Saturday, January 28, 2017

Resisting Arrest, poems to stretch the sky - Edited by Tony Medina (Jacar Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Resisting Arrest, poems to stretch the sky.  Edited by Tony Medina.  Jacar Press.  Durham, North Carolina.  2016.

The anthology Resisting Arrest, poems to stretch the sky is not Black Lives Matter but Today's book of poetry is convinced it may be the most authentic volume that voices the same concerns. The last thing in the world Today's book of poetry wants to do is to 60-year-old-white-mansplain the races issues of the day so I will try to tell you about why these poems matter.

Sometimes the truth is a hard read but these poems propel the reader into a small part of the reality over 40,000,000 Black Americans, over 1,000,000 Black Canadians face daily, systemic racism.

Resisting Arrest reads like poetry as indictment of a broken society.

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,

But songs of insurrection also,

For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.

                                                                                  Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister's heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop's chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede barehanded into the bullets drilling his forehead.

I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking,
words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.

I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
face in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.

- Martin Espada


Today's book of poetry fears my lack of proper perspective from the ivory tower of my entitlement but two years ago I did a reading in Bryn Mawr, just outside of Philadelphia, with Lamont B. Steptoe. Lamont is a Vietnam veteran, a poet, publisher, journalist and so on, his books include Kitchens of the Master (Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books) and Uncle's South Sea China Blue Nightmare (Plan B Press, 2013).  I can't quote from our conversation that evening except to say that it was a privilege to meet the man.  I was able to find the following quote from Lamont during an interview he did with Jordan Green for the American Poets Interview Series:

          "I'm an endangered species in American society.  I feel like a Jew in Berlin
          in 1939.  I grew up in the 50's when there was hope, when people thought
          that with integration we would overcome segregation, that integration
          would solve the problem.  But that's not what happened."

How to Not Get Killed by the NYPD.

When you see the pitch-perfect black 4-door shaded windows roll
up on you, don't grip your wheel. Casually look over your shoulder
as a shaded window slips down. Don't think drive-by. Don't remember
history. It's only the police. Keep your hands on the wheel. In plain
view. It's the police. Keep your hands on the wheel. The light will turn
in your favor. Don't drive off. Keep your hands on the wheel. Wait,
with your left foot pressed hard on the clutch, right foot pressed lightly
on the brake. Hands on the wheel. Raise an eyebrow when the police
officer raises a question: what's the speed limit in New York City? Note:
the correct answer is 30, no matter the street, no matter the avenue.,
no matter the faster moving highway traffic, the answer is 30          30.
Don't ask him to clarify. Don't smile. You are anxious. You will smile.
Don't explain when asked why you're smiling. Don't explain
your explanation when asked why you're explaining. Don't say:
we're blocking the road. Don't say: we're triple-parked.
Don't ask them to clarify the infraction. You are the infraction.
Don't remove your hands for the wheel. Accept
that you were pulled over. Accept the fact of the two fingers patting
the badge. Accept the hostile forehead, the condescension of the mouth.
Accept the fact of the wheel, troubling your hands. Accept their power.
when they repeat: we could give you a summons. Over & over & over
they will repeat this. Summons. Summons. Summons. We could
          give you --.
The light will turn yellow. Red. Don't read the lights as a sign. The light
will turn green again. Don't let them see your jaw set in irritation. Accept
their power. Don't remember the history of police brutality in
          New York. Keep.

your hands in plain view. They shoot you in New York. 41 times.
4 times. In your grandmother's bathroom, they will shoot you. In front
of your house, they will call you burglar and shoot you. Don't remember
any of this. Don't ask them questions. Don't nod your head. Keep
          Your hands
on the wheel. Don't smile. Don't smile. Don't smile. Keep your hands
on the wheel. There is a right answer to their questions: yes, yes, yes, yes,
yes, yes, yes, you have the power, you have the power, you have the
          power, you
have -- Keep your hands on the wheel. Drive off before they arrest you
for sitting too long at a green light. Avoid looking in your rearview
They will not drive off before you. They will haunt you in the daylight.
In their smoke-black 4-door (illegally) tinted windows, they mean
          to haunt.

- Metta Sáma        


Resisting Arrest is hot to the touch and hard to read.  There is no arguing the unassailable truths in these poems, they shower down like a hard rain.  These poems are gut-punch certain and so damned sad that you want to turn back time.

Editor Tony Medina has done an extraordinary thing here, he has brought articulate and impassioned reason and wrapped it in "a terrible beauty", Medina has amassed "Hearts with one purpose alone."

Red Summer, 2015

The year
is 2015
Nine holy martyrs are shot
by a man with a scheme
He was nurtured and
weaned on
a textbook of lies
in which slavers and
killers reigned
Jefferson Davis
Nathan Bedford Forrest
and Robert E. Lee.

The devil entered
Vesey's church
disguised as a youth
But the children of god
recognized a hoof
could smell his soot
but clung to their vow
not to give strangers
the sinner's boot

They invited him in
to join them in prayer
and so powerful was their
prayer with its African roots
after Daniel Roof completed
his assignment from hell
He said their prayer
almost got to me
almost turned me
said he
Almost bought
the devil to the mourner's
His mind full of bile
he came to defile
A mother played dead
in the blood of her child.

a child was shot down
while holding a toy
The police asked questions
but nobody was blamed
The stars in his eyes went
dim in the day
he lay on the pavement
where children played games

A man was shot in the
while running away
The shooter took aim
as though he were game
the demons are partying
with their buddies, the
fiends, and having a good
drinking bad whiskey
and drinking bad wine

Red Summer
the year is
For making ends meet
by selling cigs loose
or making a lane change
they will give you the noose
His neck was crushed
in the back of a van
he got "the wild ride"
he could breathe no more
They found her dead on
the jailhouse floor
A grand jury looked
and issued a tome
They blessed the killers
and allowed them to roam.
Go and kill again the
suburbs said,
we got
your back when you shoot
a black in the back

When Dorsey got news
that both wife and child were
that's our mood
in this summer of dread
The spirit was his guide
when he wrote that great song
but who is the god
who will take our hand
and who is the god
who will lead us on?

"Don't you get weary"
Martin said when he
spoke of his dream
His words have kept us
from drowning in screams
in this bloody summer
of 2015
Where killers and murderers
reign supreme and
demons are partying with their
buddies the fiends, and having
a good time
drinking cheap whiskey
and drinking Ripple

You brought down the flag
you all joined hands and
but you still have
highways and buildings
honoring those who
committed high crimes
Who didn't want people to
be free
Jefferson Davis
Nathan Bedford Forrest
and Robert E. Lee.

- Ishmael Reed


Today's morning read was a somber and serious affair.  Sometimes all you have to offer, as a reader, is respect.  We read the poems in Resisting Arrest, poems to stretch the sky and then Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, suggested that as measure of that respect we include all of the poets from the anthology in today's blog.

Lamont B. Steptoe does not appear in this blog but we met him through our great friend Frank "Chui" Fitzgerald and thought our Philadelphia conversation added some perspective.  Today's book of poetry takes our hat off to Lamont.

Here are the voices you'll get to hear in Resisting Arrest:

Jane Alberdeston Coralin
Abdul Ali
Lauren K. Alleyne
T.J. Anderson III
Jabari Asim
b: william bearhart
Zeina Hashem Beck
Tara Betts
Roger Bonair-Agard
Derrick Weston Brown
Jericho Brown
Mahogany L. Browne
Ana Castillo
Ching-In Chen
James Cherry
Kwame Dawes
Joel Dias-Porter
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
Mark Doty
Michell L.H. Douglas
Rita Dove
Cornelius Eady
Kelly Norman Ellis
Martin Espada
Adam Falkner
Malcolm Friend
Ross Gay
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Brian Gilmore
Keith Gilyard
Veronica Golos
Jaki Shelton Green
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Minal Hajratwala
Joy Harjo
Niki Herd
Everett Hoagland
Rashidah Ismaili
Esther Iverem
Reuben Jackson
Patricia Spears Jones
Quincy Scott Jones
Allison Joseph
Douglas Kearney
Ruth Ellen Kocher
Yusef Komunyakaa
Nile Lansana
Raina J. Leon
Kenji C. Liu
Haki R. Madhubuti
devorah major
Jamaal May
Tony Medina
Kamilah Aisha Moon
Thylias Moss
Ricardo Nazario y Colon
Marilyn Nelson
Rae Paris
Boa Phi
Khadijah Queen
Camille Rankine
Ishmael Reed
Tennessee Reed
Kim Roberts
Metta Sama
Sonia Sanchez
Jon Sands
Danny Simmons
Marilyn Singer
giovanni singleton
Lynne Thompson
Venus Thrah
Askia M. Toure'
Quincy Troupe
Frank X Walker
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Afaa Michael Weaver
Marvin K. White
Phillip B. Williams
L. Lamar Wilson

This choir of poets will bring down the house.  Their harmonies so beautiful and complex you can almost stop believing that they are screaming for their lives.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.  Damned right they do.

Jacar Press may have produced the most important book of poetry you'll see this year.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Immortality - Alan Feldman (University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Immortality.  Alan Feldman.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2015.
Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry

Alan Feldman reads like the gentlest of men but that doesn't stop him from taking you to the deep end of the pool.  Immortality is an emotional assault without aggression or violence.

Alan Feldman reads like the wisest of men.  These poems have that uncanny warmth you feel around a stranger whom you know is going to become a friend.

Alan Feldman reads like a poet bursting at the seams with loving reason and even seasoned hope.

The Afterlife

There's a lot of light in her apartment,
falling on the rented hospital bed.
I've been told the dying like to be held,
so, though we're just friends, I make myself
hold her hand, as if the conversation is final,
matters more than others, though most have mattered.

She's seen a couple of rabbis, who were helpful.
It seems there are Jewish angels. (Why argue?)
And she likes the story I brought her,
"The Death of Ivan Ilych," how before the end
he learns so much nobody knows about,
except the reader.

"So many faces," she says of the people who came
for the songfest yesterday evening, over a hundred
crowded into this little place. "Each face a flower.
Each face..." and here she pauses
(the medicines are affecting her word retrieval?)
"so full of memories."

It all makes a strange image in my head:
faces that aren't faces, but wide open,
as if she's discovering that she's lived
everything they have -- centuries
more than she thought.

"Our life in others," I remind her,
citing Pasternak, "that is our immortality."
But she knows that doesn't go far enough.

I'm glad she's thinking of her own afterlife,
since not being alive is, apparently, unthinkable
on the brink of it happening, a kind of shallowness
to imagine it's merely like going to sleep,
though lately her dreams have been so vivid:
an all-night argument with her sister about a dog,
over what color it should be, white or black.

Outside the weather appears to be changeable,
I'm dying to go out there, on the small terrace.

"Go out on the terrace," she says, "before you leave.
The view is wonderful."


Reading Immortality reminds Today's book of poetry of what it is we truly love about poetry.  We like to be moved by words.  We like our heart to pound in our chest when we read something we have just discovered but know to be true. 

These smart, smart poems avoid any melodrama or fuss, emotional or otherwise, with intelligent humour and a sensitive dash of pathos.  Whatever the emotional temperature called for, Feldman knows how to dial it in.

Feldman starts his conversation with the reader with his rejection of a suggested mantra, a plea from a friend to "drop the personal."  Today's book of poetry is familiar with that strident battle cry and is pleased to report that Feldman went the other way.

These are deeply personal poems full of universal good intent, maybe even a moral imperative. Today's book of poetry is never sure of anything but we're pretty certain about Feldman's Immortality.

Watch Battery

Who knows if my father ever thought
what Montaigne's father did: That every city
should have a place where people in need
could go to meet. How somewhere
a man is starving, and another with a surplus
would grieve if he only knew, and offer the man
a modest but reasonable living. That giving man
could have been my father. Not grieving, perhaps,
but regretful he couldn't be of more help --
a man you could trust to fix things.

Like the man who helped the watchmaker
fix my watch. How, when he couldn't decide
how to loosen the clasp that holds in the battery,
itself no bigger than a small coin,
without breaking it, he turned to someone
more experienced -- a Dutchman, actually,
who seemed happy to demonstrate this very skill,
and upload it to YouTube. Demonstrate it
with a camera in his lap, so we could see his two hands
familiarly, competently, and rapidly
opening the watch to replace the battery,
the way a father would automatically retie his son's shoes.

And there was also his calm voice with its accent,
like the woodcarver's in Pinnocchio,
telling the confused and despairing who were ready
to lose patience and snap the band holding the battery
and ruin the watch -- the watch that could keep running --
how to prolong its life by exercising patience,
the very quality my dad had in abundance,
that quality I always loved him for, of solving the problem
without getting exasperated. Though it's unfair
he didn't have parents like that himself.
Or that -- when the amount of pain rose to be greater
than any pleasure he'd be able to feel --
the little watch-sized defibrillator near his heart
wouldn't simply stop, and let him go.


Feldman's Immortality has travel poems for those that need to go somewhere and political poems for people who need to politicize.  There's a great kick at Walter Cronkite's can in a sailboat poem tart as the lemon and gin in a sunset cocktail.  

This morning's reading was attended by our bon ami Alexandre whose enthusiasm and energy gave us all a lift.  Immortality read like the best parts of a story you've been waiting to hear.  Odin, our quiet right hand man, made it clear he liked these poems and then he gave the room a solid once over, looked everyone in the eye.  Kathryn and Milo both read with warmth and grace, just like the poems asked for.

In November

When my daughter calls
and I can hear her baby
crying in the back seat
and she asks, "Dad, would you mind if I stop by
for a quick diaper change and feeding?" --

I'm so glad I picked up the phone,
glad I hadn't set off on my walk,
and quite soon I see her car rolling into the driveway,
and the baby is stretching open her little mouth
and wailing, as babies do --
so enraged not to be able to speak,
not even to be able to think this or that is wrong
except that the whole universe is wrong.

And when they're settled in the little bedroom off the kitchen,
and the baby is suckling noisily,
and then, contented once more,
rolling both eyes, not always in the same direction --
mother and baby in the bedroom
where my daughter herself was once diapered and fed --

I feel so thankful for never having strayed very far
into the wide world, never having served
in the foreign wars of my time, and grief for fathers
who do, the ones swaddled in flags --
maybe because yesterday was Veterans Day,
and though she says she's never done this before,
my daughter tells me she called up a soldier's family she knew
just to say she'd been thinking of them, just hoping
the war we have now will end soon.

And the thin November light is straining through the window curtains
we've never changed,
and I feel thankful for my years right here in this house
the way I imagine a tree might feel thankful
if it were given an opportunity to roam around the world--

how it might say, "So good of you, but no thank you,
where would the birds be without me here? --
the ones that fly back unpredictably
to perch in my thinning hair,
this and every November."


Ronald Wallace and the University of Wisconsin Press consistently send Today's book of poetry crackerjack fare.  Alan Feldman is a new discovery for Today's book of poetry and already we are a devoted admirer.

Alan Feldman

Alan Feldman is the author of several collections of poetry, including Immortality (2015), winner of the Four Lakes Prize; A Sail to Great Island (2004), winner of Pollak Prize for Poetry; and The Happy Genius (1978), winner of the annual George Elliston Book Award for the best collection published by a small, U.S. non-profit press. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and Kenyon Review, among many other magazines, and included in The Best American Poetry anthology in 2001 and 2011. Feldman's recent work appears in Hanging Loose, Cimarron Review, upstreet, Southern Review, Yale Review, Salamander, Southwest Review, Cincinnati Review, Catamaran, Worcester Review, and online in Boston Poetry Magazine and Cortland Review. His poem "A Man and A Woman" was featured in Tony Hoagland's 2013 article for Harper's, "Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America."

Feldman was a professor and chair of English at Framingham State University, and for 22 years taught the advanced creative writing class at Harvard University's Radcliffe Seminars. He offers free, drop-in poetry workshops at the Framingham (MA) public library near his home, and in the summer at the Wellfleet library.

“Alan Feldman is our greatest American poet of the household and family, as a loving, growing, struggling, and essential institution. He manifests the kind of love we rarely see in our poetry, and this familial love pours into the world around him. I am personally thankful every time I read an Alan Feldman poem, and Immortality, the book you are holding in your hands right now, makes us understand that immortality lies all about us, in everything we experience as a human being.”
     — Bill Zavatsky, author of Where X Marks the Spot

“A richly engaged, near flawless collection. Like those magic mineral waters pumped from deep in the earth, Feldman’s poems can cure emotional arthritis and ventilate the soul. Better poems than these cannot be written in this confiding, intelligent humanist mode.”
     — Tony Hoagland, author of Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Sweet Ruin

“These poems enact with grace and intelligence the process by which one comes to possess the life one is actually living. This is an enlarging journey that no reader of poetry will want to miss, offering the pleasures of discovery every step of the way.”
     — Carl Dennis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Practical Gods

“Alan Feldman’s poems offer the companionship of a witty, thoughtful, sometimes bewildered friend testing his life in language; telling it all. This is a heartening, deeply satisfying collection from a seasoned poet at the top of his game.”
     — Linda V. Bamber, author of Taking What I Like

Alan Feldman
reading In November
Video: Nan Hass Feldman


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Conditionals - Peter Gibbon (bird,buried | press)

Today's book of poetry:
Conditionals.  Pete Gibbon.  bird, buried | press.  Peterborough, Ontario.  2016.


Conditionals really only suffers from one minor flaw - it is not long enough.  Today's book of poetry was up for more of this smart stuff.  Today's book of poetry felt strangely at home in Pete Gibbon world even though I've never been to Korea or Australia.  We liked every poem in this too short collection from bird, buried | press.

Gibbon runs us through his adventures working and travelling abroad, laments relationships and pines for his next sip.  The important thing is that these narrative and somewhat confessional poems work. You feel an easy connection to these poems, Gibbon allows for easy access.

Crust Of Wanderlust

Sunglasses were invented for years like these.
Trying to be Aussie, walk to beach barefoot;
by the end, a bloody heel.

In New South Wales most ideas for poems are nightmares. Travel stories make
terrible poetry; expats, terrible love.

As a stagehand I learn shoptalk, but never use it.
Packing trucks American is half-full.
No that Yanks are lazy, but semis, like anything else in Australia, are larger.

After New South Wales, I wash the sunlight off my feet. When you pack road cases
wheels-to-god they mean bottoms up.

Salt water, sunscreen. Never feeling clean. Making sure your knapsack is shut.

What makes me miss my friends the most: sitting on a patio, drinking beer.
And they, back home, doing the same.


Pete Gibbon is closely associated with a small cadre of young poets that at one time all resided in Ottawa.  They've scattered but the group included Justin Million, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Bardia Sinaee & Ben Ladouceur among others.  Today's book of poetry is convinced that future conversations about poetry in Canada will include a number of these names.

And of this group Gibbon may be the most easily accessible.  His poems are unadorned and entertaining, non-sequined but rock solid.


The young women are closing curtains.
Senior couples utter nonsense.

Ajoshis are sore balls
smoking cigarettes
long & thin.

Six foot tall folk statues of penises with penises
for arms, penis arms with penises... all these penises
guard old Seoul.

Statistics disclose 41 Koreans kills themselves
every day. Parents mourn
their country's dwindling birth rate.

Vagabondage (n): Wanderlust's tired
crippled cousin.

Maybe I've become complacent
or my shoes have almost worn out.

Codes lapse
in the time it takes to replace buildings
or print maps.

Maybe things are changing in Korea
but I've only lived in Seoul.


Our morning reading included readings from Pete Gibbon's dandy little Apt. 9 Press chapbook Eating Thistles (2010).  Milo, our head tech, has been going to the stacks and bringing back whatever he can find on the poet of the day.  So this morning when Milo came into the office with Gibbon's earlier work Today's book of poetry was tickled.  There is nothing as helpful as perspective.

Today's book of poetry is convinced these two chapbooks are warning shots across the bow of bigger things to come.  

Today's book of poetry also wanted to comment briefly about bird, buried | press, in good old Peterborough.  Today's book of poetry grew up in Peterborough, mostly, and has never seen a Peterborough chapbook that looked quite this good.  If this is the standard bird, buried | press intends to maintain it means Peterborough finally has a small press of distinction.  


if I am aged a full 30 years
               why do I get sad on days off & cry watching The Avengers

if a sci-fi actor watches their own movies
               why don't they go mad from the dreams

if my parents are hiding grant rejections from us when we visit
               are they leaving drafts of their wedding speech around, including an acrostic
               of your name

if I refer to you as my forever-person
               am I being politically correct
               or am I pretty sure we'll be together my whole life

did I use "pretty sure"
               because I'm scared to death
               or I know life is mutable

if I swallowed vinegar
               would I be clean inside & never drink again

if we have the same rash
               can I scratch yours & be satisfied?


Today's book of poetry is convinced that Gibbon has a big book or two in his future. Conditionals should confirm that for anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a copy.

Image result for photo pete gibbon poet
Pete Gibbon
(with Dingo)

Pete Gibbon is a Canadian poet. His last chapbook, Eating Thistles was published by Apt. 9 Press (Ottawa) 1n 2010.  Since 2010, he has lived in South Korea, Australia and Toronto. He is also the author of an ongoing limited series of graphic fiction about the life of Canadian author Marian Engel with friend/poet/illustrator Tanya Decarie.



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Between Lives - Nilofar Shidmehr (Oolichan Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Between Lives.  Nilofar Shidmehr.  Oolichan Books.  Fernie, British Columbia.  2014.

Women are marching all over the world today and Today's book of poetry salutes each and every one of them.  

Nilofar Shidmehr is an Iranian-Canadian poet with a considerable voice to add to the choir. 

Between Lives a second book of poetry from Nilofar Shidmehr could find purchase on any number of different poetry shelves.  This book could easily be considered a book of feminist poetry and thoroughly at home in Women's Studies, just as easily Between Lives could be on a Diaspora Poets shelf.

Nilofar Shidmehr seems fearless when she reveals the true life of women in the Iran of her youth. Shidmehr's poems are heavy with a flaming authenticity, crystal clear in focus and heartbreaking when you feel the crippling burden of gender.


Under the knife blade
my mother's broken hand in a sling,
purple peels fall
over the face of the counter.

Her swollen cheek is marked
by a bruise, the shape of an eggplant,.
She tilts over to check if the meat
is soft. The oil leaps up, scalds.
She pulls back, leans on a crutch hidden
under the torn wing of her white chador.
I see the scratches on her neck
as she turns her head. The wooden spatula
slips from her fingers onto the floor.

She bends to pick it up, but I reach out first,
snap up the spatula, flinging it into the basin.
Do you know who are you cooking for?
I yell at my mother, shoving her aside,
taking her place at the stove. 
He loves his Baademjaan, deep-fried,
she whispers, with tears in her charcoal eyes.

The stew simmers slowly.
But I turn my head away and hold
onto the image from the week past
swirling around, again, in my head --

Feet tangled in the hem of her chador;
my father, leaning over the banister,
slips his hands back in his pockets,
watching as she rolls down the stairs, still alive.


Shidmehr brings us moments of gentle humour, uninhibited passion and matrimonial bliss as well as some of the other kind.  But in Between Lives the real focus is elsewhere.  Between Lives opens up the tribulations of giving up your culture, your home, your past, the place of your birth and jumping into an entirely different life in another land.  We are reminded that the cultural shock and toll is only a small part of the immigrant/refugee story.  Most of us will never experience that sort of isolation, that split from family, history and those left behind.

Make no mistake, Today's book of poetry was blown away time and time again by the candor in Nilofar Shidmehr's remarkable poems.  Shidmehr reveals more than we expect and to marvelous effect, she goes beyond lifting the veil, we get a look beyond the proverbial chador and right into the mind's eye of a woman facing enormous struggles who is both observant and outraged.

Racing Back to the Time When My Daughter Was Born

I am at the gym on Life Fitness,
my daughter's arrival from Iran
only six days away --
my girl who arrived
in this world twenty-three years ago.

When I start exercising, my heart
rate is at 100: the same as
a hundred-year-old's
working to her maximum capacity.
On the chart, I look at the rate
for young hearts like my Saaghar's: 160.

And then I think about my own heart,
about how it's going to race
the moment when Saaghar will emerge
from Customs -- dragging a bag
and looking for the woman
from who she had emerged --
an umbilical cord dragging
behind her -- a cord
that had to be cut
for her life to go on.

I continue to go on running
on Life Fitness and my heart beat
picks up, echoing in my mind
hers from more than two decades ago,
coming through the stethoscope at my gynecologist's:
it sounded as if I had a horse inside me,
galloping full force ahead in my veins,
the rhythm of her hooves ringing
in the curves of my skin.

That sound sewed me to Saaghar,
despite an unwanted pregnancy
because of a slight displacement
of the diaphragm my gynecologist had placed
one day after our wedding -- the same trusted woman
gynecologists who had also confirmed
the existence of a hymen without which
there could be no marriage.

Another doctor, however,
Mr. Aaryaanpour, had arrived at the delivery room
after ten hours of excruciating pain,
because he had decided to ignore
nine phone calls from the head-midwife, begging him
to leave the gambling party he was at
and immediately attend to his patient
whose cervix was not opening enough
for the baby to come out.

He was the one who cut me open
and delivered that beating heart inside me,
who then transformed to a bruised
black-haired baby.
My husband had forced me to change
that once-trusted-woman-gynecologist
in the seventh month, because she had suggested a C-section,
and gave her professional opinion
that I was not a good candidate for natural delivery.
My sister-in-law, Ashraf, had insisted
that a woman who did not experience pain
at childbirth could not be a good mother.

Her words became the seeds
of a small dispute which grew
larger every day and after nine months
was delivered in the shape of a premature divorce.
Ashraf then said that a bad mother
is not entitled to the custody
of her brother's child and had to, without delay,
be separated from the newborn.

From my husband's mouth, her words
were thrown at me like stones.
The blows were so severe that I cannot
even remember how with my remaining
strength, I managed to pull myself out from that hold
of pain and escape, so today, on February 13, 2013,
more than twenty years later,
I am in Vancouver on Life Fitness
running again with all my strength
to get me heart beat closer
to my daughter's: to 160.

The chart on the machine informs me
that the more people age, the more
their heart rate and the age match up:
this is good news for me, I'd imagine,
my daughter's heart and mine
perhaps are closer now compared
to the time she was yet undelivered--
at that time no matter how much my heart
beat fast, it could not even get close
to the dust rising from the hooves
of that horse that I imagined
was inside me, galloping forward.

But now that there is a hope, an opportunity,
an opening, I smile at my pulsating
image in the glass;
now that her heart has slowed down
and mine is speeding up;
now that she is about to arrive
at the place where I live.

Still I have to run faster
our hearts are twenty points apart --
I have to run faster
even though I have raced
for many years to meet
the moment when she will arrive
again, like a newborn, in my arms.


This morning's read was another spirited adventure.  I had called our researcher Otis into the office this morning to translate the few lines of Farsi in Shidmehr's text.  It's good to have a cat like Otis on staff, he speaks Farsi, Italian, Russian, at least one kind of Chinese but I can't remember if it is Mandarin or Cantonese, French and so on.  Otis informed me this morning that he was heading to Sicily for a couple of months and he was doing it Wednesday.  Today's book of poetry will be sad to see him go and jealous for his adventure.

More importantly Otis was able to impart some context on Iran and knowing what Otis knows it was reassuring when he sized up his reading of Between Lives and declared that Shidmehr was not only the real deal in every way but a very brave real deal.  Today's book of poetry had no doubts but it is always nice to get things confirmed by a pro.

This Drunken Russian Man Intends on Peeing,

opens his fly,
bravely and pulls

his small change out

as if yanking something as precious
as an American Dollar.

Facing a wall as high as Tsarist Russia
before Communism, he releases himself,

humming an old heroic song,

while fissures on the wall,
now fresh and satiated, sing along

to a melody that scores
the sudden collapse of the Tsardom.

Shaken, I stand there too,

as I eye the man,
and wish I could be like him--

fly foolish
before everything falls apart,

singing along,

with, I, too, could display
my crack so openly.


Today's book of poetry marvelled at how Shidmehr was able to handle the difficult elephants in her complicated life with such charm and aplomb.  Shidmehr, as a woman, as a feminist or as an immigrant, does not need the approval of men like me.  But men like me sure hope the rest of you get a chance to read Between Lives.  Dignity comes at a mighty stiff price for some people.  Nilofar Shidmehr has turned hers into poetry that is smart and confident, she has turned it into hope.

Nilofar Shidmehr

Nilofar Shidmehr is an Iranian-Canadian poet, writer and a scholar of arts-based qualitative research focused on poetic inquiry. Her first book of poetry in English Shirin and Salt Man was nominated for a BC Book Prize in 2009 and her first book of poetry in Farsi Two Nilofars: Before and After Migration has received worldwide recognition among the expatriate Iranian community. Nilofar is a cultural and educational activist and a part of the Iranian women’s movement.

Nilofar earned a PhD in education and an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her next scholarly project is to investigate how the lyrical and performative modes of inquiry can be included in discourse analysis, literary criticism, and critical reading and writing practices to integrate and advance literacy. Her next creative project is to write a collection of short stories about the lives of Iranians in Iran and Canada. She lives in Yaletown with her husband.
"The voice of Nilofar Shidmehr's poetry moves restlessly between two imagined lives: one, a life rooted in the past and in Iran, a life of strict gendered expectations but also of continuity and familiarity; the other, a life in Canada, relatively uncompromised by gender segregation, but yet still troubled by the pain of exile and others' prejudice. These poems speak plainly of mothers, of daughters, of lovers, but always beneath each simple story is the pulse of an intelligent, sensuous desire. These poems are feminist, moist, fragrant! Each word bursts, ripe in the mouth, like pomegranate."
    - Sonnet L'Abbé (Canadian Poet and Critic, Winner of Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award, 2000)

"In this stirring collection Between Lives, Shidmehr's direct voice and unflinching gaze put her among such great activist poets as Martin Espada, Dionne Brand, and Pablo Neruda. With a clear gaze and arresting imagery. Shidmeher brings to light the violence and injustice of women's lives in Iran and in the diaspora. Fully wrought and deeply personal, this is a necessary book by an accomplished writer.
     ~Elizabeth Bachinsky, nominee for Governor General's Award for English-language poetry

"These poems are the untold stories of contemporary Persian women's lives, lives portrayed with intimacy and lyricism, despite their subjugation. These are poetics meditations that only a poet simultaneously intimate with a place, and exiled from it, can offer. In this book, men and women are like 'fire and cotton,' and must be kept apart; they are 'flammable with the slightest spark.' Nilofer Shidmehr's poems burn with a fierce, haunting fire.
     - Rachel Rose, Winner, Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry 2013



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Man Under My Skin - Juliana Gray (River City Publishing)

Today's book of poetry:
The Man Under My Skin.  Juliana Gray.  River City Poetry Series, Volume Five.  River City Publishing.  Montgomery, Alabama.  2005.

Today's book of poetry has never met Juliana Gray and knows next to nothing about her but we would bet serious money that Juliana Gray adores Carson McCullers almost as much as we do.  It could be entirely fanciful thinking on our dimwitted behalf but The Man Under My Skin could easily be a book the grown up Mick Kelly might have written after she walked out of McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.

These poems are the keenest sort of observational poems you can get, they look right through to cold hard truth. Juliana Gray navigates a romance in the Mississippian wilderness, sad poverty, the internal dialogue of a child-killer, and so on, always with an air of knowing grace/gravitas.


Hard to think of it as organ, mass
of tissue like the liver, lungs or heart,
a bodily machine performing tasks
designed to keep the world and flesh apart.
Its beauty is an accident, its gloss
and dimpled softness, pallor and heated rose--
this silken radiance comes at the loss
of spikes or armored scales. We're all exposed.
Yet like those other human engines, the skin
betrays itself with ailments, tailor-made
diseases, blights that turn the porcelain
complexion to a withered masquerade.
And like the heart, it suffers from too much
of what it lives on, dying to be touched.


Today's book of poetry felt at home with the poems in The Man Under My Skin, these are poems with characters that are familiars, some of them have their eye on the ball, some are doomed to worse fates.  Gray has a darkish sense of humour.  Today's book of poetry is convinced all good writers from the American South have a big old Gothic Devil/Angel dyad firmly on their shoulder.

Gray can be playful but she's the cat and you're the mouse.  These poems are intense and fully formed but they are never predictable.

To a Five-Cent Package of Writing Paper

All the children in my father's class
drew names, and all the kids but one -- the boy
who had drawn my father -- brought their gifts to the tree.
The teacher, realizing they were short,
rifled her desk for something a boy might like.
All she found was you. He fingered the band
that held you, the Christmas gift, together. Then
my third-grade father saw that he was poor.

My sister, and I were overcome with gifts
we could not name and which he loved to explain --
puzzles, boomerangs, a bamboo flute.
He told me his Christmas story one of those nights
when he felt he could trust me, a glass of scotch in his hand.
His gift to me: an inherited sense of shame,
history, the futility of wealth.


It was Grand Central Station in our offices this morning and it is continuing into the afternoon.  As a result our morning read was a somewhat condensed affair but that didn't stop Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, from knocking several of Juliana Gray's fine poems out of the proverbial park.

The Man Under My Skin reads like the kind of confession a slight fever can elicit, passionate and warm to the touch.

Wanton Soup

Don't think of it as misprint, a menu slip
of a Chinese tongue. In fact, don't think at all.
The silken waitress watches, reads our lips
sounding out desire in whispered drawls.
She calls to the kitchen for number sixty-nine
and chooses serving bowls of scarlet lacquer,
enamel chopsticks, spoons, two cups of wine,
a dish of chiles bright as firecrackers.
The wait's an agony of subtle touch,
a glance, a brush, the work of seeming chaste.
We bite our lips, holding back so much
desire, aching, dying for a taste.
At last we drink our bowls of piping broth,
unzip and grope beneath the tablecloth.


The Man Under My Skin was published in 2005.  More recently Juliana Gray has published a second book of poetry, Roleplay (Dream Horse Press, 2012), which won the 2010 Orphic Prize.

Today's book of poetry will continue to blog about "older" titles as well as the most recent releases as long as publishers will send them to us.  We are still convinced that until you read a book the first time it is going to be new to you.

 Juliana at West Chester_crop
Julian Gray
Photograph by poet Catherine Staples

A native of Alabama, Juliana Gray teaches at Auburn University. During the summers, she works on the staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is the author of the chapbook History in Bones, published in 2001 by Kent State University Press as part of its Wick Poetry Series. Her poems have been published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Yalobusha Review, Sundog, Poetry East, The Formalist, The Louisville Review, Stories From the Blue Moon Café Volume III, and The Alumni Grill 2. Samples of her creative non-fiction can be found in River Teeth, and Cornbread Nation 2.

"The poems in The Man Under My Skin are fully imagined and keenly observant, funny and passionate, unpredictable and, in their formal poise, just right. Juliana Gray writes about fundamental issues of loving and being loved, of happiness or acceptance in the midst of loss, of community in the midst of isolation, or isolation in the midst of community. Her imagination is restless, big-hearted, mature, intense. Her wit is dry but never arid. A beautiful book in its own right, The Man Under My Skin marks the opening of a significant career."
     - Alan Shapiro

"The sights, smells, tastes, and touches of the South, my South, are everywhere present in Juliana Gray's poems. But most poignant are the measured rhythms, tonal modulations, and considered words -- all familiar sounds that echo here. Reading Gray brings to mind a summer evening on a front porch, the steady creaking of a comfortable rocker, the clink of ice cubes in a glass, and a voice -- warm, witty, wicked, and wise -- speaking from neighborly dark."
     - R.S. Gwynn

Juliana Gray
Roleplay Poetry Reading
Video: Alfred University Bergren Forum



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nineteen Fifty-Seven - Jim McLean (Coteau Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Nineteen Fifty-Seven.  Jim McLean.  Coteau Books.  Regina, Saskatchewan. 2016.

Jim McLean isn't about to concede an inch to fashion.  Nineteen Fifty-Seven reads like someone stepped on a very articulate cat's tail.  This is tough-guy caterwauling of the highest order. McLean isn't in a bad mood in every poem but there is a Joe Btfsplk at the corner of every page and a devil on his shoulder.

These poems are train yard secrets, hobo's taunts and Moose Jaw lullabies.  McLean has some serious narrative gifts and these poems let him show it.  McLean's Nineteen Fifty-Seven is packed to the rafters with salty wisdom.

Heartbreak Hotel

R. Smith & Sons contracted for the railway,
feeding the gangs of men who came each spring

from the unemployment lines and the jails
and the reserves and the soup kitchens and River Street

to lay steel in the raw early mornings with their pitiable
shabby suit coats and soft, mushy shoes,

a few with caps.
The foremen were tough and seasoned and had to be,

it was still, back then, a long journey
from Moose Jaw to Chaplin, Old Jim,

the cook, was ex-army, 77 years old, his muscle
turned soft, turned to fat, he used to say with regret.

Up at five every morning, first thing he taught me
was not to lean my elbows on the wash stand

when I scrubbed my face in the early dawn.
It was a military thing, I guess, and he would grunt

with satisfaction to see me bend at the waist,
elbows up, over the enameled basin.

It was easy for me to give him that.
He was a pretty good old guy, Polish,

he said he was. He watched, let you show him
what you were made of.

Bill was just about as old as the cook,
skinny as a rail, with a wife at home.

No business being there,
except he needed the money, I guess.

We'd peel potatoes together every morning
for the noon meal and again in the afternoon

to get ready for supper, and talk a bit.
We'd eat our meal after the men

had gone back to the track
or to their bunks at the end of the working day

and Bill would always eat too much,
as if he was trying to store it up,

yet he never put on any weight, he'd just
get sick and then be sorry.

Bill treated me all right
and I liked him but I never wanted

to get that old and be that poor. It was 1956
and I was a kid and on my own out there.

The cook liked the way I could carry whole sides
of beef, his own strength gone,

and he gave me lots of other things to do
but my main job was to wash dishes

I washed those dishes from the meals of those hundred
or more men three times a day

with water hauled from the tender and heated
boiling hot on the stove and I sang

alone, away from everybody, at the top of my lungs
with my hands in the soapy water up to my elbows

every song I knew, Hank Snow and Williams
The Platters and Webb Pierce and I can't remember them all

and, of course, Heartbreak Hotel, by that new guy,
that I played every day on the juke-box

in the Chaplin Cafe beside the tracks when I bought a Coke
and sat on a stool like teen-agers you would see

on television and learned all the words for singing later
away from everybody


Any poet who hearkens the spirits of William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and Charles Bukowski is going to get a piece of my time.  Throw in an entirely sweet 80th birthday ode to the King, Elvis Aaron Presley and Today's book of poetry is a your new fan.

Jim McLean travels back and forth in time with these poems, we see him as a young man and earning the regrets he'll carry later and then full circle we hear the mature older man's wisdom.  McLean's hero carries some heavy water in these poems but there are no "woe is me" moments.  McLean is old school all the way.

My Brother, Who I Looked Out for
When We Were Kids

it was the tenth or the fiftieth
or the hundredth time
we brought him to the house
and called his sponsor who didn't even want
to bother with him any more he said
he just want to kill himself, there's nothing
you can do

and it was true, he looked like death, his skin
translucent, waxy     I said
you've got to get straight, get a job
and he laid there on the couch and said
I can't work out in the cold
I need an office job, an executive job
and that was bad, because I knew then
how hopeless things were

and he promised, for the hundredth time
to stop drinking and to go to the meetings
and we piled groceries into bags
and I drove him to the place where he lived
Wong said he owed last month's rent
and I paid that and the next month in advance
and I made him give me a receipt

he sold the groceries
because somebody saw him an hour later on the street
with his woman and said
by the way they were falling down
they must have got hold of something
it was a thing to crush you
we couldn't do anything and we couldn't stop trying

finally, my father came down from the Coast
he ended up drinking with him, told us
we didn't do anything to help him
when he said that he was lucky he was my father
he bought two tickets, took him back
to Vancouver on the train
afterward he wrote a letter, saying things
hadn't worked out saying he'd been
wrong, saying he'd left and he didn't
know where he was

a long time later he wrote again telling us
about how he'd come across
a newspaper item, just a few lines
buried in a back page that said he died
alone in some flophouse and that the city
had buried him as having
no known next of kin

I wrote my father a letter, he needed something
was looking for something
from me and told him we all had tried
I said he had taken that wrong turn
and but for the grace of God
it could have been me
it was nobody's fault


Today's book of poetry had a good time rooting through Nineteen Fifty-Seven because Mclean doesn't really ever take his foot off of the gas.  These poems pound through the gears and when you come out the other side you know you've been taken for ride.  This is a robust read filled with characters you've already met, people you already know.  McLean's tales are writ large and aren't afraid to stomp their feet as they march across the page.

McLean's Nineteen Fifty-Seven both convinces and reminds Today's book of poetry of just how beautifully horrible we humans can be to each other and how redemption is only a poem away.

My Father's Hat

I bought a hat, a fedora
and bent down the brim

on the front right side and trained it
with a binder clip

The first time my sister saw it she said
My God, you look just like Dad

and I looked in the mirror
and she was right

and I thought about all those
little pieces of paper he used to fill

with strange cryptic columns
of numbers and I thought about

how one day he threw everything away
his job, years of service

sold the house, moved us far away
from our school and our friends

like we were being punished for something
like he was punishing himself

It was hard at first
but we were young and resilient

and bounced back, some of us
and I learned not to blame him

or myself or the world and searched
until I found all the little pieces

and put them back together and never
threw away anything important

and I remembered, years later
stopping to visit him in Vancouver

sitting mostly silent until a decent interval
had passed, getting up, saying

I wanted to walk along English Bay
while I was here and he, surprising me

offered I'll go with you
and as we watched the tide he said

You've done all right for yourself
which is about as close as he ever came.


Jim McLean must be one tough old son of a B, there is some hard railroading in these poems, the toughest kind of love.  It's clear McLean kissed the wrong gal once or twice and feels some sort of way about it.  This is hearty, vibrant and compelling narrative poetry with a brylcreemed ducktail full of memory on the side.

Image result for jim mclean poet photo
Jim McLean

Jim McLean had a long career with Canadian Pacific Railway and with Transport Canada, living and working in various Canadian locations. He is an original member of the Moose Jaw Movement poetry group, and his work has appeared in magazines and anthologies and on CBC Radio. He is the author of The Secret Life of Railroaders and co-author of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. His illustrations have appeared on book covers and in several literary and scientific publications.

Jim McLean
reading Elvis Agonistes
from Nineteen Fifty-Seven
video: Coteau Books



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.