic’s access to “the rest.” But today, “the rest” is astoundingly diverse and overwhelming in volume, and anyone who claims to have an adequate handle on the breadth of contemporary American poetry is frankly full of shit.

What makes the Graywolf Re/View Series so necessary is its response to this problem with an honest (if implied) admission: sometimes the great ones fall through the cracks. Though we tell ourselves that, with time, the cream rises to the top, the contemporary catalogue might suggest otherwise. Sometimes it takes tremendous effort to raise the cream to where it rightfully belongs: at the center of our attention.

Turning into Dwelling is an astounding book not just because of the story of its re-collection, but how it, page-by-page, sequences the DNA underlying the question of why we don’t yet know the name Christopher Gilbert. Turning into Dwelling is not one collection of poems, it is two: first, a re-issue of Across the Mutual Landscape; and then a previously unpublished manuscript compiled posthumously by Gilbert’s friends: Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell. While the poems cannot ultimately answer the biographical question regarding Gilbert’s relative obscurity, they do provide a fascinating look into the mind of a poet whose aesthetic very clearly evolved after his initial publishing success.

Masterfully edited by Quinn and Fell, the second manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There) is decidedly better than the first. To lean on a tired but too-perfect-to-pass-up metaphor: in the first book we see Gilbert mastering the scales of late-20th century lyric poetry; in the second, Gilbert deconstructs those scales like Charlie Parker, the result of which is a poetic texture modeled on bebop, in which the melody is often presented and then turned inside out acrobatically with odd connective tissue and explosive unpredictability.


“That that that all day the vulture overhead was

screeching at in long resignation like naming

something not happened but always here

down here where dusk has begun covering

everything is even more a mystery,

even more a place whose passages deepening

lead to a way beyond testament tonight,

tonight after all day talking those small talk

things till talk was just a loud grasping

without any reaching, till what came forth

was the risk when the tongue goes random and

finally resorts to regarding the world as ‘whatever.’” (Getting Over There)


For Gilbert, the “melody” is generally a presentation of self. While some may lump his poetry into the increasingly vague category of “identity politics,” Gilbert’s take on the question of identity is highly intellectually engaged, specifically with the question of linguistic identity. When Gilbert essentially left American Poetry during the nineties and 2000s, he worked as a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. This expertise is clearly present in Gilbert’s poems written during that time.


“Because it is the route that is the work

you could take the world itself to mean

yourself. Into these hills you’ve taken to

like the present, you could take place and be one

with the subject of your feeling arising

before you. The way the Queen’s lace sways

could be an indication of your breath

coming and going. As if an outline for time

itself, here I am stepping forth as an instance

walking the mountain road to the hilltop where

around the bend I’ll hear someone working

on the house the frame of whose part—the material

and the aesthetic and their perishing—linked

together will stand for history.” (Tourist)


Reading this poetry requires a diligent obedience to the unfolding syntax of complicated, systematic thought. It is highly, though not prohibitively, philosophical. The figures that arise from Gilbert’s late poems are neither neat syllogisms nor clean delineations of a unified self: they are self-interrogations, not merely of the author or the “speaker” of the poem, but of the very linguistic substance out of which selves are constructed. This linguistic self-consciousness is not only radiantly postmodern, but it fuses the language-as-object conviction of Objectivists like Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen with the communal, lyrical spirit of the black community first brought into the American mainstream by the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance and the countless schools and movements that have worked in their wake. It should come as no surprise, then, to find so much jazz in Gilbert’s line.

Music in this tradition is both a means of mourning and celebration; it unites individuals who have been outcast by society—people who are themselves a cluster of fragments. For Gilbert, music is the ultimate metaphor not only for the poetic project, but, perhaps more urgently: the human self, which is a cluster of chaoses out of which certain harmonies may arise. The song is self: an ephemeral container that can, through formal repetition and sheer emotive will, produce unity and transcendence. Perhaps the most uninhibited articulation of this music is the following, which concludes the second manuscript’s title poem, the scene of which is a hospital room after receiving a kidney transplant.


“The IV unit with my name and directions for my care

taped to the top will indicate I am. The ID bracelet

I’ve been wearing since I got here will say for me,

‘I am.’ The scar the surgeon left as a signature

on my belly’s right side will say, ‘I am.’ I am

I feel a gathering possibility passing from temporary

articulation to articulation the way the horizon

arises in the sun as a series of evident illuminations

while the earth spins clockwise toward futurity.

When the time comes I’ll rise and say, ‘I am.’

I’ll gather all my questions, step into their midst

and say, ‘I am.’ I am I am.” (Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation)


“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”


Christopher Gilbert is a breathtaking poet who, for reasons not entirely clear, most of us have never heard of. It seems that his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime, which is sad. Thank god for Terrance Hayes, Mark Doty, Graywolf Press, and the Re/View Series for bringing his work back into circulation. Thank god for Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, who recognized in Gilbert’s unpublished poems a singular poetics that lay obscurely dormant for far too long. In an increasingly crowded poetry world, it is tragically too common for a brilliant and original voice to go unheard. Thank god, in the case of Christopher Gilbert, at least, that voice is singing again.

It is Easy to Say Yes to Something That Wants You


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

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

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

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

find me a violent surrender endo becoming exo somewhere a

mess of marrow and bone bits.”

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

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

want is the color

of ripe tomatoes engorged

on the vine, glistening skin stretched

over plump body, pregnant juices pulling


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

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




as the unknown

you as the tree trunk

I wrap my legs around

and climb.





Let’s be truthful,

for once.

I have never


a tree,

never once latched

myself on a trunk

writing stories

onto my arms,

never balanced on a branch

casually testing it’s strength…”


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

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




what is a wolf

without a past –


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



my neck is daintier than I hoped his


hands wrap a


round twice


was      surprising   tasting






salt                   and                  ice.


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

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

“…like the gods I spring forth, rising out

from death to trick-or-treat again

or is this the true fuck:

me in you with no help

from animal, vegetable

or mineral, me

for once,

the one



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


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





This Rain

brings with it the scent of rain-soaked lilac, lemon lily. Bruised

skirts of thunderclouds drop their wet hems over this prairie. It rains

and the ditches brim, rains

and the water rises like ire amongst the willows.

What we say and do not say. The heart

incandescent, riverine with distance.




lilt like this: sound

of droplets from leaves


gift   gift         gift



(Shortlisted for the International Salt Prize for Best Individual Poem, 2012

Published in The Salt Book of New Writing 2013, UK.)



Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), and Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), in addition to a book of ecocritical essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail. When she is not in the classroom as a professor of ecocriticism and creative writing at Red Deer College, she works as a beekeeper on her off-grid organic farm in northern Canada. Her new book of essays on women and beekeeping, Revery: A Year of Bees, is forthcoming.

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

Click image to order on Amazon

Click image to order on Amazon

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

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

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

. . . reminded of the thickest-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to make music.

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

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

. . . . . . . click

. . . giving me another hang-up.)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

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

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

(x, x, x)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Brash Ice. Djelloul Marbrook.
Leaky Boot Press, 2014. 104 pages, ISBN: 978-1909849150

The boundaries of an identity become less distinct the closer they’re analyzed. It’s an existential nuance encountered by everyone from scientists defining an atom to Zen students contemplating a koan. Djelloul Marbrook’s latest collection, Brash Ice, explores that vagueness and various tangential elements such as memory, history and the way the nature of transcendence alters with the self as it encounters the harsher elements of life. The opening poem begins

So this business of being you
is about handling plutonium.
(“handling plutonium”)

The self is radioactive, dangerous to handle. It is not easy, in spite of the ubiquitous exhortations, to simply “be yourself.” There is much to fear. But it must be faced full on if to be realized. So the poem concludes

. . . let
intellect’s luminol reveal
what fears can’t bleach,
to stare at the consequences
even as they throw dirt on your face.

That dirt can cast a terrible shadow over life. The self, in defense, seeks a kind of transcendence, a way out. “To bear such loss we vanish” (“to ease life’s rush”). But that transcendence is not genuine since born out of fear and the desire for escape. “Even angels can’t count the cost of invisibility” (“two dark wishes”). Such an angel can’t help but gently recall Rilke’s angels, fragile in their desire to desire, as some other elements of this collection recall other qualities of that most transcendent of German poets. So, additionally, it’s not surprising that confronting the suicide of a friend and the various dead populates the book. Where the boundaries of the self become fluid, both the dead and living inhabit us and never completely pass away. Loves are lost and our friends die in the context of knowing that

we come off on each other
stains of our encounters
wranglings of our tied dyes
batiks of our fondest ties
(“batiks of our fondest ties”)

Or, with a more sinister tone, “everyone is a ghost of someone else” (“the ash tree’s scrawl”). Where we seek invisibility in the face of loss and pain, suicide is confronted as the ultimate vanishing and love as a kind of false hope. Thus even in a poem about beauty, we read

everything that scuttles
across your headstone
rings in my ears.
(“beauty and unrest”)

And elsewhere we read “whoever sees how populous we are/knows how futile it is to love” (“after image”). This is not the resignation of a depressive but the slow progress of a self defining its cohesion in a world that fragments the psyche.

This has been the psychic battle for every modern self since Mathew Arnold cried out in a letter to his sister, “I am fragments.” It is the nature of the modern dilemma and was the founding assumption of nearly every existentialist writer in the early twentieth century, and also lead the poet George Oppen to write, “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous.” But the grasping of that fragmentation has never been easy. It can be a torturous journey but a great awakening when realized. That is the progress charted by Brash Ice and the meaning implicit in the title: ice that is broken and appears scarred after freezing again. The fragmented self is reconstituted but scarred. In that scarred state it has realized an actual life lived.

. . . my job
is to hurt you into life so that you may say
something happened to someone
even if you can’t remember where
or to whom it may have happened.

This is a poetry asserting with linguistic beauty Goethe’s comment that “color is the deeds and sufferings of light.” This is quoted in one of the poems. But it’s important to shed light on this quote with another Goethe quote. In Book II of Faust, Goethe also said, “Life is not light but the refracted color.” Marbrook’s collection plays on this meaning of light and life throughout and especially in the concluding section. Life is a difficult, sometimes torturous, journey, but it is also dazzling and beautiful when embraced, just as refracted light, in its colors, is beautiful and dazzling. So the poem “habitué,” says “what is precarious is exquisite.” Or, at the beginning of the collection, we are told:

i like inspired mistake,
a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.

Since the self is radioactive, we are all, by nature, suffering from radiation poisoning. The cure is a kind of resolving of those suffering colors into a single white light, the dying of the self into its doings, and expressed in the final section in which there is “a light without its maddening colors.”

It is a long, muddy journey to this point. By that I mean that this brief review can only touch on a small piece of the overarching journey of the collection. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out the many nuances and threads that are woven throughout. Much of the collection reminds me of the kind of progression and complexity one finds in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus but not as didactic. In this version of the journey, the self is stripped to its bare phenomenology. So the style is compressed both in its linguistic and metaphoric usage. No capital letters are used throughout and most metaphors carry an immense weight, sometimes to the point of incomprehension. But those moments of incomprehension are so few that the risk is worth the larger success of how often this language sings in its epiphanies. And for you, the reader of this review, to fully realize the wisdom and aesthetic virtue in this book, you must experience it directly, live it through line by line, come to it as any awakening: that is, firsthand.

My own obsession with the nuances of identity have been with me since I was eleven years old, reading Alan Watts and Krishnamurti and every version of the Tao Te Ching I could get my hands on. Among the poetic explorations of that vague thing we call the self, Brash Ice may rank among my favorite books. It is aesthetically pleasing and thematically intriguing. It manages to bring together threads of existentialist thought and insight, and weave it with hints of Eastern subtlety and Western life in a beautiful and urgent language that is relevant to the 21st century. There is enough grit that it doesn’t float off into metaphysical abstractions and enough thought that its images are weighted with meaning. It is a collection that not only holds up against multiple readings, but calls one on to them with the joy of renewed discovery.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



You Were Born One Time. Quitman Marshall.
Ninety-Six Press, 2014. 70 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9797995-4-6

I take pleasure in some poets for their incredibly beautiful music, while others thrill me with their startling metaphoric leaps. Still others I enjoy for their sheer exuberance, the ability to transform dark material into light, such as Jack Gilbert and this poet: Quitman Marshall. His latest and first full-length collection is You Were Born One Time. It received the South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize and was published by Ninety-Six Press in 2014.

There is a deep undercurrent of gratitude in his poetry. There are moments that intrude on speakers and surprise them with beauty or insight. This occurs in such poems as “Civilization,” or “Bagel.” Here is the collection’s concluding poem “Twenty Thousand Sunsets,”

The sun going down
is at one o’clock
from where I am
or where I face,
on a southbound road
going someplace,
a great peach-colored sigh.
And then the streaking,
lines like these
across the abandoned sky,
until the birds move
as they always do,
and I have as much joy
as I’ve ever had
from something never sought
or asked for.

Although not formal, the compressed clarity recalls to mind the poetry of Robert Francis. But the comparison only applies to the occasional poem in Marshall; on the whole his poetry is expansive. Even when the poem is on a small scale, the sense is of something opening up and out. So in every respect this concluding poem and that undercurrent of gratitude should not mislead us: the light this poetry provides is not that of a Pollyanna. The collection also confronts dark issues, societal disparities, such as wealth inequality but with such a light hand, it doesn’t strike one as the cultural criticism it is. So the early poem “Blackbeard” starts innocently enough with a memory:

In St. Augustine once,
two men in buccaneer drag
swayed past my daughters
and “Aaarr”ed so well
the girls still thrill to recall it.

But then the poem diverges into considerations of our reasons for liking pirates, the kind of fantasy they represent but also how the skull and crossbones “codifies our mute contempt for the rich” who

Now colonize his hiding places,
and the beaches where he buried
his relatively minor treasure
are their immense front yards.

So delicately, we are brought to see who the greater pirates are, how the rich pirated the buried treasure of the famed pirate himself. It is not easy to handle such issues without climbing on a soapbox, but that is what Marshall manages here as elsewhere.
Quitman Marshall_You Were Born One Time
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What makes these poems a pleasure to read is that Marshall is not simply a poet of issues, he is a poet of attentive clarities. That is to say, he is deeply aware of the subtleties of inner and outer worlds and of the inadequacies that distract from the real life around us. If, as he says, “It’s my job, this naming,” that naming, to be right, implies focused attention.

Failed metaphors and past times,
they are the rain that continues
while we become rain ourselves
or diamonds, say, dissolving as we slide.
(“You Are”)

Here is the implication of our very nature hinging on the right language, the right name. Without it, we dissolve and lose sight of the reality before us. Though, of course, in time we will do this nonetheless, which makes this into a subtle and wonderful double-entendre. Again, in the conclusion of “Walk Across the Yard,”

. . . the bees visit them one-by-one
like the wandering merchants
we might remember as real
even as we lose ourselves in the high
ringing of cicadas or the flights
of birds who travel farther
and with far more reason than us.
Maybe we forget even why,
with all there is and we aren’t,
we’ve walked across the yard.

Here attentiveness to the beauty of life leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, a transcendence. This is another of those moments that surprises us with joy and points toward the collection’s final poem. But there is also implied in all that “we aren’t,” everything that pulls us away, that blinds us or which we blind ourselves with. So there is always a sense of things lurking, both for good and for ill. Everything is about to break upon us: the moments of reprieve and the distractions that obscure the joys and realities we could discover. The wrestling between these two extremes constitutes the journey of the collection. However, unlike many poetry collections today that bask in uncertainties, this one ends on an unequivocally redemptive moment, those “Twenty Thousand Sunsets.”

The style throughout is balanced. It doesn’t way heavily in any direction but provides both the pleasure of music and the clarity of insight. So one finds both delectable phrasings like “incendiary symmetry” or “The blue pluff mud of low tide,” but also a concluding line like “What is the use of flight?” All this adds up to a collection that one finishes feeling grateful for having read and a collection one makes sure to find a permanent place for on the shelves.  [click to continue…]

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

The Human Zoo

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


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

Lighting the Shadow is now available:

School for the Blind by Daniel Simpson

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School of the Blind. Daniel Simpson.
Poets Wear Prada, 2014. 31 pages, ISBN: 978-0692284575

Homer and Milton were blind poets but one doesn’t think of them as blind poets, only as poets. And that is what Daniel Simpson is: simply a good poet. He also happens to be blind. School for the Blind is his first collection, and, yes, it centers on his life growing up blind. The reality is that we are all blind in some way and that is what surfaces in these poems, not simply physical blindness but a failure to see, to notice the reality of others, even to notice what we reveal about ourselves.

. . . in conversation,
I try to act undivided
while, in fact, I’m on alert
for any glitch in composure,
any revelation of an actor playing a part.

It’s often a matter of tone of voice.
Most people don’t realize it goes even further —
that I’m listening to them breathe,
that I hear body language.
(“Vigilance and Dissembling”)

This is the larger blindness, in ourselves, that, toward others, is the one that leads to indifference, fear and sometimes cruelty which many of the other poems explore.

Opening and closing with poems related to his twin brother, also blind, the poems in between for the most part chart the course of life growing up in a school for the blind. There, he has his first French kiss, witnesses power struggles among faculty members and learns, eventually of the larger reality of people’s lives beyond what we assume of them. In what is one of the more poignant poems of the collection, “The Luxury of Being Children,” the assertion that “certainly, we could be forgiven/for not caring much beyond ourselves” is a kind of outrage in the context of the poem’s closing with one of the faculty members freezing to death, alone, in a cheap apartment for lack of money. What is innocent in a child is callous in the adult who is surely the one reading the book. And that is the point. . . of the poem and much of the collection.

In the poem “About Chester Kowalski I Don’t Know Much,” the admission to himself of what he didn’t know about his schoolmate becomes real to the speaker only after Chester drowns. These incidents shock the speaker and the reader into taking note of his blindness to the reality of those around him. Self-absorption is the primary blindness of the young and is forgiven as innocence. But we must surely learn from that as we grow. A collection like this, which distills that insight into fine poetry, is a helpful schooling for all of us. And, what is more, it is done, in these poems, with a wonderfully skillful hand.

The poems in School for the Blind are sensual and reflective, providing the telling detail to draw us in to their emotional reality. They are musical without being overstated, poignant without being lachrymose. Simpson is a very good poet, one whose work I look forward to reading more of. Until that next collection, savor this small one that carries a clear and moving voice.


For a poet who confesses to having more subscriptions to science magazines than literary ones, it’s not surprising to find something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle couched in the closing of a poem such as “Your Way,”

you get just one thing or the other—
where the water came from, or the water.

What is surprising and gratifying is that James Richardson’s poetry is not merely clever. It is also tender. Not necessarily in the way that Bishop’s “The Shampoo” is tender. It is not so much intimacy but a glimpse into the grander scale of things that puts our smallness into perspective, that kind of perspective science usually gives through its comprehension of vast spaces and terribly long intervals of time. It’s a perspective that permits a compassion for the fragility of our place in the scheme of things. From it, we see into the isolation of our humanity, the pathos of our condition as if seeing from the perspective of God, whom Richardson evokes in this insightful capacity. For instance, in his long tribute poem to Lucretius, in section 10, about how what we perceive are not things themselves but our brain’s recreation of them, “the ripple/inward, of chemical potentials,” the last stanza declares:

It’s as if I were watching behind video goggles
a movie of exactly the path I’m taking,
hearing on tape exactly what I hear,
though to God, looking down in trans-sensual knowledge,
it’s darkness and silence we walk in,
the brightness and noise only in our heads,
which are the few lit windows in a darkened office tower.
(“How Things Are: A Suite for Lucretians”)

This kind of beautiful long-distance view of our humanity is at the core of Richardson’s poetry, in one form or another. Another example of its explicit use, and perhaps my favorite, is “Evening Prayer.” A poem that addresses God directly and, indirectly, our abuse of him to gratify our own ends. It is in this kind of distance that Richardson’s poetry, better able perhaps than poets attempting to be overtly religious, evokes God and gives him voice to plead with us to be humane:

To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

In other poems, in subtler ways, it surfaces as the vast stretches of time that outdistance human life and in which our lives are embedded. In fact, the title of his New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms: Interglacial, is precisely that kind of vast interval. The brief title poem goes,

Anyone’s story,
dear, ours:
almost didn’t happen.
incredible day
between two colds.
The “O and. . . “
someone out the door
leaned back in to say. . . .

So life and beauty emerge from gaps, and patience is the essence of insight and even writing.

. . . here is another thing I cannot say slowly enough.”
(“Blue Heron, Winter Thunder”)


it is a weed slipping fine blue rays
through walk and porch, where flags
or the hours do not quite meet.
(“Tastes of Time”)

The compassion and tenderness come in realizing that some of the things that touch our lives and make it meaningful exist in intervals that we will never live to see. That there are kinds of renewals in nature that we cannot witness come round. In a wonderful poem called “Nine Oaks,” he recounts how a storm brought down magnificent trees near his home and he’s “half-mad at my tears-on-cue.” The tenderness in these poems, the compassion, comes out in the last stanza of this poem,

Or maybe these trees, though not our property,
were something I had counted on to stay.
When I was younger, I wanted to hear sages
say everything grows again, to everything its season.
But less of life seems replaceable, now
when the less that’s left seems somehow more my own.
Some things I will see again. Things that take time—
great trees, a nations, peace, or a friend’s,
or on the white sill just that patient light—
may come back to this life, but not to mine.

This kind of insight reminds me of Loren Eiseley, the kind of thing he would say in something like The Immense Journey. I’m sure Richardson, a lover of science, has read Eiseley, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was influenced by him. He is, like him, certainly adept at articulating the vast inhuman contexts in which our humanity struggles to survive. It is a difficult project in the language of poetry, which prefers the local and particular to the infinite and abstract. But Richardson manages to find those details, those locally visible moments that telescope our existence and bring out its fragility.


Every day ripe corn lingers
in the field unpicked:
silk, more brittle in the sun
husk, papery from the heat
cob, like bone—no rain on the horizon—
rows of kernels puckering,
until the corn prays
for even earworms and flea beetles to come,
lest it fall back to the dirt




You are buckled in, strapped down, belt tensioned
across your hips, crossed taut from your shoulder—
doors locked & rumbling as the car rolls,
skids, slides across the blacktop—
the graceless ballet of a car crash

tearing up squares of sod with shredded tires
the vicious perfume of oil & burnt rubber
from tires, safety brakes locked & useless—
somersaults in nearly perfect arcs, punctuated by
the squeal & shriek of bending metal

finally just the hiss, rattling like a gentleman snake,
you come to a full stop, softer than you’d braced for: then,
just the quiet of air whooshing through a blizzard of safety glass,
or is that just
the breath you’d been holding
filling your lungs again?




Wacissa Blueberries

like the last years of a marriage,
are luscious toward the end of the season,
before the rains rumble inland
and wash the sweetest fruits away.




Allie Marini Batts holds degrees from Antioch University of Los Angeles & New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been a finalist for Best of the Net & nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is managing editor for the NonBinary Review & Zoetic Press, & has previously served on the masthead for Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, Mojave River Review & Press, & The Bookshelf Bombshells. Allie is the author of Before Fire, (forthcoming, ELJ Publications), This Is How We End (forthcoming, Bitterzoet), Unmade & Other Poems, (Beautysleep Press, 2013) & You Might Curse Before You Bless (ELJ Publications, 2013). Find her on the web: or @kiddeternity

Kathryn Rhett

Photo credit: Cade Leebron

As autumn deepens, poet and essayist Kathryn Rhett meditates on the magnetic forces of inner weather.

In Bed

I can’t stop talking about the weather.
You say not to, and I can’t stop.
Did they say it would rain?
The white light pours down—I don’t
think it will rain, but did they say?
I don’t know. It’s eight o’clock
in the morning—
one child has a fever
and another is in a play about death
and nobody’s slept.
He’s performing all the parts about death,
death itself and the one who doesn’t want to die.
The rain and the one who waits
for what they say—
they didn’t call for snow sometimes they’re wrong
it’s no wonder with all this
change in weather he has a fever.
You say not to, and I can’t
stop the white light that filters in
through fabric blinds.
If only you would with your hand
cover my mouth, lay down some violence
like what we watch with satisfaction on TV—
lay down some violence against me
while we wait for
death and what they say we’ll get.

The poem alludes to the play “Death Knocks” by Woody Allen, originally published in The New Yorker, July 27, 1968.


Kathryn Rhett’s essay collection, Souvenir, has just been published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and her poems and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, River Teeth and elsewhere. An associate professor at Gettysburg College, she also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and in the Pan-European MFA at Cedar Crest College.

For more info about Souvenir, visit:

Dan Brady

The Lost Ark

Between their wings, space only
for God. The air, charged. Within,
only dust. What shall we put in the ark?

Nothing, but the tablets. The gold
flaked away, baring acacia. The poles
broken. We cannot carry it any further.

What shall we put in the ark? Nothing,
but the testimony. The sand, cemented.
The faces, muted with time. Silent. Eyes closed.

What shall we put in the ark? Only that
which has been commanded. Only that
we may listen. Our attention. Our obedience.

Our vigilance. What shall we put
in the ark? Our ears, our hearts. Nothing,
but the testimony. How He speaks

and moves. The sound of his laughter.
The sound of our cries. His provision.
His victory. The walls, fallen. The necks,

broken. The hands, struck down.
The ark, untouched. Buried, unseen.
What shall we put in the ark? It is over,

destroyed, yet not undone. Nothing,
but what is there. Two tablets. Dust.
The power. The sound. Nothing. The dust.

But what?



Dan Brady is is the author of two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press, 2014) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press, 2014). He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and son.