I was drawn to He Says I’m Fierce by Richmond, Va., poet Debbie Collins after hearing her read from the collection, and I’ve found myself returning to its pages again and again. The poems are bracingly honest and spare. They do not shy away from facing head on the struggles of addiction and the ups and down of relationships. Yet Collins’ language and imagery weave a magic that pulls you in. I was at the bar, nursing/a martini of broken men, she writes in the poem “Entertain Me.” In “The Third Saturday in June,” the poet describes seeing an old lover with his new wife, saying Pity? No thanks,/I’ve got plenty, tangled/in her veil and in/his laugh. “The sky is in a hurry” in Please Leave. And in “such a good boy,” two lovers argue about the ties holding them together in the produce section of the grocery store,/as we set ourselves on fire in front of the tomatoes. This wonderful debut left me hungry to read more of Collins’ work. He Says I’m Fierce can be purchased here.
In “Feather,” a poem that appears early in Angela Narciso Torres’s book What Happens Is Neither, she describes trying unsuccessfully as a child to make a mark on the “the pebble-/washed floor” using a goose feather. “The point/is not that when night fell/there was barely a scratch. The point/ is how, armed with a feather,/I believed I could make a mark.” This collection takes us on her journey through challenges we are all helpless to prevent—the grief of losing our parents, the heart-tugs of raising a child and then sending them off into the world. Yet the beauty of the language and images she uses to convey her experiences offer a tenderness and care that keep us buoyed up along the way. Describing the progression of her mother’s Alzheimer’s: “Her memories, black pigeons flying off at dusk. Who knows where/ they spend the night? Dawn finds them back at the cote, softly/cooing.” Her father playing his violin after his cancer diagnosis: “I remember the A string/wouldn’t tune. He played/anyway. His body leaned/and swayed in its wheelchair/cage.” And in the poem “Nocturne” about a son: “What is parenting but a prayer for one’s young.” In the end, Torres has made a mark, illuminating with her pen the intertwined paths of love, grief and memory. What Happens Is Neither is available Here.
Each section of Sara Ryan’s poetry collection begins with a different “Wolf Question,” a poem in two parts—the first about a wolf, the second about a girl. Yet, both the wolf and the girl are at different turns lost, hungry, cold, living and surviving, and each part calls to the other in a way that blurs the line separating them. Throughout the book we experience this shapeshifting along with repeated images of blood, teeth, bones and fur that highlight “the animal in all / our skins.” It’s as if we’re immersed in the folklore of a far north country—full of danger, grief, loneliness and pain, but also full of courage and beauty. As Ryan writes in the poem “Grasp”: “a miracle, / maybe, how the earth shudders beneath / us, how we dance along the fractures.” I Thought There Would Be More Wolves is available Here.
There is something magical about the way Samantha DeFlitch has stitched the poems in Confluence together. The repetition of certain words—especially “old,” “dog,” and “woman”—throughout the book give the feeling of a series of ghazals pulled apart and then gently woven into the manuscript. As a result, poems call to each other in a way reminiscent of the couplets of a ghazal. The Arabic verse form was originally used in poems about loss and romantic love, both of which are subjects central to the book. “Life is brushing me clean, gently, as if/ blowing dust off an old desk,” writes DeFlitch in the poem “I Told Colleen.” And we are drawn into her journey through the music of her language, compelling images such as the bridge spires in Pittsburgh that “twang in the cold,” and the ongoing anticipation of a miracle that could happen if, or happen over there, or happen someplace else . . . Confluence is available Here.
I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Artists in Residence by Melissa Wyse and Kate Lewis, visiting artists’ residences and learning what these spaces meant to them. Who says you can’t travel in a pandemic?! Wyse’s descriptions of how the artists interacted with their spaces are wonderful complements to Lewis’s beautiful illustrations. And there was the bonus of discovering several artists, such as Clementine Hunter and Louise Bourgeois, with whom I was not familiar. The book is available Here
Reading Nothing Like the Doll You Learned On by Jan Wallace feels like entering a mystical world full of “curious spirits”—the dead who never leave us or who come back to visit, witches as characters on old TV shows or rumored to live in the neighborhood, the falcon healing the falconer, the resting seal pup “reminding of us what we cannot name but know.” It’s rich with keen observation, surprising twists, and vivid images that are sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking. A wonderful collection, available Here.
If you’re looking for writing ideas check out Joanna Penn Cooper’s Wild Apples: A Flash Memoir Collection with Writing Prompts. Whether Cooper is writing about being a little girl burdened by the gift from an elderly neighbor of an old doll or her grandmother’s memory of being woken to look at the beauty of dogwoods in snow or the angst of a woman in her late forties who suddenly finds herself being “aggressively ‘ma’amed,’” the vivid images and focused bits of dialogue she uses ensure each story will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. The dozen pieces of flash memoir also serve as inspiration for the writing prompts that follow them—and these are rich with ideas for both subject matter and approaches to try. Available here.
You couldn’t have a more timely title for a book released during a pandemic than Emma Hine’s poetry collection Stay Safe. And it’s the perfect book to curl up with these days because while there’s grief and a bit of terror in the poems there is also wonder, sometimes delivered in twists that take you to a completely unexpected and delightful place. In the poem “Spell,” for example, a swath of dead aspens and then later a tragic car accident turn out not to be what they seem, the trees and driver both alive: “a red truck in flight over a mountain,/ landing gently; moths about to open/ like white flowers; empty-handed/ trees about to fill again with leaves.” Hines and Stay Safe won the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and the book is available here.
Through his poetic meditations in Night Weavers, Melvin Dowdy takes us on his journey to find a way forward after his wife suffers a stroke that significantly changes their lives. “We are the fierce stretching for the light,” he says at the beginning of the middle section. And he is fearless in gazing at his struggles along the way. Yet, love and the beauty of nature and music are constant companions, and we see hope in poems like “The Boy with No Ear for Music” where a child works to master an instrument, overcoming the disparagement of an early teacher. Dowdy doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of the process of becoming resilient, but he makes us glad he shared his path with us.