Philosophical, narrative free verse on life in the desert.
Nominally a book of nouns—the volume’s three division headings are People, Places and Things—Kelley’s poetry is really about present participles. Life in the desert is one of constant motion: “raising children / sweeping floors / milking cows / living lives of seeming desolation”; watching and wishing; and, all too often, of “leaving the land” and “losing it all.” Kelley’s work emphasizes that relentless struggle is as much a part of the desert as wind and sand, describing the setting as a “barren land” where “men die for water” because “sometimes it rains / sometimes flowers bloom / sometimes little tufts of grass / reach skyward. // But mostly it mocks / the dry cracked earth / and steams its way / back into the sky.” An all-encompassing context, the desert never functions as mere backdrop; rather, it infiltrates all, sometimes quite literally, as when the “winds blow / off the Rockies / leaving dirt on the floor, / in the bed, / on the old flowered sofa, / settling softly on the dishes.” Nor are the human inhabitants unaffected. Under the unfiltered glare, men live harsh lives marked by violent ritual, while women labor quietly and unceasingly. Kelley’s portrayals are hardly one-dimensional, however. Her poems capture a complicated, beautiful interplay of human and natural forces. Each of her subjects, no matter how unforgiving the circumstances, “grows into a desert bloom, fragile, beautiful, human.” With such an emphasis on finding meaning in daily activity, it’s appropriate that her mostly unembellished poetry tends toward narrative, marked by short, free-verse lines with common metrical patterns. Visual imagery complements the author’s atmospheric photography. Though occasionally clichéd—an old cowboy’s face is “etched in leather” and wild mustangs sport “flowing manes”—Kelley’s unique explorations into the intersections of ecology and identity make her well worth the read.
Patient, honest investigations of the places where external environment and personal identity clash and reshape one another.
Poet Philip Gaber builds a collection of poems that cover a span of human emotions, from despair to anger, grace, hope, and often painful self-reflection.
This collection of poems builds its momentum in the concrete world, one filled with hospital rooms, canned food, cigarettes, old films and Holiday Inns. Gaber reaches for the real and the undressed inside of conversations, portraits, and even seemingly poignant moments that offer glimmers of grace and humorous humility. The poem that begins the collection describe an aging woman speaking critical of herself: “my lips have become a joke... my eyebrows, exaggerated.” The poet expresses a universal longing that could be attributable to any aging soul looking back over her life wondering what it all means, what kind of identity she has to cling to, and, finally, the embracing of fate. This poem exemplifies the motif that will carry on throughout the poems in the collection. Like many poets, Gaber chooses to highlight specific moments – drives through the night, phone calls with girlfriends or family members, and visits to the dying – to convey a universal truth about loneliness, grief, and sometimes a self-deprecation that is tinted with humor but borders on disgust. In the poem “a rough full-contact love,” the speaker notes, “I always seem to be on the verge of / something terrific like becoming employed again.” He moves between these concrete and blunt verses to lines that open the poem into a more abstract space, such as “I always seem to be thinking up new ways of kissing,” which convey a deeper dissatisfaction or restlessness with mundane domestic life. Gaber's portraits are often funny. In one poem, “she suffers well,” he commits, “Over a plate of beans and onions / she confessed to having a / pool-hall education.” Though sometimes the line breaks are undecipherable and seemingly haphazard, the concrete world grounds these poems in the five senses and gives the reader a visual and aural experience as much as one of human emotion and pensive thought.
Overall, a striking collection of portraits, human interactions, and incidents that draw the magnificent quirks of life from mundane daily practice.
A author juxtaposes poetry and lists of conversational icebreakers in his collection of light verse.
The poems in this book offer tributes to parents and grandparents, meditations on love and life, and small sermons on how to find happiness, peace of mind and success. While George uses rhyme, both external and internal, it is sparse and wonderfully unobtrusive. He achieves this effect by sprinkling his rhymes here and there as needed, like a chef preparing a carefully spiced tropical dish. His book uses island syntax with similar control, just enough to give a touch of flavor without devolving into a parody of itself. The poetry generally lacks strong imagery, which makes the infrequent image sparkle brighter for its rarity: “Come closer and cover me with your sheet of passion / And let’s polish our lips with wetness as we caress.” A similar strategy appears to underlie the “conversational triggers,” which have little or no connection to the poems they face. For the most part, the icebreakers are extremely banal—some to the point of absurdity—and this appears to be precisely the point of lines such as: “She’s so precious. Can you play pool? Some things will never change.” Just as the poems turn up the occasional rhyme, Creole grammar, and sporadic image, these trite statements contain the odd thought-provoking declaration: “Why is the IRS so powerful? Is there a hidden purpose to mega churches?” Such statements become that much more powerful by their proximity to the more hackneyed sentiments.
A small treat that poetry-lovers can finish in one sitting.
Bitting (Good Friday Kiss, 2008, etc.) returns with earthy, adventurous and existential free verse.
Bitting is the rare poet who clearly understands that sublimity is never more than one overwrought image away from absurdity. Though clearly capable of the sublime, she is careful to counterbalance the sacred with the profane and the transcendent with the commonplace in crafting what is, on the whole, a forcefully well-proportioned collection. In “Mammary,” for instance, narrator and reader are transported by a chain of associations from the highway sights outside the narrator’s car to visions of her friend’s body as she undergoes a mastectomy. What begins as psychological free association grows increasingly mystical (and worshipful) as the narrator evokes Promethean suffering—"I imagine birds and flight / as the elliptical sweep of sharpness / cuts the pale sky of your chest, / steel beaks of surgical tools / carving out the flesh cream, / making smoke of tumor meat”—before resurrecting her friend’s breasts as “two blond angels, / flying out / beyond the moon’s milky scar” to “spread their innocence." As counterweight to such moments of profound pathos, Bitting demystifies some of life’s most hallowed experiences, such as in “Birth,” a darkly humorous portrayal of childbirth as a telescoping series of indignities in which a Demerol-injected mother on “a Jimi Hendrix acid trip” greets her “baby’s head galumphing / through the ravaged pit” with “a sphincter blast of feces.” Between these extremes, this collection covers a lot of ground—music, death, sex, family, autism, suicide, aging, food—but it always does so from the perspective of a thoroughly embodied narrator. There is a comfortable, even epicurean, egocentrism to Bitting’s narrators that insists on the primacy of the sensual. In this way, and in the way her narrators respond to mortality by burrowing even further into their own skins, Bitting proves herself a sister poet to Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Sheryl St. Germain. Yet even with her range, lighter poems like “His Hat,” a comic come-on to Johnny Depp, sometimes feel like filler.
Webber offers spiritual verses about what he sees as man’s destructive avarice and the hope that man can heal himself and the world through faith.
Webber’s 72 verses range in tone from that of the majestic beauty of the psalms to the fire and brimstone of Old Testament prophets. His poetry is best suited to Christian readers, as he uses images from the Gospels throughout and weaves in scripture from both the Old and New Testaments to help reinforce his points. In his introduction, the author writes that “God is still speaking,” and another phrase, “Change or be destroyed,” is a major theme. In verse 37, amid two pieces from the New Testament, Webber writes, “Pluck fear from your heart, the Advocate says / erase it from your mind,” apparently inspired by the words of St. Paul. “But the silence is not silence / but the deep rush of inarticulate sound in the ears, / the overtone of a thousand subtle energies,” he writes in verse 57, describing “echoes of the steady work of the Spirit.” Each verse has its own rhythm and builds on its themes; Webber varies his line structure, giving a staccato, urgent feel to the words and message. In one verse, he writes about the language of God: “The true character of words is to shape the persons and occasions they / contain / in the figure of right, / the elastic tug of words / is the force of spirit to the conditions of the world.” Each line is tightly written, sometimes harsh in its message, but always true to Webber’s themes.
A well-written book of verses for the thoughtful Christian reader.
Poet Slatkin (A Woman Milking, 2006, etc.) explores the years she spent caring for her elderly mother.
These poems span a four-year period during which Slatkin’s mother, in dwindling mental health, came to live with her. In free verse framed rhythmically by line and break, the poet’s spare voice effectively conjures both mood and setting. Each short poem evokes a very specific, immediate emotional tableau. Slatkin’s writing demonstrates resilience; she’s vulnerable without being weak. Her fraught relationship with her mother is on full display, as Alzheimer’s (“her memories crushed / by vengeful teeth / that grind treasure”) reignites former quarrels and misunderstandings. Some of Slatkin’s imagery can be haunting, such as when her mother’s medication is reduced—“She is a writhing spider, / all legs in pain”—or when her mother’s blue pills dissolve on her tongue unswallowed, running down her chin and leaving a Papuan tattoo. But the poet’s descriptions also display a wonderful tenderness: “[M]y mother’s breasts / emerge, still pink … And after donning / bra and snapping / straps in place, / she gathers them up / like scooping pliant / honey with a spoon.” Depictions of her mother’s hand, “its gnarled back spotted – / but its guileless palm / soft as a persimmon,” showcase an appreciation of frailty. Occasionally, Slatkin is indecisive, which spoils the effect of her lean lines: “with the inevitability / of a waterfall, / or the persistent tide.” Fortunately for readers, these instances are few and far between bouts of the sublime: “her heart-shaped face / held between my palms, / her eyes locked deeply / into mine, care is transmuted / as coal to diamonds.”
A sharp, luminescent examination of a woman in decline.
A debut book of inspirational poems by a Los Angeles elder.
This is not a book simply to celebrate the well-worn and anticipated verities. The collection pays tribute to a senior’s life—his civic pride, community engagement and commitment to poetry, which has inspired him and provided vision and meaning to his life. Farber divides his poetic exploration into seven sections that offer thanks for his relationship with his wife, his friends, his young granddaughter and for the cultural richness of living in LA—all told with joyous optimism. Written sometimes as prose poems and sometimes as rhyming verse, this self-styled book gives voice to the fears and challenges of growing old. The poems have their dark moments when Farber confronts his angst about his diminished capacities and the prospect of death. He repeatedly overcomes these shadows by choosing an energetic and positive outlook based on his personal philosophy: “To outwit the wisp of elderly years / A Herculean task to conquer fears… / Release the powers of writing, of giving / Experience of life feeds energy in kind / Shields health in body and mind.” The ethos here also embraces the city’s cultural diversity; vibrant ethnic neighborhoods; art and architecture, including Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers: “Man’s inner fortitude and strength / Proudly glows—too hard to measure.” Also celebrated is the artistic fellowship of the author’s poetry class where many of these poems originated—“Inspiration in the poetry class / Fellow poets energize the soul.” As a poetic testament to the many American seniors who give selflessly to their communities, this book delivers its homespun verse with a simple message that will prove satisfying to the reader who wishes to share and learn from the insights of an octogenarian.
An inspirational celebration of the joys, meanings and challenges of senior life in LA.
Martinez’s debut volume of poetry introduces his alter ego, WolfSaint.
As Martinez describes it, his poetic alter ego, WolfSaint, is one person split in two: the “saint,” a loving father and a caring husband; and the “wolf,” a darker being, alone, silent and menacing. Readers will notice that there’s much more wolf than saint in this collection. Martinez’s verse often wanders, lupine, through desolate landscapes, as in “My Land”: “Broken is the father of this place, / Lost amidst a far sand for black blood, / Thousands have died in a crocked race, / Thousands more will perish in its flood.” Sometimes, the wolf succumbs to his manic impulses in the arid lands he inhabits, and Martinez often uses his poetry to vent his anger and rage. In “The Danger with Hate,” he writes “I too can hate, / Even when it dominates my inner being, / Some will criticize me and stories create, / Thus fueling my anger that is steadily fleeing.” Martinez writes in a long Romantic tradition that sees poetry as a vehicle for expressing unruly emotions and letting out violent passions unsuitable for polite company. Unfortunately, he falls into one of the classic Romantic traps: If the author isn’t careful, venting approaches wallowing. As they multiply, Martinez’s valid complaints about God, the world, sin and despair begin to sound like repetitive self-pity. Further, throughout most of the volume, the poet ties himself to a strict, formal rhyme that is more constricting than comfortable. This rigid scheme forces him to twist his syntax into knots that deform his writing, often to a distracting degree. Perhaps in future verse the wolf can roam in free verse.
Through poetry, Chowritmootoo (Conscience, 2008) inspects several facets of eternity, emotion and human interaction.
In his latest book, Chowritmootoo delivers a collection of poetry that blends many things: admitted and blissful ignorance regarding the universe and eternity, total self-absorption that mimics the scribbles of an angst-ridden teenager, and poems formed as carefully as crystals. This happy mix results in lines like, “How could you not see / No food in the pantry? / What are we to eat / When the food you sell / The drug crave to meet? / Oh! Mama Oh! / We love you so; / We love you more than / You care to know.” Sophisticated language, an expansive vocabulary and glimpses of the condition of the world (demonstrated in poems like “January 12, 2010 The Haitian World Shook”) are occasionally lost in a fusion of wonder, a pummeling of unanswered questions and distracting syntax. However, the occasional polished, cohesive poem will grab readers and refuse to let go until they’ve developed a new perspective on the mysteries of life and spirituality, nodded their heads in understanding (perhaps while reading “Depression” if they’ve experienced it, or even “Greed”), or felt inspired to change something ugly about the state of humanity. Regardless of tone and rhythm, each poem and observation hums with an underlying passion and sometimes a contagious restlessness or disappointment. Some of the poems manage to end in exactly the right spot with sincere closure; others, however, wander along, ending well after they should have and losing some of their effectiveness. Most readers should be able to deeply identify with at least one or two poems in the book.
This eclectic assemblage of topics—encompassing the self, God, spirituality and eternity—is a worthy read, especially for those feeling lost and disconnected.
Obanigba’s debut book of poetry juxtaposes lighthearted fancy and crippling self-doubt.
Emotions run the gamut in this collection of one hundred poems ranging from candy-sweet musings on a summer day to the anxiety-ridden feelings of facing an uncertain future. While the collection varies greatly in content, a few central themes abound: To achieve success in this unpredictable world, it’s of the utmost importance to work hard and to rely on no one but yourself. The work, written in a straightforward, simple style, is short on depth and complexity, which hinders its message. A number of pieces in the collection are dedicated to questioning the author’s self-worth: In “will I or will I not?” Obanigba writes, “Will I ever or will I not, / Will I remember it seems I forgot? / So much confusion this is crazy, / So many goals but far too lazy, / Will I get round to things I need to get done, / Or will I relax, chill, and have fun.” This poem, and most others, becomes a missed opportunity due to its shallow phrasing, which sacrifices the development of its idea in favor of weak rhyming. What makes the work relatable, though, are the familiar themes and Obanigba’s candid examination of her own shortcomings. Throughout the collection, the author discusses her fears of failure and not having what it takes to succeed. Most if not all readers can identify with these feelings of inadequacy; at one time or another, everyone can relate to Obanigba’s attempt to find her path in life. The collection nevertheless struggles to make an impression due to its noncommittal pursuit to developing this very theme. However, the book’s most egregious flaw is its poor editing. The anthology is rife with misspellings, grammatical missteps and punctuation errors. Some are mere annoyances, such as the misuse of “your” vs. “you’re,” but other mistakes actually confuse the message behind the poems, while distracting and diminishing the work.
A heartfelt collection of poetry in need of further development and editing.
When you’d rather have a quick shot of fiction than linger over a long tale, knock back one of these 20 very short stories—plus one artwork—on love, sex, and relationships.
“Flash fiction” means any very short story, generally fewer than 1,000 words. More than just a vignette or scene, a flash-fiction piece can ideally stand alone as a complete (if compressed or allusive) story. Some stories in this collection meet the ideal better than others. “Thin Walls,” by Jim Blanchet (under 500 words), and “Three,” by K.I. Borrowman (only 286 words), have a setting, protagonist, conflict and surprising resolution. Others work less well; “Like Chlorine in Night” by Rich Larson has poetic qualities, but it’s not a story, even a very short one. “Passion Fruit” by Gail Aldwin is really just a vignette. The subtitle of this book suggests erotica or romance, and many stories befit that label, including Wayne Scheer’s “Fantasy Woman.” Set in India, it describes the ideal, beautiful woman who makes everything easy. Several stories go in other directions. In “Blue-Ribbon Dinner” by Erik Adams, sex fuels a gruesome story about the actress Marie Prevost. Nancy Hall’s “Happy Birthday to Me” is even more grisly, a confused memory about a 13-year-old girl first watching her parents having sex—in absorbed, pornographic detail—and then her father murdering her mother. Elizabeth King’s “The Entanglements of Possession” is spooky, erotic and memorable. Diana Peterson’s “Dry” shows through vivid dialogue how breaking up with someone can have a happy ending. One of the strongest stories is Maude Larke’s “First Cut,” which describes a woman’s first sexual encounter (with another woman) after a double mastectomy. Hot and tender, this is a lovely description of sexual healing.
A collection that will demonstrate either the limitations or the possibilities of flash fiction, depending on the reader’s perspective.
This slim volume of poems explores the writer’s experience, using images and themes from nature.
Like the hawk on a wire in the titular poem, novice author Butler closely observes the natural world around her, often relating it to her own life. Having lived on farms in California and Oregon, as well as aboard a sailboat, Butler can draw upon an array of experiences. Several poems relate to cultivating gardens. “On My Farm” describes a tractor going through rows of lettuce, “the earth incumbent with nutrient.” In “Drops of Red,” one of the book’s more successful poems, the poet’s father is “driving the dusty green combine….The dust smells of toasted flour.” Such images are specific yet surprising: “incumbent” feels just right for moist, rich earth; “toasted” conveys the smell and feel of a hot day spent harvesting wheat. In “Traffic Dancing,” one of the few urban poems, Butler succinctly conjures the choreography of traffic: “a cotillion reel at an intersection.” In other poems, however, Butler’s metaphors are weak. The force of a metaphor comes from the surprising magnetism between two dissimilar things, but in “Honey Bees,” she compares clover honey to golden molasses—similar commodities—and then to tupelo honey, another comparable product. In “Bootjack,” she describes her favorite riding boots: “those boots are like / a second skin / protecting tender toes.” But there’s no “like” about it. Several poems have an intriguing sense of mystery, especially “Forgotten Moon,” in which an old couple sits in silence in a mountaintop house: “There is a footprint in that bog of red flowered thorns. / He’s forgotten her name but it will come / when the golden boat sinks into the sea.” The ghostly footprint leaves a haunting impression. Other poems are more puzzling than mysterious. “Traversing the Peninsula,” for instance, describes walking across the sand, where “The cold wrapped my ankles…anchoring me there.” How can she be traveling yet anchored? At times, Butler doesn’t seem to mind her words closely enough. The unsuccessful poems here simply present an image or situation, without closing the loop—there’s no tock for the opening tick. “Windswept,” for example, presents a rising autumn moon and the twilight air, then ends; “A Walk at Sunrise” describes just that, no more. Poems like these seem content at being pretty postcards.
Slight poems with flashes of splendor but lacking real power.