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Poetry Book Reviews
Ripples of Air
Poems of Healing
By Charlotte Digregorio
Artful Communicators, 2020
To order, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also available on Amazon.
Review by Michael Escoubas
“I get discouraged when I encounter poetry that is supposed to be great poetry but is so hard to understand that I give up after reading just a few lines.”
I frequently hear this among friends when I mention that I write poetry. I didn’t always have an adequate comeback . . . until now. Today, I would introduce my sincere but uninformed friends to Charlotte Digregorio’s new collection, Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing. Packed into a mere 236 pages, lucky readers encounter some 14 distinct poetic forms. The volume contains something for everyone: from compact oriental forms, to sonnets, to the little known etheree, to fun forms such as acrostics and limericks, free verse and more. It is all here, written in an accessible style for all to savor.
The book is arranged in 12 sections. These include: Nostalgia, Peace, Creatures, People, Work, The Heart, Season’s Potpourri, Solitude, Art, Wonder and Whimsy, The Spiritual, and Aging, Illness, Death (these last three comprise one whole section). Each section is introduced by a short narrative that provides background, context and life-application to the poems that follow. Variety and mature craftsmanship showcase each section.
Like many readers, I tend to shortchange introductions to the books I review. Not this time! The collection is subtitled Poems of Healing. For Digregorio, the introduction becomes a vehicle for making her case for the entire book. Who among us has not needed healing? Who among us has not spent time in the cave of despair? Who among us has not needed an outlet for anger or loss? Who among us has not strolled through fragrant gardens and longed for a way to express how it felt? Trust me on this one: spend quality time on Digregorio’s six page intro.
In section 4, “People,” Digregorio reveals her sensitivity to the human condition, with poems about the plight of the homeless, and these excerpts from Foreigner
He arrives in his fifties
from his native land
Soft gray eyes, a calm smile,
approaching a spring song.
As the poem develops . . .
He tells me today is
the best of yesterday,
something to remember
in twilight skies when
winds are with him.
Heightening the emotional effect of “People,” is an impressive array of modern haiku, senryu and tanka which capture the poignancy of human interaction or, at times, the despair of people in great need while the rest of us have plenty
at our thanksgiving table
i say grace, mindful of
the young man in the park
cocooned from hunger
face buried in his knees
I’ve provided no more than a gentle breeze in this review; but hopefully, just enough Ripples of Air, to make purchasing a copy of Charlotte Digregorio’s Poems of Healing, the next important thing you do today.
======ABOUT THE REVIEWER:Michael Escoubas is editor, contributing poet, and staff book reviewer for Quill and Parchment, a 19-year-old literary and cultural arts online poetry journal.
Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era
By Cheryl Caesar
Thurston Howl Publications, 2020
Review by Barbara Eaton
Cheryl Caesar, in Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era, adds her voice to the growing chorus of outrage in the United States today
The poems chronicle political events from September 2018 to May 2019. And while there is not much new here, the poems aptly express the American people's response to being thrown under the bus time and time again.
To be fair, Caesar's portrayal of President Trump is no more than a caricature, a two-dimensional puppet-villain who survives on Big Macs. Trump is first and foremost a businessman, and the strengths and weaknesses of his presidency can all be traced back to this one simple fact.
Most moving to me were "Flowers and Candles," "Michael Cohen Testifies Before Congress," "Letter to Our Lady," and "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby: A Letter to Europe."
These lines from "Flowers and Candles" rank among Caesar's loveliest: "They have guns but we have flowers/and candles. Look: people/are laying flowers everywhere," and "your face and your son's like bright planets/in the darkness, your arms/circling like a protecting sky."
"Letter to Our Lady" paints a beautiful, evocative picture of Notre Dame cathedral and asks a most poignant, pertinent question: "Why do you mourn a building, and burn your world?"
In sum, Cheryl Caesar's poems provide us with a detailed record of American history that is informative and should prove useful in the years to come. I would like to have seen more compassion for the American people, such as we see in Garry Trudeau's cartoon in the Chicago Tribune on June 14, 2020: after praising himself and blaming others (former President Obama, governors, the press), President Trump reluctantly acknowledges the daily death toll from the Coronavirus.
And I would like to have seen a little compassion for President Trump. He did not, as the back cover of the book explicitly stated, "unleash" the Coronavirus. That was done in Wuhan, China. Like it or not, he is our current president, and if he goes down, we all go down.
By all means buy this book, read it, and vote. Vote your conscience. And pray.
===== ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Barbara Eaton is a poet and semi-retired community college instructor.
Red Thread Through a Rusty Needle
By Gay Guard-Chamberlin
New Wind Publishing, 2019
Review by Lennart Lundh
The thirty-six poems of Gay Guard-Chamberlin’s collection, Red Thread Through a Rusty Needle, are wide-ranging, touching on a buffet of subjects, including horses, dogs, and crows; parents and other relations; neighbors and emotions-as-humans; Easter eggs and politics (both electoral and inter-personal). They are highly personal and revelatory, but also imbued with a strong sense of universality.
Better still, they are also well-written, reflecting the author’s mastery of the poet’s craft. Form generally follows function, amplifying carefully chosen words instead of burying them. There’s nothing obscure in the imagery, and the text is free of the typos that seem to plague current small press productions.
The lengthy prose poem “Stella Maris” acquaints us with the wonderful character of Guard-Chamberlin’s grandmother, who “dated Johnny Weissmuller before he went to Hollywood and became Tarzan.” We’re told of a book Stella Maris’ father gifted her in a dream: “She swallowed the book and the little black seeds of letters sprouted inside her. When she opened her mouth, invisible words tumbled out. My grandmother fed me with sweet invisible words she grew inside her.” Such a way to be remembered and immortalized.
“Corporal” presents its subject in much less detail, but this simply allows the reader to complete the sketch by drawing on every veteran they’ve either known or seen in a film. The closing is beautifully vague:
Home the hero
tosses the papers
into a rusty tin tub
splashes in a dash
of high-flash kerosene
and a goddamned handy
Using thirty-seven precise words, “The Inner Life of Words” exposes heart, leaving us “listening // from the heart / of the heart.”
The narrator of “After Hearing of Your Suicide” examines both the resulting grief and their sense of culpability:
Did I notice? Did I listen?
or did I lean my head
at the right angle to convey attention,
then place a bookmark between your words
so my mind could wander off in the woods instead?
For readers who have lived in rural or smaller urban towns, “Shift Change” (p. 21) holds a most relatable, and carefully alliterative, verse: “Street lamps would flit on and off, fitful, / forgetful, an erratic glimmer along darkened / streets neon-lit by a few small shops.”
Out of fairness to the reader, enough; there’s not a single piece here unworthy of being pointed out. In the end, despite deeply plumbed wells, these are surprisingly gentle poems. There are no eruptions of anger at others or the narrator’s memories. Instead, there is honesty in these poems that is careful and caring. Out of fairness to yourself and the poet, add a copy to your library.
======About the reviewer:Lennart Lundh is a poet, short-fictionist, historian, and photographer. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.
Hand on my Heart
By Anara Guard
New Wind Publishing, 2019
Review by Lennart Lundh
In its thirty-six free-verse poems, Anara Guard’s collection, Hand on my Heart, unflinchingly approaches the narrator’s personal and public lives, complete with joys and tragedies both mundane and spiritual. Serious and direct, Guard consistently fills her ruminations with wonderful images. The language is clear and carefully chosen, the subjects and references cross-generational.
“Yes, She Knew” speaks to Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” answering what the poet sees as its central question quickly and directly, following with vivid imagery as proof:
They flew above the forests
heaving with rain,
and she watched the flamingos dance
their pink seduction.
She saw the deserts,
scraped clean to the bone.
In contrast, “>45” answers its question, “What is greater than forty-five?” by way of a clever, and clearly political, list poem that always and never names its subject:
Bottles of beer on the wall
Cards in a deck, even after we remove all the jokers
Colors in the big box of crayons
Native American nations
before concluding, “what is greater than 45? // We are.”
After “Hole in My Head” reminds us of the fragility of memories (“Where is that word? / I need it to fill a hole / in my heart.”), “Regret” warns, through their similarity to a garden, against failing to deal with them in time:
I have waited too long to prune
and my roses have grown tangled
and straggly. They resist
all efforts to tame them now.
Miscarriages and drownings. Recycling. Love, with its resilience or departure. The inevitable growth of a child and the lessons contained therein. Hand on My Heart is a marvelous gathering of Life’s examples to us, deserving from start to finish of your time.
About the reviewer:
Lennart Lundh is a poet, short-fictionist, historian, and photographer. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.
In the Dark, Soft Earth
Poetry of Love, Nature,
Spirituality and Dreams
By Frank Watson
Plum White Press, 2020
Review by Mary Beth Bretzlauf
I was given an Advanced Reader Copy of this book due to be released later this year. Having one of the first looks at this collection is like opening up a journal found hidden away in a cave forgotten by man for centuries. When you open this book, you are greeted with a welcome – a contemporary haiku – a road sign as we travel through these pages.
in the subtle underpinnings
of this soft earth
I picture Frank Watson writing from a mystical castle, rooted in the dark, soft earth and yet soaring into the sky. Wistful, he watches the journey of his silhouetted love sailing above the water. That is the imagery that wrapped around me as I read the book. If you want to be taken away to an ancient world, learn of old, lost love, then this is the poetry book for you.
Artwork accompanies much of the poet’s work in this publication. The visual art compliments the poems that speak of another place, another time. While much of the artwork is in the public domain, other were used by permission.
The book is broken up into ten books.
Within the Weeping Woods
Between Time and Space
A Dance Between the Light
Beneath the Raven Moon
An Entrance to the Tarot Garden
Across the Continents
Stories Before I Sleep
So much of nature and time are a part of this collection. You can almost feel the earth, sand or moss between your toes as he leads us into the glimpses of his world that he allows us to see. I expect to smell the earth, be enshrouded in a cool mist from the sea.In the poem Fossils, Watson writes:
in two thousand years
they will find an oak fossil
with the lovers’ names
and in the poem Rhythms, the last stanza gives us another glimpse:
in this country
made of trees
the music sleeps
between the leaves
I found Book 8, entitled ‘An Entrance to a Tarot Garden’ to be the most interesting – bringing to life the soul of the characters from the ‘High Priest’ to ‘Death’, to ‘The Countess’. Having the artwork next to the poems adds that extra dimension for contemplation.
This is definitely a book to read at your leisure. A few of his poems make sharp changes that distract the reader. Many of Watson’s poems will lift you in a fanciful journey with that long-ago lover for which he still pines.
By Mary Jo Balistreri
FutureCycle Press, 2018
Review by Mary Beth Bretzlauf
blazing firewood… be drink cider with a bite
So begins my journey into the still life this book represents. Yet, her poems paint anything but stillness.
I read Still by Mary Jo Balistreri twice before I felt I could share my experience with you. I felt that I had met an instant friend and I wasn’t ready to share her with you just yet.
I’m just going to put it out there - Mary Jo is a marvel to the world. With her musical and artist souls braided together, she vrafted a collection that had me soaring and diving into the pictures she painted for the reader with her lyrical words.
Even now, I am longing for the beaches at sunrise, to imagine myself painting with Van Gogh as my inspiration. I feel a need to enter her world again.
She took me on a journey – of young married life with all its gushy love, of sadness scattering like weeds coming through the cracked pavement. Of silent hours where our minds are anything but silent, but chasing the unattainable, dreaming of another life and shouting at the world.
Her artist’s eye pulled me along as she wondered of Van Gogh and how colors were his words in “Dear Vincent”. She weaves concertos with colors in “Improv Blue” “Without A Voice” is a rallying cry to women to not remain silent, still – that we must speak. It is a timely message to all generations of women. She ends it with this line: at what point in speaking the language of silence do we become a quarry of stone?
In “How to Deal with the Dead” I am comforted with the knowledge they are still among us – so helpful to me since I lost my father a few months ago.
I would write about more of her poems inside the covers of Still – but I want you to feel them for yourself. You won’t look at colors the same again, especially, orange.
By Mary Jo Balistreri
FutureCycle Press, 2018
Review by Charlotte Digregorio
Award-winning Poet and Author Mary Jo Balistreri has written a book that you’ll keep coming back to on your bookshelf. Still is an adventure to read with many experiences we can all relate to. The poems are like stories. At times, she speaks of sorrowful experiences–from cancer to family illness/deaths, but she always comes back to hope for the opportunity of beginnings, appreciation, and gratitude for the beauty of life that surrounds us.
Here is one poem:
Waiting for The Light Rail
by Mary Jo Balistreri
She sits in an alcove of light and dark,
a pause between coming and going.
She’s an empty bench, a blank sheet of paper,
a sign askew, a mouthful of air,
a pencil in hand, and the now of now.
In the spaciousness of release, her mind fills
with words, the words become flesh,
and a cement shelter melds with the loam
of a thousand fields, fragrant as the fleshy blooms
that dangled from her father’s pear trees. Now on the cusp
of summer, the wind ruffles her hair, rustles leaves
she cannot see, carries the whistle of the oncoming train—
and is the breath that writes the living poem,
Balistreri has a talent for poetic imagery with consummate sensory appeal. Her elegant language is music with her background as a professional musician.Here are some of my favorite lines from a variety of poems:
• In the waning light, beech trees along the river/ morph into pillars of a faraway temple.
• frosted window panes/ spangles of dreamscapes/ like antique lace
• wings flicking just slightly upward before/graceful, gangly legs drop down into courtships of bows and leaps,/jumps and pirouettes.
• The last sunflower in the barrel/ closed its petals this morning/ragged cloak faded
• the diamond-dazzle or sheen of light/ swallowing sailboats in its maw.
• Let your eyes rest where the red of winter wheat/flames in a prairie you thought bare
• I inhale marsh and musk./The plonk of a carp emphasizes the silence
• the silver-gray splay of light after storms,
• my father, who doesn't recognize my face./Sometimes he hums snatches of songs,/but he has lost the key,/his shadowed smile uncertain.
This is a book that poets and non-poets will appreciate. It will encourage everyone to notice the beauty around them, and to capture and write about it. Highly recommended for yourself or to gift to others.
By Gregg Dotoli
Subterranean Blue Poetry Imprint, 2019
Review by Mary Beth Bretzlauf
It is clear from the start that poet Gregg Dotoli knows his heart. So many of the poems are love poems. His euphoric love for an individual, and the crushing of the heart at the end of a relationship is clear but so is his love for this earth. That is the key to his poetic soul, I think.
There are several poems that refer to his youth, the coming of age in the 1960’s and how the Vietnam War changed so much of what he and his generation thought. In Come on Dream, I feel the urgency to find the REM state to seek the solace that you only find in dreams.
There are so many poems that resonated with me – the anguish in Last Dance (Climate Tears). The pain of losing Nature in such a reckless manner is so devastating to him that you are bereft as well after reading some of these poems. Other poems, A Sense of Scent, Grace Gifts, and Seeds also grabbed me.
I found a couple of poems lost behind a black page and a few pieces of artwork that seemed too dark. I was left wondering what the original piece really looked like.
All in all, this was a poetic journey that kept me turning the page.
Beneath The Surface: A Book of Poems
By Barbara Garay
Self-published; available on Amazon.com
Review by Mike Freveletti
Beneath the Surface, by Barbara Garay, is a collection of poems with strong personal narrative focused on trauma, love, and respect for the adventure of life. Garay mentions the influence of thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, De Beauvoir, and Levinas. I found I didn’t need to be well versed in philosophy to enjoy what this collection had to offer.
The collection is broken into five thematic sections: Roots, Love, Heartbreak, Inner Struggles, and Resilience. The poet has, with the help of a photographer, interspersed black and white photos, which lend to the earnestness of the collection and further accentuates the mood of the poems. I have never been a huge fan of rhyming poetry, but I do understand its place in the genre, and I can appreciate it when it’s done well. Reading lines like “beneath the stars/measuring/the depth of our scars/ruminating/on our immanence/while losing our innocence," you see a poet who understands pacing and how rhyming can be deployed in a way that’s pleasant to read, even out loud.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was reading a memoir in verse. A memoir is only as interesting as the subject who’s decided to let us in. When you’re treated to emotional, heartfelt writing about someone else’s experiences that could’ve only been shared through the poetic medium, I think that’s an extraordinary honor. I was offered a window into the mind of the poet talking about abuse and its ability to stick in the psyche like a parasite in the poem “Abuse”: “she hides/inside her mind/and prays for a hand that’s kind/but continual silence/ . . .” You feel the difficulty of being heard, and when the poem ends with, “with ashen waste/that is still felt/inside her mouth/this-very-day,” you get to see poetry as the perfect vehicle for the things we need to say but are sometimes unsure how.
As I read the collection, the one word that continued to flash in my mind was cohesion. Poetry collections that claim some connective tissue between poems sometimes fail in telling a story, but with this book, I felt I had gotten my beginning, middle, and end. Cohesion is not always something I require in my reading, but the author was successful with this group of poems.
Garay’s introduction describes poems as snapshots frozen in time, and she’s right. Beneath the Surface gives us a moment in time full of instances, feelings, and reckonings, all of which help us understand how each is a factor in the understanding of who we really are. She tells us a story in short bursts, which makes connections with our lives, while trying to better remember all the details therein. “We endure, we learn, we rise, and we evolve,” Garay says, and I’d say her poetry is evidence that she’s done just that.
Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution
By Jianqing Zheng
Texas Review Press, 2018
Review by Lois Baer Barr
Reading Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the “El”
The “El” cannot distract you
from Jianqing’s toil
in leech filled rice fields
hungry as only a boy
just out of high school can be
so hungry the setting sun is a big tomato
toothed in half by hills
a jeremiad against religion
from the rider next to you
with frayed rope for a belt
is drowned out by a hammered
dulcimer that dares to play
other music, de-revolutionary songs
despite the roaring motor
the clack of old tracks
you watch the sun become a red dot
then the red eyes of a tired farmer
then the glow of his cigarette
on a darkening porch.
You feel numbness
and anger when a peasant
announces Mao has died.
Laugh when the poet’s
ten-year-old kid tweets
from Tiananmen Square
Papa, who’s Chairman Mao?
You manage to transfer
from Red Line to Purple
but miss the teakettle whistle
at the “S” curve
miss the call
“Sedgewick is next!”
Push your way out
at the last minute
into a pocket of poverty
in a cloak of gentrification.
Note: The words in italics are from Jianqing Zheng’s Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Texas Review Press, 2019) 36 pages. Zheng was one of millions of young students sent to the countryside to be reeducated by the peasants. Neither mind-numbing labor nor hunger could obliterate this foreign language student’s curiosity, appreciation of nature and poetic ear. Finely tuned imagistic poems tell his story with economy, humor and compassion.
By Carol L. Gloor
Word Poetry, 2018
Review by Jen Meyer
In her full length collection of poetry, Falling Back, published by Word Poetry in 2018, Carol L. Gloor has carefully tended to the form her poems take, the thoughtful examination of subject matter and the descriptive language used to add dimension and expression to her poetry. All comes together in a cohesive and satisfying work.
The form of Gloor’s poetry is well chosen to fit the content. Poems with multiple, short stanzas strip the stories and images down to their essence. Gloor uses couplets in a few of the poems. In ‘At Hancock Fabrics’, the couplets stitch the poet’s experience and observations together. The single-spaced prose format with and without punctuation intensifies and consolidates the subject matter. For example, in ‘Three Screws’ the run-on narration describes the frenetic mind grappling with life’s recent challenges including the suicide of a friend’s son. At times, Gloor indents consecutive lines as if creating a list to check off as in, ‘You Cannot Call Yourself a Nature Lover’. This creates a lovely rhythm, especially when read aloud. The title poem of the collection is centered on three stanzas of three lines with increasing indentation in each stanza. The pattern of three mirrors the three section structure of the book. The indentations of the lines emphasize each stanza to suggest the trajectory and rhythm of life.
Like the format of the title poem, the book is divided into three sections; ‘Carbon’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Crossing’. Through each section, Gloor weaves common threads; the wonders of the natural world, intimate portraits of people, and the transience of life. The work as a whole has the perspective of looking at the world from the autumn season of one’s life as Gloor carefully curates her memories. Her poetry resonates with courage, curiosity and strength. It’s a clarion call to pay attention.
In the section entitled Carbon, there is the remembrance of the past and a tender look at loss. Gloor contrasts the intensely personal memories and longings that linger by drawing our attention to ephemera in poems like ‘Beets’ and ‘Dandelions’. This section concludes with a consideration of simplicity and what objects and memories we choose to hold onto and what we should let fly (‘Above Miami’).
The next section, ‘Chicago’ is an ode to the city. Gloor sketches the people she encounters, from the riders of trains to those asking for spare change. This portrait of big city life looks at both the intensity of a metropolis always on the move and the peacefulness of the natural places also found there. Gloor elevates midwestern weather to a new level in the poems that depict the weather Chicago’s inhabitants celebrate, endure, long for and spurn.
The final section, ‘Crossing’ savors the passage of seasons and years, the journey to other places and another phase of life. And while there is wisdom and reflection, there is novelty and the unknowable. Several poems in this section capture the lessons of solitude, loneliness and being alone. This section juxtaposes fear with courage and embraces both as in ‘Pine Lake’ and ‘Small Things’.
Gloor excels with descriptive language that takes us from the minuteness of baby mice in ‘Chaco Canyon’ to the vastness of space in ‘Voyager Enters Deep Space’. She shows the intimacy of a marriage and the public consequences of the industrial take over of farming. Her word choices can create a crescendo or a whip crack to draw attention. The descriptions capture the physicality of time passing as in the high school graduate reclining on the roof of a car (‘Jackie Deering is Dead’) and playing with a sagging basketball that needs more air (‘Baskets’). Descriptions that run into the next line bring the subject into sharper focus. An example of this can be found in ‘My Viet Nam’ when she writes “high blue / day of crocuses, new grass, tight buds”, and in ‘School Christmas Concert: December 1989’ where it describes the school as a “Battered brick mountain, this / graffitied, paint peeling, shouting school”. Alliteration is found in many of the poems such as ‘Chaco Canyon’ and ‘Common’ and adds to their enjoyment. The discoveries of in-line rhymes such as “graves of slaves” in ‘Antebellum’ and “the October leaves of locust trees” in ‘Dominion of Light’ help to paint an impressionistic picture. Gloor can conjure up sensory images in her descriptions from the smell of her mother’s pillow to the warm radiator where the cat rests.
Carol L. Gloor is a caretaker of words. From the descriptive language, the shape words take on a page and the content, this is a well-crafted collection of poetry. Share this book with a friend. Share it with a poetry group. Share.
Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs & Spices
By Cynthia Gallaher
The Poetry Box, 2018
Review by Lennart Lundh
Cynthia Gallaher's newest collections of poems, Epicurean Ecstasy, is exactly what the subtitle promises: more verse about food, drink, herbs, and spices. The "more" references a previous chapbook, Omnivore Odes, while the promised topics are delivered in full across the sixty-four poems included. We begin the buffet with champagne and eggs, proceed through various offerings of fruits, vegetables, and spices, and spend the last third of our time at the table amongst the delightful and healing herbs. Along the way, our guide treats us to histories, geographies, and lists of uses. From "Egg World" (page 13):
taking the same time as an over-easy whirl,
adding orderly, odd moments to peck around
and get cozy on her nest,
the chicken lays her egg.
"Massachusetts Cranberries" (page 21) asks:
. . .are they gathered like scarlet colonies
of miniature planet mars vanquished to earth,
set loose from ancient-armored spaceship barrels[?]
while "Purple Coneflower Echinacea" (page 78) is credited with:
with abundant arsenals
of roots in our cellars
to help make the common cold
Overall, the poems are entertaining and enlightening. The choice of free verse for a collection which is light, but not frivolous, seems perfect. Forced rhyme on top of the easy-going tone might have lent a nursery rhyme feel, as it does momentarily when "The Irish Potato Famine" (page 54) unexpectedly dips briefly into and out of an abcb pattern.
The risks of rhyme having been wisely sidestepped, as a reader I found occasional difficulties with the flow of some of the poems. In addition to a general absence of leading capitalization, there is an inconsistency in the use of punctuation, leading to a mix of very fragmentary and very long strings of clauses running across multiple verses, as in "All-American Blueberries (page 19). This is, of course, a function of the poet's voice, and I know from experience that Gallaher reads her poems wonderfully to her audience. For the reader coming to these poems for the first time by way of the page, however, there are some slippery spots to navigate.
Absent in the tight focus on the specific subjects of Gallaher's collection, and I think intentionally, is much in the way of human association with food. The reader is gently lectured, but there are no universal conclusions drawn. The few exceptions, such as the close of "Humble Onion" (page 60) and the beautiful "Sage, Cedar and Sweetgrass: Sacred Healing Smoke" (page 70) are noteworthy. This is not a shortcoming, and indeed might be the only practical way to approach the poet's chosen task.
Epicurean Ecstasy is a project at which Gallaher fully succeeds. Any reader wanting what might be thought of as the backstory or personal life of food will be amply rewarded.
About the reviewer: Lennart Lundh is the author of sixteen books of poetry, two collections of short-fiction, and six works on military aviation history. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.
Poems by Caroline Johnson
(Holy Cow! Press, Duluth, 2018;
Review by Lennart Lundh
This review originally appeared simultaneously in Bosphorous
Review of Books and Unlikely
Stories Mark V early in November, 2018.
Caroline Johnson's The Caregiver takes the reader hand-in hand through the landscape of a loved one's terminal illness and death, not once, but twice, illuminating the overlapping journeys of her father and mother from her own positions as adult child, caregiver, and sister traveler. Following a brief foreword to provide helpful backstory and (auto)biography, the full weight of Johnson's words is borne by an introductory poem and three sections of varying length. Without exception, the poems gifted to the reader are conversational in nature, part of an important but never pedantic dialogue between all parties. There is no hiding behind vague symbols or secret handshakes, and Johnson proves her mastery of the wordsmith's task by always ensuring that this discussion is primary, form never overwhelming function.
As introduction, "Sunsets" outlines the tensions, minutiae, and love in the transitional ground between the plains of home and family and the treacherous grounds of lives ending. "He says he's looking for his glasses, another / thing for me 'to bitch about.'" "I cook them frozen pizza and clean / after them." Finally, it warns us of what's to come with the image of "the red flag / blowing . . . like a ghost." This, ultimately, is what the collection and the reality behind it are about in perfect summation.
The twenty poems in the first section focus on the poet and her father. True to her nature as caretaker-child, he is never far from her thoughts; even during a moment as mundane as seeing a turtle cross a bike trail, she writes in "Crossing" that, "I thought of you, dear father, / moving across unstable ground . . ." If there are losses for both to deal with -- surrendering car keys, moving from cane to walker, walker to wheel chair and hospital bed -- there are moments that stabilize the spinning world -- watching a Bond thriller together in "James", recalling family moments and stories from the poet's childhood in "Becoming Erudite":
You told me
to close my eyes, but I remember
peeking at a blinking Christmas light. Your voice was smooth, intoxicating
like the vodka tonic on the side table.
And, running through the lives of the parties to this trip across impossible mountains and seemingly unfordable rivers, lying beneath the hours of loving attention to another's pains and needs above one's own, there's an understanding of the inevitable, best declared in "Gliding," where Johnson muses, "Yet I know it's going to end. / You are going to die. I am going / to die."
In the second section, running parallel for a time to the father's battle with irreversible neurological disorders, we hear of the poet's caregiving for her mother, suffering from advancing (and ultimately fatal) dementia. The seventeen poems here reflect the same essential struggles and joys faced with her father's decline, as in "Shut-Ins", which closes with, "So I walk, my legs weak, // . . . into the dark night and towards Mrs. Smith, / my first lesson in kindness.", or "Alzheimer's Dream", which begins, "You're a stranger to me now, / though I've known you all my life." There is also, in these poems, a sense of deeper affection -- an emotion different from love or devotion -- between these two adult women than between adult daughter and father, an attitude which doesn't demean the latter, but seems simply normal and adds a less painful note to the reality of their situation. Again from "Alzheimer's Dream":
Let's try not to remember,
have a drink to forget
that we ever once met a lifetime ago
when I called you mother
and needed you so.
From its epigram, one might expect the final section to be given over to grief, and if it were rooted in the Five Stages such works would not be out of place. I suspect, however, that after twelve years as caregiver, Johnson's grief has largely been processed by the time her parents walk on. The closing thirteen poems are, instead, much more, and more fittingly, memento mori and gathered loose ends. The opening piece, "What Got Him Here," considers that question, while "Changing Lanes" reviews the mother's wake and fittingly says, "My mom's heart is not tiny." "Ode to My Father's Nursing Home" describes the patients as much as the place, returning to the earlier image of humans in their final years as turtles who "only want to escape their habitat, / tuck their limbs inside dark shells, and go home." And, finally, "Der Schrei -- for Mother and Father (after Allen Ginsburg)", with its howled scream and its lamentations of life's cruelties, takes a calming breath and recalls: "I'm with you in Plainfield, and I don't blame you for trying to escape. / . . . pick me up, and we take off into the starry night."
As poet and reader, I appreciate and applaud the well-executed craft of Caroline's unblinking recollections. As an old man, with both parents and in-laws in their Nineties and all of us inevitably declining at varying velocities, I find The Caregiver to be honest, both a painful and relieving read. Those who have walked these paths will find reason in the fifty-one poems here to both smile and cry, and I believe will find their time with another traveler amply rewarded. Those who have not yet set out will do well to remember Johnson's words when they need guidance one day.
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Highland Park Poetry receives 2018 Mayor's Award for the Arts
Presented at October 15, 2018 City Council meeting. Back row (L to R): Adam Stolberg, Kim Stone, Daniel Kaufman, Nancy Rotering, Tony Blumberg, Alyssa Knobel, Michelle Holleman; Front row: Cathy Ricciardelli (Cultural Arts Commission Chair), Rita Yager, Jennifer Dotson, Emma Alexander Kowalenko, Joseph Kuhn Carey
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