for Wildlife by Jen Karetnick
(Big Wonderful Press, Paperback, 40 pp., $14)
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—
screamer, the barker, the wheel-chaired tree hugger
who rolls mechanically to all manner
of reachable trunks.
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
until the peacocks reproach me with tail-feathers
housebroken as wood, from what I can see of their manner.
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
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami,
Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing at FIU.
Weight by Michael Cleary
(Word Tech, Paperback, 94 pp., $14)
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.
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.”
see now something dark was passing
between us, the silvered back
a mirror we looked into and all
we could see was our sadness
back after we were gone,
unable to forgive ourselves
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
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
bobbing then lost in a blink.
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.
are no angels here,
gibber of moans
and jabber of sighs,
if He’s anywhere,
was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing at FIU.
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
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 &
his fogged voice, his coaled eyes. Empty
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blowout by Denise Duhamel
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Paperback, 104 pp., $15.95)
Reviewed by James Allen Hall
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.
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
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.
Grace to Leave by Lola Haskins
(Anhinga Press, Paperback 68 pp., $17)
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
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,
where my small boat lulls,
the one who finds his way
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.
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.
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.
Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He recently graduated from the MFA Program in Creative Writing
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
and people drinking wine. They make
nor praise anything unless themselves.
Women dress in clothing that barely
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:
I retire to my room by the sea
silvered in tapestries,
and netting. Outside the window,
a blue-crested bird taps, his
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,
imagine your fingers in my knotted hair,
you curled behind me, not sad,
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.
The Animals Beyond Us by Michael Hettich
(New Rivers Press, Paperback, 59 pp., $13.95)
Reviewed by Stephanie Woolley-Larrea
“When I look out
the window and see myself out there/ When my breaths and heartbeats have reached the magic number/ they are always counting
toward. Burn the underbrush away." (From “The Votive Candle.”) Many of the poems in this collection,
Michael Hettitch’s seventh, work to “burn the underbrush way.” These fifty free-verse poems align humanity
with the natural world and the titular animals around and beyond us as the speaker encounters, and enjoys, middle age. The
poems are accessible, engaging, and solemn. Some of the themes which emerge throughout the four-part collection are the death
of the speaker’s father and grandfather and a peaceful, empty-nest marriage.
The Animals Beyond Us is an excellent example of
how a poet can use one lens, in this case animals, to explore a variety of aspects of life. Clearly this angle gives the poet
a focus for examination which provides both perspective and comfort. Birds, bees, snails, lizards, toads, and fish all
figure prominently. He explains his interest in “Habitat:” “Blue and yellow-striped creature, how
did you grow so beautiful?/ This is not an idle question, but an attempt to understand / fingernails and teeth, our downy
hair and eyebrows/ by understanding nothing, really. Certain things we know/ are beautiful beyond themselves, simply
to be real.”
The language is vivid and the tone sometimes self-effacing,
as in the poem “The Bullfrogs,” set in the Florida Everglades. “We marveled at the fact that so few people
/ came out here to swim: The water smelled like flowers. / For that whole first year we had no idea / those croaks we found
so charming were actually / challenges from bull alligators establishing their territory.”
is no narrative arc in the collection; however, many of the poems inform one another, so there is reward in rereading. For
example, the tender marriage which exists in the second section, in “Even Sleeping:” “The truest love is
every day, / we understand that now, even sleeping,” is mirrored near the end of the book is “A Kind of Pleasure:”
“The hibernating animals are staring to wake. / Your body is more like a gesture than a thing. / More like a song than
This book is a love letter to the speaker’s family and his
wife, as well as to his place in the natural world. He has cleared the underbrush away, and makes this realization in
“After the Rains:” “You are the only person in your body / for a moment. What’s a moment? Where eternity
Stephanie Woolley-Larrea is the mother of triplets, a
writer of prose and poetry, and a teacher of English living in Miami, FL. Her work has been published in Connotations,
Sentence, Mipoesias, Gulf Stream Magazine, Florida English, Coe Review, and 400 Words. More information
about her publications can be found at http://the-green-shirt.blogspot.com/
Entanglement by Carol Lynne Knight
(Apalachee Press, Paperback, 110 pp., $17.00)
by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
In these poems,“our desires,
acts of redemption, our heresies,/lies, assumptions, our ethical dilemmas and suicides” are called-out, pinned-down
and opened for investigation. Using the theories of quantum mechanics, Carol Lynne Knight re-examines the human landscape
and her experiences of venturing through it. We are driven with her into her discovery of entanglement, of how, knowingly
or unknowingly, we all affect and are affected by each other.
the end of her poem “String Theory” she writes:
Sanctuary of water, dulcet splash
of the oar dipping into reverence.
Knowing the struggle
of being tethered by one foot
binds us into a circle.
This “sanctuary of water”
seems to be the place from which Knight's poems gather themselves. She observes things in its reflections, in its depth, in
all of the perceptions it has to offer. Yet there is a recognition that the multiplicity of being and of perceiving that binds
us, is a struggle. That “dulcet splash of the oar dipping into reverence” is the author's hand dipping into her
Knight has an effortless control
of the line. She uses it attentively and it helps her find a form to fit the function, the idea, and the emotion of the poem.
This attentiveness enriches her voice. For instance, in a poem such as “Exit,” the brevity and indentation of
the lines adds to the mounting tension and you can feel the thought and emotion behind them, even though they are portraying
the simple images of a relationship:
Forever has an escape clause,
you said, with eyes closed,
staring at the end of my bed,
pulling on a woolen sock.
In those lines you can feel the speaker coming to a realization of what has just been said.
These poems are searching for some
original tenderness. They are hoping for people, and for their speaker, to find a deeper connection to each other. “It
was before we invented fire,/before words, before the shape of words.” But there is also a love of language, and a nod
to the fact that it is all we have, that our tongues are “small instruments.” Knight seems to be searching for
a fidelity to language and being, a tenuous line that runs through all of us, but that requires our complete focus and devotion
if we are to walk it.
In the title poem, “Quantum
Entanglement,” she begins from the idea that two particles even though they are on different sides of the universe are
entangled with each other, and their entanglement is so intense that it is as if they are on top of one another:
I tell you the world is flying apart, it could be true,
theoretically. But this morning the back yard green
rises, surrounds me with tendrils of prayer,
and the first woodpecker of spring drills
into the pecan tree outside my window.
Feathers on his red cap—so smooth.
Here the speaker finds in the theory of quantum entanglement an intimacy which she brings into her observations of
reality. Despite the fact that things are falling apart, we are surrounded by “tendrils of prayer."
is also a lovely presence of just the right humor, a slight off-handedness, in these poems. Knight attends to situations that
have emotional consequences with a lightness that understands the seriousness of what is happening, but also sees the light
on the other side of a bad choice. In her poem “Can I Buy You a Drink?” in which the speaker is at a bar contemplating
the implied results of a man buying a woman a drink, she says, “What kind of commitment will I be drinking?/Does it
expire at midnight, or linger till sunrise?” And then, “I could say yes to you; in these rum & coke shadows,/this
neon haze, you’re almost handsome."
Carol Lynne Knight’s
Quantum Entanglement sweeps through the field of the human desire for connection and
love, and what she brings to us is “an elusive, elegant union."
Guillermo Canci-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He is a graduate student
in the Creative Writing Program at FIU.
Like Happiness by Michael Hettich
(Anhinga Press, Paperback, 63 pp., $17)
Reviewed by Kacee Belcher
From the first couple of pages, I thought Michael Hettich’s
Like Happiness would be a nice, “happy” collection of poems. As I got into the book, I found myself surprised
at how Hettich creates a darker world. The book’s mainly free verse and prose poems seem to chase an idea of happiness
that constantly retreats and stays just out of reach, as the title would suggest..
Frogs” takes the reader into a natural landscape of what might have been. The poem begins, “He loved frogs, so
he spent his afternoons/wading in the tall grass or standing in the leafy water/where the stream turned.” But what at
first appears to be a pleasant, boyhood remembrance of frog hunting changes:
…Then he walked up to the house
through the tall grass, through the dark,
Still singing in his own language. Don’t think of him now,
drinking in a city bar, talking
who ignore him. Don’t think of him walking out into
empty street, slightly drunk. He’ll be fine.
Think instead of that walk through the dark
the sound of a child’s body moving through the grass;
instead of those frogs falling silent . . .
Here Hettich’s use of the imperative magnifies the ominousness. By directing the reader to ignore the boy’s
current state, Hettich instead make it impossible to ignore. And the memory itself picks up a sinister cast, with “those
frogs falling silent."
As with “wading in the tall
grass” and “standing in the leafy water,” Hettich finds images of uncertainty in liminal spaces. Where is
the actual line between night and day? The water and the shore? Dreams and realities? These borders are often blurred in poems
such as “Awake Before Dawn,” “The Boat,” “The Mind,” and “The Peach Tree.”
Moving across edges has an effect all its own which left me unsettled, not quite knowing where to plant my feet or if the
ground would even hold if I tried.
The poems are full of apparitions and disappearances. “Happiness” begins, “In the Navy, he said, he’d
seen young men disappear,/ just vanish who knows where? He claimed his own mother—/ grandma—kept featherless wings
folded/against her back.” “The Betrayal” starts, “When you open your closet and find the friend/you
betrayed once, long ago/standing there wearing clothes that don’t fit him—your suit coat and best pants.”
Cumulatively, Hettich builds a world where presence is uncertain, absence always hovering.
In “Not Grieving,” the speaker demands some explanation. He summons the ghosts. “Tell me who you are when
you’ve forgotten everything./Tell me who stripped those old junk cars, and what/they did with the parts; tell me what
they built/and how fast they drive it, the kind of roar it makes.” But there is no response. Instead, Hettich creates
a tension that could not have been achieved if he tried to pinpoint answers for his readers.
Usually, I am a reader of the concrete and find it hard to appreciate or even be comfortable with not knowing. Hettich’s
fifth collection, Like Happiness, chases what is neither here nor there, but leaves me willing to hang out in the
haunted space in between.
Kacee Belcher's work appears or is forthcoming in Two Hawks Quarterly, BORDERLANDS: Texas Poetry
Review, and Voices De La Luna. She lives in Miami.
Hope, As The World Is A Scorpion
Fish by Liz Robbins
(The Backwater Press, Paperback, 84 pp., $16.00)
Reviewed by Nick Vagnoni
The speakers of Liz Robbins's poems all share a fascination with the outside world. More specifically, many of the poems
in this Flagler College professor's first collection, Hope, As The World Is a Scorpion Fish,
want to probe the connection between the mind of the speaker and the life that swirls around them. Taken as a whole,
Hope . . . is a meditation on the careful observer and the sense that he or she tries
to make out of the world. These poems seek connection—between past and present, between self and other, between
human beings and nature. Almost always, however, there is a pause, a moment of hesitation, that keeps the speaker from
Sometimes there are literal boundaries, such as in "Women Picking Potatoes Outside Amsterdam," where the
speaker takes in the world from a train compartment, as visions of women harvesting pass quickly through the window.
The speaker's companion says, "You need to interact with people, which you don't do out of fear/ of rejection."
He gets up, opens the door of their compartment, and the activity of the rest of the train comes rushing in:
air of the dining car, the hum of the people
speaking Dutch and English
in low voices, pool into the space
he's left. The clink
of silverware. I look around, meet briefly
the eyes of a woman dressed in a suit, alone and reading,
picking at her plate of steak and peas,
and she reminds me of home.
In "Studio," the poem that follows "Women Picking Potatoes . . . " the speaker is again semi-secluded,
this time in their apartment, where signs of life such as cigarette smoke and music drift through both the floors and ceilings.
In the poem's final lines, we again find the speaker at the window, trying to make meaning of the outside world: "Stars
shine beyond the windows, two/ or three in bright clusters, and the occasional one, alone."
Even when there aren't floorboards or glass, there is still a pause or hesitation when reaching out to embrace the world.
In "Apology with Sunset Motif," for example, "the sky changes nonchalantly,/ stripping its clothes/ as though
I'd been married to it for years," after which the speaker immediately asks, "Am I wrong to see the world as finding/
ways to reflect/ its inhabitants, to hold them captive here?"
Such reflections on the powers and ownership afforded to the observer come through again in "Love of Mine,"
a sonnet written after Edna St. Vincent Millay, in which the speaker confesses:
For your desire's really mine on loan,
as in your eyes I see myself grow wet,
thus ready to lure mself into the sack
(your want of me's the aphrodisiac).
Here, even in
the most intimate of situations, there is still an observational awareness that pervades, that keeps the speaker from becoming
completely engaged in the moment.
This observation grip loosens slightly as the collection progresses, however. Robbins begins to experiment with other
subjects—her father, or Odysseus, for example—and other points of view. Many of the poems in Hope . . . 's fifth and final section are written in the second person. The final poem, "Running
the Race," comes closest to achieving the unity that the speaker of the earlier poems sought. The subject of the
poem, having just run a marathon, now sits in celebratory repose, and is told by the speaker:
Your mind has left
its tight prison during this,
the big endorphin swim . . .
so you wil sit, and sip,
not from whatever your place
in the race,
but because you opened the floodgates
to let it all in.
At last, Robbins
allows one of her characters to let the world in. It seems a fitting end to this collection of poems that are so often
intrigued with the world, yet still wary of fully giving themselves over to it.
Nick Vagnoni recently received his MFA in poetry from
Florida International University in Miami, where he currently teaches creative writing. His poems and reviews have appeared
in Alimentum, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Florida English, Backwards & Ugly, The Secret of Salt, and
Uh Oh Time by Kenneth Hart
(Anhinga Press, Paperback, 98 pp., $15.00)
Reviewed by Peter Borrebach
They come in out of the world,
worker gnomes, matter-of-fact
drop their packs and talk
business as they take off, and hang up
coats on labeled hooks —
This matter-of-factness, which belongs to schoolchildren’s conversations in “Monday Morning,” characterizes
almost all of the poems in Kenneth Hart’s Uh Oh Time. Hart writes with an unassuming voice, presenting anecdotes
of Americana, convinced, it would seem, that each contains its own truths, though the poems that do the most work in tying
the book together are those that reach furthest in trying to place where one “lone American male’s” stories
fit into a larger sense of contemporary America.
“Rush Hour in America” introduces a central motif, the commute. The poem's first person narrator betrays
a bit of edge towards his fellow commuters, but mostly wishes to interact with them, finding empathy with his colleagues in
envying a neighboring auto’s coffee and crullers. Beyond the speaker, an irate radio personality who
maybe hires someone to thump his desk
or owns a thumping machine.
takes a central role. As with many of the book’s
poems, the goal here seems to be to make a singular experience plural—to combine the personal narratives of Frank O’Hara
with the grander sense of an America of William Carlos Williams.
experience is heightened in a later commute poem, “Keep America Beautiful,” where Hart adopts the first person
plural to voice the action of its short narrative. While the speaker is “uneasy sharing this time with myself”
in “Rush Hour,” he can’t get as mad as the man accosting him through the radio—accosting anyone who
will listen, really. This accosted mass of anyones is the “we” of the “Keep America Beautiful,” in
which "we're stalled in traffic."
The pluralizing hinges on the details of a commute, which, no matter how uniquely reported or identifiable the location
(this commute happens to be in Providence), will always be of the same ilk. The prison crew picking up garbage and the seagulls
hovering over the scene are not clichés, but universals. Just as he skirts familiarity, Hart also ably dodges politics
in this poem; the judgment is light, the reportage incidental. I found the skillful play of freedoms which dances through
the middle of the poem—
bumper stickers announce the price of freedom,
claim liberty is our right.
The guard in mirror sunglasses leans against
the correctional facitily van, props a shotgun on his knee
like he's auditioning for
a movie. He's protecting
our freedom to litter from
the inmates' desire
to be free of litter.
—to build an expectation for more direct political thought, but through the calmness of
the voice I was persuaded to take a simpler view: the poet was driving down the highway, and this is what he saw.
The “we” of “American Music” is similar to that of “Keep America Beautiful,” both
in import and in grounding. Again, even as the action of the poem itself remains anecdotal, the experience is written as being
social, plural, as though the speaker has taken it upon himself to be the voice for the stunned shoppers of the occurrence:
Most of us stood around making believe
we were looking through the 'L' or 'T' section
The “we” also seeks to be historical and relational. The potential disjunction arises when the sensibility
remains committed to a singular set of quiet details and consistent matter-of-factness, while at the same time wanting to
be grander in scope (more American, broader in audience, whatever).
scope of the book becomes comparative with “The Russian Women.” The Russian woman of the title, a stripper, gives
voice to a more explicitly anti-American sentiment: her and her fellow immigrant strippers are better read than most Americans.
The environs of the strip club keep Olya (or Alyona—the speaker is uncertain) from sounding too vehement, however, as
even her attack on American literacy occurs within a well-described flirtation. The poem draws to its close with a mind towards
the small narrative, as opposed to anything of national scope. Olya brushes aside issues of national intellectuality, and
reckons that this strip club is staffed by Russians “because we are the most beautiful,” and “flounces”
to the stage.
Though these miniature scenes are inarguable in their consistency of voice, the consistency itself may be problematic
for some readers, as, however well controlled the lines, some poems do seem to blur into others. The few more formally rigorous
poems in the book are invigorating, as the formal conventions provide some much needed tension within the matter-of-factness
of Uh Oh Time.
Borrebach lives in North Miami. He has published several poems and indie comics with small journals across the country and
also writes a weekly cultural criticism column, "Culturology," at the multimedia blog www.audioshocker.com.
Begin Anywhere by Frank Giampetro
(Alice James Books, Paperback, 64 pp., $14.95)
Reviewed by Nick Vagnoni
In “Begin Anywhere,” the title poem of this collection by Tallahassee-based Frank Giampietro, the speaker tries
several different approaches to depict the suicide of a family member. “I could begin with my father’s strong
right arm / heaving his shotgun into the lake,” he starts, then continues:
... Or ten minutes earlier
with my father not consoling, but wanting to console
my half-sister as she stands there, a shadow’s length
from the doorway watching
what’s left of his first wife...
each starting point, Giampietro brings us a little closer, and we can eventually piece together an understanding of the events
that took place.
It’s appropriate that this poem comes near the center of this collection and provides the collection’s
title, as it can serve as a guide to reading the entire book. Really, one can begin
almost anywhere in this collection of poems and get a fairly accurate idea of the style and subject matter that flow throughout.
While the poems do not focus on the suicide, many are fueled by a sense of domesticity that is usually undercut by something
“Dope,” for example, begins:
The inscription on the barrel
of the .20 caliber
derringer I carried in the front pocket
of my coat when I went to buy drugs
is as lost to me
as one of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”
I memorized last summer
by taping it with Band-Aids
to the hood of my riding lawnmower.
In this first sentence, we are made keenly aware not only of the speaker’s
past as someone who regularly needed to arm himself when going to cop heroin, but of his more recent present as someone who
owns a riding mower, lives in a house stocked with Band-Aids, and has the luxury of enough time to memorize poetry.
Still, not all poems are split down the middle between drugs and Raisin Bran. Some are more purely playful, such as
“To Do List #5333,” which includes items such as “Discover all there is to know about pomade,” and
“Find the passage where God allows Moses to glimpse His back as He passes.” Others are more jarringly tender,
such as “Notes Toward a Long Marriage,” which begins: “Heather wanted James to read her by the panty liners
/ she left facing up in the bathroom wastebasket.”
Perhaps what makes Giampietro’s poems so accessible is the even-handed presentation of more jagged subject matter—smoking
crack on a rooftop with a pregnant woman, for example—alongside his treatment of the quotidian demands of parenthood,
such as waking in the middle of the night to bring one’s son a glass of juice (both occur in the book’s opener,
“Juice”). In writing about drug addiction, there is always the opportunity to condemn or glamorize, but Giampietro
wisely does neither. He presents events plainly, weaving memory into day-to-day life, and the result is a quiet irony that
never over-reaches. Rather, the speaker of many poems in Begin Anywhere seems, at
times, to have a sense of knowing tranquility, of the satisfied exhaustion that results from years of hard living smoothed
over by years of family life.
Nick Vagnoni recently received his MFA in poetry from Florida International University in Miami, where he currently
teaches creative writing. His poems and reviews have appeared in Alimentum, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Florida
English, Backwards & Ugly, The Secret of Salt, and Solares Hill.
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.'"
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
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.
He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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
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
Another gay boy got bashed in Miami this
week, nearly beaten
to death on his way home from a club. The man’s fist
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
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,
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?”
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
interests them is Ted Bundy,
who killed girls on this very campus. […]
They don’t care for Dahmer,
or for Reginald Shepherd’s
of the events that questions race, sexuality,
our desires to know someone else.
They don’t want to see themselves
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
gentlemen—no one here
has a secret, a fantasy, an uncontrollable
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
45 years of Reginald Shepherd
957 years in
34 years of Jeffrey Dahmer
7 years of you and
27 years of Stephen with a “ph”
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.
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.
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.
An Elephant's Memory of Blizzards
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.
Let’s braid our pigtails in our morning after suits.
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,
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.
# 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."
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
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.”
possibilize: “If I had a soul, it would be Joan of Arc as Helen Mirren.”
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.
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
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.
by Jazzy Danziger
(University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback 49 pp., $16.95)
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.
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
before school, it is dark, it is spring, and lonely
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
I have been good. Good at hiding
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?)
I think we won’t know
What we’ve lost. Like our southernness. So
The Georgians upstairs
don’t have the heart
when we claim it
Listen: I can’t see the Atlantic from Orlando.
But I’m close enough to hear
a rush through the vales, a slosh when I dig
planting a prize petunia. It’s leaking.
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
thinking at least this is it,
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
with either person I know how to become:
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
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.
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
Looking for The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Paper, 80 pages, $15.95)
by Marci Calabretta
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
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
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
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.
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.
Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation by Jesse
(Kitsune Press, Paperback, 160 pp., $12)
Reviewed by Marci Calabretta
If I were more competent with geometry,
meteorology, biology, and theology,
perhaps I could combine math, science, religion and bug
juice in a blender, mix in sunset
and the violet tendencies of unsettled
Millner’s second book is a fearless and gritty philosophical journey from Neolithic man to the afterlife that questions
the existence of the elusive: God, religion, language. His opening poem, “Amnesia Factory,” asks that we enter
the conversation by acknowledging how little we know about what we believe. He explores all the possibilities of literal truth,
then leaves us with a question that opens from “those poor souls / who worked the assembly line at the forgetfulness
factory” to the engulfing cosmos of “long-dead stars.”
The first section of this dauntingly large poetry collection grapples with the vast ambiguities surrounding God and an enigmatic
lack of evidence for the afterlife. Millner interrogates the day of reckoning boldly and humorously:
I’d like to see heaven, if that’s possible,
just for a skinny second in this quick sliver
of time. If it’s Paradise, that would be cool,
if it’s not, let me smell the brimstone,
on the great Lizard’s
how Millner does not attempt to exact a definitive answer from the annals of history, choosing rather to explore the subject
from various perspectives in order to grant us a full, existential understanding so that we may draw our own conclusions.
He strives to make sense of an eternity after holy judgment, acknowledging that perhaps despite the progress of humanity,
the simplicity of Neolithic man was closer to a conclusion than we are today:
Old humans, I praise thee!
We have moved so far from your language of the concrete and specific,
from words that equaled fire and hunger.
The second section in the book turns the interrogation of faith inward. He chronicles a family history
of Southern Baptist Virginians afflicted with their own personal demons of drink and ignorance, richly complex character sketches
of a preacherly grandfather combing the house for hidden whiskey, a mother in whom is found “Victorian stuffiness yielding
/ to Appalachian directness” by way of a chamber pot, and finally the narrator, a “good little Baptist boy”
seeking to reconcile a childhood of righteous lightning bolts with present-day holy wars of hate. Yet he does not stop at
corruption. Rather, he seeks to point out the intricacy of being human: despite our impossible search for perfection, hope
of redemption remains for the depravity we all must claim.
By the third section, the narrator turns his queries to the Anti-Christ, but finds him to be only a lonely man blowing into
some Southwestern bar, ready with jokes to ease his unholy self. Still, Millner finds neither solace nor answers, and shifts
restlessly from humor to quiet attention.
At once humble and irreverent, Millner moves artfully from the grand mosaic of history to the soft moments of self-reflection
in his final section, “In Praise of Small Gods.” He bravely sweeps the darkest corners of philosophical debate,
adeptly subverting the potentially blasphemous (“For the sake of all that is holy / I cannot end this poem on the boobs
of angels”), and tirelessly listens for anything that can answer the age-old debate:
I never said God was
But I'll never say God wasn't,
that there wasn’t a moment of fiery creation
that spun out all that would become poets and horses
and moons and stars. I’ll never say God
isn't, even provisionally in this
breath and thought.
Marci Calabretta grew
up in Ithaca, NY and is currently earning an MFA at FIU. Her chapbook, Last Train to the Midnight Market,
is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She is the co-founder and managing editor for Print Oriented Bastards.
Tributaries by Lawrence Hetrick
(Anhinga Press, Paperback, 116 pp., $17.00)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
The low drawl of the landscape itself rises from these lived poems.
In Lawrence Hetrick’s Derelict Tributaries, each word is born out of the dark back-water of the poet’s
memories. Hetrick was raised in Gainesville, Florida. His father was a professor of entomology and his mother was a botanical
researcher. It seems fitting and inescapable that these poems are grounded in the Florida landscape from which Hetrick himself
has rooted and sprung. Each poem grows in strength because every line and image grows out of that land. His emotions, his
memories, and his insights summon a deepened sense of loss and grief, while giving the reader, at the proper
moment, a glimmer of a future hope shining on one small ripple in time’s riverbend. In the first poem in the book, "Arrowhead
Field," Hetrick maps out the course the book will take.
Here they lie,
Sinking farther out of sight,
No wind, no moon, no cloud is
Where can I be except this place
whispering to me in every grain?
Although Hetrick takes a certain delight in the “half-remembered
innocence” of being a child, or of being “young marrieds,” his focus is on the sadness that gives clarity
and light to those
moments, and to the moments of happiness that become striking to us in the present:
In pinewoods, over beds...
With fire and disaster, war
And grim dependencies...
No other despair
Is like this, our fear
Without hope, obscene
This idea of hopelessness, of being unable to escape one’s fear, is present throughout the book. It is the terrible
curse that each poem attempts to break. But with this despair, Hetrick gives us a light, albeit a match burning down to one’s
fingertips. In his title poem he says, “Grief obliterates grief.” For Hetrick, it is the grief
of being that opens one up in a new way, giving perspective to the landscape of one’s life.
Bring more books! you say, oranges,
Loud rain on the roof, silk pillows...
Is private now, as it is in books,
As it never was, nor will be after
Our rain bursts every flower open
is tied to the landscape in which he lives. This has given him a perspective which says, although we may say we have private
griefs and joys, there is really only ‘grief’ and ‘joy.’ A book rests privately beneath its cover
until it is read. Hetrick understands that “your naked pain is art”, that we are meant to be seen and
to see, we are meant for relationships, which is another theme in his poems. But because of this, it is “our rain,”
our grief and tears that “burst every flower open,” that gives us perspective on our own lives and the lives
of those around us, leading us to those moments of joy. Yet the struggle is constant and will never be finished.
But you turn toward me this last time
in your music room looking out...
your last objection not yet spoken.
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida.
He is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at FIU.
by Emma Trelles
(University of Notre Dame Press, Paperback, 72 pp., $15.00)
Reviewed by Danielle
With the publication of Tropicalia
a new voice leaps onto the scene, one rejoicing in the often unsung qualities of Florida. In her first collection, winner
of the 2010 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, Emma Trelles seeks to make sense of the South Florida world she was born into,
a world often gritty and hard to love, with its drugs and traffic and racism, but also one of exotic beauty. Unlike many who
write about Florida, Trelles doesn’t rely on cheap exotic thrills to hook her readers. The poems in this collection
are raw in their honesty and in what they are willing to divulge.
of Tropicalia are offered an insider’s look into Miami life. For Trelles, her hometown is more than just tropical
food and art deco buildings. The collection begins with a kind of death in the third poem, “From the Shorecrest, Miami
Mine was a death by Cuban-good-girl
Always wear lipstick
Worship the father
Keep the true tongue still.
It’s clear Trelles’s
speaker struggles between the rules placed on her by culture, tradition, and family and the desire to find her own identity.
The poems early in the book wrestle with political and religious ideas which arise from the geographical and cultural history
of the state and its tumultuous relationship with Cuba. But the landscape is so powerful it takes over the mind of the speaker,
and thereby much of the book, and happily so.
In “Florida Poem,” rain brings “thumb snails and beetles” to “blot the window screens
/ with pearl and drone. Gardenias swell, / breathing is aquatic…” In drought, “the heat becomes a devil
/ girl with oven-red lips…” This is a poet intimately familiar with the land, but also with desire. Often Trelles’s
speaker will muse on paths not taken, such as in the prose poem “What Would Have Happened If I Had Married You”:
At night I listen for your snore, wait for your octopus stretch across the bed. I slip across the patio, past key lime,
mango, sapodilla, and mamey. White-soled and ravenous, I climb branches, swallow skins, save the seeds for later, knowing
even the shriveled ones can bear life.
Even when the speaker is muddling through the dark, there’s always a sense of hope present in the poems, which
is both unusual and refreshing.
With this first collection, Trelles was interested in re-creating her hometown on the page, but because of South Florida’s
unusual atmosphere, the reader is almost given a parallel universe, a place which exists between action and the mind. The
first stanza of “Autorretrato Quintina” explains much:
A mind needs a place to set its teeth, and grace
arrives in fixing the toilet, in water
smoothing the pre-dawn fears of possible
seatbelts, the radio loop
of reasons I’m needed and belong nowhere.
To read this book, one is expected to have a foot on the ground while the other stretches into the expanse of dreams,
as the poems are always two-sided. They are the stuff of real life mixed with the otherworldly. Emma Trelles’s world
is one readers leave only reluctantly, happy to return again and again.
Danielle Sellers is originally from Key West, FL. Her poems have appeared in River Styx,
Subtropics, Smartish Pace, The Cimarron Review, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, 32 Poems, and her first book is Bone
Key Elegies, published by Main Street Rag. She’s editor of The Country Dog Review and teaches at the University of Mississippi.
by Gianna Russo
(Kitsune, Paperback, 108 pp., $12.00)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
All things blossom out
of the dark, and Gianna Russo’s MoonFlower chronicles the growth of a consciousness
rising out of that dark into the light. Even the early poems, born out of despair at divorce and the death of her mother,
are written with tenderness and with a voice of one who has her poetic feelers out, absorbed in the sensuousness of the material
and emotional world. In her first poem, “Angel of Drought,” Russo sets the tone and mood for the rest of her collection.
The cattails have gone brown and brittle,
the lily-pads under some dark spell,
are reduced to the size of dimes.
. Every day its draining touch
draws closer to my door.
us these images of flora dying not just from the course of life but because the force that drives life has been stolen. The
reader can feel her associating her own loss with this natural calamity. Then, in those last two lines, “Every day its
draining touch/draws closer to my door,” she brings the reader to a sense of encroaching darkness and despair, almost
like a slow approaching wave of depression. Yet, even here, the sense of attention to physical detail and the pleasure taken
in these images can be felt.
In “Emergency Room,” the reader is given a first hint of a divorce, with its complexities of anger and lingering
affection. Early in the poem, during an argument with her husband, the speaker cut her hand, and then these lines arrive at
You held my good hand
held water for the pills
stayed with me through the stitches and didn’t
look me in the eye.
We get the sense that these two people have, if not deep,
at least familiar affection for each other. Not only is he holding her hand, but water for her pills. Then with the lines
“stayed with me through the stitches and didn’t/look into my eye,” the reader gains a better understanding
of the distance between them. That inability to look her in the eye, to confront the personal, reveals the depth of the schism.
In poems such as “Manic-Depression
Approaching Spring,” Russo reveals the joy she takes in the structure and form of poems and how that architecture can
comment on and enhance the content.
Off the edge
of winter, the icicle
You can see Russo's playfulness, breaking
on the word ‘edge’ and ‘icicle.’ But those line-breaks also leave the reader on edge wondering where
the poem is going, and that enhances the manic-depressive theme.
the title poem, “Moonflower,” Russo gives the reader a sense of life rising out of this dark mood and world she
has created. “In the yard anguish has taken root” is the first line. She establishes her footing; this anguish
is what is within (and around?) her. In the lines “I pace the rooms, closing doors/on what used to be,” we are
cued-in to anxiety that arises in her attempts to deal with the past and to overcome it. And “The blanched lip of the
fruit bowl/kisses nothing but motes of dust.” This strong image shows where her despair has left her, with the feeling
that her affection is not returned, that her affection disappears into emptiness. But in closing the poem Russo leaves us
The moon flowers turn their porcelain faces up
and open themselves to the dark.
this collection, Russo displays a wonderful control of language, syntax and the use of line, revealing her musicality in poems
such as “A Thing about Rhumba.” However, it is in her final poem “The Fixed and Startled Way” where
she finally claims the intensity and light of her own poetic voice and being, leaving the reader delighted.
But I myself
rise and shake out
the waist-length hair of my soul,
and it sets all the bells
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at FIU.
Key Elegies by Danielle Sellers
(Main Street Rag, Paperback, 60 pp., $14.00)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
Unremorseful in her attempt to capture the despair that binds itself around every longing, Danielle Sellers tunes in to the
low tones that throb and keep the beat of life when life seem like it is too much and too dark for us. Her language is stark,
each word chosen to slice into the heart of the matter and into the heart of matter, as if things, both present and past,
carried within them some possible meaning, if not a path to the resolution of lingering grief.
Seller’s book, Bone Key Elegies, is grounded in the nature and life-style of
the Florida Keys. It is clear that the speaker is intimately familiar with the setting’s natural world. And the poems
written away from her home, are full of longing for the sensual world that her poetic voice and self has grown from. Her voice
has grittiness and lushness, both also descriptive of the character of the Keys.
Sellers begins with the poem “Winter Elegy.” It is a poem that takes joy in the vivid memories of childhood. One
can feel the cool wind, smell the cinnamon candles, see the “sugar apples ripening on the tree” and the “blossoms
of cacti in the corner of the yard.” Then in the ending lines she brings in images that set up the lamentation for a
way of being which we hear for the remainder of the book.
of sighs and low moans and my father’s constant snore
me back to sleep, and I never imagined
this was not the way it
would always be.
By setting the realization of lost innocence against the image
of the tender awareness of her father and the safety he represented, that movement into uncertainty is even stronger.
next few poems offer reminiscences of her father and investigations into his character. They are full of affection and praise,
as well as anger at his sickness and infidelity. The speaker and her father spent time together fishing, and that image of
her father as a fisherman becomes a way for her to explore him in his complexity, where he is known and revealed as a hero
and where he is unknown, like something from the sea itself. In “Fishing at Night” we are given a sense of his
mysteriousness and weakness. “Legs slick with mud, shimmering with scales./His figure diminished under the anemic moon.”
Because he is slick and shimmering there is a sense of him being something other than her father, and since his figure is
diminished there is a feeling that he is fading, that there is something of him she does not and cannot know. Then in “Daddy
at the Stove” he is a complete hero. “From the sofa’s peak I see my daddy barefoot at the stove,/silver
hair uncombed and salty, his tongs a scepter."
The loss of the author’s
sister is revealed in “Road Trip West” in a car accident that not only took the sister’s life, but ripped
the security from beneath the speaker’s feet, and the rest of the book shows her feeling around trying to find her footing,
sometimes sinking like one walking in the roiled silt shallows.
Just as the book began in winter, it comes full circle
in the final poem “December Evening, Key West."
Here the speaker is watching a school of mullet in the canal as they swarm and
shimmer, just as the reader has watched the speaker test the directions of life, and both of them are beautiful in their tirelessness.
I thought of the mullet swimming in the canal,
and wondered how they never tired
of turning their bellies
to the sun.
How close I am to jumping in.
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami, Florida. He is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at FIU.
Blood Writing by Sean Sexton
(Anhinga Press, Paperback, 128 pp., $17)
Reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
Hammers and blades, horses, cows and the mysterious inner-life
of the barn and stable. Not all farmers are poets, but perhaps all poets should spend time on the farm. Sean Sexton writes
with the toughened hand of a man who has worked the land and turned earth, but that same work has blessed him with a painters
eye, a poet’s heart, and his rural palette has an incredible richness and depth. He not only draws strength from the
land of his family's ranch in Indian River County, FL, he has also gained a sense of its tender yet unforgiving nature. That
nature has led the way for him to attend to his inwardness in these poems. This book, aptly titled Blood Writing does not stop until the spirit of its speaker is exhausted, and there are no more words to say.
These poems are full of pain and love, grittiness and tenderness, loss and redemption.
His poem “In
the Pens” begins, “This morning I return to retrieve/what we left in the dark.” That is what the most personal
poems in this book are doing, going into the dark to retrieve what was left behind. For instance in the poem “Album”
he gives life to a whole family history. He brings to light “that beautiful past/with its great future still struggling
to arrive.” That sense of connectedness to his history shows-up when he praises the domestic life and its fulfillment
as a way to find meaning. He sees how the present can only be arrived at by relationships forged in the past. He understands
how the attention to family life can “put off heaven and hell as long as possible.” Yet, there is always that
struggle for those in the present, including the speaker, to arrive. That feeling that no matter what you do, things fall
short, or hit just off the mark.
Perhaps it comes from working with cattle, but Sexton uses the line to corral his poems into a form in order to get
the most out of them. In the poem “Chaos” he writes, “If you would love, learn/the hideous power of life.”
That attentiveness to breaking the line after “learn” is imperative because it reveals that the speaker is emphasizing
that learning about life is necessary for one to love, that life is what love must endure. And that hunger for life is something
that shows up throughout his poems, and it can be seen in the abundance of rich images he conjures up. In “Song of the
South” he says “Salt the melon/wound its sweetness with salt and eat.” You can taste the sweetness of the
melon and the invasion of the salt, you can see the color of it. Hunger for life is explicit in the poem “Feed”
when he writes, “Everything in the world/clamors for it.” This is a moment when, by having gone through the natural
world, the poet is offered a discovery of life, and in turn presents it to the reader.
also takes joy in the simple pleasure of language. At times he employs one of the earliest delights of life, which is rhyme.
“More hole than shirt, these/old plaid skins missing/buttons, pockets, sleeves.” He can also choose another
tool from his belt and depict a beautiful image, attentive not to rhyme, but the music of the line:
The trees across the way are gone
and with them the summer's green
alacrity, lush golden
lampshades of spring.
You can hear Sexton working the rhythm of the iambs in the first line. There is also the alliteration
of the ‘g’ sounds and the assonance of the ‘o’ in gone and golden, and finally the ‘a’
in across, alacrity, and lampshades. You can feel the delight he took in writing the verse.
Sexton’s Blood Writing offers the reader, not any golden-rule or quick-fix,
but the comfort of knowing that life is to be lived. That what we are looking for or waiting for will find us because life
does not stop. “I will wait as I have for the pink of/dawn when the autumn stars rise."
Guillermo Cancio-Bello was born in Miami,
Florida. He is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at FIU .
Bud Break at Mango House by
(The Portlandia Group, Paperback, 31 pp., $8.00)
by Nick Vagnoni
Bud Break at Mango House, the title of Jen Karetnick's most recent chapbook, refers to the yearly blooming
of the mango trees. "Bud break signals the start of a new season," says the chapbook's preface. It's a fitting
title for a collection that deals with the cycles of the natural world in South Florida. The poems speak with authority about
the seasonal changes here, and the repetition Karetnick employs in forms such as sestinas and villanelles serves to transfer
that authority to the reader.
After the first stanza
of the sestina "Bud Break," we know that the end word of each line will return again and again throughout the poem.
As still as wine, the pool robed in blueness
Soon the dun robins will mistake plate glass
though the intervals will be
unpredictale, while on the live oak trees
the blue jays polish themselves like chefs' knives.
the bees will leave their hidden hives.
Karetnick writes with the
knowing voice of someone who has experienced these seasons many times, and the sestina's repetitions grant the reader a similar
knowlege and expectation. We are unsure how, exactly, these six words will reappear throughout the poem, but, just as
the author again awaits and welcomes the new mango season, we now wait for their familiar yet always slightly different return:
summer, we will pour into this glass
juice pummeled from mangos, poke straws like
deep into the syrupy pulp,
flash paring knives
over the seals of rum bottles that be-
wilder sweaty hands when curved around glass
has been left in the sun, hives
of condensation running down blueness,
label sticky as if with the sap of trees.
of the poems share this calm, observational tone, Karetnick also uses more direct address while still using form to reinforce
meaning. "Venetian Way," for example, begins:
Let's keep things simple.
little story to tell.
The early-morning night
street with shadows
and it's a pleasure to
my weight. Shoes slapping
that lead me
away from the man
sleeping patiently with pillows,
I run from island to island,
The tiny couplets continue through the poem, mimicking the tiny, opulent islands of Miami's Venetian Causeway, and
the frequently-enjambed lines serve as bridges that carry the reader from one stanza to the next.
short couplets appear again in "Conga Duet: A Lesson," this time mirroring the poem's male and female conga players.
Along with frequent end rhymes, Karetnick makes ample use of internal rhyme, folding a slant rhyme into the middle of a line
or across a pair of couplets, to approximate a kind of syncopation, with some stanzas hooked to the next by the embedded rhyme:
his ankle around
his drum the way he would
rest his foot on the rungs
of a chair . . .
At the back of El Yunque
on the west side
of the city, Annie
arrives like a bride,
still veiled with the snow
slanting outside, silent
In many of these poems, the line between the Florida landscape and those who inhabit it is often blurred. In
"One Form of Therapy," we find a beach, "with a comb-over/of palm fronds." And in "Scene and Herd,"
Karetnick contemplates the effects a storm has on both the people and the place, ". . . watching/transformers spark and
sand rise/and the streets flood like shared happiness/around my ankles . . ."
The collection closes
with the sonnet "First Mango of the Season," which revisits many of the events and images from "Bud Break,"—blue
jays, chefs' knives, and, of course, the coming of a new crop of mangoes. The poem begins:
The first mango of the season is in
miniature, precise down to its blush
but smaller than a peach, skin and flesh
hinged to a pit the heft of an almond
Again, Karetnick treats the new mango with familiarity, but also with wonder and excitement. Working in the tradition of poets
like Pablo Neruda or Kay Ryan, she takes ordinary things—fruit, the weather, the places we call home—and with
a careful eye teases out their complexities and shows them to us as the captivating things they are.
Nick Vagnoni recently received his MFA
in poetry from Florida International University, where he currently teaches creative writing. His poems and reviews have
appeared in Alimentum, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Florida English, Backwards & Ugly, The Secret of Salt,
and Solares Hill.
Halfway Decent Sinners by
(CustomWords, Paperback, 120 pp., $17.00)
by Jesse Millner
Perhaps every poet
should drive a beer truck. Perhaps every poet should grow up with the rigorous rigmarole of Catholicism. If
that were to happen, then, and only then, would a poet craft a book as funny, sorrowful and beautiful as Michael Cleary’s
Halfway Decent Sinners.
first section of the book, “Original Sins,” brings us “Boss’s Son,” which reveals key themes
of the collection. “Gradually they taught me their secrets:/ let your legs do the lifting and save
your back.” And herein lies Cleary’s genius: Within the literal, tangible
lessons that the other workers impart to the “boss’s son,” lie profound ideas about the worlds of work and
play. Much like Phillip Levine’s What Work Is, Cleary’s poems show us this wisdom
that comes from “sweat,” “sore muscles” and “hangovers.” The effect
of this poem is to show clearly a young man’s entry into that world and his ambiguous relationship with his father,
who is also his boss. Because the poet’s father will die young, a powerful light is cast upon this difficult relationship.
The real skill of Cleary’s
work is revealed in this first section as well. He creates concrete and specific situations, allows us
to enter into those places, and share the experiences imagistically. However, there’s much more than
a funny and/or moving experience chronicled in these poems: they often bring real complexity; a little box opens and out springs
trouble, beauty and insight. We read about childhood encounters with Catholicism, “I never heard a nun fart,”
and are surprised to find the speaker’s longing for a real girl nun, Sister Robert Claire, revealed in the poem.
Again, Cleary begins with the tangible and specific (and often quite funny) and brings in the much larger realm of
adolescent desire in a way that seems natural, even inevitable in the movement of the poem.
The second section of the book deals with the rather odd Aunt Sara, who provides a beautiful space between the first
and third sections of the book. Here the poems are less narrative and more lyrically risk-taking.
They deal with the sighs of illicit fulfillment, of strange love and lust as in “Aunt Sara’s Nap”:
“Nuzzling her cheek upon his chest/ She molds herself around him.” A remarkable simile
shows the intensity of this lovemaking in “Aunt Sara, Waiting”: “as his body gusts above her/like a kite
on an April day.” Within this section, there’s also the very uncomfortable poem “Aunt
Sara at the Meat Counter, “ where she encounters a child, “a boy, his face twisted with screams./
She knows she could comfort him, how easy/ to nurse any man’s child.”
The last part of the book, “Dirty Jokes,” finds the poet dealing with the most serious issues, including
the premature death of his father. These poems are intensely beautiful and rigorous examinations of loss
and longing. While the early parts of the collection document the loss of traditional religious belief,
including the soothing notion that heaven awaits the faithful and therein lies the opportunity to make things right, the final
section shows Cleary unsparingly looking for ultimate meaning, either in each particular poem or in the long meditation that
a book of poetry sometimes provides. In his case the poems add up to a kind of redemption in the hard-earned
realization that truly living means unloading beer trucks, learning crude jokes, falling in love, training a dog, getting
divorced and remarried, losing one’s father, instead of dwelling on the possibilities of an officially-sanctioned afterlife.
The meaning of Cleary’s meditation is the acknowledgment of agnosticism and his ability to accept the hard and
beautiful ambiguity that loss and sorrow, seasoned with those too-fleeting moments of laughter, even happiness, are the central
truths of our lives. The reader feels the imprint of a real life lived on every page.
But the most important effect of the book is shown in the poem, “Blue Barns,” near the end of the collection.
Here Cleary brings about a sad reconciliation through language: “so let me sweeten/ the lousy deal you got before
I let you go.” And the poem becomes the act of letting go of his father, and for a moment the “real”
and tangible world of sorrow merges with and becomes the words and their meanings that Cleary so adeptly shares with us.
Further, in “Blue Barns” the literal barns along the road are replaced in the poem’s closure by the
figurative Blue Barns of heaven. The real and imagined, earth and paradise, life and death, all exist simultaneously
in Cleary’s poems. And because of this amazing juxtaposition, he generously brings us along on the
journey between this world of light and love and loss, and the next world where perhaps the sorrows of this one will be finally
recompensed. Or not.
Jesse Millner has published three poetry chapbooks, The Drowned Boys
(March Street Press), On the Saturday After the Rapture (Main Street Rag Press) and I Give You This Ghost (Pudding
House Publications). A fourth chapbook, Holy Numbers, is forthcoming from Pudding House. A full-length collection,
The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow, will be released in February 2009 by Kitsune Books. Jesse teaches at Florida
Gulf Coast University and lives with his wife, Lyn, and dog, Sam, in Estero, Florida.
Waters by Mary Jane Ryals
(Kitsune Books, Paperback, 143 pp., $14.00)
Reviewed by Kristin Kovacic
If still waters run deep, then moving waters are, by implication, shallow. Florida poet Mary Jane
Ryals puts this conventional wisdom to the test in her restless poetry collection, The Moving Waters.
Here the poet crosses the water many times—to Spain, France, Mexico, Ireland, Portugal, Morocco, Vietnam, even
the swamps of her native Florida—to navigate the eternal themes: love and fortune, beauty and temporality, motherhood
Ryals asks both the traveler’s question—What to make of the riches of the world?—and that of the
rooted—How to savor what we’re given? The result is poetry that bounces between exotic wonders and more ordinary
ones, often with startling speed:
. . . I do not want to move, but to absorb
that Genileschi understood,
not of Fate and of eating your children, but the story
of how sometimes Fate delivers
to the left hand of Bosch’s triptych, to the god with the pink robe,
Adam and Eve in an orange grove,
to the second chance,
almost to heaven where your children laugh and jump on beds
when you get back from El Prado, and
angels float down
like bed feathers from coral fountains
into your life.
—“Finding Moses in Madrid”
Each section of The
Moving Waters has a watery title, invoking the streams, both literal and figurative, of the poet’s imagination.
The short section about Vietnam, the red bridge of the forever river, contains five astonishing poems about a country
disturbing in both its beauty and its horrors:
. . . the sidewalk
is a shallow pool for surfing
through the legless.
—from “Red Chaos,
Old Hanoi, June, 105 degrees”
In Vietnam, the poet is moved, not just to look, but to see. She sees the color (turquoise) threading the
landscape and her own daughter’s flip-flops; she sees, through her twelve-year-old daughter, the injustice that is their
true connection to the Third World:
They are so poor, you said,
they have nothing. But
they still give you things.
—“To My Daughter at 12 in Vietnam”
I appreciate how Ryals
approaches motherhood with wonder but without sentimentality. Her kids appear throughout her journeys, as in utero travelers
and teenaged companions. They are insightful and crabby, touching and touchy—in other words, Ryals
makes them real. In fact, her approach to motherhood and to writing seem well embodied in the following
My son, my daughter, we will all die
someday, but not now, not now. Look—
“To My Children on Father’s Day at Wakulla Springs, Florida”
This wide-ranging collection also looks hard at the world most writers truly inhabit—academia—but which
they rarely acknowledge as a subject. Ryals, a teacher at Florida State University, writes about her students,
about the soul-sucking odyssey of an MLA conference, and it’s refreshing, to say the least, to read a poet who acknowledges
where the money that fuels the poetic world (and the jet plane that takes you there) comes from.
Florida’s Big Bend is well served by Mary Jane Ryals, its Poet Laureate, as this ambitious first collection amply
shows. May the moving waters continue to flow for her.
Kristin Kovacic is the co-editor of Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa
Press). She lives in Pittsburgh.
See more Florida poetry reviews in our Poetry Archive:
The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems by David Kirby, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham
What the Blood Knows by Peggy Miller, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham
Hook by Haya
Pomrenze, reviewed by Alex Handwerger
Cooking Lessons by Nina Romano, reviewed by Jill Drumm
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.
Books by other Florida Poets: