When My Brother Was an Aztec

UnknownWhen My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Annotation by Alyssa Hanna

After reading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, I felt I had forged a deeper connection to my Native American heritage and a better understanding of how a writer’s identity influences what and how she will write. In addition to the freedoms a poet may take with her voice, in reading this collection from Diaz I also learned how to use imagery and word choice to enhance the flow of a poem.

Diaz uses specificity to enhance each image. In the poem “Reservation Mary,” Diaz evokes a vivid image of the boy that seduced the main character of the poem, Mary: “a smooth-faced Mojave who had a jump shot / smoother than a silver can of commodity shortening and soared / for rebounds like he was made of red-tailed hawk feathers” (19). Diaz puts specifics into her imagery that pulls in the reader and demands immediate attention. For instance the way she describes this boy’s jump shot as “smoother than a silver can of commodity shortening,” The use of the specifics of silver and commodity add sharpness (the silver with shine and speed) and a sense of place and class (the implications of commodity food items). Similarly, Diaz’s depiction of a powwow in “Cloud Watching” evokes my fondest memories of running around and dancing at powwows when I was younger: “Blue gourds glow and rattle like a two-man band: / Hotchkiss on backup vocals and Gatling on drums. / The rhythm is set by our boys dancing the warpath” (21). With the rich imagery of the blue gourds and the dancing of the warpath, she captures how powwows can be both beautiful and sad, bringing the whole event to life even for those who many not have personal memories. I have struggled to create imagery that stood out in my poems; Diaz’s poems have helped me to create more vivid imagery through the use of specificity.

Imagery and word choice go hand in hand when it comes to a good poem. In the quote from “Cloud Watching” Diaz brings in the names of guns — “Hotchkiss” and “Gatling,” —  to insert the presence of war in the image. By using these names as members of the powwow, she is able to bring in the imagery of guns with the death they bring without using the words gun or death. Another example is in Diaz’s poem “Orange Alert,” where she writes, “words that mean bomb, blow up, jihad, hijack, terrorist, terrorism, terrorize, terrific fucking terror” (91). Here Diaz moves from bomb to terrorism in a litany of words that evoke images of violence and terror  Each word is explosive.  Explosions may be intentional or accidental, to harm (a bomb) or to entertain (fireworks). She starts off the litany with the word bomb, a simple yet specific word that indicates an explosions that is intentional, that is meant to harm. With her careful word choice Diaz is able to create connections for the reader, to guide the reader into specific scenarios and perspectives and has inspired me to bring better word choice to my poems as a tool to more precisely convey to my readers the images hope to create in my reader.

Diaz’s work exemplifies how in a poem strong word choice supports strong imagery, enabling the poet to both bring the poem to life and to sharpen the intention of the experience the poem hopes to give the reader. As a poet, I feel more confident in finding new ways to wield imagery and word choice effectively in my poems.

What is this thing called love

whatisthisthingcalledloveWhat is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio

Annotation by Jade Long

Being able to read and learn about Kim Addonizio’s poetry made me see I have a space in the world of poetry. Poetry isn’t some boring beast built on rhyme patterns, forms, line breaks, and stanzas. Moreover, Addonizio’ s style helped me as a poet and as a young woman. Obviously we all know at this point that being a young woman isn’t as pretty as it seems. There is a little romance, but it isn’t all flowery and Shakespearian, and poetry doesn’t have to try to make it so.

She shows this in her poem “First Kiss.” I expected it to be the description of some astronomical first kiss with fireworks and butterflies in the belly, but it was totally different. That’s what made it so great. It amplified the vulnerability and the wanting to be needed that we all possess. It was the realization that the first kiss isn’t just some trophy story of some perfect being placing their lips on yours, nor is it supposed to be. Her voice, a voice of a woman seasoned with liquor and experience, is a voice that feels familiar and real.

One of my other favorite poems from this collection would have to be “Dear Reader.” I was caught by the opening sentence of this poem: “Tonight I am amazed by all the people making love / while I sit alone in my pajamas in a foreign country/ with my dinner of cookies and vodka.” I am taken by how human the speaker of the poem is. She is a normal woman. She’s not making some outlandish statement about feminism or being a martyr because she has a vagina. She likes to drink and wear makeup and go out traveling to new places and have sex. Like a female protagonist in novel, she is more base and rooted in the flesh of human experience than the usual elevated voice I thought of when I thought of poetry.

In Addonizio’s own way, this is a form of feminism: showing that a woman can be on her own travel, party, drink , make love to whomever she pleases, or even stay in her hotel room and not make love to anyone. Through it all, this feminist woman is confident enough to appreciate that other people have romance in their lives. The book is honest and true to the random roller coaster of a woman’s life.

Finally, there is “Fuck.” I saved the best for last. Mostly because anyone who knows me knows that I drop this beautiful bomb in most of my pieces. But it makes one of the best statements and I will continue to live by my belief that cursing in poetry doesn’t depreciate the value. The poem can still have artistic value and make an impact even though you’re using “vulgar” language. Because sometimes there is no other way to say what is needed to be said or give gravity the way you feel it should be made. Though Addonizio drops this in the title, the poem transforms the word into something “holy, / a splam, a hymn, a hammer.”

Overall this was the best experience I had in a long time in expanding my knowledge of poets outside of the predominantly black poets I read. It helped me see that I can keep writing and be a voice for women without being a man-hater or by only writing about injustice.  In my writing I had relied on rhyming, but now I have been inspired to break out of my comfort zone thanks to my discovery of Kim Addonizio’s poems. I can be just as strong as anyone else, and my voice is just as important.

The Wild Iris

WildIrisImageThe Wild Iris, Louise Glück

Annotation by Sarah E. Miller

            From the beginning of Louise Glück ’s The Wild Iris there is a questioning that begins in the reader; is this flower life or human life? The cycling of her poems from flower to human to seasons to relationship to religion-reigning-over-it-all creates a deep and arduous sadness about the entire book.  Glück achieves this by employing repetition on various levels.

Everything in this book cycles and grows. Through a successful use of repetition, Glück creates a deepened picture of grief and the other side of grief, the moment when one can finally breathe. The poem title “Matins” is repeated throughout the book, usually in twos. It sets a tone of darkness turning to light, a nighttime prayer that ends at dawn. The poems titled “Matins” serve as a sort of break throughout. They are a more human response to the nature call and they are severely honest:  “…it is a bitter thing to be the disposable animal, a bitter thing.” The “Matins” also prove to be familiar to the reader, something we’ve all heard and felt at another time in life, “What is my heart to you/that you must break it over and over/like a plantsman testing/his new species?”

In addition to the repetition of titles, Glück uses questions in the body of the poems. There is not a single poem that goes without asking questions, either outright or implied. At times the question is directly posed to the reader, something that must be answered; in other poems it feels more stream of conscious, especially when Glück uses a dash in place of a question mark. The questions are actively pulling the reader into this world and giving human quality among the abundance of nature. In “Snowdrops,” Glück begins with a human question and delves back into nature, “Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know/what despair is; then/winter should have meaning for you.” Again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” she utilizes a question we might ask one another but one that is meant for nature, “Trapped in the earth/wouldn’t you too want to go/to heaven? I live/in a lady’s garden. Forgive me, lady/longing has taken my grace.”

Finally, Glück uses repetition at the word level: grief, blue, you, stars, and earth are found throughout the book. This repetition could easily become mundane and give less weight to each word as it is repeated.  However, Glück employs each word to hold deeper meaning each time it is used. For example, the word “grief” is sometimes stacked so closely to itself that the poem begins to take on the weight of the word. In “Violets,” the word is used and defined repeatedly, “…we do not grieve/as you grieve, dear/suffering master; you/are no more lost/than we are, under/the hawthorn tree, the hawthorn holding…” In just two poems later, Glück is using the word grief again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” as a connection between nature and life, “…I too desire/knowledge of paradise—and now/your grief, a naked stem/reaching the porch window.” Moreover, she places these words in surprising contexts, such as nestled in a monologue from a flower, suddenly giving human quality to nature. Often the flower and plant subjects are grieving their lot in life but they always receive another chance to live and blossom. This notion is often set against the notion of human mortality, highlighting the sometimes ridiculousness of human life. At times it feels as if the flowers are condemning human emotion as in “The Red Poppy,” “I am speaking now/the way you do. I speak/because I am shattered.”

Employing nature, particularly flowers, would seem too “obvious” a choice for the subject of poetry; however, Glück breaks out of stereotypical uses of these tropes through crafty timing and placement of repetition, often of simple diction.   As poets, we often think of repetition as being limited to a poem or only on the word or sound level, but Glück shows us how to think of and use a wider range of repetition without the fear of being redundant or unoriginal across a body of work.

The Cellar Dreamer

CellarDreamerThe Cellar Dreamer by Valerie Coulton

Annotation by Kimberly Bredberg

Valerie Coulton’s, The Cellar Dreamer, is balance and disentanglement,

is an invitation. Her lush consenting lexicon conjures a damp and fertile mood, inviting us to forage the must of root. She leads us by the hand, beginning whimsically “some where” moving through “The Orange Window” prose to the sparse, breathy poetics of “blaue augen” leaving us with no desire to back-again.

In the first section of the collection, we are led by the hand somewhere strange yet familiar (even if we’ve never actually been in a cellar), “listen—green husks/sizzle in wind. a little/silk     gilds the sound:/     big round kernels/of gold./     little emerald—/     I climb your stems thick/      rungs.” Everyday objects become the to entry to the impenetrable.

To enter the prose of the second section, we sit beside a window in the glow of sun. This is where we rest to sort and decipher snapshots, image, cracks, and bent corners. They are not our snapshots, not our history, but at once are intimately ours, “Spatters of light coming into focus: a city lit by night. A white cigarette, a supple line. His broad back dimly haloed. A sense of counting.”

At last, after being thoroughly burnished with the window’s orange, we are brushed with its complimentary blue. The poems in this last section are cooling, meditative, inspired by Michael Pastoureau’s, The History of Color. Visually sparse,                            “her stain slips out of her mouth

across sleeping/                                    ocean,”

these are the poems that spy strange bits of glittering buoyancy and challenge us to linger for the next improvisation surfacing.

On its surface, this volume reminds us to anchor our poems to place, but if we read courageously, if we dare to descend the staircase to this particular earthy-indoor-dank, we encounter what all poets know to be true. Familiarity with a place will not enact the world of a poem. The poet must know that place intimately. When we dare to listen to the dark of quiet of place we will sense its heartbeat, breath, whisper. The Cellar Dreamer reminds us that the great task of the poet is to contour, renovate, tilt the inchoate of place to shelter the unforeseen disposition of a poem.

This collection begins with an inscription from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls… walls that have the entire earth behind them,” and leaves us haunted with the song of its the lore echoing in our basket of unearthed trinkets as we ascend the creaking cellar steps to the light of day.

Embers: A Novel in Poems

Embers: A Novel in Poems by Terry Wolverton

Annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

As a genre jumper from fiction to creative non-fiction, I had hardly planned to add poetry to my repertoire as a third genre.  So, when I saw that Terry Wolverton’s novel, Embers, was written in poems, I didn’t expect it to be accessible to a complete poetry neophyte like me.  However, I felt compelled to read this book and I am so glad that I did.  Embers is beyond accessible—it mesmerizes and transfixes; it is a genre-bending work which is true hybrid of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

The skeleton of Embers consists of Wolverton’s family history (detailed in an extremely helpful timeline) beginning near the turn of early 20th century, with the birth of Marie Girard, and ending almost 100 years later.  Each poem represents a significant event in the life of the character depicted, a vignette fully brought to life through the perfect storm of imagery, insight and emotion.   The book’s structure divides the poems into two “books” of roughly a half-century each, preceded by a prologue containing a flash forward of Marie, one of the book’s main characters, from beyond the grave, as well as a flash back, to the Native American tribe who resided on the family’s land previously.

As Wolverton has explained, she took the basic facts as she knew them and fleshed them out by envisioning the specific scenes which she depicts with such vivid imagery.  In the excerpt below, the story of the bartender, Michael McCarthy, the surrogate father for Marie’s child, is told in second person.  I have highlighted a few of the especially vivid words:

…The nickelodeon
trills a lullaby.  Now your dreams
are glass, tumblers and goblets,
punch cups and schooners, glinting
in continual twilight, and each
must be filled.  Ambers and oranges,
absinthe and burgundy.  You spend your hours
pouring color, watching it drain away (21). [bold type added]

The words highlighted in bold show some of the unusual and vibrant imagery that Wolverton used to create the dramatic effect, rather than saying, “he was a bartender.”

Although Embers contains many extraordinary “events,” some of the most memorable scenes contained small but unforgettable detail which breathe life into the moment.  For example, when Marie Girard approaches the monsignor to request an annulment, Wolverton writes:

Adolph had no use for priests
so she went alone to the cathedral to petition
the monsignor.  Fingering

one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook, she stood before
the straight spined priest and fixed her
gaze on the gray veins that branched
the marble floor (26).

The image of the woman “fingering one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook” and then fixing “her gaze on the gray veins of the floor” made the scene so real and so memorable to me, that I emotionally connected to this very tormented character.  Even though the events surrounding this character’s life were quite dramatic, these small details made me feel not only that I knew her, but that I was her.

Deftly, Wolverton skates between scenes in first, second and third tense, and even creates interior revelations of minor supporting characters with free indirect style.  Every poem has its own style and structure, befitting its significance:  past tense, present tense, left-justified, centered, single-spaced, double-spaced, a scene, a letter.  The variety isn’t gratuitous or jarring, but instead is subtle and appropriate to the message.  The word choices exhibit an exactitude  rarely seen—I could make a list of the verbs I loved:  scuffs, clotted, steeped, preens, scuttles, silvers, blitzing.

I have had not only the great fortune to read Embers, but to also have Wolverton for my mentor during one of my project periods and have had benefit of her insights into the creation of this novel:   the intricate weaving of fact and imagination into a living, breathing piece of art.  In fact, the written work has been the basis for a brilliantly performed live jazz opera.  As I go forward with a family history of my own, I will often refer to Wolverton’s example in Embers as an excellent example of mind-bending, genre-bending creativity.

Waiting for the King of Spain

Waiting for the King of Spain by Diane Wakoski

Annotation byLisa Cheby

Maybe it is my own addiction to an “M.,” or my own sense of longing and waiting for my own King of Spain to move from figment of my imagination to corporeal being by my side that fascinates me about this book that revels in and examines and tries to transcend longing and obsession with ending longing. Wakoski engages a confessional voice – the speaker is often talking directly to someone, named or unnamed, that is not present and whose absence inspires longing and contemplation – in search for courage and love. Though that statement makes this book sound prosaic and sappy, it is not. It his honest and beautiful. I must stop and breathe deeply after each of her poems to bask in that darkness and the momentary release from my own addictive patterns. Because thoughts are addictive. Our mind goes to places for a feel-good fix, even if the lack of fulfillment of those thoughts ultimately brings disappointment or sadness. Wakoski recreates this fluctuation between the high and the fall through line breaks that surprise, but don’t leap, and repetition.

First, I was caught by her intentionality of line breaks. However, rather than turning or leaping, as is commonly found in modern verse, Wakoski’s breaks work more like punchlines, not in humor, but in the revelation of more than what was first apparent. She turns not out, but back in, over and over and over again. In “Burning My Bridges Behind Me,” the speaker contemplates the traits of her ideal mate, “Who from a burning bridge/ and a mountain / could forge some new metal / giving passage across the gap / into my life” (45). Here, with the bridge image built and etched into the readers mind we are hanging on a gap and rather than turning that to a new thought or image, than leaping somewhere new, Wakoski brings us back to the internal, the abstract, both surprising and deepening the image. The gorge to be bridged is internal, is the solitary life. At times, as in “The Fear of Dropping the Violin,” this break and punchline is self-deprecating, the confession of the reality of the speaker’s situation: “for my leaving is so common, / surely no one could cry over it” (59) or “Like a battleship/ my life goes on” (60). In these we feel the weight of the speaker’s journey inward to make sense and meaning of her life. There is a sort of deadpanness to this reality that cannot be jumped over or away from.

The second device Wakoski employs is her use of repetition and recycling of images. It is not just repetition, however, but an obsessive examination and reworking of words, images and phrases, sustained through poems, sections, and, even, the entire book. It is as if she has taken the idea of repetition of a pantoum or villanelle to the level of the book and discarded with the idea of form. This is apparent in the first section where there seems to be a single speaker working to manifest her partner and caught between the one who left, M., a recurring you in the poem, and the ideal King of Spain, who is always there, waiting to appear, but never fully present. Likewise, in the third section, “Fifteen Poems for a Lunar Eclipse None of Us Saw,” she reuses the images of roses, moon, water, blood, Lorca, lips, fingers, and diamonds, like a sestina extended through a series of poems rather than constrained into one form. The images begin to feel like a reoccurring dream. The first poem ends with the phrase, “not the blood a dreamer kissed from my mouth” (75), followed by “blood in mouth/ thick as porridge / and yet I did not feel/ as if I were dying // one kissed the blood away / from my mouth/his own” (76) in the following poem.  Other images are similarly weaved through the other poems. Some, like the diamonds, extend beyond one section and appear through the book.

At other times, it is as if she included multiple drafts of the same poem in the book, creating a sequence of revision and re-visioning of ideas that her mind insists on returning to, for the feel-good fix as well as the need to feel something or understand something, even if it is the pain of longing, loss, and uncertainty. This is best seen in “Harry Moon from my Child’s Anthology of Verse” where entire sections are repeated in new contexts. For instance, the beginning of this long poem contains the image, “I said/ nothing. /Thinking of a girl, riding naked on her zebra,/ wearing only her diamonds” (107), a page later becomes, “I could not say / I was a girl riding naked on a zebra, / wearing only her diamonds. / So I remained silent” (108). Later, the lines change slightly to “Riding naked on my zebra, wearing only / my diamonds. But I could not; / for it was a vision that rescued me” (110). In each, the image is associated with silence, with the inexpressible, but each time, the inability to speak has a different motivation. Finally, the diamonds are turned into “Crystal fragments of my pain,/ cold, stunning. / Now I wish I had real diamonds” (110). Additionally, the images of diamonds are used through other poems, connecting the this idea of re-visioning and working things out between poems and sections of the book.

As I prepare to revise my first manuscript, I want to find images, not just themes, that might strength the emotional energy of the book as a collection, not just poems grouped together. Since many of the poems revolve around similar topics and subjects, perhaps this type of repetition is a way to keep the book dynamic while also feeling holistic.

Fire & Flower

book by Laura Kasischke, Laura

annotation by Stephanie Glazier


Kasischke’s principal trick is sound. She leans heavy into slant rhyme and, at first ( through the first third or so of the book), I delighted in it. And then…I began to feel almost talked down to after so much sneaky rhyme.


“Gotcha again,” is the experience I began to have.

I think this is a danger with using so much of the same sound mechanism in one book. It’s one problem with form, I suppose.  

Yet, there’s something else happening with this slant rhyme. It’s at once greatly associative and dissociative. In one of her excellent element poems “Dear Air,” she writes “…white grapes spun themselves from sun/ and water on their vines—in-/ candescent thumbs, clear-/ blooded and alive” (26).  Here she is likening the human form, to the grapes by anthropomorphizing their bodies. She’s also using metonymy here, part for the whole, and not just any part but the thumb, one bit that separates us from other animals close in the progression. She is associating herself to the grapes. She is associating the words “vine” and “alive.” But the strangeness of that pairing, the newness of it, is dissociative. The idea of blood being clear and in fruit is dissociative. It puts me in another realm.

It makes my jawbones hum.

When I go into a nature poem, I expect some romanticism—and I’m lead into Kasischke’s poems this way. I’m made to believe (“Dear Air” not “To the Air”) that there’s some sweetness to be had here. And there is, but it comes at the cost of not knowing what she’s going to do next. She almost mocks romanticism with her rhyme: it’s flip and new and female and dare I say, hip.

I don’t feel completely safe as her reader – which kept me reading, now that I’m thinking of it.

Another reason I’m not totally comfortable is her use of image. First of all it’s brilliant and strange and deeply unfamiliar.

And also, she doesn’t always come back for me. That is, she doesn’t loop back around in the poems to make meaning of an image as I think she will (should). “The Baby Learns to Say Baby,” opens “Flowering bulbs just under the snow…” (47).  In this four page poem, there is nary a mention of flowers or bulbs or snow again. (Unless the bulb is simply a stand in for the baby.) Her images are somewhat difficult to map, if they are meant to be mapped. Though I do have this feeling –how credible—that she just means me to experience them for the sake of themselves, for the sake of the moments they serve. I think I like this…and I have this feeling while reading (as I do when I’m discovering something new) of looking around silently saying, “is she allowed to do this??!??”