Joan Loren Gaustad’s memoir about her husband’s dementia and the journey on which it took them as a couple is a beautiful book—both in terms of the writing and the accompanying art. I was reluctant, at first, to read it, afraid it would bring up still painful memories of my father’s struggles with Alzheimer’s—and it did, yet I also found the book healing. Gaustad doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors this disease inflicts upon both those who suffer from it and those who care for them. And she bluntly shows how inadequately our health care system addresses the needs of those suffering from dementia. But there are also laugh-out-loud moments and moments of heartwarming tenderness that show how the bond between Gaustad and her husband remains strong through it all. Someone’s Missing is a moving reminder that, while dementia strips away so much from those afflicted by it and ultimately takes their lives, it cannot take away the essence of who they were and the love that connects us to them. Someone’s Missing . . . And I think It’s Me is available here.
“You want to reclaim/this stolen piece of you,” Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet writes in the title poem of Widow Maker, and as she immerses us in what it’s like to almost lose a spouse to a heart attack and then cope with the life changes that follow, we come to see how aptly the sentiment expressed applies to both patient and caregiver. The poems vividly capture the razor’s edge each must navigate between the hope offered by medical intervention and the frightening aspects of dealing with the health care system, including the threat tests and treatments pose to the quality of the life preserved. In The Visible Horizon, the doctor is an “angel” but one with eyes that are “indecipherable black wells.” The thirteen bottles of pills that “stand sentinel against another heart attack” in Ouroboros, also contain warnings “that quail even the stoutest of hearts.” Yet, there are moments of sustenance and joy. In Prophet, a stranger on a plane offers comfort as the speaker travels to her husband’s bedside. In Mercy, the couple rebel against the shadow that illness has imposed: “We’re going dancing tonight/under a Shenandoah Blue Moon.” And Anderson-Bartholet reminds us that, through it all, we have the power to focus on what truly matters, to “claim what’s left of the day.” Widow Maker is available here.
Nazifa Islam’s elegant collection, Forlorn Light, is an absorbing journey of emotional revelations. Created through a process of selecting words from paragraphs in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, these found poems go even further than Woolf in disembodying the feelings and thoughts expressed. The perspective shifts from first person to second to third without offering a grounding in time, space or story that would allow the reader to determine whether the “I,” “you” and “she” are distinct from each other or different views of the same person. “I am multitudes of people,” Islam writes in the poem The Middle of Alone. The effect is compelling, with the manuscript unfolding in a way that simultaneously seems deeply personal and universal. “We are the left behind,” says the speaker in This Bald Summer. And Islam frankly depicts the despair of dealing with our troublesome world. But there also are moments of hope and resilience, as in these beautiful lines from It Is Written: “Yet this is a broken world. A spirit/must fly on—one comes/into the storm then one goes out—/wings must beat.” This is a book that, like Woolf’s novels, reveals new layers of meaning with each reading. You will go back to it again and again. Forlorn Light is available here.
In The Body He Left Behind, Reese Conner’s poems masterfully navigate grief’s complicated liminal spaces where love, menace and meaning are often inextricably bound together. A deceased father and pet are both permanently gone and ever present. “And isn’t that/the scariest thing? He is always and never,” Conner writes about his father in Bring Flowers to What You Love. “I already expected broken things—/the slur of his aging body,” he says in Lewis about the moment he fell in love with his cat. And throughout the book, Conner compels us to consider how something is lost, how we do violence to those we care about when we attempt to shape them to meet our needs. A lover tries to fit a new love interest into “a template” her nature does not easily accommodate in I Was Innocent After All. Squint at the The Cost of an Egg’s lovely scene of domesticated farm animals and you’ll see “wild,” but squint harder and all you’ll see is “human.” Yet, Conner confronts these challenges with moments of sly humor. I still find myself smiling at his description of the doorstep where the cat leaves gifts as “the necropolis of rodents.” The Body He Left Behind is a powerful, thought-provoking read and available here.
Janisse Ray’s Red Lanterns is a book of witnessing, not only of individual loss of family, friends and lovers through death, distance or fractured relationships, but of our collective ecological losses due to the damage we have done and continue to do to the natural world. The grief expressed in these poems weaves these losses together. “I know even the trees are afraid./ Trees are the earth’s lungs” Ray writes in the title poem before revealing “This week my mother lost her right top lobe/ to cancer.” She doesn’t shy away from underscoring our responsibility for honoring what’s gone and caring for what remains. “What crime did a heron ever commit?” the speaker asks in the poem Sentencing the Heron. Writing about the death of a grandmother in Good Friday, Ray notes “Our sacrifice is to love.” And in response to the question in Rant, WonderFarm as to whether organics will save us: “And I say,/again,/as always,/Nothing. Else. Will.” At a time when “Every day something precious goes up in flames,” this moving collection reminds us about what’s at stake in our connections to each other and to our planet. Red Lanterns is available here.
In Shade of Blue Trees, Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s images often depict humans and the natural world as one sentient, interconnected whole. “Big Sur stars harbor in my veins,” she writes in the poem Threshold, and “the mountain mirrors the slope/of my father’s shoulder.” In Begin & End at Big Sur the speaker “holds the sun’s hand until it falls asleep.” And in A Night of One’s Own, “Make a wish and a dandelion explodes.” Yet, that does not mean solace is easily found when dealing with death and suffering. Purple thistle provides “no comfort” and “cold stars” stare back, “unblinking,” in Departure. “knots in the/ fence stare drunk as bull’s eyes” in Panels From a Blue Summer, and darkness is “busy/quilting corners of indifference” in Something to Remember. Perhaps the answer to persevering is to do as the speaker in the book’s opening poem: “surrendering to mystery/ & the surprise of mapless navigation.” It’s certainly a guide to entering the mesmerizing, enchanted world of this collection—a world you won’t want to leave. Shade of Blue Trees is available here.
Sara Dykman is a scientist and educator, and Bicycling with Butterflies, the spellbinding story of her journey cycling the monarch migration path from Mexico to Canada and back, is full of important information about the butterfly, its annual odyssey, and the threats to both. Yet, she also offers hope, introducing us to people along the way dedicated to creating and preserving environments that support the monarchs and showing us how we can do likewise. As a poet, I especially enjoyed her vivid descriptions of life she observed along the byways. In the chapter Fence Erie, she writes: “There was still possibility wrapped in eggs glued to roadside milkweed, the bravery of a caterpillar alone in its universe of leaves, and the beauty of a granddaughter reflecting tiny suns in her scales while she probed the showy flowers for nectar.” During stops on her travels, Dykman shared the monarch’s story with school children and community groups to help save their migration, believing that “Knowledge, like the rhizomes of persistent milkweed, spreads slowly but surely.” I share my enthusiasm for this book with you in that same spirit. Bicycling with Butterflies can be purchased here. Now, I need to go plant some more milkweed . . .
“Before Paradise Eve lived with her sisters, the ribs,” begins the poem Parable (I) in Alice Wickenden’s chapbook To Fall Fable, and this enchanting image made me smile. Yet, it also signals a coming darkness, where sisterhood is disrupted to satisfy God and man. “Won’t it be lonely?” Eve asks. And for the women in the collection’s poems, it often is, with the natural world and opposite sex sources of both attraction and betrayal. The “yellow roses in the sun” are beautiful but also “sneering.” The hurt is clear in the title of the poem A Prayer, That You Might Remember Taking My Virginity. Wickenden ends with a crown of sonnets that shows how the abused remain entangled with their abuser long after the violent mistreatment occurs. It is a stunning finale to a journey through a magical world simultaneously lovely and full of thorns. To Fall Fable can be purchased here.
Robin Rosen Chang’s The Curator’s Notes is vibrant with the energy of “things that curl,” and “pulse” and “intertwine.” The mother is “a river, torrid/and trying to flow uphill.” Overripe plums fall to the grass and are “carpeted by a platoon of ants.” Bees swarm, “sticky before pollinating/the many fruit trees.” An injured chickadee fledgling tries to fly and is “batted against asphalt.” Even dying is described as motion, with the mother, at the end of her life, spiraling “toward oblivion.” Yet, in the midst of all this activity, Chang also offers the calm of observation and reflection on the agency of women, what it means to love and lose a difficult parent, the dynamics of marriage, the times we hold back or our voice fails us, and what helps us keep going. It is a journey beautifully told. The Curator’s Notes can be purchased here.
In this collection of powerful poems about racism and sexism, Khalisa Rae juxtaposes seemingly opposite images to convey a landscape complicit in inflicting pain even when it offers something resembling a blessing. The image of an oak in the title poem illustrates how the cool respite taken beneath the tree on a hot day can’t be separated from the tree’s horrific association with lynching: “We spin a web of shade and make it/a place to rest under—broad oak that it is.” In Southern Georgia Libretto I, “Feet bleed like sweet juice/gushing from that Georgia peach.” And writing about the termination of a pregnancy in the poem Morning Glory, Rae ends with “I wish I knew of Morning Glory/how it can be a surgery and baptismal/all at the same time.” There also are gorgeous poems about the ache for release, including Wind Dance, Wind Watching, and Moving Mind. The suggestion in Wind Watching that maybe Dorothy (from the Wizard of Oz) welcomed the tornado is rendered so beautifully: “The swirl approached and she went/willingly. Threw her head and arms back, and let it consume her.” Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat is available here.