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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September 5, 2013

Review by Cameron ConawayIn the Kingdom of the Ditch by Todd Davis

by Todd Davis

Michigan State University Press
1405 S. Harrison, Suite 25
East Lansing, MI 48823
ISBN: 9781611860702
2013, 112 pp., $19.95

Though In the Kingdom of the Ditch takes as subject anything from red peppers and deer pelvis to dying moths and a dying father, Todd Davis’ latest work is essentially an ode dedicated to poetry’s ability to observe and capture the minutiae that makes the world swirl before us. At its best, this book uses the tangible as a vehicle to talk about what we talk about when we talk about poetry. At its worst, it sweats hard to do so. But the reader is rewarded along the way because even the sweat of this collection glistens.

Readers familiar with Davis will find his truest gift somehow continues to sharpen. He has that unique ability to link, in a single sentence, the natural world we’ve become increasingly isolated from to the unnatural world many of us now view as natural. Take this title, for instance: “Fishing for Large Mouth in a Strip-Mining Reclamation Pond near Llodysville, Pennsylvania.” It’s clunky and it sits heavy atop the poem in a way that lends authorial authenticity and the weight of frustration. And then the poem opens:

The gills rake down the sides of his head, and the mouth
opens like the tunnels we used before the coal companies

hauled in dozers and trucks to scrape away the mountain
our grandparents had known.

Here we have gills raking and trucks scraping and they cinematically flow into each other. I’m reminded of the movie effect whereby the camera briefly zooms in on the hands of a clock before those hands takes the shape of a black bird and lead to the next scene. This is what In The Kingdom of the Ditch does time and again through leading the reader with an image and then turning the image as a way to turn the direction of the poem. Few are the poets who can so seamlessly pull this off.

While I admit to being enthralled by Davis’ ability to do this in the past, I’ve also felt like he has perhaps relied too heavily upon it. On one hand, it works – it’s Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumper. On the other hand, us readers often hold poets to unrealistic expectations. We want to see evolution. Maybe Davis, a basketball player himself, had been feeling this call. In the Kingdom of the Ditch surprised me in its versatility, even in its ability to lead like a seasoned nature poet but then shock like a poet more experimental. Take the opening of “A Mennonite in The Garden,” for example:

We staked and tied our tomatoes
like the woman in your poem
who had her tongue screwed

to the roof of her mouth …

This is a thick collection that I wouldn’t recommend reading in a single sitting. The topics vary tremendously and there isn’t a sense of something building. That said, each individual poem is a compact work of art filled with ditches in which there are kingdoms if one is willing to dig for them. To me, one of the most moving and fitting poems of the collection is “What Lives in the Wake of Our Dreams.” Watch as it uses peaches and rivers and bed sheets and school bus steps to take us into the minutiae we too often miss:

I dream of peaches on the tree by the river,
of my youngest son lost along its muddy banks.

When I wake night’s worry trails me to the bathroom
and later to the breakfast table. It is winter here

and the tree is bare. The peaches wait in the freezer
until my wife thaws them for cobbler. Each morning

my boy climbs the black steps of the school bus
and leaves me to what lies in the loose folds

of these sheets: the bed unmade, the mud untracked.


Cameron Conaway is the Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project, where he has published work based on his international investigations into child labor and human trafficking. He has held Poet-in-Residencies at the University of Arizona and with the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Unit in Thailand. His work has appeared in such places as The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Australian and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.

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January 30, 2009

Review by Cameron Conaway

by Lucille Clifton

BOA Editions, LTD
250 N. Goodman Street, Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14607
ISBN: 978-1-934414-12-5
2008, 64 pp., $16.00

Lucille ordered broccoli for her side. “My doctor says it’ll keep me going,” she whispered to me.

Vivace Restaurant is considered by many to be the best we have here in Tucson. So it’s where we took Lucille to eat when she came out to give a reading at St. Philips in the Hills Episcopal Church and to christen our new Poetry Center.

I arrived early to Vivace’s lobby. And shook. A 22-year-old who began to creatively write just two years ago, who was teaching Lucille’s “homage to my hips” at local high schools, was now attending an intimate dinner with an absolute legend. I was as nervous to be in Lucille’s presence as I was in the presence of a chain-linked cage before my mixed martial arts fights.

“They’ve basically taken me apart and put me back together again,” she said during dinner with a matter-of-factness and a smile that both stung and made us laugh.

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September 2, 2008

Review by Cameron Conaway

by Mark Sanders

The Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68104-3506
ISBN: 0-9765231-4-0
92 pp., $16.00

“Plain speech for a plain people” is the opening line of poetry in Here in the Big Empty. And it is shortly after this declarative, colon-ending line that the few negatives of the book present themselves. Opening a book review with the less-than-fabulous is often a precursor to a vicious barrage. The opposite is the case here. And for some readers, of course, the negatives may very well be positives.

Plain speech for a plain people:
weather-words gray as old lumber;
old sheds and old houses
sitting on the tilted legs of wind; (11)

This opening stanza of the poem “Plain Sense” attempts to set the stage for what is to come. William Carlos Williams comes to mind. The way he fought for writing of everyday circumstances in the lives of people. The way his language was often accessible but rich to readers on various levels. Instead, what happens is unexpected. Shifts from plain speech–often stunningly concrete–language like the above quote paired side by side to much-less discernable abstractions. Lines like “verbs the cranes dancing” and “an idea through black dirt.” Some may view the shift as pure versatility, but the leaps feel jarring the majority of the time, and might make a reader feel in the poem one stanza and completely removed the next. Eventually, the reader will be brought back in with some perfect detail or Rumi-esque meditative line. The need to point out the issue has been addressed.

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