April 5, 2012

Review by Alexa MergenDirt Songs: A Plains Duet

by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom

The Backwaters Press
3502 N. 52nd Street
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 978-1-935218-24-1
2011, 147 pp., $16.00

Birds, friends, plants, events from the newspaper, walks, labor and family populate the poems in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. The two poets, Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom, compose harmonizing melodies. Mostly free verse, the poems flow sequentially and can also be dipped into at random.

The poets know the places they write of: Nebraska for Hansen in Part One, South Dakota for Hasselstrom in Part Two. The collection starts with Hansen’s “Morning Fog” pointing out that, amidst pollution ad sprawl, “we’re all here now, in early fall walking/over Salt Creek, breathing the collective air, right under our noses.” Hansen and Hasselstrom ask the reader to pay attention, to bluestem, red cedar, opossum, swallow, and old friends. Their poems are simply titled, naming the subject they address, as in “Lettuce,” “Egg,” and “Autumn” or summarizing the poem’s event: “Lost in the City Again,” “Visiting the Nursing Home,” and “Ice Skating on the Dam.” The apparent simplicity defies the depth of feeling achieved. When Hansen writes that “all day the house as if holding its breath” in “My Granddaughter Sick” the reader feels the apprehension surrounding the feverish child while “the moon, a heavy saucer, reclines/pale and cumbersome above the treeline,/this chilled horizon brittle with bare limbs.” In Hasselstrom’s “Making the Best of It,” loss pervades a widow’s move. “In this village where/no one speaks my language,” she writes, “I live in a single room.” Throughout her section of Dirt Song, Hasselstrom addresses the making of a poet’s life. This poem concludes

I watch and write
compact words that seem
to form themselves in lines.
Paragraphs scale the walls.
On the tawny cliff before me,
I witness each day live and die,
and never calculate its whole.

In Hasselstrom’s “I Ain’t Blind and This is What I Think I See,” the speaker is driving the Interstate to a poetry teaching gig. She notices roadkill and trash, the hawk among it, and remembers images, words her father said, and The New Yorker who told her she couldn’t be a poet. Her poems take the reader deep into the past. “Valentine for My Mother” alternates between a Safeway shopping trip and a mother’s last days. Time waves, dropping linearity.

Tomorrow all the blooms
that do not sell will pucker
in the dumpster
brown as the roses whipped
by the cemetery wind
the day after my mother’s burial.
Cut flowers don’t last
I muttered to the mound
above her heart.

In “Finding Mother’s Jewelry,” the speaker wonders about the onyx, opal, rhinestone and coral she finds in a tin while the woman who once wore the pieces is “lain beneath the only stone she owns,/where her name is carved in granite.” The speaker decides to take the “hoard” of jewelry to Goodwill.

Hasselstrom’s poems snag time by pinpointing lives among the passing news. In “On This Day,” a “ragged little dog” dies on December 20th and the speaker notes historical events that occurred the same day: Gershwin’s birthday, a coal mine explosion, a ship’s explosion. “Faces flicker through my mind,” the poet writes, “all the people I have loved/who are dead on this day–/millions I have never known,/lovers, husbands, parents, children,/all dead and remembered or forgotten.”

“When a Poet Dies” showcases the best of the time travel and reflection on writing; the speaker swings between a “lesser” poet passing time and the death of William Stafford, a poet she admires. The refrain “when a poet dies” beats like a heart through the poem.

When a poet dies, no one lowers a flag,
or beats a muffled drum to the cadence
of the poet’s best-known elegy.
When a poet dies, no one leads a riderless horse
down the avenue, spurred boots turned backward.
No one shoots the poet’s typewriter beside the open grave,
tells the bees, frames the family photograph in crape,
hangs a black wreath on the door. Somewhere,
a publisher may nod and think Collected Works.

She brings to the poem’s end a “a mule deer doe stepping off a shelf of ice.”

Read in order, Hansen’s elegies in Part One set the reader up for “When a Poet Dies,” in Part Two. Hansen’s “Work” recalls a time when “we took care of the land; the land took care of us” and reminds that “all honeybees need is pollen and nectar, an unspoiled spring-/fed creek, the occasional gentle hand to encourage them on.” In “Early Walk, Late October,” Hansen’s speaker finds a doe, “its rear legs wrenched beneath” as “the string of traffic swerves, does not slow down.” The poem continues

Pawing her front legs, she struggles to lift the sack
of her body out of harm’s way, her brown eyes
huge in the oncoming headlights. Nobody’s fault.

How many times before, I think, she must have
chanced this clash of nature and development,
survived by the sheer luck of numbers. Late

October, and soon enough, the night will swell
with witches and brooms, clowns and monsters,
the chatter of youth, chill of the unknown.

There’s nothing I can do: crush of tires,
her 200 pounds. I turn and run. Trailing me,
a human-like sound crying out from the wind.

How little and how much a poet can do to gentle the world–that’s what the poems in Dirt Songs show. Poets, the lesser and the great, look at each day and address it. We write of deer, dogs, grandmothers, fathers, lovers, wars, news and breakfast. Like Hansen’s child protagonist in “Small,” every poet is, in a sense, a “small fry in a small town, making small/talk about small-time lives into the small hours.” The poems in Dirt Songs are mugs of drip coffee shared over a scratched table; they are not not tiny cups of cappuccino in a wi-fi cafe. They ask you to roll up your sleeves, stay awake, pay attention, and grab a pen.


Alexa Mergen’s poems appear most recently in The Packinghouse Review, Quill & Parchment, and Verbatim. She lives in Sacramento and works with people locally and long-distance as a writing guide and creativity coach. Her website is: www.alexamergen.com.

Rattle Logo

February 27, 2001

Tribute to Mental Health Workers

Conversations with
Ted Kooser & William O’Daly


Releasing in December, 2010, Rattle #34 turns its attention to another intimate vocation, spotlighting the poetry of 26 mental health professionals. These psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors, and case-workers dive inside the mind daily and come home soggy with the muck of dreams. Many of them write about their careers, but the scope is broad, and all of their poems are informed by years of training and unique insights on the human soul. The section is highlighted throughout by the stunning abstract portraiture of art therapist Mia Barkan Clarke. As psychoanalyst Forrest Hamer writes, “so much depends on what’s under.”

Yet the Tribute is only part of the issue. Rattle #34’s open section features the work of 50 poets, plus the 11 winners of the 2010 Rattle Poetry Prize. Also, Alan Fox interviews former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and Pablo Neruda translator William O’Daly.


Mental Health Workers

Richard Brostoff Some Thoughts on the Relationship…
Michelle Amerson Delusions
Myra Binns Bridgforth 3 p.m. Clients Must Not Be Boring
Elizabeth Burk Living Alone
Elizabeth Chapman Stella
Sharon L. Charde Love’s Executioner
Nina Corwin Speaking of Tongues
Ray Emanuel 4% of Everything or Nothing
Helen Montague Foster For a Patient…
Michael Fulop The End of the Old Woman
Kate Gleason While Reading Scientific American…
Tony Gloeggler Trading Places or Out Among…
Forrest Hamer A Poem Also About Duplicity
A Poem Also About the…
Donna C. Henderson To Tinnitus
Diane Klammer These Are the Rules
Jerry Kraft Such Music as This
Perie Longo Said
Peter Marcus The Boundaries
Fran Markover Addictions Counselor
Ken Meisel Psych Ward
Glenn Morazzini Where Do You Go?
Gwenn A. Nusbaum Hospital, Spring
Renee Podunovich This Poem Is Not About Me
Jill Stein Lunch with My Parents
Charles Harper Webb A Bad Way to Go
Maryhelen Snyder The Art of Waiting: The Parallels…


Paul David Adkins War Story #133: Helicopter Ride…
Chris Anderson The Junco and the Boy
Ron Anderson Fluid
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz Op-Ed for the Sad Sack…
Ellen Bass Gophers
Craig Beaven Arguments About the World
Cindy Beebe While I Am Driving in the Morning…
Heather Bell Urgent Care
Marvin Bell The Book of the Dead Man…
Ace Boggess “Can They Do That?”
Marianne Boruch When’s a Fork a Spoon
Andrea Hollander Budy Field Hospital
Trent Busch The Ordinary Man
Mario Chard The Barrel
Thomas Cochran Fishing
Michael Diebert Retail
William Doreski The Concerto I Composed… 
Jehanne Dubrow Nowa Huta
J.C. Ellefson Last Words of Encouragement…
Alan Fox Vanished
Jeffrey Franklin Living Right
Anne Haines What This Poem Will Do
Christopher Kempf The Professors’ Wives
Robert W. King A Language
Michael Kriesel As Crickets Chip Away the Light
Ilyse Kusnetz Match Girls
J.T. Ledbetter Grandmother
Gary Lemons Missing in Action
M While My Mother Rots in Memory…
David T. Manning Not My World
Michael Miller The Invisible Life
Peter Nash Have You Seen My Son?
William Neumire Branches
Harry Newman Early Snow
William O’Daly To the Antiphonist, from Bill Nephele
Matthew Olzmann Rare Architecture
Joel Peckham Body Memory
Doug Ramspeck One True Poem
Lauren Schmidt Why I Am Not a Taxidermist
Prartho Sereno Mr. James’s Marvelous Thing
John L. Stanizzi Defiantly
Sarah Pemberton Strong Cold Tea
Tim Suermondt Graduation
Mark Terrill A Poem for Parking Lots
Elizabeth Volpe Loaves and Fishes
Kathleen A. Wakefield Relic
Jesse Weiner Salome
Adam Michael Wright Make a Wish Foundation
Maya Jewell Zeller My Grandmother’s Cow

Poetry Prize Winner

Patricia Smith Tavern. Tavern. Church. Shuttered…

Honorable Mentions

Michele Battiste Once More, with Feeling
Heidi Garnett Sin of Unrequited Love
Valentina Gnup We Speak of August
francine j. harris Katherine with the Lazy Eye. Short…
Courtney Kampa Avant-garde
The Miscarriage
Devon Miller-Duggan Old Blue
Andrew Nurkin The Contest
Laura Read This Time We’ll Go to Kentucky…
Scott Withiam The Petty Snow


Ted Kooser
William O’Daly

March 5, 2001

Tribute to Buddhist Poets

Conversations with
M.L. Liebler & Chase Twichell

Releasing December 1st, this winter’s issue of Rattle highlights the work of 30 contemporary Buddhist poets. As Dick Allen writes in his introduction, Buddhism “is not a glimpse or gaze but an immersion. There’s no glass, no other side.” These poets don’t write about Buddhism, so much as they seek to live it—“my small boat is no one on this water,” writes Lola Haskins. All of their poems are full of compassion and mindfulness, informed by years of studying human experience from this unique perspective, which has much to offer Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Rattle #36 also features an open section of 33 poets, and the 15 finalists for the 2011 Rattle Poetry Prize—with the $5,000 winner to be chosen for the first time by popular vote. In the conversations section Alan Fox’s speaks with M.L. Liebler and Buddhist poet Chase Twichell.


Buddhist Poets

Audio Available Dick Allen Knock on the Sky…
from The Zen Master Poems
Audio Available Li Bai Alone on Mount Jingting
Pam Herbert Barger What She Did Not Do
Audio Available Karen Benke Joy Ride
John Brehm Two Poems
Toni Cameron My Thoughts
Audio Available Teresa Mei Chuc Playground
Louisa Diodato The Keepers
Jeffrey Franklin The Excitement of Getting a Room…
Robert Funge On the Death of Grandfather
Audio Available Gary Gach Haiku
Audio Available Dan Gerber On My Seventieth Birthday
Audio Available Sam Hamill On Being Invited to Submit Poems…
Gail Hanlon Jubilate Samsara
Audio Available Lola Haskins Creek Light
Audio Available Donna Henderson Shenpa
Yang Jian Winter Day
Audio Available Bo Juyi Springtime in Loyang
Alison Luterman Big Naked Man
Paul Pedroza Deicide
Audio Available Peg Quinn When the Buddha Farmed Nebraska
Diana M. Raab The Search for Happiness
Richard Schiffman Moth Koan
Audio Available Jinen Jason Shulman Constellation
Sarah Pemberton Strong Fish Tank
Anne Swannell Study in Mindfulness
Robert Tremmel Early 21st Century
Tony Trigilio Four Guys and a Truck
Chase Twichell Dead Leaf Bouquet
Jack Vian Like an American Princess


Anonymous Stifled
Audio Available Kathleen Balma Roadkill on the Path to Salvation
Audio Available Grace Bauer Our Waitress’s Marvelous Legs
Audio Available Michael Bazzett The Usefulness of Marriage
Jill Bergkamp Safe Haven
Destiny Birdsong Confessional
Audio Available Jan Bottiglieri Dear Atlas:
Audio Available Claudia Cortese Sarah’s Mother Makes Her Long…
Audio Available Steven Coughlin Another City
Audio Available Hope Coulter Morning Haul
Audio Available Sally Ehrman Magic on the Other Side of This
Audio Available Brian Fitzpatrick Sleep Half Sleep [Silence]…
Alan Fox Being Here
Audio Available Sonia Greenfield Sago, West Virginia
Paul Hlava Dillinger Is Dead
Donald Illich The Escape Artist
Audio Available Sean Karns Jar of Pennies
Quincy R. Lehr Bunga-Bunga
Audio Available M.L. Liebler Underneath My American Face
Joanne Lowery Bolting the Door, Locking the Gate
Audio Available Charles Manis Flu Season and a Living Will
Audio Available Bruce McBirney Midnight
Audio Available Wendy Oleson Eat Your M&M
Audio Available Jason Olsen My Best Friend’s Wife
John O’Reilly The Bittern at Abbott’s Lagoon
Audio Available Jack Powers Rob Smuniewski Is Dead
Murray Silverstein Present at the Creation
Virginia Slachman Blue Hand
Bruce Snider Cruising the Reststop on Route 9
Audio Available Ephraim Scott Sommers To Myself as a Statue in Central Park
Audio Available Lianne Spidel Ambassador Bridge
Jeanann Verlee Wherein the Author Provides…

Poetry Prize Finalists

Audio Available Pia Aliperti Boiler
Audio Available Tony Barnstone Why I’m Not a Carpenter
Audio Available Kim Dower Why People Really Have Dogs
Audio Available Courtney Kampa Self-Portrait by Someone Else
Audio Available M To a Husband, Saved by Death at 48
Andrew Nurkin The Noises Poetry Makes
Charlotte Pence Perfectly Whatever
Laura Read What the Body Does
Audio Available Hayden Saunier The One and the Other
Audio Available Diane Seuss What Is at the Heart of It…
Jeff Vande Zande The Don’ts
Craig van Rooyen The Minstrel Cycle
Bryan Walpert Objective Correlative
Anna Lowe Weber Spring Break 2011
Maya Jewell Zeller Honesty


M.L. Liebler
Chase Twichell

March 14, 2010

Alan Soldofsky


In early December
           singing under the hedge
of verbena beside the porch.

What lies the sun tells
          of a few leaves stripped of their color,
parenthesis of rust on the hinges of the car door.

High wisps of clouds
          lit up by something
that has fallen.

The edge of a storm front
          faintly coming, a change in the smell
of the air, a quiver in the wind.

The incipient darkness, smooth as licorice.
          The only light in the house
the one in the closet that’s been left on.

The house quiet except for
          the gnawing in the attic.
The sound of a sound

that can barely hold the weight
          of being heard, a remnant
that ripples down the hallway

into the room where
          you slept. Your books still
dozing on the shelves waiting for you

to open them, or whatever
          it is you will do
when you get back to what you left.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009

Rattle Logo

March 5, 2001

Tribute to Latino & Chicano Poets

Conversations with
James Ragan & Luis Rodriguez


Releasing December 1999, issue #12 celebrates the work of 23 Latino and Chicano poets, including Jimmy Santiago Baca, Luis J. Rodriguez, Gary Soto, Virgil Suarez, and Richard Vargas. In terms of both quality and quantity, this is probably the best of Rattle’s early tributes.

Also in the issue, Alan Fox interviews James Ragan and Luis J. Rodriguez. Carlos Cumpians shares an essay about small press poetry sales.


Jimmy Santiago Baca (2) • Evangeline BlancoBrenda Cardenas
Nilda Cepero • John EspinozaAmor Halperin
Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl • Gabriel Lerner
Gilberto Lucero • Manuel Luna • Lissette Mendez
Ruben M. Quesada • Leroy V. Quintana • Martin A. Ramos
Luis J. Rodriquez • Gilbert Saenz • Dixie Salazar • Gary Soto
Virgil Suarez • Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca
Richard Vargas • Antonieta Villamil • Mario Zapien


Dan Adams • Chad H. Arnold • Herman Asarnow
Janee J. Baugher • C.P. Bergman • Shane Book
William Borden • Donovan Calabaza • Leslie Clason
T.M. Cox • Colette De Donato • John Ditsky
Rod Farmer • David Fedo • Alan Fox • Lisa Glatt
Douglas Goetsch • Linda Sue Grimes • Matt Guenette
Oren Haker • John D. Hamilton • Becca Hensley
Aaron W. Hillman • Mark Johnston • Ward Kelley
Robert W. King • Arthur Winfield Knight • Robert Lietz
Lyn Lifshin • Perie Longo • Damniso Lopez
Janet McCann • Louis McKee • Michael P. McManus
Micki Myers • B.Z. Niditch • Michael O’Brien
C.Mikal Oness • Ed Orr • Don Pierstorff • Sam Pierstorff
Joanna A. Piucci • James Ragan • Erik Anderson Reece
Alex Richardson • Jessica Rosenfeld • T. Maurice Savoie
Cecil L. Sayre • Paula Sergi • Brian Simpson
Annie Smith • Kimberly Snow • George Sparling
Judith Tannenbaum • Joe Tatela • Amy Uyematsu
Susan Varon • Martin Vest • Fred Voss
Benjamin Thomas Welch • Barry Wepman • Anne Wilson

Candace Moore • M.L. Liebler • George Held

Carlos Cumpians

James Ragan
Luis Rodriguez