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Meet Me Under the Mistletoe by Jenny Bayliss

Source: gift
Paperback, 432 pgs.
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Meet Me Under the Mistletoe by Jenny Bayliss is a fun holiday read by the end, but you have to get through some awkwardness first. That can be true of meeting your childhood crush after years away, or of reconnecting with friends of means after the tragic suicide of another. Elinor Noel is a young secondhand bookstore owner in London, whose family own a flower shop in a working class town surrounded by opulence, including a castle. Is that why she moved to London to get away from the snobbery? No. In fact, after she attends the prestigious private school, she falls into friendships with some really awkward and snooty people who have no idea what it is like for Nory and her family.

She does have one solid friendship with Ameerah, whose family is jet-setting all over the globe and barely comes to see her. Nory’s family just adores Ameerah and treat her like their own. This close relationship helped me to keep reading through all the cringy and yucky exchanges with her other high-class friends, but Guy was the worst. Pippa grew on me by the end and I kind of what a whole book about how she became so poised and stand-offish and practical to the detriment of her own emotions.

Throughout the reunion with her friends at the castle to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of Charles and Jenna, Nory is feeling out of place and missing their mutual friend Tristan, but when Guy enters the picture with is smarmy comments and sleazy actions, Nory finds herself in the castle gardens in the cold looking for a place to hideout for a bit, but she ends up in a wheelbarrow of dung.

I’m not going to ruin the rest of this funny romance but I did enjoy Nory and the mystery of the paintings that she uncovers with the Head Gardener, Isaac, at the castle. Reading this as a buddy read on StoryGraph was icing on the cake, sharing thoughts and comments throughout made it even more fun. Meet Me Under the Mistletoe by Jenny Bayliss will try your patience at times, but ultimately, it’s a fun read and a good romance with lots of tension and just enough heat.

RATING: Quatrain

Photo: © Dominic Jennings

About the Author:

A former professional cake baker, Jenny Bayliss lives in a small seaside town in the UK with her husband, their children having left home for big adventures. She is also the author of The Twelve Dates of Christmas, A Season for Second Chances, and Meet Me Under the Mistletoe.

Songs in E— by Dan Brady

Source: Poet
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Songs in E— by Dan Brady, winner of the Barclay Prize for Poetry, offers reimagined love poems from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in which Sonnets from the Portuguese and “One Word More” were run through an unreliable internet translator into Portuguese and back into English. The result is playful, anachronistic, and time-bending.

Some of these poems have a deep darkness in them, but by the end they lighten up like you’d expect a love poem.

Meet Cute (pg. 3)

When we met,
it was a year
like candy.
We had a gift
in each hand.
One old. One new.
We bought antiques
but gradually saw
the rips, the sad years,
the melancholy.
Assumptions took hold.
Death, you say.
No E—,
not Death,
the proximity of Heaven.

The truth of a long-term relationship is contained in those antiques, but there’s also that love that transcends all of those flaws.

Young Love (pg. 5)

Our two angels look surprised
as they bump wings in passing.

You, a pageant queen with rips in her dress.
I, a funeral singer under lattice-lights, poor and tired.

Death, the only thing we can agree on.

When reading these transformed poems of the past, they read like modern poems of love that is beginning, love that has endured, and love that is unsure. But there are moments when poems seem to reach from the past into the present and future.

Brady’s efforts to breathe new life into older poems and make them his own is successful in expressing love, even the desire to find it. I’m not a scholar who has memorized Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, expect for the most famous “How Do I Love Thee,” so I can’t tell you which of these poems come from the original. That is until the final poem in the collection, “E—’s Song,” which appears to stay the closest to Robert Browning’s “One More Word.”

Songs in E— by Dan Brady stands on its own as a collection of poems about the many facets of love, even if readers knew nothing about how they came to be. Delightful and contemplative, they bring to life the reality of love and how humans crave it, abuse it, and cherish it all at once.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Dan Brady is the author of the poetry collections Strange Children (2018), Subtexts (2022), and Songs in E——, winner of the Barclay Prize for Poetry, from Trnsfr Books (2023), along with two poetry chapbooks. He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids.

I’d Rather Be Called a Nerd by Dominic “Nerd” McDonald

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 66 pgs.
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I’d Rather Be Called a Nerd by Dominic “Nerd” McDonald, winner of the 2022 DC Poet Project, is a memoir in poems exposing what it means to be an academic Black man in America and upend the expectations of the Black community. The collection melds Hip Hop rhythms and poetry to create a unique look at academic life and being a nerd.

The collection opens with the title poem, “I’d Rather Be Called a Nerd,” in which speaks about his grandfather who pushed him to be educated and strive for more than the streets can provide. “My grandfather, rest his soul,/always told me, ‘Whatever’s clever pulls the lever.'” (pg. 1) and “this why niggas hot./They hot cause they lie, spend cash to be fly./Do anything as long as they can get by./But that’s not on my mind not does it define/what I can and will be./” (pg. 2)

McDonald’s passions are evident in every turn of phrase and poem in this collection, wearing his “nerd” title with pride. In his lyrics, he seeks to create change, motivate others, and demonstrate that other paths are available. Some of the most memorable poems for me were “Hungry,” “Pure Potential,” and “To the Bartender.” These demonstrate the ups and downs we face in which we struggle to utilize our potential (that everyone says we have) and feed our own hunger without falling into the expectations of others.

I’d Rather Be Called a Nerd by Dominic “Nerd” McDonald, winner of the 2022 DC Poet Project, is a unique blend of rap, Hip Hop, and poetry, and you can’t help by tap your toes or bop your head.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Dominic “Nerd” McDonald is a Black entrepreneur and spoken word artist from various cities in Los Angeles, California. He has put his views on growing up in the inner city between two households, Hip Hop music, being a social outcast, college experiences, and more, into poetry, screen plays, and magazine articles. His passion comes from serving the community, especially through the arts. By writing from his heart and what he sees and hears, he hopes to be a “change agent” for the unheard. His journey led him to the DC Metro area six year ago, where he spreads influential messages and supports others who walk the same path.

Check out this interview.

Hunters Point by Peter Kageyama

Source: Publicist
Paperback, 370 pgs.
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Hunters Point by Peter Kageyama is a thrilling private investigator-based novel set in San Francisco in post-WWII. Katsuhiro “Kats” Takemoto is a decorated war veteran turned PI who takes on a local case in which shipbuilder and shipyard owners, the Vellos, are being pressured to sell their land to a developer, but what Kats uncovers is unbelievable when it leads to connections with James “Jimmy the Hat” Lanza, a government coverup, and, of course, Beat poets from the City Lights Bookstore.

(you now understand why I was interested in reading this book — WWII, poets…)

Kageyama’s characters are dynamic and deeply rounded, from Kats a Japanese-American who endured internment as a teen before joining the fight in WWII, to the Vello family and its deeply held commitment to art and business.Kats is a man who has been through a great deal and those scars show in how tries to maintain control of his emotions in every way, but Molly might just upend all that control.

The secondary characters of Molly, Shig, and Harry are three-dimensional with their own motivations, secrets, and backstories. The shadowy Sand and Lanza are less fleshed out, but for mobsters and a mystery man, it works. An additional character in this novel is Hunters Point with its bustling businesses and diverse families and workers, and it’s where the mystery is unraveled by Kats and his friends.

“They reminded him of his own father, who taught him about family and the layers of obligation, both On and Giri, the obligations we voluntarily take on and those we inherit. We carry many things, and those things make up our story.” (pg. 43)

Hunters Point by Peter Kageyama reminds me of why I love mystery/thrillers. They have you thinking fast, engaged in the action, delving deeper into the characters’ backgrounds to understand what makes them tick, and before you know it, you’ve come to the end of the mystery. And I suspect we’ll be seeing these characters again.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Peter Kageyama is the author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places, the follow ups, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places, and The Emotional Infrastructure of Places. In 2021, he released For the Love of Cities REVISITED, a revised and updated version of his award-winning book.

In 2023, his debut novel based on the post-internment life of his parents was released by St. Petersburg Press.

Peter is a Senior Fellow with the Alliance for Innovation, a national network of city leaders, and a special advisor to America In Bloom. He is an internationally sought-after community development consultant and grassroots engagement strategist who speaks about bottom-up community development and the amazing people who are making change happen around the world.

Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air by Ayse Angela Guvenilir, Afeefah Khazi-Syed, Aleena Shabbir, Mariam Dogar, Marwa Abdulhai, and Maisha M. Prome

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 192 pgs.
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Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air by Ayse Angela Guvenilir, Afeefah Khazi-Syed, Aleena Shabbir, Mariam Dogar, Marwa Abdulhai, and Maisha M. Prome is a deeply moving collection of poems from young adults finding their way not only on the college campus of MIT, but also in an adopted country. They explore what it means to carry the weight of their heritage and faith in an adopted country that often hinders the progress of those who are not American or who look different, act different, or even believe differently.

Through a variety of unfiltered voices and styles, these poets bring to life their struggles and the joy of finding their own community amid the chaos. They examine the relationships with their mothers, through rewritten lullabies and other means, but the collection is not all dreary and confusion, there are lighter moments of play, particularly in the “On Summer” section.

From "Side effects of summer may include" (pg. 41) by Mariam Doger

...
Watermelon and mango and pineapple
A mouthful of ocean spray
Sand stuck in the pages of your novel
Poolside overheating at midday

An explosion of freckles
Windswept and wild hair
Cherry-stained lips on vanilla cream cones
Bedtimes chosen without a care

...

These poems run a spectrum of emotions, and in “Welcome Home,” Maisha M. Prome explores the tension of traveling between the United States and her home country and being asked by customs if she packed her own bags and the guilt she carries even though she knows nothing will be found out of order. But she also talks of the hope in two words “Welcome Home” said to her by one agent when she arrives back in the United States and what that means and how she replays it over and over.

Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air by Ayse Angela Guvenilir, Afeefah Khazi-Syed, Aleena Shabbir, Mariam Dogar, Marwa Abdulhai, and Maisha M. Prome is a collection that will provide you with a fresh perspective on the hope many migrants see in their journeys to the United States, but also reminds us that reality is often peppered with darkness and shadow. It’s how you adapt and react that sets your journey apart.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Authors:

Afeefah Khazi-Syed, Aleena Shabbir, Ayse Guvenilir, Maisha M. Prome, Mariam Dogar, and Marwa Abdulhai met as undergrads at MIT, where they often wrote poetry in each others dorm rooms. Now, they’re scattered across the country for graduate studies as they train to be doctors, engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. While the six write poetry from different backgrounds and expertise, they share the common goals of redefining literary spaces and breaking barriers through poetry. The poets hope their anthology will foster empathy and mutual reciprocity for the many intersectional facets they encapsulate.

Common Grace by Aaron Caycedo-Kimura

Source: the poet
Paperback, 104 pgs.
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Common Grace by Aaron Caycedo-Kimura, a collection in three sections, explores childhood, adulthood, and finding grace in all that comes to pass through each transition life has to offer.

In the opening poem, “Family Anthem,” the poet explores the traditional Japanese family and how it relates to one another. Where parents are discovered slow dancing but are not like lovers because they are Japanese and never express their love in view of others, but as a child he knew he was loved. “my parents hear my shuffle    separate like guilty teenagers/” (pg. 3)

This intimate collection reaches beyond the familial to the greater society in its look at us as a “family.” In the short poem, “Daily News,” the poet reminds us “we all row the same boat    over falls/” (pg. 17) Political/societal shifts ribbon their way through the poems from the internment of Japanese Americans and the reverberations of those acts to the current affairs we face with “otherness” and discord.

From "The Hardest Part" (pg. 40-1)

The fire truck siren downstairs
raided the air of my mother's dreams.
She'd screen in her sleep, my father
told me, even after we married.
More than a decade past

....

No warning, no drill, no cover.

My father stilled her body,
his broad hand on her shoulder or hip
as they lay in the dark listening
to the slowing of her breath.

...

But at its heart, the collection is threading our lives and experiences together in a way that allows us to move past the hurt and the tension to find a “common grace.” These poems are moving and emotional, lyrical, and tender. Common Grace by Aaron Caycedo-Kimura tackles cultural differences, aging, love, growing up, and so much more.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Aaron Caycedo-Kimura is a writer and visual artist. His chapbook, Ubasute, was selected by Jennifer Franklin, Peggy Ellsberg, and Margo Taft Stever as the 2020 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition winner. His honors include a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry, a St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award in Literature, and nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best New Poets anthologies. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Daily, RHINO, upstreet, Verse Daily, DMQ Review, Poet Lore, The Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere. Caycedo-Kimura earned his MFA in creative writing from Boston University and is also the author and illustrator of Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life (TarcherPerigee, 2017).

Harbinger by Shelley Puhak

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Harbinger by Shelley Puhak, 2021 winner of the National Poetry Series and chosen by Nicole Sealey, explores what it means to be an artist, how you become an artist, and what influences an artist. Opening with “Portrait of the Artist as Cassandra,” readers will see how frenzied artists can become with all that they see, experience, and feel: “I’m feverish with all the knowing. Full./I’ve gained ten pounds, easily.//” (pg. 3) Can you feel that sense of overwhelm?

Puhak’s poems explore the impact of motherhood and not fitting in as a girl on art through clear images and relatable experiences. From “Portrait of the Artist as a Twelve-Year-Old Girl,” “Sometimes the door opened and I joined the others. We prayed/over oatmeal. And then I walked to school. I had a red binder./The wrong kind. The rings never aligned. There was no/satisfying click.//After, I headed back to my tower, kicking a pebble./”

Puhak has captured so much nuance of an artist’s life, particularly of a parent. One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Portrait of the Artist as Mommy”: “mommy of the stringy hair, of the jawing/mouth   mommy of the ruins    mommy down/the staircase under cobblestone, limestone,// (pg. 16) And later in the poem, “The language is lost./How do you lose a language?/mommy who is scared to answer     mommy//of the mimosa   mommy of the smartphone/” You again get that sense of overwhelm and the fullness of life, the hectic and the absence of language to articulate all that you are all at the same time.

In “Portrait of the Artist Telling a Bedtime Story,” she adds, “Let me tell you: of all I carry, you are the lightest./I was taught to call this a burden./I refuse it.//” (pg.17) And in “Portrait of the Artist, Gaslit” again the narrator is refusing to be burdened – no matter who is placing the onus on her: “I see your scorched earth &/now will raise my gas can//” (pg. 30)

Harbinger by Shelley Puhak is a forewarning to us all that more is to come from us and happen to us, as well as inform who we become. Her narrator is “like my own bird/dog in the brambles, pointing only/pointing.” (“Portrait of the Artist as an Artist” pg.45)

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Shelley Puhak is the author of Harbinger, a 2021 National Poetry Series selection. Puhak’s second book, Guinevere in Baltimore, was selected by Charles Simic for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and her first, Stalin in Aruba, was awarded the Towson Prize for Literature. Her prose has appeared in the Atlantic, the Iowa Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and her nonfiction debut, The Dark Queens, was released in 2022.

Country of Glass by Sarah Katz

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 88 pgs.
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Country of Glass by Sarah Katz is a debut collection that speaks to the fragility of our own bodies in the greater context of society and countries. In the opening poem, “The Hidden Country, I,” is mysterious and familiar all at once as animals meet and are equally “luminous,” but there’s a standoff/”stillness” that is yet to be understood. Isn’t that how it is when we meet someone new? There is that sense of awkwardness in initial meetings about how we should speak or act toward or with someone.

Katz’s poems also contain people from the WWII-era and remind us of how long trauma can impact someone, from a sister whose lost brother stalks her mind even six years on from him saving her and telling her to run (“Portrait of a Brother and Sister, 1940”) and a father who is fading before the eyes of his children and wife (“The Beginning of Prayer”). In “The End of Being Delicate,” the narrator speaks to the anxiety of being gentle in approaching a less-than-forgiving society, one that fails to embrace difference. “I think I am being gentle, I think//I have gentle thoughts about gentle things,/but my awkward voice fumbles over skin//its mouth’s ridges jerking back/a layer over a hole of throat.//” (pg. 50)

Even with all of the harsh reality of life and the fragility of living, there are poems that celebrate sensuality, connection, and even our flaws. “He bites her lip/No, it can’t be/Licks the curves of her stomach like an icy spoon.//” (from “Portrait of My Deaf Body” pg. 9). But even in these moments, there is mystery, like in “The Sun’s Song” where “The sun wishes to be known the way I want to be hidden.” (pg. 31)

In this Country of Glass, Katz warns us “But now we blink/toward endings.” Perhaps it is this caution that should give us pause. We need to focus less on the end and more on the journey of being and evolving, less on outcomes and acceptance, and more on how we wish to be as our true selves and learn that difference is our greatest gift before it is too late and “Pompeii firmly/grasping our feet/with its many hands.” (“Beyond Reykjavik” pg. 59)

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Sarah Katz is the author of Country of Glass, a poetry collection published by Gallaudet University Press in May 2022. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. Her poems appear in Bear Review, District Lit, Hole in the Head Review, Poetry Daily, Redivider, RHINO, Right Hand Pointing, Rogue Agent, the So to Speak blog, The Shallow Ends, War, Literature, and the Arts, and Wordgathering, among others.

She works as the Marketing Manager and Editorial Assistant for Day Eight, a DC-based poetry publisher and arts organization. She also works with Catch the Sun Media, a full-service digital marketing and social media consultancy, where she supports promotional efforts on behalf of John Barr, the inaugural president of the Poetry Foundation.

On a volunteer basis, Sarah is Poetry Editor of The Deaf Poets Society, a highly accessible online literary journal she cofounded in 2016 that features work by writers and artists with disabilities.

When she has free time, she works as a freelance editor and journalist covering disability rights issues. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Business Insider, The Guardian, OZY, The Nation, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Scientific American, Slate, The Washington Post, and other publications. She has edited for a variety of digital and print publications, including The Appeal, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Writer’s Center Magazine, Poet Lore, The Deaf Poets Society, NAD Mag (a now-defunct print magazine published by the National Association of the Deaf), and others.

Disbound by Hajar Hussaini

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Disbound by Hajar Hussaini explores the life once tethered and now adrift, mirroring its title. Imagine your life as it is now, and suddenly it is gone, ripped apart by war, and you are refugee in another nation. There is a degree of uncertainty that would make us all uncomfortable, and this collection provides us with that topsy-turvey feeling in verse. “when we are placed in a fragile expanse/do we not become broken; unhealable;//shifting positions; shake an immigrant/and scraps of paper fall out of reality//” (from “inventory,” pg. 5-6)

All at once, the tension of Kabul left behind and the Kabul that currently is are front and center garnering attention, and Hussaini is caught in the midst of it all even as his narrative voice seeks a new life in a new place.

simple café (pg. 23)

among the lost generation of Simple going    Café drinking
your former lover orders a cup of tea     whose current lover
                                   a lemonade

Kabul has only one place with close distant tables & chairs

the soundtrack a spaced repetition       between the introvert
on her smartphone                      & the extrovert thinking
                 about a thrown grenade

the unspeakable gerund of a suicide jacket

No longer part of the Kabul left behind but not quite part of the new location where the narrator lives, he says, “I’m peopleless. my/lungs are mushroom clouds. imperial boots march on my/margins. my mammals are unloved. I’m a government//of shame. my mouth is dry & my words are all &/forever out of tune.//” (from “peopleless,” pg. 42)

Disbound by Hajar Hussaini is at once a tale of escape from oppression and war and a look at the consequences of conquering peoples we do not understand, nor do we care to, effectively leaving them untethered and peopleless.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Hajar Hussaini is a poet from occupied Kabul. She translates Afghan literature and lives in Iowa City. Her work has appeared in Poetry MagazineMargins, and Pamenar Press. Disbound, her first book of poems, is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in Fall 2022.

The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 175 pgs.
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The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies examines revision holistically through examples from published literature and revised stories over time from writers like Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish, Frank O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, and others, as well as a look at popular cinema, such as Terminator, and its revisions.

The crux of this craft book is: “The truth is that while our own ability to make new stories, and remake old ones, ends with us, life continues to revise us. Life in some sense is revision, and revision a measure of how alive a story continues to be. (pg. 171) Throughout, Davies examines his own work on The Welsh Girl and a story from his own past in which his father intervenes to save a Sikh boy from being beaten.

While this reference book is focused on short stories and novels, it’s takeaways regarding revision and our “darlings” can be applied to poetry. “Revision is very much a process of close reading ourselves and our work,” he says. (pg. 14) In a way it is not about the cutting or the reduction of the text all of the time, but the expansion and contraction of text to find the meat of the story and the truth of it. “I suspect a guiding principle of early drafts might be better phrased as ‘Write to know,‘ and of revision, ‘Revise to know more,” and of a final draft, ‘I’ve written what I now know.'” (pg. 36)

I’ve always loved the possibility of revision, but I’ve also cut poems down into enigmas and missed the points the poems were making entirely. I’ve played with words, phrasing, line breaks, and more to a point where the poem is even confused about itself. This book has helped me see that revision needs to be a little more focused, not targeted, but shining a light on the meaning/truth of the poem.

The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies is a nonfiction craft book I would highly recommend for poets, short story writers, novelists, and others. Davies is frank in his advice and his own limitations, but he also demonstrates that revision is a skill that can be learned, enjoyed, and even provide us with our own truth about ourselves and the stories that we are drawn to and must write on the page.

***Thanks to Melanie Figg for the recommendation.***

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Peter Ho Davies‘s most recent books are the novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and The Art of Revision: The Last Word, his first work of non-fiction. His previous novel, The Fortunes, a New York Times Notable Book, won the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the Chautauqua Prize, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His first novel, The Welsh Girl, a London Times Best Seller, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. He has also published two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World (winner of the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize, and the Oregon Book Award) and Equal Love (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a New York Times Notable Book).

Davies’ work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post and TLS among others, and been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. In 2003 Granta magazine named him among its “Best of Young British Novelists.”

Davies is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and a winner of the PEN/Malamud and PEN/Macmillan Awards.

Born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, he now makes his home in the US. He has taught at the University of Oregon, Northwestern and Emory University, and is currently on faculty at the University of Michigan.

Breaking the Blank by Dwayne Lawson-Brown and Rebecca Bishophall

Source: the publisher
Paperback, 90 pgs.
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Breaking the Blank by Dwayne Lawson-Brown and Rebecca Bishophall is a poetic conversation between friends and parents about parenting, their experiences in a society where Racism and toxic masculinity infect everyday life, and where they seek out the joy.

The collection’s first section is titled “Breaking the Mold,” and is a meditation on being a parent to young children and the sacrifices that entails. From “Parenting” about a parent sitting very still in vomit covered clothing as a baby sleeps to “Cash and Respect” where a son reflects on the dedication of a single working mother who raised them, Lawson-Brown and Bishophall paint a picture of childhood that is protected and unprotected at the same time, the immense strength it takes to raise children, and the full circle of respect and love when those children grow.

“Blank Space” follows this parenting section and reflects a search for fulfillment, whether that is through writing, love, friendship. It’s a filling up of space and search for contentment and solace, for love and understanding. But there is loss here too. One of the most emotional poems for me was “For Immortals That Live on Soundcloud” by Lawson Brown: “A simple ‘pardon me’ would have been nice/As you bumped your way to heaven/Showing up at the gates/Before anyone saw your invitation//” (pg. 20) It’s a meditation on a life gone too soon and how we struggle with the empty space left behind, the anger we feel at them leaving us so soon, and the sadness.

Naturally, “Fill In My Blank” follows up this section with a set of poems about crushes, texting after breakups to rekindle the past, and more. Some favorites in this section include “Three Little Words” and “Honestly” for their sensuality and tenderness. But there are so many others you could fall into.

Playground Pause by Rebecca Bishophall (pg. 54)

Cops
near
playground
turn laughs to
silence. Adults still
until the lights turn the corner.
Pain Per Due by Dwayne Lawson-Brown (pg. 55)

...
Embarrassment and prejudice
Go down easy
With blueberry compote
The French toast
Sweet as erasure
The tab
covered in the price of my past.

In the final sections, “Breaking the Cycle” and “Breaking the Rules,” our poets are here to resist societal norms and demonstrate to readers that breaking rules and cycles of the past does not spin the world out of control, but brings us closer as a people. These sections are full of power and must be read.

Breaking the Blank by Dwayne Lawson-Brown and Rebecca Bishophall asks readers to pause their own lives and perspectives and listen. Just listen. Similarities will emerge, and we need to learn that pain and love are universal and essential to everyone’s well-being.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poets:

Rebecca Bishophall and Dwayne Lawson-Brown met each other as juniors in high school in the late 1990’s and have been literary colleagues, and friends, ever since. Rebecca Bishophall has featured at Spit Dat, Afrocentric Book Expo, and others, and works in member services for a non-profit organization. She graduated from Trinity University in 2006 with a major in Communications. Dwayne Lawson-Brown, aka the Crochet Kingpin, is co-host of Spit Dat, the longest running open mic in Washington, D.C. Their poems were recently published in 2022 Pride Poems, they co-authored the Helen Hayes nominated play, From Gumbo to Mumbo, and they are an editor of the literary magazine Bourgeon.

Check out this interview with the poets.

Seed Celestial by Sara R. Burnett

Source: the poet
Paperback, 92 pgs.
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Seed Celestial by Sara R. Burnett, winner of the 2021 Autumn House Press Prize, blends myth and motherhood in its reflection of the exasperating uncertainty of our modern lives, particularly with regard to how we treat one another and our very own planet. It also highlights the struggle of immigration and what it means to be a child of immigrants in a world less forgiving of differences.

Each of the five sections opens with a quote from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things that mirror the section headers: Seed, Animal, Word, Earth, and Celestial. Rightly, Burnett opens her collection with “Ab Ovo” (i.e. “from the egg”) musing on the sharing of a single body by two and what it means to be unprepared and prepare for birth at the same time. It is that comfort of belonging and not knowing what comes next that readers find themselves in. Isn’t that the crux of being alive, trying to be prepared for the next thing and yet never being fully prepared for it?

In “Primary Source,” she reminds us that as a parent she has a “better understanding of terror/and the miraculous.” This echoes later in the collection where gun violence and the upward trend of school shootings makes its mark. A topic many parents worry about and that I continue to write about.

While not all connected back-to-back, there are emotional echoes throughout the collection to this great sense of loss and destruction. “Endling” (pg. 15-16) the narrator says, “When a species is the last of its kind,/it’s called an endling, a word//that reminds me of changling,/such a fairy-swapped child//” How do we reconcile the ability to adapt and change with the last species of its kind? Is it the end of that species? Or is it that the species is evolving into something necessary, something that can survive its environment, much like the communal fish in the “Fish (in) Tanks” poem that follows.

Throughout the middle of the collection, loss plays a predominant role, as do questions of how can we keep things that we really don’t possess, especially when we cannot see our own shortcomings or predict future destruction based on past actions? Read, “Demeter’s Wager,” to see this dichotomy at play.

Seed Celestial by Sara R. Burnett circles back in on itself, finding the seed of ourselves and our world and noting that sometimes we don’t have the power to stop what we don’t want to happen. Life happens and we must take what we can from it, move into a celestial place where we can observe, join, and serve the people we were, are, and will be as best we can. There is no manual for this life.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

ara Burnett is the author of Seed Celestial, winner of the 2021 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize, forthcoming in fall 2022. She is also the author of Mother Tongue, a poetry chapbook (Dancing Girl Press, 2018) and has published several poems and essays in Barrow Street, Copper Nickel, Matter, PANK, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland, and an MA in English literature from the University of Vermont. Previously, Sara was a public high school English teacher in both Washington D.C. and Vermont and an educator at a non-profit immigration organization working in and with schools. In addition to writing poetry and non-fiction, she also writes picture books. She lives in Maryland with her family.