Posts Tagged ‘book review


Yesterday and Today Arrive in Chalk Song

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Chalk SongChalk Song (Lily Poetry Review Books) is the first book of poetry that I have encountered with a triumvirate of authors – Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans. It’s quite a feat to compose poems with three minds swirling together, especially when I consider all the times I tried to write something by committee and that almost always led to over-simplification, compromises, and confusing text. These authors, however, have succeeded in following the advice of Robert Creeley, “Our approach was guided by Robert Creeley’s collaborations with visual artists, of which he said, ‘if collaboration is to be at all successful, it must be the result of different individuals . . . working together to make something that is larger than sensibility’” (ix). These three authors found a voice who speaks of and to the Paleolithic era, its art and artists, and to today’s eight-plus billion humans.

The concept of this collection of poems was inspired by Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is documentary that explores the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France that contains some of the oldest known cave paintings in the world, dating back to over 30,000 years ago and maybe even 50,000 years ago. In the documentary, Herzog used 3D cameras to capture stunning images of paintings and sculptures. In doing so, he muses on the nature of human creativity and humanity’s connection to the past.

As I entered Chalk Song, I expected, based on the above information, investigations similar to Clayton Eshleman’s many poetry books on Paleolithic art which often through dream imagery examine the Paleolithic art and artists and the roots of human consciousness, or my collection of poems on Paleolithic art and culture that examines paleolithic art and artists to not only understand them but to better understand ourselves today. The poems in Chalk Song achieve both those ends, but they don’t feel obligated to remain situated in the Paleolithic era. It’s as if their book is a wormhole that not only connects today to the Paleolithic era, but it allows information to move back and forth For instance, there are references to x-rays, shepherds, cameras, cities, a Swiss Army knife, GPS, fortune cookies, etc. More specifically, here are the opening the second and third stanzas and closing stanza of “Codex Collapse Syndrome” (19):

Everything is early, spry with milt, the delicate climate

of arrival, draughts of air so narrow our ears fold back

their sounds. Comb over psalms smelt muzzles

from the overlap of horse heads. Music can’t

caress itself by these long-playing lassoes


Contour before line, overtones before the molten bell

of an opening. We are sphinx-cubs in our hiding places.

The sky on our skin still unhewn,

our scribbled brochures of lighting.


. . .


Anyone can draw a blue bead

on the G.P.S.  forking river for the vector

home, or carve a new nipple


Here, the speaker is navigating in and between two times and comparing methods of mapping. Or later in “Confetti Score” (25), where the speaker is talking to and asking a Paleolithic artist questions like, “If you hands had drawn me, would I have been marooned?” While still in the past, “Someone sneezes” and her (the speaker’s) “heather is cloned.” Then all of the sudden, she see “glyph structures . . . on the Internet.” The past has not only travelled through time, but it has been cloned and digitized and reality becomes blended like “computer strings [hanging] from elms.”

Throughout the collection, the poems, stanzas, and even lines at times behave like the paintings on a Paleolithic cave wall. The paintings in the same cave or even on the same cave wall do not appear to be related or have a narrative flow between them, but they are connected by artists’ visions and by a viewer trying to make meaning of and from them, much like Herzog’s documentary. When combined into the figurative cave of Chalk Song, the poems of three individuals create questions and meanings of our origins and where we are today, which is a place still deeply connected to 50,000 years ago. In essence, the poets indicate that the past is an echo of today.





Batchelder, Gale, Susan Berger-Jones, and Judson Evans. Chalk Song. Lily Poetry Review Books, 2022.





On Diane Thiel’s Questions From Outer Space

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Diane Thiel -- Questions from Outer SpaceDiane Thiel is the author of eleven books of poetry, nonfiction, and creative writing pedagogy, and Questions from Outer Space (Red Hen Press, 2022) is her third collection of poems. I purchased this book when I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina, and wandering around a bookstore. I liked the title as I assumed it would reveal poems about astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, etc., which are topics I enjoy. I read a few poems, and it appeared my assumptions were correct. When I eventually sat down with the book, I found more interesting topics. Questions from Outer Space has four sections, and each section behaves a bit differently, but all seem to be revolving around the idea of the last lines of the last poem in the book “Time in the Wilderness”:

not to miss the trees
for the theory of the forest,

turning an old saying
around a child’s observation,

the simplest question
opening the world again.

It is the final line, really, that this collection of poems achieves. More specifically, a major theme of this book is meaning making, such as making meaning on this small planet that is remote from other life forms, meaning making as a child and a family, and meaning making while living during a pandemic and ever catastrophic and self-destructive world.

One way section “I: Questions of Time and Direction” attempts meaning making is through Martian poetry. For instance, “The Factory (Questions from Outer Space)” examines the harmful effects of the internet, such as the lack of personalism or abundance of people being impersonal. (The poem also brushes up against the issues of free speech and pollution.) In observing human life like a Martian might, it “perform[s] the service of reminding poets that part of their job was to look afresh at what was in front of them” (Paterson, 160), and in turn the reader must reexamine what they experienced and, as a result, create new meaning in a seemingly declining planet of humans.

Section “II: Notice from Another Dimension” turns, for the most part, to domestic issues with an underlying theme of choosing. This section also implements form poems, such as: a tritina (A condensed sestina consisting of three tercets and a one-line envoy. The teleutons are repeated in each stanza ABC, CAB, BCA, and the final line contains A, B, and C.) that appears in “Tritina in the Time of the Machine”; a poem where the line on the left side of the page mirror the words on the right side of the page in “In the Mirror”; and a sestina in “Changing Reality.” In “Tritina in the Time of the Machine,” Thiel treats the coronavirus particle as if it were a machine trying to replicate itself and survive and creating its “meaning of alive.” In doing so, the poem overlaps the anxiety of the virus with the anxiety of technology in our lives and how both seem to be a on a path of unstoppable growth.

Section “III: The Farthest Side,” which also has formal poems, such as a pantoum, villanelle, and haiku, turns, for the most part, to issues of family and children, memory, and meaning making. For example, the “Library of Veria, Greece” is about Syrian children, who the speaker is teaching how “to think about the future and the past.” To do so, they draw maps and “some had the past falling off the page” as if it had fallen off the edge of the flat earth into “monsters circling beneath.” It is a past they choose to forget or repress. They then turn to drawing a future hopeful place with the “possibilities in their hands.” Thus, there is an underlying idea of how art can create meaning and hope for those who need it, as the Syrian children did.

Section “IV: Time in the Wilderness” focuses, for the most part, on children, aliens, and meaning making. “Living with Aliens” begins mysteriously with aliens somehow inhabiting people until the aliens suddenly reveal themselves. The people in turn become submissive to the aliens. (It feels almost like Star Trek’s Borg species.) The aliens quickly evolve as a baby might by “star[ing] at their own hands” and “acquir[ing] the sense of object permanence.” The aliens then plan to take over the world, and they do so by asking questions that undermine humans’ everyday assumptions until one dawn the people “step . . . / on an unrecognizable planet.” So, it is questions, even the simplest ones, that help create new meanings and understandings.

While the book title is Questions from Outer Space, there are questions right here on Earth that need asking, especially as we come out of the pandemic and with our new lens on life from the James Webb Space Telescope. Diane Thiel, in the end, provides hope.//





Thiel, Diane. Questions from Outer Space. Red Hen Press, 2022.





Works Cited

Paterson, Don. Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre. Faber & Faber, 2018.



On Joanne Diaz’s The Lessons

A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

What immediately turned me on to Joanne Diaz‘s The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011) was when I read the opening poem “Granada” on Verse Daily on June 3. I fell in love with the poem. I tweeted and made a Facebook post that read something like, “This #poem explodes at the end. What a terrific poem” Here it is:


   To be so far from oxtail stew, sardines
   in garlic sauce, blood oranges in pails
   along the avenida, midday heat
   wetting necks and wrists; to be so stuck
   in stone-thick ice and clouds and recall
   the pomegranate we shared, its hardened peel,
   the translucent membrane gently parting
   seed from luscious crimson seed, albedo
   soft beneath bald rind, acid juice
   running down our fingers, knuckles, palms,
   the mild chap of our lips from mist and flesh;
   so far away from that, and still
   the tangy thought of pomegranates
   crowning coats-of-arms and fortress gates
   like beating hearts prepared to detonate
   their countless seeds across Granada,
   ancient town of strangled rivers
   and nameless bones in every desert hill...
   In Spain, said Lorca, the dead are more alive
   than any other place on earth. Imagine, then,
   the excavation of his unmarked grave
   like the quick pull on a grenade's pin,
   and the sound that secrets make
   as they return from that other world
   of teeth and blood and fire.

Joanne Diaz – The LessonsThe poems in The Lessons are juicy. I love the way the poems feel in my mouth. I enjoy all the details in the poems. Who says you can’t write poems with details anymore? Well, you can, and Diaz shows us how.

But there’s more than detail to these poems. There is wonderful leaping and yoking together of different images and events. For instance, the poem “Violin” is a poem about the life of a violin from when it was both “horse and tree” to the sounds it makes and how it “almost pulls itself / apart, longing for what it was”. The poem does this for nine unrhymed couplets. The poem could end after the ninth couplet, and it would be a fine poem, but then there’s the leap the poem makes from the ninth couplet to the tenth. The leap does what good poems often do – it uses the particular to illuminate something in humanity. Here are the last two couplets to show what you I mean:

   [. . . ] A violin almost pulls itself
   apart, longing for what it was, not unlike

   my father as he stood by the open mailbox
   reading my brother's first letter home.

And there’s a whole other story in that last couplet. Where is his son? At war? In the Peace Corps? Working abroad as a doctor in some small underprivileged village somewhere? And then the mind after the poem is done is trying to build more of a story into that last couplet. But the important thing is the violin and father relationship. The yoking of the two. The use of the violin to understand the father. The violin helps us understand what it’s like for the father to get that first letter. And this feeling is communicated well and well before it’s understood.

There’s something else going on in that leap, too. The poem leaps from being lyrical to being narrative. (By narrative I mean a poem that moves through time and that has causality. By lyrical I mean a poem that exists without time or is a vertical moment in time or is a deliberate focus on an item or a thing. W. C. Williams and George Oppen are often lyrical.)

This jump from lyrical to narrative in a poem happens a number of times in The Lessons. For instance, “Love Poem”:

   Love Poem

   I was the warmth that lifted
   from your pilled sheets, the glow
   of Sebastian in the picture book
   of saints, the moon gliding
   through the window beside your bed.

   I was the clock in your kitchen
   waiting to catch you in my gears.
   In the TV, I was the blue tube
   that saw your sadness run as silt
   down a mountain. I was the rush
   in the vein of every oak leaf
   that crowded your window.

   I was the drift of you before your edges
   twisted into a man. The swing
   of your loose pant cuff. The joint
   in the threshold; the rusted cart
   behind the house. You sensed

   a visitor, but how can I say
   that I was the one who curled
   the wallpaper and held the model
   airplane in its place? That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

In this poem, you see all these vertical moments in time – “I was . . .” . In the the last stanza, we get a bit of narrative:

   [. . .] That it was I
   late at night, running in the current
   of your clock radio, searching
   the seashell of your ear?

The leaps are my favorite occasions in The Lessons. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered that type of leaping before or at least noticed it before, but this time I did. I really enjoy its effects.

The Lessons is Joanne Diaz’s first book. It won the 2009 Gerald Cable Book Award. As a I said, The Lessons is juicy with details – like a good Spanish Tempranillo. It’s juicy in every lyric, narrative, and lyric-leaping-to-narrative poem. In fact, this would be a good book to use in a creative writing poetry workshop, you know, to show and teach students how to use details and how effective details are in creating emotions and engagement and in stimulating the imagination.

Often during The Lessons I feel like Ms. Griffin in Diaz’s poem “The Griffin.” When Ms. Griffin reads George Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” “she nearly left the prison of her body.” I don’t think I left the prison of my body, but I certainly forgot it existed. And that’s a lesson – good poetry is a momentary stay against confusion, and there are many momentary stays in Joanne Diaz’s first collection of poems, The Lessons.





I wish to thank Silverfish Review Press for providing such a detailed and narrative filled colophon about the Jenson typeface. I wish more publishers would do this.//


On Eric G. Wilson’s My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing

A version of this may appear in an upcoming issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


William Blake

William Blake in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips.

Why do we need another book about William Blake? I have three main reasons. One, I’d say we need another book because Blake seems to have been forgotten or is only remembered as just another one of those old poets in an anthology. Two, we need to be reminded of Blake’s genius. We need to be reminded of Imagination. We need to be reminded of Energy and Original Creation. Three, because Eric G. Wilson’s 85-page book, My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing (University of Iowa Press, 2011), is inspired and filled with energy. While reading it, you will want to return to Blake, and, more importantly for the writers out there, you will be revitalized.

Eric G. Wilson's My Business Is To Create: Blake's Infinite WritingMy Business is to Create begins with a brief biography of Blake. This is followed by the story of Allen Ginsberg’s first vision of Blake and a list of other writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and graphic artists who were inspired and influenced by Blake. And then the book’s first of many creative epiphanies:

Originality equals genius; imitation is mediocrity (p 8).

That’s good insight and good advice, but only if you know what creativity means, if it still means anything at all after its overuse. Throughout this book, Wilson examines what creativity is, and he uses Blake as the exemplar of creativity. First, he takes a closer look at “inspiration, one of Blake’s primary terms for creativity” (p 9).  Inspiration, to Blake, is to view something as you see it and then holding to that vision, especially when it goes against the consensus view or generalized views, which Blake says “are the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer” (p 14). From this inspiration, one can create. The inspiration is the “Divine Vision.” Even nature can’t challenge one’s own imagination, for:

imagination apprehends and depicts the world’s illimitable fecundity. It is a way of knowing as well as a mode of expression (p 14).

Wilson is inspired. He has energy. An energy that penetrates into the reader. I feel it. I feel almost like I did shortly after my first encounters with Blake – inspired, wide-eyed, and bursting with new poems.

Martin Buber's I and ThouAfter you find your personal view, Wilson continues, you are ready to create relationships with the world and nature. And these relationships are not objective. They are no longer relationships with the other. They are personal and meaningful. Using Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Wilson makes this Blakean idea of relationships clear to us. That is, once you have made this I-and-Thou relationship, you can:

[g]aze at life as though you were always blessing it, consecrating it, humbly, as holy, and then your biases will be relaxed and your curiosity will be aroused (p 22).

This and some practical examples that Wilson lists are ways to go about being creative and, hopefully, to experience “pure sensation unencumbered by meaning” (p 24), as Marius von Senden says. To widen this view, to move beyond, Wilson says that you should embrace polarities:

Saying yes and no to the same thing, hovering between authorization and invalidation, I undergo the joy of expansion (p 28).

Wilson also gives us an overview of Blake as the inventor of: free verse; the idea that form is never more than an extension of content; the prose poem; and, though Wilson doesn’t say it,  I will, the inventor of cubism – “in which single events are presented from numerous simultaneous perspectives” (p 39).

Wilson also devotes a chapter to revising. He explores why we do it, how it works, and, of course, how Blake revised:

To be freed from the notion that first drafts even exist, to understand that you’re already revising the minute you put word to page: this makes it easier to modify those initial sentences. There’s nothing special about them. They’re yesterday’s news (p 44).


[R]ealize that revising is creating, is life, and therefore the more beautiful our revisions, the more vital our lives, and, surprisingly, the more innocent (p 45).

I love that sentence, especially after Wilson points out that for Blake innocence “is knowledge” (p 46). Or, more precisely, to quote Blake: “Unorganized Innocence, An Impossibility / Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance” (p 46).

As I said before, Wilson’s My Business is to Write is filled with energy. Wilson is possessed like Blake, and, like Blake, this book is filled with many quotable lines, as I’ve shown above, and some of which I’ll list here:

This is a writing that is infinite, an eternal composition, draft after draft after draft, an editorial mysticism whose goal is not the “final,” but the “farther” (p 29).

The more deeply you descend into your specific haunts, the more universal you become (p 41).

[On the Swendenborgians]: [T]he hormones get you to heaven, and paradise is within the genitalia (p 55).

Let you carnality pursue the poem (p 56).

Industry [the process of writing or creating] is all there is. To lose yourself in it, to become it, its boundless but rugged promises, its oceans of tone and form, rimed now with rough ice, and then freshened by the warm trades: this is grace (p 69).

Not only do I think this is a good book worth returning to, it will be a good book for writers or any creative person (as I’ve already mentioned on Facebook and Twitter). I also think it can be a terrific book for creative writing classes. In addition, midway through Wilson’s My Business is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, I had the belief that Blake was actually writing the book, and if he wasn’t, then Blake had possessed Wilson during the writing. In the end, Blake would approve of this book and I encourage it.

On an aside, I still haven’t figured out where to put this book in my library. Should it go with my Blake books and literary criticisms of Blake or with my books on and about writing? Ah, such a fun dilemma to have.

One last aside, a personal note: Wilson is obviously a writer, and he clearly writes about situations that writers encounter. Often he writes so well about situations I have been in, I wonder if he was there when it was happening to me. I love that he somehow knows me. Perhaps you will feel the same. Consider this paragraph:

So often we are troubled by past and future, and thus alienated from the present moment. I sit at my computer on a Wednesday morning trying to write. But my attention keeps straying to what has happened earlier in my life, maybe two years ago, perhaps ten minutes, those events toward which I nostalgically long or from which I regretfully recoil. Also I anticipate an appointment to which I’ve been looking forward or dread an upcoming responsibility. Dissipated by these feelings, I hover in a ghostly limbo, composed of apparitions of a past that is no more and haunts of future not yet here. While drafting among these abstractions, I’m not really living. I’m overly self-conscious, obsessed with my personal history, my success, my failures. I can’t get out of myself, connect to something beyond, something “not me.” I’ve imprisoned myself in a ratio of my own making, egotism’s same dull round: wherever I look, there I am. Distant from this life – right here, right now, this instant – and perversely enamored of monotony, of death, I can’t write anything worth keeping. I don’t know what to do. I just know I’ve got to kill time, somehow (p 70-1).

As you can tell, I can keep writing about this book as it has impacted me. I want to go farther.

Now, because Ginsberg heard the voice of Blake in a vision and the voice sang “Ah, Sun-flower,” here are The Fugs singing “Ah, Sun-flower”.


The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Material Matters

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

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Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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