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SUMMER 2016: "Crooked Axis"

Parts and Pieces

What I Can Tell You by Ruth Moon Kempher (Treadwell, NY: Bright Hill Press, 2013), 92 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-892471-72-7 US$16
Retrievals by Ruth Moon Kempher (Rockford, MI: Presa Press, 2015), 85 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9888279-8-1 US$15.95

Two recent collections from a prolific octogenarian. The collection published in Kempher's 81st year comprises incidents of day-to-day life that too frequently find themselves mixed up with uninvited retrievals from the past: parents, grandparents, lovers, others—all long gone—reappear, conjured by a blue bowl, a Hopper painting, on the tail of a dream, on meeting the namesake of a marshal from a 1950s Western.

The collection published in Kempher's 79th year shares snippets of what she can tell you about myriad things, light touch and irrepressible verve—junk and treasures, dogs and heaven, trees and weathering and more. As an avid gardener, I turned first to read what the poet could tell me "Of Difficult Gardens" and should not have been surprised to find in this section of the book, the ubiquitous and determined thistle. But here these weeds, despite being termed "Objects of Affliction," prove too magical to despise, much less uproot, because:

             They're purple
of course, dancing wind-struck
in certain Tchaikovskian
suites, as Russian Cossacks—
green boots that click and stomp
             in a fantasia's chorus
serrated frond-hands awaver—
whose music is impossible
to disremember.

In the same section, with keen observation and pithy comment, description of "A Land of Small Rain" in which trees stubbornly survive despite the odds:

                              . . . their roots
tangled with worms, thirst together
             knotted like seines.
It's a burly world as old, ripe sap
dries into beads thick as honey—traps
for gnats and spiders—the rain's
absence felt tangible as present sun.
. . .
             Here, grief grows deep
like a hardwood hooked into earth—
waits, as its roots tap brine.

Sensual imagery threads through the poems, through the book, deftly sketching more trees, another season:

Sunbuttered leaves, too multi-layered and fluttery
to number, phantom ducks—

And then,

             April again, the trees showed their bone
structure, hyperthin, but with green mist
suggestions of leaves—

And then more suggestive suggestion:

. . .O, it's such an orchard, where fool appleblossoms babble
Did it, Did it. . .
. . .
. . . O, surprise, to catch those big eyes looking—O, stars
and galloping garters and grinning angels in the trees. . .
the rest was a whirl of garble and the cider scent of leaves.

Interspersed with the poetry of image, poetry of anecdote and smart punch line—just the thing for dinner party talk— like the poem in which a woman mulls over her habit of writing regular chatty letters to her ex-husband, to "Jonah in Raiford Prison," and which ends with her confession that

              The truth is
if he had to kill someone
I'm grateful, it was
his second wife.

— Moira Richards, George, South Africa

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A Book of Changes

Queer Heartache by Kit Yan (Los Angeles, CA: Trans-Genre Press, 2016), 57 pages, paper, ISBN 9780985110529.

Queer Heartache is a gorgeous little book by Kit Yan, an award-winning queer, transgender, Asian-American Brooklyn-based slam poet from Hawaii. The book is published by Trans-Genre Press, a division of the Trans-Genre project (Trans-Genre.net).

The book recounts a coming-of-age tale exploring themes of poverty, choice, heartache, and finally the acceptance of growing up and finding one's place in a non-binary world. Yan does a masterful job of laying down the framework in the first poem, "Braces." The mouth frames sound and telegraphs emotion; we lie through our teeth, gnash them in despair, and flash them in greeting. In the poem, Kit chooses to live with crooked teeth because his family cannot afford braces. He makes this decision with intent, knowing that strength and resilience come from owning your choices,

you don't need straight teeth to talk story…
you can still smile
bright as your mouth can open.

Throughout the book the reader is given the chance to view things in other ways. In "Plastic," Kit's family uses disposable items, recycling them in imaginative ways, "a plastic bag is the fabric of our community," the frugality a way of saving precious resources to make a better life for the children. Kit honors their sacrifice, adopting the practice,

while keeping life and love
inside a plastic bag
I carry in my heart.

In the last two poems in this section, we learn of an incident in college when Kit's vehicle was targeted and destroyed because of its display of rainbow bumper stickers, "It said everything I wanted to say/ before I even knew what all of that meant." Authorities were no help, and instead of prosecuting they moved Kit to a dorm on the edge of the campus, "hiding my body." Kit does not have the words to tell how seeing rainbow stickers gave him hope that, "one day I'd find my communities…that say…come as you're changing, come as you are…we'll have a place for you…we will love you because you are home."

In "Hello, My Gender Is," we are introduced to that community, "standing in line for the rest room," in all its splendid possibility in a series of four couplets with forty-two gender descriptive terms in a string, "and that's just the beginning!" followed by a series of one-line statements, "trans is lhamana, …hijra, …mah, …wahina," and ending with a question mark. There is hope here that the fluid nature of self-selected gender will eventually wear down the uncompromising world that refuses to accept them.

In the next section, we are presented with a new journey, as Kit explores the community he has chosen. It is a time of love and sex, emotions and body parts, and how to fit the pieces of a puzzle that is being solved as it is being made. The poem titles are evocative, and the sequence tells a story by itself: "Sunset," "Sunrise," and "Not Girls Like You." The final poem in the series, "Queer Heartache," ends with a moving series of lines:

let's do whatever it takes
to take this heartache
and make us a home
that's always unlocked.

In the final section, we return to Kit's family, with her little brother appearing as the model ally/accomplice. Edwin "gets it so easily/ he is endless possibility," and accepts Kit for who he is, the trans brother who was once his sister, Laura. In turn, Kit teaches Edwin to be nice and watches over him, dispensing growing up advice as he turns thirteen and prepares for his first dance. In their world, lessons abound, the two tortoises Edwin receives as a gift are both male and act decidedly gay, "doing the tortoise." When Kit remarks that everything in her Mom's house is gay, it opens a conversation about grandchildren, and Kit lays out the possibility that he could be queer and gay and might want to have a baby someday. That was OK, because all his mother wanted was grandchildren, how was not so important and Kit thanks Josh and Drake, the two tortoises, for being there and holding their own "subversive conversations," helping to redefine family.

In "She," Kit comes to terms with the feminine pronoun and in "Faggots," Kit holds a "family meeting" when an uncle calls his brother Edwin a faggot. Kit follows up with Edwin when just the two of them can speak together. He explains that you can embrace the term, and in a reversal of the list of self-selected gender terms, gives a list of people who are all called faggots, "auntie and uncle faggots…," and ending with "a whole library of faggety gay/ faggotry faggotyness." Kit deals with the aftermath of an accidental wound inflicted while shaving in "Pussy Stitches":

                                 This is my body,
                where beauty and ugly live together.
like scars under binders,
                egos and demons dancing across chests.
                                My flesh is a legacy,
and I can choose to crack these bones,
                                cut this skin, poison these organs,
                                                                     and still come out
                                                                                     a full moon.

And in "Choice," comes to terms with this changing body:

I will do whatever it takes
to make this body feel whole,
build this shelter for a soul
I am slowly finding.

—Valerie Lawson, Robbinston, ME

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Teaching and Travel

The Pond in Room 318 by Kip Zegers and the poets of Argus (Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press, 2015), 91 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1939-9294-26.
Teacher, I Honor You: Poems Honoring Young People, Parents and Teachers by Helene McGlauflin (Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2016), 37 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-944899-14-1. $12.49.
Bali Poems by Douglas Cole (Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point, 2016) 39 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-62549-189-189-3.

Travel and teaching have fascinated me for years. As an editor, I am always attracted to them and too often disappointed. We have a warning among our staff: beware the postcard poem. Like flash fiction, it's a quick bite. Like the mosquito, it can catch your attention, but it is rarely satisfying and never lasting. Most often, the postcard poem holds the eye for a glimpse but does not engage the other senses. If you can show me the volcano, the water pooled in a classroom, snapshots of your 30-year teaching career, why can't you make me feel something profound for all that dedication? What can you show me from behind the travel poster?

I am reminded of a photographer who sneered at an editor's request to get a picture of Gunung Agung just like the one in the Condé Nast Traveler. "Why not buy that one?" the photog asked.

I applaud the idea that the poet can live an incredible life, view the wonders of the world, publish a book about it, and leave me wishing not that he or she had made so much more out of the experience.

Poems by Kip Zegers and his students in The Pond in Room 318 beg me to enter their environment, but like their classroom at the end of the school year, he saw "Summer as a brilliant empty room." Yes, but where was the pond?

One of the grand old men from the beginning of the 20th century, the curriculum expert in his generation, started a lecture by saying, "I am here to tell you three important things. The first is that change is inevitable."

Helene McGlauflin's poem "The Master Teacher" has the line "His name is Change." Such is the wisdom produced by another career of 30 years. And she ends her book with the "Retiring Haiku:"

             Spirit of the young:
open, playful, fresh and new
             stay with me, always

Thus she walks away.

Finally we have teacher Douglas Cole's Bali Poems. I have been to Bali several times. One of the most foolish things I have ever done was to rent a jeep, buy an AC/DC tape, and cruise the island. I visited the mother temple of Besakih, drank all night at Koala Blue in Kuta, bought a painting in Ubud, and waded in a lagoon with three school children who cherished only my ball point pens. We may all be strangers is strange lands, but what have we poets distilled from our learning?

The land is laced with spirits. Even in the Ramayana dance
             the girls move their fingers
                          and sad eyes with significance.

This world is full of codes
             beyond my comprehension.

So the poet leaves us, the readers, with little, or nothing.

One of the most interesting literary explanations I ever read came from H.A. Taine's chapter on Shakespeare's England, wherein there lived 3 million people with 300,000 in London. Among those were 50 great poets and 10 of genius, all topped by Shakespeare. Taine implied that in some way, that competition created a rich environment and a pursuit of excellence, much like art in Renaissance Italy. I do not object to small thin books of poetry generated by a widespread distribution of creative writing programs and ease of publishing. I only think that it is wise and humbling to see where one's work should lie among the pile.

— Michael Brown, Robbinston, ME

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