Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades 

Review of Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades, by Rebecca Renner

Flatiron. 276 pp. $29.99 

Review by Samuel Zammit

Equal parts true crime and an exploration of Florida folktales, veteran journalist Rebecca Renner weaves together a thought-provoking nonfiction debut with Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades. Renner quickly delivers on the promise of the book’s provocative title, sharing truths more thrilling than fiction as she intertwines impassioned narratives and dispels myths surrounding conservation.


Gator Country follows the story of Officer Jeff Babauta, his involvement with Operation Alligator Thief, and his grappling with morality as he completes one last job. Despite being the action-packed story of a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officer going undercover to catch alligator poachers, Gator Country also presents difficult philosophical questions, bringing painful truths about poaching to light. As Renner tracks down Babauta, and their narratives collide, the book dissects the real lives of poachers, humanizing them in stereotype-shattering ways and calling the law itself into question. As Renner says, “The poachers in my life would balk at the idea that they’re hurting nature. They love nature.”


Renner draws on her experiences to bring to life the parts of Florida that only a Floridian could, and she makes careful use of her upbringing. Unpacking Florida storytelling motifs, Renner deciphers the tales of her fellow locals in ways an outsider might misunderstand. As such, Gator Country takes readers on an intimate romp through Florida swamps while simultaneously taking them on an undercover mission that feels like something pulled from the pages of a thrilling spy novel.


The story of Operation Alligator Thief, alongside Renner’s search for another folk hero of the swamp, Peg Brown, are delicately intertwined. Like a gator sinking beneath the surface, the reader is transported seamlessly between worlds: Babauta’s tale of the past and Renner’s hunt for the truth about Peg Brown and other seemingly kind-hearted poachers like him. Ultimately, these parallel stories converge into a bittersweet and satisfying conclusion for one of the biggest busts in FWC history.


Renner takes care to discuss the indigenous people who have had their land stolen, the impact of man on nature, and the truth about what realistically drives people to poaching, all of which stands in stark contrast to the cartoonish images of the British on safari at the turn of the century that readers might conjure when they hear the word poach. She highlights the positive and negative ways that humanity has interacted with nature and the livelihoods of their neighbors. Renner tells the story not only of nature, but of the people who have shaped and been shaped by the natural world.


Gator Country is a book for anyone looking for the juicy mess of reality in pages so suspenseful they read like fiction. In the end, Renner writes about the blurry morality of the law, friendships, betrayal, loyalty, and family, all while expertly building toward the crescendo of the true villain’s reveal, all of which gives way to an incredible ride and a riveting read.


Review: All Bird: Brandi George’s The Nameless

Review of The Nameless, by Brandi George. 
Kernpunkt Press, August 2023, 199 pages, $18.00
Review by James Brock.

The late Dean Young famously instructs poets, “We are making birds not birdcages,” in The Art of Recklessness, expressing a gravity-defying Warner Brothers Cartoons ethos and New York School surrealism. Young committed to those ideas since his days as a graduate student (and one year as a nursing student) at Indiana University, some forty years ago. His ideas about recklessness broaden the scope of poetry, embracing creative processes that are truly disruptive, chaotic, comedic, and thrilling. (Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, and Denise Duhamel were busy with their own poetic larcenies those days as well.)


Meanwhile, there lived a punk-goth farm girl, haling from Ovid, Michigan, with living visitations from faery tale creatures and Old Testament demons; a Lady Gaga little monster who survived exorcisms and sexual abuse and suicide; a love-wrecked and love-worn lovechild of Walt Whitman and Thumbelina; and, eventually, a professor and Ashtanga practitioner. She would write unlikely long books of poetry, improbably to have them published. And that poet, Brandi George, has now gifted us with an incredibly demanding, rewarding, pleasurable, harrowing, and funny book of poetry, The Nameless. It is a monumental book that is all bird.


Part bildungsroman, part memoir, part enfevered vision, part nature study of fungi, and so, so much more, The Nameless is also the work of a serious, careful versifier, one whose mastery of iambic meter is as light and feathery as hydrae. It is also a book that runs some 200 pages, a visionary accomplishment published by Kernpunkt Press—a press that must be praised for its faith in the most unlikely.


Structurally, The Nameless operates ostensibly as a memoir, divided into two sections, and subdivided into short, individual chapters. And while one is to distrust the autobiographical in poetry as being merely factual, clearly the effort here by George is to construct a poetic record of her life. The speaker in her book is self-identified as “We”—and while that first appears to be a nod toward a gender-neutral self-naming, the “we” who speaks is a dissembling of voices, polyphonic, amorphous, and morphing. This expansive idea of self, certainly Whitman-like, finds its operative metaphor in the mushroom, in fungi. Yes, inside the pleats of the cap of a mushroom are ungendered spores, where 10,000 individuals can fit on a pinhead, and a single fungus constitutes the largest organism on earth, covering an expanse of over four square miles.


George’s “We” constitutes a self that is wracked with auditory and visual hallucinations, an identity we might consider as post-structurally fractured or profoundly schizophrenic, but one that becomes a representation of the poet, a being who is something of a receiver, without the usual filters, who hears the language of air and death in everything and who must then sing.


The book begins with death, where We, as a child, is the victim of sexual molestation—her parents instruct her to forget it—and, from that moment, death’s spores enter We’s body:


                          so now when we
completely forget      it Happened

the Thing forms      a fairy ring
inside our body     Now Death

lives inside us

Invariably, then, Death attends, embodies, and accompanies We through the book—a fact of her life that she has long been taught to ignore and deny. And, of course, in Ovid, death is everywhere, within and without, but with the promise of change and metamorphosis. For We, this means enduring an exorcism at her parents’ behest, the parents convinced their adolescent daughter is possessed by demons. They burn her poems. The irony, it seems, is that We is indeed possessed, but by Death in all its recombinant manifestations.


The book chapters are often prefaced by George’s brilliantly fractured tales of Thumbelina dying a new death with each iteration. We clearly identifies with Thumbelina—the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—whose queer desires and chaotic imaginings are continually corrected by her elders. George’s Thumbelina is “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green, and as mysterious as twilight,” a runaway spirit who meets death recklessly, fully, casually, and intentionally.


And in this large book, there are abundant touchstones for We beyond Thumbelina: Kurt Cobain, tarot cards, success and the po-biz, and even animal husbandry. This is a poet’s memoir, after all, a testimony of the empathetic spirit, and here, with death living inside her, We’s empathy is almost debilitating. She feels too much (and this seems to be her chief sin, at least by her family’s reckoning). For instance, We recounts her work at a dairy farm, where her job is to separate the male calves from the female calves, after which the baby bulls will be sold for veal:


back in the barn we try to console the new calf
name him     Bocephus    after Hank    but without his mother

                                            he’s petrified
trembling    we hold him to our chest like a child

           his grief is so deep we can feel it    glacial    nothing will ever
absolve us of this


As much as We disassociates herself from her family, from middle-America banality, and from the grind of capitalism, she is inescapably complicit. Where others in her family and community routinely deny responsibility, she feels it keenly—it is the death in her. The poet’s task, it seems, is to receive everything, to name it, to own it.


Even so, much of the book is doomful, doleful love poetry, a tribute to We’s beloved Annette, an equally wild spirit (and later to We’s husband Michael, who co-authors several poems in the book). Here, the poetry is tender:


In the backyard we practice
flipping our hair
She-Ra mermaid rock star
it’s our thing hair      then eyes then

will we ever be beautiful?

          our longing for beauty is
crush of petals down our shirt
     leaves under our feet
dandelion heads on the sidewalk
                       sunburn like a hand


So, amid all the chaos, the disorientation of hallucinations, and the broken wheel that is the self, George’s reckless poetry continually finds its purchase in these fleeting moments. This unguarded work seems the very product of Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?” The world that Brandi George has split open contains all the invisible names of death, all the fecund beauty we long for, and a billion seeds that will germinate from the dead.


Review: Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson

Review: Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson
Four Way Books, September, 2022
$17.95, 102 pages
Reviewed by Thomas Page

Undress, She Said by Doug Anderson Cover

What would happen if someone were to break down our stereotype of the male poet, the one spending his time typing away at his keyboard about his problems with his body and those he wishes to share it with? Doug Anderson seeks to find this answer in his latest poetry collection. Undress, She Said is a vividly crafted poetry collection that takes the reader down the path of the traditional masculine poet-voice and his relationship with his sense of place. This sense of place forms the backbone of the collection’s debate about how pride, sexuality, and memory impact the mind of a man in a war-dominate society. Doug Anderson opens with “Prophesy,” setting the stage for the theme of accepting fate that is pervasive throughout the collection. In support of this theme, he writes,


“There is a storm coming,
clouds opening, closing their fists.
No point in boarding up the house” (3).


The speaker in this collection is subjected to a variety of influences that make him desensitized to the many problems of the collection’s world. Undress, She Said is divided into four parts that talk about each of these influences: “Love in Plague Time,” “The War Doesn’t End,” “Homage,” and “Mythologies.”


In “Love in Plague Time,” Anderson writes about the convergence of religion, morality, and desire that complicate how the speaker interacts with his world. This is the longest section of the book and serves as a “part 1” to the collection’s themes. The content of the poems in this section ranges from mental health (“When the Plague Came”) to sexuality (“Masturbation”). This section is imbued with the apathy that comes from a life conflicted between what the speaker wants to do and what he should do. For example, in “Skeleton of Water,” Anderson toes the line between these two ideas, writing,


“I was a failure as a libertine, always falling in love,
lacked the detachment of a true rake, drank to hide
my heart’s anarchy, the knowledge that the angels
I wrestled with were divine” (30).


His technical approach in this section is to alienate the voice from his world through various snapshots of his past. The focus on the past self and the present voice helps to characterize the kind of voice that will be taking the reader throughout the reflections in the rest of the book. The speaker discusses how life in an idyllic setting can make him feel ostracized by his own people.


Anderson centers these themes of morality into the realm of military veterans who come from his society in the second section, “The War Doesn’t End.” This section is primarily focused on veterans from the Vietnam War and how the war has affected their lives. In the title poem “The War Doesn’t End” Anderson reflects on a mixed-race solider he meets in Ho Chi Mihn City after the war has ended, saying that the soldier is:


“Mixed black and Vietnamese, unwelcome here,
unwelcome there, son of a soldier gone” (65).


This “soldier gone” forms the narrative backbone of this second section as Anderson navigates through the indoctrination the Marines received (“Killing with a Name”) to how this allowed them to inflict turmoil on others (“Somewhere South of Danang, 1967”). Anderson demonstrates his narrative skill in his poetry through the lyrical story his voice tells in this section. He also connects the speaker’s problems with his life before in “Love in Plague Time” to the lack of interest in the problems of “The War Doesn’t End.”


The two sides of the speaker—the apathetic citizen (“Love in the Plague Time”) and the desensitized Marine (“The War Doesn’t End”)—melt away and meld in the third section of “Homage.” Anderson spends most of this section in conversation with Li Po, another poet, about how his life’s two previous phases have affected him. He reflects on his aging (“Homage to Li Po”) and how that affects his ultimately nihilistic outlook on life (“Anonymous Civil Servant, T’ang Dynasty”). However, in “Two Poets Drinking,” Anderson realizes that this line of thinking is destructive and that being a part of a relationship is vital to survival:


“He keeps me from stepping off the cliff,
I catch him when he falls.
And fall he will, as will I” (79).


The speaker’s journey throughout this section is to destroy and rebuild who he was in this life, revealing the ways he is trying to be a better person. The conversational form of the third section serves as a paradigm shift in the collection’s overall tone and theme. Indeed it is the bridge of the collection’s lyrical structure.


Anderson ends his collection with “Mythologies,” a contemporary reflection of the themes of Greek mythology and Biblical stories with the themes and settings discussed earlier in the book. Some of his subjects are Odysseus (“Cyclops”) and Adam. In “Survivor,” he combines the legend of Circe with the setting of a strip club:


“I saw my men in that topless bar
that Circe ran, throwing their
combat pay up on the stage,
her tucking the bills in her g-string” (96).


He circles back to the themes presented in “Love in Plague Time” under the guise of using myths and stories to reexamine the themes of alienation. The section and the collection ends with “Age is Asking Me to Give Up Love.” Much like the cyclical nature of myth, Anderson says,


“Might be easier if love gave me up.
It won’t, nor has it sublimated
into something holy” (102).


Anderson’s text is striking due to its streamlined lyricism and juxtaposition of the natural and artificial. This is well-exemplified in the line  “I was shocked, thought in our madness you’d bitten my lip. But it was only blueberries” (82).


Undress, She Said will stand out to readers through its varied reflection of the male poet within the last century.



Review: Marble Orchard by Emily Corwin

University of Akron Press, May 2023

68 pages

Emily Corwin’s third full-length book of poetry, Marble Orchard, subverts expectations of how we talk about anxiety and depression. This graveyard is divided into four sections that tackle mental health issues and physical ailments: “delicate as organ,” “my black sleigh,” “the wicked accident,” and “a field walks through me.” Each of these corresponds to a different framing style: a formal presentation of “lunacy,” ekphrasis of film, a collage of voices overheard, and the ekphrasis of paintings.


Though ekphrasis, the use of art as a framing device, is often used as a tool of distance, in Corwin’s latest collection, pieces feel personal and universal. One notable piece, “Kat Harvey,” named after the protagonist of the 1995 Casper movie, is a portrait of the namesake character:


to go. Dusty star anise, eyebright, the rosarian says,

good morning. And you, what were you like as a living thing?


I’d like to make contact. Can you hurt me? Can I hurt you?

Slither with me to the Lazarus machine, primordial muck.


I’d like to see you not see-through. Can I keep you? Earthy as a

cabbage rose—my woody perennial, my mortal slow dancer.


Corwin uses “Kat Harvey” and Casper to consider the separation of the mind and the body, and resurrection after a physical and even metaphysical death. The poem uses the movie to craft a painting of herbal medicines such as “dusty star anise,” that suggest healing properties. Death is only addressed with a rhetorical question: “What were you like as a living thing?” The biblical reference to Lazarus, the name of the machine designed to bring Casper back to life, arises again as “a/ cabbage rose—my woody perennial.” Here the reader may note “perennial” is a type of plant that comes back to life every spring and could signify the cyclical nature of mental health struggles.


The opening section of the collection, “delicate as organ,” begins with a bang and contains some of the most compelling pieces in the collection. Its first poem, “Lunatic as Abecedarian,” sets us up thematically for the rest of the book. The speaker of these pieces, “lived against it – a/ brutal music; I lived in it in/ clinics, in dresses disposable.” This section examines “lunacy” and “lunatic” by employing a myriad of forms that challenge us to reframe our relationship with these words.


Corwin is at her best when she deconstructs and rebuilds the world around her. In one of her “Lunatic as Erasure” pieces, readers see an “erasure of Fluoxetine medication guide” that takes medical packaging to create a portrait of what it is like being on an antidepressant.


“there may be            change in mood, behavior,

actions, thoughts, or feelings, especially severe.

acting on dangerous impulses”


Corwin captures the possible contradiction of antidepressants, stabilizing mental health—while potentially delivering terrible side effects. She notes, “if you take too much, call poison control,” highlights the fiction between pill as “medicine” and hazard.


The “wicked accident”, which consists of a multi-page poem constructed out of conversations overheard in public spaces, was another high point in the collection. Whether Corwin’s intention or not, this piece evoked the motif of “voices in your head” that is often associated with lunatics, a thread established at the beginning of the book. “I wasn’t there when it happened. You see where the crack started.” Corwin’s disembodied voice chimes two-thirds of the way through the piece. This brilliant landscape skips to a Betty White reference and the meme of the actress being older than sliced bread: “That was the old Wonder Bread Factory. We used to drive the turnpike/ to visit Betty.” Corwin subverts expectations, offering us a voice that is reflective, witty, sarcastic, and left me wanting to “cross my fingers,/ I mean, cross my heart.”


Corwin’s Marble Orchard delicately balances themes of mental illness with art and found poetry. Though its first section ran slightly long in its dissection of lunacy, Corwin’s meditation on mental illness offers a strong collection that will likely resonate with many readers.



Review: Psych Murders by Stephanie Heit

Wayne State University Press, 2022.
Paperback, $17.99, 135 pages.

Stephanie Heit’s prose sequence “Z Cycle” from her debut collection The Color She Gave (The Operating System, 2017) mimics the mixed phases and shifting states that a person with bipolar disorder might experience. Short choppy observations, coupled with partial sentences and phrases, compress both space and time in a manner that arguably approximates a bodymind rapidly cycling through profound somatic sensations. Case in point are the following lines:


“Spots. Blurred vision. Brain not functioning correctly but can’t focus to identify what is off.  Curb.  Stop sign.  Passing car. All in heightened animation you blink to buffer.” (50)


The phrasing is punchy. The brevity of each unit, within an already compacted prose poem sequence, articulates a near sense of bombardment, the battering of the body against an excitable mind. Words like “blurred vision”, “brain not functioning”, “can’t focus”, and “blink to buffer” propose successive moments of cognitive slips that further imply multiple contestations with the body. “Z Cycle” enacts the feeling of bodymind cycles through textual embodiment by accumulating compacted phrases. The poem also serves as an excellent introduction for Heit’s subsequent work, Psych Murders (2022), that further extends the earlier sequence’s foray into American healthcare and mental health difference. In this new collection, the poet traces her experiences of psychiatric medicine, specifically electroconvulsive therapy (also known as ECT), with careful navigation of the embodied aftermath of her treatment. The ghostly figure of a “murderer”—explained as “the gutsy antics of suicidal ideation” on the first page—instantiates a different kind of political contestation on the gendered female bodymind. And haunting the poem, alongside this murderer, are the male Whitecoats and nurses, whose knowledge of clinical care seems to circumvent the poet’s desires.


Perhaps best described as a hybrid collection, Pysch Murders bridges the already murky borders of memoir, and Mad and disability studies, with a type of embodied poetry. The collection comprises of ten separate sections, some of which echo real clinical questions: “Do you think about the future?” What brings you pleasure?” “Do you have a specific plan?” In her own words, Heit’s collection “focuses on a five-year period between 2009 and 2014 when I experienced extreme mind states and suicidal ideation” (128).


Writing the personal—especially the intensely personal experience of mental health difference—carries a risk where a reader might overtly focus on locating a conflicting narrative of recovery, regardless if one is presented or not. But the strength of Psych Murders is the way that the collection denies these kinds of readings by posing subtle and difficult-to-answer questions about the spheres of modern psychiatric treatment. Namely, this collection asks us to consider the nature of care. What would it mean to refuse it? What could care—as an organising concept for empathy and kinship—really be? These questions push back on clinical inquiries of the section headings that impose an idea of bodily safety (“Do you have a specific plan?”) without attending to how the mind requires its own holdings. And underlying these questions is the dilemma: what if modern care is worse than the disorder? Heit makes these stakes clear when she registers her own feelings of abandonment: “I’m left at the ECT emergency exit,” she writes,


“Last shock done. No one to guide me through the next days, then months, then years. Whitecoat denial of memory loss. Traumatic Brain Injury. Damage. No rehab or support groups for what does not happen. Open sea.” (95)


A 2020 study showed that recipients of ETC were more likely to be white, female, and elderly in California, Illinois, and Vermont.[1] It is a gendered form of clinical treatment that Heit herself notes:


“Whitecoat places his hand on her foot while she is seizing (notice the pronouns, they rarely change)” (94).


ECT is also not without risks. Side effects include memory loss, autobiographical amnesia, mania, and cute pulmonary oedema. More rarely, but nonetheless possible, is death.[2] Strangely, how and why it works isn’t exactly known, although its side effects on the bodymind are clearly not insignificant.


Bodies and minds are also not separate entities although medical professional sometimes treats them as if they are. As Margaret Price notes, “mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other” so when we speak of bodyminds, we acknowledge the embodied entanglements of our psychic conditions and how they play out in the body, and vice versa.[3] In Psych Murders, the body is a graphical surface that receives violent seismic inscriptions from the “Shock Machine.” As one persona poem, written from the machine’s perspective, suggests,


“I leave indelible marks” (22).


In the process these inscriptions become a historical embodied text that offer insights into an unremembered past. In the poem “Dear Right Foot”, for example, Heit identifies her experience of ECT as it is expressed in a lower limb:


“I’m grateful you got to dance it out. Embody flutter and seize. Sense yourself in time and space. Keep the beat to an unfortunate tune, the staccato section of the ECT marching band.” (55)

The somatic imprint of the treatment forms a memory in the foot that reminds the poet of a moment she was physically but not cognitively present. Later Heit calls attention to her foot’s consciousness that she invites to stand in for her own:


“I develop pain in my right big toe joint. Attribute it to the seizures, all movement concentrated in the foot cuffed so the anaesthesia and muscle relaxants didn’t get there. It was awake for every session. It soothes me now that there was at least foot consciousness, my experiences registered by a body extremity.” (108)


Physical pain is a document of these momentary cognitive loss, but it is also a reminder of how embodiment and consciousness are not only staged in the mind but also in our body’s lower limbs. Yet the collection doesn’t rest upon these decentred consciousness. Rather, it concludes with a declarative articulation on the importance of the “I” as a way to acknowledge the fracturing that clinical medicine can impose upon the vulnerable bodymind. In the final poem, Testament”, Heit opts to repeat her various positionalities:


“I am risk
I am hard sell
… I am a high functioner” (122).


Repeating this “I” with its multiple medically-informed positionalities over several pages ironically serves to undercut the very ideologies and assumptions associated with institutionalised mental health. In the process, this repetition re-establishes the bodymind as a totality, as an “I” with many parts. It’s also not a recovery or recuperation. This is not a celebration.


Rather, Pysch Murders carves out a possibility for a different kind of bodymind health practice where desire and care might find a different mode of expression. As the final line of the poem declares, “I am the buck stops here” (124).

Works Cited

Heit, Stephanie. The Color She Gave Gravity. NY: The Operating System, 2017.

[1] James Luccarelli et. al. “Demographics of Patients Receiving Electroconvulsive Therapy Based on State-Mandated Reporting Data,” The Journal of ECT vol. 36, no. 4 (2020): 229–33.

[2] See M. Finnegan and D. McLoughlin, “Cognitive Side-Effects of ECT” and J. Waite, “Non-cognitive Adverse Effects of ECT,” both in The ECT Handbook, eds., Ed I. Ferrier & J. Waite (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 109–128.

[3] Margaret Price, “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain,” Hypatia vol. 30, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 269.



Review: Questions from Outer Space by Diane Thiel

Ren Hen Press, 2022
Paperback, $16.95, 119 pages.



Diane Thiel’s third collection of poetry, Questions from Outer Space, comes after an interlude during which the poet devoted her energies to a travel memoir (The White Horse) and the translation of contemporary Greek fiction. Her first two collections (Echolocations and Resistance Fantasies) garnered acclaim, including the Nicholas Roerich Award, for their intelligence, wit, wordplay, and attention to form. These earlier poems explored family history and contemplated contemporary manifestations of mythic archetypes. Her latest volume skillfully deploys many of the same aesthetic characteristics that distinguished her first collections, while the new poems range widely from past to present to future, from house and home to international, interplanetary, and even interdimensional settings. It is a volume full of vivid, imaginative poems, a good many beginning as thought experiments that call to mind Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.


The title of the volume suggests that the act of questioning will be both a central motif and the principal modus operandi of the poems that follow. And, indeed, a number of poems instantiate this propensity for questioning, e.g., “Questions of Time and Direction,” “Questions from Four Dimensions,” and “Navigating the Questions.” The intellectual bent of the collection is summarized in “Listening in Deep Space”: “looking for answers / telling stories about ourselves, / searching for connection.” In one way or another, the poems in Questions all pursue this heuristic. For Thiel, “the simplest question” is capable of “opening the world again.”


Many of the poems recognize and ponder the complications that science and technology introduce into our lives, especially the consequences of relying too greatly on gadgetry. “Tritina in the Time of the Machine,” for example, addresses the implications of intrusive technologies at a time when “in nearly every pocket,” there’s “a small methodical machine” always “grinding on.” Another poem, “Remotely,” wittily mulls the consequences of living in the remote and virtual modes forced on us by pandemic realities. Whether it’s a remote control, internet access, Zoom video conferences, or even the electric typewriters of yore, in poem after poem the poet mulls the benefits and drawbacks of incorporating new technology into our lives.


Thiel’s wry and sometimes whimsical way of looking at the world (a trait readily apparent in her previous volumes) is woven throughout these poems, often making light of, or even mocking, the slippery and careless use of language in social and corporate settings (“KwickAssess”). Other poems play with familiar expressions (“Sleeping Dogs,” “Baby Out with the Bathwater,” “Under the Rug”) and in so doing discover new angles on old clichés.


While Thiel’s outlook is sometimes droll, she is just as often attuned to darker concerns. The poet repeatedly worries over “a tear in the continuum.” Some poems, for example, evince a plangent concern for environmental degradation (e.g., “Navigating the Questions”), a concern that is carried forward from her earlier volumes (such as the powerful poem, “Punta Perlas,” in Resistance Fantasies). An underlying theme of these poems is “the way our actions decide / who or what is now / expendable.”


A central conceit in the book, running through several poems, involves the first-person observation of life on Earth from the standpoint of sentient, empirical beings located elsewhere in the cosmos. In the view of these distant observers, humans “generally / complicate things” and are “highly irrational.” The poem “Field Notes from the Biolayer” uses the distant observer conceit to tie together the volume’s key themes of technology, environment, and connectivity. Thiel’s extraterrestrial observers—whose view surely coincides with her own—note that as humans “are forced / to rely on the virtual world, some begin to realize / what they had been missing” and are now “recognizing the way their world is connected / within and also beyond—the rivers, the oceans, the air— / the lovely layer that makes their existence possible.”


As has been the case throughout her career, in these poems Thiel evinces a meticulous concern for the craft of poetry. Most notably, the poems are attuned to sonic patterns and echoes, or what Dana Gioia has referred to as the “intuitive music” of her poetry. She employs rhyme—full, slant, and internal—to good effect. There is also a good deal of assonance and consonance at work, as in this passage from “Time Won’t Do It”:


We expect too much of time,
give it mythical powers,
believe a certain set of hours,
days or years will be the salve
to solve it all. We treat it
like an oracle, believing
time will tell, expecting
time to heal because
our sayings say it will.


While Thiel is not a strict formalist, she pays close attention to form, with many of the poems taking one or another of the traditional forms, including a sestina, a pantoum, a villanelle, a tritina, along with several sonnet or sonnet-like poems, haiku, and tanka. When not employing traditional forms, Thiel devises nonce forms and often resorts to repeated stanzaic patterns. Several of the poems—e.g., “Sleeping Dogs” and “In the Mirror”—have a concrete quality. In her use of forms and sonic patterns, Thiel has much in common with her coeval, A. E. Stallings (the two poets share a connection to Greece as well, as both poets are married to Greeks and have spent significant time in Greece).


Thiel’s past work has shown her to be a smart, well-read poet, with a keen awareness of the poetic tradition. The range of references in this volume reveals some of her varied influences, both aesthetic and thematic. There are echoes of or direct allusions to numerous poets, including W. C. Williams, Richard Wilbur, William Stafford, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, D. H. Lawrence, Auden, Keats, and Swedish-language poet Edith Södergran. All in all, it is a collection rich with references to literature, science, music, and art.


In “looking for answers, telling stories…and searching for connection,” these poems succeed in “opening the world again.”


Review: H & G By Anna Maria Hong

Sidebrow Books, 2018.

Paperback, 59 pages, $15.00.

Winner, Clarissa Dalloway Prize, A Room of Her Own Foundation


H & G 


Anna Maria Hong’s H & G is a darkly postmodern and feminist revisioning of the classic Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” that plumbs the depths of patricidal hatred, inherited misogyny, and the unsuccessful search for a family that is more than kin and less than kind. Intensely surrealist in its warped depictions of the traditional fantasy world in which the novella orients itself, while also exceedingly realist in the complexity of its main and supporting characters, Hong’s reification of the Brothers Grimm text is a meta-fictive trek into the dark recesses of the human psyche from which readers won’t want to return.


To call this novella a work of fabulist fiction is perhaps too simplistic a label, though the text wears its magical mundanity in quite an enchanting fashion. As great fabulist fictions—and to some extent, great fairy tales—do, Hong’s writing orients the reader in a fantastical situation or setting before propelling them into ever-deepening waters of ethics, philosophy, and cultural critique through the power of allegory and metaphor. As is the case with fairy tales, Hong’s work is instructive and has a motley cast of trope-like characters to fill archetypal roles: the father, the mother, the evil stepmothers, the witches, and the two children, Hansel and Gretel, referred to as H. and G., respectively. This, however, is where most of the similarities between the fairy tale and Hong’s work end. Hong stays true to fairy tale form inasmuch as it serves her greater purposes—she plays to the tropes in order to break them and keeps true to most of the particulars of “Hansel and Gretel” until intervening personal narratives and real-world elements interpose in the story and make it decidedly not a fairy tale, revisionist or otherwise. One-dimensional character types are rendered with human complexity and qualities, so much so that even the “villains” in H & G are given sympathetic backstories and motivations that impress upon the reader their humanness without absolving them of their flaws.


One scene with a markedly fabulist bent is in the chapter titled “H. Is Praying To The Great Eye.” In this section, H. makes a pilgrimage up the mountain each day to the New Witch’s hut to nurse from her breast—assuming the role of both the sacrificial offering and the one who proffers the sacrifice to this deity-like being—in order to save the world. Bizarre and grossly sexual, the conceit is a fascinating one, exploring the depravity of codependent relationships that stem from unhealthy obsessions and childhood fears of abandonment:


Someday the New Witch will tire of me too—prayer and fate of the world be

damned—or she will die and either way I’ll be abandoned again, surmises H.

Alone with nothing but this rocky, dirty peak to climb, and empty hut at the top.


By H. nursing from the New Witch and bringing a part of her into H.’s body, two things happen narratively: the New Witch’s face is restored to youth (though H. remarks that her body is still flat and shriveled as a hag’s), and H. is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking and not giving anything back but pleasure, which, he says, is incidental to the giver. H. is a supplicant—worshipful, dutiful—not from a wholly religious or sexual desire, or even to save the world as the New Witch remarks, but because in this H. has found what he believes is a sense of belonging. In a mere three pages, Hong builds a tiny world and fills this world with searching philosophical questions—what do we make of the reciprocal, if any, relationship between God and Believer? As Hong puts it,


If the Believer stopped believing, would the world cease to exist? H. thinks it

wiser to not risk it, so he prays every day, climbing the green and brown peaks,

until he reaches the New Witch’s hut where he will suck on the Witch’s cold

tits, ripe and smooth as the flesh of pale green fruit.


What of attention misplaced and masquerading as affection or as physical and emotional nurturing?: “The Witch strokes his golden hair as she suckles him, telling him how good he has been, how sturdy he is, how well he climbed the mountain, how good he is to save the world like this . . .”. What of the emotionally scarred person who can only take and take and in the process destroys what’s left of themselves?: “H. sucks like his life depends on it, because it is what he is good at—the only thing he has always been good at—eating, siphoning dominion and beauty from powerful women who want to save him and eat him.” In posing these questions, Hong conjures the familiar fairy tale into something fierce and dangerous, something so very heartbreaking that we want to look away, yet, enraptured by the story’s unfolding, cannot.


In H & G, the story becomes the stories, a twinning effect enhanced by the meta-fictive qualities of the writing. In this regard, H & G is intensely postmodern and feminist: experimental with its points of view (first-person plural, second-person, and third-person omniscient) and its many non-prose forms (bulleted lists, poems, blocks of prose that read as poetry, and, most interestingly, the inclusion of the alternate story endings that continuously pull the reader in and out of the text in order to hone in on story implications for our real and the story’s imagined worlds). Yet it also addresses real-life sexism and abuse of a hegemonic patriarchal society. Hong writes these fractured wholes as her own trail of leading breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, from context to context, from one rhetorical situation to the next, while bringing complexity and richness and a sense of wonder with her poignant and bittersweet tellings.



Review: The Clearing by Allison Adair

Milkweed Editions, 2020

Hardcover, $22.00, 88 pages


The Clearing


Allison Adair’s debut collection, The Clearing, is a tumble down a familiar hillside that leaves the reader giggling or stuck in a blackberry bush. It is the sting of antiseptic on a hundred bramble scratches, but it is also the kiss on a forehead covered in bandages. The Clearing is painful at times, since it is a catalog of victimhood, loss, and domestic violence—desperate circumstance that sometimes ends in tragedy.


“Mother of 2 Stabbed to Death in Silverton” begins, “The woman was overheard in the town hall saying she was afraid / to do it, once and for all, that he would, like he’s said, and he did.” Adair shows little interest in overly intellectualizing sentiments. Instead, the sharp truth—like a late-night phone call—is often delivered deadpan, and the poetics do not suffer in the least. In fact, the plainspoken portrayal of surgically precise metaphors either jars the reader or leaves them misty-eyed. This poem ends on the neighbor’s front porch, “It was an accident, he said, I never meant it. They stood there still / as newsprint.”


I fear I am fixating on the grotesque, perhaps because it is captured so extraordinarily, but in truth the poetic landscapes found in The Clearing are equally delightful—the voices often nurturing and celebratory, even when wrestling with fear and darkness. In “City Life,” the narrator and her daughter are learning to live in a city full of rats: “For her, death / is the longest nap imaginable, / maybe four hours. But we always wake / at the end.” And no matter where Adair leads us—toward a mining disaster, a recurring dream, or a historical reenactment—there will likely be animals there to keep us unnerved or entertained. “I thought I knew the sound of darkness, / the slow leather collapse of a bat’s wing / folding into itself, the swollen fucking of a cloud / of them wrestling for space on the cave’s drapery.” In Adair’s world, the creatures morph continually, and the lines are winding and tourniquet tight.  “A ruined animal will drag itself miles only to become / a desiccated hutch, burrow of maggots, coyote trough.”


Adair’s phrases are rural incantations that swirl in the throat like heavy smoke, and each image is refreshing as a gulp from the backyard spigot—worth returning to again and again. And beneath each poem lies a meticulous sonic foundation. There is a rhythmic precision, too, that shifts in accordance with the whims of the poet. The reader is aware of their own slow breathing, for example, when an animal is trapped or desperate. At other moments, the rhythm almost mirrors the image, such as in the closing of “Gettysburg”: “The caterpillar inches along, lost / in its sad accordion hymn.” And while there are deeply personal poems in this collection, Adair is as—if not more—interested in writing about historical events and rural places, such as “Silverton, ”a town in Colorado with no more than seven hundred residents. These poems are not unlike blue whales with hearts as big as rental cars. Winner of the 2020 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Clearing is a light show all its own, pungent and beautiful as a prairie fire. It is a collection one shouldn’t risk lending out, if they ever want to see it again.


Review: Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman

Black Sparrow Press, 2020

Paperback, $15.95, 224 pages


Wicked Enchantment


One of the few good things to come out of 2020 was Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman, skillfully edited by poet Terrance Hayes. Describing Coleman’s work is not an easy task. Her outspoken work stretches for miles and leaves shockwaves where it lands. Hayes describes her as a “grenade of brilliance, boasts, and braggadocio.” Having lived on the edges of the poetry elitists, her body of work often neglected, she was still referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles by those who valued her work. A native daughter of L.A., born in 1946 in the Watts neighborhood, Coleman also wrote novels, nonfiction, and short stories. Known mostly for her poetry, she left behind a large volume of work and a legion of fans.


Wicked Enchantment includes selected poems from eight of her published collections. The book opens with an illuminating section entitled “Wanda In Her Own Words” that includes quotes from her other writing and interviews. There, Coleman says, “My delicious dilemma is language. How I structure it. How the fiction of history structures me. And as I’ve become more and more shattered, my tongue has become tangled . . .  I am glassed in by language as well as by the barriers of my dark skin and financial embarrassment.” Thus, the book is off and running, and delicious dilemmas of many kinds run through the entire collection.


Coleman’s voice as a Black woman fighting against gender and racial oppression is undeniably striking. Through poems like “Essay on Language,” Coleman gives the poetic middle finger to naysayers and cowards, “trying to be the / best i can spurred by blackness but they keep telling me the / best fashion in which to escape linguistic ghettoization / is to / ignore the actuality of blackness blah blah blah and it will / cease to / have factual power over my life. which doesn’t / make sense to me . . .” In those lines, she mocks the ivory tower advising her to take it easy and to be nice. Instead, she is “spurred by blackness” to sniff out racisms and other degradations, and she doesn’t hesitate to make them plain and clear. In “Essay on Language 6,” Coleman writes,


there are those who have no passion but who

are sensitive enough to sense the void within

and therefore must imagine passion. i often find

that among that kind, there are those who

detest the truly passionate out of an envious rage

that has always faced us passionate ones.


Sometimes the poems are surprising, laced with humor and irreverence. The title alone of “I Ain’t Yo Earthmama” suggests trouble, and then the first line throws down the gauntlet: “boogers are not my forte.” Exactly whose forte are boogers? Despite her claim, Coleman does quite well with boogers, at least as a jumping off point. From there, she goes on to combine Poseidon, experimental sex, and vomit in this juggernaut of a poem.


Coleman continually pushes into new territory, seeking poetic freedom. In “Dream 924,” the speaker drives a car, “and i’m flying as the speedometer / needle presses urgently against the edge. ah – the power. i / am looking for the answer. and i move forward . . .” In that speeding urgency toward freedom, Coleman has picked up descriptions like, as Hayes has described her, a “flesh-eating poet,” while others have described her as simply mean. Coleman’s intensity can be felt throughout Wicked Enchantments with lines such as “pseudo-intellectuals with suck-holes for brains” (from “American Sonnet 3”), but it’s the quiet moments in poems such as “The Saturday Afternoon Blues” where Coleman’s mastery is best experienced:


saturday afternoons are killers

when the air is brisk and warm

ol’ sun he steady whispers

soon the life you know will be done


This languid summer scene, which could feel invigorating, instead showcases Coleman’s adept ability to layer grief within quiet, even sunny, moments. To hark back to the speeding car from “Dream 924,” that same car that pushes the speed limit is perhaps most powerful when simply idling in the sun, all its inherent force just waiting beneath the hood.


An already strong collection, the book hits hyper-drive with the inclusion of work from Coleman’s last book, Mercurochrome. In “American Sonnet 94,” she writes:


weeper. this is your execution

weeper. this is your groveling stone

weeper. yours is the burst & burnings of a city


With each “weeper,” followed by those strangely indefinite almost percussive periods, Coleman hits a bass drum of sorrow, and the propulsive music continues throughout the book’s final section. The poems here jump as if alive, as if charged from within. “Thiefheart” is full of stunning one-liners—“i’d steal the t from the end of time”—and ends with a line that seems achingly prescient, given our current American moment of racial discord and political upheaval: “i’d steal the poison from this muthaland.”


Coleman’s poems are electric and profoundly inspiring. They make readers want to write poems, to read more poems, to have more faith in poetry—more faith in the difficult task of living—and to shove this book into as many hands as possible. If someone is disenchanted with poetry, or with the state of the world, I recommend reading Wicked Enchantment. Wanda Coleman’s poems turn on the lights. They set off sparks.



Review: Bosses of Light and Sound by Nickalus Rupert

Willow Springs Books, 2020

Paperback, 180 pages, $21.95


Rupert cover


If short story collections had singles, the chart-topper in Nickalus Rupert’s debut collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, winner of the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, would be the deliciously irreverent “Aunt Job,” which depicts an alternate reality in which coming-of-age rituals like bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras have been replaced with aunts initiating their teenage nephews into manhood with a hand job. As the father of the story explains to his appalled pubescent son: “Aunts have become a kind of sexual starter kit . . . It’s the way of things.” And yet Rupert’s charm as a storyteller is that he’s never satisfied with one idea (however perverse that idea may be!). Instead, Rupert’s stories are jammed full of dazzling turns and inventive world-building. In this way, Rupert’s stories resemble Donald Barthelme’s self-described “slumgullions”—the narrative equivalent of well-stirred and savory stews.


The title story serves as the perfect aperitif to whet the reader’s appetite. In “Bosses of Light and Sound,” a nostalgic movie projectionist takes the reader through a director’s cut of his youthful pranks and lost love, recollecting summer nights spent editing and manipulating Hollywood films to the chagrin of unsuspecting moviegoers—splicing Daniel Day Lewis into Finding Nemo, inserting pirates into dystopian sci-fi films, etc.—all while struggling to translate this mastery of light and sound to life outside the projectionist’s booth. In “Hale in the Deep,” a prolifically divorced protagonist, haunted by his innumerable marital failures, is lured by the promise of a late-night infomercial that offers him an array of sci-fi gadgetry to “de-member” all the painful and awkward gaffes of his past. In “Oh, Harmonious,” a chain-smoking and exasperated Mother Nature descends to a local gymnasium to hold a press conference and announce her retirement. In “The Temptation of Saint Ravine,” a fame-flirting recluse—known for talking locals out of committing suicide in his plummet-friendly backyard—strikes up a friendship with a troubled teen, all while a rogue mountain lion stalks the premises.


Frankly, it’s Rupert’s brain-candy sentences that are the real treat of this collection. The pages of Bosses of Light and Sound resound with “combinatorial delight” (to borrow a phrase from Nabokov). Rupert’s language is adept at shifting tones and offering a double-barreled wallop. In the flash piece titled “If the River Drops,” the fatal rocks of a whitewater rafting resort are imbued with dental-mythic registers: “molars from the mouths of giants.” In a nostalgic ghost story titled “Deadman’s Island,” the sunset is staged as “a flashlight aimed through pink Jell-O.” It’s hard not to think of the linguistic felicity of a writer like Jim Shephard while reading through Rupert’s collection: both share a knack for defibrillating the world with a charged turn of phrase.


Throughout Bosses of Light and Sound, Rupert dramatizes the friction of hope rubbing against the bristles of reality. Underneath the comic and off-kilter veneer of many of these stories is the aching of lost souls and foreclosed hearts. As the disillusioned protagonist of the story “Jewels of Mt. Stanley” claims, “Hell of a thing, belief. Like spraying yourself with OFF! before entering sharky waters.” And yet, the prospect of certain doom never quite prevents Rupert’s characters from cannonballing into the ocean of belief, aspiring in spite of expiring.


There’s an admirable messiness to Rupert’s stories—characters botch epiphanies, flirt with gravity, taunt passersby to pelt them with tomatoes, and unleash their inner spirit animal (in this case, a howler monkey) to mixed avail. Each story encourages a redrawing of simple maps, a recharting of the twined territories of yearning and despair. In the world of Bosses of Light and Sound, relationships might end, but there’s always the possibility “the universe might cobble together a second chance—a redo”—to quote the story “Bonus Round.” And perhaps that is the secret charm of Rupert’s collection. The hearts in these stories are simultaneously spiking and flatlining, suspended in cardiac superposition. The closer we look through Rupert’s narrative microscope, the fuzzier and more fascinating our lives become.