Friday, June 2, 2017

Tucked Away: Dual Lives in David R. Altman’s “Death in the Foyer”

by JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp

For me, summers are for regrouping and re-reading favorite books.  One such work by David R. Altman, “Death in the Foyer,” continues to sink the plumb line of my appreciation for his attention to instinct and motive each time I read it.  “Death in the Foyer,” published by Finishing Line Press in 2014, is Altman’s debut chapbook. His website can be found at

“Death in the Foyer” contains a series of vignettes that convey the message nature may contain mysteries, but people keep secrets.

 The first of these is the book’s titular poem about a man who suddenly, and without resistance, succumbs to an aneurism in his home’s foyer. Altman’s use of an omniscient voice places the reader in an awkward position of knowing more than the dying man’s devoted wife whose “warm fingers [protect] now what no longer needs protecting.” 

Suddenly, the reader knows perhaps more than they should. Without warning, we’re in on it as the speaker divulges how, “his final thoughts were of wives and children;/and secret friends who knew him well,/thoughts that he will share now only with himself.”

And we know her, don’t we? This woman of “soft pleas” who emerges from “a living room landscape of family photos and dusty Bibles.” She is the hearth keeper; albeit, possibly not the first one as “wives” is unmistakably plural. 

I love this poem because every time I read the last stanza, I have to ask myself if I am obligated to care more about this man than the clearly ambivalent speaker. Altman writes,

            He was to die upon a rug he used to vacuum
            and had admired from a distance.
            Now moving toward a new life,
            less worldly than the one which at that instant he was leaving,
            but a new life, just the same.

We have to ask ourselves, what type of man (or woman, for that matter) sinks so comfortably into an “unexpected” death? Could it be one with “secret friends” suddenly offered a clean slate?  This negative capability allows the question to linger as long as we wish, as the dying man only “[moves] toward a new life” when we are ready.

More dramatic but equally compelling is the poem, “2:17 a.m.” Here, Altman carefully attends to setting, mood, and plot. We exist in both space and time, and the speaker uses the poem’s title and first line to create a sense of tension that does not dissipate even when the danger has passed.

Awakening to the sounds of destruction,
            the family presses one another to the hardwood
Unable to move or see or understand
            in one final act of unity they pray silently, hands touching.
Bullets fill the room, shattering photos and jewelry and bed posts
            While small children, life faceless rag dolls, curl beside their mother
Each family member pinned down like a spider beneath a jar
            waiting for the inevitable.

                                                Suddenly, things stop.

The crackling glass still rings as tires screech beyond shattered blinds.
            Quiet sobs fill the void
                        where gunfire had been.
The father sighs, his family safe, his home destroyed,
            His secrets so rudely revealed.
He peeks outside, in the dim light,
                   thinking only of how badly his grass needs cutting
                            and whether his house will ever be sold.

Here, the poem’s story is mirrored in its visual rhetoric. The first stanza consists of alternating but uniformly indented, end-stopped lines connoting order even in the midst of disaster.  It almost does not matter that a solitary line interrupts the terror in the night because the second stanza, with its craggy indents, betrays a father’s secret life.

While I personally find “Death in the Foyer” and “2:17 a.m.” two of the most intriguing poems in Altman’s first collection, this chapbook’s scope is far reaching.  He explores the lethal neutrality of animal instinct in the poems “Wake Up Call” and “Her Woods” in the same proportion as the will to live and love in “The Groom’s Mother Has Cancer.”

“Death in the Foyer” can be found on the Finishing Line Press website at

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a Lecturer in the English department at Kennesaw State University. JoAnn received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine,, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Interview with Poet Robert Walicki about his chapbook The Almost Sound of Snow Falling

The Almost Sound of Snow Falling

Author: Robert Walicki

PublisherNight Ballet Press

Publication date: 2015

First Snow by Robert Walicki

Even when it came and afterwards, it hits me like a surprise wind.
The last clothes of the summer on a line:

Transparent flowers on my sister’s spring dress still wet and swinging,
or the long threadbare robe of my fathers’ that finally tore itself free,

hung there in the air is if weightless
held by something I couldn’t see.

A waiting, something slow like that.
Pausing and stopping, like music gone quiet

and starting again. Cool as a fridge door opening,
a breeze when a car is moving. Watching children run in a soccer game.

And cheering. Pizza so hot it burns the roof of my mouth, that walk over frozen mud
to get a bottle of water

to cool it and I am suddenly alone with what I’ve taken, what I can’t leave behind.
Not even that small boy covering his ears outside, the woolen hands

that hold the wind back to stare at something so large and black above his head,
while the pieces of something keep falling as if torn,

pages from a book that sat open by his parents’ bed:
In the beginning, God created the heavens, and the earth

was formless and void
Words I never got close enough to read or understand,

only that whiteness.
That miracle of 2 am when the roads have no memory.

Sidewalks, unbroken by footsteps.
And no one awake at this hour to sweep it away.

from The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press, 2015)

*   *   *   *   *

Robert Walicki is the curator of VERSIFY, a monthly reading series in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in HEArt, Stone Highway Review, Grasslimb, and on the radio show Prosody. He won 1st runner up in the 2013 Finishing Line Open Chapbook Competition and was awarded finalist in the 2013 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. He currently has two chapbooks published: A Room Full of Trees (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press, 2015).

Author Facebook page:

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Robert Walicki and I first met several years ago in a now-defunct Facebook poetry workshop group. I wrote a blurb for the cover of his chapbook The Almost Sound of Snow Falling. It was a delight interview him about the chapbook and poetry.

—Nancy Chen Long 

[This interview was originally published on my blog.]

*   *   *   *   *

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook.

RW: The Almost Sound of Snow Falling follows my last collection, A Room Full of Trees, in a fairly chronological way, moving from the inevitable acceptance of loss as a state of existence, but then moving past that aftermath to explore identity and self. I think more so than anything, it's about growth, a trial by fire so to speak and the transformation that occurs as a result of these experiences.

Some of the poems in The Almost Sound of Snow Falling touch on issues of masculinity and gender identification. Could you speak a little to this aspect of the book?

RW:  I had been interested in challenging stereotypical roles of masculinity after working for years in the construction trades industries. Society in general, can be very judgmental to individuals that don't fit into the expected or preconceived gender roles.When one is ostracized for their personality and make up, or even what they look like, it can be a very painful experience. This applies to many people and in many different fields and walks of life. The makeup of identity was something important to me and something that I wanted to understand to a deeper degree. Combing through hurt feelings and taking a candid look at what it means to be a man, and that being sensitive and caring didn't make you less masculine, was something that appealed to me a great deal.

The poems in this collection read as explorations of memories. Here are two considerations of memory in poetry:

[M]emory is unstable and idiosyncratic, and follows a structure and procedure much like narrative … [E]motion is the basis of long-term memory, and our reactions to the world around us are a complicated concatenation of the narratives we’ve written and continue to write in our brains in conjunction with reactions to new stimuli, which is often interpreted according to old patterns. Everything we 'know' is a narrative construction based on sometimes idiosyncratic interpretation.
What is the role of personal memory in your poems? When you’re writing your poetry, do you find memory to be something more solid, like Roberts examined the first quote—an inseparability between self-identity and the past? Or is it more permeable, as discussed by Heywood?

RW: I think for me, it's a combination. It really depends on the poem and the voice that leads me. I'm very much a believer of letting the poem determine what it's going to be, so in that sense, I feel memory is a very fluid thing. For example, there are poems like "First Snow" or "Ostaria" that attempt to capture the uncapturable or indescribable. Memory, when layered with emotion, often gets very complicated. There can be a lot to unpack and equally, so much of what I remember is colored by emotion and shaped by it. Truth, or what really happened, changes when I write, because what is more important to me, is whether a poem is "emotionally true" and not necessarily 100 percent factual. I'm fascinated most of all by concrete imagery as a doorway into memory and emotion. It's almost involuntary for me, like Proust. It's a very serendipitous thing. A shirt ripping on a nail reminding me of the loose buttons on a mother's coat in a photograph and suddenly, I'm writing the poem "In The Years Before Color," and everything a simple black and white photograph evokes from the past, and the future.

Why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?

RW: In general, I find it easier to focus on a chapbook length collection. I'm very attracted to shorter length formats in terms of a sharper, thematic focus, although I'm currently working on a full-length. I don't think I ever sit down consciously and say "I'm ready to write a chapbook." It happens organically and I think the best ideas come from that aesthetic. I never stopped writing after my first chapbook came out and in a very fertile period for me, I suddenly had a lot of poems that I felt were speaking to each other. My style was, and still is, evolving, especially from A Room Full of Trees, my first chapbook. I felt I was loosening up, was more frank in my language and was moving on from many of the things that I was obsessed about in the first book, namely my father's death and how that changed me as a person. However, one could make the argument that a few of the early poems in this collection could fit right in thematically with that first book.

What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? Why is it important to you? How did it come to be?

RW: That's difficult,but for me, the most crucial poems in this book are the work poems, because they were the hardest to write and the most important. As I've said before, I feel this book is about growth and I think these poems illustrate that process in a profound way for me. Those experiences changed me and forged me into the person I am, worlds away from the person I was before these events happened.

It took years to write this one in particular (it's not quite a year old), mostly because it was extremely difficult for me to find the poetry or "music" in these hard experiences. I also needed some emotional distance from what happened and perspective so I could write with the clarity and the restraint necessary to do justice to the material. I finally came to the conclusion that a simple frank and matter of fact tone was the best approach in writing about this kind of work. This poem is called "Rain Leader."

Rain Leader
(on running storm pipe under a bridge near Akron, OH, 1997)

When the only heat is from the coffee
at 5am, and less than 4 degrees outside,
you'll learn to wear enough layers,
or better yet, keep moving.

Some biker dude will laugh, blow frost,
Marlboro smoke in your face.
First day, it's "Hey rookie" and "Don't look down"
It's lift this 8 inch, cast iron pipe.

First day, It's " Go down to my truck and get
my pipe stretcher" ,and then you'll realize
there's no such thing 4 stories down.
First day, men will want to break you,

Like they've been broken, their riverbed faces,
grizzled beards twisted like dry rotted wire.
Last night's whiskey, sweating from dirty skin.
You will nearly lose your finger, when the ice forms

on the pipe, straps loosening, metal slamming flesh.
If you can make it past this, there's a Miller Genuine Draft
There's a welder sitting next to you, buys the first round,
lays his steel hands on your shoulder

Like the father who couldn't bear it.
If you can make it past tomorrow,
you'll have to trust the pig iron,
this foot width of rust,
and walk this I-beam,50 feet of cross cut steel
falling into nothing. There's a strap that holds
your waist, a broken man who leads you.
he'll walk like a free man across 4 inches of steel.
He'll never look back.

originally appeared in The Kentucky Review

You curate a monthly reading series for poets. How do you feel about spoken-word or performance poetry versus poetry on the page?

RW: I have learned from personal experience that when preparing to do a reading, I choose work based on readability and my audience. Knowing one's audience as well as having a balanced set list of poems is a real key to a successful reading. There are beautiful poems that I've never read for example, because I feel that they are either too "quiet" or "contemplative" or better on the page than ones that either have more movement in them, or are more accessible to a wider audience.

Regarding performing, I've had a few poets who qualify as performance poets in my series and I am always in awe of the energy that's brought to a poem by a gifted performance poet. It's a different aesthetic than more traditional poetry,but I often think that traditional poets could learn from performance poets in terms of being better presenters of their work, and performance poets could learn from the traditional poets as well. However, everyone has a unique gift to share with the world, and my goal is to celebrate that, give them a platform.

What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems? in publishing the collection?

RW: There's always a fear that certain poems can be misinterpreted or something may offend someone, but I made a decision while writing my first book: Do I want to be a truth teller, or I do I want to play it safe and write pretty, lyrical poems for the whole family? Being a "tell all" kind of poet can be very difficult and a sometimes painful road to go down. It's something I continue to struggle with, although I've made peace with who I am as a poet.

Have you given a public reading of the work? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

RW: I recently gave my first reading from the chapbook in Cleveland for my press, Night Ballet, at the wonderful Max Backs Books. I love to do readings in general, but this was a special night and the crowd was warm, attentive and engaging. I'm looking forward to going back!

What are you working on now?

RW: I have several projects that I'm working on currently, a full length manuscript, as well as another chapbook which is going to be a big departure. All of the poems will have or be inspired by pop culture references, so that's going to be a fun project when it's finished.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Charles of the Desert by William Woolfitt

William Woolfitt
Charles of the Desert 

Paraclete Press

By the numbers 

ISBN 978-1-612-61764-0 
Publication: 2016
Total pages: 77
Number of poems: 52

While I've never met William Woolfitt in person, I'm a fan of his poetry, especially his devotion to evocative detail, for example his recent poems in HEArt, an online journal that promotes the role of artists as human rights activists. I'm glad to have a chance to review his second book of poetry Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse

 —Nancy Chen Long

William Woolfitt is the author of three poetry collections: Beauty Strip (2014), Charles of the Desert (2016), and Spring Up Everlasting (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest judged by Darin Strauss. His poems and short stories have appeared in Blackbird, Image, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Epoch, Spiritus, and other journals. He is the recipient of the Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Denny C. Plattner Award from Appalachian Heritage.

Charles of the Desert by William Woolfitt brims with beautiful writing. In the book, Woolfitt tells us the story of Charles de Foucauld, a Frenchman born in 1858 to a wealthy Catholic family who, after a youthful season of debauchery, experienced a religious conversion in 1886. Charles subsequently rededicated himself to Catholicism, becoming a monk and then an ordained priest. A searcher, both spiritually and physically, his travels took him from France to Algeria, Morocco, Syria, the Holy Land, and then back to central Sahara where he lived as a man of the region in a commitment of solidarity with the local people. Charles was killed at the age of 58, some say by thieves searching for weapons and gold, some say by rebels. He had few converts while living. His influence came primarily after death, as others learned of his life and writing. The order called the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus was inspired by the example of Charles' life. He is perhaps most known for the Prayer of Abandonment and was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2005. 

Charles of the Desert isn't divided into sections like most poetry books. It flows from beginning to end as a biography, one enriched through Woolfitt's exquisite imagination. The poems in the book are each marked with a year and location, except for the final poem, which depicts Charles' assassination. To give an overview of the entirety of Charles' life, Woolfitt also provides both a synopsis and a chronology at the end of the book. 

All of the poems in the book are told in the first person, with Charles de Foucauld as the speaker. The first three poems concern Charles when he was a young boy, six-ish, while his parents were still alive. The first poem "My Father as Weather Formation," introduces Woolfitt's fine attention to detail that carries throughout the book. For example, in one stanza, Charles described his father veering from tree to tree after they arrive in the woods after a family drive:

               He presses his hand to the bark, rips a leaf, scribbles, 
               picks a thread from his tweed coat (its sleeve 
               scours my cheek, becomes burlap in memory), 
               bites a spotted plum in half, exposing the stone that glistens 
               like the pig hearts I saw, on tiptoe, at the butchery.

The five poems that come after the ones in which Charles' parents are still alive touch on his life with his grandfather, his teenage years and early twenties, and his service as a soldier in military. The remainder of the bookthe bulk of itis dedicated to Charles' search for meaning, his subsequent conversion and embrace of the Catholic church, and his life as a monk, hermit, and ordained priest.

The poems in Charles of the Desert range from highly narrative to tightly compressed lyric. An example of a poem that leans more narrative is "Tether," in which Charles tells us how he spent the day while in living in a monastery in Ardèche, France, " After high mass, I turn / to chores: I pull thistles, rub the brass .. // ... In my free hour, I read the breviary." 

An example of a more lyrical poem is  "Meditation on the Hands of the Ex-Slave," set in Algeria in 1903. After Charles became a monk, he returned to Algeria, having served there earlier in his life as cavalry officer. Returning as a religious, Charles secured the freedom of slaves by paying for their ransom.  In "Meditation on the Hands of the Ex-Slave," Charles studies the hands of a slave whose freedom he has purchased. This poem does a great deal of heavy lifting with few words. Looking at one stanza as an example, Charles us "He clenches them / like tree buds—never open, / always spring." One possible reading of the poem is through synecdoche, in which the slave's hands represent the whole of the man. Aristotle wrote in "On the Soul" that "the soul is analogous to the hand." If hands are a stand-in for the person, then the comparison of the ex-slave's scarred and weathered clenched fists to tree buds that never open leads to sorrow and a sense of choked promise. Those feelings are amplified in the next line, "always spring," which confronts the reader with the open-wound in the soul of the man, a wound inflicted by slavery: At first blush, one would assume the slave's freedom would be a kind of spring and that the idea of it being "always spring" might be a good thing. However, for this reader at least, I felt the opposite—that the fullness of the ex-slave's life, the unfolding of his soul here in this world, might never flower into its summer, instead remaining hidden and stifled, always tight in the bud. 

Woolfitt is brilliant at balancing both the lyric and narrative in one poem, an example of which can be seen in the "Gold Eater," set in Pont-à-Mousson, France during Charles' early twenties, when he was a womanizer and given to excess: 

          Gold Eater

             Give me fruits, spoils, fats, touches, tastes. 
             The buds of my tongue cry for mushrooms, pungent cheese,
             magic foods charmed from the dark, delights slurped
             or torn with teeth. I take, and take, and take.
             I take from the bent man who crept the cellar stairs
             each day to riddle the champagne bottle an eighth of a turn,
             nudging it upside down to settle the cloud of dead

             yeast cells in its wired neck. And from a goose
             in a wooden crate (so small, she could not move);
             she ate forced portions, never saw the sun. 
             Augers slid into an airhole (drilled in the crate’s lid),
             slid into her beak and craw; then kernels slid down
             the auger’s grooves, to stuff her gut, and pillow
             her liver in golden fat. And hats, brooches, furs,
             these I strip from the merchant’s rack for Violette,

             who ripped her hem the first June night she flitted
             over my sill, laughing and moon-gilt. Violette poses
             while I sketch her. I like her soft and naked as a bud. 
             I thumb the fat of her arm, count the time
             before my mark fades. When she bores me, I try
             horse races, quail, grouse, and buntings by the brace,
             card games, and imported cigars. Violette rigs a beggar
             costume that I will don to sneak away from officer duties. 
             We shutter the windows, stuff scarves under the door-crack
             to banish the coming day. We stagger, topple two chairs,
             our bodies prodigal and blind, my hand reading her face. 

           (first published in Saint Katherine Review)

In addition to free verse poems, there are sonnets, as well as poems that follow a patterned rhyme scheme, for example one intriguing poem, "Desert Bath at Sunset." It employs the same end word using the repetition pattern of a pantoum: ABCD BEDF EGFH and so on.  In addition, prose poems and epistolary poems are positioned throughout. Several of the epistles are written to a possibly fictionalized sister named Beatrix. (Biographies of Charles indicate he had one sister, whose name was Marie.)  The epistolary and prose poems read like flash fiction, fleshing out the story, for example the prose poem "The Rope Maker," a version of which you can read here on page 20 under the title "Metamorphosis."

The book also has a sense of immediacy to it. Woolfitt makes frequent use of the present tense, giving the story a freshness, a feeling that is just happened. This can be seen in the final poem of the book, "Someone Knocks," shown below. It's unlike the other poems in the book, with its use of white space to impact the pacing of the poem and its lack of punctuation. It leaves the reader seeing Charles' pages of translated Tuareg poetry flying with the wind, and perhaps analogously, his spirit as well scattering with those pages when he was killed. The lack of punctuation and final image render the story open-ended, suggesting that Charles lives on, which he does in a way, inspiring the Catholic faithful and others even today.

Charles of the Desert is a beautifully written biography-in-verse that holds a reader's attention from the first poem until the end. Woolfitt's imagination and gift with detail bring Charles de Foucauld to life in a compelling and fresh way. Woolfitt wrote in the book's Preface that, after much research and what seemed like a stepping away from his previous autobiographical poems, "I may have made a version of Charles in my own image." Indeed, the Charles de Foucauld depicted by Woolfitt is highly personal. Perhaps that's because we can feel the heart and soul of the poet in each poem. It's a book worth reading more than once.


Someone Knocks

by William Woolfitt

and I fling open my door

                 it isn't the man who brings my mail
but men with guns            my neighbors           Haratin

and Tuareg             joined in a fellagha rezzou
they wrench and tie my arms                    slam me against
the wall ransack my little fort                 unbind
               and fling
                                    my Tuareg dictionary
                                                my sheaves of Tuareg poetry
drag Jean from supper and his wife
                                                                           tie him beside me

tear the cross       the heart        from my robe
my chest is puny               white as glue
                my ribs like my mother's fan
my spirit an egret               my belly a roost
I feel       the breath       and the burn
as my lips form                       the word I choose
                                    and my pages scatter in the wind

"Gold Eater" and “Someone Knocks,” © William Woolfitt, Charles of the Desert  (Paraclete Press, 2016)

Nancy Chen Long is a National Endowment of the Arts creative-writing fellow. She is the author of Light Into Bodies (Tampa University Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, and Clouds as Inkblots for the Warprone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Zone 3, Briar Cliff Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. Nancy received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the local Writers Guild, she coordinates a reading series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. She lives in south-central Indiana and works at Indiana University.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

More Sonnets from the Portuguese by Janet C.M. Eldred

Janet C. M. Eldred
More Sonnets from the Portuguese 

Whitepoint Press

By the numbers 

ISBN 1944856064 
Publication: 2016
Total pages: 86 
Number of poems: 52

I met Jane C. M. Eldred in a 24PearlStreet class. She was working on what she called a  "longish sonnet sequence" that intrigued me. When her publisher asked  me to review More Sonnets from the Portuguese, I was excited to see the completed project. While Janet has other works of prose, this is her first book of poetry.

 —Nancy Chen Long

Janet C. M. Eldred grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley. She is currently Chellgren Professor at the University of Kentucky where she teaches creative nonfiction, editing, and literature in the English Department. She is the author of Sentimental Attachments (Heinemann, 2005), a volume of creative nonfiction, and Literate Zeal: Gender and the Making of a New Yorker Ethos (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), a look into the editing practices and editorial secrets of The New Yorker magazine.

Janet C. M. Eldred's first book of poetry More Sonnets from the Portuguese is a story-in-verse, a book of sonnets that chronicles the rekindling of an old romance that occurs when two college lovers find each again on the internet. The title and premise of the book are inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous book of love poems Sonnets from the PortugueseBrowning began the sonnet sequence while she and Robert Browning, who would later be her husband, were courting. Robert's nickname for Elizabeth was "little Portuguese," hence the title of her book Sonnets from the Portuguese. While there was nothing really "Portuguese" about Browning's book, in Eldred's book, the main character, Zélia Nunes,  is an Azorean-American widow who lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley who is learning to speak Portuguese.

The sonnets in More Sonnets from the Portuguese are cast in traditional forms and rhyme schemes as well as unconventional ones. Take for example "And Yonder Break," a thirteen-line sonnet that is a text-message exchange between the two lovers, complete with the lines being placed in message bubbles. The poems read as dramatic monologues that make use of apostropheZélia addresses her lover who is not actually there. In the monologues, Eldred skillfully includes specifics that flesh out the lives of the lovers, offering quick details for context. For example, in the first poem "I am a Sensible Woman," we learn some basic facts about  Zélia: 

I Am a Sensible Woman
I—Zélia Nunes— sensibly married
only once. Forty-five, no longer young.
Husband dead, four children, mortgaged, harried.
Holy obligations met, even sung.
Dinner cooked. Children washed. The laundry hung.
The me that was long before is ferried
through the rank weeds of troubles—piled, carried,
dumped in a heap with diapers and dung.

At end of day I fall asleep, buried,
in a life first quarried, then washed and wrung,
stacked, in no particular way, varied.
The children cry out, a hard burst of lung.
          At night, under cover, I conjure you.
          At daybreak I awake, dressed, blessed with dew.
And in the poem "Nacre," we learn of a miscarriage ("When I lost what was left of you—boy? girl? all /  these years—does it matter that I, you, never / knew?")  Eldred also offers details about Zélia's lover as well. We read that he is now is a "VP in the Valley of Silicon" ("Don't Look Back") who is Indian ("Portuguese and Indian can and do mix," "Learning Our History") and that he is currently married ("Of course I have a crush / on you—or would, if you weren’t so well married," "Flashing.")

More Sonnets from the Portuguese is divided into six named sections. Each section title has the word time in it, for example the first section is titled "Resurrection and the Time of Speaking in Tongues." As that section title suggests, Eldred blends the sacred and the carnal in these poems. The blending of the two is a binding theme of the book. For example, in the poem "The Confessional,"  after an intimate encounter ("no / separation now. Together we make / sounds, old and familiar, until new ones come") that occurs either in her imagination or in real life, Zélia proclaims:
I confessed you years ago. What is there
to whisper now for partial indulgence?
Only this blasphemous sin: You have become
my priest, my confessor. I finger
my beads, count so many Our Fathers, so
many Hail Marys. No absolution.

The book also lingers a bit in Zélia's childhood. The second section titled "Extraordinary Time" contains a sequence of poems that are an extended treatment her father and the family's pet rabbitsThis sequence turns on the motifs of death and of heat and thirst, for example in the poem "Animal Husbandry" Zélia shares that her father "grew up on a small farm, poor. He knew what to feed rabbits," but that, after moving from the Azores, he "didn't anticipate how [the rabbits] would suffer in San Joaquin heat" ("Holding the Quick Shiver.")  Another  poem in this sequence, "I Have Always Been Careless," demonstrates Eldred's skill with image and juxtaposition. She deftly brings the narrative arc from that of her childhood and father back to the love story by juxtaposing a scene of rabbits, death, heat, and thirst with a scene of  her lover in the shower. In the poem (which you can read here), the first stanza concerns Zélia's rabbit who was convulsing, dying from thirst, and her father's quick action in what could be read as a mercy killing. In the second stanza, Zélia's lover is in the shower with her. Eldred establishes a compelling parallelism between the rabbit scene and the shower scene. Both stanzas have someone with ample water and someone who thirsts. Both stanzas have someone who is careless and someone who suffers from neglect due to the carelessness: In the first stanza (the dying rabbit scene), Zélia is the one with ample water (“the city pool”) and the rabbit is the one who is dehydrated (“his bowl / of water dry”). In the first stanza, it is Zélia who is careless and the rabbit who suffers from neglect. However, in the second stanza (the shower scene), it is the lover who has the ample water ("cool water flowing," "shower") and Zélia who is dehydrated ("I thirst"). This sets up a parallelism which transfers the attribute of carelessness to the lover (the one with water) and the expectation of suffering to the narrator, Zélia. In the final couplet "My dear, you probably shouldn’t be / in my shower, yet through some grace, you are," the word grace hints at something positive and uplifting. However, since Zélia's lover is not actually there at this point, it makes the poem more poignant, as if the water were a mirage, as if her lover and/or their love were a mirage as well.

In addition to death, heat, and thirst, other motifs in the book include fire, destruction, husbandry, and one that I find especially intriguingtechnology. Technology is critical to the story, since the lovers reconnect online.  References to technology are peppered throughout the book. For example, the poem mentioned earlier, "And Yonder Breaks," is made up entirely of texts. Poems mention social media, e.g., "photoshopped Facebook fluff" ("You Knew Me Then")  and "an admirer on Twitter who goes un-blocked, unfollowed ... A mere Facebook friend can leave a trace" ("If a Tree Falls in the Forest... .") There are references to computers and hardware, e.g. "I am officially a Kindle / girl—I just bought one—" ("Kindling") and "the bright LEDs of a Silicon Valley night" ("Steadfast.") One poem even involves an online game: "I want to warn / you, Hug your loved ones. Beware the cyber / Day of Zélia’s Warning, the public scorn." ("Day of Zélia’s Warning" is name of a holiday in Elanthia, an online world of the medieval fantasy game called DragonRealms.) While Eldred applies the sonnet form to the classic subject of love, the generous inclusion of technology lends a decidedly contemporary quality to the poems.

The theme of religion threads the book together not only in diction and imagery, but in structure as well. There are 52 poems, completing a liturgical year. There are six sections, each of which can be mapped to six seasons in the Catholic Church's calendar. The invocation of a liturgical cycle becomes evident in the penultimate section "Ordinary Time." For example, "Fast Tuesday, or or Time to Shatter the Bones," has a strong pre-Lenten feel to it. Fat Tuesday is the last day of Carnival, a celebration that historically includes, in some places, the indulgence of sexual desires. It's the day before the start of LentLent being a time of self-examination and reflectionwhich can be detected in the reflective tone of the poem, e.g., “I thought of you when my husband was alive. / I felt that certain specific happiness, / one that in some odd way, I could count on.”  At the end of the poem, Zélia tells her lover “it’s time to shatter those bones again, / this time, exhaustively, lovingly.” When taken in light of Lent and the impending crucifixion, those lines about shattering bones suggest a metaphorical gesture to hasten the death the love of the affair: a person’s legs were usually broken after being crucified to speed up their death. 

The liturgical and Lenten emphasis becomes even stronger in the last section titled "The Time of Atonement." That emphasis can be seen in the poem titles themselves, e. g., "Lenten Dreams," "Prayer of the Penitent," "Act of Contrition, "Memorial," "A Ritual for Letting Go," "Liturgical Time." The liturgical calendar is explicitly referenced in the poem "Liturgical Time." (The poem is printed below.) In the poem, the speaker is contrite and proclaims a dependence on grace, living moment to moment through repeating cycles of life, and through the seasons of  Ordinary Time, those enumerated weeks that fall outside the major seasons, suggesting an ordered life of quiet growth and maturation.

More Sonnets from the Portuguese is an ambitious sonnet sequence, given its marriage of the religious and the carnal and its strong parallels to Browning's acclaimed book Sonnets from the Portuguese. Eldred's sonnets are varied and skillful and her ability to maintain a narrative in lyric form is admirable. Her use of playful language and the role she gives to technology bring a freshness to a classic story line.

Liturgical Time

by Janet C. M. Eldred

Again this year the cross is hollow. It’s light
to carry. The words are given as grace,
that I may know how frail I am. White
vapor, our restless aims
…Sin’s translucent trace.
I fear I won’t make three Good Friday,
without-you hours in silent reflection.
But maybe, for one hour I can endure, pray,
my pale, pale beat of faith a prediction—

One hour leads to one more uncorrupted
hour until grace leads long hours to days,
to weeks, the cycle uninterrupted
year after year of advent, pain, and praise.
Endure suffering. Rejoice the risen.
Dance in tongues. Ordinary Time again.

"I Am A Sensible Woman" and “Liturgical Time,” © Janet C. M. Eldred More Sonnets from the Portuguese (Whitepoint Press, 2016)

Nancy Chen Long is a National Endowment of the Arts creative-writing fellow. She is the author of Light Into Bodies (Tampa University Press, forthcoming 2017), which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, and Clouds as Inkblots for the Warprone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Zone 3, Briar Cliff Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. Nancy received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the local Writers Guild, she coordinates a reading series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. She lives in south-central Indiana and works at Indiana University.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind & Rain, forthcoming from Red Hen Press, 2017

Diane Gilliam is the author of chapbook Recipe for Blackberry Cake, 1999; and full length books One of Everything, 2003; Kettle Bottom, 2004, winner of the Perugia Press Prize; and Dreadful Wind & Rain, 2017. She is A Room of Her Own Foundation 6th Gift of Freedom Award winner, 2013. AROHO gives this award biennially to a female poet, fiction writer, or creative nonfiction writer to complete a project for publication over a two-year period. She also received, in 2008, the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. 
     I first met Diane about ten years ago at the Appalachian Writers' Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Kentucky. We roomed together there once and have been friends since. I received an advance copy of Diane’s Dreadful Wind & Rain, expected  from Red Hen Press in 2017. Diane is a small unassuming woman, but when she speaks through her poetry, usually in persona, she packs a wallop. You just don’t see it coming.

The poems in Dreadful Wind & Rain are divided into 4 sections: “Girl” is about early lives and losing one’s hands (as in The Tale of the Handless Maiden); “Anyone” is about other lives and this particular one, coming of age/struggle; “Or Else” includes poems of claiming, taking hands back, and moving toward wholeness and connection; and “After”, the shortest section with only four poems, leads us into acceptance of not happily ever after but the threshold between a life that’s behind and the life that’s ahead. It is both a sad and hopeful tale told with simple and stunning language. The collection includes one villanelle (“His & Hers”); six prose poems (two in each of first four sections); one “Where I’m From” borrowed from George Ella Lyon; and the remaining 45 are free verse. 

In the opening poem “Girl” a young child is looking out a window wanting “Whatever is she is wanting” which “is not/too much to ask”. It ends with these lines which pulled this reader in:

…. And if I still can’t say
what it is I am wanting, look closely at the windowpane, 
it’s what I brought you here to see—how it holds us 
in that house apart from what we want, 
how the glass makes it look 
like there is nothing
to stop us 
at all. 
And so Diane starts us on a journey which looks like “there is nothing / to stop us / at all” and travels through female (and male) time, fairy tale time, Biblical time, and story book time. Her poems speak from different personas and cover stories women often tell and don’t tell, which are key to how we are who we are, how we diminish ourselves, and how that can change over time. She brings us to the first window in the first poem, then takes us on a journey that allows for all our versions to step into consciousness. The second poem, in its entirety, reads:


Someone put my mother in a box.

This is an old story.

The box could have been gold 
or glass or ice. It was a cedar chest
weighted with blankets and quilts
for a family of ten. He took them out
and put her in, she was three maybe four.
He told her not to move, pressed the quilts
and blankets down on her face 
and the box clicked shut.

This was after. This is the story
of the sins of the brother, hand-me-down
version of the sins of the father.

They searched first the yard inside
the fence, then the wood. They went
up the mountain, into the old bear cave
back of the house. They called, they shouted.
They tore their hair.

He’d told her not to move.

Every tale has its local inflections.
Hers could have ended with kindly strangers,
a woodsman and his wife longing
for a child of their own. Instead, it was
a whipping for the hiding and the scare.

This is a long story.

The brother long since dead,
the box, of course, still alive, dark heirloom 
crouched in the corners of all our rooms. 

We walk by, something clicks
and whispers,
  Don’t move.

Very telling. “Someone put my mother in a box.//This is an old story”.  The box could have been anything—it’s something most of us can relate to for this is how we are trapped in the stories passed down. Themes of separation, isolation, deceit, and “heirlooms” passed down reoccur throughout the book. I could spend more time here but I won’t. There are things you should discover for yourself.  

Diane uses turns of phrases in unusual ways, especially in the first two sections.  The poem “For Goodness Sake” uses versions of common phrases: paid the price, swept under the rug, a straw to break the camel’s back, mad money, turn the other cheek, and cry like a baby. In Diane’s hands, the phrases do not come across as trite but rather as familiar and intimate. In the last stanza these phrases tumble into:  “we understood—it was ordinary / hunger, we were hungry, like everyone else. / And that, at last, was good.” 

I want to highlight the phrase “turn it into nothing” which is echoed from the first poem: “And you were nothing, the mother / will say. And I was nothing, / the girl will say.” “[T]urn it into nothing” threads into this, the third poem, “The Father’s Story”:

Back then, people knew how to make
something out of nothing.  If there wasn’t grass,
women’d go out with a broom and sweep
a pattern, like fan quilting, in their dirt.
The narrator explains how he came to live with his aunt and uncle who “didn’t have any kids to work their farm / and they were, hands down, [another turn of phrase] / the meanest people that ever lived.” 
Once I found some old rusty wheels in the barn.
I thought to build a wheelbarrow
to carry the stove wood up to the porch
from the field. Uncle Jim pitched a fit,
called me a thieving son-of-a-bitch
on account of those wheels. Man, oh, man.
They knew how to take something, too,
and turn it into nothing.

In “The Bargain,” another child, or perhaps the same girl at an earlier age, is asked to be nothing, as had the girl was in the first poem.  The phrase “with next to nothing” is later used in “The Knot” where “The prize, / of course, is marriage.” In the third section of this poem, “Decades later, on her way out the door, / she still is looking for the why of it all”. 
She insists on an answer. 

All he can say is this—
he doesn’t know why, 
but he thinks he loves her
when he sees her working for hours 
on something all laid out on the floor, 
down on her hands and knees, 
with next to nothing
of something impossible,
trying to make it work
and willing for anything.
 I have selected of Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind & Rain those poems which I found satisfying. To merely touch on poems which awed me, I tempt you with this one, previously published in Massachusetts Review:

Leah….Rachel.  The names mean “cow” and “ewe” respectively.
--Zondervan NIV Study Bible

You Who Hear Me,
though my name is only the sound
of the low groan in the field, the rip
of grass from the ground, the obscene
wail of the one
cut off from the herd; You
Who See the wince
of the small humiliation of milking,
the twisted grimace of husbandry,
the face beaten like a plowshare
into the shape of what happens to it;

I know

You are not the stone eyes of my father’s
small gods, You are nothing
Rachel can steal. You are not the stones Jacob 
heaps as altars over top his sins 
to mark his trail. You are not the stone
from the mountain broken, You are the mountain
broken, its face undone, the space left open
when the men with the hammers have gone.

Diane shows us how we inherit stories, how we become trapped in stories, but she eventually shows us we can learn to see in different ways and change our own narratives. And she takes us to a door in the last poem, where we find

the breadcrumbs
meant to lead you out
of this enchantment, your own,
whatever it is.
The door opens
           when you touch it. It is not wrong
to pause on the threshold, here at the very
end of the story. Behind you, everything ever.

Before you, on the dark road,
everything after.

“Before you” is not happily ever after. Let’s be real—life is never going to be easy. But this book shows us we can claim our own story. 

I am one of those people who love to read the books I love over and over. It is a comfort thing. And with each subsequent reading, I find more depth in Diane Gilliam’s Dreadful Wind & Rain. Watch for it. 

                                                                                                  --Melva Sue Priddy