Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Chaos Theory - Christopher Buckley (A Plume Edition Book)

Today's book of poetry:
Chaos Theory.  Christopher Buckley.  A Plume Edition Book.  An imprint of MadHat Press.  Asheville, North Carolina.  2018.

Chaos Theory by Christopher Buckley

If Chaos Theory were only the first title poem, as illuminating as anything Blake hammered out, well, Today's book of poetry would be satisfied.  More than.  But Christopher Buckley has a multitude of universes on offer.

My buddy David Clewell, former Poet Laureate of Missouri, and Grand Daddy of the Knowledge, will stand up and cheer when he gets his hands on this B.B.Q.  Make no mistake, these poems are steeped in mystery and marinated in some freaky source of wisdom.  Christopher Buckley might be the craziest sumbitch in American poetry, he also might be the Campbell McGrath/Albert Goldbarth hardball link to a new reality.

All Today's book of poetry knows is that Buckley is smoking.  Today's book of poetry looked at Buckley's Star Journal - Selected Poems back in March of 2017.  Buckley poetry-bombed our heart.  You can see that blog/review here:

VII. Fractals

                Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution.
                    It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.
                                            —Niels Bohr

A coastline, if measured down to its least irregularity,
tends toward infinite length, as do snow flakes. Clouds
or coastlines, no matter how close or far away we get,
the basic pattern, the surface and volume, repeat
ad infinitum...
                       Cloud or cauliflower, rough, broken
geometric shapes have an area that is finite, but
a perimeter that is not.
                                     It's a short walk from there
to Thomas Aquinas and Co., First Cause and effect,
and an intellectual trail of consecrated bread crumbs
back to a source we reflect.
                                            Computers came along
and we can enumerate all the patterned variations
in nature—lightning bolts, river networks, broccoli,
the branching of the circulatory system, pine cones
and ferns.
                Right now, someone is calculating the connection
between fractals and leaves in order to estimate how much
CO2 there is in trees, to help the environment with carbon
emission control so we might go on breathing and
piecing things together.
                                      Jackson Pollock's painting
appear to be composed of chaotic drippings and splatters,
but computers have mapped recursive patterns in the work;
high voltage has been trapped in an acrylic block, repeating
the bronchial patterns of trees.
                                                 Star clusters form
paisley patterns, and patterns repeat in the wobbly
orbits of satellites in the solar system, in weather,
economics, earthquakes and plate tectonics, and in
the mathematical model of eye-tracking disorders
among schizophrenics.
                                     Our universe could be a bubble
on an ocean of bubbles; a nearby universe might have Al Gore
as president and Elvis still singing in Las Vegas?
                                                                               Just like
the currents of the ocean, the brain itself might be organized
according to the laws of chaos—enfolded labyrinths, invisible
synapatic lingua franca, its grey death-mask mosaic
of temporary matter, the incremental and incidental tiles,
fragments that replicate, accumulate, and account for us
in every particular, and then are dispersed into the burning
dust fusing into the stars, into the silence that fills
every unaccounted for corner of the dark.


"Like the wind, like the dust."  Such playful wisdom, such informed glee.  Buckley has a big tool box and he digs into it.  It's clear to us that Buckley is an old pro.

Today's book of poetry recently visited an old friend, a painter.  His house was literally ablaze with art, paintings, sculptures, pottery, much of it his own, the rest by his friends and fellow artists.  This man, Tom Campbell, is old, like me, yet his home sings with a vibrancy of intellect, hope and discovery — and that is exactly what Today's book of poetry feels when reading Christopher Buckley's Chaos Theory.

Buckley is warm and charming, hot and sharp.  Buckley recognizes the patterns in things, challenges us with the physics of emotion and shares his astonishment and wonder.  He imagines big; imagine a God particle.

Parallel Universes

                  Recent research has indicated the possibility of the gravitational pull of other
                      universes on ours.

Einstein didn't live long enough
to work out the Theory of Everything,
the exact mileage to the immense...
but if parallel universes are the case,
he's out there in the stars still
putting the pieces together
even though Max Planck's study
of radiation suggested divergent laws
operating beneath the floorboards
of gravity and light...
they've turned up cosmic bruises—
4 circular patterns in the microwave
background radiation—evidence
that our universe has crashed
into others... One soap bubble
rubs against another and
you have a foam of universes,
 a mathematical crash and run-out
to the other side of the end of anything
you now have on hand... almost
endless permutations until you arrive
at a duplicate of our own
"Goldilocks zone" habitable planet!?
More or less.
                      It could vary by a micron
or two—the tiniest sub-atomic backfire
or jitter of an electron or quark
and scads of different outcomes,
though cosmic strings vibrate
essentially as Parmenides set it down
in his poem about the music of the spheres,
leaving out the north star as the still point
of the turning earth of course....
Elvis is still doing TV Spectaculars
from Hawaii; Al Gore was re-elected,
Rick got on that plane with Ilsa,
everyone in the middle east is sharing
pita bread and baba ganoush with his neighbor,
and somewhere on a stage Burns & Allen
are taking a bow: Say Goodnight, Gracie!
There's an even chance that communism
did not collapse, and instead of making reservations
at that French/Bulgarian fusion bistro,
you're eyeing the two potatoes and shriveled bit
of beet root left in the shop—some guy selling
lamp shades out the back....
                                             Sergei Krikalev,
Russian cosmonaut who flew six space missions,
could well head transportation for the EU.
We're here on condition that everything occurs
within the parenthesis of time,
within the end-stopped tributaries
to a sea, a great blind quantum scramble
where we arrive too late to the table
to translate the oscillating patterns and
packets of lights.
                            With every veneration
of my breath my cells are imminently obliged
to oblivion. You choose one god
or another, but religion is a trial,
an excuse to feel good about the fact
that you might be dead soon,
that, before you know it,
all your atoms will be headed
somewhere without you.


In Buckley's world there are other worlds and for all we know; Elvis is still dancing in one of them.  Beautiful.

Our morning read was another doozy, as our old pal, poet and painter, Dennis Tourbin used to say.  Milo, our head technician, took a real shine to Mr. Buckley, he was still revved up from reading Star Journal - Selected Poems.  Milo said that it was like reading poetically about science and having morality/mortality/God dropped right into the middle of the conversation.

Christopher Buckley reminds us all of what poetry can do.  These conversations Buckley is having between himself and universe are worth listening in on.

On the Patio, after Reading Democritus

                   Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

I pour a little Absolut,
as clear as the glass
that holds it, clear as the soul
which Democritus said
consisted of atoms of fire....
As good a guess as any—
the air long let out of 
the old expectations,
that film of atoms
that was said to contain
the characteristics of the gods,
who, like the stars,
were not immortal.

And wafer by wafer
the darkness arrives
on my tongue...
what was it my father said
back there when I was 7—
the blink of an eye
and it's all behind you?
He was a dour man
who imparted that vision
to a child and was gone,
leaving the irresolute motion
of the sea as guide—
a haze, a veil between me
and whatever point there was
in the wind where chicken hawks
spun upward, lifting themselves
above the spindrift thumbed
from the bay, the tides fumbling
to shore, winter grating,
gravel washing out
at low tide. 
                   And the islands
floating across the channel,
the music of spheres
murmuring in the background,
microwave radiation,
its gravity waves
yet to reach us....
the stars pile up across the dark,
light years, like the sound
of a sled through snow
lost on the edge of wilderness....

Dog-walkers, star-gazers,
either way there's something
in our thoughts that interprets
the circles of light that fall to us,
that hold our gaze out there
where meteors streak
whether we are watching
with our sleeping hearts, or not—
our dreams tied to some idea
or other about our lives,
some silver stumbling cloud
being drawn into the gullet of time.

What if, finally, there was nothing
to fear?


Chaos Theory was exactly what the doctor ordered for Today's book of poetry.  We were feeling in a poetry slump.  An early winter has hit our offices hard, calling for -18 C today.  And it is still November.  The snow is piled on the side of our lane, three feet high (we shovelled it there).  Chaos Theory warmed things up here.

Christopher Buckley photo

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley’s Star Journal: Selected Poems was published by the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press in 2016. Back Room at the Philosophers’ Club, Buckley’s 20th book of poetry (Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press), won the Lascaux Review’s Poetry Book Prize for 2015. SFA Press also published Varieties of Religious Experience in 2013. Rolling The Bones won the 2009 Tampa Review Poetry Prize and was published by the Univ. of Tampa Press in 2010, which published White Shirt in 2011.

Buckley was a 2007–2008 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry. He has been awarded a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing to the former Yugoslavia, four Pushcart Prizes, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and received NEA grants in poetry for 2001 and 1984.

With Gary Young, Buckley is the editor of The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place (Hey Day Books, 1999). With David Oliveira and M.L. Williams, he is editor of How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets (The Round House Press, 2001). For the Univ. of Michigan Press Under Discussion series, he edited The Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger To Nothing, 1991.

More recently he has edited the poetry anthologies Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems & Poetics from California (with Gary Young) Alcatraz Editions, 2008; Homage To Vallejo, Greenhouse Review Press, 2006. With Alexander Long, he edited A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2004); with Christopher Howell, Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees (The Backwaters Press, 2011); again co-edited with Gary Young, One for the Money: the Sentence as a Poetic Form (Lynx House Press, 2012); and with Jon Veinberg, Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader ( Tebot Bach, 2014).

Over the last 40 years his poetry has appeared in APR, Poetry, FIELD, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Nation, The Hudson Review, The Gettysburg Review, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Five Points, The Harvard Review, & New Letters.

I don’t think I know of another poet who has such vertical range and depth; Buckley manages to have one foot in the physical muck and tenderness of the world and the other foot planted among the stars and galaxies of the universe.… There is something here that is deeply human and courageous, something like what I find in the essays of Loren Eiseley. And all of this would be nothing, of course, without the language, which is the glory of these poems.
     —Peter Everwine

There is a deep nostalgia here, but also wisdom and common sense, and beautiful writing. I welcome him at his maturest, poet of stardust.
     —Gerald Stern

These poems ask questions about an individual’s place in the universe and about the existence of the universe itself.… In his captivating voice, Buckley invites us to consider ideas of the mundane and the divine, ontology and epistemology, and what on earth we are here for.
     —Jerome Blanco, Zyzzyva

… we float in the universe … the slow gentle orbits of the planets progressing much like Buckley’s lives. [This] is a collection that is keenly aware of, but expertly deals with concepts of scope, space and time.
     —Nikki Stavile, reviewing Star Journal: Selected Poems in The Hollins Critic

There is a quietness to these poems and breakouts of lyrical intensity that define Buckley as a master of the art.
     —North of Oxford

These are poems of immortality and extinction that can still make you smile … [Buckley] has an exquisite ear for language and a gutsy way of blending bravado with humility.
     —Library Journal

Christopher Buckley
Read his poem The Shape of Things
Video: AskewPoetryJournal


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, November 15, 2018

Flatlands - Ruth Williams (Black Lawrence Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Flatlands.  Ruth Williams.  Black Lawrence Press.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  2018.

Today's book of poetry is parroting Erin Belieu when we say that the spirit of Willa Cather breathes sturdy throughout Ruth Williams most excellent Flatlands.  But that is a narrowing of focus when Williams has so much more to offer.

An old man's perspective on a young woman's poems has to be taken with several large grains of salt.  So Today's book of poetry will tell you our secret methodology.  Today's book of poetry grew up in a matriarchal home environment with four sisters, all of fine mind, and when reading I sometimes call upon them.  I ring the poems off of their ears to see if what feels true to me feels true to them.

Radial Plain

     As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many
      years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by
     someone very strong[...] She knew at last for whom it was she had waited
     and where he would carry her.
     —Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

In my 13th year, hanging
the laundry, the white sheets
were like blowsy dresses
and my heartache

was a new
nostalgia, the plains
the leavening,

grasses a long cry,
the hair of my later years
growing before me.

How I spent that summer
like Cather, wanting
the strong arms

of another coming
round me, knowing
that this too was a foretaste

of what it meant to be flattened,
to love like the dirt,
hard, packed,

how fertile then
not to know what
I would become.


It is hard to point out precisely how she does it but Williams likes to lead the reader down the garden path, gentle them to acquiescence, and then truthpounce them right between the eyes.  Williams is an understated gem.

Flatlands can be read as a book of hard won truths.  The reader can be sure at every turn because Williams makes you want to stay.  Once you've read one of these twisters you're hard wired to want more.


On TV, the fattest man in the world
says his body was the result of
childhood issues.

It's a practiced explanation
I know.

Significantly, he notes,
he began losing weight
when his mother died.

His arms
hang with wings
the pretty doctor
says she'll

I don't mean to make more of it
than I should.

We are all envelopes
of loose teeth.


"We are all envelopes of loose teeth."  Today's book of poetry almost fell off of our seat when we read this line, we are thinking it might go on our headstone.

Today's book of poetry has been laying low for the last little while; there are all sorts of unavoidable reasons.  Today's book of poetry will continue on a reduced schedule for a brief period.  We will return to regularly scheduled programming as soon as possible.

Our morning read was full of enthusiasm so these poems came out charged.  They bounced around the office like laser beams of clean, clear light.  Straight as an arrow.

Plain Winter

The winter lengthens. The blank horizon is a way
of being more profound than snow. Inside it, a lantern
swatch of yellow curling over a buried leg.

In pioneer days, they'd tie frozen
bodies to the fencepost. The twine a way of
waiting for spring.


Ruth Williams is a poet after our own poetry heart.  Today's book of poetry is a big fan of the unadulterated voice, the real voice.  

Williams writes understated bulls-eyes.  There is music here.


Ruth Williams
Photo: Kira Whitney Photography

Ruth Williams is the author of Conveyance (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her poetry has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, jubilat, Pleiades and Third Coast among others. She has also published creative nonfiction in DIAGRAM and Crab Orchard Review as well as scholarly work on women’s writing and feminism in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, The Journal of Popular Culture, and College Literature. Currently, Ruth lives in Kansas City where she is an Assistant Professor of English at William Jewell College and an editor for Bear Review.

Some writers approach the Nebraska plains as a big, empty other into which they may imagine. I understand the appeal of that mythology. But in Ruth Williams gorgeous new collection, Flatlands, the landscape is as alive as the plains truly are, and serves as both a generating place and quixotic companion to Williams's subtle, precise speaker. Throughout the poems, Williams images are beautifully wrought and full of surprises: a salmon being filleted opens like “a girl’s coral dress come undone,” and the "night heat” of spent fireworks sleeps in the hands of children who are “ready to knock.” I love this book—it’s musical syncopation, the tight, clean transparency of the poems’ lines. I think Willa Cather, the collection's genius loci, would admire Williams’s work, recognizing its fundamental truthfulness. Which is about the highest compliment I have to give.
     —Erin Belieu, Author of Slant Six, Co-founder, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

Ruth Williams' Flatlands starts from the premise of emptiness and uncovers resources for what can be found and what's to be made. Landscape, identity, desire, the past and the moment—the distinct constellation of her concerns is thrown into focus by a taut, understated craft. These seemingly casual observations break out in bursts of insight flaring against the broad horizon.
     —Don Bogen, author of An Algebra

Written in the key of Willa Cather and in kinship with the spare and located writing practice of Lorine Niedecker, Ruth Williams’ Flatlands could very well be a continuation of the Prairie Trilogy. A subtle defiance circulates through these poems—a book of mouths—whose investments include the erotics of place, gender expectations, insecurity, and boredom—the "radical blah" that fills in and out so much of a life. Williams works through what it means to be from and in a place, understanding we are shaped by land and language. In an era of platitudes, I admire the reluctance in these poems, balanced by awe that our bodies may be our best souvenirs—“I don't mean to make more of it/ than I should.// We are all envelopes/ of loose teeth.” Reading Williams’ poems, I feel a little less weary about being a packet of debris, about being, in general.
     —Kristi Maxwell, author of That Our Eyes Be Rigged

In Flatlands, Ruth Williams turns her surroundings into well-crafted poems that deeply explore the physical and metaphorical landscape. We glimpse youth growing into maturity through a lens of desire and the elusive nature of love. Williams’ poems are filled with imagery, making inventive use of repetition (“Radical Blah” and “Sister” poems), syntax (“Surviving on Equations”), surprising, delicious sounds (“His Georgette”), and more. Her poems wisely lead us up to the edge, to the sense that there’s more beneath what is said. A fine collection.
     —Twyla M. Hansen, Nebraska State Poet, author of Rock • Tree • Bird


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, October 27, 2018

Blood Memory - Colleen J. McElroy (Pitt Poetry Series/University of Pittsburgh Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Blood Memory.  Colleen J. McElroy.  Pitt Poetry Series.  University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2016.

Can a joyous shout still be a protest?  Blood Memory tells us that it can.  Colleen J. McElroy makes it so.  Poems like McElroy's "Lessons in Deportment" will teach you almost everything you need to know.

Today's book of poetry is over seven-hundred blogs/reviews into this project and we are still subject to being totally amazed.  Awed.

Colleen J. McElroy has mastered voice.  These tear-blinding and immaculate poems are damned near perfect.  Voice and place, McElroy, like the very best film directors has mastered mise en scene.  Having set flawless stages her characters simply tell their stories and we believe every word.

Sunday Best

before Aunt Jennie joined Visitation
Catholic Church I walked Mama

to Lane Tabernacle CME and settled her
in a pew next to Aunt Ethel

the two of them demure in small
pancake hats with fragile veils

among the grand feathered hats of the ladies
who hid a week's worth of bad hair earned

in hot kitchens or sweaty laundries
the ladies of Visitation were all but hidden

in stained glass windows incense and stations
of the cross, their dresses as dull as nun's habits

at Lane Methodist Mama and her sister
sat together their heads tilted toward each other

hats pinned to clouds of kinky white hair
around them ladies in gingham and worn coats

fanned away the heat that had kept them all week
in white kitchens or scrubbing office floors

all week they had been no more than
wallpaper seen and never heard

come Sunday when they sang Amen, feathers
and flowers nodded along with them

when I was older I went with Aunt Jennie
to mass at Visitation, rosary beads matching my dress

on my head a white lace handkerchief pinned
into my curls, my missal white to match

around me ladies of various hues cradled
their rosaries and echoed a prayer of redemption

come Sunday we were all of the same cloth
women who sought to be what we dreamed


Reading Colleen J. McElroy taught Today's book of poetry a new way of looking at his long dead father and allowed us to see him in a kinder light.  That's some trick.  That's a good trick.

Good poetry will do that to you; take you places you've never been, teach you things you didn't know were missing.

Blood Memory is an astonishing collection that will resonate with Today's book of poetry for a long time.  These poems are good enough to take an entitled and aging, old and cranky, sad white man, and for a moment, we got to see the world from the joyous eyes of innocent youth.  There are layers and layers of white privilege weighing down on these poems yet McElroy's world is peopled with strong, strong women helping each other abide.

Today's book of poetry doesn't see many books like Blood Memory, a book dedicated to how intelligent young Black women endure and grow.  In Blood Memory strength is gathered, cultivated and nurtured in the hands of an elaborate matriarchal maze.  Blood Memory affirms our belief that great poetry can come from any source, whether it is the lessons learned while grooming natty hair or the pride/fear confused emotions about the first Black cop in St. Louis.


my mother is angry with me
I am barely four just young enough
to get on the bus for free
but my mother is angry with me
when I read aloud the bright
placards curved high
above the bus windows
I read aloud the placards
asking us to buy nothing
that is free and my mother
grows angry as I read
everything I can barely see
I want to tell her letters
go all mushy melting together
before my very eyes
but my mother is angry
when the bus driver tells her
she must pay for me since
children who are truly young
can not read the ads they see
my mother yanks my collar
tells me sit be still
you'll ruin your eyes
reading everything you see
she threatens to put me
in school a year before
I'm ready and I smile
my mother frowns and asks
what will become of me
if I insist on reading
every little thing I see


Our morning reading was lovely.  The Today's book of poetry staff doesn't always come to a consensus with our poetry choices but Colleen J. McElroy had us all close ranks, come together, and celebrate as one.  Didn't matter who was doing the reading; these poems bounced around our offices like they were purely electric and everyone got shocked.

Consensus is rare enough, enthusiastic consensus is another.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, and Maggie, our newest intern, found Blood Memory touched them to tears.

They weren't alone.

The Answers to Why

because her daughter, Claudia, had babies while Mama
was still having babies    family lines blurred

mothers and daughters waltzing just out of reach

because her daughter, Jennie, turned Catholic
Mama took me to Lane Methodist each Sunday

because a photographer penciled an outline
around Mama's cottony hair Jennie studied

tinctures and rouges and one-eyed camera could find

because she could not read Mama memorized
all the songs in the hymn book

the communion wine tasted like grape juice

because Mama fed me from a bowl that read: find the bottom
I ate my vegetables sipped pot liquor while she sang old time songs

spoon to mouth: Ol'Dan Tucker too late to git his supper

because Mama's fingers grew thick in winter
I learned to braid her hair

because Mama got too old to do fine work as she called it
I became her eyes to thread needles and pick loose hems

I made sure the white butcher didn't put his thumb on the scale

because my mother, Ruth, worked at Fort Leonard Wood
Mama taught me how to cook

what's a Leonardwood? I asked

because my mother opened mornings like a can of beans
fussing and cussing and quoting Shakespeare

between dammit-I'll-bite-you and scrambled eggs

because Mama said my mother was moody and needed help
I watched my mother paint fake stocking seams down her legs

shapely as Betty Grable   high heels clicking on the linoleum
heading to the door   factory head scarf tied neat as a Sunday hat

because we had afternoons alone Mama taught me
how to knead bread dough the proper way — knuckles down

because Mama singed her eyebrows when the pilot light
went out Papa bought a brand new stove

I missed the old stove and its stand-up oven

because Papa said none of his girls would do day help
I read the papers and dialed the telephone for Mama

because Papa died on the train coming home from California
Mama sat by the window all day and wouldn't talk

because Claudia had become a widow before Papa died
my mother and her sisters fought to get Mama's attention

because Mama said the four poster was too big
after Papa died I slept with her

in the same bed she'd birthed babies who lived
and those who didn't

I counted angels carved in the chifferobe door

because a spider bit me the first night I slept
in the four poster Mama propped me on pillows

so I wouldn't roll onto the blister on my back

because Mama covered the bite in goose grease
there was no trace of the spider come morning

because the chifferobe held Papa's shaving basin
and shoes I spent hours inspecting the little shelves

because Mama put plugs in the locks of Papa's
roll top desk and chifferobe I always had a way out

because Mama said there were two places
she wouldn't want to be: hell and west Texas

we lived in that railroad house on Kennerly for years

because Mama didn't trust white people after the Klan
shot the mules dead in front of the old family house

because after they moved to Missouri Mama said she saw
ghosts walking the long hallway that banked the house

because she said it so much I thought I saw them too
and my mother said don't talk about the old ways Mama

because my mother worked long days I learned Mama's stories

because Mama lived in the past when Papa was alive
and lived every day when he wasn't she couldn't stop

because my mother caught Mama telling me stories
of the time before Lincoln freed us my mother argued

but Mama said she had to tell me what was just because


It has been a long, long time since Today's book of poetry posted a "list" poem but Colleen J. McElroy's is a cake stealer.  McElroy is now on our radar and will be celebrated by us when Today's book of poetry talks poetry.

Today's book of poetry lives for the pleasure of sharing poetry with you readers, today it is an honour.

Colleen J. McElroy will help inspire a new generation of poets.

Image result for colleen j. mcelroy photo

Colleen J. McElroy

Colleen J. McElroy is professor emeritus of English and creative writing at the University of Washington. She is the former editor in chief of the literary magazine Seattle Review and has published numerous poetry collections, most recently Here I Throw Down My Heart. Her latest collections of creative nonfiction include A Long Way from St. Louie and Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar. She has received a PEN/Oakland National Literary Award, the Before Columbus American Book Award, two Fulbright Research Fellowships, two NEA Fellowships (in both fiction and poetry), a DuPont Visiting Scholar Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Fellowship.

"There is much to admire in Blood Memory, from the general impulse to preserve a family against the onslaught of time to the details of this particular African-American family in the twentieth-century heartland, to McElroy's style, at once spare and dense with incident and observation."
—The Potomac

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Clawdy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn't know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.”
—Nikky Finney

“There is music in her memory—a music of prayer. Moon. Stars. A music of generational flesh. Revered. Remembered. A testimonial to family that startles us with its beauty. And blood. ‘Frozen in time as if with the next breath they will reveal everything under that mask.’ Thank you, my dear sister, for our rescued memory.”
—Sonia Sanchez

An Interview with Colleen J. McElroy, author of Here I Throw Down My Heart
Video:  Bill Kenower


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, October 25, 2018

The Explosive Expert's Wife - Shara Lessley (University of Wisconsin Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Explosive Expert's Wife.  Shara Lessley.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, Wisconsin.  2018.

Today's book of poetry has no idea of what it might be like to be close to danger, at least not in the way it plays out in the poetry of Shara Lessley.  Bombs, physical explosives, are being set off both literally and figuratively in Lessley's taught, tense and emotionally titillating The Explosive Expert's Wife.

There were some grim faces in the Today's book of poetry offices this morning.  Yesterday there were bombs in the mail for ex-presidents in the US of A.  And sadly, America no longer has a respected leader but instead they are being led by a fearsome beast who incorporates the worst of human fear and greed into a platform rancid with hate.  I fear more...

Back in poetry world Lessley's poems are polished, but still full of grit; whether it is dust from a recent explosion, or the sudden implosion of a realization come to late.  

Powerful stuff, these poems, both the exploding kind and the emotional.

Advice from the Predecessor's Wife

                 Amman, Jordan

Learn Arabic—your husband won't have time.
At Carrefour Express, aisle one is the tax-free line.
For poultry, go to Sweifieh (the Palestinian
chicken man's shop). Pig, on the other hand,
is impossible to find (frozen pork sometimes
turns up at the co-op). Basha ——'s
wife is pregnant with twins; expect to host
a spa date or two for his mistress. Never make
eye contact with local men. Read Married
to a Bedouin, The Expert Expat guide. (Skip
Queen Noor's book—she's from the Midwest.)
During Ramadan Crumb's breakfast is the best;
everything else is closed. Never ride
in the front of a taxi with an Arab. If you're 
near the embassy, avoid hailing a cab (security says
we're sitting ducks). Help in Amman
runs cheap: hire a driver, a maid, a cook.
Mansef is made with lamb or goat, and stewed
in a hearty jameed. When dining with royalty,
keep conversation neutral. At private parties
be prepared to be the only woman in the room,
save the staff. Look the part, but don't
show cleavage. Lipstick is fine. Laugh hard
(but not too hard) at Colonel ——'s
dick jokes. Know how to properly cut and light
a cigar. When talk turns to politics, smile
and nod, then say something obscure
in Arabic—your husband will give you the cue
(the Jords will think it cute). Never ask
a woman how long her hair is
under the hijab. Don't call anyone
but your husband habibi. Explore the souks.
Steer clear of the mosques. All Arabs hate dogs—
walk yours after dark; comb your yard
for poison and traps. Close your drapes
(Western women are common victims
of peeping toms). When moving among crowds,
expect children and strangers to stop
to stroke your hair. Always carry your passport.
The number one reason a man's relieved
from his post? His wife's unhappy. Avoid this
from the get-go—get a hobby! Play tennis,
take a class, or find a job. (The field's leveled
for spouses: here, education and experience
equal nada.)  The workweek runs Sunday to
Thursday; your husband will clock in Saturdays,
Fridays, too. Pack at least four ball gowns.
Stock up on shirts with sleeves. Gunfire means
graduation, or congratulations — a wedding's
just taken place. Don't be disturbed by
the armed guards outside your apartment
(their assault rifles don't have bullets,
rumor has it.) "Little America" runs perpendicular
to Ring Six (a.k.a. "Cholesterol Circle") — Popeye's,
Burger King, Hardee's — you'll find everything
you need. McDonald's Playland spans three
upstairs levels. Ship a year's worth of ketchup,
mayonnaise. Blondes are often mistaken
for hookers; consider dyeing your hair.
by September or October you'll learn to
tune out the call to prayer.


Poetry can be the deepest message of love - or the assassin's bullet.  Poetry can be a poisoned bamboo spike or a jasmine scented pillowbook.  Poetry can fall from the invisible nighttime war plane - or from the hand of a child at the edge of the blast wave.  Shara Lessley is looking for every means of detonation.

These aren't always easy poems but they are always completely engaging.  Shara Lessley's The Explosive Expert's Wife bears witness.

The Explosive Expert's Wife

He comes home from the range scorched in dirt;
home from the office, a stain on his suit.
His nails are chewed.
He enters the house without saying a word.
He's jetlagged again. He's got blast-
dust the length of his forearms and hands.
Back from Sa'dah, he's got sand in the shanks of his boots.
He says, Sorry I'm late. He's come home
just to pack —a guard's found C4
stashed in a DCA trashcan.
He needs a haircut and shave. (It's been one of those days.)
He says, This won't show up on the news.
He's been sorting evidence. He has fresh
orders from the president.
                            He says, I do this for us.
They're booby-trapping pizza boxes and books.
They're rigging plastic cars so kids will trip the switch.
They're something else, he says.
He's on edge again.
He promises to be home by six. He promises not to miss
the latest round of tests. He's holding
a daffodil-tulip mix. He shakes his head, When
did we run out of limes?
                            He claims, It was pilot error.
He claims, No one knows. He asks, Did I get an urgent message
from Colonel So-and-So? Straight from the Pentagon,
he makes one drink after the next.
He wants to know what's for supper.
He asks if the oil's been changed.
Screw what Fox and CNN say: It's perfectly safe
to travel by train. Screw what happened
on the southern coast —
The casualty count could've been higher.
                               He's leaving for Kabul again,
this time for sixty-five days.
(It's better for us than Baghdad with overtime and haz-pay.)
He'll need shaving cream and toothpaste, fresh undershirts and socks.
He'll need a ride to the drop-off point
near the strip mall's outlet shops. He's filthy
from hosing the tech teams' Hazmat suits. He's going
to take a shower. Friday, they're predicting
snow. Careful, he warns, the roads will all be slick.
He gives thanks — the chicken tastes just right.
The dog jumps on his lap.
He strokes my arm, asks Later tonight?
Napkin crumpled, he pushes back his plate —
Now tell me everything, he says,
about your day today.


This mornings read was held under grey, grey skies, we had to turn up the thermostat in the office to greet the day.  Milo, our head tech, upped the furnace and put out our chairs, in a small circle.  We bounced The Explosive Expert's Wife around the room.

There are horrors in these poems but never anything gratuitous.  Shara Lessley understands that the world is made up of tidy consolations we embrace to survive and the messy contradictions that tear us asunder when we let down our guard.

Lines Following a Husband's Departure

Freezing rain clings to the porch screen. An ice-
              quake splices the lakes. I followed you like a fault

line out to western Virginia. Here, it takes a machine
              to defrost the interior. Snowplows barrel down,

a death rattle distressing the streets. This winter, they say,
              is one for the records. You've been overseas

four days; I'm already coming apart. An electric
              blanket heats our bed. Your last catnap, an imprint

on the mattress. Somewhere in the middle
              East, you sip coffee while I sleep. More wind-

storms, and your day's half done. In a temperature-
              regulated room, you shift pieces of postblast

IEDs: copper springs and screws, a cell
              phone's plastic back. I turn and toss. The early

crew clears the street. From a gridded wire sheath,
              you pull it taut between your hands: a single human

hair — his wife's? —caught in a clip, this strand
             so long, so thick, like a shiver unsettling

the darkness — but oh, the heat once held there.


Today's book of poetry will speak highly whenever Shara Lessley's name comes up in poetry talk world.  With The Explosive Expert's Wife, Lessley has confirmed her place on the poetry dais.

By the time you've finished with Lessley and her fine book, you'll have blast dust on you in places you can't find.

Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The coeditor of The Poem's Country: Place and Poetic Practice, she lives in Oxford, England.

“Lessley guides us along the knife-edge of a country on the edge of wars. An ex-pat Penelope wondering about her own Odysseus singed in ash, she keenly and empathically witnesses not only her own vulnerability as a young American mother in Amman but also courageous women around her—from Jordan's all-female demining team to an accused terrorist's wife.”
     —Philip Metres

“These poems teach us that there is astonishment, not just fear, in each moment of displacement. I am hooked on Shara Lessley's music of adventure, intimacy of detail, the great sweeping largesse of address across continents, across ranges of emotion. Wherever you find yourself in this powerful collection, you will learn to see the world slightly differently.”
      —Ilya Kaminsky


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, October 22, 2018

This Will Be Good - Mallory Tater (Book*hug)

Today's book of poetry:
This Will Be Good.  Mallory Tater.  Book*hug.  Toronto, Ontario.  2018.

This Will Be Good by Mallory Tater

This Will Be Good by Mallory Tater could be a mystery, will our heroine survive the self-loathing of her childhood?  It could easily be a romance because Today's book of poetry dropped his jaw and a little of his heart when we started to see just how Tater navigated.

It is so hard for children to become the children of their parents dreams, or their own, hard for young people period.  It's a complicated world and of course you all know that.  This Will Be Good could be seen as Tater's coming to terms with herself, big deal...
                                                                                        but there's magic in these here poems.

The sheer number of young people, women and men and the rest, who keep journals and write poems, it is entirely overwhelming.  And for the most part justifiably not for public consumption for personal and qualitative reasons.  

But Mallory Tater has panache.  There are moments of pure electric joy in these sad poems.  These are poems of such tender honesty that you will want to reach out to the young people in your lives.

Tater goes bone deep.

All Things Wasted

Point Roberts, WA

Wind blows ocean into our yard
and Grandpa buttons his jacket,
says brennen zaun, let's burn the fence.
That barely remembered German
barnacles his throat. Storm will tear
the pickets down, wood half-rotten
and aren't we cold. Cabin pipes
good and frozen. Globe thistles,
gunmetal blue, die on my shoelaces.

Grandpa sucks a Lucky Strike, exhales
bats and bats. Spiked wings fall
from his lips, thread through
my loosened teeth, snag on my gums,
receded from griding in sleep.
Grandpa unearths our fence,
a simple pulling of teeth. We snap
each post against our knees,
chipped fangs tossed to the pit.
We are ready for the feel of fire.

The horses by the beach are starving.
Grandpa knows the man who aged
and tamed them, let livestock suck life
slowly from him. King tides have flooded
our street, have cured our fallen crabapples.
We feed them to flames, all fence and fruit,
and Grandpa looks so pleased, the scent

of all things wasting. A boy who once hid
in Steinheim fields, stole asparagus shoots
from farmers. The war was over, his mother
widowed, grief turned to endless
hunger. Sparks settle on the corners
of Grandpa's mouth. Fence turns to ash.
Next summer, we'll just build a new one.
Hearing aids off, all sound in his lap.
Neighbour's anxious flag, muted.
Grandpa says we have so much
and aren't we warm.

Later, he falls asleep and I watch
two horses drink hopelessly.
Their tongues push
under rocks for crab meat. Sand fleas
chew their spines as they spit
their wild minds on saw-tooth shells.


Mallory Tater's fight against her eating disorder adds a particular slant to This Will Be Good.  It is a very intimate inside look, we taste what she does, understand her choices.  But Today's book of poetry is convinced that any subject Tater put her considerable talents to would result in the same intimate and clever tenacity.

What Today's book of poetry is so clumsily trying to express is that we think Tater has it.

"Finding your place in the world," as Book*hug suggests on the cover of This Will Be Good, is a universal struggle and Mallory Tater has turned her voyage into art.


The winter my waist shed six inches,
my period stopped. My breasts depressed,
the skin around them slacked sackish
and loose. I became like burlap and this calmed
my hands. I no longer had a belly to pinch.
My throat withstood the aftermath
of meals. I sucked lemons after losing
to cool and clean cuts from biled food
clawing. All this to say that when it stopped,
I was glad. Tampons at the bottom of my bag
flattened but I kept them on hand
to hand to girlfriends in need before gym class.
I told my mother how sick I must be. She paid so much
attention to me we forgot my sisters, who held pencils
in their hands late into the night, who held hands
in church parking lots, laughing with communion
stuck to the roofs of their mouths. They did not take
the host from the priest, pretend
to swallow, slip it into their pockets. They wrote
nice letters to each other, slipped them under
bedroom doors, borrowed each other's blouses
and blouses forever. They loved Sunday night
strawberries and ice cream in front of the TV.
They did not feed the dog their breakfasts.
Mabel would learn to love French toast, get fat
and sick and her paws would shake from old age
but I would imagine it as all the sugar I gave her
and feel a wave of shameful indulgence. I would
no longer bleed and cramp and share in it. I would say
I hoped to be clean and thin forever like this
but in secret, I felt unabashedly dry,
excluded and light.


Our morning read was taken over by our new intern, Maggie.  Maggie wears long-sleeved shirts all year long and she told me that she had some experience in the Taterworld of eating disorders and so on.  

The reading, as Maggie organized it, was sharp, crisp and crystal clear, the deeper we went in, the more everyone in the room leaned toward the centre.  Connected.  We were all in line, in tune, like we were singing backup to Laura Nyro, Patti Labelle Sarah Dash Nona Hendryx style.

Good work Tater.  Good work Maggie.

On the Train to Royal Columbian Hospital

We are told Grandpa will sleep his way
to death tonight. The infection in his pancreas
and lungs cannot be fixed with drainage
or prayer from the wandering chaplain.
We are told the father of our mother who built
cabin sheds and showers, drank mugs of ice milk
before bed, bought tickets to community magic
shows, will soon no longer breathe. The last
show he took me to before I became
a teen, a local widow who called herself
the Ta-Da Lady. Grandpa and I both raised our hands
and she asked us onto the stage. She held a sheet
to the crowd and we slipped through a trap door.
Beneath floorboards, Grandpa's heavy breathing
shielded me, thick as a coat. He said we were part
of the illusion, our bodies, thin air. His breath,
cherry cough drops and Dairy Queen cones.
We were beautifully gone together. Tonight I feel
the heat and weight and confusion of my sisters.
They conjure the same memory:
Grandpa swimming between sandbars
near our family cabin, bobbing up for breath
and flashing his teeth, sneering. He would become a shark
and would chase us. In our small blossomed
bathing suits, we used to run towards the shark,
never away, into his oceaned arms.


A little bit of joy can go a long way.  It doesn't take much to make some people feel alive and worthy.  This Will Be Good stopped Today's book of poetry in our poetry tracks.  

Yesterday we were in Tamworth, Ontario, at the Book Shop, one of the best little book stores in the world, for a poetry reading.  Two men.  Both worth listening to.  But clearly male voices.  Mallory Tater poems come from a young woman's voice - but this old man needed to read these, these poems held this old man's poetry interest from the start to the end.

We will be talking about Mallory Tater's poetry again.  We are sure of it.

Image result for mallory tater photo

Mallory Tater

Mallory Tater is a writer from the traditional, unceded territories of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg Nation (Ottawa). Mallory’s poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines across Canada such as Room Magazine, CV2, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Carousel, Prism International and Arc Magazine. She was shortlisted for Arc Magazine’s 2015 Poem of The Year Contest, The Malahat Review’s 2016 Far Horizon’s Contest and Room Magazine‘s 2016 Fiction and Poetry Prizes. She was the recipient of CV2’s 2016 Young Buck Poetry Prize. She is the Publisher of Rahila’s Ghost Press, a poetry chapbook press. She lives in Vancouver.

This Will Be Good is a prayer, vicious and sweet. Tater’s dexterous language shreds the pink ribbons of nostalgia to remind that girlhood is both ‘sugared with fear’ and ‘diamond-hard.’” 
      —AdΓ¨le Barclay, author of If I Were In a Cage I’d Reach Out For You
This Will Be Good details the truths of girlhood; how young women treat themselves with cruelty and tenderness, fend off and court desire, and brace themselves for a world that both expects too much of them and yet never enough. These poems unfold as stories girls tell each other as they make space to share, cope, grieve, and hopefully, heal.”
      —Dina Del Bucchia, author of Coping with Emotions and Otters, Blind Items and Don’t Tell Me                                             What to Do
“Evocative and tactile as unearthed memory, This Will Be Good follows the history of a family through years, homes, seasons, and bodies. They’re death and grief, sex and religion. A reckoning with womanhood, manhood, and memory, these stories have a feeling of being passed down, kept secret, and slipped in notes and gestures between intimates whose closeness is felt on the skin. Press these words to your breast.” 
      —Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star and Sunshine State


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.