Category Archives: Book Structure

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.

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.


book by Cole Swensen
annotation by Kimberly Bredberg

Goest, the archaic second person singular form of go, really? What kind of title is this?
I’d say a poetic one.
This title is Rorschach.
I am set into motion reading the ink somewhere between the past and present.
Here, at least from a poetic point of view, associating the word “goest” conjures “ghost” and I am drawn in to the drama of the volume at hand.
Goest is at once a charge
to dig for the ethereal and
to bask in the translucent ghost we discover.

The volume is divided into three sections, a larger middle section bookended by white: Of White,
A History of the Incandescent,
On White.

I begin with an observation of titles. Each one an invitation, no, a hook. All that I appreciate about this poet might be drawn from these two pages alone. In fact, the combined titles almost (but not quite) read like a list poem: “The Girl Who Never Rained”/ “The Future of Sculpture”/ “The Exploration of Fuor-Spar” and on and on.

Of Whit and On White contain poems that mirror, substantiating the “bookend” effect: “White Cities” : “Razed Cities” and “Five Landscapes” : “Five Landscapes” and “The Future of Sculpture” : “The Future of White” add sculptural shaping to the volume.
The middle section of poems, A History of the Incandescent, delves into the shine that illuminates, tricks the eye, reflects, and, into that which is core. As with other volumes of Swensen’s work, I find that these poems, on the surface, appear arcane, standoffish, even a bit snobby. But surface judgment is always a bad idea. The reader unwilling to work for engagement will surely be deprived of a treasure—rich language, creative syntax, sound, and image—gold worth the dig. There is much to glean from Swenson who makes precise intellectual observations, information that she then filters through the mesh of imagination.
A favorite poem in this volume, “Lacrymae Vitrae,” illustrates what I appreciate about Cole Swensen’s work in general. The poem is a terrific bundle of associations, one that highlights a dusty connection between humanity in the 21st century and humanity in the 18th century. Molten glass dripped into water produces a glass teardrop that is, on one end ridiculously strong and on the other ridiculously fragile. “scientists will note/we, who were all home at the time,/bursting into finest dust/if even the smallest fragment is broken off.” The analogy illuminates the ghost, challenges me to think and to act… to goest. This poem is at once physicist/psychologist/apothecary.
These poems honor the space on the page.

space is breath,



Space is musicality,

is an ostinato

that moves weighted,

equalizes, dances with sound

is steadiness, familiarity.

Non-conventional punctuation, unusual point of view, the abandoned dependant clause, wandering tense, and seamless transitions from the objective to the symbolic are the qualities that beg me to engage with the world of these poems.

Swensen is a poet who does not shy from the substance of past, present, and future history or from the realm beyond what is seen. And she is a poet who challenges this poet to risk.

Perhaps what captures my attention above all is the palpable aromatic of these poems. I find myself isolating, steeping in the sonic: “scenes…mistaken for sails”, “back to the weal (the sun peeled) to a line, which is thin, to a dim/Give it back to him” and “and down into the spiral of our riches/still reign: falots or great pitch lit/at the crossroads/—and thus were we followed/through a city of thieves—which.”

These poems are
contemplative, philosophical,
painterly and poetic
if you dare…