Kristin 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
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.
“...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
Its sanctity is proven
by the fact that it can
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.
“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
the cruelties. We can
name and admit,
confess and praise
at the same time.
This is a step, difficult
From here we must
build. But only if
you want to build.
If we choose not
to build, there is another
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.
With grave certainty, you promise to never take life
for granted again, but you do.
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.
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?