Monday, November 30, 2015

An Interview with Connie Voisine by Caroline LeBlanc

Connie Voisine lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is an associate professor of English at New Mexico State University and a director of La Sociedad para las Artes.  In 2012, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University in Ireland, and is currently back in Ireland on sabbatical.  Calle Florista is her third book.  Her second book, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.  Her first book, Cathedral of the North, won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in Poetry.  She has poems published in The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Magazine, Black Warrior Review, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.  Her work was featured at The Lab at Belmar, a museum show pairing prehistoric stone tools with poems. 

Connie grew up in a Franco-American community near the Canadian border in Maine, and earned a BA in American studies from Yale University.  She studied at the New School and the Writers Studio in New York City, before earning her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and PhD from the University of Utah.

The Poetry Foundation site notes that, “[d]eploying a kind of lyric narrative, Voisine’s poems frequently feature speakers as they encounter contemporary culture in a variety of locations—including the American Southwest and Mexico.”

Interviewer’s Note:    I first met Connie Voisine in 2009 when she and ten other Franco-American poets anthologized in French Connections: A Gathering of Franco-American Poets, graciously agreed to be interviewed for a paper I delivered in Montreal at a conference on Canadians in the United States.  In 2011, an adaptation of the paper was published as “Writing an Ethnic Identity between Worlds: Claiming and Maintaining a Franco-American Self,” in The International Journal of Canadian Studies.  Since then, I have moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, some three hours north of Las Cruces, where Connie lives and works.  When she announced the publication of Calle Florista, I approached her about reviewing the book.  Her response: Thanks…. We have that French/New Mexico thing going. We do, and I love it!


Since Connie is in Ireland, we conducted this interview via email.  

LEBLANC: Hello,Connie. I hope you enjoying your time in Ireland. For this interview, I decided to use your current book as a springboard for broader questions about the arching POV I found in the book and your online interviews/talks.  Thanks for your time and generosity in responding to these questions.
LEBLANC: I know our 2010 research interviews that you, like me, grew up in a working class Franco-American community.   While I grew up in Massachusetts, you grew up on the US/Canadian border in Northern Maine where it’s practically just a matter of walking across a bridge to go from one country to the other, and French is an everyday language. In fact, from the 18th to early 20thcentury, our ancestors moved back and forth across northern US borders for work and family, much as present day Mexicans and Mexican-Americans cross southern US borders. Poems, such as AS WELL AS YOU CAN, suggest your sensitivity to the post-colonial/border/immigrant experience.  Others, like AMBIDEXTROUS, suggest the tensions between a working class way of engaging life, and the more refined entitlements and behaviors expected in society’s educated circles.  What were your intentions with these poems? How has your heritage informed your sensitivities and interests in your studies and writings? 

VOISINE: Having relocated from one border to the other, I became fascinated by New Mexico’s landscape—a completely different imaginative space than Maine’s Canadian border. Southern New Mexico’s historical relationship to Mexico (prior to 1848, it was part of Mexico) produces a kind of splitting and friction, one with human, economic, and political consequences. I find myself writing into understanding, or in order to understand. Having grown up in a border community, I feel the similarities and differences acutely.

Since leaving home, having changed not only my location, but my culture and class, I am constantly aware of the places where I don’t belong by any kind of birthright—in spite of all the points of connection. How to write about a colonized space, one that doesn’t belong to you in any historical way—that became my poetic question once I moved to New Mexico. I have students at New Mexico State University whose families have lived in the area since before Spanish colonization. Who am I to write about this space, although it is my home now. I can get pretty picky about how people “from away” write about Maine, you know, which informs my reaction…

LEBLANC: The NM State News Center article ( announcing your 2012 Fullbright at Ireland’s Queen’s University,  Seamus Haeney Centre for Poetry quotes you as saying, “There’s a lot of conflict historically in Belfast between people who supported British rule and those who didn’t.  It’s a border city of sorts and living on the border ourselves, it will be interesting to see how another artistic community deals with borders.”  The French in Canada and the US have had their own difficulties with Les Anglais, difficulties of which few Americans are aware.  On the other hand, the difficulties citizens on both sides of our border with Mexico have had is the stuff of daily news reports.   You have lived and studied in at least three border lands: Maine, New Mexico, and Ireland. Your poem, THE ALTAR BY GEORGE HERBERT, suggests you have also spent extended time in Mexico.  It seems to me there are many kinds of borders besides the geographical borders: political, gendered, class, racial, ethnic, etc.  How does the concept and reality of borders inform your writing?  What insights have you garnered about the similarities and differences about border issues?  How these issues are addressed in literature? How do your insights reveal themselves in your writing and other work?

VOISINE: Moving to New Mexico made me aware of how careful I must be when writing about place. Having come from an insular, very specific culture myself, I am sensitive about cultural appropriation. There’s a huge risk when we graft our own imported-from-elsewhere feelings and experiences onto the experiences of others—maybe it’s how we at first connect, but it’s not the deepest connection. My basic strategy is poetry as praxis, maintaining an active, open empathy through connections to my immediate community. Anybody who’s been to my house knows that often people call on us for all kinds of reasons. Being from small town Maine, related to just about everyone one way or another, I was well trained in the habit of connection, community, and helpfulness. The other parents at school, my neighbors on my street, the dog walkers in the park across from my house are necessary to my poetics. Maybe I make a small town out of wherever I live. This is as essential to writing for me as anything else.

LEBLANC: In the video of your lecture, “The Riddle in the Lyric Poem”  ( , you say a number of interesting things.  The riddle creates “discord between myself and the world,” a distance between self and the familiar in which the “ordinary world becomes alien…until the riddle is solved.”  You quote Brian Swan: “riddles bring the mind to crisis…; riddles and their answers imply a dualistic universe.”   Once solved, in your words, the “object becomes itself again, located…and at the same time made more complex.”  SAY UNCLE reads as series of riddles.   In the riddle like poem I ADMIT I BELIEVE IDEAS EXIST REGARDLESS, factories, televisions, and defensive linemen make the leap and become manifestations of God, feeling/passion, and the soul.  Metaphor clearly runs through this poem, and so does the riddle.  Would you talk about the relationship of metaphor and riddle in your thinking and writing?

VOISINE: I felt an answer to my initial question of how to write about New Mexico when I started reading heavily in the poets of Eastern Europe: Szymborska, Herbert (Zbigniew), Milosz, Holan, and Flora. These poets guided Calle Florista when I was most stuck. As poets, they manage through a combination of directness and excision to sustain a complex and even private sensibility while cracking the self open to encompass the affairs of a broader world. For political reasons (their years under the USSR had many pressures), these poets used indirection and metaphor to express what was difficult or impossible to express plainly. Through a quality of reserve, we get an echo of personal experience in their poems, but the emphasis is on ambiguity, the casting of thought, ideas made vibrant by their use of metaphor and an intense, personal and sometimes comic voice.  Thus we understand something about their lives without confession. Don’t get me wrong—I love the confessional mode and it’s one I have used in various ways in my other books. But again, this mode did not seem the right way to go when I felt like such a minor character in this new landscape, community, contested space.

LEBLANC: Poems such as TWO YEARS IN THAT CITY are rich in metaphor, philosophical suggestion, and allusions that bridge the mundane and intellectual ponderings.  Would you talk about the influence of theatrical, philosophical, theological, anthropological and linguistic studies in your thinking and writing?

VOISINE: Because of this project, I wrestled with larger poetic questions: if writing lyric poetry is an embrace of an utterly personal process of defamiliarization, how does a poet negotiate the philosophical, social or political? In order to comment on the political, the poet must begin the poetically dangerous practice of generalizing. But how could I claim the specifics of New Mexico as my own to combat the generalizing—who am I to do that?
Also, frankly, I was getting tired of the alienated, tragic speaker as a mode in my own work and the work of others. I wanted emotional engagements. On the other hand, I do love a rhetorical poem. In the end, I see this book as full of rhetorical action—but it happens through metaphor, I hope. It’s the metaphor in those Eastern Europeans that gives the arguments feeling (and ambiguity) by creating an emotional texture, a context of objects and experience.

LEBLANC: In reference to her visionary art, Meinrad Craighead, the great New Mexican artist and former contemplative nun has said that, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” even though she no longer affiliated herself with the institution. Poems such as ANNUNCIATION and THE ALTAR BY GEORGE HERBERT, read as reflections on spiritual issues.  How does the spirituality of your Roman Catholic heritage inform your interests and writing?

VOISINE: Oh, she’s right, that Meinrad Craighead. I am not a practicing Catholic, but culturally I’m a Catholic and always will be. Even if I found another religion that suited me, I can’t imagine converting. (I know it’s absolutely right for many people, but not for me.) Catholic stories are a part of who I am, the magic that many of those stories create is too. What is a miracle but magic made meaningful in the world? (Again, I don’t want to offend believers but that’s how I’ve come to see it.) A certain acceptance of suffering and poverty is instrumental to the Catholic faith as well, for better and for worse. Recently I went to a first communion ceremony which was lovely and I felt that, believer or not, this is my tribe. I have tried to reclaim what I can of Catholicism even though I am not a believer anymore. It’s still my mythology, my image-world, still an orientation to many things in world.

LEBLANC: Would you tell us a little about your impressions of Ireland, and what you are working on during your current sabbatical in Northern Ireland?

VOISINE: We recently went to Kerry from Belfast, where we are living now and I was reminded that Northern Ireland is very different from the south. The landscape is similar and there are many aspects that overlap, but the country’s history since partition is so vastly different. I have a book in progress set in Belfast—one long, book-length poem—which I began last time we lived here, in 2012. You might think that here I am again, wondering how to manage the fact that the place in which I live is not my own. I’m, as they would say here, a “blow-in.” I think, and I don’t want to jinx it, that this next book is about neighbors in more obvious way than Calle Florista, and Belfast can be seen as a place where notions of community have really been negotiated and renegotiated. The Good Friday Agreement between Catholic and Protestant organizations, signed nearly 20 years ago, wobbles, threatens to fail, and then rights itself over and over. Public housing and education is still segregated. Yet, peoples’ lives are intertwined in so many ways. As always.

LEBLANC: Your webpage also indicates that you spend your summers in Chicago—another northern US border town historically influenced by French immigrants, and now populated by many Hispanic immigrants.  What is your work while there?  How do your rotating residencies along our northern and southern borders inform your “border” consciousness” and writing?

VOISINE: Mostly we started going there for personal reasons: my husband, the writer Rus Bradburd, is from Chicago and my sister, a scientist, Cindy Voisine, lives there too. Both Rus and our daughter are traditional fiddlers and there are so many opportunities to play with fabulous musicians in that city. Rus’ most recent project is a book about his friend who was shot and paralyzed on the west side of Chicago, a victim of the rising gun violence in that city. There are lots of other reasons we keep coming back.  I like to write in the public library on the corner, where I can look at Welles Park little league out the 2nd story windows. 

Calle Florista: A Review by Caroline LeBlanc

Calle Florista

by Connie Voisine

University of Chicago Press, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-226029532-9 

Toward the middle of “The Self after Modernism,” the last poem in Calle Florista, Voisine writes:  “I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write.”  And Calle Florista is a book of responsible poems, thirty-three of them about life in borders places, class, migration/immigration, and intellectually flavored existential questions.  Most are lyrical, free verse poems with irregular lines, stanza size, and few rhymes.  Throughout the poems, the “I” and the “not-I,” the “I as other,” the “other as I” dance in and out of the foreground, often not quite located in an easily defined point of reference. The reader must be willing to shift focus, consciousness and footing, often within the same poem.  In “The Self after Modernism,” Voisine goes on to muse: “Maybe there’s some hope for this poem/if I open the door to the random, the fragmented,/the flimsy scraps that more genuinely//compose the day, the mind, the night, the dream.(60-62)”  

The first, and title, poem, translated “Florist Street,” is a bittersweet description of an apparently misnamed street that had few "cultured" flowers and only a recent “ ’Florista’ started last year.”  Or was the street named for some ancient place of beauty, long lost by the time the speaker arrived?  In any case, the street described was “more/ a bunch of rocks lined up in a particular way,” and cluttered with cats, their kittens, pecan trees, and “weeds of the nightshade family,/unwatered except on irrigations days/ when the whole neighborhood stood up to its knees in water.” The narrrative’s main character is Tio who was “kind of kingly/sitting in his minivan,” his status shored up by his “one fat Shar-Pei,” while Tio waited for the pecans to drop.  Meanwhile, a boy hit the speaker’s “car with a stick,” while his sister “stood in the plastic swimming pool.”  Tio’s “worrying about the occasional helicopter/battering by/ and the dog and the cats, who were not cat’s at all maybe” suggests a more sinister flavor to the destruction and the listless waiting. The images conjure up scenes from Breaking Bad.

Meanwhile, the speaker spent her days “…in that little house, writing about/our street, which changed every day//subtly and in complicated ways”—culling  something she sees in the street’s untended, disorderly, yet fecund existence, a deeper meaning often unseen by the mainstream American  eye. Finally, the last four lines surprise and catapult the reader into the heart of a poem: an absent other the speaker longed for—a child, a lover, an undeveloped part of self, or a reader who “didn’t exist” for the speaker at the time of the narrative events.  The reader is left wondering:  was this other totally  nonexistent anywhere in this world, or simply absent from the speaker’s life at the time of the poem’s events?     

                But for you it was most different—
                you were the one who didn’t exist,
                except as someone
                who did not live on Calle Florista. (4)

These last four lines catch the reader,  easily absorbed in a poem that is apparently “only” describing a dawdling border town,  They bring one back to the first three lines of the poem.

                Don’t you remember
                our little house on Calle Florista,
                the calle with lots of flowers? (3)

Just who is being addressed? On first reading, these lines seem to be a rhetorical invitation to a generic “you,” not pointing to a particular person listening to the simple reminiscence that follows.   And the poem would be only a dark, somewhat cryptic, yet superficial reminiscence, but for the connection between the first three and the last four lines, which lift it to another level of reflection for both speaker and reader.   The lines suggest a desire to open a window of understanding—however broad or specific the audience—into the life experience of not only the speaker, but also the other characters in what was once the speaker’s neighborhood.

Several poems indict the colonizers’ mentality.  One of these, “New World,” weaves elements of the French as New World colonizers, and their English rivals. Britain eventually displaced France making the French, in turn, colonial subjects of the British North American Empire.  The poem reflects on the wonder, hope, and optimism, as well as hubris, greed, and exploitation of Europeans. In the New World, all things, represented by pronghorn antelopes, and high-plains grasses, “bound to the edge of the compound, the edge of town, the edge of, the edge of—.“  The coup d'├ętat is gold: “Let’s have nothing/but gold—it’s so pleasing.” 

The irony of this line can better be understood if we consider something Voisine said in her 2010 online interview about “Sorry I Don’t Like You,” a poem not in this collection. Voisine spoke about “the book I am working on now, where the autobiographical aspect is nearly gone—where the ideas, images, metaphors take the stage and the speaker’s identity is what I call the “Citizen I.”  Her closing comment: "That is what the speaker sees in herself—naive choices based on a silly American optimism.  The French in me should know better.” (

In the mid 18th century, when English might prevailed on the American continent, the French in America, bartered away by France, felt the sting of being a conquered people. They suffered greatly in English Canada and across the border in WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) dominated United States.  I believe this French heritage sensitizes Voisine’s “Citizen I” voice to the life experience of the dispossessed, as evidenced in “New World” and other poems in this collection.

The first stanza’s wonder over the bounty of the American continent, falls into the speakers tearful  response to a waltz.  Sentimental loneliness for the old country or foreboding about the cruelties of colonization?  The next two stanzas suggest the reason for the tears is both/and rather than either/or.
I knew a lot, once.
Wasn’t Naturalism about to happen?
And really, the French and the English,
why should they quit—a battle here, one there,
and their navies refulgent?....
Once I knew
that pastries could have a thousand leaves.
The bishop wore a fabulous hat,
and forks and knives
were polished monthly to meditate
in their velvet boxes.     

Here the sky represents nothing
but blue, and we go along
inventing new ways of dying:
by the cutting off of hands,
of hair, death by one dirty blanket, and
death by walking.
Death by six pine nuts, by bloody
sunset, by obscure mirage.

A number of other poems concern the challenge of simply going on day after day. Below is a selection of lines from these poems.  They demonstrate Voisine’s lyrical voice, her metaphorical and poetic sensibilities. 

“As Well As You Can”:    What about the lumpen sadness of all shoes?
                                           And all day that gravel of socket and bone,
                                           that heel like an adze? (5)

“Say Uncle”:                       rain. How would you find vigil
                                            and beautiful mouth, those two

                                            last seen by the side of the highway? (13-14)
“Midnight in the House:                 I had a lot of ideas,
                                                          but they became unlinear or not especially
                                                          productive or forward-
                                                          looking—too many frying pans,

                                                          smoky celings, sticky red aprons,
                                                          the sink that bosses, Throw the bones out!
                                                          and a painting of Jesus that ignores. (28)

“This World and That One:          Sometimes you defy it,
                                                       I am not that, watching a stranger
                                                       cry like a dog when she thinks she is alone
       at the kitchen window…(30)

“Summertime”:                      nothing.  Did we think
                                                this could be life? This
                                                thick arctic of heat? This tundra
                                                of struggle?  Even dogs
                                                know it’s best
                                                to pretend they are dead.

                                                By afternoon we don’t
                                                believe in anything:…  (22)

“After the First Road”    AFTER THE FIRST ROAD
                                        the next is a habit.  It makes hope the way
                                        morning unsullies those still
                                        drowned in their beds, the way a wren

                                        of a word then another gives itself to a sentence. (31)

“Two Years in That City”                         ...Freud in his dark suit,
                                                or was it Kafka, kept whispering
                                                        melancholia wasn’t the sadness
                                                        of a lost lover, or a city, or a life, but
                                                when you realized you mourned
                                                the glittering, ravenous void of desire itself. (34)

Still other poems, always timely at the US/Mexican border, concern the dangers, loss, worry, bitterness, and loneliness of immigrating across borders where climate, people and authorities can be harsh. “The Internal State of Texas,” “We are Crossing Soon,” “What Is True Is You’re Not Here,” “In the Shade” are a few. 

“You Will Come to Me Across the Desert,” while located in the American Southwest, evokes the human suffering of all the displaced people in our world. The first person voice sounds like the scolding of a loving mother fearful for the welfare of her child (adolescent/adult?) who has wandered away from the familiar/familial in search of another life.

    I went looking for you,
    here of all places.

    I said when I get a hold of you,
    you better watch out.
    You’ll never eat sugar
    as long as I live and breathe.”

Variations of common motherly humor, hope, bargaining, concerns, defenses, pleas and threats continue for 20 lines until the speaker collapses into her anguish:

                I said if I died now, I would die full of regret.
                I wish this knowledge did not make me weep.
                I said I have found everybody
                else—where are you?
                Don’t step there! The cacti are dangerous.
                Trust me, you could die….

Four more lines, and we read the ultimate maternal bargaining promise: “I said you will not be in trouble if/you come home now.”  The poem’s next and last line oozes magical thinking rooted in maternal despair:  “I said olly olly in free (24-25).”

Jungian thought informs us that we each have within us a multitude of potential selves: some dormant and largely invisible, particularly to ourselves; some more obvious, especially to others. We each have our own inner victim, inner colonizer, inner migrant/refugee, inner terrorist, inner philosopher, inner philanthropist, etc. Circumstances in the outer world evoke, cultivate or suppress aspects of the outer and inner self. These circumstances can all but overwhelm our ability to actualize our assets, understand or overcome our limitations. Often we project aspects of ourselves onto others, preferring to see in them things we are uncomfortable acknowledging in ourselves. Such projections easily drag us into harsh judgement about, or idealization of, others.  Or they can enable us to feel varying degrees of empathy for those with different life circumstances, hopefully without assuming that we can know what only the other can tell us about his or her life. True understanding and respect for the life experience of those different from us is hard earned.  In her own way, Voisine addresses this in the interview accompanying this review:

Since leaving home, having changed not only my location, but my culture and class, I am constantly aware of the places where I don’t belong by any kind of birthright— in spite of all the points of connection. How to write about a colonized space, one that doesn’t belong to you in any historical way—that became my poetic question once I moved to New Mexico.  

Calle Florista is, in my opinion, an excellent response to the poetic quest Voisine set for herself.  

To conclude, let me expand on the line  from "The Self After Modernism" that opened this this review.

I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write,
            which I can imagine with ultrasound clarity,

            something fierce and kicking in the darkness.
            Watch the poem swing its little arms, open its mouth

            to a vast, fetal silence (60-62).

On many levels, the poems in Calle Florista have much to teach us as human beings and as poets who explore the “fetal silence” of our imaginations, our lives and communities.

Caroline LeBlanc’s essays and prize winning poetry have been published in the US and abroad. In 2011 she received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. Oiseau Press published her chapbook, Smokey Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle in 2010. From 2013-2015 she served as the American Military Family Museum’s Writer in Residence. She hosts a regular writing salon for women veterans. Her art has won prizes in numerous group shows. She is a founding member of the Albuquerque Apronistas Collective of women artists.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mendeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow

Jessica Goodfello 
Mendeleev's Mandala 

Mayapple Press

By the numbers 

ISBN 978-1-936419-49-4 
Publication: 2015 
Total pages: 100 
Number of poems: 49


Despite my occasional whining about the evils of Facebook, I love how it connects us with others that we might not otherwise meet. Poet Jessica Goodfellow is one such person: She and I are part of an online group of poets. Several months ago, in hopes of giving poets and poetry a bit more visibility, I started an interview series on my personal blog and extended an invitation to poets in that group. As a result, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with her.  (You can read the interview here.) 

In preparation for the interview, I immersed myself in her online work and was blown away. Folks, her poetry resonates with me at a physical level. When I read one of her poems, I feel like that second tuning fork in that physics experiment on sympathetic tuning forks, vibrating at some resonant frequency with the poem. Anyway, suffice it to say I ordered her book and read through it several times. Other poetry books are important to me for various reasons, but on a purely personal, aesthetic, and emotional level, Mendeleev’s Mandala is one of my favorite books of poetry that I’ve read, not just this year, but ever.

As is the case with my other reviews here on Poetry Matters, my hope is to give you an overall description of the book by touching on each of its sections and to give you a peek into the book by looking a bit more deeply at one or two of the individual poems. But I’ll say this now: People, read this book.

—Nancy Chen Long


Much about poet Jessica Goodfellow could be viewed as the beautiful blending of seeming opposites. An American poet now living in Japan with her husband and sons, Goodfellow grew up in Pennsylvania in a family where religion played a prominent role. Her educational background is heavy in math and science, with an MS degree from the California Institute of Technology (she’d been pursuing a PhD in Economics but stopped short in order to pursue creative writing) and an MA in linguistics from the University of New England. 

That beautiful blendingthe integration of dissimilar, even antithetical, thingsis one of the features of Mendeleev’s Mandala, which is filled with poems that mix religion and science, myth and math, fact and fable, speaking and silence, dark and light, chaos/randomness and order. In addition to such fusion, other themes in the book include an obsession with sight and the process of seeing, repetition and the need to repeat, time, and relationships, especially family. Most of the poems are free-verse and innovative. Some might even call a few of the poems experimental. And language in all of its gloryconnotation, denotation, sound and rhythm, some of it playfulis the one of the driving forces in every poem.

Let's begin at the beginning. If we consider the title (the book is titled after one of its poems), we can see this blending or inclination towards integration that runs throughout the book: Mendeleev is of science and mandala is of religion. Dmitri Mendeleev was a Russian chemist who, among other things, devised the periodic table of elements that predicted undiscovered elements. Mendeleev’s predictive model was based on patterns and repetitions of those circles of atoms and electrons that make up the universe. And a mandala is a spiritual symbol representing 
the universe that includes circles as a predominant geometric shape. In addition, Goodfellow is a master of layering meaning. In the title, not only are science and religion combined by juxtaposing a science name next to a religious one, they are unified in a variety of ways, two of which I’ll mention. First, the two names are unified sonically. That is, both are pleasingly similar in sound. Secondly, the two names are unified through similarity in function: Both bring some level of order to the chaotic universe. Through the periodicity of elements, Mendeleev brought structure—a bit more order—to our understanding of what makes up our universe. And the mandala, as a religious icon, supplies a symbolic structure, an organized wholeness, to our universe. The title is an excellent indicator of the weaving of different subjects and the layered meaning that permeate the book.

The poems in Mendeleev’s Mandala are divided into five sections. The first section is about many things, but for me, the unifying theme is relationships—father, self, brother, friend—with a number of motifs including beginnings/births/starts. A number of the poems feature famous people and characters from science, the bible, myth, American history, for example Medeleev, Sarai, Iphigenia, Wilbur Wright, a fortune teller, a soul guru, to name a few. 

There are a few genre-blending pieces in the book, and this first section opens with one such work, "The Problem with Pilgrims," which spans two and half pages. It could be a prose (or mostly prose) poem, could be flash fiction, could be essay, could be a riff on zuihitsu. The opening line to the poem, and therefore the book, is "The problem with pilgrims is they think words are souvenirs." Pilgrim: a person on a sacred journey as an act of religious devotion. Pilgrim: a newcomer. Pilgrim: any wayfarer. Souvenir: a memento, a memory, a keepsake, curio. The line is indicative of the journey through the book, one in which the speaker seems displaced, out of place, a newcomer, wayfarer, one always in transition or transit, a speaker that collects and uses words as mementos and keepsakes, sometimes even as a curiosity. 

I'd like to linger a bit on a poem in this first section as an example of the layered meaning found in the book and Goodfellow's exquisite work in imagery, language, and metaphor. It's a poem in which the speaker is traveling with her father to visit the copper-mine town where he was born. During their visit, they list past and current uses of copper:

How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There

The town where my father was born
was long ago swallowed up
by the copper mine it was birthed to serve:
my first first-hand experience of a parent
eating his child. Since we could not visit
the town, we stood instead at the edge
of a nearly-mile-deep pit, watching trucks
corkscrew the walls until they disappeared,
like my father’s father who’d worked one season here.
Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole.
Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures
in no particular direction. To distract him
I read aloud, Used anciently to make mirrors.
He nodded, The sheathing on the hulls
of the Pinta, the Nina, the Santa Maria
The Statue, we said in unison, of Liberty.

Before we left I bought myself
at the mine gift shop a ring, a copper band
of hearts that turned my finger green
and soon snapped in two. I handed one half to my father,
tossed the other into the pit, losing sight of it
before it hit its lineage. When he pocketed his piece,
I frowned, but my father shrugged, and said,
Semiconductor chips and tea carts.
I nodded, Coat trees and undersea cables.
Saxophones, stained glass, and pacemakers.
I did not mean to mean the mine was a mirror
or vice versa. What I should have said was
Lightning rod, something needed, in theory, only once.
Like a father. Which may be of scant comfort,
or untrue, as any gauge that measures the depths of the pit
is likely made itself of copper. (18)

There's so much in this poem. For brevity's sake, I'll focus on the treatment of copper (or the copper mine) that is woven throughout poem. In line 3, we encounter "copper mine." 'Copper' here is a metal deposit, one that had sustained a town, had been the town's livelihood. Then in lines 9-10, ("Mine, my father joked ... Not mine"), 'mine' here could mean the copper mine. Or it could be the pronoun meaning something that belongs to me. In the last four lines of the first stanza, we encounter a short list of historic uses of copper ("used anciently to make mirrors," etc.), as if to affirm that copper was important in the past. In the second stanza, we have the copper band that the speaker buys in the mine store (or alternatively, the 
"mine" store, as in the store where everything belongs to the father). Here, copper is a metal that makes for a cheap ring, one that turns the skin green and breaks a heart in half; it is a metal of little significance to the speaker because she throws her half of the broken-heart ring back from whence it came, that is, back into the pit, the father’s "mine." Later in the second stanza, there is the list of more modern applications of copper ("semiconductor chips...," etc.), as if to say that copper is still important. Then that final rumination on copper in making lightning rods, a thing that protects by attracting the danger: “Lightning rod, something needed, in theory, only once. / Like a father…” By the time we get to the end of the poem, copper could be read as a metaphor for the father.

[A quick comment before moving on to the second section: Folks, stop right now and go over to the motionpoem of "Crows, Reckoning," which is one of the poems in the first section. Seriously. Check it out.]

The second section of the book coheres around the theme of time. You can see that theme in the titles alone, for example 
"In Praise of the Candle Clock," "A Sundail Explains the Uncertainty Principle," and "Metronome is the Opposite of Wind." Also in this section, we learn that the speaker’s husband is going blind ("The Blind Man's Wife Makes a List of Words She Must No Longer Use") due to an inherited disease retinitis pigmentosa and that she fears her son might go blind as well ("Three Views of Mars.") The last poem in this section, "Night View from the Back of a Taxi," as the speaker tells us she chooses not to go home, she prepares the reader for an upcoming switch that transitions us away from the motif of beginnings and starts found in the first section, to a later motif of moving away:

     The taxi slows for a yellow—no, red light.
     Color is the Babel of the eyes. For example, in Ojibwe
     there’s a verb tense for what was going to happen
     but didn’t. As in, I was going to ask the driver to start homeward,
     but then the light turned green. ... 

Section 3 is one long poem titled "The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau." It's a poetic sequence comprised of twelve prose poems that center around a character who is identified only as “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau.” It serves as both a disruption in the flow, as well as a centering point, of the book:

• Disruption, because its poems are tightly coupled with respect to 1) character focus—they’re all about one character, in contrast with the other poems that are about the speaker, members of her family, historic figures such as Mendeleev, biblical characters, famous artists and scientists, etc., and 2) form—they’re all prose poems, in contrast with the other poems, which are free verse or received form.

• Centering, because its tightness functions as a pivoting point around which the other poems turn. The information, themes, and motifs woven into these poems deepen as well as augment the other poems in the book.

The sequence opens with three epigraphs. 
The first epigraph, a snippet from the Wikipedia explanation of eigengrau, begins 
Eigengrau (German: "intrinsic gray" / literally: "own gray"), also called Eigenlicht ("intrinsic light"), dark light, or brain gray, is the uniform dark gray background that many people report seeing in the absence of light.
Below the Wikipedia snippet is a quote by Swiss-born painter Paul Klee, "Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet." The last epigraph is by French artist Pierre Bonnard, "Color is an act of reason." 

Each prose poem in the sequence has its own title that includes the poem title in it, e. g. “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Thinks About Thinking” and “Pity Not the Blind Man Who Has Married the Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau.” The poems in this section delve into the philosophical, advancing subjects such as thinking/thought, death, language, logic. Taken as a whole, the tone (the attitude of the speaker) of the poems is matter-of-fact, although the mood (the emotion evoked in the reader) is one of loneliness, at least for this reader. The cool, detached tone serves the mood because it leaves an emotional void that the reader can then fill with his/her own feelings of loneliness. The matter-of-fact tone is evident in the first poem in the sequence: “Pity the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau. She cannot say so without seeming to be pretentious. She is a lungfish, able to exist anywhere and thus at home nowhere, except in the dark."

Running through the book are the motifs of color and the eye, both of which support the theme of seeing (sight). This third section is no exception. The main character is identified by the color (or lack of color) she prefers. In poem titled “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau is Mocked by Those She had Thought to be Friends,” we read "The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau says nothing, recalling to herself how Wittgenstein had written: "Imagine someone pointing to a place in the iris of a Rembrandt eye and saying ‘the walls in my room should be painted this color.'"" Then, in a subsequent poem we again encounter the eye and iris. However, this time the word 'iris' might not part of the eye, but possibly a flower: "The girl whose favorite color is eigengrau marries a blind man who eyes are the color of a Rembrandt iris" (61). Both of these passages 
set up a dissonance and a sense of loss. In the first passage, it's in the detailing of the eyes of a blind man—talking about the organ of sight in a man who cannot see. In the second passage, it's in the mention of color—something we see only because of lightwith respect to a woman whose favorite 'color' is something we see when there is no light.

In addition, there’s a disconnect when imagining ‘iris’ to be a flower in a Rembrandt painting. Rembrandt is known for his portraits and historical paintings. He tended towards faces and people, not flowers and fruit. While I am no expert in art or Rembrandt, I know of only one Rembrandt still-life, Little Girl with Dead Peacocks. (In case you'd like to search for yourself, a catalog of Rembrandt's work can be found here.) So, when thinking of 'Rembrandt iris' as a flower, there isn't one. This means that the color of the eyes of her husband is no color or unknown or doesn’t exist, the way color doesn’t exist to a blind person, the way her favorite color is no color. 

The poems in this section are wonderful. While each individual poem stands on its own, taken as a whole, I find the sequence remarkable. If you'd like to read them in their entirety, you'll have to read the book :) That said, you’ll find one of them printed in its entirety at the end of this post.

In Section 4, the unifying theme continues to be relationships, but with a turn here, away from beginnings/births/starts that characterized the first section, to endings and moving away. The first poem of this fourth section, 
"The Book of the Edge," is a poem about the illusory hard-edge of fact, especially in the context of human relationships. When the speaker tells us that "there is so much chaos even order / is made of it," she could be referring to the chaotic universe, but (I suspect) she means relationships as well. When she says "There's so much history / even night is made of it. And walls. It’s why, / numb as numbers, we still burnish the urgent stained glass / of forgiveness, letting through light but not fact," I feel certain she means relationships, history that begs to be forgiven, situations that become walls that cordon us off from one another, histories we cannot allow to be fact, at least for a while. 

Also in this first poem of the fourth section, the speaker offers redshift, what happens when an object in space moves away from us, as 
"proof all things move away from their center" and the next two poems "November Nocturne" and "Self Improvement Project #4" continue, among other things, the idea of moving away. 

This section also confronts marriage in the poem "Possessed," which opens with "To have and to hold—the expression of possession… ." Marriage threads through the remaining poems in this section and the condition of the marriage is powerfully modeled in the poem "The Puppet," through the coupling—the marriage—of a hand and a puppet: “What a hand really wants but cannot have is a mouth. A puppet has a mouth …. // A mouth on the other hand doesn’t want a hand. … it knows the hand would cover it up." By the end of this section, we know the speaker and the marriage are in distress: "And the hurly-burly / of regret is two folded pieces of any bed I lie in." ("Self-Improvement Project #5")

In Section 5 the theme of marriage and moving away—vanishing—merge into that of a marriage in decline. In the first poem of this section "The Function of the Comma is to Separate," the speaker, in a fit of insomnia, writes while her husband sleeps next to her. She writes a poem about the various uses of the comma and illustrates such uses in telling, personal sentences, for example the open stanza: 
One function of the comma is to separate items in a series. For example: In this room are a bed comma you comma me comma and a clock ticking loudly period 
In this poem, the speaker replaces the commas, which would have separated the items, with the word ‘comma’ and in the doing, has removed the grammatical separation. Nothing separates the words; all words flow without hesitation or stop. The speaker offers ten such examples of the comma’s ability-purpose to separate, all ten using as example sentences her thoughts as she observes her sleeping husband. By the end of the poem, one suspects the comma is a stand-in for other things that function to separate people in a marriage. 

With each poem that follows, the separation gets fleshed out more and more until the penultimate poem of the book, "If E Is Not for Eternal Love, What’s It For?," when it is clear he wants to leave; she does not: "You say Go away. I say / I can't ..."  "You say you'll call the cops. I say they can't arrest a shadow."

The last poem of the book, 
"A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland," is another poetic sequence. (You can read it at BPJ,, page 28.) This sequence is comprised of six poems about a road trip through the Midwest that the speaker takes with her son. Also in this section, random numbers increasingly make their appearance in the poems as the section progresses. (Goodfellow used random number tables to both choose which numbers to insert and specify where in the poem the numbers should appear.) And the feeling of what I experience to be emptiness or vastness grows as the section progresses, beginning in the first poem, "Road Trip":

And this I did not expect,
that the lon7eliness would be countable.
My son wants a tumbleweed for a pet,
now one is buckled in the back seat.
What a clever boy, choosing to love
a thing already dead and rootless.
At the motel, he watches me
lower the blinds against
the white noise, the presence

of all possibilit5ies in the night.
"It's such a lovely dark, Mama," he says.

The final poem of the book and of the poetic sequence, "6. 015Random N6umber Tab8le," is a page filled with random numbers. The epigraph to the poem is a quote by mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski
"We know what randomness isn’t, not what it is." In the middle of that rectangle filled with numbers are five small islands, the words: "It" "is"  "a" "lovely" "dark". And on the right hand side, below the number-rectangle with its island-words, this: "Br12eathe."

Mendeleev's Mandala opens with pilgrims (
"The Problem with Pilgrims") and closes with pilgrims ("A Pilgram’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland"). It opens with words repeatedly rubbed like lucky stones—echo. bittern. egret. Echoing bitter regret. And it closes with numbers that cradle a lovely dark, sea of random order. For me, the genius of this collection is the unified whole that's created, the beauty and intelligence of Goodfellow's language as she marries one siloed domain with another—the slip of science into religion, dark into light, number into word—that I find compelling. It fills me with hope. The next statement likely says as much about me as it does the book: I find the poetry in Mendeleev's Mandala to border on the sublime. It’s one book I will still be reading years from now. 

In closing, I’ll leave you with the poem below from Section 3
"The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau." It’s representative of Goodfellow’s emotionally-moving logical leaps and weavings that I find exhilarating.


The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Compares Words to Stones in a Japanese Garden

by Jessica Goodfello

When she was young, the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau liked paint-by-numbers, though she never cared for connect-the-dots. This she recalls as she walks along a stepping-stone path through a Japanese garden. She has read that in certain parts of the garden the stones have been placed at awkward intervals for a slow and contemplative passage, while elsewhere stones have been laid evenly to encourage a natural gait. Still elsewhere the stones’ placement suggests a hurried pace through where the garden is not yet finished, where it may never be finished. Darkness too, thinks the girl whose favorite color is eigengrau, changes the way we lope through it. Darkness, too, in some places may never be finished. And words, like stones in the darkness, are laid over here, haltingly, unevenly, and over there, as flowing and slick as gray paint.

"How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There" and “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau Compares Words to Stones in a Japanese Garden,” © Jessica Goodfellow Mendeleev's Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015)

Nancy Chen Long 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 at Bloomington, she coordinates the Lemonstone Reading Series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops. Her chapbook, Clouds as Inkblots for the Warprone (2013) was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in Pleiades, Bat City Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.