August 25, 2011

Review by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

by Karen An-hwei Lee

Tupelo Press
PO Box 1767
North Adams, MA 01247
ISBN 978-1-932195-69-9
2008, 72 pp., $16.95

Karen An-hwei Lee’s second collection of poems, Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), is a book length sequence of fragments connected ellipses and interwoven with brief, surreal blocks of prose in sections titled “dreams” “letters,” and “prayers.”

Each fragment is double-spaced with oft-excised periods. Many of the fragments repeat themselves in inverse order: the first line being the last and the second line being the second to last, and so on. Nearly each and every line of Ardor contains an image, concrete or abstract, and the book is suffused with rich word choices, internalized dilemma, and metaphor. And while there’s certainly a sense that these sections are in conversation with each other— each fragment, dream, letter, and prayer sharing a common obsession or genesis (algebra, blindness, and pomegranates, to name a few), if you’ve come to Ardor desiring narrative, you’ve come to the wrong place— Lee’s intricately and austerely organized stream-of-conciousness taking the place of a more typical narrative:

                         Prayer is seamless

                         It is water

                         Goes beneath the literal

                         Surface of things

                         Underneath is

                         Love and order



dream           Light underneath a bushel. Tabled love. Astringency is                          the beauty of pomegranates…quotidian grace such as rain                          and leaf and the gradual strengthening of bone.

prayer           Vessel of wood or raiment or skin or sack, whatsoever it be,                          wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it                          shall be unclean…and ye shall break it.

letter           Unclean not only from my race but due to blindness.
                         Quarantined from life. Silence except for the leper’s cry of                          unclean…Say jin is wellspring jin is gold.


                         Gier eagle? Osprey?

                         Bone-breaking birds…

Poetry has a long and important history of poems and books unanchored by story. And Lee’s first collection, In Medias Res: a primer of experience in approximate alphabetical order (winner of Sarabande Books’ 2004 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the 2005 Norma Farber First Book Award given by the Poetry Society of America), is also a book-length poem organized via letters of the alphabet— the first section is titled “A,” the second “B,” etc. So it’s no surprise her second collection revisits this approach that has been so well received, but this approach becomes a problem for Ardor because its form implies an arc, some sort of central axis or conflict around which its obsession turns, and, thus, some sort of resolution. And while any reader will be immediately entranced by Lee’s word choices, images, and use of metaphor— Ardor opens with “Calque alphabet / Modulation with avian equivalence of hands / Translation perched around a white rose / Photographic grapheme of cardoid delight”— Ardor does very little to keep a reader actually reading.

Does this mean that the only reason readers read poetry is for story? Of course not. This is poetry not prose. It’s not narrative that Ardor lacks but clarity, and it’s hard to see why such an overtly elliptical approach is necessary here. A consistent narrative would in no way take away from this collection and would certainly make for a much more engaging experience. Books like Carolyn Forche’s Angel of History, Charle’s Wright’s Zone Journals, and Judy Jordan’s Fifty-cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance do exactly this to great effect.

Occasionally, the fragments do open with echoes of narrative: “What marriage is, she says…A man who desired to make love / Desired to hear the sound of tearing silk” and “A woman, her mother, said / If you dare fall in love with the wrong man / I’ll cut the heart out of your body.” But these brief moments of clarity are immediately broken by the lines that follow and even if readers are drawn in by this surreal approach, it’s repeated so many times that it becomes old-hat just pages into the book.

The result: Ardor tires itself out. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and have the same experience. And while this may be ingenious in a number of ways, it doesn’t make for a book of poems one is compelled to actually read. This is a problem poetry often has. Even the best readers often find themselves unengaged with the books they encounter. Sometimes this is because they have other things to do like change a crying baby or pay the water bill. Sometimes this is because while the first few poems in a collection are singular, the poems that follow read more like filler than works of art. Sometimes readers leave a book because it’s too hard. But readers won’t leave Ardor for any of these reasons; readers will leave Ardor because they won’t be compelled not to.

Maybe it’s asking too much to point to seminal works by Carolyn Forche, Charles Wright, and Judy Jordan and expect a poet to write equally accomplished texts. But it’s bothersome to come across a book that has so much at stake and so quickly alienates its readers with choices that require a justification that never comes.


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum received his MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale and now conducts genetic research at the University of Southern California. He has recently published poems, interviews and reviews in the Missouri Review, Sou’wester, Rattle, Third Coast, the Southern Indiana Review, the Cortland Review, the Crab Orchard Review and others. He is also the founder and editor of

Rattle Logo

September 5, 2010

Review by Andrew McFadyen-KetchumA Sunday in God-Years by Michelle Boisseau

by Michelle Boisseau

The University of Arkansas Press
McIlroy House
105 N. McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
IBSN 978-1-55728-901-8
2009, 100 pp., $16.00

Michelle Boisseau’s fourth collection of poems, A Sunday in God-Years recounts White America’s brutal history of slave-ownership paired with its desire for reconciliation via the exploration Boisseau’s ancestry, dating back to 17th Century Virginia.

Obsessed with the transitory nature of this conflict between White and Black America, A Sunday in God-Years opens with the prefatory “Birthday” wherein Spring is “full of exuberant ruin” and life is defined as “a frantic flight across a crackling room / where the clan feasts, harps gleam and the storm / is carefully forgotten.” Rebirth, war, fire, flight, and institutionalized denial: these are the obstacles “Birthday” declares must be overcome in the poems that follow. Luckily, Boisseau has no illusions regarding this task, asking near the end of the first section “…me, grandchild who makes herself the hero / since she’s the teller of this tale… / How can I begin to recount / [our] sins, a million ships on every ocean?”

Boisseau establishes herself as a master of transition and symbol in the title poem which opens with a depiction of God turning over in his afternoon nap to see the earth in an accelerated state of geological evolution, “continents crashing / and mountains popping up.” She then zooms in with a mid-sentence stanza break, focusing on a small “chunk / of limestone I plucked / from a wall fading into the woods / …shaped / like Kentucky” and zooms out to a bend in the river where “a runaway could hide / studying the floes.” The poem ends with a return to the snoozing God morphed into the more Pagan “younger sun” disinterested in “these grainy eons, plunder / imbedded with the trails and shells / of creatures seen by no eye.”

This mastery of transition and symbol comes in handy in the next poem, “A Reckoning.” 21 pages of individually titled sections, it opens with “The Debt,” which compares Boisseau to a portico which depends on the stones that give it structure, asking “What do you owe when you find your / name on a parchment deed?” “Reward” directly lifts the Reward Notice her great grandfather placed in the Richmond Enquirer when one of his slaves escaped in 1834, and “Two Wills in Old Virginia” quotes word-for-word the family wills that passed slaves and their children to future generations. These documents overlap with depictions of early America when the future planes states “became Indian territory and ragged / bands of Shawnee were run out of Ohio” in “Meanwhile.” “Brown Study” compares the Kansas River’s flow south to those fleeing Lawrence, Kansas during the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, and “The Subscriber” depicts a bounty hunter beating free blacks he hopes are escaped slaves.

Throughout “A Reckoning” an image recurs of Boisseau attempting to capture the essence of this American tragedy and the burden that still weighs so heavily upon us 150 years after emancipation. Seeking out the ruins of slave barracks at what was once the Boisseau plantation, she finds “not The House Where They Lived! // No be-lilaced cellar hole… / Nothing to weep over… // Instead, big as an airplane hangar, / a garage for backhoes and spreaders… / where the big house might have stood.” At the heart of this burden is the desire for a return to the past but in the actual, physical world. Of course, as time and “progress” slowly but surely destroy the physical evidence of America’s misdeeds, this return becomes more and more elusive. The closest Boisseau can get to this return is via the superimposed vision of her own poetry— an ingenious move poetically but one that comes with a woeful realization: we cannot return, we cannot forget, we cannot be fully forgiven.

This woeful epiphany is on display in the final sections of “A Reckoning.” “Apologies,” equates these sins to the “millions” of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic for the New World; the resulting guilt as bound to White America as silt and oceans to the earth in “Field Guide to American Guilt.” In the penultimate section, her great Grandfather’s escaped slave admonishes Boisseau’s attempts to understand or even lament his struggle: “Thought you try to puppet me / what happened to me is not / for you to know.” In the final section the Boisseau plantation burns to the ground.

The only problem with this first section is that the narrative is given too much power, the more lyrical elements of the line that make poetry unique from prose overpowered by storytelling. This is not to say that this first section isn’t poetry or that it’s not worth reading. This is simply to suggest that it’s not as engaging on the level of the lines as, perhaps, it should be. Ironically, this problem is reversed in the second section, which (save for three of its 23 poems) abandons narrative for a more lyrical approach to Boisseau’s lamentation of history’s erasure in lines like “The iron taste of what / they did is laid down / in twisted bark, bit by bit” (“Outskirts of Lynchburg”) and “The rowboat is slapped by the harried lake. / The oars bob and beckon out of reach / …Today the future isn’t what it used to be” (“Sandcastle Guarded by a Cicada Shell”). Typically, shifting to the lyrical would be a good idea, but these poems go a little too far. They stand perfectly well on their own but depend too heavily on what is established in the first section without utilizing the story-telling tools Boisseau has already so richly deployed. As a result, the poems of the second section bleed together and much of the book’s momentum is lost.

The third and final section is dominated by “Across the Borderlands, the Wind,” a nine-page, elliptically sectionalized depiction of the brutal guerilla warfare between the Confederate bushwackers and Union jayhawkers over the indoctrination of slavery in Kansas, eventually igniting the Civil War. It’s a difficult poem to follow, leaping in time, place, and speaker so often and quickly that, without the end notes, most readers will be completely lost. It also might be the best poem in the book, revealing how this seemingly resolved conflict within White America is anything but— “the football and basketball rivalry between the Universities of Missouri and Kansas…still often referred to as ‘The Border War’”; the celebration held each year in Blue Springs, Missouri called as early as the 1990s the Bushwacker Festival.

But “Across the Borderlands, the Wind” suffers from the momentum gained by the first section and lost by the second. It requires an energetic reader, one willing to allow a poem, first, to depend on end notes and, second to actually apply these notes back to its elliptical approach. If Boisseau finds such readers, this book is quite an accomplishment, starting with the desire for reconciliation between White and Black America and ending with the realization that the conflict between White America itself has been the problem all along. If she doesn’t, then this book is a failure: the balance between narrative and lyric never reached; the potential for this collection unrealized.

But this leaves one wondering if this “failure” is, in fact, Boisseau’s achievement, this failure eerily similar to that of The New World’s. Of course, we’d have to trust Boisseau quite a bit to read A Sunday in God-Years this way. Only time will tell.

Rattle Logo

October 10, 2009

Review by Andrew McFadyen-KetchumCloisters by Brock

by Kristin Bock

Tupelo Press
The Eclipse Mill, Loft 305
PO Box 1767
North Adams, MA 01247
ISBN 978-1-932195-55-2
2008, 69 pp., $16.95

Kristin Bock’s debut collection of poetry, Cloisters, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award for 2008, is a book that keeps its secrets. Eschewing what we typically think of as narrative, Bock’s poems enable a symbolic approach to story-telling, her eye focused more on the interpretive crossroads between the mythical and real realms than on the events that take place within them. In poems like “Phrenology,” in which we find ourselves fingering gravestones to speak to those interred, “Hibernaculum” (a protective case or covering of an animal or plant bud, if you’re unfamiliar with the term), which opens “Stone remembers / the sea / that hollows it,” and “While You Are Away” in which a mannequin comes alive, Cloisters drops us with immense vocal authority into unknown and, yet, oddly familiar territory. The result is a book that keeps its mysteries while examining them; a revealing collection that reveals very little.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece in Cloisters is the first poem, “On Reflection,” which much like the reflection of a tree in water, is a mirror image of itself, the first nine lines of the poem reappearing as the last nine lines in inverse order. Here are the middle six lines:

staggering through the pitiful corn.
I can’t always see through it.
The mind is a pond layered with lilies.
The mind is a pond layered with lilies.
I can’t always see through it
staggering through the pitiful corn.

“On Reflection” could most certainly be seen as a gimmick, a poem that pulls off an inventive and no doubt difficult form but without much of a rationale behind it; form for the sake of form but not much else. But “On Reflection” operates first on the most essential elements of good poetry. The poem’s language is beautiful: “Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room.” Its similes and metaphors are startling: “a barn on the hillside like a bone, / a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.” And its imagery is masterful: “to be free of your image— / crown of bees, pail of black water / staggering through the pitiful corn.” The result is a poem full of such fresh, unexpected lines that, when the repetition occurs, you don’t at first take notice; there’s a tingling of familiarity but an unassailable need to read on.

Bock truly gets to work in “On Reflection” after you’ve seen the full, visual effect of the inversion, slyly altering punctuation in the second half of the poem to alter syntax and, thus, meaning. Line three and four, for example, “a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes, / to be free of your image—”, utilizes an emdash to refer to the strange images in line five, “crown of bees, pail of black water.” When these lines are inverted in lines thirteen through fifteen, however, Bock ends the previous line, “a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,” with a period and capitalizes the nouns in what was previously line five’s “crown of bees, pail of black water”:

Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,
to be free of your image—
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.

These variations modify the fifth line from a statement of image to an address; with a simple twist of syntax we find ourselves in a realm where one can speak to what was previously an inanimate object. This, of course, reworks the way we perceive and interpret the reflected images, word choices, and symbols that, at first glance, are exactly the same as their originals.

Bock uses inversion and syntax in a similar way in the first two lines: “Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room.” These lines tell us, first, that the speaker is a great distance from “the articulated world” and, second, that the speaker desires to be content with its absence. But when they reappear at the end of the poem, “I wanted to be content in an empty room / far from the din of the articulated world,” the final line now denotes the location of the room rather than that of the speaker. Now we have a speaker who not only has been transported by the work of the poem but who seems to exist in two places at once. Either way, she still desires a contentedness she cannot have; the speaker’s physical location may have changed but his internal discontent remains the same.

By creating such deep meaning without a single shred of narrative, “On Reflection” immediately positions Bock somewhere between narrative and lyric. Bock isn’t a story-teller, but she’s not just singing either, gathering one exquisitely composed line after the other and organizing them in a way that mimics narrative but never allows this narrative to reveal itself. The poems that follow follow suit.

Cloisters’ second poem, “Windscape,” is a series of bold, musical statements: “A great pain strafed the city. // The air was a tapestry weft with cries. // Everywhere, women bandaged / the pietas of soldiers.”

“Because You Refuse to Speak” is startlingly surreal with lines like “Out on the pond,
a snake / inside a swan glides past” and “A hammer sounds / between two mountains.”

“Scarecrow” takes on the voice of its title, declaring “Go back to your life beyond the cornfield, / Back to the farmer’s wife and her faraway heart… // You’ll make no friends here.”

Cloisters’ final piece, “Resurrecting the Thirteen Stations of the Cross,” a prose poem, is visually stunning:

I looked down on a mountain, on a cry rising up from the cracked
earth. I looked down on the swine and the cattle, and they moaned a
little. And I looked down on the tiny beings with their tiny tools, and
a few looked back and shuddered…

It’s important to note that Cloisters is a book of short poems. “The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon,” for example, is a mere twenty-two words:

Cast in your image
                              and into darkness

we are luminous nudes

               in firelight
                               by cave pools

mistaking our reflections
                                         for gods.

“The Somniloquy of the Sleeping Asp” is twenty-four:

I am the little black
                               curled inside the lamb.

If the center of the sea forgets me,
                           the center of the sea forgets you.”

In fact, only seven of thirty-eight poems are over a page long, which would be the norm if Cloisters weren’t so dimensionally small— its cover measuring in at 6 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide, the standard being 9 inches by 6 inches. That said, even the longer poems are broken into smaller sections or utilize some sort of organizational element that further compartmentalizes these lyrics. “Notes from the Boat Docks,” for example, is in couplets. “Among Sorrows and Stones” proceeds like an interview with a stanza of questions followed by an italicized stanza of answers:

Who remembers the letter
trembling over a flame?

I do. I buried Isolde in her black sail.

Who accompanied the bride with a scar
to a parking lot swept with paper roses?

It was I who gestured to the scissors as she mended.

No doubt this book will be puzzled over for its lack of narrative, not because collections of lyrical poetry are unusual (they’re not) but because Cloisters gives you the feeling that there is a larger story at work here. A quick scan of middle sections’ titles, for example, “Scarecrow,” “Estranger,” “Return,” “Nostrum,” “Under the Ghost Tree,” “Oracle,” “On Not Finding Your Grave,” “Afterworld,” and “Trying to Pray” creates the sensation of a vast and otherworldly landscape. And there are most certainly a number of motifs that appear in poem after poem: life, death & resurrection, modernity versus antiquity, and the animation of the inanimate. But if there’s a thread that winds its way through these lyrics, it’s about as mysterious as Cloisters’ section titles: October, December, February, April, and August…notice the odd omission of June.

Rather than criticize Bock for the elusive quality of her poems, it’s important to recognize that a decision is being made here— Cloisters doesn’t lack narrative or story, Cloisters simply avoids it, the poet clearly more motivated by the metaphoric, symbolic, and interpretative world and her speaker’s more motivated by their opportunity to speak to someone willing to listen than by an opportunity to explain themselves.

Like the poems themselves, Cloisters is a book that creates a sense of largeness despite its small borders. The result is language and Bock’s language is exquisite, wooing us into one lyric after another so swiftly that, even though we may not know where we are, we trust that Ms. Bock most certainly does. The effect is a book of almost God-like proportions; poems that we can observe and perceive but aren’t exactly certain we can fully understand. Though we’re not sure where we’ve been, we’re relieved to know that we can go back whenever we wish to do so. Cloisters takes us into a world that at times seems secular and, at other times, clearly emanates from the spiritual; something akin to the afterlife, prayer. Cloisters is a book that not only explores but mimics the mysteries of human experience. We are the better for it.


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, received his MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and now conducts medical research for the Zilkha Institute at the University of Southern California. He has recently published poems, interviews, and reviews in The Missouri Review, Sou’wester, The Southern Indiana Review, The Cortland review, The Crab Orchard Review, Blueline, and The River Oak Review. He has attended the Ropewalk Writers Retreat the last two years on scholarship, was recently awarded second place in the Roxana Rivera Memorial Poetry Prize, and is the Founder and Managing Editor of, an online forum of Contemporary American poetry, original and previously-published interviews, essays, and reviews.

Rattle Logo