Singing Colors (Review)

Scriptorium: Poems, Melissa Range, Beacon Press 2016

Melissa Range’s Scriptorium concentrates sounds and sights to weave together poems on the topics of Appalachia, Christianity, and the natural sources turned into ink for use by Christian monks in Europe during the Middle Ages. While perhaps disperate-sounding topics, Range uses the colors of the titular scriptorium as a backbone to structure the topics for the reader.

Verdigris, orpiment, kermes red, ultramarine, shell white‐these are a few of the colors Range writes about in a series of sonnets, enlightening the reader to the creation process and source animal, mineral, or vegetable of the inks. Opening “Woad”, Range writes

Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghan cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot—
a naturalied weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.

But whatever the range, ahem, of topics, Range’s musicality on the page is what stays with me. Take, for example, “Pigs (See Swine)” which is 32 lines, eight quatrains, of monorhyme, one rhyme sound for the entirety of the poem. The second stanza goes

But there’s a book whose pigskin bindings shine
for youth and aged alike, in which the terms align,
pigs and swine; and in its stories, sow supine,
your litter’s better bacon in a poke done up with twine.

Other flights of music I loved include “Anagram: See a Gray Pine”, “Hit”—really, most of the poems about how they speak where and when Range grew up. Range wrings music from the most simple and the most complex of English words but even at the syllables’ most simple, her meanings are multiple and deep and worth reading.

Bouts-Rimes for Hope

Either poetry is dead or it is what people turn to in times of need, at least according to the Internet.

I asked a number of my poet-colleagues to write for hope, to help people during difficult times.

The result is a small chapbook of sonnets you can download for free: EPUB or MOBI (Kindle) files here on Gumroad. (Just enter 0 for the price.)

The chapbook contains poems by Carol Berkower, Sherry Chandler, Peg Duthie, Jenny Factor, Annie Finch, Cindy M. Hutchings, Marc Moskowitz, Charles Rammelkamp, and Mary Alexandra Agner.

If you, in turn, should pick up pen to reweave these end-words, originally borrowed from Edna St. Vincent-Millay, to write your own piece of hope, please share it with us here by leaving a comment with a poem or a link back to your own post with a poem.

Spirit Speech (Review)

A Field Guide to the Spirits, Jean LeBlanc, Aqueduct Press 2015

The poems in Jean LeBlanc’s A Field Guide to the Spirits cover a range of subjects, opening with mediums and ghosts, dipping into nature and natural sites, famous natural scientists of the 19th century and their family members, and historical figures from even older periods, before returning to the titular poem of the collection.

LeBlanc’s work is not rife with musical device; you will not find sonnet or alliteration here. I found the lack of musical device, usually intended to make a phrase memorable, a bit ironic given that the topics of so many of the poems were things to be remembered or involved remembrances by their speakers.

What LeBlanc’s work gives you is the surprising point of view—be it person or place—and the stunning epiphany.

For example, her “Hope, Hunger, Birds” does indeed trace a trajectory between those three concepts, although not in that order, and begins and ends in such different but related places that you cannot help but feel moved. I loved that the epigraph was by Susan Fenimore Cooper. It’s difficult to pick out just a few lines because it is the context they build together that is striking, but I keep coming back to these:

Like a songbird, my old heart,
still believing it will see another spring, craving
every tender blossom, wanting more.

In these poems, I appreciated the presence of Caroline Herschel, Catherine Barton (Newton’s niece), the unnamed woman describing how the town elders inspected the underwear of a group of women, especially her last snarky, surprising line. There is a lot to learn here; LeBlanc presents vivid portraits that made me, as reader, want to know more in the cases where I did not.

While she may not employ the poet’s arsenal of musical device, LeBlanc certainly understands it. In “Eleven Reasons Not To Marry A Poet,” she writes,

They are enamored of pretty words, but most especially of the saying of pretty words. You must be careful not to believe beyond the final iamb.

Indeed, it is the space beyond that final iamb which LeBlanc’s work explores.

Leaf Against Leaf (Reviews)

Book of Asters, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press 2014

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet Press 2013

The titles of these books suggest a common theme; the poems themselves support convergent evolution: there are so many ways of getting to the epiphany that plants are intertwined with human life.

Burnett’s book opens with a long poem in 46 parts, “Variations on an urban monotone”. That sets the tone for the remainder of the book because the rest of the poems move in a slow arc from the urban to the rural, from the concrete and discrete to the surreal and amorphous.

What I appreciated about the long piece was the sonic texture. There was repetition of concept and word between parts and there was alliteration and repetition inside each part. The parts include “fungus”, “chlorophyll”, “unboxed”, “milk”. They include the speaker’s wait in line at a corner store, noticing they are the only one with skin the color of milk. These are plants in the most unlikely places.

Kindred’s plants are those in the most likely places: yards, ditches, weeds at the edges of driveways. Kindred’s plants define place: the deep South of the United States, dog-days of summer, the stereotypical dysfunctional Southern family. From “Ironweed Summer”:

If we had to be their girls,
then there had to be ironweeds
around that house, needling up
through the pine shreds where
treelight divided one hard season
from the next.

Kindred’s book opens with women, girls, flowers, the allegory of the flower never used as you might expect with respect to women and girls. She leaves behind her oracular voice as the book progresses: the second section focuses on a speaker who has miscarried, using a very confessional voice, and introduces the speaker’s sons, who play a large part in the third section which attempts to blend confessional poems about sons and husbands with the oracular-aster-girls of the opening.

Perhaps the whole is summarized best in an arc drawn between the two sunflower poems: “When They Painted My Room Yellow”, which comes at the end of the first section, and “Sunflowers” which comes near the end of the book. In the first poem, the speaker is a young girl and afraid of “a city of flowers”, “sunflower Armageddon”, and yet knows

the name of my survival
is sunflower
as if I knew myself
gold, a feast of grief ribbons.

In “Sunflowers” the speaker is a mother needing the appetites of sunflowers “needing my skin made gold”, whose sons love to watch sunflowers burn. I confess, I did not want to make that trip with the speaker, from terror to burning. It was the earlier poems, the oracular-aster-girls that stayed with me.

What stays with me from Burnett’s book, even as her poems become literally less grounded, are her ideas. By the time I reach “Icarus” I am a bit lost, wishing for simple leaves, but Burnett instead gives me an essay on gentrification and social-economics tied to place using the conceit of sheep. She offers me the association of “oval” and “ovary” encapsulated in a poem about mirrors in which the lines reflect back on themselves. She offers the beginning of “Acorn”:

let’s grow     just like that oak tree
grows     both ways     both at once

What’s in a Title?

In college, a math prof told me tests were opportunities. [An 8am class on differential equations; who wants an opportunity at 8am? But I think that was his point.] It stayed with me, the concept that difficulty and opportunity are intertwined.

In that same difficult way, titles are opportunities. They are what help the reader decide to read the poem. They need to be appealing, intriguing, have an air of mystery yet be comprehensible—or perhaps be so incomprehensible that the reader is drawn in by what they do not understand. Titles can be phrases from the poem’s body, without the context of the poem yet, in order to allow the reader an epiphany, a mental change of position as they go through the poem. They must be pithy—or they must wave their verbosity as so large a flag it is impossible to deny.

Every weekday, over at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Christine Klocek-Lim posts a new poem. I get them through Twitter. And this fact, the fact that Klocek-Lim tweets only author and title and URL is what has made me think hard about titles.

Because, dear reader, most of them do not make me want to click the link. That little effort. Raise the thumb, squeeze. That’s it. And yet often I find the titles do not compel a mash on the phone.

So I want to take a look through the most recent ten titles and say yea or nay—and why.

  1. “Soldier’s Home” [link]
    I clicked this one because I decided there was enough ambiguity in the possesive apostrophe—it could be the home of the soldier or “the soldier is home”—that I wanted to see which. But I had to think about it.
  2. “Yokohama” [link]
    Sure, I like Japan. I also like specificity.
  3. “Idiot Hearts” [link]
    Oh, yes, what’s an idiot heart? And, I guess, aren’t we all?
  4. “Downstream” [link]
    Possibly just because it sounded cold and it’s hot here. Very very hot. Otherwise, it’s simple and not particularly memorable.
  5. “Rebirth on the Side of the Road” [link]
    I should have, right? There’s a nice mix of oddity [rebirth] and normalcy [road side], as well as concept juxtaposition [same as previous asides], but well, no, I just couldn’t get excited about someone else’s rebirth. [I wonder whether “Road-Side Rebirth” would have tingled my Spidey sense more?”]
  6. “Feedback” [link]
    Yes! Which type of feedback is it? There’s a chance it’s not a poem about a poetry workshop, it could be electrical feedback!
  7. “Another Love Story” [link]
    Nope. I didn’t want to read another love story.
  8. “Numinous” [link]
    Always more numinousity! But, to be honest, I clicked this because of the author.
  9. “Reflection” [link]
    Nope. While feedback had lots of synonym options, and reflection does too, it wasn’t sufficiently unusual enough for me to want to see what type of reflection was going on here.
  10. “Well-Attended” [link]
    I really didn’t know what this meant, whether it meant a group of people or an event, or perhaps both, and that was intriguing.

Perhaps you’d have followed all these links based on the titles? Or you’d have picked only the ones I didn’t? Please tell me so, and why. I’d love to hear more angles on what works for titles. Just not at 8am.

Black with White

I recently finished reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter [available here from Lost Horse Press], edited by Carolyne Wright, M. L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo. While I hope to post a review of the anthology later, today I want to rave about a particular poem.

According to the biographical statements at the close of the anthology, Colleen J. McElroy is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and has published nine volumes of poetry.

What caught me first about McElroy’s poem “Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge” was the music, as you will see.

Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge


A woman unadorned stands out in a crowd of otherwise
Camouflaged women, and takes from her shelf all manner
Of potions and powers, the oils and slick pots of color
That hold electricity and confusion of mimicry
That test the ties that bind deception to reality
A woman in sundappled skin can mislead with mad
Profusion and tricks that others would give an eyetooth for
Who know elaboration gives us our most handsome species
Who teach us disguised animals need not dissolve
Into surroundings when anonymity is not our destiny
Who know to understand the zebra’s stripes, you must get down
     On your hands and knees where the vertical whites vanish
     Into the sky and the blacks take on a shape so indistinct
     The world’s blurred kaleidoscope of the mundane and bizarre

Where Whites say black/ Blacks say black with white

I was also maddened by the choice of endwords but on re-reading and re-reading [because what an emotional trajectory to follow over and over!] I came to love that “otherwise” ending. In the first read-through I loved the conflation of electricity, pots of color, I loved the slap in the face when I, a white reader, got to the end of the poem and had my world shifted.

In so many ways, this is exactly the purpose of a poem, to teach me to see something in a way I did not see it before. Thank you, Professor McElroy.

Other musical textures that really work for me in this poem: “disguised” and “dissolve”, coming out again in the next line in “destiny” and then again one more line down in “stripes”. “Potions”, “powers”, and “slick pots”. “Electricity”, “test”, “ties”, “deception”, and then coming back to the hard T with “reality”.

The music in McElroy’s poems is immense and I look forward to reading more of her work.

May’s Mini Reviews (Neruda, Klocek-Lim, Heppermann)

I wish that I had enjoyed the poems in Pablo Neruda’s Then Come Back : the Lost Neruda Poems as much as the translator Forrest Gander passionately describes them in his introduction. But I found the book bizarrely broken up, all the English in one half, except for the occasional photostat of the original paper on which Neruda wrote, and all the Spanish in another, much more heavily broken up by original reproductions. I guess the publisher assumed most people wouldn’t want facing page translations (???) or that those of us who do would prefer to have to keep fingers in three places in the book to compare original handwritten version, Spanish, and English. This kept all but two poems from catching my eye: I adored the one with the obscure reference to abalone and Neruda’s lover’s ear, as well as the list poem (possibly because, after all these years, I could read much of it without assistance.) But nothing here moved me as much as “Pido silencio”. Possibly the best part of this was that it was funded by a Kickstarter. You can find more details about the book here.



The poems in Christine Klocek-Lim‘s Dark Matter have an intriguing genesis: they were all inspired by the Astronomy Picture of the Day. While those pictures have little in common from one day to the next, Dark Matter has a tight theme: the use of astronomical imagery as metaphor for family life. In these poems, Klocek-Lim tells stories of the narrator, their family, a husband and sons, an elderly mother. Sometimes there is a sister, sometimes a woman who I could only understand as a ghost. There are dreams, there are final days of school, old flames, and the tender epic that is the narrator’s relationship to their husband. As example, in “Stellar birth in the galactic wilderness”, Klocek-Lim writes,

New stars are forming but we are packing
up the house. The dust bunnies know something
has happened but have no explanation for why
the light has suddenly hit their abandoned
wilderness. I can’t answer their questions
because the spoon I just rolled in newspaper
has birthed a galaxy in its shallow bowl:
astronomical broth. I unwrap it to read more
while the boys shriek in our disemboweled
living room. I know there is silence in space.
The article insists that stars are forming quietly
in the galactic frontier but the scientists are puzzled.
There is nothing there with which to make a life,
nothing to eat, not even stone soup, but nevertheless
they appear in that unpredictable pinwheel cosmic wind.
The article claims the mystery is “absolutely stunning.”
Because some things defy explanation, I rewrap the spoon
and box it, knowing it will still be there next week
in the new house, cupping secrets in its quiet silver hand.

If there is a drawback to Klocek-Lim’s collection, it’s that it sounds the same note repeatedly. If this is the pitch to which you are attuned, it will resonate deeply. Even if not, it is definitely worth your while to listen to a few soundings. You can find more details about the book here.



The shiniest bits of Christine Heppermann‘s Poisoned Apples were, for me, a unique hybridization of popular culture and fairy tales, a blend I had not seen before. Heppermann’s poems include how hell freezes over when an anorexic woman eats, feminism expressed through Simon Says, eating disorders portrayed as though they were the Three Little Pigs’ houses, and exactly why Sleeping Beauty needed that hundred year nap in order to be ready for her marriage—in short, a necessary criticism of the predominant western culture’s views of female beauty. And the poems do it with wit and punch.

“A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale” opens

Once upon a time there was a girl who
had a good hair week! Seven cute looks
she could do at home, and their names were
Waves, Bob, Bun, Bangs, Braid, Sleek, and
Party-Ready Ponytail.

One day, while out walking in the woods
at a steady pace with short bursts of speed,
the girl met a wolf and told him, What big
smudge-free lashes you have!

and goes on in the same biting vein.

I found the second half of the volume, which concentrates more on fairy tale retellings, to be slightly less powerful, possibly because their concepts were less new to me. You can find more details about the book here.

Guest Post: Sherry Chandler

What is a poem?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for as long as I’ve been trying to write one of the devilish things. I’m flying my broomstick without instruments. Let us see where we land.

Once upon a time, as no doubt you all know, the definition was easy: a poem in English was language measured in specified ways adapted from Classical literature, written in high rhetorical style, again borrowed from Latin and Greek.

A poem often rhymed at the ends of lines in specified ways.

A poem, then, was high-toned language poured into a pre-existing mold appropriate for the subject, sonnets for love, rhymed couplets for epic narrative, the ballad for low stories, etc.

These forms, most of them borrowed from the Italian or the French, are called verse, from the Latin versus, meaning “a turning.” They dominated English poetry from the time of Chaucer, that is, the 14th century, until the 20th century dawned on the Modernists.

Modernists and their successors weren’t satisfied with the long-standing definition. Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. found the ornate forms inadequate to express the violence, economic hardship, and loss of faith in a society shaken by the slaughter of two world wars and torn between Fascism and Communism. Moreover, Williams argued that English in the American melting pot had a unique immigrant-influenced sound that demanded new forms. The upshot is they “freed” poems; took linguistic wedges and split poem from verse. As with many previous rebellions, a certain amount of chaos ensued until a new dictator arose.

Free verse—no specified form, ordinary language, commonplace subject matter.

The dictum now was “a poem finds its own form,” but if that is so, how do you know whether the words you found make a poem? You might say it’s a poem but do other people accept it as such?

Somewhere in my reading someone, Annie Finch I think, said, essentially, if you’ve broken the material into short lines, it’s a poem by definition. (I apologize for failing to supply a link or a title but I can’t find this statement again.)

I rejected that definition for a long time, because it seemed arbitrary. I could put instructions for operating my rototiller in short lines, but would that make it poetry?

I held that negative opinion until I read in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days (Touchstone, 1998) that Line breaks . . . draw attention to tone and sound. In doing so, they make poetic sense . . . One becomes more conscious of the words. (p 30)

Dress appropriately when operating the tiller.
Always wear sturdy footwear. Never
wear sandals, sneakers or open shoes, and never
operate the tiller with bare feet. Do not wear
loose clothing that might get caught
in the moving parts.

I promise you I picked that Operating Manual from among the papers and books lying on my desk as the item least likely to be poetic. And really, the six lines above do not comprise a poem. However the line breaks I chose create a sort of rhyme scheme in the first four lines: tiller/never/never/wear. In turn, that rhyming emphasizes the internal rhyming and repetition of wear, footwear, and bare. Also, placing prohibitive words at the ends of lines strengthens them from advice to warning.

I would not have noticed this language if I hadn’t introduced line breaks.

So okay, line breaks. But what about prose poems?

Back to square one.

For Koch, the one essential ingredient of poetry is music: Poetry, he says, and by extension a poem would just as soon come to a musical as to a logical or otherwise useful conclusion . . . (p 21). But again what about those oxymoronic prose poems?

. . . a poem comes right with a click like a box says Yeats. Yes, that could be it; even those boxy prose poems can click closed.

But a poem must resonate outward at the end says most every writing teacher I ever had.

Cleanth Brooks asserted that a poem cannot be paraphrased. A text is non-paraphrasable if and only if a paraphrase neither can replace the text nor capture its essential meaning. In that scenario, a poem’s rhythm, style, sound, images, emotional flavour and intellectual aspects, the denotations and connotations of its words, and even its content and graphic aspects, are inseparable.

This definition makes a poem larger than its component parts, which may well be true but may be as true of poetic prose as of prose poetry. It also implies that the poem clicks shut and not even the poet can make changes. In that case, a poem would be rara avis indeed.

One day at the beginning of second grade, my teacher asked each student in turn to recite the alphabet. I couldn’t recite the alphabet. What to do? Certainly this was no time to memorize the letters strung out above the blackboard; she was already at the head of my row, and now it was my turn. ‘I can’t say the letters in order,” desperation spoke, “but I know them when I see them.” She laughed and I got away with it.

Possibly poem can’t be defined, only recognized by those who are immersed in poetry the way a beginning reader is immersed in the alphabet. Maybe the definition is different for every reader and maybe it is different at different stages of life.

So all I can offer is a sort of paraphrase of what I said to Miss Nell in 1953: I may never be able to say definitely what a poem is but I know one when I read one.

Sherry Chandler has published two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Woodcarvers’s Wife (Wind Publications). She lives on a small farm in Kentucky with her woodcarving husband and an ever-changing population of wildlife, an ever-changing source of inspiration. For more information, please visit her website.

Guest Post: Pat Valdata

What Is a Poem?

Multiple choice:

    a) The answer to one of the hardest questions in literature.
    b) An ancient art form, older than cuneiform.
    c) That thing we compare other art forms to.
    d) If we’re getting really sloppy, it’s what some people call a natural event with no art to it whatsoever: waves crashing onshore in the winter, blowing frozen spume.
    e) I know it when I see it.

What is a poem?

A trick question. You’d think we’d have a decent definition for it by now.

Until the 20th century, everyone knew what a poem was: that form of speaking, and then writing, with rhymed words and a regular rhythm. Whether it took the form of a chant, a psalm, or a rondeau, we had no trouble identifying a poem. We even had field guides to its various forms, helping us to distinguish among types of sonnets the way birders recognize Willow, Alder, and Acadian Flycatchers (or try to, anyway).
Then came Modernism, and we ripped away poetic conventions the way flappers ripped off their corsets. After a wave of wild experimentation, poetry settled into a free-verse, lyrical groove that has lasted for decades. Every few years or so, some movement comes along to expand the boundaries again: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Oulipo, New Formalism (which has been around for more than 30 years, so maybe we should stop referring to it as “new”), Spoken Word.

What is a poem?

A magnanimous form of writing, as short as a haiku, as long as a blank verse novel. It treads the treacherous marsh between prosaic and singsong.

What isn’t a poem?

It isn’t a paragraph, unless it’s a prose poem. It isn’t simply a paragraph broken into irregular lines, either. That’s a rookie mistake.

What is a poem?

Don’t ask me. I write poetry, but I’ll be darned if I can define it.

Pat Valdata is adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College with an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Her publications include Where No Man Can Touch, winner of the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. For more information, please visit her website.