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Review & Giveaway: The Lamps of History by Michael Sandler

Source: TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 98 pgs.
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The Lamps of History by Michael Sandler explores the human condition and our struggle to grapple with our own mortality. Sandler begins the collection with just that concept in “Gauze” where the narrator has surgery and as he goes under from anesthesia “Now breathe deeply, and I vanish,/a plastic wristband flashing Vacancy/” (pg. 9) There is that fear, especially as we age, that our lives will vanish and our bodies will be cast aside as empty shells.

It is easy for us to foster a myopic point of view — “Isolation arrests a point of view” (“Lighthousing”, pg. 19) But on occasion, changes in our view can help us see the best, like in the title poem, “Lamp,” where amber light can dull the anguish of the past. From bullying to loss, Sandler tackles many of the trials of the human condition, rooting his poems in recipes, family tradition, and advice from his father. While not all of these moments prevented sadness, anger, or loss, the narrator looks back on how each represented the care and love of family — a foundation that strengthened over time even as those family members passed.

from "Garlic Press" (pg. 44-45)

until desire flashes again.
What keeps drawing me to those blades?
When the ensuing sight of blood
subverts a show of nonchalance.
I try to take a firmer grip,
one more inexorable squeeze.

Sandler explores desire and how it draws us to things that may not be good for us. In the same collection, “Cenobite” explores shyness and antisocial behavior as the narrator walks in a dog park and finds that he’s unlike the social dogs, standing apart he fails at small talk and interacting. He needs to force himself to try to move beyond his neutral ground apart. There is a peace in aloofness and a camaraderie that can be found with animals alone.

The Lamps of History by Michael Sandler is about the human condition in all of its stripes of good and bad, memory and action. Sandler’s use of science, science fiction, and photographs helps to illustration of struggle, perseverance, and peace with what has come before and what awaits the future.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Michael Sandler is the author of The Lamps of History, a poetry collection that explores connections between personal and historical experience while wrestling with the ambiguities (and choices) between connection/estrangement and faith/doubt. For much of his adulthood, Michael wrote poems for the desk drawer, while working as a lawyer and later as an arbitrator. He began to publish in 2009. Since then, his poems have appeared in scores of literary journals including Arts & Letters, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Zone 3. He lives in the Seattle area. To learn more about Michael and his work, please go to sandlerpoetry.com.

GIVEAWAY: 1 copy of The Lamps of History

Leave a comment on this post about why you want to read the collection and an email where I can reach you by March. 8.

By Broad Potomac Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital edited by Kim Roberts

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 356 pgs.
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By Broad Potomac Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital edited by Kim Roberts is a well crafted and contains some well-known poets as well as some obscured by history. In the preface, Roberts says, “These poets were born in, or drawn to, the nation’s capital as it grew from its founding, through such major upheavals as the Civil War, Reconstruction, and World War I. … But I have taken particular pleasure in seeking out poems by lesser-known poets as well, especially women, working-class writers, and writers of color.” The anthology also speaks about the homes in which these poets lived and whether they still exist today, as well as what they are today, with some of them homes to embassies of other nations. Roberts has clearly done her research and it is appreciated.

If there was ever a time for a literary historian, that’s today. Kim Roberts has done painstaking research and it it is evident in this look at 100 years of our nation’s history. Of note in the first part of the anthology is Emma Willard, who was a passionate advocate for women’s rights and dedicated her life to educating women and girls. I loved learning about this early advocate for women to be educated, especially about her speech in which she says that women are “primary existences … not the satellites of men.”

It was also interesting to note that a white man, John Pierpont, wrote a persona poem from the point of view of an enslaved man, which is found in the second part of the anthology. To my modern sensibilities, I was wondered aloud how on earth this white man could capture that point of view, especially a man who worked in finance. “Oft, in the Chilly Night,” is chilling in how it depicts an enslaved man almost at peace looking at the night and seeking God’s guidance, but by the end, it seems the man now simply wishes for the peace of death! But it is not the only persona poem from an enslaved person’s point of view written by a man.

Not only are these poems significant in demonstrating that ideas of equality were present in the early years of our nation, but they also show that even as the country evolved slowly there were very forward thinkers inside and outside government who wrote those ideas in poetry. And some of the homes of these poets became part of antislavery efforts and so many other efforts.

By Broad Potomac Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of Our Nation’s Capital edited by Kim Roberts is chock full of information about the poets, poems, the nation’s capital and so much more. You can dip into this collection at any time to explore the time period, and you’ll see different styles and topics throughout each second. As you move through the collection, the poems do take on more modern styles and are less antiquated in language. It does provide a good evolutionary look at poetry in Washington, D.C., and written by a variety of poets.

RATING: Cinquain

Pink by Sylvie Baumgartel

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 62 pgs.
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Pink by Sylvie Baumgartel is startlingly does not have a pink cover. In fact, it has a gray cover, which perfectly mirrors the gray in the relationships explored — mother-daughter, father-daughter, narrator-art, changes in climate, and more.

The collection opens with “The Washing” in which mothers and daughters wash together — a mother who washes secrets — and it is compared to the “washing” of the Sistine Chapel, in which fig leaves are removed to expose genitals and the windows to the soul are lost. It makes you think about what we wash away when the secrets are cleansed or kept hidden — how awful can the truth be?

We move later in the collection to “Pregnancy” (pg. 9) in which the narrator feels numb but everything is out of sorts as the “Blood that feeds my/Part parasite,/Part god, baby boy.//” is a far cry from how it is portrayed in art. The narrator says, “I wonder if what paintings/Really want is to reproduce./A baby of their own.// With many paintings made famous by men, perhaps the narrator is right because those painters are unable to do so naturally.

The collections call on the color of femininity, love, and kindness stands in juxtaposition to the nearly clinical precision with which Baumgartel examines relationships and art. She even explores the abuse suffered by boys at the hands of priests who believed “they could get away with it/Because the boys couldn’t hear each other/Scream.//” (from “The Mission Bell”, pg. 11-2).

Pink by Sylvie Baumgartel is a stunning poet with stark imagery in each poem that will force readers to reorient themselves and rethink the world around them. Between the grotesque and the use of color, she creates a world in which the narrator needs to break through the morass and the societal norms to be born again.

RATING: Quatrain

Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 74 pgs.
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Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell is a slim collection with a powerful anthem and story arc that begins with “The meadow.” This prose poem sets the reader up for the themes to come — self-indulgence, dark desire and hate, outrage, and pain. That meadow is the nation that certain people have built, hiding it behind the ideals of liberty, while at the same time bleeding its people and waiting for the blood to spill.

The anthem of this collection, “Shut up and dribble,” is a chant that calls us to action. We [and I mean everyone, not just the oppressed] should not be silent like they tell us, we should rise up for the ideals and equality denied. This is personified in “Four-cent Father,” a poem in which the death of a Black man in his own garage is settled with four cents. How can a man’s life be worth so little, and how can a man who plays music in his garage be killed by bullets? He was minding his own business, he was spending time at his home — his home was not his castle, he was not safe.

There is a deep, simmering rage in this collection. A raging against injustice, a raging against the expectations of a society that’s created a false sense of justice, and a rage that builds against the circumstances created by these illusions. “Would my grandmother’s/German immigrant bones/have ached for the man/she would never have known/but for the slavers’ greed?’ (“After the Pedestal,” pg. 21) The “American Beast” rears its ugly head, slithering under the covers and slipping into rooms where “rumbling in the voices of grownups/speaking softly after dinner/about the problems of the world.//” (pg. 25) and becomes commonplace.

The poems in Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell will get under your skin, making you uncomfortable not just in the dark but in the light of day. These poems call on us to break the silence, acknowledge the horrors of the past, see the bleak present, and get off our butts and do something about it.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Tara Campbell is a Kimbilio Fellow, a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and an MFA candidate at American University. Publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Luna Station Quarterly.

She is the recipient of the following awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist, and Arts and Humanities Fellowships for 2018 and 2019. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Robert Gover Story Prize.

Her novel TreeVolution was published in 2016, followed in 2018 by her hybrid fiction/poetry collection Circe’s Bicycle. Her third book, a short story collection called Midnight at the Organporium, will be released by Aqueduct Press in 2019.

Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 156 pgs.
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Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin, which toured with Poetic Book Tours, is a poetic drama that explores not only the complex woman of Madam C.J. Walker, but also her relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who continues the Walker legacy. Sarah Breedlove, who became Madam C.J. Walker, was the first free born child to former Louisiana slaves. Her life was far from easy, orphaned at age seven and married at age 14, but she never let that stop her. She was determined to give her family a better life even as the obstacles like Jim Crow mounted and hatred were everywhere and out in the open. After years of back-breaking labor, earning very little, Madam C.J. Walker invented a hair care formula for Black women and she built an empire, training a number of women as sale agents.

“Out of No Way (which takes its title from an old saying in the African American community to ‘make a way out of no way,’ or to thrive against impossible odds)” (pg. xi)

This title is ever present throughout the poetic drama. It explores the mother-daughter relationship through not only narratives and lyrics, but also sonnets and haiku, elegies, and so many other forms. How can a daughter live up to her mother’s legacy — a mother who struggled to provide the best for her family and did little mothering? From “Le Wa. Ro,” “I became beautiful but bored, and now I find that my things do nothing to my shadows, they are merely sharpened and darkened and cast in high relief…” (pg. 12) Could she live in the shadow of the empire or would she break out on her own?

Augustin chronicles not only the mother’s building of her family and the business, but also the struggles of a daughter who feels abandoned by her traveling mother. “The Lost Letters, 1905-1908” are a testament to these struggles — “Forgive me if I sound hopeless,/It’s just so lonely in St. Louis.” (pg. 27)

Augustin’s poems go beyond the relationship of these two women, touching on the empowerment these women found in their own careers, building their own inner strength. Like in “Why Our Hair is not Straight,” Black women’s hair is not straight because they “curve while dancing” or because “we swirl with high hopes” or because “we bend in prayer.” These women needed to be flexible, to meet the obstacles and find a way around them. Although not always the best or ideal option, some choices left scars.

Augustin’s blackout poem, “Sculptures of Envy,” takes on advertisements for Walker’s hair care system to explore the envy felt by women everywhere when they see another with the appearance or the job they want and how appearance, and hair especially, is a must if women want the job. Black women are particularly held to a different standard. Each of the blackout poems in this section are very exploratory about appearance, envy, desire, and how Black women can take back their power through hair care.

Like the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Out of No Way by Rojé Augustin explores how oppression harms not only the oppressed by the oppressor. Her words in “Resilience: Making a Way Out of No Way” (a fictitious speech by Madam C.J. Walker), “For the oppressed, the damage is self-evident. For the oppressor, it gives rise to a violent and divided society where the unbridled pressures of injustice rise to a level of self-destruction. White supremacy is the moral ignorance that will destroy America if left unchecked.” (pg. 90)

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Rojé Augustin is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her first novel, The Unraveling of Bebe Jones, won the 2013 National Indie Excellence Award in African American fiction. She wrote the novel while living in London and Sydney as a stay-at-home-mom. She established Breaknight Films shortly after her move to Sydney in 2009 to develop and produce television projects across a range of formats, including television, web, and audio. Her first Sydney based project was a podcast and visual web series called The Right Space, which explores the relationship between creatives and their workspace. Rojé continues to work as a television producer while also writing in her spare time. She is an Australian citizen who currently lives in Sydney with her Aussie husband and two daughters.

Raising King by Joseph Ross

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 144 pgs.
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As in stated in the introduction to Raising King by Joseph Ross, Dr. King “knew racism disfigured the white people who used it. Thus, he focused his life in such a way, built on compassion, that his work might free both those who suffer from racism and those who inflict the suffering.” Throughout this collection, Dr. King’s compassion infuses each line, even though “the boat [the slaves were on] is dust./The whip//survives.” (“Martin Luther King, Jr. — Prologue,” pg. 9)

The backbone of these poems are Dr. King’s own words in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here. Through Dr. King’s words and teachings, Ross has recreated a compassionate look at a man frustrated with a system of oppression, but determined to save his oppressors and the oppressed. “a lunch counter/become[s] an altar,” but only after significant training in nonviolence. (“Be Broken,” pg. 32-3) This compassion stems from the realization that many whites who oppress have inherited their hate (it’s what they know, all they know, how they were taught). In “Inheritance,” Dr. King’s voice rings true: “I will not/destroy him just because/someone taught him//to destroy me.//” (pg. 37-8)

Compassion is often seen as a weakness, but in reality it is the strongest weapon we have against barbarity.

Bomb (pg.40)

War is like this: two women,
a baby, a man gone, a man lost.

I was lost like this: a baby
in the back bedroom.

a wife shaking, unable to be
still. A friend, calm but about

to break.

A crowd gathered. I ran home
to see what was left of me.

The crowd was angry.
I wanted their anger 

to love my own. But my wife's
shaking stopped, keeping me

from breaking.

Keeping me from becoming
the bomb I feared.

It is compassion and empathy that strengthen our character and our ability to rise above the baseness of our human nature.”We have not been victorious//over anyone. We want to ride/beside everyone.” (“We Prepared,” pg. 49) The collection also includes commandments as Dr. King’s movement becomes more urgent, almost as though he knows that the opportunity for real change is fleeting.

Ross’s poems are still relevant to the struggles we continue to face, with “Sheet, Cross, and Flame” calling to mind some recent reactions by parties who have lost and continue to rage against those losses. But Dr. King reminds us in Ross’s poems “Manners and decency/reach down and pat us//on the head. This is/about me grabbing//your hand demanding/you ask my permission//before you touch me.//” (“Decency,” pg. 108) With Ross’s words and poems, Dr. King rises again and leads by teaching.

I’m so glad that my last book of 2020 was Raising King by Joseph Ross. It was a comfort to read these words and remember why I treat others with compassion when I can, especially when it is hard to do so. While we must “choose//never to throw them [stones]//at one another” (“Chaos or Community,” pg. 136-7), we also need to “Let the/bones//rest.” (“The Bones,” pg. 119)

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Joseph Ross is the author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020), Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013), and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martin Espada. His poems also appear in Collective Brightness, Poetic Voices without Borders 1 and 2, Full Moon on K Street, and Come Together; Imagine Peace. He served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington, D.C. He is a seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, most recently for “The Mountain Top,” from Raising King. His poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. As a teacher and writer, Ross was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Reinhold Niebuhr Award in 1997 and the William A. Toohey, C.S.C. Award in 1993. In 2006, he was awarded Teacher of the Year by the senior class at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. In 2020, he delivered the Robert L. Giron Global Humanities Lecture for Montgomery College, Takoma Park, Maryland. The lecture was titled: “Literature Consoles and Confronts: When Poetry Is a Tool for Justice.”

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort

Source: Publisher

Hardcover, 112 pgs.

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Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort is a collection of poems that raises the dead in a new language of verse that recalls the past, including Antigone, and mingles it with more modern history in Belarus. This is a collection that hinges on history and the language of the past and present to create a new language and shared history. Mort’s verses recall the dead in the most beautifully grotesque ways. In “To Antigone, a Dispatch,” “My guts have been emptied/like bellows/for the best sound.//” In this poem, she imagines Antigone as her sister, a life in which death has become something that is an every day thing with bodies buried in hillsides and grave markers in abundance.

Mort’s poems call to the lost men whose “bodies” become “their graves” and the women whose dresses are torn from them and worn by Aryan women in “Singer” (pg. 41) The horrors are laid bare and the larger questions are left in the sound, waiting for answers that never come. “What could a tongue remember after loss and hunger?” (“Music Practice,” pg. 43-45)

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort is lyricless song played on a breathless accordion, calling to the dead and those she wishes to resurrect/breathe life into again. She’s calling not only our attention to the sorrow and grief of her country, but to the loneliness we, ourselves, can cure through song and memory. Our memories may be imperfect and altered truth, but we can sing them and resurrect those we miss most. Mort cautions that in this process “borders spill.” (“Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison,” pg.81-92)

RATING: Quatrain

Who’s Your Daddy by Arisa White

Source: the poet

Preordered book, 138 pgs.

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Who’s Your Daddy by Arisa White, on tour with Poetic Book Tours, is a poetic memoir in which the poet explores the absence of her father in her life, how it has impacted who she has become, and how she can reconnect with her absent father in adulthood.

“When it came to the conjunction “and” I was illiterate. For it makes you larger, more. Expands into distances beyond my eyes.” (pg. 124)

White articulates deftly the nuanced feelings of a desire to belong and the sense that belonging requires the reconnection with an absent father. While she has others in her life who love and care for her, there are traumas that she faces while her father is absent. But reconnecting with a man ejected from the United States and back to Guyana and who fails to even write a letter or call her is a tall order.

“Am I a site of abandonment?” (pg. 97)

“Guyana is abandonment from my father. I feel the weight of the people in me and I in them, guilt I carry myself alone.” (pg. 108)

The poetic memoir begins at home in the United States, as Arisa grows up in a broken home, a home of harsh realities. These realities are not my own, but this collection creates a palpable reminiscence of sorrow, anger, confusion, absence, and more. Despite these trials and her struggles with connections, she is a strong woman — caring for herself, willing to reach out to someone who abandoned her, and seeking self-care and healing.

What she finds in this journey is a man incapable of giving her a sense of belonging — a man who rambles just to hear himself speak, to make him relevant to those who hear him.

“Breaks my heart along the same fault lines that ache for him.” (pg. 83)

Who’s Your Daddy by Arisa White is a journey into the poet’s past as she reconciles the abandonment of her father and her struggles with connecting to others. The poetic memoir is beautiful and the landscapes within it (emotional and physical) are tumultuous and heartbreaking. White is a deft storyteller, and readers will be emotionally spent by this poetic memoir.

RATING: Cinquain

Follow the rest of the blog tour with #WhosYourDaddyMemoir #ArisaWhite

Photo Credit: Nye’ Lyn Tho

About the Poet:

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and an assistant professor of creative writing at Colby College. She is the author of four books, including the poetry collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, and coauthor of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, winner of the Maine Literary Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Middle-Grade Nonfiction. She serves on the board of directors for Foglifter and Nomadic Press. Find her at arisawhite.com.

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song edited by Kevin Young

Source: NetGalley

Ebook, 1170 pgs.

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African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song edited by Kevin Young is a compendium like no other, exploring the wide breadth of African American poetry from songs to poems and much more. There are eight sections in this collection and there are the familiar, often anthologized poems we’ve come to know, but there are also the unfamiliar poets who have been obscured by American culture for far too long. The struggle is real and it continues 250 years later, and it will likely continue into the next several decades (I’m being optimistic — I would like to see less struggle sooner).

“For African Americans, the very act of composing poetry proves a form of protest,” says Kevin Young in the introduction. From Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Terry, whose untitled poem “Bars Fight” was first composed orally and shared for generations before being in print, to the present day poets, Young says the collection covers those who experienced bondage first hand, modernist movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, wartime and postwar poets, Beat poets, political poets, poems about ancestry, and so much more. Young says the collection contains “poems we memorize, pass around, carry in our memory, and literally inscribe in stone.” Folk songs, ballads, and poems that have never been published. You can imagine the treasure trove within these pages.

Normally, I would share excerpts from this collection but I prefer that you discover these for yourself. I want you to journey into the African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song edited by Kevin Young on your own without preconceived notions of what you’ll find there. There is so much more than Langston Hughes. This is a collection that should be brought to classrooms as young as elementary schools. These are the poems and truths that need to be taught so that we can learn from the past and move forward as a nation to a brighter future.

RATING: Quatrain

Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen

Source: the poet

Paperback, 88 pgs.

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Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen is a collection of poems that explore the spiraling, out-of-control nature our lives can sometimes take on and how to cope with that chaos and uncertainty. It’s a collection for the current times in that it provides us with a look at life amidst uncertainty, albeit unrelated to COVID-19. Through the art of words and the certainty of science, Hazen strikes into new frontiers with her poems, exploring divorce, motherhood, the turbulent nature of emotions. In “Chaos Theory,” Hazen establishes the unstable ground of these poems by grounding it into a personal moment of “rage [that] comes out of nowhere — the glass explodes/when it hits the wall, as physics says it must,//” (pg. 3)

Ghosts haunt in “Ghost Story” but are they just voices in the narrator’s head spilling her secrets? But the secrets won’t stop just because there are three or four fingers of warm liquid in the glass. Hazen calls us to face our own ghosts head on, not to dull the sharpness of their criticisms or their secrets. To understand the chaos, we must all start from the beginning. “…and no matter what you tell/yourself tonight, no matter what you tell//yourself in twenty years, you are still there,/” (pg. 10, from “Girls at the Bus Depot”)

Hazen’s poems are like an archeological dig, an excavation of the self. In “Extraction,” the narrator says, “…A body holds more mysteries/than the mouth can bring itself to speak./” It’s true that when we’re young and sometimes as we age, we don’t really know our true selves, unless we’ve taken that time to delve deep into who we are, what our desires may be, and what we’re passionate about. It is a journey we must take on our own, but also one that must be done. Without it, we can be lost and make many harmful and wrong decisions.

There are many losses along the way in our journeys, as we search for the truth of ourselves, but those losses are memories that can be recalled with the slightest scent or picture. “or a room holds the vibration of a voice,/a person’s scent, long after he has gone.” (pg. 43, “The Spectroscope”) While loss can be sad and make us feel empty, there are those losses that can bring joy at the happiness some moments held, like uncovering trilobites in the soil.

Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen warns us not to get too caught up in the loss and the memories — “My memory is a haunted house that will/not let me leave.” (pg. 44, “When I Was a Girl”) We must learn to break free from the chaos — sometimes self-created — to find the right path, the calm, and the joy we all seek. At the heart, we’re all working against nature and the passage of time, like the house in “Erosion.”

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Elizabeth Hazen is a poet, essayist, and teacher. A Maryland native, she came of age in a suburb of Washington, D.C. in the pre-internet, grunge-tinted 1990s, when women were riding the third wave of feminism and fighting the accompanying backlash. She began writing poems when she was in middle school, after a kind-hearted librarian handed her Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. She has been reading and writing poems ever since.

Hazen’s work explores issues of addiction, mental health, and sexual trauma, as well as the restorative power of love and forgiveness. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Literary Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, The Normal School, and other journals. Alan Squire Publishing released her first book, Chaos Theories, in 2016. Girls Like Us is her second collection. She lives in Baltimore with her family.

Whale Day by Billy Collins

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 144 pgs.
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Whale Day and Other Poems by Billy Collins often takes the most mundane situation and spirals it out into something that is by turns humorous and poignant. Aging is a theme throughout the collection, but it is not aging with grace, but with a sense of humor. Imagine your aging dog and walking them down the street, how the gait of the dog changes and how the dog stops to be picked up by the owner rather than continue under its own power. This is exactly the situation in “Walking My Seventy-Five-Year-Old Dog.” Collins takes this situation and reminds us that it isn’t polite to ask a lady her age (a bit tongue in cheek), reminding us that to age is a normal course of life that we need to observe but not dwell on.

Other humorous poems that made me laugh (at a time when a pandemic has made us all stressed and sad) include “Down on the Farm” with its fainting goats, “Imperial Garden” in which a Chinese cookie fortune says less about the recipient than the giver, “Mice” where the observer views the burning down of a house as a new adventure for his small friends, “The Card Players” in which he compares his current game to a Cezanne painting and realizes his game may not be as artful, among so many others.

One of the most selfish statements, “Me First,” is turned on its ear in this collection and becomes a moment of love, while still being a little bit selfish but understandable given the attachment of the narrator to the object of his affections. Like “Anniversary,” there is a selfishness in wanting the “love” to remain alive for as long as possible, even if that life is lived by a baby born on the person’s day of death. The final section of the collection is a homage to devotion and love, even as things begin to fade away like the “tear-off calendars,/the days disappearing one page at a time.//” (from “My Father’s Office, John Street, New York City, 1953”, pg. 103-107)

Collins’ latest collection is one to keep on the shelf for always. His conversational style is dominant here, and his poems will leave readers with joy and hope, but also more things to think about. Whale Day and Other Poems by Billy Collins is another splendid collection of more than just ordinary moments in time and it explores the effects of aging and how we can handle them if we choose to be less serious.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Billy Collins, is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In 2016, Collins retired from his position as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York after teaching there almost 50 years.

Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Afterland by Mai Der Vang, whom I was lucky enough to hear read at a virtual event for Pedestal Magazine, explores the after effects of the Secret War in Laos, during which the Hmong people became a surrogate army of the CIA. The war and its effort to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail caused the significant displacement of numerous villagers over a nine year period. Der Vang opens her collection with “Another Heaven,” which sets the stage for her song of the Hmong people: “When funeral recites/The supper gardens of my forefathers,/Cross-stitch from my mother kin,// Then I will come to you/” Der Vang is stepping into the shoes of the Hmong, trying to make sense of a secret war and its consequences.

This initial poem sets the tone for the entire collection, an ethereal, out-of-body reminiscence of a people displaced from their homeland and they must learn to rebuild and grow again. “It’s when the banyan must leave/Relearn to cathedral its roots//” (“Dear Exile, pg. 22) Der Vang’s vision of the world will have readers imaging a world through new eyes. How do you regrow your roots in a new land? Readers will step inside the imagined journey and emotional roller coaster of being displaced. What is this “afterland” — is it a return to the old ways in a new country, the return to an old country, or the adoption of a new country and new ways?

One of my favorites in the collection is “Cipher Song”:

It's come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail's shell. Ram's horn.

When the words burn, all that's left is ash.

The poem reminds me of the family stories that are sometimes hidden because relatives aren’t asked or they are unwilling to share them, especially if they are painful. I recalled a time when my grandfather told us tales of the “old country” when he was willing to speak about WWII, but peppering him with questions would shut his mouth and the stories would stop. Der Vang is an archeologist bringing the Hmong back into the light, breathing life into their stories, like the “Phantom Talker” “with creosote mouth//hiding behind/your silent head/in the vermilion portrait.//”

Afterland by Mai Der Vang is full of haunted lines and ghosts, and her poems are beautiful like “a cello slinks/From every strand.//Vineyards ribbon/Inside the intimate air.” (To the Longhorn Hmong, pg. 59) Der Vang circles back to her own ancestral history in the penultimate, title poem. Readers get the sense they are coming full circle.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Mai Der Vang is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Her poetry has appeared in the New Republic, Poetry, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and her essays have been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post. Her debut collection, Afterland, received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in California.