Books Noted

Showstoppers: 20 Poems from the Midwest Poetry All-Stars by Oren Wagner, Kaveh Akbar, Steve Henn, David J. Thompson, Superiority Complex Press, stephenthenn (at) aim (dot) com, 2010. $5.

A fine sampler of early 21st Century Midwestern Small-Press Bukowski-school poetry with a few welcome boomerangs of surreal humor interspersed throughout. The book’s like a mini open-mic. Each reader gets a few pages to strut, then makes room for the next. Three of the four poets have edited zines, and it shows, in a good way.

Kaveh Akbar (rhymes with “lava snackbar”) leads off with imaginative, surreal, at times hilarious work. In one poem he goes back in time and outdoes Nostradamus, in another he’s haunted by a woman who throws pocket change at him. In my favorite, he learns math at a Catholic school: “the first day I walked into Sacred Heart pre-school I was // immediately confronted by this massive statue of a guy being nailed / to a plus sign.”

Oren Wagner follows with effective spiritual meditations springboarded from Bible verses, and also entertains with “Things Any Potential Mate From Should Know About Me.”

Steve Henn contributes an “I Am A Poet” manifesto, a fart-rippingly funny family vacation mental video called “Myrtle Beach” (WARNING: Contains Crude Humor), and a real gem in the presidential-time-travel-chortle-fest “Dine n Dash with Abraham Lincoln.” A snippet: “Abe orders their most expensive steak / and he’s like ‘watch me emancipate this loin / through the underground railroad of my lower intestine.’”

David J. Thompson bats cleanup for the All-Stars. He’s won the last two or three Nerve Cowboy chapbook contests, and rightly so. He’s the best guy writing in Small Press, a master of bittersweet, conversational pieces that slowly build up to an ending you think you see coming, but still somehow manage to softly sucker punch you from a different direction. Reading his work makes me miss the poems of legends Albert Huffstickler (deceased), and Don Winter (sadly retired from writing). Here’s Thompson’s  “Still Red”

Our lease is coming up, his girlfriend said.
They were driving home after their regular
Tuesday night dinner out, stuffed with Rib-eyes
and loaded baked potatoes. How soon?
he asked. End of the month, she replied.
He started to brake for a red light. She asked him
what he thought. He looked to his left
at the old K-Mart building. He tried to think
how long it had been out of business,
but couldn’t remember. I’d like more space,
I guess, he told her, still staring at the big empty
parking lot. Me, too, she said. More space
might help us. He looked up at the traffic light.
Still red. He moved the gearshift to neutral
then back to first gear. Jesus, he said.
Does this light ever change? I know, she answered.
It feels like we’ve been sitting here forever.

—Michael Kriesel

Michael Kriesel is a poetry reviewer for Small Press Review and his reviews have appeared in Library Journal. He has won both the WFOP Muse Prize and the Lorine Niedecker Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He’s been nominated for nine Pushcart Prizes. Books include Chasing Saturday Night (Marsh River Editions); Feeding My Heart To The Wind and Moths Mail The House (sunnyoutside press); and Soul Noir (Platonic 3way Press).

Untitled by Richard Kovac, PM Books 2008. $15

Although Richard Kovac has credentials with the War Resisters League and the Catholic Workers Movement, although he has respectable list of publications in a variety of journals, a chapbook, and now this full-length volume, although he has worked for many years in the civil service, although he is a MENSA member, what gives his voice its greatest poetic authenticity is the years he spent as a homeless street person in Milwaukee and Waukegan. I expect some people reading this review remember seeing him outside a bakery on Kinnickinnic Ave. Or at the Marquette Library. Or maybe they saw him at the Milwaukee Intermodal.  Perhaps he was looking for work then, as is the character in the appropriately titled “Untitled”:

No initials
after his name.
Neither doctorate
nor divinity degree.
Not even “Dr.”
of dentistry,
to preface “Emmanuel;”
assuredly not
“Juris Doctor.”
Rudimentary theology
and few publications.
Application shows only
employment at manual
labor, carpentry,
cabinet maker, and
related trades.

His poetry takes sides. It regularly glorifies the small, the wrong, the personal, and the unwanted.  He tells us of a cat who sits “looking over the trash cans” near the quay reading Sandburg. He sings artlessly about a sardine sandwich shared in the back seat of a car. He mounts a campaign against television, that vast wasteland, declaiming “The ‘living room’ is an illusion.” One poem,”Misprint and Deletable,” even has a footnote identifying its inspiration as the author’s time as a “desultory substitute proofreader.” As a mark of solidarity with the erroneous, Kovac announces, “The typo is a sign / that in “The World / At Large” / others also err.”

In some of the Old Testament-type maledictions, we hear a voice from Ezra Pound’s Personae: “Nothing about it is ‘new’ to Heraclitus, Anaximander.” We can also find a trace of the Pound of The Analects: “The young girl from the neighbor town? / Let’s consult the career of / Confucius.”  And here we see the influence of Imagist Pound: “The red maple / is eidetic / in early autumn, / and two fawns / cross the road.”

This volume is not for everyone. It has its faded moments; there is a little doggerel, there is a little rant. But when it rises to mysticism, the heart’s doors just open:


wild hope
hiding in the desert
with cactus
and strange blossoms

when your day comes
that I spoke
of your incidental

— Judith Swann

Judy Swann lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY in a small house painted in Frida Kahlo colors. Her poetry has appeared in Lilliput Review, Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine and other places both in print and online. She is an Iowan who often visited Wisconsin in her youth.

Sensible Shoes by Joan Wiese Johannes, New Dawn Unlimited, 2010.

Joan Wiese Johannes thoroughly immerses herself in nature, recalling its cyclical patterns of birth, death, and rebirth.  She most often expresses herself poetically through lives she observes, her work touching upon complex notions of floral and faunal inter-connectivity and the vulnerability that comes with mortal existence.  Her outlook is maturely realistic, sometimes visceral, and often tinged with melancholy as she presents a sense of introspection that adumbrates her character. 

In “The Private Nurse Speaks to No One in Particular,” Wiese Johannes recounts a scene in a nursing home, with gripping, down-to-earth imagery:  “I have been watching my patient clutch/at the hand her visitor extends./Her bony fingers look like little fish/attracted by the lure of a diamond (10).” Wiese Johannes then states, “She stares at the ceiling as she toys/with the space between finger and ring/the way your tongue is drawn to the cave/in your mouth after a tooth falls out...(10).”  Such analogies offer a sense of the patient's childlike mental absence, tying our own experience to the memory of losing our baby teeth, or, perhaps, alluding to age—the notion that teeth tend to fall out as people grow old, and humans become more infantile as they approach death.  After the main character of the poem mistakes her niece for her sister, the poet reflects, “It is no one's fault,/A thousand miles unbonds us just as time/dries the glue on the black paper triangles /that once held photos of people we loved (10).”  A reader is left to absorb the depth of such words, perhaps coming to acceptance in the face of life's vicissitudes, the peaking and deterioration associated with senescence.

Themes of “the hunter” and “the hunted” thread throughout Wiese Johannes's work, surfacing in a whimsical pantoum “Ursa Major.”  Here, the reader is introduced to a presumed predator shown within a victim's light: 

“All the men I ever loved/Chase The Great Bear through the sky/We are, after all, hunters/Prey circle us night and day  (8).”

She further develops this sentiment with a longer poem:

It is syrup time,
and Tom traps, taps, and talks
about the bear who took ten buckets
and left tracks around his camp.
He shakes his head and says
he hopes the fire
keeps it away when he boils down,
tells me he applied for a permit
as he mimes the pull of a trigger.

But I like his bear
will follow the trail of white buckets,
drink sap clear as streams.  (“Taps,” 7)

This section allows the reader to sense the trapper's anger drawn with words that create stark images: “he mimes the pull of the trigger,” still, the tone softens with “But I like this bear/will follow the trail of white buckets.”  Wiese Johannes indicates her desire to follow a natural course, empathizing with the bear whose habitat provides the sap he feeds upon for nourishment. 

Each poem introduces character images—an innocent bear, a sympathizing onlooker, and a vulnerable aging woman.  In many ways, “Sensible Shoes” is a collection of poems that commemorates beings and events, presenting an often solemn and serious yet realistic outlook on existence.  Wiese Johannes's writing philosophically reflects on tragedy as she courageously sheds light on topics many people fear thinking about or discussing but which are, simply, part of life. 

—Marie Loeffler

Marie Loeffler is a Wisconsin poet, violinist, and private violin instructor who spends most of her free time practicing, writing, reading, and creating. Her poetry publications are current or forthcoming in Echoes, the WFOP Spring 2010 Museletter, and the 2011 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.

Rosebud, Issue 45, Summer/Fall, 2009.

First impression:  attracted by the bright mosaic, crisp eclectic cover art of Chris Hartfield, a.k.a. the marvelous Chris Hartfield, the magazine falls open.  His black and white artistry appears throughout.  To learn more, page 136 includes a photo of the marvelous, as well as the essay “Eye of the Beholder: Still Life in Motion – Better Worlds Than This Painted by Chris Hartfield”.

Curious now, flipping to the inside back cover, our attention is drawn to Afterwards, a comic strip by Rick Geary.  Proves to be an amusing piece entitled, “E-Mail Etiquette”…would that such etiquette existed!  Writer Rick Geary provides a strong finale to this interesting publication.

Next, let’s enter the front door, “Letters from our readers”.   Readers have submitted thoughtful appreciation of work from previous issues coupled with the editors’ declaration that “We love to receive letters, even the ones written with crayons”.  We’re hooked.

Running with scissors, “God So Loves The World, Running”, is a frenzied, 90 word run-on poetic query brought to a screeching halt by a single question mark!  This breathless page, food for thought, eaten on the run, found on page 82, written by Terry Savoie leaves us hungry for more.

On to Teresa Spano Bradley’s three page short story “The Queen of the Tightrope”, page 100.  Promised “…glimpses of the divine and the eternal even in the meanest of circumstances…” it delivers.

John Updike, Amiri Baraka and John Gardner’s work also appears in this fine Summer/Fall, 2009, Wisconsin based publication.  Kudos to Rosebud, The Magazine for People Who Enjoy Good Writing; we’re glad we made your acquaintance.

—Phyllis Beckman

Phyllis Beckman left Illinois in 2007. Born in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1940, she is back where she belongs. A member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, The La Crosse Women Writers’ Group, a couple of Buddhist groups, the La Crosse Unitarian Universalist Fellowship… she quotes poetry… a lot.

Vampyr Verse by Lester Smith (Ed.), Popcorn Press, 2009. $7.99

Vampyr Verse is a collection of poems edited and published by Wisconsin poet, Lester Smith and his own Popcorn Press. In September 2009, Smith asked friends via Facebook and Twitter to submit vampire- themed poems, and this collection represents what he considered the best of those submissions.

Like most poetry anthologies, there is a wide range of writing in Vampyr Verse: haikus, limericks, a ghazal, prose poems, free verse, and more. For the most part, the poems that work best are the ones with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge attitude. It is difficult to take vampires seriously in a post-Twilight world. Many of the contributors realize this, some taking stabs at Stephenie Meyer’s sanitized creatures of the night, such as in Kat Heckenbach’s limerick:

She stared o’er the corpse, looking startled.
Its flesh curled from bone, burned to charcoal.
She said, book in hand,
“I don’t understand…
Shouldn’t the sun make him sparkle?”

While Ralph Farraday comments on another big event in the world of popular vampire novelists in this haiku:

Running from vampyres,
Rice throws herself on church steps,
seeking redemption.

Other poets eschew the contemporary and make references to classic literature of the vampire and non-vampire varieties. Shakespeare shows up a couple of times. Once in a haiku by Lester Smith:

So what’s in a name?
A Rose by any other
will die just the same.

And again in Smith’s vampire-laced rewrite of Sonnet 130 (My Mistress’ Eyes), that also includes a reference to Poe’s “The Raven,” and ends with the following couplet:

And now she prowls by night like some Goth hooker,
For though she’s dead, My Missy is a looker!

While other authors insert vampires in humorous contemporary situations:

Holy water burns
till he bites someone using
—Ralph Farraday

Broken glasses, blind
as bats, he cracks his teeth on
a mannequin’s neck.
—Wendy Vardaman

Although, as stated earlier, many of the humor-free attempts fall a little flat, there are some that succeed through the use of fresh language, as in F.J. Bergmann’s “Night Wings,” which includes lines like, “as the ember moon rose/like a bubble from a dying cetacean” and “What we wouldn’t have given to fly…or pinwheel blindly through a winter storm,” or through having a different spin on the book’s subject, such as Ed Werstein’s “Nosferatu’s Garden” which focuses more on beets than on actual vampires.

Like the name of the press this collection was published by, Vampyr Verse is a bit of a mixed bag, some poems are perfectly popped kernels, others could have benefitted from a little more time in the popper, and others were a bit overdone. Though overall, it’s an often enjoyable collection of niche poems that only a small publishing company like Popcorn Press would take the time to lovingly assemble and publish. That reason alone should give anyone with the slightest interest in grassroots poetry a reason to check it out, not to mention its potential appeal to any number of currently vampire-obsessed individuals. 

Joey Goodall's poetry has previously appeared and/or is forthcoming in Verse Wisconsin, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Puffin Circus. He currently resides in St. Paul, Minnesota.