Karen Schubert: “Everything Stuck to Her Skin”: Considerations of Gender in the Poetry of Nin Andrews

The poetry of Nin Andrews is a multi-faceted exploration of the experience of being female. Andrews writes as an insider; that is, she writes through the female body, through the persona of a girl evaluating cultural messages, and through a woman in relationship as daughter, mother, lover, wife. In The Book of Orgasms, she gives a playful voice to various aspects of female sexuality. Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane  interrogates the socialization of girls. Her newest book Southern Comfort is an autobiographical series of poems that examines her parents’ marriage and sexuality, the indoctrination girls endured at her Catholic school in Virginia, and the humorous and didactic stories her mother told Nin and her sisters about their emerging womanhood. Andrews works from the local to the global, grounding her stories in specificity yet connecting with broader female themes of relationship, work, humor and meaning. She also works from the global to the local, painting broad strokes and then drawing the reader in – Don’t you see yourself here? Her work is engaging, tough, intimate, tender, devastating, generous, forgiving, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Sex is a recurring theme in Andrews’ poems. Women in particular have a complicated relationship with sex. As girls they are warned away from the dangers. In “Bathing in Your Brother’s Bathwater,” Catholic middle school teacher Miss De Angelo instructs her adolescent girls never to use the same bath water as their teenage brothers. “Even if he doesn’t touch himself,/the water does./And it only takes one./One fast moving whip-tailed sperm./And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,/how quickly that little virus races clear through you./And once that happens,/no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,/no matter what you say” (Southern Comfort 9). This kind of indoctrination, however scientifically challenged, lays the groundwork for the female push-pull, attract-repel to sexuality and the sexual experience.

As Andrews girls grow older, they become aware of their longing, their power and their limitations. They also come to understand their relationship with objectification. The poem “Pants” is a metonymical exploration of the idealized female body:

Outside the apartment building a pair of women’s pants are walking away. They are slender pants, carefully tailored pants, sleek black velvet pants, subtle and suggestive pants, pants that are the envy of women whose calves can’t possibly enter such tiny, delicate leg holes, pants that speak of a sylph-like woman, an airy woman, barely a size five, possibly a model or a ballerina who no longer walks on earth while men stare after her hopelessly, while other women, ordinary women, watch and weep and the pants, those sensuous pants, simply sigh. (29 Orgasms)

The breathless hypotaxis feeds a light-headed illogic. The sexual ideal cannot be reached by women or men. Despite being warned about sex in their youth, women long to be desired, but now instead of being restricted by others, they conjure up the prohibitive voices in their own minds. Only the slenderest fraction of women are models or ballerinas, yet in this poem, all women who are not “watch and weep” over their perceived loss of perfection. Men who presumably have or could have access to other, less narrowly defined women also pine. Interestingly, the pants, who “simply sigh,” are unhappy too, perhaps because they are empty and walking away, since so few women fit into them. Or perhaps they realize the absurdity of the system – everyone wants to desire and be desired, yet  our self-imposed category of desirability is stupidly restrictive. It is worth noting that these are women’s pants, and not men’s pants, yet by narrowly focusing on one body type, competing men run up against the same loneliness, only on the flip side.

Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane interrogates the gender role instruction kids grew up with in the 50s and 60s. The pre-Seuss Dick and Jane readers taught schoolchildren much more than reading – it was Dick who played sports and ran with Spot the dog and rescued Puff the kitten. Jane stood by in her blue ruffled dress making monosyllabic exclamations. In Andrews’ re-examination, contemporary gender role values are imposed on the connotated world of white, middle class ‘50s suburbia. In one poem, a young girl named Stephanie writes to Jane, asking why she lets Dick win every single race. “Does he ever come in second, she asked. Didn’t Stephanie know? Jane’s job was to clap so Dick could run fast, to be silly so that Dick could laugh, to cry so Dick could comfort her, to scream oh no, so that Dick could save the day or Puff, the kitten” (23). In the end, however, Jane could not resist the radical feminist belief that women, too, should strive for self-actualization. In the poem “Fantasy Jane” she looks back on her life,

Jane never knew how it happened. Her life, her love, her dreams… What were they? Had she always been just a fantasy, a fantasy of Dick’s? But of which Dick? Was that the question of her life? Her life of so many Dicks. Her father was a Dick, her brother was a Dick, her neighbor and her neighbor’s neighbor and of course her husband, too. (19)

Gender roles are further explored as well as complicated in Andrews’ most autobiographical collection Southern Comfort. The mother wears the pants in this household. After the father spills $105-an-ounce Christian Dior Diorissimo perfume on his favorite suit, he complains to everyone that “he couldn’t comprehend how a sane soul could live with a woman whose bathroom is nothing but a maze of perfumes, powders, lotions, elixirs, pills, douches, palliatives, and God only knows what all else.” (64) He doesn’t get the last word, however. As Andrews observes,

My mother had an instinct for retaliation. She began to inquire of guests at cocktail parties just why it is a man can’t learn to control his aim. After twelve years of marriage, not a morning had passed, she explained, when she had not had to Lysol and wipe up at least one splash from the rim of her toilet bowl or floor… She even began to wonder why some sort of disposable funnel had not been invented by Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, which could be attached to a penis, perhaps with a rubber band or Velcro, and made to conduct the flow neatly into a toilet bowl without mishap. (64)

In the end, a sign goes up on the door: Women Only. She concludes, “In a house of many daughters, the message was clear. My father was not welcome” (64). In both poems, “The Fight” and “Fantasy Jane,” the penis becomes something of a joke, thereby subverting traditional male power. Word play softens the blow, and there is no blood – this time – but it is a theme that weaves in and out of the poems.

Andrews’ mother and father continue to compete, contradict and generally argue their way through the book, and their daughters sometimes have to choose which parent to align with – the northern, fact-stickler mother or the southern, mythmaking father; but in the end, Andrews uses humor and nostalgia to reveal the nature of her relationship to them. In the title poem, which takes place when the mother is away, Andrews and her father stay up late sipping whiskey drinks, even though Andrews is still a small girl. He sits on the couch and reads, and she lies belly-down looking at picture books she’d read “a thousand times,” and pretends that was all there was, “the two of us alone, together, on a summer night” (66).

Things don’t always work out so neatly, though. The collections Why They Grow Wings and Sleeping With Houdini give voice to women who would specialize in flight or other disappearing acts. They have nightmares of drowning or being eaten inside out by tigers. They have suicidal urges and are saved, perhaps by electro-shock, or are not saved. They are seduced away from everything they know, or they hurl themselves at unnoticing strangers. They are left by lovers and fathers. “The Kiss” is about the obsession that follows a break-up. The speaker begins, “At first I thought it would be simple to forget.” But it doesn’t work that way. “Days passed, so many of them, and in each one I saw you again and called your name like a chant, a song, a prayer. Soon I became so used to you, leaving your trace in my mind, like a shadow on the sea, a sea of shadows. Only the birds kept watching, lifting me each morning out of my darkness.” The poem continues to chronicle spiraling despair:

How I envied you, then, and all men like you, who float like milkweed in the wind, wandering through random cities, cities full of houses, houses full of rooms, rooms bleeding light in the darkness, the scope of their thoughtlessness extending infinitely outwards in a shimmering, an envelope of light, before vanishing forever.” (42)

In this poem it is he who seems to disappear, slipped from his underwater chains like Houdini. But that’s the illusion: it’s really she who has vanished, since her retreat into depressive sleeplessness prevents her from being a participant in her own life. Presumably, in the world, the actual world that Andrews inhabits, there are thoughtless women who float like milkweed in wind, but in this poem it is the woman who is left behind collapsing.

Sometimes the loneliness kicks in before anything else can happen. In the poem “Adolescence,” a girl finds her body is changing into something undesirable. Andrews uses the language and imagery of fairy tales (castle at the bottom of the sea), laced with contemporary details (blue jeans and Band-aids).

The winter her body no longer fit, walking felt like swimming in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Everything stuck to her skin: gum wrappers, Band–aids, leaves. How she envied the other girls, especially the kind who turned into birds. They were the ones boys hand–tamed, training them to eat crumbs from their open palms or to sing on cue. What she would have done for a red crest and a sharp beak, for a little square of blue sky to enter her like wings. But it was her role to sink so the others could rise, hers to sleep so the others could dance. If only her legs weren’t too sodden to lift, if only her buttons would unfasten in the water she kept swimming through, and she could extract from the shadow of her breasts a soul as soft as a silk brassiere, beautiful and useless, like a castle at the bottom of the sea. (Why They Grow Wings 23)

This young woman grieves much as the women weeping over the tiny velvet pants. They seem, either temporarily or permanently, to lack the ability to either present themselves as desirable despite their failure to match up with some ideal, or to say to hell with desirability: I’m doing something else with my life. In this way, Andrews shows us that the myth itself is failing women. She is serving in the role of Stephanie, asking if Dick doesn’t ever come in second?

Through humor, exposing taboo, and kicking sacred cows, Andrews shows us the folly of some of our traditional gender assumptions and their limitations for both men and women, with a particular sensitivity to women. She notes in an interview with MiPoesias Magazine that gender bias even slips into the way we read her work. I will give her the last word: “One question I am so often asked is, how can I write like that, meaning how can I write about sex. Don’t I worry that my parents will see? My first answer is no. Let’s face it. Few poets have high visibility. And if that’s ever a problem, then congratulations. And my second answer is, would you be asking me that same question if I were male?”

Works Cited

Andrews, Nin. The Book of Orgasms. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2000.

— . Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. Washington DC: Web del Sol Association, 2005.

— . Sleeping with Houdini. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2008.

— .  Southern Comfort. Glen Rock, New Jersey : Cavankerry, 2009.

— . Why They Grow Wings Berkeley, California: Silverfish Review Press, 2001.


Karen Schubert’s poems appear or are forthcoming in MUSE, Jenny, Penguin Review, Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, Redactions and othersHer chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, forthcoming) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Nominated for 2011 Best of the Web, she teaches writing at Youngstown State University.

Anomie & Dis-Ease: Kurt Brown on Novica Tadic’s Dark Things

Dark Things, Novica Tadic, translated with an introduction by Charles Simic, BOA Editions, 2009

To get a sense of the atmosphere in which Tadic’s imagination thrives, think of F. W. Murnau’s landmark film from 1922, “Nosferatu,” especially one of the early scenes in which Count Orlok’s creepy coachman arrives to take the unsuspecting traveler, Thomas Hutter, on to the castle and ultimately his doom. The scene is all the more horrific for being silent (except for the eerie organ music someone has added) as though the action were taking place in the ghostly, soundless realm of a dream. The coach arrives to collect Hutter at the precise border between the happy sunlit world of illusion, and the crepuscular “land of phantoms” which exists beyond, and into which Orlok’s dour servant whisks Hutter despite his obvious reservations. To enter the world of Tadic’s poetry is to experience a similar sense of anomie and dis-ease. It is a world of madness, if that word has any validity anymore, which is part of Tadic’s point, one he hones in poem after poem with a fine, unsettling irony:

A straightjacket
is being woven
and cut to measure
on you.

If Simic had chosen to translate the last line as “for you,” the poem would suggest a slightly different meaning than it does here. “For you,” would mean that the jacket is meant only for the individual for whom it is being woven and that the individual, perhaps, is destined to become mad. “On you” suggests the individual may not be mad—yet—or is perhaps mad already, but doesn’t know it. It may also suggest that the person in question is being used as a kind of tailor’s dummy for the making of straightjackets that others may wear as well. In either case, madness is inescapable, a fait accompli, to which everyone will inevitably succumb, if not now, then later in the natural course of human events.

Of course, what makes human madness twice as mad is the fact that almost everyone is blithely unaware of it most of the time. There is a sense, throughout Tacic’s poems, that our own evil is largely hidden from us except during moments of inescapable horror. The madness of the holocaust is undeniable (regardless of those who deny it), as are countless other instances of human atrocity throughout history, though we dispense with them by reasoning they are aberrations, and we congratulate ourselves by observing holidays, building museums, and instituting laws to “make sure these things never happen again.” This blindness, this self-deception, is what Tadic means in the following poem when he has a magpie bear witness against us:

What you took out
on a newspaper
to throw out in front of the house,
you showed to a magpie
who flew away

full of greed and malice

to spread the news about your crime
of which you know nothing
before royal thrones
and humpbacked judges
and testify against you finally.

What are the crimes we’ve committed about which we know nothing? It could be that something bloody and unspeakable is wrapped in that newspaper, but it could also be the daily atrocities filling its pages; television reports we watch with our mouths full, then go back to eating dinner; suffering in a thousand guises resulting from someone applying the instruments of torture to someone else around the globe at any hour of the day or night. “Mankind cannot stand too much reality,” T. S. Eliot assured us at the beginning of the last century, which proved to be one of the bloodiest on record. We live our lives in the light, on Hutter’s side of the border, just beyond the shadow of the land of phantoms. “I have committed a terrible crime, of which I have no knowledge or memory,” is perhaps the darkest fate we can imagine. But don’t think those humpbacked judges will show much mercy when the time comes to face them.

It is only in dreams that we sometimes catch a glimpse of our crimes:

Someone whispered to me in a dream
that on this Earth, there’ll be no
more water, only blood.

We’ll drink each other’s blood
as we have always done
and won’t dream of it anymore.

Over dried out springs,
bones of dead animals and last humans
will pile up.

Young hyenas with our faces
will titter and fight
around their gnawed and dry remains.

“As we have always done…” Tadic’s indictment of humanity is timeless and complete. This is Eliot’s “Wasteland” transmogrified into B-movie horror. It is a painting, Simic reminds us in his introduction, by Bosch. Tadic’s “dark things” exist both within and without us. Their provenance is the shadowy recesses of our own hearts and minds, and when they break free they are projected into the world with brutal force. Their natural results are torture, barbarity, and war. As in an earlier volume of selected poems, Night Mail, also translated by Simic the literary source of Tadic’s poems seems to be the fable, the often macabre primitive folk tale of central Europe where Hancel And Gretel shove the witch into an oven and Dracula revives at dusk to spread his wings. In Night Mail, owls gather for a black mass, cats march on strike, dogs roam through a ghost town. If Tadic’s poems arise from a child-like pleasure in the grotesque, they seem to come to us out of the Dark Ages long before any renaissance or enlightenment has occurred. Superstition and paranoia reign. Yet, for all that, the poems seem to point toward the future as well, an apocalyptic landscape in which the faces of hyenas are young, and only the bones of humanity remain.

Anything Else Would Be Too Ordinary: John Findura on Ray Gonzalez’s Cool Auditor

Cool Auditor, Ray Gonzalez, BOA Editions, 2009

Ray Gonzalez’s 11th book of verse finds him in a dream-like trance, whispering prose-poem tales over the feedback of a Stratocaster shuddering in front of a Marshall full-stack. It’s a beautiful dichotomy where the reader strains to keep their eyes from jumping ahead to the next line/thought/sentence/fact.
The best pieces in the collection are those containing factoids which may or may not actually be fact. They come across almost like the later work of David Markson, pulling tidbits from different places and assembling them into something with much deeper meaning. In “Available for an Epiphany,” where “A language becomes extinct in this world every two weeks”, Gonzalez strings together everything from the name for a pregnant goldfish to the little known former NY Giants defensive back Elvis “Toast” Patterson.
In some pieces Gonzalez’s pull is so strong that it actually takes away from other poems in the book. The perfectly readable (and quotable) “Affordable Aphorisms” is unlucky enough to find itself leading into “James Wright Returns to Minneapolis” where in a play on Wright’s “Hook” Wright himself drops a dollar bill into Gonzalez’s hand while waiting for a bus. It could have been overly gimmicky, but maybe because of the earnestness of Gonzalez, it works in its surrealist mist.
The poem following “James Wright Returns to Minneapolis,” “Let Me Disappear,” contains its own parallel realities. In it we find

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name was “Moon.” That sentence is hard to say. Of course, Buzz was the second man to step onto the moon in 1969. The first was Neil Armstrong, but he had no moons in his family, so he pleaded to Buzz on his knees, “Please, let me go second. Let me go second and every moon-lover will love you forever, instead of me.” This happened inside the capsule on its way down to the moon. Buzz thought, “Let me disappear,” but it was too late. They hit the surface and history was on its way.

Strangely enough, the part about Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name is true. The conversation, however, is obviously Gonzalez’s imagination, as Aldrin himself fought to be the first one who actually stepped out of the lunar lander. Aldrin’s desire to “disappear” is amusing as not only has he not become the footnote he thought he would become, but because of Armstrong’s refusal to lead anything other than a severely private life, Aldrin has been the go-to personality, even appearing on “Dancing With The Stars” and going on a book tour.
“Room Thirteen” starts with “In room thirteen, the wooden stairs from the old whorehouse are stored, lying on their side like an enormous accordion that won’t close.” The image of the stairs as an accordion is great, but with Gonzalez it is the details, such as the stairs being wooden and “from the old whorehouse” that make this poem really hold together until the final line: “In the room, something else wants to move, but never will.” In between those two lines one finds “one window, but it can’t be reached” as well as “stationary things […] that want to move a few inches, but are blocked” – and the knowledge that “Room thirteen will catch fire someday and be the origin of a conflagration that will burn down the entire structure”. It reads like a set-piece for a Tim Burton movie that was never made.
The highlight of the collection is “The Guitars,” a three page piece where almost every sentence includes the word “guitar” and once again offers up what may or may not be the truth behind some famous axes. The most disturbing line reads “When Eric Clapton’s four-year old son fell out of a 49th floor apartment to his death, there were two electric guitars and two acoustic guitars in the room with the open window.” The sense that comes across is “how can those guitars ever play anything but the blues after being a party to that tragedy?” Later, “The guitar Jimi Hendrix burned at Monterey was never seen again after the show, his roadies claiming for years that it simply vanished backstage.” Of course it did – anything else would have been too ordinary.
Ray Gonzalez has managed to create a reflection of everything he sees, but in the way a rippling pond does: slightly distorted, with some images contracted and others pulled to their limits. As for prose poetry in general, Cool Auditor stretches it to new places, pulls it around dark corners, and guides it into places unknown.

Bittersweet: Lori May on Keetje Kuipers’s Beautiful in the Mouth

Beautiful in the Mouth, Keetje Kuipers, BOA Editions, 2010

Keetje Kuipers makes a stunning entrée with her debut poetry collection, Beautiful in the Mouth. Winner of the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, a prize that honors the late founder of BOA Editions, Kuipers shares a bold collection penned over the course of five years. While several of the poems have been previously published in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, and AGNI, this collection is fresh with flavor and pleasing to the palate.

Kuipers utilizes emotionally riveting imagery. In “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” the speaker questions the tangibility of sound and language, “if language can be a kind of crying.” This collection proves it can, as the poems are wrought with desperation, loss, and defeat. Yet this debut is no pity party. Within such sadness, the speaker surfaces with truth, honesty, and – quite possibly – hope, as a result of healing.

Indeed, Kuipers approaches loss with such sensual emotion and execution, the reader is drawn into the hopeful heart of healing. This is evident in the poem, “Remembering Our Last Meal in New York”:

I have tried to forget your light, the way it breaks
me open, even now, and makes me speak,
how it glitters in the gutters up and down Eighth Avenue,
swirling in pools of snowmelt, so many
sparkling tea leaves I still read for signs of you.

The poet’s language conveys emotion not only within defined meanings, but also through the skillful use of assonance and internal rhymes, creating a sensual audible symphony. The poem “Self-Portrait with Cockroach” demonstrates such musicality: “the forced // music of your body’s slapping / rhythm when it lands against // your lover: how you do love her.”

While it is not the dominant form in this collection, Kuipers also employs the English sonnet. The poet, however, does well to loosen the restrictions of tradition in offering pleasing, innovative mechanisms. In “Why I Live West of the Rockies,” the speaker begins the sonnet with bittersweet reminiscence: “When I said I didn’t want to live in / Pennsylvania, I meant it. The house out- / side Philadelphia rotting each limb / that’s lost its use.”

Kuipers artfully manipulates the Shakespearean rhyme scheme with an inventive approach, particularly in the third quatrain where she rhymes “never” with “weather.” This is also where the volta is introduced with the firm statement, “You could never / understand why I won’t go back.” The speaker then addresses the essential seed of her memory: “Like all / shadows, our history’s carved by weather- / bent sun. Against us all the seasons.”

The tasteful liberty Kuipers takes in her sonnets is simply refreshing in its execution. “River Sonnet” is another English form wherein the poet loosens the constraints of end rhymes, relying on skillful assonance to carry the pattern. Here, Kuipers rhymes “moldering” with “ticking,” “apple” with “dull,” and “road” with “know.” The effect is that the sonnet is no longer predictable; in fact, a reader could very easily miss the cues to Kuipers’s sonnets, noticing only the musicality and creativity in beautifully shaped forms.

Assonance is but one of Kuipers’s vehicles for expression. The poet craftily enlivens metaphors, giving an old trick a new voice. In “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” even limp fish have the power of metaphor. Here, the speaker says she will “scoop them from their pockets of graveled / stone beneath the bank, their bodies / desperately alive when I hold them in my hands, / the way prayers become more hopeless / when uttered aloud.” This haunting image is compared to the hands which have been “retired from their life of touching” a lover.

The theme of passions lost and found is abundant in Beautiful in the Mouth. Kuipers invokes the spirits of her poetic predecessors in a confrontation of personal demons and difficult choices. Kuipers’s speaker is often faced with the either/or of being a woman. This dichotomy of wants is executed beautifully in the poem “Desire”:

I can’t tell the difference anymore
between what I want and why I want it:
the white, clapboard house in the country
or the husband and children
who wait on its porch; a man with a truck
or our frank heterosexuality. Hunger
hasn’t gotten a very good name around here.

In this same poem, the speaker admits melancholic defeat: “when I do get what I want … it never seems to be enough.”

Where does such insatiable desire come from? Perhaps the speaker’s unsatisfied appetite is the result of the many painful losses weaved throughout this collection. Such loss is evident in the poem, “Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage,” wherein the speaker begins by facing tragedy: “My little empire goes to sleep around me.” In a drawn out simile, the speaker likens moths to her unborn child:

Bugs swirl to a delicate halt around the bulbs
of my many lamps—leggy hallows—and I wonder,
what does it feel like, the helix of heat
they weave to their burning death?

A few lines later, the speaker relates how “the one who bleeds out / between my legs is silent tonight, her pulse / undone from my own heart’s beating.”

While such loss is irreparable, the speaker and her lover try to heal wounds in a later poem, “Making Love After the Death.” In this poem, the speaker addresses her lover directly, recalling his feeble attempt to free himself from the weight of loss: “Grasses hugged your long thighs / and you turned among them, a grain of sand / in a moving sea. The baby had been dead a week.”

Kuipers has made an incredible impact with this debut collection. Her use of form and skill with language mirrors her power of imagination, thus creating a perfect harmony of technical skill and artistry. Haunting personal losses pave the way for a cornucopia of sensual expression that exudes humanity and begs to be loved. If Kuipers’s debut signifies anything for the future, her poetry will be loved for a long, long time.

Lori A. May is a poet, novelist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as The Writer, Tipton Poetry Journal, and anthologies such as Van Gogh’s Ear. She is the author of stains: early poems and two novels. For more information, visit http://www.loriamay.com.

Pinwheeling: J. Michael Wahlgren on Sharon Bryan’s Sharp Stars

Sharon Bryan, Sharp Stars, BOA Editions

In Sharp Stars, Sharon Bryan is concerned with the use of language and its boundaries. She tackles certain concepts and analogizes them by comparison: one of which is the concept of “erasures” compared with former lovers as disappearing in a poem. The simple comparison of a star to a person is also made but Bryan, as with any concept, takes the idea a step further. In the poem “Stardust” Bryan writes “instead of seeing ourselves / wherever we look, we must see / things for what they are: stardust.” Bryan may be a romantic, at heart, and the former lovers whose presences grace the text disappear with, of course, a memory. Bryan accomplishes a lot in these pages, from introducing unique characters whose stories border reality or realities whose borders possess lasting character. In the text memory and character intertwine and to even to use an analogy, as lovers.

In Sharp Stars, Bryan tackles language and speech and weaves them together as one cohesive whole. As she writes in the poem “Saying Things,” “he could hear a voice / muttering in his head, it said Open your mouth,/ let the words fly out.” From first words to flashbacks, speech is an important idea which also has an origin (in the text from thought). Bryan writes in such a convincing manner, the reader can be led to believe that “stars” or even the concept of stars and the individuals to which they refer, are one in the same entity or pretty close. Reality blends and it’s almost as if stars are doing the speaking in the text even though the individual associated with these sharp stars are capable of speech themselves.

If we abstract from the title “Bass Bass” of a poem within the text, the sounds of the words are the same, but they differ in meaning. Music is important and this idea of separating of concepts or real objects is of importance as well, such as when “god made the lime, and separated / the lime from the bark.” The general philosophy here is that lime is not bark because lime is lime. It possesses certain qualities that make it distinct from bark. Since we are on this idea of bark, bark can also refer to the noise from a dog. Bryan, without a doubt, tackles this too, in the poem “Barking Dog.” It is unique and distinct from the word “bark” from a tree. Bryan “let the dog into the poem” “Barking Dog” even though she or any of her characters can understand his/her language.

If we concern ourselves with our way of acting, then this book deals directly with listening to, or hearing instructions so as to know how these actions will function. Dogs and stars, bark and bark, stars and characters are topics within the text, but what transcends these oscillations are actions or events occurring which also create memory. There are the origin of words, the origin of speech, memories of things, stardust, music and dancing, as well as associations of concepts. It amazes me to see a form of hope arise as well. This hope can be confused with romanticism or even music itself, as when ashes rise from a song that is played into a “whirlwind of thanks and farewell.” It could be said that the music without words or lyrics speak directly to the body. The result, then, is action. Through language and its boundaries, Bryan and characters created are able to act. Actions such as differentiating between “lime” and “bark,” introducing a dog into a poem, erasing lovers as words from a poem, or any other music without words, or as Bryan writes in the poem “White Space” “maybe if they slowly disappeared into the white space no one would miss them.” There is a clear parallel, and this isn’t the only one in the text between erasing and disappearing as words from music or notes from music sheets. The body disappears into ashes or stars disappear into nothingness. Bryan concerns herself with both the appearance and disappearance. But what is clever is that appearance differs from making an appearance or origin of. When Bryan refers to the boy in the poem “Saying Things” she says he is blind, but we do not know if this entails being blind in a religious sense as well. Words can almost have a double-meaning and through process of oscillating or meandering, we are brought closer to this white space or these sharp stars, or the remains of cutting a tree— “why name the remains after the blade, not what it cut” from “Sawdust.”

Bryan references the idea of “stars” in many ways throughout the text. The blind boy cannot see the stars but can see a shade of light from the stars; for when the stars are too close it is too bright. In “Sawdust” “only now do I see / that the air is full / of small sharp stars / pinwheeling through / every living thing / that gets in their way.” The idea of oscillation or meandering, the way the light of stars makes its way to the eye, or the flux of stars for the blind boy (shifting from too bright, to dim, to the right mix) is prominent within these pages. Bryan uses the word pinwheeling which could be a good replacement word for this turning on and off. The way lovers are so called bright or fade over time like stars integrates with the concept of memory to make them sharp. Bryan, in a way, invents a new terminology, such as pinwheeling or the title of the book, sharp stars, to push the shiny boundaries of language along.

Poetry that Jingles, a Good Value: Zinta Aistars on Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf


The Heaven-Sent Leaf, Katy Lederer, BOA Editions

What do poets know of money? What do poets know of capital? Katy Lederer asks and answers such questions in A Nietzschean Revival and throughout her new collection of poetry, The Heaven-Sent Leaf. And why not the poet, perhaps the best stockbroker of all in tendering the crumpled and transparent leaves of the spirit, exhibited here as expert in capital. Life is, after all, all about transaction, barter, the give and take between human beings, or between oneself and oneself—the hardest bargain of all. Katy Lederer, poet and author, is also Brainworker,
To learn to keep distance.
To learn to keep drear managerial impulse away from the animal mind.
Along the dark edge of this reason. Along the dark edge of this mind’s little prison,
inside of its bars now a silky white cat.
Crawling in its little cage.
Inside of its cage is the bright light of morning.
Inside of its cage is the light of disease.
To learn to be an animal. To learn to be that primal.
To know who will slip you the fresh dish of milk.
To long for your manager’s written approval.
So soon am I up for my year-end review?
The moon above settles into its shadow.
I am howling at you.
Lederer titles more than one poem, Brainworker. There are four of them, in fact. And so you begin to sense the spinning we do in our every day routines, work work work, and then home, and then work work work, and all of it about transaction, some profitable, some not. This collection is money (transaction) put into poetry, and if at first glance that seems an odd fit, Lederer proves the fit is very near like that of a glove.

To know something of Lederer’s background explains this fascination. She is also author of several books, notably a memoir, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003), included on Publishers Weekly list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2003, which tells of her family ties to some of the best known names and faces around Las Vegas poker tables. For the poet, it could just as well have gone the other way, to becoming a card shark, but instead, her pull is toward poetry, even while working as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in New York City.

I can’t speak for her poker-playing skills, no doubt remarkable, but Lederer’s poetry chinks into place, has the solid feel of coin on a green felt table, and slips easily into a rich bank of poetic capital. There are plenty of lines such as, “In the wallet of his soul he files the crisp new bills of morning,” (from The Tender Wish to Buy This World) to keep the analogy flowing. And they work, mostly. Although it doesn’t take many pages in to already sense the Lederer style: a naming of observations, almost a grocery list at times (“To avoid the whole mendacious thing./To sign yet another financial release.”); fragmented sentences and phrases (“Orange-red eyes like small, derogatory suns.” “Not wanting to do.” “Systemic and assembles with great calm.”); questions without answers (“We can’t let go? Why are we laughing now?”). This is not an entirely bad thing, not at all. A writer, a poet, seeks to find one’s own recognizable voice. A reader can find in it an agreeable echo, a mirror to one’s own, and so become a fan. The line to toe here is to not become overly predictable, still leaving room for the occasional surprise.

Lederer’s use of the analogy of money as capital to be traded in for pieces and parts of life does not narrow her range. With this premise, she explores the topics all poets adore: love, sex (what more profound transaction!), the daily aspects of a life well or less well lived, and, finally, death. She sets her stage against the backdrop of the big city, but the big city clamor still reverberates against any landscape where people meet. Money is a great symbol and so is not limiting, no more than she who possesses it imbues it with meaning and power. The exchange of value for value, or value for lack of it, resounds through every line, and with it, the echo of a void inside the self, “the lobotomized wishes—/Where brains once were …/Hear the awful racket of their want.”

This is a collection of poetry that jingles in the mind like loose coins in a deep pocket long after it’s read. You’ll pardon the analogy stretched here, but it is accurate. If on first reading, the poems seem simple enough, almost predictable in style (list-fragment-question), you can’t help but find your fingers wandering the linings of that pocket and playing with the coins, testing their value, enjoying the jingle, rubbing them one against the other, until they are warm in the palm and ready for trade. Lederer’s poetry is a good value.

Three New Poets I Met at Bread Loaf by Steve Wingate

The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti, BOA Editions


Mission Work, Aaron Baker, Houghton Mifflin


Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, Janice N. Harrington, BOA Editions


A decade ago, I didn’t think twice about taking a day off and hunkering down with a novel. Diaper changes and pre-school pickups have temporarily obliterated such big bouts of reading, but lately poetry has been coming to my rescue. While novels demand large swaths of time, poetry asks for an opposite kind of attention that is perfectly suited to shorter sittings. This August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference I had the pleasure to meet three poets whose prize-winning debut collections—two received the Poulin Prize from BOA Editions, one the Bakeless Prize from Bread Loaf—have saved my reading bacon and created worlds as rich as those I find in novels.

In The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti focuses on rendering moments when his characters become intensely aware of human vulnerability—physical, psychic, and spiritual. A boy watches a squirrel die; a fish gets carried off by a raptor. In Albergotti’s lines, which tend toward the vernacular, there is an implicit questioning of language itself as a tool of human comprehension and expression. “I do not believe a special providence / makes this world say anything,” (24) he writes. And people never seem to be able to get their words out right, as in Bad Language:
We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.
So we are dumb, as quiet as the kitchen pans
hanging on their cabinet hooks. What words
do we even have? (25)
Such lines bespeak a muteness in the face of our desire to know, and since the desire to know gets so tied up with the Big Questions of Being, it’s no surprise that The Boatloads hovers close to religion. God makes several appearances, and both Jesus and Abraham make cameos; but it is the non-appearance of the divine as in Poem in Which God Does Not Appear that most occupies Albergotti. This non-appearance, often represented as of silence, aligns closely to human difficulties of language and communication.
The music of the spheres may be a great symphony
of unbroken silence: void, more void, a crescendo
of void. (41)

The last song of the one true god
is silent because the one true god
sings in a vacuum behind the thick,
black wall. (73)
One can never accuse Albergotti, with his weaving together of human and divine muteness, of shirking his poetic duty to dig toward the core of life.

The people of Aaron Baker’s Mission Work, meanwhile, find themselves in a far more primordial predicament. The collection is set in the remote Chimbu highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the author spent part of his childhood with missionary parents. In it, language takes a back seat as a tool for understanding life to the objects and movements of the physical world. In Chimbu Wedding, we are thrown into a world where the narrator, too young to make intellectual sense of his world, must rely on what he can sense and imagine:
When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. (3)
For Baker’s characters, understanding the world through the senses is a fundamental condition of life, just as muteness is for Albergotti’s. But this state is not limited to the young man we witness growing up in a place he does not know; the Kuman tribespeople we meet dwell in the same situation as they come to terms with the foreignness that has entered their community. One example of the interplay between cultures comes in Zero in the Branches, which describes a Japanese plane stuck in a tree.
Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust. ( 28 )

In a sense, the entire world of Mission Work becomes foreign, since anything its characters see is either alien in its essence or made alien by the presence of another culture. Baker’s use of variety of voices shifts attention away from autobiographical elements and toward his theme: the deep self-questioning that occurs on both sides of the fence whenever cultures interact. Mission Work includes poems in the voice of the Kuman natives, as well as observational poems with more abstracted narrators. Throughout the collection Baker shows people attempting to bride the gap between cultures, though he knows that some bridges cannot be crossed. In Second Genesis, for example, he writes:
We’ll be a single son of this country
when each has killed half of the other. ( 18 )

Janice N. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone also dwells in place, and it creates its world with an authorial I even more effaced than Baker’s. The place is the American south in the mid-20th century, and before we meet its people we learn, from Harrington’s intense, cadence-driven lines, that we will be reading a poetry that calls out and sings to the world. The propulsive Alexandrine opening couplet of The Thief’s Tabernacle, which begins the collection, marks Harrington as the most rhythmically driven of these three poets:
If I steal the wan light from these penitent clouds
and take from their pewter cups dull coins full of rain (15)
So enmeshed are Harrington’s poems in the voice that we may not immediately realize we are reading a family narrative. We meet people and follow them around for a quarter of the collection before an I tentatively begins to assert itself. Only as we sink into her character do we recognize that we are reading a family history—as well as a social history—which began before her birth. We see “a school bus, / the one they used to carry colored kids / from biscuit to book and back again” (39). In The Warning Comes Down, we learn that:
France is where daddies go,
overseas, in silver-bellied planes, and maybe
they’ll come home again, tomorrow, tomorrow. (57)

The poems grow in scope and depth as the I comes of age, encountering the world and and embracing the forces that shaped her. Things become less innocent, less nurtured by the history of her family and more thrown into the history of her society as we meet “A Negro family going north, one of thousands leaving…” (70), then in Benham’s Disk:
My niece calls and exclaims, Guess what.
Yesterday I was white but now I’m black. (79)
Harrington’s intimate approach to social history—working first and foremost with the things and sounds of her characters’ world—gives Hollow a certain kinship with Mission Work. Toward the end she reminds us, in lines that might have found a home in Baker’s collection, that:
Vision is born of violence. All your memories
are mulattoes. (77)


Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at http://www.stevenwingate.com

Explosive Lexicon: Karen Volkman’s poetry collection Nomina reviewed by J. Michael Wahlgren

Nomina, Karen Volkman, BOA Editions


What strikes me as interesting at first glance is the title of Karen Volkman’s new collection of poetry, ‘Nomina.’ Unnamed and indexed by first thoughts this collection relies on word choice and flow to capture the reader’s attention. With elongated sentence structure, if finding the “word behind the word” is the game, then Volkman has thought of all possibilities:

          Sweetest bleeding is the cipher of sleep.

          Soundless loaming, burying its dead.

          The raw riled lexicon that no one read.

          No word survives the color of this deep

There are two ideas inside of these lines, juxtaposed. The idea of this “soundless” being born is pulled to the fore through the words “loaming” and “deep” referring to digging up. Note Volkman the choice of the word “color,” which gives a sense of transcending the senses and the word being transferred in a secret code from author to reader. If we decipher this code of sonnet (the form of the poem), we end with a solid grasp of what Volkman is trying to accomplish. Volkman leaves no corner untouched. In the alternating couplets, Volkman achieves a confession of an explosive lexicon, a flow that captures the reader and exemplifies the sonnet structure itself. For example,

          Dull wheel

          Shall stall



Volkman seems to achieve once again an ideal of the natural and supernatural in these four lines. The flow of each word is natural; the rhyme scheme makes the interpretation supernatural. The structure indicates that Volkman is trying to take the reader some place new with a somewhat outdated form, the sonnet. If you are interested in slant rhymes, this is definitely a work of note. At first glance, the rhythm of the sonnets here all seems to be similar, but it’s nice when a breath of fresh air comes along in the sonnet [That’s what it says],

          Apple, atom, eye,

          Crux of nuance, manifest of why,

          Shall there be shale and hollow, fix and list,


          A zero mattered, a quiescence kissed,

          Rouge reine who rules the wrack and motley mien  

          The rain of faces, flesh-figured, dead green.

The commas convey the sense that the thoughts in the poems shifty, a necessary break from the smooth flow in all of the previous poems mentioned. The experimentalism found within these sonnets, the structure of the sonnet itself, the rhyming schema, the word choice, alliteration & assonance make this work’s complexity fathomable. Yet this work is fresh in all of these aspects for never once is the reader searching for some other means of phrasing. Volkman hints at the namelessness of Nomina, the ephemeral satisfaction the reader develops through these poems when she writes, “spore and structure still distinguish ghosts in spokes.”

“Poems that Pick and Choose Their Own Path”: Al Maginnes on GC Waldrep’s Disclamor

Disclamor, G.C. Waldrep, BOA Editions

It is difficult to say who is being addressed in the first poem of G.C. Waldrep’s second collection Disclamor. “If I believed you what would change,” asks the poem’s final line followed by the imperative “Tell me.” Until the final lines, the poem reads as a slightly off-kilter description of dusk’s falling, but the introduction of “you” thrusts the poem into new territory as does the observation in the poem’s penultimate line, “The holly plays host to its spare nation.” Given the historical and political territory that some Disclamor’s other poems take on, the choice of the word “nation” is no accident.

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

The armatures of this collection are nine poems collectively entitled “The Batteries,” which were published as a separate chapbook by New Michigan Press. Each of these poems was named for one of the nine gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite in Marin County, California. If the first two battery poems—the poems are spread throughout the book rather than grouped together—offer little more than sharp imagery and attention to detail, the third, Battery Mendell seizes our attention with its first line: “This is become  a place of children.” The poem continues:

                   I squat, and with the muscles of my calves

                             suspend my rhythm

                                                —-the dirge, the waltz—-

                                            over these sea cliffs.


                   Inheritance, then:

                             that which cannot be refused

                             that which is beyond purpose;

                                      that which is a given,


What we inherit and cannot refuse, among other things, is history. And given the setting of these poems, a portion of this inheritance is America’s history of violence. At the poem’s end, Waldrep turns his focus to the children who captured the speaker’s attention at the beginning of the poem. Delighted by the physical structure of the battery, they are unaware of its history. Yet their innocence, if that’s what it is, will not remain undisturbed:

                        They are the warnings we ignore,

                                                          the beacons.

                   They are so hot now we cannot touch them.

                             They will not be held.

Whatever misgivings Waldrep might have about the fate of the children, about the future of this world we have made, he is wise enough not to spell out explicitly or to dwell on. The restless surface of these poems does not allow for lengthy ruminations or for conclusions reached after long thought. “What is written here fades quickly,” Waldrep claims in Battery O’Rorke.

Caught in the tempest of human affairs, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that nature is more permanent than the whims of politics and the conflicts of men. Waldrep proves himself a surprisingly adept, if singular, observer of nature in many of the poems in Disclamor. Unlike many contemporary poets who take nature as their topic, Waldrep does not envision nature without the influence of humankind. In Many of Us Identify With Animals, he begins, “Half a toy being better than/ none. A forest being better than none.”

This juxtaposition of the manmade and abandoned with the forest—one can almost sense its shrinking—continues through the poem: “And the miraculous beauty/ of small objects. A broken comb. Detach’d/ leg of a beetle.” With the debris of nature and man so interwoven, it is inevitable that we ponder the fate of the forest. Again, Waldrep summons the specter of children, these “on their crutches.” As the natural world shrinks, as even the small wild places that once thrived in juxtaposition to human dwellings vanish, one wonders where the generation these children represent or the generations that come after them will go to observe nature.

If Waldrep is a poet who takes on, however obliquely, large and serious matters, it must be noted that he can be a very funny poet as well, although his humor is not the arch slapstick we have come to expect from so-called humorous poets. The comedy in these poems comes from their embrace of the absurd, as in Cosmologies of the Zinniae, when the poem’s speaker addresses a group of “valiant shirts,” thanking them for their courage before he has had a chance to wear them. In Feeding the Pear, we are presented with the dilemma of being required to, yes, feed a pear while trying to keep up with a group of singers.

With so much of our contemporary poetry falling into neatly defined categories, G.C. Waldrep is a poet who seems bent on writing poems that will not settle easily in any camp, that will pick and choose their own path. These are poems that do not yield easily to explication, but, they are poems that reward attention. And they are poems that deserve the attention of anyone curious about what new territories American poetry might have left to explore in this young century.


Al Maginnes is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Ghost Alphabet which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize and will be available in October of 2008. New poems appear or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Green Moutains Review, Terminus, Mid American Review and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.