Words and images waltz gracefully across the pages in this artfully arranged poetry collection.
The title of Lee’s visually stunning debut work provokes a simple question: does it refer to escaping from somewhere or escaping to somewhere? The answer, it seems, is a bit of both. Many of the volume’s poems discuss getting away from painful relationships; thus, readers often find Lee recycling tropes that they’ll know well from pop-culture romance. In “Masochist,” for instance, she tells of a lover who feels worthless after a beloved’s departure: “I’m no good right now. / There’s nothing I can give / I left it all with him….He hurt me. And I am angry, in / a dark place, but I am trying / to move forward—without him.” And in “Lies,” Lee writes of the little untruths that a person deploys to ease his or her way through a breakup: “He asked for some space. He said that he / needed a little time – that it might just / be a case of his winter blues….He lied and we both knew.” Depending on one’s perspective, such insights are either universal or trite, but if Lee’s verse occasionally tends toward clichés, it’s just as often saved by the dozens of beautiful photographs interspersed throughout the volume. Nearly all are images of landscapes, including many long shots of breathtaking vistas. The message seems clear: if the pricks and pains of love often send people running for the hills, that might not be such a bad thing. Lee’s nature scenes are pleasing in their variety—beaches and mountains, forests and plains. Throughout, her focus and her framing are uniformly excellent, but most impressive is her ability to shoot the sky; indeed, the heavens above become another character in the book—a silent yet enduring witness to the human dramas playing out below. Lee’s graphic design impulses are also spot-on, balancing photos and poems with professional skill.
A sleek, multimedia volume that provides a helpful reminder that a physical book can, in itself, be art.
A collection of poetry focuses on everyday beauty and wonder.
Over the course of 50 poems with straightforward titles, retired high school English teacher Hathwell (Between Dog and Wolf, 2017, etc.) explores the world around him. Nature is a touchstone of his poetry. In “Poplar,” he expertly describes the titular tree “catching a breeze, flutter sage and silver wings” while in “Sunflower,” he lingers on the “wide blank face” of the “saddest flower.” The author also showcases culture in his poems. “Fred’s Girl” is a propulsive ode to the Fred Astaire–Paulette Goddard duet in the film Second Chorus, and “Sunday at the Symphony” captures the ethereal experience of live classical music. But the poems aren’t limited to the author’s immediate surroundings. A visit to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, is the subject of “Readiness Is Everything,” which encourages readers to “imagine the world without you.” Hathwell plays with humor in “Dust Is Winning,” about the futile fight to keep things clean, and shows his cynical side in “Red Dress,” which describes the “ruby radiance” of an ensemble depicted in advertising. The act of writing is another recurring theme in this collection. “Song” depicts a successful writing day, in which “I rise from my desk, / Majestic, and I dance,” while “Sure Thing” warns readers “that language is prepared to lie / When you ask it to.” Quiet moments are also rich material for the poet. Throughout, he matches his message to the pacing of the poem, creating an immersive experience for readers. In “Finding Myself in the Morning,” readers sink into Hathwell’s serene, solitary scene where he can finally “not wonder / who is speaking, or what comes next.” In “Ten O’Clock,” the audience can sense the descent into a “deep, forgiving sleep.” The one flaw of this collection is its breadth. Because everything from Astaire to flora is fair game, the individual poems don’t always flow from one to the next, and transitions can be jarring.
Like the demigod from which it takes its name, Defining Atlas is a durable, uplifting volume.
A strong current of self-affirmation, self-love, and self-confidence runs through this work, and readers will come away feeling their spirits improved. We feel some of this current in the clever “Limited”; Michaels takes the titular subject and turns it on its head: “I’m new, but I’m old / Not limited beyond my means and methods / But limited because I’m special / Special beyond the heavens and everything that surrounds me / That I’m among…limited.” Elsewhere in “From the ashes…I am,” he sings a hard-won song of renewal and rebirth: “I am victory in its rawest form / I am hope that never conform / I am the will, the drive, and the truth / I am like everyone, like you.” But Michaels does not hoard specialness or victory for himself; he wants it for his reader too, and in “Wake Up!” he urges us on toward a bright future: “There’s something good here for you / Your purpose can never be defined by just one blue / Your destiny awaits you.” Underpinning Michaels’ stirring message is a strong faith in God, whose presence infuses many of the poems here: “But I always thank God for the latter / For the strength and will it takes / Shines so bright / Shines so right.” Michaels often adopts a loose scheme of rhyming couplets, and this decision leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses. Too often, the poet picks awkward or odd pairings; e.g., “And if I could become a perfect saint / I would make believers out of the ones who say they ain’t” and the “you/blue” couplet mentioned above. But such missteps are infrequent, and they don’t dim the warm light that emanates from Michaels’ fine volume.