Sunday, May 5, 2019

Poetry Review: The Mercy of Traffic by Wendy Taylor Carlisle


The Mercy of Traffic is a masterful poetic memoir. These poems are steeped in a sense of place-- Carlisle was born in Florida and now lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. The collection is threaded with a series of poems she refers to as “Ozark Sonnets” and a single “Arkansas Sonnet.” But these poems are also about transience in America. This makes the title apropos as so many of the poems are about driving around, especially along Southern highways: in addition to Carlisle’s current and former abodes, she writes of Texas and Tennessee. A few references pop up to California and New York. But Carlisle is unequivocally a product of the South. As someone who lived for two years on the Gulf Coast, and the rest of my time in Missouri, which shares the Ozarks with Arkansas, these poems really spoke to me.

In the Southern poems, Carlisle confronts the stereotypes of rural America: poverty, corn pone, kudzu, cotton fields. There are covered dishes, trailers, cheap furniture, broken things, broken people. But there is also the rural beauty, mountains and birds, coyotes and deer, sultry summers and polka-dot fabric, comfort food and cleansing rains. These poems establish a sense of community, for good or ill. At funerals, people bring covered dishes to express sympathy and solidarity. People join the military in an attempt to escape their hardscrabble childhoods. But in Carlisle’s poetry, none of these things feel like stereotypes. The poems are affectionate but clear-eyed. She is fully aware of the places’ flaws, but loves them anyway. “On an Island” is an anti-pastoral, about the beauty of horses, hemmed in by barbed wire, plagued with flies and horseshit. “Against Moving to the Mountains” is a stunner, a celebration of the Ozarks’ beauty, as well as an indictment against its worst tendencies: “Just keep going,” Carlisle warns.

“Sly” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read these poems. Carlisle eviscerates so gently! This is fitting, as the title of the book comes from a line in “The Argument,” a poem about a fox who survives on cunning, but cunning only takes you so far when there are cars to dodge. In “What I Missed,” Carlisle gives a sublime description of grackles: “shining as spoiled meat.” Perfection. So many lines like this, that balance on the knife’s edge between terrible and beautiful, terrible because they’re so cruelly accurate and beautiful for the same. Somehow, in that poetic alchemy, the words and imagery seem to flow so effortlessly, so economically. (Only one poem exceeds a page.)

These are poems about homecoming. I’ve always felt that home isn’t a place, but a concept, like enlightenment. It’s something that must be achieved. It’s a state of being, not necessarily a physical place. Sometimes, it’s a person. Carlisle writes of the places that have imprinted themselves upon her. I imagine she carries them with her, the white Florida sand, the Ozark granite, the West Coast sage. They become components of the self. I like how the places jumble together in this book. They are all America, but such different Americas. Home is also the thing we turn and return to, even if it’s only in our minds. The mind is a homing pigeon, retreating to the familiar. So too, does memory jumble. It’s something we return to. The book flits back and forth between childhood and adulthood.

Carlisle is honest about the dubious nature of memory. What we don’t remember, we invent. Like all good memoirs, this collection has the elements we crave to read about: bad relationships, death, hard luck, which, again ties into Southern life, where poverty and limited job options are the reality. “The Real Night” addresses childhood with images of skeletons and bones, as if to underscore the idea that life’s most enduring lessons are hard and stark. In “Juke,” Carlisle depicts a woman who is down on her luck, which feels so different from men being down on their luck—perhaps because desperate women so often turn to prostitution, or accept a domestic abuse situation if it means a roof over their head. Likewise, “Say Yes” hints at abuse with its haunting final line, “In our bedroom I learned to say yes as if I meant it.” The poem “Once Upon a Time” is framed by objects, ending on blood and milk, quintessentially feminine symbols.

Sexuality from a woman’s perspective is another big theme in these poems. Carlisle speaks of the blame and shame women experience. In “Things Burn,” she says, “Because my hair was a red cape/the street filled with bulls.” In “Greed. Lust. Envy.” she offers a meditation on sin and absolution. She describes trying to look up her step-dad’s towel after he emerges from the shower. There are poems about bras and first kisses, modern takes on fairy tales such as “The Princess and the Frog” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Physiological terms pop up, like in the poem “Systole,” which skillfully employs the term to suggest the flex of muscles.

I can scarcely pick a favorite among these poems. As I go back over my reading notes, I keep finding titles with a star next to them, which means I loved them. I basically loved all of them, from start to finish. Usually, if a collection has a single poem that knocks my socks off, I’m happy. To find a collection where every poem feels like it’s speaking directly to you is a rare pleasure, one that I truly hope others get to experience for themselves.  

The Mercy of Traffic (Unlikely Books) is available for purchase on Amazon.  


Sunday, April 28, 2019

April News


Hello, friends! I have big news to share with you this month! 


Six years after West Side Girl & Other Poems, I am pleased to announce I will be publishing a new poetry collection with Cajun Mutt PressThe collection is called Requiem for a Robot Dog. (The title poem appeared last year in trampset.) We are shooting for a May release. I will keep you all posted on its progress! It's so very exciting!


I am also thrilled to share that author Jennifer Perkins reviewed my children’s book, The Ice Dragon, on her blog, Author Esquire. She gave it a Mithril armor rating! (That’s five out of five stars, for any non-geeks reading this blog.)

Perkins wrote, “The Ice Dragon is wonderfully imaginative. It reminds me of the books I loved to read as a child. It has a touch of whimsey which reminded me what it was like, as a child, to believe in magic. The prose is elegant, while the voice of the characters is clear and emotional. Further, I think the book would appeal to children of all ages and backgrounds.”

Read the full review here.

Now, for my usual news—I had ten pieces appear in various publications this month:


"Goddess Poem," is up on La Scrittrice Magazine. Poetry Editor Jessica Drake-Thomas said, "I love how you’ve woven so many different Goddess traditions into this piece. It’s so cohesive and well-crafted—as soon as I read it, I had to send you an acceptance.” Thank you, Jessica!


Poems “Chimera” and “Evacuation” appeared in the spring issue of Nixes Mate.



"Tiny Effigies," appeared on Duane's PoeTree blog.


“Wanted” is in the latest issue of The Literary Nest.


 My thanks to editor C. Derick Varn for publishing three of my poems, "Disembody," "D.," and "Ozone" in Former People magazine.

Louisiana Zombie Afternoon, Jen Zedd
Thank you to editor Jordan Trethaway for publishing my poem, “Girl Alone” in The Ekphrastic Review. I’d never written an ekphrastic poem before, but I loved the inspiration piece, Louisiana Zombie Afternoon by Jen Zedd.


Some of you may have read my review of Red Focks’ Dead Celebrities on this blog. It is also in the latest issue of Alien Buddha Zine. I highly recommend Focks’ weird, funny and poignant collection, available on Amazon.

Also, just ICYMI, I posted a new flash fiction piece here earlier this month, Newton’s Needle, in which the scientist ponders his experiments with light.

I got a little behind on my reading/reviewing this past month, but look for a review of the excellent The Mercy of Traffic, a poetry collection by Wendy Taylor Carlisle.

Thank you, as always, for reading! I look forward to seeing what May will bring.





Thursday, April 11, 2019

Flash Fiction: Newton's Needle

Newton by William Blake

It doesn’t really hurt—not really. The trick is pushing past your own squeamishness, the instinct to flinch away.
I will admit, the idea came to me when I saw a group of boys playing at marbles on the road. In my youth, we used to play thus, crouched around our circles like old divinators at their casting sites. We had mostly dull clay pieces worn the same color as the soil. But one lad had a glass piece. How we coveted that perfect sphere-- perfect in our eyes, though now, as I recall, it had a faint greenish hue, its interior pocked with imperfections. I recall how the glass marble caught the light, how it winked in the sun as our taws struck it and rolled it out of the circle, a pale shadow moving inside of a larger, darker one along the ground. I was reminded, also, of the bubbles children blow out of pipes, floating and wavering, iridescent on the air where the light struck it. So many simple pleasures of youth: watching the afternoon sun filtering down through the branches of an elm, turning its rippled leaves transparent, like fingers stringing a harp. You see, color is not inherent to the thing. Color is the interaction between the light and the thing reflecting it. When the world goes dark, everything goes dark with it.
There is only the slightest discomfort as I probe around, searching for the best point of entry. Perhaps discomfort is too strong a word. There is pressure, certainly. But no worse than if I was rubbing at my eye with my fist—which, as I have found, will also produce colored circles in the vision.
I have looked and looked at the sun, considering the light itself. It turns out that this was good practice as I trained myself not to blink so often. After a particularly long stretch of sun-gazing, I needed several days in a darkened room to recover. During that time, I had a searing headache. Anytime I shut my lids, I saw the most fantastic colors, as if they had been permanently imprinted on the eye itself, fiery wheels of red, orange, blue, a vision out of a prophet’s dream. These colors were most clear just after I had looked into the sun and gradually faded as my eyes went back to normal. I meditated on the colors and what they might mean. Is the pain I endure penance, well-earned for my innumerable sins? Or is it a sacrifice, the price one must pay for unlocking His mysteries? These thoughts were never far from my mind, even as I formulated my plans. Finally, when I was able to see again, I opened the windows back up and greeted the light once more. I procured the bodkin.
I make sure it has a nice, dull edge. It wouldn’t do to lay anything sharp alongside the optic organ, to scratch that sensitive, quivering plain. Despite my best efforts, my eye waters when the tip of the bodkin touches the moist flesh of the underlid. I move the bodkin carefully along the socket, undeterred even when it scrapes bone, shaping my eye this way and that with the point, peering up into a beam of light as I do so. The circles appear and disappear, just as before. As I do, I think again of my boyhood, kneeling beside the circle drawn in the dirt, aiming my taw for the glass marble. But I never won it. I never did. At length, I remove the bodkin from my eye with an unpleasant sucking sound.
There was light enough left for me to go out, past where lads were playing—some other game today. Leapfrog, by the look of it. In the market, there is a seller of trinkets who sold me two prisms made of Venetian glass—another child’s toy. The lens I already had in my possession.
Just pieces of glass. Baubles, really. To think that they could reveal so much. I will mount the three pieces, just so, to show how light reflects and refracts, filling the parlor with ribbons of color.
Light has form. It is a thing to be perceived and evaluated. It is a revelatory force. It brings warmth. It dispels dampness. It commands both the planted seed and the trees of the wood. Pagans built their altars to its avatars. It commands the life-bearing seasons.
 Miniscule corpuscles float on the air, beaming from lens to prism. The world is whiteness. Everything is a step in its scale, mounting its way from darkness to violet to red and back again, like a bruise.
Sometimes, to see things, we must suffer certain discomforts. The rain drives the boys from the lane, lest their playthings be lost, swallowed up by the muck. We must be blinded to see, we must kneel outside the circle to understand desire. And yet, to heal, sometimes we must retreat from the fires of fervor and illumination.
The colors merge to make whiteness again, pure in its unity. It is divine. All colors that flow from the Almighty ultimately flow back unto Him and His light. As do we.
When I am finished, satisfied with my experiment, I will close the shutters. I will add to my catalogue of sins: coveting another child’s toy in boyhood.



Friday, March 29, 2019

March News


Hello, my lovely friends. March has been a very busy and exciting month, with nine publications, radio shows, reviews, and poetry readings. I’m so pleased to share with you all the latest and greatest:



I usually make these round-ups chronological, but I am just so excited about this one, it’s going front and center: I am the featured poet in the latest issue of Loud Zoo, with five poems and the most thoughtful, in-depth interview I’ve ever had the good fortune to participate in, starting on page 39. The five poems are, “Garbage Pail Kids,” “Southpaw,” “Linda Martinez and Ed McMahon Say Hello from the Afterlife,” “No, I don’t have a foot fetish,” and “Grandma’s Fan.”

But that's not the coolest part. The coolest part is the amazing music composed by Tripp Kirby of The Electric Lungs to accompany the poems! They can be listened to on the magazine site, or go directly to Sound Cloud.

Special thanks to Tripp for the awesome collaboration! If you haven't listened to his music, I highly recommend Don't Be Ashamed of the Way You Were Made. I might be a little obsessed. Also, big thanks to editor Josh Smith for pulling this all together.


I had three poems appear in The Woven Tale Press, “Crystal River,” “Super Blue Blood Moon,” and “Buddhas on Death Row.” They are on pages 9-10 of the digital copy. The print version is available here. “Buddhas on Death Row” was also accepted for their monthly spotlight. Many thanks to their team for continuing to support my work.

For those who don’t know, “Buddhas on Death Row” was inspired by my pen pal, Moyo, who has been on death row in Texas for 18 years. While incarcerated, he has become a Buddhist and an artist. His work has been displayed in various galleries in the US, Finland, and the UK. He is currently working with at-risk youth, and taking classes to become an educator. Learn more about his art at www.buddhasondeathrow.com.


My poems, “Therapy” and “The List” appeared in Alien Buddha Press.


“Bug Out” and “Low” appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic.


I had two short stories in Ariel Chart Magazine, “Astronomical Events” and “The Little Holly Market.” Editor Mark Antony Rossi messaged me to say, “Your fiction pieces are ranked 2 & 3 this month in reads. That’s not the norm. Usually poetry beats fiction. Thanks for being so damn good.” I want to give a shout-out here to Mark, who has published my work before. He also the force between the Strength to be Human podcast.


Moon Song,” “Faces,” and “The Nostalgia Project” were published on Stanzaic Stylings. This rounds out the series of six that were published on that site. Thanks so much to editor Joanne Olivieri, it's been fun! “The Nostalgia Project” also appeared this month on Duane’s PoeTree Blog.


And my last publication was in the TOUCH issue of memoryhouse, two poems: "Brain Ghosts" and "Resonance."


Voice of Eve Magazine, which had previously published my poetry, gave West Side Girl & Other Poems a five-star review.


I can also be heard on Songs of Selah, an online radio show. I called in during the open mic portion in the second hour of the March 12 episode and had a fun conversation with host Scott Thomas Outlar and featured poet, Duane Vorhees. I read my poems, “Kitten Love” and “New Year’s Eve Talamada.”

I was at the Last Monday poetry reading at the Penn Valley Quaker Center. It’s a monthly open mic that’s been running for almost thirty years, and one of my favorite groups. If you’re in KC sometime, I hope you stop in for a listen!

And finally, ICYMI, I posted three reviews on my blog this month, (Letters to Joan, Dead Celebrities, Ghost Train), as well as a micro-essay (Supernatural). If you haven’t read those already, I hope you do.

My blog schedule is always a moving target, but what I have planned for the near future are: more poetry reviews, another micro-essay and maybe some O4S-related stuff.

Thank you, as always, for your readership!













Monday, March 25, 2019

Poetry Review: Letters to Joan by Allison Blevins




I didn’t know who Joan Mitchell was. I am an art enthusiast. I live in a cool art city. I live within walking distance of two museums and an art institute. I’ve taken my share of art history classes.  

Never heard of her.  

So, first and foremost, I want to thank Allison Blevins for introducing me to Mitchell’s work through her lovely chapbook, Letters to Joan. I blame the usual patriarchal bullshit for failing to give Mitchell the attention she deserves, despite being a contemporary of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, and, from what I’ve seen of her, I like her better than those dudes. Mitchell passed away in 1992, after a long, distinguished career. She spent most of her life in Paris, but she was originally a Midwesterner, like Blevins. Mitchell’s work is frequently described as violent, physical, athletic—her brushstrokes, the moods she was trying to evoke; a gallery owner remarked, “She approached painting almost like a competitive sport.”  

I found all this out after the fact, so I actually read Letters to Joan twice, once without having viewed the art, then again after I had. I wasn’t able to view all of the paintings online, but enough to give me an idea of Mitchell’s style, to see what Blevins had seen. Without the art, I was still able to appreciate Blevins’ poems. But the poems were infinitely richer when paired with the visuals.  

In Letters to Joan, Blevins offers more than mere ekphrasis. She carries on a tradition of female interiority: quiet, meditative, dreamlike, deep. She offers poems that are keenly attuned to the body, which is fitting—not only for women, who I think inhabit our bodies in a way that men do not. But also because a book of poems inspired by Joan Mitchell should focus on physicality—for her ferocity, and because Mitchell fought so tenaciously against a series of debilitating illnesses: oral cancer, resulting in a dead jawbone; osteoarthritis; hip dysplasia; and then, ultimately, lung cancer. Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, from a variety of physical and mental health issues that don’t seem to affect men as much. Women are socialized to believe our bodies are all that matter, we who are charged with protecting our bodies from violation, and for having bodies that are capable of housing new life. Blevins offers poems that are sometimes self-recriminating, exploring themes about ambivalent motherhood and disappointment in our own mothers. Sometimes she attacks the sacred cow that is motherhood, referencing Susan Smith and such women who do the unthinkable.  

The book opens with mothers and children in, “Watching Dust Glow in the Window Light,” which describes the poet’s complicated feelings towards her daughter, and towards her own mother who left. She juxtaposes, “I want to keep you safe,” with “On days I wish you’d never been born.” Its images suggest helplessness: floating, shaken, caught, “caged-bird lips.” The idea of being caught in a snow globe that’s been shaken is a womblike image, a round ball of fluid, something small and self-sustaining, yet delicate and precious. The next poem, “Moored,” a word that implies being tethered, feels like a progression. It describes mothers worn “transparent as nightgowns,” the toll being a mother exacts on a person, bodily, mentally, spiritually. “The Color of Tearing” explores separation and separation anxiety, the distance between bodies in all relationships, and the inevitable demise that awaits, both in the relationship itself and for us, individually, as mortal beings.  

“How to Explain Fertility When a Friend Asks Casually” digs into bad mothers, “all the women and children dead/a history of female drowning.” Drowning does feel like something iconic in the deaths of women (Ophelia, Virginia Woolf). Drowning has also been a preferred method of infanticide, especially with unwanted girls. Water subsumes mother and child alike (again, a replica of the womb). At the same time, there is deep sympathy for the people involved in these situations. The title implies undertaking fertility treatments, which, for women who have trouble conceiving, can be a taxing endeavor in every possible sense. Imagine going through all of that only to find you don’t like motherhood very much, or that you aren’t very good at it. Drowning can feel like a way of erasing your mistake, of coming clean.  

In a series of body poems, Blevins focuses on the female form, though not in the way a male artist would, asking, “What is this burden of estrogen?” Blevins describes hair falling out, excessive perspiration. This reads to me like a meditation on age, dealing with mood swings and night sweats, and the anxiety that accompanies these seismic hormonal shifts. “Say my body, drooping and defiant,/ is a thing I can possibly control,” Blevins says, when, obviously, we all knows it’s the opposite. Yet, Blevins celebrates the body in “The Actual Size of the Rifts in the Human Heart May Vary Depending Upon Age and Use,” with erotic descriptions of explosions, “when a tongue figure eights/in your mouth” and “your bones draining into the basin of another woman.”  

My favorite image comes “From My Box of Tangled Memories,” of a girl, “with sirens for hair/and flashing blue and orange where her mouth/should be.” In a book rich with sensory imagery, I found that very evocative, the meshing of the mythological sirens with a beacon of warning.  

Water is a recurring motif—the feminine/womb imagery, as I mentioned, but water is also a powerful natural symbol on its own. I hear the quiet of the Midwest in the waters, in images of ponds, both wet and dry (even in its absence, water leaves an indelible mark). I hear the hills and plains. Blevins also weaves in combines, semis on back highways, stones, chicken, and deer. Even wood paneling and a rifle make appearances, which you will find in almost any mid-century home in the dozen states that make up the Heartland.  

Another recurring motif is color, which makes sense for poems that were inspired by visual art. “Promises Attached to this World” is a simply beautiful poem inspired by Mitchell’s No Birds, which, in turn, was inspired by van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Mitchell believed that this was van Gogh’s suicide note. This poem is the most overtly ekphrastic, referring directly to “the blue in the corner,” the suggestion of blackbirds in flight on the canvas. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this is one of Mitchell’s less abstract pieces.  

Now that I’ve viewed Mitchell’s art, I can see why it would move a woman poet to such an outpouring of expression. I am impressed that Blevins would undertake such a project—transliterating abstract visual art into words is ambitious, to say the least. I’m pleased to say that she rises magnificently to the challenge.


Purchase Letters to Joan on Amazon

Also, be sure to check out The Harbor Review, an art and literary journal of which Allison Blevins is the publisher/editor-in-chief. They are currently open to submissions. 


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: Dead Celebrities by Red Focks


When I agreed to review Dead Celebrities, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’d never read any of Red Focks’ previous works, but I was familiar with the gonzo sensibilities of his magazine/publishing enterprise, Alien Buddha Press, and I thought the odds were about fifty-fifty that I would enjoy it. 

I am pleased to say that I definitely enjoyed this collection. It’s a very quick read—only six stories. As I was reading, a string of adjectives occurred to me to describe this wonderfully weird compilation’s stream-of-consciousness style: absurd, audacious, comedic, satiric, dark, cerebral, seedy, macho, and tender. It manages to be all those things, all at once—not to mention, laugh-out-loud funny. 

“Short stories” is as good a category as any for these pieces, though I would lean more towards hybrid works: part prose-poem, part essay, part sketch comedy. In fact, these writings strongly evoke Saturday Night Live (if SNL were allowed to fling F-bombs), In Living Color (if you’re old enough to remember that show) and Celebrity Death Match. The titular dead celebrities run the gamut from athletes (Muhammed Ali), to musicians (Jim Morrison, Dolores O’Riordan), comedians (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Robin Williams) and various other personalities (Stephen Hawking, Charles Manson and various Mansonettes). Ali, Manson and Carlin make multiple appearances—I’m not sure what that says about Focks’ psyche. Living celebrities also make appearances to mix it up with the dead.  

If it needs to be said, Focks is not interested in historical personages, but what they represent to the modern American psyche. If you peel back the hyper-masculine hijinks (we literally watch Muhammed Ali go six rounds with Mike Tyson), you find parables on politics, identity, celebrity worship, fanaticism, and death.  

There are only six stories, so let’s dig in: 

“Ali v Hannity” is a broad political satire. It centers on a live television interview between Hannity and Ali/Cassius Clay; Hannity, Fox News poster boy, blustering and intolerant of anything perceived to be a slight on America, and Clay, a Black Muslim, who would most certainly be taking a knee at every playing of the national anthem. It’s an interesting image to offer in light of current race relations, though I would say this is the weakest of the stories. I still almost snorted Dr. Pepper out of my nose when Ali shouted, “And another thing, avocadoes are a healthy and delicious food!” Also, *SPOILER ALERT*, Hannity commits suicide at the end, and I never get tired of that.  

“Carlin v Hicks v Prior v Williams” is where we depart SNL and enter real absurdity, and I am here for it. It imagines a world where we have voted on which dead comedian should be cloned and brought back for one more celebrity special, even though some of these guys stated their aversion to doing those type of shows. The book is sprinkled with whimsical spelling and punctuation, and I can’t tell if that’s on purpose or not, a la e.e. cummings or Bukowski (“Hix” for Bill Hicks, “Prior” instead of Pryor), but who cares? It skirts sci-fi territory with a tangent about a vengeful holographic Carlin who becomes a computer virus, intent on wreaking havoc on us unworthy denizens of now. It also has lines like, “chiseling bone marrow from his worm and maggot filled skeleton,” so there’s that.  

“Manson v Society” is one of the longer pieces in the collection, broken into sub-sections like, “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on Legalized Marijuana,” “Charlie Manson’s Thoughts on the MeToo Movement and Toxic Masculinity.” These pieces are pungent, exactly like one would imagine a dirty hippie commune to be. It opens with this gem: “Keep on picking creamed cheese and peanut butter out of your belly button.” When I was a teenager, I was heavy into true crime, and devoured Helter-Skelter and Child of Satan, Child of God. More recently, I read The Girls by Emma Cline, and there’s a lot of psychological territory to plumb when we view the Manson phenomenon through a modern lens. The MeToo movement, at its heart, is about the power dynamics between women and male authority figures. On a more primal level, Manson was always about rejecting society, and reverting to a more “natural” way of life (or “bestial.” Whatevs). On marijuana, Manson says, “Don’t trust the new seeds.” That feels like a reference to Monsanto. Even our beloved, illicit substances have been neutered. On “Pop Culture & Modern Music,” Focks muses on what Manson might be like in the age of social media—which is potentially terrifying. Or he might just be one of those sad little incel motherfuckers, it’s hard to say. But in both that section and the “Mandatory Vaccinations, Climate Change and Bitcoin,” Manson scats. Like, full-on shoo-be-do-be-do, and I snorted again. Also, the latter is the most poetic passage in the Manson cycle—a full indictment of humanity: “I was born on fire. I don’t need to light my holy texts on fire to survive the night. I do not fear the so-called beast.” I was a bit ambivalent on whether or not Manson should be the one casting stones, until I remembered that Satan literally means “the accuser.” Manson doesn’t fear the beast because he is the Beast. Still, I wonder, if we are being called to task by Manson, does that mean everything’s gonna be okay? Or am I to believe him because, sometimes, even the devil speaks truth?  

In “Ali v Tyson,” we get some needed levity, mostly in the form of Tyson’s lisp. (I only hear Drederick Tatum.) The titans go six rounds. I’ll let you read to find out who wins, but as the story progresses, the fight gets dirtier and dirtier, with body blows and flowing blood. But it’s not just dick-swinging—it’s a meditation on what it means to be the best at something. You have to fight to get there, and then you have to fight to keep it, and one does have to wonder if that’s worth it.  

Next up is “Squeaky and Clem.” If I had to choose a favorite from this collection, it would be a toss-up between this and the final entry. This is the most parabolic story in the line-up, using two of Manson’s acolytes, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Steve “Clem” Grogan to examine how people will believe anything if it means there’s a reward waiting, whether that reward be the promise of heaven as with the Abrahamic religions, or just a sense of belonging. Fromme had been a child dancer and actually performed on TV and at the White House. Then, y’know, she attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. The point is, she was a true believer in Manson. Focks describes their relationship as, “He fed himself to her, and she consumed him.” Charlie would appreciate the messianic reference there. He would totally dig himself as something transubstantiated.  

Grogan, on the other hand, was just a sad, craven little man that most people thought was developmentally disabled (which helped him avoid life in prison). Like Manson, he hung out with the Beach Boys and was an aspiring musician. (Maybe Manson speaks to artists because so many of his acolytes, as well as the man himself, were a bunch of frustrated creatives.) But as soon as Grogan got a chance to rat out his comrades, he did. Not coincidental use of the word rat, as Focks observes, “This is not the summer of love; this is the summer of the dead rat.”  

Both figures are pathetic in their own ways-- Fromme, fawning and servile; and Grogan, the go-along-to-get-along guy, incapable of making any decisions on his own. Modernity, since the Enlightenment, feels like a struggle between science and religion, between decision and indecision, between improving the world we live in now and longing for an impossible paradise. Grogan imagines death as “jamming with the Beach Boys, hav[ing] 100 wives,” just like a jihadist, awaiting his holy orders and an opportunity to hurt someone.  

The final story in the collection, “Hawking v Morrison v Manson v Carlin v O’Riordan v Ali,” takes place entirely in the afterlife. In a collection of the surreal, this one felt the most…most. The most dreamlike, the most cerebral: “We must be nothing more than math and vibrations.” Manson, Carlin and Ali appear again. They are joined by Stephen Hawking, Dolores O’Riordan, and Jim Morrison. It’s a fitting culmination, a layering of characters who, more than ever, feel like symbols rather than people, yet never lose their individual humanity, which is no mean feat. I also love how, when you think of them in real life, they seem to occupy such entirely different spheres, they might as well be from different planets. But in putting them together like this, you’re reminded, Oh, yeah. They’re all humans. And so am I. Focks has them all walk into a bar in some nether realm—yes, Hawking can walk, talk, and serve drinks. Also, the Lizard King is young and svelte again. Yet, despite being the bartender, Hawking is still the ideal of human intellectualism, of loftiness. His role feels part Anubis, part Chiron, part God, an interesting marriage of the secular and the transcendent. Manson, of course, is still Satan. The others fall somewhere in between. Manson keeps talking about how great he could have been, but “the universe had other plans.” It becomes a refrain of his. The others are having none of it. They talk, they drink, they fight. I thoroughly enjoyed the others verbally dog-piling on Manson. It also has one of my favorite lines in the book, “Time seemingly globs along the bar-floor in a molasses landslide.” I also love how Focks weaves in subtle references to the singers’ best-known songs, with references to “People Are Strange” and “Linger.” Focks has a gift for capping his stories with killer last lines, and this story feels like a fitting capper for the collection as a whole.  

It’s not often that you find a collection that can encompass so many themes and scenarios, that can juxtapose disparate personas in a way that doesn’t feel gimmicky or condescending. Dead Celebrities is both a celebration and an indictment of the glorious mess that is life. I highly suggest you grab a drink and get in on the party, and remember that yes, we’re all in this together.

Purchase Dead Celebrities by Red Focks on Amazon

Also, be sure to check out Alien Buddha Press, which features a magazine as well as a growing catalog of art, poetry, chapbooks, and other publications. They accept submissions on a rolling basis. 


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Poetry Review: Ghost Train by Matt Borczon



I had the good fortune to come across Matt Borczon’s poetry in a Facebook writer’s group. If you don’t know that name yet, you should. He is one of the finest modern poets I have read. After reading just a few of his poems, I knew that I wanted to read every single line he’d written. Ghost Train happens to be the first that I got my hands on.

Borczon is a naval veteran who worked as a healthcare provider at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the busiest combat hospital in the war at that time. Unsurprisingly, he returned to civilian life suffering from PTSD, and his poems are his way of coping with his condition. To be sure, there have been war poets for as long as there have been wars, and Borczon’s work has the expected accoutrements: rifles, wounds, and depthless horror. The weaponry changes, but war itself never really does. Borczon takes it a step further, exploring the aftermath of nightmares and the debilitating symptoms of PTSD—the inability to take in stimuli, the inability to relate to people who have not been through what he’s been through. I am not a war veteran, but I think this work would speak to any trauma survivor, to mental health sufferers, to anyone who has ever grappled with their personal demons, on a profound level.

His work is characterized by no punctuation, just stream of consciousness. His lines are brutally short, often just a single word. He told me he does this to capture the feeling of falling down a hole. I can certainly see that, but I also feel that it conveys a myriad of things: tunnel vision, narrowness, the pinched sensation that comes with traumatic stress, and even the lines on a heart monitor.

What I find exceptional about his work is his gift for weaving seemingly disparate elements into a narrative. It’s what caught my eye about his work in the first place; that, and his eye for original imagery. “Survival kit” weaves prayer, therapy, St. John’s wort, scars, jars and Victory gardens, among other powerful images into a litany of despair. The short lines make his poems look longer on the page, but it’s barely over 100 words, scarcely a paragraph. He manages to pack so much into such small spaces—but I suppose that’s a talent soldiers must acquire. “Frozen Charlotte” is another great example of his ability to make unusual connections, about dolls, an old folk legend about a girl who froze to death, and the dead children he saw on a regular basis.

The poems in this collection follow a chronological order, beginning with “Good bye,” in which the young man embarks on his journey to Fort Jackson, and, presumably, boot camp. He becomes a medic, and his poems explore the on-going vigil at the bedsides of the sick and the wounded—not just his fellow soldiers, but enemy soldiers and civilians, including children. “Repressed memories” describes the images that haunt his psyche as “coffin/sized memories”; the children who stepped on IEDs as “dissolved/into a/thin red sigh.”

The poems themselves are straightforward and accessible, delivered with startling clarity. He speaks of injury and performing his duties with a frankness that you would expect from a military report. “Who am I” is stunning in its honesty and bleakness. This matter-of-factness serves Borczon well—how easily these life-and-death scenarios could become overwrought. Borczon also makes it a point to illustrate how there are no safe occupations in war. Even when he transfers briefly to office work in the poem, “Human Resources,” he discusses filing death certificates.

“A kind person” and “Post deployment” are a one-two gut punch, exploring the agony of trying to go back to your old life, of watching movies and walking around your home town. But there is no escaping what’s in your head. He also perfectly captures the catch-22 of longing for home, even when you know you can’t ever go there again—there is no returning to the person that you were.

The collection ends on the poem, “Add it up,” an attempt to quantify his experiences, an exhausted accounting of what lays behind him (patients, rounds of ammunition, detainees, severed limbs) and what lays before him (prayers, missed birthdays, therapy sessions, medication). These are poems about coping, but sometimes, that means finding the beginning of the beginning of something that could eventually lead to healing. Coping is endless work ahead, like that scene in Poltergeist, when the hallway seems to extend on forever. There is no resolution. You get out of the traumatic event, but you never really get out of it. There is only the tunnel vision, the day-by-day. I appreciate so much that Borczon does not sugarcoat that reality.

Purchase Ghost Train on Amazon

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Micro Essay: Supernatural

Macario, 1960
On any given weekend, Latinos represent 22% of moviegoers. If it’s a horror film, that number jumps to 50%. I am unsurprised by this statistic. The West Side was always full of mysterious goings-on. The neighborhood was and is flanked on the north by the river; on the south by Avenida Cesar Chavez; on the east by the highway; on the west by the bottoms that will take you to Kansas. A veritable radius of spookiness.

They tell me that Avenida Cesar Chavez used to be 23rd Street. I don’t remember that. To me, it was always just the bottom of the hill. I remember the staircase that led from it up to Holly Street, the winding concrete and metal handrail going up dozens of feet along the limestone bluff, skirting Gage Park. It was built because it used to be a stop along the old trolley line. My abuelo used to ride that trolley home from his job at the meatpacking plant. He saw the devil there one night after a late shift. The devil followed him almost to the top. He was, my abuelo reported, smoking a cigarette. In fact, the devil made many appearances in the neighborhood. On Summit Street, Cousin Elvira saw him in an outhouse one day when she was only twelve, and it was said to have driven her mad. She died in the State Hospital, raving about El Diablo. My Great-Great Grandmother and her sister were santeras, and said to commune with the Dark One. They sacrificed chickens and bathed in the dirt of the yard. They read the future from hand-painted Tarot cards and chicken entrails. They were bootleggers in the twenties, brewing bathtub gin, pressing homemade wine from grapes grown in the yard. They gave you the evil eye, interpreted dreams, or dispensed quinine-based abortifacients.

Another woman, who also lived on Summit, went mad. She had dinner every night with Lawrence Welk, setting a table for two, talking to him as if he really were her dinner guest. Then there was the couple who used to live on Belleview. They had a poltergeist that would pull the husband out of bed each night, drag him outside, and deposit him, sleepy and bewildered, into the garden. This, my grandparents witnessed.

Veneno Para las Hadas, 1984

On 21st Street, a widow was plagued nightly by a specter. When she installed a porch light, she found it was her deceased husband, rattling the doorknob, tapping on the windows. He’d come to escort her to the other side. Across the street, several people witnessed a similar specter at the red brick house. The next day, Mrs. Ramirez, the woman who lived there, was found to have committed suicide.  

Of course, we all knew about La Llorona, and spent nights cowering under the blankets, afraid that she would come and take us to Hell. Her cousin, the Horse-Headed Lady, prowled the river bottoms. It was unclear whether she also wanted children, or just revenge for those old stockyards, where so many hooved creatures went to their deaths. 

There was the retaining wall at the corner of Allen Avenue. For as long as I can remember, there was a pachuco skull spray-painted on it. Whenever I passed its wide-brimmed fedora and bare-toothed grin, I had to look away. Was it any wonder the haunted houses went in under the 12th Street Viaduct? They opened every year mid-September. The owners could count on us to be first in line for tickets.  

Of course we gathered in kitchens, on front porches. We gathered in church yards, the children all in Catholic school uniforms, to solemnly exchange this litany, to whisper of otherworldly forces. To whisper, “Ayyy,” and cross ourselves. We carried our rosaries and pinned milagros to saints’ robes. On Easter Vigil, we eagerly accepted the vials of holy water to sprinkle around our houses. Not a living room without a painting of Nuestra SeƱora. Not a dining room without saint candles burning on sideboards. For summer day camp, we made Ojos de Dios, and leather punch wallets to carry our prayer cards in. We subscribed to HBO, to the Mysteries of the Unknown reference series. We went to drive-ins, hypnotized by living dolls, by undead psychopaths, by unnamed creatures in the dark.


El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001

It wasn’t all death and Satan. Sometimes, there was divine intervention. I can’t tell if that’s because there’s less of it, or if it’s just harder to see. A man fell asleep at the wheel and rammed our car into oncoming traffic. Pure white light came in through the windows. My abuela was certain that angels had rescued us. When my brother was in the hospital, she took out a prayer ad in the classifieds and he was healed: gracias a St. Jude. How many times were we delivered from things we don’t even know about?  

Saints and devils change names and addresses, just like we do. They hitchhike, ride shotgun on my soul. I will bear them into new neighborhoods and climes, new times and new destinations. It is my turn to deliver them, to resurrect them with new stories. They came before me and they will come after, like a scapular, meant to protect and to guide.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

February News

Hello, everyone! This month, I have publications, reviews, poetry readings and interviews to share:


The Inverse Journal out of Kashmir just accepted four of my poems, with this beautiful note from the editor, Amjad Majid: "I find your poems to possess a certain indescribable power, with subtlety in violence and tenderness spread through the four you sent our way. I especially appreciate how the American suburban space turns to a silent realm of magic. Your verses communicate silence and presence through their words. It takes me back to the Midwest for some reason. The first poem is absolutely haunting and makes for an intense start, creating the right amount of anticipation for the poems that follow."

Thank you so much, Amjad! The poems published in that journal were: “Rorschach,” “Evacuation,” “Tiny Effigies,” and “Sunday.” Read them here.


Three poems appeared in Unlikely Stories Mark V (editor Jonathan Penton). You can read “Amen,” “Exit 74 to Richmond” and “The God of Elephants” here.


Duane’s PoeTree Blog later reprinted “Exit 74 to Richmond.” 


Editor Duane Vorhees has a new book of poetry out, Love’s Autobiography: The End of Love, and it’s very fine. Check out my review of it here, along with links to purchase.


Two poems appeared in the Dissident Voice’s Sunday Poetry section (editor Angie Tibbs), “Our Song” appeared on Feb. 10, and “We were in the corner, away from the windows” appeared on Feb. 17.  


A series of six poems has been selected to appear on Stanzaic Stylings, an ezine edited by Joanne Olivieri. So far, three have appeared, “Destin,” “Litter,” and “World Tree.” The remaining three will be released over the next few weeks.


Finally, I am thrilled to be included in the inaugural issue of the Pika Journal (Mauritius). Read my poem, “Freshwater” here.



The folks over at Voice of Eve Magazine, (which published some of my poetry this past fall), gave my collection, West Side Girl & Other Poems, a five-star review. "These lyrical poems have a strong sense of story-telling to them and are rich with empathy, character, and insight." Thank you so much!

The poems they published were "Hirsute Woman," "High Water Lines," and "Varanasi," in Issue 5, available here.

This month, I was also interviewed by Jason E. Foss over at A Dreamer’s Blog about The Orderof the Four Sons. Thank you, Jason-- we writers love nothing more than a chance to talk about our work. 

I’ve been attending open mic night at the Corbin Theatre in Liberty, MO, which are on the first Tuesday of the month. It’s sponsored by the Corbin Theatre and the Liberty Arts Commission. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to check out all the wonderful poets, storytellers and musicians who attend.


Here's a just ICYMI: I published a flash fic piece earlier this month called "Mouse House." It's gotten a very positive response from the social media community, so if you haven't already, I hope you give it a read. 


Thank you, as always, for reading! Please be sure to check back, as I have more poetry book reviews planned for the next few months, as well as some short essays and flash fic.