To read Liz Chang’s review of Eve Heads Back, click HERE.
To read Liz Chang’s review of Eve Heads Back, click HERE.
To read Liz Chang’s review of Bring Now the Angels: Poems, click HERE.
To read Courtney Bambrick’s review of Fractures, click HERE.
Some of the feelings within a Black life cannot be easily expressed; they contradict each other. Sometimes a person wants revenge against the oppressing majority, and other times, they seek assimilation. Despite the difficulty of translation, Kirwyn Sutherland’s Jump Ship illustrates the triumphs and torment of Black people in America.
Sutherland is a poet based in Philadelphia. He has published two chapbooks, X: A Mixtape and X: A Mixtape Remastered, has written book reviews for WusGood magazine, and has poetry published by Tobeco Literary Arts Journal, Drunkinamidnightchoir, APIARY, and Public Pool. Jump Ship’s illustrations are by visual artist and DJ Oluwafemi.
Jump Ship reveals the mental conversations Black people have with themselves about difficult subjects. The poem, “The Email Said” shows the hidden frustration Black people have when forced to code-switch. “Assimilation” details the mind and the fixed smile of a man who tries to conform with racist coworkers. “Taunts to the Klan” is a proclamation of pride and glee to spite racists.
Like a mind racing, Sutherland’s poems read quickly. He does this by using slash marks in some poems and all caps in others. “The Email Said” uses repetition to create speed.
talking to the wall about
what you would have said
to the ‘next person
who spoke so well
of your “speak so well”’ (16-17)
In “Assimilation,” Sutherland creates speed with imagery:
When I heard my co-workers say nigger
It almost knocked the whiteness
out of me but I caught it with my
fist and prayed whiteness wouldn’t confuse
the grabbing for a power move (13-15)
“Assimilation” is also notable for its references to pop culture: an epigraph says it is inspired by Sarge from A Soldier’s Story. Another poem in this collection that talks about conformity, “Uncle Tom’s Redux,” calls out Kanye West, Steve Harvey, and others for selling out their Black pride. The references in Jump Ship make it timely and relatable.
“Taunts to the Klan” uses speed similarly to “Assimilation”; both use description to create intense situations. But thematically, the poems conflict. The narrator of “Taunts to the Klan” can spot a closet or a proud racist within seconds, but the narrator of “Assimilation” wishes to fit in with the racists around him, so much so that he maligns his Black co-worker. Black pride and self-doubt, ideas like these are explored in Jump Ship.
Some poems use slash marks as well as line breaks to affect pacing; others use capitalization to affect the volume and intensity of specific words or phrases. Most of the poems manipulate their speed in some way, leading to a reader feeling impassioned. These poems are not contemplative gazes at nature; they’re a door kicked off its hinges. They’re shouts of pride and wails of agony from centuries of torment.
Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (2nd Edition) [Texture Press, 2019]
Review by Jamal H. Goodwin Jr.
Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets is more than a motivational tool or instruction manual for a beginner poet. It is a source of joy, insight, melancholy, curiosity, and humor. This variety of emotions arises thanks to poets of various levels, from students to classical poets to professionals. Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, the authors of Prompts for Poets, contribute poems as well. Fox is a writer who teaches at Drexel University, and Levin is a writer and translator who teaches at Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.
But this book is more than a writing guide with prompts for poets: it is also a poetry collection. Prompts for Poets offers strong lines, voluble stanzas, and opportunities for both humor and contemplation.
The narrator in Levin’s “Paraclausithryon” ostensibly pleads for entry into a lover’s abode, but is actually castigating them:
I beg news of your dreams
the milk of your voice.
Don’t waste yourself
like an unread book
I will wait a year, maybe two
then don’t blame me if I seek
less in need of coaxing.
The scorn of the narrator is palpable, and the ease of their transition from serenading their lover to threatening abandonment is almost disturbing.
Devin Williams’ “Rats” delivers insight on a marginalized soul. The mythology that Williams evokes demonstrates that there is more to a rat. They are not just subway dwellers; rats have admirers, and rats have feelings, too:
I am present when food is abundant.
Companion of Daikoku,
Savior of Sesshu,
First sign of the Zodiac
It is only language that separates us.
Yet, you avoid me
And attack me.
You don’t know me,
How can you claim to know how I feel?
Prompts for Poets has humorous, carefree moments too. In chapter 11, “The Advice Column Poem,” desperate readers ask columnists for life advice. Each poem’s columnist gives an absurd answer, one that ignores the question and frequently prompts a laugh. In Lauren Hall’s “Lost without Frank,” a wife inquiring about difficulties with her husband is told by the crystal-ball-consulting Madame Rosa that he does not exist:
You say this Georgina never existed, and there Madame Rosa agrees, but who’s to say that Frank wasn’t just more of the same? Who’s to say you didn’t make him up one afternoon while you were sorting your sock drawer or scrubbing the toilet?
There’s plenty more prompts and poetry to be found in Prompts for Poets. The prompts and instructions are sure to get the mind warmed up and ready to write while the poems bring about contemplation or give rise to a laugh. More can be found on Fox and Levin’s collaborative website, https://poemsforthewriting.com/.
Clauser, Grant. Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. Codhill Press, 2020.
I read once that Sylvia Plath’s original manuscript order for Ariel began with “Love…” and ended with “spring” and that this was intentional and significant (despite being woefully out of step with the mythology that has grown up around her work since her death).
Similarly, Grant Clauser’s Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry award) begins, “Lord, forgive us our pessimism…” and ends, “…giving the world all/it can take, light/playing over every/precious thing.” These choices are also clearly significant in terms of the voice Clauser cultivates between these covers.
These are not naïve poems, but they are hopeful. There are times when the voice is wry or even briefly despairing, but they always seem to carefully weigh the natural world and the father’s place in his growing family to find something to rejoice in, as he states in the closing lines of one poem: “how in this life we tell each other/stories to get through the day, to teach/our kids to love something distant/…because it seemed/like the best way to preserve/the time we had, the time we have” (from “Adopting a Manatee”).
These poems build upon the voice and awareness Clauser first explored in Reckless Constellations (his 2018 collection from Cider Press Review). In that collection, the poet’s love and nostaligia for his childhood spent outdoors resonates throughout his poems. In this one, his meditations mourn the coming loss of the natural world from climate change. He also looks to past environmental disasters through the lens of individual creatures, such as the ill-advised dynamiting of a whale carcass on a beach in the 1970s, an “anti-ode” for the spotted lanternfly and the creature who lends her name to the collection, the Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (a fossil discovered in China and thought to be about 66 million years old), who “was beautiful/because even as it died/it was so close to flying.”
Several of the poems make use of Shakespeare or Miltonian lines as their titles, but the trained eye of Clauser’s poems return to the smallest living thing as a telescoping metaphor for our purpose here on the planet as in “Hummingbird,” which previously appeared in the Sugar House Review (wondering in the closing lines, “how dark worlds hidden from sight/can still bend starlight around them”). But the beating heart of the collection is the poem “Men Weeping in Cars,” where Clauser admits, “Maybe life is good after all,/you’ve worked and saved and built/but the color of the sky reminds you/how thin the line is between wanting/and needing, and you tell yourself/not to do this to your heart again.” Trust this poet and his brilliant poems.
Matthews, Airea D. Simulacra. Foreword by Carl Phillips, Yale UP, 2017.
Airea Matthews’ Simulacra doubles then quadruples its mirroring. As the author teases in her Notes, “the [title] derives from the Latin… meaning ‘to make like’ or simulate. …[but], according to [Philosopher Jean] Baudrillard, the simulacrum was that which ‘hides truth’s nonexistence.’” It is clearly this secondary definition that she is playing with in her text: these poems seem to pull back the curtain, revealing a dark mirror or pond that in its brightest spots truly illuminates the show behind us.
The compelling majesty of these poems is that they somehow remain inviting; it would be easy for such complexities to lock out the casual reader. But Matthews draws on a vast literary store of familiar characters (from Ancient Greek mythology and celebrity poets), folding in a modern sensibility that manages to not feel gimmicky. She often uses epigrams from French philosophers and writers (Camus, Baudrillard, Barthes) to remind us of the depth of what she is trying to achieve, even as she drops her characters—some recurring, like Anne Sexton the nurse who has never heard of Anne Sexton the confessional poet—into familiar settings. Matthews uses the operetta and biblical-style verses as easily as she does some more quotidian forms of communication that hardly seem artful (like texting and tweeting), until, in her hands, they become so. The text messages delivered, significantly, out of order—so that the reader must rely on timestamps and numbering to read them in their intended sequence—between poet Anne Sexton and the doomed Arthur Miller character Tituba from The Crucible of “Sexton Texts Tituba From a Bird Sanctuary” could really be titled something along the lines of ‘desire, foreboding, and womanhood.’ Those ideas pulse throughout this collection.
The spine of hunger, longing and trauma runs as an undercurrent through all of these poems, voices, and shifting presentations. As Carl Phillips mentions in his foreword (detailing his decision to select Matthews’ manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets series), “she offers us nothing less than an extended meditation on the multifariousness of desire” (xv). The poet herself remains unknown, even though she uses several characters (like “The Mine Owner’s Wife,” “The Good Dentist’s Wife” and Anne Sexton the poet) as stand-ins for the “I” presence, so that it becomes clear that there is something she finds compelling about women who were limited in their ambition at the hands of their male counterparts. But these are far from “domestic poems,” as some of these titles would have you believe. Matthews’ heroines are powered by their self-awareness, even though they are trapped. Her voice vibrates with the power of the poet Ai, that great master of the dramatic monologue. Matthews seems to be saying that there is power in femaleness that rides the great tide of generations. As she writes in “Select Passages from the Holy Writ of Us,” “They called her morning.5 She misheard mourning.6” This collection is a tour de force in its breadth and depth.
By Courtney Bambrick
In her collection Ghosts, Nancy Davis presents a changing and challenging American landscape. Her poetic terrain is in turn at odds and at ease with history and wilderness. The first poem in the collection, “Sanctuary,” offers a glimpse of the layers of earth and time:
the dead are buried here.
contaminated fish bones compressed into
strata of an unintended geological age… (5).
Throughout the collection, we dig through that strata and examine the bones Davis unearths in poems that connect modern living to a pervasive but opaque past:
Like a mole, blind in its star-starved
pursuit of light–a tuberous longing
Far up the hillside, a mausoleum
of memory haunts. Children play
in the dirt… (“Ghosts” 11).
Setting poems in both domestic and untamed places — gardens, forests, cities — allows Davis to reflect on the interactions of time and place and the uneasy balance between:
in the lake house on the bluff
a woman opens her door
peering out somewhere between
dusk and remembrance… (“Into the Garden: Dreamscape” 17-18).
Davis shows us a land that is as scarred and aching as our own bodies, and as vulnerable. Birth and death are visceral and natural — shocking, but expected. In the garden, for instance, new life may be possible:
…mounds of freshly shredded mulch:
hardwood pining for resurrection,
While in the poem “Desire” Davis describes a bear, she might be describing the unconscious or the way memory asserts itself unexpectedly and without welcome:
All at once it appeared: barreling out of its musky secrecy,
voracious demeanor, ambling with surprising speed and grace
up the hillside. clawing madly with one massive, capable paw
at the foliage caught in its thick, black pelt (27).
The “invasion” is jarring to the poem’s speaker and to the reader, reminding us of the dangers we don’t often see beyond the edge of our backyards. The bear reminds us of other bears we’ve seen or read about in the news or in fairy tales: “…bear stories circled the valley/like hungry hawks.” They are familiar and foreign, “the most terrifying and exuberant,” and like our memories, they threaten damage, but might pass quietly if we are lucky.
As it expands personal memory to cultural or political memory, the poem “Firestorm: Checagou” connects histories and peoples to the physical earth through work and violence. Industrial and natural imagery vie for attention through the poem as through the collection. The dangers evolve and transform as time passes and the landscape reflects human manipulation.
A clear-eyed and open-hearted reflection on our place in the American landscape, Ghosts helps the reader navigate a relationship with the relentless but fragile natural world and reminds us of our proximity to both danger and safety.
Steve Almond, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country
By Julia MacDonnell
My urgent advice to anyone who, like me, was stunned, outraged and disoriented by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president: Read Steve Almond’s “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country.”
Bad Stories, a slim paperback published by Red Hen Press, is a page-turner for the politically engaged and/or the dazed and confused. It offers no solace for our current civic climate, a country riven by discord, with a corrupt plutocrat and apparent sexual predator (just grab ‘em by the…) occupying the Oval Office. Instead Almond illuminates, with uncommon skill, wit and pungent language, the dark forces in our culture, that, with the precision of a homing device, made all but inevitable the election of a man with “the heart of an autocrat and the mind of a gorilla.”
The titular bad stories, sixteen of them, are, in Almond’s telling, cultural narratives most Americans accept as true. For example, that the United States is a representative democracy or that economic anguish fueled Trumpism. That the Cold War is over and we won, and, echoing loudest from coast to coast in the fall of 2016, nobody would vote for a guy like that!
Almond, the author of three collections of short stories and several books of nonfiction, says that telling stories is what he does best. Hence his focus here on the stories that he believes have gotten us into so much trouble, stories we’ve been telling ourselves and stories that, unchallenged, mass media have been telling us for decades. These ‘bad stories,’ Almond demonstrates, have lately been amped to cacophonous levels but are rarely reflected upon, or their consequences considered. In this book, Almond reflects upon their flaws and considers possible corrections.
Bad Story #3, Our Grievances Matter More Than Our Vulnerabilities, offers a nuanced argument, a keynote for the book. In it Almond describes Trump as a protest candidate who considers traditional politics ‘bullshit.’ He posits that Trump’s base, (generally considered white, male and working class) enflamed by his campaign rhetoric, failed to vote for candidates whose policies might have made possible the job programs, health benefits and housing support they needed to make their lives better. Instead, in anger, they voted against their ‘curdled perceptions of government’ for a man who, so far, has given them nothing except the chance to make noise at rowdy rallies where they get to rail against Fake News and other ‘elites.’
Adding to the horror, feeding it, is the fact that so many Americans don’t vote. Almond offers the familiar stunning data: three million more people voted for Hilary Clinton than for Trump – but only 60 percent of Americans bothered to vote at all. He calls such civic apathy the ‘dark matter’ in a nation ‘overrun by bitter partisanship.’ He argues, convincingly to me, that such apathy is a form of privilege, the privilege of negligence ‘that arises in a population insulated from foreign threat and domestic hardship.’ Learning about the policy proposals of candidates and then voting, he posits, are essential responsibilities for those who value democracy and fear our slide toward fascism.
Almond, who began his career as a newspaper reporter, first in El Paso and then in Miami, is especially perceptive when discussing the role of news media, the so-called Fourth Estate, in the rise of Trumpism. Highlighting cable news, Almond asserts that Trump “became a front-runner because he was treated as a front-runner.”
In story #6, What Amuses Us Can’t Hurt Us, Almond says he wasn’t able to have a serious discussion with friends and acquaintances about the 2016 campaign because “they didn’t take the election seriously.” Almond resurrects Neil Postman’s 1985 screed Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business to show that however damaging the Trump presidency has been to our country, it has, for many, been irresistibly entertaining. That’s why Trump’s version of reality show politics has been a boon for profit-driven news media. He quotes Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, telling a conference sponsored by Morgan Stanley that the Trump candidacy, “might not be good for America” but “the money is rolling in” and it’s “fun.” (Since the publication of Bad Stories, and following accusations of sexual misconduct by a dozen women, Moonves has stepped down from CBS.)
In #13, There is No Such Thing as Fair and Balanced, Almond deciphers how the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration gave rise to right wing talk radio, the bailiwick of conspiracy theorists and demagogues. The Fairness Doctrine, instituted by the FCC in 1949, required holders of broadcast licenses to offer ‘honest, equitable, and balanced’ coverage of all controversial material. In other words, broadcasters had to tell both sides of the story. But Reagan’s FCC revoked the doctrine, claiming it harmed the public interest because it violated the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. (Befuddling, to say the least.) From that moment on, in a rightward lurch, the airwaves resounded with the dark visions and loud voices of Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and others. While these so-called truth tellers only garbled it, they stoked the grievances of their legions of listeners, and made themselves wealthy and politically powerful. Trump, an early Savage listener, is known to be a huge fan. Hannity now serves as an unofficial presidential advisor.
Like the best essayists, Almond has a well-stocked mind. He deploys it shrewdly in Bad Stories, pulling from his brain shelf works of philosophy, sociology, political science and literature to buttress his points. Among the novels whose words and themes are finely woven through his arguments are Moby Dick, Slaughterhouse Five, Fahrenheit 451, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath. This weaving offers a heartening look at the important stories classic literature has to tell us. If only we paid attention.
Almond also presents, for our examination and amusement, his own failed if prescient novel featuring as protagonist a character named Bucky Dent. Dent was ‘a hedonistic right wing demagogue’ whose code of conduct included ‘manic self-promotion, gluttony, screen addiction, sexual predation and casual racism.’ His attempted novel, Almond says, was inspired by his concerns about the Tea Party’s fundamentalism. But it failed, he writes, because he fell out of love with his own creation and because his early readers found Dent too ‘cruel and cartoonish’ to be believed.
Almond calls Bad Stories ‘a rhetorical panic room.’ I don’t disagree but it is much more than that. It’s an enthralling examination of our disastrous current politics, replete with Almond’s impressive research as well as his signature wit and vibrant language. Moreover, Bad Stories, as it delves into Almond’s personal history, and his self-described failure as a reporter – his editors always wanted ‘indictments’ whereas as he wanted to find out ‘what it meant to be human’ –can also be read as the evolution of an important American writer, one who eschews the role of pundit. Instead, Almond has chosen to become an interlocutor of the culture, one who hopes with his ideas and his words to generate conversations and maybe to prompt action. The role of interlocutor is what links Almond’s fiction with his nonfiction with his podcasts with his teaching and with all of his other work. Always he is seeking to answer a single question: What does it mean to be human?
By the time I closed Bad Stories for the second time, having underlined and highlighted its pages almost into oblivion, hope glimmered on the horizon. I understood better than I ever had why and how we’ve arrived in this broken place and what I, Citizen Me, solo voter, have to do to get the humanistic democracy I need and want.
Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A. It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.
Review of Scranton Lace: Poems (Clemson University Press)
A lyrical and brutal dismantling
by Emma Murray
“In Vulgar Latin, Lace means entice, / ensnare.” Poet Margot Douaihy and scratchboard illustrator Bri Hermanson do just that with Scranton Lace: Poems. Douaihy’s poems lyrically and brutally dissect coming of age as a queer person in the Rust Belt, and the Scranton Lace Company—a hometown fixture turned ruin—is her muse. From sleeping off a first hangover in “The Lace” parking lot, to falling “in lust” with a diner waitress who worked nearby, this fixture and the lace itself serve as portals through which Douaihy conjures and reconciles her adolescent homophobia, as well as what it means when these familiar structures falter. “Like a honeycomb, the more you turn a memory / the more doors you find.”
Not only is this collection a tour de force lyrically, but also visually. Hermanson’s signature scratchboard illustrations guide the reader through interludes about two imagined female factory workers. Hermanson’s medium seems symbolic of the collection’s intent—etching away literal and figurative edifice to get to the raw wound. This, combined with how Hermanson has dappled pages with relief prints of genuine Scranton Lace, will leave readers fingering the pages for more. But don’t let the enticing lace fool you—this collection has teeth, as Douaihy reminds: “yes lace is porous / but it can still smother.”
Poet and visual artist Emma Murray received her MFA from Oklahoma State University. She received an Academy of American Poets Prize in 2016.
Purchase Link: tinyurl.com/ScrantonLace
Watch the book trailer: https://vimeo.com/259487376