REVIEW: Wolves at Night by Sara McDermott

 

Review of Sara McDermott Jain, Wolves at Night

by Charlotte Edwards

 

Re-Defining The “Mother” in Sara McDermott’s Wolves at Night

The bloody fight for female empowerment in Sara McDermott’s “WOLVES AT NIGHT” produces a compelling narrative of a single mother’s fight in restoring familial ties with Ben Wilton, the father of her child, as she navigates through the cold Alaskan wilderness. Readers come to learn that Ben had been accused of murder, forcing him to go into hiding. Eleni must fight against all odds to give her son, Jacob, a better life, but also to face the larger enemy being her self-doubt in her quest to be the ideal mother. She becomes a true heroine in this narrative by overcoming her fears of being an independent woman and the best role model for her son. As a woman myself, this novel left me excited and confident in females overcoming the constraints they face by a patriarchal society. Her bravery, resilience, and newfound perspective gives her the strength and ability to outsmart the literal and figurative “wolves” that lurk in the forests around them; moreover, her characterization made me hopeful for the inclusion of women heroes in future literary texts.

The job of “motherhood” is an already complex and tedious role to fulfill; that being said, Ben’s abrupt absence in the family leads Eleni to assume the responsibility of both parents and become the central heroine of the story. Eleni’s genuine love for her son, Jacob, literally bleeds throughout the storyline, mainly as a result of Jacob’s medical condition. The characterization of Eleni reminded me of author and feminist advocate Betty Friedan’s initiative to end the “feminine mystique” that restricts women to the role of the “suburban housewife.” Similar to Friedan, McDermott uses Eleni’s character to re-identify the purpose of mothers in households, particularly in those with broken families. As a child from a divorced family, the bond between Eleni and Jacob reminded me that a family does not require the presence of both a mother and a father to be “complete.” Contrarily, the love from one parent is enough to turn an entire wilderness from darkness to light. Although Eleni and Jacob were exposed to the extreme environmental elements, Eleni’s nurture prevented Jacob from freezing to death. In the same vein, a mother’s love and sacrifice for their child holds the power to protect them from a dangerous world.

Extending on this, McDermott’s integration of the cabin into the storyline shows that a home is not defined by its physical structure. Throughout the plot, Eleni and Jacob are surrounded by dangerously cold temperatures and deadly timber-wolves in a cabin that is falling apart; this environment differs significantly from the upscale apartment that they lived in back in Seattle. That being said, Eleni never dwells on the luxuries that she and her son once had access to. Instead, she feels fulfilled by the “home” that she has in Jacob and shows how his existence is the only “gold” that she will ever need. It is especially important for readers to be exposed to this concept in the social climate that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic and re-affirms the notion that my mother has instilled in me- “home is where the heart is.” The uncertainty of the virus and its impact on the future of society has reminded me that my home will always be with my mother and grandmother. Moreover, it has led me to gain a deeper appreciation for the people and relationships that I value most and who have helped to keep me from crumbling. This parallels how Eleni developed a deeper and stronger connection to Jacob throughout the progression of the plot, and how his presence prevented her from falling apart like the house.

Eleni not only morphs into a “wolf-like” character who gains the ability to maintain and exert control over her predators, but she takes on the persona as the “mother wolf” in fighting to re-claim authority over her own identity and fate in society. Similar to Eleni, women and mothers in society today are in the fight for their lives as they face the aftermath of the recent overturn to Roe vs. Wade; therefore, McDermott’s narrative serves as a tool for females in revolting against the controlling patriarchy. Eleni’s “warriorship” provides an important call-to-action for all women to revolt against systematic oppression and discrimination, regardless of the odds. In this process, she re-establishes the role of the “mother” by proving how true and unconditional love is unbreakable and its capacity to move mountains in creating a better life for future generations.


Charlotte Edwards is an aspiring poet, novelist, and screenwriter from Holmdel, New Jersey. She is a student at Monmouth University, majoring in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. In addition, she also holds a position as an intern with Epicenter LLC, a boutique production and literary management company based in Los Angeles, California. Although Charlotte’s interests are constantly expanding, she has a particular love for fiction, such as romance/romantic comedies and science fiction. 

REVIEW: Little Black Book by Chad Frame

Review of Chad Frame, Little Black Book.

by Kathryn Ionata

 

Chad Frame’s debut poetry collection pierces in many ways, and the first is its title. The little black book is so ubiquitous an artifact that its meaning still resonates in this more digital era. It’s an address book full of names of past or potential lovers, and fittingly, a vast number of poem titles in this book are simply names: “Bruce,” “John,” “Alex.” But if a little black book, and this book in particular, is a book of names, it’s also a book of bodies: sexualized and memorialized; on-screen and in life; active bodies and dead bodies. Frame composes a loving tribute to the vintage while remaining firmly in the gritty, unvarnished present.

Many of the first poems in this collection are about feeling like an outsider: living in a “tiny” house that “smells like cigarettes,” and being a boy who is attracted to other boys.

To be an outsider, perhaps especially as a child, is a kind of “hell” that Frame explores: “What the hell,” asks Christopher, the subject of a poem by the same name, about the school bus jerking to a stop. But hell is also the moment when the young male speaker, Christopher’s friend, can’t stop himself from kissing Christopher, a kiss that is not welcomed. Moreover, hell is what the speaker intuits he will be “living in / for years before / I can even begin” to contemplate what hell means. But there are worse forms of hell, in which the outsider does not survive, and Frame explores these in the collection’s strongest, most devastating poems.

Little Black Book is a book of bodies, and in some cases these bodies suffer immeasurably. Frame dedicates “Nine-Year-Old Suicide in Reverse” to Jamel Myles, a young boy who identified as gay and who was ridiculed and bullied before taking his own life in 2018. This poem is one of several that were originally published in this magazine, and to my mind is one of the strongest that has appeared in recent memory. Frame’s composition is deeply affecting in its invention. “A candle unsnuffs” is the first impossibility, the first action undone, as Frame leads us backwards through the boy’s day, from end to beginning. The boy’s backpack “rises from the floor” as one wishes his body could have done. He returns to school, in an alternate version of the day in which classmates do not torment him with hurtful language:

High-fletched F, its bulbless semiquaver.

Lofty A, its slopes unassailable.

Selfsame, cliquish GG, backs turned to shun.

Surprised O, rolling, caught up in all this.

And T, the final, burning cross of it.

Here, in the life of this young boy as well as in this poem, language is everything. The personification of the letters highlights their gravity. Frame does not mince words or meaning in calling the last letter of this slur “the final, burning cross of it”: it’s a crucifixion. This is the kind of poem that will stay with the reader long past the initial reading.

Frame invokes the image of crucifixion of another young, gay male body in “Shepard,” dedicated to Matthew Shepard, a teenage boy who was murdered in 1998 in what was widely thought to have been a hate crime. The images broadcast at that time of a slight boy, body positioned as though on a crucifix, were devastating to view, and excruciatingly affecting especially for those who personally identified with Shepard in some way. As the speaker of Frame’s poem notes, when he finds out about Shepard’s murder,

I’m just fifteen,

 

a sophomore,

thinking maybe

 

I could just tell

someone, a friend,

 

what I’m feeling,

grow bold enough…

What does it mean to come of age as a gay man, seeing images of a boy who looked more “scarecrow” than human, “tear-tracks / through blood and grime… tied / to a buck rail”? Frame casts Matthew Shepard as a literal shepherd “left / to watch over his flock,” and it’s a clever metaphor as we wonder what will become of all the young people who are part of his flock.

Despite the attention I’ve given to the above two poems, in no way is this collection morose or depressing as a whole. It’s clever, ironic, and witty. In “Jesse,” the young speaker lives for the moments he wrestles with a straight male friend. When the friend pins him, the speaker deadpans, “Poor boy. You must have thought you were strong.” There’s a fun series of poems with “Handkerchief” in the title, referring to a code some subcultures of gay men have used (more commonly in the pre-dating app age, like the little black book). Having a certain color handkerchief in a certain pants pocket conveys a type of sex that the wearer is looking for.  Frame’s “Microfiber Handkerchief” satirizes the absurdity of dating apps, the faces and bodies scrolled through likened to “Brady Bunch squares competing / for attention.” One potential date asks the speaker the common but insulting question, “Are you clean?” which reminds the speaker of being asked if he’s mopped the floor. He wonders, “am I / the floor, the mop, or the guileless hand / gripping it?”

Frame toys with the little black book conceit to great effect. This particular book full of names also contains anonymity. In a poem titled “Anthony,” the speaker is frantic when a casual lover overdoses, and he doesn’t even know his name to tell the paramedics. The title, of course, is a wink to what happens between the events of the poem and the writing of the poem. Oftentimes in this book, the speaker desires connection and love; occasionally, not. “What does it say about me,” he laments about a sex partner, “—the last thing / I ever want in my mouth is your name?” But names, once learned, are unforgettable. In one of several terrific poems portraying or imagining golden age Hollywood, Frame considers a rumored sexual encounter between Marlon Brando and Richard Pryor. Years later, after countless movies made and others loved, Frame wonders “…if somewhere in the credits of their lives, / a name stands out, rising. Meaning something.” In a little black book, some names slip quickly into obsolescence, while others linger, written in permanent ink in our memories.

My personal favorite poems in the collection are two more of what I’m calling the old Hollywood poems: “Screen Test: East of Eden,” dedicated to Paul Newman and James Dean, and “Rock and a Hard Place,” for Rock Hudson. “Screen Test” celebrates two young, beautiful men, “their jaws like flipped chrome lighters,” and the footage (available on YouTube and absolutely worth watching) of them giggling and, yes, flirting. (James Dean: “Kiss me.” Paul Newman: “Can’t here.”) There is an unspoken erotic charge to this film clip, made all the more tantalizing by the way Hollywood kept queerness a secret. The poem is sexy, funny, sad, and hopeful all at once.

It was a delight to see Rock Hudson turn up in this book, as one of his most famed roles, in Pillow Talk, sees him take out an actual little black book. (His character goes through the painstaking process of calling all of his old girlfriends, each of whom he wants to be the first to know that he’s getting married). Rock Hudson: larger than life, brawny, hypermasculine screen icon of the 1950s who turned out to be gay. In this persona poem, written from Hudson’s perspective, Frame uses stunning plays on words here having to do with rock and stone, interspersed with titles of Hudson’s films: Send Me No Flowers, Lover Come Back, All That Heaven Allows. Screen icon Rock Hudson has “granite cheek” and “chiseled jaw,” but inside is “citrine…lapis, amethyst”: he contains rainbows.

The black book is both archive and artifact, a diary of one’s life as well as glimpse at a lost time. Frame’s collection is a tribute to the danger and the beauty of being gay or queer. The book makes me think of a monologue from the recent HBO series about gay men in London in the 1980s, It’s a Sin. Protagonist Ritchie says, “You know what? I had so much fun. I had all those boys…They were great. Some of them were bastards, but they were all great. That’s what people will forget—that it was so much fun.” Here’s to more fun, and more poems from Chad Frame.

 

REVIEW: Present Imperfect by Ona Gritz

Review of Ona Gritz, Present Imperfect. Poets Wear Prada, 2021.

by Liz Chang

As grammarians know, the “present perfect” verb form is used for actions that began in the past and continue into the present moment or those that occurred at an indefinite time. A sense of playfulness with time—or its collapse into the present moment—reverberates throughout Ona Gritz’ new collection of essays. I’d describe this as “playfulness,” even though the subjects in these essays are serious and often quite tragic: a difficult childhood, the end of a marriage, the narrator’s experiences with disability and identity while growing up, and the eventual murder of her sister’s family. As the title implies, this narrator remains keenly aware of how imperfection can increase the value of a memory. She speaks with a gentle self-deprecation, not shrinking from those instances where she wishes she acted differently. At the end of an essay about the heady days of finding new love, she admits: “Here is the part I don’t like telling. While we were kissing in public places, someone else loved me too” (40). The voice of this narrator gains our trust through her willingness to look at herself directly, in all her human fallibility.

Although these essays are poignant, the surprising treat when one reads them is that they do not weigh us down. There’s a delight we feel in looking over the shoulder of this, at times, slightly unreliable narrator (due to her naïveté). In those moments, however, the omniscient present-day voice steps in to let us know how this recalled moment fits into the larger pattern. As a result, the essays feel as though they are telescoping through time, like those delicate papercut accordion books where you stretch the scene out in front of you to keep seeing more detail, as if you are the vanishing point. Halfway through the essay that makes up the heart of the collection (“It’s Time”), about retracing her sister’s last steps and learning more about her and her family’s horrific end, the sister/detective speaks directly to her deceased sister’s grave: “You taught me how to be happy.” Then the narration switches from the distanced second person pronoun to a reclaiming “I”: “Here is where I finally cry. Because, of course, this isn’t your story, but mine…” (76). The courage of this moment is astounding.

Gritz’ nonfiction work is influenced by her poetic practice as well. She has the ability to bring two images together to create a breathtaking magnetism, such as when she describes the heart of the cover image, a mother and child in silhouette, taken by a new photographer (her ex-husband): “…the negative space, its one border made by my chin and my child’s ear…doesn’t it resemble an open-winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?” (34). There are moments that could verge on the sentimental, but Gritz carefully dances away from the edge in a way that avoids this danger. In all, it is the imperfection of this narrator, how she underestimates herself and her insights throughout—while maintaining a tone of open invitation in her voice, to pull up a chair next to her, like a dear friend might—that is the true accomplishment of this beautifully rendered collection.

 

REVIEW: Animal Nocturne

Liz Chang, Animal Nocturne. Moonstone Press, 2017

Liz Chang’s chapbook Animal Nocturne (2017) explores the complexities of race, love, and motherhood through a style of poetry unique to the contemporary moment. In addition to her work on the editorial board here at Philadelphia Stories, Chang is an Associate Professor of English at Delaware County Community College, and she has published two books of poetry in addition to her chapbook. Her poems have also appeared in the Verse Daily Origins, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and the Schuylkill Valley Journal, among others. She was also the 2012 Montgomery County Poet Laureate.

Animal Nocturne’s fauna imagery stands out from the first poem, entitled “A Herd of Elephants is Sometimes Called a Memory,” which begins with a metaphor that suggests that truly knowing is, “a dappled elephant hide, / ancient pachyderm’s skin (1),” huge and comprehensive, with the ability to speak and understand, “so low / that only we can hear it.” In the last poem of the collection, “A Ceremonial Poem to Honor Improbable Events,” Chang describes the persistence of horseshoe crabs. She writes:

The horseshoe crab lays enough

eggs to spare some 40,000 per starved avian

 

I was driving, thinking of love, the architecture of the universe

and this crab who has stubbornly bulldozed her way through

 

all six extinctions on this tired earth (22).

 

This comparison of love to the strength of a species to survive against all odds could easily slip into cliche, but Chang’s careful implication of the connection keeps the metaphor firmly out of that territory. The first section implies that in order to be able to survive those six extinctions, one must be able to give, to provide some eggs as food for birds.

Chang’s chapbook also deals with race, and passing that race onto one’s children.

In the poem, “What to Look for at the Dry Cleaners,” Change describes a moment where she recited a racist song that she had heard from school in front of her father. She then describes a scene where she called herself a racist name because a boy at school didn’t like her. She writes:

Daughter, I am telling you the names
I called myself so that you will hear them

and know that when politicians set off

calculated attacks

using our heritage as code…

…You will notice

The gentle and kind workers (3).

 

This section details the ways in which microaggressions, and the childish forms of racism, become public policy and intentional, institutional oppression. The speaker in this poem is trying to avoid a layer of generational trauma of internalized racism appearing in their daughter, a feat that would seem too impossible if discussed in those big picture terms. So, Chang describes it as finding a love for the individuals of their heritage, who, of course, make up the whole of a culture.

This collection touches on motherhood in a more intimate light as well. In her poem, “The Truth of It,” she writes presumably of her daughter:

this world is laden with sorrow

 

and I cannot humanly shield her softest parts,

but here is beauty

and the pain it remakes.

 

The season of her grey eyes

was shorter than I’d hoped. (19)

 

The euphonious language of this section edges close to that of a lullaby, and the enjambment pulls the lines together almost as if the speaker is singing. The content is a tenet of parenthood, without once slipping into cliched or tired language.

Chang’s poetry is both uniquely refreshing and grounded in the traditions of 21st century craft, and Animal Nocturne is an honest and beautiful reflection of her experiences with aspects of her life that are deeply personal and wonderfully intimate.

 

REVIEW: All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens

Michelle Reale,  All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens [West Philly Press, 2017]

All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens by Michelle Reale is an intricate window into the life of a mother struggling through and with her son’s alcoholism, spending an unclear amount of time in hospitals, treatment centers, and pain. She begins the collection with the dictionary definition of Delirium Tremens, “a psychotic condition typical of withdrawal in chronic alcoholics” (6), effectively setting the tone for the coming meditation on emotional and familial affliction.

Reale is an associate professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA who has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Other collections by her include Season of Subtraction (Bordighera Press, 2019), Birds of Sicily (Aldrich Press, 2016), and Natural Habitat (Burning River, 2013), among others. She also conducts ethnographic work on African Immigrants in Sicily.

All These Things Were Real shines in its description of alcoholism from the outside. In a poem called “Crossing Borders”, Reale writes:

 

I could wallpaper a house

with receipts for Nikolai Vodka, for Rumpleminz

schnapps, one you can’t detect, the other could be

nothing more than assiduous oral hygiene. I want

to place his fragile existence in an ornate curio
in the corner of my favorite room in the house

 

Safe and unreachable. (15).

 

Reale uses the image of creating wallpaper out of the receipts for the alcohol that is actively killing her son as a way to represent the need to act, to do something tangible with her pain. Wallpaper is used to cover, alter the situation in a person’s home, which is exactly what the speaker is trying, in a way that feels impossible, to do with her familial life. She later writes, in a poem entitled “Accusations” of the level of resentment her son has for her desire to heal and help him:

 

My son froths a verbal manifesto

Against my excessive mothering,

Like turning over tables in the temple.

We don’t look at each other and

We don’t look at him (16).

 

Implied in this section is her unspoken horror at the condition of her son, and the impossibility of helping someone who doesn’t yet understand that they need help.

Reale’s description of hospital rooms and staff is another aspect of this collection that cannot go unmentioned. In a poem entitled “ICU,” the speaker describes a scene where her son wants to give his medication to the art on the wall. Reale writes:

 

The nurse plays along in the loud, over-patient voice I’ve come to dread, because it means he’s not getting better. Meet my future wife, he says, as she has the gall to blush. More fake laughter. I am in the chair in the corner, overly warm in my winter coat, pulled around me like a fortress. I wear ICU delirium like a hairnet (18).

 

The scene has an eerie sense of normalcy to it: her readers can feel the uneasiness of the speaker, and they can see the grandeur of the dying man in the hospital bed as he denies his illness. The constant, ignored presence of the speaker throughout the entire collection forces the reader to understand her perceived powerlessness, her lack of tangible ways to fix the alcoholism of her son. She can only be and watch, hidden in a coat that feels as protective as it does suffocating. In a poem entitled, “By Now”. Reale writes:

 

My lady-like grief has betrayed me.

I dab my heavily made-up eyes,

garish, in their seemingly callous denial of why I am here.

Today was a good day,

The nurse with the cigarette and coffee breath bellows,

I am silent, questioning

Her method of measurement, though admittedly

I am no nursing school graduate (25).

 

Here is another scene of grief shown through smiling, bright-faced nurses that the speaker can no longer trust. There’s a mention of other, more acceptable addictions in the coffee and the cigarettes, hinting again at the perceived untrustworthiness of the nurse, and the lack of clear outward emotion from the speaker show the repetitiveness of this scene as clearly as the diction Reale uses does.

All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens, is a collection of poetry for anyone with experience dealing with and loving those with addiction. By showing her care for and understanding of the ailing, Reale offers a sense of community to those that share her experience. Reale’s visceral imagery, perceived powerlessness, and quiet, desperate love, are just personal enough to be effective, and just resigned enough to be honest.

 

REVIEW: Tart Honey

Deborah Burnham, Tart Honey [Resource Publications, 2018]

Deborah Burnham’s collection of poetry, Tart Honey, carefully examines the intricacies of love and marriage that span decades, one of which was spent almost entirely long-distance. Burnham is the Associate Undergraduate Chair of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches classes in literature, craft, gender studies, creative writing, and a number of other subjects. Her other works include the award-winning collection titled Anna and the Steel Mill, and several chapbooks. She is currently working on a young adult fiction novel.

Tart Honey intimately combines a deep and complex understanding of love with the complicated resentment and sadness that hard years away often facilitate.

The collection is separated into four parts: I. The Rich Salt of Your Skin, II. We’d Wake Early and Eat Apples, III Shadows Waver Between Your Shape and Mine, and IV. A shirt, a shroud. The first section mainly deals with physical intimacy and loneliness. The second section is filled with food imagery, placing an emphasis on self-soothing, comfort, and missing the whole of a person. The third section deals with strife and a feeling of resentment for the situation of long distance, and finally the last section handles a feeling of dread and fear of a grief that hasn’t yet come.

There’s a theme of usefulness that runs through this collection, especially as one ages, from the poem entitled “On the gift of a photograph”:

 

Thanks for telling me

About Andre Kertesz, and how in 1915

He snapped two Polish Soldiers on their field

And how he kept his dignity clean and useful (11),

 

To the poem called, “Useful” which starts:

 

The snarky Roman cities the ancient practice of tossing

Old me from bridges when they’d reached sixty,

“The age of uselessness” (50)

 

And continues with, “I’m thinking of ‘useful’ because you, my love, turn sixty / in the spring (50).” Usefulness as one grows older is a consistent point of distress in these poems, specifically due to lower energy, and the fear of decay. Another aspect of this theme is clearly the idea that one struggles to feel useful to their partner while away from them for extended periods of time. Burnham thanks her husband for telling stories and talking to her on the phone, as that is one small way she can assure him that he and his love are useful to her.

A shining moment in this collection exists in the slow and intimate development of grief.

In the poem“Will,” Burnham writes:

 

The man I’ve loved for forty years will die

In less than forty years, and, like most men,

He has not willed his precious objects (53).

 

Then she describes the action she imagines taking after her husband dies, specific to the table he owns:

 

When he no longer sits there

I will soak and bend it to a boat

And take my grief to sea, and inch of wood

Between my skin and the abrading

Salty sun (53).

 

In the very next poem, she states:

 

Because women in my mother’s family

Live more years as widows than as wives,

They could write a manual for the first years

Of grief, which come without directions (54).

 

Burnham is deconstructing her feelings of strife having to be without her husband by imagining the world as it will be when he doesn’t come home, and will never come home again. She speaks of the impossibility of truly understanding her life without him, and how instead she turns to mystical fantasies, drawing on history and myth. Also in the final section is the poem called, “One way to end” where she describes the tales of elderly individuals wandering deep into the woods, seemingly confused. She writes:

 

I might leave the house to look for you, walking

A straight line, turning only to avoid

A sapling, a fallen log, but as the woods

Thicken, I’ll leave bits of clothing- a sleeve,

A shoe, caught on encircling limbs.

I’ll walk so near the great rough trunks that

Cell by cell, my grateful drying flesh

Will wear to nothing (62).

 

In this poem, it’s unclear if the speaker’s husband has died or if he is just away, blending the feeling of grief she has with the current act of missing her husband as he works across the country. The similarities between the two emotions are shown to be dizzying, even while one is imagined and looming and one is very present.

Deborah Burnham’s collection takes her reader through her decade of being separated by space and her decades of being filled with love slowly, and with a steady hand. Her diction is clear and written with a level of authority I found to be fascinating. Tart Honey is truly a collection for those who need a companion in their grief, their loneliness, and, perhaps most honestly, their love.

 

REVIEW: Fire Up The Poems

Fire Up The Poems [Bucks County Poet Laureate Program, 2021]

With the return of in-person learning in American classrooms, teachers will confront a challenge they haven’t faced since the COVID-19 pandemic began: galvanizing students in a live classroom. But thanks to the generosity of Bucks County Community College, there is hope. Conceptualized by Mary Jo Lobello Jerome, the 2019 Bucks County poet laureate, Fire Up The Poems is a teacher’s handbook for engaging students in poetry. Each prompt is written by a different Bucks County poet laureate. The book offers no shortage of support: after the book’s publication, all BC teachers received free copies from the college and the college’s poet laureate program hopes to create a PDF and an audio version to reach a wider audience.

Fire Up The Poems has concise introductions, poems, and instructions in each of its prompts (often three pages maximum). Anyone can read it and learn techniques to improve their poetry, but the handbook’s true gifts are for teachers. The instructive sections, titled “Start Writing,” prepare readers, teachers, and students to answer prompts with methods like asking questions or pointing to certain media to research.

In her prompt, “Letting Your Spirit Out!”, 2005 Poet Laureate Patricia Goodrich explains how to teach her prompt to a class: “Before class, cut up hundreds of words. This could be a student or teacher pre-activity…In class, pass around a basket filled with words. These are the words that will help you find your own poems,” (26). Goodrich concludes by explaining the ways students could share, like reading aloud or remaining anonymous while a teacher reads their work.

Prompts in Fire Up The Poems can be categorized into different styles and activities. There are prompts about literary techniques (Anaphora, Assonance, Consonance), memory, (The Risks and Rewards of Resonant Particulars, Glimpsed in Passing, The Road You Have Taken, etc.), research (Tattoo Talk, There’s a World Out There, Discover a Poem in The Dictionary, etc.) and more. Research may seem difficult to teach students learning poetry—they may be easily distracted, but in her poem, “The Poem with the Teensy Tattoo,” (11) 2002 Poet Laureate Luray Gross shows research can be fun and achieve fun results:

The poem with the teensy tattoo

you’ll never get to see talks big

but keeps her private matters

private.

She let her pigtails jounce

as she skipped rope

in a corner of the playground.

Bent over her library book,

she felt them fall over her shoulders.

 

Gross explains this poem came to her after a tattoo conversation with a friend. In her “Start Writing,” section, she suggests that students supplement their writing with research on tattoos. She points to an article from the Smithsonian magazine that says humans have marked themselves in tattoos for thousands of years. She further suggests analyzing specific tattoos and seeing what emotions they conjure in students. By using interesting facts and evoking the emotions of students, research becomes a fun tool. And like all tools, research can be used in multiple ways for multiple purposes.

As a handbook to pick out concise poetry prompts, Fire Up The Poems functions very successfully. The book is also enjoyable when read cover-to-cover, though the pace is slower when read this way. Having been written by different poets, the writing style of each prompt is unique.

With concise instructions and rules that can be adapted to fit any classroom scenario, Fire Up The Poems offers varied and exciting resources to teachers in need of engaging poetry exercises.

 

REVIEW: What Is in the Blood

Ellen Stone, What Is in the Blood. Mayapple Press, 2020

If it is true that a humble upbringing can inspire lasting impressions in the soul of a poet, Ellen Stone’s What Is in the Blood bears this out. This two-part collection of poems compassionately portrays the sensitive issue of bipolar disorder, an illness little understood in the 1960s and 1970s.

The reader is immediately introduced to the mother’s mind and connections to the family, their environment, and nature. In the first two lines of the first poem, “My Mother’s mind,” Stone informs the reader “She doesn’t remember how she lost it/We were young and needed her” (5). The trappings of daily life and nature appear several lines later, respectively: “Greasy stove/cluttered counter” and “lit shards of kindling…watching wood turn into space.”

There are moments of imagination throughout the book, of the whirlwind of better days without melodrama. “My parents’ hands” (8) sets an early tone of the dynamic of Stone’s mother and father. Her father is distant, unaffectionate, seemingly in denial of his wife’s illness. Her mother appears in nearly every poem, if not directly, then nuanced. A woman whose central role in keeping the family intact erodes before our eyes. A grandfather appears bent on attempting rote order, a futile endeavor toward cohesion.

The poetic forms range from couplets to numerous single stanza/several stanza arrangements. Some exist as prose paragraphs. Odes to the inanimate: the lawn sprinkler (47) and the blow-up pool (48), provide a bit of humor and nostalgia to the text. The sprinkler is described as a “Receptacle of arms, circulating/whirl-a-gigs, spreading over vacant thoughts.” The pool (48) “My American dream for under $9.99 I want to unwrap you even now, so rainbow, so bathtub in the yard.” There are epistolaries to the pool mentioned above, the garden shed, one directed toward Despair. Stone’s mastery of imagery and cadence pulls the reader close to her. At moments my reading presence seemed intrusive; for instance, there is something intensely personal in “Driving to Galesburg” (44), as I read “frayed mane, tail glowing behind [her mother] like a flag, or some kind of signal.” Stone held my attention in the crosshairs of her word choice. There are line twists that can leave the reader in a quandary of whether they missed something, as in “The psychiatrist talks to the family (1968)” (9):

Our mom would not be coming home with us,

We were young in a world of holes and doubt.

The shift harkens back to the intended effect that life as the family knew it was about to change irrevocably.

The before and after time frames weave among the pages, with nature as an anchoring force. Nature is used here not as an adversary but as a grounding point. Not as indifferent but different as circumstances proceed; by doing so, it guides the reader in theme recognition. Those themes include loneliness, separation within the household with the parents’ divorce, and her mother’s relocation to Boston, and the methodical gravitation toward the inevitable while still seeking hints of normalcy from the once mundane routine of life.  Themes further extend to the formation of Stone’s feminism; insightful, not overdone. Stone expresses disillusionment that Jesus had worked so many miracles but did not rescue her mother. Every moment toward what cannot be stopped is captured by Ellen Stone with her butterfly net, landing on each page, pain-pinned for posterity.

 

REVIEW: The Betweens

Arrieu-King, Cynthia. The Betweens. Noemi Press, 2021.

Cynthia Arrieu-King’s The Betweens is a startingly necessary book. The title refers to a needle in quilting that “you have to use… [that is] so thin and short that it can penetrate all of the layers… called a between.” (19). In fact, the entire collection of flash essays—or prose-poems, since Arrieu-King is also a poet—is dedicated to “those who find themselves in between.”

 

Arrieu-King’s speaker situates herself amid layers in many areas of her life: as a half-French, half-Chinese daughter in a family of brothers, as a teacher, as an artist. Arrieu-King’s fierce commitment to looking puts in this reviewer’s mind the classic image of the cow’s eye, cut open with a scalpel, from the early surrealist film Un Chien Andalou: she splits open her world defiantly, spilling the gory contents on the table. At the same time, the entire collection begins with an epigraph from Clutch Fleishmann, about moving away from metaphor because “one thing is never another thing, it’s a lie to say it is anything but itself.” It’s this tension of the unreal (living inside of a society that tells us over and over that those of us who defy categorization should not, in fact, exist) and her undeniable reality power this book. Although her poetic voice may be intimate—almost as if she is speaking into a small, soft space that echoes—the sweep of these essays is immense (as Gaston Bachelard might say).

 

In the second piece in the collection, she describes a dream when she was young with an intruder breaking into her house and trying to keep them out with her dollhouse. Later, “I dream about hiding in pianos, cupboards, floating up to the ceiling. I did not live through any wars… but these nightmares—in which I practice being invisible—feel inherited” (001). The impressive part of Arrieu-King’s work is that she manages not to be self-pitying. She realizes the privilege that was afforded to her in growing up “white-adjacent” and even how she “actually forget[s] I am Asian-looking” (025) when she is in elementary school. She writes about a grant application that is rejected because she is “hiding her privilege… [admitting,] I see what they mean.” (009).

 

Arrieu-King writes deftly of the “feeling of not wanting to be seen[, quoting her student who admits:] You get that displayed feeling from all the microagressions” (041). While not every micro-essay is about race, it is an elemental force in the world that she describes. So many of the works reverberate with a sense of expectation that others seem to have for her and how this speaker often fears she disappoints in an entire catalogue of ways. She recounts conversations with colleagues and friends when she feels ill-equipped to be the person they wish her to be. She does not spare herself. At times, however, these realizations are darkly funny, like when she admits she incorrectly assumed her Chinese father was quoting Confucius when she was growing up as he spouted quirky sayings. Years later she realizes that these are, in fact, quotes from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac (023).

 

Frankly, this was a hard collection to read because I also identify as a multiracial Asian woman without a clear place. It may be difficult for any reader whose family has experienced displacement and trauma brought on by conflict and racism. But the beauty of The Betweens is that Arrieu-King models both the isolation and the freedom this affords us as we start over, resolve to thrive. She writes in the penultimate piece, when describing old friendship, that it is “…[a]s if the universe is telling me it’s right to keep choosing people that feel like home” (069). Each of these works is a quilt-square in an intricate tapestry of honesty and forged identity. Arrieu-King has artfully staked a claim on the needle-point of so many important conversations happening right now.