October 5, 2012

Review by Erica GossHow to Make a Bird with Two Hands by Mike White

by Mike White

The Word Works
P.O. Box 42164
Washington, DC 20015
ISBN: 978-0-915380-81-7
2012, 85 pp., $15.00

“Poetry clarifies our loneliness, restores texture to life’s flatness and abysses, makes the world bigger, and closer.” So wrote Daisy Fried in a recent (8/19/12) New York Times review of Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets. Mike White’s first collection of poems, with its fearless explorations of childhood, nightmares, and the minutia of everyday life, brings the world very close, revealing oddness in the quotidian the way a microscope makes the invisible suddenly huge under the lens.

“God in the Details” illuminates the tiny world of ants, who “carry their dead // in the ceremonial style / of a great long poem.” The world of ants is larger than ours, we realize as we read the poem: “and how heavy / is an ant // when I am myself / a shadow borne // so lightly.” As in so many of White’s poems, the speaker delivers these truths in a voice that is straightforward and unadorned, and all the more powerful for its lack of decoration.

White’s ability to describe fantastic, impossible (except in poetry) situations in plain language is one of the collection’s strengths. From “Pair”:

Go find your mother’s legs
was like
Go clean your room.

Except you had no room.
That was the difference.

These poems exist in a universe where the commonplace turns upside down on a regular basis. For example, “Outer Space,” which begins with the stanza:

And it is difficult
to get abducted
even in a cornfield.

“Outer Space” simmers with an unspoken desire to be the one–or, more likely, The One, holy and special–who is chosen: “we have been / expecting you / they always say.” But “they” are not, as it turns out, really interested in the speaker. When he confesses “it is the inner space / that hurts the most,” he finds that “the translator / is preoccupied, / fiddling at the controls.” The poem delivers a chilling vision of someone who longs for understanding and connection, but ends up being regarded as a specimen, echoing Fried’s declaration that “poetry clarifies our loneliness.”

White often sets up his poems with negative (though gentle) declarations: “happiness may not be communicable” (“Go Around”), “not a remarkable wind” (“Wind”) and “not rolling in liquid fire” (“NASCAR”). The “nots” promise insights, as in “Go Around”: “Happiness may not be communicable. / Yet there are cables underground. / Have you seen the men digging?”. In “Wind,” they illustrate White’s skill at transforming the most ordinary occurrence into something strange and wonderful: a “suddenly free” patio umbrella becomes “creaturely, great-winged, / and now so carefully gathered in.” White’s use of negative declaration also creates distance; the poems deliver the news a la Williams with a voice that manages to be both whimsical and detached.

In “Invitation,” White captures the ambivalence of one boy reflecting on the death of another:

To the boy not me
who drowned
in the swollen river
and who returned
for a month of nights
riding my borrowed bike

I say come again
inside and get warm

now we are older
the river is dry
let us put aside our differences

Who doesn’t remember the emotional blasts of terror and relief we experienced as children when a disaster happened to someone else? “Invitation” describes a child’s half-developed conscience, waking up years after the traumatic event (“now we are older”). “Let us put aside our differences” tells us that a relationship existed between the dead and live boys, whether real or imagined, and that it’s not finished.

Mike White’s poems often feel precarious, balanced on the line between humor and terror. Some, like “Crow,” left me searching the page for the rest of the poem. White uses blank space to his advantage, especially in “Berryman” and “Incarnate,” in which double-spaced lines slow and enhance the reading experience. Some poems are very funny: “you can’t fan your wad in public” (“Genitalia”), “ducks are with us” (“Crossing”), “running away so fast with my pants on” (“Middle Age”).

The book’s last section contains darker, more reflective poems, with death at their core. An example is “Flo,” which, in spite of its brevity, evokes a dying woman’s inner world:

I am fed through a tube.
Soon it will get dark.
I lie still
and everything moves
in my direction.

Flo’s world has shrunk to one thing: waiting for darkness. In “Bird,” a “brain- sick bird” entertains a crowd with “some old dream of flight” until the unthinkable happens: “someone gasps out laughing.” The laugh makes the poem real, pulling the reader into a place both awkward and recognizable.

How to Make a Bird With Two Hands questions our assumptions and startles us with its close-ups of daily life. The poems in this book are funny, painful and strange, and recast the everyday world as a place where anything can–and does–happen.


Erica Goss won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest. Her chapbook, Wild Place, was published in 2012 by Finishing Line Press.  Recent work appears in Hotel Amerika, Passager, Eclectica, Blood Lotus, Café Review, Comstock Review, and Lake Effect.  She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2010.  Erica is a contributing editor for Cerise Press and columnist for Connotation Press. Please visit her website: www.ericagoss.com.

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July 20, 2010

Review by Erica GossThe Darkened Temple by Mari L'Esperance

by Mari L’Esperance

University of Nebraska Press
1111 Lincoln Mall
Lincoln, NE 68988-0630
ISBN 978-8032-1847-5
2008, 79 pp., $16.95

The Darkened Temple, Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length book and the winner of the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, pivots on the disappearance of her mother, who vanished without a trace in 1995. Although such a loss is a different type of crisis than death, it is just as traumatic. A disappearance lacks the finality of death, and when no corporeal evidence exists, we will never know exactly what happened to the missing person. L’Esperance’s poems about her mother cover this territory with a skilled delicacy that never accuses or tries to explain It’s a remarkable effect, one that reveals the beauty amid the tragedy of her mother’s life.

Like chapters in a mystery, L’Esperance’s poems lead us through a series of precisely placed clues, beginning with the poem “The Last Time I Saw Her”:

From the car I watched
as my mother ran
toward the train
that would take her back
to the only life she knew
how to live.

In “The Search,” two men drag a lake for something unnamed. Later, in “The Shoes,” “two cracked loaves / caked and curled with dried mud, a man’s size twelve” appear in the mother’s abandoned house, unsettling her children. The shoes refuse to give up their secret, as, in the poem “Where the Body Might Be, the Mind Follows–,” in which “the mother…refused to be found.”

L’Esperance does not solve the mystery for us, but the poem “Finding My Mother,” perhaps the most powerful and disturbing poem in the section about her mother’s disappearance, offers some inevitable conclusions. Using the vocabulary of dreams, where details such as “face down in the coarse stubble” and “her hair is lovelier than I remember it” evoke an otherworldly atmosphere, “Finding My Mother” creates finality with the lines “carry her back” and “we sleep there like that.” The lingering sense that this dream will repeat itself many times echoes throughout the poem; it reminds us that the dead and disappeared come and go through the portal of dreams, and in this way they never leave us.

Although the poems in this section are ostensibly about the experience of a child losing her mother, their subtext is war, a third presence in the relationship between mother and daughter. Though she never states it overtly, L’Esperance makes the connection in references to “crates of skulls, broken / cars and bodies, sacks of stones, their / horrible tonnage” in the poem “Prayer,” the last poem of the first section, and the one that foreshadows the topic of the group of poems about her mother. The fact that her mother survived unnamed horrors traumatizes the daughter; in “Trying to Carry It” she compares the thoughts of a prisoner of war just before his execution to the possibility of hearing, finally, that her mother has died.

The poems about the disappearance are the strongest in the book, but there is much more to admire in L’Esperance’s work. For example, in “The Choices Not Made,” those choices do not sink away because they were not chosen; instead, they “breathe,” “clamor,” “call,” and “scream”; they live in the “muck / and detritus of years of cooking meals.” We may take one and only one path, but what of all the roads not taken, to paraphrase Robert Frost? They continue to haunt, L’Esperance reminds us, and “watch you from under / the stairs.”

In “Kamakura,” a mother and daughter stroll through a landscape fraught with memories of sirens, bombs, and the penetrating odors of war, the caves where the mother hid as a child looming just outside their vision: “What must go through you when we pass them / at a distance, those black maws yawning out of the hillside?” These lines balance the terror of war with children’s fear of the dark, the “caves like eyes / in the hills behind Bah-chan’s house.” The poem captures the irony of a child finding safety in these frightening black spaces, pressed in with countless others.

L’Esperance is also quite effective writing poems of quiet appreciation; “Nocturne” is an almost-love poem that celebrates the bond between a couple reading in bed, “exchanging passages aloud,” while a presence that she describes as “music in the field” “rises up on the air.” This poem captures a mood between yearning and melancholy; though its topic is love and intimacy, some darker spirit moves beneath the words.

The Darkened Temple does what lyric poetry does best. Through a series of slowly unfolding images, the author awakens emotional and physical responses in the reader. L’Esperance never rushes to a conclusion, but lets her word-pictures build into sense-rich epiphanies that are both delicate and devastating.


Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer living on shaky ground in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her poems, reviews and essays appear in many print and online journals, most recently Pearl, Main Street Rag, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, and Blood Lotus. Currently, she is working on a chapbook.

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