Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry


When I requested a review copy of The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, which Seashell Press kindly sent to me, I thought the company had published a collection of poems by well-known and not-so-known poets. Come to find out though, this 2011 anthology, which originally saw publication in 1996, has now gone into its fourth printing. Oh, for my books of poems to do the same!

Since my bookshelves at home contain many fine poetry anthologies, the success of this edition intrigued me. Let’s face it: No matter how famous a memorable poem has become, publishers can put them together only so many times before poetry book-buyers like me start to catch on to little more than repackaging. Not so with this book!

As the editor, Christopher Burns, says in the introduction, “Great poetry is personal.” Ironically, this does not mean self-centered expressionism but, more likely, the opposite, for “It is in poetry, not on the Senate floor, that we debate the issues of honor, loyalty, love and respect for nature that are the foundations of our society. Poetry is a truth toward which our reason turns and we measure its strength by the way we feel.”

Although most poets and writers identify with “the contours of life, the loneliness of the artist, the uses of war, the role of nature, the constancy of love and the coming on of death” as individuals, we also recognize universal themes that say, “This is the singing of our tribe, called out across the noisy business of daily life.” Nevertheless, we’re to “Take it personally” as we feel, care, reach out, and swap stories.

The interweaving of poetry from centuries ago and the present day add to the call-and-response effect this anthology often gives as the poems interact with one another and with us as readers.

For example, that wonderful poem “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson (1919) which opens the book, calls out where “Darkness covered everything,/ Blacker than a hundred midnights/ Down in a cypress swamp” until, eventually, “This Great God,/ Like a mammy bending over her baby,/ Kneeled down in the dust/ Toiling over a lump of clay/ Till He shaped it in His own image;/ Then into it He blew the breath of life,/ And man became a living soul.”

These lines help us to recall the beginnings we have in common to the core, and then Anne Sexton gives her 1975 version of “The Earth,” where God “does not envy the soul so much./ He is all soul/ but He would like to house it in a body/ and come down/ and give it a bath/ now and then.” In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Countee Cullen (1923) wanted to know why God would “make a poet black, and bid him sing.”

In the section entitled “For My People,” Walt Whitman (1855) sings his “Song of Myself” while Emma Lazarus (1886) focuses on “The New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty who cries “With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

And then, a poet unknown-to-me, Charles Reznikoff (1936) insists, “I will write songs against you,/ enemies of my people,” before admitting, ”I will pelt you/ with the winged seeds of the dandelion./ I will marshal against you/ the fireflies of the dusk.”

Focused on the natural and the unnatural, love and war, life and death, the anthology gathers poems from the 16th century to the present day with an enormous range of voices from the melodious to the discordant, but each with something to say and a unique perspective or intriguing story from which to speak.

Besides the pleasure of seeing these universal themes approached from many directions, I appreciated “discovering” poets whose work I have not previously read mingled with old favorites, some of whom have fallen out of favor in recent years and anthologies. Realizing this, however, helped me to see that many anthologies aim to preserve the popular poetic works of a particular time, whereas this anthology concentrates on well-written poems, yes, but on poems that speak clearly and passionately to and for the people.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer is the poet-author of Outside Eden that speaks to and for Bible people and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle with poems that speak to and for nature – from wildlife to human nature to our spiritual nature too.


The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, paperback



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Praying with poetry


Regardless of your religious background, you’ve most likely heard of the famous trio: Poets, Prophets, and Saints, but after Wipf & Stock (Resource Publications) sent me a review copy of Digging for God: Praying with Poetry by Anne M. Higgins, I’d like to revise that big 3 to Poets, Prophets, and Pray-ers – the latter of whom can be almost anyone, saintly or not.

Line drawings by Maureen Beitman illustrate the four sections: Eden, Solomon, Gethsemane, and Revelation – each of which has the format of a poem followed by suggestions for prayer or meditation. For example, the opening “Tribute Poem” begins with “Praise for late sleeping day,/ waking up without alarm.” Then, as you turn the page, you’re asked to “Name five events, situations, or experiences that you appreciate” with special emphasis on “the ordinary and undramatic ones” and “write a poem of praise to God for them.” Since the rest of the page is blank, you immediately have a place to respond.

Most likely, though, you came here for some kind of discussion about poetry, so let’s talk about the poems in this book. A quick glimpse might supply such adjectives as “light and lovely” or “nice!” – especially since the lines actually look light and the layout nice. But consider the first few lines in the “Second Antiphon in the Style of Hildegard.”

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes


Marvelous metaphors! Yes? So, what do you think comes next? Since this is a Daughter of Charity writing, would you expect this?

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes,
send electric waves
rushing through the cord
to jolt the vacuum cleaner
to roaring life.
I pray your power
moving in the homeliest of things.


The poem goes on to list a few, and then the next page invites you to “List five objects in your everyday life that you would call ‘the homeliest things.’/ What gift does each of them have for you?”

Although I had no intentions of interacting right then as I’m busy trying to give you an objective review, I suddenly got subjective with my list:

• Footstool to up-put and rest my achy feet
• Cheese slicer to keep from having too much of a good thing
• Child’s step-stool to stretch and reach beyond the moment
• Fresh sheets that smell only of fresh air
• A lamp to read this and spotlight the stack of poetry books and Bibles close beside me, waiting for reading and review

Many of the poems by Anne Higgins deftly catalog what she sees. For instance, in “Wintering on St. Mary’s Mountain,” we join the poet in viewing a winter-browned mountain where “Owls and woodpeckers/ skim the gravestones –/ buttons on her broad brown coat.”

The poems do not rely on sightedness only, though, but call us to “Go Out to the Woods and Feel the Tree Bark,” joining the poet in experiencing a “Tree whose name I do not know,/ wearing your cable knit sweater,/ gnarled, snarling.”

In the section, “Solomon,” we experience sounds, too, or lack thereof, in “The Roofless Church, New Harmony, Indiana,” with “Silence, brown as earth,/ we describe/ by making walls around it/ and describing / the walls” as an artist might draw negative space, rather than the object. And, in “Gethsemane,” we become “The Rich Young Man,” who walks away from Jesus, saying “…to the disciple at the doorway,/ ‘Excuse me -/ I really must go’.”

The next section, “Golgotha,” opens with the title poem where the “I” of the poem wonders “How come the weeds are still green/ when the grass is brown with drought?” Conversely, the last poem in the last section, “Revelation,” gives us a “Gardner’s Magnificat” where “My heart shudders in God’s loamy breath,/ and I stand silent before my flourishing garden,/ for God has called his love for me/ through the sound of the Wood Thrush,/ through sunlight and shadow on Iris and Peony./ God shines in the leathery purple Ajuga leaves,/ startles me with feathery Astilbe/ I thought long lost to me.”

Whether the invasive Ajuga covers the ground or the Astilbe plant flowers like bright-colored feathers, nothing in this little book seems lost or wasted on readers apt to wonder, ponder, and dig.


© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books and Living in the Nature Poem published in print by Hiraeth Press and released this month as an e-book on Kindle


Digging for God: Praying with Poetry, paperback




Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of Rembrandt’s Bible


What does a Jewish man, born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, have in common with an American woman raised in The South and The Church? Poetry and God, of course, but not necessarily in that order. And, to that list, we also need to add humor and mutual interest in swapping review copies of our new books of Bible-based poems.

Just so you'll know up front, I felt a lift of relief on finding the poems of award-winning poet Atar Hadari an insightful book to read and re-read.

In Rembrandt’s Bible, published in the UK by Indigo Dreams, the poet began with “Lot’s Wife,” a subject I didn’t get to until later in “Lot’s Wife Visits Genesis 19.” You could read both poems, however, (yes, please do!) and get two different but not conflicting views – mine focusing on the fact that the poor woman remained forever nameless and his poem expressing this extraordinary perspective:

And the moment
when she saw it
the elephant
rising in flames

was the moment her hands kept
and grasped
in their yellow,
gleaming reeds

the fire
of her youth.

In subsequent poems, the poet accompanies Isaac “…out to the fields to pray for forgiveness” then slips into the skin of Moses, whose “teeth ached from clenching,” and the skin of Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David, who’s still ticked that “He paid for me – he paid in steam/ and blood – and on my father's stone/ it says ‘The father of Michal’/ and in my heart it says ‘The Queen of a Dead Man’.” Hadari even slips into the mail of Goliath with wit as he faces the young David, asking himself, “Shall I wear the hat? Nah. For this one/ I don't think I really need to bother with the helmet.”

As you’d surely expect, our perspectives on the Messiah differ in my closing poem “For You,” and his provocative “Baal Shem” that says, “We used to say you were Moses, / only with sunflowers in your eyes.”

Thought-provoking, too, is “Silence” where the eight-year-old “I” of the poem came to a school room in England and “sat while they said the Lord’s Prayer/ And did up my shoe-lace” only to be thumped on the back by an ignorant (my word, not his) woman, who chided him, saying, “That prayer was written by King David./ You have no earthly reason not to say it.” Say what?

The poem “Jerusalem” also presents an it-is-what-it-is perspective with no rancor: “Many dead. A few pots/ littered with figures from the centuries./ First layer Moses,/ painted with orbed Gold to a Christ,/then Mohammed with a scimitar/ and black beard –/ so much paint on one pot –/ you'd think the Lord had no shard to shed.” There’s a sense of coping humour in that, although “None of the figures…/ can put life back/ in the hands that dropped the pot.”

Divided into four sections with one part “Honey” (pun intended?), the third part “Father Tongue” begins with a contemporary scene of a near-death experience followed by “Three Hasidim Dancing” with “shiny shoes” that “lift to meet the room” as the “Blessed One/ riots in the tears/ that hang off of the chandeliers.” Those lively lines end with a thought that I and an Internet search found mystifying, but, if I got the gist, that Father Tongue either ate the dancers or swallowed them like a pill.

Most of the poems, however, are very assessable and inviting with their fresh perspective (“I saw my aunt again last night/…sculpturing a Picasso”), exquisite metaphors (“tears that come like petals from the wind”), and empathetic voice for the voiceless (wearing “Old Clothes” that “cried out for them/ just like your open hands.”)

These are poems you can identify with and want to read again. In the fourth section, “Rembrandt’s Bible,” for example, it’s easy to picture “Satan in the Desert,” saying, “Look kid,…it's like this – / I make you an offer, you make a counter offer – / really, we shouldn't even be talking/ you sure you haven't got an agent?" Or, picture the title poem where the Philistines might someday approach the artist and “…come to bear him away/ And he’ll pull their house down on their tongues/ By putting his hand through their paint.”

As I said, I want to read these poems again, and, most likely, you will too. So be it.


© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, and a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books


Rembrandt’s Bible, paperback



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Healing Spirit of Haiku


When I began to read the review copy of The Healing Spirit of Haiku I received from Wipf and Stock Publishers, I noticed the poet-authors, David Rosen and Joel Weishaus, provide clear entry into their topic in the Preface, establishing that they “both write haiku and know about the interconnections of haiku with Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism.” In addition, they “have both lived and traveled in Japan, absorbing the healing spirit of haiku” at its very roots.

As you might have suspected by now, my roots entwine a variety of verse forms with Bible verses and Christian poetics, even though most of those poems do not mention Christ or Christianity. In other words, my beliefs color how I see the world – as do yours. So, for me, this might mean rose-colored drinking glasses in my kitchen cabinet or rose petals in a bouquet of ragweed.

At any rate, haiku is typically thought of as the poetry of Eastern religions, but it can be adapted – and has been – to Western thinking and religions, which made this book’s dual subjects of haiku and healing especially interesting to me.

As David Rosen explains in the Preface, “Haiku fits well with Carl Jung’s psychotherapeutic technique of active imagination in which meditation leads to setting ego aside so the unconscious can emerge and be integrated with the conscious in a transcendent function resulting in an artistic product.”

Again, the idea of meditation brings Eastern faiths to mind, whereas my mind wants to “Consider the lily,” as Jesus suggested. So whether we’re talking meditation or the healing power of poetry in general or the healing beauty of haiku in particular, we bring ourselves and our unique views to what we read and write.

In the Preface, Joel Weishaus explains, “When we speak of healing, we are not concerned with overcoming illness but of becoming whole. ‘Heal’ and ‘whole' share the same etymological roots,” which brought to my mind how the Greek word salvos refers to both salve and salvation and how being whole relates to wholeness and holiness, but, I digress.

Another interesting aspect of this book is its consistent format using haibun, which combines prose with haiku and, in essence, narrates the setting from which the haiku evolved. For instance, in “Being Alone,” David writes of “trudging through a harsh early mid-life crisis and a winter of much darkness and despair in the Spring of 1978” when he wrote his first haiku as an adult:

Dawn on a spring sea –
Then a glittering
From a thousand jumping fish


To this, Joel responds by relating his experience of being alone when a relationship ended, leaving him with these words:

In the dark bedroom,
I close my eyes
And wonder why


Alternating between brief prose narratives and their ensuing poems, the poet-authors touch on universal themes of life, death, loss, passion, and creativity. Considering the topic of “Leaving,” for example, Joel says, “David and I once discussed how leaving the home of one’s childhood and adolescence in order to make a new home, one with adult responsibilities, is the first step in the journey toward Maturity. You must leave in order to arrive, give up in order to receive. Although this process is more psychological than somatic, it often means moving physically too” as his poem goes on to illustrate:

Leaf glides down
Through morning fog –
A train’s distant whistle


The travels of both poets echo through these poetic pages of calls and responses, perching, for example, on St. Francis of Assisi and coaxing David to say, “I love Assisi! How appropriate to be in this sacred place as the United States prepared for war with Iraq.” With the “sound of birds and the Spirit of St. Francis… everywhere,” he wrote this haiku of the ultimate healing:

At Assisi
Silent olive branches –
Pray for peace



© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, and a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books


The Healing Spirit of Haiku, paperback




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

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




Friday, July 4, 2014

Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms


As Brad Davis tells us in his preface to Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, “The intention was not to create a new translation/ adaptation of the Psalms, engage in midrash, or even generate ‘religious’ verse, but to make poems in a conversational idiom that bear witness to an attention to three horizons: the text, my surroundings (natural, cultural, relational, situational), and whatever may have been happening inside my skin at the time of composition.” Most likely, something similar happened to King David, Asaph, and other psalmists whose words were preserved in the Bible rather than an Emerald City book published by Wipf and Stock.

Written over centuries, biblical Psalms express praise, thanksgiving, laments, pleas, and petitions with no thought of book length or the divisions later devised to reflect the five books of Torah. Poet Brad Davis followed that editorial precedent in dividing his 150 poems into five parts or “books” with each poem responding to a verse chosen sequentially from Psalm 1 to 150.

For example, the first poem “Ashre” considers Psalm 1:1-2, “Blessed is he who meditates day and night,” then begins by telling about a collision with a deer whose “giant black eyes blinked slowly, confused,” perhaps describing the dilemma of the poet, who finds it “Difficult this morning to concentrate/ on the psalmic text – Happy is the man” when admittedly feeling “like chaff that the wind blows away.”

In the poem “She Said,” the reference to the “deeds of man” in Psalm 17:4 considers how “the Spirit I know works in us as we/ work on things like love – putting out the trash without having to be reminded – which / I am very far from getting right.” And, in the “Neighbor as Theologian” the poet responds to Psalm 29:3, “The God of glory thunders,” which his neighbor seems to hear with clarity, causing the poet to wonder why “would I begrudge her/ an assurance of contact? More likely,/ I long for what she has, embarrassed, pained/ by my lack of openness to mystery – / which, she has told me, is wholly present/ in, with, and under the hedge between us.”

Generally written in free verse or ten-syllable lines with occasional use of internal rhymes, the poems present an acrostic response to Psalm 34 since its referent was also written in lines that began with each letter of the alphabet. As the poet proceeds in “Reading the Psalter,” Psalm 54 considers how “Vengeance is mine,/ says the Lord….” which ends with the conclusion that “We must – I must do my own dirty work/ or forever hold my difficult peace.”

With laments, praise, cries, insight, a rare use of crudity, and occasional humor, one poem sends a critique in “E-Mails to Asaph,” admitting “If your God’s good with mixed metaphors,/ who am I to argue.” When the poet seeks to escape in “The Good Life,” the realization comes that “The same/ irreverence travels with me, clings to my every/ move like Spanish moss in the live oaks….” Nevertheless, the poem “Pentecost” reveals that “more than tongues/ or hummingbirds or art, we await,/ beyond wasp and swift or even want,/ a word to set ablaze the air, ignite our hearts.”

Continuing to seek “Words That Matter,” the poet sings “an infinite Word who calls forth// in our souls an infinite longing./ Though death may require a dislocation// of the self from all that is not the self,/ this is the Word that will return us to// our right minds, a right regard for all things./ This is the Word that will wake us from death.”

Before that waking though, “A New Song” brings the realization, “For now, I am thankful for how all things// seem to resolve into song – and the high call/ to bend our wills to set a wronged world right.” But how? How does the poet do that? How do we?

Quoting Psalm 150:6, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” the last line of the last poem ends this read-it-again collection with the challenge: “Do you breathe? Praise God” - an everlastingly good idea.


© 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


Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, paperback



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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

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