Wednesday, June 19, 2024

When Our World Was Whole by Elizabeth Weir

Kelsay Books, American Fork, Utah, 2022, 87 pages, $20, paperback.


Elizabeth Weir’s second poetry collection, When Our World Was Whole, holds to a theme of connection—in subject matter, call and response relationships between poems, and prosodic devices within them. Divisions are not indicated in the table of contents, but there are three distinct, yet inter-related, sections. In the first (roughly half of the book), poems are connected by the frequent topic of family. A supportive mother tends to her daughter’s physical and emotional needs through influenza (“On string legs, … / Mother supporting my elbow, / I stepped through our French windows / into an English spring garden”); through doubts about remaining in nursing school (Mother and I sit on the garden step / as I tell of my new life as a student nurse / of bottom-warm bedpans, soiled sheets, / lifting and turning heavy patients, / learning to hold kidney dishes to catch / vomit and not to retch, myself—” and through emigrating from England to Minnesota. A less empathetic and more distant father adds a practical (“Vegetables, my dad swore, would see us / through the thin years, post war…”), yet quirky side to the family (“I was thirteen and falling out of love with my dad. / He was unlike other fathers, with his teakwood / cigarette holder and fresh rose buttonhole. / I worried what my friends would think / of his large ears and habit of humming….” A brother enters and slips away, both in this section and in life. An entire family with beauty marks and warts, connected by substance, makes its appearance, and then this one person comes along that changes life forever...

            The Fabric of Family

            I wouldn’t have called it burlap—

            not exactly. No. It was more

            common cotton, thin thread,

            A bit worn, but comfortable.


By chance, silk happened along.

            Charming, yes, a cocoon to love

            and new well-being but, oh,

            the effort to keep it pressed.


            If you are cotton, true to your core,

            can you ever do more than

            slip on filmy silk, assume

            your place with learned grace?

            The connection articulated in these poems is enacted by repetitious diction, musicality, and poem placement. For example, the opening poem, “Early in Nonsuch Park,” images whiteness in each of its two stanzas, and sets up the next two poems that include “Nonsuch” as well. The “fat white fingers” of “Awakening” echoes the whiteness of the first, and “Mum” in the third poem sets up the mother in the fourth poem, “A Distant Day in April” (“Mother feared that the coal man / might deliver us one sack short”) which connects with the fifth (the mother supporting the daughter’s elbow). The father introduced in this latter poem “puff[ing] his Players Navy Cut,” appears in the next poem (a Petrarchan Sonnet”) in the sestet, making the turn with

            I was thirteen and falling out of love with my dad.

            He was unlike other fathers, with his teakwood

            cigarette holder and fresh rose buttonhole.

            I worried what my friends would think

            of his large ears and habit of humming, but still

            I loved the sweetness in his mashed parsnips.

And so it goes, poem after poem, one poem introducing an image, a family member, a relationship, and the next poem embellishing or amplifying it, riffing on the idea of connection with concrete, specific images, actions, or characters. That enactment of abstract ideas with specificity is one of the strengths of this poetry collection, as evidenced in the penultimate poem in section I, “Improbable.” 

Improbable that I should pass by

at the moment

            a dragonfly alights on

            the wing of a dragonfly sculpture,

            a lone piece of art, planted

            in a Minnesota prairie.

            Improbably that I should be here,

            in distant Minnesota, with you,

            that you should have come, uninvited,

            to a Polish party in South Africa,

            that we should have met,

            you from Ireland, me from England.


            Improbable that I should happen to land

            on the apex of your cardiologist heart

            that long-ago night, that we are here,

            contented, far from our origins

            among summer prairies, sun-glanced

            wings, unlikely sculptures.


            The epigraph for section two points the reader toward the tension between male and female that has both propelled the species forward, and threatens to be its undoing. Patriarchy is like / the elephant in the room. / How can it not / affect life when it’s / the superstructure / of human society? —Ani DiFranco, songwriter and singer. A cursory reading of these poems can miss the connection between content and structure and how the forms of these poems support their individual messages and the interplay between them. “New Orleans Bronze” and “Apple Honored Eve,” for example, although ten pages apart, call and answer to one another both in ideation and structure.

In the opening ekphrastic poem, three stanzas with a decreasing number of lines (quintain, quatrain, tercet), paint the picture of a three-tiered statue of colonialist Jean Baptist le Moyne de Bienville, a priest, and a Chickasaw chief, “features finely cut, deep-set eyes down-cast, / his people’s peace pipe empty in his hand,” commemorating the founding of New Orleans. The descending number of lines enact the artificial hierarchy of state and religion lorded above a conquered people, now diminished in number and position. The message and form of this poem are contrasted with “Apple Honored Eve” exalting the tale of blaming the first woman for eating the forbidden fruit, when in fact that act “…gave us / the ability to analyze and deduce, / to grow in thought and to manage / the world for our species’ advantage.” The form chosen to contain this message is the reverse of the cascade of diminishing stanzas in “New Orleans Bronze”—these three stanzas increase their lines geometrically from four to six to fourteen, honoring women for their contribution of capacious growth for humanity.

Whether the poet was aware of this underlying structural message is unimportant—it exists as an inherent feature of the poems, and is emblematic of how structure supports message in several poems throughout this section and collection as a whole. The facing concrete poems of “Craft” (shaped as the bonsai in a shallow dish which is the subject of the poem) and the poem “It’s That Look” that reduces line-length over twelve lines from six words to one, forming a wedge or knife enacting the piercing look of a man that objectifies a woman—as well as the occasional “American” sonnet juxtaposed with Shakespearian sonnets, and the one left and right justified prose poem “Trespass” (although found in section three), which seems to enact humanity’s obtrusiveness into the natural order of things—all are examples of Weir’s inventiveness and craft that forward the messages of these significant poems, making them even more delightful to read.

            The final section broadens the theme of connection to the current state of brokenness of humanity’s way of organizing by means of domination the natural way of things. In the collection’s penultimate poem, “Earth Casts Its Shadow Across the Moon” (with the epigraph January 31, 2018, at 6:53 a.m.), the poet has carefully chosen each word and line in the best order to add to this dire message:

            Drowsy in dressing gown and boots, I idled along the driveway,

            Cody’s nose interpreting the happenings of the night.


            Lifting my gaze from the dog’s cheery tail, I chanced

            to glance westward and saw through dark branches


            a great orb, a bruised-looking eye, mottled

            in shades of purple and ruby, its lens a brilliant disc of light,


            focused downwards, as though studying its parent, seeing

            how Earth burns and suffocates in the smog of our needs,


            the moon, itself, trespassed by our ambitions,

            our planet home, burdened by our burgeoning demands.


            I shivered. The moon’s eye blinked shut.


In my typical way of wanting more connection with the reader for my own poems, I might rush to suggest to the poet to change the tense of this poem from past to present—since this state of burden upon the natural we have caused is far from in the past. However, there is a subtle message of hope that would be lost if Weir were to have followed my advice—a message of hope that is more fully developed in the title poem that follows it, a poem so organically connected, that it can be seen as additional stanzas to this same poem.

            When Our World Was Whole


            We near the refuge as skeins of moonlit mist lift

            and we hear the music of a thousand cranes

            roosting in the shallows of restored wetlands.

            Behind us, the sun crests the horizon, feathering

            white the needles of frost on reeds and grasses.


            No wind, just the constant calling, as though

            from distant beginnings in an Eocene dawn,

            when creatures lived in common symmetry

            before our coming. In a clamor of wild voices

            cranes rise into morning on slow wings.

If you enjoy Mary Oliver’s work, you may find this second collection by Elizabeth Weir even more compelling, as she spends a more appropriate amount of time on the human factor: familial and other relational groupings; humans found in tension with the natural world, but deserving of equal time, speaking to the false dichotomy between the two—the same mistake made by those who would subordinate women to men, subjugate one race over another, one calling over another. Weir has answered the “constant calling…from distant beginnings… / when creatures lived in common symmetry…” Hers is one of the “wild voices… / rising into morning on slow wings.” May we hasten her by heeding her warnings and answering the same call in accordance with our hearing.

Elizabeth Weir has two books of poetry, "When Our World Was Whole," and her first, "High on Table Mountain." The latter was nominated for the 2017 USA Midwest Book Award. She’s the recipient of four S.A.S.A. Jerome Awards and recent work has been published in The London Reader, Evening Street Review, Comstock Review, Agates, Talking Stick and North Meridian Review.

Monday, May 20, 2024

What Do You Think? by Ken Weir


WHAT DO YOU THINK?, Ken Weir. Austin Macauley Publishers, New York, NY, 2023, 137 pages, $19.95, paperback.


Modern poetry began with the shift from an either / or mentality to a more ubiquitous both / and. Precursors to that inclusiveness include Blake—his capacity to see unity in diversity, as in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—and Keats’ negative capability, not only an ability to simultaneously hold contradictory thoughts but to embrace the uncertainty about them. Of course, Dickinson and Whitman ushered in modern poetry—Dickinson’s unconventional use of dashes, e.g., offered constant oppositional assertions, and paved the way for later poets to experiment with craft and content. And Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself” is practically a watchword for twentieth century American poetry. Much twenty-first century poetry coming from MFA programs today, seems to be an expression of pre-determined views rather than operating in the tradition that these poets began—one of discovery rather than of expression. Ken Weir’s What Do You Think harkens back to a time when poets worked within a multiverse of views and challenged readers to take an active role in the poem’s re-creation as it was read and spoken.

            Appropriate to Weir’s task, he quotes Oliver Cromwell in his introduction, setting the stage for his approach to poetry as inquiry: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” In the 17th century, when Cromwell, in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland penned these words, Copernicus and Gallileo had come under harsh censure by the church and in the end, their books that promoted heliocentrism were banned and burned—as Weir’s would have been in that century, particularly because of his poems that begin with science facts and riff on them, such as “Conceit.”

We stand on this planet,

one amongst billions,

as sand on the shore,


Beyond the nearest star

the universe expands

through millions of light years.


For 300,000 years

(the flare of a match),

Homo sapiens imagined we came from the Sun,

from Mount Olympus,

or a personal God,

who listens to our every plea.


Prosaic as it may be,

we emerged from the sea

and return to the earth.


            The collection is divided into five sections: Transience; Medicine and Science; Religion and Politics; Aging, Love and Family; and History and Remembrance. “Conceit” is from the Transience section and is emblematic of Weir’s layered poems—conceit working both as the prominent metaphor of expansiveness as sand throughout the poem, denoting the billions of planets in our universe and connoting the endless possibilities for conjuring the origins of our existence, as well as the common meaning of conceit as self-centeredness. Another poem from section I utilizing concrete imagery and particularity to flesh out its title is “The Shards of Time.”


The dinosaur that stands fossilized

Upon my desk, ran on the earth

200 million years ago.

In the terrain of papers and pens,

She is reunited with

The ammonites and trilobites


That populated her world.

Homo sapiens, a species

A thousand-fold younger,

Now steers the ark.

On whose desk will we rest

A million years hence?


In this poem, even more so than in “Conceit,” Weir’s talent for rendering the actual feeling of experience connects with his ability to make lines and sentences their own forms of experience. I mean that, along with the accuracy and fidelity of a first-rate realist, Weir has an entirely unique metaphorical imagination—allowing him to honor and render the mysteries as well as the facts of personal and collective life.


            The best poems in this collection maintain that unity of two elements that are usually at odds: both the abstract feelings and the concrete details of experience. “Breakfast Time” is another such poem, utilizing concrete images of “Juncos,” “A hairy woodpecker” and “A Cooper’s hawk,” contrasted with editorials in the daily newspaper. In addition, Weir’s timing is flawless, in delivering his knock-out-punch of the last line.


The editorials are benign.

Juncos forage in the snow,

below the brimming feeder.

A hairy woodpecker pecks

staccato on the oak.

A Cooper’s hawk plunges down,

feathers drift across

my window; time to read

the obituaries.


Death sprouts from the natural world as any other observation, and is as non-threatening, although as surprising as in actual experience—reminiscent of the voice of William Stafford. Other noteworthy poems in this collection are “Volatility” (from section II, Medicine and Science), “Gene Pool” and “If You Have These” from section IV, Aging, Love and Family. In “Volatility,” Weir makes wonderful music with half-rhymes and near-rhymes:


Despite the cold, the sun

feels warm upon my back.

The feeder’s full and on the ground

the small-cap juncos peck.

Should I spread the wealth,

kick sunflower seed below?

But no, emerging markets urge

the flight to Southern climes.


Yet wait, there’s thistle seed

awasting and dividends to

pluck before we fly.

Perhaps a short diversion North

in search of golden grains?

The NASDAQ and the sun’s still high,

why have the faint-hearts fled?

The high-flying indices plunge down;

their talons tear my nest apart.


“Emerging / urge,” “wait / awasting,” “there’s / thistle,” “diversion / search,”—even the regular use of “the” (“the cold, the sun” and “The feeder’s…the ground”) sing their own meanings to us throughout the poem, so that the final line is delivered with even greater intensity, once again enacting the poem’s abstract title in one final stroke of concrete metaphor.


      In “Gene Pool,” the final lines of the first of two stanzas create a strong metaphorical image of the list of evidences of an intelligent woman with “…all stacked / in the library of her mind.” To parallel, the final lines of stanza two speak of the unstacking of memories with disease:


Later, it seemed, she

could no longer find

the right shelf. Rummaged

around to recall those

who had eaten at her table

the previous night.

My Mother had…what’s his name?

You know…that…

that disease.


“If You Have These” is a list poem of aspiration experiences the poet has for his son that intimates a swelling tide toward the final section with, particularly with its final line.


The smell of turf smoke,

roar of Atlantic rollers,

the splash of purple heather,

blaze of orange montbretia,

the dark promise of blackberries,

the crackle of grasshoppers,

keeping of a gull

or rasp of the crows,

the hand of a man who knew your father,

the laughter of friends,

the silence of the full moon,

the stone on which

my brothers sat,


I have no more to give.


            In What Do You Think, Ken Weir has inserted himself into the poetic cannon with poems of craft, intellectual substance, and emotional connection that all poets and lovers of poetry would do well to read. They look backwards to the 20th century’s broad field of ideation and possibility, without attempting to make up readers’ minds or hearts about what is, what is important, and why—a fresh approach to age-old questions in the midst of the culture wars of the 21st century. I’m convinced that poems like “The Shards of Time,” “Conceit,” and “If You Have These,” among others, will captivate and move their readers for many years to come.


I close with the collection’s antepenultimate poem, “Ready or Not” which brings to mind Whitman’s final words from Song of Myself: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place, search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you”:


I go ahead,

down by the lake,

where the white squirrel nests

and the wood-ducks dive

I will be waiting.


In early Spring,

when the ice crackles

on the frozen shore,

you will hear my voice

when the wild geese call.


Ken Weir was born in Ireland during the Second World War. He went to school in England (Oundle), got his BA at Oxford (Pembroke College), and his medical degrees (BM. BCh. and DM) were also from Oxford. His clinical training in cardiology was at the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where he and his wife, Elizabeth V. Pearman, first met. His research training was at the CVP Lab of the University of Colorado in Denver, as a Fulbright scholar. His clinical, research, and teaching careers have been at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Medical School. He has edited 11 scientific books and is an author of over 200 scientific papers but these poems, which have been written in the Twin Cities over the last twenty years, are his first volume of poetry.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

A Slight Thing, Happiness by Joan Baranow


A SLIGHT THING, HAPPINESS, Joan Baranow. Saint Julian Press, Houston, Texas, 2022, 70 pages, $18, paperback.

In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Joan Baranow bears witness to the fragile nature of happiness with a linguistic lens that celebrates the beauty found along its spectrum. It is the “small things with or without wings” that Baranow most celebrates, telling their stories with striking images that prowl and haunt this collection of passionately-crafted poems.

            Divided into four parts, the opening poem of each section could serve as its title. The first, “That Summer,” sets the stage for a baby—conceived, we later learn, with a surgical procedure. The poem opens with images of uncertainty:



            Cobalt. Rust. A heave of fog

            sliding across the sand.


            Fog in the manzanita.


            A flower like goldenrod put forth

            its yellow pearls.

            We posed nearby, where the wooden steps


            left the parking lot.

            The camera lens kept the edges in. Ocean. Cliffs.


            A coastal summer. Before the baby

            had being.

            The seeds inside the shrubbery were neutral.


These lines describe both an actual and an emotional landscape—“Fog in the manzanita” points toward the uncertainty of would-be parents “posing nearby,” their world view framing and focusing on a limited view, while “seeds inside” a human body only obey natural law. Other poems in this section trace the beginning and development of the child in vivid and gorgeous language. “Feeding the Son Born Premature,” the final poem in this section, is emblematic of Baranow’s insistently energetic diction, alive with growing tension and partial resolution. It opens with:

                                                …the story

            about the starving Chinese family

            in which the father chewed the few

            grains left, then put them

            into his baby’s mouth.

            I tell my son, “It’s good, good,”

            and move his hand to the fork,

            his solid 2-year weight on my lap.


And then the closing lines reveal the paradox of living in the present, aware that life can be taken at any moment:


            Once when home he slept so deeply

            I couldn’t wake him

            and shook him the way I shouldn’t,

            shouting his urgent name

            until he opened his aggrieved eyes.

            And so I watch, as I must,

            as he eats the gold rice

            glazed with fat, make sure he has

            as much as he wants.


             Section II begins with “An Old Story” about Snow White’s stepmother ingesting a heart—“Each piece tough and delicious, her body enter[ing] mine”—presaging the theme of death inherent in birth and life.  In “Close Calls,” Baranow’s five-month-old falls face down onto the floor, her four-year-old falls into a swimming pool: “Close calls, the fractions of accidents, / the young man brushing broken / windshield glass from his jacket, / the surgeon who nearly nicks the femoral nerve, / even I, seven months gone, days away from seizure, / saved by the OB who said, ‘It’s time / to get that baby out.’ Close calls.” Baranow’s virtuosic word choices are again on display in these closing lines:

            What are they but rehearsals for the real thing?

            Under the rush of gratitude,

            of falling to our shaking knees,

            we know—there will be a next time

            without reprieve or rescue, the cancer

            will split its capsule, the driver won’t swerve.

            On that day prayers are dust in your mouth.

            You’ll remember Job’s wife, curled weeping

            on a frayed rug in a corner of that cursed room.


The prayers as “dust in your mouth” is a layered image, bringing to language’s surface the burying of us all—“dust to dust”—and the return of the “frayed rug” brings back the earlier image of the infant falling onto the floor rug in the same way that humanity in its infancy fell from grace in Eden and bore the curse of death. In these poems, death may result from tragic human error or natural causes, or a combination of both. In “Diagnosis,” death “puncture[s] from inside, / tumors escalating / like pent gasses through O-rings, / organs exploding under the skin.” In both space craft and the hapless woman, death fully blooms: “Nothing to do but drive home / and make the terrible calls.”

Section III returns readers to the beauty of beauty (rather than Rilke’s beauty as “only the beginning of terror we are barely able to endure”) with the light-hearted poem, “Things He Said”—he being a son: “He said he’d run out of dream power. / He’d see if I had any extra. / He wanted to floor his room with sod / to plant bamboo / and why couldn’t he spread sod on the floor?” The poem ends with humorous lines spoken by the child beyond his years: “When his father said to watch out for those / Paris Hilton types, / he said, So you have some experience with that? // He said call me Inside the Rainbow.” The son who speaks in “Beautiful” also demonstrates a child’s ability to perceive beauty in what we adults take for granted. The child’s Blakean “doors of perception” have not yet clouded over.

            Section IV begins with “Traveling Through,” bringing forward all of the trials and difficulties in the midst of happinesses and resolves—not into ultimate bliss or even hope, but rather into acceptance. In “Sanctuary,” Baranow hints at how she learns from her mother’s efforts to find happiness: “You chose a place hard to get to—23 miles to the gulf from Old Town, past longleaf pines and wiregrass marsh.” After a description of the sparse interior—“Two rooms and a bathroom up on stilts. A hot pot for coffee”—and an ominous exterior full of alien beauty “with skittery palmetto bugs under the garbage bin. Spanish moss snapped on bald cypress, crepe myrtle, cabbage palms, your own curve of canal, a single banana tree. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Magnolia blossoms like white doves nested among rusty leaves”—Baranow brings the poem to the climax of the book:

You believed people were made for happiness. My last visit there, you kept your cheer despite the growth, undiagnosed. After you died, we found Christmas gifts still wrapped among the clutter.


“Watching the Red Squirrels” underscores the main theme of the book, that we must live in the present because that’s all we have, and the beauty we find there includes happiness as one of the most precarious of states, albeit one of the best. Spending an afternoon with relatives, watching with amusement a squirrel attempting to get into a bird feeder, Baranow concludes:

It was one of those afternoons

that remains in memory.

A slight thing, happiness.


In A Slight Thing, Happiness, Baranow has given us in superb narrative lyrical poems a more complete picture of happiness than lesser poets would dare, without fear of sentimentality in celebrating poignant moments and without shying away from the underbelly of loss that eats away at all existence, making these poems all the more precious. The straightforward forms and organization of the book support the unblinking eye and unwavering voice of this poet writing in her fully developed voice. Reading this book will be no slight thing in the context of your lives—the living one and the writing one.

Joan Baranow is the author of In the Next Life, Living Apart, and two poetry chapbooks. Her collection, Reading Szymborska in a Time of Plague, won the 2021 Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. A fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and member of the Community of Writers, she founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband David Watts she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a teenager facing terminal illness. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024



STRANGERS & PILGRIMS, Fred LaMotte. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 75 pages, $18 paperback,


            My college poetry professor, Keith Wilson, attempted to jar us sophomores and juniors—most of us enrolled in his World Poetry class in order to fulfill our English requirements for graduation—by announcing to us during our first meeting, “Poetry is more dangerous than a loaded Colt .45.” I doubt that any of us knew what Keith, a Korean War veteran who did three tours of duty aboard battleships and kept a loaded pistol in his hand under the covers as he sweated out PTSD in his dreams years later, fully meant. But, reading LaMotte’s first poem in Strangers & Pilgrims—“Scary” (“The world is in chaos / and I refuse to pretend / that I know what to do.”), and even more so in the remainder of this collection, knowing how these poems can change the intention, the direction, and vocation of a life, with all attendant criticisms, isolations, and abandonments from bosses, colleagues, friends, and even family—I believe that LaMotte has understood for a long time, the power of poetry. It is a courageous thing to write poetry. Ultimately, we poets believe it is a good thing, but “[tell[ing] / the Truth, a sacred / white buffalo / wander[ing] into [one’s] heart / and feel[ing] a peace / the world cannot give / or take away” does not always mean that poetry brings that peace to its readers—particularly if change is not something one is seeking. Strangers & Pilgrims should come with a warning: “Beware, reader! Do not proceed unless you are ready for a change of perspective.” Emily Dickinson said, “I know it's poetry if it takes my head off.” LaMotte’s latest collection will not only take off your head, but it will pierce your entire body, because “The portals to heaven are in the body.”

            LaMotte’s poems use imagery that is convincing on a concrete, sensory level, instantly appealing to the five senses, and at the same time (and often in the same poem, the same line) uses necessary abstraction with strong intention—necessary abstraction because it approaches the unsayable as closely as poetry can, and strong intention because this poet is not writing for the purpose of linguistic gymnastics, but as a form of deep spiritual practice, seeking truth and reveling when he is as surprised at catching a glimpse of it as is the reader. The following passage is from the second poem in the collection, “On Certain Afternoons.”

            Most of my DNA

                 I share with a mouse,

                      infinitude with a gnat.

            Endangered herds stampede

                 through the wounded valleys

                      of my marrow,

            I protect vast swaths

                 of rain forest

                      with a single exhalation.

            I’m certain that the merest weed

                 in its stillness is awake,

                      a blossoming black-eyed-Susan.

            Rooted in listening, I also flower

                 with no seed of thought.

                      The soil is my Being.

            Wonder is the musk of my heart.

                 May my fragrance expand

                      beyond all gardens.

            Come, you lovers of late Spring,

                 the gates are never closed.

            The rain-disheveled azalea

                 will not begrudge your insouciance,

                      nor the rose your burning fingers.

            Let each dare to whisper

                 in your own tongue,

                      “Smell me, I am wild!”


Sprinkled throughout this collection are poems of Mary Magdalene, LaMotte’s inspiration for these poems. The first such poem appears as “How Will You Know Her?”—a reverse personification, where Mary Magdalene is transformed into an abstraction for which she is the personification of spirit. The first three stanzas employ anaphora, setting an incantatory tone:

            Between your heartbeats is a garden,

            the place where Magdalene and Jesus touch.

            She thinks he is the gardener. He thinks she is

            God’s breath, caressing his chest. She is.


            Between your heartbeats is a garden,

            the wilderness where Israel meets Wisdom,

            the Sabbath Queen who sings of loss.

            How could they make love in the desert?

            They pitch a tent of animal skins, and it becomes

            a holy pavilion of gathered silences.


            Between your heartbeats is a garden

            where village girls dance with the Prince of Herdsmen.

            Each maiden is his flute, but only one can be his Song.

            She who wears your inhalation as we wedding gown

            has come to wound you in the pulse of your throat.

            How will you know her? By what signs

            will you prove that she is your Betrothed?


            Although LaMotte is interested in uniting with the ineffable, his path to that union is in the body—both the human one and the granular, concrete body of the Earth and all that is within it. That truth is shown, not merely told (as in “Never Again”—“never again let it be said, ‘I am not / this body’”), in several poems, e.g. “Wings” (“Thou shalt notice the toadstool, / the forget-me-not, a web / of dew, a pebble”); (“The arc of healing does not shower / down from the sky, it gushes / upward from the dust”); “Hum” (“…Hum stars / through your belly. So Hum sap through your cervix”); “Mollusk” (“In a mollusk of prayer, yearning chafes the sandy grit of “I” into a pearl”); “The Choice” (“The portal to the kingdom / of contentment has never been closed. / Find it in your body…”); “Latte” (“Even the pilgrim snail / on a hosta leaf feels starlight / that hasn’t yet arrived”); “Swan” (“Surely, you’ve been told / a Goddess flows / through your darkness,…Her wings are your inbreath / and exhalation. / That is why you have a body”); “Vocation” (When I discovered / the emerald in my chest / I gave up every calling…just to follow this menial/ vocation: I became / a Jewel Polisher” and “Let me be ever quenched / by my own thirst”); “Secret” (“Everything is spiritual. / A toadstool made of God. / If you look close up, / the wing of a fly is scripture”); “Smudge” (“In the birth canal / you were anointed / with the mighty host / of earth’s bacteria, / smeared and smudged / with the microbiome”); and a poem that is emblematic of this “messy” book of poems, “Solstice”:


            Today is slightly longer

            than yesterday or tomorrow.

            So what?

            The earth is wobbly.

            Somewhere a stray kitten

            is shivering in summer rain.

            Somewhere a neglected boy is

            loading his father’s gun.

            And a mother flees across the river

            ever Northward in search

            of a home for her child.

            This inhalation could be a summer solstice,

            this exhalation a winter one.

            So what if Mercury’s in retrograde?

            You are not your horoscope,

            you are the sky.

            So what if the Lion and Bull,

            the Ram and Scorpion cross horns,

            their fangs and stingers

            in outrageous combat?

            They’ll come down at dawn to drink

            from the silent oasis

            of your waking.

            You are not that riot

            of ancient fires and distant sparks.

            You are the largesse of immemorial darkness

            through which they glitter, rear, and clash,

            stagger back, and wander on.

            If there is a God, she doesn’t care

            so much about your stars

            as she cares about the smile you could have

            shared with a friend last night,

            The grace you might say to a stranger

            this evening, the breath you could savor

            this very moment,

            like a sunrise in your chest.


Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpet player, was once asked about playing the wrong note or making a mistake. His answer was “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” I’m betting that Davis would like Strangers & Pilgrims. I know that he’d like “Broken,” which echoes his own musical and personal philosophy, seeming to this reader a poem that “all the law and the prophets” can hang on.


A broken commandment

is the open gate

to a wilder meadow.

It may be your sacred duty

to violate the rules.

I smoked an Arturo Fuentes Robusto

with the Bodhisattva.

Asked him if he had any precepts.

He said, just one: be healed by your tears.

Then he opened up to me about

his sadness, admitted

he had to come back

because he was lonely.

I said maybe Anthony Bourdain

or Sylvia Plath. He said,

maybe Jack Kerouac. I said,

all of them wounded one-eyed Buddhas.

My belly was thirsty for repentance

so, I made a bourbon smoothie

and shared it with Jesus.

Asked him if he had any rules.

He said, just one: call me brother, not Lord.

Cucumber, mint, and kale

with a shot of Wild Turkey.

Forgive me, it was delicious.

A broken commandment is the open gate

to a deeper rule, unwritten,

harder to disobey.

The laws of the body lead

to the precepts of the soul.

Like the one that says, love anyway.

The one that says, make friends

with the brokenhearted.

The one that says, forgive yourself

again and again…. So I discover

the rules I cannot break

by breaking the ones

I can.

ALFRED LaMOTTE has authored four volumes of poetry with Saint Julian Press, including Strangers & Pilgrims, and co-authored three coffee-table art books with artist and earth-centered activist, Rashani Réa. With degrees from Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Fred has been an interfaith college chaplain, instructor in World Religion, and a meditation guide who loves to explore the liminal space between word and silence, poetry and meditation. He lives on the shore of the Salish Sea near Seattle WA with his wife Anna.


Sunday, February 25, 2024

FAME by Kevin McGrath


FAME, Kevin McGrath. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 253 pages, $25.00 paperback,


            Unlike most contemporary poetry being written in the English language—particularly contemporary American poetry—the poetics and structure of FAME are not what Megan Fernandes, author of I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House, 2023) calls an “artifice of mess.”

Kevin McGrath describes poetry in the Afterword, and enacts on every one of its 252 pages of tight, what he calls regulated verse, as not existing “except in a formal and harmonious state… that forceful coherence suppl[ying] us with our necessity and location….”

            Written primarily in iambic tetrameter, fitting almost always seven stanzas (centered) per page, dividing this long poem (it cannot really be called a collection) into four parts that McGrath lays out for the reader on page two (“I - 2”) as “four winds.”

            There are four winds about the world

               That move within the human soul

               First – the strange attraction going

                        Between a girl and boy


                  The second takes us on in time

                     So that we might look back

                  At the residence and procession

                     Of what is lost upon our way


      The third is the emptiness that

         Fills up our breathing days

         As we go toward our source

      Its quietness makes us more still


         The final air is that of beauty

         Quick ephemeral always true

      The breeze that makes substantial

         Everything we do not know

         Song of what we cannot say



The center or subject matter or tension in Fame is a recreation of the hero’s journey of Achilles as emblematic of the “one narrative in this world,” this work reflecting that pattern in each of its four sections of 1) the Attraction between male and female; 2) Time’s arrow; 3) Emptiness; and 4) Beauty.

            Reminiscent of the adoration passages spoken by the writer of The Song of Songs from the Biblical canon (e.g. “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy locks…thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks”—from Chapter 4, vs 1-3), are the one-hundred pages of section I, of which stanzas from I-21 and I-22 follow:


            They come and go and trespass

                        Freighted with desire

               Young women of the spring

                  In their summer dresses


                     Crocus yellow hyacinth

               Their golden shoulders bare

                        A green text burning

                        Sweet upon their lips




            The nature of my love is this

               I witness you as no other

              When you are mine to hold

              Refining our warm volume


            I love your bones and your smell

                  A scent of leaves and rain

               At the hollows of your joints

               My hands confess their love


And in section I-67, a long piece defining the essence of love, we seem to have an answer to the above passages, at least in part:


               Love gives us tongues and insight

               It fills us with concupiscence

            Without love we are empty creatures

          Phantoms who cannot speak nor touch


            His voice removed my loneliness

            Just as his strength took my lust

               In his person I find a home

               And in his sleep I find rest


Many references to “Time” in section II are told “slant” as Dickinson suggested and exemplified: (“Being drawn by the not-having / And then in the satisfaction / We still miss the conclusion / To this long endless call” from II-2; “There is only one day ever / In our live and one occasion / For vision to be complete” from II-4; and “These slow hours are insufficient / For you [to] sleep far away content / Unaware of how life could rest” from II-7 are examples.) However, in II-23 McGrath speaks more directly to “Time” from a subjective perspective:

            On my sixty-sixth year on earth

               I walked out for distraction

            Loving the sand loving the dust

               The unmasking of the air


            A firm wind from off the lake

               Was bevel on the hot light

            As if desperate for release

               For destiny to be complete


            The distance were hazy and

               The low brown hills at rest

            As my years gathered close

               Awaiting their dismissal


            So much time so little place

               So little achieved in living

            Yes this is where my heart stays

               Where I wish to sleep


            Section III brings us to “…the emptiness that / Fills up our breathing days.” Examples of images that haunt these lines are “…a field / Surrounded by speechless stones” (III-1); a “perfect sphere” that “appears when we close / Our eyes and there is no sound” (III-2); “…life is a mirror…/ …no one is truly present” (III-3); “light becomes quiet // / The river empty of boats / No one works the ridged fields” and “…an infinite sea” where we “ Submerge and leave no trace” (III-5); “…a river made of shadow / Flowing deep into the earth” (III-8); a “universe…made of night / Of coldness…/ …no shadows moving / Among silent minerals” (III-9); “A glass of water…consumed / … / …life becomes invisible” (III-12); and again, “…a mirror / …. / Called solitude when we / Become absent from ourselves” (III-18). And yet, McGrath never falls into despair, holding onto a belief in love—"When love calls from a distance // …no one sleeps nor deceases” (III-13)—and a belief in beauty, which is the focus of Section IV.

            There are three causes here

               Driving us among the days

                  Drawing us through time

            Where beauty is unspeakable [italics mine]


            In section four, the first three sections (attraction between lovers; time’s arrow; emptiness; and beauty) are re-capitulated and emerge from McGrath’s pen as birds and other winged creatures (swallows, fireflies, dragonflies, kestrels, and falcons, e.g.) to carry love aloft, epitomized by the love of Achilles (IV-15):

Achilles you loved too much

               You went beyond this world

            Only your horses knew your way

               And there was no zero at all


This first stanza re-introduces Achilles and the reader understands that McGrath has been writing about him all along:

            Your song became beautiful

            Perfectly light and sonorous

            You went so far out of time

         Unbound by the breath of words


In III-14, McGrath opens with a passage that captures, for this reader, perhaps the most insistent of the many themes in this dense, yet musically lyrical tome:


            The choirs that compose our lives

                  Birds cicadas wind rainfall

               Someone call out our name

               When there is no one present


                        So we lightly part the air

               With words or with footsteps

                        A vast immortal order we

                     Do not observe yet inhabit


In Fame, Kevin McGrath parts the air with music that rivals the best of classical poetry, drawing from all three genres: the dramatic, the narrative, and the lyrical. Readers will be elevated to musical and ideational heights for generations to come, reading this epic poem, so unusual these days for its beauty of language and coherence of thought.