December 19, 2014

Editor’s Pick

for Fall 2014

New LoveNew Love

by Lynn Shapiro

In 2006, Rattle featured one of my favorite poems, Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering,” which won a Pushcart Prize. It was her first, and remains one of only a handful of poems that she ever published. Lynn’s breast cancer returned a few years later, and she died on November 19, 2011. Her husband found this archive of poems on her computer, and released them through Lulu. At 174 pages, New Love is a book of collected poetry that probably should have been selected—it’s hard to imagine any poet withstanding such a raw and sweeping treatment—but the mine is full of diamonds just waiting to be unearthed: These are beautiful, cutting poems that make a vibrancy out of both life and death, bravely and bitingly exploring her own imminent absence. For example, this four-line jewel:


She walks in the water
with her former lover, her white

hair and caftan blowing at his side,
and he is nothing.

Timothy Green (November 29, 2014)

. . .

Readers’ Picks

for Fall 2014

Poet & VampirePoet & Vampire

by Chuck Taylor

Poet & Vampire gives voice to the supernatural prophet, the wise man or holy man—the semi-divine trying to make a dollar outta’ fifteen sense—the absurd man with savant-like prescience that delivers the reader from the deceptions of life. His collection channels dueling alter-egos—Poet as everyman, Vampire as eternal observer of human nature—who project both optimistic expansiveness and visceral misapprehensions. The result is not just a bastardization of poetry to prose, or vice versa, but a rethinking of the parameters of voice—becoming a “vehicular” language casually slipping in and out of identities, and pushing against the cloying shibboleths of 2014 America. This collection evokes a literary slap-stick philosophy that keeps me laughing, my mouth opened wide enough to accept the truth. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

henry 7. reneau, jr. (November 18, 2014)



by Michael Earl Craig

With their plain black titles on neutral white, beige and robin’s egg blue backgrounds, Wave Books collections might appear to the uninitiated generic and/or interchangeable, but the fact is that the press is putting some of the most interesting poets at work today between their simple, misleading covers. Talkativeness, the latest from Michael Earl Craig, ranges from beagle puppies to film directors Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman over the course of its lyrical conversations. As suggested by the book’s title, Craig has a casual voice that welcomes readers into a vast, varied world. Like the film directors he admires, he also has an eye for distinctive details. Craig lives near Livingston, Montana. Perhaps that explains why even his most succinct poems seem to expand the horizon.

Brian Beatty, subscriber (November 14, 2014)


Mexican Jenny and Other PoemsMexican Jenny and Other Poems

by Barbara Brinson Curiel

There’s a lot to admire about Curiel’s collection. I loved the title poem—a 30-page historical re-imagining of an early 20th century Mexican woman named Jenny Wenner. She’s a prostitute who becomes imprisoned in America after killing her husband/pimp in self-defense. Jenny is nearly invisible—an immigrant expelled from an American prison in sickness, sent to Mexico to die. Curiel gives audience to this otherwise invisible figure: “Girls like me/ come from alleys/ from dirt floors/ from cold kitchens/ from one thin blanket.” She is working in the acclaimed, controversial tradition of writers like Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey, who sometimes meditate on untold, individual histories, and draw them into the present.

Raul Palma, subscriber (November 13, 2014)


Small HoursSmall Hours

by Ilyse Kusnetz

Every now and then I read poems that shock me into thinking, “I’ve been doing it all wrong. Here I’ve been playing mere word games while real poets are communicating thoughts, passions, experiences.” That’s how I felt while I was reading Small Hours, the winner of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Kusnetz tells stories about famous personages like Marie Antoinette and Galileo with the same familiarity as the account of her uncle who, she says, filched Der Fuerer’s alarm clock at the end of World War II.

Many of the fifty-six poems in this volume disturb as much as affirm, cause outrage while they are provoking reflection, bring pleasure in the midst of atrocity. That’s what good poems can do. In the presence of stuff like this, I often resolve to change my ways, stop poetizing and write about things that matter. Those resolutions never last long, however. Alas.

Conrad Geller, contributor (November 10, 2014)

. . .

Note: Rattle‘s MicroReviews are intended to be honest poetry book recommendations. If you have no relationship to the author of the book you’d like to recommend, you can send 75 – 125 words about why you enjoyed the book through our Submittable portal. Simple acquaintance to the author is not disqualifying, but we cannot accept reviews from family, co-workers, present or former students, or even casual friends (if you met the poet once at a reading, that’s fine; if you stay in touch, that’s not). If any significant relationship is discovered, the review will be deleted and the reviewer will no longer be allowed to contribute reviews. If you’re unsure about whether your relationship to the author is disqualifying, just ask when you submit the review. Reviews are added regularly to the MicroReviews page, and posted for archival at the end of every quarter.

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August 30, 2014

Editor’s Pick

for Summer 2014

Practicing to Walk Like a HeronPracticing to Walk Like a Heron

by Jack Ridl

There’s a deep pleasure in getting to know someone or somewhere intimately, and that’s how I feel reading Jack Ridl. What’s more, he seems to know where his talents lie, as shown in the book’s epigrammatic opening poem, “Write to Your Unknown Friends.” We’re given a friend’s access to his mind’s eye—and it’s such an attentive eye, page after page revealing the magic in the quotidian. Most of the poems are set in his house or backyard, which could be my house or backyard, if only I’d stop to notice the wonder of it. And after reading this book, for a while, I do. That joy alone is worth the cover price.

Ridl’s poem from Rattle, “Hardship in a Nice Place,” is a good example, but the poems in this book are all that strong—which, at over 150 pages, is saying something.

Timothy Green, editor (June 1, 2014)

. . .

Readers’ Picks

for Summer 2014

Saint FriendSaint Friend

by Carl Adamshick

The first line of the first poem in Carl Adamshick’s second collection, Saint Friend, may name-check Kenneth Koch, but the transparency and lightness of touch to this Walt Whitman Award winner’s lyrics don’t feel particularly New York School. His occasional lists—“Autumn sweaters, mittens, scarves, hats,/ crepuscular Missouri, and a leaf/ in my sister’s hand.”—situate Oregon-based Adamshick well outside the hip boroughs of NYC, as do the two extended poems that predominate this collection. “Pacific,” a monologue in the voice of Amelia Earhart, contemplates loss on multiple levels. “Near Real Time” recounts and refracts a difficult February day-by-day. Saint Friend’s shorter lyrics are likewise welcomed alternatives to overly familiar MFA exercises and experiments for their own sake. We care because it’s clear Adamshick has taken great care.

Brian Beatty, subscriber (August 10, 2014)


Book of HoursBook of Hours

by Kevin Young

Kevin Young writes big books. His 2008 Dear Darkness contains 196 pages of poetry. His new Book of Hours comes close to that with 181. Where other poets would have published several smaller volumes, Young packs them all into one cover, giving him room to thoroughly excavate a subject, such as the death of his father and the birth of his new son. His poems have a way of staggering images and syntax—a technique that’s emphasized with heavily enjambed lines, contrasts and stanza breaks that turn phrases on their angles. Young especially takes pleasure in sounds. His rhythms and rhymes are not formally arraigned—he makes up his own rules—reminding the reader that poetry can still be music in the right hands.

Grant Clauser, subscriber (August 5, 2014)


The BossThe Boss

by Victoria Chang

Without any punctuation and with each poem composed of four-line, consistently-staggered stanzas, I will say that the style of The Boss first caught me off-guard. But this unusual format quickly proved to be a strength of the collection—Chang is able to execute this style extremely well thanks to her pacing and deft ear. Similar-sounding words and internal rhymes propel the reader through lines:

        I ask for the password he says he looks it up in his brain
                locks up he wonders what a

password is letters number symbols

The poet examines how we occupy many roles at once—being a child, a parent, subordinate to others or in a position of authority—and how we move between them. Rhythmically and linguistically beautiful and inventive—a great collection.

Brandon Amico, subscriber (July 22, 2014)

. . .

Note: Rattle‘s MicroReviews are intended to be honest poetry book recommendations. If you have no relationship to the author of the book you’d like to recommend, you can send 75 – 125 words about why you enjoyed the book through our Submittable portal. Simple acquaintance to the author is not disqualifying, but we cannot accept reviews from family, co-workers, present or former students, or even casual friends (if you met the poet once at a reading, that’s fine; if you stay in touch, that’s not). If any significant relationship is discovered, the review will be deleted and the reviewer will no longer be allowed to contribute reviews. If you’re unsure about whether your relationship to the author is disqualifying, just ask when you submit the review. Reviews are added regularly to the MicroReviews page, and posted for archival at the end of every quarter.

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March 31, 2014

Editors’ Picks

for Spring 2014

Mezzanines by Matthew OlzmannMezzanines

by Matthew Olzmann

Melodic free verse narratives that drift surreal to highlight the absurdities of modern life have been in style for some time—maybe it’s all the absurdity of modern life. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a poet who does it better than Matthew Olzmann. Usually I’m happy when I can find a half-dozen poems in a book that I would publish, but I have to say that I’d probably publish any of the 45 in Mezzanines. Engaging and surprising throughout. “Rare Architecture,” which we nominated for a Pushcart in 2010, is quintessential. And essential.
          —Timothy Green, editor (Feb. 16, 2014)

. . .

Living in the Nature Poem by Mary Harwell SaylorLiving in the Nature Poem

by Mary Harwell Sayler

In an era where so many books seem to be written to have been written, Mary Harwell Sayler fills over 100 pages with genuine purpose. With an ear for the poetic line and internal rhyme, and an admirable concision, she explores the appearances of God in what’s left of the natural world. There are a few too many poems, perhaps, but if you’ve ever wished that Mary Oliver could clone herself, and grow up in a different environment, so she could write from new settings and perspectives (and I have), Sayler might be the answer.
          —Timothy Green, editor (Feb. 1, 2014)


Readers’ Picks

for Spring 2014

Black Stars by Ngo Tu LapBlack Stars

by Ngo Tu Lap, translated with Martha Collins

Black Stars transports me to Vietnam filled with nostalgia as the poems weave rivers, sky, stars, and forests haunted by the dead and the living: “Thirty years later I still see them/ Millions of breasts cut from suffering bodies.” In this river of poems, I can feel the scars of war in both the land and poet and, at the same time, I feel my own scars from the same war, “Scars not even the dark night can hide.” Lap speaks to the river, and to me: “You write to remember/ But sometimes you write to forget.”
          —Teresa Mei Chuc, contributor/subscriber (Feb. 23, 2014)

. . .

Greenhouses, Lighthouses by Tung-Hui Hu
Greenhouses, Lighthouses

by Tung-Hui Hu

I had the pleasure of hearing Tung-Hui Hu read in Chicago a few months ago, and was struck by his imagery (always a help when listening to poems for the first time without having a text to follow!) and the quiet, precise way his poems move. A wonderful collection. From “Windfall Apple”: “The hand has rules: everything that is loose may be gleaned./ A hand counts and gathers the weight of a single apple,/ returning over and over to the moment of having.”

          —Virginia Smith Rice, contributor/subscriber (Feb. 1, 2014)

. . .

Kimonos in the Closet by David ShumateKimonos in the Closet

by David Shumate

The prose poem, with its lack of intentional enjambment, demands of the writer a sense of daring because the turns come not from line breaks but from a willingness to leap. There are a handful of poets working in this difficult genre who can leap consistently and exquisitely, but David Shumate couples this with an uncanny ability to stick the landing. His latest collection doesn’t stick every landing, but it’s as close as we can get in this genre to a masterpiece. An excerpt from “My Desk Sets Sail”:

Again this morning my desk sets sail like a schooner from its harbor. It is a fragile craft easily shattered on the shores. So far good fortune has accompanied me as if soggy old Poseidon were my friend. I lick my finger and raise it to the wind as I’ve seen sailors do, though I do not know what this portends. When I am hungry, I cast out a net. When it’s time to sleep, I stretch out on the deck. I travel for weeks on this little galleon. Rowing with only a pen.

          —Cameron Conaway, contributor/subscriber (March 25, 2014)

. . .

Memoir Poetic of a Naked Cop by Richard Eric JohnsonMemoir Poetic of a Naked Cop

by Richard Eric Johnson

Once history was poetry. Richard Eric Johnson’s Memoir Poetic of a Naked Cop revives that old tradition, recording the author’s experiences as a soldier and a policeman. I say history, not biography, because the poems present sharp, sometimes harsh pictures, not so much the poet’s feelings about them. Mostly free verse but with some rhyme and plenty of wordplay, the poems owe something to Whitman (“Learned Astronomer”) but at least as much to rap. This work excites me because it’s direct and simple, clearly evoking pictures of an era and of a life.
          —Conrad Geller, contributor/subscriber (March 16, 2014)

. . .

The Midnight Channel by Evan PetersonThe Midnight Channel

by Evan Peterson

Evan Peterson addresses famous “final girls” from sci-fi and slasher films—Ripley from Alien, Sarah Connor from Terminator—with both reverence and irreverent humor in this chapbook. Peterson takes the triumph over predator, parent, and fiend alike and weaves his own merry celebration around it. From “The 80s <A Slasher Film Blamed on Slasher Films>”:

Jamie Lee loves Janet Leigh
& audiences love a massive head trauma …

This is a sequel, so up the ante:
different weapons for every murder.

Who are we killing today? <the homeless>
and with what? <antlers>
I love antlers! <fucking hipster>

My personal favorite poem (but difficult to excerpt) is “Ellen Ripley/Alien Sigourney Weaver/1979” which interweaves computer code with lyric lines. As someone with a keen interest in pop culture poetry, I loved this quirky take on familiar horror tropes.
          —Jeannine Hall Gailey, contributor/subscriber (March 14, 2014)

. . .

Red Flower, White Flower by Jennifer TsengRed Flower, White Flower

by Jennifer Tseng, tr. by Mengying Han and Aaron Crippen

Ethereal, magical, full of, as Jean Valentine says on the dust jacket, “humor, mystery, grief and along with grief, unguarded understanding and puzzlement, side by side.” I was bowled over by these elegant poems and wondered at the facility with which the translators captured the musicality of each piece, as in the poem, “The Beloved’s Singing Heard Through a Closed Door,” which starts like this:

Like foxgloves, like a coat mending itself
in a dove’s night, ascending then descending
under a bell-shaped light, as one sees
at the threshold of the mind’s immortal view
the yellow house of childhood unhewn …

Tseng has crafted a collection filled with exquisite poetry. This is a bedside table collection, one I won’t be able to shelve anytime soon.
          —Kelly Fordon, contributor/subscriber (March 6, 2014)

Note: Rattle‘s MicroReviews are intended to be honest poetry book recommendations. If you have no relationship to the author of the book you’d like to recommend, you can send 75 – 125 words about why you enjoyed the book through our Submittable portal. Simple acquaintance to the author is not disqualifying, but we cannot accept reviews from family, co-workers, present or former students, or even casual friends (if you met the poet once at a reading, that’s fine; if you stay in touch, that’s not). If any significant relationship is discovered, the review will be deleted and the reviewer will no longer be allowed to contribute reviews. If you’re unsure about whether your relationship to the author is disqualifying, just ask when you submit the review. Reviews are added regularly to the MicroReviews page, and posted for archival at the end of every quarter.

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December 30, 2013

Review by Howard RosenbergNew and Selected Poems by Charles Simic

by Charles Simic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
ISBN 978-0-547-92828-9
384 pp., $30.00

In an interview published in The Paris Review, Charles Simic said, “I love odd words, strange images, startling metaphors, and rich diction, so I’m like a monk in a whorehouse, gnawing on a chunk of dry bread while watching the ladies drink champagne and parade in their lacy undergarments.” That love displays itself in the poems in his new book, New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012, most of it culled from thirteen of his earlier works.

Almost hidden near his latest book’s end are the new poems. Many didn’t captivate me as much as ones in his previous works, such as Master of Disguises’ “Summer Storm”: Its style reminds me of Linda Pastan’s, one of my favorite poets. For me, poems need to tell a story that I can invent from, expand upon. In “Summer Storm,” its final quintain both ended the poem and initiated my imagination’s journey. The “deepening quiet” that enters the poem surrounded me as my eyes lingered on its lines. Of the sixteen new ones, six are discussed below, beginning with “I’m Charles” and ending with “In the Egyptian Wing of the Museum.”

“I’m Charles” is the first-person, one-stanza account of its narrator

Swaying handcuffed
On an invisible scaffold,
Hung by the unsayable
Little something
Night and day take turns
Paring down further.

Battling writer’s block, the narrator struggles to express the “unsayable,” warring with a deadline that’s effecting his “last-minute contortions,” the poem animating the difficulty of expressing what’s just beyond the mind’s reach. Rather than relating to the experience literally, Simic mutates it, transfiguring it into a scene whose similes, metaphors, and personifications could have captured Poe’s attention. However, what I enjoyed most was the poem’s abstraction, first a distraction and then an attraction.

“Things Need Me” further displays Simic’s skill at animating the inanimate. Its opening lines, “City of poorly loved chairs, bedroom slippers, frying pans,/ I’m rushing back to you” introduce another narrator—totally different persona, one cognizant of the outer, literal world but not trapped within an internal conflict. The narrator verbally glares at the “heartless people who can’t wait/ To go to the beach tomorrow morning,” people eager to desert the city with its “Dead alarm clock, empty birdcage, piano I’ll never play,” objects the narrator prefers as his companions, “Each one with a story to tell.”

The interaction with the outer world continues in “Lingering Ghosts.” Its narrator asserts, “Give me a long dark night and no sleep,/ And I’ll visit every place I have ever lived,” those lines reflecting Simic’s statement in Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell that “Insomnia is an all-night travel agency with posters advertising faraway places.” When told in an interview published on that “many of your poems seem to take place late at night,” he replied, “As for late-night settings in my poems, it’s my lifelong insomnia speaking. I’m usually up when everyone else is snoring away.” The night seems to guide his vision in ways the day cannot.

In “Ventriloquist Convention,” the narrator addresses anonymous others identified in its opening quatrain:

For those troubled in mind
Afraid to remain alone
With their own thoughts,
Who quiz every sound
The night makes around them …

Then those being addressed are offered an invitation to enter “a room down the hall” where the voices and forms of those not actually there—some deceased— are “All pressing close to you,/ … Leaning into your face,” one person’s “Eyes popping out of his head.” This poem reminds me of those of James Tate, the style change adding spice to Simic’s new poems, its title a lure, its bait worthy of a bite. It’s the second new poem I dwelled upon, treated as a puzzle whose pieces contained a secret I wanted to share.

“Grandpa’s Spells” is another new poem in which the narrator prefers his own company.

Bleak skies, short days,
And long nights please me best.
I like to cloister myself
Watching my thoughts roam

Like a homeless family
Holding on to their children
And their few possessions
Seeking shelter for the night.

But the narrator’s favorite thought is of “The dark sneaking up on me,/ To blow out the match in my hand.” The dark’s actions are both a personification and a metaphor for death—a frequent guest in Simic’s poems—as the narrator awaits without fear his dispossession from everything tangible.

Life and death also coexist “In the Egyptian Wing of the Museum.” A man and woman engage in coitus against a coffin painted with death’s rituals

While the dog-headed god
Weighed a dead man’s heart
Against a single feather,
And the ibis-headed one
Made ready to record the outcome.

Preceding the above, final stanza is a middle quintain laden with prepositional phrases—“like an unicyclist,” “up a pyramid,” “in the hands of a magician,” “at a mortician’s convention”—that slow its pace, control its rhythm, and detail the live couple’s unification. Simic’s minimalistic style both sharpens and condenses the reader’s focus and reflects the bond between life and death, creating a verbal representation of the Yin-Yang symbol.

When the new poems’ pull on my attention waned, I returned to earlier times, to poems such as “St. Thomas Aquinas” (in The Book of Gods and Devils), to its six-line stanza that begins with “I stayed in the movies all day long./ A woman on the screen walked through a bombed city/ Again and again” and ends with “I expected to find wartime Europe at the exit.” For a moment, I was more than a reader. I was an observer, the woman walking away from me, the war outside my door.

Also in The Book of Gods and Devils is “The Little Pins of Memory,” a first-person tale recounting a remembered event, one involving a “child’s birthday suit,” “a tailor’s dummy,” and a store that “looked closed for years.” Though the tale’s revealed to be real, to stimulate my imagination I blurred its border between the real and the surreal, an action that many of Simic’s poems easily allow if not already doing that for the reader.

Another of my favorites is “Listen” (in That Little Something). An apostrophe poem, it begins with

Everything about you,
My life, is both
Make-believe and real.

We are a couple
Working the night shift
In a bomb factory.

The narrator gives his life a joint existence, treating it as if it’s separate, yet inseparable, one partner a “he,” the other, a “she.” This poem displays Simic’s strength, his ability to mesh seamlessly the real and unreal, using simple language to express complex ideas.

Another earlier poem, “The Common Insects of North America” (in Jackstraws), contains an allure that I wish more of the new poems had. Insects, its narrator proclaims, are all about, “Behind Joe’s Garage, in tall weeds,/ By the snake handler’s church,” among them, “Painted Beauty,” “Clouded Wood Nymph,” and “Chinese Mantid,” all animated by personification. One insect’s “barefoot and wears shades”; another’s “climbed a leaf to pray.” Further, in Simic’s “scene” the insects are not intruders but more like acquaintances who are asking us, through him, to “Please let us be neighbors” a la Mister Rogers.

New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 offers an excellent selection of Charles Simic’s poetry; however, I wish it included one omission: information about the “nearly three dozen revisions” to previously published poems that its front flap states the book contains.


Howard Rosenberg has had poems published in Christian Science MonitorVerse Wisconsin, Boston Literary Magazine, and Rattle, and his poetry book reviews have appeared in Rattle. He also has written articles for magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News. He writes and teaches in New Jersey.

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December 25, 2013

Review by Cameron ConawayAll the Heat We Could Carry by Charlie Bondhus

by Charlie Bondhus

Main Street Rag Publishing Company
P.O. Box 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227-7001
ISBN: 978-1-59948-436-5
2013, 72 pp., $14.00

Somewhere in the annals of this year’s history it will be written: West Point, the most prestigious military academy in the United States, hosted its first wedding between two men. And those service-members who, since November 10, 2004, were discharged and only given one-half separation pay under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy? Well, 2013 was the year a lawsuit victory granted them full separation pay. This was also the year that Main Street Rag, a small poetry publisher based in Charlotte, gave its annual award to a brave little book about the intricate intersections between war, masculinity and the relationship between two gay men.

Perhaps nowhere in All The Heat We Could Carry are these intersections more beautifully intertwined than in this stanza from the poem titled “Homecoming”:

We went to the bedroom
to tend to your body, starved
from fifteen months of hard living.
I smelled chemicals, felt shrapnel’s grit,
saw your burns.
You told me about the sliver
of metal lodged in your right calf,
bone deep, inextractable, that would not
affect your ability to walk or sit
but would always be there, much in the same
way there will always be war
someplace, impinging on our lives.

The stanza above exhibits the kind of unexpected economy of language that is found throughout the book. I say “unexpected” because the poems often read like prose, and too often in contemporary poetry the line breaks seem to be all/ that make a poem/ truly feel/ like a poem.

But notice the careful use of “tend.” The mind immediately leaps to tender and, in the context of this book, it works brilliantly because the lessons learned from gardening surface throughout the collection. On that same line, “starved” hangs ragged and alone and carries with it, for the briefest of moments, an understated sexual connotation before it runs into the next line. This is a master at work, and all the more masterful because as you’re reading the collection it’s unlikely that you’ll feel the writer’s sweat on the page. Many of the lines are so smooth that I didn’t notice the concise moments of dual meaning and tension until a few poems later. Wait, let me go back to that one, I’d think.

Then the poem ends with a word that made my eyes squint at the feeling of it all: “impinging.” Touched by the tenderness here, I immediately felt that word, saw the shrapnel caught between muscle, tendon and bone, felt the way war, in one way or another and regardless of where it’s taking place, impinges on all of us in one way or another.

Upon the second read I went there—that’s right, I called a friend and told him I’d just read experienced the best combat sports poem. The poem “At the Grappling Tournament” rocked me. Here are the first two stanzas:

When we first met, we were naked
in a tiled room, shower-damp,
everyone scoping everyone else
for a small fold of fat at the hip,
a not-quite healed bruise,
a wobbly ankle or
a weak tendon.
I knew you only because your friend
called you by name.

As the bell sounded, we laced our limbs,
white light bleaching white skin, and your right hand
skipped across my back,
searching out the trick spot
where muscle and bone fail
while I knotted my arms about your shoulders,
in the soft violence of an embrace.

The locker rooms at grappling tournaments and mixed martial arts bouts are unlike the locker rooms of any other sport. There are naked athletes just the same, but for many competitors this is a chance to see your opponent’s weakness. Combat sports aren’t about first downs and fast breaks, they’re about incapacitating your opponent as quickly as possible so that you can move on unscathed. This poem captures all of that and more. A “wobbly ankle” or a “bruise” that indicates a “weak tendon” are serious matters. Fighters are notorious for putting tape on the uninjured ankle to serve as a distraction because they know everyone is “scoping everyone else.”

But the tenderness here, the limbs that are not tangled but “laced.” And the blossoming of love—the “So, how’d you meet?” story so often set in bars or restaurants or schools—is here told under the “white light” and on the blue mats and “in the soft violence of an embrace.”


Cameron Conaway, Executive Editor at The Good Men Project, is a former MMA fighter and an award-winning poet. His work has appeared in The Guardian, ESPN and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @CameronConaway.

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December 15, 2013

Review by Isaac DwyerIrish Monastic Poems by Richard O'Connell

Tr. by Richard O’Connell

Atlantis Editions
Philadelphia, PA
1984, 40 pp., Out of Print

Unassuming, quiet, silken to the touch, empowered, deeper than the rocks beneath your feet, sarcasm so sharp it cuts the air, buzzing in your ears, calling back the memories of the times you never new, crisp with the breeze: these are my words for Richard O’Connell’s translations of Irish monastic poetry.

In reviewing this collection, I find myself performing both a necessary duty—to draw more eyes to its plain, manila cover—but also, unfortunately, de-valuing it by adding more words. Despite only being forty pages, I delved into this collection only a verse at a time, in no particular order, over the span of two weeks. Every time I closed the pages, I was left with the sounds buzzing in the crevasses of my face. It was similar to the feeling I got after setting foot into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris for the first time, closing my eyes—the space is sacred, the silence to be treasured, the sound empowering. It is with that delicacy of power that I approach discussing this text.

The poems within the collection range between those composed at the turn of the 8th century to those scribed in the 18th, and for the most part, the authors are anonymous. Over a thousand years of a people’s literary history contained within a slim chapbook—but still time passes fluidly. I never once felt disoriented parsing through the pages. In fact, the range of centuries further colors the representation of Ireland and its people being a solid and pervasive force. We begin with the Vikings assaulting the isle:

Night Off From the Viking Fear

Wind black and blowing fierce,
It shakes the sea’s white hair;
No fear tonight of the dragon ships
Burning my bones here.

—Anonymous, 7th or 8th century

The “7th or 8th century”—the time when things rang deeper; the time of the myth, the epic. In my mind, this was the epoch when odysseys were the lifeblood of the people; spoken word catalyzing the mystery, commonplace. I revisited this quatrain over and over, the sounds of the syllables enchanting upon the tongue. Moving through the centuries, foreign dominion and attack upon the island continues, ending with the English:

Sic Transit

The world levels all, the wind blows away
The dust of its Caesars and kings;
Tall Troy is no more and Tara is grass
And the English—they too shall pass.

—Anonymous, 17th or 18th century

The presence of attackers is a common thread throughout the collection, and because of their rhythmic reappearance, the poetical observations of them become more of an observation of nature: foreign fingers outstretching themselves to the shores are viewed the same as crashing of the waves, far in the distance. The more I read of them, the less I worried for the poets.

But, of course, the Irish monks and scholars, being of a people who name whiskey among their greatest accomplishments (whiskey is an Anglicization of the Irish “uisce beatha,” which literally translates to “water of life”—leave it to a land of poets to name its creations so perfectly), the monks’ verses in O’Connell’s collections oftentimes carry notably bawdy affectations. Take this quatrain:

Country Girl

A strapping girl—
No gossamer thing.
She lets fly farts
Like stones from a sling.

—Anonymous, date uncertain

Naughty, indeed. Charming and en-pointe. I chortled cacophonously. I believe its efficacy lies in its length. The wit continues:

The Goldsmith’s Wife

Wife of the goldsmith
But blacksmith bred.
No wonder her face
Puffed white and red!

—Anonymous, 9th century

I must confess that my knowledge of the Irish language and history is a limited one, as are my abilities to compare the manuscript writings in the original language to O’Connell’s translations. However, I can state confidently that every page, every poem, every line of this chapbook is endearing, and most importantly, honest. It is a treasure-trove of delicate delights that bring the reader to appreciate the smallest details in grand ways. This is achieved through naming of the ethereal powers that be (the wind, the sea, the shore, darkness, birds, beasts, and enemies), through humor, and through careful observation.

There is one couplet in particular that I believe embodies the greater spirit of the collection:


Pleasant the sun’s glittering
as it flickers on this page.

—Anonymous, 9th century

As I sit in my study, treasuring the daylight receding fast beyond my windowsill, the sun’s disappearance gives the couplet resonance, deep inside my bones. That is the spirit of this collection—if you are looking for an unassuming treasure, one can be found amongst these pages.


Isaac Dwyer enjoys existing perhaps far too much. He attends an institute of higher learning in Bennington, Vermont, where he stuffs his brain full of things that he’ll probably never need to know, but he hopes he will. His favorite things include intercepted love letters, sending packages of peculiar items to unknown addresses, and unprecedented baked goods (the more chocolate the better). He is more than happy to read all the poetry you are embarrassed about, as it will most likely bring him immense joy, and if not, at least a few chortles. Oh yes. He also writes things.

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December 10, 2013

Review by Maryann CorbettThis Time Tomorrow by Matthew Thorburn

by Matthew Thorburn

The Waywiser Press
Bench House, 82 London Road
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5FN
ISBN-10: 1904130542
ISBN-13: 978-1904130543
2013, 96 pages, $18.00

First, the confession: I’m a timid traveler, the most stubbornly stuck of sticks-in-the-mud. That timidity might underlie my distrust of grant-funded travel for the purpose of writing poems. It’s a prickly resistance I feel even while I admit that gorgeous poems can result. All this should be laid out honestly.

I didn’t know, though, when I undertook to review Matthew Thorburn’s This Time Tomorrow, that I would be fighting past those prejudices—that I’d be reviewing a book of travel poems conceived during grant-funded travels to three countries. The knowledge I did have was the sort one gains gradually by noticing where, and how often, a poet’s name keeps showing up. I first became aware of it when Thorburn’s second book, Every Possible Blue, and my first were both brought out under the auspices of WordTech in 2012. And I remembered where I had already seen both the poet’s name and the book’s. In 2010, not one but two Thorburn manuscripts had been included in the longlist for the Anthony Hecht Prize awarded by The Waywiser Press. Every Possible Blue was one; This Time Tomorrow, now brought out by Waywiser, was the other. After a wait of eight years since the publication of his first full-length book Subject to Change, Thorburn now has two new books published within a year of each other, which is, as problems go, a pleasant one to have. There were some other tidbits I gathered: for example, that Thorburn is published widely and with distinction, and that he sometimes uses form and even rhyme, my great loves, as in this sonnet at the Poetry Foundation website. Oh, and that his day-job writing is related to the law, like mine.

But I’ll be looking in Thorburn’s earlier books for those matches to my personal taste in style and subject. This Time Tomorrow is all about the journey, in both the physical and the spiritual senses. Its summary notion is right there in the book’s epigraph, from Bashō: “Even in Kyoto—/ hearing the cuckoo’s cry—/ I long for Kyoto.” And it’s in a phrase embedded in one of the book’s long poems and attributed to the late poet Liam Rector: “… every poem says the same thing:/ My heart aches.”

The book is structured in three sections: the first focuses on Iceland, the second on Japan, and the third on a kind of head trip traversing China, Japan, the poet’s native New York, and the country of memory and history. The travelers are the book’s narrator (who seems to be the poet) and Lily, who is—we assume and deduce—the narrator’s wife, and whose background is Chinese.

These are details readers have to work out gradually, plunked down as we are at first, in “The Falcon House,” in mid-trip in Iceland—yet also somehow in the aftermath of the trip:

… This was before talk
of joining the euro. Before
Icelanders started blowing up

Land Rovers—don’t worry, I mean
their own Land Rovers—

for the insurance payday. One afternoon
in The Three Overcoats, we sat under
Gogol’s boyish portrait. Of course

everything’s different now. Years
gone by. That painting’s probably

been sold. No, that’s not right either—

The temporal backing-and-forthing are typical of conversational storytelling, but they also set us firmly in the book’s mood of uncertainty. The plain-spoken diction is characteristic of the Iceland section, as if the traveler were trying to keep a low profile. An inventive verb, as when seagulls “hitchcock/  around Lake Tjörnin,” stands out from the usual level. Characteristic, too, is the use of couplets and tercets not based on rhyme pattern or syntax, placed simply to slow and aerate the telling. Idea rather than sound is foremost here: one demonstration of how page-based the poems are is “The Trick with the Stick,” which uses almost concrete-poetic features of page and print to illustrate the motion and confusion of an arctic tern assault—features that would be challenging if not impossible to get across with just the spoken word.

Throughout the book, place names, geographical features, human foibles, and local food are the exotica that grab us and keep us reading, rather than striking uses of sonics or prosody:

Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dotonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crab
stretching its legs over the door
of the Kani Doraku seafood
restaurant, its eye stalks rotating in a breeze
too high for me to feel.

—“A Field of Dry Grass”

It’s a poetry of narration, sudden incongruities, and games of association, rather than of music or technical flash. An occasional internal rhyme appears; the roughly similar line lengths and numbers of stresses in poems like “Little Thieves” and “A Year in Kyoto” are as close as we get to meter. More often, there are interesting games played with line breaks and interstanzaic enjambments, and with repetitions in which meaning is made to shift, as it does here in “A Year in Kyoto”:

Gloria again, back at
the bar, somewhere
between past and present.

Or here in “The Falcon House”:

… So it’s the cold tap you turn
and wait on to get cold

not the hot to get hot. Got it? He had it
all wrong.

Or here in “Something to Declare”:

… But the young monk can’t let go.
He follows her into the world, gives up everything
he has to have her. He has to have her.

The jump-cut is the book’s most dependable device. The habit of moving in and out of the present narrative, to some associated thought or some earlier event, is a good tool for insinuating the traveler’s permanent sense of unease. The long poem “Something to Declare” is especially virtuosic in its jumps from an actual Chinese tourist destination, to an imagined tale of an old and a young monk, to conversations with poets and restaurants in Matanwan, to Count Basie playing in a bar, to the poet finally crossing Hudson Street in New York “to get on with the rest of my life.” Particularly in the book’s first and third sections, this is a poetry that does much of its work by ambush, the point of which is to keep a reader feeling like an outsider, a foreigner, a nonnative even of his own thoughts. No first impression is really to be trusted here:

Ash fell all night on the houses like snow,
I wrote, but with too fine a brush, like a cook
who turns away from the stove to wipe

his hands and catches some stray thought
(Mmm, paprika?) drifting across his clear mind.
Not ash, but tephra—soot, cinders, and grit …

—“Facts About Islands”

Thorburn especially likes to bring the reader up short with a shift of view from the exotic to the mundane, as in the ending of “How We Found Our Way,” or as he does here:

        my last chance to see it
I see it—
        Mount Fuji in the rain

no, that’s a billboard of Fuji
it disappears in the rain

That unaccomplished vision of Fuji, and the melancholy of knowing that nothing turns out quite as expected, are at the book’s emotional core, the spot where “my heart aches.”

The excerpt just above also demonstrates the one deep, decorous bow that the book makes in the direction of form: its middle section, “Disappears in the Rain” is constructed of short-lined couplets and tercets that suggest Japanese haiku and renga. They focus on single, tight images and are minimalist about such Western concerns as caps and punctuation. Their concentration and concision make this section the strongest one, for my money, and produce delightful metaphors like “the shikansen’s silver streak/ zips the sky to the ground.”

It’s an approach that feels very true to the pointillist nature of memory, to the way it records—unpredictably, unreliably—the merest crumbs of experience.

And the crumbs of beauty simply float past, never dwelt upon. “This is,” says Thorburn, “the built-in sadness of travel: you can’t stay here” no matter how you love it, and no matter how clearly you realize that your first understanding was flawed. From the book’s beginning, in the knowledge that the travelers’ ideas of Iceland were “all wrong,” to its end atop Mount Misen, where the promised view is “lost to us” and the travelers ask “Are we even here?” Thorburn’s poems ask basic questions about the encounter with the world and what it means. For me, the stick-in-the-mud distruster of travel, these travel poems have the right idea.


Maryann Corbett’s first full-length collection of poems, Breath Control, was published in 2012 by David Robert Books and was featured on the First Books Panel that year at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Her second book, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, was a finalist for the Able Muse Book Prize and  was released in 2013. Her poetry has received the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, PN Review (UK), and Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) and is forthcoming in Barrow Street and Southwest Review, among others. Maryann lives in Saint Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature.



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