Kristin Kowalski Ferragut
Verse to Be Thankful For: Four Short Poetry Book Reviews
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Before posting these mini-reviews, I took some time to post excerpts on Amazon and Goodreads, depending on where I found the collections. I often miss this step but seems an essential part of the process of supporting artists whose work enriches my life. So I also went back and posted for books I’ve reviewed in the past.
Always having had a complicated relationship with Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for a simple way to celebrate the holiday, uplifting these books and Poets for whom I am thankful.
Desert Songs, by Yahai Labadidi
I am reluctant to review Desert Songs (Rowayat, 2022), poetry by Yahia Labadidi, because quiet meditation feels in order; a silent respect for the awesome forces of nature, the desert, and Yahia’s extension of those to matters of heart, soul, and the Divine. Still, while I understand the risk that extrapolating any critique or interpretation of this collection may do a disservice to the practically perfect lyricism and balance of external observation and internal life evidenced in the poems, I write to uplift this work and recommend that you experience it firsthand.
Desert Songs is a short collection of poems, but ones that reveal new openings of understanding at each return and inspire a craving for the solitude, the stark facing oneself by oneself, that might best be experienced in the desert. Although reflecting upon Yahia’s perceptions of that from a warm room with a window on a damp, green day in the suburbs also feels profound, because his verse challenges one to consider discomfort in union with beauty and harshness to embrace awe in living. In “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” Yahia writes:
Wanderers travel to see and hear
Death-in-Life and Life-in-Death
To see Stillness, to hear Silence
Yahia’s poems leave me both yearning to enter that space, time free of static and distraction, and allow me to appreciate meditations and expansive thinking that may arise from that intensity of solitude.
The paper in Yahia’s collection alternate from sand to cream to black, in both English and Arabic, translated by Syrian Poet, Osama Esber, and accompanied by evocative photos of Zakaria Wakrim. These elements help render Yahia’s collection more than powerful meditations, but a multi-faceted experience.
Everything is Normal Here, by Alison Palmer
Alison Palmer’s second chapbook, Everything is Normal Here (Broadstone Books, 2022) is an artistic work of power, imagination, and musicality. She begins her collection of twenty-three poems with SPARK, “The one-man-band kisses the silver lady. They become a flash / of sound. Their child is a golden note…” Her iridescent poems weave compelling emotion with fairytale-like archetypes diving between longing and hope.
Alison’s poems hide nothing. She employs a range of compelling images, at times unexpectedly, to explore relationships and one’s internal life, rebuilding language to collect more closely and urgently to what is central. From “Overtaken:”
We wouldn’t hear the wind if not for the trees; on each limb a collection of
crackles like embers. My mind, not entirely safe inside its bone house.
Alison expands poetic imagery from symbolism in storms, trees, and waterways, to startling images in a swarm of gnats, the tunneling of carpenter ants, and moles, “Moles tent their tiny paws to pray for sight.” I love that!
The subtle turns Alison’s poems take and the masterful way she builds a world into every stanza, every line, may be best portrayed by sharing one of her poems.
AGAINST A FUTURE
No one kisses as deeply as I do—how could you ever turn me down? A map
to the world we think we know, doesn’t exist—I know directions
for where to touch you so your body turns to arch.
The bridge where no one walks anymore is covered in moss—as a child
I did back bends, you crawled through me. Now, beside me
you’re skin and sheen—all hip bones and what I need you to be.
You ask if holding a baby makes me need children—it’s my dizziness; a top
you twist around, let go, watch it until it knocks into the leg
of a chair, slows down, sadly wants you to understand—No.
With you I think twice, breathe words into your ear—I kiss around the rise
of your collarbones that seem to say, hide here—where
will we go when touch is banned, for good?
Straddling spheres between spirit and body, subconscious and experiential, Alison confronts nightmares and things of which nightmares are made of — storms, blood, teeth — in an exploration of reach to build profound connection. Her poems don’t blink. Her unique voice offers readers an entry-point to better understand struggle on a fundamental, human, and personal level. A book well-worth reading and re-reading.
Alison will have her first full-length collection, Bargaining with the Fall, out from Broadstone Books in January. I’ve been anxiously awaiting that one and now we’re just a couple of months away! Simply a remarkable Poet, it’s worth keeping an eye out for her work. I know she has a few more collections in queue and I can’t wait to read them all.
If you’re interested in learning more about Alison Palmer, I direct you to her website https://www.alisonpalmer.org/about and recommend you check out her interview on Quintessential Listening: Poetry Online Radio with Dr. Michael Anthony Ingram. Many of the Poets I’ve interviewed and reviewed have been on his show — always interesting, often profound. But the way Alison and Michael talked about poetry felt essential and like something shifted in the world. https://www.blogtalkradio.com/ql_p/2022/11/03/quintessential-listening-poetry-online-radio-presents-alison-palmer
Just One Swallow, by Laura P. McCarty
Laura P. McCarty gifts readers a bold and accessible poetry collection in Just One Swallow (Day Eight, 2020). The stories Laura shares in her poems peel away the veneer of expectations and shoulds of life to reveal a more simple, and infinitely more complex, reality. It is rare to find a poetry collection to be a page-turner, but Just One Swallow succeeds in being just that, a narrative hard to put down once entering its world. And the momentum of the individual pieces builds one upon another, offering little relief to the raw, objective witness to life’s challenges – poverty, violence, loss. But in rare truth, words that capture essential forms in preference to the shadows, precise language, and poignant imagery, one feels hope captured in the beauty of the verse and the movement, change evidenced at every turn.
With rich detail Laura succinctly captures much of the range of character in the American landscape. She also includes pieces set in Bolivia, Bali, and Vietnam, which provide welcome insight, but what first took me when exposed to Laura’s work was her brilliant use of landscape to set tone for life events and the keen eye with which she perceives contrasts in space. Laura takes us to the Gulf Coast of Texas, Kentucky, and the Chesapeake Bay area – places with which I’m familiar but feel as though I see anew, with renewed awe, through her delicate and crisp treatment. To exemplify:
THE HOME WE WILL REMEMBER
I am born in the black hills of eastern Kentucky
to a young woman from the Gulf Coast of Texas
who sews matching dresses for her three daughters
and sings at church to the kind of God that requires
service Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
Thursday, Friday, and the occasional Saturday.
She weeds clover out from under her
orange blossoms, watches her pregnant neighbor
eat paint chips from her window sill
and listens to Rachmaninoff. Appalachia’s blue ash
and accordions are not my mother
who grew up picking cotton, a penny a pound.
She begs my father to leave. He doesn’t.
For a while. In a tan VW bug
with a diaper pail swishing in the back,
ammonia wafting, my mother drives us away
from the Ashland hills to the home
we will remember, where alligators live
in the swamp near the public swimming pool,
the garbage truck will save us from a four-foot flood,
and my sister will collect tarantulas with broken legs.
We will hide in bathtubs from tornadoes
and water our house in droughts
to keep from losing the foundation.
My sisters and I were birthed in the hollers
but our bodies know
the salt marshes, big sky and green lizards.
We belong to our mother’s land,
its tortillas and fried catfish,
its beaches and its air.
In Just One Swallow we’re brought to the desert, forest, bayou, ocean – dangerous and gorgeous landscapes masterfully paralleling perils, struggles, and aspirations.
Something else that strikes me in this collection is Laura’s ability to represent the experiences and views of childhood in a matter-of-fact and believable way that allows for understanding from the child’s perspective. While doing this, I also feel welcome to view as an adult, wishing much more for the speaker, so that poems of childhood struggle have me wishing to wrap my arms around each of these young speakers. In short, I love each of these characters.
I dog-eared too many favorite poems to share in this review. But will close with a poem that tickled me. I have played with the complexities of hair in the context of gender politics, but have never nailed a poem on it. Laura has. So I include this short piece and recommend you pick the whole collection for yourself.
The bats roam the house
freely, when before
I chased them with a broom
and caught them in a paper bag.
I wear a shower cap
in the living room now,
dare them to confuse
my hair for a nest, like men.
Riffs & Improvisations, by Gregory Luce
In Riffs & Improvisations (Kelsay Books, 2021), Gregory Luce highlights the magnificent truth that music is everywhere. He weaves musical images within daily encounters, reminding us that we all have a soundtrack to this life, and uplifts numbers and musicians ranging from Jazz to Blues to Indie Rock. His passion for music is evident in every piece and is infectious. I’ve read through Riffs & Improvisations many times, some of those with Google at my side to go deeper into a study of history of Jazz musicians or check out artists I’ve never listened to before or not yet enough.
Return to A Love Supreme
(after Chasing Trane)
The stairs to heaven
are uneven some broken
you go sideways sometimes
take a step down for
every two up but you climb
and stumble always
grasping the pure beam
of light that he sends back
from somewhere he is
always up ahead.
I try to work my pen
for Trane the way
he played his sax
In tune to ever-present music, Greg builds alluring scenes of dancing and drinking and some gorgeous love poems.
“An air that kills”
Music drifts into the night air
and catches my ear and I pause
as the melody takes shape
and brings a thought
just deep enough for tears.
We danced to this tune
once—and that one time enough—
so long ago and long forgotten
until now and your eyes
shine again and I hear
you whisper underneath
the song, a memory that pricks without
the power to console.
(The title is taken from a poem by A.E. Housman.)
Yes! The delicious wistful that music can incite gathered sharp and nuanced in a poem — doesn’t get much better than this!
I recommend you pick up Riffs & Improvisations for yourself and/or any audiophile, Poet, or lover in your life. The eighteen pieces in the beautiful chapbook will not disappoint.