MicroReviews for Fall 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:

HOME

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)

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TalkativenessTalkativeness

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)

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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)

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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.

MicroReviews for Summer 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)

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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)

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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
www.gmail.com he looks it up in his brain
                locks up he wonders what a

password is letters number symbols
        dumbbells

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.

MicroReviews for Spring 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.

NEW AND SELECTED POEMS: 1962-2012 by Charles Simic

Review by Howard RosenbergNew and Selected Poems by Charles Simic

NEW AND SELECTED POEMS: 1962-2012
by Charles Simic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
215 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10003
ISBN 978-0-547-92828-9
2013
384 pp., $30.00
www.hmhco.com

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 Terrain.org 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.

ALL THE HEAT WE COULD CARRY by Charlie Bondhus

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

ALL THE HEAT WE COULD CARRY
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
www.mainstreetrag.com

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.