Friday, October 16, 2020

Library of My Hands By Joseph Heithaus


Library of My Hands

By Joseph Heithaus

Dos Madres Press

ISBN: 978-1-948017-68-8

121 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Illuminated wonder. Musical sparkle. The transcendent light within everyone. These are the objects of Joseph Heithaus’ collection of intimate and ecstatic poems entitled Library of My Hands. The book reads like a revelation of family, nature, birth, and death, but always through humanity’s compassionate lens. It reminds one of Thomas Merton, or, more to the point, Merton’s mystical side. Heithaus covers poetic territory not much dissimilar from Merton, a poet in his own right, who at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville, Kentucky, on a shopping mission for his monastery, observed his fellow passerbys, “shining like the sun.” Merton believed he had seen the goodness and the beauty at man’s core or, perhaps, he had espied the individual hearts of his fellow travelers. Heithaus runs with a kindred metaphor of light, using his own perspectives and experiences as an approach to metaphysical or, at least, visionary phenomena.

A drama of Genesis opens this collection in three of Heithaus’ early poems, Birth of Light, Memorize, and Mother’s Blood. Descriptive cosmological words turn to the mnemonic joy of family birth and then to deeper remembrances of that birth. Listen to these marvelous lines from Mother’s Blood,

Your mother gave you this blood

that’s now become your prism

and mask, your passageway

to the sparkling places

inside yourself. Not tissue

and bone, but memory of memory,

your small fingers once over a flame

to feel the light, light

you first saw from inside

her, she’s leaning over the basket

of wet clothes on a morning

before you were born,

that’s when you opened your eyes

to amnion light, blood light,

the shadow of her spine, her body

your kaleidoscope…

Heithaus’ piece entitled Poetry thrills at the efficaciousness of said subject as well as the aesthetic miracles it surfaces. Poetry lures prizes from the unconscious depths and imbues them with unthinkable artistry. On the other hand, the poet, himself, exhibits flaws and claims no intellectual superiority. He is simply a fisherman. Heithaus explains,

Poetry is how I open

the box with the earth inside

fill it with light

so you see the bait

I bought

to put on a hook

to catch something out

of that box of water

they call a lake,

which, if I’m lucky,

we’ll launch out into

in a jon boat,

that keeled box

of air where we’ll stand

rocking and looking

at something beautiful

and wet…

Cemetery, Heithaus’ poem on abundance amidst emptiness, contrasts the despair of dark umbrellas and rain at a February funeral with considerations of wasteful glut and sun-generated bounty and hope. In the background a soldier plays taps. The poet sees continuance and exultation in the seasonal panoply of future promise and concludes his piece this way,

faces sudden from

dark umbrellas

and rain


of the black branches

come buds, then blossoms

then leaves, come robin-chatter

and bee-light, tulip-light

coochee-coo-light, more life-light,


My favorite poem in this collection Heithaus titles Toll. In a way, the piece is a counter meditation to John Donne’s famous poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Heithause puts his emphasis on a baby’s coos, trimming the fingernails of an infant, humming a sweet tune to that infant, all things that commemorate especial moments of life. Afflictions are understood and accepted, but not lingered over. The poet tempers the bells’ heavy insistence on doom with his own sense of grace. In Heithaus’ world affliction is not to be obsessed on; any more than a reminder of death is to be obsessed on. The quiet intervals in-between, the celebrations of life—these are the real gems. The poet opines,


in this room with its lamplight

and pillows and coos there will be tolls

to pay, unexpected taxes, like those scenarios

we watch from the windows

of our house: divorce next door,

murder across the street,

the slow death around the block

who limps past each day on the sidewalk.

But why dwell there?

There’s no end to affliction’s treasures

no end to the tolls that hammer

out each hour, nor is there an end

to grace, the bells between the evening’s silences,

this moment here when I whisper back

to the woman I love.

About halfway through his collection Heithaus sets a section of ekphrastic poems he calls Light Studies. All of them are well done, but one of them, What’s Lit, a poetic commentary on Caravaggio’s painting The Conversion of Saul, I think is especially spectacular. The painting itself shows Saul (about to become Paul) flat on his back, defenseless. The poet sees neither Saul nor the converted Paul but the moment in between, the becoming. Saul’s horse seems to be divinity, the center of power, and he reaches toward it and the dangerous radiance it represents. The title of the poem directs our attention to light that reflects off the horses’ flank. Heithaus describes the scene as the poem opens,

muscle of the forearm, fetlock,

heel and the hand of another

soldier holding the reins,

the horse’s barrel, flank, buttock,

and you, between names, splayed

like a baby born out of the night,

the oscuro, the obscure into

the chiaro, the clear and bright,

but your head’s still in the shadow,

your left leg, the back

of your hand, your pinky obscured

by that blackness and your eyes

look closed. We know

what will happen when you

open them…

A blinding light of poetic understanding emanates from this extraordinary collection. Like Merton before him, Heithaus sees and versifies a unique and dynamic vision beyond the pedestrian perceptions of most people. His words simply astonish.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Powow River Poets Anthology II


The Powow River Poets 

Anthology II

Edited by Paulette Demers Turco

Introduction by Leslie Monsour

Able Muse Press, 2021

Review by William Falcetano

The Powow River poets have done it again, like lightning striking twice in the same place: they have produced a second anthology of poems that amply justifies their well-deserved reputation as highly talented versifiers and master-craftworkers of the artform.  These excellent poems are distinguished by a graceful formalism, wry humor, scorching irony, delicious whimsy, insight into, and compassion for, the vagaries of the human condition. 

There is also a distinct note of localism which brings us to such magical places as the sand dunes of Plum Island and “the sun-speckled Merrimack” in that imaginary land “North of Boston” made famous by Robert Frost, as well as more far-flung Muse-inspired locales as the lush jungles of Honduras or a secret waterfall in Colorado.  In ancient times poets haunted obscure brooks or hidden dells where they would be embraced by Muses who inspired them to sing in meters and chant in rhymes.  Such inspired formal precision is on almost every page of this remarkable volume and it reminds the reader (this reader in particular) what makes poetry poetic.  How to explain this profusion of talent?  It has been rumored that they are imbibing the Muse-infused waters of the Powow River as it meanders through the charming hamlet of Amesbury (though I’m inclined to guess it’s equally the result of hard work and years of careful reading and pain-staking writing).  

This gifted group of poets normally meets at the Newburyport Public Library, which hosts their readings. As someone who has recently found refuge on Plum Island just before the outbreak of the pandemic, I was disappointed that this happy congress was canceled - another victim of the dreaded covid-19.  In lieu of attending live readings I offered to review this new anthology - it was a labor of love which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

Apropos libraries and poetry readings I laughed when I read Alfred’ Nicol’s funny poem “Nuts”, which offers glimpses of such recognizable denizens as the old codger who won’t live long enough to read the armload of biographies he is checking out; or the “struggling poets” whose audiences find “the open mic’s a magnet for the daft”.  

Another witty poem is A.M. Juster’s “Proposed Clich├ęs”; some examples are:

More user-friendly than a hooker

hard up for cash.

Ask not what your country can do,

for fear of the answer.

Burn the candle at both ends

if you want to wax poetic.

If you’re crazy like a fox,

get tested for rabies.

I was touched by Kyle Potvin’s “To My Children Reading My Poetry after I’m Gone”, which offers a defense of poetic license and the right of the poet to dissemble.  She advises her children, if they search for clues about their mother in her poems, beware: 

...poets play with words, ignore the truth,

manipulate” as Plath once said. A ruth-

less cutting, blending, marking up - that’s art.

Dears, best to trust what’s written in your heart.

Poetry also reveals truth through its manipulative art. Such revelations are everywhere to be found in this outstanding collection.  Pace Keats, however, truth and beauty do not always co-mingle, as Michael Cantor’s “Lament” reveals about growing old and

what it all comes down to - thoughts of shits

and weekends with the Times invade a kiss-

kiss-fuck-fuck-bang-bang mind as age submits

his calling card, engraved, upon a bone-

white plate...

In another memento mori James Najarian illustrates how the splendor of youth can suddenly be turned into something far from lovely when a frolicking frat boy meets his fate in a car crash.  Najarian, who envies “the ease of any of these guys”, first brings into focus the perfect prep school bodies of youngsters playing football in the April rain:

The lawn is a snarl of pectoral and arm

In a game I cannot play or even grasp.

However rough it seems, they mean no harm,

shoulder on shoulder in a perfect clasp

of biceps, deltoid, butt, and leather ball.

Then he hits the reader with the tragic reversal of fortune, marveling at how the frat boys are so “spendthrift with themselves, as only young men can be.” 

Another unbeautiful truth is told by Anton Yakovlev’s “Ask Anyone” which alludes the common occurrence of nighttime arrests in the USSR:

Ask anyone who lived in Soviet times.

It was at night that people went away. 

Faint blood in basements.  Vague rumors of crimes…

Quiet black Volgas gliding past stop signs. 

This anthology is also chock full of beautiful truths as well, much of it painting word portraits on landscape, seasons, gardens, and family. The editor, Paulette Demers Turco, offers two poems about her mother. In “Singer” she is depicted as a modern-day Penelope at the loom waiting for her husband to return (like Odysseus, he too is off at war) singing tunes at her Singer sewing machine. 

...her wish 

of daughters dressed by her - beyond her wish

when she took her vows on her wedding day.

While her love served in Normandy, she’d hum

soft tunes of his return - no sewing machine. 

Her trousseau was of borrowed silk and lace.

Her groom gave her a Singer. She’d teach herself. 

What is it about parents that inspires poetry?  Several poems in this collection draw upon memories of mothers or fathers. Rhina P. Espaillat, the ring-leader of this happy band of poets, offers a memory of strolling the promenade in Newburyport with her elderly mother. 

Widowed, confused, dimly aware

of who I was beside her there,

but fond of mischief, and still pretty.

She loved the river and the city. 

They are joined by old fellow bald and thin

Who gripped his cane and slipped right in…

What happens next I leave to the reader to discover - but the “mischief” made me laugh. 

There are whimsical takes on the philosophical musings of a speck of dust in Alfred Nicol’s “Old Haunt”, or the absurdities of border controls placed on the natural world in Nancy Bailey Miller’s Revisiting “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, in which she asks facetiously:

But why can’t we reroute the bird migration?

Insist on green cards from our waterfalls?

What monarch claims the path of butterflies 

in spring?

I have not, and cannot, do justice to this outstanding anthology, and its many fine poets, in a mere thousand words; but I’d like to reassure readers that every page of this excellent book is worth careful attention, especially if you enjoy reading well-crafted poems.