Three Poetry Reviews for National Poetry Month

According to my dictionary, blueshift means “a shift toward shorter wavelengths of the spectral lines of a celestial object, caused by the motion of the object toward the observer.” In “Blueshifting” (Upper Rubber Boot Books), Heather Kamins opens the collection by playing with this idea. The speaker in the poem reveals that we are all “flying into the foreshortening / light of evening. . .” The poem uses synonyms and images of blue to move the reader forward through the emotional realization that we are all moving toward something: a great blue heron “sliding through the fading sky. . .” or an astronaut “accelerating / toward the azure bubble of home,” In another part of the poem, the speaker and her loved one move into each other emotionally under “cobalt light”: “you look at me, / as time tucks up under itself.” All these movements are realized in the color of the imagery, but the reader isn’t left with mere fragments of pigment. Rather, the poem brings us forward along with the speaker into discovery. As the title poem for this collection, it’s an apt introduction to the rest of the work.

Not every poem uses color quite like the first, but as I thumbed through this chapbook, I was struck by the way Kamins threaded the scientific images with intellectual realization. In “You Are What You Eat,” nearly every line compares a sweet food to a cosmological phenomenon: “meteors like oranges,” “galaxy of sugar,” and the closing image, “candy store of infinity.” Kamins deftly weaves these morsels into a sort of visual wonder. She brings taste and vision together as her affinity for astronomy convinces the reader that every single mystery of the universe is worth chewing over and appreciating.

In “Insomnia,” the poet continues that sense of wonder. Instead of filling the poem with frustration and difficulty (as so many sleepless nights feel), she talks about those delightful sounds that one only hears in the dark: “ceaseless polyphony” or the breathing of a lover. I was delighted with the sense of awe that rose through lines like this one: “wild neurons / weaving the spider strings of memory.” In the end, the speaker asks: “How can I sleep / in a world so full of such things?” The poet makes me wonder the same thing and perhaps the next time I’m lost at 2 am, wakeful and unhappy, I’ll stroll through the dark and remember to look around me with awe instead of dismay.

Kamins closes the collection with “Redshifting.” Yes, I looked it up: redshift is the opposite of blueshift. And so after moving toward enlightenment (in a most scientific sense with gorgeous imagery and a skilled and steady emotional hand) the chapbook’s last poem moves the reader away from realization and toward “the rusted-out night.” There are too many “unanswered questions” for such a short book. As a reader, I wanted more poems, more of Kamins’ beautiful imagery and wonder. Even so, this last poem reminds me that there are still mysteries for me to hold close: “Every mile glazing into every next mile / sings a mystery. . .” The mystery itself is worth something. This poem reminds me to always wonder, always question the universe, even as I recognize the familiar in that which can’t be named.

“Redshifting” might be my favorite poem of all.

Measured Extravagance” by Peg Duthie (Upper Rubber Boot Books) begins with the poem “Practicing Jump Shots with William Shakespeare.” I hesitate to use the word “extravagant” to describe it, but that’s exactly what the poem called to mind as I raced through its lines without stopping for a breath. The first sentence spans eleven lines and reads like a car chase except instead of cars, the reader is driving sentences. It gives the sense of a fantastic race where the finish line rewards the winner with a delightful story: the speaker is playing basketball with old Shakespeare himself.

There’s some talk of meter and some onomatopoeic words (“DAH-dah, DAH-dah-dah”) that call to mind the dribble of a ball, but that isn’t what endeared me to this opening poem. Rather, it was the sense of mischief at the very end where the speaker taunts the old man about his attention to “different parts of the backboard. . .” Instead of a simple image of a poet throwing a ball around, the poet elevates the scene into metaphor where one of Shakespeare’s lobbed iambs end up in the speaker’s hand. She shoots and flings it “straight through the hoop, all net.”

I’m delighted. Extravagant and clever, the poem is a fitting introduction to a collection that spans decades, personages, and cities with ease. In “The Language of Waiting” the poet brings us to Prague where “the evaporated words of saints / mingle with crumbs of ruined sandstone. . .” and then transports us to Nashville.

In “On Embodying an Asian Fantasy” the speaker laments the stereotyping that falls upon Asian women: “I’m their Chinese dream come true—” The reader is simultaneously transported from American culture to feminism within the context of ethnicity.

Toward the end of the collection we end up in Chicago, England, and Boston in “Between the Hints.” The speaker muses about “what we can make is what // will do for now. . .” Oh how we humans are forever striving! Duthie cleverly twists that idea into all its permutations within the rhymes of this poem’s form, using iambic pentameter and quatrameter so wickedly that the reader doesn’t even realize how smoothly he/she has been schooled.

In all, Peg Duthie has put together a thoroughly extravagant collection of poems. The reader journeys through locations of the mind as well as those of the earth; I was never quite sure what I’d get as I turned the page, but I was always surprised. As the speaker says in the poem “Extravagance”—”Such a feast.”

I confess, sonnets are one of my very favorite forms of poetry so I was naturally disposed to enjoy “Sonnets in a Hostile World” (Victorian Violet Press). Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, rhyme—what’s not to love? Sonnets are never too long or too short and in the hands of a skillful poet like Gail White, they’re a delightful reminder that formal poetry is still alive and doing very well.

This tight collection of sonnets moves effortlessly from the betrayal of women (ancient and modern) in “Woman into Tree” to a romp on the hideousness of a high school reunion in “Why I Failed to Attend My High School Reunion.” Lines like these “(For God’s sake, someone point me to the bar.” make me laugh while others are tremendously sobering: “. . . no one sees / how many sweet words fall from walking trees.”

I suppose it would be strange to read a book of sonnets and not mention the meter or rhyme, but White’s poems did something that is often quite difficult—they made me forget I was reading formal poetry. All too often a poet stumbles over iambic pentameter and substitutions (is that trochee or an anapest?) and torments the reader with a litany of trite rhymes.

Ms. White is a far better poet than that. Her sonnets flirt with enjambment but never fall into the abyss of randomn line ends. In “The Girls Who Got Ahead,” she impressed me with these:

When all the bright girls married, where was I?
Still shacking up with poets that I met
in bars, convinced that genius and rye
would write us into fame and out of debt.

There’s just enough variation in the lines to appease the reader’s habit of falling into a nursery-song cadence, yet not too much enjambment to entirely destroy the rhythm of the words.

In “The Librarian Wishes She Had Lived in the 1920s” White manages to rhyme “bourgeoisie” with “camaraderie” with nary a quibble of doubt from the reader. Her rhymes are sometimes slant, but always spot on and integral to the poem. I didn’t find any filler rhymes, those awful words that less-experienced poets plop at the end of lines in order to meet the requirements of the form. Each of White’s sonnets is a fest of sonics. I paged through the book reading just the end words as a sort of litmus test: the poet passed with flying rhymes.

“Sonnets in a Hostile World” is at times amusing and often harsh, as White lays bare the truths that underpin our society: women often get short shrift in our world. However, she doesn’t litter the entire book with desperate verse. Rather, the collection as a whole is more intelligent than that. At the end I put the book down with a sharp view of what it means to be a woman writing in a men’s world without being totally disillusioned or discouraged. As White says in her last poem of the collection, “Cats Abroad,” “Where cats are loved, I know that strangers meet / a kindly welcome. . .” There’s nothing to do but forge ahead with pen in hand, hoping that our poems will meet a kindly welcome. If not? All of us women will keep writing anyway.


Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour – click for a list of participating blogs and daily entries
Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour for April, to help promote poetry and poets for National Poetry Month. Check back here for updates throughout the month of April (we’ll also post updates to our blog, and so will many of the participating poets).
Follow this event on Facebook or Goodreads.


Inquiring Minds and Other Clichés — Stephen Bunch

— a poetry interview series by Christine Klocek-Lim

Stephen Bunch

1. What is your favorite poem that you’ve written? Read?

Currently it’s “Second Life,” a long poem soon to appear in Mudlark.

Too many to name, but here are a few: Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”; H.D., “Oread”; Dorn, “The North Atlantic Turbine: A Theory of Truth”; Pound, “Canto 47.”

2. Do you think there is a disconnect between academic poets/poetry and online poets/poetry?

Perhaps I don’t know enough about this supposed distinction, but it seems to me a false dichotomy. Beyond that, I’m not sure I know what is meant by “academic poets/poetry.” Is this poetry written by people who are employed in the academy or poetry that is informed by the arts and sciences? I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to answer the question without defining the terms, and because definitions and naming have more to do with marketing than with writing, I’m not particularly interested.

3. Has the rise of the poetry MFA been positive or detrimental to the art?

The short answer is “I don’t know.” Having said that, I think that poetry has become more of a commodity with the proliferation of MFA programs. That is, poetry itself isn’t a big seller in the marketplace, but there is a whole academic industry involved in credentialing people to write (and then teach the writing of) poetry. I like the Black Mountain model. Poets went there not to workshop or gain credentials to teach creative writing, but rather to immerse themselves in history, classical studies, the arts and sciences, while also learning to repair roofs and tend vegetable gardens. And it didn’t hurt that they were in the interdisciplinary presence of great minds (Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, et al.). In other words, the writing of poetry was presumed to come from an interdisciplinary education and “real life” experience rather than from some sort of specialized training. The poetry workshop seems to have its origins in the MFA program, too. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that workshopping is counterproductive, that writing is generally a solitary task.

4. Do you write for yourself or for an audience/reader?

This question implies telos or intention in writing. Rarely do I write with an end in mind other than to see what happens. It’s not unlike breathing. I don’t think much about it, just do it (which is not to say that I’m not thinking as I do it—writing is always thinking). Once the writing is “done,” maybe I’ve learned something or solved a problem, but that wasn’t the intention. If the product seems worthwhile to me, I put it out there to see if there is an audience. Sometimes there is, and that’s a bonus.

5. How much of what you write is inspiration vs. perspiration?

Without inspiration and expiration there can be no perspiration. Beyond that, I don’t know.

6. Bonus question! Answer any one of the following:

a. If you were a Celtic bard, carrying poems from place to place as if they were the last flame, which ones would you sing?

That’s a rather romantic notion of poetry. I would not have been that circuit-riding bard.

b. Why do you read or write poetry?

Writing poetry is like scratching an itch. That is, it’s a response to stimuli. It’s my way of trying to make sense of all the “inputs,” a way to filter and focus, a way of bringing at least the illusion of order to my world. Kant wrote that art is purposive without purpose. Heidegger wrote that art is the act of making a world out of earth. Ed Sanders celebrates homo ludens. I subscribe to all of these.

c. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Leftover chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and spinach.

d. Anything else you’d like to say?

“Noli in spiritu combuere.”


Stephen Bunch lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas, where he received the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry from the Lawrence Arts Center and Raven Books. He received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2010. His poems can be found in Autumn Sky Poetry, The Externalist, The Literary Bohemian, Fickle Muses, and Umbrella. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Victor Contoski, Edward Dorn, Jane Hirshfield, Donald Levering, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, Edward Sanders, and many others. After a fifteen-year hibernation, he awoke in 2005 and resumed writing. Preparing to Leave is his first gathering of poems.


Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour – click for a list of participating blogs and daily entries
Upper Rubber Boot Books is coordinating a book blog tour for April, to help promote poetry and poets for National Poetry Month. Check back here for updates throughout the month of April (we’ll also post updates to our blog, and so will many of the participating poets).
Follow this event on Facebook or Goodreads.