Book Review

An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Marilyn L. Taylor, Denise Low, and Walter Bargen, Ice Cube Books. $24.95

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate is an anthology to add to home, school, and public libraries. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Marilyn L. Taylor, Denise Low, and Walter Bargen, all current or past state poets laureate, did an outstanding job compiling this anthology which includes the work of 38 laureates from 25 states. (Eleven states are represented with prior as well as present laureates.) Readers will discover memorable poems within this 279-page book.

From the Preface we learn: “This collection grew from a gathering of midwestern State Poets Laureate organized by Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg in Lawrence, Kansas, in the spring of 2009.…When we put out the word for the anthology, we had no idea of the sheer splendor, veracity, and diversity of the poetry that would come in. This collection brings together the work of thirty-eight talented and versatile poets in the United States, all sharing their strongest poems.”

Wisconsin is represented with poetry by Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet Laureate, 2009-2010, and Bruce Dethlefsen, Poet Laureate, 2011-2012. The 25 states included are listed in alphabetical order. Poem titles are not indexed and are not included in the table of contents. 

Perhaps future editions (if more are in the planning stage) will feature state poets laureate not included in this volume. Problematic when planning such an anthology:  laureates have varying lengths of service and these positions could be in limbo due to economic or political factors. In addition, not all states have a laureate position. While not inclusive with 25 states represented, this anthology stands as a book-milestone, an historic record worth reading and owning. 

Okay. See how many poets you know, you have read, from the list below. And we’re fortunate, that thanks to the editors, this list, this book, exists.

Sue Brannan Walker - Alabama
Peggy Shumaker - Alaska
David Mason - Colorado
Mary Crow - Colorado
Dick Allen - Connecticut
JoAnn Balingit - Delaware
Fleda Brown - Delaware
Kevin Stein - Illinois
Norbert Krapf - Indiana
Joyce Brinkman - Indiana
Mary Swander - Iowa
Marvin Bell - Iowa
Robert Dana - Iowa
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Kansas
Denise Low - Kansas
Jonathan Holden - Kansas
Betsy Sholl - Maine
David Clewell - Missouri
Walter Bargen - Missouri
W.E. Butts - New Hampshire
Marie Harris - New Hampshire
Larry Woiwode - North Dakota
Jim Barnes - Oklahoma
Paulann Petersen - Oregon
Lisa Starr - Rhode Island
Marjory Wentworth - South Carolina
David Allen Evans - South Dakota
Paul Ruffin - Texas
Katherine Coles - Utah
Kenneth W. Brewer - Utah
David Lee - Utah
Kelly Cherry - Virginia
Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda - Virginia
Samuel Green - Washington
Irene McKinney - West Virginia
Bruce Dethlefsen - Wisconsin
Marilyn L. Taylor - Wisconsin
David Romtvedt - Wyoming

While I am familiar with the works of our two Wisconsin poets, I found it humbling to realize how unfamiliar I am with most of these State Poets Laureate. I’ve encountered some of their poetry in journals, especially in The Georgia Review,and I do own poetry books by Kelly Cherry (Virginia) and David Clewell (Missouri)—both poets with various links to Wisconsin. This anthology now provides an opportunity to explore poetry state by state.

These anthology laureates are a stellar group. Reading their bio notes, one finds that among them they have won many prominent national poetry awards and fellowships. They’ve taught at universities, edited and/or founded literary journals and presses, traveled the state and country promoting poetry, and organized or taught at writing conferences, festivals, and workshops. They’ve written books of poetry, poetry criticism, essays, novels, and textbooks. It’s all heady stuff. 

Poems by our Wisconsin laureates: Marilyn L. Taylor’s poems in this anthology are “The Blue Water Buffalo,” “Reading the Obituaries,” “The Geniuses Among Us,” “The Lovers at Eighty,” “On Learning, Late in Life, that Your Mother Was a Jew,” “Why Don’t You,” and “Summer Sapphics.” Bruce Dethlefsen’s poems: “The Hot Dog Man,” “Suicide Aside,” “Up in the Cupboard,” “White Stallions,” and “Artists.” These works alone are reason enough to purchase this anthology.

I fell in love with “Chimes,” a poem by Robert Dana (1929 - 2010), Poet Laureate of Iowa from 2004 - 2008. How do we describe rain? A cat? A chime? How do we describe life? It’s seldom done better than in this short poem:


    Mid-August. Evening. Rain falling.

    Cold, bright silk where the street fronts the house.

    Out back, it laves and slicks the parched leaves of the trees.
    Ragged hang of summer’s end.

    I lean against the doorway of the poem,
    listening to the old patter.

    My cat, Zeke, lays himself out imperially.
    Eleven pounds of grey smoke
                  with tufted ears and a curved plume of tail.

    Now, a slight wind,
    and The Emperor of Heaven’s chimes intone like distant bells,
    his court musician’s 4000-year-old pentatonic scale
                        pealing in slow, clear ripples.

    Occasionally, a chord.

    Every day I live I live forever.    (81)

Another poem I admire is “Self-Portrait as Pond” by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Kansas. The poem ripples with surprising images. Looking for an exercise? Write your own self-portrait as pond. Then read Mirriam-Goldberg’s intriguing poem that begins:

    I turn my back and a million wings
    shiver across my surface. I stop
    but the beveling echo doesn’t.
    I float a half-brown leaf as if
    I’m made of open hands.        (87)

Denise Low of Kansas has a haunting, enchanting poem, “Two Gates.” The premise is rich; the poem, evocative. 

    I look through glass and see a young woman
    of twenty, washing dishes, and the window
    turns into a painting. She is myself thirty years ago. 
    She holds the same blue bowls and brass teapot
    I still own. I see her outline against lamplight;
    she knows only her side of the pane. The porch
    where I stand is empty. Sunlight fades. I hear
    water run in the sink as she lowers her head,
    blind to the future. She does not imagine I exist.

    I step forward for a better look and she dissolves
    into lumber and paint. A gate I passed through
    to the next life loses shape. Once more I stand
    squared into the present, among maple trees
    and scissor-tailed birds, in a garden, almost
    a mother to that faint, distant woman.    (93) 

How many cemetery poems have you written? Here’s a poem to study and emulate with its deft tone, internal rhyme, and vivid verbs and adjectives. The narrator in “Belmullet,” by Betsy Sholl, Maine, is “looking at stones, / at Johns and Marys, at twenty-eight Nearys / in a County Mayo graveyard, each with a pot / of primroses, a plot with white chips of gravel.” She wonders if these Nearys in this Irish cemetery are related to her:

    If the Irish love talk, my family’s silence 
    seemed to ask, Who wants to go back 
    to rotten potatoes and patched-up boats, 
    horse thievery and peat? Who needs long roots

    and old wars? Those sealed lips clearly said, 
    Better to shrug it all off, scrap the sod 
    from your boots and glad hand the new world, 
    let mild winds drift above gravity’s grip.

    But what wind doesn’t come from elsewhere? 
    Now that those Nearys are nearly gone, 
    and there’s no one to ask whose history 
    is swelling my knuckles, crimping my face,

    I want to be part of a line tethered somewhere, 
    if only by sea swells, by gusts I love best 
    when they batter. So I stand among stones 
    cut deep with my name, not knowing

    if the bones rusting here in this ground 
    are related. But since my family left 
    no word, I tell these Nearys, if they’ll have me, 
    I’d be pleased to be ghosted by them

Sholl concludes her poem with these lines: 

                           I kneel down 
    to finger the gouged letters and half-think,

    half-say to this long line of Marys and Johns, 
    these twenty-eight Nearys: If we all come 
    to the same end, surely it’s not just malarkey 
    and lark song spiraling up, then plummeting 

    silently down, surely by sun glint and gull, 
    by that long ago swallowed sadness,
    by sea gut and gravel and wind-wild sky, 
    these stones that name you name me as well.    (107)

“In Case of Rapture” by David Clewell, Missouri, begins with an epigraph, words from a bumper sticker:

    Warning: in case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.

From the first stanza: 

    And with my usual brand of luck I’ll be in the car
    right behind, cursing, leaning on the horn, as always
    getting nowhere fast. ……………………………
    In case of Rapture, I’ll try not to stare. Clearly
    these people can’t help the way they suddenly appear.
    Besides, looking directly at a spectacle like that
    could mean going blind. These things always seem to happen
    on the road to somewhere. Saul and his Damascus. Me and my A&P.  (page 116)

So much fun. We must all write our own Rapture poems. Clewell writes with whimsical long lines, his riffs carrying the poem. He ponders life with a comic, companionable tone, with doubts, energy, and juxtapositions as he motors along. This three-page poem, a catalog of thoughts on the Raptured and nonRaptured, concludes with, “But no one else has any idea / what’s next, exactly where you’re supposed to go from here.” 

Irene McKinney, West Virginia, writes in a plain-spoken, strait forward, laconic, yet witty and  philosophical manner. Her poems are ones you want to read. In her poem, “Ready,” she reflects how she had observed “my serious / teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle / standing on the bank above the dirt road in their / white sandals ready to walk to the country church / …The sun was bright and / their clean cotton dresses swirled as they turned. / I was a witness to it, and I assure you that it’s true.”

The last stanza:

    I remembered this thirty years later as I got
    up from the hospital bed, favoring my ride side
    where something else had been removed.
    Pushing a cart that held practically all of my
    vital fluids, I made my way down the hall
    because I wanted to stand up, for no reason.
    I had no future plans, and I would never
    found a movement nor understand the
    simplest equation; I would never chair the 
    Department of Importance. Nevertheless,
    I was about to embark on a third life, having
    used up the first two, as I would this one,
    but I shoved the IV with its sugars and tubes
    steadily ahead of me, passing a frail man in a hospital
    gown pushing his cart from the other direction.
    Because I was determined to pull this together,
    hooking this lifeline into the next one.     (251)

Who knows, reading poetry anthologies might be our lifeline as poets. 

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin