Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Prague Sring, Before & After - Michael Salcman (Evening Street Press)

Today's book of poetry:
A Prague Spring, Before & After.  Michael Salcman.  Photographs by Lynn Silverman.  Evening Street Press.  Sacramento, California.  2016.

2015 Winner of the Sinclair Poetry Prize


A Prague Spring, Before & After will be, for certain people, a codex.  This is history rendered as sorrow and spoken clearly. 

Today's book of poetry has a slightly warped take on Michael Salcman's epic tale.  Today's book of poetry had the pleasure of living in Czechoslovakia prior to it's separation into two states, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993.  In the late summer of 1990 Today's book of poetry moved to the northern Czechoslovakian town Jablonec-nad-Nisou (Apple tree on the Nisou River) to open a non-profit English as a second language school.  Today's book of poetry frequented Praha (Prague) every chance we got.

At that point in time Praha was a magical city, whether I was hanging out with Ania Jakubowski and getting Halloween costumes from the national theatre or bar hopping with Martina and her crazy friends.  This was immediately following Vaclav Havel's Velvet Revolution.

As a result Today's book of poetry can't help but be enthralled by Michael Salcman's poetry.  Lynn Silverman's photographs are haunting and sombre and bring back Praha to my mind with such clarity that I can feel it's cobbled streets beneath my feet, smell the yellow coal, and the taste of pivo (beer).

9, (The Pinkas Synagogue)

When you knock on the door of strangers,
there are three possibilities: they will send you away,
they will take you in, they will report you.

I didn't know where to find their names,
the farmer and his wife, the two daughters,
the righteous gentiles my cousin Arnold had the inscribe

on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue,
close by the names of those they couldn't save.
Then a flood came and wiped the walls clean

for a bit as if God too wished to erase them.
Outside this wall and the old Jewish cemetery,
the Czechs have built a Museum of Decorative Arts,

the stacked stones and red letter like shards
of Bohemian glass, cutting the soul. Like knives.


Prague/Praha was Today's book of poetry's first exposure to Eastern Europe and it was intense.  Since then we have been in Russia, the Ukraine, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia.  Today's book of poetry has to admit we have a big soft spot, we see that part of the world with tender and longing eyes.  Salcman's poems create flashes that immediately left me in situ.

A Prague Spring, Before & After includes poems anchored in America, poems that get under the Brooklyn Bridge and Today's book of poetry felt welcomed.  But the reader is drawn to Prague and it's history, again and again, the bloody and gruesome caravan from then to now.

An American Refugee on Vacation in Prague

Summer solstice in the Stare Mesto of Prague—
everyone as usual looking for Kafka.
Even the 14th Count of Lobkovicz,
a cultured soul who shows me
the 400 year old mummified arm in the Church of St. James,
who speaks of the Master Theodoric
with the voice of a true connoisseur, to whom
locating Tycho Brahe's tomb
in Our Lady Before Tyn is the merest child's play,
even if he can't find Kafka.
Reported sightings at No.2 and No.3 Celetna
go unconfirmed; the cafe
at The House of the Black Madonna is closed.

Waiting for more reliable information
I smoke three Havana cigars:
a Romeo and Juliet, a Cohiba and a Partages.
I do not manage to visit more than two houses in which
Kafka wrote or worked.
I do manage to visit the Castle that gave him nightmares.
I watch the clock on the Jewish Town Hall tower
run the wrong way round
and the Czechs lean backwards going down
the steep escalator in Republiky's Metro.
I do not twist my ankle on the cobbles in Celetna Street;
I do have dinner with two actors in a barrel-vaulted restaurant
two stories below the Gothic ground.
I make love to one woman and to this golden city.
I deserve nothing of this but the sound of bells.


Our morning reading started with a long chat about Today's book of poetry's experiences living in Vaclav Havel's Czechoslovakia.  Then Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took the helm as we gave A Prague Spring, Before & After voice.  Kafka makes numerous appearances so Today's book of poetry shared our very common story of sitting on Kafka's steps under the shadow of the Hradcany Castle and drinking our sad pivo with delirious glee.

A Prague Spring, Before & After reminds Today's book of poetry of how quickly Praha turned luminescent, how quickly it broke our heart.  

Spending time in Praha is probably one of the best things you can do, Michael Salcman makes it real, tells it true.



Each summer day, thousands of tourists stand and watch
the skeleton on the old astronomical clock
rattle his hour glass in mortal warning
while an unbelieving Moor near-by shakes his carved head

and the clock on the Jewish Town Hall tower runs backward
to go forth; the Stone Bell never rings.
What city tells time like Prague?
In perfect stasis it measures its minutes in faggots and flames:

Jan Hus will burn forever in the Old Town Square, Kafka
prospectively smells Jan Palach afire with gas, and Mozart sings
in every street, his Stone Guest a perfect Golem.
It's as if God had banished worms and maggots with a spell,

the city as heavenly banquet. At Vladislav's Powder Gate,
where Gothic leans on Art Nouveau, love runs long, renews.


A Prague Spring, Before & After proves that time is elastic.  Mr. Salcman has cooked up a tremendous borscht that is both love story and requiem.

Salcman does not shy away from our dark history or Prague's.  


Michael Salcman

An internationally known neurosurgeon who is also a poet and art critic, Michael Salcman was born in Pilsen Czechoslovakia in 1946, the son of Holocaust survivors and came to the United States in 1949. After finishing the Six-Year Combined Program in Liberal Arts and Medical Education at Boston University, he was a Fellow in Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health and trained in neurosurgery at Columbia University’s Neurological Institute in New York Former chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, his early medical career was profiled by Jon Franklin and Alan Doelp in Not Quite A Miracle (Doubleday, 1983). Salcman is the author of almost 200 scientific and medical articles as well as six textbooks; his medical books have been translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese and Chinese. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Boston University's medical school and of Columbia University's neurological institute. Former president of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and the CityLit Project, Salcman lectures widely on art and the brain and on the brain and creativity. He currently serves as Special Lecturer in the Osher Institute at Towson University.
His first published poems appeared in the 1970s. Recent poems appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, Harvard Review, Hopkins Review, The Hudson Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Ontario Review, Poet Lore, and Raritan. His poems have been heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" and he appears in Euphoria, an award-winning documentary on the brain and creativity. His poems have received six nominations for a Pushcart Prize, one for a Best of The Web Award, and have appeared on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily and in several anthologies. He has given readings at the Library of Congress, The National Academy of Sciences, The Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, the Writers Center in Bethesda, The Pratt Library in Baltimore, and Columbia University’s medical school. He is a poetry editor at The Baltimore Review. Dr. Salcman is the author of four chapbooks, the most recent of which is Stones In Our Pockets (Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin, 2007), and two previous collections, The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises Press, 2007), nominated for The Poet’s Prize in 2009, and The Enemy of Good Is Better (Orchises, 2011). His widely-praised anthology of classic and contemporary poems on doctors, patients, illness and recovery, Poetry in Medicine appeared in 2015 (Persea Books).

A Prague Spring is a beautiful blend of the lyric imagination with historical and autobiographical facts. In this book, ignorance, cruelty, and murder lose. Art, and the truth, wins.      
     —Thomas Lux

Michael Salcman
reads "The Clock Made of Confetti"
Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University



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

Today's post is dedicated to Jitka Kruporova

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Drolleries — Cassidy McFadzean (McClelland & Stewart)

Today's book of poetry:
Drolleries.  Cassidy McFadzean.  McClelland & Stewart.  Toronto, Ontario. 2019.

Drolleries by Cassidy McFadzean

Today's book of poetry had the pleasure of reading Cassidy McFadzean's first collection, Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart, 2015), so we were ready for this, but not quite.  We're pretty certain that writing like this isn't something new for McFadzean but it is exciting and new for us.

This voice hits above and below the belt.  With crisp jabs and hooks you never see coming.  Drolleries muses fantastic on slivers and witch hazel, pine needles and shower mould, the last El Greco and the real Madrid.  

It doesn't really matter what Cassidy McFadzean is writing about, it is how.  Everything she touches becomes immediately fascinating because the reader has early confidence that McFadzean is going to put on curve on the outcome worth watching.


Witch hazel in my pussy.
Rose water on the brain.
Let's not go down memory lane,
but memory locker, feelings stored away.

I keep my garbage in the freezer
just like the city taught me.
I know it's love, when during sex
my new lover wipes my ass for me.

Zip up your feelings, Will advised
looking over the Brooklyn Bridge.
I watch a man zip his pet rat
into his jacket on the subway.

Have I ruined another group chat?
Have I repressed a painful memory?
I say goodbye with vocal fry
so I can feel it in my body.


It will take much better read people than Today's book of poetry can afford to hire to understand all of McFadzean's references to Anna Karenina, Nastagio degli Onesti, the air Homer breathed or what a Zora bag is.  But it doesn't matter, Today's book of poetry was enthralled, invested, excited and fulfilled by what McFadzean was cooking.

Our offices are a little empty these days as family commitments have reduced our ranks.  Today's book of poetry is sending all the appropriate prayers.  Family is everything.  But those of us here are riding with McFadzean.

It is somewhat like being in a fast car inside a fascinating museum, and all of that in a dream.  Take that.  Drolleries surprised and genuinely delights every time you turn a page.  Cassidy McFadzean is so clever smart it is inspiring.  Today's book of poetry will show this poetry to everyone, say "here, read this!"


Previews for movies we've already seen comfort
like digging for a stone I know by feel,
engraved with my fortune, hand-picked.

In the night, ice cracks in the AC, waking us.
I turn the dial and hear women yelling
in the street, then a car turning into the alley.

In morning fatigue, my vision settles
on the veins of a woman bagging our groceries
at Bulk Barn. A bulging star, she brandishes

something other-worldly implanted in her.
We want to be stranger than what we are.
I pay what we owe and enter the idling car.


Today's reading at the Today's book of poetry offices was late, interrupted, hurried and ultimately not worthy of Cassidy McFadzean's fine Drolleries.  We will take another crack at it tomorrow morning.  By then we should have a few more oars in the water and be getting up to speed.

Today's book of poetry continues to consider some changes in our format.  We would be most appreciative and curious to hear what you, our readers, would like to see more of, less of, or something new altogether?

You regular readers know how much Today's book of poetry loves a list poem.  Here.

Last Walk

Tired of wandering the same prairie
roads outside the city, tired of parking
on the same patch of flattened grass
beside the trail marker. Tired of climbing
over the barbed wire, tired of waiting
for trucks to pass before crossing the dirt
highway. Tired of brushing ticks off
the fabric of tucked socks, plucking not-yet
swollen abdomens. Tired of descending
into the branches. Tired of finding a way.
Tired of feeling limbs snap back as I follow
you toward a path, tired of reading the map.
Tired of squishing purple berries between
index finger and thumb, tired of feeling
numb. Tired of swatting flies, tired of saying
I'm thirsty, asking for a drink of water
from the bottle that you carry. Tired of deciding
how much farther to go. Tired of taking
the same tired photo, tired of rusted tractors
parked in a more or less straight line,
tired of being tied to the grid superimposed
on the terrain, tired of crouching beside
a hole in the ground waiting for a glimpse
of something alive before turning away.


A list poem of a sort.  This one was a real smasher.

Books like Drolleries don't come along that often in poetry world.  As clever, intelligent and informed as McFadzean obviously is, these poems never intimidate, even this shaky reader.  McFadzean carries a big stick, but softly.

All hands on deck gave Drolleries the Today's book of poetry office standing ovation.  First class marks.  Today's book of poetry thought these confessions and celebrations merited wine in the kitchen.

Photo of Cassidy McFadzean
Photo:  Sarah Bodri

Cassidy McFadzean

CASSIDY McFADZEAN was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2015, she published Hacker Packer, which won two Saskatchewan Book Awards and was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her poems have appeared in magazines across Canada and the U.S., including BOAAT, Prelude, The Fiddlehead, PRISM international, and Arc, and have been finalists for the CBC Literary Awards, The Walrus Poetry Prize, and the Canadian Authors Association’s Emerging Writer Award. Her work has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry 2016, The New Wascana Anthology, and In Fine Form 2. She lives in Toronto.

“McFadzean’s debut collection is a finely layered exploration of language and archetype rooted in mythology, history, intimate reflections, and more external ghosts. It is all unearthed in deliciously adroit wordplay and exploration of form, capped off in two perfect, mirrored closing notes–one long, one short–that leave the tongue still thirsty, tasting peaty, tilled earth. A most satisfying and accomplished collection.” 
      —Publishers Weekly

“The poems in Hacker Packer cross imaginative boundaries between human and animal, intimate strangers and mythical beasts, and traverse a self-scrutinizing frontier between pathos and mordant irony. McFadzean is as anxiously comfortable with the idiom of Justin Bieber as she is with that of bardic Old English, and maps her way across a densely laid path of sound and forms. Her work is a dazzling and sometimes threatening guidebook to an interior landscape of ‘no sure footing we found we stood on.'” 
     —Mark Levine, author of The Wilds

Cassidy McFadzean
Reads from Hacker Packer
Video: The Leader-Post



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

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Linger, Still — Aislinn Hunter (Gaspereau Press)

Today's book of poetry: 
Linger, Still.  Aislinn Hunter.  Gaspereau Press.  Kentville, Nova Scotia.  2017.

Today's book of poetry sent Milo, our head tech, to the stacks yesterday before we all headed for home.  Today's book of poetry was almost certain we'd read something from Aislinn Hunter before.  And we were right.  Milo returned with a very smart looking Possible Past (Polestar Book Publishers, 2004) by Hunter.  Today's book of poetry gave it a quick perusal that turned into a full sit-down reread.  Possible Past is cherce.

Today's book of poetry liked Aislinn Hunter's poetry fifteen years ago.  Now we are ready to go stark raving mad with glee when we tell you that with Linger, Still, Hunter has entered sacred territory.  Linger, Still is Nora Gould good, Sue Goyette good, even Saint Susan of Musgrave splendid.  Today's book of poetry bloody loves it!

Aislinn Hunter has the wisdom, the knowledge, the secret, the magic - need we say more?  Hunter can burn your kitchen black and blue.  Linger, Still is vividly entertaining from the first page, the first poem.  And Aislinn Hunter has concerns that are very dear to Today's book of poetry.  Hunter's poems ask us how to be good people.  What could be more noble than that.

Northwestern Salamander Eggs Preserved in a Jar

A hundred slow curtsies
in filmy skirts
upends us, returns us,
briefly, to ourselves.
The jar held up to the window,
clutch of eggs swaying in the light.
A dance that goes back millennia,
that once saw
Simon Fraser's paddle
dip down through green
streaming chandeliers
on his way to a river
that would one day
forge his name.

Each egg a bathysphere—
a pip-sized possibility,
a helmet diver, scooped
with the stick it was moored on,
out of the wind-stirred stream.
How clear it is here
in the filigreed cloud of this
ancient bedding,
to see that being born is the rarity—
to see how the odds are stacked
against navigation—
to marvel at the possibility
of arrival, at how anything
becomes anything
at all.


We've all had that one teacher that seemed to be talking directly to us, Aislinn Hunter is that poet.  Linger, Still is an intimate sharing.  Hunter has captured what we need to know and shares it with us, the other tender animals.

Aislinn Hunter is prescient.  She answers to questions you are just starting to think about.  Linger, Still is a wondrous construction.  Hunter has no problem putting the reader in Russia and making the reader feel familiar, comfortable with new knowledge.  Russia or Newfoundland, Hunter has the maps to the secret corridors of the world and shares her familiar with us.

Linger, Still is, as Hunter intones "in this rarefied air."  Today's book of poetry asserts that Hunter and her poetry are in rarefied air.  It's easy to be excessive when you like a book of poetry as much as Today's book of poetry likes Linger, Still.  It is hard to maintain any sort of objectivity.  We'll stake our reputation on Hunter's humility but these poems remind Today's book of poetry of the voice of Michel de Montaigne himself.  

Today's book of poetry just wants more of whatever Ms. Hunter is willing to put on a page.  This is marvelous poetry.

Her Husband Takes Leave of Her With His Usual Courtesy

Her neighbours finger the sleeves of family life
as if it were a well-made coat.

And yes, she has decent husband, a marvelling child,
an abacus that clicks bead after bead into place.

So what of honesty? Of what's announced
and what gets pared away?

Even the Egyptians weighed the heart against
enumerations of innocence:

I have not mistreated cattle, I have not robbed the poor
or held back water in its season.

Rules of etiquette Anna finds
in The Book of the Dead.

I have not caught fish in their ponds,
I have not snared birds in the reeds of the gods,

I have not sinned in the Place of Truth.

And once, at least, I stood there.


Today's book of poetry will happily follow Aislinn Hunter to Russia or Scotland or any other place on earth her poetry map takes her.  We know ranting turns into unwelcomed noise if you let it so we will try to be reasonable.

Linger, Still is Canadian poetry of the highest order.  Our only issue with Hunter is that we need to see more of her poetry.  Reason and beauty don't have to adversaries, Aislinn Hunter's poetry says so.

Central American Squirrel Monkey, Male Skeleton,
From the Suffield Experimental Station, Alberta, 1951

How to do death better?

The squirrel monkey
has three kinds of call:
squeals, whistles, chirps.

A black cap, long red tail,
largest brain of any primate,
relative to body size.

Sprayed with sarin, one monkey
convulsed at six minutes
and died at twenty-nine.

What does that interval,
that Suffield winter,
look like to you?

This plush little bit
of history, these yellow bones
set, this morning,

against a backdrop
of a CBC radio documentary
on beheadings.

This monkey's skull
is the diameter
of an elaborate

men's wristwatch:
dial-less eyes, one of time's
teeth missing.

It's like a horror-of-war
film, except here
someone has stopped to pen

a set of numbers
in fine black ink
above his socket.

His body
flayed clean
down to his hands—

to two cuffs
of copper fur,
like those worn

by kings.


Aislinn Hunter should be a name we all know.  Linger, Still should be read by each and every one of you.  You will thank Today's book of poetry.

Aislinn Hunter

Aislinn Hunter is a poet, essayist, and novelist. She is the author of six books, including the novel The World Before Us, which won the Ethel Wilson Prize. She lives in British Columbia.


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, March 14, 2019

Building On River - Jean Van Loon (Cormorant Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Building On River.  Jean Van Loon.  Cormorant Books.  Toronto, Ontario.  2018.

Building On River is a little unlike any other book of poetry Today's book of poetry has seen in quite a while.  Jean Van Loon has reinterpreted, rendered if you like, biography, extensive research, heresay and conjecture, all of it into a timeless tapestry.  This brocade plays out, almost seamlessly, in the mind's eye, as though the reader were watching a movie.

Van Loon is cinematic.

This is history that you can taste, smell and feel.

Sir Michael Ondaatje (in Today's book of poetry world we knight and honour as we see fit) pave the way for this sort of adventure with his ground breaking The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.  If you haven't read Ondaatje's Billy the Kid and you love poetry.  The very next thing you should do is to put on your coat and go to the bookstore/library and get a copy of The Collected Billy....

John Rudolphous Booth is the subject of Van Loon's expansive narrative about a self-made man on the edge of the Canadian wilderness.  Booth understood what was about to happen and took advantage of it.  His astute sense of what was needed and how to supply it made him a very rich man.  Jean Van Loon witnessed none of it but somehow brings Booth to flesh and bone you care about.

J.R., Age Nine, Builds a Bridge

Runoff bulges the creek
a muscled river
if I look at it right, churning
alongside the field
icing my feet.

Yesterday's turtle
drags again onto its rock
head and legs outstretched
shell scarred. Midday sun
warms my shoulders.

I've cleared the brush
with the hatchet Father
made me. Now I can
spade the bank, anchor
a buttress shaped from

a fireplace log Father
must not notice missing
and the stump I dug out last week.
A dab hand with an axe, Mother said
now two years dead,

who told me Blue Flag
was the flower that looked like an iris
beside the summertime creek
who sweetened my sickbed
with a mug of wild roses.


As it happens Jean Van Loon and I will be doing a reading in a private home here in Ottawa a couple of weeks from now.  Ms. Van Loon and I have yet to meet.  You're just going to have to take my word for it on the coincidence of timing for Building On River.  

Jean Van Loon researched Building On River by reading tracts from the Historical Society of Gatineau, lumber baron biographies, Donald McKay and David Lee too.  Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill.  And that isn't scratching the surface.

The result is poems that sound and feel true in all respects.  These poems do bring J.R. Booth to flesh and blood, we see his diligence and imagination make an empire from wood.  

Tale from the Feed Mill

This was before he was rich.
Starting out in Hull with a small plant
for shingles. He'd hitch up and carry a load,
sell it in Ottawa, then make the rounds for supplies.

So he comes to my mill for a quantity of fodder
finds he doesn't have the cash to pay for it all.
I tell him, Go ahead, take what you need
—lord knows, he'd be good for the money.

Well sir. But a few minutes later, didn't he
wheel the horses back and return the part unpaid.
Couldn't unload fast enough. As if it would
burn through his wagon.


Jean Van Loon isn't going to knock you over the head with fireworks, there is a far subtler game afoot, these poems accumulate, gather momentum, details build, until the story of J.R. Booth carries you, becomes important to you, the reader.  This is a good trick.

This morning's read was held with one sore crew.  Yesterday's deadline was not met because each and every one of us was outside shovelling snow, again, like we have almost every day since the beginning of November.  Today's book of poetry loves Ottawa and is happy to live here, but this winter was truly a kick right in the old tender parts.  Milo, our head tech, did something to his back lifting wet snow.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, did something to her back trying to look after Milo.  And so on.

Today's book of poetry thought Jean Van Loon found the right tension between tough and tender.  Booth was clearly a man of purpose.  And we get the sense that he did care about family and community.  He was a man dedicated to his work.  Van Loon has found the man under all that wealth, behind all that work.

The Weaver's Tale

—found poem

The saw on his left
sets the pace. If the singing blade
rips 50 rough shingles
off the block every minute
the sawyer must reach over
to its teeth
50 times in 60 seconds;
if the automatic carriage
feeds the odorous wood 60 times
into hungry teeth, 60 times
he must reach over, turn the shingle, trim its edge
on the gleaming saw in front of him
cut the narrow strip containing
the knot hole with two quick movements
and toss the completed
board down the chute
to the packers,
keeping eyes and ears open
for the sound that asks him
to feed a new block into untiring teeth.
Hour after hour the shingle weaver's
hands and arms, plain, unarmored
flesh and blood, staked against
the screeching steel that cares not
what it severs. Hour after hour the steel
sings its crescendo as it bites
into the wood, the sawdust cloud
thickens with fine particles.

Sooner or later he reaches
a little too far, the whirling blade
tosses drops of deep red
into the air, and a finger, a hand
or part of an arm comes sliding
down the slick chute.


Building On River is quiet determination realized.  Jean Van Loon has done that rare feat, found the real poetry in history.

Jean Van Loon

Jean Van Loon lives with her husband in a home that is an easy walk to the Ottawa River. Since retiring from a career as a public servant and head of the steel industry's national trade association, she has published poems and stories in literary magazines across Canada. When not at her desk, she often walks through the Experimental Farm, comprised in large part of farmland bought from J.R. Booth, or along the river where he got his start. Building on River is her first book-length publication.

"Building on River is full of lyrical moments and metaphor."
     — Patrick Langston, Artsfile

​"Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast..."
     — Catherine Owen, Marrow Reviews

Jean Van Loon
Video: Arc Poetry



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
"Building on River is full of lyrical moments and metaphor."
— Patrick Langston, Artsfile
"Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast..."
— Catherine Owen, Marrow Reviews

"Building on River is full of lyrical moments and metaphor."
— Patrick Langston, Artsfile
"Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast..."
— Catherine Owen, Marrow Reviews

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Travel Notes from the River Styx - Susanna Lang (Terrapin Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Travel Notes from the River Styx.  Susanna Lang.  Terrapin Books.  West Caldwell, New Jersey.  2017.


Today's book of poetry's first impression of Susanna Lang's Travel Notes from the River Styx is of a haunting, a ghost trail, a ghost voice.  Or perhaps it is just affectionate trepidation.  But Lang's poems get between your fingers and toes like mud or mist, flowing where they want.  These poems are not incantations but they are certainly precarious spells of some kind.

And Susanna Lang really hammer and tongs our hearts when she brings out the big guns, Saint Anna Akhmatova, our beloved, on to the playing field.  Travel Notes from the River Styx entertains, if that's the word we want to use, but it comes at a price.  The entertainment marches along with dread.  And then the crafty Lang drops a Ben Sidran moment on the readers and we go limp with surprise and joy.  Susanna Lang must possess a wicked sense of humour under her cheeky smirk.


Wind empties the sky of all but its own force, carries
a concrete dock from Misawa

five thousand miles across the ocean, encrusted with thirty species 
not seen before on this side of the world:

sea stars, urchins, gooseneck barnacles, snails, seaweed, kelp,
shore crabs—but not like ours, creatures

that have survived the winds and deep water; curls and ribbons,
protruding eyes and tongues

the color of blood. We bury the lot eight feet under sand
and higher than a storm would surge.

Starved of salt water, they'll none of them live; or
so we hope.

I sleep in one country, wake in another, dream and daydream in two
languages, lose words in both.

This year the heat comes early, frost comes late, burns the blossoms
on the trees, blights the harvest—

apples, cherries, apricots, all the stone fruit. But in the backyard
of a brick two-flat on the southwest side of the city

small green knobs hang half-hidden in the leaves, until birds
come to ravish them:

durazno in the language of the house, momo in the language
of the dock, a sweetness in the air.

Losing ground, losing home, only the blur of wings
and that fragrance.

RED ROJO written in chalk on the sidewalk, GREEN VERDE
and a goldfinch

singing in the tree above, returned from its yearly journey.
My family came to stay

but not in one place. One country, too many cities.
I found a clamshell yesterday

by the backyard fence, where it should not have been;
but there have been others.

My real country is not a place, the monk says when he is expelled
from the country where he has lived

for decades, though he cannot forget the desert and its fragile icons.
My real country is heaven.


Today's book of poetry wants to tell you how Susanna Lang sustains such a solid presence with these poems  Travel Notes from the River Styx is a full seven course meal that satisfies at every turn.  The appetizers are engaging, the soup as fine as your favourite grandmother used to make.  The main course is varied, filling, solid and rewarding.  Dessert a surprising dollop.  All of this to say that Susanna Lang can burn.  And you know how much we love that here at Today's book of poetry.

Another sure sign that Susanna Lang's Travel Notes from the River Styx is worth your poetry time is that almost every poem in this tasty collection has already been published in a literary magazine that we all want to appear in.

Languorous forces and a memory for the ages.  Lang jumps over those Russian steppes and her grandparents history in poems rich with irony, fear and hope.  Today's book of poetry is always happy to find the hope element.  Much like Lynne Knight (our last blog/review was of Knight's The Language of Forgetting), Lang evokes memory, calling upon it to reveal some truths for the present.

After You Get Up Early on Memorial Day

You take the cats out with you, shut
the door: I have the whole wide bed, all
the covers to fall back asleep in, while you
cut up and sugar the strawberries, grind
the coffee, leave the radio off
so I won't be disturbed. The room is still
dark, rain forecast for the entire day,
other people's family picnics cancelled,
barbeques moved into basements, parades
rerouted to avoid flooded viaducts, the iris
losing petals beside newly cleaned graves,
their mason jars spilt into the saturated ground.
But here is my holiday, this drift back beneath thought
while I lie in the warm impression of your body.


Our morning read reflected an office in flux.  Today's book of poetry has been undergoing some major changes and apologizes once again for our recent tardiness.  Steps are being put in place to correct those issues.  None the less, Travel Notes from the River Styx is just the bromide needed to start our poetry engine and yours.

Susanna Lang, the storyteller, reminds Today's book of poetry of Saint Alistair of MacLeod, if he were writing poetry.  Disguised as poems, Lang's stories inhabit the reader, memory lurks at every turn.  Lang is working towards a conclusion, each poem another solid addition to her platform, a foundation forged in another time.


My father, who studied these things, would have said
that we become more so as we grow older.
I don't know if he invented the phrase or borrowed it
from one of the books he read and handed on to me
before I was ready; but more so became a word
in our family, a way to explain my mother
shifting the vase half a centimeter to its predetermined
place on the end table, or our friend whose skin
after the heart attack let the light through.
We collected words, like child of God
which meant the way Sister Ann pulled Rene downstairs
by his ear, reminding herself and everyone in earshot of where
we all come from and how to love what fights against us.
Or heron, which meant so much more than the blue-gray
shadow that flew over the canal we insisted on calling
a river, meant afternoons on real rivers up north and Sundays
at the natural history museum, the living bird's crooked neck
and long beak so like the artist's rendering of what flew
above this place in the beginning. It's enough to make you believe
in a Garden of Eden, if you can imagine an Eden
that grows and changes, perennials coming in more thickly,
roses a deeper hue than they were before, but the beds
still marked. And now a previously unknown species of tailorbird
has been discovered in a suburban tree, vibrating
with its own song, new cap on its head, new name
in the books. We still need a word for the primate
that loosened up its shoulders like a slingshot, ready to throw
what would one day be called a fastball, my father
sitting in the stands with my brother, one face reminiscent
of the other, both cheering for the pitcher and his evolving arm.


So, in conclusion.  We have discovered, much to our delight, that Susanna Lang can burn, baby, burn.  You all know how much we like that here at Today's book of poetry.

Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang is the author of Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013) and Even Now (The Backwaters Press, 2008). She has also published two collections of her translations of poems by Yves Bonnefoy, Words in Stone (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and The Origin of Language (George Nama, 1979). A two-time Hambidge Fellow and recipient of the Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer's Center, she has published her poems and essays in such journals as New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Green Mountains Review, and Poetry East. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.

In the earnest and beautiful Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang peers into the tiny mirrors of a river’s current, the mirror her father cannot see himself in, the rearview mirror in which she spies sandhill cranes on an afternoon drive as she interrogates the natural and, at times, unnatural world. The result is a collection of double images: the moon a “copper coin with the sheen worn off,” “the flag [that] slips down the pole,” the country where her grandmother was born once called Russia, now Ukraine. As clear in its language as it is rich in argument, there’s something for everyone in Travel Notes, for travelers are exactly what this poet proclaims we are. It’s impossible to read this collection without wondering what doubles wait/lurk/reside beneath the skin of our bodies and of our world.
     —Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Today's book of poetry would like to give a shout out to Steven Heighton, our Canadian colleague, who has been recently named as one of four finalists for the Moth Poetry Prize.  You can get more information about that here:

Today's book of poetry sends our best wishes and all our crossed fingers for Mr. Heighton.



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.
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