Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces

Facebook just reminded me of this poem, originally published in the Chest medical journal and now included in my new poetry book, Faces in a Crowd.

Source: Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces


Faces in a Crowd

Faces in a Crowd remind us how much alike we are, even in our differences. These glimpses into human nature, spiritual matters, and our relationships with one another come alive in free verse, prose poems, and traditional poetry forms.

The print book version is now available in plenty of time for Christmas gifts!

Source: Faces in a Crowd

From the New World: Poems 1976-2014 by Jorie Graham

In the highest realm of poets and poetry, Jorie Graham and her poems are gorgeous. Even if you don’t understand a single line, you know you’re in the presence of something extraordinary – something worthy of three or more readings to “get” what’s too often apparent in poems from the start. So, when I learned of the latest book, From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, I eagerly awaited my review copy, kindly sent to me by the publisher, Ecco Press.

When the book arrived, however, I froze. Like, who am I to comment on the work of any Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, much less this one! Some time ago, in fact, a friend asked why I keep on reading and re-reading Graham’s work when I was often frustrated by my lack of understanding. I said I felt I could learn something important, which is a good enough reason anytime, but especially during NaPoMo (National Poetry Month.) However, a more precise response to why I read Jorie Graham’s poetry is, “How can I not?”

If you’re a poet who likes to eat, sleep, and breathe poetry, you know what I mean. But then, maybe you don’t, and thus far, I’ve done nothing to entice you, so let’s remedy that!

Mid-way into the first verse of the first poem, “Tennessee June,” for example, you’ll find these exquisite lines:

your mind wandering without its logic,
your body the sides of a riverbed giving in.
In it, no world can survive
having more than its neighbors;
in it, the pressure to become forever less is the pressure
to take forevermore
to get there….”

If you want to understand the poems of Jorie Graham, those lines might pull you under, but if you want to experience her work with its sensitive insights, acute observations, and highly intelligent thought patterns, try going with the flow of that river and enjoying its depths and possibilities for change. You might even catch a reflection of the poet herself.

But then, the next poem reminds us that we’re all “Strangers” – to one another, to our surroundings, to ourselves. For example:

“The vigor of our way
is separateness,
the infinite finding itself strange
among the many….”

Such lines might be considered flat statements were there not so many curves! But this poem, as typically happens in Graham’s work, includes images as fresh as the tulips who “change tense/ too quickly” and as startling as the starlings who “keep trying/ to thread the eyes/ of steeples.”

If you think you’ve heard those lines before, you probably have since this collection consists of several poems selected from each of eleven previously published books before closing with new poems. But, if you’ve never read Graham’s poetry, having poems representative of her work collected in one volume makes an excellent place to start – not only for the sweeping, all-encompassing view but for the life these poems take on when combined and arranged as they have been.

We could talk about that. We could talk about what the poems mean, and if you want such assessments by numerous poets and poetry students, you’ll find explications on the Internet. To relish the taste of Jorie Graham’s poetry, however, I recommend you simply enjoy the play of words, the sound echoes, the complexities of thought, then give yourself over to the experience of each poem.

When I began to do this, I discovered a spirit of wonder, a sense of breathlessness, a stream of consciousness that engaged me with its musicality and lush imagery. I also found connections arising from the disconnected and reorientation from various disorientations lit on by a highly active mind.

Because we’re now well into National Poetry Month and because my review copy has been with me too long without response, I’ll stop here for now with the hope you’ll let me know in the Comments below how you approach the poems of Jorie Graham. Then, when I’ve had time to read and absorb each poem a few more times, I hope we’ll chat again about this major poet and what makes her poetry so memorable and her new book so important to read and recommend as I do now.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.

From the New World: Poems 1976-2014, Hardcover


The Sea Sleeps: New & Selected Poems by Greg Miller

In the preface to The Sea Sleeps, a book of eclectic poetry I received as a review copy from Paraclete Press, poet Greg Miller tells us: “These poems come from an embodied form of the line, of voices moving over and within lines, sounds clashing and cavorting, resolving or remaining obstreperously, contrarily discordant,” which pretty much describes the undercurrents of life or the ebb and flow of the now-sleeping sea.

What can be felt or imagined in sleep, in death, or a tranquil sea? In various ways, these poems address this, stirring up our tranquility to think, reconsider, and just notice what’s going on around us. For example, the first poem, “Primal,” in the opening section of “New Poems” calls us to “see now our primal people, pushed to the rivers/ And coasts of Africa, bands of some five hundred/ Individuals the evidence of our DNA strands now tells us,// The seeds of us all, winnowed and thinned by hunger….”

Seeing that shared heritage where, together, we’re “capable of anything” increases the pathos in the next poem, “Ruins,” where we see “The city as a shifted ruin.” And yet, “Somewhere in my memories of gloves/ And bow ties there’s the idea of opportunity,/ Perhaps a genteel and vapid accoutrement/ Of vanishing democratic false consciousness,/ Where we might believe in a shared public/ Sphere, where people might take care of one/ Another enough for there to be a general hope/ In the general good, that merit, not birth alone,/ Might shape things, where everyone might have/ A chance at work and dignity….”

In addition to the new poems prefacing this collection, sections of “Translations” and poems from previous books Watch (2009), Rib Cage (2001), and Iron Wheel (1998) have also been included.

For example, the poems from Watch open with “From the Heights” where long, flowing lines tell us, “My vision is partial, my voice middling, and I do not trust myself to the heights/ through everything here below begins to mingle and seem to me part of one canvas:/ ego, self-delusion, and pride in an infinite hall of mirror with reflection// mirroring all the old self-deceptions masquerading as penitential retractions.”

In poems from Rib Cage, we see an “Intercessor,” who, after praying for weeks begins to wonder, “Whom had prayer healed,/ Protected? Whom could he, unshielded, shield?/ But still he felt compelled: he held to hope/ Though when it slipped, it burned him like a rope.”

And from Iron Wheel comes “Revival,” on a “Good Friday/ and I am singing/ because it is good/ to say I love, I hurt,/ good to be able/ to say that it is not/ fair, and that God knows this.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler — poetry book reviewer and poet-author of the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.

The Sea Sleeps: New & Selected Poems, paperback


Poetry Book Review: Inclusions

Before Červená Barva Press published Inclusions, the first book of poems written in English by Polish-American poet Joanna Kurowska, she’d had two books of poems in Polish published in Poland with one published in the U.S.

Language proves no barrier, however, but provides delight in whatever is present or whatever Presence is perceived. In the opening poem “Indian Summer,” for example, the poet pictures various people who come and go where “…happiness was /within reach; a thin screen/ separated them from it” but “they passed by, without/ stretching their arms to pick it.” Beside evoking an image of ripe autumn fruit with the word “pick,” we get the lyrical reminder that, yes, we can choose to seek what pleases us and makes us happy.

In the second poem, “A World Without Honey,” the poet clarifies that choice by presenting the opposite option, not with dark thoughts and a heavy hand but with a matter-of-fact levity that alights on such lines as “The world without honey/ is a desolate place. It is/ the wonderland of just milk” – a place where “The dew in a melon/ is no longer honey dew; / it is just dew.” Besides the humor of “just dew,” I couldn’t help but think of a “honey-do list” with no honey to do anything.

Also inherent in the choices we all must make is the milk-and-honey promised land we choose to accept or not, whether we’re aware of that option or not. For example, in “A Sunday Mass at St. Jacob’s,” the poet admits “It’s easy to believe in the cathedral/ Slightly harder to believe in the Virgin’s gilt robe.” In keeping with the title and theme of inclusions, however, the “I” of the poem asks to “…stay in the darkness of opposing beliefs/ Whatever is there, I am your complete other/ Loving you; choking with gratitude.”

This flexibility continues even in “The Mirror,” where a rigid, reflective surface can only present what is there and not how it’s viewed by the viewer until “She turned away from the mirror/ and heard the lark’s morning song.”

The emptying of self in that walk away from the mirror comes back again in the poem, “Nothing,” which begins, “I am thankful for nothing,” then takes an unexpected turn in “I can carry it in my purse,/ in a suitcase, a cart/ or in my backpack.” The poem continues with thoughts of filling that nothing with various somethings before resolving, “Or I can leave it empty;/ be thankful for my nothing. Living in its presence is like/ a stroll on the verge of a precipice.”

Before verging away from this discussion though, I’d like to backtrack to the title poem found a little beyond the half-way point of this lovely book. As the word, “Inclusion,” suggests, the “I” of the poem wants “to make sure/ that nothing is missing….” And so, “between the alpha and omega,” we find the return of honey and a little of everything in “the wave tickling my feet,/ and the toothless woman who, in the train,/ kissed her boyfriend.” But “most importantly/ i want to make sure/ that i, too, am included/ in the world deposited/ on God’s tongue.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler – poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books, and the e-book, Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry

Inclusions, paperback


The Post-Partum Poet: before and after the birth of a book

When I’m researching, writing, and revising novels or nonfiction books, I usually wrap up those babies in nine months! Not so with poetry where neither the synopsis needed for a novel or the outline needed for a nonfiction book will keep a collection of poems in line.

First, there’s the problem of not knowing when a poem will arrive. Then there’s the search for relevant markets with editors, journals, and readers who relate. And then there’s the slow process of submitting a batch of 3 to 5 poems to one editor after another, each of whom might take a year to accept a single poem – assuming they accept any and, if not, will even respond to let you know.

Such matters are commonly encountered by poets who aim to publish in traditional journals, anthologies, and e-zines. However, those of us who write poems with religious overtones or Bible-based themes have yet another process to endure and a stereotype to overcome:

Our poems must show editors and readers that Christian poets can ascend to a high literary level, leaving clichés and greeting card verse in the dust.


This happens by first learning about poetry forms and effective techniques then experimenting, playing with sounds and meanings, and giving each poem the time it needs to finish what it has to say.

This happens by “getting real” in each poem but metaphoric too, walking through dark alleys before bringing the poem and readers into a warm light that’s not blatantly rosy .

This happens one poem at a time.

So, say, you’ve done all this as I did. Then what?

You keep up with secular and religious publications open to poetry.

You send off each finished poems that has a fresh slant, unusual perspective, or laser insight.

You keep track of which poem went where and who published what and when. And then you wait.

As you continue repeating all of the above, publishing credits eventually build. Eventually you have enough poems for a book, but, most likely, they cover far too many interests to center around one theme.

So you wait some more.

You note the main theme or subject at the top of each poem in your computer file, and when you suspect you have at least 50 but no more than 100 poems on one topic or motif, you do a word search, then copy/ paste each poem into a file and arrange them in some kind of order.

After procrastinating and overwhelming myself for years, that simple method helped me to get together all of my poems labeled “Nature” to assemble for my book Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press. They did a great job, and I’m thrilled with the book, but my aim for years and years – maybe since childhood – is to bring together my two favorite subjects: the Bible and poetry.

One problem with this impractical, unrealistic, long-term goal is that most Christian publishers do not publish poetry, and if they do, they typically consider book of poems offered only through an agent. That’s understandable as this practice weeds out amateurish poetry manuscripts, even though most of those are now being self-published on blogs or in e-books by anyone who so desires.

Finding an agent, however, brings us to the next problem. i.e., Most agents don’t want to bother with poetry, which is also understandable, as few people actually buy it, making a 15 to 20% commission on almost nothing not particularly enticing.

Except for Pulitzer and other highly prized poets, most of us earn only writer’s copies, which can be devoured but not eaten. Every poet in need of income faces this challenge, but those of us whose specialized interests narrow down the already thin market might also need a winning lottery ticket or a cranial exam.

So, armed with nothing but a love for poetry and the Bible and a supportive spouse, I began placing my “religious” poems in the 1980’s, mostly in Christian journals. Regular writing projects and life intervened, and when poems didn’t come to me, I read and reread the Bible and countless books of poetry. Every now and then, light lifted me into a poem, so I continued to place them in Christian and secular journals until the advent of the Internet eased me into e-zines too.

All of this took time, and since other books had my focus, that lengthened the wait even more. But I had time to get to know journals and to check Poets & Writers and other resources for poets to see who was looking for what. And I made time to read and review well-written poetry books by poets such as Pattiann Rogers, Kelly Cherry, Scott Cairns, Glynn Young, Wendell Berry, Dana Gioia, and other poets whose work I already knew I like.

As this work informed my own, I made more time to revise, so the poems didn’t button-hole people or get righteous or seem “religious,” even if they were. And I had time to build credits until many of the poems had already seen print before I even approached a “secular” publisher, whose guidelines welcomed almost any theme as long as the poems had something to say that hadn’t been said in quite the same way.

So, after all this time – all these years of waiting, working, honing, and placing poems – Kelsay Books accepted Outside Eden.

To say I was ecstatic is an understatement. It’s more like waiting 30 years for a child to get born, and when it finally happens, the buoyancy, the elation, the days of going around saying, “Thank You, God! Thank You, God!” become indescribable floatation devices! Joy, joy, joy and, oh, such levity!

And then the box of books arrived with a gorgeous cover and visually appealing layout, looking even lovelier than I’d ever dreamed – like a beautiful baby who brings awe and thanksgiving – but I sank like a dumbbell rolled onto water.

It was finished.

The long wait had ended, and I felt oddly blue.

What do you do when the waiting ends and the dream is fulfilled and all the planning abruptly ceases? What do you do to regain the joy and levity of the wait? Marketing is still needed, of course, but that’s about as buoyant as changing a baby’s diapers!

And then it came to me: Loving a child is not in the birth or the post-partum depression that often comes after. It’s in the joy of acceptance and the new growth to come and the process of learning and the hope of another poem after poem after poem as you wait for each new vision, each timeless word, and the next long-awaited but timely birth.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler

Outside Eden, paperback, Kelsay Books

Living in the Nature Poem, paperback, Hiraeth Press


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