Beyond Repair by J.C. Todd

   

J.C. Todd, Beyond Repair [Able Muse, 2021] – Review by Courtney Bambrick

J.C. Todd’s Beyond Repair presents a solemn, resigned perspective of war and its inevitable, irrevocable toll on civilians, combatants, and their communities. The collection opens with “In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” in which a parent recalls the development of her child’s body inside of her. This intense awareness of the work of creating a body – the prolonged and exact process of gestation – follows through the book as a counter-perspective to the awareness of the body’s vulnerability to violence and how witnessing such violence can affect the brain. The poet in “In Whom…” contextualizes her daughter’s gestation within her own awareness of an insurgency in Hama, Syria. Throughout this collection, that balance between human creation and destruction reinforces the shared humanity of us and them in any conflict, across any border, but maintains that geography, history, power, and imperialism have made some bodies more vulnerable than others.

As it establishes expectations about pregnancy and motherhood, “In Whom the Dying Does Not End” offers a lens to see the effects of war on parents, children, and the bond between parents and children. Other poems such as “Cover Shot” (13) and “Night Ride, ar Raqqah” (17), pick up the theme of caring for children or carrying a pregnancy through tragedy. These poems seem to attempt to balance threat and promise. By referring to the space inhabited by her daughter as the “province of my body” (4), this foundational idea of pregnancy and development becomes complicated with the idea of nations and political powers within them. The speaker of “In Whom…” is “consumed by what I feed,” reflecting the parasitic nature of imperialism. The poem’s depiction of violence in Hama is countered by the daughter’s development: “a riot of cells / firing between [hips]” (3). Different “provinces” support or suppress different revolutions. The poem “Flashback to the Morning After” makes this parasitism even more explicit in depicting the flies in the wounds of a child: “…his decay / is the incubator / and holy food for clusters / of eggs” (44). Such a “contagion” is “alien / and intimate / as a just-conceived child.”

“My Parents’ Altruism” also repeats themes of “In Whom the Dying Does Not End” such as gestation and development of life set against a backdrop of war. The poem suggests an animal urge toward growth and survival and future. The repeated emphasis on the scientific and medical language serves to de-personalize the images and allows the poems to speak to universal human experiences. Todd writes, “Eight months before birth, / all the eggs I will bear into life / appear in me as seed” (51): not only is there birth emerging out of war, “the seedbed” where the speaker has “taken root,” but the potential for the next generations.

The landscape is another vulnerable body threatened by human violence. The former fecundity and abundance of “Peshawar  Lahore  Kashmir  Shalimar” are mourned in the poem, “The Silk Road and the Scythe.” Here, an orchard, provides an image of historical opulence and plenty “epic and sugary before it fell” by the work of “that ascetic—the scythe” (9); such destruction of orchards and farmland leads to the starvation of human bodies. Similarly, in the section “Earth” from the sequence “The Damages of Morning,” the planet itself says of its unruly inhabitants, “They cavort and die. I persist, / My motion not a quest for power / Or longevity” (75). The host can withstand cycles of destruction and regeneration to a degree we squabbling leeches, fleas, and flies cannot.

The title Beyond Repair comes from the military slang term FUBAR, an acronym meaning “fucked up beyond all repair.” Here, “FUBAR’d” is a sonnet sequence near the middle of the collection about an Air Force doctor who is coping with immense and relentless loss: of patients, community, resources, and of elements of herself. The sequence brilliantly uses the sonnet form to contain ideas and emotions that are too gruesome or too dangerous to share unfettered. The connections among the linking first and last lines of the sequence stitch together like sutures, holding together this doctor’s world, but just barely: “…In dreams, their skin gapes open / to wound her pain that has no analgesic” (31) shifts into “Too wound up and there’s no analgesic / strong enough to bring her down but uproar” (32). I think of the splint, tourniquet or the hasty stitches closing a wound enough to protect the patient for just a little longer. The subject of these poems considers how changed she is, how unrecognizable to those with whom she shares a life: “Best prepare him to live with her half-gone, / fucked up by damage beyond her control” (34).

Partway through the book, Todd’s geography becomes more familiar to American readers: in “Imagining Peace, August: 1945,” we see the speaker’s father and uncles “laze in Adirondack chairs” while drinking beer and singing “Mairzy Doats.” The poem presents a family’s exhalation after the end of war, and the ways that confrontations persist in peace: “We’re picking fights. Clam up / or else, the first idle threat of peacetime” (54). Poems in this section relate to the poet’s childhood and growing up and how life is shaped by WWII, Korea, Vietnam. Even in American backyards, insulated against so much of the terror experienced elsewhere, we feel reverberations. For many U.S. citizens living today, there are few periods of time untouched by American militarism; very few of us know no veterans or refugees of these and other wars. In “Reading the Dark in the Dark” (58) and “Reading with Students about Death Camps” (69), Todd illustrates the ways these stories of war are shared through writing and reading as well as through more personal and immediate connections.

War, militarism, and imperialism affect all of us – the relative immediacy of that danger may vary whether we are living in a region under siege, working in such a region, or growing up with someone who has witnessed such horror. Todd’s emphasis on the body allows us to consider all bodies regardless of political or ethnic identity. Removed from borders and beliefs, the physical body that demanded the sacrifice of parents’ strength, time, and safety is a body familiar to most of us. The human connection shared among parents and children across languages, regions, and cultures is matched by our shared vulnerability to violence. Todd knows that it is often easy to look away, but Beyond Repair presents layers upon layers of damage – a reader will almost certainly recognize a familiar reflection in at least one of these stories. Maybe the title is more a question than a declaration. How much suffering and how much cruelty will push us “beyond all repair/recognition/reason/redemption” (Notes 91).

 

These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things by Shannon Frost Greenstein

     

Shannon Frost Greenstein is the author of “These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things,” a full-length collection of poetry from Really Serious Literature, and “Pray for Us Sinners,” a short story collection by Alien Buddha Press.Shannon’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeneys Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Philadelphia Stories, X-Ray Lit Mag, Reckon Review, Arkana Mag, New Mexico Review, Epoch Press, Feral: A Journal of Poetry and Art, Cabinet of Heed, Door Is a Jar, STORGY Lit Mag, Lunate Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Scary Mommy, Crab Fat Magazine, Bone & Ink Lit Zine, Ghost City Review, trampset, Crepe and Penn, Spelk Fiction, Rhythm & Bones Lit Mag, Blunt Moms, the Philadelphia City Paper, WHYY, The Manifest-Station, Royal Rose Magazine, and elsewhere.She harbors an unhealthy interest in Hamilton, Nietzsche, Mount Everest, ballet, and the Summer Olympics. Shannon aims to write The Next Great American Novel while simultaneously acquiring more cats.

 

Review of Shannon Frost Greenstein, These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things

by Sarah Van Clef

When I read the collection of poems “These are a Few of My Least Favorite Things” by Shannon Frost-Greenstein, the first word that came to mind was balance. How does one balance the wickedness of the world, the unfortunate changes and shifts we see in our cultural society, mental illness, drug addictions and illnesses, and  the beauties of the world and culture like friendship, companionship, and family? In this collection of poems, Frost-Greenstein walks on the tightrope of such balances. She provides readers with a dialectical lens of the analysis of what suffering and life and celebration and horror actually mean to her. She culminates in the love of her world around her amidst the destruction that is going on in and outside of her mind.

From the beginning of the collection, in her poem “Down To The Filter”, Frost-Greenstein owns the fact that she “backslid today”(Pg. 8) amidst her many roles of being a mother, a writer, and a basic functioning member of society. Like so many of us do when trying to tackle any kind of demons we may be facing, “Down To The Filter” provides such agency that we are all allowed to “smoke that bitch down to the filter” (pg.9) when we need to, that as human beings, we are allowed to slide back into old habits and routines that sometimes aren’t the healthiest for us mentally. By the end of this poem, Frost-Greenstein boils it down to one thing: She is human, and humans are not always perfect, and neither are the demons that lurk in this collection.

In this collection, Frost-Greenstein not only tackles hard subjects like drug addiction and family trauma, she also widens the dialectical lens and looks at her city of Philadelphia, and the violence and destruction that was once her home. With an apocalyptic tone, Frost-Greenstein describes the violent segregation in her society  in her powerful poems “The White Pieces Go First”, and “Billy Nair’s On The Moon”. For the speaker in these poems, she must ask herself a larger question: What does home mean amongst the chaos? For Frost-Greenstein, she finds the answer in her children, her trauma, and her voice.

These poems are a call to warning, a loud, scream and cry for help. Not only does Frost-Greenstein understand that these poems need to be written for the mothers, fathers, friends, and neighbors that have felt similar loss and grieving, but also the future generations of leaders and artists that can change the narrative in how we look at mental illness, drug addiction, and familial trauma. Poems don’t always have to be pretty, and in this collection they weren’t in the slightest, but as much as it was difficult to read contextually, it surmounted in its beauty between the lines. Powerful in their own right, “These Are A Few Of My Least Favorite Things” is a collection that needs to be read, screamed, and chanted to anyone who will listen because this is how change actually comes to fruition.


Sarah Van Clef  is a poet and memoirist from South Amboy, New Jersey. Her lyrical essays and poems have been featured in Local Gems NJ Bards Literary Anthology, The Monmouth Review, and others. She currently is the Reviews Editor for Philadelphia Stories, An Adjunct Professor at Monmouth University, and the Co-founder of 2nd Renaissance Arts; an online creative cohort for writers to network and celebrate writing through educational and enrichment programming. Sarah holds an MA in English Writing Studies from Monmouth University and is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Writing. When Sarah is not teaching or writing, you can mostly find her on the beaches of the Jersey Shore or singing in her band, The Cellar Dwellers.

Gilt by Jamie Brenner

   

Jamie Brenner writes beach reads with a twist, including the national bestseller THE FOREVER SUMMER and her latest GILT.  People Magazine call her books, “a delightful escape wherever you are.” Publishers Weekly says of her new novel, GILT, “This beach read sparkles like a diamond.”

Jamie grew up in suburban Philadelphia on a steady diet of Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz novels.  After studying literature at The George Washington University, She moved to New York City to work at HarperCollins Publishers, Barnes&Noble.com and Vogue.com before becoming an author.

Today, she spends her summers visiting the beach towns that inspire her novels.

 

Review of Jamie Brenner, Gilt

by Hannah Michael

No one does family dynamics quite like author Jamie Brenner, and in her newest release, Gilt, proves just that. Similar to last summer’s Blush, Gilt centers around a family business. In this case, it’s Pavlin & Co., the decades old, family-run jewelry empire that changed the game for jewelers everywhere when they began selling diamond engagement rings. Pavlin & Co. told the world that, “A diamond says love.” However, when a publicity stunt gone wrong pits the three Pavlin daughters: Celeste, Elodie, and Paulina, against one another to receive a famous family jewel, the love they once shared is fractured. The fallout over the Electric Rose sends one daughter to start a new life on the shores of Cape Cod, another is left unlucky in love, and the third meets an untimely death. Now, as the company is coming up on their centennial anniversary, long ignored secrets in the Pavlin family are brought to the surface and demand to be reconciled.

The dual timeline of this story really allows readers to immerse themselves in both sides of the Pavlin family. We get to see Elodie, Celeste, and Paulina at a pivotal point in their lives, when the publicity stunt changes their relationships with one another forever. Then, we are in present day with Elodie, Celeste, and Gemma, Paulina’s daughter. Still grappling with her mother’s death, Gemma tries to piece together the past of the family she never knew. She decides to confront the Pavlin’s and claim the inheritance she never got, which she believes includes the Electric Rose. This sets off a series of events that takes readers from New York City to Provincetown, as the Pavlin family is finally forced to dig up the events of the past, and how they each played a role in the aftermath.

Something that has always struck me about Jamie Brenner’s writing, especially when it comes to family stories, is that there is never an absence of love. The Pavlin family may be estranged due to greed and competition, but at their cores, they want nothing more than to reconcile the wrongs of the past. We watch both Celeste and Eloide grapple with a fair amount of guilt that holds them back, but when Gemma reemerges in their lives, they are reminded that there is a future to the Pavlin family name, if they are willing to swallow their pride and move forward together.

Jamie Brenner never fails to deliver the perfect beach read. Gilt has the glamour of the New York City jewelry scene, the heart of the long-awaited family reconciliation, and the small town charm of Provincetown that makes you feel like you’re a part of the community. With fast-paced chapters and a cast of characters you will grow to love, Gilt is the beach read you will be more than happy to take with you into the fall!


Hannah Michael is a current student in the Rosemont College Graduate Publishing program. A lifelong reader, she is seldom found without a book more than ten feet from her person. She is either reading a light beach read, or a gruesome thriller– there is rarely any in-between. Hannah holds a BA in Theatre from DeSales University, and is thrilled that she will soon hold degrees for studying both the loves of her life: musicals and books.

Museum of Things by Liz Chang

   

Liz Chang was the 2012 Montgomery County Poet Laureate in Pennsylvania. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Rock & Sling, Origins Journal, Breakwater Review and Stoneboat Literary Journal, among others. Her chapbook Museum of Things is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in early 2023. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Oyster River Pages, and her flash fiction has been published internationally. Chang’s translation of Claude de Burine’s work is anthologized in Paris in Our View from l’Association des Amis de Shakespeare & Company.

 

Review of Liz Chang, Museum of Things

by Anna Huber

Museum of Things by Liz Chang is ekphrastic in nature, allowing the reader to walk through a small selection of objects in the “museum” of the poet’s life. Her story takes time to piece together like a complex, beautiful, and verbal jigsaw puzzle. Chang presents a view of the world that is unique by the objects she displays that people may find familiar, bridging the gap between her and the reader.

From the very first poem, there is a dichotomy of sadness and mysticalness that seems to reverberate across each page. Though very different, the two feelings of sadness and mystical enchantment are captivating, inviting the reader to go deeper, to read the poems again and feel their love and heartbreak trickle down the page in tangible streams. In her writing, Chang has made her story very accessible to her audience.

Focusing on the objects in the poems- a snoopy lamp, a white shelf, a handful of stickers-  nostalgia is present in every poem, bringing somber sweetness to the page. In my own life, I grew up with many objects passed down to me from different people. Though I am very different from the writer, I find some of the objects she writes about to be a sort of a commonality we both share. The vivid descriptions of the objects bring the museum of Chang’s life to fullness. In those descriptions the poems become honest. These objects allow the reader to walk through her memories displayed in a way that nurtures. As objects were at times passed down to her, Chang passes a part of those memories down to the reader and it is mystic.

Chang’s ordering of words and use of language are masterful. She conveys her history as a girl in a way that is magical and reminiscent of fairytales. Her poem, “It’s a Lamp, Charlie Brown” shows the reader a glimpse into her life where grandparents live in a far away land and she deals with the trauma of a helicopter accident that seemed to put a hole in the haziness of childhood. While the balloons and kites in the poem may be weightless, her words are heavy with grief.

Like balloons, Chang pulls on those emotions and memories to the surface where they can tangle with her own understanding of life. She nurtures and comforts the reader with her life history so masterfully in these poems. They are sweet on both sides and yet hard as rocks in the center. These poems are made to be read and should not be passed over.


Anna Huber is a student at Monmouth University in New Jersey. She currently works as a writing assistant at Monmouth’s Writing Services and is in the process of completing an undergraduate thesis in literature. Her love for literature began at a young age as her mother is an English teacher who read to Anna often. After graduating in May 2023, She plans to pursue a career in higher education and impart an understanding and greater respect for literature to the next generation of students.

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.