REVIEW: Names Disguised by Betsy Fagin


by Sally McCallum

There is something about Betsy Fagin’s poetry that snags me, that is interesting, but that I was having a hard time naming. Her recent chapbook, Names Disguised, takes place in three parts that address madness, wealth, buried eggplant, urban development, modernization & overconsumption, and greed. Among other things.

The sections of the chapbook’s three parts are entitled “names disguised,” “names assume life” and “given name.” So, naming: something this book refuses to do, or rather, refuses to do simply. For if there is one thing that will strike you about Fagin’s poetry, it may be the dearth of names, or, that is, of people who may have names, anyway. This is a world of participilized verbs, of absent pronouns, where agency falls on colors or abstractions:

intrepid potentials re-try opulence,
ragged. wandering on high
which ever way tossed & turned.
without lessons of sin
or rinsing clean.
to all, this love gushed
forth as from a fountain,
and to all the wings of hearing,
swift thanks. thanks a lot.

So that the world we enter seems strangely inhabited by mostly actions and nearly no agents. And yet – that last line, that last interjection. “swift thanks. thanks a lot.” Some one’s voice cuts through the remote country and makes it all real again. This effect occurs again and again:

anyone who was offered
that invitation
eschewed faith. fell,
grated, upon
a new delicacy.
shadows, gentlemen,
messengers of fidelity –
just when things were
getting started.

Do you see what I mean? Despite the elevated tone and sometimes abstract tendency of these poems, they are spoken by a gritty, grounded and deeply critical voice. These are thoroughly political poems.

gently boiled
fidelity is the ambassador of mind –
violent tearing
at a ribald sense of worship:
great men enjoy,
as a dog its license,
eating at the bowl
desirous of flight.
a painful return.

Imagine a world with no people, only parts. What’s the difference between a person and a thing, a subject and an object? By the time we reach the end of the second section – which focuses on buildings – in the poem “Transition Dynamics,” we’re totally unsure of ourselves the moment we meet poem’s first line: “one day will be homegoing.”

The first section, “Names Disguised” dreams of something fantastic, a world where “licorice profanities drip, fall” and “leaves are desirous / of election.” What I liked about this section was the way that, throughout its otherworld fabric, it uses the language of political unrest. One begins to imagine that the world of forgotten castles and ragged dead ivy that arises is actually our own America.

The second section critiques our built landscape. It was maybe my favorite part. Fagin examines the overlap between urban development and labor practices and over consumption. In the three-poem series “body and building,” she discloses how the same politics of space apply at the level of the built environment and the human body. The series, I believe, exhibits a bit of hope. In the “body and building.1” the built landscape enshrines the totalizing fantasy of modern technocapital:

a shrine of reason
in an unreasonable,

confused world
rationalized the hygienic

to function as clarity
precision, codified sanitation

However, by “body and building.3” our speaker has reached an alternate vision, one that, though not precisely optimistic, does dare to dream of a world outside capital:

exterior open space,
synthetic and composite,
contains a space of social action
ambiguous dwelling places –

There’s hope in that dream, no? Even if it is a dream for “increasingly / ambiguous and lawless times.”

These are poems born of necessary scrutiny. Scrutiny of how inequality and injustice are not only obvious: how they are arranged tightly even into our dreams and furniture. It’s a weird little book, and you’ll need time to dwell with it. Take the time, though.

Names Disguised is available from Make Now

Sally McCallum lives in Tucson and studies French, Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor of the Volta Blog.

REVIEW: Soft Pages by Kathleen Fraser


by José Angel Araguz

pelagic, if that’s how a particular moment keeps continuing
without one being able to stop it…(6).

I enjoy a text that has me walking away having learnt a new word. In the case of Kathleen Fraser’s Soft Pages – a lyrical prose sequence part of the Belladonna chaplet series – that word is pelagic, whose definition – living or growing at or near the surface of the ocean, far from land – is a key into the overall text.

Throughout Soft Pages, Fraser’s speaker presents a hybrid mix of travel journal/personal diary/writer’s meditation. The ambition of such a mix is reflected in the way the speaker boldly reconsiders and repurposes the aim of the narrative at several turns:

I must remember to enter the narrator’s life in as many ways as possible—
[by “must”, I mean that I crave intimacy and little corners but take
even more pleasure in distancing devices, while sniffing the smell of leftover
shampoo on a person’s damp terrycloth robe ](10)

This craving for “intimacy and little corners” as well as “distancing devices” implies a specific kind of tension behind the narrative. The structure of Soft Pages itself is less fragmented (nothing feels exactly missing or broken) and more loosely tethered, a kind of conceptual mobile capable of holding various meanings, which returns us to the image evoked by the word pelagic.

Fraser’s lyrical musings explore various aspects of the “soft pages” in her life – from notebook paper to photographs and a fan, the latter two conflated as the speaker of the text describes her direct physical experience as:

Not as definite as departure. Already it was following the camera’s path,
its ability to bunch up time, capture it incrementally or smoothly, into successive
unfoldings, compression fanning out through heat-laminated brick, golden
fade-out into transliteration of…pale fan sent from Tokyo, held in place by a
thin loop of silver paper, just at its breaking point, until the restraint had been
lifted away to release the motion of unfolding. Someone wanting the prop in
cultural time. May I demonstrate my lineage?”(6-7)

Through this kind of leap from similarity to similarity, Fraser constructs a reading experience about reading experiences. Instead of a distrust of being able to pin down human experience in words, one reads a speaker engaged with how things change as soon as you start to pin them down by naming them. In a scene, for example, of going through the motions of a public yoga session, Fraser’s speaker recounts looking for her particularly marked yoga mat, only:

to find, among the various colored blankets [the instructor] provided in a
wall cupboard at one end of the studio, a soft blue plaid that would draw me
into a state of calmness, as if the water in the river were also blue, instead of
muddy, and the sky an intense wintry cloudless blue , instead of burdening
the urban landscape with its heaviness of pale and dark grey storm clouds
waiting to break loose (8-9)

This kind of nuanced moment of insight, where realities are superimposed upon each other through the blur of memory and sensory perception, makes up a large of the pleasurable reading experience of reading Soft Pages. Throughout the sequence, one is given the workings of a mind who values the various “ultimate” meanings and profound epiphanies to be found, “Even as you walk towards the most simple morning task” (6).

Soft Pages is available as a free pdf at Belladonna*.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and has had work most recently in Borderlands, Blue Earth Review, and NANO Fiction. He is presently pursuing a Creative Writing and Literature PhD at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.

INTERVIEW: None of these small earthquakes gets recorded // Brandon Shimoda & Dot Devota

by Kelly Schirmann

Brandon Shimoda & Dot Devota are two poets, humans, & year-round travelers, currently living & working in the various deserts of the American Southwest. They are the authors, respectively, of The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) and Curfew, released this last fall from Black Cake Records, which releases contemporary & experimental poetry/recordings. At the time of this interview, we were haunting the same dive bars & taco stands of Tucson, Arizona, where over several months of backyard fires & midnight walks past fraternity houses, I began to understand that there was something very special about the way they looked at, talked to, & engaged with their surroundings. I cling to them because, in the desert, one must cling to something. Secondarily, & far more importantly, I cling to them because they know things: holy, ancient, useless truths. Their albums are weird things with wild blood & vice versa: the stuff of AM radio transmissions & other casual apocalypses. They are incessant, insistent, & full of secrets that exist in plain sight. Luckily for us, they are gracious with their findings. What follows is the result of us sitting down together on the Internet for a chat on what blood is, why artifacts are, & what we as poets should do about any of it.

Tucson, Arizona.

Kelly Schirmann: First off, where are you? Who are you? How are you? How come?

Brandon Shimoda: We’re in the same desert town as you: Tucson, AZ, 100 km from Mexico. I’m grateful for this moment, Kelly, though I know it’s brief, and will soon be over. As for Tucson: DD and I have lived here off-and-on since late 2011, though have been gone ~half that time (in Taiwan, Japan, NY, Nova Scotia, St. Louis, driving; many reasons).

Dot Devota: I’m at Exo coffee shop. Writers suck at hide-n-seek. I came to center out the earth and drool. I just saw your boyfriend, Jay, here. He sliced his thumb with a butcher knife and hasn’t washed off the blood. He says blood is clean. Is it? Isn’t it sticky, I mean? Which would lead to contamination by fly paper, sweetly fragrant. The fly has to wiggle so hard it actually detaches from its own belly. The last time I got worked up was a single second ago. Right now I am in the past of that single second.

KS: I’m grateful for this shared time on the flypaper too, & I know that when we detach, my belly will remain in the best four hands possible. Your recent poetry albums are such glorious, twisting, multi-faceted things. Would you talk a little bit about them — how you went about recording (or collecting recordings), where they came from, and what they are?

DD: A long time ago the supercontinent split. Now I fly 16 hours each summer to get to Asia. A couple of these poems were recorded on the 26th floor of a highrise in Taiwan. In the middle of the night the building sways. Gently. None of these small earthquakes get recorded. I record singing while walking down the street and I record children reading their poems in the hallway of a school. The last song is by Jess Matsen, one of my favorite musicians who also lives in Tucson. I saw him at the cafe. He’d just gotten off work landscaping. I asked if he wanted to add a song. He said he was dirty and had to go home. 30 seconds later he emailed this.

BS: The poet D.A. Powell once told me that my poems reminded him of the music of The Carpenters, though what I especially remember is the shadow that was on the wall behind him when he said it—the wall was white, he was facing a window, the shadow was shadow and light, and had the shape of an enormous eagle or phoenix, or a fright wig, or an enormous eagle or phoenix wearing a fright wig: an unconquerable V-shape, victory, peace, but foreboding. I was writing short poems about my grandfather’s imprisonment during WWII, was sinking into his bifurcated self, selves, listening to the sound of him taking off his clothes, putting on his wife’s—his wife was missing, or dead, very young, not yet his wife; he was talking to himself: love poems. Karen Carpenter was anorexic. Anorexia, in the consciousness of what Doug was suggesting, became a TONE, initiatory, out of which I began to envision peace, but foreboding: trying on your wife’s clothes, withering away beneath them—but what was casting the shadow? The Carpenters (and Other Strangers) is either a misfire or unfinished. Also: when you invited DD and I to make records for Black Cake, we were staying at our friend Janet’s house in Meadowville, Nova Scotia, and the house, because it was the season, was swarming with ladybugs … remember I wrote that to you?

KS: I do remember that. It is a shame that the insects & the earthquakes don’t always get recorded. Or maybe it’s glorious, relieving, true? What happens to the things that get left out or unfinished? Where do they live? Is it any of our business?

DD: Very little, if anything, actually exists for us. Trees didn’t decide to grow because they knew we’d eventually come along. The impetus is to identify sensitivity. Whatever technical device—writing or machine—is really not the issue. I don’t even think this is what constitutes “recording”. Recording, and The Record, is something much more insane. An imprint larger than the artifact. Isolate the pitcha and look elsewhere.

BS: The insects and earthquakes recur (see below), though who knows how, or when, so there’s a series of dementia-like encounters with what we might not have appreciated in their moment, or did, but in part, or a different part than what, over time, proved to be IT. I wonder though if there’s a critical or post-critical mass (i.e. eleven thousand insects riding on the waves of eleven thousand earthquakes) and what the consequence is (i.e. implosion, levitation, vomit, or poetry, etc). I have/had the feeling that our work is MADE of the things that get left out or are unfinished. That’s why there’s making (not that it’s any of OUR BUSINESS).

KS: To me, both of your work feels very rooted in revelation, in exposure, in documentation. I get the sense that you feel a sense of responsibility in what you choose to reveal, or expose, or to document. How does this affect your poetry, & how did it affect your records? (You can disagree with me if you want).

DD: After Taiwan, I went to Ferguson, Missouri. I grew up in St. Louis. It’s still apartheid. For weeks I’m on Antonio French’s Twitter feed with the beak of a hummingbird! I go to protests for Mike Brown and march on Canfield Drive. I’m a shitty shitty activist. Overwhelmed. I’m unaware of goals, unable to focus my demands. But as a poet my job isn’t to yell at police or hold signs. It is to visit the grave. I’m a ghost myself there. After the march on Canfield, I relay the day’s images to Brandon: female pastors dressed casually, a woman pushing a stroller sings Amazing Grace, another woman goes in for a group hug but her phone falls out of her pocket breaking on the street, flowers around a road cone, a small loudspeaker at the point of death. And some white people with their cryptic signage. One holds a 1989 bar graph depicting global warming. Some other white people approach me to join a “witnessing whiteness” group (white people finding more white people to talk about how bad they have it because they’re racist). Brandon says the poet doesn’t know where they go or why…

BS: It’s true: the choice is the responsibility. “Verse should not be composed of words, but of intentions” (Mallarmé). Documentation is becoming (to me) about revelation. Exposure is antecedent, calculable time, or real, while revelation is dispersed, therefore timeless; it’s part of the responsibility (choice), trusting what recurs, even after the origins of occurrence have gone extinct. What I mean is: I don’t remember, but am remembered by what happened, as the fragmentation of what happened increases intelligence. “Happened” isn’t right; there is no past TENSE. Revelation, Exposure, Document: RED. DD went to Ferguson MO (see above), near where she grew up, marched with protesters to the police station, felt confused, overwhelmed, at a loss, full of anger and uncertainty. We realized we’ve spent the last 4+ years on pilgrimages—to graves, trees, fields, poets’ houses, internment camps, libraries, extinct towns—often finding nothing, but the embodiment of RED. Also: two of my favorite movies about looking at art, both documentary in their way, are: Pavel Kogan’s Look at the Face and Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, which has an amazing cameo by Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul.

KS: You both chose to incorporate outside voices in your albums — singers, teachers, friends, field recordings from protest marches, ghosts of previous selves. In what way do you see these other voices contributing to your understanding of your poetry, or of art in general?

DD: Those voices are outside? They’re voices? I’m less sure of what constitutes a voice, singular. Or how this idea of voice is so important, as I feel it is. But it’s an old idea getting over-normalized. It’s becoming cheesy, like, get your voice heard. We are in a post-voice society. Half the time I don’t know who is talking or from where it comes. But it is incessant. Too many voices got murdered in the positivist readings of the future in the late 60’s of every century, so now, the afterlife’s bluish underworld, they travel through water, deep sea-like, carried farther, true, but the currents are forever just rotating. It’s not cynical, this is how I feel. I feel like a shortwave radio, picking up static and bits of conversations. Or sound is literally bumping off of me. To stand in the middle of the symphony does what? To be part of the throbbing. I have no idea of where to go from here. Although voice becomes a direction. In the dark I usually go towards the voice. Have you seen Beckett’s NOT I?

BS: I’m not sure what contributes to my understanding of my poetry—do you know (what contributes to yours?) I feel like everything contributes to a greater LACK of understanding, because it changes, as I and it pass further down the circles. I think of two trees: an 800 year-old camphor tree in Kumamoto and a 1000+ year-old cypress in Oaxaca. Actually, two people: my grandmother dying in a convalescent home in bed at a 45º angle while her two roommates, both nuns, watch Catholic Mass on TV, and old men pace the halls with nurses, in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic; and Hayashi Yoken, the young monk who set fire to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto) then ran into the woods to watch it burn while attempting, but failing, to kill himself by swallowing poison and stabbing himself in the heart (he missed): the vision of the flames through the trees. In other words: I need nudity/denudation, temperamental and/or physical, to enact the sense of falling into VOICES. Monk/grandmother—I’ve sat like/as them.

KS: To me, poetry is this very squishy & elusive thing, & I think maybe my aim with Black Cake is to blur the edges of the word until it becomes something else entirely. Not the collection of voices, but any kind of container a voice could inhabit. Or is that just existence? How do you see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life? What is it, & why do we (you) do it?

DD: I can’t blame poetry enough to give it a definition. Because something that can’t feel suffering is given something to suffer through–our perception. Not because poetry is elusive. I’m never trying to catch poetry or achieve it or find new forms for it.

BS: Where did the name Black Cake come from? Is it what happens to poetry when it is confected (turns black)? Or is poetry the confection? Or cake like a chemical? When my mom was pregnant with me she only ate—or so she claims—potatoes and YELLOW cake. Because of that, I only see poetry interacting with other mediums, expressions, sounds, life.

KS: I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me this. A few months into the project, a friend of mine showed me a recipe for black cake that was found in Emily Dickinson’s kitchen. This was absolutely horrifying, not because of the association exactly, but because I would never want to be speaking to something so directly & indirectly at the same time. I would prefer not speaking at all, actually, at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself. Information. I don’t know if the cake is petrified, molding, imaginary, terrible, or just NEW. Do we ever know what we eat? & but shouldn’t we keep eating? Anyway. What’s next?

DD: Brandon says we’re working our way further towards and into nothingness. Reading and writing. There is always more to do away with, which makes room for more nothingness. There is a goal and its the blackness of the universe expanding.

BS: “I would prefer not speaking at all,” you said, “at least not in a way that leaves intentional traces of itself.” Me too, and yet: it’s raining, rare for the desert, though it’s rained a lot since we’ve been back (August). The dry rivers come to life—muddy, with tree limbs and trash—but will be gone just as quickly. Our friend Johanna saw a body being lifted out of the river. The man, 34, was homeless, and was murdered by two other homeless men. His name was Owen McNutt. Among the things on my to-do list (from my notebook, verbatim): Alzheimer’s threshold, Annunciation paintings, Hiroshima in Braille, suicide in Ontario, Genet’s Prisoner of Love, the sun’s journey into night.



Dot Devota is from a family of rodeo stars. She wrote The Division of Labor (Rescue Press, 2015) And The Girls Worried Terribly (Noemi Press, 2014); MW: A Midwest Field Guide (Editions19\); and The Eternal Wall, published by Cannibal and reprinted in Canada by BookThug. Recent poems and essays appear in PEN America, Make Magazine, Ancients, Aufgabe, The Volta and have been translated into French and Arabic. She travels full-time with her partner, Brandon Shimoda, and currently writes prose about the U.S. Midwest.

Brandon Shimoda was born in California, and is, among other things (friend, son, brother, uncle, grandson), a poet. He is also the co-editor of two recent books by two poets he deeply admires: Wong May and Etel Adnan.

Kelly Schirmann is from Northern California. She is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean, 2016) & the co-author of Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia). She sings in the band Young Family & runs Black Cake, a record label for poetry & other experiments. She lives in Portland, Oregon, & at

You can listen to Dot Devota’s Curfew and Brandon Shimoda’s The Carpenters (and Other Strangers), as well as the other Black Cake poets, for free & forever at

Both poets feature in the The Volta Book of Poets, out recently from Sidebrow.


REVIEW: Exodus in X-Minor by Fox Frazier-Foley

by Lauren Gordon

Fox Frazier-Foley’s prize-winning chapbook with Sundress Publications is a collection of similarly-titled poems ranging in topic from Haitian Vodou and the Saint Patrick Four, to persona poems of past lives and an epistolary series written to photographer Diane Arbus. At a glance, the poems seem incongruous when held up side by side, but Frazier-Foley’s kaleidoscopic collection is quite masterfully arranged, if not discomfiting. The similarly-titled pieces create a sense of deja vu every couple of pages, but not in a way that feels like a gimmick. It’s an unsettling that forces the poems themselves to become grounding.

The first “Exodus in X Minor”-titled poem relies heavily on fragmented phrases and uncomfortable line breaks, interspersed with lyrical refrains. The poem introduces an origin story for an underdeveloped female voice that seems to evolve throughout the book’s arc. The drama of the poem moves the staccato reading in a way that is reminiscent of Alice Notley’s “Descent of Alette”, in that the awkward pauses begin to feel more natural as the story itself becomes more interesting:


The awkward line break pauses create tension on top of the violence that unfolds in the lines. The lyrical refrain is broken on the word “family” and the line that begins with “lies” has a reader questioning the practical intent of the word; it’s doing double duty as a lyric and as a tool for antagonizing the honesty of the father. The imagery manages to capture some kind of a bleak, dark house without ever having to rely on that kind of specific, detailed language. This kind of evocative mysticism and symbolism are tropes throughout the rest of the book with repetition of the color red: red-bearded, red-headed, strawberry, auburn, rouge, and finally, blood. Even the cover artwork speaks to the symbolic with the bright red lettering of “X” in the author’s name and title against a black and white background, next to a red slash through the middle of the art. It’s graphic and disturbing.

Violence is the hinge on which several of the poems swing upon. One of the strongest and most surprising poems in the book is “For Maddy Lerner, Age 6, Accidentally Killed at an Outdoor Firing Range in Upstate New York”. The title of the piece is long and journalistic, which sets an expectation for a reader that the poem may very well veer into editorial territory. It never occurs. Instead the poem is comfortingly humanizing and personal. The line breaks are done well and the lyrical couplet form is soft enough to hold them up: “You were, they said, struck//by hot brass from your mother’s new/AR-15 with custom scope. A tiny girl//at the table behind ours hit/the lights…” Where “a tiny girl” could venture into sentimentality, we’re surprised to find it a different little girl at the restaurant behind the speaker. The line break on “struck” is particularly eviscerating, but not as much as “hot brass from your mother’s new” – it’s artful and heartbreaking. The end of the poem is where we expect a censorial tone, instead it finishes with the speaker talking about her first time shooting a gun:LG2

There is violence in these poems, surely, but there is a redemptive love, too. Maddy’s epistolary is part love poem part political poem. It’s weird how the poems fit together like that, as if they collectively are circumventing convention. The spiritual, dream-like realm that inhabits the Haitian Vodou poems is a glimmer of hope off in the distance, the Diane Arbus pieces are sometimes ekphrastic-feeling. The thread of connective tissue tying all of the pieces together seems to focus on the feats and limits of the physical body. In one “Letter to Diane Arbus”, Frazier-Foley writes “…learn a few new/walls out of all the surrounding/buildings housing strangers: that is to say, bodies/and the time they gives us.”

Life is temporary. Life is temporary even though you’re reading one of the many poems about past lives written in different personas. The fragility of the human body is consistently juxtaposed throughout this collection with the strength and tenacity of the spirit and being alive and in the world. If the collective description of Haitian Vodou is accurate – that it is not just a belief or religion, but an experience – then the same could be said for this debut collection of poetry. “Exodus in X Minor” leaves a reader in new territory, experiencing poetry from a new voice.

Exodus in X Minor
is available from Sundress Publications.

Lauren Gordon’s reviews have appeared with Rain Taxi, Coldfront Magazine, PANK, The Collagist and are forthcoming with Poetry Crush and Damfino Press

REVIEW: Sixty Morning Walks by Andy Fitch


by Scott Russell Morris

Craig Dworkin’s forward to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Walks places the book of prose poems—lyric essays? the boundary, always murky, is especially so here—in the tradition of the literary walker, the flâneur who observes and records. This is a fair placement, as all sixty of the sixty-sentenced entries recount details from a walk, and it is clear that the author of these pieces intends the walk to be more than just a walk, also a literary exercise. But the difference between Fitch’s walks and those of other literary ramblers like Thoreau or Woolf is that Fitch remains much closer to the source material. He rarely extends his thoughts on the page from the walk itself, and even when he does let us know that something he saw reminded him of something else, that fact is all we get. No explanation, no musing, just a continuation of the walk. More details, collaged together.

In this way, each piece—and the collection as a whole—reads like a collection of moments, a grouping of loiterers and business men and police officers and dogs and parks and stray grains of rice all together. Perhaps it is just the settings of New York City and the idea of recounting the everyday people there, but in lots of ways Sixty Morning Walks feels closer to Brandon Stanton’s photography project Humans of New York, in that it collects snapshots of—and creates wonder towards—the mundane people and scenes on the streets of New York. By observing people—the doorman at Fitch’s girlfriend’s apartment, the teachers leading field trips, the panhandling potheads, the men in stylish pants—he makes the boring exciting, the familiar both strange and sexy.

As you could imagine, then, Sixty Morning Walks, starts as a slow read, taking its sentence structures and its dedication to cadence and sound from poetry. If you do the pieces justice, it can take you an hour to read just one walk, though it is only a two-page piece. But there are really too many walks for that to be a sustainable way to read the book as a book, which makes for an interesting reading experience because each individual piece is not very exciting as a poem: the details are all there is, the language skillfully pared down, but not much happens narratively or emotionally in any one piece. Reading just one day’s walk would be completely unfulfilling. Yet, as a series of walks, all read together, the book becomes incredibly engrossing, the details more and more interesting even as they stay just as mundane at the first, so that by the end, though the narrative has remained steady and the emotions never risen or fallen, the sixty walks together seem to be some great feat, a slowness to the mood and a quickness to the pace that makes you want to really savor every small, boring detail and examine them closer.

While the pieces’ quick pace and seemingly random assortment of details appear to resist theme or deeper meaning, there are a few motifs that stick out, that make for a particularly interesting mix when paired with the menagerie presented. The first motif that struck me was the continued presence of the police and guards. It seemed that the narrator was constantly being told where he could and could not go or where he did not belong. Only once in the whole book did a police officer smile, though Fitch recounts countless other smiles throughout. In a book about walking, this continual butting up against barriers makes for an uneasiness that is just below the surface, easy to miss. And it is also part of the genius of the piece. It is impossible to know if that continued noticing was intentional, or just the law of large numbers creating an ominous undertone to an otherwise lightly themed book.

The second, and perhaps the obvious theme from a work of this sort, is the act of looking at other people. But Fitch tells us over and over that he is not just looking at other people, he is staring at them, making eye contact. He assumes people think of him as a creep several times, but several times the eye contact leads to a shared smile. Several times he openly tells us that the people he stares at he finds sexy. And even those who don’t seem sexy still get the voyeuristic gaze; so really, everyone seems sexy, which is another relationship I see with the Humans of New York project. Alexander Smith, in his essay “On the Writing of Essays” says that “If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well.” A project like this one, that sort that collects people, proves that you don’t even need to know a man, woman, child, or dog well:, sometimes it is enough just to notice them.

Sixty Morning Walks is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in BrevityProximityBlue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices.

REVIEW: Dark. Sweet. by Linda Hogan


by Erin Watson

Comprising selections from nearly 40 years of her poetry, Linda Hogan’s collection Dark. Sweet. is a comprehensive introduction to this Chickasaw poet. Hogan’s Native American identity and her work on wildlife rehabilitation shape her poems’ themes: the natural world, motherhood, political resistance, and indigenous identity.

To talk about the politics in this book, which are inextricable from its other themes, it first needs to be said that 2014, the year of Dark. Sweet.’s publication, was a hell of a year, politically, in America. Massive antiracist protests seem to be the only reasonable response to the interlocking systems of oppression that have always dictated the lives and deaths of nonwhite Americans. There’s no time like now to start paying close attention to marginalized voices; to see in their fullness the lives that are easy to ignore from the blinkered comfort of whiteness.

Throughout Hogan’s work, deep and minutely observed connections between human and animal life explode the assumed boundaries between species. In doing so, her poems set up the reminder that all forms of otherness should be questioned. The first poem in the collection, “Turtle,” from Hogan’s 1978 book Calling Myself Home, contains an image of women who are also turtles, traveling back through time:

We should open his soft parts,
pull his shells apart
and wear them on our backs
like old women who can see the years
back through his eyes.

Multiple boundaries dissolve: between the turtle and its “soft parts,” the women and the turtle, the poem’s time and the past. The repeated “back” reinforces the connection between time and the body.

“The Ritual Life of Animals,” a poem from the 1993 collection The Book of Medicines,” returns to these dissolving species borders, opening:

The animal walks beside me,
long-toothed partner
in a sacrificial dance.
It lies down on the land
as I walk upright
And closing:
We lie down
In the long nights of their waking,
the world of animal law,
the house of pelvic truth.
The inversion is clear: the human is still animal, still bound by its law.

While making my way through Dark. Sweet. for this review, I also picked up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Sometimes everything you read seems to be about everything else you read, particularly in this trying, inescapable political landscape. The body moving through space, time, and memory. The body in history. The body of an American woman.

From Rankine:

“You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.”

And from Hogan, in her introduction to the 2012 monologue/poem Indios:

“It is set in the timelessness of our lives. When we say that we crossed over the Trail of Tears, we did. It is in our Native memory. Time is different in the cell structure of bodies created from and on this continent.”

For both of these poetic speakers, time is stored in the body: in the body of the individual and in the collective body.

Indios stood out as the most engaging section of Hogan’s collection, for its hybrid form and for its attention to narrative, mythmaking detail. It retells the Medea story in a prison interview. The introduction announces the poem’s intent to serve both as a performance piece and as a long poem to be read silently or aloud, “to be thought about or wept over.” This dual purpose refuses the typical boundaries placed around poetry as a genre. In its hybridity, Indios also resembles Citizen, a collection that includes essay, art criticism, and cultural commentary despite its subtitle, “An American Lyric.” There is space for American lyrics to challenge these boundaries, and it’s exciting to see contemporary poets of color seizing the opportunities.

Hogan has received a Pulitzer nomination for her fiction, and the narrative thread in Indios compels, even as the thematic content gets somewhat oversold. Lines like “It turns out I am their savage, after all,” along with the repeated image of a house of cards that ends the last two sections of this poem, diminished some of its impact by relying on received metaphors and explanations. More inventive moments, ones that force questions of identity, are much stronger, as when the poem’s speaker tells her interviewer:

I was never a woman.
I was a city.
I was a country,
this ordinary woman you see before you.
I have more freedom in prison
Than when I was a country and still just a girl.

This “and” surprises – it does much more to illustrate the burden of expectation on a Native American girl attempting to assimilate than some of the poem’s more outwardly dramatic moments. To the speaker, there’s no contradiction in being both a country and a girl, but there’s also no freedom in this hybrid identity. (I also found resonant echoes of Sara Woods’ poem “City-Girl” in these lines.)

Hogan’s poetry is most compelling in its refusal: refusing to tell you what you expect, what you want to hear. Her speakers refuse to play to cultural tropes of the “noble savage” and draw the reader’s attention to this refusal.

The new poems in the collection begin strong in this mode of refusal: “If you think I am going to write about someone’s god, / that’s a mistake. I am sitting by wild strawberries…” opens “The Unseen.” But the collection closes by writing about someone’s god, after all, in “After Silence: Return”:

When Buddha went out on his own,
when Jesus remained in the wilderness,
did they learn the living web of the world?

While I always appreciate when a collection of poems concludes with questions, creating space for the reader to consider her own answers, it seemed that the answer here is too strongly implied. It’s clear that the speaker wants us to live more harmoniously in “the living web of the world.”

Throughout Dark. Sweet., I wanted to be trusted as a reader to do more interpretive work. At the same time, I examined my impulse to resist this didactic tone. It’s a resistance connected to the assumption that my way of doing interpretive work is valid for these poems. I challenged myself to read them differently, to be open to what Hogan is saying about her identity and her world.

The new poems are divided into four sections: “The Unseen,” “History,” “Sweetness,“ and “The Remedies.” These sections reinforce themes Hogan has returned to throughout her career, including motherhood and connections to the natural world.

Sweetness is a quality of the natural world, as in the ending of the title poem:

that dark, sweet moment
in the splendid planetary breathing
where I was walking on the path
here, near the water,
that brief time, everything as I said,
Dark. Sweet.

This moment of wildness and darkness is concentrated like a syrup. The poem describes walking in the woods during a total eclipse. Ending with “everything as I said” reminds me of the speaker in Robert Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Color” who repeats “if I said” with different ways of showing a color, finally just announcing “Sudden, red.”

There’s a narrative authority in these ending lines to “Dark. Sweet: The Full Eclipse” that’s demonstrated more subtly elsewhere in the collection, as in the speaker who says you’re mistaken to think she’ll write about someone’s god, or other speakers asking questions. “Can you keep me / here? Can you unharm me?” ends “Home in the Woods,” which appears in the “History” section. This variety in tone, from contemplative to instructive, moves the collection along briskly.

Despite my occasional reservations with her work, Hogan has a strong poetic voice, and Dark. Sweet. offers a worthy introduction to her work. Its recurring, evolving themes make it excellent for browsing. Hogan’s work adds a naturalist and often spiritual perspective to the contemporary lyric.

Dark. Sweet. is available from Coffee House Press

Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and on the internet at Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in three self-published chapbooks. She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and one of New City’s best emerging poets in Chicago in 2014.