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The Lame God by M.B. McLatchey
(Utah State University Press, Paper, 80 pages, $16.95)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

        Because the adage is true that there are too many books and so little time, I've learned to devour poetry quickly. When I picked up M. B. McLatchey's debut collection of poetry, The Lame God, I expected to breeze through it as easily as any other book.
        But The Lame God is not like any other book. In fact, it is exactly the sort of book you can only read by pondering slowly. It is also a book that calls readers to action, even before the first poem begins. In the preface, McLatchey writes that roughly 2,000 children "are reported missing daily to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children." An opening epigraph next reads, "Acting quickly is critical. Seventy-four percent of abducted children who are ultimately murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction."
        In the first section, each poem resonates with the frustration of waiting helplessly for a child to return. The narrator in "1-800-THE-LOST" says, "I want her to discuss you in the present tense. // I want the gods to stop pretending love calls the departed home."
       Each subsequent section delves deeper into the anguish of loss. First, McLatchey shows the frustration which evolves into real and righteous anger, demanding that the guilty "choke up my child like the Olympians— / a girl, unbruised by her journey down their // throats." Then comes the lashing-out and self-blame. "Apology" is a list poem of regrets that will break your heart:
        For—trusting your safe return—
        not missing you.
        For trusting the gods.
        For my second-rate
        circumspection;
        for trusting the odds.
         [...]
        For teaching you not to shout.
        For us still uncovering
        your terror—layer by layer.
        For this sputtering sound of real prayer.

        Finally, comes the acceptance—not of absence, or of seeking justice, or even of grief itself. No, these poems finally settle into the acceptance of waiting for news of any kind—good or bad—because either way, these parents will be there when their children come home. "Do not worry, daughter. We are not leaving our watch / or showing our cards—just changing the guard."
        McLatchey is the poet standing at the gate, holding a torch to keep hope aflame even as the darkness descends. A graduate of Harvard University, Brown University, and Goddard College, McLatchey currently teaches writing and humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida. Well-versed in Classical mythology, she knows how to grit her teeth and tell the traumatic story in a way that will make people listen. She is the rare poet who looks fearlessly and closely at the terrible actions of which humans are capable, and who tenderly yet artfully tells the true stories of Adam Walsh, Amber Hagerman, Levi Frady, Maile Gilbert, Morgan Chauntel Nick, and Molly Bish, whose mother "encouraged [McLatchey] to 'keep talking about this; keep writing.'"
        When Edward Field chose The Lame God for the 2013 May Swenson Poetry Award, he wrote, "it takes courage to read this book...In exploring such a grief through the language of poetry, McLatchey makes things happen—she gives a voice to those too grief-stricken to speak, and she refuses to allow us to suffer in silence."
        This book is not for the faint-hearted, or for the "breezy reader." This book is for those 2,000 children daily reported missing, for their families, and for those moments when poetry alone can break through the grief. "But it is especially for the child who has not yet pried open a bolted door, borrowed a neighbor's phone, and announced to a 911 operator, 'I've been kidnapped and I've been missing...and I'm here.'"

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.
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Systems of Vanishing by Michael Hettich
(University of Tampa Press, Paper, 106 pages, $14)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

        "Think of us humans with somewhere / to go, moving quickly."
        It seems that we are always rushing from one thing to the next, unable to fully appreciate each moment, until pieces of our lives drift away, unnoticed, and eventually vanish altogether.
        This fading-away is the central theme of Michael Hettich's twelfth poetry collection, which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. The first lines in Systems of Vanishing begin: "And so I understand, at least for a moment, / how something and nothing can sometimes be reversed." Opening the book with the word "And" implies that the speaker has spent time meditating on "something" versus "nothing." Already there is an omission of the struggle that brought the speaker to that new understanding.
        In every subsequent poem, the speaker notices something that has been lost—the loose threads from clothing, a 2,500 year old Buddhist monastery, even summer trees full of "black birds trimmed with rust." Hettich invites readers to enter his version of South Florida, full of star fruit, turtles, and an ocean that "takes me where it will." He is a true lyric poet, relying on fluid language and beautiful metaphor to unravel his narrator's "stories like old rope until they won't hold / and your boat is set free to drift."
        In the collection's title poem, Hettich tells the story of a boy picking apples with his mother. At one point, she steps off the ladder "into the tree and seemed / really to disappear, / which scared me." By illuminating this tiny moment, Hettich asks readers to explore our own relationships with the precious things in our lives, both before and after they have vanished. He reminds us, in "The Ache," to be present in each moment, and not to rush through the world because, "We don't mean to come to the end of our lives / before they come to our end, but we do."
        Perhaps this comes as a hard-earned revelation for Hettich's narrator, as demonstrated in the long poem, "And We Were Nearly Children." The poem opens with the speaker "reading in my garden on a Sunday afternoon" when he realizes that he rarely thinks of the newborn daughter he and his wife lost thirty years ago. "We'd started // a gallery and tiny small press bookstore / and thought we might even make a go of it that way, // so your mother could give you her days." This poem follows the family as they rejoice through the pregnancy, only to lose their daughter amid unexpected labor and a midwife's ill-handled panic. Through the raw heartbreak of losing a beloved child, the speaker is full of yearning when he says, "Audrey, let me tell you now // from the distance of all these years," how much they still love her even as she fades from their thoughts. This gives a profound new meaning to the art of vanishing.
        Systems of Vanishing is a beautiful and elegiac tribute to everything we lose, both precious and minute. This is perhaps Hettich's best collection yet. Be prepared to slow down for just a moment, step into a fading world, and practice your own system of vanishing.

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.
 
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Bachelor Pad by Stephen Kampa
(Waywiser Press, Paper, 104 pages, $17.95)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

        Whenever I tell people I am a poet, inevitably someone asks what kind of poetry I write. Specifically, they want to know, "Does it rhyme?" Usually I say no, contemporary poetry has moved away from the whole rhyming business. These days, formal poetry is most often used as an exercise in dexterity of language and meter, much like practicing music scales.
        Imagine my surprise upon reading Stephen Kampa's second poetry collection, Bachelor Pad, in which nearly every poem follows a different, complex form of rhyme and meter. This complexity is what captured my attention first. Here was a poet who rhymed—and rhymed well. I found myself caught up in the rhythm and rhyme driving the energy of such poems as "One Table Over":
       How distant Christ's divine Tetelestai
                Is from this couple's public spat.
       No cussing, cuffs, or tears — it's through the sly
                 Pause of his inattention,
       Her nail-thin mouth, their terse snit's tit for tat,
       That they are intimating their dissension.

       At first, I found the musicality of the rhymes stretched across each verse to be charming, almost whimsical, creating a light-hearted atmosphere—that is, until I remembered that the poem was about a couple whose marriage was publicly falling apart. This was the true power of Kampa's poems.
       In an interview with the Academy of American Poets titled "The Art of Finding," the poet Linda Gregg spoke of how people tend to admire poems "chiefly for their craftsmanship and musicality [...] along with the patterning and rhymes." But in doing so, the real value of the poem is missed. Gregg goes on to say that what matters "even more than the shapeliness and the dance of language is what the poem discovers deeper down than gracefulness and pleasures in figures of speech." What I found in the depths of Kampa's poems was more than carefully crafted language or cleverly integrated meter. Instead, I found myself connecting with the expression of insatiable broken-heartedness.
        I admit I was skeptical at first about this book so boldly titled, Bachelor Pad. I braced myself, certain to find poems based on a slew of lusty exploits that would make me, a female reader, cringe. But for Kampa, a poet who won the 2010 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, the 2011 Gold Medal in Poetry from the Florida Book Awards, the Theodore Roethke Prize, and the River Styx International Poetry Contest, I knew there had to be something more. Indeed, there was.
        I found no sexy poems, no seductions or conquests, not even a heaving bosom. Instead, I discovered a mournful speaker unlucky in love. The second poem in the book, "Plenty to Him," starts out: "Already there were signs / That they would not have sex or something more—" followed by poems in which the speaker recognizes what he's lost upon seeing an ex-lover at a laundromat, or else comes to terms with his endlessly poor luck "After you've met / The wrong girl yet again."
        Kampa's narrators are not all about lament and self-pity. Many poems have bright moments of revelation in which the speaker tries to make sense of his continuing single status: "That being full depends on who is filling." Or, that "crumb by crumb we find / Pain is the bread we eat," giving him hope to keep looking.
        Kampa uses the formal aspect of his poetry to do what Linda Gregg calls combining the tools of poetry "with the meaning to make us experience what we understand." Bachelor Pad is for anyone who has ever lost a lover—or more than one—and who seems fated to be alone. For anyone who has ever masked heartache with a shrug and a smile, who doesn't give up hope, these are poems full of solace. This is a book for the bachelors—and bachelorettes—past and present.

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.
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On the Street of Divine Love by Barbara Hamby
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Paper, 144 pages, $16.95)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

        In the winter of 2011, I was wrapping up my first semester as an MFA student, and although I love South Florida's 80-degrees-in-December weather, I was missing the northeastern snow of home. It was finals week, and I had had no time for pleasure reading. But I happened to pick up the November/December issue of The American Poetry Review and flipped it over. Taking up the whole back page was Barbara Hamby's "Ode to Forgetting the Year." This wasn't any melancholic Keatsian ode, or an ode in the tradition of mudane-objects-turned-extraordinary Neruda. Oh no, this was a jubilant ode that was downright funny.
           Forget the year, the parties where you drank too much,
                   said what you thought without thinking, danced so hard
           you dislocated your hip, fainted in the kitchen,
                   while Gumbo, your hosts' Jack Russell terrier,
           looked you straight in the eye, bloomed into a bodhisattva . . .

        Throughout that winter break, I couldn't get that poem out of my mind. I had to know more about Barbara Hamby and her poetry. Her debut collection, Delirium, won the 1994 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry, the Norma Farber First Book Award, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The Alphabet of Desire (1998) won the New York University Poetry Prize, and Babel (2004) won the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. Her first foray into fiction, Lester Higata's 20th Century (2010), received the Iowa Short Fiction Award the same year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She and her husband David Kirby, also a poet, co-edited the humor poetry anthology Seriously Funny, and she is currently a Distinguished University Scholar teaching creative writing at Florida State University.
        Since reading that first ode, I've slowly read through her other books, marveling at her jazzy, rollicking syntax and playful sensibility, demonstrated in such poems as "Betrothal in B Minor": "All women bewail the betrothal of any woman, / beamy-eyed, bedazzled, throwing a fourth finger // about like a marionette." When On the Streets of Divine Love came into my hands, I was eager to see how the new poems worked alongside selections from previous collections.
        One of the perks of reading a selected-works collection is being able to see how an author has developed or deviated from skills and themes in her earlier poems. I found that the work included from Delirium was just as striking as her newest poems. From the first, she demonstrates an insatiable hunger to know the English language as it exists today in al its pliability, "for ours is a language of materialism first, // a language in which ideally everything you need is obtainable."
         If anything, Hamby's love of language and cultural history have expanded with each collection from such poems as "Hatred" from her second book, to "Ode to American English" in her third, and "I'm Making Walt Whitman Soup" in her most recent work. Hamby isn't just having fun with language; she's throwing the whole of history and culture into the mix. Mockingbirds and Mr. Rogers sit next to Dosso Dossi and the devil; barbecue and Bozo the Clown somehow fit with short skirts and Donatello's David. Humor and death walk hand-in-hand through each poem.
        If you can only own one Barbara Hamby book, this should be the one to grace your bookshelf. She translates the years into "the language of bees...into onyx, into Abyssinian / into pale blue Visigoth vernacular," forgetting nothing, offering us an ecstatic exploration of the oddities that make up art history, American pop culture, even poetry itself. On the Street of Divine Love is a delightful linguistic smorgasbord in praise of this world of fascinating oddities in which she exists as both poet and person. "[A]nd in the white nights of summer / we became poetry, every breath an iamb."

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.
 
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A Wilderness of Monkeys by David Kirby
(Hanging Loose Press, Paper, 104 pages, $18)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

        I've never been able to answer the question: What six people, living or dead, would you invite to dinner? Too many choices, too many conversations I would like to have. Einstein? Da Vinci? Whitman? After having the pleasure of reading David Kirby's tenth collection, A Wilderness of Monkeys, I realized that the dinner question isn't so much a matter of favorites as it is one of strategy, much like using the last of the three proverbial wishes to wish for a thousand more wishes.
        If I were to invite David Kirby to be one of those six dinner guests, I would, in fact, get a menagerie of historical figures—at least, I would get Kirby's version of them—from John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, to Thomas Jefferson , to Buzz Aldrin. If Kirby's poems are any indication, he would be the life of the party, regaling, among others, Jane Austen and Nikola Tesla with anecdotes of doing yoga in the airport, or sending fan mail to Michael Byers, all with a classy glass of wine in his hand.
        I first discovered David Kirby, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference in 2011. During a poetry workshop, as I was scribbling away Kirby's methods of sparking a poem, of submitting work to magazines, he said he had recently overheard two girls in front of a building on his campus. One girl said to the other, "I'm kind of a whore, but she's, like, way a whore." That phrase has stuck with me for years. What a surprise to see it as the title of a poem in A Wilderness of Monkeys. I was surprised, too, to find in the poem, alongside those girls, The Grateful Dead, Mark Twain, Hoosiers, ketchup, and mathematicians.
        Kirby—or, "the Kirb," as he refers to himself when he becomes one of his poems' own "historical figures"—is an impossible mathematician in his own right, adding characters, facts, and events by the handful into a single poem, and somehow making it equal success. This proficiency has led him to be nominated for the National Book Award and garnered a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, inclusion in Best American Poetry, and the Florida Book Award. Now, he's done it again with his tenth collection of poetry, A Wilderness of Monkeys.
        The book is divided into four, self-contained mini-collections. The first section describes desire: to know, to love, to be free—big desires. The second feels largely autobiographical, and encompasses such strange crowds as "Legion, For We Are Many," and "Sexy Republicans." In the third section, Kirby unspools little life moments, and remakes myths and daydreams in poems such as, "Jesus' Dog," which is a wonderful retelling of the Persephone myth, and "Motherfocker, Prince of Wails," an exploration of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
        In the fourth section, Kirby addresses poetry itself, language, and "The Things We Can't Have." He ends the book with a poem of direct address: "To a Poet Living Two Billion Years From Now." In it, he says, "Look, I've got Whitman by one hand, future poet, // and I'm reaching out to you with the other...But it's not the poem / you need. That poem hasn't been written yet, / and you're going to be the one who writes it."
         Back at that presupposed dinner party, Kirby moves around the room, until he reaches an aspiring young poet, two billion years behind him. "You're going to write the poem that gets us out of this mess," he says to this poet. He raises his glass of wine, his poems still ringing in our ears, and he says with a wink, "You're going to write a poem that blinds us."

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.
 
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The War on Pants by Kristine Snodgrass
(Jackleg Press, Paperback, 60 pages, $13)
Reviewed by Leslie Taylor

         Kristine Snodgrass’ first full-length book of poems, The War on Pants, has a thesis statement of sorts, a quote from a news story about a robot designer, as its epigraph: “‘What is a human?’ he asks. ‘Please define and we will make a copy.’”
        The poet then gives us a series of poems and soundscapes exploring themes and topics ranging from gender identification to memes, in what reads like a collection of poems from a dystopian future. The titles and some of the language concern robots: “Robot, Girl,” “Gender and Robots,” “Robot Almanac,” Robot Rage,” and “Robots and Church.” There is a sense of pessimism about the future of technology and gender that permeates the poems. “We are generous with our vaginas, like philanthropists” states the single line of “Robot Whores.” Snodgrass is aggressive yet mysterious in her commentary and imagery. Even for a poetry book, there is a lot of white space, a lot of room for the audience to wonder where the poet is taking them, a lot of space for meanings to fall behind.
        The most interesting moments in the book are fueled by the poet’s playfulness. “Then Orpheus, List” starts as a repetitive syntax poem, then transforms into an untraditional ballad, and concludes with the repetitions again. It is a beautiful mixture of styles and language and sound.
        Metamorphosis. Die! And gay sang and see night as angst. That’s the off sang. See night as angst. That’s the off sang. Sing and die, the off sang. Sing and die. The off sang. Sing gay and die. The off sang. Wanna ampersand? & die. & die. & die. The off sang. Order fang and bereft. & die sang. List, list, list.
        The poem functions both in experimenting with words and sonic textures, but also as a homophonic translation of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” (1-5). It is this mixture of old and new that captures Snodgrass at her best.
        In the poem, “Mend The Pants,” the phrase “Mend the child’s pants” transforms into “Mind the child” to “Mind the verb” with a dozen other variations. The poem is an example of concrete poetry; it is shaped by its line breaks as a pair of pants.
        Thread the needle and the pants will mend. Thread the needle/ and the pants will mind. Mind the thread. Mind the needle. Mind the child. Mind the pants/ and the threads. Mind the child’s pants. Mind the child’s thread. The needle in/ pants.The needle in pants and thread. The needle in the pants and thread is minding the/ child. Mind the child and the/ verb. Mind the verb. The/ verb is IS.
        Snodgrass’s primary technique here is repeating a phrase with slight alterations every few repetitions. The meaning transforms in each repetition, beginning as an everyday phrase, but warping into a comment on gender and child rearing. Reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, but more accessible, Snodgrass allows mundane phrasing to warp and gain new, subversive meanings.
        But repetition can become tiring to the eyes, and there were times when I felt a shorter poem tightened to the more meaningful lines could be stronger. Her poem “Robot Resentment” is one example of a poem which over utilizes repetition without enough variation or payoff. The repetition of a line like “No, you’re wrong. No you’re wrong. Say it again. No you’re wrong. Say it again, you’re wrong.” can be hard to follow or to find the powerful moments like those in “Mend the Pants” or “Then, Orpheus List.” In this instance, the technique seems to have more theoretical interest than actual enjoyment.
        The largest concern I have is with the one-line poems. One-line poetry is a delicate art of subtlety and inference. The poem “Robot Social Networking” reads, simply, “You are a moron.” The intended effect seems to be along the lines of criticizing the audience and society, but I saw it as a cheap shot. Societal critique can come off as late night comedy. The poem “Sexting” contains the line, “You are defining my sexuality, Anthony Weiner.”
        I am a fan of Oulipo and experimental forms, so I came away from the book desiring more: more commentary on gender, more playfulness with form, more of the concrete poems like “Mend The Pants.” With this first book, Snodgrass has created an interesting beginning. I hope Snodgrass will build on these themes in her future works to reach deeper and continue exploring the frontiers of language, technology, and gender.

Leslie Taylor is a graduate student at Florida International University's Master's in Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. He enjoys Oulipo literature, hobby board games, and talking during movies.

 

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Landscaping for Wildlife by Jen Karetnick
(Big Wonderful Press, Paperback, 40 pp., $14)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello


         Florida is sawgrass and swamp, mango y papaya, arroz con pollo, black beans and rice, oranges, and star-fruit dangling above the ionized chain-linked fence separating two pink houses. Florida crawls, and creeps, and looms like an alligator’s dark back with its great jaw hidden beneath the water’s surface. Jen Karetnick’s Landscaping for Wildlife puts that wildness into form.
        The book begins with the poem “Adult Congregate Living Facility”:
     Peacocks nest on the roof of Nightingale Manor.
     Beneath them, the inmates practice their manners—

     the screamer, the barker, the wheel-chaired tree hugger
     who rolls mechanically to all manner

     of reachable trunks.

        These congregants are not only the despairing elderly imprisoned by age and failing bodies, they are representative of the human condition in which we are all imprisoned. Karetnick includes herself among the suffering.
      and I shout, too, to any god there is for a measure
      of silence to pervade my own echoing manor,

      until the peacocks reproach me with tail-feathers
      housebroken as wood, from what I can see of their manner.

         In this, the book's first encounter with wildness, the peacocks, symbols of pride and beauty, are themselves "housebroken," while we see the wildness of human rage against the boundaries of life which seem to close in on us, and our anger with ourselves for the ways we engage the anxiety of those encroaching borders.  This poem presents the contradiction of wanting total freedom, and reaching to bring form to a life. And as a reader I'm left wondering to which god the author shouts.
         Karetnick plays with form, to some degree, in every poem. “Echolalia”consists of two sonnets—actually, one sonnet that is a mirror of itself so that the last line of the first poem becomes the first line of the second poem, the next to the last becomes the second line, and so on. It is, as the title suggests, a play with repetition. The poem speaks of her colicky baby, and the reader can imagine the merciless repetition of that sharp cry and how it led the author to the poem’s form. In fact, it is the reiteration of lines and rhyme that emphasizes the infant’s barbaric squeal. Once again, it is form that gives wildness its voice.
         In her title poem “Landscaping for Wildlife” Karetnick returns to the idea of confinement versus liberation.
      First, fire the gardener, then disable the gas-powered mower.
         The first line indicates that ‘landscaping’ is not a noun as in ‘landscape’ or ‘landscapes,’ but instead it is a gerund, which indicates activity, making the title a verb phrase, an action. She is asking the reader to disengage, to landscape so that what is wild can thrive. We are not to pare-back or take-away. Throw the scissors down.
     Open yourself to the crabgrass creeping over flagstone
     patios with the abandon of mold, along with the weeds

     and avocado seedlings that take root from pits; welcome
     a collection of cloudbursts seeping in under the door
     of the garage every so often from the natural pool you built

     from a kit that cost $99.99 at the K-Mart Garden Center;
     embrace the mold itself. Think about planting vertically.

        Landscaping is a cease-fire. “Remove everything/non-native, including yourself.” This is not repairing land or restructuring it to include wildlife as well as humans, this is a complete removal of human constructions. This is the reign of wildness. This is the impulse from the first poem to declare that freedom is formless. This is the scream, the cry of the wilderness in us. However, Karetnick turns at the end of her poem.
     Should you desire the tin-roof company of Caribbean parrots,
     or wish to lure the fox and her future kits to den under your deck,
     this is only the beginning of the compost you will have to dwell on.

        Karetnick implies that, without form, what is left is indistinguishable from a heap of compost. Form brings beauty. In trying to live without form you must be prepared for the consequences. Yet, even in the absence of a human structure, wildness is governed by some loose geometry, though it may not be a figure we would choose to engage, or enjoy. The fact is human involvement brings form. It is in the act of engaging wildness that we begin to transform it. This is what Karetnick has done in her latest collection, constructed poems that sing her wild voice.

Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing at FIU.

 

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The Biscuit Joint by David Kirby
(Louisiana State University Press, Paper, 80 pages, 16.95)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

         David Kirby's most recent collection of poems, The Biscuit Joint, is its own manual to the author's poetic process. Kirby claimed his niche in the poetry world with such collections as The Ha-Ha (2003), The House on Boulevard Street, a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award, and Talking about Movies with Jesus, which won the 2011 L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Prize. Now, without losing his famous sprawling syntax and snowballing imagery, Kirby has achieved a voice of deeper maturity that comes with 89¢ "senior coffee."
        Kirby, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, boldly opens The Biscuit Joint with the poem, "Why I Don't Drink Before Poetry Readings," a two-page introductory piece that is just one sentence. The narrator admits to avoiding alcohol "[b]ecause it's as though even a single drop of alcohol / awakens some area of your brain in which a thought / will begin to take shape the way a mushroom appears / on your lawn after a heavy rainstorm." That single drop swells into a phrase that is "all but unholy, has turned into / something so horrible that you'll be lucky if anyone / who hears it ever speaks to you again." However, as both the imagery and imagination intensify, Kirby gracefully executes his signature move of harnessing the escalating energy of his lines into a sculpted finish, in this case, coaching the narrator to "take a deep breath and let half / of it out and look down at your pages and then up again / and open your mouth and say, / 'Thank you, thank you so much for that lovely introduction.'"
        That first poem sets the tone for the rest of the book. Readers experiencing Kirby's poems for the first time might be surprised, perhaps even daunted by the complex and lengthy sentences, but those familiar with his meandering and introspective style will find a heightened sense of self-awareness woven through each poem. "If the poems work," Kirby reveals in the Notes page, "they work best when they move the way the mind does...I tend to start with a small thought, watch it snowball into something beyond itself, and, after a couple of minutes, do my best to bring everything together and make something that'll stand on its own." A compelling example of this is in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," which moves rapidly yet fluidly from the narrator's mother's funeral to David Copperfield to the question, "what is a moly and why is it holy." Kirby spins the chaos of the mind's associative leaps into a tapestry of strength found only in living and tugging at the threads of sword-fighting and Sherlock Holmes, Turandot and train rides through Siberia. He also shares a private perspective on death and the gravitas attached to being "almost happy": "My father is the first of our parents to die, and when / he does, Barbara says, 'We only have to do this three / more times, right?'"
        Kirby's collection is aptly titled from The Complete Woodworker's Bible.The opening of The Biscuit Joint explains that a "biscuit joint" is defined there as a technique of joining two pieces of wood. "Done right, the joint is stronger than the wood itself." Every image and poem in Kirby's most recent collection is joined together and strengthened by the narrator's own delightful train of thought, the wild and scenic route upon which everything hinges. "And though poetry doesn't mean anything to most / of you, a lot of you are in those poems I wrote / earlier, and you're all in this one. Come on / in, Grandma! You can sit next to Federico García Lorca."

Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards and a Florida Book Review Contributing Editor.

 

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Bearable Weight by Michael Cleary
(Word Tech, Paperback, 94 pp., $14)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello


         Weight of loss, of love, of regret, weight of sadness, of faith, of doubt, unbearable weight of existence and death; Michael Cleary’s poems each lug a piece of the load of living. He was raised in the Adirondack town of Glens Falls, New York, and now finds himself living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bearable Weight is his newest collection of poems.
         The book is broken into two sections, Flummoxed and Points in America. They speak to the two halves of his life: youth and adulthood, Glens Falls and Fort Lauderdale, faith and doubt, innocence and experience. They create a topographical map by which the reader can feel around and sense the emotional landscape, and the development of that landscape.
        The collection begins with the poem “Adam and Eve Make Love.” It opens with the lines, “Paradise gone/for good.” This idea of paradise lost, of the inability to regain not only innocence but also a seamless and unshaken faith is central to the work as a whole. The vanishing of paradise implies that it once existed, and should exist but doesn’t, and therefore we are left with an ache, a hunger.
        For Cleary it is desire that satisfies, at least briefly, our longing. It is this earth, this body, our hunger and the ability to answer and respond to it in thoughtful ways that makes us human. It is “making love/out of what’s lost,/a world/out of nothing/but one another.” All we have is what is left after paradise, and we must make the best of it.
        Throughout these poems there is a struggle between the spiritual and the corporeal, between the sacred and the profane. He defines the battle in his poem “Carnal” with the lines, “Each day/a see-saw/quarrel with/spiritual.” He goes on to say that the carnal is our only “consolation” for what we now lack after our fall from paradise. He ends with the lines, “The body’s/despair undone:/the bearable weight of/mortal.” He ends with death, death as the final reprieve from the struggle not only of living, but also of trying to define what living means.
        Yet this book is an attempt to add at least a word to that definition in some way, perhaps just a syllable. Cleary understands there is a power behind every word.
        Watching my deaf student listen,
        I think there is more to words
        than sound ever knows…

Language becomes a way to reach the meaning for which he longs. Language itself may even be a conduit to that meaning.
        Cleary is at his best when he locates that spiritual struggle and the hunger for meaning in events from his past that have marked him significantly. He speaks with keen tenderness of his first marriage and divorce in his poem “First Wife.”
       I see now something dark was passing

       between us, the silvered back
       of a mirror we looked into and all
       we could see was our sadness

       looking back after we were gone,
       unable to forgive ourselves
       for all we’d lost of each other.

        The idea of loss, or absence, becomes a physical object, a mirror. This loss existing as a physical space between two people is not only a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve, but a lived experience in which the lovers are unable to see each other and move closer. Instead, each is trapped in vanity and self-pity at having lost each other, lost paradise, and for that act were unable to forgive themselves.
        As the poems move forward in time the darkness of loss, although a presence, has become less of a threat as if the author in the writing of these poems has come to terms with his own nature and its place in a larger world.
       Among bright ocean swells
       a darkness
       bobbing then lost in a blink.

        The poems grow from the confusion of Flummoxed where Cleary is “desperate/with the night’s last song” nearly broken by the weight of living, to the acceptance of Points in America where  “cuts and sores healed so rough/the hide never forgives its hard lessons.” These later poems written in Florida become not paradise regained, but rather a relinquishing to an unknowable power, an acceptance of the fall. What is left is this body in this life among the other living. For Cleary, Florida is a coast to stand on and look out at a horizon that can never be reached but only observed and felt as a distance, as wind, as wave after endless wave. Florida is the symbol for Cleary’s metaphysics: a body reaching into endless and unfathomable waters.
       There are no angels here,
       but inside
       that gibber of moans
       and jabber of sighs,
       God is somewhere
       if He’s anywhere,
       the body’s exaltation
       joyful
       as any hymn
.

Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program
in Creative Writing at FIU.

 

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He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices
by Stephen S. Mills
(Sibling Rivalry Press, Paperback, 100 pp., $14.95)
Reviewed by Julie Marie Wade


          This past spring I had the pleasure of reviewing Aaron Smith’s poetry collection, Appetite, for the Lambda Literary Review and Richard Blanco’s poetry collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, for The Rumpus.  Both notable books were finalists for this year’s Lambda Literary Award in Gay Men’s Poetry, along with Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin by Patrick Donnelly and Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral.
          The fifth finalist was a poet I hadn’t heard of yet—Stephen S. Mills—but he is now a poet I will not soon forget. Mills’ debut collection, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices,won the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry, chosen over both the Yale Younger Series prize winner (Corral) and President Obama’s inaugural poet (Blanco). Soon after the winner was announced, I set to Googling and learned Mills completed his MFA at Florida State University in Tallahassee and has lived until recently in Orlando. The next morning I wrote to my editor at the Florida Book Review and requested a copy of this exciting new contribution to Florida literature.
         The poems in He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices are set in a Floridian present with frequent time travel to the rural Indiana of Mills’ Midwestern childhood and adolescence. The book is arranged in powerful triptych form, with panels one and three showcasing twelve and fifteen poems, respectively, and the second/central panel spotlighting a single, seventeen-page poem titled “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore.”
          I know what you’re thinking: Stephen S. Mills has a talent for titles.  Just scanning the table of contents, I found myself riveted: “Missing You While Watching Misery,” “Fisting You for the First Time on the Day ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is Repealed,” “The Ghost of Little Edie Beale Meets Me in a Gay Bar,” “The Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” “Sitting in My Cubical I Reconsider a Porn Career,” and my personal favorite, “My Boyfriend Tells My Parents I’m Writing to a Gay Porn Star in Prison.” Who wouldn’t want to read these poems? Whose interest isn’t piqued by such vivid and pithy calls to attention?
          Then, I found myself thinking about the title of Mills’ whole collection, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices.This title promises multi-valence, divergent perspectives, a frank rejection of the stereotype that all gay men—and in fact, all members of any marginalized group—speak in a single and unified voice. In the Notes section at the back of the book, I read that He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices is a play on T.S. Eliot’s intended title for The Waste Land. How had I never learned in all my years as a student of literature that The Waste Land was originally titled He Do the Police in Different Voices?
          So I began to think about Eliot, as I often do, but this time with Mills’ collection in mind. I realized that what I experienced as the complex authenticity of He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices might be best understood in light of one of Eliot’s most influential essays on the nature of poetry, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921). Early in the essay, Eliot remarks upon, "our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else […] We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.”
       Eliot finds this approach to criticism limiting, and Mills’ work helps to illustrate why. Even as his poems reveal intimate aspects of the poet’s autobiography, they also speak with and on behalf of others, in the way the best art can and does:
There’s something about two men together—
an understanding that is ours to have, to hold on to.
I try to be a good man, to do what you taught me,
what you asked of me. Yes, the weather is a mystery.
The flowers do need rain.

[and]

Here we make the pain that keeps us going.
Nothing feels real until you’ve almost lost it, until you can taste
defeat on your tongue, and you can’t imagine doing
anything, but rescuing yourself from the trap you’ve set,
from the fire that started with the match in your hand.

        Eliot advocates for the value of tradition in poetry, a tradition that “cannot be inherited” but must be obtained “by great labor.  It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year.” (Mills, it should be noted, was born in 1982 and is in his thirties now.)
        Eliot continues:
        This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
        The passages from Mills’ poetry that I have cited above address the timeless elements of love and human longing; the passages I will cite below address the temporal aspects of Mills’ subjectivity in relation to his moment in history:
                    In that movie with all the sex,
they say 9/11 is the only real thing to ever happen
to our generation, or something like that.
I’m remembering it all wrong, I do that sometimes.
I was 18 when it happened. 28 now. My adulthood
has been marked by towers that no longer
tower.

[and]

Another gay boy got bashed in Miami this week, nearly beaten
    to death on his way home from a club. The man’s fist
smashed the boy’s glittered face, like my glittered face dancing

at the gay bar every weekend, waiting for my dark shadow
    to appear, my messenger of death to jump out shouting
faggot over and over again until it sounds like gibberish, not even

a real word, meaning a bundle of sticks bound together and used
as fuel.

         In the second/central panel of Mills’ poetic triptych, “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore,” I find a striking and poignant synthesis of “the timeless and the temporal together.” Mills is reading his own life through the culture, the culture through his own life:
Jeffrey Dahmer’s first two victims were named Steven,
and you remind me that I spell it differently with a “ph.”
My parents modeling it after the first Christian martyr,

who was stoned to death. […]

    In June of 1978,
I was negative 4-years-old, and Dahmer was just out
of high school.
It was the year he took his first victim:

a hitchhiker named Steven.

        Then, we leap forward in time, and Mills is teaching his own poetry students. They are reading a poem by Reginald Shepherd called “Hygiene,” and they are asking, “Why do we have to read it?/ Who is Jeffrey Dahmer?/ Will there be an exam?
        Mills’ poem is unfurling now, layer upon layer, blossoming into a perfect instantiation of Eliot’s claim that “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” Through the poet Reginald Shepherd, one of Mills’ “immediate predecessors,” Mills manifests “the conscious present” that Eliot believes so essential to the tradition of art: “The conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” In other words, Mills picks up where Shepherd left off:
     The only serial killer
     that interests them is Ted Bundy,
     who killed girls on this very campus. […]

     They don’t care for Dahmer,
     or for Reginald Shepherd’s version
     of the events that questions race, sexuality,
     and our desires to know someone else.

     They don’t want to see themselves
     in a serial killer, and I don’t blame them.
     They are young. Life is good. The Florida

     sun is hot. The boys on this campus
     are Southern gentlemen—no one here
      has a secret, a fantasy, an uncontrollable

     urge to make everything stop moving.

     So the poet continues braiding self and history, past and present, with sections titled “Milwaukee Jail Incinerates Jeffrey Dahmer’s Belongings, 1996,” “At a Reginald Shepherd Reading, 2006,” “Jeffrey Dahmer’s Apartment Building is Torn Down, 1992,” and “Jeffrey Dahmer is Killed in Prison, 1994.” And the intimate, historical, traditional knot that binds this braid, holding all the disparate strands together:
     15 consecutive life sentences
     45 years of Reginald Shepherd
     957 years in prison
     34 years of Jeffrey Dahmer
     7 years of you and me together
     27 years of Stephen with a “ph”

     Eliot writes, “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together, […] in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” This is what Stephen S. Mills has given me as a grateful reader of his poems—the peculiar, the unexpected, the contemporary poet in a necessary conversation with the ever-present past:
The man says I can’t give blood. They don’t want it.
It’s tainted blood. Gay blood. Faggot blood.
Too hard telling what you got, what sick disease hides
in your skin, in your veins
[…]
            They want our blood. Want it
spilled on the ground, soaking up the dirt, sticking
to their shoes, their pistols, their knives. Blood
is life-saving—life-ending. Sir, have you had sex
with another man since 1977? Yes or no?


Julie Marie Wade, the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Without, Small Fires, and Postage Due, is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.

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Brackish by Jeff Newberry

(Aldrich Press, Paperback 102 pp., $14)

Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

         In his first book, Brackish, Jeff Newberry dredges up images of his native Northern Florida. They rise like silt in brackish water. They make shapes, tell a story, and then settle until some elusive catfish passes again.
         The book begins with a boy coming of age and ends with the reclamation of that boy by the author. The book is broken into four sections moving from the innocence of anxiety, to fear and rebellion, to recollection and reflection, and ends in realization and wisdom.
        Physical place is always the stage for psychological and emotional movement. Each time the poet reflects upon a place, a space opens for personal growth. However, that space becomes rooted in the land from which Newberry vowed to escape as an adolescent. The realization of rootedness is part of the wisdom reached by the end of this collection. Our roots nourish us; they have fed on particular nutrients from a certain soil and no matter where we are they ground us in that homeland.
        The first section, His Father’s Son, opens with “To Come of Age in a Mill Town.” Newberry paints the scene of a small backwater community. He writes, “To come of age in a mill town/is to know that smoke is constant, a haze…” From the initial line the reader is thrown into a hazy world. The fog is that of the factory but also of youth.
        He describes the gritty “chemical toilet” stink of the mill. He then acknowledges his deep connection, both actual and psychological, to his father. He writes of himself, “You smell it in your jacket,/your hair, even more than cigarettes,/a habit you inherited from your father…” Inheritance is not only genetic, but a deep learning, an absorption of culture and persona. In fact, Newberry unites both in the description of his father.

              Every day, he seems less & less real,
      his fogged voice, his coaled eyes. Empty
      lunch pail. Empty thermos. He smokes
      on the front porch & watches the fumes rise.

         Newberry transforms his father into a factory. Just as the mill has spoiled the land it has also marred his father. Industry has merged with the flesh of the land and of the father, until both appear less and less real. In defense and defiance then, these poems become an industry of recollection and reclamation. In the act of recalling and articulating, humanness is injected back into the person or place described. That ‘humanness’ comes not only from the thing describe but from the author writing life back into it. The author’s connection affirms and resurrects lost life.
        Section one is the longest, perhaps because it deals with that innocent anxiety of growing up which, though we’d rather not admit it, follows us much longer than we would like becoming less and less innocent. Newberry touches on this in “The Fisherman’s Son at the Conference” when he speaks of his anxiety as an author. “They can smell my salt./If I open my mouth, I’ll drown everyone.” He is anxious over being found-out, as if his fisherman’s heritage would be shunned by the book-learned ennui of the literati.
        Newberry need not worry about holding his own. Not only is the book itself constructed well, but each poem is tight and honed. He takes joy in language. He likes to pound-out a sound rhythm. These poems rise out of the work shed of one who has taken the time to gather the tools of his craft.
        In the final section North Florida: An Autobiography, Newberry’s craft meets inspiration. These last ten poems are fluid as the cleared-up water of the revived mill town. They stride through the finish.
      Each time I crest the Apalachicola
      causeway, bay oysters sing
      in a blistered hymn, promise

      me if I plunge my palms
      deep into the surf, edge fingers
      down deep through sand & scallop,

      I’ll find a pearl left just for me.
        This poem, titled “Coming Home,” is, like the whole last section, lyrical. There is a free movement to these final poems that parallels their insight. Here the land sings for him, to him. Because he is rooted to this land it still holds an appeal and promise. But he knows “If I place the pearl on my tongue,/my mouth will fill with sand/so thick I’d drink salt water.” He has reached the conclusion that though this land is inviting he cannot return. Yet, the anxiety has vanished from this realization. It is born out of experience and reflection, not fear.
        Jeff Newberry has written a collection that sweeps through a lived life. It begins under the weight of narrative and ends with a lyric. May all of our lives move this way.

Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program
in Creative Writing at FIU.

 

 

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Blowout by Denise Duhamel
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Paperback, 104 pp., $15.95)
Reviewed by James Allen Hall

          "Betrayal is the only truth that sticks," a man tells the speaker in Denise Duhamel's knockout new collection, Blowout. The title references the kinds of romantic estrangements that do not end with grace, but rather with a lover's terrible betrayals: your car stolen, your bank account inexplicably emptied—the kind of breakup that leaves you saying, as this speaker does in another poem, I'll never get married again. But it also references the salon, the makeover, a windswept, high-volume elegance—all of which also could describe the ways Duhamel puts language on a taut highwire, gives it a spotlight, and makes it dazzle.
         Take, for instance, the incredible wordplay on display in "Worst Case Scenario," which begins, "Your house washes away to sea. The whoosh is subliminal. You're terminal. It's totaled. They say you're a floozy. The trapeze comes loose." Duhamel's wit fires the clay of the words she makes. Each sentence is a new "worst case," a new "scenario," but the language of each sentence in this prose poem recalls the sentence before. The poem has a memory—and a future filled with transformation. And yet the trapeze-act keeps going, swinging us forward into poem after astonishing poem. This is a voice that dares make tragedy into poetry. Here is a poetry of the body and the mind.
          And it is so brave. I don't just mean that Duhamel's poems admit into them taboo subjects (though they do) and then overturn those taboos (ditto), but that the poems refuse to allow shame its quieting force. There might be those among us who relate to the facts relayed in the book: that Duhamel's husband posted suicide notes on Facebook and YouTube, became unwilling to work (lest it interfere with his internet pornography addiction), and ultimately left without a word and escaped to Spain, where he continued to drain his wife's bank account. But do we have to have had the same experiences, exactly, in order to relate? Duhamel's answer is in one of the book's standout numbers, "Tina and the Bruised Hearts." In it, the speaker convinces the women who work at her bank to help her close the account, "the numbers/ unscrambling like a bad marriage." The bravery comes when Duhamel presses beyond her woes (though they are mighty), and the poem changes into an anthem of solidarity:  "Tina, Shirlene, and I are almost indistinguishable/ as we step up to harmonize in our hot pink hologram lamé." The book uses the poet's life, not to make mere reality show (though I could imagine Duhamel improving the genre, in something like "The Real Poets of Hollywood, Florida"), but to tell how we survive heartbreak, and how art transforms us. The ending image of this girl-group taking stage, commanding the spotlight, makes me want to sing along in the darkened crowd.
          The nature of writing is that we are always appropriating experience and hammering it into song. After all, as the speaker in "A Different Story" wisely points out, "I have to get it all down before someone else does." And how Duhamel puts "it all down" constantly pleases. Aside from prose poems and narrative forms (gossips, dialogues, films populate the book), we are treated to "Recession Commandments," "Old Love Poems," a "Ritual," and an "Ode." There are various boyfriends ("Lower East Side Boyfriend" is a particular stunner). And of course we have a "Self-Portrait in Hydrogen Peroxide," in which a young flirt works up the courage to ask the speaker out on a date. When she tells him her age, he calls her a "crazy old lady." What else does our brave speaker do, but "roar, the big laugh of a blonde cougar."
          Throughout Blowout, Duhamel simultaneously marries heartbreak to humor. The book is that rare and fabulous blend of conversational talk and burnished lyricism. There is a wisdom in Blowout born from its talky gorgeousness. "It's time," says the poem "Little Icaruses," "to paint on new lips/ and drive out/ into the risky neon mist." Beauty is always risky, and with Duhamel at the wheel, it's also always where we will be delivered. I'll follow Duhamel anywhere she leads.

James Allen Hall is the author of Now You're the Enemy, which won awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2012, New England Review, The American Poetry Review, and Bloom. A misplaced Floridian, he teaches creative writing in upstate New York.

 

 

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An Elephant's Memory of Blizzards
by Neil de la Flor
(Marsh Hawk Press, Paperback, 70 pp., $15)
Reviewed by Julie Marie Wade


In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
        —Susan Sontag
Let’s braid our pigtails in our morning after suits.
        —Neil de la Flor


          Susan Sontag begins her famous 1966 essay, “Against Interpretation,” with the following statement: “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical.” While reading Neil de la Flor’s An Elephant’s Memory of Blizzards, I thought of Sontag’s words more than once. Here is a poet writing incantations: “We pray for the paste of blue cloud to untangle itself from the red sky/over Biscayne Bay.” Here is a poet conjuring a multi-dimensional magic: “We pray for the two sides of the moon, the poles too, and every lunar landscape between the two.”
         Sontag goes on to say, “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.” She then begins her nuanced argument against interpretation:  “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.” By the end of the essay, Sontag herself is singing: “What is important now is to recover our senses.  We must learn to see more, hear more, feel more.”
        Neil de la Flor is a poet who exemplifies this sensory engagement with life through art. As a consequence, his poems elegantly and emphatically resist interpretation in favor of something else. It is not that his poems are not worthy of a deep and thoughtful consideration; it is simply that they ask us to consider with other muscles besides our minds.
        I learn from reading An Elephant’s Memory of Blizzards that colors are important to Neil de la Flor. I don’t need to know why. I need simply to immerse myself in the vibrancy of his Crayola consciousness, the rainbow according to Neil de la Flor:

Those white feathers are white feathers.

Without the use of pink, I wouldn’t care about you or your stupid wilderness flowers.

Is that a red Camaro behind you or is it just a red door?

The blond boy, the other one who looks like another blond boy, runs from his mother’s trailer toward an orange station wagon hitched to an insanely orange tent parked behind a gas station.

The bus in the end is yellow.

A # is followed by a green radio transmission on a television.

That’s a pretty azul blue paint job.

A family sits and/or stands outside of their tent while monkeys surround a family trapped inside of their turquoise sedan.

The man in black is always a ghost.


        Then, when he writes, for instance, “Orange is the color of condolence,” this sentence does not require my analysis. It is not a thesis to be proven to and for the reader. Rather, like all assertions in artistic space, it is an invitation to suspend our disbelief, to take as given the colored essence of the abstraction—and in so doing, to apprehend meaning in a more holistic/less cerebral way.
        I also learn from reading An Elephant’s Memory of Blizzards that Steve is important to Neil de la Flor. I don’t need to know who Steve is. I don’t even need to know if Steve is.I need simply to immerse myself in Steve’s significance to the poet, a name with an essence no less important than orange:

Steve says slow down and mouths words like mother and harder but I can’t write fast enough.

Steve is bingo tough.

Steve is wanted by the law.

Steve is certainly not Martina Navratilova.

Steve doesn’t say a word because he prefers to nod his head because he knows the body contains language just like the tongue and mouth contain language.

Steve likes love. Wants to be loved and draws himself as Cyclops for the psychotherapist who is Steve’s favorite primordial giant, the therapist not the giant. In P.E., Steve eyes the girl he will become one day.

Steve is in my closet.

Steve is always seventeen.


        Sontag writes, “The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means."
        An Elephant’s Memory of Blizzards primes me for success in this task as few other collections in recent years do.These poems do not issue edicts or prohibitions.There is nothing to argue for or against.These poems are not reasonable because they do not reason as such.
        Instead, they imagine: “I fell like Icarus from the sky except I was in Snoopy’s bed with his gigantic gay ears wrapped around me.”
        They possibilize: “If I had a soul, it would be Joan of Arc as Helen Mirren.”
        The currency of these poems is sensory and extra-sensory.They have electric blue eyes and readily self-personify.They shape-shift and spontaneously combust. They speak to us in “the awe-/some language of hairdo." I can feel these poems on my skin like a blush. I can hold them between my teeth like pearls.
        Instead of making promises they paint pictures: “This is an autobiography that ends with old friends sitting on a rocking chair on opposing sides of the galaxy searching for a light in the dark that’s just a photon reflected in the eyes of angels.”
        Instead of solving puzzles, they cut words into a dandy, irreducible jigsaw of wonder and might: “Somewhere between the Big Bang and the Big Gulp, the universe lies silent and cunning in her unstable mink suit.”
        When Neil de la Flor colors, I listen and light up.

Julie Marie Wade, the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Without, Small Fires, and Postage Due, is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.

 

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The Grace to Leave by Lola Haskins

(Anhinga Press, Paperback 68 pp., $17)

Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello


         Lola Haskins has a Floridian heart and sensibility, which disperses like an incantatory mist through each line and stanza in her newest collection of poems The Grace to Leave. The reader enters a traveler and leaves a traveler. The author is a guide through the literal and figurative swamp and coast curtained with the fog of personal fears and suffering, experienced in the body and in the mind.
         In her opening poem Seven "Turtles" she writes,
         On the Withlachoochee last Saturday,
         seven turtles in graduated sizes queued
         on a log, routine as the osprey nests,
         empty this time of year, normal as
 
         the occasional alligator, its blunt nose
         and hooded eyes half-submerged,
         as are most fears most of the time . . .
         From the initial lines the central concern and metaphor peek through, glancing sidelong at the reader like the half-submerged alligator. The principal issue is the hidden or suppressed anxieties which grip us, refusing to allow us the ‘grace to leave.’ This problem is returned to again and again in the author’s coupling of the body with the earth. Her images consist of that brackish water, that mixing, that dressing of nature with flesh or flesh with nature. She enters one to investigate the other. But more than that she blends the two, so that they become indiscernible, a single vehicle used to navigate an unknown and unknowable terrain. In “Ode To My Small Hair,” which is a poem about sensuality and intimacy, this blending is evident.
         In the beginning you were as sparse
         as walkers on a winter beach. Then
         deepened, not to a cove but
         to the dark hills that rise beside it.
 
         Keep me safe from the wind, here
         where my small boat lulls, until
         the one who finds his way to me
         lights these waters until they glow.
         The eroticism is clear, but not blatant. It works as a poem because it gathers its sensual weight from the natural scene of a walkers on a winter beach, of hills rising in the dark guarding against the wind to keep the water calm, where a small boat lulls in brightening waters. Present in these lines is one of those hidden fears the author keeps returning to: the fear of intimacy. Or, more precisely, it is the fear that intimacy, which by its nature requires another person, is also a very solitary experience constantly leaving us unfulfilled because it does not cure our other anxieties.
          There is a desire in these poems to understand and perhaps unearth those secret fears that render us immobile. In fact it is that point of helplessness where we are engulfed by fear that the author returns to because it is the moment when we are closest to it. Haskins hints at this in an early poem when she writes, “for sound is what happens when we/reach the sandy depths toward which we have been descending….” So it is that moment of striking ground which awakens us to our vulnerability, and only in that moment is there the chance of recognition and hopefully growth. The recognition is a "sound," a suddenness that awakens us to our frail condition.
          In “Of The True Ankle Joint,” she ends with the idea toward which each poem is directed.
         Consider love, consider fine china:
         One hairline, almost invisible, fracture,
         and the tea will seep unstoppably into your hand.
         The idea is that one crack in the delicate structure of our consciousness is the point where we will keep failing, or falling, or . . . It is the small hurts where we suffer most, but we will not recognize those hurts without suffering. So, these are not poems of escape; they are poems of engagement.
        I used to be young. Now, I pick my way
                                from broken stone
        to broken stone.
 
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing at FIU.
 

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Darkroom by Jazzy Danziger

(University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback 49 pp., $16.95)

Reviewed by Julie Marie Wade

         I always look forward to reading the winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. It is part of my yearly ritual, a surprise and delight each spring. The first volume I can recall reading is Bardo, chosen for the prize by Donald Hall in 1998. I found the book so compelling I resolved to study with its author, Suzanne Paola, who later directed my poetry thesis at Western Washington University in 2003.
         Since then, I have continued to be inspired by the poets selected for the series, and this year was no exception. I read Jazzy Danziger’s unsettling and exhilarating collection, Darkroom, in a single sitting in a crowded coffee shop. After a few pages, I found myself displaced from my surroundings, separated from the din and light around me and absorbed by the book as if in a kind of solitary confinement—these poems all I was permitted from the outside world. In other words, I was arrested and captivated by what Danziger had placed before me on the page.
        Form mirrors content in this poet’s project. Her title evokes a quiet, dim, isolated place where a photographer studies closely the negatives on a strip of film. To read Danziger’s book is to become the developer with film strip in hand—each poem a photograph coming slowly into focus—and to stand by as silent witness while Danziger develops her own riddled past.
        The poems in this collection vary in terms of how much light they let in.  Sometimes the poet-speaker exposes herself significantly, as in “The Day After”:
     The morning after you beat me,
     before school, it is dark, it is spring, and lonely
     on the carpet of Dad’s apartment.

     […]
                       I rub my Band-Aid
     through my cheap sweater
     while we write x and y in pre-algebra, first

           period.

     I have been good. Good at hiding
     what I’m afraid of. Afraid
     of needing this scar.

         Other times, she is only present in shadow, a fuzzy subject in the background of her life, watching, musing. (And haven’t we all been there?)
        From “Orlando”:
                             I think we won’t know
      What we’ve lost. Like our southernness. So

           pale,
      The Georgians upstairs don’t have the heart

           to object
      when we claim it

      […]
      Listen: I can’t see the Atlantic from Orlando.
      But I’m close enough to hear it calling—

      a rush through the vales, a slosh when I dig

            deep enough,
      planting a prize petunia. It’s leaking.

            Everywhere
      Promising to whittle me down to my spine.

         In poems like “Nineteen,” Danziger writes with one hand adjusting the shutter, her body outside the scene, her eyes keenly observing:
      Brother, your violent life is back.

      Now you see the first loss of your life
      as the warning. Our mother by the creek:

      abandonment you understood even then.
      How soft you were at nine,

      thinking at least this is it,
      water, the final sour taste of the world.

      Each birthyear ending in nine
      has buckshot in its thigh.

         As a reader, I am always on the lookout for the heart-poem, the emotional and thematic center of the collection. For me in Darkroom, that poem is “The Psychiatrist’s Teen Daughter Self-Evaluates,” in which the poet-speaker gradually dismantles a series of received binaries beginning with “There are two kinds of people/in the world.”  Later, “there are two kinds of customers,” “there are two kinds of boys,” and then “there were two kinds of students.
         The speaker as psychiatrist’s teen daughter searches for where she belongs. (And haven’t we all been there?)
                      A lot of my anxiety revolves
      around appearance, and it seems that I’m

           unhappy

      with either person I know how to become:

           the one
      who’s looked at, and the one who’s invisible.

         She has learned to pry apart the sliding door between either/or, but the painful awakening of the poem lies in the fact that occupying the both/and position isn’t so easy either. What happens when you realize you are (or can be) more than one thing at once, yet neither self is fully satisfying, neither identity wholly true?
         Here is how the poem ends:
      I am both of the two girls

      I could be in that moment: the frightened
      and meek young girl, and the child

      who wants her mother to know
      someone else has found her baby beautiful.

         Danziger is a poet who is not afraid to leave the reader mulling, uncertain, troubled—just as the speaker is and has been. In “Beginning,” the paradoxical final poem of the book, Danziger asks without expecting an answer:
       Who can know, and not know,
       that the joy of falling must precede
       the pain of the broken body?

         These poems inhabit that interstice of falling, the joy that precedes it and the pain that follows. Often, her speaker remembers an earlier joy as she anguishes, and just as often, she anticipates her future sorrow while poised on a peaceful ledge.
         As I closed the book, I noticed the cover again, how Dark-Room appears hyphenated on the page (though listed as a single compound noun on the interior list of Brittingham Prize winners). Then, I noticed that Danziger’s name is similarly hyphenated, breaking between Danzi- and Ger. Here again the form of the words mirrors the content conveyed by those words. The place is broken, cleaved. The person is broken, cleaved.
        These are not poems of suture, the hyphens foretell; these are poems that show how, even split within ourselves, we learn to survive. (And haven’t we all been there?)

Julie Marie Wade, the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Without, Small Fires, and Postage Due, is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.

 

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Things in My Backyard by Melissa Garcia Criscuolo

(Finishing Line Press, Paperback 26 pp., $14)

Reviewed by Julie Marie Wade


         Melissa Garcia Criscuolo's unassuming chapbook, Things in My Backyard, blossoms quietly, by turns contemplative and narrative, always with a patient attention to detail. Criscuolo begins her book by imagining a stranger's encounter with her natal city, "Aeshylus visits Miami in August." This is no ordinary stranger, but the ancient Greek tragedian traveling across time and space. In his voice, the poet speaks:

It's a bit like home, the streets paved

like Athens and people drinking wine. They make

     no libations,

nor praise anything unless themselves.

Women dress in clothing that barely covers

     their breasts.

What I admire here, as elsewhere in the book, is Criscuolo's ability to re-envision a place she knows so well through the eyes of an outsider:

                               At dusk

I retire to my room by the sea

       silvered in tapestries,

starfish and netting. Outside the window,

a blue-crested bird taps, his black wings

tucked in.

One such outsider is also a member of her own family, Tía Óne, who appears in several poems and to whom the collection is dedicated. Criscuolo writes her most tender, nuanced lines as she describes her great aunt with curiosity and compassion:

To my four-year-old eyes, Tía Óne was a portrait / of manliness. Óne never went to the peluquería / with her sister Bertha, for hair and nails; / Óne's hair was short and grey, like Papi Garcia's / [...] She lived with Berth and I thought / they were husband and wife like my parents.

          Like the best poets, Criscuolo seems more interested to envision her subjects fully, to show them as they are, than to pass judgment upon them. In "Letter from Florida," she writes to a lost love:

       Sometimes, when I lie restless,

       I imagine your fingers in my knotted hair,

       And you curled behind me, not sad,

       not stoned, not married.

And in "Hands" she considers her aging mother:

                    I remember how curved

        her fingers have grown from years of trabajo

        at the lamp factory, yet how clean

        she kept them, how long and white

        her fingernails grew.

            Some of my favorite poems capture the seamless ways their speakers move between multiple languages. In "Ese Muchacho," the speaker commences boldly:

        Bueno, let me tell you

        about that son-of-a-bitch come mierda

        que tiene el cabezón up his ass.

These boisterous interludes, comical in their code-switching and colloquialisms, also draw the reader deeper into the intimacies of family life, where members speak candidly to and about one another:

         And she's right.

         Tía Bertha is still a pain in the ass.

         She makes my sister drive out to Hialeah:

         Don Pan for pastelitos de guayaba,

         Publix for galleticas, y leche by the gallon.

         Of course, Bertha can't do it herself;

         she never leaves the house

         except to go to Lord and Taylor's.

            Near the end of the book, Crisculolo presents one poem, "An Invitation," in English and the same poem, "Un Invitación," on the adjacent page in Spanish. Given the mixed discourse characteristic of her other poems, this inclusioin of the poem and its translation initially surprised me. Why break the pattern now, I wondered? But as I read both versions, I came to understand.

            All Crisculolo's poems are offerings to others, glimpses of people and places, scenes of how life is or might be. This poem, by contrast, is a petition, a request for the beloved Tía Óne to return from death and once again offer guidance in the poet-speaker's life. As a petition, it is strenghtened by repetition, not simply of a word or phrase, but of the whole poem, the way we often cry out for a person we love many times, by every name and in every language they are likely to know. The poem concludes, "Tía, unlock for me the secret of patience." (Tía, abrame el secreto de paciencia.") Things in my Backyard thrives on Tía Óne's blessing of this request.

 

Julie Marie Wade, the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Without, Small Fires, and the forthcoming Postage Due, is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.

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Looking for The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Paper, 80 pages, $15.95)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta

      There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .

      I should still be eight years old
      dazzled by seashells and how many seconds
      I hold my breath underwater – but I’m not.
      I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard,
      Looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything
      That should still be, but isn’t . . .

        In his third collection of poems, Richard Blanco recalls a Florida of mangroves and beaches that has been lost to golf courses and yachts. It is not only Florida rooms and his Mamá’s cooking that he desires; each poem draws one more deeply into a personal Florida haunted by longing for a single identity.
       The book is divided into three sections, with the first weaving memories of family with the conflict between American culture and Cuban upbringing. Tía Margarita Johnson, who gave up her Cuban heritage in favor of The Brady Bunch and a “house of mac-n-cheese and blueberry pie,” and moved to New Jersey, strands the narrator somewhere between his house and hers. Cousins Tino and JL draw out a poem from Havana to Varadero, reminding the narrator that he is not as Cuban as they are, but still more Cuban than the tourists “who drink my daiquiris, dance mi salsa / as if they’re stomping out a campfire.” And with a black piano, Cousin Consuelo denies him the right to be American at all:
                                 Okay, one more – that’s
     it! She warned. I yelled for American Pie, but
     the crowd demanded !Guantanamera! that
     damn song about Cuba they all knew by
     heart. !Guantanamera!
        This denial continues into the second section, where identity becomes less cultural and more personal in the form of somewhat dark love letters to former lovers. Perhaps the most indicative poem of the sadness embodied in the entire collection is a persona poem from the narrator’s grandmother to him, in which she instructs him on how to be a man – not a gay man. The list is universal, unraveling the friction of sexual identity across a span of years and miles, from the tip of Miami to the mountains of Maine. His grandmother’s voice is what implicitly torments each dedicated love poem: for Craig, for Carlos, for Mark. The narrator longs to be a man who loves these men, but cannot shake the boy who watched Westerns with his Abuelo, whose hands are the same as his Papá’s, “the boy afraid of being a boy, dressed like a witch, wanting to vanish too.”
        The third section is an elegy for all the identities the narrator has lost. Blanco puts to rest his Mamá, his grandparents and cousins, and a Florida that is no longer on Collier Boulevard. He puts to rest all the men and women he has loved and lost. He remembers for Tía Noelia and Tía Cucha what they have spent years forgetting: tasajo and fricasé de pollo, mangoes, pastelitos, and roses, “a dozen red / suns burst in the sapphire sky framed / in the window, sitting by the table.”
        In his final poem, “Since Unfinished,” Richard Blanco admits “I’ve been writing this since / the summer my grandfather /taught me how to hold a blade / of grass between my thumbs / and make it whistle,” since he watched his father shave long before he could, since he started counting “the insanity of the stars… since / my eyes started seeing less, / my knees aching more…” Blanco claims these poems are still unfinished because the fire sparked by the friction of so many identities has not found an answer in either the past or present Florida, but neither can it be extinguished. For those who have felt an absence or conflicted longing for something lost, Looking for The Gulf Motel is worth reading.
                                          Tell me
      it’s true, we’re everything we remember,
      tell me memories never fail us, tell me
      we take them with us, that I’ll take you
      with me, and you’ll take me with you.


Marci Calabretta grew up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her work has appeared in Rainy Day, The Albion Review, and The MacGuffin. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards.

See more Florida poetry reviews in our Poetry Archive:

Halfway Decent Sinners by Michael Cleary, reviewed by Jesse Millner

Begin Anywhere by Grank Giampetro, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni

Uh Oh Time by Kenneth Hart, reviewed by Peter Borrebach

Derelict Tributaries by Lawrence Hetrick, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

The Animals Beyond Us by Michael Hettich, reviewed by Stephanie Woolley-Larrea

Like Happiness by Michael Hettich, reviewed by Kacee Belcher

Bud Break at Mango House by Jen Karetnick, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni

The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems by David Kirby, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham

Quantum Entanglement by Carol Lynne Knight, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

What the Blood Knows by Peggy Miller, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham

Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation by Jesse Millner, reviewed by Marci Calabretta

Hook by Haya Pomrenze, reviewed by Alex Handwerger

Hope, as the World is a Scorpion Fish by Liz Robbins, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni

Cooking Lessons by Nina Romano, reviewed by Jill Drumm

MoonFlower by Gianna Russo, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

The Moving Waters by Mary Jane Ryals, reviewed by Kristin Kovacic

Bone Key Elegies by Danielle Sellers, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

Blood Writing by Sean Sexton, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello

Tropicalia by Emma Trelles, reviewed by Danielle Sellers

Yellow Jackets by Patti White, reviewed by Laura McDermott

Poet's Corner: Richard Ryal interviews Terri Witek and James Brock


and Neil de la Flor interviews Michael Hettich

Click here to visit our Poetry Archive.


PortraitofVLR.jpgThe Search for Florida's Forgotten Poet Laureate
 
 
 
 
And check out our Editor's blog on the history and role of state Poets Laureate.

   

   


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