Tuesday, January 16, 2024


Blue Light Press, 2023, 81 pages, $20.00 paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com

Throughout her newly released poetry collection, Dorothy Wall demonstrates the ability to fuse language both concrete (e.g., “refrigerator on the freeway” and a “baby born in [a] bomb shelter,”) as well as abstract (e.g. “hope,” “absurdity” and, as in the title poem, “surprises,” “plans,” “accidents,” and “acquisitions.”) This range from nominalism to idealism, where many times along the continuum words intersect both worlds (as in “shelter”), is an earmark of Wall’s work in this collection, making it appealing to both die-hard students of post-modern poetry and the occasional reader who needs tone and conversational language in order to stay with it.

            On the concrete end of the spectrum is a poem like “Not Today,” where practically all of the abstractions appear in the title, early lines and final lines, the remaining narrative being comprised of imagery appealing directly to the senses.


            While damage unmoors and upends,

            we go to the pool. I don’t swim,

I watch, a glaring water-light my granddaughter

            dives under, hair streaming and sleek.

            It’s easy here. Water chlorine-clean,

            untouched by brown torrents gushing,

            waterfall heavy, through Kentucky streets,

tearing into basements, taking down houses,

            power lines, SUVs like the house of cards they are.

            The truth, the wet truth. In Pakistan a deluge

            devours hillsides, houses, lives. Maldives’ beaches

            disappear, gigantic bites. Here a shimmer

            of blue popsicle puddles on cement.

            Child voices in splashy play.

                                    A reckoning hovers

            above the gleaming water like an Old Testament

            prophet scolding and hurricane huge, ready to

            bind us in his furious arms.

Eventually. Not today.



At the other pole is a poem like “Where to Find Hope”:


                        “The phrenologists already knew that hope was situated

                        in the prefrontal cortex: ‘in front of conscientiousness,

                        and behind marvelousness, being elongated in the direction

                        of the ears.’”

                                    “Electrified,” by Elif Batuman, The New Yorker,

                                                                                                April 6, 2015


            Clearly I’ve been searching all the wrong places

            trekking through uncertainty, lost

            in absurdity.


            My fingertips wander to the precise spot, massaging scalp

            like a clairvoyant her crystal or a mother her baby’s

            fontanelle, still open


            Skeptical self, please believe in the possible


                        against evidence

            Everyone’s tired of the news, fill my head

            with something else


            a map clear as a phrenologist’s staked claim

                        giving us not only discovery

                                    but faith. I don’t need


            answers, just beginnings, like that infant

                        newly swum up from its bath

                                    of stem cells that can be anything

                        heal anything


            that swarm to where they belong

            doing what they’re meant to



            their orchestrated flood, like hope


                                    what they touch

            in the beginning.

            What we do next is what matters.


            Even though “Where to Find Hope” is filled with as many abstractions as appear in any poem of the book, (e.g. “uncertainty, absurdity, skeptical, discovery, faith,” and “hope”), they are counter-balanced with “fingertips, scalp, crystal, stem cells” and other palpable language, allowing the poem to serve as a conduit between the right brain and the left—utilizing language to bridge the gap between this world and another.

            Many poems are structured in couplets, a fitting form for the lyrical narratives that populate the book. In “Hemingway Puts Down His Gun,” Wall lays down a prosody against which to measure her poems—and her poems do not disappoint.

            I read the story somewhere, how each day

            he tried to stop writing when he knew


            what came next


            As long as words, strong as a rope

            hauled him into another day


            he knew he’d keep going

            If you ever thought words can’t save us


            think again: a string of words

            a suspension bridge


            a rope we’ve tied ourselves to

            above the chasm


            You’d think I’d understand this rope-pulled

            undertaking, this aerial act, but I don’t


            this trusting at the edge that requires

            trusting yourself, now that’s


            scary. Below the river flits from green

            to blue, darker at the bend


            where words end



In terms of length, poems vary from the nine-line “All the Ghosts” to the three-page “How to Survive” dedicated to the poet’s great-grandfather Frank Thomas Wall, “who twice lost his mind, the second time after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”—from the epigraph. The title poem, “Catalogue of Surprises” is emblematic of the longer poems. It deals with viral illness and provides a four-fold structure with its divisions of “Catalogue of Surprises,” “Catalogue of Plans,” “Catalogue of Accidents,” and “Catalogue of Acquisitions.” There is a metaphorical sensibility to this poem that parallels the tone of the entire collection. “What happens in a house / doesn’t stay in a house” are the poem’s opening lines. The enjambment works perfectly to both look backwards as a question and forwards as one answer:

…It’s the wanderings

within I didn’t expect,

cellular shifting, these guests

that stay, altering the body

like a birthmark or your

children. What happened?

A virus flew into my mouth,

burrowing, roaming,

remaking my world.


“Catalogue of Surprises” is an ars poetica in disguise, with its Richard Hugo-like wisdom for writing as “…everything accidental… / everything. No plan. Who could / plan what we end up with? /Haphazard as a virus that takes / any portal as invitation to settle / …to root, survive.” In the final section, “Catalogue of Acquisitions,” the poet continues her imagery layered between illness and the compulsion to write, reminding one of an interview question posed to Robert Creeley about the meaning of his poems which he answered by pointing to how he didn’t understand his children, and why would one presume to understand one’s poems: “…I haven’t figured out wholeness / or these visitors that stay,” answers Wall to the question of “What happened?” “Perhaps that viral virility / puffers down with time / dulled and senescent / its mark fading. Perhaps / we’ll grow used to / each other, until our needs / coincide and I can’t discern / the stranger inside.”

            In this collection, Dorothy Wall gives us a glimpse of her “stranger inside” and we learn that hers is no different from the strangers inside us that surprise in spite of all our plans. In the end, they help Wall acquire “…a string of words / a suspension bridge // a rope we’ve tied ourselves to / above the chasm.” If we pay attention to these poems, they can instruct us how to do the same—both in our lives and in our writing lives.

            Catalogue of Surprises is capacious in scope of themes, and yet never seems to depart from core issues dealt with in the canon over the centuries. I am certain that newcomers to poetry, as well as informed readers and writers of poetry, will enjoy this book’s fresh diction, unexpected syntax, and substantive material for many years to come.  

Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: New and Selected Poems (Blue Light Press) and Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Cimarron Review, Eastern Iowa Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension. Visit her at www.dorothywall.com.