Reviews

Night Travels by Christopher Kuhl

Christopher Kuhl creatively interweaves themes of faith, family, and death in his book of poems, “Night Travels.” In the first poem, “In the Beginning,” positioned before the table of contents, he writes: “This was the darkness, the void, the Voice, begotten not made,and we, bones and flesh, burnt and buried in the clay, could not open our eyes to see what was no longer there.”

His work contains several Biblical references, from a conversation between Adam and Eve in “Poetry: From Creation to Revelation” to the death of Christ in “Jerusalem.” Some poems are prayers, heartfelt, beautifully phrased. The poet’s tie to Judaism is especially poignant in “Before I Was Born (But Cannot Forget).” Visiting Vad Yashem, he writes:

“I stand in the center and scream,
And hear the cattle cars creaking again,
Laden with those already lost, too numb,
To cry, to pray.”

The title poem, “Night Travels,” addresses the day of judgement:

“In a field, men will pop up, pulling
Long and deep from jugs of corn whiskey,
The ten thousand days diminish one
By one, and trains, men, swaying,
Drunk, join the sleepers of the little towns;

Sleep, while mountains and fields
Shift and change from what they once
Knew them to be, and cannot, even now,
In their stertorous breathing, imagine
The stranglehold to come.”

In “A Son’s Inheritance,” “Hunger,” and “Fathers and Sons,” a son wishes to be like his father. That wish becomes more strident in “Trapped in the Wrong Skin,” where a girl, wanting to be a boy, smashes Barbie and endures the family response–panic. In the powerful “Memories,” we see family grown apart:

“We organize our memories,
Make new stories: there is no
DNA match, rather, only remnants
Of skin and bones, sinews, sucked
Into a black hole, the annihilation
And silencing of light,
The silencing of what never was or will be.”

As I read Kuhl’s reflections on life and death, another poet clamored to be remembered: Louise Gluck. In “Afterword,” she uses the phrase, “…the cemetery where questions of faith are answered.”

Kuhl writes of a dying pregnant doe in “Body and Soul”:

“To die, to let the fawn
Die too. So must we all
When the moment comes, choose

To embrace our mortality,
Shattered strength and all,
As well as the fawn, the dreams within.”

In “Death of a Man”:

“His skull and wasted frame give it away:
He is doing this dying only once,
And for keeps.”

But then, maybe not. From “The Tenth Year: Prayer”:

“Oh surely,
Souls live, they must,
surely, they must. Mother,
hear me, help me breathe.”

“Night Travels” is a collection of poems with deep, cogent meaning. A master of the extended metaphor, Kuhl’s poems linger in the soul. He brings a strain of fatalism to his work; subtle and most beautifully expressed–the minty lozenge for the throat. I very much look forward to his next volume of poetry.

Voice in A Whisper by Frank Rutledge

This book is a little gem, wonderful for carrying around in a purse, for quick glimpses into the human condition. In A Poet’s Glossary, Hirsch tells us that haiku, with its primary focus on nature, “…seeks the momentary and the eternal,” while senryu, dealing with human nature, is often satiric. Frank Rutledge’s Voice in A Whisper, a collection of haiku and senryu poems, is filled with expressions of love, nature appreciation, and whimsy, with asides into music, literature, and art.  There is irony in Rutledge’s work, and gasps of sorrow when he chronicles personal loneliness and loss. Some of the poems embody folk wisdom, emanating from his southern roots. He is a musician, as well as a poet and I hear his music in pieces like “a pause in our talk/she cries tears—sounds like crickets/over the cell phone.” Voice in a Whisper is a welcome addition to poetry collections.

Murder on the Floodways by Harold J. Walker

This memoir/true crime story, finds its roots in southern fiction by writers like Reynolds Price and Doris Betts, with its setting of reclaimed wasteland, death, and gospel music, and characters, real as life, bathed in the light of Jesus. The author’s voice is his own at age twelve; he’s impressionable, a beloved son, and trying to make sense of a double murder not far from his home. His neighbor, Hokey, a dangerous strain in his soul, murders a cat, Ol’ Tom, on the first page of Murder on the Floodways, and goes on to shoot dead his best friend and then be killed by an unknown hand, raising the possibility of a deadly feud. The subsequent funerals, where murderer and victim lie side by side in a Baptist church, are presided over by two preachers, one whose church belongs to the Bootheel Baptist Association and the other, whose church resolutely does not. At the joint service, all is said that must be said and the community sets itself right.

Author Harold G. Walker grew up in the Missouri Bootheel on land recovered from swamps near the Mississippi, where his father was a cotton farmer. The killings of Hokey and his best friend, Fats, bedeviled his mind until he wrote it all down, and magically, in the words of a pre-adolescent boy.

Murder on the Floodways renewed my thirst for the South and its culture of pride, loss, and redemption, and I plan to revisit writers like Reynolds and Betts, Clyde Edgerton, and others. But those are fiction writers. Walker’s story, though reflective, has the immediacy of truth. His book should be on library shelves all over the country.

Going Places by Elaine Palencia

Going Places is Elaine Palencia’s third chapbook. The first two, Taking the Train and The Dailiness of It All, center on caring for her disabled son. In Dailiness, she writes that metaphor provides greater truths about the world in which her family lives.

In the new chapbook, Palencia creates images that stay in the mind. To a Deer Parked Outside Big Lots presents a candid shot of a slain deer, trussed in the trunk of a Chevy Lumina: “…a murdered odalisque glimpsed between bedroom curtains.” Of life’s ephemerality, she writes “…we are birds, swiftly passing, swiftly gone (Illinois Skies)” and of becoming the  “…kin-keeper, grave-knower… (Finding the Graves )” after her mother lays down those titles.

Palencia focuses on themes of family, the farm, and despoilation. Kentucky is home to her and she writes in the rich language of Appalachian poets. Reminiscent of Rita Sims Quillen’s Counting the Sums, Palencia’s Near the Kentucky-Virginia Border, Early Autumn describes coal trucks that “roar around the turns like sharks charging a rowboat,” and “twice-dead” soldiers’ photos found in a dead letter office, farewell letters from trapped miners, and the “…lights of a prison brighter than stars.” Little Brother compares the work of the adelgid, insect ravager of forests, with mining companies that “behead a mountain to steal its coal.” In The Caryatids of Appalachia, mountain women hold up the sky. The farm, once sold, constitutes a journey as family members seek to become more urbanized; still there is the pull-back to agrarian values.

Going Places guides the reader through time and place. Palencia has planned a deeply thoughtful trip for the traveler. It left me looking at the treetops outside my window.  It left me remembering the farm I left behind.

Sinew by John Arends

Had I not known poet John Arends, I might not have purchased his debut chapbook, Sinew: Muscle Poems and Mantras, Bar Rants and Bliss, thinking the contents too machismo for my taste. The cover features a single arrowhead, bound in leather, undeniably phallic, and when paired with the title…

But I had heard Arends read at Waterline Studios in Batavia, IL, and knew him to be a poet of substance and generosity. As I read the poems in Sinew, I noticed a focus on skin, which along with sinew rang a biblical bell. Turning to the Book of Job, I found mention of sinew in the tenth chapter: Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh and hast fenced me with bones and sinew. (Note: A poetic description of God making a baby in the womb.) Had Sinew symbolically announced the birth of Arends’s love child—these poems, which I held in my hands? Perhaps!

The landscape of Sinew seems to be connections. In a difficult world, man bonds with his mate, children, nature, and humanity. In the end, nothing lasts, a truth threading through the final poems as the poet contemplates aging. Mood and themes are varied, but Arends has a grip on what unites man and woman, keeps families together, and links strangers. Scattered throughout are lonely musings of the traveling man, the poignant snap of memory, and concern for the beasts of the natural world.

Candlelight is erotic, with wonderful lines; among them, “…passion…comes undeniable upon you in this amber, salsa-fired light.Moss Rose at Dawn is lyrical, expressing wonder at “…your face in shape and promise, both flower and flight, moss rose and gull wing, alike in elegance…” Travel brings estrangement, as expressed in Hard Glass, Hard Times:We are naked in our travels, all pretense exposed, all rudeness at the skin, all odorous attitudes tucked under the arms, like the Times. Dirty Socks, the first poem in the collection, pays tribute to a young daughter, acknowledging that he missed much of her life through the requirements of earning a living.

Arends addresses the plight of a zoo inhabitant in The Last Bear, which did not survive deprivations caused by the two-hundred-day siege of Sarajevo: “Everywhere the scum on the moat walls were shallow furrows scraped by tooth and claw.” He writes of the brutalities of the Bosnian War in In the Blood where ethnic cleansing happens because it is what blood dictates. “Most of all the blood is in the words, ripe in the jaw…”  Feathers Lost shows the poet giving way to aloneness: I lock my wings to the wind and close my eyes to dream. 

Arends’s poems demonstrate muscularity with an inexorable zest for living. If I were to guess some of the mantras by which the poet lives, I would say The Golden Rule and an open heart. Bar rants—okay, but they are quiet rants (no one throws a bottle at the mirror), and bliss, yes, he evinces a calm bliss that comes from caring. Sinew leaves the reader with a sense of eager expectation: what can we expect from John Arends’s next collection of poems?

It’s Best Not To Interrupt Her Experiments, by Carlo Matos

It’s Best Not To Interrupt Her Experiments is Carlo Matos’ fourth book of poetry. It is a delightful read, full of surprise and discovery. Matos’ lines linger in memory long after the book has been closed. He’s played with fragmented form by giving each poem a date for a title. If we want to know more, we must make sense of the date.

The collection depicts efforts of women, some identifiable—Jane Goodall, Chris Evert, Lise Meitner, Emilie du Chatelet—and some claiming the page anonymously as an archer, a CIA agent, a runner (Perhaps with more digging, those women might also be identified).

On the first page, he quotes Sister Corita Kent: “Consider everything an experiment.”  He also quotes Maria Mitchell: “when they come to truth through their own investigations, when doubts lead them to discovery, the truth they get will be theirs and their minds will go on unfettered.” Both quotes, particularly the latter, are key to understanding this collection of poems.

A Renaissance man, poet Matos is an educator (City College of Chicago) who also trains kickboxers. In Experiments, he might be experimenting with us, his readers. Do we get these poems whose titles only nudge us toward a date in history? Or is his intent to help us cast off the wrappings from our minds?

His poems provide form, delicious language, and characters from films and comics strips. Themes derive from history and science. Titles all dates, and few are as indelibly stamped in memory as 7-4-1776 or 9-11-2001.

But see how Matos uses a title (date) to take us back to pre-historical times.

[c. 1580 BCE]

Everyone wanted to sit next to her
when she carried her bow,
especially on a train.
There’s something in the shape of a recurve,
something that makes people riding a bus
remember immeasurable steppes on horseback
and the small of wool and sheep’s milk—
their brown paper bags full to the brim
with a rare airag.

Airag, I learned, is fermented horse milk. There is more to this poem. Robin Hood is invoked. Matos compares a gun with a bow, and ends the poem with but a woman with a bow has gone out and come back. She has tested her purpose on the tension of a string.

[3/16/1982] refers to Chris Evert’s defeat in a match with Marina Navratolova, which occurred on that date:

Just because she hulked a few team shirts,
And a few rackets got smashed
Against the imperious green of the tennis court—
And just because she could be heard as far as the track
Slinging outrageous curses that would perturb
Even the lilting murmur in Thulsa Doom’s serpent eye..,

Poems are also about Jane Goodall, Lise Meitner, Emilie du Chatelet, and other figures.

From [12/19/1848]:

But what sorrow was heard
On the moors—
What stunned ululation
When they found the blood spilled
Was only a wart’s scalped wheezes

From [7/4/1976]:

They were ready to be scared
In that homemade-ketchup-blood kind of way.
They were ready for scarecrow-stuffed pants
And headless shirts hangnecking
just faster than their eyes could track.

I loved this collection of poems and look forward to reading more of Matos’ work. I hope Matos will write another poem titled [11/8/2016] about a woman’s valiant effort to win the US presidency, unable to overcome the hurdles of a flawed reputation, ill-advised campaign and Russian intervention in the political process.