March 30, 2014

Luminous Book: A Review of Maura High’s The Garden of Persuasions by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press

The Garden of Persuasions by Maura High
Jacar Press 2013

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Maura High’s life and work have brought her from Wales to Nigeria and North Carolina, but her poems focus on ordinary, if intense, moments that reflect her interest in Asian poetry and Zen Buddhism. For example, High merges the commonplace incident of a bird’s fatal flight into a picture window with the infinity of disappearance, as of human airplane passengers, in “Exemplary Statements, with Meanings and Annotations.” This small death provides a glimpse into a great mystery:
…A bead
of blood leaking from its beak

To be flying in that blue
and then suddenly to be going

(we say, as if there were
some place to go to) and then gone
Each poem’s title in The Garden of Persuasions (winner of the Jacar Press 2013 Chapbook Contest) is taken from a bibliography of ancient Chinese works and commentaries. In fact, the book’s title poem bears the name of a story collection compiled during the Han Dynasty (1st century BCE). Along with the brushstrokes of the cherry tree branches in Jinxiu Alice Zhao’s cover illustration and the four ideographs that translate the title page, this decision underscores High’s subtle yet rich artistic technique.

High’s repeated use of brief lines—three to seven syllables—and her strong relationship to nature make her images as vivid as haiku. Her juxtaposition of short lines with longer lines in couplets, tercets, and one-line stanzas, as well as her frequent omission of punctuation brings an almost breathless tension to such poems as “Grand Mystery, with Collected Commentaries,” in which the reader feels as much as sees a snake’s entrance into water. As High describes the scene, it is almost as if the reader has become the alien creature:
A long brown snake
scribbled downslope

and slipped into the water without a splash

The pond sealed over as if
nothing had happened

but something did happen…
Even when High’s imagination travels to Ghana, inspired by an artist who makes works from ocean debris, her female beachcomber remains aloof and solitary, caught in the act of gathering essential to any form of creation. In “New Account of Tales of the World,” the artist’s movements become a dance set to an inaudible tune:
…but hers
is a private music—you see it

in her gait and how she bends
and turns and when she stops
to pluck at the strings of a net…
In more than one poem, High seamlessly shifts her attention to the inner world of a child, observed with precise detail—as for example, during the classes that High teaches when she isn’t writing. In “Writings for Elementary Instruction, two young students have very different responses to the national suicide prevention program To Write Love on Her Hands, which gives High a beautiful opportunity to play with her classic sensibility in contemporary time. The speaker attends to her task as the children do to theirs:
The boy wrote in cursive
inside the penciled outline

of his hand Pittsburgh Steelers
and looks over to his sister

who is copying the word LOVE
backward inside her smaller hand



her word, in a space she chooses
among the other hands on the poster

as a gardener slips in a flower
and tamps the earth around it
This fragile flower of love is transformed into a riot of weeds in the chapbook’s title poem. High finds both lushness and stubborn humanity in “…sorrell and chickweed / moss, bluets, onion grass… their arguments as manifold as ours / as stemmed and rooted.” With delicate irony (“…They seem harmless, a gift / from some time before Eden”) she unfolds their glorious—or insidious—tenacity:
…it can take years
for one to make its point

to seed or spread by root
or spore or runner, to crowd

or shade out competitors
a garden cultivating itself
The parallels that High draws between the flawed natural world and the flawed human world become strikingly interchangeable in High’s “Luminous Book,” in which the essence of dying autumn leaves seems to enter the speaker’s library and mingles with the pages of her volumes. As she describes the moment:
The leaves stop breathing and turn
the colors of clay, casting

a russet light across the room

on all my books, their lacunae,
errors, subplots ramifying in all directions …
Here—as elsewhere in The Garden of Persuasions—High’s poetic concentration creates a charged and mystical space. To read Maura High’s work with the careful attention it deserves is to enter a world in which every object is sacred, and to feel, with the speaker, a holy awe at the power inherent in the simple act of handling a book. High ends “Luminous Book” on a note of meditative exhilaration:
…I could take down any one at random
and open it, and bow to the light

emitted by its pages

March 22, 2014

Bittersweet Blossoms: A Review of Sara Henning's A Sweeter Water by Sally Deskins

cover credit: Lavender Ink
A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning
Lavender Ink (2013)

Reviewed by Sally Deskins

Sara Henning’s second poetry collection, A Sweeter Water, is a tough read. As the title suggests, there is a sweeter place out there, and this unsweetened story is about a woman struggling to find it. Much of the poetry collection involves nature with a keen sense of Earth and country. But it takes a few pages to get under the skin of this book and begin to understand what is going on, which is the relationship of the narrator and her father. Henning presents a child’s point of view in the first section and then quickly comes of age after a tragic incident. Readers experience the narrator’s world through her eyes as she literally looks up to her father.

The first piece presents perhaps the happiest moment of the book, “Birthday,” with brief imagery presenting philosophical queries, and intimate foreshadowing for the somber story ahead. Henning writes:
To be a self is to be an incompletion, a yearning for parts…

The day your father looks in your eyes and says daughter is your first birthday.

His eyes the minute they go out, the candles blown.
The poems that commence the collection are abstract, dark, and sometimes disturbing. For example, “How We Love” tells of a python eating a leopard cub, but somehow Henning brings it all back to love:
…Even the leopard carried the cub’s body to a field close to her den, chewed it tenderly to pieces, swallowed each down. Even I still look for your effigy everywhere, practice your body until it is raw susurration, burned not by my throat but my heart. Which of us stays at her guttural refrain for days, though our love was never so close to our hunger? What is love but a set of urges?
Themes about animals and the body further interweave as the narrator delves graphically deeper into existential dilemmas, such as in “Three Themes on Rescue.” As she tries to save a hen found lying on the side of the road, readers see her love of animals and tender spirit, her deep yearning for saving something from death, and the sadness of her past:
I held her still
when she brooded,
cloaca tight with the next
egg’s clench and spasm,
imagining my mother
on the bathroom floor,
blood from the miscarriage
like urine staining
the animal’s tail,
Father three weeks dead.
Direct emotion is displayed in “How She Loves Me,” a standout piece where the raw despair of experiencing a paternal suicide is realized through her relationship with her mother. Henning explains:
…so I’d learn to want her apology pressed onto
my heart like a spray of oleander, on it the words
sunder, daughter, bitter indictment, something to hold
at the end of my sorrow: sorry he left us without flowers.
Sorry he’s never coming back.
Readers further witness the narrator’s troubled adolescence as she seems to grow up in an instant. Her body continues to play a strong role as she grasps at the living. This is powerfully stated in “Lost Things.” Henning writes:
…all these failed translations that feed my mind and not my heart. The tom was cold when I touched my face to his fur; my brother is marrying a woman I have never spoken to, and yet this urge is here to name things which I am not: hen’s wing ripped off by a dog, mother burning my childhood on a pyre, childhood expunged from my body like a struggling sack of sugar.
She comes of age in “Adolescence,” a stellar rendition of the wretchedness of age thirteen, especially in her state, with poignant visualizations. She states:
I tried to read their futures
from the tealeaves of their broken hearts,
beer stolen from neighbor’s basement coolers,
cigarettes dangling between slim, shaking fingers,
where could they situate
the blank slate before a boy (which boy)
could bruise them, is it redemption
in the liberty of being left out past curfew,
longing for a future
that won’t martyr them silently
Moving and despairing realizations during intimate moments reveal her anguish of “the hinge between girlhood and womanhood exchanging masks. And through sleepovers and her first kiss, readers experience how much the narrator’s body is interwoven in girlhood and becoming a woman, and how heartbreak can impact relationships. But there is hope toward the end of the collection with “Glass Negative” and the last piece, “To Speak of Dahlias.” The narrator allows deep and sad reflection on her childhood, adolescence, her body, past relationships, and the present. She writes:

instead of howl—buried them
until frost became
dahlia blossom,
luminous material
growing from earth
that once burned.
 *
“And I’m left with dahlias,
deluges, ladder to nowhere
but the sky.”
These metaphors of “howling” as perhaps crying, and the beautiful flowers growing from the earth that “once burned” suggests that through it all, reaching bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. So ends Henning’s truly raw and telling account of one woman’s life through parental struggles and her own as she deals with the regular struggles of adolescence, relationships and life’s meanings. Through intimate relationships with nature, animals, and the body, readers witness and recognize an important exploration and elaboration of extremely intense sides of life.  A Sweeter Water is a welcome, albeit complex, introduction to Henning’s work.

March 15, 2014

Magnifying Life’s Silences: A Review of Leigh Anne Hornfeldt's East Main Aviary by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Flutter Press
East Main Aviary by Leigh Anne Hornfeldt
Flutter Press (2012)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

The narrative “tour” the reader experiences through both physical and emotional realms in East Main Aviary is by turns haunting and nostalgic, with poems that are intimate yet detached. The tensions and comfort of past, present, and future come together in the lead poem, “Driving Back We Pass My Parent’s Home,” where readers are told upfront: “This never means the same thing twice. / Tonight our children sleep in the back seat.” As the poem, like the car, moves forward, memories are roused: “Under that pinoak I crept, / kissed a boy in porchlight pallor… // By the juniper I snuck my first cigarette…” It is “too late for visit,” and Leigh Ann Hornfeldt has visions of her parents, separate and familiar in their unhappy spheres, even as she reaches for her husband’s hand, heading into “the familiar darkness ahead.”

Her first collection contains narratives with vivid, often musical language. “Flowering Plum” captures the ravages of unbridled growth and neglect with imagery and alliteration:
Your promised greens
plummet into deep purple,
you flood with color, clots
clinging on the white-molded boughs
which break to my touch …
Why should the caterpillars love you more
than this oak, uncrippled and not fraught?
In “As the Sparrows Fall,” the troubling discovery of a yard of dead birds leads to grief and panicked speculation.
How I worried that winter, wanted to know what
I’d done wrong to bring such plague
upon our yard: Were the feeders teeming
with bacteria, had the black oil sunflower seed gone bad?
Seasonal and emotional planes intersect in “Where Our Aprils Meet,” where a bird’s “needled cry / threads back and forth, stitches days together / like a hand-sewn quilt…” and there was “the old book smell of smoke and woods / in our hair.” The poet and a companion tend to flower beds (“heirloomed irises / and sprawling tiger lilies”) near a place where the natural world becomes entangled in human debris, but the force of life persists: “…we found the Killdeer’s nest in the vacant lot / of weeds and crushed beer cans, // behind the rusted wire fence and honeysuckle. / She feigned lame, flopped like a wrung chicken / to draw us away from her eggs…”

Sometimes Hornfeldt’s simplicity can be as startling as her more elaborate, descriptive language. There is an aching precision in how she conveys loss and longing, as in “Freshly Missing” in which a woman’s first son is described as a “murdered blur.” The event left her “…changed / a gaping hole scratched in the nest bottom / leaving her wringing hands in dumbness / leaving her tonguing suicide without tiring” until another son filled the hovering emptiness. In “Absence,” the poet shares the gap and murmur of her own experience:
Yours left me
exploring childhood
the way tongue
searches the hole
where once
there was baby
tooth, the way
tongue stumbles
blindly across
that gap,
rush
of warm air
as the mouth mimes
brother.
Without being sentimental or self-indulgent, Hornfeldt deftly probes looming and impenetrable spaces of grief, longing, and love. There is eloquent precision in how she recreates quiet and disquieting moments of coming-of-age, flashes of mortality, and growing into the whole of oneself. East Main Aviary is an elegant, often wistful collection of memories, rites of passage, and revelatory moments that are poignant markers in a poet’s personal journey.

March 8, 2014

A Queen's Man: A Review of Laura Madeline Wiseman's Queen of the Platform by Sally Deskins

cover credit: Anaphora Literary Press
Queen of the Platform by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Anaphora Literary Press (2013)

Reviewed by Sally Deskins

Poet Laura Madeline Wiseman burrowed through hundreds of historic newspapers, three books, and letters, poems, and hymns while researching her great-great-great-grandmother, Matilda Fletcher Wiseman (1842-1909). Although “a photograph of Matilda has yet to be found,” the author introduced us to her kin in Men And Their Whims. With Queen of the Platform, Wiseman lets readers in deeper with the 19th century lecturer, suffragist, and poet, as well as Wiseman herself. With her graceful rhythmic flare, and real and imagined homey narrative, she presents upended views of the meaning of equality via the men around her suffragist ancestor in the time before women could vote.

In Men and Their Whims, readers see deep insight into the relationship between Wiseman and her brother, Civil War veteran and accused murderer George Felts (1843-1921), as well as her first husband, John Fletcher. But in Queen of the Platform, readers see more of Matilda through her second husband, Wiseman’s great-great-grandfather, minister Albert Wiseman.

Readers peruse Matilda’s first meeting with Albert in “A Door Opens.” He is seen as a “doorway of light,” which foreshadows his heartening presence. In “Prothalamion,” the title refers to a poem by Edmund Spenser, composed for the twin marriage of the daughters of the Earl of Worcester. Although Albert Wiseman does not become married to two women, perhaps his two marriages are to Matilda the woman and to her speaking career. She writes:
“Do you wonder

that when you travel alone
whether he will light the lamp,

clip the paper headlined
by Matilda Fletcher,
and wait
for the distant roar,

for a whistle
to pierce the night?

Don’t wonder. He will.
His heart is man.”
As the story continues, we observe Matilda as a professional woman before women could vote. She asks herself honest and still resonant queries in “Votes for Women:” “Who deserves rights? Which of us gets to be fully human? ...Which doors are shut to women? ...What do I want to do?”

Matilda’s active spirit is risen again as she dines with Susan B. Anthony in “Traveling with Luminaries with Friends,” wherein the author takes readers on a dreamy spin, as many-a-women have wished to dine with their heroes. She writes: “…She squeezed my hand. / I felt myself go pink as I thought of my talent / for the platform, my ambition, this life I chose. / I squeezed hers and said, I’m adding my voice.

The anticipation and excitement for the cause mounts with “A Spirited Lecture.” Wiseman writes: “Equal Rights Party delegate meeting to nominate their presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, New York, May Day, 1872.” And readers feel the thrill as the author describes the sounds, garb, the moment the first woman was nominated for president: “All arms lifted in the call to her, Victoria! A country girl / turned millionaire, Victoria! A Wall Street Broker, Victoria! / / A leader who listened to voices, Victoria! A namesake / of victory, Victoria!

Perhaps the most striking poems of the book come from the last personable pieces that read as though they are written from the author’s point of view, and instill feminist mutual support. In “Speaking to My Dead: Matilda Fletcher Wiseman” she movingly questions her own research, echoing that of Matilda’s previous own questioning and self-actualization. She asks:
“Will the dead hear me, Matilda, if I call? Will you?
...
You patented a traveling trunk for women. You wrote bills
passed into law. All of your brothers served in the war
….
You’ve been dead a hundred years. I begin this search for you.”
Wiseman then collages descriptions of Matilda in “Spell for Appearances: Clipped Notes on Matilda” and “Charms Against Critics: Contradicting Opinions,” exemplifying the cyclical nature of politics, sexism in media, and hearsay. Too, the ever-diligent life of a professional woman in “II. Judge Hilton and the Women’s Hotel” is displayed as doors literally open and close for Matilda. Wiseman describes:
“…Lady physicians couldn’t
Have libraries in their rooms. Lady artists couldn’t have
Easels. Lady musicians couldn’t have instruments.

Sheesh, she hated to kneel to any man for charity.

It isn’tLike a kingdom. But if it were, he’d never be selected as King.”
Ironically or considerably, then, the author claims a man as Matilda’s main support system—as almost the reason for her strength and contentment: “a good husband.” For example, in  “III. Secrets, Spells and Love”:
“Her neighbors seethed. She had an enchanting disposition
and a good husband. Wise woman! All this, her secret.”
In the 1960s, a feminist slogan was preached widely: “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” With Queen of the Platform, Wiseman suggests that there is a great man behind—and moreover, beside—each great woman. In “A Memory of Trains, of His Consumption,” she explains: “Is man an angel? / —mine were, Al, John, Geo.” Again, Wiseman challenges perceptions of feminism and justice, with her poignant and heartfelt writing via the perspective of the inspiring Matilda and the men around her, whose “names are written in water / and this history is all that we have / rippling between us” (“The History Between Us”). These lost stories of strength and endurance are brought to life as echoes through Wiseman herself: “I write to you” (“Speaking to My Dead: Matilda Fletcher Wiseman”). 

February 23, 2014

The Grass Was the Country: A Review of Sandy Longhorn’s The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press

The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths by Sandy Longhorn
Jacar Press, 2013

Review by Angele Ellis

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. ―Willa Cather, My Antonia

In her second full-length collection (winner of the Jacar Press 2013 Full Length Book Contest), Sandy Longhorn reanimates Cather’s prairie—a fierce, enchanted landscape that becomes as fully realized as the people who inhabit, fight, and succumb to it. Like the dreamy and defiant girls of her fairy tales and myths, Longhorn’s prairie—an anthropomorphic presence, half-human, half-monster—seems to be running, as in “Fairy Tales for Girls in Love with Fire”:
…The horizon
caught fire and the eldest girl fell
for the smell of smoke, craved the heat
of flame and ember. Every adult tried
to hold her back from running toward
the leaping fervor… (38)
All four elements (fire, earth, wind, and water) contribute to the seduction and destruction of Longhorn’s yearning “girls,” in the throes of adolescent angst intensified by the isolation of Longhorn’s personified prairie, and by the patriarchs and matriarchs who abide by its harsh rules. In “Cautionary Tale for Girls Kept Underground in Summer,” a girl abandoned in a “clammy” basement by parents who “had lives to live / in the heat above the ground” becomes part of the earth itself:
…curled in upon herself, her fingers digging, digging
at the crack until she could slip her hands closer
to the dirt. They found her there, immovable,

her limbs tangled in the dense bed of roots, her speech
the foreign tongue of all things planted. (2)
And in “Fairy Tale for Girls Enthralled by the Storm,” “a girl who loved the prairie wind,” and whose father is “unnerved / by the way she smiled like a woman” bides her time until a season of tornadoes provides her with an otherworldly means of escape:
 …One night she slipped from bed and walked
into the rain. She took her place on that slight rise,

called out, was ready to be lifted and transformed. (35)
Longhorn’s precise language, alliterative lyricism, and masterful use of rhyme schemes ground her poems, making their fantastic endings both plausible and moving. Another technique that Longhorn uses brilliantly is the repetition of certain words in her titles and poems, including fairy, tale, cautionary, map, cartography, saint, girl(s). This repetition draws the reader into Longhorn’s spell—as when reading a book of fairy tales—transforming Longhorn’s stories into the reader’s.

Perhaps no story is complete without blood, and without the bloodlines that connect us to the artist’s past, as well as to our own. In “Midwest Nursery Tales,” a fox kills a girl who wanders heedlessly into a ripe field of alfalfa:
…all they found
were her shoes and a patch of blood-red

poppies. Each year those flowers bloomed
no matter how deeply they tilled the soil. (5)
In “It Matters, the Kind of Wound,” “poppies & chilies” bloom from a soil whose accumulated blood “…seeps and stains, marking a new / navigational point—a compass rose, / useless to the one who bled it.” (9)

Bloodlines become particularly poignant in the last of this book’s four sections, “Cartography as Elegy,” which moves from feminist mythmaking to speak more directly of life and death. Armed with “…a map of my home well folded, / creased along gossamer bloodlines” (“Autobiography as Cartography”) (53), Longhorn explores her family history. Throughout “In the Delicate Branches,” she traces her grandmother and mother’s decline:

            …Strong bones and a healthy body
           
can only take a person so far. At some point the heart
has to do its own bidding. At some point you
have to admit that the wolf guards the door. (55)
The mortality of her elders leads the poet to the realization that she may be the last branch of her family tree, in “Choosing Not to Bear”:
…Now, as the hourglass of my womb empties,
I refuse to turn
the moonlight sands
on end again…
           
yet my empty womb is a bursting star…

                      Meanwhile, my mother
lines her life with the silver and gold
            of her last,
                                  her starburst daughter… (56)
As Willa Cather’s “starburst daughter[s]” (in Longhorn’s phrase) rise from the prairie waves to seek and find personal and professional freedom—or in some cases, to be tragically pulled under—so do Sandy Longhorn’s. As Cather makes her “running” prairie the archetypical American heartland, reaching far beyond regionalism to capture the imagination and sympathy of a wide audience, so does Sandy Longhorn in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths.