The State She’s In by Lesley Wheeler (Tinderbox Editions, 106pp., $18.00)
Rewilding by January Gill O’Neil (CavanKerry Press, 80pp., $16.00)
A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora by Jenna Lê (Indolent Books, 94pp., $14.99)
Memoria by Orlando Ricardo Menes (Louisiana State University Press, 90pp., $19.95)
The Miracles by Amy Lemmon (C&R Press, 82pp., $16.00)
The Donkey Elegies: an Essay in Poems by Nickole Brown (Sibling Rivalry Press, 38pp., $12.00)
To Those Who Were Our First Gods by Nickole Brown (Rattle, 46pp., $6.00)
Tales from the Temple by Cho Oh-Hyun, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl (Codhill Press, 64pp., $20.00)
Wonder & Wrath by A. M. Juster (Paul Dry Books, 80pp., $14.95)
The State She’s In, the title of her fifth book of poetry, refers to far more than the personal status of author Lesley Wheeler. The title also refers to our nation—our history, our burdens, our fractured political dialogue—as well as the state that Wheeler lives in: Virginia, once a cradle of U.S. democracy, now mired in Lost Cause illusions and political polarization. A professor of English at Washington and Lee University, Wheeler examines the shadow that history’s wrongs continue to cast one-fifth of the way through the twenty-first century. Using documents from her own university’s on-line historical timeline, “John Robinson’s List, 1826” poses searching questions about a callous inventory of human beings: “Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, / 68, twenty dollars, but the note, / in a column usually blank, offers a hard ‘worth / nothing.’” And yet, Wheeler knows, this can’t be so—not morally, not economically. The university, after all, profited from those enslaved: “That money translated to red brick buildings, / lichened shady trees, and my salary. / Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink / boiled from walnut shells?”
Raised on Long Island, New York, this daughter of a mother from Liverpool finds that, for the foreseeable future, casual racism and white supremacist propaganda are painful facts of daily life. Tossing a bag of white rice on Wheeler’s lawn, local racists include a flier whose ugly content Wheeler parodies: “Brothers and sisters, there is nothing hateful / in showing pride for your rice…Don’t cede / this country’s future to brown, to wild.” The flier—meant to intimidate some and recruit others—is “funny like a conical hat, like / flaming crosses and assassination”(“Boil-in-Bag”). Like “John Robinson’s List, 1826,” the poems “Racketing Spirits” and “Bells for Henry Allen” further interrogate the cruelties of antebellum Virginia, contextualizing Wheeler’s experience as a Northern transplant: “The hate / you’ll recognize, thinking you can stand / to one side. An innocent cartographer” (“The South”).
Wheeler brings nuance and insight to the task of examining the filigreed web of history, culture, and selective memory that sustains systemic racism. That Wheeler does so in poems whose language is original, alive, formally varied, and wholly contemporary is even more impressive. “In the Pink” brings a light touch to the moral imperative of a 2017 inaugural protest—“Cell service blocked, although // my phone offers to text pictures / to the Secret Service. No toilets. / No water unless wrung / from the air”—while “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy” notes the unwelcome ways that the places where we settle become part of us: “To live and die in Dixie was never / the plan. Old times here seemed best / forgotten” (though Wheeler’s book confirms they are anything but forgotten).
She’s versatile, too. A rhymed “Occulted Sonnet” consists of one-word lines; an “All-Purpose Spell for Banishment” offers blanks for readers to fill in (“A pox on ________and the gerrymander / he rode in on”). Section breaks feature poems that share the title “Ambitions,” Roman numeralled notes-to-self that pose italicized queries, cryptic reminders: “Live where I live; this earth, this body”; “Stories that are not my story reinvent me”; “Mercy, not forgiveness.” “Before Lexington” considers vanished Virginia colonies—“not a pottery shard / remains of them. Not a nail”—and develops its themes with two erasures: “
Unremembered Settlements” and “Unsettled.” Turning the lens on herself (the state she’s in is part of Wheeler’s focus—just not exclusively so), the poet writes movingly of the body’s changes (in “Perimenopause,” for example, or “Old Bag,” with its wonderful ending, “Flesh / and brain a reusable tote, filthy, / frayed. Let its emptiness be // new. Let winter’s bright wind brim it”), the 2016 Presidential campaign (the sonnets “Situation Room” and “Inside Out” are darkly witty and sadly prescient), and her own vividly rendered past, touched with occasional science fiction tropes: “With one-sixty of adult gravity / I bound through oversized rooms / careful not to jag my special suit / on an exposed martini glass” (“Live from the Surface of the Moon”). Wheeler’s book is not just about herself, her stage in life, pressing issues of gender and race, or Virginia’s history closing in; it is a book of Whitmanian ambition that ranges from self to culture and nation while speeding through history into the future to critique, reflect, and embody America.
Rewilding, January Gill O’Neil’s third book, offers a perspective on contemporary culture that is both personal and powerful, the more so for its understated urgency. “Ode to No” celebrates empowerment—“Beautiful N word. / A one-word sentence. / The whole note of finality”—by replacing epithet with resolve: “Like the color black it absorbs / light….full of lack, of what’s not needed.” No—“the blank page. An unopenable door”—is the necessary reply when resistance is called for: “Refusal of all passage; access denied / into the country of want.” “Hoodie” speaks with elegant directness to parental concerns at a time when the rest of America is finally waking up to the prevalence of racially motivated murder: “A gray hoodie will not protect my son / from rain, from the New England cold. / …I fear for his safety—the darkest child / on our street in the empire of blocks.” O’Neil’s concluding stanzas deftly capture a mother’s love and anxiety: “I sing // his name to the night, ask for safe passage / from this borrowed body into the next // and wonder who could mistake him for anything but good.”
The book’s title, Rewilding, refers to restoration and renewal: it is the term for returning an area to its natural condition—an apt reminder that history and culture are imposed on, not intrinsic to, the places we inhabit. We carry history with us—both personal history and our wider cultural inheritance—but we can recapture a purer state, or aspire to do so. Accordingly, in poems about the break-up of her marriage, O’Neil revisits memories both painful and precious in quest of an earlier self enriched by hard-won wisdom: “Here, now / on this ridge breathing mountaintop air, / I see what I have nearly crushed, / nearly missed” (“Here, Now”). “Family Photo,” addressed to the speaker’s ex-husband, inspects a benign image for clues to what went wrong—“The lines of your face show the edges / of what I thought was joy”—but concludes that theirs was “but a house full of solitudes / that grabbed hold of us, the absence of light / just beyond frame.” Self-recrimination, unavoidable for any thoughtful ex-spouse, takes form in “The Crow” exerting its dark power over the poet’s art and life: “Not a kind word passes from beak to ear. / It spends its days scavenging for poems / picked down to the bone.” An avian “trickster” who “murders language,” the corvid “taunts” the poet for her failings as daughter, mother, and wife, but it is also, O’Neil knows, “guardian of memory, / my Cerberus at the gates”—the keeper of archetypal self-loathing, familiar to all, savage even when kept at bay.
A gifted lyric poet, O’Neil’s personal poems are often graced with delicate natural imagery. In “Mudlarking, Dead Horse Beach,” the speaker, “mudlarking / for bits of bottle and bone,” strolls among fragments—“reeds, / shards of driftwood, whelks, / sea glass, a rusted chain”—on the eve of a Mother’s Day when custody rules will rob her of her children for the weekend. Catching sight of an outdoor family reunion, she muses, “What am I looking for?… / I’ve come to feel the ache under my feet, / the deep ridges of shells / worn down by salt and time.” The setting is poignant: a shorefront where, in centuries past, “the cold-blooded / flanks and loins of work horses / were discarded far from Salem Proper.” O’Neil’s restraint and perfect pacing draw these disparate threads into a touching meditation on loss, maternal longing, and regret.
O’Neil’s sympathetic outlook is especially winning in several affectionate portraits. “Sweet ’n Low” recalls the “little pink pillows of sweetness my mom / kept ziplocked in her purse for coffee on the go” as a key to entering the lost world of “Norfolk, Virginia,” that “navy town” where, as a child, the speaker “knew how / to navigate between dark and light… / Before Rodney King asked if we could all get along.” A page later in the book, O’Neil recounts seeing Gwendolyn Brooks walk into a Brooklyn eatery where, “tongue tied and dumb struck” after the famous poet’s reading, the speaker and her friends send over a slice of cherry pie, only to end up meeting their idol when she offers them a taste: “We respond with awkward smiles— / none of us with enough nouns or verbs / to make a sentence”—not the ideal state for aspiring poets (“On Seeing Gwendolyn Brooks After Her Reading at LIU Brooklyn, February 1996”). Here, and throughout a book that is consistently expressive, intelligent, and self-aware, O’Neil traverses memory and love, regret and renewal, with economy, tenderness, and daring.
Where O’Neil envisions a rewilded landscape of the self, Jenna Lê’s A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora uses the life cycle and habits of aquatic mammals and other seafaring creatures to explore issues of identity—not that these are the sole focus of her wide-ranging second book. The title poem makes the equation—“The whale’s a child of immigrants, like me”—and the rest of this poet-physician’s resourceful collection explores signature preoccupations (love and family, cultural inheritance, the body’s pleasures and frailties) with an ambitiously playful agenda and a freewheeling way with traditional forms.
Rhymed in abba iambic tetrameter quatrains, “Nature Show” informs us that “face to face, aquatic mammals couple,” allowing us to “see it all. The misty arc / of each one’s joy-clinched form.” For Lê, dolphins are “freckled footballs poised / against each other in deep space,” their “sport” an act of “grace” and “symmetry,” though in listing other species that “meet eyes when they embrace,” she drily observes, “some humans, too”— a subtle nod to the chasms sex can’t always bridge. “Transmigration,” a fine sonnet, imagines multiple couplings in various guises—“In our first afterlife, we’ll rut like buffalo. / …In our second afterlife, we’ll be baboons”—while another sonnet (“Our Metaphors Don’t Describe Us; They Are Us”) balances Japanese folk beliefs about waterfowl monogamy against the awkward mechanics of their mating: “Roughly, the male duck pounds this spiral oddity / into his mate’s submerged bedraggled body.” In these poems, love and sex are intertwined, our bodies compelling us, along with other species, to obey the force that Roethke dubbed “Great Nature.”
Lê’s medical experience, including the doctor-patient relationship, is a rich poetic resource. Having compared backgrounds (“‘Filipino,’ / he grins, ‘And you?’ ‘I’m Vietnamese’”), an older man undergoing chemotherapy blurts out, “‘Doc, you remind me of my baby daughter— / she started med school just this fall,’” causing the speaker to remember her own father’s pride, however pained by her patient’s request to keep him alive long enough to see his daughter graduate (“The Patient”). In a rhymed “Almost Abecedarian,” “a man I once believed I loved” is elated to learn, after a one-night stand, that his HIV test is negative. Memorably, the speaker observes, “Only someone who has seen, / perilously close, death’s keen / quartz eyes fix on where he stands / really understands / such shuddering relief, such ice-cold joy.” (The “almost” of Lê’s title reflects the absence of h, i, and v from the initial letters of lines.) Lê’s compassion and poetic skill infuse “A Radiologist’s Ghazal” where, protected by her skirt “of solid lead,” the speaker describes a frail patient’s rueful remark: “They stare dully at my skirt, my unflappable skirt, / the old men who are too ill to rise from bed: // once, I heard one wizened Welshman grumble, / ’If fashion’s come to this, I may as well be dead.’”
Lê’s subject matter ranges widely, from folk tale to family legend to cultural critique. “Birth Control” is a fascinating mix of myth and medicine. Told by an owl who is presumably first among equals, the (winged) speaker recounts meeting “an Inuit fur trader” who asks the parliament how it is that owls lay fewer eggs “in years / when lemmings are scarce” without resort to “the pills and inserts / our women use / to limit the size of families.” The reply is polite and horrifying: “Honored sir… / all you need is to see, just one time, / one of your own hatchlings / shrunk by starvation,/…stand hunched / over his brother’s bony corpse // and start gnawing.” The fable’s point about famine’s effects is hard to miss. In “Folk Tale,” the speaker’s mother shares the story of a Vietnamese son raised without knowing his long-absent soldier father; when he finally returns, misunderstanding leads to tragedy, “the woman slain, her husband locked away,” as the speaker concludes, “Like peace, our pity for him comes years late.” “Sonnet Written on the Way Home from the Cinema” tersely shares long pent-up frustration over movie depictions of Asian characters “of steadfast will and forceful thought” who end up “objectified, aestheticized, squashed flat / …at the edge of an Anglo moviemaker’s shot.” By contrast, the eloquent edge and serious undercurrent of Lê’s powerfully playful poems ensure that all of her characters, including herself, emerge as fully realized voices in a book that is strikingly varied and always surprising.
Memoria, the rhetorical discipline of committing argument to memory, is also the title of Cuban-American poet Orlando Ricardo Menes’ fifth book, an immersive voyage into the language, culture, conflicts, and music that shaped his formative years. “Photo Booth” records a mother’s suspicions about her son’s orientation, mistaking glam-era album covers (“a bejeweled Edgar Winter in makeup”) and a prank nude photo booth selfie for proof that he is “an invert like those singers [he] adore[s].” Invoking the Spanish Inquisition’s Tomás de Torquemada who used torture to obtain confessions, the speaker describes his mother as a “Torquemada / of sissies (or those vulnerable to sissyhood like me)”: “She…slapped if she saw my arms / akimbo, tongue-lashed when my legs crisscrossed / …Be a man, a real man, & bend that right leg into / an angle, true & hard-edged as a carpenter’s square.” “Macho” examines Latino expectations of manhood, from the taunts endured by a son, to the tyranny of despots, including Fidel Castro, “our nuclearly hetero caudillo / who sent gays to concentration / camps with big metal signs that read / ‘Work Will Make You a Man’”—a chilling twist on the infamous Nazi motto. The myriad of ways that a stereotyped manhood is signaled, resisted, revised, or endured is a core focus of Memoria, with Menes’ sharp ear attuned to its destructive effects in the political arena, and to the ways that men express their feelings in defiance of social strictures that are culturally rooted but, ultimately, insufficient.
One of those ways is through the arts. As a close contemporary who embraced glam rock with equal gusto, I loved reading poems about Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and other rock stars, but I was most impressed by Menes’ ability to evoke an era while looking past the glitz and make-up to how music opens up new worlds for teenage listeners. At fourteen, having failed to hitch a ride to an Alice Cooper concert, the speaker of “Pirates World” laments, “O Alice, I missed you in your ripped leotards, / …Your face with runny black make-up like a widow / Who’s just buried her husband in the rain. / Come take me away from Little Havana / …North to the real America of Twinkies and tater tots, // Where boys are free of curfews, prying crucifixes.” (Menes’ Roman Catholic upbringing, both sacramental and suffocating, is one of the book’s recurrent motifs.) Similarly, the poet’s ode to Lou Reed’s classic 1974 live album, “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal,” celebrates the allure of forbidden music (“we hid you in the darkest places, those lost cupboards / & lonely closets, taking you out when alone in the house”) as well as its cathartic effect on repressed teens: “Sonic swells breaching our eardrums, overflowing our brains, / …Those downbeat rhymes that made rainbows of our rage.” “Kissing in Madrid,” the book’s opening sonnet, describes the speaker’s “first deep-tongue kiss, sloppy, succulent / …She an Air Force brat from the base at Torrejón, / Frizzy blonde, light as a mannequin, I the clunk / in platforms, bell-bottoms tight as a corset…” Here and elsewhere, Menes’ coming-of-age poems employ a self-deprecating viewpoint that brings the past to life to in order to probe beyond its surface.
Menes is attuned to history’s sweep as well: his family moved from Miami to Spain for two years in the Seventies, and several poems bear firsthand witness to the effects of Francisco Franco’s repressive rule. “Fuego,” a couplet sonnet, takes place when “fascists ruled and churchmen stifled sex,” offering glimpses of furtive liaisons that are illicit yet irresistible, the drive toward physical connection serving as both a blow for freedom and spiritual balm: “Blessèd you’ll be as dry earth that gets the rain.” “The Day Admiral Carrero Blanco Died” relives the 1973 assassination of Franco’s Prime Minister and its aftermath of panic among the government’s supporters. The speaker’s teenage sympathies contrast with those of the adults around him: “Marxists were being rubber-hosed on their knees, / hippies forced to eat their protest songs, / college students dunked into icy water, / but my parents, our neighbors, our friends… / prayed for martial law…” Menes is acutely aware of how authoritarian regimes use fear to inspire loyalty, a lesson tragically relevant to American readers today. To Franco’s followers, “any commotion can lead to another / takeover by the communists who’ll burn / churches, rape nuns, desecrate saints, / turn our children to godless Bolsheviks.” Throughout Memoria, Menes’ arresting voice and sensitivity to the currents of history and popular culture are invaluable assets in a book that is always politically aware and, often, deeply moving. Further, it’s rare for a male poet to confront male gender stereotypes with such disarming frankness and scrupulous intelligence.
Memory and music also play important roles in Amy Lemmon’s second full-length book. The Miracles is perceptive and accessible, steeped in sorrow and hope—the sorrows of widowhood and the hopes of parenthood (its fears as well). The mother of a daughter with Down Syndrome, Lemmon documents the difficulties and rewards that face them both. In “After Bathing I Smell Smoke,” the speaker’s attempts to find a few quiet moments alone are at odds with the need for constant vigilance: “let me run the water and swirl in Epsom salts / …or just recline and soak, eyes closed, / reading my own thoughts as they skein out, / …and she will dash into my room, root out everything most / threatening to our mutual safety and tranquility.” After scolding her for unsupervised match-lighting, the speaker hugs her daughter, overcome by love, relief, and concern: “I pray that this innocence / will not be her downfall, blessing her every hair, / the animal scent of her bowed head.”
“String Theory” captures the speaker’s longing for the musician spouse who doesn’t yet seem truly gone: “I married a man who plays the barcarolle / or at least he did,” she writes, referring to the gondolier’s traditional song-style; now, he’s in “heaven,” “a great gig, on bass and drums and piano / the holy trinity of jazz.” Thinking of her children (Lemmon also has a son), the mother doesn’t overlook their own burden of loss—“Snapshot: two on a porch waiting / for the father they can’t live without”—but, like any widowed spouse, finds herself wondering, “How do you know when / it’s time to restring the instrument / and start to play? When it is alright / to want again skin cradling skin…?” The poem poignantly embodies grief’s ambivalence: the temptation to remain disconsolate in honor of the dead while acknowledging the tug toward life and a future without the person lost. The swift, spontaneous tonal shifts of “String Theory” are characteristic of Lemmon’s gift for bringing detachment and perspective to potentially dark material.
New York City provides the backdrop for some of Lemmon’s best poems. “New York Nocturne” adopts the second person to dissect the dynamics of urban sleeplessness: “Insomnia is a luxury in the City That Never Sleeps, / since morning will come as it does, school bus / and sanitation truck huffing their way down / the street…” With its playfully Dylan-esque title, “Positively East Fourth Street” relives a quintessentially New York moment: after buying ice cream, the speaker makes her pedestrian’s way down East Village blocks ghosted by memory, including that of a gig her husband played decades before: “I always cry for you in the East Village. / I have for years now, even back when / it was only our marriage that had died.” By contrast, “Well Met” relives a first romantic encounter, reveling in the couple’s shared outlook (“carpe diem with a caveat”) amid the City’s cultural riches: “Imagine it’s the museum where you first run into him, / or getting drinks at the interval of a concert, a free / lecture or reception or under some storefront awning…” The poem’s conclusion—“run / towards and not away and cancel the call for help… / Sit back, enjoy the show”—has special resonance for anyone who’s lost someone, as well as anyone reluctant about taking an emotional risk.
Too often, poets whose work is born of loss or some personal challenge are embraced or ignored for reasons entirely unrelated to their work’s quality. The pattern is familiar. As a culture, we uncover long-entrenched problems with self-congratulatory zeal that, over time, diminishes into lip service or indifference; our estimation of an artist’s standing rises or falls accordingly. Lemmon’s work is more than that: never self-pitying, her poems are vital and necessary explorations of family bonds maintained in loss. In “I am writing this with your pen—,” addressed to the speaker’s lover, Lemmon depicts the tension between relinquishing grief and starting over, the challenge of balancing motherhood with a dating life, and the difficult compartmentalization that these require. Her twelve-year-old son, annoyed by his mother’s recent night out, accepts her help in writing a school essay on drug abuse; in eighteen charged and nuanced lines, she muses on his father’s history of drug use, his abandonment of the marriage prior to his death, and her own guarded hope for a new relationship. It is a poem of family, memory, motherhood, widowhood, love, and eros, intelligent and confident in execution. It is also typical of the heart-breaking intelligence that is a hallmark of Amy Lemmon’s The Miracles.
Nickole Brown hasn’t yet published a third book, but, taken together, two recent chapbooks, To Those Who Were Our First Gods and The Donkey Elegies, are the equivalent of a full-length collection in page count and accomplishment. In both collections, animals animate her imagination (she’s a volunteer at multiple sanctuaries), but Brown never loses sight of the human animal that she and we are—nor of the transactional exchanges that occur between ours and other species, usually to their detriment: “Would you let me / tell your creatures how sorry / I am, let them know exactly / what we’ve done?” she asks in “A Prayer to Talk to Animals” (First Gods). In “To Those Who Were Our First Gods: An Offering,” a fascinating poetic quartet addressed to the Biblical Samson, she confronts Western civilization’s culture of cruelty against the backdrop of childhood Sunday School worship: “save me from / those men like him who slit / the throats of lambs then struck / a pyre to burn the poor beasts, calling / what they’ve done / a sacrifice.” In the sequence’s third poem, Brown questions the justice of Samson using what the King James’ Book of Judges calls “the jawbone of an ass” to slay the Philistines, pressing further, “And is it really a miracle // to pry open the proud mouth of a lion and rip / apart his face?” Recalling her cousin’s torment of a dog in the second poem, Brown reports, “The only boy I knew back then with nothing / to prove…kept a foundling / squirrel, nursed it pan-warm milk / with a syringe. / …everyone called him a faggot.” Like Orlando Menes, Brown is outraged by (literally) toxic masculinity, whether it manifests as animal cruelty or as the homophobic disparagement of nurture.
In Brown’s hands, the non-human world yields apt, surprising metaphors. The speaker of “Self-Portrait as Land Snail” (First Gods) is modest, unable to “strip off / at one of those nudie hot springs out west,” but admires the snail: “a true / hermaphrodite,” “with another / intersex other it will take / aim, flex back its bow, shoot a dart, / then wait to be impaled / in return.” Recalling the slow foreplay of “mollusk congress” (a great phrase), the speaker relays her own experience: “I can say I didn’t come out / all those years ago, whatever that means. No, / when I finally made a home / for my body in the bed of another / woman, I simply became / a land snail.” The speaker’s clothes are like the snail’s protective shell—she is vulnerable when exposed; later, the partner’s bed becomes her “home,” the place where she can safely feel “an equal’s push against my own, / a willingness to be wounded and to / wound.” Worthy of notice, too, is Brown’s arresting voice, by turns ironic, direct, or literary—ever shifting and ever right for the moment, enriched by turns of phrase that reflect her Kentucky and Florida upbringing.
Having written Sister, a novel in poems, and Fanny Says, a biography in poems, it’s no surprise that Brown is also author of an essay in poems, The Donkey Elegies. Comprised of prose poems that fuse lyric and discursive elements, each of twenty-five numbered elegies explores some aspect of the humble beast—its history, biology, cultural resonance, and more—as well as Brown’s own empathy, deepened and informed by her animal caretaking experience. Grooming a donkey, the speaker of the second poem lovingly invokes the creature through description, pausing over the vulnerable hoof: “I memorize the names as I touch them, whispering, // heel, hoof wall, sole, toe, frog—.” The more she works, the more evident her awe as she remarks upon “the who-would-have-known vulnerability secreted under the steps of every donkey.” In poem fourteen, Brown examines the donkey’s place in language through common idioms that have become dead metaphors but which surge to life when we consider their origin: she knew growing up that “telling grandfather what to do was about as good as putting a steering wheel on a mule. // By then, not one of us kept animals anymore.” In the poem’s second half, however, Brown gives us a real donkey, and the language takes flight:
in this field sweetened with the low mumbling of grouse and a wind that flips maple leaves silver, this donkey is perfectly still as if he’s always been here and never left…And who would dream of letting him go? When I dirty my nails scratching his stout neck, it’s like touching the source of all those country sayings that formed my tongue as a child…
The speaker is correct: the source of all those sayings is the real animal that was essential to human survival for millennia. In passages like these, it’s impossible to miss the importance of Brown’s title—her recognition that indifference to the donkey is manifestation of a far broader indifference to the natural world of which we are but caretakers. The Donkey Elegies reminds us that humans and wildlife are inextricably linked in ways that will keep unfolding long after the present day, even as humans continue to threaten nature itself. Both To Those Who Were Our First Gods and The Donkey Elegies are conceived as belonging to a longer bestiary-in-progress whose final incarnation in print I eagerly await.
The thirty-one prose poems of Cho Oh-Hyun’s Tales from the Temple, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, reflect the Zen Buddhist tradition practiced by the late author, renowned in Korea and internationally as both a master poet and the abbot of Baekdamsa, a South Korean temple whose history dates back to the seventh century. The translations in this English-only volume are stylish, understated, sometimes funny or moving, and always thought-provoking. The subjects are other monks—holy men of China and Japan as well as Korea—and ordinary, often rural citizens. The poems, fabular in tone and content, unfold in ways that illuminate Zen practice or universal human foibles, and most could qualify convincingly as models of flash fiction, if such distinctions matter. Fenkl is a highly regarded author in his own right, in particular for his novelistic memoir Memories of My Ghost Brother, the powerful account of his early years in Inchon, South Korea, as the son of a Korean mother and American G.I. father; and he is also a prolific translator, producing versions of Kim Man-Jung’s seventeenth-century Korean novel, The Nine Cloud Dream, and collections of poetry by Cho Oh-Hyun and other Korean writers.
Some of Cho Oh-Hyun’s poems offer puzzles for productive contemplation. An old man, “not especially holy-looking,” observes the East Sea from a steep cliff-edge, responding with seeming irrelevancies to the speaker’s questions. Instead of saying where he’s from, the old man talks about two seagulls; the next day, when asked about the gulls, he says, “‘The sea was crying yesterday, but today it’s not.’” The poem asks us to consider what matters, the hold of personal history, and the nature of what we see, or think we see (“The Seagulls & the East Sea”). In “The Bell-Ringer,” a sympathetic speaker asks the title character whether ringing the temple’s thousand-pound bell at 3 a.m. every morning might not pose a health risk. His reply is that he’s listening for the same note—“so pure and so loud and so long”—as that of “the final bell” he rang for a long-dead Zen master. Believing that he’ll hear it again “when it’s time for Master Nodeok to enter Nirvana,” he affirms his commitment to “a job no one else wanted,” with the caveat, “if I could just hear that sound one more time, then I can quit.” Again, the implications are profound: the bell-ringer’s burden is lightened by memory and hope: at the same time, it is a quest for symmetry, a circle drawn from one moment in a lifetime to another perhaps far off or closer than anyone knows. The bell-ringer embraces a quiet joy in his role; his is a deeply aesthetic (and ascetic) response to a practical, and spiritual, vocation.
When Cho Oh-Hyun’s vision extends beyond the human world, fascinating allegories result. “Two Squirrels” focuses as much on the customs surrounding an abraded Buddha statue as on the abbess who exhausts the rodents’ store of acorns in favor of her own sustenance, while the speaker of “The Green Frog,” on observing the amphibian in action, accepts “a minor realization: Whatever words I could come up with…to describe that frog, would never do him justice.” My favorite, perhaps, is “The Otter & the Hunter,” a poem of strange magic and moral progress. Having skinned an otter for its pelt, a hunter discovers the bloody trail of its discarded skeleton; the tracks lead to a cave where the otter-mother’s skeleton attempts to embrace her newborn, still-blind offspring. The hunter is so moved by the strange sight that he spends the next years of his life raising the otter’s young, renouncing his former life, and, after a further miracle, becoming a monk. It’s intriguing to see how Brown and Cho Oh-Hyun, writers of drastically different backgrounds and traditions, both employ the prose poem in service of a humane vision that views all forms of life with awe and reverence. Nor should we underestimate Heinz Insu Fenkl’s essential contribution in providing the pellucid prose poetry of these elegant English versions.
A. M. Juster is the pen name of the former U. S. Commissioner of Social Security, a longtime attorney and civil servant who worked in government under four Presidents. He is a witness to history and political discord, a participant in the difficult governing of a fractious nation, and, through it all, an active translator and gifted formal poet whose newest book, Wonder & Wrath, offers both of these in work that is carefully crafted, deeply felt, and often beautiful. “November Requiem” shares the reverence for wildlife especially evident in the work of Nickole Brown, Cho Oh-Hyun, and Jenna Lê, as well as the latter’s interest in cetaceans: “Three days before, we calmed three bottlenoses / then led an exodus into the channel / to confront the bellowing Atlantic.” According to the speaker, “‘tides / or virus-damaged ears’ had made them frantic,” but a return to the scene confirms “salvation did not last”: the dolphins either remain motionless, or “veer away as we draw near, / their faith in our benevolence betrayed / and their desire for surrender clear.” Through this trio of five-line iambic pentameter stanzas (in each, the third and fifth lines rhyme), Juster conveys the tragic tension between wildlife and ourselves: even when we assist, we are usually trying to solve a problem that human activity caused in the first place.
The Anglo-Saxon verse of “Three Visitors” (they happen to be coyotes) adds a domestic thread. Here, too, Juster’s awe before nature is central: coyotes “are standing like statues………… down by the dogwoods” searching “for stragglers………… to startle and chase.” Human encroachment on established habitats may be old news, but encountering predators at night remains uncanny—a primordial moment torn from archetypal memory. The contrast with domestic tranquility—“Adrift but not dreaming………… our drowsy son/is covered and kissed”—serves to reinforce our uneasy knowledge that human settlements—our very families—are more vulnerable than we admit. By contrast, “Untamed Daughter” expands a wildlife metaphor through its literary context. In an exchange with his daughter Caitlin, the speaker endures her critique of Shakespeare’s obvious inadequacies: he “‘uses language well, / but could have been, like, more original…” That the poem is itself a Shakespearean sonnet enhances its aim as gentle satire more at the speaker’s expense than his daughter’s: he is one more dad humbled by a teenager’s growing independence, though Shakespeare, Juster adds (defending himself and the Bard), “tamed a Kate as fierce as you.”
It’s not surprising that a translator of Horace’s Satires is himself an outstanding satirist. Indeed, the wrath of Juster’s book is often fused with satiric wit. Fondly recalling Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, the children’s TV personality/science educator whose show was enormously popular in the Fifties and Sixties, Juster waxes nostalgic with an edge: “I lose you in a cloud of advertising— / Winston, Esso, Zenith, Mr. Clean, / …then smile at Bunsen burners and balloons…” The sonnet’s conclusion darkens: “Space shuttles fall; the pumps are running dry. / Jihadists shop for warheads. Godspeed, Don” (“Farewell, Mr. Wizard”). But Juster’s light verse has a lighter side, as evidenced by his book The Billy Collins Experience, an affectionately barbed collection in which Juster mimics the popular former Laureate’s literary tics. Wonder & Wrath includes an encore, “Crowded Skies,” which meanders through various musings on modern inconveniences—the DMV, health insurance, overcrowded flight paths, even adolescent romance—to produce a convincing impersonation of Billy Collins’ distinctive blend of mild ironic detachment and everyday plain speech. Speaking matter-of-factly (as Collins would) about the note from a cheerleader who refused to be his prom date years before, Juster-as-jester intones, “She regretted any distress / her handling of that matter / might have caused me.”
But here, too, there’s a serious side. In an interview at Trinity House Review, Juster briefly discusses his struggles with the autoimmune effects of rheumatoid arthritis and the debilitating low-dose chemotherapy that is its long-term treatment. The unlikely apology from Blue Cross Blue Shield imagined by “Crowded Skies” would no doubt gratify a real-life patient. Poems such as “Sudden Onset” and the sonnet “Autoimmune Attack” offer additional succinct, stoic meditations on the trials of illness. In the latter, Juster imposes martial and political allegories on physical suffering: “New carnage comes without a warning shot / as traitors slide past lines of my defenses.” The speaker asks of treacherous “sleeper cells,” “What makes them choose / an insurrection pairing suicide / with slaughter? Isn’t there some formula / for peace?” This is not the wonder of confronting nature’s splendor or its uncanny wildlife; it is, instead, a questioning—the deepest sort of wondering—that unfolds despite the absence of an answer. Faith, art, or duty lessen the blow—and humor, too. In reading Juster, not knowing exactly what mood we’ll next encounter or how a given poem will end—with the spark of a great punchline, a moment of grace, or more sobering epiphanies—is a consistent, and singular, pleasure. In such poems and many others, Wonder & Wrath stands apart for its seriousness of purpose, impish humor, and masterful craft.
Both fable and metaphor, Juster’s sonnet, “Japanese Maple in January,” may be taken as a way of thinking about the work that poets do—the ways most of us end up grappling with the wrath and wonder of time. Against the speaker’s—presumably her husband’s—advice, a woman labors to transform their yard with new trees, a replanted lawn, and more; but grackles eat the seed, and autumn strips the leaves from her freshly planted trees. But not all of them: “Beside new stone / the pygmy flares with plum and amber lace. / As ice storms make old oaks bow, crack, and groan, / her gift keeps shimmering with fragile grace.” The history that poets chronicle is a gift as well—our past set down in language, our world preserved in words, the record of a nation’s wrongs and moments of redemption, given form by art and the poet’s individual vision. These books, I have no doubt, will continue to shimmer.
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