Category Archives: Poetry

Which magazines or journals earn the most Pushcart Prizes?

This interesting blog tallies the nominations by journal or magazine. If a Pushcart is what you’re after, it could make an interesting submission list.


Which magazines or journals earn the most Pushcart Prizes?

This interesting blog tallies the nominations by journal or magazine. If a Pushcart is hat you’re after, it could make an interesting submission list.


2012 Pen Awards for Literature

So many worthy recipients here. Particularly happy to see Toi Derricote named. From their citation:

Toi Derricotte

The judges wrote in their citation:

“We are very proud to name Toi Derricotte the winner of this year’s PEN/Voelcker Award. Derricotte is the author of five books of poetry:The Undertaker’s Daughter; Tender; Captivity; Natural Birth; The Empress of the Death House; and the literary memoir, The Black Notebooks. Her poems carry both truth and a higher knowledge in scenes of everyday life, consistently depicted through taut language. And her voice is, at once, tender and unflinching. A voice that she has honed over her long career from poem to poem and book to book as she investigates a distinctly American psyche rendered by experiences of race, color, gender, and grief, however blatant, however nuanced. The poems remind readers that personal and societal histories intersect sometimes in the most brutal, the most tender, and the most surprising of ways. In Tender she writes, “‘At the still point of the turning world,’ the job of the artist is not to resolve or beautify, but to hold complexities, to see and make clear.” Derricotte’s poems push readers and practitioners into the hard work of seeing with rigor, intelligence, and grace. Her intellect and her imagination continue to forge new territory in the field of poetry, challenging what we think a poem might be and what we think it might do in the world.”

A Survival Guide: Smith Blue, by Camille Dungy

ImageSmith Blue, by Camille Dungy. Crab Orchard Series in Poetry/Open Competition Award. Crab Orchard Review, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2011. ISBN-13:978-0-8093-3031-7.

When you marry an ambitious poet with solid craft and intense passion, you almost invariably get a great book. Perhaps the most intriguing poetry to cross my desk this year is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue. I admire Dungy’s work not only for what she accomplished in this offering from the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, but for what she attempts, no less than to “Wizard a track through our own screaming weeds,” a quote found in her opening citation from Gwendolyn Brooks (“XV,” The Womanhood). Following Brooks’ admonition that there are “no magic or elves/Or timely godmothers to guide us. . . ” Dungy cobbles together an extraordinary view of modern life, it’s foibles and distractions (“At Costco, everything comes cheap”/A Massive Dying Off) and most of all, its harsh realities and tremendous losses.

Much of this work is elegy, whether societal (“I ate the last orange in Nebraska /Post-Modified Food) or personal (“The poet’s hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy”/Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another), but none of it is polemical in the least. Dungy accomplishes this with a breathtaking grasp of the details, large and small, of contemporary life weighed down by war, economic distress, political intransigence, and material envy, yet she avoids the merely partisan by turning every personal loss into an observation about a greater grief, and every social issue into a challenge to be lived out, worked out, in individual choices that cut to the bone.

“This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for knowing what to do,” she writes in the latter poem, which begins with the suffering of arthritic hands, and ends with the trenchant observation: “Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient/and her hands cause the least of her pain. ” In between, there is a cataloguing of ills–burning women in schoolyards…tarped bodies on runways and in restaurants…three ancient cities met their ruin…third and fourth tours–and a warning not to let one newsreel image slide into the next: “This is not one thing standing for another.”

See each moment, each disastrous occurrence; notice everything, the poet tells us, though it hurts to feel the weight of the world’s grief.

“…Shame fits comfortably/as my best skirt, and what can I do/but walk around in that habit? Turn the page (After opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write A Poem About Love).

Come back to the Earth itself, “to the rock, dissimulated by the rush but still/loved. …Before things are muddied/before/the turbulence recalled by walls that they have built” (How She Keeps Faith).

Change is inevitable, and not all of it is doom. Some of it is human spirit rising up, “to get to the places beyond the places we know. This is the way, /how we have always found more . . . . ” and, in case we missed the point, there are lessons from our elders’ wisdom:

“–and of course you won’t let me see you/ neglecting to serve,whatever that means/don’t let me catch you neglecting to serve.” (Prayer for P)

It was about here that I saw the thread of American poetry running clear, Robert Frost to Ms. Brooks to Lucille Clifton to Camille Dungy. I have said nothing yet about Dungy’s craft, but she does not remind one without cause of those American originals: Clear, concise, articulated lines of fierce imagery draw one in from the first page.

From a tiny, impossibly elegant butterfly, its founder and namesake tragically lost in the practice of his calling, comes a title that is appropriate to the huge scope and delicacy of this work. California in all its diverse beauties and unfathomable contrasts breaks into life on these pages; the whole of the human dilemma whispers through it’s lines. Camille Dungy is among the most accomplished of our poets, a treasure we must not let slip. Call her an antidote for the times.

Bards Day

Those darling buds are sure being shaken today. How can one be blue when spring winds are rattling all manner of cages?

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

By Georgia Ann Banks-Martin

Plain View Press

ISBN 978-10935514-64-0


An intrigue of a title, right? A sign that here is a poet who won’t let you down easy. Indeed, Georgia Banks-Martin states her purpose here in the introduction, to move beyond race as a signifier of identity, moving deep into the individual imagination and history to build a bridge with the reader.

Nothing is more admirable than a high reach. Mostly, Banks-Martin succeeds in pulling us along into her world through these ekphrastic poems, neither denying nor insisting on her African-American ethnicity for connections, so that when she chooses to write from a Jacob Lawrence painting, the poem “Railroad Station” chronicles people who are certainly African-American, but also immigrants from Southern cotton fields, traveling with uncertainty and nerves and dogged hope, and they might be understood anywhere. Deftly, Banks-Martin catches the wife’s whisper to her husband, the father weighed down by more than luggage, the children’s innocence focused elsewhere than the perils of the journey.

One of my favorite poems here is “The Floor-Scrapers,” after Gustave Caillebott, in which the poet merges the imagined instruction of the master to his apprentice with her own memories of each mark on the wooden floors of her childhood home, and brings forth from that combination issues of respect and aspiration.

Van Gogh is here; Monet, Renoir, and Vermeer, too, but also writers and visual artists from other canons, all engaged with skill: Romare Bearden, Natasha Trethaway, Anne Sexton, Robert Mapplethorpe, even the fairy artist Jasmine Beckett-Griffith. (A handy reference list in the rear identifies the inspirations for each poem.) This is a poet with many interests and, yes, a high reach. She perfectly captures the exhausted quality  of Anne Sexton in her own weary paean to colorism, and excels at describing the Southern landscape:

From “Evening Guitar”:

Someone loaned me a book

filled with images of Mississippi, of people washing clothes,

fishing, pressing hair.

. . .

The book smells of smoke

from the coal-burning stove,

sharing the table with the lady’s

porcelain tea service,

the pages repeatedly read,

savored between long sips.

And she does not shy away from race or class or gender issues; this is not a poet who leads with artifice. Instead, the work is grounded in, but not overwhelmed by, the poet’s identity. As a consequence, the reader’s eye darts everywhere the poems lead. Here are a classmate’s suicide, a religious man’s repressed daughter, a tired man on a bus, numerous glimpses of rural Alabama. Generally, she does not go for the obvious image, but scrapes for us the layers that obscure other possibilities:

From “On Highway 80”

. . .

I’ve seen the fog lift like a curtain

to reveal a flock of fat buzzards,

with heads tucked between wings,

sitting atop a half-circle fence,

like a string of pearls,

around a woman’s neck.

. . .

If there is a concept in common to all these poems, aside from their reference to other works of art, it is that pretense wounds in a hundred ways, and rejection makes everyone bleed. A girl being urged to walk like a lady and deny her sexuality, a sidewalk musician capturing the blues from passersby, New Orleans after the storm––all images of unconsoled heartache. But there is also joy, the intense Southern commitment to beauty, and, above all, a wide sensibility engaging the world.

I have re-read this collection three times, not because I had to in order to write this review, but because bits of it kept sticking in my head like a new favorite song.

What more does a reviewer need to say?

The Darkened Temple by Mari L’Esperance

The Darkened Temple

By Mari L’Esperance

University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London

Published in 2008

ISBN 978-0-8032-1847-5


The poet’s page on Poets & Writers:

Richly textured and admirably diverse in its structures, Mari L’Esperance’s collection of poems, The Darkened Temple, stuns as it edifies a craving for depth in modern poetry.

Many of the poems center on the poet’s experience of abandonment by and desire to hold on to her mother, who was born in Japan, and who disappeared when the poet was a child.

From “Forgetting”:

The garden that you loved has folded into itself,

the rotting blooms and stems so much litter in the dirt.

The empty bird feeder glints and sways in the sun,

freed of its purpose.

What is left of you, Mother, threatens to break apart

at the edges, a thin outline already losing its shape.

Other poems branch out from this experience to explore related ideas and incidents.

From “In the Valley of the Kings,” which begins with a note about a Canadian woman who fell into a tomb while hiking in Egypt. The poet imagines the woman’s dying thoughts:

Kiss the children for me. Tell them

I have found the door to the next world.

Tell them I am entering history.

It seems endemic for this poet to question and excavate memories gathered long ago. She is equally thorough in her examination of emotions that set apart the abandoned child: frustration, fear, regret, distrust, resignation, intense longing for connection. That L’Esperance relies so much on personal experience for her content without making us feel excluded or drawn into a too-close intimacy, is a tribute to her skill as a poet.

From “The Dollmaker,” one of L’Esperance’s most exquisite poems:

Long before I knew what would become of you,

I sat at the kitchen table, your small daughter,

while you fashioned their brilliant robes

Out of colored rice paper: persimmon,

indigo, mustard, silver and gold leaf . . .

. . . Black crepe became hair

coiled in the style of the old Edo, adorned

with a  splash of crimson. Here my mind’s eye

falters, struggles to complete the image––

and then I remember: the dolls were faceless

. . . .

Still other poems conjure the emotional landscape of loss and abandonment: “After Reading of the Expatriate Writer’s Death by Shipwreck, Margaret Fuller, 1850”; the folkloric “The Bush Warbler Laments to the Woodcutter”; “Longing”; and perhaps my favorite of the entire collection, “As Told By Three Rivers,” an extraordinary work about settling into place.

Breadth of skill surprises here in structural diversity. L’Esperance is a master of the lyrical couplet, but shows equal potency in the prose poem, the pantoum, and a variety of free verse. Her imagery distills and tantalizes: “hairline ridges that form on the skin of sour milk” (“Stroke”); cooking pots “filled with snails and rainwater” (“Another History); bombs like “hothouse blooms crackling in a seething sky” (“Kamakura”). It would be hard to imagine tighter line breaks.

Small wonder that this collection was selected by Hilda Raz for the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. L’Esperance displays power and authority in her lines, the softest eye imaginable, and a very sharp knife in her grasp of imagery.

Too self-referential? Some may think so. I found the controlled intensity of these verses moved the sense into reach of anyone seeking poetry that sustains both thought and feeling. I strongly recommend this collection for practicing poets, the general public, as a teaching text, and a library acquisition.

Translating the Body, by Jillian Weise

Translating the Body

by Jillian Weise

All Nations Press 2006

ISBN 0-9725110-6-7

Cover art by Ginna Raymer

All Nations Press

PO Box 601

White Marsh, VA 23183

Jillian Weise has conquered the personal challenge. Now she is out to make the rest of us see and feel what she has learned.

She gets our attention with provocative titles and subject matter, like “The Amputees Guide to Sex.” Then she forces us deeper into our own experience. In the poem of that name, once past the curiosity, her lines could hold true for anyone having sex for the first time with a new partner. Weise gets at the uncertainty and ambiguity, crossing boundaries by holding disability up as a metaphor for feelings we all have when trying to relate intimately to others—thus “translating” the body. This poem in sections moves inexorably, surely from particular to universal. The removal of a prosthesis can be a covering metaphor for getting past falsities, manners, illusions.

* * * *

Wait for shadows to stand still, then quick, under the covers . . .

. . .  track their hands like game pieces on a board . . . Your goal is to achieve a false harmony with their body.

. . .Think for two people. Know where your limbs are at all times . . . .

Weiss has a profound connection to language.  In another poem, she probes like a surgeon feeling for tendons:

like the beautiful word: abscission

to cut off, in botany, to shed leaves

I think of the wives /of the twenty thousand masons/who raised the Taj Mahal. And how/when it was finished, the emperor/

Ordered a mass amputation of thumbs…

Did they ask, Can you feel me here and here? How about now?

* * * *

We are all disabled by falsehoods, pretensions, fear of connection, and more. Weise knows this and shows us how and why on every page. This is everything we want poetry to be: brave, uncluttered, deep as the pools of human longing. Weiss has a triumph here, a book both readers and writers can appreciate and return to for inspiration.

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