Sunday, March 30, 2014

Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems - Edited by Gabriel Fried

Today's book of poetry:
Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems.  Edited by Gabriel Fried, Foreward by Daniel Okrent.  Persea Books.  New York, N.Y.  2014.

Although I know as little about baseball as it is possible to know and am still convinced it is a pastime and not a sport — this compelling collection, Heart of the Order, makes a riveting case for baseball as a platform from which the rest of the United States is clearly visible.


I like to see him in center field
fifty years ago, at twenty-two,
waiting for that towering fly ball—
August, Williamsburg, a lazy afternoon—
dreaming how he'd one day be a pro
and how he'd have a wide-eyed son to throw
a few fat pitches to. An easy catch.
He drifts back deeper into a small patch

of weeds at the fence and waits. In a second or two
the ball is going to stagger in the air,
the future takes him to his knees: wheelchair,
MS, paralysis, grief. But for now
he's camped out under happiness. Life is good.
For at least one second more he owns the world.



These poems are as broad as the widest dream of America and filled all the hope our best selves can muster.  Fried really has done a masterful job of collecting excellent poems that happen to be about baseball - poems that play themselves out over the pageant of the America's national pastime but in fact tell us important things we need to know about hope.

A Baseball Team of Unknown Navy Pilots,
Pacific Theater, 1944

Assigned a week's good bunt, run, throw,
Makeshift uniforms, long practices,
Then games, playoffs, and a round of photos
Stark as this one slipping from its frame,
Where hats, gloves, bats in hand these stood
Lined up and focused, smiling and unnamed—

Till the shutter clicked and each went back,
Retracing zagged geometries
Of the navigator's elbowed tack
And smudged replotted overrule
Pulled from a fix when miles off track
They crabbed the wind and calculated fuel;

And then the wide sleep secret fleet below
Blacked out until the climbing tracers
Sent their bright concussive flak
And going on was all. Time wound,
And some planes banking, others not;
And the one, tail-riddled, easing down,

Crew tossing weight for altitude
Till smoke and someone spelling out a fix.
Then static graveling the words.
And still these faces, whose names we never got,
As all we know is they returned to bases,
Went up when told, came home or not.



And it's all in here.  Every single thing that there is to love about baseball and America is in this book.  Every nook and cranny is available in these generous at-bats.  Fried has chosen to create a patchwork quilt portrait of baseball and America.  In this case the terms may even be inter-changeable.

from While Sylvia Plath Studies The Joy of
Cooking On Her Honeymoon in Benidorm,
Spain, Delmore Schwartz Reclines In The Front
Seat Of His Buick Roadmaster

While Sylvia Plath studies The Joy of Cooking on her honeymoon
in Benidorm, Spain,
Delmore Schwartz reclines in the front seat of his Buick
listening to a Giants game on the car radio.
The car's parked on his farmland in Baptistown,
New Jersey, where obstinate plants attempt survival
at great odds, their vital spikes insulting and defending.
The thistle fans its prickly leaves,
the burdock hustles, miserly. Its dry-as-death seed
will outlast you, traveler, its dry-as-hope seedling will use you,
tenacious as the leftover god, the eye-of-the-needle god,
the straggly one, the Shylock, who lent you your life,
who chose this desert wilderness for exile.
He manifests the empty field for you to wander.
He removeth your brilliance and set you in a basket
alone among the rushes. He maketh the coral of Seconal
and suffers you to recline in the evergreen Dexamyl shade,
while Ernie Harwell calls the last out
(Willie Jones popping up to Al Dark)
in the car's radium glow. Do you see it, American poetry?
The happy arc of the ball above Shibe Park—
a moment of promise falling off, coming to nothing.
Disappearing to atoms.  Giants win, 4-2.



So I'm reading these baseball poems and even though I'm not much on baseball, I'm really enjoying the read but I'm thinking to myself what this collection needs is a David McGimpsey poem.  I don't know McGimpsey personally but I know he is Mr. Baseball.  And then I turn the page and there he is, with an excerpt from his excellent "The History of Baseball".  It won't bring the Expos back to Montreal but it is heartening none the less.

And there you have it.  Heart of the Order is devoted to the long fly, the tumbling knuckleball and those moments that baseball freezes in time with the startling clarity of diamonds.

"Poets write about baseball for the same reason they write about nightingales and urns.. [there is] both truth and beauty in our wonderful game."
     —Daniel Okrent, from the Foreward

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sweet to Burn - Beverly Burch

Today's book of poetry:
Sweet to Burn.  Beverly Bunch.  Gival Press.  Arlington, Virginia, USA.  2004

Not sure I have it exactly right but Sweet to Burn reads like a novel.  In this novel there is an exploration of new love, it's growth, a committed relationship, having a child together, aging together and all the pitfalls of committed love.  What these poems are really about are the small negotiations that take place between two hearts.

The reason Sweet to Burn reads like a novel is that the connected threads of the call and response poems are intertwined in a such a way that tension is palpable, it's a page turner.

Play Back


Weeks after, I imagine her a stranger again,
want the jolt of meeting one more time.
Outside, after the bar, stars swung
like a roulette wheel. In the stiff breeze
streets were almost soundless.
Movements of her body, her hands
in the air, reached me like tiny shock waves.
She didn't feel this, checked her watch,
worried what the friends would think.

I had to turn away, too much showed in my face.

I knew her already, some left-behind dream:
it wasn't her gold chain but how it fell
across her throat. Not her green sweater
but how it rose from her waist. Not her long legs
but the way they crossed as she stood.
Not the vein of red in her hair but the heat
it gave off. Not the suede boots, but their rhythm
on the sidewalk as she went back for her things.


Sweet to Burn plays out with a call and response with the two female protagonists given equal voice, later on we even hear from their progeny.  It brings no joy to suggest that happy lesbians can fuck up and over their lives as easily as the rest of us.

And that is what transpires.  These poems tell the story of two women who meet, fall in love, have a child, drift apart.  This isn't complicated stuff, relationships of all kinds are constant mine-fields and Meg and Alice are no different as they negotiate and navigate the pitfalls and pratfalls that make up our lives.

At the Volcano


First weekend of the new year—
a friend and I on vacation,
our lovers left behind—we drive illegally
down a destroyed road
toward the erupting shelf of Kilauea.

At pavement's end we hike a mile by flashlight
over hardened pahoehoe,
ropes and glassy coils of cooled lava.
The polished bowl of Hawaiian sky
splinters with stars. Excitement rises between us,
palpable as reckless kisses.

Close up, the volcano's plume blazes against the sky,
blasts into sea. We can hardly breathe.
Then Maria whispers,
My God, the ground's glowing. Through cracks
in fragile rock a molten river runs, mere inches
beneath us. Our bodies turn molten too.
An agony of minutes, we spread out
for solid ground.

we ride a wash of exhilaration for days,
survivors, not of catastrophe,
but of the free-fall into terror, the surface of disaster.
In our rapt communion, every illicit thing we do,
we understand the risk.


I love the very real emotional tension that Beverly Burch brings to her poems.  The drama in each is real but never melodramatic or fraught.  This is how relationships work.  Bunch has clarity of vision and her characters true loving hearts.  But vision isn't the same as protection and sometimes every heart gets bruised.

Old Sweethearts


Beads of light spill through blinds
on your bare shoulder. Your face
is aging into softness, innocent
on the pillow. I still feel some heat, relief
of your touch. We've moved closer again
in sleep. Yesterday we walked the hills, spring
started to open wild iris, lupine. I bought
red gladioli, a vase of flaming tongues.

We'll stay home tonight—you and I.
I'm surprised how I thrived after all,
survived family life like a woodland creature
who prospers in the sun: caught the art
of staying cool, going for days on one deep drink.
And all this time you've shed layers: a madrone,
tawny strips curling off, down to the quick,
satiny limbs. Luxurious to touch and sweet to burn.


These poems confront and challenge, accept and forgive.  It's all very much like real life, poetically rendered.  I enjoyed Beverly Burch's honed and exact voice, her open heart.


"Novelistic in scope, but packing the emotional intensity of lyric poetry, Beverly Burch's Sweet to Burn
charts the relationship of two distinct and dissimilar spirits who test the boundaries of love and trust over a lifetime...Who thought you could say that about a book of poetry—'I couldn't put it down!'?"
     —Elise Klein Healy, Passing

"Sweet to Burn tells the story of two women who meet and make a life starkly realistic and emotional poems, Beverly Burch explores that love with all of its attendant doubts and unexpected moments of grace."
     —Kim Addonizio, What is This Thing Called Love


Beverly Burch's work appears in many journals, including  North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, Many Mountains Moving, River City, Tar River Poetry, and Poetry International.  She also has two non-fiction collections: On Intimate Terms (University of Illinois Press) and Other Women (Columbia University Press).  She is a psychotherapist in Oakland, California.

Beverly Burch Poetry Reading

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Father Tongue - Danielle Lagah

Today's book of poetry:
Father Tongue.  Danielle Lagah.  Oolichan Books.  Lantzville, BC.  2007.

Danielle Lagah may be exploring the space between her Indian heritage and her Canadian life — but what happens for the reader is a headlong plunge into poetic joy.  These narratives come from a competing cast of characters and take a wide variety of routes but they are all heading in the same place, to a deeper understanding, and we get carried along.

Flour (1)

With each swallow of scotch my father's face gets

until he is in India again, nine years old, and the heat is
the afternoon sun and he and his uncle are walking for
days to buy flour. He must go because the government
say one bag per male and there won't be another chance
for months. Days of walking hot feet sore knees dry
cough and his uncle won't speak but only grunts

And when he's drunk he gets there

and the flour is all gone. His uncle doesn't take his hand
or touch his head, only turns to walk back home. The
weight they had prepared their backs to take is weight-
less but they bend their shoulders anyway, road for
miles and miles in front of them and my father's face is
so hot he shuts his eyes, falls in the ditch to sleep

Sundar's boy, I will say, when he wakes, Whose bottle 
have you sipped from?


These are deeply moving, highly emotional and constantly playful anecdotal poems that spill out like a family secret, a history from a newly discovered photo album. The spices and dialect may be less familiar but these are universal stories full of great empathy and a conflicting understanding of that space where two worlds collide.


The year I turned ten
my auntie Tage hid with my mother in the cloakroom
of the Guru Nanak Temple on Blackwood Street
wearing slippers of the softest silk
Gold tasseling, pale rubies sewn
to her scarlet sari, bangles clanking on her slender wrists
nose and ear connected
by a diamond chain
and surma sliding down her wet face

I kept watch for Mahnji at the cloakroom door, balanced
on the piles of big black shoes, camel-hair coats spilling out
into the arched hall
If this will make you miserable
my mother said to Tage, then you shouldn't
go through with it

Upstairs in the Gurdwara, the holy room
each relative touched forehead to floor
threw hundred dollar bills
into a brass trough at the foot of the altar
carved with wooden lotus

In the cloakroom, the sound of Tage's weeping
in the hall, noises from the temple kitchen
preparations for a feast—deep pots
full of chickpea, a coconut rice
Trays of jalebi and laddu
pakora and roti
being stacked on the counters

I saw Mahnji's red chunni first
as she swept around the corner, I
turned fast, lost my footing. She's coming

My mother and I watched Tage run
to the parking lot, tassels flying
behind her like shining stocks of wheat
her heart beating in our hands


There is a kind of joy of discovery in these soliloquies and monologues.  Lagah regales us with her ordinary family history but the telling of it makes it extraordinary because of her honest voice.  Every step feels and sounds right.  These poems honour where they came from and respect where they are going, this is family tradition and modern morality tale.

The Road To Jaipur

On the road to Jaipur there are men who keep bears
spear metal hooks
through each animal nostril. My father and I drive by these in a taxi
and the men make their bears do tricks for us, up on back legs
paws raking at the bright Indian sun. I close my eyes
and I am the bear, mind drowning in chain-noise, collar
choked around my neck. Or I am the man with the whip
and the hard mouth, flies
crawling inside my collar, fists closed
I open my eyes and know
I am neither one. My father is seated beside me, hands
quiet in his lap, face hushed as scenes
go by outside: a man, a bear, dust, pavement. No metaphors
to be found


Father Tongue is a testament to family, an international soap opera carried out and narrated by Danielle Lagah's poetic family.  How lucky to have a family who articulates such a fine line, such marvelous poems.  Danielle Lagah's Father Tongue is a tribute, an explanation and a coming to terms with family, culture, displacement and the future, her very sure hand brings all these together on one canvas.  It is lovely stuff.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bad Star - Rebecca Hazelton

Today's book of poetry:
Bad Star.  Rebecca Hazelton.  YesYes Books.  Portland, Oregon, USA.  2013.

Rebecca Hazelton's Bad Star is one dazzling little super nova.  Hazelton explores the darker edges of love and desire, the bruises left by lust.

How Damaged

Like when waking to the wreckage is as easy as stretching
                         out across the bed and feeling the warmth
            leaving the cooling depression—that knowledge
that no one is coming back, and no one wants to—
yes, that way,
                                      where you are the leaving
                                                   and the left,
                          the weft in the sheets
              ladder to the sunlight's weave
                                        the same as ever.

As if sex were a motion that slipped ships from docks
                                      and Helen just one more woman
                         shaped like an excuse.
Walls fall,
                         but then, they do
and afterwards, the sky looks broader,
            the horses on the horizon
                                    full of possibility.


Hazelton's sure voice walks a taut line, apparently with a rope in one hand and a knife in the other, but her smile is saying something sweet.

Before She Rings His Door

She is shameless for a moment,
              though shame will follow, and feels joy—
having walked a mile in deep snow
                                         past the aging townhomes,
past the community garden
                          blasted by frost, the kiosk pinned with years
                                                    of messages, apartments for let,
                                                    bands to form, lost
                                                                 and wanted,
the frozen lake that could support a woman, a man,
                                        and the weight of their proximity,
past even the idea of herself as a woman walking
                                        to her own sadness,
a thing that she feels distantly
                          inside her, raising its weak wings, hissing
like the injured goose she sees in the snow, his companions
                                                                                 long gone,
keenly hearing
               the summer calling him home.


These poems are a tease.  
These poems are a prayer.
Hazelton litanies the violence that sometimes willingly occurs when passion meets purpose, she isn't afraid of taking poetry along for the hearts' dark ride.

Make Good

Promise me there is an end
                                           to this ever. Promise me the tulips that return
with black centres and lurid pollen
                                           will waste and wither in the heat.
Promise me this Tom Collins glass
                                           will sweat itself out. Promise me another.
Promise me another kiss
                                           to my forehead, a sweating goodbye,

promise me you won't
                                           come back. Promise me the rabbits
will starve in their burrows.
                                           Promise me the rain coming down.
                                                                        Promise me the fox kits will drown.

Promise me a house a car a gate
                                           a small dog to wag when I come home.
Promise me a mailbox with my name on it.
                                                         Promise me a new name that suits me.
Promise me the dog won't die.
                            Promise me a mouse in the pantry and small droppings
                                                         in the food.
                                                         Promise me moths in the clothes,
the small holes that grow larger.
                                            Promise me your hands tied
                                                                                      behind your back.
Promise me we'll laugh and laugh.

Promise me a child will shake out like pollen from a tulip.
                                                          Promise me you aren't the man you promised.
Promise me that the hands I cut off and buried
                                           in the backyard were my hands.
Promise me they won't grow back.


This short book of shortish poems fights way above its weight and does it with heavyweight bravado.  Rebecca Hazelton has published two previous books of poetry, Bad Star can only add lustre to her reputation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this dramatically tender and tart book.

Rebecca Hazelton - Kraken Reading Series in Denton, Texas
January 26, 2012

Rebecca Hazelton - Kraken Reading Series in Denton, Texas (part 2)
January 26, 2012

Rebecca Hazelton reads her poem "Questions About the Wife"
Cleveland, Ohio, November 22, 2013

Back cover blurbs:

     Just enough knife, just enough feather—Rebecca Hazelton's Bad Star cuts and caresses
     with masochistic precision in this brilliant dissection of modern love.  I would say to 
     potential readers: take a deep breath and see how far you can go.
     Allison Benis White, author of Self Portrait with Crayon

     Bad Star is a gripping, lyric noir that chronicles the travails of a clear-eyed femme
     fatale we root for despite, or because of, her love of "small violences/ which swoon
     her silent/ and unafraid."  Hazelton recasts a tale of star-crossed lovers with a fierce
     intelligence, a profound exploration of eroticism, and a music so exquisite it carries
     us through from violence to radiance: "what joy,/ to feel opened up/ to wonder...
     to have the real/ fear at last.
     Katy Didden, author of The Glacier's Wake

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Muse - Dawn Marie Kresan

Today's book of poetry:
Muse.  Dawn Marie Kresan.  Tightrope Books.  Barrie, Ontario.  2013.

Dawn Marie Kresan starts her collection Muse by offering us a brief biographical sketch of Elizabeth Siddal — and then Siddal becomes the central character in Kresan's opus.

Siddal was a somewhat famous model and muse for her husband, the painter,  Dante Gabriel Rossetti and in these poems she is resurrected to be a muse once again.  This time as the feminist heroine for Kresan's most eloquent treatise on love and loss and all the other emotional crevasses we navigate.

All that and some very spiffy poems.

Fanny Cornforth: A Bacchante

Just a model, he tells you, but you know better.
You too were once his model. You agreed
to sit for him with a chaperone present.

But this woman goes to the studio alone,
makes easy company with men. She stands too close,
laughs stoutly at their jokes,

clutching a hand just above her breasts,
as if to draw attention to the dip of cleavage.
Who is this woman who is nothing

like you? face large and round, she cracks
walnuts between her teeth, spits out
the hard shells. Accepts her payment in beer.


Kresan doesn't limit the party to Pre-Raphaelite's like her husband and his crew, no, this discussion is opened up to a stove-weary Sylvia Plath and the ever loquacious Marilyn Monroe.  Kresan is dead serious in her playfulness.

Lizzie and Sylvia Plath Reading Obituaries

They pause and languish over Mother, beloved wife.
Sighing deeply, their chests rise and fall in unison.

How do you think we will be remembered? Lizzie asks.

By what they saw, answers Sylvia.
Image is everything in death, like art.

Lizzie sits at her dressing table, looks in a mirror,
curls blazing around her neck. Contemplates
two sides of the same coin—that golden hair
undimmed in death.

She remains silent, watches Sylvia stand up, stretch
and walk away, unaware of the way her softly rounded
hips sway from side to side. Lizzie thinks of her own
narrow hips, the dead child emerging. Remembers
the ache.

Her own last hours, vomiting blood,
a tube pushed down her thin throat. What Art
out of this?


Princess Diana, Anne Sexton and a score of other strong, dead, women of legend and passion pop up as Kresan hop-scotches her way through the culture of women and men, muse and mis-used.  

Kresan provides numerous and quite useful notes (something I generally highly disapprove of - but in this case it works and it is helpful) as well as a bibliography of source materials.  And that may lead you to think that these works, this book, is academic in nature.  It's not.  

The life of Elizabeth Siddal is re-imagined and given a new vocabulary by Dawn Marie Kresan.  Siddal is a muse and vehicle for Kresan.  The engaging conversation Kresan creates out of the mouths of these  many female icons is as amusing as it is intelligent.


     The Lady of Shalott, William Holman Hunt, 1857 and
     The Lady of Shalott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857.

The death of a beautiful woman is, without question,
the most poetic of all topics, at least according to Poe.

Hunt and Rossetti seem to agree. Across the pond, they argue
over who illustrates what: the moment the curse takes possession

or the moment the corpse cruises down to Camelot.
Both want the dead woman, but Hunt acquiesces.

A moment of transgression and sexual surrender
is still doable. Cracked mirrors and curses can be fun.

Hunt a stern moralist in sexual matters, at least
when it comes to how women behave.

The lady's hair is disheveled, her arms bare.
Tapestry threads bind her feet,

as if to punish her for daring to leave.
Certainly she is culpable, he thinks.

Rossetti, for his part, focuses on the wonderment felt
at a dead woman beautifully boat-floating.

Her face turned, surrendering to the viewer's gaze.
Her body stuffed into a corner,

her feet cut off by the frame's edge.
What is it with these guys and feet?


Kresan references any number of paintings throughout this book and although it isn't necessary it is certainly instructive to look up  the paintings she references.  For the most part these are art works you have seen before - but Kresan has reimagined them and the women that inhabit them.  Smart stuff indeed.

Tree Reading Series Featured Reader - Dawn Kresan

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps - Aaron Levy Samuels

Today's book of poetry:
Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps.  Aaron Levy Samuels.  Write Bloody Publishing.  Austin, Texas, USA. 2013.

In this book of poetry culture, race, ethnicity and youth all get an energetic joy ride from Aaron Levy Samuels.

Mr. Samuels is both Jewish and Black and plays off of the stereotypes of both in a smooth dichotomy and intimate fervor with poems such as "The Black Penis Talks Shit to the Rest of Aaron" and the equally illustrative "The Jewish Penis Talks Shit to the Rest of Aaron".  Samuels is nothing if not dexterous.

These pile-driving poems have different voices, structures, styles but the choirmaster Samuels is consistent with challenging the status-quo of racial identification and racial socialization.  These poems are full of ideas, challenges, solutions, observations and pleas.

What Really Happened on Mt. Moriah

There was no lamb

struggling in a hidden thicket
horns clawing
the brush;

no angel,

     no gust of wind
     thunder to make the hand


just the blade

just / the throat


as the servants watched

their eyes—
a silent covenant

to tell the story



This could all be very pedantic stuff if it weren't for the many exciting voices Samuels is able to exorcise, the variety of poetic styles - and all maintaining a sharp sense of purpose.

Totem: Malcolm X Dog Tag

When I was fourteen I got a dog tag chain
with Malcolm X at the end of it—a totem
to remind the world how black

I was. Malcolm X was the blackest person
I knew, except maybe Denzel Washington
but then again, well, you know.

I figured that as long as I wore this chain
nobody could steal my blackness from me.
Before Malcolm, people used to just help themselves.

Used to reach into my thighs, the blackest body part
I owned and grab a fistful; watch it pour like ash
into the atmosphere—a cloud of high top sneakers,

and claps on 2 & 4. When it was gone,
they would act like it didn't just happen
like there wasn't ash underneath their white nails,

tried to play it off, in their full body velour jumpsuits
tucked into Timbs.  They'd be like:
you're not even all the way black

like that wasn't the same as reaching into the meat
of my other thigh. But with Malcolm around my neck
they couldn't touch me. I tested it out:

put my chain on over my cornrows & watched
the fist slowly un-punch my nose,
a thick maroon stream creeping into my left nostril.

The books flung themselves into my backpack,
which was ripped right onto my shoulders
when I ran towards the group of boys

waiting for me after school.
After they un-jumped me,
we all gave each other daps

the way black boys do—
one hand extended to meet the quivering embrace,
the other clutching the black Malcolm

on my chest, just so the world knew
I wasn't dreaming.


How do you blend a hip-hop sensibility and a bar mitzvahed young man slinging Malcolm X cool with concrete poems, poems made of charts, other poetic paraphernalia?  There is almost too much happening in Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps.  But this is poetry and more than enough is sometimes just the right measure - what I am so clumsily trying to say is that I found Samuels to be an exciting poet and his poetry thoroughly engaging.

Samuels isn't using a microscope for his examination, extended riff, on race and perception.  He's doing much better than that.  He's holding up a mirror.

The Multiracial Asian German Woman

who is destructively attractive, tells me
because my mother is Jewish, I don't really count
as Black.  In her country, Germany—

not Taiwan, where her mother is is from—
everyone just treats her as German.
People aren't "mixed."

a bead of cabernet escapes her mouth.

She says
there is not much diversity in Germany

with no wind—
a well-rehearsed answer:

     Yes I am sorry.
     No, my family did not have any involvement.
     Everyone in the whole country
     feels really bad about what happened.

She swills, sips a thick red glass, smiles,
& says words like Dachau and iPhone.

My face is a Molotov cocktail.
Each freckle: a concentration camp
joke. Each curve: a shipping route.

Her mouth is a train car. My grandmother's face
poking through its enamel bars.
Maroon liquid rise to the cabin roof.


Aaron Samuels is a native of Edgewood, Rhode Island, and a Cave Canem Fellow.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is his first full length poetry collection.

Covered in Grass - Aaron Levy Samuels

Louder Than a Grenada - Aaron Levy Samuels

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Many-Storied House - George Ella Lyon

Today's book of poetry:
Many-Storied House.  George Ella Lyon.  University of Kentucky Press.  Lexington, Kentucky, USA.  2013.

George Ella Lyon's Many-Storied House is instant, take off you shoes, curl up on the couch, comfortable.  This encyclopedic examination of the social history of the family home is so blessed wise and careful that the reader thinks Lyon might be a sympathetic poltergeist.

These very simple, straight forward poems have hidden depths of delight and resonance.  Lyon has mastered the art of sounding simple while constructing subtle little masterpieces.  She has a map of family and place so firmly etched into these poems that the reader feels like a familiar, the reader feels like they have been in this house.


When they were tearing down the Bank of Harlan,
somebody called Daddy to say he should come
empty Papaw's safety deposit box. Papaw
had been dead for years and this was the first
anyone had heard of his private hidey hole.

Home from college, I was at the table that night
when Daddy laid out the contents: a deed, a poem,
a packet of Papaw's love letters to Jo, and a pistol.
All were spread on the table amid the remains
of pork chops, biscuits, and gravy when the doorbell
rang and I got up to answer. Friends, not close ones,
happened to be in our neighborhood and stopped by.

I ushered them down the hall to the kitchen where
Mother had slipped the pistol off the table and under
her apron. Daddy carried in chairs while I cleared
the dishes, put on more coffee, passed a plate
of Lorna Doones. Poem, deed, letters lay
unmentioned while visitors munched, and my pistol-
packing mama sat frozen with that heat in her lap.


Lyon is the author of more than 40 books, the winner of numerous book and writing awards, Many-Storied House is her fifth book of poetry.

These poems could sometimes be mistaken for whimsy, there is a lightness to them that comes from George Ella Lyon's sure touch, she is making it look easy.  The reality is anything but - these poems are so solid and sure of themselves, Lyon's voice is certain.

Interior Design

My mother decided
my father never noticed
anything in the house.

To prove her point, she
bought a packet of the plastic
clay you use to hang posters

and stuck a few items
on the library wall
above the couch: a match

box, Wite-out, a Kleenex
pack: feather-weight
things. He said nothing.

"See?" she told me, and stuck
up an artificial rose
and nail scissors. No

response. "Unbelievable,"
she said, adding Scotch Tape,
pipe cleaners, brush rollers,

one of the coin purses
the cleaners gave away.
Daddy just walked to his chair

every night, dozing off
halfway through the news.
Finally, when the wall looked

as though the plaster had
broken out in junk, Mother
took it all down. "It's

hopeless," she told me.
But that night, Daddy said,
"You know, I usually

like the way you decorate
but that didn't look
quite right."


These poems catalogue every room in the house of George Ella Lyon's youth and the house of her imagination.  We are welcomed in, made to feel necessary, made to feel like part of the family.  This portrait of a home and the lives that blossom in it is so intimate we can't look away, so tender, we can't stare too long.


Late afternoon I lie down for a nap but instead of sleep Daddy
opens the door behind my eyes. He's in his shirtsleeves standing on
the carpet before the carpet before the flood. He reaches me into a hug
snug as bark. "I didn't think you were here," I say. "Yep," he answers, "It's
me." "But Daddy," I start, "it's all gone." Nonsense. How can the house
be gone when we're standing in it? "What time is it?" I ask and he laughs.
No time, no time at all.


          "We all live in this house, These stories belong to everyone.
          George Ella Lyon writes the most transporting, intuitive,
          inviting poems; their doors feel wide open. Her balancing
          touch is generous enough (it's utterly magical how she does
          this) to include us all. I love, love, love this book."
                  -Naomi Shihab Nye, author of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award winner You and Yours

George Ella Lyon is a fabulous poet.  These poems, this quality - rare as hen's teeth, beautiful as the morning after a storm.

Writer George Ella Lyon appears on "Head of the Holler"

A poem by George Ella Lyon

Friday, March 14, 2014

The So-Called Sonnets - Bruce McRae

Today's book of poetry:  The So-Called Sonnets.  Bruce McRae.  Silenced Press.  Columbus, Ohio, USA. 2010.

Canadian Bruce McRae offers up a book of disciplined diligence with The So-Called Sonnets.  Each of these prosaic narratives lives up to its' fourteen line commitment.  But of course these aren't traditional sonnets of the aabbccaa school.

These little free verse wonders fit the confines of the model but kind of break out at the edges in spontaneous trains of thought, McRae's nifty train rumbles right through these poems, hard on the breaks and thundering around every spark inducing turn.


It's a ring you climb in and out of
in a futile effort to master chaos.
No, says I, it's a dog's collar and leash
misrepresenting the senescent penis.
You're wrong, it's a silk noose, its knot
mocking the cheap clip-on variety.
Perhaps, I replied, or it's a thumbnail
being dragged across the throat slowly,
a space-time portal where only the head fits
through, a snare for the occasional rabbit.
You'd be right if you weren't so wrong.
It's really a border crossing, a filthy lasso,
the tattoo of a dashed line and tiny scissors
with the words 'Cut here' along it.


This isn't quite Richard Brautigan territory with whimsy, after all, McRae executes his self-imposed formal constraint of fourteen lines on all these poems.  But it has never been about the size of the canvas, the length of the song - and McRae has found a form perfectly fitted for his sharp voice.

These very artful constructions only appear casual, otherwise the discipline would have seemed forced and there is nothing forced about these sonnets.  McRae's poems are sardonic and playful and still frozen rope taut.  This isn't a pitcher who throws tricks, these are proper fastballs, wicked curves and sliders that just won't quit.

A Clock, Ticking

I thought it was a faucet dripping,
the tap-tapping of a blind man's cane.
I thought it was a tiny hammer in a tinier fist,
one usually found pounding on a lectern.
Like those little footsteps, gallows-bound,
each second an egg being cracked open,
each second a fissure in time and space—
big enough to drive a Mack truck through.
It reminds me of my favourite aunt,
knitting needles clicking in another room,
she tut-tutting over my latest indiscretion.
Or it's the smallest of beating horse-hearts.
The eternal breaking of the back of fleas
between the fingernails of beauty.


Technically a sonnet is a construction built on the tension between two opposing ideas or desires and does so within the chosen line form/constraint of 14 lines.  McRae  plows through a tent-load of ideas with his gleefully glib sonnets.

There are surrealist elements in some of these sonnets, sure known hard won home spun wisdom in others.  Poem after poem in this tight collection tickled by with my smile growing wider with every page.


A braid of knotted horsehair,
and I waist-deep in my immodesty.
The serpent as Mobius strip,
each new notch another day unfed.
Money for old rope, or a whip
to crack the backs of the Assyrians.
Here, the circle of suspicion.
There, the human equatorial zone.
Or, it's a portable noose, patent pending,
its buckle a handy knuckle-duster.
"Keep your pants on," my mother said,
and how I wish I'd heeded her advice,
my jeans hung down around my knees,
the river waist-high and rising.


The So-Called Sonnets is poet and musician Bruce McRae's first book.

This Too Passes - Bruce McRae

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

But Our Princess Is In Another Castle - B.J. Best

Today's book of poetry:  But Our Princess is in Another Castle.  B.J. Best.  Rose Metal Press.  Brookline, MA, USA.  2013.

Classic video games provide the platform, launching point and universe for But Our Princess is in Another Castle, the third book by the uber-talented B.J. Best.

With no offense intended (that phrase itself is offensive, but here I go...) — I would be hard pressed to enter a discussion/conversation where I was less informed than the world of classic video gaming.  More to the point, I would be hard pressed to find a subject I was less interested in.

So what in the hell are we doing here?

Look at this:

Commander Keen

We were raised in the decade of crashed spaceships. We'd seen them from the school bus; one
would be large as a car wreck, coughing purple smoke. Another was small as a crushed can, 
glinting in the gravel.

Science class was only good for answers. We learned space is a vacuum, blank as a bubble. We
guess licking a nine-volt battery was like tasting champagne. A hawk ate a snake ate a mouse
ate some grain. Mars stared at us from page 63, red as a kickball.

It was fall. We were building a fort in the woods, laying out branches like an electrical diagram
drawn in crayon. All those leaves. We kept twin imaginary robots that looked like ordinary
flashlights. One was named Terror. The other was Fear. The weatherman made frost sound like a
mystery, but we learned it was just the natural progression of things—water getting older, harder,
more bitter. We had a backpack filled with fruit snacks, beef jerky, and our mothers' cameras.

We would be ready. We would be ready when they came.


Ok, honestly (another word to be cautious of...) I have no clue what is going on in these prose poems, I couldn't tell you exactly what Best is getting at.  Frankly, there are times, and this is one of them, when the ride is so damned good that I don't really care where it is going.  

Best is using a lexicon I don't know from a world I have never participated in — yet these poems read familiar.  These poems are a quiet coming of age, a philosophical inquiry, an emotional road trip of survival played out on an electronic terrain.  Thankfully best handles himself with aplomb, the reader doesn't need a password to gain entry into these poems.


In high school, how useful was if for me to be a wizard in calculus, or a thief who could only steal
glances? As useful as a sharp wit in an axe fight. As useful as a tuning fork in a locker room. Back
then, I was elfish as a miniature Elvis. Yet somehow I still dated a valkyrie, her breasts protected by
steel plates and her mother's proclivity for being home at all the right times.

"Someone shot the food," I'd joke in the lunch line, then we'd take our seats in the cafeteria like
two ghosts in a dungeon of ghouls. She a key to her silver locket; I had a key to a car that
would run only if the heart blew full force. Especially in summer.

Junior year I picked up some Latin as easily as a paper clip, but started swinging it around like a
sword. Carpe diem. Momento mori. "This warrior is about to die," I'd say to her sixth period after
braving the corridors all crammed with cliques. I said it regularly as prayer.

One night, she answered: "I hear potions can kill death." Sixteen years later, I suppose she's
still right. I can still smell the bargain-bin massage oil-jasmine and sandalwood floating atop a
sweaty man smoking a cigar. Still feel the gray blanket with holes big as exit signs. Taste the rum
dribbling down her neck to become a spray of gasoline pooling in her thighs.


B.J. Best has given us one strong surprise after another with But Our Princess is in Another Castle.  Some of this poetry has you scratching your head but it is constantly mesmerizing.  Best changes gears from dark to light, camp to maudlin, fearsome and subtly nuanced, all of it as quickly as you would plug a new game into your console.

Startling stories from an unfamiliar universe, sage wisdom and Space Invaders, who knew that was possible?

Ms. and Super Pac-Man

They met at Overeaters Anonymous. She liked his muscular mouth; he loved the sweet-sexy
bow in her hair. They chased each other around a playground like school kids-her knees on a 
swing; his dizziness from the merry-go-round, staring at stars. She would make him fruit salad-
bananas, strawberries the color of lipstick, apples, the soft flesh of a pear. He gave her the key to
his neon apartment. They talked about having a child: a lemon growing from the size of a dot in
her womb. Everything was comfortable as a good shoe.

Slowly, she wondered about being with someone who knew how to cut corners. He relapsed.,
guzzling donuts while she was at work. She once said, "No heart should be knotted like a pretzel";
he longed to lift the hem of another's orange dress.

—You surprised me when you said you wanted to try new things: amaretto sours, maybe ecstasy,
flirting with the waiter who brought us our bottle of wine. You began with cigarettes, a cloud of
coughs ghosting through the room. I would stand outside, contemplating the maze of sidewalks,
wearing my coat like a cape in the rain.


For this reader Best has done that most difficult of jobs - he made me read beyond my previous areas of interest and he made me like it.  

That's the best trick in the world.

B. J. Best has published two previous poetry titles:  Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press) and State Sonnets (sunnyoutside).

But Our Princess is in Another Castle - Book Trailer 
Video - Malinda Perazzo

B.J. Best reads at AWP offsite reading The Rally
Video - Rose Metal Press

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Iron String - Annie Lighthart

Today's book of poetry:  Iron String.  Annie Lighthart.  Airlie Press.  Monmouth, Oregon, USA. 2013.

          "In our time of greed and distraction, the deep music of the poems of Annie Lighthart
          comes like a balm.  As she tempers truth with tenderness, her figurative language, lit
          from within, has a gracious sufficiency exactly fitted to the need for it.  The next time
          someone asks me what poetry can do, I will give them this book."
                                                                                                     —Eleanor Wilner

International Women's Day demands a female poet and I found a monster.  That's the biggest compliment I can muster.  Annie Lighthart is in Nora Gould territory in my admiration.  Annie Lighthart is a monster poet.  These poems have all the weight in the world - and never feel heavy.

Lighthart has such a deft, delicate touch that the fireworks all take place in the readers imagination.

The Second Music

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it

touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in this music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,

the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,

becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.

I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.


These poems overwhelm the reader in unexpected ways, as though Lighthart had tapped into that language we all know but never speak.  The urgency in these poems is more of an undercurrent, roiling beneath the visible calm surface.

The Hundred Names of Love

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child's voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.


There is an emotional sweeping undertoad in each poem and I am there, caught, completely committed to hearing what Annie Lighthart is going to say next.  The poems I've chosen are at random and for good reason.  I simply couldn't choose among the dozens of poems I wanted to share with you readers.

The current of certainty that sweeps through this first book by Annie Lighthart is a delight, this is confident, knowing poetry.  Lightharts stunningly assured voice never falters or wavers, her knowing and logic are feminine in the matriarchal traditional of sharing, nurturing, caring.


The square I carefully dug between the jack-o'-lantern's teeth
The northernmost point on the ice for which men argued and sailed
My grandfather's third and fourth fingers under the saw
And on a summer night, your back on the warm hood of a car,
the death of everyone you never knew outlined in the space between stars


Synchronicity.  I really wanted to write about a woman poet today and Annie Lighthart's Iron Spring was the next book on the pile.  By chance, I ended up listening to the Icelandic group Sigur Ros this morning as I was working at my desk.  There is an emotional tide in Sigur Ros's music, a gravity that embraces you, pulls you in.  Lighthart's poems offer the same sort of draw, they pull you into the warmth of their gravity.  Ya, all sounds a little to fru-fru.  But here's the rub, it's not, at all.  These very warm, very human poems are both balm and bristle.  Remember I said Ms. Lighthart is a monster, only monster's write this well.

I bristled at not typing out dozens of Lighthart's poems, truly splendid poems — not for you, the reader, but for me.

The Kindness of the Cello

The cello climbs the difficult steps of time with us, it knows
how all things pass, it knows that there are depths to each

moment that we can hardly bear. It plays them for us,
it is a lifting, or an arm around our shoulders. It is

the evening sunlight and the child growing older.
It is the yellow field and the  turning tree, then

it is the fire that stays lit all night, giving such tender
light to your changing face. And even when you cannot,

it remembers you as you have always been, and in
that whole song is both the truth and the mending.


Annie Lighthart is a writer and teacher in Portland, Oregon.  She earned an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts.