Book Review

Seems. Issues 41,42, & 43-44. Edited by Karl Elder. Lakeland College. P.O. Box 359, Sheboygan, WI 53082-0359.

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

Seems, a Wisconsin-based poetry journal in existence since 1971, is published by Lakeland College in Sheboygan. Karl Elder, the Jacob and Lucile Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and Poet in Residence, became the poetry editor in 1973, and the editor in 1977. Subscription price is $20 for four issues. Special issues as priced. Seems is published irregularly.

Seems 43 - 44/Word of Mouth Books is a special issue of The Houdini Monologues by Karl Elder that includes an essay “Calling Harry Houdini” by David Hillstrom, as well as a CD-ROM of readings by Elder and Hillstrom ($10).

Harry Houdini’s heaven in The Houdini Monologues is so vividly portrayed that one believes angels visited earth to whisper lines in Karl Elder’s ear. How else could Elder have written these vivid, specific, haunting monologues? Can angels talk? Alas, voice is what Houdini is denied in heaven. The ethereal plain is more like a vaporous hell as Houdini has no escape from silence, no escape from longing. Karl Elder displays his genius here, his magic with sounds, words, images as Houdini deals with the frustration of gossamer wings, ineffable exile, the “words/ that rose to the surface to burst into nothing/ like talking to yourself under water.” (28) In “[The Paucity of Unending Light],” Houdini, addressing his wife on earth, states, “Open the medicine cabinet. Presto. You vanish.// It is only through a turned-down mirror, Dear, / you shall know the truth of here/ and the unimaginable magic,/ the divine beauty,/ of there.”  (29) These poems are a delight to hear; fortunately you can enjoy Elder reading his poems on the book’s enclosed CD. Cello accompaniment by Kevin Fitchett. 

Seems 42 is a collection of 27 poems by 20 poets, including Wisconsin writers Michael Kriesel, Cathryn Cofell, Paula Sergi, and Lisa Vihos.

Michael Kriesel’s five poems include one abecedarium, two double abecedariums, and two shorter lyric poems, “Light Farms” and “Stripping.” The three abecedariums use iambic pentameter, a feat in itself. Since double abecedariums (in iambic pentameter, no less) are almost always an investment of several hours per line, it’s delightful to see the imaginative leaps in “Lost & Found” and “Serpent Monster.” Kriesel’s images are also of note. A lost mitten is a goldfish swimming in a linty lost and found. All of “Stripping”: “I pour stripper on the floor./ All the doors open you still/ catch a buzz. The buffer arcs/ a path of crescent moons across/ the gym. Six coats of wax later/ you’re walking on water, high/ on the flagpole’s occasional/ ping. Echoing.” (25)

Cofell’s kicky, witty, conversational style is found in the 30 lines of “Bodily Functions in Relation to Survival Time: A Woman’s Perspective.” In this poem about public bathrooms there’s plenty to shine besides chrome: “A well-orchestrated potty/ line moves like the Rockettes” and the riff with bathroom mirrors which begins: “Beauty is a whole new level of survival.” She concludes with: “True survival comes without bodily function:/ four-letter words spewed by Anglo-Saxon men while waving/ their big guns, or the women who aren’t afraid to use them./ It’s all in how you cock your lips, and where you aim.” (27)

In Paula Sergi’s “Kaleidoscope,” 19 sets of tercets examine memories among the aftereffects of a flooded basement. This well-crafted poem utilizes alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance, rich consonance, and specific details. Lisa Vihos’ “Advice Dyslexic” is a successful play on cliches. Also in this issue, 16 other poets with poems in various formats as well as free verse.

Seems 41, Word of Mouth Chapbook 1, includes the essay “My Mother’s Singer” by Joyce Dyer and a collection of 14 poems, Before the Towns Were Cities, by Carol Wade Lundberg. These two selections won a national chapbook contest sponsored by Seems and and Word of Mouth Books. 

Joyce Dyer is Professor of English and director the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. She is the author of three books. Dyer read that the last confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in 1944 took place on property owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The book with this information had been atop her mother’s Singer, circa 1947, now used as her bedside table. This odd juxtaposition was the spark that motivated Dyer to restore the sewing machine, learn about the woodpecker, and explore her mother’s life. A fascinating account, told with humor and humility.

Carol Wade Lundberg, a native of Wisconsin, teaches creative writing at Santa Rosa Jr. College, California; her book of poetry, The Secret Life, was published by Mellon Poetry Press. The short-lined narrative poems in Before the Towns Were Cities are centered on memories and vivid images of rural life: farm girls, cows, chicken coops, an inland sea of wheat. Surprisingly, some poems would work well as prose poems or as parts of essays. Like Sylvia Plath, Lundburg writes about bees, and she sprinkles Plath-famous words throughout (implacable, poppies, blood, solitary). Lundberg concludes her poem series with, “-understanding/ at last how the scintilla/ of brightness/ surrounding a deer/ in the shadowed/ woods of my childhood/ could  finally/ reach me here/ I have waited/ so long/ for this joining.”(63)

For eleven years Linda Aschbrenner edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse (now Verse Wisconsin). In 2001, Aschbrenner founded Marsh River Editions, a publisher of poetry chapbooks.