February 5, 2011

Review by Moira Richards

by Kobus Moolman

Deep South Publishing
South Africa
ISBN 978-0-9584915-7-0
2010, 64 pp.

The phrase “light and after” suggests some sort of journey or exploration and that is how this collection reads to me. The index shows a listing of three dozen or so poem titles and page numbers but like footsteps on a path, the pieces are not so much discrete individual poems as the parts of a larger whole.

The poet sets his scene with the section entitled “Home”–but what a home it is! This home is a spooky claustrophobic place, narrated in prose poetry and with the distancing of third person. The home, this house, is new, beautiful and modern…yet:

                Something was coming in, And going out again. Coming
in. And going out again. Unable to make up its mind. Something
he could not see. Of unrecognisable shape. Something he sensed
only. With the hairs on his skin.


Later, after the un-introduced “he” has determined to escape his home in a boat, a huge crack appears and swallows up the house, the street, him…

the last thing he saw, as the black wave of the pit closed over him,
was a boat, a small wooden rowing boat, sailing empty-handed
into the sky.

(“The Solution”)

Things get worse still: there is a door with no handle with which he can let himself out; there is a window “that refuses to look at him,” and in a piece written with ominous, chant-like repeats, his dreams of a escape to some sort of peace in the clouds devolve into a nightmarish sky that…

echoes like a man on a narrow bed in a small room
with his eyes closed, and the whole world collapsing
inside his head.

(“The Room”)

The second section of the book, or leg of the journey, is entitled “Light.” This sounds hopeful, positive, but given the subversion of “home,” I am wary. This section is filled with surreal, mystifying, strangely satisfying images and, you’ll notice, the appearance of odd, disjointed body parts:

“Why, even the sky,” the hands
say, “has dropped all of
its clouds.”

(“Winter Trees”)

The stones were born
without legs. They must use
their eyes to move.

(“Loxton – Karoo – Dusk”)

Between the blades of the wind
his dripping hand

(“Beneath the Yellow Moon”)

And then, with a shift to first person, the “Light” journey ends too, with poetry of repetitions. But this time there is hope, perhaps a sense of incantation to invoke the good spirits–a suggestion of overcoming the odds:

We who quench fire with fire all night
know that wings are not the only ladders
to the dark, that heavy wood swims too
in the tide of the wind.


“Anatomy,” the third section, makes use of first person to grab the reader closer into the poetry, into the collection’s journey. Here Moolman’s sequence zooms in to focus on imperfectly functioning body parts–real? Metaphorical? Either way, they have plenty to say to tease and torment the beleaguered narrator.

I hear the hand all day.
I hear it whispering behind walls.

I hear the hand call out, and turn my back.

it is only the hand that
holds me up, that holds me onto
the narrow path, where there are no handholds,
only deep and empty falling.

(“The Hand”)

The foot is a hole made by a shard
of memory.

I hold the foot in my hand every night,

The foot pretends that it has something to say.

(“The Foot”)

By now I feel as if I’m reading a musical drama. The non-narrative and fragmented bits of imagery are laid and overlaid to generate a sense of parable. I turn to the last section of the sequence, “Afterwards,” knowing that I can expect some sort of resolution, acceptance, an understanding that what is, is. And I am not disappointed in the finale–once more repeats of motifs from the earlier movements, once more an inevitability conjured by word refrains:

suddenly all of the sky was behind him
the haze cleared instantly
he could move freely for the first time in his life
without holding on to a thing

and accept that he will never be able to sever his link
with himself that even when he should die
it would not be anyone else’s death
except his own.

I loved the reading of this poetry. I loved my re-readings of the collection because each one yielded more nuance, more texture, another layer of pattern to the experiencing of the text.

Rattle Logo

November 15, 2010

Reviewed by Moira RichardsHeterotopia by Leslie Wheeler

by Lesley Wheeler

Barrow Street Press, 2010
PO Box 1831
Murray Hill Station
New York, NY 10156
ISBN-13: 978-0-9819876-2-0.
77 pages, US$ 16.95

The title piece of Lesley Wheeler’s collection comprises a short selection of quotes followed by six untitled but numbered poems, each one a different form, and I’m delighted by this display of expertise–especially the use of subtle sound-as-rhyme in some of the schema–before I even get to engaging fully with the content of the works. These serve as background and introduction to the whole collection and the section numbered “5” (prose poetry) begins:

heterotopia: enables utopia elsewhere (slave trade); physical and phantasmatic, the room one glimpses in a mirror (an idea of a city derived from stories)…

The city of this book is Liverpool. Liverpool, one time centre of the British slave trade, the city that pioneered research and treatment of malaria and sleeping sickness and, of course, the city synonymous with the musical revolution that was the Beatles. The city is also integral part of the narrator’s heritage but Heterotopia’s narrator is not Liverpudlian; she has only memories, second-hand memories, gleaned from her mother who emigrated from there many years back to marry in the USA, so that, a little regretfully,

When I say
Liverpool I mean an unreal city, purified
of reeking detail like a fairy tale

yet, conversely,

This blitzed, hungry, smoke-thin world
invented me, and its ardent lies

are my birthright.


Those lines reminded me of that other meaning of heterotopia: a body organ—functioning, although shifted, displaced from its normal place in the body. I was a child of first-generation emigrants and grew up never knowing, only knowing of, my country of birth and my extended family. Cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents were just names, anecdotes and snapped faces in Christmas-time cards, and the loss of them and that closeness is an emptiness still within me today.

Lesley Wheeler’s words capture the moods of not-quite/what-might-have-been; that ineffable missing-of-something you never knew…

…The room
of my mouth remains full of ghosts.
Something is almost gone, a fume
of sound and all that it meant.

(Her Voice in My Mouth)

Central to the collection is the section entitled “Legends,” a series of more than a dozen poems, headed with dates and sequenced 1940 through 1962–all stories, retold, of people and places and times the narrator never knew, pieced together from stories and history books. Here, a snippet of the insight the section gives into the narrator’s mother’s “escape”:

When the sirens cried,
my grandmother hustled four
babies into the mud-crowned
steel of the backyard shelter
and hooded them
by turning her back on the planes—
speck of grit in a wet city

The window glass blew
into the parlour

(Bringing in the May, 1941)

Oral histories can’t really survive in today’s world of words, no matter how carefully you catch the words, preserve your treasures in poems, and in the end, Lesley Wheeler’s collection stares that fact in the face with exquisite threnody…

My grandmother had a song for her name and a song for
driving home and a song for childish love, but my
children will not learn them.

Listen to the foam of my voice and I will pour it for you,
all the tiny stories in one intoxicating stream,
catching each other’s sparkle,
now, before the taste disappears.

(Oral Culture)

Heterotopia’s poems read in many ways, but the pivot for me is the strain of lament; I enjoyed it greatly as a book of loss, displacement.

Rattle Logo

September 20, 2010

Review by Moira RichardsTeahouse of the Almighty by Patricia Smith

by Patricia Smith

Coffee House Press
27 North Fourth Street, Suite 400
Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA
ISBN: 978-1-56689-193-6
2006, 91 pp., $16.00

This book hums dozens of different voices, like a crowd in a late night pub. Just as people in the streets of a city, these people and their stories span the spectra of hope and despair; their stories are of love and pain, of music and of the blues – oh, these blues. Many of the poems, such as “Mississippi’s Legs,” bear dedications and in this way, create vibrant biographies of people such as the Queen of the Blues who escaped her small home town as fast as she could fly. And who kept on fleeing until:

The backhand slap that stopped me was called Chicago.
I ran into the first open door
and screamed Mississippi into a microphone,
knocking out most of my teeth in the process.
The men, long cool wisps of glimmer,
fed me whiskey, dressed me red, called me baby,
laid me down in their king beds,
mapped my widening body, flowered me.

…“flowered me”… mmm…mMm…

Patricia Smith is probably known best for her spoken word poetry and as champion slam poet. Her poem “Down 4 the Up Stroke” pays tribute to a fellow champ and best friend in a time of need. Words like these beg to be said loud–they leap, almost, from the page in search of the nearest microphone:

You drove in from the city and backhanded me
with your clunky rhymes, your limp couplets,
your falterings, your leaps for the sky,
your lean and joyless works in progress.
You jumped up and down on my heart,
yelling beat beat,
when I was June’s only sin, you screeched
beat beat,

There are sad, sad stories of sons in jail, young girls raped, babies beaten to death, women murdered by their partners and in this poem–“Building Nicole’s Mama (for the 6th grade class of Lillie C. Evans School, Liberty City, Miami)”–forty worldly-wise sixth graders who

                                                 …have all seen
the Reaper, grim in his heavy robe,
pushing the button for the dead project elevator,
begging for a break at the corner pawn shop,
cackling wildly in the back pew of the Baptist church.

yet, during their lesson with a poet-in-schools…

Can poetry hurt us? They ask me before
snuggling inside my words to sleep.

Many poems are of writers and writing and there is a long tribute–“Related to the Buttercup, Blooms in Spring”–to a young school teacher, Ms. Stein, who introduced her class to the word, anenome. And, says the narrator of the poem,

That one word was sweet silver on my new tongue,
it kept coming back to my mouth,
it was the very first sound I wanted to own,

A sweet beginning I can hide in my mouth.
I live on its taste when my pen won’t move.

A recurring presence in Teahouse of the Almighty (there is a poem by this name in the collection too but, no space, you’ll have to read the rich delights that title promises from your own copy of the book) is Patricia Smith’s father who died too soon, from a bullet to his head– but not before he had taught his daughter how to dance, and that she could be the writer she wanted to be, and how to bake hot water corn bread just right…

When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You’ve got to wait
for the burning and get it just right.

But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,

poems are born.

(“When the Burning Begins”)

It’s the music, as much as the stories in this collection, that grabs me and nowhere does it play so beautifully as in the four erotic pages of love song dedicated to Smith’s husband and which I would so love to hear read aloud by someone other than me, alone here with my laptop:

don’t play me

that way

the way the saxman plays his woman,
blowing into her mouth till she cries,
allowing her no breath of her own.
Don’t play me that way, baby, the way
the saxman plays his lady,
that strangling, soft murder—notes like bullets,
riffs like knives and the downbeat slapping
into her. and she sighs.
into her. and she cries.
into her.
and she whines like the night turning.

(“Map Rappin”)

Rattle Logo

June 5, 2009

Review by Moira Richards

by Allison Hedge Coke

Coffee House Press
79 Thirteenth Avenue NE
Suite 110
Minneapolis, MN 55413
IBSN 978-1-56689-061-8
1997, 96 pp., $16.00

Dog Road Woman is Allison Hedge Coke’s first full-length book of poems and with it she won the American Book Award in 1998. Previous winners of the award include Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light and Paula Gunn Allen’s Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. The best company indeed!

This collection comprises a variety of visually intriguing poems. Some are narrow, with just one or two words per line forming margins on the page; another spreads over nine pages divided into two columns–sometimes words in one of the columns, sometimes in both. A third poem is a punctuationless mass of words, separated only with small spaced gaps, occasional line breaks and which is the perfect vehicle for the breathless, stream-of-consciousness tale of horror that it narrates. These forms seem to me to evoke somehow an ages-old oral literary tradition–one that is filled with pauses and silences and interpolated with words from people perhaps not physically present.

Continue reading

Rattle Logo