Nobody’s Jackknife, by Ellen McGrath Smith

1st Place Winner for Poetry in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016

Reviewed by Lynn Houston

 

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(West End Press)

Ellen McGrath Smith’s book of poetry, Nobody’s Jacknife, is a brilliantly executed poetry-memoir. A hybrid text in many sections, it intertwines prose poetry with verse (and excerpts from other works) in order to document, in the first section, coming-of-age moments in which a child becomes aware that she has an identity outside of her family unit, and as she becomes aware of the gendered lens through which she is seen by the rest of the world.

What flag can a teenage girl fly that isn’t already translucent,
x-rayed by the sun, its diurnal laws, golden gavels, ramrod
pillars of heat and becoming?. . .

Section two (and beyond) follows this female speaker into adulthood, where the lessons of her childhood play out in her romantic relationships and her own experiences of motherhood.

One of the major themes of this collection is the practice of yoga, how the speaker’s mother teaches her to do various positions at a young age. The speakers’ memories of and reflections on life are rooted in those yoga poses. And I mean “rooted”: this collection is about how to bloom in a hostile landscape after you’ve tried, and failed (as a child), to find wings.

As a poetry memoir, this is a book of relationship poems. But these are not recollections from an insulated middle-class lifestyle, the kind often associated with yoga. In a few of Smith’s poem, she talks very frankly about troubled economics, even the high price that practitioners pay for the services of a Yogi. Instead, the practice of yoga becomes a way of narrating the body’s role in its own existence, its grounding in space—literally, in one poem, folding a map like a body.

My east surrenders to my west: sun is setting,
houses, faces, facts forgotten;
the day dissolves into skin-creases.
Chin against the shin—long razor-bone;
breasts on kneecap—rainclouds, stones.

Surrender to the time the body measures
and the time that measured breath refers to
far beyond the body. My north
and my south have never known

each other’s worth; I fold the map.

Baseball is another major theme in the collection that helps draw out the politics of gender and race that undergird Smith’s work—the speaker is a precocious young woman with a conflicted relationship with her father; she documents her initial exposures to sexism and racism. Referring to a baseball game when Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente was playing, Smith’s speaker narrates:

K
is what you put down for a strikeout. One time,
some fans draped a banner at the stadium
consisting of three Ks. It gave me chills when I first saw it,
but all it meant was they were rooting for the pitcher
to retire a whole inning’s worth of batters.

The conditions of her childhood are a through-line that establish the tone of her sexual encounters into adulthood, set against the race riots of the late ‘60s. The gender dynamics of her childhood—her understanding of her father and her time with her brothers and childhood friends—set her up for troubled relationships later on, but at the same time they provide her with a nearly idyllic beginning—her innocence, the amount of time she spends in nature, observing it. The practice of yoga is the dividing line between the child and the adult, a separation bridged by kinds of knowing that involve the body, ones where she is more in control of her physical experience than in other activities.

Ultimately, Nobody’s Jacknife affirms that sitting still is an act of self-love and empowerment, that stillness is necessary for one to take root and bloom.

 

Barrel Children, by Rayon Lennon

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Main Street Rag Publishing, 2015)

With Ishion Hutchinson’s recent win of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, it is perhaps time to have a larger discussion about the work of poets who are writing about their relationships to Jamaica. One such poet local to the New Haven area is Rayon Lennon, whose work has won a Rattle contest, among many other accolades. Tess Taylor, from the NBCC board, writes about how Hutchinson crafts “poetry [that] compresses witness” and that “concentrate fervor and anger.” Rayon Lennon’s collection Barrel Children has a little of both the poetry of witness and anger, but it also captures those moments when, despite economic hardships spawned by colonialism, we discover or create connections—sometimes unconventional ones—with other people.

The premise of Lennon’s collection is the experience growing up as one of the barrel children, like many children in Jamaica, whose fathers send items back home to them from America, where they have gone to be able to support their wives and children with better wages, but where they also often start new families are never seen again. The items they send back to Jamaica are shipped in barrels. Continue reading

Small Ceremonies, by Cynthia Snow

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Slate Roof Press, 2016)

Small Ceremonies by Cynthia Snow is an indispensable poetic catalogue of what you never knew you needed, a paean to our last moments of earthly things. Snow’s work makes present a million tiny apocalypses, not the grand disasters that summon horsemen, but the subtle hurricane of otherness that loss ushers into our most intimate spaces.

Snow’s book has been exquisitely put together by Slate Roof Press using a letterpress printer, and deliciously textured cardstock with an oval cut-out front cover over laid onto an illustration of ceramic birds. The book includes a few photos of gardens and bowers that echo the intimate quality of the poet’s voice. The poems in Small Ceremonies are often like secrets whispered to childhood friends. The voice offers up its lyricism as sanctuary, ushering us into a sanctified space even when it confides erotic happenings.

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The Philosophy of Unclean Things, by Rosemarie Dombrowski

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Finishing Line Press, 2017)

As editor-in-chief of Five Oaks Press, I should disclose that I published Rosemarie Dombrowski’s first poetry collection, The Book of Emergencies, in 2014. What I loved most about that book is the same element that shows up in her latest collection The Philosophy of Unclean Things published by Finishing Line Press–how life provides an ethnographic symbolism for her art. The Philosophy of Unclean Things is a collection that Rosemarie has jokingly referred to as her “dead bird poems,” and a reader can see why. She makes a lens out of a fascination with decay, with how things inevitably and organically waste away and return—not all at once—to earth. In her previous collection, in which she wrote about the challenges and miracles of raising her autistic son, family life became the site of a tenuous nesting. Here, Dombrowski expands her view—The Philosophy of Unclean Things gathers life, art, and relationships from far and wide, even including the rift between a citizen in her country in a series of poems that explore the psychology of the expatriate, another wonderful kind of dis-ease in Dombrowski’s universe. Continue reading

The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Review by Deborah Karahalis

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(Vintage, 2016)

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent book is an 80-page memoir filled with deeply personal reflections on book covers and authors.  This novella started life as a lecture for a literary festival in Italy which Lahiri then expanded into a larger piece. This is Lahiri’s first book written in Italian. It was translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.  Lahiri explores how a book cover impacts the potential reader and how the book cover reflects on the author; “The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel the world, on their way to keep their appointment with my readers.”

Lahiri’s exploration of the significance of book covers begins when she compares them to her own experiences of being the child of Indian immigrant parents who wished her to dress traditionally while she, a rebellious teenager in America, wanted to dress exactly like her friends; “When I was a child, expressing myself through clothing was a source of anguish. I already felt different, conspicuous because of my name, my family, my appearance. Continue reading

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

Simon & Schuster, 2016


Bruce likes to write.

Actually, Bruce loves to write.

Over 500 pages, this memoir covers a lot. From his Italian/Irish/Working Class/Catholic/Crazy Dad/Longsuffering Mom/Freehold, New Jersey childhood to his happily-married/empty nest/post-Clarence Clemons/horseback-riding sixties. Bruce is headed into old age, my friends.

The Word on the Street: Springsteen wrote the whole thing himself, by longhand, over the course of seven years. I believe it. Typically, I’m mildly cynical about “celebrity memoirs”—but the book is so wonderfully Springsteen-esque, which is to say it’s rambling, poetic, repetitive, heartbreaking, a little longish, sometimes profound, and totally engaging. A ghostwriter wouldn’t have lingered so long over every single album. Every. Single. Album. (I highly recommend the audiobook because Bruce narrates it; however, I’d be listening and he’d say, “Chapter Fifty-three . . . Chapter Sixty-seven . . . Chapter Nine Thousand.”)

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Olio, by Tyehimba Jess

Review by Joshua Jones

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Wave Books, 2016

Tyehimba Jess’s most recent volume, Olio, documents the lives and voices of African American performers in the latter years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. This Olio, which the front matter helpfully defines as “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements [or] the second part of a minstrel show,” meditates on the masks these performers inherited and subverted. These masks sometimes manifest literally, like the blackface made from burnt cork ironically donned by black performers Bert Williams and George Walker, but sometimes suggestively, like the persona of the disabled savant worn by Blind Boone and Blind Tom. The voice that ties the collection together, Julius Monroe Trotter, who conducts interviews about the life of Scott Joplin with many of the volume’s speakers, wears a prosthetic mask to hide a wound from the First World War. Trotter, while serving as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jess collecting narratives of the past for a book, discovers and pushes back against his own minstrelization. His interviewees often understand him better than he understands himself, and while early on he doesn’t “think of [himself] as a performer in a minstrel show,” by the book’s conclusion, he escapes the murderous envy of a white train engineer only by running off with the “North Star Traveling Negro Troubadours” to play piano.

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At Whatever Front, by Les Kay

Review by Lynn Houston

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Sundress Publications, 2016

In At Whatever Front, Les Kay brings his readers to the daily battlegrounds of working class life and excavates them for the commentary they provide on cultural notions of masculinity. Kay’s tightly coiled voice invites us to look at manhood the way Dante gives us a tour of hell or Prufrock invites us to walk lonely city streets with him. This act of looking, of providing witness, is essential to the collection, just as it is to any true war story. Because both war stories and the daily lives of the working class involve bodies that are broken or breaking, ones that die without media fanfare. About the speaker’s father, in “Blue Memento” Kay writes: “his ears hummed / like alarm clocks. . . fresh paper cuts / remapped the calluses of forty years / with tributaries of blood, and his eyes blurred with the repetition of movement. . .” The speaker establishes his lineage as cyborg—part human and part of the machines in the warehouse that formed his father’s physical appearance.

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Violet Hours, by Jeanie Tomasko

reviewed by Karla Huston

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(Taraxia Press, 2016)

Meet Violet, the eccentric child birthed by Jeanie Tomasko and brought into the world by a new, Wisconsin publisher, Jeannie (F.J.) Bergmann’s Taraxia Press. Violet Hours is crafted as a sweet gift, a small, hand-stitched book with a French wrap cover and violet flyleaf. The cover art is of a sedate teacup and sugar bowl with a partial skull, waiting like a treat, next to it, a warning, perhaps, of what is to come.

Violet is a precocious child: “They say I was born in a cold spring, the morning/after my mother put up twelve pints of violet jam.” She’s a girl who is curious, filled with the desire for magic, a child’s need to know, to wonder.

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We Are Traveling Through Dark at Tremendous Speeds, by Sarah Sadie

Reviewed by Karla Huston

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(Lit Fest Press, 2016)

I’m one of “those” readers who begins at the beginning of a volume of poems. I don’t page through, lighting on a title to stop to read only to flit off again. I do not read the end of the book first, although as I write this, I wonder, if perhaps I should.

While reading Sarah Sadie’s poems, I start at the start, but first, I read the narrative that scrolls across the bottom of the page like the Breaking News! crawl on national news-tainment channels.

A volume of poems unlike most, it has a sense of “other.” First, Sarah Sadie is the nom de poem used by Sarah Sadie Busse, Middleton, Wisconsin. It is appropriate she has named herself as such, since these poems are about of becoming, of defining and refining the self as (not?) “Middle-aged, middle-class, middle-western. [Middleton?] Flyover territory.”

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