Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Passing Through Humansville

by Karen Craigo

Sundress Publications, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-939675-78-1

77 pages

Karen Craigo is the editor and general manager of The Marshfield Mail, a weekly newspaper in southwestern Missouri. She is author of the collection, No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016), and the chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013), and Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004). Her poetry, fiction, essays and journalism are widely published, and she maintains a blog on writing, editing, and creativity, Better View of the Moon. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review and the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and I have been a fan of her poetry ever since I read her chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, published by Hermeneutic Chaos in 2016, but now out of print. I reviewed her poetry collection, No More Milk on this blog in March 2018. —Karen L. George

Review of Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville

Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville explores, celebrates, and at times mourns and resists what it means to be human through her particular lens of curiosity, honesty, playfulness, urgency, tenderness and reverence. These poems take us inside a home, a car, a school, a church, a hospital, a coffeeshop; in the woods, a butterfly house, a cow pasture, at a concert, an art museum, and within reimagined Biblical stories. She examines the duality and mysteries of being human—layering images and scenes of beauty, connection, nurture, creativity, and the holy pinned against vulnerability, worry, violence, loneliness and loss. The book is dense with emotion and understanding. I’m going to concentrate on the poem’s ideas and images surrounding the human need to connect—the give and take of nurturing and being nurtured.

The beginning poem, "Meditation With Cat and Toddler," sets up the recurring dynamics of the complexities these poems examine:

            And here I sit with a body reluctant
            to bend, a brain that won’t still, a cat
that bumps me for attention, and a toddler
            who will come, who has punched
me in the eye for pure love.

We see a mother trying to nurture herself by meditating, but her toddler and the cat both want attention. The image of the cat bumping the mother perfectly mirrors and heightens the image of the toddler punching her “for pure love.”

The second poem, “Before He Was Born, I Sang Night Songs,” is lush with images of connection and the sweet, primal, holy intimacy of breastfeeding. She describes it as “the latch, firm, parasitic, drawing the nectar / down.” The word “parasitic” effectively echoes the “bump” of the cat, and the “punch” of the toddler. In the first poem, the “constant rumble / of om” echoes the sounds this mother and her son make in their connection: “the soft constriction of throat” as the baby latches onto her breast, and how he “still vibrates with my humming.” In the center of the poem is the mother’s breathtaking admission: “There is nothing on this sphere I won’t pull to me, / won’t sing to in the dark.” She speaks of how she too is nourished by feeding her son: “the last moment I am everything, his sweetness / and his sound.” In a later poem, “The Art of Rhetoric,” the mother and son are described with this beautiful image: “this baby beside me, / curled against my back like the comma…” The poem ends with the following stunning lines:

            there is nothing more convincing than
            the whispered swallows I hear behind me
            as my son works his bottle in his sleep.
            Each nearly silent gulp makes a claim.

In “On His Brother’s Second Birthday” a second, older son is “inconsolable” because he “misses the baby,” his brother, who is now two years old. The mother reveals she too misses the baby, and comforts the older son, herself, and us by the reminder, “our younger selves / don’t go away—they live on, / deeper and deeper within us.” She goes on, in a kind of dual direct address, including the reader in this intimate, moving scene:

            …We must believe
            an infant resides in all of us.
            Come. Sniff the hollow of my neck—
            a scent so soft you’re not
            even certain it’s there.

In the playful “Spelling Test Friday” the mother nourishes her son by helping him to learn: “I spar with words / like a pugilist,” and she in turn is fed by the knowledge that “he gets it,” understands “he’s going to do fine.” In “Avocado” she talks about the ripeness and fertility of her body— “the nurturing flesh.” “Good Night in the Blanket Fort” shows a mother who promises to sleep in a type of nest her and her son built with pillows and quilts, “walls” to “protect us from blue night.”

There are repeated images of breath and breathing in this collection, which fit into this theme of nourishment. When we breath, oxygen is inhaled into the lungs, moved into our blood that carries it to sustain our bodies, and the carbon dioxide is expelled through exhaling. In the poem “Tasseomancy,” the mother and son connect through sharing coffee, and they thirst “to know / what the future holds,” ending with the image of her son staring into her coffee cup, “close enough / to smell the other’s breath.” In poem 5 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” a baby under a jaundice lamp is addressed with the following tender lines:

            You, little loaf,
            are almost risen. How
            warm you’ll feel
against me. I can’t wait
            to breathe you in.

This collection also celebrates our human need to connect with friends and siblings. One poem recounts a childhood memory, a circle of girls in the woods, joining their drops of blood to become “Scab Sisters,”—“it was holy, we were dryads rejoining the wood.” In “Total Knee Replacement,” the poet refers to the body and the operation her sister has undergone, but in the following lines, she suggests vital aspects of love and our connection to others:

            We come to rely on the hinges—
            how they lift us and let us down, soft.
            Most love requires collapse.
            We fold and unfold into the other,
            or wrap the self in the self.

There is such essential wisdom in the above lines, and in the poem’s closing lines, that again express the healing of her sister’s knee, but at the same time speak of life in general in a reverent, unforgettable way:

            try to remember:
            this is how we rise, and how
            we leave, and how we pray.

The poet also explores the nourishment of love exchanged between spouses. In “When We Find a Hurt Mouse,” the husband “is kind enough / to bear the injured to the yard, / then with one stomp save it / from hours of suffering.” What a powerful image of violence as a means to deliver comfort. She goes on to say “not all gentleness / is conveyed in a caress,” and to describe watching him “stroke the patchwork squares / of the giraffe’s neck, receive / a blue tongue the length / of his arm, offer it a bit / of grain” – such a gentle, compassionate connection, which implies each (the man, the giraffe, and the wife observing) is enriched. In poem 7 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” the husband is portrayed in such a loving manner as he gets the coffeemaker set up at night for his wife’s morning coffee:

            …each night
            unfolds a filter,
            measures grounds
            with a wooden spoon,
            adds water and comes
to bed.

The poem ends with the lovely image of how the next morning the “green dot” of the coffeepot “is just / enough light to help / me find my way.”

Imagery of light, as in the above example, is also threaded through these poems. Light as a metaphor for energy, connection, protection, and hope. In the collection’s center, the ten poems in the series “Ten Sources of Light” contain different examples of light: the glow of a town seen on a hill while driving at night; a reporter watching the eclipse and asking others what they think of the sun; seeing the aurora borealis; flicking on a cigarette lighter at a Pink Floyd concert; and with her father, viewing fireflies light up the night sky. There are also contrasting images of life’s dualism, its darkness, in the poems—instances of when we can’t connect with others, and when we can’t nourish ourselves or others as much as we’d like. 

Besides connection between humans, this collection contains poems in which the author reflects on how we connect with the natural world. In “Speleology” she refuses to kill the spider above her pillow, which she describes exquisitely as “eight eyelashes affixed / to a speck.” The poem “Filibuster” retells the memory of a male teacher that makes her stand each day during a civics class in the garbage can with her nose pressed to a chalk mark on the blackboard. The poem ends with a stunning, redemptive image:

            I start to get
            the sunflower, whose every
            instinct makes it stand
            with its tall quorum,
            who together turn
            their backs on the dark.

This collection also delves into connection and nourishment through spirituality. In “I Come to the Garden Alone,” she tells a friend she terms “a better Christian” that she doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, but instead feels “a river / of intelligence courses through all things, / and we join it when we are lucky // enough to die.” She describes this flow of connection in the following way:

            We are paddling through otherness,
            and the molecules that enter her mouth
            on a gasp came from somewhere,
            and maybe once were in me, in the barista—
            in cave people, street preachers, nuns.

In the poem “Mary of Bethany,” during a church service, a woman rubs the bald spot of the man she loves. The poem ends with the beautiful observation:

            And isn’t that God, touching us
            where we’re most exposed,
            loving even our emptiness,
            those places soft with down.

Besides the hopeful moments portrayed in these poems of connection and nourishment, there are also moments of unsatisfied hunger, emptiness, discomfort and disconnection. There is such heartbreak in “For Brenna <3 Ernie” when a mother recreates the moment her son hands a picture he drew of himself and a girl named Brenna to that girl:
            When he gave it, he broke
            into grief, racking sobs,
            eyes closed in shame.
            He loves her.

The poem reveals with such tenderness the details of the picture he drew:

            his vision, two, standing,
            so happy and plain
            in their britches. It is
            simple. There is nothing
            easier; the beauty
            hurts him, each one
            dignified and glad,
            small arms open
            to possibility
            in the twin flags
            of their rectangle pants.

The poem “Inventory” talks about not having enough money to pay the bills. The narrator asks the question, “What is the world’s crime / that it should be forced to pay / and pay again?” She continues:

            …I know the feeling.
            Credit cards, rent, car insurance.
            Just going to the mailbox
makes me numb. And then
            I look around, see a clearcut
            where my life ought to be.

The collection’s title poem, “Passing Through Humansville,” references an actual town in Missouri, in which the narrator of the poem “slips[s] into and out of …both coming and going.” Besides the literal journeying in a car through a town called Humansville, the poem suggests the journey of a human lifetime. The driver passes through fog, which she depicts as “the layer of white like an old lady’s hair / spread out behind her in rapture.” This creates such a whimsical picture, and to me, suggests the idea of the old woman being “raptured” to the hereafter. The poem continues: “Why not? / The oldest vessel can still hold / / a drink, or else we’d call it a shard.” This image of the woman’s body as a vessel infers she can still nourish and be nourished—that there’s still life in her. The ending stanza is so full of the duality of being human—living and dying:

            And maybe I’ve stepped on the ground
            where my ashes will light.
            Maybe, unknowing, I’ve danced.

The last two poems of the collection talk about the nourishment a teacher provides for her students, who appear to be learning English as a second language. In “Walking Papers” “students are learning / where to put the stress, what vowels / to flatten or round, how to hear / the difference in consonants…” It felt to me that this teacher is also speaking of language as a means to connect and nourish us, similar to song. The poem ends with the teacher’s compassion for her students, “those stonemasons and carvers, / painters and metalsmiths, / heading off into the unknown, everything they own heavy / against their shoulder.”

In the collection's last poem, titled "The Movement You Need," the teacher again delves into the components that make up the English language:

            The key, you know, is emphasis. English
            is a stress-toned language, and we listen
            for the punch, in a word, in a sentence,
            and that extra oomph, that little flex,
            is all we need to make sense of a thing.

And then she sings “Hey Jude” with the students who she says are “visitors here, / people who have been misunderstood / by cashiers and taxi drivers, / the lilting mismatch of Arabic, Polish, / Yoruba, Japanese.” The teacher begins singing “Hey Jude” and that has made all the difference—they are connected and nourished:

            …but today in class
            we layer vowel over vowel, and we sing,
            no hesitation, all voices present and clear
            from the first “Hey, Jude.”

The poem and the book end with such a note of unity and hope, incorporating some of the words of the Beatles’ song so beautifully into the poem’s flow of meaning:

            Don’t you know that it’s just you,
            hey Jude, you’ll do, and we do know,
            we feel it, we punch each key word
            to drive it home, into our heart,
            then we can start to make it better.    

The last line is, of course, a line in the Beatles’ song, but by not having it in italics, it feels as if the teacher is saying that the sentiment of this song is being “driven home,” into these students’ and the teacher’s hearts at one and the same time, to become a part of them, and that this connecting to other human beings through language, through song, can begin to make this a better world. I believe her.

Karen Craigo’s Passing Through Humansville is threaded with tenderness and reverence, vulnerability and honesty. These poems sing with intimacy, and a powerful voice of gratitude and hope about all the ways we connect in our experiences as human beings. The moments this poet creates, the ways she speaks to the reader, will nourish you at every turn.


Here are links to some of Karen Craigo’s poems:


Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, enjoys photography and visiting forests, museums, cemeteries, historic towns, and bodies of water. She is author of five chapbooks, most recently the collaborative ekphrastic Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and two poetry collections from Dos Madres Press: Swim Your Way Back  (2014) and A Map and One Year (2018). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What We're Reading Now

Commons via Flickr

We're always reading fine works of poetry. This month on Poetry Matters, instead of an in-depth review or interview, you’ll find three quick posts about what books have captured our attention: 
So take a look—you might find that next great book of poetry or a poet whose work resonates with you.

Karen George discusses two chapbooks

I recently finished three intriguing chapbooks: Taunja Thomson’s Strum and Lull (Plan B Press, 2019) and The Profusion (Kelsay Books, 2019), and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018).

I’ll concentrate on Thomson’s first chapbook, Strum and Lull, a celebration of, and a meditation on
nature, mythology, art, imagination, language, and transformation. It opens with the title poem, in which “A small girl touches what she thinks of / as the tibia of a tree…This she knows: Eden is ravens / flying esses while the sky agape / looks on.”

These poems contain insects, fish, reptiles, birds, plants, trees, the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), priestesses, mythological and magical beings. This poet sees beauty and interconnectedness everywhere, whether it’s during a morning run, “On the ground: / piece of gum / flattened into the shape / of a swan” or how, when she’s unable to sleep, she sees a dragon and goldfish on the ceiling above her; in paintings by Klimt and Magritte; and in her riveting attention to the natural world, describing crows as “those black candles of winter,” evening as “unraveling yarn of night,” and wheat in wind as “ecstatic / slanting altars.” She also explores the world of loss and grief as part of the web of life these poems deeply embody.

The poems of Strum and Lull flood the senses with dreams, visions, and trances full of color and sound, lush with openness and wildness. Thomson ends her chapbook with the rapturous lines: “know the moon…eat the sky / mouthing the clouds.”

The chapbook Says the Forest to the Girl by Sally Rosen Kindred takes place in the fairy tale world of wolves, crows/ravens, and a talking forest, peopled by Little Red Riding Hood, Sleep Beauty, and Rapunzel, who speak through persona-poems about danger, pain, illness, loss/grief, being lost/finding your way, wildness, escape, memory, and transformation. At its core are these girls/women finding their voice, telling their stories, speaking their truths.

In the first poem, the you, called Girl, doesn’t seem to have a voice—a choir of crows “cry between towers— // work your mouth can’t do.” The poem “Ravenous” speaks of a terrible hunger “To shriek an open- / ing with a call, a caw, a / carcass / song.” In “Said Rapunzel to the Wolf” Rapunzel tells of sisters who “rise / into song, shared words that curled / on our skin.” She goes on to say in breathtaking imagery, “My story starts in the throat. / The throat is a tower: the story climbs out / of that red cage, personal, burning,” and continues with “My story rides you out of here,” and “My story wants time.” In another poem, Little Red says, “Nobody ever told / me a story / where the woman’s / body, mean and squinting, gets / stronger” and repeats the phrase “Nobody ever told me / a story where…” In the final poem, “I Tell What Kind of Girl,” the I begins “There was a girl, once” and continues with “Her longing sang, soured / through heartwood.” The poem, and the book, end with a white door opening “like mercy, like breath, / when she began to tell,” once again repeating the theme of girls/women telling their story.

Sally Rosen Kindred’s Say the Forest to the Girl is threaded with images of the body (throat, teeth, blood, bone, breath, womb, belly), and of doors, windows, wings, wind, roots, nest, and the moon. The poems come alive, pulling us into her haunting world, where Little Red ponders “What is it that waits / inside her, a nest / or a knife, a huntsman / or an open door?”


Anthony Fife touches on Jonathan Fink’s Barbarossa
by Jonathon Fink
Dzanc, 2016 
ISBN: 978-1-941088-55-5

Jonathan Fink’s Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad: Sonnets, chronicles the beginning and early stages of the Third Reich’s encroachment into the Soviet Union during the Summer of 1941. Instead of a dry, uninspiring retelling of military history, however, Fink populates his sonnets with characters through which the reader can witness the historic events.

 I’m not deep in the book and therefore can’t offer much by way of comprehensive insight but, so far, I really appreciate the care with which Fink treats his subjects, and the fine line he walks between the humanistic, the artistic, and the informative. For every character suffering, there’s a stark image, and for every image there is a title that schools the reader on the historic, military impetus behind the human reaction.

Fink’s blank verse is mature, it’s articulate, and I wholly look forward to the next page.

Rosemary Royston comments on Savannah Sipple's WWJD and Other Poems
WWJD and Other Poems
by Savannah Sipple
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019

Sipple’s collection of poems is one I’ve read multiple times prior to lending it out to my daughter. As a woman raised in the Bible Belt, there are many ways in which I relate to the speaker of these poems, who must leave behind antiquated and prejudicial beliefs. Acceptance of the self, which in this collection is a fat woman
who must embrace her queerness in a community that is not receptive, is a goal all readers seek, so the poems become universal to anyone on the journey to feel loved and accepted. First comes the anger that rightly takes traditional religious language and turns it on its head, [Our anger is a lantern This little light / of mine], to full acceptance of the self, “Yes, love. Yes, you are worthy,” all while sharing a PBR with Jesus (!), who not only gives the speaker the unconditional love we all need, but also shows the young man side-eyeing condoms what to buy. I’m continually intrigued by the form that several of the poems take -- the use of brackets and white space to convey both emotion and information.

Nancy Chen Long is reading Monica Youn's Blackacre
by Monica Youn
Graywolf Press, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-55597-750-4

Blackacre is Monica Youn’s third book. It was long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry and is the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award. Youn, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University as well at Warren Wilson College in their low-residency MFA program, is a former lawyer, and so it’s not surprising that legal terminology is peppered throughout the book. ‘Blackacre’ is a legal term used to define hypothetical or unidentified property, similar to the way the term Joe Doe might be used when referencing a hypothetical or unidentified man. Youn offers an example in the NOTES section of the book: “In a legal hypothetical, one might say that John Doe wishes to bequeath his property Blackacre to his sister Jane Doe. Similarly, one could designate other hypothetical properties Whiteacre, Greenacre, Brownacre, etc.”  The title Blackacre serves to set the themes, motifs, metaphors, and images of the book: hypotheticals, land and landscapes—seeds, fertility, trees, bareness—what can be created or destroyed, explorations of belonging and ownership, being trapped, impeded, or imprisoned.

The book is a hybrid of prose and poetry that contains four sections and opens with a prologue poem, “Palinode.” Merrian-Webster tells us that a palinode is “an ode or song recanting or retracting something in an earlier poem” or “a formal retraction.” Starting the book with a backward-looking poem, one that renounces or retracts what came before, surprised me. Obviously, in the book itself, no poem comes before “Palinode,” so I assumed that the poem was alluding to one of Youn’s previous poems or books. That I hadn’t read her previous books did not prevent me from being intrigued by this sparse poem. In the first section of the poem, we are presented with the image of a bird that finds itself falling off of a balcony. Instead of flying safely away as it would naturally do (perhaps having forgotten how to fly), it uses its wings to grasp “fistfuls of / air.”  The second section continues with the panic started in the first, the repeated pleas of “please” giving the retraction a sense of desperation tinged with shame. That we, the readers, do not know what the error-mistake is opens the poem up (and by extension, the whole book) to be filled by whatever error-mistake we bring to it.

The remainder of the book is in four numbered sections. Three of the four sections are poetic sequences:
  • The first section is a poetic sequence of unidentified people being hanged, e.g. “Interrogation of the Hanged Man,” “Portrait of the Hanged Woman,” and “The Hanged Men Reprise.” 
  • The third section is a poetic sequence in which each title follows the pattern ___acre, e.g., “Greenacre” and “Redacre.”
  • The fourth section is a sequence comprised of two poems, both titled “Blackacre.”
 While reading the sequence in the first section, the ‘hanged man’ that immediately came to my mind was the Hanged Man tarot card, with its meanings of self-sacrifice and surrender, the halo suggesting enlightenment, wisdom, or learning. Some of those elements can be found in this first section of the book. Youn provides additional insight in the book’s NOTES section, saying that poems in the first section are “loosely based on Fran├žois Villon’s 1462 poem “Ballade des pendus” (“Ballad of the Hanged Men”) (aka “The Epitaph in Form of a Ballad whichVillon Made for Himself and his Comrades, Expecting to be Hanged along withThem”), which some believe Villon wrote while in prison waiting to be hanged. Among the themes in this section, the one that stuck with me was that of the body and of failure/error, for example, here in the last third of the poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman”:
            The Greeks
            were wrong.

            is not a weaver,
            there is no spindle

            in her hand;
            it is a woman
            wearing a steel

            collar, wearing
            a stiffly pleated
            dress, which lifts

            to reveal nothing
            but fabric where
            her body used to be.

In poetic sequence of the third section (poems titled “Greenacre,” “Redacre,” etc.), I experience each poem as a landscape or viewpoint. The subjects of the poems are varied, including white noise/light (“Whiteacre [TM Soft White Noise Player]”), Twinkies and urban legends (“Goldacre []”), and a sixty-item list of sounds and actions in one shot of a short film (“Blueacre [The Passenger].”) Trees feature prominently in this collection, even an imagined tree encountered in “Brownacre” that speaks to a marriage in distress. “Brownacre” also serves as an example of Youn’s exquisite imagery: “I wasn’t paying attention: I was watching the thing / you had just said to me still hanging in the air between us, / its surfaces beading up with a shiny liquid like contempt... .” (Side note: She has clever poem in the second section of the book called “Against Imagism.”)

The poetic sequence of the fourth section is comprised of two poems, both titled “Blackacre.” I read the first poem titled “Blackacre” as a poem that considers embodiment, immortality, body-less-ness, and the mistakes and missteps due to being trapped in both time and a body. The second “Blackacre” is a prose/prose-poem sequence that traces through Miltons Sonnet 19 (“On His Blindness”). This “Blackacre” poem might be the title poem for the book?  In it, Youn ponders the last word of each line of Milton’s sonnet, e.g. “The ‘wide’ is always haunted by surprise. In a dark world, the ‘wide’ is the sudden door that opens on unfurling blackness, the void pooling at the bottom of the unlit stairs. ...” (“2. Wide”).

I found Blackacre to be a captivating book. The first time I read through it, I needed to look up a number of references and words, for example, some of the legal terminology. After completing it, I promptly started rereading it and am discovering even more to savor in this second pass. If you appreciate careful language, skillful rhyme and word-play, fine imagery, and intellectually-challenging content, this book will not disappoint. I’ll leave you with the eleventh sequence from the poem “Blackacre”:

To be scooped out, emptied of need and rinsed clean of its greasy smears, pristine as a petri dish on a stainless lab table. Enucleated, the white of the egg awaiting an unknown yolk.
“Yolk” from geolu (Old English: yellow). Not to be confused with “yoke” from geocian (Old English: to be joined together). A yoke is an implement, meant to be used, to fill a need. But where there is no field to be plowed, no wagon to be pulled, why demand a yoke that is useless, needless?
One day the Romans sent for Cincinnatus to lead the republic against the invading Aequian army. He laid down his plow in the field and went to war. When the Aequians surrendered, Cincinnatus spared their lives but decreed that they must “pass under the yoke.” The Romans fashioned a yoke from three spears, two fixed in the ground, and one tied across the tops of the two verticals. Since the horizontal spear was only a few feet off the ground, the Aequians were made to crouch down like animals in order to complete the surrender. This is thought to be the origin of the word “subjugate,” to be brought under the yoke. To bear a yoke is to be bowed down, oxbowed, cowed. One day they laid me down on a gurney, my feet strapped in stirrups, my legs bent and splayed like the horns of a white bull.

“11. State” from Blackacre. All quotes from poems are from Blackacre by Monica Youn. Copyright © 2016 by Monica Youn.