Sunday, December 7, 2014

House on Fire by Susan Yount

Published by Blood Pudding Press

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

House on Fire, a 25-page chapbook by Susan Yount, is a verbal mixture of pastoral imagery and apocalyptic Armageddon bombs.  Yount has created a modern, almost Wizard of Oz feeling that takes us way beyond Kansas in this simplistically powerful, yet emotionally intense collection of poetry.

The visceral portrait of everyday horrors juxtaposed against the speaker’s personal horrors, the kind of horrors that prefer to remain hidden behind closed doors, hang like a tornado—ready to consume everything in their path at any moment.  Readers are immediately swept up in the storm, our hearts and minds twisted with empathy and outrage at the scenes before us. 

The first poem, “Growing Up on a Cattle Farm,” sets the stage for entire collection.  Our speaker as a young girl and her father are caught up in the tornado and its devastation playing openly right in front of them, while the mother stands, indifferently and arguably intentionally at the stove, making meatloaf—“Her hands are red with beef,” as if nothing is out of the ordinary.  This calm, almost dead detachment, is the connecting tone of these poems, which makes the debris of falling moments hit with that much more impact.

In the poem, “Sissy,” we see a portrait of futility:  a little girl holding a dead goat; a sister pretending to get help--“to call the vet”; the little girl refusing to give up as she “Breathes into him/as hard as she can.”  This poem eloquently defines the perpetual cycle of abuse that, more finitely, rears its head in later poems.  The cycle of devastation, of pretending, of wishing maybe it isn’t true, of hoping that if we believe and if we pretend and if we continue it will suddenly be something else, come back to life, when all the time we know such devastation is final, is death.

“Father Was a Hard Man” gives us the first peek at behind the hidden door of the speaker’s family life.  Subtle flashes of a growing undercurrent of constant terror are planted like seeds before our eyes.  “He always came back at dark . . . I always packed/my Barbie doll case.//Dreamed of crawling out the window.”  This image of a child, clutching her innocence in a case, dangling on the edge of indecision while praying for escape effectively haunts the rest of the pages.  This tiny ghost screams for anyone who can hear.  Much like passing a deadly accident on the freeway, we cannot help ourselves, our eyes immediately begin searching for a glimpse of the injuries, the possibility of a body.

In “Chicken” we start to see a crack in detachment’s veneer.  In this heart-breaking moment of a child being blamed for something outside of her control—a chicken’s broken legs—we hear the vicious mantra of a helpless/useless parent:  “Mother/is pissed.  Curses.  Blames me.  Rotten.”  The speaker is pulled deeper into despair—an abusive father, a helpless sister, a spiteful mother.  It is no wonder that she relates to the tragedies around her.  The dead goat, the chicken with broken legs, the exploding chickens, the broken eggs.  Poem after poem, through this symbiotic bond between the speaker and farm accidents, the land itself bleeds for the speaker. 

The title poem, “House on Fire,” is a perfect example of this connection between the speaker and the land.  “House on Fire” reads as if Norman Rockwell and Steven King decided to write a poem together.  It is the perfect visual of this family as everyday creatures dangling on the precipice of eruption.  We see the “house is kindling—/with a wood burning stove.”  The mother “is a gray bluebird/toasty in a tarnished coop.”  The father is “a devil,/his pitchfork in the hay.”  The sister “is a chicken breast/baked dry on a cracked glass tray.”  All the while, the speaker “can hear the red stream calling, a shallow ditch swelling with pain.”  Every aspect of her environment is an omen of what has come, what will continue to come.

Later poems, like “The Oracle,” show the speaker in adult life, trying to deal with her past, remembering “the house/where you practiced/your death.”   We see that the past is still effecting her, haunting her:  “You haven’t asked to see/the future--//you remember it.”  Again, the fear of never being able to escape her past are prevalent in “Father’s Hands”:  “one pink strip from throat to memory                 dreams scrape me.”  Her past is a scar, deeper than any physical injury, and in “For a Complete List Turn to Page 422” we see a unique manifestation of this scar as this poem is a guttural list of all the faces/names the speaker has donned over time.  Harsh and helpful acronyms flash by in brief summary of a lifetime of struggle to create a perfect portrait of a survivor.  And that is what we, as readers, come away with—a poignant image of a bloodied but breathing woman, who is still here even after everything.

In “Old Photograph,” we are left with the speaker pondering a moment in her past “4 years before my first death.”  In her own words, she sums up this chapbook:  “I am ruin, a drunken pantoum.  You can never forget/my secrets, my suffering.”  And she is right, we can’t, we won’t.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

They Talk About Death by Alessandra Bava

Published by Blood Pudding Press

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

They Talk About Death, a chapbook by Alesandra Bava, pays subtle, elegant homage to the masters of misery.  In the title poem, “They Talk About Death,” Bava eloquently states “. . . you can almost/hear//them talk of the Pale/Rider as if they were/chatting about an old/acquaintance.”  Bava is, of course, referring to the influential Death writers and artists she tributes in this chapbook such as Sexton, Plath, Rimbaud, and Modigliani.  At the same time, Bava’s words could be describing her own chapbook, as that is exactly how she is talking about these authors—as if they were her dearest friends.

This series of poems welcomes us into the author’s parlor, pours us a cup of tea, and invites us into an inner circle of ghostly gossip.  We walk “into the hazy streets of Montparnasse” with Montigliani and is wife in “Never Thirty Seven,” as they contemplate the joys of pre-death:  their blossoming pregnancy, the potential of a son.  In “Our Lady of Napalm,” we grapple next to Sexton as she attempts to transfix her demons onto the poetic page:  “Imprisoned and tortured you type/on your bed of stone, as a/St. Barbara of Poetry.” 

Bava opens every vein she can find for us.  Nothing is off limits here, not even Plath’s suicide note.  Bava hauntingly echoes Plath’s desire to leave “. . . in the arms/of February, winds --” in the poem “Milk and Bread.”  And we as readers feel we are dangling in that cold wind, as page after page we are confronted with intimate portraits of death and despair. 

The ending of “Our Lady of Napalm” whispers Bava’s vivid mantra:  “Suicidal Light demands worship.”  This idea reverberates throughout the pages of this poetic church.  We read and worship as one, closing the pages with remorse and relief, as well as a revitalization of spirit that can only come from hanging on to the precipice of death, then crawling back onto solid ground.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Stick Up by Paul David Adkins

Published by Blood Pudding Press

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

Stick Up, a chapbook by Paul David Adkins, manages to capture a lifetime of desperation—both successfully and compellingly—in a mere 21 pages of intense urban poetry. 

Adkins is a master of multiple perspectives in this tragic tale of an everyday convenience store robbery.  His use of an MTV-video-blip jump in points of view allows the reader to capture the scene as it plays out from three distinct speakers:  the robber, the hostages, and the police officers. 

This series is about loss, losing, and having nothing to lose.  The robber, a female whose long, hard life is exquisitely summed up by the current contents of her car—“a half-empty bottle/of Jack in the truck/and her wallet she stuffed/in the glove box/her creased AARP card/her license,/expired last month,/and a tucked photo/of the lover who left her,”—is someone we all know, is someone we could become.  She is closing in at the end of her life, and has come to a point where a fake gun and a chance to steal some potentially life-changing lottery tickets has become more palatable than continuing on her current path even one more day. 

A second point of view emerges from the purported heroes of this tale.  The police officers vacillate between the desire for action and the desire for safety as they “prayed/for a quiet night.  They prayed/for a night of gunfire.”  They struggle with the same indecision the average person deals with every day.  Is a long life of mundanity preferable to one lived quickly but in the extreme?  It is almost an uncomical moment of choice, the purpetual chance that lingers out there for all of us, the ghost of death whispering in our ear, Cancer or cut throat?, as if the outcome of both were not the same.

Finally, Adkins has his hostages contemplating dairy products along with their lives, as if they are the mirror images of each other.  In “He Considered the Dairy Products,” one of these hostages’ biggest concerns is “Will I die beside/the frozen yogurt light?”  Not ‘Will I die?’ but ‘Will I die here?’ as if logistics was a factor in the fight or flight decision in these potentially last moments of breath.  In “He Recalled as He Ran Back in the Store,” another hostage actually refuses an offered opportunity to escape because he is fascinated by the robber.  He sees her as the walking dead, a figure from a horror story he was told as a child:  “She emerged from the tree line,/tall beneath the floodlit/Coors display,/her shadow sharp/and stark as the chalked/outline of a corpse.”

‘Round and ‘round we go between these speakers as this literary Russian roulette of a merry-go-round ride spins us out of control and into this depraved and very human moment where there is no clear-cut victim or hero.  Every one of Adkins’ characters has flaws that are showing, and those flaws create an unbreakable bond of empathy that lures the reader to the edge of our seats, then dangles us there before an expected but powerful gunshot drop in “They Called for an Ambulance Though All Agreed”:  “there was no rush, no siren needed/for the robber, peppered,/dead amid the shards.”

Death, one of the universal inevitabilities, continues to linger on the horizon of this series just as surely as it landed on the floor in this convenience store, the blunt and bleeding culmination of humanity’s emotionally devastating choices.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sky Needs More Work by Corey Mesler

Published by Upper Rubber Boots
ISBN 978-1-937794-41-5

Reviewed By:  A.J. Huffman

The Sky Needs More Work, by Corey Mesler, is an articulate and poignant portrait of a man – a man degrading, a man struggling, a man re-evolving, and, most importantly, a man surviving.  Nowhere is this more eloquently summed up, than in “A Man Walking,” where the speaker clearly states, “I am a man walking/into a mirror.”  As these lines show, this collection as whole is an introspective look into one man’s life.  This idea shows up again in “Old Hob,” when the speaker sees himself as an old man he does not recognize, and again in “Bardo,” where he states:  “I am air, fire/and loss of balance.”  Furthering the nearly suffocating fog the speaker is drowning in, Mesler reveals an underlying psychosis, later revealed as agoraphobia.  The speaker seeks tangible treatment for this issue, but, in poems like “The New Medicine,” we see the real antidote is communication, writing:  “See, you’re already listening/and that’s medicine, too.”

The writer is acutely aware of his own vacillation throughout these poems, an evident connectivity that pulls reader in with speaker to a place where Mesler weaves a vision of torturous phantoms of all guises, the two most prevalent being words and women. 

Mesler peppers his shadowy cloud with disparaging pop-culture and historical references like 9/11 and John Lennon’s death.  Tangible hits to the reader’s heart, these communal references pull us deeper into the darkness by playing on universal knowledge and memories.  The ghosts of everyone’s past stand as tyrannical, juxtapositional threads, tying us to the speaker, resonating his pain.

In this emotional revolution of poems, Mesler takes us through a lifetime’s expedition of a man searching for a tangible escape through “the door,” an image that is prevalent in key poems like “Dream of the Folktale” “Agoraphobe’s Litany” and “Black Dog on the Porch.”  The speaker regards this door as an unattainable solid that he cannot find because he lives in a liquid world, a consuming fog-filled miasma of uncertainty he cannot work his way through.  It takes the speaker the entire collection, which represents a whole lifetime, to realize the door was something else, something intangible, something inside that had to be unlocked, opened.  The speaker lands that realization in “Black Dog on the Porch,” where he states: “My hand felt/like a fresh weapon.  My/hand felt like another opening.”  This enlightenment, this new “escape,” came through writing, the very task that plagues the speaker at the beginning of the collection. 

Mesler is a master of the metaphor of writing as cathartic exorcism.  In the opening poem, we see that words are his life, his struggle.  “Dear Editor” is a self-effacing, satirical dialogue with some universal editor where the speaker claims “The poem you accepted/is no longer mine.”  He continues to claim “it lost its way, wandered” and “became something other,” as if the poem was an entity completely unto itself, disassociated from its maker.  This speaker is lost, consumed by lack of control, and does not have the “heart or wherewithal/to even try to make sense” of his own words.

Words, however, are just one set of ghosts that haunt this collection.  Like words, women also claw at him from the shadows.  In “A History of Lovers,” the speaker regales a list of past lovers and their subsequent lessons.  He ends with the longing, desperate lines:  “I am standing there still/waiting for another lover,/one who will startle me,/reject me, kill in me/what wants another and another lover.”  These lines cast an uncontrollable desperation over the initial poems of this collection.  Later in the collection, despite a change in tone indicative of personal evolution, the examination of both major themes persists.  In fact, in “Cock-a-Hoop” the speaker seamlessly melds his two phantom tormentors, words and women, into one.  “Cock-a-Hoop” is a bluntly sensual metaphor of woman as poem, and the result is that these images linger, creating a transference of ghosts as the reader also becomes haunted by this recurring idea. 

Just when the collection begins to weigh on the reader, threatens to consume us with its hopelessness, Mesler turns on a light in “The Remainder at Gettysburg,” the transitional poem in this collection.  Here, the speaker notes, “What saves us is always unexpected,” and he is right.  From this poem on, the same ghosts, the same memories rise like phoenixes.  Painful scars of the past now take on a scabbed-over quality that is even therapeutic as the speaker picks at them.  This undercurrent of not-quite-optimistic desire to change is immediately noticeable.  Even the speaker’s view of himself changes.  In “Megrims,” he refers to himself as “an experiment of a man.”  “A Life Colored” continues this dialogue of desire for change.  Make no mistake, the speaker is still haunted by ghosts – ghosts of memories, ghosts of people (both living and dead) – even his family takes on a ghostly quality.  His references to his wife and children are as almost ephemeral figures floating around him, attempting to cling to him.  Nothing is solid, but instead of drowning in their darkness, he looks to these ghosts, as if they can hold the answers, the key to that door.

Rehabilitating realizations begin to turn up all through the second half of this collection.  In “The Cancer of Believing You are in Control,” the light bulb goes on:  “it is a cancer to/believe you are in control.”  This new mantra brightens the speaker’s outlook.  He is coming to terms with his present.  In “The Body Opens Like a Flame,” he can now see that “There is a stillness in/vulnerability, a stillness that/is almost consoling.”  The speaker now has a new mission as described in “Way Fairer”:  “I set out with the intention/of sewing that/shadow to a soul.” 

Finally, Mesler brings the collection full-circle in “The Last Poem.”  Our speaker has written and remembered his way through the darkness and is ready to re-emerge in the light.  In “The Last Poem,” we are once again in dialogue with the same universal editor as in “Dear Editor,” and while the self-effacing tone still lingers, there is an element of hope in the newfound desire of the speaker to get his words, those turbulent ghosts, published.  “The End of the Year of Darkness” sums it up best:  “What is/lost is lost” and “What I create is good,” and what Mesler managed to create in these 88 pages is beyond good.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Wild Part by Jerry Craven

Angelina River Press

Reviewed by Carol Smallwood

            In the award winning author’s preface, Jerry Craven relates his novel came from memory “filtered through imagination.” The author manages the difficult task of capturing a boy’s point of view; some of Don’s views are from movies that his fellow companion, a native girl, isn’t familiar. The Wild Part is multi-layered fiction for youth and adults about  Don and Rosita that begins when they leave their village of El Tigrito to catch a ride to a village to see a shrunken head supposedly hung in a shop; they end up in the interior of Venezuela.

            Rosita is a strong native girl who knows how to live off the land and tells Don: “Where there are frogs, there will be snakes. We should climb a tree to keep above the snakes.” Don worries about his family who are probably looking for him but after all their adventures, wonders if instead of returning home, they should return to the jungle where Rosita wouldn’t be laughed at.

            The point of view is the coming of age boy reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn and his travels with the slave, Jim. Rosita wisely concludes near the end of the novel, ”People are the strangest animals in the jungle” and refers to Evita Peron many times as someone held in high regard by her people. The novel that shows instead of tells, can be read as an adventure story by young adults and as a novel exploring wider questions such as the role of women, faith, good and evil, society, equally resonant to adults: it whispers and avoids shouting. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegory, Young Goodman Brown which also starts at dusk in the wilderness, it’s a journey into self-scrutiny.

            Living off the land suggestions by Rosita are especially appealing such as: catching water with a large leaf: one of them drinking while the other watching for anaconda; Don can speak Spanish and they run across a wide variety of characters from miners to witches. Humor is evident as in the chapter when the main characters discuss the best way to deal with bats, vampires, and coffins: how each of them manages the unfolding of events shows their character and what they think their expected roles of a blond boy and dark haired girl.

            I would have liked to have had more about the lives of the two main characters before they began their trip—what their families, home, and village were like, and something about how their trip related to their future: more development of the other people in the novel also would give contrast to events.

            At the end of the paperback are very helpful discussion questions for teachers and book club leaders such as ways the novel evokes the Garden of Eden. There are important questions about faith, God, and a variety of native snakes that appear in different scenes; the novel brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its questions about civilized society, racism, and its use of snake symbolism in pilgrim passages.

            The novel won Foreword’s Book of the Year Wards Indiefab Finalist for Best Novel of the Year in two categories. Another book by the author is Saving a Songbird and Other True Stories from Texas to Venezuela

Monday, September 15, 2014

Evening Sun:  A Widow’s Journay  by Aline Soules

Andrew Benzie Books
May 2014

Reviewed by April Salzano

Released in May, 2014 by Andrew Benzie Books, Aline Soules’ chapbook, Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey holds a lot more depth than the title implies. In the first poem, we are introduced to the speaker, the widow who suddenly finds herself alone at the kitchen table “pushing potato and gravy/around [her] plate,” a moment many of us have had the prescience to fear. The reader assumes not the position of the mysterious stranger turning around in the driveway, so easily able to correct a wrong turn, but that of a ghost observer in the now-empty chair across the table. It is here that we remain throughout Soules’ journey through grief, from the first day and its awkward “how are you?” of a stranger to the first night alone, to the moment she faces the knowledge that she is going to age alone.

            As we flash back through italicized memories, as the speaker’s husband “get[s] smaller,/further away, day by measured day,” composers keep us company, reminding us of the strength of memory and the power of associations. Anyone who has ever lost someone knows too well the pain of sorting through what is left: out of style pants, rosaries, socket sets, and knows, too, the feeling of wanting to ask the dead person what to do with these things, of wanting to hear the impossible even more, the answer to questions you never thought you would be asking. Soules captures this range of emotion with painful clarity, especially in “Things I Need to Tell You. Questions I Need to Ask.” a title complete with the finality of punctuation. “Place,” continues to ask the difficult questions that will remain forever unanswered, such as why their son wants to buy his father rather than scattering his ashes. The widow’s voice and note of desperation at the weight of such loss, asks, “Does he believe that anchoring the last trace/of your earthly life will heal the hole/in our hearts?” The haunting “our” could just as easily refer to the wife and her late husband as it does to the people left behind, as if the departed too is struggling under the weight of such heavy, heavy loss.

            “I’ve Changed My Mind,” is perhaps the saddest poem in the collection, for all its real-life imagery. The husband’s heap of dirty clothes, shaving cream spatters, cigarette butts in the toilet remind us as wives that for all their annoying habits, we would miss them if they were gone. If Soules’ intent was to make the reader stop and hold dear the time we have together, it worked. “Hurry. Take the picture,” the final line of “Notes V” tells us in Soules’ perfectly duplicitous language.

            What I liked most about this collection was that Soules does not take us through a chronology of a widow’s grief, but instead intertwines present pain with past joy, and the reverse, ultimately, focusing on the power of memory to remain, like the stubborn dandelion whose “speck of yellow endures.” 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

. . . details . . . by Valeri Beers

Thomas Hill Publishing
September 2014

Reviewed by April Salzano

In her small but weighty chapbook, “…details…,” forthcoming from Thomas Hill Publishing in September 2014 and  available, Valeri Beers tackles many “big” themes: love, its “alchemy” and “subtle mojo,” the pull it has both toward and away from another, the discord of gender roles, and the nature of inspiration.

Often employing a nursery rhyme quality, Beers is able to surprise us with her use of irony, like in “How To Be A Real Woman,” a mocking examination of woman as an accessory to man.

Through lines that trickle down the page, where often a single word line carries a narrative moment out of the realm of simple and into that of ambiguity and tense duplicity, Beers relies heavily on rhythm and sound, as well as internal and external rhyme to explore complex themes with illusively simply language. Beers demonstrates with stunningly clear diction the cathartic appeal of writing both thematically and linguistically. Creating art has the power to heal us, and perspective has the ability to recreate perfect memories, to “square” nostalgia, and to make us look back on a moment even before it has fully passed. Equally important to this collection is the notion that love is an equation that ends up “leaving nothing” as a sum, and that most of this, from the daily anxiety of possibly being in the wrong classroom, to the bigger moments of losing a loved one to manic depression, or the celebration of the “tiny life” of a child, is all unfortunately irrelevant, but words, and the details they convey, will withstand and hold power even as our human spirits remain “uncertain embers/burning/high & hot/flaring up/then/fizzling out.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences by Carol Smallwood

Published by Lamar University Press Books
May 2014

Reviewed by April Salzano

Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences, by Carol Smallwood employs the four elements of nature, “the state-of-matter or simplest main parts of which anything exists,” to divide this collection into sections, with “the added fifth element” of “picket fences,” to examine the theme of change, just as the author promises in her introduction. Each section utilizes a specific element as its tool into memory and metaphor, capturing imagery relevant to that specific natural force. By delving into the real, physical world and its tiny component parts, such as the bubbles in a Styrofoam cup, the way water refracts in a glass, or the music of an MRI machine, the poet indeed creates work that is “as necessary as air.”  

            Dense with meaning and references to her favorite literary works, the poetry here utilizes a considerable amount of formal verse, relying primarily on various interlocking forms. Repetition is crucial to the message: if change takes place without our having noticed it, if we too missed “the moment/water became tea,” then once we begin to utilize retrospect as a tool, that message can be repeated and built upon, each time discovering something new. Just like the final line in one stanza becomes the opening line in the next, so life builds upon layers of itself.  Like formal verse, the elements repeat: water gives way to water, air breathes and there is more fire, and all elements combine to form an intricately tangled earth. In the poem “Tea in a Plastic Cup,” we see that tea is more than leaves and liquid, the string of the bag is all “the kites/that did not fly, and those that did/the wild pull of the wind of spring before/ landing on ground that still had snow.”  Just as “a closer look reveals the tea bag is/two parts,” a closer look at the past shows that change happens in increments so tiny, only the very careful infusion of poetry and memory can sufficiently capture them after the fact. A poem as intricately built as a pantoum or a villanelle serves as the perfect example of  form following function. 

            Through the seemingly small symbols in the section “Earth,” we are offered the chance to further observe and contemplate meaning and change: the waffle pattern of an ice cream cone, lady bugs and town witches. Even spice bottles take on meaning “when looked at too long,” much like finding Prufrock in the folds of fast food napkins. Observation is gift and eavesdropping, necessary, lest we should miss a moment, like a field shorn in October without witness.

            “Air” brings us the clouds and windy days we would expect, the stuff that swirls leaves and brings us to a place the speaker feels “more visitor/in a strange land.” In the poem “Seagulls,” the speaker, in a new city, wonders if seagulls migrate and why she didn’t do so sooner. Here, philosophy and physics are at once at odds and in harmony. With its own theory-of-everything logic, the collection as a whole shows how fundamental forces and forms of matter can lead to inquisition into the minds and hearts of seemingly random strangers, demonstrating that everything is cause for reflection and holds a kind of unique, interconnected beauty.

“Fire” rekindles the relationship between the speaker (in this section most specifically woman), and the “earth’s molten center—/the thin, thin layer we walk upon.” Perhaps the most personal of the traditional element sections, the speaker contemplates subjects such as chemo and divorce. It is in the presence of fire’s power to consume that “the smell of burning/leaves evokes visions,” where the sun blinds itself to stop them. In “Ashes,” we find again the full-circle aspect of the natural world: “my quest had ended where it’d begun:/the waiting house would wrap me,/a burnt offering of spring,” presumably the same house that told the young mother in the Prelude: ‘There are things you’ll never know,/never could even guess.” We get the sense that at times she did know, did guess, and at other moments, was as helpless as if facing fire. Perhaps the most poignant lesson of all is shared near the end of this section in the poem “I Heard That.” The speaker tells us she has “learned along the way,” that “falling is not a requirement for numbness.”

            In the final section, “Behind Picket Fences,” women, like soldiers, suffer post-traumatic stress disorder of a different sort as “terror keeps on repeating,” and “good mothers” repress memories and lose their wings. In this added element, dreams prove vehicle into topics that we get the sense would not otherwise be discussed. Behind the fence, we learn that keeping socks and making sourdough bread do not prevent the inevitable, deadly sins are commonplace and Despair is “the mother of them all.”

            Overall, Smallwood’s collection is a beautiful, well-crafted alternation between science and confession, form and free verse that ultimately tells us that both order and its antithesis should be used to fulfill a duty to honesty and observation. By the end of the collection, I was left humbled by the author’s craft, and in awe of her ability to express her relationship with the natural world. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences can be purchased at 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Manhattan Plaza by James B. Nicola

Published by Word Poetry
Release Date:  Summer 2014

Reviewed by April Salzano

In his ambitious six part poetry collection forthcoming from Word Poetry, James Nicola invites us on a journey through Manhattan Plaza, welcoming us in the collection’s preface to his home. The subject of Nicola’s debut collection is not a far off place in the imagination, but one grounded solidly in the real world with real inhabitants. The concrete here is literal, the view, populated with a kind of human spirit that for all its Americanism, also exhibits traits so universal, it often aches. Utilizing free verse and a proud peppering of rhyme and meter, Nicola guides us through his part of the city. In the middle of a crowded, chaotic bliss, we find a narrator who has assigned himself the task of true observation of his small corner of the universe. Though the collection is dedicated to the people of Manhattan Plaza, Nicola cordially invites all readers to “share not only some of New Yorkers’ common, public experiences, but…some intimate ones, too.”

Much like the formal invitation into the author’s home, Nicola attempts to prepare us for the journey we are about to take—reader alongside speaker, two "like-minded observers," together bearing witness to the inner workings of Manhattan. We travel like blood through veins of a body that remains (at times sadly) unaware of our presence. In “Turning the Corner,” we find we are in a place where “There never is an end. Each city street/you go down joins another.” Though this can be said of any city, the speaker reminds us that what is important on this particular tour is the question we must ask ourselves of the very nature of observation itself: “will you traffic to forget,/or to experience the turn, the new?”  The simple act of turning a corner takes on the significance of the job of the poet, whose duty is to bear witness. But as much as he advocates the importance of truly seeing, Nicola also warns us of the danger inherent in the role of the bard.  Through this gazing, frequently voyeuristic and exploitive, at other moments painfully tender, but always with a sense of obligatory honesty, the reader too has no choice but to be forever transformed. The lines from "Another One about a Shoulder and a Shower" capture that sense of duty, that fulfilled promise to help us “turn the corner” and finally see what he is showing us. "...even as/I watch, or rather as I invent/a scenario wherein I watch” Sometimes that scenario is public -- the Staten Island ferry crash of 2003, the final journey of the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2004, and other times as personal as a pastry shop or subway ride, but always the journey is more important than the destination, which is the chance to restore meaning to a city where "everything is strange and new." The public and the personal intersect, just as the author promises in the preface, most poignantly in his handling of 9/11. In the poem “Now in New York,” we are reminded of the lasting impact of that day, shown the “new ghosts that haunt,” from a local’s perspective. In the haunting final line of “Always,” which the author indicates was written less than two hours before the first attack on the North Tower, Nicola says of his fellow New Yorkers: “We’re always falling off and going on.”

            The poet's self-instilled duty to restore meaning through observation is most profound, or most obviously stated, in the first section of the work, “the city,” which is also the longest portion of the collection, serving as a necessary framework. The next four sections, logically subdivided into “the people,” which brings us ordinary souls and best men, park bench-Santa’s and waiters; “the neighborhood,” where we salute landmarks and rituals; “the buildings,” where we find lesser known attractions and “three thousand/neighbors/each going home” via the public spaces of elevators and apartments, and where “Even in the stillness there is dance;” and “the residents,” where Nicola employs more formal elements of poetry to portray the seemingly ordinary people whose lives intersect his own. We meet a bipolar woman, a one-legged lady, a mixed couple, and a soap star. Together these aspects of the city form his corner of New York itself and fulfill the poet’s promise to show us around a bit.

In the final section “come in,” the tone is a bit more playful in places, a kind of celebration of all the things that make up the other four sections. It is here that the speaker seems a bit less ordered and celebrates the disarray that is his life in his small apartment where he imposes “exile” on himself for an hour a day to block out the beautiful madness that makes up his home in Hell’s Kitchen.  The more serious tone and sense of obligation to see the world for what it is, to question, to answer, to imagine, returns in “Enough,” in particular. In this, the final poem in the collection, the ever-present theme of obligation is perhaps most strong:

                         the yawning tongues
of even surly oaks
wake my eyes each May to all the
greatening greens and gods and skies—
Are they enough?

And coffee in the morning

Times crossword, favorite pen on Sundays, with friends
splittings’ pains and
sweet successes’ joys

This poem forms an overview of the collection, a final commentary on the internal and external dialogue woven throughout. The speaker questions if what he has is enough to comprise a sense of happiness. “It is/It is/It/is!” he answers with a note of jubilation after a long journey through the city. At the conclusion of the collection, I was left homesick for a place I have never had the pleasure of calling home.