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??!??”

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, book by Martin Espada

Annotation by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators by Martin Espada is what I like to call allegorical poetry. Allegory is a narrative with characters, places, and objects that represent themselves as well as abstract ideas for the purpose of teaching a moral or stating a higher truth. Espada’s collection holds strong narratives that move between El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and urban centers of the East Coast while revolving around themes like the divide between the working and ruling classes, immigration, and the modernism of America. It is his themes and narratives working with geography and culture that make the allegory an exciting form.

One way Espada creates allegory is through the use of characters that represent abstractions. From “The Toolmaker Unemployed:” “The toolmaker / is sixty years old, / unemployed / since the letter / from his boss / at the machine shop” (50). The character of the toolmaker is symbolic of powerlessness of the low-income laborer who imagines, “a bullet / in the forehead, / maybe for himself, / maybe for the man / holding the second mortgage” (51). Other characters like the judge, the landlord, and the lawyer, representing the ruling class, are foils for the toolmaker, Rosa Ramos, and the ex-mental patient, characters representing the working class. Thus, through these characters Espada unveils the tensions between the classes as well as between the immigrant dream and the immigrant reality.

Symbolism is integral to allegory. In “The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango,” Espada writes, “An American reporter, / arms crowded with fruit, / could not see what he kicked jutting from the ground. / He glanced down and found his sneaker / pressing against the forehead / of human skull, yellow / like the flesh of a mango. // He wondered how many skulls are crated with the mangoes for sale at the market, how many grow yellow flesh and green skin” (34-35). Here the skull is a symbol for the violence-death squads, desaparecidos, dictators-in Central America, and the mango is a symbol for our (Americans) connection to this violence by the produce we buy at our corner supermarket that, unknown to us, supports tyrannical regimes in other parts of the world (For example, United Fruit Company in Guatemala). Gregory Orr says in Poetry as Survival: “Symbols can order the conflicts within a poem (including the tension of disorder and order) by concretely presenting them in a single, physical object” (Orr 104). The mango fruit juxtaposed with the skull makes a frightening connection by bringing the violence from “out there” inside the safety of the home, and makes oppression concrete for the reader.

Catholic symbols are prevalent in the collection. For example, in “Who Burns of the Perfection of Paper,” Espada writes, “Ten years later, in law school, / I knew that every legal pad / was glued with the sting of hidden cuts, / that every open law book / was a pair of hands / upturned and burning” (49). The image of the wounded palms alludes to Jesus on the cross and is symbolic of sacrifice. In this poem, like “The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango,” Espada connects an object that seems mundane in our everyday reality to another darker, more painful one. In the former, that is the reality of living under tyranny in El Salvador, while in the latter, it is the reality of the working class in America. Catholic images and symbols are important here because Catholicism is a common and shared religion in Latin American cultures. Poet and essayist, Dana Gioia, a celebrated American Catholic, says, “the Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.” Therefore, Espada’s use of Catholic symbols and images speaks in a language that many Latin Americans and Latino-Americans innately understand.

Besides symbols and characters, an allegory can also contain a paradox: a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality expresses a possible truth. Paradoxes are also common within the Catholic religion-God being both one entity, God, and at the same time three separate entities, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit-as well as common within other shared Latin American beliefs like those of the afterlife that stem from Native American roots.

In “In Transient Hotel Sky at the Hour of Sleeps,” Espada writes, “we watched the sky through crusted windows, / till the clouds swirled away / like water in the drain / of a steel sink” (52). The world Espada is creating is one of industrialized nature: “As we studied the white face / of the clock above the desk, / fluorescent hum of 4 AM / a cowboy bragged about buying good boots / for 19 cents from a retarded man, / then swaggered out the door” (52). In this second image Espada expands on this paradox with the industrial setting being inhabited by the character of “a cowboy”-a symbol for wide, open spaces. Later in the poem, a resident walks into the hallway and leaps out a window, “head flapped open like the lid / on a bucket of red paint. // The Newspaper shocked mouths / that day, but the transient hotel sky / drained pale as usual” (54). The paradox is important in order for the reader to question the apathy of the ending.

I like to think of City of Coughing and Dead Radiators as allegory of the oppressed.  Espada exemplifies how paradox and symbol are central and key when writing about violent themes like poverty, oppression, and genocide, all common themes when exploring Latin America, Latino-Americans, and new immigrants, themes that dominate my own writing.

Dear Editor

Dear Editor: Poems by Amy Newman

Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen

As a writer who enjoys writing in multiple genres, it is triply hard for me to keep up with reading the work of my contemporaries, the classics, and the wide variety of interesting literary journals in all three areas of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Added to the sheer number of words being published each year are the pesky intricacies of my job, my spouse, two busy children, a home, and trying to remember to floss, to eat right, and to exercise so as not to become crazy and/or morbidly obese.  Not to mention the time spent on my Facebook newsfeed. Or my own writing.

My reading time is protected and feels almost stolen, but it is also a time ripe for distraction. Sometimes I read a book of poetry and my mind will wander. I will have to begin again at the top of the poem because I have no idea what I’ve just read. Did I let the dog back in? Did I grade all my papers for my next class? Does one of my kids need to be picked up? Can we afford laser treatments for this unseemly mustache I seem to be growing at the age of 43? Why is Rick Santorum’s presidential bid being taken seriously? Why did the boy who used to call me a fat bitch in high school attempt to friend me on Facebook?

I have had a long love affair with the prose poem and particularly love to hear ‘experts’ describe what a prose poem is, or isn’t. This is the equivalent to The Super Bowl for a literary geek. When I cracked open Amy Newman’s Dear Editor I flipped through a few pages and nothing but prose poems greeted me.  Additionally, I was intrigued by the title of Newman’s book as well as each poem’s address to an unnamed editor.

Newman’s address to a faceless editor is just one facet of these marvelous poems. My mind didn’t wander here. I sat, riveted in my chair, book tabs clutched in my right hand, marking almost every page as she explored relationships, Catholicism, chess, writing, being an adolescent. The poems she describes in her poems we never see, lending a fascinating sense or yearning on the reader’s part to put herself or himself behind the editor’s desk and see the enclosed poems talked about in the poems.

This struck a chord with me—how many emails, submishmashes, snail mails have I sent off in my life, containing things for  a stranger that I wouldn’t show to my own kin? And then in sending this piece of yourself out you are told by your hardened and wise literary friends to “not take it personally” and “it is just business.” Part of what hooked me into Newman’s book is my own secret longing not to write a professional and puffed-up cover letter to my poems, short stories and essays that I submit, but to send a deep confession to this unseen and unknown person about to take my work into his or her hands. I’ve wanted to send these confessions not for pity or publication necessarily (though hello, publication whore), but for the warm and soothing balm of some sort of understanding from authority. A brief alleviation of the writerly loneliness. Facebook and family aside, writers sit alone and stare at a screen and wonder, “Is this any good? Hasn’t it all been said and done? What if I’m not good enough?”

My heart felt big and open when I read this book, like hearts do when they are in the presence of the very best poetry.  Newman also satisfied my analytical David Shields’ (Reality Hunger) created need for authorial risk and genre-bending. Are these prose poems fiction or nonfiction? They tell a story, so are they even poems?

Newman mixes showing and telling in the best way and her power of observation and clear-thinking blend together in a beautiful soup of language, saint stories, vegetables from grandmother’s dinners, and metaphors of a chessboard offered up in a whole new way. Also, in quite a few poems, she explores the failures of language and the failures of writing instruction and advice. Newman says, “The teacher said, Write what you know, and I thought, if I had to do that, I would cry instead, and miss out on the workshop discussion” (10) and “…an exploration of how wily my grandparents were in raising a tainted child. But if I tell you that, I will not have rendered, which my workshop class says is something that I must do” (38).

Toward the end of the book, the editor Newman addresses remains as silent as God in response to even the most fervent prayer. The vigil Newman’s speaker holds for the return of her SASEs is like the wait and vigil and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And while this comparison is absurd and funny, it is also poignant and touching and points to something that goes even deeper than the gravitas of the saints and Catholicism. It goes to the heart of humanity. For all of our struggles for power, for our love of creature comforts, for our collections of stuff that allegedly will ward off death, for all the noise and bustle that surrounds our lives, don’t we all, even non-writers, hell, even non-believers, pray that someone is listening? That someone, anyone out there, might pick us out to be special and respond to the litany of pain that life has heaped upon us?

The best poetry articulates something about being human that cannot be expressed in any other way. Amy Newman has done that with this fine collection. Newman illustrates here to writers how to elevate prose to prosody. Newman inspires me to continue to use humor in my narrative nonfiction and in my poems…and to continue to take what “workshop” says with a large grain of salt.


book by David Hernandez

annotation by Lisa Cheby

David Hernandez’s recent collection, Hoodwinked,  contains deceptively simple poems.  He writes of butterflies, supermarkets, post offices, and David Letterman.   Of this collection, Carol Muske-Dukes writes, “Hernandez is not fooling around, but this book brilliantly fools with our expectations and inability to focus on what’s in front of us.”   Deborah Lechner writes, “David Hernandez writes fearlessly, unapologetically and coherently of the vital subject of inevitable deterioration.”

However, for me, this book is about memory and storytelling, about the fluidity of truth and reality.  He  poses outrageous questions: “Do butterflies have walking dreams?”     And images that make the eye of our brain spin: from “This is how/ every story telephoned from person / to person becomes after each telling / distorted”  leading us to the tunnel of  images reflecting in the barbershop mirrors, “an endless green tunnel” to “Memory is  murky thing/ always changing its mind” from a poem with epigraphs from the murky memoirist, James Frey.  Later, in “Panoramic,” the poem mocks its own memory distilling the 11 stanzas of the first section down to a single stanza filled simply with “something” (really, in two lines he uses the word four times). 

Hernandez achieves this replication of memory’s murkiness and fictionalization through  repetition.  Thus, Hoodwinked, recreates how we speak and remember and retell and, well,  recreate memories that we un-spin and re-spin until we get the story we know or that we want to know.  We see repetition is the books constant return to memory as well as subtle repetition of words and phrases within poems.  The first poem, “Questions About Butterflies,” is a poem of memory from the speaker’s childhood.  In the poem, the phrase “We are” is repeated, as if recreating the memory, affirming the fiction to be truth.  Later, “butterfly” takes over shifting focus from the “We are” to the reality of the memory:  the questions raised by the butterflies.  “Panoramic,” repeats not through direct repetition, but through the evocation of repetition in mocking the inadequacy of memory or retelling, the blurring of details.   Finally, in the last poem, Hernandez leaves us with one last glimpse of repetition, as ghostly as a memory, starting the final poem with “Through a tunnel,” repeating the imagery of the “endless green tunnel” from “Trompe L’Oeil.”

We never really know when the speaker of the poems is telling the truth or asserting desire truth through the assertion of repetition.  Though, as David says in an interview on “How A Poem Happens,” “There’s a presumption that a poem is more meaningful if the poet describes an experience exactly as it happened, and if he were to fiddle with the facts, then the poem is somehow inauthentic. As if simply sticking to the facts will prevent one from sounding disingenuous. I’m more concerned that the poem sounds emotionally true . . . .”   And on that level, there is no attempt to hoodwink his readers.