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  • Writer's pictureKristin Kowalski Ferragut

Four Great Poets, Four Short Reviews

I have read some magnificent poetry collections this month! And in my last post, I promised to return with some mini-reviews. So here they are. What wealth!




Bargaining with the Fall, by Alison Palmer



Alison Palmer mourns, steps into loss, and creates a world, both devastating and beautiful, around caring for and grieving a loved one in her full-length poetry collection Bargaining with the Fall (Broadstone Books, 2023). When one loses someone central to their life, all experiences and images radiate from that loss. Alison looks unflinchingly into this loss and the unblinking blue eyes of her father and then sees him in every miracle of this gorgeous world.



Some Nights Faintest



My patient mother waits for signs

from my father, dead several months—

I’m not patient, so I see him

every day in everything. Tonight

the sky’s clear, but stars


are scarce. My mother, so close

to a primitive sound, inhales

her scream, concentrates

on darkness, claims

perhaps this is him—


he plays his part

with stars that divide

into disappearing, tired

of returning wishes—her heart’s set

on a small one. With pitch-


black hands, he cups the star; not good

enough, it barely warms him, but others

quickly retreat. He doesn’t

let the star fall, gently tethering her

to each night, to the same wish.



These poems are full of such lovely imagery in surprising orientations, offering more meaning than one comes to expect from this world; makes one believe. Alison writes with incredible precision and powerful use of space, moving the poems in continuous breath, a flow that can move one to read the entire collection in one sitting. Indeed, I know several of us have. But also, poems that call for careful review and contemplation, calling us back, opening up sacred space of adoration and remembrance.


Bargaining with the Fall unleashes waves of empathy and love, so that one wants to collect the speaker and her family into their arms, or collect every star in the sky to present them for their comfort. But more, it begs remembrance of our own cherished lost ones; has me looking to the skies for solace in missing. These poems invite the missing and the solace. Here is one more of Alison’s poems from a collection in which every poem moved me.



HITTING THE ROOFLESS BLUE



The night you fell, the falling wasn’t silent;

wood ripped away from wood—your

soft-siren-cries for help.


When I saw you, I broke

into what if and if only and why

didn’t I and how

could you.


In a not-so-sleep-state the two of us collect

cumulonimbus, pretend we can harness


lightning, tornados; our family has

done its best for you, kept those ashes,


those ashes at bay. Kept death

from beseeching its rattle.


Joy is not greater than sorrow, nor sorrow

greater than joy. Light,

maybe from your heavens,

cracks the stone.






Raising King, by Joseph Ross



From the Introduction of Raising King (Aquarius Press, 2020) by Joseph Ross:



Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. lived a prophetic and compassionate life… He knew the indignities suffered by African Americans as he felt them in his own skin. Further, he knew racism disfigured the white people who used it. Thus, he focused his life in such a way, built on compassion, that his work might free both those who suffer from racism and those who inflict the suffering…


Three of Dr. King’s books are sometimes called his political autobiographies. Stride Toward Freedom (1958) shows us Dr. King in his late twenties. This book recalls the Montgomery, Alabama bus protest. Why We Can’t Wait (1963) explores the violent events of 1963 and includes his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He is more aware of the cost of nonviolence. Where Do We Go from Here? (1968) written in the final year of his life, reveals an urgent man hoping to heal our interconnected but wounded world.


This collection of poems uses these three books to explore Dr. King’s life in poems…



This is a tall order, ambitious and important work. Joseph Ross, a gifted poet and himself an urgent man, delivers powerfully on his promise. With sharp, direct verse, rich with compassion and nuance, Joseph illuminates America’s history of violence and cruelty through vivid descriptions, biblical images, and characterizations of children, men, mothers. Joseph looks through the politics and laws into the inhumanity and human struggle to live.



Be Broken


“...a nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.”

Stride Toward Freedom, p. 89



When the hand

scoops salt water and pours


it over the head, it is a baptism

in walking forward, an admission


that the eyes are in front

of the human


head. They see in

one direction. They see


a lunch counter

become an alter.


Food and hatred can both be

thrown at people.


Both feed the one

who throws them.


The blood streaming

from a human head


consecrates the plates

and coffee cups into which it


spills. But the human head needs

no consecration.


Its sanctity is proven

by the fact that it can


bleed.



This is a difficult collection to read. As a student of history myself, however, I realize that the harsh realities it exposes are precisely what makes it essential. There were moments in reading that I wept (Our Lady of Sorrows Comes to Birmingham 2, p. 98). Joseph crystallizes the agony of racial brutality with succinct aim and clarity. But in doing so, he challenges us all, calls us all to remember the legacy of Dr. King, to face our past and present, to shift the trajectory of hate in this country. On theme, I transcribe one more of Joseph’s poems, grateful that he has done the work to lay this out for us in poetry that gives heart to our American crisis.



Our Country


“This is white America’s most urgent challenge today. If America is to respond creatively to the challenge, many individuals, groups, and agencies, must rise above the hypocrisies of the past and begin to take an immediate and determined part in changing the face of their nation.”

Where Do We Go from Here? p. 90



We can admit our

country’s errors and not


melt into nothing. We can

be truthful about


the cruelties in history

without becoming


the cruelties. We can

name and admit,


confess and praise

at the same time.


This is a step, difficult

enough.


From here we must

build. But only if


you want to build.

If we choose not


to build, there is another

way:


burn.






Elegies for an Empire, by Le Hinton



In Elegies for an Empire (Iris G. Press, 2023), Le Hinton crafts delicate poems that call the reader to take notice and points us in essential directions. Against the backdrop of America’s racial cruelties and a world submerged in a pandemic, Le fearlessly pays witness to loss, grief, and injustice, while elevating nature, beauty, love, prayer and other tender mercies.



Still Life with Desire


Friday, April 17, 2020


How does this mask-wearing

increase the volume

of unspoken words singing

in the eyes of hopeful lovers?


This is a marvel, like Beethoven composing

his 9th within an enveloping silence.

Like how the sense of touch

intensifies in the dark.



An elegy, yes, with many poems inviting introspection, both cultural and personal, but poems also filled with lightness and hope. Le writes thoughtful poems that sing with a kindness that offers a profound and comforting reflection on humanity. Interactions with Le’s work consistently challenge me to be a better person, to take less for granted, to have reverence for sincerity. He does this from the example of his generous worldview.


In addition to the wonderful words, Elegies for an Empire is a visually beautiful book. Each of its three sections, Elegies, Still Life with Desire, and Allies and Ancestors begin with striking black and white images that themselves are meditations and the grey-scale iris end paper makes me happy.


I am grateful for this collection and for this poem that I’ve returned to several times, to remember all of what we have and can do now.



Metastasis


With grave certainty, you promise to never take life

for granted again, but you do.


“Cliché”


I’ve learned my lesson this time. The scan

isn’t always normal. The bullets

can’t always be dodged and life

doesn’t unfold day after joyful

day, queuing into infinity.


I swear I’ll be kinder to strangers, tip

25 percent at Cracker Barrel, and call,

not text, Aunt Pat on her birthday.

Every two months, I’ll donate blood;

thank my mail lady every week; and not rush

off to my house when Miss Carol

spins stories about life in the 60s.


I promise to embrace each moment, delight

in every gift: the sweetness of a fresh

peach, the joy of Joni’s voice, and the grace

of baseball on a summer afternoon.

I’ll savor the last moments of our first

kiss, the first beams of the moon in the night

sky, and the morning sun dancing on the walls.


So tomorrow, if the blood test is negative and the MRI

silent, I’ll be the man I was planning to be

when I got older, the human, my dog, Megan,

thinks that I am now. I’ve learned my lesson this time.

I pledge. I promise. I swear.






An Infusion of Violets, by Nancy Naomi Carlson



An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), by Nancy Naomi Carlson, is stunning, wowing me throughout with gorgeous, often unexpected images. The back of the book describes the landscapes in this collection as “sometimes erotic, sometimes melancholy.” I see that in Nancy’s poems and find the synthesis of those qualities romantic to the point of spiritual. These poems take events, maybe uplifting, often disturbing in reality, and puts them in magical space where everything grows, expands, and lingers on with faith, or at the very least resolve that never feels like surrender, but more like peace, even in discomfort.



What My Father Knows



My father knows his mind is leaving,

cells fleeing a mineshaft’s dark.

He remembers the color of Laddie’s coat—

first of a long line of dogs—but forgets the shade

of my mother’s eyes when she leaves the room.


How long before he forgets her face

and the fire of her auburn hair?


Each night she pours him dragon brew

to head off the gathering chill,

chides him when he spills a drop—

from highest mountains come finest teas.


She invents a tale of an emperor—K’ang Ha—

who seduces a red-haired beauty beneath a ginkgo tree.

A pot of water simmered nearby.

As she finger-combed her shimmering hair,

three strands broke free to ride the wind

into the steaming brew

now transformed into liquid amber, jasmine-oiled

a dynasty of song.


My father inhales her words.



I’ve read this collection through a few times, absorbing its images and feeling a new approach to life that sounds infinitely more nuanced and affirming than those of all my dear old philosophers. It is that vision of life, that life is beautiful as it is hard, that holds this collection together. If you or a loved one have been treated for cancer, or lost a child, been in love, or lived alone, this collection will gift deep understanding, both in way of feeling seen by the Poet and in a different angle from which to study experience.


I share the opening poem of An Infusion of Violets, which immediately sweeps the reader into this breathtaking world.



Sari-Covered Nights


I’m a brass-bellied Buddha’s dream,

an evening of gauze, stars blue

and windswept, the quicksilver moon

tangled in the limbs of a lone banyan tree.

Oh, rub me to a blinding sheen!


I am the sitar’s ragged throat, pitched

between here and when,

caught in quartertones, wolds bewitched.

Why these four arms so long unkissed?

Am I not your goddess?


My five mouths roll their uvulas,

guttural as high winds crossing desert dunes.

Is there not a stopping place for us,

adrift, two souls who speak in tongues?






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