Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems

Ellen Foos, Vasiliki Katsarou, & Ruth O’Toole, eds.

Ragged Sky Press, Princenton, N.J.

145 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Jane Dobija

Clothes are the poems that we wear. The billowing skirts, sculpted suits, and scruffy t-shirts in which we parade around tell even the slightly attentive observer about our histories, our hang-ups, and our lies. The subject of costume’s power, universal and unchecked, struck the mother lode with Maxine Kumin, Paul Muldoon, Margaret Atwood, Billy Collins, and nearly one hundred more accomplished poets, who contributed to a new anthology from Raggedy Sky Press called Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems. In their allotted pages, these writers explore the meaning of dress as symbol, history, and personal fate. They do so with a wit and wisdom that makes usually bitter truth telling palatable.

Only the dullards among us read costume literally, as Janis Butler Holm proves in a delightfully humorous piece called “If Paris Hilton Wrote Poetry” that reads like this:




Cute shoes.

The rest of us are all disturbed by the dissonance between what clothes promise and what they deliver. “Living in Bodies” by Claire Zoghb reminds us that the hospital gown, with its “… single knot/at the nape” … “was sewn/to survive only so many/washings, so much bleach.” Diane Elayne Dees, for her part, reads the message young girls might not see in designs borrowed from the military. “In my dark visions,” she worries, “pre-teens slog through the desert/in Little Mermaid combat boots,/ … they load theirM-16s.”

Some accessories and undergarments are examined here as pure symbols. The “thin black ribbon/of customary bombazine” is a “badge of ruin” for the husband and wife who sit shiva for their child in Daniel A. Harris’ “Attire.” The double entendre of Mary Langer Thompson’s “My First Pink Slip” suggests that being female might not be unrelated to being laid off.

Other pieces of clothing are symbolic on an historical scale. The “White Cotton T-Shirt” in Margaret Atwood’s poem exposes the disconnect between the costume of The Sixties flower children and its source. “It made its way to us from the war, but we didn’t know that,” she apologizes before admitting how this “vestment of summer” actually “had been washed in blood.” Maria Terrone’s “Unmentionable” recalls tragedy, too. “A frayed label says/Triangle Shirtwaist Company,” the speaker of this poem notices about the antique lingerie that lies in her drawer. It calls forth images of “smoke, locked doors and fiery dives,” as well as a final question: “Did she hang by a thread for days/to die, or survive...?”

A number of poets in this anthology find whole chapters of their lives woven into the clothes that have been left behind. James Richardson’s “Family of Ties” always are “…Listening at the backs of doors, frozen/against the walls of closets.” The silky strands might be remembered as disguises that have been cast off, but then, one is slipped beneath a collar “…and we are dismayed,” notes the narrator, “to find that that they fit. Just when we thought/we had changed….”

In “How It Is,” Maxine Kumin portrays a woman in mourning who uses a piece of clothing to renew contact with a deceased life partner. She dons his jacket, searches the pockets, discovers a hole, a ticket stub. “My skin presses your old outline,” she tells the absent loved one. “It is hot and dry inside.” The notion that she might have saved him occupies one stanza, but finally there is unwilling acceptance of the loss. “I will be years gathering up our words,” she admits from inside “the dumb blue blazer of your death.”

For Maxine Susman’s empty nester, clothes represent both a loss and a rite of passage as she watches her son “Packing for College.” Her ambivalence would ring true with any mother:

Part of me says I’ll do your clothes

Forever if you’ll stay with us. Part says

Here’s your own jug of detergent….

It pains this woman to see that, “What seemed a closetful of everything/squeezes into one bulging duffel.” Susman leaves her in the semi-emptied bedroom to contemplate the loosening of her maternal attachment, “… the come and go between us.”

Dresses of all colors – little black, red, white wedding – frequent this volume’s poems about women. The writers are leery of the power of frocks and gowns to which their female narrators frequently submit. In “The Blue Dress,” Deirdre Brennan considers Henri Matisse’s intention toward a female subject, whom he paints in “voluminous sleeves/and rhapsody of frills….” The writer concludes,

He had to hate her to paint her

Out of existence,

To cancel her out, imprison her

Within great folds of cloth.

Lynn Wagner casts “The Little Black Dress” as a suspicious bitch that takes over one woman’s life. Anthropomorphized, this iconic piece of clothing “goes to cocktail parties” where it “titters and flirts” until “Anyman takes her home/ … in his red sports car.” The next morning, the costume is cast off, and its wearer finds herself calmed by the night out. The little black dress might have been in charge of the evening, but the narrator did not object. The poem leaves her with “voices quiet,” suggesting that, while wearing the sheath, she could act out her fantasies.

The wedding gown is seen as the most insidious of all the clothing culprits. For Lynn Emanuel, “The White Dress” is a “shroud/on a hanger” and “an eczema/of sequins.” Like the little black number, the white one has a plan of its own. It waits, “lonely, locked up/in the closet” to take possession of the “bouquet of a woman’s body.”

In the title poem, “Eating Her Wedding Dress,” Eileen Malone examines this ritual garb through the eyes of a spinster at her baby sister’s nuptial feast. The ceremony is over, and the young woman’s gown rests on a chair where “delicious damp fingerprints” sprout mushrooms on its velvet. The spinster sister devours it:

I release my tongue, lick salt

sliding all denial and neglect

like colorless afterbirth

down my slippery throat"

The older woman is conscious of seeming the “old hag” but decides, “—no matter, I no longer fear/I might be what I seem.”

A collection of poems about clothes would not be complete without a tribute to their opposite, nakedness. Billy Collins provides one called “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” in which he meticulously records the disrobement of the author unlucky enough to be bound by 19th Century fashion. “…I proceeded like a polar explorer/” his narrator reports, “through clips, clasps, and moorings/ … Sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.” The journey leads, naturally, to both sex and danger embodied in the sigh Emily heaves when her last hook is loosened. To make sure we understand the risk the poetess has taken by discarding the feminine uniform of her times, Collins immediately shifts her wonder back to his readers, reminding them that he also has heard them sigh …

… when they realize

that Hope has feathers

that life is a loaded gun

that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

But if one can get past the threat, the loss, the personal shame that clothing carries, one might, as Anca Vlasopolos suggests in “Loosed Garments,” find solace in one’s wardrobe. Annoyed by “zippers become perverse/and buttons … out of reach of loop,” her narrator, definitely a mature woman, probes the depths of her closet to find something she might wear. During the search, she discovers things cast off, “an old silk shirt/…shining/like polished silver” and “an outfit you’d forgotten/…sending sparks.” She tries these items on and finds they fit “like skin,” so “your girth now seems/positively svelte.” Comfortable with a somewhat fuller figure that suits her full life, she opts for a flowing outfit and finds that it gives her wings.

The varied takes on clothing in Eating Her Wedding Dress will send many readers scurrying to their own closets to discover what material, for poetry and for life, lies buried there. The truths told in this volume surely will enrich the search.


Writer and journalist Jane Dobija is best known for her reports for NPR from Warsaw during the last Polish revolution. She is the editor of Corridors Magazine ( and is at work on a novel about Poland called In Solidarity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Bitter Withy

Donald Revell
Alice James Books, 2009
$15.95, paperback

Walking Through the Halo: A Review of Donald Revell's "The Bitter Withy"

by Brett DeFries

For a while now, and especially since his 2003 collection "My Mojave," Donald Revell has rarely strayed from what some might call a myopic devotion in his work to God, Heaven, and redemption. Not only that, but his poems are overt enough in their attention to these subjects, that the real miracle might be reading a Revell poem that does not at least reference in some way God, Jesus, Heaven, Prayer, or Eternity. Indeed, his newest collection, "The Bitter Withy," is no exception.

Beyond that, "The Bitter Withy" has exposed a few of Revell's new favorites: rainbows and hummingbirds, which make numerous appearances in this collection:

Just at dawn the full moon
In its coin of rainbow
Called my name.
(TOOLS, p. 3)

The birds knew, and the rainbow too. I was looking.
(MONTEREY, p. 4)

Walking across the ocean,
Walking on flowers nowhere to be seen,
I walk on gold.
So says the hummingbird.
(CAN'T STAND IT, p. 6)

Sovereign of my heart,
I am shouting at nightfall:
Bats above me,
Hummingbirds skittish below the bats,
Almost like dragonflies.

What I find remarkable about Revell's work, then, is its ability to keep strange his world of God, heaven, rainbows, and hummingbirds—a world that, in the hands of any other poet, wouldn't be inhabitable even by Hallmark.

Take, for example, the final stanza of AGAINST CREATION:

Adam's fall invented the future.
He tied the bats' wings onto dragonflies.
Nature, even as it dies, abhors imagination.
What men call Extinction,
I call Home.

Here the reader finds a world in which imagination is not only unnecessary, it is abhorrent—an offense to the already strange world the speaker observes. For Revell, the poet's role has less to do with invention than it does with adequately reporting what is already there.

AGAINST CREATION also illustrates Revell's subtlety—a must in a book of such obsessive thematic recurrence. Removed from their context in the poem, the final two lines might read as a lament regarding death's ever-present shadow. Within the context of this poem and the collection as a whole, however, these lines point to Heaven—or "Home," as the poem puts it. What keeps this closing from becoming saccharin, though, is the presence of such unexpected words as bats, abhors, and Extinction—all in the final four lines.

While all of Revell's recent work deals openly with his Christian faith, "The Bitter Withy" is interested in how such a faith alters how we confront our mortality. The approach of Death and the promise of Heaven hover over each and every one of these poems, but here are a couple of my favorites


That would be bread.
That would be a table.
This would be death, but it moves
Only one way;
And so the bread escapes,
And the table along with it,
Easily—as easily
As water spilling from a cup
All over the ground.

Now that I come to it,
Why agree to it?
Every quarter of the wind is bread.
Every blade of grass is a table.
We are walking beside deer through a halo.


The mountains are nude
But not cold.

I shiver.
I believe in death
Now that death believes in me.

What I find both moving and fresh about this collection is that it handles its subject matter with a simultaneous severity and lightness. It is quite clear in this collection that poetry, for Revell, if not prayer itself, is certainly composed of the same stuff. That being said, we never perceive even the slightest hint of didacticism, nor does Revell take hiimself too seriously in these poems. This balance keeps the work buoyant despite its deep subject matter. Also working in Revell's favor is the fact that he is as concerned with joy and the blessing of providence as he is with shame and those "dark nights of the soul"—inevitable for any serious Christian. Says Revell:

As with eternal life and the love of God,
What makes actual human happiness
Nearly unbearable is its reality,
Its mass.

If anything can convince us of this, it's "The Bitter Withy."

Poet, translator and critic Donald Revell has authored ten previous collections of poetry. Winner of a 2008 NEA Translation Award, the 2004 Lenore Marshall Award and two-time winner of the PEN Center USA Award in Poetry, Revell has also received fellowships from the NEA and the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim Foundations. He is Poetry Editor of the Colorado Review.

Brett DeFries’ work has appeared in New Orleans Review, Laurel Review, Memorious, Diagram, Phoebe, and West Branch and elsewhere.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reading Novalis in Montana

Reading Novalis in Montana by Melissa Kwasny

Published by Milkweed, 2009

96 pp., U.S.$16.00

Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

An Intuitive Measure of Nature

In-between re-reading the last few poems and embarking upon this review, adjectives such as “erudite,” “sensitive,” “distilled” and “deft” keep recurring to me as approximate words for rightfully describing Melissa Kwasny’s third and latest collection of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana. The title poem, which opens the book, is a well-envisioned summation of the experiences that Kwasny will evoke throughout the book. Embedding fictional voices with real thoughts and dialogues, the poet inserts brief quotes in a light yet welcoming manner that directly illuminates her intimate correspondence between scholarly interests, an inner world, and the nature that surrounds her in western Montana:

The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.

Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.

Then, the brutal intervention of sound.

All that we experience is a message, he wrote.

I would like to know what it means

If first one bird swims the channel

Across the classic V, the line flutters, and the formation dissolves.

In the end, the modernists must have meant,

It is the human world we are weary of,

our arms heavy with love, its ancient failings.

(“Reading Novalis in Montana,” p. 3)


A later poem that echoes this is “Reading a Biography of Ezra Pound in the Garden.” Also inspired by the literature she was engaging in at that point in time, Kwasny keeps her eyes fully attentive on delicate details of life, which spring out spontaneously in her immediate world. Nature’s fragility, coupled with tenacity, touched her as she mused philosophically about her seemingly trivial quotidian life:

Wet, limp, as if just born, the five petals unstick

from each other. I have blundered always,

said Ezra Pound. The hot winds of Venice

blow past my bare ankles, a cat sprawls on its side

across the lawn. I don’t know how humanity stands it,

the heat he might mean, too much going on

and much of it boring. He writes: I am homesick

after mine own kind. The zucchini, everyone

knows, is prolific. While my guests come and go,

pilfering my time, it offers one green fruit a day,

and these flowers like lap cloths unfolded.

(“Reading a Biography of Ezra Pound in the Garden,” p. 24)

Interestingly, after concluding the first part of her book on this note, Kwasny delves into a 12-sectioned long poem entitled, “The Waterfall.” This lends a different weight to the general structure of her work and gives a new color to its entire narrative arc. Mythic metaphors and references from the indigenous culture are many and recurrent; they are subtle but evident. On the other hand, line energy also builds itself up until it reaches the eighth segment (“The giveaway dance”) in which speed and intensity syncopate in a drumming and organic oral appeal:


Here is a jar of wild chokecherry jam

Here is a pouch of Old Red Man Lucky Strike

Here is a dollar bill for each of your fifteen grandchildren

see how they dance with empty hands

Here is the fish tank the rest of the bannock

toilet paper army jacket a Pendleton blanket

Here in the old days grandpa gave away the car and the furniture

and finally he gave away the house

Here in the trailer house on the reservation

Here where the ragged last of the tribe come with ribbons

Here where the medicine man hangs them in the bundle

and sets the bundle swinging with a stick

Now since the black spades of aspen have hit the ground

Now because the drumbeat has not changed and has not stopped

We hold the gifts behind our backs and the snow field darkens

(“From “The Waterfall, VIII: The giveaway dance,” p. 37)

As if to sustain the rhythmic rigor and lyrical density, the poet continues into the third part of the corpus, presenting yet another major work, “The Directions.” Sequenced in a lucid coherence, each of the twelve segments has a straightforward title, which in turn furnishes a direct key to its central landscape or theme: “Creator,” “Soul,” “The Ceremonial,” “The Old Ones,” “Animals,” “Shooting Star,” “The Poles,” “Light,” “Rock,” “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Herbs.” In a similar vein, the book ends on a textured tonality, for Kwasny has chosen yet another sequenced poem, this time, a 9-sectioned prose piece: “The Under World.” Darker, it evokes several losses and contains lingering traces of solitude, isolation as well as uncertainty. Questions and doubts hang in mid-air —

Up in the air. A peculiar phrase. What does it mean that nothing’s landed? (…)

Seed by seed, the working up through the soil. But is time really accomplished

without us? The dark bud unclasping? The stirring of air? The sex-cluck of the

robins at the butter dish?

(From “The Under World, VII,” p. 75)

All in all, Reading Novalis in Montana is a positive and delicious read. It represents Melissa Kwasny’s consistency and conscientiousness in creating layered yet intricate lyrical poetry. She dedicates herself to expanding beyond a mere descriptive depiction of episodes and energies to a wider world. Living side by side with nature plays a vital role in molding a quiet, meditative quality in her distinct poetic voice. With this, she thus strikes a balance with robustness by constantly pushing each line breath, experimenting with form and scope.


Born in Indiana, Melissa Kwasny is the author of two previous books of poetry, The Archival Birds and Thistle, winner of the Idaho Prize. She is also the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950, and has authored two novels, Trees Call For What They Need and Modern Daughters of the Outlaw West. She lives in western Montana.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain ( is an editor at Cerise Press ( Her book of poetry, Water the Moon is forthcoming from Marick Press in Fall 2009. She lives in Paris, France and New York City.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Orpheus on the Red Line

By Theodore Deppe

Tupelo Press, 2009

Dorset, VT

ISBN: 978-1932195750

paperback, 96 pages

Reviewed by Mike Walker

There seems to be something about working in health care that turns people into writers. A number of poets and journalists come to mind who have been nurses, doctors, or researchers in the biomedical sciences, with William Carlos Williams being probably the best-known of those who were poets. For Williams and other poets perhaps being a physician (in William’s case) or other careers in health care offer both the secure paycheck that poetry lacks plus a wellspring of inspiration via seeing people at the crossroads of life and death, the junctures of disease and health. The healing arts, in turn, have noticed the benefits of the literary arts for professionals and patients alike and a number of hopsital-based arts in medicine programs make extensive use of writing as a form of therapy. Moreover, a number of journals exist that cater to publishing the creative writing of health care professionals and patients.

Theodore Deppe has had a long career as both a poet and a nurse, and his new collection of poems, ”Orpheus on the Red Line” speaks to his experience as both. To any cynic who would imagine the poetry of a nurse to only be filled with tales of suffering, Deppe’s work is a refreshing change of mind as he explores the nuances of human experience in a variety of ways. Like all but the youngest of poets, Deppe deals with age and the passing of time in his work, but often in a novel yet very realistic way:


Out-of-date almanacs, boxes

we never unpacked from the last move,

reminders to see a dentist who

died five years ago—


begins his poem, ”On the Natural History of Possessions”, which continues with a variety of historical, literary, and personal references. Yet in that first introduction of unpacked boxes, Deppe has us hooked: the ”dentist who died five years ago” reminds us of the paperchase that connects us in modern society with those insurance agents, doctors and dentists, kid’s teachers, and others who in one way or another play needed roles in our lives. How many notices from the dentist, the veterinarian, the physician have we all found in our mailboxes and how many are packed away or lost for whatever reason? These are communications given to a proper life in a small, finite, span of time but Deppe demonstrates how they take on a further life of their own until finally the silverfish eat away at their paper and they become dusts. Much of Deppe’s writing in ”Orpheus” is along such lines, reminding the reader of the variants of means of communication and connection in our lives. When Deppe writes in the poem above that ”for half a year, I walked around Ireland with a small rucksack” he makes clear the choices involved in living life, the sense of mobility versus the sense of possession.

Unlike the Graveyard Poets and many contemporary poets also, Deppe is not concerned simply with mortality and tangible humanity, but is more concerned with the ways that human experience demonstrates itself in memories, dreams, and communication. He spices his poems with references to communication via song, birds also singing their songs, random distant sounds, letters and conversations. In my mind though, his greatest poem about communication and probably of the whole book is ”Misremembering the Classics” where Deppe details his efforts to calm down a violent adolescent patient in a psychiatric ward. I won’t quote this poem here, for it’s best served to read it in full, and however powerful a quote might seem it would only slight the depth of Deppe’s work in this instance. While it is not surprising that Deppe brings his combative young patient to try writing poetry himself over the course of the day following his outburst, the details of this journey and the honesty found therein are what make the poem powerful. No complete ending nor promise that this patient will make better of himself, but the thread of hope that he in fact may is all Deppe provides. In one poem we are given a rare glimpse into both what it must be to work with the mentally ill and what it must be like to actually be such a pateint. The poem is not all-emcompassing nor pretends towards such, but it carries a gravitas often missing in even the best writing about clinical experiences with patients.

Having worked myself in both lab-based and clinical medical research, I know that we encounter in health care things seldom seen elsewhere in life and many of these experiences can translate to powerful writing, however, too often such writing comes across as trite due to the same emotions and even the same situations being brought up time and again. Deppe has masterfully avoided this when he writes of patients, as in the poem ”Misremembering the Classics” and brings us instead writing so fresh it made me feel, even as someone who has experienced similar things in real life and then tried to write of them, that I was ecountering something truly novel and unique. Never does Deppe write lugubriously or in a way that tries to ground the poem in emotion alone: in his poem ”Sebald” we travel from Poland to China and then back to California all while following the leitmotif of the sparrow, but in this case sparrow not as metaphor but as real bird affected by the whims of human thought and human action. Deppe tells us of a man feeding sparrows and another, Chairman Mao, determined to kill them (Mao mistakenly thought that sparrows were consuming a great deal of grain and thus ruining the crop of wheat for starving Chinese). The tales of humans and their actions, for better or worse, are obviously enough fuel for writing and Deppe allows the human to be human and the sparrow to be sparrow.

In his poem ”Orla”, Deppe addresses head-on his topic of a woman who is in the hospital, without overtones or metaphor. This stark approach tempered with touching details provides a portrait as clear as a good photograph. What is most essential in writing about a patient and their plight? To make them seem human (which they of course are), to make them seem ill (which they are, also)? Or to allow latent details and masterfully-crafted words turn these moments of their lives into real and honest views? I would take the latter, and the latter Deppe provides. Like his previous book of poems, ”Cape Clear”, Deppe works with human emotions in a manner that is both deep and refreshing. His poems, while short in length, read long: The sheer amount of detail and the feeling of true travel comes across as he shares even simple narratives. It is rare to see such a strong ”narrative” approach in poetry that neither aspires to be epic nor bending towards the arena of fiction.

Of books of poetry I’ve read thus far this year (and I’ve read my share) Deppe’s ”Orpheus” is one of the most original and his voice is clearly unique. I suggest it highly to all interested in contemporary American poetry and poets and also to those interested in writing by health care professionals. While the lion’s share of the book is not directly concerned with health care, those poems that thus enter Deppe’s other career are to be valued for their voice and insight. A truly impressive book.




Ted Deppe was born in Minnesota, and grew up in Indiana. He worked for many years as a coronary-care and psychiatric nurse and has taught creative writing in high schools, universities, and graduate programs in the United States, England, and Ireland. His previous books include Children of the Air and The Wanderer King (Alice James, 1990 and 1996), and Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2003). He currently teaches in the Stonecoast M.F.A. Program and directs Stonecoast in Ireland, where he now lives with his wife, poet Annie Deppe.




Mike Walker is a writer, journalist, and poet. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Self-Portrait with Crayon

By Allison Benis White

Cleveland State U Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781880834831

Paperback, 63 pages

Reviewed by Kathryn Stevenson

Above all, Allison Benis White’s collection of poems Self-Portrait with Crayon teaches us the simple, unforgettable maxim: pain is reach.

The collection begins with what is gone: “The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be” (5). Without a body, clothes outline lack, their shapes marking boundaries between body and disembodiment: “The shoulders are the span of the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress” (5). The image of the mind reduced to a hook does not speak of pain, but we get it.

Here, the thing gestures toward an idea, a non-thing, one cannot otherwise hold. In this sense, the thing—a closet, a dress, a hanger—allows connection, a sudden narrative snap: “People lose their minds and leave in the middle of cooking salmon” (5). This reach—the move to connect loss to a moment, a kitchen, the smell of a pink-bodied fish—rises from the compulsion to anchor ourselves in the material world, ground ourselves in the sediment of objects, and attach to some small, real thing before we are capable of consolation: “I will tell you something quietly: we tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong address. It is common to know very little, if anything” (5).

A salmon dinner, a birthday card, a wrong address—these are the cold, hard things that punch, punctuating our otherwise amorphous and mass-less despair. Yet they are the details that allow us to articulate and imagine—here, though, sketch—what is otherwise unspeakable and unimaginable. White knows grief calls on us to represent loss in the details, to perceive boundaries between the ordinary and extraordinary, to sketch rather than bullet, to reject chronology, to begin in the middle, and, yet to tell anyway, to narrate and discern and forge universals out of abstraction, to find yet another thing that might, finally, point at what to do next or what to avoid or what, simply, to accept: “People exist for as long as possible until it is too difficult to matter” (5).

On its own, the collection’s first poem “From Degas’ Sketchbook” offers the image of how difficult it is for a girl hidden in her mother’s closet to matter to someone gone and, simultaneously, how difficult for a mother “to matter”—both in the sense of being worthy or recognized worthy and in the sense of materializing, coming into being to embody the articles that, to a closeted, crouched child represent lack. Somehow, at once, a mother mothers as long as she can, and a daughter recalls her until it is too painful or too cumbersome even to conjure her in images, to bring back someone gone. Here, grief is a central interior impulse that reaches out, like the motion of a hand drawn to touch something untouchable before it retracts, repelled.

Together, the poems in Self-Portrait with Crayon are a study in mourning and melancholia, a grammatology of sadness—one which outlines the features of despair, the rules of mourning, and the shape of our efforts to live through it.

Despair, White understands, opens eyes to the things before us with an urgency that shackles us to images that might have otherwise been fleeting, like a cruel time machine in which there is no travel, only the unending awareness of time and an acute sense that past, present, and future are tidy, irrelevant categories that mislead, distract, and relieve those not mourning. Like this: “If I press my hand against the window, no one will die sooner or reverse directions” (8). Or this: “Before I was born, my dog buried a plastic frog in the side yard when one of her female puppies died—she needed somewhere” (9). We are not safe from what already came or what has yet to come; any minute we might feel every loss all at once—and not just our own, but through ours, we’ll feel the loss of others as well. And so we must attach loss, freeze it, give it “somewhere.”

From White’s poems, readers can glean recognizable, patterned responses to loss; mourning forces our focus on the particulars, for instance—which is to say that people mourning know what is not nothing: “I want to reach things I can keep” (54). Like wounded dogs, they need objects—to attach, to express themselves, to project meaning onto, to represent—as if to re-imagine or retool or redesign the shape of the interior, driving, unsettled mind.

People mourning outline impressions even as they suffer imprint: “When there is nothing left, everything is possible” (26). Or, perhaps it is that they deal with imprint by outlining impressions, as if to cast imprint off. In “Interior of the Rape,” for instance, White’s cutting characterization of human bonding is so sharply resonant it is, one moment, beautiful: “I will not let you sleep follows the pattern of most affection”; a step later, though, she tugs at the pattern’s brutality instead: “This is the feeling of a leash at the base of your neck” (25).

People mourning grasp for universals among the particulars: “We will live as long as we have someone to tell” (26). The reach for human patterns is the effort to seek solace in the omnipresence of pain, to find dull, pain-diffusing, trauma-abating normalcy in suffering—like this: “It is common to rock the sick in your arms. It is common to rearrange the body into a comfortable position” (23). And this: “It would be unnatural to place the arms at the sides, torso unprotected” (23).

Understanding fear overcomes us, White sometimes offers the patterns as instruction: “when you enter someone else’s room, it is important to whisper her name before you touch her, so she knows you are approaching, and does not become alarmed” and “If someone breaks into your house at night, my father advised, pretend you are dead” (28; 24). Here, advice exposes everyone—those who might break in, those who fear them, those who cannot do more than recommend we play dead. Readers sense White does not endorse an action more than she scorns our resignation to fear—ambivalently, though, while representing the lives of people who live by it.

People mourning consider what will be gone soon: “Whether we miss less what we know will disappear, I am tired of seeing” and “A sponge attached to a hand which is attached to an arm. Which is crucial. Anxiety thrives on the unknown. If her hand took the sponge away, there would be a cool empty spot on the child’s neck” (41). The move to reflect on what is here now but soon might not be is an exercise in taking the part away from the whole so that one might imagine another scenario and thus come to know the unknown—to treat anxiety with anticipation, essentially. Lives marked by a history of hard times know leaning on the cool-headed expectation that the worst is coming makes life better now. Because it means we will be less anxious and more prepared.

In “Horse with Jockey,” someone points “to an X-ray of his chest,” saying, “The human heart is an apple,” and someone else asks, “But what shape or comfort can I make with my mind?” Self-Portrait with Crayon is one.


Allison Benis White's poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Pleiades, among other journals. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Bernice Slote Award from Prairie Schooner, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She is currently at work on a second poetry manuscript, "Small Porcelain Head," which received the 2008 James D. Phelan Literary Award for a work in progress from the San Francisco Foundation. She teaches at the University of California, Irvine. See more at


Kathryn K. Stevenson earned her doctorate in English from the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches writing classes. She is obsessed with, and writes academic essays about, "adherence," or the bonds forged between peoples under duress--a theme that appears, magnified, in her fiction, non-fiction, and songs, which can be found at

Friday, September 04, 2009

Struggling Times: Poems

by Louis Simpson
BOA Editions, Rochester, NY
2009, 88 pages
ISBN: 978-1934414194
Reviewed by Mike Walker

 Louis Simpson, no stranger to poetry with a long career as a working poet, professor, and noted translator returns to the stage with a sweeping book of poetry focused on the current sociopolitical status of America via a very personal gaze. Simpson, an aged man who fought in World War Two, darts back and forth from his own childhood and years of youth to the present day offering small illustrations and demostrations of human experience in their various manifestations. Simpson is a man my great-uncle’s age, a person from another time in a certain sense and his ability to duck back to experiences such as his wargames with a model ship as a child is impressive in its sincere ability to put life itself in rough context and to allow Simpson to also write poems such as ”Astronomers in Arizona” where he explains, starting off with a quote from a news report:


”Astronomers in Arizona

are racing to build the biggest

telescope ever”


Why are they racing?

What do they hope to find?

There are no other worlds . . .



From a poet lacking Simpson’s experience—as both a poet and a man—such would seem not only cynical but an overly coy attempt to be funny with a piece of news-writing which at worst is simply overwrought. From Simpson, however, and in the larger context of a book that contains direct commentary on contemporary world events, the economy, and other complex issues but also notes how the author has left a pot on the stove and smells it burning as he absent-mindedly leafs through his newspaper, this approach works. How ironic that scientists who study the very span, depth, and scope of our universe should rush to complete the construction of their instrument! When Simpson begins another poem with the words ”he first fell in love when he was sixteen” it doesn’t seem trite nor when he references the uniform of a French officer in describing someone does it seem odd or a great stretch, but simply one observation in a collection of many. Simpson brings a wealth of varied experiences to his writing and does so in such a humble manner that he encourages us to consider the small things in life, such as when he waits for a man to come and collect old clothing from his house (one assumes for the poor or some charity) and the man is slow in showing up: here the poet takes up an everyday domestic chore and one, at that, which really depends on someone else. When Simpson devotes another poem to war as imagined in the guise of Grant’s position in the Civil War, it doesn’t seem over-reaching and Simpson’s imagined Grant is a character you encounter with ample empathy, wondering if this is also perhaps an example of someone waiting for others to complete vast chore.


Thus much of the strength of Simpson’s work here is that he provides some immediate examples of how he views our current times, never with heavy-handed commentary but via astute demonstration and he grounds these obersvations with tales from life experiences and insight into other times. Nothing is isolated but everything is personal. His poem ”Suddenly” is perfect example of this; in fact, it is the poem presented on the back cover of the book and rightfully so as it’s easily one of the finest stand-alone pieces in the entire book:


The truck came at me,

I swerved

but I got a dent.


The car insurance woman

informs me that my policy

has been cancelled.


I say, ”You can’t do that.”

She gives me a little smile

and goes back to her nails.


From this mundane start out of the box, Simpson provides a wealth of introspection into the place where we stand still for a moment in time and the fact that despite our overall riches and technological progress, we are in fact in the midst of ”struggling times”. Perhaps as darkly as anything, even as we lack a world war (at least a tangible one) now, we also lack the agency for poets to be concerned with the type of writing that Hart Crane or T.S. Eliot brought forth; instead, we are driven to concern with smaller things—but out of very necessary pragmatism. Our constant media communication of world events has sent the poet scampering away from the very large to the very small and leaving, perhaps, those large things for the astronomers and their ”biggest telescopes ever”.


Then there are poems such as ”In Old New Orleans” where the reader cannot be certain whether Simpson is talking about a current event (Hurricane Katrina in example) or not. The poem could have been written since 2005, or before, as it mentions modern times yet when is modern? What is modern? In ”Tall Girl Running” when Simpson compliments a girl with long legs out for a jog, we can’t be sure whether it’s a teenage Simpson speaking or Simpson in his current age: often in this collection Simpson runs back and forth through time, covering such a span that his words can be taken in various meanings. If we had, in this poem, a teenage Simpson (probably) he hardly was thinking of genes and their role in determining the phenotype when the girl shouts back ”from my father” when Simpson asks where she got her nice long legs; however, by opening this poem with a quote from biologist Richard Dawkins, Simpson makes the observation of the pretty girl more about science than sexual attraction.


Not all of Simpson’s poems though hit their mark: In his short poem ”The Constant Reader” he celebrates reading in a way that is neither new nor especially meaningful. A comment by Susan Sontag, though not a poem at all, about how she was jealous of a friend who broke her leg and was thus confined to days spent inside reading speaks more about the bookworm’s plight than Simpson’s effort:


I do not see the plays

and miss all the operas.


Let those who must love.

As Chaucer says, ”What sholde


I bye it on my flesh so deere?”

The truth is, I prefer


to read.


This poem is also odd in that it feels a rather poor fit for the rest of Simpson’s collection as most of the other poems in fact speak of the wealth of experience Simpson has had, and much of such experience is very run-of-the-mill, daily, things we can all relate to and the joy is in seeing what grace Simpson offers in describing the mundane. He doesn’t come across as someone tied to literature at all in these poems, someone very intelligent, yes, but also someone who is much a man of the people with his finger on the pulse of life. In other poems, such as ”The Omen” which deals with the author Alexander Puskin’s fatal duel with his wife’s lover, Simpson writes of literature and history but in a way that makes it seem as if these were instead events he’d witnessed, or perhaps Puskin was an old friend. In the poem ”A Spot on the Kitchen Floor” Simpson writes about finding a bug wandering across his kitchen and picking it up with a piece of cardboard, and he writes of this in such a touching way that it really illustrates what a masterful poet he is, showing what triumph can be located in the smallest of incidents.


In other cases, it is large incidents that are provided the gravity they request as in this example:


You have to be careful

what you hear or see.

In Afghanistan I saw


the man and the woman

who were caught in adultery

buried up to their heads.


Their children were brought

and told to throw stones.

I can still see the heads


twisting on the ground.

The poor devil in Papillon

with his head in the guillotine . . .


but Goya’s half-buried dog

looking up at the sky

I think was the worst of all.


Even so, as powerful as these images are, one cannot tell if this is current-day Afghanistan or not, nor perhaps does it even matter. Simpson is working very much as a poet, even as his sparse and simple wording often could remove his writing to the pages of the journalist. Lacking any real background on where Simpson experienced some of these situations nor having more of an extended trajectory of their meaning both allows them to shine as small examples of large and important moments while removing them from the extended dialog they could have presented. In fairness, such a dialog may not even be what Simpson desires though.


In all though, Simpson has presented an impressive collection of poems in this slim book. He has refined his craft to a high degree and it is obvious in the quality and immediate focus of his work. At times, I longed for further details and also wished that, as BOA Editions’ press release had indicated, Simpson’s work was more about these current ”struggling times”. Only a handful of the poems really touch on the socioeconomic woes the world is now experiencing and from a poet of such experience as Simpson I could imagine a really powerful set of poems on this topic, but ”Stuggling Times” feels more like your average collection of poems written over the past couple years than a complete and focused effort. Still, it is a collection much worth having on one’s bookshelf.