Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta!

Review by Michelle McEwen
Michelle Sewell (Editor), Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta!
Girlchild Press, 2008
346 pages

Just like a girl, I started reading this book only because I needed something to do while waiting for a boy to phone. Even though I’m an avid reader and passionate writer, my world is put on hold (but not all the time) whenever a boy is involved. While waiting for the ring-ring-ring that would never come, I scanned my sister’s towering pile of books and selected a thick anthology to pass the time— that anthology being Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta; an anthology containing all women writers. I had started reading this book months earlier, but boy-duty called me away. This time, nothing or no one would or could pull me away for the foreword, written by poet Sonya Renee Taylor, drew me in, kept me in my seat:

“Superman learned how to change clothes in that tiny phone booth from a college sophomore working nights at the local go-go club. At least that’s my guess. With her g-string and pumps in her book bag … she made rent and the Dean’s List every semester. Maybe it’s a lesson he garnered from the single mom on his block, scheduled to work a double shift starting five minutes after the biggest audition in her life. It’s likely that he may have even sat backstage at a local drag show and watched earnestly as Lady GivenEmMore applied her false eyelashes and … red lipstick, then offered a compulsory, ‘WORK BITCH!’ in admiration of her fabulous saunter onto the stage … there is no other way any man could have obtained this secret information. Not once have we ever noticed one run in Superman’s tights; a clear indicator that some fierce creature … schooled Clark Kent in the delicate balance of pulling up itchy … nylons in cramped … places. That fierce creature must have been a woman!”

And a schooling is just what we readers get! The snippet above is taken from the book’s foreword— and what a forward foreword it is! Perfect— as it sets the readers up for the work (poetry and short stories) found in this anthology. It also prepares you for the type of women you will discover in this book. You’ll come across “the girl next door [who] is fucking your wife.” You’ll be introduced to a “…129 [pound] caramel brown [woman who is] separated [with] two kids … able to watch football games and understand the plays.” You’ll meet a girl-woman named Yvette who “[gets] down under cafeteria tables to autograph the underside.” Mainly, you’ll meet women who are a breath of fresh air— more like a heaping helping of fresh air. You can shake hands with them if you like, or bow, but however you greet them, just know that these girls are not to be played with or made fools of. Even though – as editor Michelle Sewell says in her introduction – “she cries like a girl … throws like girl … runs like a girl,” she will “[take] what is rightfully hers, just like a girl!” In Just Like a Girl, the women (the authors and the ones written about) are not quiet and well-behaved, they have a voice and they have advice to give. They aren’t whispering either!

In the poem “Girrl,” we are schooled by poet Nikki Herd who tells us to

“Find one thing to love
inside yourself
carry it like a gun
in guerrilla hands
and when government
defeats you, mountains fall
lovers leave
…hold this love between
your hands, sing its name
like the alphabet
and shoot woman. Shoot.”

Find one thing to love inside yourself— that seems to be the heart of the poems and stories in this book. There is a lot of high self-esteem here, a lot of self-love and women proud to be who they are. In LaDeidre McKenzie’s poem “Yes, I am Full,” she lets us know:

“Yes, I am full…
I have boobs,
butt, and hips…

…nobody is fazing me…
I like my body…”

Courtney Burback’s poem “Yay, Carbs” – which comes before LaDeidre McKenzie’s poem – seems to serve as its prequel. “Thank you, Mom,” Courtney Burback writes, “for telling me that chocolate ain’t a sin, the girls here in L.A. flee from it like it’s gonna do them in.” Later—

“Thanks, Grandma, for showing me
all those films of Marilyn Monroe;
they convinced me that it’s prettier
when your ribs don’t show.
Thanks, Dad, for reminding me
that not all men want some skinny twit
… thanks to all my boyfriends,
who savored every curve …”

Even though I’m that skinny twit, I found myself expressing gratitude, too. Thanks, I said, for this poet who isn’t letting this awfully cruel world get her down. Thank you, I said, for showing me that the world can't be all bad if there are mothers and grandmothers and dads and lovers like this out there somewhere schooling their kin/their girl the way the poets and storytellers are doing in this book.

And, boy, what stories the storytellers tell! Women-writing is at its best in Meghan Fox’s excellent story “Sleeping in our Mother’s Beds.” Fox’s story, which feels more like a very long poem, is about a different kind of mother— mothers who “did not worry about combs and soap,” mothers who sang to their children instead and let them “sleep in their beds.” It is about mothers (divorced, single) who readied themselves for dates while their daughters sat on the toilet and watched. It’s about mothers who “wore clogs, lipgloss, [and] no bras.” It is also about the daughters of these mothers. Fox writes, “We are the girls of the seventies, and what our mothers gave us was no less than the right to ruin ourselves.”

Meghan Fox’s story shows it best: the women in this book are not of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get variety. The women in this anthology can be anything, are everything. They are women who have no need to get their groove back because they never lost it; they are superman’s muse. They might even be Superman— the S upon their chests/breasts standing for numerous things: sexy, satisfied, strong, smug, self-righteous, size 14, skinny twit, sweet-on-women, sick-&-tired-of-bullshit, somebody’s savior, sophisticated, soft, sturdy, student-mother, supreme lover, sister, selfless, selfish, solo, smart, super bad.

Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta is available for purchase at

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Borrowed Scenery

Review by Michelle McEwen

Janet Krauss, Borrowed Scenery
Yuganta Press, 2005
119 Pages

“The literal meaning of the Japanese word Shakkei is ‘borrowed scenery’ or ‘borrowed landscape’— that is, distant views incorporated into garden settings as part of the design. In its original sense, however, shakkei means neither a borrowed scenery or a landscape that has been bought. It means a landscape captured alive.” – Teiji Itoh

The quote above serves as an explanation of the title Borrowed Scenery. Placed before the table of contents, Itoh’s words were probably picked for two reasons. First, to establish a definition of the word “shakkei” which appears in the title of one of the book’s four sections (A Walk around the Corner, A Shakkei Garden, The Clouds Release the Sky, and We Want to Press Close). Second, Itoh’s words describe well the poems in Borrowed Scenery, for Krauss’s poems do capture landscape and render it alive. In fact, everything seems to be alive in this book: “giant statues stage eternal conversations,” “clouds are rude,” “the elm tree … [hums] with sunlight,” and a “honeysuckle raises its scent as a screen around the porch.” Even colors come alive in Krauss’s hands; we witness this in the poems “On Purple,” “On Orange,” “On White,” and “On Black.” In “On Purple,” purple is

“… the haze settling over the sky and hills
after councils of a tribe leave the flat stones
where they sat to plan the days ahead—
a girl’s initiation dance, a potlatch supper,
a powwow, who should hunt, who should fish.
The low sounds in the distance still echo
the unhurried voices of the elders who know
how to cure the hide of life, how to stretch it,
make it last. The stone seats attest to that,
worn smooth, brushed clean by the wind.”

I will never look at purple in the same way again. In the poem “On Black,” black is something that happens; it “happens when you cannot find/ something of value, and you know it waits/ somewhere but out of place.”

Paintings, too, are alive in this book and almost demand audience participation. This is seen in poems such as “Coastal View” (after the painting “Bristol Coastal View” by William Trost Richards), “What Stays in Place” (after the painting by Gerhard Richter), and “The Lantern Bearers” (after the painting by Maxwell Parish— although I think the poet meant to reference painter Maxfield Parrish). In the poem “The Lantern Bearers”—

“The lantern bearers appear
in the middle of the night
dressed in loose white trousers
and silken shirts.
Poised on the stairs.

… Each hands a lighted globe
to the other
until all the spheres hang upon
the branches to bring day
back to leaves and sky …

… muting the dark.”

In this poem, the words blur then disappear and are replaced by a colorful scene playing out before my eyes; the lighted lanterns make me squint, almost blind me. I experienced the same word-blurring-then-disappearing effect in the poem “Friday Night Fights”— a poem about her and her father watching Friday night fights on television.

“I sit in the center of the hassock
next to my father’s chair …

… In between punches
we discuss each man’s strategy:
Joe Louis’s heroic moves,
Sugar Ray’s dance,
Johannson’s hard rights.
Ali’s poetics. We float
on their triumphs.”

No longer just words on a page, this poem took me from behind the book— placed me in between the hassock and the father’s chair. I partake in the discussion while the three of us are bathed in the glow of television light. Krauss is good at including us in the poem— it’s magic how she does it. Usually, it’s the novel or short story that transports me beyond the page. This is the first time a poetry book has had that effect on me.

“The trick is to make a shakkei garden/ out of your life” so starts the poem “A Shakkei Garden— The Art of Borrowed Scenery.” A few lines later—

“… Set water basins near gravel
or flowering shrubs.
Arrange rocks around leaning grass.
Then borrow a full moon
that guarantees more vision
than a line of lanterns.”

I suggest you do as Krauss suggests: borrow a full moon. Then: pretend your house is a shakkei garden and read this book from start to finish; watch the words fade away and watch the landscape come alive.

Borrowed Scenery can be purchased at

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Leaning In

Review by Michelle McEwen

Norah Pollard, Leaning In
Antrim House, 2003
98 pages

The way her father had a way with handling horses, Norah Pollard, the son of John “Red” Pollard (Seabiscuit’s jockey), is just as talented when it comes to handling words. Most of the poems in Leaning In are long poems that don’t weaken once they near the finish line. Her poems are sturdy and well-built— strong from beginning to end.

Although this book is broken into three sections (Gathering, Scars, and The Museum of Natural Art), all of the poems could easily fall in the "Gathering" section because Leaning In feels like a gathering— a gathering of memories, a gathering of readers up against her bosom and letting them in, but more so it feels like a gathering around a kitchen table (the big, long, farm variety) with Norah Pollard at the head of that table telling us about her father, her upbringing, her life as child as well as an adult. And we don’t hesitate to lean in— listening with unbreakable attention and hanging on to the author’s every word. In the poem “Gathering,” Pollard tells us about her father as if to say we don’t know the half:

“…Daddy is back from the track and drunk like
murder and I hide from him, crouching low
beside the piano with my fingers in my ears.

…He is stomping the tout to death with
his boots— three running steps, a leap,
both feet on the wall at shoulder level,

…Overhead, the lamp falters, brightens, falters.
He makes sheet lightning.
Mother and Auntie are darting in and out,
gathering the breakables in their arms.”

In “Dragonslayer,” Pollard tells us about her father again. This time, she lets us in on an inside joke. “Dragonslayer” is a poem about her father pretending he has killed a snake, but actually the snake has run off on its own—

“He stomps his kangaroo boots,
his thin body leaping and stamping.
He snorts, he growls.

…He turns and says, ‘That hairbutted snake
won’t bother you no more,’ …

…My mother calls from the backdoor.
I go to her. ‘Did he kill the snake?’
‘No, momma,’ I whisper, ‘the snake already was gone.’
She laughs and covers her mouth …”

Here, I found myself laughing along with the mother. The dragon slayer is no dragon slayer after all, but they (mother and daughter) go on and let him think he is. In the poem “How Things Were,” she tells us how things were when times were good, but not quite—

“When he played his harmonica
he’d hunch over his lonely bony body
and blow “Old Black Joe” into the parlor
while Cougar the cocker spaniel, his head
thrown back like an operatic,
howled his agony or his ecstasy,
who could tell?

…And that was how things were with Daddy—
all mixed up and no one knowing ever
whether to laugh or cry or hide under the bed.”

We nod at this; we understand this walking-on-eggshells feeling and empathize; we scoot our chairs in closer to the table and wait for more and she gives us more. This time, in the poem “Wild Thing,” she treats us like BFF’s— telling us intimate details:

“My first time, in Eddie Gemza’s pool with Eddie,
out under the stars and liquid as fish,
we played until he slipped it in without a warning.
So I bit his finger to the bone— he lost the tip.

…And it was wild to feel so wild and satisfied,
to taste of blood and know just who I am.”

In “Kiss,” we are told about the time when she was “the high schooler awkward and shy coming from church in the two-toned DeSoto with the clank in the rear.” Also, in “Kiss”—

“He was the gas pump boy
at the Texaco station who said
he needed to hear
the clank in action …

…He shrugs from the shirt
with the Texaco star …
His sweating body glistens
like a molted thing, and
there’s a port wine stain
like a Maybelline kiss
high on his thigh near his cullions.”

However, intimate though they are, we don’t blush. We don’t blush because Pollard is so graceful in the telling of the intimate thing. I found myself stuck on stanzas and re-reading them before moving on.

Suggested to me by a poet/library assistant to help me get over a bad bout of writer’s block, Leaning In was just the type of book I needed— with its long, well-written poems, I was inspired for days.

Leaning In can be purchased here:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Degrees of Freedom

Review by Michelle McEwen

Nicholas Johnson, Degrees of Freedom
Bright Hill Press, 2006
35 pages

Degrees of Freedom wants to be called Facts of Life. “Facts of Life” – which is a poem included in this book – sums up Johnson’s book best. Most of the poems seem to give it to us straight— no crooked overabundance of flowery words that lead us astray. In “Facts of life,” we can’t hide from his facts and his questions:

“It takes 32 feet of rope to hang the average man.
In Kansas that’s a fact. Do you believe marriages are
happier and last longer in Orlando? The worst

in Albuquerque? I’m not making this up …

Coffee drinkers are less likely to commit suicide …

… Things start piling up: Lynchings, broken promises, a sharp blade
in a tube of lipstick …

…The blues sure
hold us down.”

Frank, right? Yet not so much that you miss the poetry in it. This is how Nicholas Johnson operates. His poems all have a ring (a ring the size of one of Saturn’s rings, that is) of truth to them, but they are also written in such a way that you know you are reading a poem and not just a journalist’s notebook— Johnson mixes the best of both and he does it well. He turns ordinary language and commonplace things into poetry. He pulls, yanks, snatches, wrenches the poetry out and says gotcha! In the poem “Flatbed Truck," we come across a truck “rusted [and] abandoned in the upstate woods … obviously used for target practice.” I get the sense that the poet stumbled across this flatbed truck and said, “A ha! Poetry!” The flatbed truck

“…Shot full of holes, looks
real good smashed against this tree. Abused

after the crush, gutted, left to rot, dirt
in the back became a bed for flowers,
weeds, trees grown in the wrong place. Doesn’t
to take a snapshot to remind us…”

Someone other than Nicholas Johnson would have walked right by this truck. He made poetry out of something rusted and abandoned— that’s magic, that’s poetry. In “Country Life,” we find more of that magic:

“The pickup’s got a full tank, a cooler full
of brew, shotgun legal and loaded for bear
but we’re not after bear. We’re tired of dull
humdrum life but we hum like we don’t care ...”

But out of this humdrum comes poetry and Nicholas Johnson knows that. He takes the humdrum and hammers the poetry out— shows us that the facts of life make for good poetry. He shows this best in the poem “Back Home”—

“Nothing much has changed. The insects
ping against the bellied screen that then
stayed open more than closed, swung
creaking and snapped back like those doors
will do that belong mostly to the poor.
Swung by children and the ones who’d rather
not porch it …

…You might have considered it
a triumph on another day to fall asleep
with your face in your plate, with all
the heat bugs whining tomorrow’s weather …”

A screen door, a porch, heat bugs— only a poet with Nicholas Johnson’s skill, candor, and wit could spin these things into a poem. Nicholas Johnson, in his poems, seems to be always meditating and mulling over life and I get the sense he is doing his meditating and mulling over while sitting on the porch mentioned in the poem above— nothing ever escaping his notice, nothing deemed too commonplace for poetry.

Degrees of Freedom available here: