Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review of Sumita Chakraborty’s Arrow by Dana Delibovi

by Sumita Chakraborty
Farmington, ME: Alice James Books
Paperback: 2020
Review by Dana Delibovi

One night this past fall, I stood in the backyard, staring at a big, white moon in the branches of a tall and leafless tree. An eerie moonlight revealed clouds in the night sky.

I was amazed, anxious, and not a little afraid. I grabbed my notebook to capture this image, but I was powerless to seize it. As it turned out, the job had already been done, in Sumita Chakraborty’s exquisite new book of poetry, Arrow. In this impeccably curated collection, Chakraborty pierces us with an overriding truth: We can feel but never understand the sheer mass of existence that we behold, from moon to tree to cloud to our own astonished breathing.

The poems in Arrow range from the short lyric to the long, imagist montage. They share, however, vocabulary, syntax, and aura that allow the poems to flow together with a satisfying logic and cohesiveness. The book is not merely a batch of best poems. It is a series where the progression and groupings of the poems add up to something greater than the sum of parts. Chakraborty’s poetry often makes clear the appeal of such order and philosophic rigor, while also pointing out that this kind of regularity is imposed on truly unfathomable mysteries by needy human minds.  As she writes in the paragraphed prose-poem, “Essay on the Order of Time”:

                                                            …Here, the argument is that death requires the
most discrete borders of all things, and that there is a clear order to how it functions as an
event in time. The concerto was being performed in honor of a poet who had recently died.
To face this loss, this man required the myth of order.

Trying—and failing—to escape the mysterious continually drives the poems in Arrow to hit their mark. Sometimes, it’s the enigma of love that remains impervious to any effort at rational explanation. Love is an eclipse, weighty but transitory. Love is ungraspable—the poet proves she longer loves is by cutting off her hands. Just as often, it’s the enormity and variety of the universe that resists all reason. In the lyric poem, “Marigolds,” for example, Chakraborty asks (but cannot answer) the most basic of questions—why this?

                        …if we made incisions
from breastbone to rectum, the caves within
would reveal themselves to house celestial ash.

As the stag, I fear the mouth of the rifle.
As the rifle, I point my mouth, deadly, toward you.
As the hunter, I execute myself so I may feast.

Worlds such as this were not thought possible to exist.
My lord, I aim a mile beyond the honeyed moon.

Many of the images in Chakraborty’s poems, along with the emotional vehemence of her writing, bring to mind an association with the poetry of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582). I have written about Teresa and her literary and philosophic legacy. I am also currently translating Teresa’s corpus of 40 extant poems, so I am very close to her work, and perhaps call it to mind too easily. Certainly, Teresa’s 16th-century rhymes and Chakraborty’s modern free verse are worlds apart in terms of prosody. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that many of Chakraborty’s important or recurring nouns—stag, hunter, arrow, breast, cave, spirit, beloved—are Teresinian nouns. Both poets are unabashed as they cry out or breakdown over their inability to understand the world. Both address the divine. Even the one poem I did not like in Chakraborty’s book, “Dear, Beloved,” had enough of these Teresinian features to resonate with me. Although I found “Dear, Beloved” too long to sustain its rapid-fire succession of images, I did appreciate the wild heart, the spiritual spark, and the rich vocabulary that linked the poem to Teresa, and indeed, to all the other poems in Arrow.

Chakraborty’s volume culminates in the multipartite title poem, “Arrow.” This is followed by a chorus of utter amazement at what exists, aptly titled, “O.” “Arrow” begins with a monologue spoken by the night, personified as the Titan goddess, Nyx, a recurring figure in the collection. After the monologue come 24 prose poems, each “titled” with a small icon of the moon’s phases. The invocation of night, the poem’s title, and the moon phases conjure up another night goddess, the Olympian archer Artemis, as well as the steampunk and tattoo images of moon phases on a double-pointed arrow.

An arrow, shot by night, aims for its target in a landscape always obscure to us. When the barb wounds us, shock follows; we feel what the Wisława Szymborska described in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech:  “Whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.” We are left panting, scared, and powerlessness, just as I was that night in the backyard, gazing at the moon, the tree, and the illuminated clouds. Chakraborty has been there, too:

Truth be told. I have never lacked for amazement…
This also means I have also always held an affinity for fear, for shifting
uneasily toward the next dazzling thing. For the categories of nocturnal and diurnal
alike, not to mention crepuscular and cathemeral, the uncanny is the house best lived in.

The same could be said for Chakraborty’s Arrow. The book never lacks for amazement. It is a house to live in, and a dazzling thing.


Dana Delibovi is a poet, essayist, and translator from Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. In 2020, her work appeared in The Confluence, After the Art, Apple Valley Review, Linden Avenue, Noon, and Witty Partition. She is the 2019 winner of the James Haba Award for Poetry and a 2020 Pushcart Prize nominee.



A Corrective for Anxious Times

A Book Review of Carol Alena Aronoff’s “The Gift of Not Finding: Poems for Meditation”
Homestead Lighthouse Press, August 2020
110 pages

By Devon Balwit

          Some days ago—162 to be exact—my HMO offered me a free download of Calm, a meditation app. An acerbic, opinionated Jew, I almost trashed the email without a second thought. I had tried meditation many times and decided it wasn’t for me. I told myself I actually preferred my busy monkey mind, preferred letting it ramble like what poet Carol Aronoff calls one of the “mice in the attic / of old news and yellowed paper…” And yet—something made me pause—a global pandemic, perhaps, with its concomitant upheavals of every aspect of life—and I downloaded it and began to use it every morning.

It took me weeks to tolerate the voice on the app, which I initially felt too cloying, too upbeat, too mobile—but gradually, gradually, I started to look beyond its timbre to the words being said, which I came to find strangely calming and helpful. Was I, as Carol Alena Aronoff writes in her collection The Gift of Not Finding: Poems for Meditation, starting to “Imagine life / without complaint / no matter what arises,” moving towards be able to say “…Whatever arises, I will / think, just so. I will not even want to not want…”? Such a shift was shocking to me, for whom to want is, immediately, to act!

Aronoff’s poems aren’t written in my usual go-to voice. I tend to gravitate towards poets who are urbane, wry, and dark, and towards works which reference other works. But, as with the meditation app, when I slowed down and read the poems with attention, I found them tidy koans that rewarded contemplation. Why not admit that it is helpful to reflect that “Sky has no past. / It doesn’t recall the clouds / from yesterday…”? Why not consider “…The thin shell / between us … where we hide what’s / most precious. Where we break.” Why not rest a moment “Beyond judgments / of good and bad, / right and wrong. / Free of all concepts…” These are useful practices, especially in an election year, in a pandemic year, in a year of forest fires and bleaching ocean coral. Aronoff’s poems remind us that there is value in slowing down, in breathing, in allowing.

Locked down at home, I, who have loathed the repetition of weeding and tending, have suddenly become a chicken farmer and urban gardener. Always appreciative of the outdoors, now that it is my sole arena, I find that I am looking at it with much greater attentiveness. Confronted by the scent and blush of dahlias and heirloom tomatoes, estranchia and clerodendron, like Aronoff, I am prepared to say: “Nature once again / has brought me / to my knees…” and to ask: “Where will my thoughts go when I give them the garden?” Aranoff’s poems reference the landscape in the American Southwest and in Hawaii—cottonwoods mingle with Kukui leaves and moonflower, geckos with peacocks. Referencing her daily practice, she teaches us, in the words of Emerson to “Adopt the pace of nature, [whose] secret is patience.”

For a long while, although certain of the upsurge of joy I was feeling during this pandemic, I downplayed my happiness and contentment when speaking to others, not wanting to minimize the very real suffering of those less fortunate. In a similar way, I initially hesitated to allow these gentle poems to work on and for me. But what do I gain by such resistance? Why not yield and repeat with the poet:

Without the need to label
mind’s endless conversation
is a flower …
No need for misgivings
or even for dream.
Everything is
just as it is.

When not teaching, Devon Balwit sets her hand to the plough and chases chickens in the Pacific Northwest. For more regarding her individual poems, collections and reviews, please visit her website at:

Review of Only as the Day is Long by Dorianne Laux

Only as the Day is Long

New and Selected Poems
by Dorianne Laux
New York: W.W. Norton & Company
Paperback: 2020

A review by Dana Delibovi

Dorianne Laux was not someone I ever chose to read. I knew she wrote longer narrative and confessional poetry, but I like poets who write short lyrics. I heard her poems depicted lots of robust American sex, all flesh and zippers, but I like poetic sex that’s either unrequited or heavily veiled. I understood she told stories of the working class. That’s a harrowing place for me, a place I almost killed myself to leave behind.

So I’m still wrestling with why I felt drawn to buy her collection, Only as the Day Is Long. Maybe my instinct perceived what my reason could not—goodness knows, it wouldn’t be the first time. I loved this book, and I regret not reading Laux sooner

Only as the Day Is Long is a superbly curated volume, the best of a life’s work.  Poems are arranged chronologically, starting with selections from Laux’s first book, Awake (1990). The first poem from Awake, the opening salvo, is a narrative confession, all right, but certainly not of the grey-light-at-the-summerhouse variety. “Two Photographs of My Sister” conjures two pictures: one from a camera and the other from memory, one of a child in a cast-off swimsuit and the other of a teenager beaten with a belt by her father.

She dares him.
Go on. Hit me again.
He lets the folded strap unravel to the floor.
Holds it by his tail. Bells the buckle
off her cheekbone.
She does not move or cry or even wince
as the welt blooms on her temple
like a flower opening frame by frame
in a nature film.

The remorseless, almost clinical brutality of this image hooked me on Laux—I could not look away. After that, I was caught completely by the poem’s end, where Laux admits that her sister’s swelling face still follows her, like a “stubborn moon that trails the car all night…locked in the frame of the back window.”

I had to keep reading. In poem after poem I found a brave and untamed narrative that compelled me to care: the endless chores and abuse of a tough childhood; the mystery of debased parents who somehow managed to craft glitter-covered change from the tooth fairy; and the sacred, lost ritual of “Smoke” selected from the book (2000) of the same name.

Who would want to give it up, the coal
a cat’s eye in the dark room, no one there
but you and your smoke, the window
cracked to street sounds…

Laux is has a particular gift for poems about everyday objects and the stories they hold. A favorite of mine is one of the book’s new poems, “My Mother’s Colander.” A whole world of childhood literally sifts though this object, part culinary tool, part toy. I physically felt my own childhood in Laux’s final image: kids holding the colander aloft in the sun, its star-shaped holes making “noon stars on the pavement.”

Less appealing to me are the poems of sexuality and celebrity in Laux’s corpus. Many of the sexual poems often indulge in body parts and whoops and the doffing of underwear—items that are out of my prudish comfort zone, and which remained out of my comfort zone despite Laux’s deft prodding. An exception: “The Shipfitter’s Wife,” in which sex after work is a way for the wife to comprehend, almost to metabolize, the husband’s toil—“The clamp, the winch, the white fire of the torch, the whistle, and the long drive home.” Perhaps my prudishness also caused me to dislike the celebrity poems about the sensual mystique of Mick Jagger and Cher. These poems, selections from The Book of Men (2011), felt contrived, painfully so since Laux’s work about everyday life rings so true.

In terms of craft, Laux is a master of two poetic skills I admire greatly and only wish I could approximate. The first skill is the generous use of verbs, especially the stout Anglo-Saxon verbs. “Antilamentation” a poem against regret, is a prime example of Laux’s barrage of verbs: beat, curse, crimp, chew, pitch, and more. The second skill is the just-right line break. Laux never breaks a line haphazardly; every break, punctuated or not, adds to both meaning and music. This is perfectly illustrated by these lines from “What We Carry,” the title work of Laux’s 1994 book.

He tells me his mother carries his father’s ashes
on the front seat in a cardboard box, exactly
where she placed them after the funeral…
What body of water would be fit
for his scattering? What ground?

After reading Only as the Day Is Long, it struck me that I could never write an objective review about it.  I could never say with conviction that any and all readers would like this book. That’s because what I most loved in the book were the stories and images that mirrored my own life. Laux’s earliest years were spent in New England; I grew up there. Laux’s father was in the navy; my father was a navy veteran who worked as a boat-builder. Like Laux, I once smoked like a chimney and listened at night to the sounds of my drunken street. I changed social class through education and writing. But the question that remains is why, after so many years of knowing about Laux and avoiding her, did I now pick up her book?

I’m still not sure. It might be simply a matter of the extra time I have these days. I’m older, semi-retired, happily at home, and freer to explore.

Or maybe it’s taken me this long to touch the wounds my of hard-knocks past—the kind of past that informs so much of Laux’s work.  A legacy like that dogs you, and its bite-marks hurt, no matter how many degrees you rack up or how many poems you publish. A battered colander, a smoke in the dark, or a sister’s livid welt sticks with you, in Laux’s words, “no matter how many turns you take, no matter how far you go.”

Dana Delibovi is a poet and essayist from Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. In 2020, her work has appeared in The Confluence, Apple Valley Review, Linden Avenue, and Noon. She is the 2019 winner of the James Haba Award for Poetry.

Embracing Earthen Roots, Book Review by Emily Wilson

Requiem for an Orchard by Olvier de La Paz

Manila-born and Oregon-raised poet Oliver de la Paz’s third collection of poetry, Requiem for the Orchard, reveals both his scientific understanding and literary interpretation of the world. Paz walks with the reader past sturdy apple trees of life’s orchard, literally and experientially. We are invited to stretch among the spring blossoms, to fall with the leaves as the seasons change – to remember that life, growth, death, and decay all give way to crisp apples weighing down branches for the harvest. We are asked to build an image of natural identity through a weaving requiem, studies of eschatology, and self-portraits of seemingly non-human circumstances (burning plains, taxidermy, what remains). Just shy of a decade old, this collection remains not only relevant but necessary; we share over half of our genetic makeup with our leaved brethren, and that matters.

In the opening poem, “In Defense of Small Towns,” the speaker describes the sleepy reality of growing up in a rural farm town: “When I look at it, it’s simple really. I hated life there” (1). The reverence for the speaker’s experiences and the slow and quiet beauty of a natural landscape will never leave him,

I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story. The fact is
I’m still in love. And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn,
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks (26-8).

Hindsight is not pure, but laced with sugarcane and steeped in nostalgia. Paz prepares the reader to enter this quieter world, for a moment, to work in the orchard for pocket change, to cause a ruckus and grow with him through the darkness.  The first words of the collection’s namesake poem instantly conjure a memory,

The hours there, the spindled limbs and husks
of dead insects. The powders and the unguent
smells. What’s left now, of the orchards? (1-3)

Instantly we are transported between the rows of trees. Once congruent, this poem is broken up and spread out amongst the entire collection. Here, it is important to acknowledge and understand the complicated nature of plant growth; most notably in the resilience of spreading roots. This is to liken the “Requiem” poem, weaving within and among the surrounding pieces, to the stretching and fluid movement of a tree’s underground network. The growth of the speaker is palpable through small memories recalled in the pastime between work – shooting pellet guns becomes stolen tobacco becomes stolen flasks and skin magazines. The innocent work of boys becomes how to cheat the boss, how to do the least, how to become men – “It was stupid and we knew it” (68). The work on the orchard was not glamorous, and reverence for nature was not evident in boyhood. However, as Paz reflects, his respect and connection to these slow, hot days is evident.

Paz utilizes several eschatology poems to highlight the parallels between death and the human soul to nature and the cycle of growth. “Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bees as Eschatology” stands out in its spoken and unspoken iterations. The idea that honeybees are necessary in the aid of pollination, or growth, in the orchard is clear. Where the more interesting, and powerful message lies, is in the idea of the dispersal of the hive and the subsequent need for the apple trees to self-pollinate. Paz is able to strike the intricate balance of environmental and personal growth through this one eschatological discussion of the bees. Not to mention, the thought into where our human souls might disperse should we lose our personal ruler, “spreading over the landscape like oil” (31). Self-actualization and identity development are as much dependent on environmental circumstances as personal contribution.

It is in his reflection, through self-portrait poetry, that we are able to deepen our understanding of the experience and identity of the speaker. Paz bridges connections between human and experience by relating himself to inanimate specifics within a memory. In “Self-Portrait as a Series of Non-Sequential Lessons” the speaker seems to take one heaving breath and sigh out this entire realization. He speaks of scattered moments of growth, knowledge and failure, unrequited love, wives’ tales that “don’t do a damn thing except make a lot of goddamn noise,” (30) and eventually lands on the thought: “how little I know, how much I have to fear” (40). Lessons, of course, form identity. Paz acknowledges that the more one experiences the more they have to fear. Stepping outside the safe boundaries and confines of a small-town can rock the innocent or invincible instilled sensibilities while simultaneously opening a world of possibilities.

The collection ends with the “Self-Portrait with What Remains,” which opens with another recollection of the orchard. However, as the speaker continues, we are aware that this time, the remembering is weighted with a darker experience. This moment is tinted with the colorless and pungent memory of a hard time – an injured animal – and Paz uses the moment to call himself and the reader out, “the yellow birds stitched on his plush toy block / are not ghosts and that not everything is a metaphor” (29-30). There is something natural in the poet’s ability to call himself out without pulling himself out of the message. Of course everything is metaphor, this is a collection of poetry. Of course it is significant that he remembers this bird as he sees his son, as he recognizes the connection to earth in everything, as he realizes that “what remains are my son’s outstretched arms / wanting nothing more than to be held aloft” (41-2). This is the cycle alluded to throughout the collection, through death and experience is new life whether in physical blossoms or internal human growth.

We grow increasingly more distant from our natural roots with each passing year. We no longer set our roots physically but in the virtual realm of our manufactured, technological realities. With reflection on his own childhood, Paz allows us to sink our toes into tilled soil, to feel our own roots stretch out and search for life, real life. We weave around the rocks, we grow amongst the weeds, there is life in death and there is beauty in understanding and accepting that which makes us suffer. Paz invites the reader to swim in nostalgia for a town they have never known, to love a time to which they cannot return. Most importantly, Paz asks us to remember that we were born from the earth, and we will live and die amongst the trees.

Emily Wilson studied English at the College of Charleston. She now lives and writes in Jacksonville, driven by her passion for poetry and literary review.


“When the Heart Waits” by Sue Monk Kidd

When The Heart WaitsWhen the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions
By Sue Monk Kidd
ISBN-13: 978-0061144899
$10.21 Paperback

More than simply relaying Kidd’s personal journey through the mid-life experience, this engaging piece of non-fiction work takes a closer look at the art of waiting. Rather than avoiding or rushing life experiences Kidd suggests entering and experiencing changes as we are faced with them, even and especially when it is uncomfortable or painful to do so.

Kidd draws on myriad biblical parables and familiar childhood fairy tales and fables to illustrate her well-placed points. Additionally, she builds on philosophies developed by the likes of Jung, Erickson, Campbell and Eckhart and the theology of Merton, St. Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen. The book’s overarching metaphor is that of the metamorphosis of the butterfly, particularly the cocoon stage. More than any other symbol, the cocoon best illustrates the act of waiting while changing, all the while suspended in darkness – a position that requires neither foresight nor action.

In the first of four parts, Entering the Question, Kidd defines midlife as a transitional period between morning, when we develop our relationships with the outer world through ego, and afternoon, when we investigate the inner world. The midlife experience is likened to a time of reinvention and reflection. But regardless of the relative discomfort these realizations may bring, Kidd invites us to view this developmental stage not as a time of burnout, but as a summoning to enter a spiritually deeper life; a difficult choice given our compulsion to keep up with society’s accelerated pace.

In Passage of Separation, the book’s second, and perhaps most important section, Kidd introduces the idea of “diapause,” a concept she discovered while researching metamorphosis of butterflies. She learned that “…caterpillars don’t yield themselves to the cocoon at the same rate. When the moment to spin the chrysalis arrives, some of them actually resist and cling to their larval life. They put off entering the cocoon until the following spring, postponing their transformation for a year or more. This state of clinging has a name; it’s called the “diapause.” There’s a natural diapause in the human journey of transformation, too – a time when we hold onto the self we know. It seems that at the precise moment of greatest possibility, a desperate clinging rises up in us. We make a valiant attempt to “save” our old life.

Section three, Transformation, explores the question, “How do we fashion an environment in which we become stripped and stilled, in which the ego patterns of a lifetime begin to move away from the center and our innermost spiritual life is [rebuilt]?” Kidd suggests we look to God by looking within and “weaving an environment of prayer.”

The fourth and concluding section, Passage of Emergence marks the moment when the newly metamorphosed butterfly emerges from its cocoon; when the cocooned soul begins to attempt flight with new wings. Kidd advises that because this is a time of adjustment, continued patience with ourselves during this stage is crucial.

Midlife is a waiting process and features three distinct phases: separation, transformation, and emergence. The life of the soul evolves and grows as we move through these three cycles and, as Kidd points out so eloquently, life is full of cocoons. “We die and are reborn again and again. By repeatedly entering the spiral of separation, transformation, and emergence, we’re brought closer each time to wholeness and the True Self.”

Because of varying perceptions on life, no book can entirely capture a midlife experience or provide a definitive guide to any developmental stage of life. Yet I found in Kidd’s writing a kindred soul and found it holds if not answers, at least comfort in contemplating questions regarding the meaning of life. Certainly Kidd’s midlife experience is filtered by some distance and the objectiveness that arrives with writing about such an experience and I suspect that there are at least a few ugly scenes that have been polished or left out of her book entirely, giving some passages a feeling of romanticism. More than a just a helpful guide, Kidd’s book is a worthy companion.

Poetry of Witness: “Against Forgetting,” edited by Carolyn Forché


Against Forgetting

Against Forgetting

In the introduction to her anthology, “Against Forgetting,” Carolyn Forché writes that a poem of witness is both “an event and the trace of an event” (33), which suggests to me that in addition to acknowledging and normalizing a traumatic event, a poem is, in and of itself, an event. Forché observes that that while the former is rarely entered into voluntarily, the latter most certainly is.

Therefore, responding to traumatic events, over which the poet has little or no control, through a voluntary and overt act, such as writing a poem, accomplishes two things: acknowledges the event (instead of denying it) and initiates a new event, one that both normalizes the initial event and allows the poet to exert some control over the event’s effects.

Siegfried Sassoon’sRepression of War Experience,” illustrates well Forché’s idea of the poem as an event by translating the very personal space of a soldier’s mental landscape into recognizable images that bring this specific war event into the realm of the social. The speaker’s actions, “Now light the candles” (1) and “light your pipe” (10), are as common on the battle front as they are to a typical living room. Likewise, familiar images like books “Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves” (18) or the garden that “waits for something that delays” (28) harken the cozy atmosphere of home, an image any reader can easily visualize (made all the more poignant by the speaker’s distance from home). Sassoon’s ability to tap into the universal experience of trying to avoid certain thinking patterns is also effectively rendered in lines like “it’s bad to think of war, / When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;” (5-4). The reader, like the speaker (and the moth that inhabits this poem) can all easily “blunder in / And scorch their wings” (2-3) on those gagging thoughts and find themselves “driven out to jabber among the trees” (8). The universality of these specifics can be translated to other traumatic events and could be revised to reflect the experience of a mother with postpartum depression, or a child who is abused by a parent or school-yard bully. But the poem at hand is about neither of these things. We know this from poem’s title as well as such lines as “You’d never think there was a bloody war on!” (34) and “Those whispering guns” (38) (a particularly striking juxtaposition of images). “Repression of War Experience” is a response to a specific event experienced by the poet and is in turn a specific event that is the poet’s experience. The universal language of witness allows us to appreciate another’s experience without diminishing an its distinctness and we understand that this poem is “a specific kind of event, a specific kind of trauma” (Forché 33), separate from our own.

Denise Levertrov illustrates the personal struggles of one who has lost her right arm in “Weeping Woman” by presenting it in simple language. The reader is able to breach the distance between themselves and the speaker of the poem through a series of vivid and carefully chosen specifics. “She cannot write the alphabet any more / on the kindergarten blackboard” (1-2), conveys a true sense of this injury’s debilitating effects on the woman. Being able to write the letters of the alphabet is a fundamental skill for most of us, one we often take for granted. Without it, the woman is infantilized; she has been reduced to status of a young child. The image of the kindergarten blackboard reinforces this idea while also suggesting the woman’s efficacy as a teacher, as a parent or as a vocation, has also been drastically compromised. The line “She cannot hold her baby and caress it at the same time” (6) illustrates the debilitating affects her injury has had on the tender bond between mother and child, a consequence most readers will recognize as a tragedy. Equally disturbing is the observation that the woman “cannot use a rifle” (12) so cannot bear arms to defend herself or participate in the active rejection of the oppression to which she is victim. She is helpless in a way none of us hope to experience. Finally, Levertrov brings the poem into the social context, that “place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated,” by observing the complicity of Levertrov’s adopted country, the United States:

Cruel America,
When you mutilate our land and bodies,
It is your own soul you destroy
Not ours.’

firmly placing this poem in the “sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice” (31)

Forché also observes that “[b]ecause the poetry of witness marks a resistance to false attempts at unification, it will take many forms… [i]t will speak in the language of the common man or in an esoteric language of paradox or literary privilege” (46), to which Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Canto LXXIV” belongs:

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano

            By the heels at Milano
That maggots shd / eat the dead bullock (1-6)

exemplifies Forché’s assertion that “[e]xtremity […] demands new forms or alters older modes of poetic thought [and] also breaks forms and creates forms from these breaks” (42).

Against Forgetting” is a seminal, and moving, addition to America’s poetic cannon that preserves and brings to light poems of witness for a broader audience and includes such preeminent poets as Nemerov, Akhmatova, Hikmet and Milosz. In addition, Forché’s introduction effectively refines the definition of political poetry for poets, teachers, critics, and activists in the field. As long as there are humans, there will be acts of atrocity.  Even as I write there are seven countries listed on “Genocide Watch” that are actively exterminating people based on race or religion. As Nemerov aptly observed in “Ultima Ratio Reagan,”

The reason we do not learn from history is
Because we are not the people who learned last time.

We know that we know better than they knew,
And history will not blame us if once again
The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.

While there is much more to discover and learn about the poetry of extremity and the processes behind writing such poetry, Forché’s continues to be the conversation to which poets and critics must refer to and cite for years to come, just as these are the poems that best exemplify the poetry of extremity for the twentieth century.

Rick Mulkey’s “Ravenous” Book Launch, Hub City Book Store

Ravenous CoverOn Thursday, August 28 at 7:00 PM, Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, S.C. hosted a book launch for poet Rick Mulkey’s newest collection of poems, Ravenous: New and Selected Poems. On hand to read poems from the collection and celebrate Mulkey’s fifth publication were literary friends and notable poets Tom Johnson, Angela Kelly, and Claire Bateman as well as composer Scott Robbins and award-winning fiction writer Susan Teculve. Light refreshments of soft cheese, hummus, table crackers and a variety of wines were provided for guests attending the standing-room only event.

Hub City Executive Director, Betsy Teter, offered a warm, heartfelt introduction to the evening’s event and expressed gratitude for Mulkey’s considerable contributions to Spartanburg’s literary community. In addition to writing poetry, Mulkey happens to be the director of the Converse College Creative Writing MFA program, also in Spartanburg, and participates in writing groups as well as promotes writers, publishers, and artists in the area. After a generous and deserving applause, audience members settled into their seats just as the setting sun cast an ambient glow through the plate glass window.

Mulkey took the microphone first to thank everyone for coming and explained that the evening’s guest readers had been asked to read their favorite poems from the collection. A happy challenge, according to the readers, who each admitted to having had a difficult time narrowing their choices down to just one poem.

The first of Mulkey’s literary friends to read was poet and visual artist, Tom Johnson, who read “Blind-Sided.” A discursive narrative weaving memoir-like reflections triggered by the poem’s epigraph about the only known incident of a person being hit by a meteorite, “Blind-Sided” presents scenes in which the speaker or other characters of the poem are taken unaware, or literally “Blind-Sided” by the kinds of bizarre events the universe and its inhabitants have a way of throwing at individuals. Both corporeal in its acknowledgement of the pure weirdness of being human and existential in its incorporation of heavenly bodies (such as meteorites), “Blind-Sided” is as satisfying in its lyrical story-telling when read aloud as when read silently. It’s easy to understand Tom’s choice and his flawless recitation was appreciated. As an aside, Johnson has a book of poems just out with 96 Press and an exhibit of his visual art, “A World of Readers,” is on display from September 6 through November 13 at the Pickens County Museum of Art & History in Pickens, S.C.

Next, poet and author of Voodoo for the Other Woman, Angela Kelly, read “Outlaws,” a short poem that she said appealed to her for its subject matter – moonshine. It begins “My father ran moonshine, corn whiskey, / white lightning, Devil’s Rum, from Bramwell / through Bluefield to Bland” (1-3) and contemplates how possessing an “outlaw” gene might nuance the speaker’s life. Kelly’s spunky reading suggests her appreciation for self-sufficiency and her selection provided another facet through which to view Mulkey’s style.

Poet Claire Bateman chose the poem “Music Theory,” one of Mulkey’s newer poems. This persona poems marvels at a son’s ability to play the bass “with so much passion the framed family portraits / in the room beneath his grind against walls” (1-2) and suggests that, on his journey out of the underworld, “Orpheus didn’t look back in doubt, but in amazement, / that…one tuned string…/ could make us believe all would be right” (12-14). Bateman’s soft, lyrical voice had the added benefit of making audience members sit very still as they leaned forward to listen with anticipation.

Scott Robbins, a bit of a rule breaker, read two selections: “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and “Sontagmusick,” from Mulkey’s quartet of poems about Fanny Mendelssohn titled “The Invisible Life.” Robbins began by apologizing in advance should he start singing his selection as he previously set the entire quartet to music so remembers them as song. The first poem of the quartet, written from Fanny’s perspective, evokes a youthful confusion over what she wishes to be versus what she is expected to be: “As father said,” the poet writes, “femininity alone is becoming in a woman. / Yet this morning I woke to write a lied, and last week / finished another” (6-7).  Robbins’ second selection, and fourth section of the quartet, depicts Franny as a successful composer within the salon concert culture, or “Sontagmusick” (despite her father’s avid discouragement). This section contemplates things overlooked, including “the Prussian peasant, the exiled virtuoso, / the swallow’s cry” (6-7) and asks “What story aches behind the tongue?” (10). The entire quartet is a haunting and empathetic study into the fleeting nature of creativity and life, and as apt as Robbins’ rendition was, justice for the entire poem would be hard to capture on such occasion, causing this review to insist readers of this blog read the poem for themselves. While at it, they should explore Robbins’ compositional work of Blue Ridge A Capella.

Fifth to share their reading talent was Mulkey’s biggest fan, and wife, Susan Tekulve, who began by humorously admitting to liking Mulkey’s poems about herself most. As an act of resistance to her preferences, she chose to read “Hummingbird,” which begins “Imagine each liqueur-soaked rose as a potential love affair / on this capricious tour of blossom-scented air” (1-2) and evokes a plethora of sensuous images throughout, illustrating yet another facet of Mulkey’s poetry; and if it were not already clear to anyone who knows Rick and Susan, Teculve’s fondness for her husband and his poetry certainly came through her reading of this poem.

At last, Mulkey returned to the microphone and once again thanked his audience and literary guests before bringing denouement to the event in the very best way possible: by reading his poetry. Included in his selection where “What Superman Feared Most,” which contemplates the daily worries of the average American, “Cheese,” celebrating the working class, and “Earning a Living,” an unflinching look at mediocrity. Concluding his “set” was the deeply touching “Why I Believe in Angels,” a poem that simply has to be among Susan’s favorites.

Ravenous is described as a collection of stylistic variety and deep concerns. This reviewer would add that within these pages readers will also find empathy and irreverence, contemplation and assessment, lyric moments and engaging narrative, prompting me to wonder why you are still sitting there – go buy a copy now! In the meantime, here’s a selection of Rick Mulkey’s poems for your reading enjoyment:

Insomina, at Verse Daily

Betrayal, at Serving House Journal

Connecting the Dots  at Valparaiso Poetry Review

Bluefield Breakdown,  at The Writer’s Almanac

Ravenous: New and Selected Poem
Rick Mulkey
Serving House Books (June 24, 2014)

Available at Barnes and