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Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 241 pgs.
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“Although approximately one in six women will be sexually assaulted, more than 90 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.” (pg. XI)

Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell will inspire those who have been abused, trafficked, and left feeling unworthy to rebuild their self-esteem, create their own sacred places, and heal from their abuse. Axtell’s memoir is more than a look at her life and recovery, it is a call to those with similar stories and experiences.

She asks nothing of them but to care for themselves, to rediscover their own worth, and to find a community that can support them in that endeavor. Throughout the memoir, she offers poems she wrote throughout her experiences as a way to speak about the suffering and long road of recovery.

“Beautiful Justice is the art of taking back our lives and reclaiming our worth after abuse. It is a form of Justice that does not depend on what happens to our perpetrators. It is centered on our recovery as a creative process.” (pg. X)

Axtell’s recovery from abuse and trafficking was a long one. But with the help of her parents after a tumultuous time, she had two champions for her self-worth. At one point, her father praises her and reaffirms her as an intelligent young woman, while her mother helps her find places to seek out the help she needs. Even as she succeeds in some areas of her life, she is still battling demons.

“I strive for perfection in every dimension of my life — my dance, my studies, my spiritual path. I want to shine so brightly the shadows cannot consume me.” (pg. 16)

Axtell does not dwell on the horrors she experienced, but on the emotional trauma, the PTSD, and the dark shadows that follow her. Her recovery also provides lessons in how you can fool yourself into believing that all is right with your own world, even when you have not resolved the darkness that follows you. She offers moments of joy, her struggles, and her poetry in an effort to demonstrate the hard road of recovery but also the hope that can be found around you, if you are willing to ask the right questions of yourself. What makes you happy? How can you reclaim your life? How can you rebuild your worth without connecting it to what happens to the perpetrators of your abuse?

We are the untamed.
We are the unashamed.
We are beautiful justice
Just watch us rise. (pg. 143)

In addition to her story, she offers journal prompts in the back to help other survivors get started on their own recoveries, she provides them poems of strength and hope, and she provides mantras they can use to reaffirm their own worth. While she speaks a lot about how her ties to Christianity helped in her recovery, she also cautioned readers on how some doctrine and those who offer it can lead you away from your recovery journey. Axtell says that you need to find your own touchstones and paths to recovery, and many of the answers are within yourself. Self-reflection, self-care, and creativity can help those in recovery blossom and rebuild their lives. Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell is a journey of reclaiming self-worth and identity, while manifesting the beauty inside in the form of art and celebrating the value we bury inside.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet and Author:

Brooke Axtell is the founder and director of She is Rising, a healing community for women and girls overcoming rape, abuse, and sex-trafficking. Her work as a human rights activist led her passionate, widely talked-about appearance on the 2015 Grammy Awards. Brooke’s story has since been featured in a wide range of outlets, including Salon, Slate, Washington Post, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, and Fox News. This is her first book.

Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton, which won the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Chapbook Series from L+S Press, is an exploration of the universes we immerse ourselves in as children, the moments in time that etch themselves on our psyches, and so much more. It is a collection that speaks to the immensity of moments in our lives and the connections we feel and lose, but also the longing we have for moments that have passed long ago. “How to get back to you, Barcelona,/to nineteen years old, to fervent and pious trust/” the narrator laments in “To Barcelona”.

Time can pass quickly in some of these poems, like in “Mrs. Stockwell” where as a girl she watched the antics of boys dismissively only later to become a first grade teacher. Her universe became that school yard she remembered as a girl, and she lives her life there.

Bolton encapsulates moments in her poem that are chock full of emotion and wonder, as if she is gazing at the vast, starry sky trying to puzzle out the constellations. Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton is a powerful chapbook collection. Don’t miss it.

RATING: Cinquain

So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters

Source: the publisher
Paperback, 154 pgs.
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So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters, a collection of prose and poetry, is an exploration of the soul, a look at a soul struggling to love itself. This self-discovery journey travels from trailer parks to Paris and more internal worlds of faith, love, and self-confidence. Some of the poems exploring faith were meandering, like most journeys of faith can be, and often lost me on where they were going or what they wanted to say. But there are poem that read like confessions in personal journals and diaries. Some are incredibly raw and those are the poems that spoke the loudest about the pain of the journey and the sense of loss. Like in “AWOL Icon: A Love Song Without Music” (pg. 15), the narrator says, “Thunder breaks something and it’s not just the sky.”

From "Luster (Less)" (pg. 29)

Bad whiskey tastes sick sweet
like     forgetting
and that's enough to make me
              suck
      it
down.

Waters’ daughter, Desiree Wade, illustrates a few panels of comic like prose poems and the images are just as jarring and heartbreaking as the poems themselves. This team has great potential if they work together again on a graphic novel or another poetry collection.

These poems are fierce, particularly “Labor Pains,” which speaks about a mother’s fierce love and need to protect her child from the world. It’s beautiful and desperate and loss because as mothers we all know that our powers of protection are limited — inside and outside of the womb.

So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters looks to foster self-love and faith and explore those concepts through religious-like experiences as told through poems and illustration. There is a lot to digest in this collection, but it is a journey worth taking. You may learn something about yourself along the way.

RATING: Quatrain

For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 112 pgs.
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For Every One by Jason Reynolds is a poetic letter to dreamers, those who find themselves longing for something outside of their current lives — whether a poet looking to write poems or an artist looking to paint a masterpiece. These dreams may or may not come true in two years, thirty years, or at the end of their lives, but the point is that they continue dreaming and moving toward that dream.

All of us out here,
slumped over wearing
weird fake
broken smiles,
trying to avoid the truth:
that we all got road rage.

Although there is no sage advice from Reynolds about how to make that dream come true, he does offer a sense of camaraderie with the dreamers. He’s here in the trenches with you. He understands your passions and your need to achieve that impossible-possible dream, and he knows your heartbreak. For Every One by Jason Reynolds is a realistic pep talk for those frustrated with their own lack of progress toward their dreams, even if those dreams are simple ones like having a spouse and children. Just remember that you need to take that leap!

RATING: Quatrain

The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec

Source: the poet
Paperback, 30 pgs
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The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec is a chapbook that melds imagery with poetry so that readers look beyond the confines of structure to see the potential in each poem and drawing. Fox’s poems explore reality with surreal or dreamlike sequences, but they also are grounded in situations that readers will recognize from their own lives.

In “Ribs, Cat Claws,” Fox examines the notion that we all must “grow up sometime” with a cast of characters who on one hand seem to be out of their minds with mental lapses and disease and on the other hand lament the dreams they once had that are not fulfilled. Other poems delve deep into the unwritten rules of following doctors’ orders, only to secret believe they are useless orders — like many of the unwritten rules of society we follow. Should we just blindly follow them? Question them, only to follow them anyway? Or simply throw the rules out the window?

Fox’s slanted perspective on life and how rules guide us and are so easily set aside — our societal structures are artificial and yet they confine us. Where is the “real sky?” How do we break those invisible binds to see the light and the expanse of possibility? Niemiec’s sketches dovetail into these themes nicely, painting a physical picture for the readers.

The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec is a multilayered collection that bends genre to incorporate not only the visual, but also fictionalized accounts and reality into a surreal mesh for readers to fall into and explore. A great deal of food for though in this slim volume.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Authors:

Valerie Fox’s most recent book is Insomniatic [poems] from PS Books, and her other volumes include The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and The Glass Book (Texture Press). Her poems and stories have appeared in The Cafe Irreal, Juked, Sentence, Across the Margin, Cleaver, Hanging Loose, West Branch, Ping Pong, and other journals.

She has taught at various institutions, including Peirce College (Philadelphia) and Sophia University (Tokyo). Currently she teaches writing at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she is a writing fellow with the Writers Room. Much interested in collaboration, Valerie has published writing (poems, fiction) with Arlene Ang in journals such as Blip, Cordite, Apiary, Qarrtsiluni, and New World Writing. Ang and Fox also published Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press).

Jacklynn Niemiec teaches with the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University in the foundation year design studios, and coordinates their architectural representation sequence. Her creative interest and research lies in developing visual methods for understanding and representing space with the added and intangible layers of time, movement and memory. Her current creative work and interdisciplinary research project is Variable Space.

Jacklynn is a Registered Architect in the State of Pennsylvania and is LEED Accredited. She received her undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University and Master of Architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester

Source: the poet
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester explores the degrees of fear we face throughout our lives as things change. The first section of the collection sets the tone for the whole, as each poem focuses on change — a desire to be something you’re not in “Mermaid to Woman” and a re-imagining of Beethoven as a whale in “The Making.” There is a certain fear in change, but Nester calls on the reader to see the beauty in being something different, something that evolves.

 From "The Making" (pg. 3)

If Beethoven were a whale, he would
groan a song as monumental as his bulk,
one the waves would write -- always
in suspension. They would take an hour
to break along a shore so distant
none of us could fathom where it was.

Nester explores the changes that happen during childhood, traveling miles and moving to a new home, and how scary those moments can be. But there are times where the reader still sees the wonder of change as the narrator plays “capture the moon” with a compact mirror. Imagination takes center stage in the second section, and my daughter really enjoyed these poems when I read them aloud to her. She was reminded of the tents we made in our old house’s living room, and she began thinking up her own games to play in the car.

Section three explores the darkest reaches of fear, including a poem for the Sandy Hook school shooting. There’s also a lament for what America has become.

Sandy Hook (pg. 33)

...The teacher tries
to hide us, but bullets fly
so fast. Now she won't 
wake up, no matter how
I shake her. No crayon
could ever be that red.

In the final sections, Nester explores the fears of the past and places them into context. She broadens the scope beyond the fears of a younger self about her unruly hair and the wiser self who sees those imperfections as par for the course of life. “My past/quivers beneath the lens of memory,” she says in “Picture of a Life.”

Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester is an exploration of life — its bumps and moments of joy — to find the light. She reminds us to push through and “recognize the stranger” in ourselves. She calls on us to reach beyond our fears and ourselves into the unknown to find beauty in the vacillation and uncertainty of change.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Robbi Nester is the author of three other books of poetry: a chapbook, Balance (White Violet, 2012), and two collections—A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014) and Other-Wise (Kelsay, 2017). She has also edited two anthologies: The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! (Nine Toes, 2014) and an Ekphrastic e-book, Over the Moon: Birds, Beasts, and Trees—celebrating the photography of Beth Moon, published as an issue of Poemeleon Poetry Journal.

Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 37 pgs.
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Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones is a chapbook of unsettling poems about the life in a mobile home park and beyond — travailing experiences of abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual) and the consequences of those experiences. The childhood explored in these poems is dark, but there’s also a strength in them — a sense that the narrator can look upon these terrible moments and be better than them. Moments of stumbling occur in teen years, but there still is a thread of light in the collection.

From "Beginner's Guide to Failing" (pg. 1)

Listen to your stepfather say
how much you look like your mother.
Look into a mirror and see
a white face too old to be yours.

There are no apologies in this collection of highly intense poems of survival.

 From "Souvenir de Mortefontaine Cinquain"

We are
not those women
who play with leaves and fruit.
We swing the axe. Blister. Splinter.
Ignite.

Jones’ poems range from outright frustration and anger to a deep sadness about a lost childhood. Her verse and images are striking throughout, and readers will feel the turbulence of the violence and the abuse. But “strength seems to make things buoyant,” the narrator says. Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones is a testament to all of those people who have survived abuse and lived to see the beauty still in the world. The narrator is vulnerable but never weak in exposing her wounds to the world to tell her story and bear it all again.

Rating: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Sarah Jones is a poet and content specialist living in Seattle. She is the author of Lies I Tell Myself (dancing girl press & studio). She holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her poetry has been featured on NPR and The Bridge. Her poems have appeared in New Ohio ReviewThe Normal SchoolEntropy magazine, Maudlin HouseRaven Chronicles, City Arts Magazine, Yes, Poetry, and many other places. She is a reader for Poetry Northwest, and her poem “My Mother’s Neck” was nominated by the New Ohio Review for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 52 pgs.
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STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss is a collection of haiku celebrating the four seasons. The poems in the winter section cleave space and time into separate parts as the narrator looks to connect to the past and a time when her father was alive and reachable.

Spring is a focus on rebirth, but how does someone become reborn in their later years when family has passed away. The narrator learns through trial and error that time moves forward and things change whether we want them to or not. There must be a letting go.

digging
roots in damp soil
white hair

Summer has a heavy atmosphere of nostalgia as the narrator explores her childhood, moments with family, and the wonders of nature.

Fall comes and the reader is thrust into the loneliness of time passing — a lone heron swimming, zinnias on the verge of death, a deceased monarch. Even amidst this loss, there is a moment in the final haiku in which the narrator is still looking — searching for something beyond that horizon, a moment of hope for the future.

end-of-summer wind
scattering of empty chairs
nothing moves the stone

STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss is a gorgeous collection of haiku that does not hinge solely on nature to propel the narrative. These haiku are more personal.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California from 2013-2016. Her latest poetry collection, Night Court, won the 2016 Lyrebird Prize from Glass Lyre Press. She is the author of Wild Place (2012, Finishing Line Press) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (2014, Pushpen Press).

As Poet Laureate for Los Gatos, she organized the first St. Patrick’s Day Poetry Walk, created Poems-in-the-Window (local businesses displayed poems during National Poetry Month), recorded The Poetry Podcast (50-plus recordings of poems in a variety of languages), established the first Los Gatos Poet Laureate Scholarship, and launched The Poetry Kitchen, a poetry reading series at the Los Gatos Library.

Erica’s work is featured in numerous anthologies and journals, including Pearl, Ekphrasis, Main Street Rag, Café Review, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, Eclectica, Up the Staircase, Lake Effect, Consequence, Stirrings, Convergence, Passager, Atticus Review, Gravel, Tinderbox Review, Caveat Lector, Rattle, Zoland Poetry, Spillway, San Pedro Rover Review, Comstock Review, Contrary, and Innisfree Poetry Journal. She received the Many Mountains Moving Prize for poetry in 2011. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010, 2013, and 2017, Best of the Net in 2016 and 2017, and received the first Edwin Markham Prize for poetry, judged by California Poet Laureate Al Young. Wild Place was also a finalist in the 2010 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Chapbook Contest, and received a special mention from Jacar Press’s 2010 Chapbook Contest.

Erica was the host of Word to Word, a Show About Poetry, on KCAT Cable TV in Los Gatos, and wrote The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. She is the co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls. In 2018, Erica founded Digital Storytelling of the Pacific Northwest, an arts education program for teens and adults. Erica lives in Eugene, Oregon, and teaches classes in poetry, memoir and video.

A Compass for My Bones by Diana Smith Bolton

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 39 pgs.
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A Compass for My Bones by Diana Smith Bolton, who read at the DiVerse Poetry Gaithersburg Reading, is a chapbook of poetry that examines identity by digging below the surface of the skin. The first part of her collection focuses deeply on faith and how it applies to our actions in childhood — begging us to turn away from curiosities that call us into temptation.

Communion

We might be sisters, she whispered.
The lines of our bodies were as empty

as the priest's gesture, wiping
the chalice's lip with white linen.
from "Three Scenes from Biloxi Beach"

I've seen black-and-white movies about sexy.
Like Lana Turner! she adds. I trot to the frothy water,
forbidden to touch it, and stare into the murky dark
as I stare at my life from four feet up.

There’s an ebb and flow in these beginning poems — a magnetic pull on the narrator leading them toward something and away from the child self s/he knew. When the section ends with “The Deer by the Lake,” the reader knows that the narrative has entered into an uncharted territory. Bolton uses the remainder of the collection to explore life through the eyes of characters and historical figures from Ophelia to Emily Dickinson, who had journeys into the dark and led to sadness.

A Compass for My Bones by Diana Smith Bolton is an exploration of the self and identity — the stumbles we take on life’s journey and how we handle them. Our internal compass is our guide after our parents have guided us through childhood. What of those who never made it through childhood or were never born alive? How do they find that compass. Bolton’s images are stunning.

Rating: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Diana Smith Bolton is a writer and editor in the Washington DC metro area. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Bolton studied literature at the University of Southern Mississippi and creative writing at the University of Florida, where she earned an MFA. She writes poetry and prose, and her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and collections. As founding editor of District Lit, a journal of writing and art, she is passionate about publishing meaningful work and collaborating with other writers.

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories by Sarah Lerner

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 192 pgs.
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Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner is deeply moving and filled with passion — a passion for making a difference and a passion for the lives that were cut too short and should be remembered. From students to teachers, these essays, poems, photos, and drawings will make you an emotional mess. Reading through this collection, you can tell how scared these kids were when the shooting occurred on Feb. 14 , 2018. The lives of these unsuspecting students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was upended by one school shooter.

The initial reaction was disbelief because many thought the second fire drill was just routine, but the rapid fire soon became the scariest thing they had ever heard. Many lamented they didn’t stick to their routines and wait for friends, while others wanted to have done more to save their friends. There was the interminable wait for their friends to respond, but the silence was deafening. The heavy weight of sadness was soon wielded as a weapon against those who dare not to talk about gun reform, with many kids marching and lobbying for change still.

From “Can’t You Hear?” by Alyson Sheehy

You can blame what you want, pull on whatever thread
Bully us into silence and treat us like we don’t matter.
However, don’t forget there is no future when all of us are dead
Although it seems that is still not enough for all lives to matter.

Can’t you hear the screams now? Cause they are only growing louder.

The speech from Emma Gonzalez is widely known, but it bears repeating.

From “We Call BS” speech by Emma Gonzalez

“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives. AP Gov had about three debates this year. Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in closets. The people involved right now, those who were there, those posting, those tweeting, those doing interviews and talking to people, are being listened to for what feels like the very first time on this topic that has come up over 1,000 times in the past four years alone…”

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner must have been a cathartic experience for the writers, artists, and photographers who participated in sharing their stories, emotions, and trauma with readers. It’s a must read for anyone who does not understand the movement toward gun control. Our world has changed, our children are no longer safe in school, and more guns are not a viable solution.

Rating: Quatrain

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 160 pgs.
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Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a collection of poems to empower women to embrace all that they are — wild or not — and to inspire them to love themselves enough not to fall into the deadly traps of wolves.

One of my favorites from this collection was “Multiverse” in which the poet examines the concepts of time and universes — parallel lives in which things are better. I also loved “Your Heart Is Not a Hospital” in which the idea of fixing lovers and friends is explored. “Learned Helplessness” and “The Bones of Trauma” also are fantastic. These poems are personal and examine the roots of abuse and learning to move forward and love oneself.

Gill takes on some fairy-tale characters and goddesses and recharacterizes them in poetic sketches. But these are not as in-depth or as powerful as those persona poems created by other poets. They barely scratch the surface of these characters and sometimes read like a litany of characteristics we learned about in school. While the purpose and intent are sound — empowering women — the execution fell flat for me. I far preferred the first half of the book that was more personal.

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a good first collection, even if the second half of the collection falls a bit flat. The beginning poems are worth reading more than once and sharing with others.

RATING: Tercet

About the Poet:

Nikita Gill is a twenty four year old madness who likes to write short stories that are, kind of like her, barely there. She has recently published her first anthology and is now working on her book of poetry.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins covers a range of emotion, mirroring the title of the collection with the beauty of Portugal and the sadness of the gloomy rain. Some poems are ripe with his characteristic wit, while others (particularly the one about Seamus Heaney) are elegiac. My favorite poems are those in which delightful moments of observation (anticipated or already known) emerge for the reader.

Such as the opening poem, “1960,” where the narrator is listening to an old jazz album, anticipating the moment when a man’s laugh is heard like a discordant note because the album was recorded live in a club. There is that sense of surprise and familiarity because we’ve all had those moments where someone outside of our group is loud enough to be heard over the hum of conversation or the blare of horns. What has happened to this intruder now that time has passed? And yet, it doesn’t much matter because the moment brings you back to a time you remember fondly.

from "Basho in Ireland" (pg. 12)

I am not exactly like him
because I am not Japanese
and I have no idea what Kyoto is like.

But once, while walking around
the Irish town of Ballyvaughan
I caught myself longing to be in Ballyvaughan.

The sensation of being homesick
for a place that is not my home
while being right in the middle of it.

Collins’ poems are nostalgic and questioning, allowing the reader to see how the ordinary can become extraordinary. How do you become homesick for a place you are visiting at that moment and is not your home? As if something has shifted since your arrival that you can’t quite put your finger on. Isn’t that the mystery of existence?

from "Bravura" (pg. 54)

I will never forget the stunner
modestly titled 'Still Life with Roses,'
which featured so many decanters and mirrors
the result was a corridor of echoing replications.

“Sirens” is another poem that has an unexpected turn, but that little gem you’ll have to discover on your own. Collins is examining notions of being present and how one knows when they are there, in that moment and how long does that last? When do you know it has passed? Do you hold on or let it go? What happens if you do one or the other? Themes like these are strongest in “The Present” and “Bags of Time,” but they recur in each poem throughout the collection, leaving readers with much to consider.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins is beautifully rendered with so much to ponder about how time passes even when we’re not paying attention, and how little attention we pay to the things that pass before us and around us. What would happen if we paid a little more attention? Would we get lost in the infinite possibilities? Don’t miss this collection.

RATING: Quatrain

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.