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OUR REVIEW POLICY:

We do not review books ourselves, but we do publish reviews of poetry books. If you'd like us to post a review of your book - either send us a review that was written by someone - OR have someone who has written a review submit it to us.  The submission should be in accordance with our standard submission policy on our guidelines page.  Reviews included here:  In Hubble's Shadow (Carol Smallwood),  Manhattan Plaza (James B. Nicola), Captive of Jerusalem – Song of Shulamite (Rena Lee), and The Bird Artists (Laurie Byro).


Review: In Hubble’s Shadow by Carol Smallwood, Shanti Arts Publishing, 2017

By Alex Phuong

The night sky has served as the inspiration for many poets and writers, from Longfellow’s “The Light of Stars” to “Stars” by Robert Frost, and still does. Profoundly and mysteriously beautiful, Carol Smallwood’s In Hubble’s Shadow is an artistic exploration of mankind’s place in the universe that reminds readers about humility in the face of the finite knowledge of our reality.

In Smallwood’s first section, called “The Universe,” poems explore the nature of time and space. For example, in “A Scattering of Lines,” she explores a universal theme about celestial objects within the universe. Specifically, the last two lines,

Sunlight would reach Earth in a straight line
if it weren’t for the layer of air

reveal the profound design of the universe as well as reality as a whole. Such an idealized depiction of the universe can make readers question the origins of such perfection, and, by extension, the nature of the heavens. Many people continue to speculate where mankind came from, and why everything exists, or whether or not everything is nothing more than a meaningless illusion. Dwelling among such philosophical questions, Smallwood’s poetry is a simple, yet profound, exploration of subjectivity.

The next section, called “The Hearth,” explores the power of home and security. The figurative hearth within these poems asserts that Earth is the only home for mankind, and reminds readers that all people are very minuscule compared to the vastness of the universe. For example, “A Villanelle for Three Dolls,” compares people to insignificant toys in a vast universe. This is the second stanza:

Time and changing circumstances cannot erase
the security of keeping them in full view, a compensation:
three dolls who’ve survived the years are together in one place

The fact that this poem is a villanelle makes the rhyme scheme unique. This stanza is also very symbolic because the dolls represent people, all of whom are creatures by default, and cannot here rival the awe-inspiring nature of the universe. Perhaps all people really are just like dolls because humanity could just be as simple as toys.

The third section of poetry is called “Sea-Change.” Within this section, Smallwood reveals the themes of both constant change and eternal stagnation through her examination of life itself. In, “Live With It,” Smallwood writes:

A few years ago I’d been told to buy a good lutein supply
for macular degeneration due to aging—there’s no going back;
there wasn’t a warning, just jagged lightening in my eye

The overall theme of this poem is coping, as the title suggests. It is appropriately within the section called “Sea-Change” because change is fundamentally the only constant in life. The main figure in this poem has to cope with change and reality, an important skill. Living with any ailment or hardship can be challenging, but overcoming challenges makes people stronger. Perhaps that is why Smallwood included this poetry in a section that relates to the ocean because life itself ebbs and flows like the power of the mighty sea.

Smallwood specializes in pantoums, and published this how-to piece on pantoums. Her command of this Malaysian-derived poetry form is on display in such splendid pieces as “Defining Time.” In the four-stanza poem, I have quoted below the first and last stanzas (of four):

Time’s illusive to understand, define
even with the definitions, planck and light years—
centuries studying, grasping design
a slippery concept to confront human fears.

There’s many known poems and quotations,
centuries studying, grasping design
making little sense after all the rotations;
time s illusive to understand, define.

Notice that the first line of the poem becomes the last and the third becomes the third from last. Through the pantoum’s structure, Smallwood has made this poem on time and physics effectively transform into a poem about literature and culture, and subtly drawn parallels between the human experience and the universe.

Smallwood titled the ending of her poetry collection, “Epilogue—Little Is Known.” That powerful title basically sums up all of the themes presented in her book. Some people might be scholars, and others might be intellectually challenged. In spite of the differences that characterize people, the fact is that not much is known about the universe. To this day, abstract questions that befuddled mankind continue to be on the minds of people. The Earth will always metaphorically be “In Hubble’s Shadow” because it is only one small component of the entirely mysterious vastness of the universe.

 

Carol Smallwood’s over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is a 2014 collection from Lamar University Press; Divining the Prime Meridian, is forthcoming from WordTech Editions. She has appeared in such journals as: Drunken Boat; The Writer’s Chronicle; The Main Street Rag; Jelly Bucket; English Journal. Carol has founded and supports humane societies.

Alex Andy Phuong earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University—Los Angeles in 2015 while also serving as an editor for Statement Magazine. 


Review of James B. Nicola’s Manhattan Plaza

Cincinnati: Word Poetry, 2014. $22, paper.
ISBN: 978-1-62549-092-6
By Lindsey Martin-Bowen


Poetry-reading New Yorkers will fare well by perusing James B. Nicola’s
Manhattan Plaza, named for an apartment complex built in 1977 west of Times Square
as part of the urban-renewal project that ousted Hell’s Kitchen. This healthy sized
collection comprises six sections: “the city,” “the people,” “the neighborhood,” “the
buildings,” “the residents,” and “come in,” an olio of poems about inroads to the city,
various transportation modes, itinerants, insomnia, and so forth, welcomes readers to
his home. Yet this work is not a mere tour-book.


Early on, the persona reveals the city’s dark side, via his cognizance of death
surfacing in the introductory poem, “If you live.” There, Nicola wittily observes that
those who “live in the country” will likely find that when they “run into a man with a
scythe,/he’s just a farmer” (17). In the same vein, “I’d heard the story on the radio” is a
poem about a suicide in his building: “One tenant leapt to the playground below/when
children were playing there, to his death” (124). He ends the poem in a rhyming couplet
emulating the language in Romeo and Juliet, “while ears of walls and souls hear tales of
woe/and screams of other ghosts we scarcely know” (124). Another death image—the
vampire—appears in “City Scape,” where Nicola’s persona hangs “upside-down” inside
the cave-city of “stalactites or stalagmites” (22).


Accordingly, this book reveals some of the Big Apple’s worms: “AIDS, swine flu,
and HIV in such poems as “1985,” where the persona alludes to phones ringing regularly
“when the plague [AIDS] was new” and bemoans the loss of “[a]ctors of too few years . . .
too many ghosts of stage/and film too quickly made” (153).


On the other hand, Nicola employs humor, especially in the “people” section,
with “Karaoke” (75), “Clear Thinking” (78), “The Waiters” (81) and other poems.
The last section, however, best displays this poet’s craft, especially in “Ferries on
the Hudson,” where Nicola uses a ferryboat ride’s jolting, start-and-stop rhythms as a
microcosm of life in the city. This metaphor becomes evident in the lines,


Life. Each ferry
that ploughs along the wake
on a never still river,
carries, inside,
all we are, were, will be,
to the other side, then back.
the passengers
can not get off until
journey’s end . . . (147).


Today, Manhattan Plaza houses performing artists and other professionals,
including Nicola, a stage director. And Nicola’s opus is an engaging peek into his
neighborhood.


—Lindsey Martin-Bowen


Lindsey Martin-Bowen’s “Bonsai Tree Gone Awry” in her Inside Virgil’s Garage (Chatter
House Press 2013) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. McClatchy Newspapers named her
Standing on the Edge of the World (Woodley Press) one of the Ten Top Poetry Books of 2008.
Paladin Contemporaries released her three novels, the latest, Rabbit Redux. Her poems have
run in New Letters, I-70 Review, Thorny Locust, Bare Root Review, Rockhurst Review, Coal
City Review, Flint Hills Review, and others. She taught at UMKC 18 years and teaches at MCC Longview.


She has served as a full-time newspaper reporter and magazine editor and holds an
MA and Juris Doctor.

Review of Rena Lee’s Captive of Jerusalem – Song of Shulamite

Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Reviewer: Dr. Margherita Frankel

Through the last few years I have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the work of Rena Lee, an Israeli-American poet living in New York City. Her poems often struck me as small gems, self-enclosed small worlds where strikingly original and bold images were employed in the service of domestic little scenes. The ordinariness of everyday life was upended by the unexpected images, becoming a disquieting mirror of fear and sadness.

Unfortunately I do not know Hebrew, the language in which most of Rena Lee’s work has been written and published. But her poems in English, written directly by her in what should have been for her a second language, reveal her to be a powerful new voice that ought to be better known in this country. And there is nothing contrived or awkward in her usage of English. She is totally comfortable in it, proving herself to be that rare phenomenon, a bilingual poet.

Rena Lee’s just published new opus, “Captive of Jerusalem – Song of Shulamite” is a different kind of poem. It spreads slowly along a Prologue, 22 short chapters and an Epilogue. It is the story of a long lost love, it is a love letter to the deceased lover, but it is also a love letter to Israel and Jerusalem in particular. The narration does not unfold in a linear way but in spurts according to the vagaries of memory. The language alternates between narrative tones and Biblical echoes characterized by their typical rhythms, with direct quotations or paraphrases of the Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes. And it is mostly a lamentation of loss and sorrow. What this long poem loses in condensed strength by comparison with the previous individual brief pieces, it gains in the charm of the narration, in the anguish of the foreboding and then the actualization of the loss. The individual turns into the universal, the private grief becomes the widely shared sorrow of a land without peace asking the sacrifice of its best sons.

Rena Lee’s distinctive voice is still manifest in some of her surprising images, like the running nuns “ethereal as if they were ghosts of forgotten Latin phrases;” or “I was… like a forgotten note on a scale.” But her interest here seems to be directed rather to the story and to the predicament of a person torn between two countries and still mourning the never forgotten young love.

The intensity of the feelings expressed in this poem leads one to surmise the presence of autobiographical elements, though to do so is always a suspect enterprise. In any case, whatever this poem represents, it is a deeply felt and beautifully narrated story of love and grief. And it is haunting poetry.

 

From Captive of Jerusalem: Song of Shulamite

Chapter XII

Oh, the things I've never asked you -
Like Jerusalem I'm sealed with stones,
full of unanswered questions.
Stones that cling together to cover any gap,
always conspiring to have the spirit committed.
Stones that know how to touch on the raw
and keep quiet.

Again I was cornered by cobbled-streets, scratched and
bruised, pushed and shoved.
Again I was drummed on by the hard facts of rocks
and stones and dry bones, and the endless tam-tam
of tombs, tombs, tombs...

“Death is the only surety,” you said, yet yours remains
shrouded in doubt. How can I be taken in, I
who have known the blissful touch of your hands,
and their cunning when avoiding me…
“Accidents do happen, especially in the army,”
you said, like a good lawyer preparing his case.

My beloved is gone down into his garden,
to the beds of spices

Again I was marching up and down the narrow staircases of
Jerusalem, like a forgotten note on a scale,
a lost syllable quivering between the lips
of earth and heaven.

 

Review of Laurie Byro’s The Bird Artists

The Bird Artists by Laurie Byro (LaurieByro.com)

Byro’s voice is so distinct that it seems possible to absolutely identify an unlabeled poem as hers.  Her poems offer Nature as both
refuge and threat.  Love is both an incandescent and a consuming fire.  Byro’s Green Man wears a battered leather jacket — and leaves
you in shreds in the morning.  This small but well-selected chapbook highlights Byro’s gift for dichotomy — “I hadn’t yet decided which
life / was better.”  “She cradles me. / She holds my soul over a flame.”

Byro’s speakers confess to the extent to which they overgive themselves in relationships:  “I gave birth / to his amber-eyed
bastard who without hesitation / he devoured.”  But in the end, they triumph:  “I shall make myself / a meal of him,” Byro tells us.

--From the title poem:

When my skin no longer fits, I carry a bag of bones
to the edge of the ocean.  I steal the breath from a gull.

In Byro’s skillful hands, pain, loss and longing are transformed into
movement, force and action.  From them we learn what we are truly
capable of under duress.

— Grasslimb,  www.grasslimb.com