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Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 68 pgs.
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Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun, which was Winner of The Berkshire Prize for First or Second Book chosen by D. A. Powell, opens with an earthquake. The world is shaken beneath the reader before the journey has even begun. In the Map section of the book, Chun pains a picture of each town/city in a way that leaves the reader wondering when the next explosion will happen and upend everything we know. The pent up unpredictability of life is felt in each of these poems, and not all of these poems are about China — the narrator explores Kansas City, Washington state, and Texas. In “Guangzhou,” the narrator says, “if only I knew the safe land–/the world terrifies me too, the world that is no/stranger than before.” We are all vaguely aware that the world is not entirely safe, but we must have courage to face it head on. How can we do that without a loved on to lean on or an amulet to protect us?

Photo of My Father at Eleven

Your father had decided to find you
in the year after the war. He, an officer,

remarried. You and your sisters and mother
feed on banana and church congee.

Your mother's sorrow hangs like a wisteria bud;
she leans her head in the north-facing room.

Father, I have your eyes and mouth.
I wore the same Youth Pioneer band on my neck,

its knot also bigger than my throat.
In a few years you will find the words

to speak to your father. But for now,
lost in bricks and gray asphalt,

let us hold hands and hum together.

Chun leads us into the second section, “Amulet,” where the journey traverses through a prison, a broken home, the Andes, and more. There is an urgency to run toward forgiveness even as the narrator is unable to do so. The idea that forgiveness must be given to move on is strong, but the mind can sometimes move faster than the heart and body are able to when they are harmed. “Peachwood Pendant” is one of the most beautifully haunted poems in the collection where the narrator is still unable to hold and carry the unloved or those not loved enough even if they should be loved. Ending the section with “Photo of My Mother at Twenty-Five,” brings us full circle to the broken home and the plight of a single mother, but there is beauty in her struggle, at least as seen through the narrator’s eyes — “It’s spring again./Look at those yellow flowers.//I feel so light,/slipping from your body.”

In the final two sections, “Almanac” and “Window,” we begin to explore important dates from a great flood to the first moon. These are windows into the past. Through these events we are given a window through which the narrator can journey into the future without the weight of the past bogging them down in the river. In “Chrysanthemum is Prettiest in the Ninth Moon,” the narrator says, “The window has moved./My gray-haired elders are still there,/counting chrysanthemum petals in the sun,/each petal a sad shoe.” When we get to “Off Year,” the narrator has “swept spiders off the walls” moving forward into the future.

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun is meditative in its journey of unraveling the self and the past, winding and unwinding it to view it from different angles to achieve a peace with the past and the future. Chun’s use of language is deeply rooted in nature, but it also adept at capturing the abstract emotions of life in a way the breathes new life into family history.

RATING: Quatrain

Finna by Nate Marshall

Source: NetGalley
eARC, 128 pgs.
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Finna by Nate Marshall explores identity within the Black community, while looking not only at the dark past of America but also its hip hop present. “when America writes/about Black life/they prefer the past/ tense,” the narrator says in “When America Writes.” Many of the early poems explore identity, a young man who wants to learn and go to college, choosing something more than the gangs and drugs he sees in the community. But even then, there is that push and pull of becoming a learned person and the person the community nurtured.

In “another Nate Marshall origin story,” the narrator says, “perhaps our rage at the other is just the way we fill what we don’t know about ourselves.” A deep look at who we are is integral to our development no matter what stage of life we are in, but many times we skip this step and force ourselves into certain roles in our environments or in our families. For a young boy of five to already know lyrics about the deaths seen regularly in the Black community is a strong judgment on our society’s treatment of those who are not white. He delves further into the saddest commentary on our society in “I thought this poem was funny but then everybody got sad” — “what has a black body/& is read all over?/I mean is read all over/I mean/that’s the punch/line.”

publicist

a mentor told me
to consider writing
essays that commemorate
days that relate to my book.
it's a good way to insert
your work into the public
conversation. well motherfuckers
spend every day killing
a Black somebody in Chicago
& every next day the whole world
practices saying silences like
Black on Black
gang related
violent neighborhood
so I guess I owe a
million essays.
i guess my book
will be huge.

Finna by Nate Marshall expresses the struggles of Black America using familiar cultural vernacular and Hip Hop to bring readers into a world masked by white institutions and standards that are imposed upon these Americans. Nate Marshall’s narrator speaks about the other Nate Marshalls of the world and how he is not like them. But they are connected in how their life’s struggles can emotionally wear them down. What Marshall brings to life in this collection is that we are all human and empathy is something we need to relearn in order for us to connect.

RATING: Quatrain

The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 95 pgs.
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The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso is a collection of poems exploring loss, grief, and the lasting sting of devastation. It’s almost like the bottom has fallen out of each narrator’s life. The cover is the outline of a bee with the interior of the outline the iconic Temptation of St. Anthony, which in this context highlights the temptations found in each poem and the struggle to reconcile the inevitable, lasting pain of life.

In “The Book of Drowned Things,” our narrator believes they are a ferryman whose job is to now shuttle people to the land of the dead. Images of death and sorrow hover like ghosts throughout the collection, even as the narrator makes a simple trip to the liquor store — what is this wine they buy, is it just another step on the path toward death and end to sorrow or is it simply just a bottle of wine? One of my favorites is “stone ghost” (below) because the narrator looks the monster in the eye without flinching, seeing beauty instead. It is this childlike response that makes it so easy to believe in Odasso’s dark fairytales.

stone ghost

Ancient monster, I remember the day
I first saw your face, spread my fingers

on the glass and breathed in awe. Eyeless,

your ghost peered through text and reflection
to welcome me home: This was the sea,

my daughter. Your time has come.

Odasso also modifies her poetry into different shapes on the page, which bring to life many of these narrative scenes. I love the poems in “Katadesmos” that mirror the curses that would have been written on them in Roman times. In “You’ll Never Know,” the narrator casts the first stone — like an instigator — shedding light on the short comings of a false deity. I can only think about our modern times here and the many false leaders we’ve had, particularly the current leader of the nation who “won’t listen or warn them.” But the narrator here warns that “We are stronger than you think, we whispers, and we/ push with our backs, our hands splayed against the glass. Your edifice shudders.”

I love the universality of The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso. I loved the collection’s classical undertones, its vivid language, and its personal nature. From illnesses to what identity means, especially the harsh atmosphere that can surround someone who lives outside the societal definitions. It’s time for broadening our definitions of identity, gender, and the self, and Odasso has called us to arms — no longer should we be complacent. Life asks us to feel the sting.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

A.J. Odasso‘s poetry has appeared in a variety of publications, including Sybil’s GarageMythic DeliriumMidnight EchoNot One of UsDreams & NightmaresGoblin FruitStrange HorizonsStone TellingFarrago’s WainscotLiminalityBattersea ReviewBarking Sycamores, and New England Review of Books.  A.J.’s début collection, Lost Books (Flipped Eye Publishing), was nominated for the 2010 London New Poetry Award and was also a finalist for the 2010/2011 People’s Book Prize. Their second collection with Flipped Eye, The Dishonesty of Dreams, was released in 2014; their third-collection manuscript, Things Being What They Are, was shortlisted for the 2017 Sexton Prize.  They hold an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where they were a 2015-16 Teaching Fellow, and work at the University of New Mexico.  A.J. has served in the Poetry Department at Strange Horizons since July 2012.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 78 pgs.
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Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is a harsh look at failed relationships and the narrator’s part in those failures, but it also takes a close look at verbal abuse (“the terror of vocabulary”) and the desire to stay with someone you “love.” In the opening poem, “Forest Fire,” there are redwoods growing inside her (beautiful, but wanting), but rather than nurture that forest, “You stand watching/me burn.” A number of these poems speak to the push and pull of desire and escape, the narrator is unsure which way to turn, unable to break away and do what is best for their mental and physical health, but also desirous of love, one that lasts through everything and props her up when she needs it. She also longs to be a dependable lover, someone her partner can rely on.

As much as these poems are about love and relationships, they also are a self-examination of how one can fail even with the best intentions to be a faithful partner or hold onto the love/desire they felt for the other person at the beginning of their relationship. Each poem has a certain rawness about it, making them highly emotional and visceral poems. But one of my favorite poems int he collection is less overt and more surprising in its use of language.

Self-Portrait With Without

With soy milk. With a latte drunk
each morning in the dark kitchen. Without
the lights on because you slept on the couch
again and I don't want to wake you. With dinner
with friends, everything fine. Without conversation
during the car ride back. With negotiations
as to who walks the dog when we get home. With you
in front of the computer when I go to bed. Without
the weight of you beside me. Without my rings
on when I sleep because my fingers swell. With them on
the next day, newly cleaned and brilliant. With
the sun prisming off the diamonds as I drive
to work. With me spinning them around as I fly, my fingers
puffy by the time I land. Without them on when I shower
away the day's grime. With my hands bare as I open the door
and let him in. With my hands on him. Without a word said.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is collection that speaks to the tug of love and desire and our rational mind, but also to the conscious and subconscious need to suppress our own inner monsters. These are the parts of ourselves that are less than pleasant company and often steer us away from what is best for us. In many ways, these monsters are our baser selves seeking out pure pleasure, even if it is fleeting. Aren’t we all just beautiful monsters at times.

Rating: Cinquain

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 114 pgs.
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Good Bones by Maggie Smith, called “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International, is a gorgeous collection of poems about the transformations that happens in motherhood and how despite the innate need to protect our children, there is no way that mothers can protect children from everything bad in the world. The collection opens with “Weep Up,” in which a young child is crying for the world to awaken — even the birds. This is the reader’s awakening to the life of a mother — connection, a weariness, a protectiveness. In “Sky,” the narrator tries to answer a child’s curiosity about the blueness and expanse of the sky, and in so doing, the narrator envelops us and the child in a comforting embrace: “Think of sky not as blue, not as over,/but as the invisible surround, a soft suit/you wear close to the skin.”

A hawk often glides through the poems, watching the child, guiding the child, and looking out for the child and others as it walks and moves through life. One of my favorite lines is from “The Hawk,” “her notes,//rising easily to him the way an echo/homes to the voice that calls it.//” Smith is a master at describing the indescribable. “Rough Air,” for example, is like “a cat’s tongue/as if the air itself were textured,/as if we could feel its sandpaper/licking our skin.”

One of the most widely shared poem in this collection is “Good Bones”:

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Imagine how many times as parents we try to tell our children to be nice to others, to give way to others, to see the beauty in the pollution around us, to see the happiness in the darkness, and how to avoid the reality they can see with their own eyes. Are we all realtors, trying to sell them a dump to live in and provide them with false hope that they can change it? This collection is all of the emotions of parenting rolled up into one — the angst, the fear, the worry, the sadness at this is the world they are given, and our desperation to protect them from it.

From At Your Age I Wore a Darkness

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother's dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you'll need to unravel,

unraveling another you'll need
to restitch. What can I give you

that you can keep? Once you asked,
Does the sky stop? It doesn't stop,

it just stops being one thing
and starts being another.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith reminds us that while we are that protective hawk watching our children and protecting them from harm, we also can only watch them from afar as they learn to navigate the world on their own. Inevitably, they will fall … they will skin their knees, but we can provide them with the “good bones” they need to protect themselves and journey through the darkness they will eventually find in their lives.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems are widely published and anthologized, appearing in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, POETRY, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Public Radio International called it “the official poem of 2016.” Her new book, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, a collection of essays and quotes, is forthcoming in October 2020 from One Signal/Simon & Schuster.

Said Through Glass by Jona Colson

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 84 pgs.
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Said Through Glass by Jona Colson is a keen observance of ordinary life and how we deal with not only grief, but our feelings of “otherness” even among family. There are several poems in an interview style throughout the collection, which I felt disconnected from.The one “interview” style poem I did enjoy and did feel connected to was “House for Sale,” where readers get a sense of a distracted home buyer who has lost his father and is trying to navigate life after.

However, I really loved Colson’s use of language to demonstrate ailments like arthritis and so much more. In “My Mother’s Hands,” the narrator speaks about his mother’s arthritic hands in a way that makes them beautiful: “Now, her fingers turn and twist against themselves,/like stems of wild roses–reaching out/into delicate air.” And in “Retina,” the narrator talks about the darkness of an eye out of sorts and the joy of being able to finally see again: “And the next day: surgery,/to fasten the retina, like wallpaper, back to the frazzled/optic nerve and satisfy its hunger for impulse/and clear astonishment of light.//” There is so much beauty in this collection.

Honey

It pours from a jar, amber and combed
too thick to understand.

It softens the parched skin
rubbed in small fingerfuls.

It soothes the throat
when we stir it into tea.

At breakfast, it sweetens the morning toast
while we talk of summer --

hopeful as a bee toward a tulip
promising pollen.

In part three, we switch gears in a way with a series of ekphrastic poems after a painting from Diego Velazquez called Las Meninas. When I saw this, I wanted a QR Code, like in Jessica Piazza’s latest collection, This Is Not a Sky, but it’s not necessary as this painting was easy to find online. These poems carry a heaviness that makes it easy to visualize the kids/women in this painting, including the Spanish Infanta Margaret Theresa. In the first poem, Theresa is the central figure and her “hoop skirt” is heavy like her heart later in the poem, signifying the weight of obligation she carries. “Heart-heavy, she rises, oiled and/drowsy, surging on, with no anchor,/only a painting of her, here and there./” Colson breathes new life into the Infanta, and the journey is intriguing as it touches on the royal life lightly.

Said Through Glass by Jona Colson speaks and readers must listen, but more than that they must interact with the lines and stanzas on the page — becoming a second observer. Readers will see through this window unique ways to look at the ordinary — from honey to an orange — and examine loss, grief, and change in a way that is not only sad, but beautiful. This beauty ties the collection to its grief to create an arc of healing.

RATING: QUATRAIN

About the Poet:

Jona Colson is an educator and poet. He graduated from Goucher College with a double Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish and earned his MFA from American University and a Master’s in Literature/Linguistics from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. In addition to writing his own poetry, he also translates the Spanish language poetry of Miguel Avero from Montevideo, Uruguay. His translations can be found in Prairie Schooner, Tupelo Quarterly, and Palabras Errantes. He has also published several interviews for The Writer’s Chronicle. He is currently Associate Professor at Montgomery College in Maryland where he teaches English as a second language. He lives in Dupont circle area of Washington, DC. Visit his website at jonacolson.com

Other Voices Other Lives by Grace Cavalieri

Source: Purchased at Gaithersburg Book Festival
Paperback, 250 pgs.
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Other Voices Other Lives by Grace Cavalieri (listen to this interview), poet laureate of Maryland, is part of Alan Squire Publishing’s legacy collections and includes a selection of poems and plays, as well as interviews from her The Poet & the Poem public radio series.

I just had to get my hands on this collection when I was at last year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival and I had the honor of greeting her and escorting her about the local festival before her appearance was required on a panel and at the announcement of our 2019 high school poetry contest winners.

Selection from "Work Is My Secret Lover"

Work
takes the palm of my hand to kiss
in the middle of the night
it holds my wrist lightly and feels the pulse
Work is who you'll find with me
when you tiptoe up the stairs
and hear my footsteps through the shadows

I love that her poems take on a personality of their own and many of them are so different, tackling not only the angst of the writer’s life and the love we have for our work (which can take precedence over other things), but also the voices in which she speaks not for others but with them. From Anna Nicole Smith’s to Mary Wollstonecraft’s voice to poems styled after William Carlos Williams, Cavalieri’s imagination brings a new life to these women’s voices. Even the selections from her plays are lyrical and full of whimsy (in a way). Her persona poems imbue the public perceptions of women with a compassionate eye.

If you listen to her interview, at about 5:06, you’ll hear her read “Moderation,” which is my favorite poem from this collection. It’s deeply moving. A moment where a man knows it is time to pass into another world, and he hopes to never inconvenience anyone with his death. This silent man who doesn’t live outside the lines. Cavalieri displays her keen observations about her father and others, but she also observes herself as an outsider, an observer full of emotion. Other Voices Other Lives by Grace Cavalieri is a deeply emotional journey through her work, and it always rings true. I’ll be seeking out her other collections in the future.

Grace Cavalieri needs no introduction in Maryland as our state Poet Laureate, but damn she is smart, observant, kind, and deliciously cognizant of how to imbue others with humanity through her own compassionate lens.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Grace Cavalieri is an Italian American writer and host of the radio program The Poet and the Poem, presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Poems: New and Selected (1994), Pinecrest Rest Haven (1998), and Greatest Hits, 1975–2000 (2002). Her collection What I Would Do for Love: Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004) was awarded the Patterson Poetry Prize; Water on the Sun (2006) won the Bordighera Poetry Prize. Further collections include Anna Nicole: Poems (2008) and Sounds Like Something I Would Say (2010).

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too by Porsha Olayiwola

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs
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I Shimmer Sometimes, Too by Porsha Olayiwola, who is Boston’s poet laureate, is a collection of hard truths. I first heard about her from this interview, which is a must listen. Her poems are raw and pull no punches, and they shouldn’t. She’s speaking for a very marginalized group of people in our society – queer black women.

Her opening poem brings to the forefront the rawness of our immigration policies in this country and the damage left behind when her father was sent to his homeland and her mother was left in the United States to raise their children. Olayiwola imagines what life would have been like had her father been able to stay in “Had My Parents Not Been Separated After My Father’s Traffic Stop, Arrest, and Deportation From the United States of America.” This serves as a lens through which her life has unfolded – the discrimination that follows her as a black woman who is queer — and her light amidst all of it. Even in the darkest moments of arrest, her poems shimmer with hope and light.

From "Interlude at a Neighborhood Gas Station: 2001"

the music peeled back the air
as the ivory chrysler swerved and jolted
into a spot behind our parked toyota

From modern subjects of finding and losing love, struggling with mental illness, dealing with discrimination at every turn, Olayiwola has a keen eye and slices through the malarkey of our society and reveals the whole truth of life in America. She tackles history and the present with aplomb. My favorite poem is “Unnamed.” Take a listen as she performs the piece in the video below:

Buy this collection today. I Shimmer Sometimes, Too by Porsha Olayiwola will challenge you, force you to look twice at your own behavior and comments, and move into a future where there is a bit more understanding and empathy for others. In a world where compassion is minimal at best, these are the collections that will have use recollecting our humanity.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Porsha Olayiwola is a writer, performer, educator and curator who uses afro-futurism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues in the Black, woman, and queer diasporas. She is an Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and is the current poet laureate for the city of Boston

The Floating Door by M. E. Silverman

Source: the poet
Paperback, 92 pgs.
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The Floating Door by M.E. Silverman is a collection of poems that explores several schoolyard rhymes — “Step on a Crack” — and the experience of growing up in America, alongside the feeling of being an outsider in “The Last Jew” in Afghanistan. Silverman’s poems are a spiritual journey that is at times disconcerting, but also comforting. His poems look at American consumerism in a way that causes the reader to look at the life they imagine — the clean lines and everything in its place — and the life they lead, full of chaos and love.

One of the best looks at this is “Sitting in a Simulated Space at the Atlantic Station IKEA in Atlanta, Georgia,” in which the speaker is comfortably sitting in one of those staged rooms that the store is famous for, takes a book of poems from the shelf and begins to read. In this moment the speaker becomes part of the simulated room. But the illusion is broken when he decides to save the pages and rips them from the book and is caught by the eyes of a child in the store with her family. Silverman’s poems have children or child-like reactions in them to call attention to how discerning kids are to social cues and the visual moments around them, even if they don’t necessarily understand the words. In “‘I Don’t Believe,’ She Said, ‘In You.'” the narrator says, “He listened the way a/child presses an ear to a keyhole,” and readers can see the intensity of that moment — a spying on an adult conversation when one adult is exasperated with the other. The whole of the poem calls attention to a lack of attention we all have in arguments and moments of frustration — when we take less care in choosing our words and how those words can be interpreted by the listener a different way than what they were intended.

Silverman’s imagination is on full display in his descriptions, like this from “Response to: I Can’t Get Off the Couch”: “Look, the couch/would love nothing more than to waste the day caped with a shawl, laying/ burdened on someone’s back like Atlas, but honestly the couch is waiting for/the right cover to turn it almost youthful & beautiful, waiting for the vibrating/wonder of the vacuum so it can come clean, eyeing the shapely Victorian/curves of the love-seat, waiting & waiting for it to make the first move.” Oh, this unrequited love, the longing from across the room. Just beautiful.

Many of these poems offer surprise reactions in them: sensuality, families that have grown distant except for the love of a child that appears constant, and mirror images of suffering and displacement. There is a disconnect that is explored between being American and the Jewish religion, but within that feeling of disconnect, the narrator of the poems takes a journey to reconnect. The Floating Door by M.E. Silverman is a collection that moves the reader in and out of detachment in an effort to demonstrate that the feeling is fleeting and there is more to connect us with others than first appears to the eye.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

M. E. Silverman is the author of The Floating Door (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), The Breath Before Birds Fly (ELJ Press, 2013). The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary American Jewish Poetry (2013), which he co-edited with Deborah Ager, The Plume Anthology of Long-ish Poems (Madhat Press, 2018), which he co-edited with Andrew McFayden-Ketchum, and a forthcoming Holocaust anthology co-edited with Howard Debs. His work has appeared in over 90 journals including: Crab Orchard Review, Blood Orange Review, December, Town Creek Poetry, Chicago Quarterly Review, North Chicago Review, Battersea Review, The Naugatuck River Review, Many Mountains Moving, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Pacific Review, StorySouth, I-70 Review, UCity Review, Tupelo Quarterly Review. You can also check out his journal, Blue Lyra Review, and his press, Blue Lyra Press.

Drift by Alan King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 1+ hrs.
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Drift by Alan King, from Audible and narrated by the poet, is a new experience in poetry, providing listeners with their own personal poetry reading. With jazzy music, sound effects, and the lyrical sounds of his poems, King transports listeners into an urban landscape where comic book heroes don’t live, but young boys still wish they would and that they could be them to battle the ugliness.

There is beauty in this collection, and it is a creative use of music, sound effects, and poetry. Tired of podcasts, depressing news, and television, enter the poetic world of Alan King and have your own personal poetry reading.

For more about the individual poems, my review is here.

This Is Not a Sky by Jessica Piazza

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 38 pgs.
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This Is Not a Sky by Jessica Piazza is the first interactive poetry chapbook I’ve ever read that has QR codes that link to famous works of art. Her ekphrastic poems infuse some masterpieces with new life and connects the art viewer and the poetry reader through her poems. Shining a new light on the relationship between reader and writer, painter and museum goer/art aficionado, Piazza is breaking down barriers and asking the audience to imagine alongside the artist, to create their own realities. Interpretation does not have to be confined to the outlines on the canvas or the lines and words chosen by the poet, much is left outside those constructs, leaving wide open spaces in which to venture on our own.

I love the idea of an interactive poetry collection, but in some cases (22%), the QR Code links to the artworks failed to bring up the correct work or went to an error page. However, a quick search found the pieces Piazza used for inspiration, so it wasn’t too much of a burden. I can truly say that you can enjoy these poems without looking at the artwork or being familiar with it.

In “Cafe Terrace at Night” after the Van Gogh painting, Piazza draws from the subdued lantern light the hidden “tipsy” patrons, looming dark figure in the doorway, and the ominous nature of the darkened streets and inebriated passersby. There’s an undercurrent of danger on these streets where patrons are dressed well and enjoying themselves, except for a lone woman who may be concerned about the shadow in the doorway or may be ruminating on some greater loss.

Gun” after Andy Warhol is a stunning poem, each part represents each of the guns portrayed. In this case, I’m happy the QR Code worked because Warhol painted several different gun paintings in his life. In Piazza’s poem, his painting says so much more about gun violence – the smugness of it, the horror, the guilt, the righteousness, and the empty satisfaction of it. This is a multilayered poem that begs you to read it more than once. I think I spent the most time with this poem. It’s one of my favorites in this slim collection. Underneath these layers, you’ll also find hints of verbal, emotion, and all kinds of abuse and the toll it can take on its victims, even so, is gun violence their only satisfactory response?

Adam and Eve” after Chagall, the narrator (who could be Eve) says, “Overtaken by this goneness (his fingers/in mine soft and white, malicious).” There is so much darkness in just these two lines. Waiting for the last bang of the apocalypse is heady business that engulfs Adam and Eve, but even in the middle, she wishes it to end but by ice. The poem not only calls out the differences in Adam and Eve, but the fate of these two having already been decided. There’s a desire for change but it is useless as the end has already happened. We’re taking a look back as the reader and viewer to lives no longer being lived. Is this a call to reassess our own lives now, rather than wait? Perhaps, but that’s your call.

This Is Not a Sky by Jessica Piazza is art unto itself and a must read for those who love painters and some of the most iconic artists of our time. Piazza will have you looking at the art on the museum walls in vastly different ways. She creates vignettes for the players and for those outside the frame.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections from Red Hen Press: “Interrobang” (2013) and, with Heather Aimee O’Neill, “Obliterations” (forthcoming, 2015) as well as the chapbook “This is not a sky” (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Originally from Brooklyn, NY, she holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English Literature from the University of Southern California, a Master’s degree in English/Creative Writing from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University. She is co-founder of Gold Line Press and Bat City Review and a contributing editor at The Offending Adam. Her poetry has appeared in Agni, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, No Tell Motel, 32 Poems, Forklift, Ohio, National Poetry Review, Pebble Lake Review, Anti- and 42 Opus, among other places.

Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 130 pgs.
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When you have fate kick your butt and keep you from getting a poetry collection you’ve been eager to read (especially when you want to be at a reading), does that lead you to enjoy the collection even more when you finally get a copy?

This is my question because this was my journey to getting Reuben Jackson’s new collection. But I digress.


Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson is like a best hits record, but it’s also a deeply personal look at Washington, D.C., love in all of its incarnations, and the power of music (in this case Jazz). “Fingering the Keys” is a section of previously published poems by Jackson, giving readers some initial flavor of his work as he reflects on his younger years, roadtrips with his father, the harsh realities of being black in America. But as a kid you don’t always understand why you can’t do certain things like stay in that roadside teepee shaped motel in South Carolina. In “on the road,” the narrator speaks about the bargain struck with his dad to stay the night, but then says, “it worked,// so why did he return without/room keys?”

Each of these line breaks and pauses are like an interlude in which the undercurrent of the head in the music of Jackson’s poems comes to the fore full force, knocking the reader off their feet and sending their mind into overdrive. There are many of these “aha” or “Mmmhmmm” moments where readers are like I understand and I see where you are and what’s going on, even in the most innocent of moments. When we’re young and trying to find out who we are and want to be, we experiment, but there are those of us judged more harshly for experimenting outside “the comfort zone.”

a lonely affair

even the most die-hard liberals
have their moments;

like the man wearing the
end apartheid button
who followed me across his bookstore;

Jackson is well aware of the power of word choice when he speaks about the man’s bookstore, knowing full well that though this man is liberal, the narrator is from outside his known community and should be followed. Is he following him because he wants to talk, to share, or simply to monitor, to prevent, to presume? In “a lonely affair,” our narrator continues along his path, lonely as it may be, to ensure revolution does not fizzle out. By being there, out in the world and reading his poems, he’s affecting change.

“sunday brunch” has to be my favorite poem in this collection. The matter-of-fact response and sarcasm is priceless. I refuse to ruin the surprise, but how would you answer “Where do your parents summer?”

The section of “city songs” will transport you D.C. and beyond in ways you don’t expect. Readers are thrown into the deep pit of tragedy and sorrow, of borrowed breaths, and deep loneliness even in urban landscapes. The intimacy of the first section gives way to the wider world — it intrudes upon the intimacy and wrenches away the slightest sense of shelter. We’ve moved into a world where culture bears heavily down on those who do not fit neatly in it. Rather than change the tone, Jackson’s language almost lulls the reader into each situation, letting the reality of them seep under the skin.

“sky blues” is the crescendo of the collection, exploring the beauty of late-in-life love — a mutual respect and passion for the fullness of who we are. In the poems of the “Amir & Khadijah: A Suite,” Jackson becomes lyrical with love, the kind of love that can buoy a spirit in rough tides and become a lift of spirit. It’s Jackson’s song of hope, either for himself or for all of us. His heart is full of love and it is reaching out to us in line after line searching for connection.

Here, too, we find Jackson’s poem for Trayvon Martin as an angel guides the young boy home, away from danger. These final poems nod to the past and the struggles, with a hope for the future. Scattered Clouds by Reuben Jackson is the balm for the sting of “real” American life, laced with a hope that we can overcome, persevere, and take the lessons we’ve learned from those lost to us and apply them to our future selves to create a better tomorrow. It’s the coverage we need away from the storm without forgetting that storms do come.


I cannot urge you enough to buy these collection. Rarely do I outright tell you to buy something, but if you buy one poetry collection this year, let it be this one.


RATING: Cinquain