A debut poetry collection explores faith and sexuality.
Many of these poems have previously appeared in literary journals or anthologies, and Dordal (English/Vanderbilt Univ.) has received a Robert Watson Literary Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her degrees in divinity and fine arts account for her graceful interweaving of Christian references. For instance, “On the Way to Emmaus,” alluding to Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance, presents the narrator’s own dramatic metamorphosis: still closeted while teaching a New Testament course, she came out on the last day of class. Many poems dwell on this seemingly autobiographical theme of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and laying claim to a new voice and identity. The multipart “Holy Week” juxtaposes a mother’s death from heart problems with the disconcerting revelation that she may also have been lesbian—“the queerness you passed on…falling out of hiding” in the next generation. “Clues” is a prime example of religion and sexuality’s intermingling: “Her lips parting for me every time— / a deep-throated ‘hey’ or ‘hello’ / was enough, the way a weekly token / of bread or wine can be enough.” That first line—initially erotic, then an introduction to casual conversation—leads into Dordal’s reminder that sex and religion meet deep human needs as loci of connection and nourishment. Similarly playful and sensual is “Plumbing the Depths,” in which a plumber’s sticking-up zipper is “a tiny, totem dick.” Two poems in this outstanding collection reflect on encounters with prisoners at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute; the natural world provides the imagery of the title section. These pieces aren’t about showy structures or sonic techniques but about well-chosen words carefully arranged. Rhythm is key, and internal rhymes and alliteration have subtle potency. The title phrase comes from “Even Houseflies,” in which the insects’ manifold eyes are likened to those of gods hiding in corners of rooms—a down-to-earth lesson in seeing the holy everywhere. Likewise, the various approximations of prayer are helpfully loose: recognizing a prisoner’s fellow humanity, stilling one’s breathing, and communing with nature.
Humming with inspired metaphors and everyday relevance, these poems are gems.
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.