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Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett (full disclosure I am in a poetry work shopping group with Luther), published by Finishing Line Press, is a follow-up to Jett’s previous chapbook, Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father.

The opening poem, “Nepenthe,” refers to the drug that banishes grief or trouble from one’s mind as mentioned in the Odyssey (yes, I looked this up). Our narrator runs through the poem, looking for those memories in every room, rifles through drawers, unseals books — trying to uncover who did die of starvation, but he has forgotten. This opening poem sets the tone for the collection. It is the search for memory, even the most painful and a wish to hold those tight to almost make the lost corporeal again.

In "Why the Ocean Tastes of Tears"

....
    The snow melts slowly.
Everyone disappears.
    when you want them to stay
everyone goes somewhere
    else and that is why
      the ocean tastes of tears.
It's the one thing you can count on
    when you close your eyes --
      you dream and if
anyone is still there when you wake
  you've witnessed a revolution.

We all cry oceans of tears for lost parents, siblings, friends, children, and that salt is bitter and if often taints our ability to see the joy in what we’ve had. But what a revelation it would be to bring them back to life, even for a moment. “There is no returning,/yet we are always looking back/” says the narrator in “Days Like This.”

There are so many somber poems in this collection — ghost towns of bones, a brother gone too soon, a mother crying, and others — but “Remembrance” is the saddest poem, yet with a sense of humor. It begins, “This is the suit/I only wear once a year.” But you know by the end, a memory will surface where this truth is no longer true and it will break your heart.

Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett explores the saddest of truths with a sensitive hand and deep emotional root. His lines will lull you into a trance and gut you when you don’t expect it. But there is a hope, a “star’s kiss” that pierces through that dark shroud, and we shall not forget it.

RATING: Cinquain

En Route by Jesse Wolfe

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 60 pgs.
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I’ve been reading a lot of poetry collections about life journeys this month, and En Route by Jesse Wolfe is no exception. Wolfe’s poems have narrators who are “en route” to somewhere or are about to embark on the next leg of their journey. The collection moves from part one in which narrators are alone to those who are accompanied to those who have almost arrived. Like in the opening poem, “Cumulus,” we are reminded that we may consider any point in our lives a beginning, but there is history behind us that heaps up, making us the well-rounded human beings we are. We shouldn’t forget the past.

From "Cumulus"

At a certain arbitrary point
you have to say, here is a beginning
(not to pretend that nothing lingers,
that the trek across the bridge was a mirage,
or the nights sleeping on abandoned farms,
accepting bread and water from strangers).

“Polliwog Park” is one of the most heartbreaking poems in the collection, with fly balls and baseball diamonds, sunburns peeling away just as a father drives off into his own “separate story.” There are moments of “cleaving” in many of these poems, but Wolfe’s poems embrace that separation, internalizing the heartbreak and using it as a tool to see beyond that momentary end to the journey ahead. Like from “Breakup,” “Or I could turn to our love that never coalesced:/you’re half an abstraction, an empty space/into which I pour my fatigue, distress,/and inchoate faith — my shameful escape/from futures withdrawing all promise of home.//”

Although these poems speak to the “will” of the narrator to move forward from heartbreak and endings, there is also the sense that life’s “momentum” cannot be controlled, like in the poem of the same name.

En Route by Jesse Wolfe’s “Homework” reminds us that “There is work I can only do/by letting go: my hands off the wheel,/the car will find its own way/down the long freeway./ … toward whatever … inarticulate – need.”

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Jesse Wolfe’s poetry has appeared in publications including Tower Journal, Good Works Review, Mad Swirl, and Eunoia Review. An English professor at California State University, Stanislaus, Wolfe previously served as Faculty Advisor to Penumbra, the campus’s student-run literary and art journal. His scholarly work includes the monograph Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and a forthcoming book on intimacy in contemporary British and American fiction.

Whirl Away Girl by Tricia Johnson

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 120 pgs.
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We all identify as our role in the family (mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, cousin, etc.) and we all identify ourselves with our employment (teacher, firefighter, poet, scientist, etc.), but what happens when those aspects of our lives can no longer anchor us — hold us steady? We begin to spiral away, to lose our sense of self, and this is exactly what is explored in Whirl Away Girl by Tricia Johnson. These poems express the deep harm, anger, frustration, and sadness patients with chronic illness can feel — nothing is in their control, leaving them unmoored.

from "Fatigue" (pg. 3)

You are rising in a car and its weight slides in
and down your body
Your hands too heavy to knit
Your head too heavy to raise and no words or thoughts exist

From the first poem, readers will know that they are in for a rough journey with the narrator. Many of these poems will be tough to read back to back, but that’s the point. Someone with chronic illness (like lupus or others) doesn’t get a break. It is okay if you take a break and read this volume in spurts, and it may help to generate greater empathy for the narrator — to sit and think about what she’s telling us life has been like. From the feeling of being beaten down by disease to the condescension of some medical doctors, the narrator demonstrates not only the weight of a breaking down body, but also the weight of the broken medical system and the additional burden it becomes for those who need it most. “When added together become a 10-ton hammer” (“New Doctor”).

 from "A Disillusional Song" (pg. 55)
...
My thoughts are as tangled as the bedding
Woven between my legs
I am antsy, walking, driven
Flopping back in bed, up again
...
I am a stranger caught in a mind, that is caught in itself

Whirl Away Girl by Tricia Johnson is a candid account of being out of control when chronic illness hits and there are few answers about how to improve the situation. Johnson’s poems illustrate the fear that accompanies chronic illness and the sense of loss of one’s self throughout the process. “Battle of You” is probably one of the strongest poems in this collection, but I’ll let you find that gem for yourself. As the collection progresses, the narrator does regain a sense of self and strength, found in the moments of good days and few symptoms. There is joy to be found there, even if it is fleeting.

RATING: Quatrain

Why I Never Finished My Dissertation by Laura Foley

Source: TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Why I Never Finished My Dissertation by Laura Foley, named one of seven Best Indie Poetry Books of 2019 by Kirkus, is probably her best work to date. In the opening poem, “What Stillness,” Foley sets the tone for the collection. We picture the narrator beside the pond, in stillness and quiet. But soon there is much more going on as her dog emerges from a swim and the light catches the wet droplets as they shake from the dog’s coat. Readers are privy to how stillness and light can shine the light on situations, changing how we perceive them if we take the time to look and listen. Foley’s collection speaks to this in poems about a marriage for a green card, understanding a father whose life irreparably changed when he became a POW, when confronted with a world where hate and bombast are praised, visits to a sister in a psychiatric ward, and much more.

Foley’s latest poem, “Hindsight,” tackles something different than her previous poem “Hindsight” in Joy Street, in which she examines a photograph of her father. Here, the narrator chooses to marry a Muslim man who needs a green card as a way to escape her white, privileged life. But there’s something much deeper to this escape. It is far easier for her to escape and attempt to run from her true feelings than to think about her truth — feelings for another girl. Hindsight is a powerful thing when time has passed and we can see a situation for what it was without all the other entanglements, rationalizations, and justifications for choosing a different path.

Foley’s use of hindsight in subtler ways demonstrate how we can easily hold onto regret and blame things around us for the choices we make, but these are choices we’ve made and they have made us who we currently are. This all circles back to the title of the collection and the poem, “Why I Never Finished My Dissertation,” in that the narrator’s overwhelming life of a young child, puppies, keeping house, and more lead her to decide against finishing that dissertation. It is a choice, and it could be a choice regretted, but her life’s journey leads to great things — pieces of her family and journey she’d never want to give up.

Twice the Speed of Sound

She waves to me
from the coach window,
shadowed glass reflecting
summer trees,
her face dappled
by a scree of boughs and leaves
I can't see through --
maples not yet reddening into fall --
as she rides one plane
after another, over no rough seas,
into no threatened war,
no lack of easy communication;
still, the space expands
like the universe:
galaxies begetting galaxies,
worlds yet unnamed--
despite phone calls bouncing
from one far-flung tower
to another, while out wide world
keeps rolling under us
at twice the speed of sound.

Foley reminds us that life is “chaotic with possibility” (“Discharge” pg. 40). Why I Never Finished My Dissertation is a meditative reflection of choice, life, living, and learning to look back with a kinder eye on those twists and turns. Don’t miss this collection. I cannot wait to see what Foley brings to us next.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Laura Foley is the author of six poetry collections, including Joy Street, Syringa, and Night Ringing. Her poem “Gratitude List” won the Common Good Books poetry contest and was read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac. Her poem “Nine Ways of Looking at Light” won the Joe Gouveia Outermost Poetry Contest, judged by Marge Piercy. For more information on Laura’s work, please visit her website.

Field Study by Chet’la Sebree

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 176 pgs.
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Field Study by Chet’la Sebree reminds me of those scientific notebooks kept by scientists in the field who are observing animals or others as they take notes. Peppered with quotations from bell hooks and many others, Sebree explores Black female identity and sexual desire. The poem is less like a poem than a list of observations and comments on Black identity and female desire.

Black women and girls face additional burdens of protecting the reputations of black boys and men. -- Tressie McMillan Cottom
My secret ... I'm always angry. -- Bruce Banner
 ___________

And why wouldn't I be?

In addition the female desire and the struggle of Black women who love and are attracted to white men, Sebree voices some of the issues she’s found in the Black community — how the community does not address mental health enough.

In my early twenties, I worked on an epistolary series.
I didn't know I wrote a book-length suicide note.
I titled it And If I Die Before I Wake.
A prayer and a promise.
__________

I'm alive; I'm alive; I'm alive.
Cry it with me.
It doesn't always feel like it, but it's a good thing.

Sebree has created a poetry collection in which mental health is entwined with Black female identity, the racial tensions that women feel from all sides, and the responsibility they have to project a sense that they are indeed whole. “No matter how far I go, there is never enough makeup for the bullet hole.” Field Study by Chet’la Sebree, which publishes in June, worries and rationalizes and assesses herself like a scientist. Her observations are keen and deeply probing, and she doesn’t let up on herself. This is a frank look at one woman’s struggle with desire and identity, but it has universal applications to others in all communities — less judgment and more love. Definitely not your typical, confessional poetry collection — it’s much more.

RATING: Quatrain

In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché is a tapestry of human history that traverses time and place, and it calls upon the reader to take in the totality of history. This includes the moment of now, as well as all the past moments that make up the “now” and the world as it is and how it was envisioned. Forché has created a collection that looks back on the totality of moments so that we can see everything at once.

From “Water Crisis” to “Report from an Island,” her poems look at the crises humanity faces, losses of clean water, pollution of our seas by plastic, and those who are forced to live in trash piles. “This work is slow,” the narrator of “Report from an Island” says. Time always seems to move slowly and progress can be even slower.

From real-world issues, these poems spin the folklore of individuals. The stories of who we are or were can be lost to the ravages of time. In “The Lost Suitcase,” Forché says, “Here are your books, as if they were burning./Be near now, and wake to tell me who you were.//” Many of her poems build these stories from ash and memory. We walk the streets of a city under siege: “Turning the pages of the book you have lent me of your wounded city,/reading the braille on its walls, walking beneath ghost chestnuts/past fires that turn the bullet-shattered windows bronze,/”

One of my favorite poems is a tribute to the late Larry Heinemann, author of Paco’s Story, (I still miss our FB conversations) and his fellow veterans, Kevin Bowen, Bruce Weigl, Nguyen Ba Chung, “Hue: From a Notebook,” which pays tribute to the past, their present, and their ghosts.

We went down the Perfume River by dragon boat
as far as the pagoda of the three golden Buddhas.

Pray here. You can ask for happiness.
We light joss sticks, send votives downriver in paper sacks,

then have trouble disembarking from the boat.
Our bodies disembark, but our souls remain.

A thousand lanterns drift, a notebook opens in the dark
to a page where moonlight makes a sound.

These soldiers are decades from war now:
pewter-haired, steel haired, a moon caught in plumeria.

We are like the clouds that pass and pass.
What does it matter then if we are not the same as clouds?

There was then the whir of stork wings, and bicycle chains ringing.
It is still now the way the air is still just before the mine explodes.

Once we fired at each other. Now we pass silence back and forth.
On the ten thousand graves, we lay chrysanthemum.

Forché’s poems are powerful in the silent and calm voice she uses to speak about the “lateness” of the world. When we come to the end of a life, who hears those memories, those echoes of the past? Is it in the breeze? Is it in the smell of the flowers? Is it in the books and stories we tell? In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché is our tapestry, and it grows larger each day.

RATING: Quatrain

Emerge by Francesca Marais

Source: Poet
Hardcover, 25 pgs.
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Emerge by Francesca Marais is a chapbook about learning to let go of our angst, anxiety to learn to trust our selves to be us without worry. Marais’ water imagery calls to mind the tumultuous waves and stormy seas we can face, but also the gently lapping waves that can cradle us into calm. In “Bookworm,” the comfort of books “We could safely escape/Rattling instability,/Where our safety and fears/Were in our own hands.//” In this image, the poet reminds us that our own hands are where our safety and our fears reside. We may not always be in control of our emotions, but we can be and learn to trust ourselves.

Moving to “Inheritance,” the poet weaves in generational passage of traits from one generation to another and that there is a lineage we pass along without knowing it. “He sees them bloom amidst their agony–/Their ability to prevail, his joy./In the smiles of his children,/He sees the youth he once knew/And how it continues in them–/”

Marais’ poems teach us to breathe, learn how to be calm and observe and live. Emerge by Francesca Marais is a journey and one we all embark on at some point in our lives. Gather your own power from the darkness and the trials of your life, emerge from the ashes.

RATING Quatrain

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is another strong book in the series that helps kids learn about science and investigation, while having fun. We love that this series provides tips on how to make your own designs and solve your own problems through science. In this one, Frankie is wondering about whether leprechauns are real, and she decides that setting a trap is the best way to find out. One problem, if she proves they don’t exist, her friend Maya might just be devastated, since she believes they are real.

Kids will learn about designing foolproof traps for leprechauns and how to design things with potential failures in mind. But how Frankie tackles her friend’s possible sadness over the results of her experiment will teach children to consider others’ feelings and work together to solve problems. It also was good to see that Frankie has more scientists in her family. Her Aunt Nichelle is working on a space garden, but of course she has to do some experiments on Earth, rather than space, but the ultimate goal is to enable astronauts to grow their own food in space. The exchange between Frankie and her aunt was fantastic. It demonstrated that kids are not alone and that they can lean on their elders to learn more and grow.

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is a strong series of books in which kids can not only learn how to work with friends and classmates, but also adults. Along they way they will garner skills in experimentation and design, among others. We highly recommend these books.

RATING: Cinquain

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 8+ hrs.
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Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely, an audio with a full cast, was so much fun to listen to. Jason Reynolds and Truly Goodman have significant chemistry but a pact she made with her brother nearly a decade ago stands in their way of getting together, even if they had a one night of hot romance. Both of these workaholics also don’t have time for dating. Jason Reynolds is The Modern Gentleman Of New York and a best man for hire, two jobs he doesn’t want to see collide, and he needs to finish his work as a best man in order to help pay for his sister’s medical school.

While the sexual tension is palpable and the heat rises on more than one occasion, Blakely shines in her comedy. The zingers between the men and their friends, the banter between Truly and Jason is hilarious, and there is so much more fun to be had in this audiobook. There is a full cast of audiobook narrators on this one, and they clearly had a grand time making this one.

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely is a riot, and I was laughing out loud. My daughter was dying to know what I was listening to, but sadly this is not for young ears. I needed a good laugh and this book hit the spot. The characters are well drawn and their interactions are believable — for high-end Manhattanites.

RATING: Cinquain

Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 256 pgs.
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Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans is a collection of poems that explore mother-daughter relationships, identity, and the racism many Blacks face every day. There are so many moments in this collection where your heart will break, just as the relationship between mother-daughter breaks. The narrator of these poems struggles with who she is and how to reconcile that with her mother’s disappointments about that identity.

In “We Host These Variables,” she says, “There’s something I want to honor here. I/ want to honor the silent story, the emotions/unaccompanied by human language. I want to/honor the weight of stillness. I want to/honor the silent ceremony between mother/ and daughter.” In this poem she explores the silence that become tense between mother and daughter because they are mirrors of one another. Later, she says, “I know the/distance between mother and daughter. How/we are many burned bridges, as well as a/wealth of brick and clay, ready to be made/anew from everything unmade of us.”

Mans explores the harsh history facing Blacks — women who get the worst part of it all. Men with the dreams, but the women who bear the burden of those dreams. One of the most powerful poems in this collection that brings this history to the forefront is “Nerf Guns: Christmas 2019 Tulsa” where the past and the burdens of racism are never far away. “The/only way a bullet becomes laughter is when it/plays pretend in its own foam shadow./” In this poem, little boys play with nerf guns and play dead and the narrator was never allowed to until she was grown and playing with her cousins. She realizes the ironies and implications of this game, while her cousins do not. “My father knew death too well to let us mimic it. Or, maybe death mimicked us too well for him to allow it’s ‘pretend’ in his house.” She wraps “herself in/that joy. The joy that nothing spilled of them/but the sound of their own silly.”

Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans is a journey of identity and learning how to cope with the past to bring oneself into the future. There are truths in this collection that shouldn’t be shied away from, especially for Black men and women. We need these stories to remind us that we can do better. “I know trauma uses silence as a survival mechanism.” Let’s break that cycle and break that silence.

Rating: Cinquain

The Princess Spy by Larry Loftis

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 384 pgs.
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The Princess Spy by Larry Loftis takes another look at Aline Griffith, a small town girl looking for big adventure and to serve her country. Loftis uses source material from the National Archives, Griffith’s own fictionalized accounts of her time as a spy with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and many are source materials to suss out the truth of her time as a spy. Aline was a model who trained to be a spy at The Farm and her own accounts of her exploits are likely to have been embellished because as publishers will do, they want to sell books and car chases, murders, and more sell books. While Aline may have wanted to recount her life honestly, other marketing experts were at play and Loftis strives to piece out what was true from those accounts with secondary sources. I also think some people have a glamorous view of spies and what they do (e.g., James Bond), and the reality is much more mundane and nuanced — it’s about building trust and relationships that can be leveraged for information.

Was Loftis successful in finding the truth? For the most part, he did his best based on what was classified and what isn’t any longer. What I loved about Loftis’ narrative is that it read like historical fiction, and I think with any book based on research there’s a tendency to be too dry in the narrative. Because he chose to narrate it more like a novel, it was easier to eat up the pages and get engrossed in Aline’s story. Her time at The Farm was fascinating, and some may wonder why her family wasn’t in the book and asking about her whereabouts, etc., but I think it’s clear that when you become a spy and have a cover story, the family must accept it as truth and you make sure that they do. Adding those conversations would have bogged down this narrative.

Being part of the OSS coding room in Spain (considered neutral in the war) to send information to the U.S. State Department during WWII is not a glamorous job but no less important than being a spy. She spent much of her career in that room, but she also attended parties, social events, and had a semi-romance with a bullfighter. When she finally became a field agent, it is clear that all those parties and social events she was invited to opened the door for her career because she was in places where she could probe without drawing attention and could overhear conversations that might be of importance with regard to Nazi movements.

Loftis also creates a wider link between espionage and the Spanish bullfights. Like the matador, Aline lures her targets closer to her with the hope that she can evade capture, jail, and death. She’s weaving her spell on the crowd around her and she’s masterfully moving her cape to lure the bulls and create an illusion of a career woman learning about her current home — Spain. It probably helped that she was genuinely captivated by the Spanish culture.

The Princess Spy by Larry Loftis is engaging, thrilling, and insightful, and he provides a great deal of information about the spy business (but I’m not an expert). I do think there are holes and gaps that could be filled, and I would love to know more about her time doing “odd jobs” for the CIA after her marriage and her life in Spain was in full swing, but alas that information is still classified (my guess is it had a lot to do with preventing communism’s spread). Aline Griffith served her country with honesty and dignity, and she enjoyed doing it, even if she was in danger. She clearly was a people person and the relationships she maintained throughout her life are a testament to her personality and care for others. Loftis has humanized a spy who believed her efforts helped the country during WWII, but I’m still curious about some of the characters in her life like Pierre and Ryan (two figures who are much more mysterious — perhaps there’s a fictionalized account of them in Loftis’ future).

RATING: Quatrain

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.