A Wilderness of Monkeys by David Kirby(Hanging Loose Press, Paper, 104 pages, $18)Reviewed by Marci
Calabretta I've never been able
to answer the question: What six people, living or dead, would you invite to dinner? Too many choices, too many conversations
I would like to have. Einstein? Da Vinci? Whitman? After having the pleasure of reading David Kirby's tenth collection, A
Wilderness of Monkeys, I realized that the dinner question isn't so much a matter of favorites as it is one of strategy,
much like using the last of the three proverbial wishes to wish for a thousand more wishes.
I were to invite David Kirby to be one of those six dinner guests, I would, in fact, get a menagerie of historical figures—at
least, I would get Kirby's version of them—from John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, to Thomas Jefferson , to Buzz
Aldrin. If Kirby's poems are any indication, he would be the life of the party, regaling, among others, Jane Austen and
Nikola Tesla with anecdotes of doing yoga in the airport, or sending fan mail to Michael Byers, all with a classy glass
of wine in his hand.
I first discovered David Kirby, the Robert O. Lawton
Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference in 2011. During
a poetry workshop, as I was scribbling away Kirby's methods of sparking a poem, of submitting work to magazines, he said
he had recently overheard two girls in front of a building on his campus. One girl said to the other, "I'm kind of
a whore, but she's, like, way a whore." That phrase has stuck with me for years. What a surprise to see it as the title
of a poem in A Wilderness of Monkeys. I was surprised, too, to find in the poem, alongside those girls, The Grateful
Dead, Mark Twain, Hoosiers, ketchup, and mathematicians.
"the Kirb," as he refers to himself when he becomes one of his poems' own "historical figures"—is
an impossible mathematician in his own right, adding characters, facts, and events by the handful into a single poem, and
somehow making it equal success. This proficiency has led him to be nominated for the National Book Award and garnered a Guggenheim
Fellowship, the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, inclusion in Best American Poetry, and the Florida Book Award. Now,
he's done it again with his tenth collection of poetry, A Wilderness of Monkeys.
book is divided into four, self-contained mini-collections. The first section describes desire: to know, to love, to be free—big
desires. The second feels largely autobiographical, and encompasses such strange crowds as "Legion, For We Are Many,"
and "Sexy Republicans." In the third section, Kirby unspools little life moments, and remakes myths and daydreams
in poems such as, "Jesus' Dog," which is a wonderful retelling of the Persephone myth, and "Motherfocker,
Prince of Wails," an exploration of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
the fourth section, Kirby addresses poetry itself, language, and "The Things We Can't Have." He ends the book with
a poem of direct address: "To a Poet Living Two Billion Years From Now." In it, he says, "Look, I've got
Whitman by one hand, future poet, // and I'm reaching out to you with the other...But it's not the poem / you need. That
poem hasn't been written yet, / and you're going to be the one who writes it."
Back at that presupposed dinner party, Kirby moves around the room, until he reaches an aspiring young poet, two billion
years behind him. "You're going to write the poem that gets us out of this mess," he says to this poet. He raises
his glass of wine, his poems still ringing in our ears, and he says with a wink, "You're going to write a poem that
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.
War on Pants by Kristine Snodgrass(Jackleg
Press, Paperback, 60 pages, $13)Reviewed by Leslie Taylor Kristine Snodgrass’ first full-length book of
poems, The War on Pants, has a thesis statement of sorts, a quote from a news story about a robot designer,
as its epigraph: “‘What is a human?’ he asks. ‘Please define and we will make a copy.’”
The poet then gives us a series of poems and soundscapes exploring themes
and topics ranging from gender identification to memes, in what reads like a collection of poems from a dystopian future.
The titles and some of the language concern robots: “Robot, Girl,” “Gender and Robots,” “Robot
Almanac,” Robot Rage,” and “Robots and Church.” There is a sense of pessimism about the future of
technology and gender that permeates the poems. “We are generous with our vaginas, like philanthropists” states
the single line of “Robot Whores.” Snodgrass is aggressive yet mysterious in her commentary and imagery. Even
for a poetry book, there is a lot of white space, a lot of room for the audience to wonder where the poet is taking them,
a lot of space for meanings to fall behind.
The most interesting moments
in the book are fueled by the poet’s playfulness. “Then Orpheus, List” starts as a repetitive syntax poem,
then transforms into an untraditional ballad, and concludes with the repetitions again. It is a beautiful mixture of styles
and language and sound.
Metamorphosis. Die! And gay sang
and see night as angst. That’s the off sang. See night as angst. That’s the off sang. Sing and die, the off sang.
Sing and die. The off sang. Sing gay and die. The off sang. Wanna ampersand? & die. & die. & die. The off sang.
Order fang and bereft. & die sang. List, list, list.
The poem functions
both in experimenting with words and sonic textures, but also as a homophonic translation of Rilke’s “Sonnets
to Orpheus” (1-5). It is this mixture of old and new that captures Snodgrass at her best.
the poem, “Mend The Pants,” the phrase “Mend the child’s pants” transforms into “Mind
the child” to “Mind the verb” with a dozen other variations. The poem is an example of concrete poetry;
it is shaped by its line breaks as a pair of pants.
the needle and the pants will mend. Thread the needle/ and the pants will mind. Mind the thread. Mind the needle. Mind the
child. Mind the pants/ and the threads. Mind the child’s pants. Mind the child’s thread. The needle in/ pants.The
needle in pants and thread. The needle in the pants and thread is minding the/ child. Mind the child and the/ verb. Mind the
verb. The/ verb is IS.
Snodgrass’s primary technique here is
repeating a phrase with slight alterations every few repetitions. The meaning transforms in each repetition, beginning as
an everyday phrase, but warping into a comment on gender and child rearing. Reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, but more accessible,
Snodgrass allows mundane phrasing to warp and gain new, subversive meanings.
repetition can become tiring to the eyes, and there were times when I felt a shorter poem tightened to the more meaningful
lines could be stronger. Her poem “Robot Resentment” is one example of a poem which over utilizes repetition without
enough variation or payoff. The repetition of a line like “No, you’re wrong. No you’re wrong. Say it again.
No you’re wrong. Say it again, you’re wrong.” can be hard to follow or to find the powerful moments like
those in “Mend the Pants” or “Then, Orpheus List.” In this instance, the technique seems to have more
theoretical interest than actual enjoyment.
The largest concern I have
is with the one-line poems. One-line poetry is a delicate art of subtlety and inference. The poem “Robot Social Networking”
reads, simply, “You are a moron.” The intended effect seems to be along the lines of criticizing the audience
and society, but I saw it as a cheap shot. Societal critique can come off as late night comedy. The poem “Sexting”
contains the line, “You are defining my sexuality, Anthony Weiner.”
am a fan of Oulipo and experimental forms, so I came away from the book desiring more: more commentary on gender, more playfulness
with form, more of the concrete poems like “Mend The Pants.” With this first book, Snodgrass
has created an interesting beginning. I hope Snodgrass will build on these themes in her future works to reach deeper and
continue exploring the frontiers of language, technology, and gender.
Leslie Taylor is a graduate student at
Florida International University's Master's in Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. He enjoys Oulipo literature, hobby
board games, and talking during movies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
See more Florida poetry reviews in our Poetry Archive:
Halfway Decent Sinners by Michael Cleary, reviewed by Jesse Millner
by Grank Giampetro, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni
Uh Oh Time by Kenneth Hart, reviewed by Peter Borrebach
Derelict Tributaries by Lawrence Hetrick, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
The Animals Beyond
Us by Michael Hettich, reviewed by Stephanie Woolley-Larrea
Like Happiness by Michael Hettich, reviewed
by Kacee Belcher
Bud Break at Mango House by Jen Karetnick, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni
House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems by David Kirby, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham
Entanglement by Carol Lynne Knight, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
What the Blood Knows by Peggy
Miller, reviewed by P. Scott Cunningham
Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation by
Jesse Millner, reviewed by Marci Calabretta
Hook by Haya Pomrenze, reviewed by Alex Handwerger
Hope, as the World is a Scorpion Fish by Liz Robbins, reviewed by Nick Vagnoni
by Nina Romano, reviewed by Jill Drumm
MoonFlower by Gianna Russo, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
The Moving Waters by Mary Jane Ryals, reviewed by Kristin Kovacic
Bone Key Elegies by
Danielle Sellers, reviewed by Guillermo Cancio-Bello
Blood Writing by Sean Sexton, reviewed by Guillermo
Tropicalia by Emma Trelles, reviewed by Danielle Sellers
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.