Valency, J. Michael Wahlgren’s New Poetry Collection

Valency, J. Michael Wahlgren, BlazeVox Books

What I like best about Wahlgren’s poetry in his satisfying collection, Valency, is watching each piece take shape.  Like protons & neutrons collecting around a nucleus, the word shapes merge and form the most marvelous poems.  I am also reminded of a quote from Julia Child about why she liked a good sandwich: because she knew the chef’s fingers had been all over it. In Valency, whether it’s in a common “…display of sky blue,” or in the inventive “…sandbox of lies,” the play of Wahlgren’s mind is like those fingerprints, touching here and there with the elusive spark which is the life of poetry itself.  A wonderful addition to American poetry.

—Andrew Demcak

A luminous cascade of syntax

—Brenda Iijima

Valency is interactive and exigent, sub-atomic and transcendental, with language colliding magnificently at and on every level. Every poem in this bright, aching collection is electric, plugged into the human grid of love and heartbreak where what romantically matters is transformed, via Wahlgren’s highly attuned sense of sense, back into matter. Wahlgren is a sound-chemist, a rhyme-bonder of the first order. Like “gasps between bubbles,” his poems are heady, musical, and capture the un-captured, the most peculiar in between the lines of what’s “said.” Wahlgren doesn’t articulate perception so much as document reaction, and his reactions, boy, are they potent, do thrill. If Credo, the lyric story of Peter and McKenna doesn’t slay you, you are dead, and nothing will.

—Nicole Mauro


J. Michael Wahlgren is author of the collection of poems Silent Actor (Bewrite Books, 2008) as well as three chapbooks. He resides around Boston, Ma where he edits & publishes for Gold Wake Press. Valency is his second full-length poetry collection.

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.

A WORLD OF MANNEQUINS: J. Michael Wahlgren on Wayne Miller’s The Book of Props

the book of props

The Book of Props, Wayne Miller, Milkweed Editions

The Book of Props is a world of mannequins, smokestacks and “the city’s billow of light.” With the clarity like that of A.R. Ammons, Wayne Miller creates his own world in which he escapes from; mannequins come to life. With a very delicate vocabulary, Miller paints new portraits of otherwise unseen or misunderstood situations. We find ourselves “Walking through the House with a Candle” or even “In the Poem he No longer lives in.” It is necessary, too, for the reader to escape. From a light in the pastry case to the snow falling, or the fog and the raindrops sounding like “tin clamor” Miller is very concerned with the present moment in the Book of Props. One example of this is a dialogue within the text, “Andy will say, as if we’re at the end / of a hallway making out a picture.”

One of Miller’s many characters makes an observation of the moment and compares it to “making out” a picture. Out of context this idea seems like an evil demon, something from which one cannot escape, but preceding it is the quote of “It’s like a painting of a city” which reveals that inside of the Book of Props, one can be in the city and in the painting, perhaps, in the same moment.

The idea of what happens after the narrator is no longer watching is of interest as well. The characters Miller creates can disappear or reappear in the text at any time, shifting gears with magician-like quality. Also, scenes seem to be juxtaposed within stanzas in the text, for example, in the poem “Justine’s Childhood“, memory seems to be the focus from a pivotal moment in the present. Miller describes the two images, juxtaposed, as [two scenes] which seems to possess an odd quality: the present moment mixing with the past. Justine recalls her mother’s words while glancing in a pastry case, but with the light on in the pastry case and “the shadow’s untouched / by the wind that propels it” Justine says, within the text, “It’s only the sail that flutters.”

Miller deals a lot with shadows and light, sleep and wakefulness. The characters within the text seem to appear and reappear, with memories appearing and reappearing as well. These characters, in a sense, are Miller’s props. Miller writes in [Love], “We can assume / that after dinner they stumbled / upon a first kiss. And later / when the evening was over / and the city slept at last, nothing had changed for us, and they / would never be the same” What is clear here is the third party watching these other two characters in love. The characters disappear, but the “us” and “they” continue to parallel one another or perhaps depend upon one another for their existence and reality. Whether or not the couple share a first kiss after they disappear from the text is of interest, but their situation is dependent upon this third party, or omniscient character for their reality.

The mannequins become real because Miller writes about them. Miller may be a magician, or an inquisitive writer because scenes seem to parallel each other and lead to some display for an audience. The audience could be the reader, or the reader may exist “within the painting” or in the gallery. If it’s “only the sail that flutters” this leads us to a quandary and cleaning up of the idea of reality. These props are created and magician-like, but when the book is done and the last page is turned the images last, the characters are real, and the narration, too, becomes reality. The introduction of a new perspective remains necessary to carry the reader. You may find yourself to be a prop, or a mannequin with real-life reflections; you may not want to escape.

Extracting the Human out of Humane: J. Michael Wahlgren on Carey Salerno’s Shelter


Shelter, Carey Salerno, Alice James Books

With Carey Salerno’s Shelter, we are introduced to new vocabularies and a new world; an e-room or euthanasia is introduced early in the book and the very elegant titles and wordplay juxtapose with an unfamiliar world for some: the world of animals. The blood and urine oozes as Salerno places elegant words next to the dry words of species and breeds.

There is more than a boring “on all fours” approach to Salerno’s Shelter: a concept of becoming one with the animals and interlocking into their world, their existence, is introduced. Attributing human qualities to animals is one approach that can be used, but the reverse is something rarely touched upon. As Salerno ends her poem “Euthanasia (e-room)” she writes, “We speak with eyes” and when “The sun rides her black back” in the poem “Beach Masque with Dog” there is an interaction between the world of dogs and our world, signified too by the title of this poem.

Salerno uses the couplet the majority of the book to signify togetherness: the world of dogs and other animals and our own world, and their interaction in a shelter. In these pages, the human experience is important, for example, in the poem “Shelter” the protagonist crawls out of the snow and seeks the same shelter.

In the snow, I crawl out

Claw charred earth

—like tundra—

But can’t get at the heart
Before it vanishes

The dogs seek comfort as they “sniff and howl /for shelter / all night.” There is mystery in the world of Salerno. When she uses the term “charred” it’s as if the dogs have pawed away at the earth before “it” eventually disappears. The “it” referring to the impact an animal makes on its keeper’s life or even the shelter itself.

There is a blurred interaction between these “keepers” of the shelter or “keepers of the keys.” For example, Salerno discusses “locking and unlocking the open door” in the poem “Afterlife” wondering in these lines who left these dogs here at the shelter: Who cared for them? Or in the poem “Instead of a Shotgun” an “unaddressed note threading the lock latch Please find home.”

What happens outside of the shelter is also of interest: a missed wedding, getting high outside and becoming paranoid and irresponsible. These ideas introduce a disjointedness which come together in principle with being young and being a teen. There is a need to grow, a need to change. It is the turning of the key that Salerno calls favorable: “Yes, we’re still waiting / to revisit, at night, the immutable scrolls we inked,/ stacked neatly on shelves, each name locked, a chain/ link door.” (“The Unlit Seam”)

These lines are symbolic of change: moving from one home to another home, or moving from irresponsibility to responsibility. The speaking with eyes, takes another form, as Salerno uses words which create new worlds, to introduce the death of animals and the seeking of a painless death.

As the blood oozes, Salerno paints a brief picture of returning to the place where we leave our mark. We also leave our scent (to use the dog analogy). But the most powerful image is “each name locked”; the idea of minimizing someone or some “thing” down to just a name. This can be interpreted to intend some positive or negative. It could be the power of words or even extracting the human out of humane that Salerno is referring to. This caring for animals and the shelter we seek becomes a universal. It becomes a lasting image of this book which makes Salerno’s Shelter, written in a poised and humane manner, a keeper.

Jazz & Origami: Adrienne J. Odasso on J. Michael Wahlgren’s Silent Actor


Silent Actor, J. Michael Wahlgren, BeWrite Books 2008

Reading J. Michael Wahlgren’s first collection of poetry, Silent Actor, is a simultaneously frustrating and rewarding experience. On the one hand, Wahlgren is a writer whose work evokes a strong, unapologetic sense of his identity. On the other, we get the sense that his seemingly inexplicable obsession with certain single words and images frequently prevents the collection from developing beyond a scope that is in some ways limited by that very persistent sense of self. The final stanzas of the opening piece, “Problem Child,” set a somewhat petulant and disaffected tone:

I refused to pick up my toys, never mind
bring in the barrels, mow the lawn or
the hardest task of all: emptying the dishwasher.

I lash out.

I’m unemployed,
not a child anymore, but a poet, an aspiring
artist on writer’s Aspirin.

We are speaking, then, with a young man whose past is still very much present—and whose present is, if the painkillers are any indication, drifting in a kind of numbed limbo.
From here, one might expect some elaboration upon Wahlgren’s hinted-at childhood that flows compellingly into what eventually becomes a vivid picture of who he has become. Instead, the next handful of poems, as the first piece accurately suggests, “lash out” in erratic, almost random directions: the author likening himself to numbers on a rating scale (“Prime”), natural and linguistic imagery too coy to evoke a clear focus (“Vulnerable” and “Games”), a teenage party game gone not so much wrong as exactly the way we expected it would (“Spin the Bottle”), and undergraduate ruminations on the futility of cram-sessions and dormitory life (“College”). It is not until “Candles” that we feel the collection has truly begun to state its intent:

No more foolish love, but serious

enervated love escalated, elevated to the top.
The candles in our eyes blew out,

after a shout, goodbye. We placed our hands in our pockets,
and eloped with stars in our pockets, our lips a red carpet

we each longed
to walk upon.

In this passage, the collection’s title begins, poignantly, to make sense. So, too, do we get a first glimpse at Wahlgren’s true strength: he has the ability to show love for what it is when the lights go out. In “Familiar,” he asserts,

…Difficult to say
now to what we can attribute
your looks, but without much clue,
you detect a way to see through
all the fame, in an attempt to
remember your God-given name.

This dark lady (or ladies, for we can never be sure) persists as a through-line of she for the remainder of the collection, providing a satisfying sense of love’s ultimately elusive nature. As it does for Wahlgren, it wears many faces down the years for all of us.
Previously mentioned in my introduction, Wahlgren’s peculiar single-word obsessions pop up early. Origami first manifests in “Spin the Bottle” (“locked lips, origami in flight”) and appears no fewer than five more times throughout the remainder of the pieces—sometimes parenthetical and always unexpected, although not necessarily illuminating. In folds that should be intricate, we find only muddled shadows. Jazz, on the other hand, is accorded a more active and effective role, as seen in “Unique Time”:

Waiting for your departure, we hold
hands for the first time—

(You must wonder)
how jazz is composed of laughter & pain,
without a refrain. In Monk’s time

we detest symbols,
straightforward piano keys of pain & mercy…

Tied up in this, too, is Wahlgren’s indelible sense of identity. This is music that he likes—no, loves—and, for a little while, he’ll see to it that we love it, too.
Amongst these ruminations on passion and music, we stumble across occasional moments of semi-transcendental glory. In “The Toy,” we find

The fire
in her palms
is dedicated
to wine

upon which revelation Wahlgren asks,

Which of these
has your name
written on it?

As to whether it’s reassuring when he tells us “We all have one,” I’ll let the reader decide. From this point onward, Silent Actor’s poems possess a dreamlike, lyrical quality. Wahlgren shifts his focus from acts of love to thoughts of love, persistently haunted by the enigmatic, personified phrase of you know who. Whether this specter is a past lover or (from moment to moment) his present lover’s ex, that, too, we can only begin to guess.
Ultimately, Wahlgren ends on a note not dissimilar to the one on which he began. In “Rise Up,” the final poem, we find these by-now unexpectedly flippant lines:

I rise up. Catch me if you are kind. Salute your buttocks.

I give an appearance of conceit,
chutes or ladders nowhere to be found
I hide the clues next to my genitals. Perhaps you’ll seek.

What we’ll seek, perhaps, is not so much a clue as some sense of resolution. Still, for all its quirks and occasional inconsistencies, Silent Actor is both a compelling self-portrait and a thought-provoking treatise on the myriad permutations of human relationships.


Adrienne J. Odasso is currently completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of York (UK).  Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including Strong Verse, Aesthetica, Succour, Sybil’s Garage, Farrago’s Wainscot, The Liberal, and Mythic Delirium.  Her short fiction has appeared in Behind the Wainscot and the Ruins Terra anthology from Hadley Rille books, with new work appearing in an upcoming anthology from Drollerie Press.  You can find her on the web at

The Past Still Remains: J. Michael Wahlgren on Idra Novey’s The Next Country


The Next Country, Idra Novey, Alice James Books

There is a certain jadedness implied from one time to another, from one place to another in Idra Novey’s debut poetry collection, The Next Country. With a simple lexicon and the introduction of objects, people and places, Novey paints a bittersweet situation which rides upon the past. The rhymes are punctual and apropos, one of which carries from the poem Property,
From his bedroom,
Neruda saw a painted board

Wash ashore, chipped
And blue, soggy from the sea.
to the poem Trans,
To speak of origins requires mastery
Of the verb to be. I used to be, for example
A little unwieldy. What an organ,
People said. To play me well
Demanded both hands & feet.

With a constant method of hiding & revealing, similar to Neruda’s desk from the sea, this book almost whispers the words to the reader. The process of revealing within The Next Country is a method used by Novey to lure the reader into a hopeful “next“: whether a broken automobile will run, whether or not a man will become successful, whether an octopus’ seventh arm will refasten.
Within the book, there remains an unseen.

So much grows on the unseen face.
(from From the Small Book of Returns)

…we’d missed into the unseen.
(from Maddox Road)
A bittersweet-like situation of leaving one’s origin to find another place is present. It doesn’t specify whether this place, traveled to by automobile, or by foot, is a better place, just that it remains another place. Hands and fingers, mouths and hallucinogenic berries are all objects handled by Novey. Though at an arm’s length, the taste of berries (“we lick at our fingers”) and a burning book (“the smell still in her hair) are prevalent images which hint at the importance of the past. Is there a sense of hope in the book‘s future?

What Novey is hinting at is that, no, there isn’t a sense of hope until one experiences it oneself. The moment that someone lives in (“My everything as symbol, though probably of nothing new”) and one’s surroundings define the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation begins as strange. The symbol here and an important image in the book is the slipping of one’s hand into another father’s palm,
Where you slipped your hand
Into the palm
Of somebody else’s father.
If there is an elixir in this book, there’s someone else waiting for it, not you. The father here is symbolic. It is representative of a new country. When Novey tackles the fields, this sense of hope becomes alive. The past and present unite in Novey’s words (“For a second, you are everywhere / you have ever been”). A sense of strangeness remains.

Though we end with an image of roaming the fields, the past still remains. There is no burying, doing away with, burning, etc. the past. It is as tangible as a girl’s hair, or as potent as a hallucinogenic berry. As The Next Country whispers its words (“We’ve started now to whisper, strangers still. To settle on meanings, to speak again”) in one of the later poems in the book, At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows, the “speaking again” remains undefined; but it does not remain unseen. There are strange words that have come about and meanings which imply a bitter past. Novey tells it as it is: a history of brokenness and a hope of becoming complete.

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.”

“Intertwining Place, Meaning, & Permanence”: J. Michael Wahlgren looks at Matter No Matter by Joel Chace

Matter No Matter, Joel Chace, Paper Kite Press

What’s at stake here in Joel Chace’s Matter No Matter is the preservation or death of the “self.” Seeming wish-washy at times, which may be quite necessary, is this actual death or moving away from the self that figuratively stabs the reader. The writing seems quite aware of itself: the imminent occurrences are foreseen by events foretold or hinted at within the writing. As the text references a means of transportation, the train, the writing seems to predict this form being sampled in shifty letters & explanations which vary themselves, leading the reader to wonder where is the actual caboose. There is a certain mystery to the wordplay in this text with some being appropriately enough for the death of a self stream of consciousness.


An example of this foreseeing is Chace’s use of the word “crazy” in a poem entitled Upstate which sends the whole text into an organized type chaos: “don’t kid yourself/ purple white gray-white blue/ yellow black don’t a basketball/that grimes hands and/ bounces crazy off every/ goddamn gray little black/ knob of ice to walk over/ the bridge home through purple air…” The organized chaos appears as rainfall on the pages following spaced out wording such as: tier/ tier/ tiers/ destitu/ its ettrs/ used side/ trusd/ sire turd/ destitu…”


We return to the self in the text with the poem Given: “That self rides two/ Entirely different trains passing/ Each other icebergs in/ the night.” Given seems to reference this train of self, striving for meaning and to be read. It is a self that perhaps like the icebergs is chilled as the last poem touches upon the meaning of superficiality: “surface and water that/ are not do not matter but/ do mean the matter then/ cannot mean the meaning is/ nothing…” There is a sense of permanence in making sense out of the sentences, just as with the self, take the poem The Story: “about a line/ all about and around/ it two distances and/ the longest point/ he/ is one who/ keeps reading and keeps/ each time saying a/ sentence must lend itself/ to vigorous analysis.” In this poem there is a sense of “standing out” as if analysis is necessary to do so.


It seems as though Chace’s poems are tough enough to not get hurt, having some violent references which make the reader want to kidnap the author’s word choice. There is also a quest for a sense of place as in the poem Godhead where the character seeks a place to settle referencing it as “seeing a face” in something. The analysis of the ‘I,’ the sentence, and its death and meaning are lasting images when the text is over. The form of these poems sometimes makes it a complicated read. However, what’s at stake (the search for place, meaning, and most importantly, permanence) intertwines to pay off with an interesting read.




J. Michael Wahlgren edits for Gold Wake Press ( He is author of Silent Actor (BeWrite, 2008).