June 7, 2013

Ash Bowen


Your father’s like a far-flung rocket, a G-force orbiter
funneling through the stratosphere. Each day

he screens the perimeter of our atmosphere
to keep us safe from ray guns

aimed from outer space, leaves us
notes he’s written with his vapor trails.

But at night, the frequency
of your grief keeps him homing through

our house. He meets your mother glowing
in her latest wedding gown, her hand heavy

with the bloom of stars I’ve laid upon her finger.
The gentle thing’s to leave your father to the memory

of the spheres. Lonely but bobbing in his armor,
nothing can hurt his heart up there.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Tribute to Speculative Poetry


Ash Bowen: “When this poem (and others like it in my manuscript) came pouring out of my pen, I was surprised as anyone that I was writing what my poetry friends have dubbed ‘science fiction poetry.’ But here I am, showing up in Rattle, with the controls set for the sun and a behemoth of a Wookie gargling directives at me to hit the hyperdrive.”

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September 10, 2011

Review by Ash BowenThe Carnival of Breathing

by Lisa Fay Coutley

Black Lawrence Press
P.O. Box 327
Theresa, NY 13691
ISBN 978-0-9828766-3-3
2011, 25 pp., $9.00

The latest chapbook from Lisa Fay Coutley, In the Carnival of Breathing, is an emotionally complex series of poems that spends the bulk of its real estate contemplating the complicated nature of responsibility—from motherly to familial—while exploring the even more rocky landscape of personal resignation to the ungrasped possibilities of this world. The collection, winner of the Fall 2009 Black River Chapbook Competition, is one of the most striking and personally satisfying poetry collections that I’ve read in a while.

When reading Coutley’s collection, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the essay Raymond Carver wrote when editors at Esquire asked him to discuss his literary influences. The editors had intended Carver to write on the impact other writers had leveraged on his writing; instead, they got back the essay “Fires,” wherein he discussed his children and the unabated drain they had on his time and finances, and how that set of circumstances had most influenced his work.

Coutley’s poems don’t go quite this far, but alive in the poems are a pervasive sense of gloom and a creeping hopelessness often born out of her speakers’ motherly responsibilities. In one of the strongest poems in the collection, “On Home,” a beleaguered mother endures the joyless and thankless job of rearing children. She resorts to leaving herself reassuring notes around her home in effort to stave off her impulses to flee. There are no Beth Ann Fennelly-style poems that expound on the awe and wonder of motherhood. Coutley’s speaker flatly fails to understand her sons, both of whom irritate her:

The youngest wants to change his name
to the playground pimp. When we circle up
for dinner, I’m careful not to say chicken breast
or meatball or anything they can follow with
     that’s what she said.

All winter long I’ve left
feel-good Post-its on the bathroom mirror,
the espresso maker, the edge of my razor.
Every day, I’ve given myself reasons to stay.

Time and again, Coutley’s speakers struggle to maintain. The first poem, “Staying Afloat,” presents the collection’s preoccupation with water. Coutley performs something quite unique with her water imagery. Unlike many instances of water used in poetry to symbolize renewal or cleansing, water in Coutley’s hands become symbolic of struggle, representative of malevolent forces—both inside and outside the home—her speakers must overcome (or at least endure).

The struggle with water remains ever-present and affects the women in the poems in profound ways. In “To Sleep,” the struggle alters the physiology of the speaker wherein she doesn’t experience sleep in the same way as other women but sleeps as a woman “who swims with narcolepsy . . . // . . . without drowning . . .” and who is made “to stay / still and take it, to love paralysis / to … jump in water, legless.”

By the middle of the book, water/struggle has come to represent the whole being of the speakers—the result of the travail that has made them tough and feminine at the same time. The speaker in “My Lake” overflows with bravado and swagger, claiming her water owns boxing gloves, doesn’t take any shit, eats red meat and murders. But the woman’s lake has also been classically trained in lovemaking, owns lingerie, and at the sight of mating birds, folds her arms into a cradle.

The collection’s last several poems deal with loss of one kind or another. The poem “After the Fire” recounts the story of a mother attending to her son in wake of the death of the boy’s pet dog. The poem is quite harrowing when it nears the end when we discover that even with the best intentions, the speaker hasn’t really taught her children the coping skills to maintain either. And so it’s true for the speaker’s son who, like his mother, is “searching for air / underwater.”

The book closes with “Barefoot on the Pulpit,” a companion of sorts to an earlier poem called “View from the High Road,” which is most easily explained as a breakup poem. “View from the High Road” is a kiss-off after the fact, spoken with a bareknuckle delivery akin to “My Lake.” “Barefoot on the Pulpit,” represents, to my ear, the only poem in which the albatross has dropped and genuine hope emerges. The possibility for love enters the landscape and Coutley’s speaker finally emerges from the water where there is “so much breath.”

The only troubling spot in the book is that Coutley can go in search of sound rather than sense; or, perhaps, to be more even-handed, the poems sometime journey in directions that I’m unable to follow on a purely logical level, having to trust my emotional impulses through the poems (though the soundscapes that she presents are lovely enough that I would follow anyway).

Coutley is already publishing in the finer literary journals, and I fully hope a full-length collection emerges sooner rather than later. In the Carnival of Breathing is a bold poetry collection, and one I admire very much. Coutley’s voice is one that I look forward to hearing more from in the future.


Ash Bowen is completing his PhD at the University of North Texas. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Rattle, Blackbird, and will appear in the anthology Best New Poets 2011. He is co-managing editor of Linebreak(www.linebreak.org).

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February 25, 2011

Review by Ash BowenLocal Hope by Jack Heflin

by Jack Heflin

University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press
P.O. Box 40831
Lafayette, Louisiana 70504-0831
ISBN 9781887366984
2010, 86 pp., $10.00

In many ways, Local Hope, the latest book by Jack Heflin, is a collection of elegies on the loss of the American dream and religious faith. The poems come from places deeply rooted in the consciousness of an America set adrift and left to fend for itself. 

In that spirit, the book gathers around itself the sheet of a dream gone to ruin.  God has abandoned us and all that remains is the thin hope we find in some sort of buy-now-pay-later kind of faith.  We see this best exemplified in the poem, “The CAT Scan,” one of the strongest in the book.  Here hope is wagered against the speaker’s ability to run five miles on the day before his son’s CAT scan.  

I slip into the lead jacket, tighten the lead collar,
and at last my worry wears its own weight,
has become something more than abstraction
or superstition as it did yesterday when I went
running and told myself if I could make five miles
the X-ray would find nothing . . .

The poem ends with the speaker’s hand on his son’s foot, the other hand with fingers crossed.

The crossed fingers, and what they symbolize, are what Heflin struggles constantly to understand:  what it means to be “post-Christian,” where God has clocked out and gone home and left us to find whatever faith we can in whatever we can, be it the rubbed heads of children in “Local Hope,” the lifeguard/angel in “Icarus,” or the aforementioned crossed fingers of “The CAT Scan.”    

The book is pessimistic, to be sure.  Life is nothing more than an collection of daily disasters:  professors don’t get tenure, Larry Levis dies, the levees on the Ouachita break; and despite our children dancing to “the beat of Mahler’s Ninth,” they still don’t want to sleep because they know  “we’re gonna die.”  But cuddled in that pessimism is the faintest ray of optimism:  at least we still have art. 

Heflin meditates on art quite a bit, something one of his speakers learned from the poet Larry Levis to “romantically ennoble”:   

              From you I learned the happy insecurity of ,
the way style dresses the man
                                                      who’s never coming back 

(“Tenure, An Elegy”).  

Likewise, “Ars Poetica” is a long and dreamy poem on the creative process that moves in and out of conversation with another poet, “Mr. Anonymous.”  Heflin’s speaker has awakened to a dream in which the world has been given over to poets. “But for what?” the speaker asks,  “A rinse and detail?”  It’s lines likes these peppered throughout the poems that keep the entire collection from bogging down into cynical, unreadable book.   

And Heflin’s book is nothing if not incredibly readable and just genial (if such a word can be used to describe a book of poems).  It’s Heflin’s charming poems and the voices of his speakers that make the book so damned likeable.  In fact, the energetic poems are so well-crafted and carry what can only be described as a “light touch” that we don’t even notice just how pessimistic the book is until we’ve read it a few times.
The book isn’t without its moments of levity—an example of Heflin’s keen awareness for the need for pacing in a collection such as this.  The poem “The Cobbler’s Journal” is witty and light:

Nothing surprises me.  I love your twelve toes.
Such nerve.  Such balance.

Later in the poem, we see more of Heflin’s sense of humor when the cobbler, having written of love in a previous stanza, offers another journal entry of, “I have never put my tongue in anyone’s shoe.”  

While there are no romantic love poems in the book (who has time for that when the world’s falling apart?), Heflin does have poems that dip into the realm of parental affection.  The poem “Domestic,” offers a glimpse into the familial moments that, if not staving off disaster, offer a momentary reprieve from life’s impending doom. 

Not long after you first walked
you danced, a crazy kind of penguin hop,
feet stuck to the floor, arms at your side,
as if holding weightless pails of ice,
flightless Antarctic joke, and how we laughed.
Ginger Baker, bluegrass, Sonny Rollins,
you even found the beat to Mahler’s Ninth.
We slapped our butts and sang along,
capable, however compromised, of joy,
as in a Brueghel print, or so we have thought.
It won’t last long.  Everything’s about to change:
you’ve started picking up your feet,
and just today, you whirled a dizzy windmill.
On your back, you stared for us to life you up
and we came stumbling to your need.   

Local Hope, it cannot be stated more emphatically, is a wonderful collection of poems. Heflin’s poetry, while appearing in the major literary magazines, hasn’t been collected in book form since his first book, The Map of Leaving, won the Montana First Book Award.  And that was a while ago.  Finally, we have a new batch of Heflin poems to enjoy.  We can only hope another collection is already in the works.


Ash Bowen’s poetry has appeared in Rattle, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Blackbird, and is forthcoming in Nimrod. He co-edits Linebreak (www.linebreak.org).

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August 5, 2009

Review by Ash Bowen

by Sarah J. Sloat

Tilt Press
9309 Plashet Lane
Charlotte, North Carolina 28227
2009, 22 pp., $8.00

For the past five years or so, I have not only read, but actively sought out, poems by Sarah J. Sloat. Her poems are replete with striking language, unique visions, and poetic prowess. Now, at last, 22 of Sloat’s poem are available, collected as In the Voice of a Minor Saint, and the book is cause for celebration.

Sloat’s poems possess an elegant plainness. Her spare, unadorned style seems most aptly described by the cliché “deceptively simple,” but for Sloat, the term fits. Her poems expand with successive reads. The “plots” of the poems are so engaging that the subtle, nuanced language might be missed, but make no mistake: the poems are infused with sonic richness and textures that will show the reader why Sloat’s work is appearing in some of the country’s best journals.

The book’s two ghazals offer the most obvious examples of Sloat’s finely tuned ear:

If the moon comes out bearing nicks and bite marks,
you’ll find me smoothing my skin of its cares tonight.
(“Ghazal with Heavenly Bodies”)

Wind flew on a blue bicycle of rain,
took the streets, sidewalks and sun with it.
(“Ghazal of the Bright Body”)

Continue reading

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October 22, 2008

Ash Bowen


Your sister can’t stop hurting when she sees children
laughing. They coil in her dreams, knees raised
to their stomachs, feet stamping their rhythms.

She’s reminded of high school, how she pulled up
her dress in loneliness and a man laughed at her.
But never mind that. Her husband has his gun

collection out. He can’t stop pointing and clicking
the trigger at the open window. But the birds
won’t die. They flutter away, startled by the pitch

of his voice. They land on the fence
of the city swimming pool. There the children run
off the diving board, ducking invisible bullets.

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006


Ash Bowen: “A little over a year ago, I was all set to enter medical school when I found Jack Heflin’s poem, ‘Cat Scan,’ on the internet. After I read it, I sat down at the computer and made my first serious attempt at a poem. After that day, going to med school just seemed like a waste of time.” (website)

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