“The Artemus Poems” by Jerry Wemple (Reviewed)

The Artemas Poems
by Jerry Wemple
published by Finishing Line Press (2014)


The Artemas Poems, by Jerry Wemple, is a deeply lyrical and often melancholy work. It consists of a series of connected poems that tell the story of Artemas, who we recognize as that down and out person we see sometimes around where we live (wherever we live). He is that person you see and wonder: How did he get here? He is called “simple” more than once, yet, his story is hardly simple.

The poems inhabit a specific locale (a town, a river), namely the town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania. But the place names actually used throughout are ones that add texture and could help readers see this place but also imagine another, perhaps their own town or place of origin. For me, the use of dialect, place names, and landmarks riveted me because I know so many of them, having grown up in an adjacent town, also along the Susquehanna River.

Wemple’s subtle formality gives the poems gravity and symmetry. While most of the poems are not sonnets, they have a sonnet-like sensibility. This, combined with the use of slightly “high” diction, helps to create a distinctive mood appropriate to the subject matter. The story goes back and forth in time, but there is an overall slow pace to how that story is related (non-urban, pre-information superhighway). The older Artemas is “Happy as the day as long.” That idiom conveys the slight irony Wemple is very good at, highlighting how or why a day (or life) might feel or seem long or not so long.

Artemas carries “tokens/from a defunct bridge, ready in a drawer.” Despite disappointment, loneliness, violence, and tragedy (I won’t give away specifics), Artemas keeps a kind of faith. His is the sojourn of a man who almost seems to live “out of time.”

Artemas is compared throughout the book to Adam, the First Man. This connects to Wemple’s portrayal of Artemas as fallen, of his feeling shame. It also contributes to our sense that he is a type for us all. In “Artemas labors in the field,” Artemas recalls the shame of seeing a (possibly) homeless person as a child, and realizes that he is now in a similar position. “Artemas knows that like Adam he/must always labor for his feast. Reward/will come, says he, if not in this world then//perhaps the next. Sun slinks back. Artemas/ puts hoe to ground.”

It would detract from these poems to try to summarize them, or even excerpt them too much. That would obscure the woven quality. The set is tightly woven, with groups within the book seeming to make up a few chapters or key episodes in Artemas’ life. With each reading I notice more and more connections between the poems. The sun, the rain, the sky, the river—these all act as metaphors, throughout, but they also are what they are, vivid and concretely so.

–Reviewed by Valerie Fox

“Second Oldest” by Blythe Davenport (Reviewed)


Second Oldest: A Poetic History of Philadelphia
by Blythe Davenport
published by PS Books, a division of Philadephia Stories Inc.

Blythe Davenport recently published her first book of poems, Second Oldest: A Poetic History of Philadelphia. It’s published by PS Books, a division of Philadelphia Stories, Inc., which is a real literary force both in our region and beyond.

Davenport’s debut volume is a series of poems about or responding to the city of Philadelphia. If you didn’t know about Kathy Change, you’ll learn about her here. You’ll hear a few anecdotes about Mario Lanza, as told as told by Alfredo Cocozza in “Alfredo Cocozza, 1959.” You get the idea.

Second Oldest
succeeds, in part, by using many points of view. The poet’s own voice is there, to be sure, but poems are also told from the views of others, real or imagined; personalities or portraits drawn from materials, records, observations.

In “Allegheny Avenue, 2007,” she’s a kid with a can of spray-paint.

My voice is wrong. My voice doesn’t waver
around these husks that were so big
when I was small.

In “Moving to Susannah’s, 1827,” she’s an elderly Betsy Ross.

My fingers did fine-work,
did rough burlap, did canvas,
stitched the colors of the nation:
blood, indigo, and blank newness.
My pins are tired. Let my daughter lift me up
as these bones drift away, through the city
streets and parks and off
to fight with God once more.
Let Mr. Satterthwaite dig my plot
and grin me into the grave;
a good son-in-law, but he never would
lend my girl even to her mother.

A series of connected poems is a pleasure to read, but by no means easy to write. Davenport mixes things up enough to keep us always interested. Different styles of poems are interspersed throughout. For instance, numerous poems are based on works of art or well-known landmarks. Some poems excavate bones from the ground, others have captured snippets of overheard conversations.

After reading this book, you may just see your own town or city a bit differently.
Reviewed by Valerie Fox


Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge (Book 4)

“Velvet Rodeo” by Kelly McQuain (Reviewed)

Velvet Rodeo by Kelly McQuain
Velvet Rodeo by Kelly McQuain

Velvet Rodeo
by Kelly McQuain
Bloom chapbook series

Reviewed by Valerie Fox.

Velvet Rodeo won the 2013 Bloom chapbook contest. It was selected by C. Dale Young. For more information, visit http://bloomliteraryjournal.org.

Coming of age, finding identity, negotiating family relationships; these themes are all here, explored through Kelly McQuain’s characteristic precise description and formal attentiveness.

“Creation Myth” is a sweeping and ambitious exploration of a time and a place. We can see the narrator’s young parents as they court, and the young poet himself “drawing pictures of Superman/on the back of empty envelopes” in his small town West Virginia church.  McQuain’s observations of his small town beginnings put me in mind of seeing people through the Trailways bus windows when I was coming or leaving home during my own college years. There’s a respect for family here, a sensitivity for how even those (like a prejudiced grandfather, in “Southern Heat”) who lack self-awareness, are products of their environments and stories—they are complicated. All may connect with “Creation Myth” and other poems in this vein because we all have similar questions about our personal origins. What was he (father, brother, self) like? Why are we (siblings) the same, or different?

McQuain’s hard-boiled observations of travellers are amongst my favorites here. In “Alien Boy” and “The Absinthe Drinker,” he confidently puts himself in the scenes giving us the kind of exciting feeling of travelling (and eavesdropping).  “A Man in the Station Bar Makes Me Miss My Train” is a clever, Queneau-esque exercise in style (write a poem including as many names of drinks and liquors as possible) and also a reverie on youthful attempts to break out and be bad.

As a whole, the collection is thoughtful and deep. The lyrical and narrative modes are wonderfully blended, like the concoctions in “A Man in the Station Bar.”


Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge (Book 3)



Ann Howells Reviews Terry and Hunter

Two Micro-reviews of Texture Books by Guest Blogger Ann Howells

Rina Terry
Cardboard Piano

Texture Press (2013)

This collection, written by former prison chaplain Rina Terry, presents the varied voices of men in the system, opening with the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Inmates,” which offers a panoramic overview of what is to come. It gives not only physical descriptions of inmates, Handcuffed and shackled/ shuffling, but of orientation, An inmate/ is an inmate/ is an inmate. It speaks in the voices of blues and prisoners in solitary confinement. No one is spared examination: not guards, nurses, wives, pen-pals, or, of course, inmates—some brutal, others merely ignorant or socially impoverished. Many poems are difficult to read like “The Counselor Dreams” in which an inmate rationalizes and swaggers his way through his life story.

                                                                        I had
my first child when I was a child, right, you know
what I’m sayin’, right Rev; I shot my first person
when I was . . . should I be tellin’ you this? You said
it’s in confidence right? Well, she did the best she could
right? My mother, right, like I been tellin’ you,
she did the best she could, you know what I’m sayin’
and my little brother, he couldn’t do nothin’ wrong
and I couldn’t do nothin’ right . . .

Other poems are unbelievably poignant like “Whenever Two Or More Are Gathered . . .’ and “Cardboard Piano,” a truly unforgettable poem. These poems will lodge themselves in your mind, as persistent and uncomfortable as a fishbone in your throat.


Rose Hunter
You As Poems
Texture Press (2013)

Relying on image and an almost stream of consciousness intuition, Ms. Hunter’s poems employ subtlety, wordplay (pale/pail) and quotes from diverse sources (the turkey who lives on the hill from “The Owl and the Pussycat.”) Many contain word or short phrases in Spanish, either translatable through context or explained in a following line.

Perhaps my favorite poem, “You As Cockfight,” presents a man, Rooster, alongside the fighting cocks of Las Juntas. Descriptions of each seem to apply equally to the other. In many of Ms. Hunter’s poems, descriptions transfer easily from object to person to creature and back. We view the beloved not through the image of the object/place/creature, but as interchangeable with it. Readers must trust the poet and accept her leaps, as in “You As Levels” (… familiar eyes like a fish tank or measuring cup).

Written while Ms. Hunter resided in Puerto Vallarta, each poem views the beloved as a disparate object/creature/place. Not a book to be easily digested, each poem, with its strong use of metaphor and simile, unfolds slowly, revealing a bit more with each subsequent reading. Take time to savor these poems.

Ann Howells
Editor—Illya’s Honey

Ann Howells is a longtime member of Dallas Poets Community. She has served on its board since it incorporated, as president from 2009-2012. She has edited Illya’s Honey for fourteen years. In 2009, she took 1st place in The Legendary’s Bukowski Contest. She was a finalist in 2008 NavWorks Poetry Competition and in Southern Hum’s 2007 Women of Words. Her chapbook, Black Crow in Flight, was published by Main Street Rag (2007) and a limited edition chapbook, the Rosebud Diaries, by Willett Press (2012). In 2006, she took 1st in Southwest Writers’ Club Poetry Competition. She has had her work read on NPR (Atlanta) and been twice nominated for a Pushcart, once for a Best of the Web. Her work appears in many small press and university journals and anthologies, including Borderlands, Calyx, Crannog (Ire.), Free State Review, and RiverSedge.

“Viral” and “Local News from Someplace Else” (Reviewed)

Marjorie Maddox
Local News from Someplace Else
WIPF and Stock Publishers (2013)

Suzanne Parker
Alice James Books (2013)

Reviewed by Valerie Fox

While stylistically different, Local News from Someplace Else, by Marjorie Maddox, and Viral, by Suzanne Parker, share some themes. Both invite the reader to examine the causes and implications of the often violent and tragic signs of our times.

Maddox draws on the headlines (natural disasters, school shootings), honoring the voices of bystanders, family members, various participants. Parker’s book examines the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his room-mate broadcast by webcam Clementi’s encounter with another man. Parker also looks at the events using many personae (mother, father, students, Clementi himself). Both poets tell their own stories too.

Gleaned from the headlines, many poems in Local News interpret and comment, going well beyond the usual sound-bites with which most of us are all too familiar, and that create a kind of white noise surrounding us all the time. In the riveting “Pennsylvania September: The Witnesses,” Maddox gives voice to witnesses surrounding United Airlines Flight 93, the plane on September 11, 2001, that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It’s a moving poem, combining the voices of cell phones–those “21st-century messengers,” emergency coordinators, a 911 dispatcher, bike-riding witnesses, a photographer, and a service station owner, and lastly, the mother of a victim. The seven sections are ordered to recreate events, chronologically. It’s truly eerie, as well as graphic. Reading the poem you sense the moments passing and leading up to the crash.

Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website
Image from WIPF and Stock Publishers website

Many of Maddox’s more personal poems explore her natural surroundings and attachment to place. I found many of this type to be satisfying works that contain memorable imagery. Here’s the beginning of a twelve-line poem, “First Snow”:

So provisional, it almost doesn’t
count–uncourageous, afraid
of everything concrete, the frozen closes in
on asphalt, then vanishes
into nostalgia.

“First Snow” highlights Maddox’s ability to make the landscape come alive.

In addition to the references to television, the book contains plenty of references to photographs and photography. “Still Life of House in Late March” features the house as character, as a sort of ghost, emblematic of a proud woman from the past, but not too distant past. The photography poems contribute to the documentary-style effect of the entire book.

Suzanne Parker’s Viral elegizes Tyler Clementi, indeed, the volume is dedicated to him. It makes us consider how the young man got to the point where suicide was his only path. It makes us think about how his parents will have to deal with the loss of their son. It even attempts to somehow understand the cruelty of those who victimized him.

As a series, as a book-length treatment on a theme, it’s extremely successful. I’m guessing most readers will read it front to back in a short time, and then reread and revisit the entire volume. While specific poems do stay with me, I am also left with an over-riding sense of injustice that our society still cannot provide more safety and care for a young person such as Clementi. Despite gains, we cannot underestimate the deep hostility and prejudice out there being directed at young gay people.

Parker does not preach. Rather, she helps us to empathize with Clementi and the others portrayed.

Stylistic variations of many kinds help her to create distinctive voices. In “Viral,” the title poem, Parker lists brief messages (texts or online comments) in which people respond to the invasive video, complete with “OMG” and “LOL.” The comments–petty, hateful, ridiculous–are arranged like a wall of words, the wall that must have surrounded or enveloped Clementi when he later became aware of them.

“Things You Practice” depicts his mother as she goes about a day, confronting the layers of her grief (when she doesn’t “buy a certain kind of ham” or finds one of her son’s shirts in the back of a closet).

Image from Alice James Books website
Image from Alice James Books website

In the final section of the book, Parker’s own voice emerges strongly. Still deeply immersed in Clementi’s story, she is able to express gratitude for her own agency. Like Maddox, Parker looks forward. Both Viral and Local News from Someplace Else subtly challenge all of us to question the status quo, to look beyond the headlines. By including their own stories alongside the stories of others, Maddox and Parker are envisioning a world that can learn from its mistakes.

Posted as part of the Savvy Verse and Wit Dive into Poetry Challenge, Books 1 and 2: