Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Invisible Borders of Time: Five Female Latin American Poets Edited by Nidia Hernández


"The Invisible Borders of Time..." Edited by Nidia Hernández ( Arrowsmith Press) $24.

Review by Hecmely Ferreiras

In an anthology of emotionally captivating poems, I was introduced to five female Latin American poets. These poets have carefully, yet effortlessly captured similar themes of motherhood, dreams, and quiet sadness. I enjoyed reading the Spanish versions of each poem and comparing how the English translations somehow miss out on a bit of the passion and intensity that the Spanish tongue offers. I chose two poems from each author to analyze and digest the depths of each line.

The first poet featured in this book is Cristina Peri Rossi. Peri Rossi is an Uruguayan poet whose romantic tone transports you into the scene of her words. As she said, “poetry is a perception, a state of mind”. Her poems offer a journey to a state of mind that she sets up in each line. In an untitled poem, the speaker recounts an unrequited love in which their partner is no longer with them. The last few lines spoke to me; “Excuse me, the literature killed me, but you looked so much like it.” This line brought a sense of reality as if the speaker was aware that their memories and desires are just words in a poem, and it killed them because those words reminded them of their lover. The next poem by Cristina Peri Rossi was difficult for me to understand. It wasn’t until the final line that I understood that the poem “Auto-da-fe” was leading to “I love you”. The lines describe mostly negative things mixed with beauty like “with destroyed palaces whose magnificent ruin we admire.” Peri Rossi sends the message that love is complex and lacks simplicity.

Piedad Bonnett is a Columbian poet that writes poems to express herself in that very moment. I agree with her that “there are things that only poetry can say”. You can hear the sorrow in her poems along with her strength. I can only imagine that poetry must have been a comfortable source after Bonnett lost her son in 2013. The poem “Guarding”, spoke to me in many ways. I interpreted it that the speaker has put a guard up to protect themselves, whether they realize it or not. The poem has a sad but also a hopeful tone. The speaker realizes that they have put up a wall and is aware that they are sad, but still remain fierce. The next poem I looked at by Piedad Bonnett is called “Kitchen”. The poem was dedicated to Maria Victoria. The poem centers on two mothers who talk “as if there were children asleep upstairs” but in reality, there was no one. It seems as if the two mothers were reminiscing about a time when kids were running around and playing music. The two mothers comfort each other with their losses. This poem in particular reminds me of the mothers with angels in my life. I recall a time when my family was gathered for Christmas and each woman in the room shared a story of the child they lost. Similar to Bonnett’s poem, their loss provided “a bridge that united them, their hands holding on to the emptiness.”

Yolanda Pantin is a distinguished poet of Venezuela. Her dreamy poems offer an escape from reality and into the descriptive scenery Pantin displays. The poem “Déjà vu” speaks about a dream in which the speaker was writing in a notebook. The speaker asks, “what were you for me, then, poetry?” In the dream, the speaker was a horse searching for the answers and found them in a notebook that said: “a, e, i,”. The last line reminded me of elementary Spanish class where I would recite the vowels “a, e, i, o, u”. At first glance, the reader may think, how are three letters the answer they’ve been looking for? It is because poetry is like vowels. You cannot live without it or speak without it. It flows naturally and there is no way to force a sentence without vowels. It made sense to me that poetry is like life support as vowels are to a complete sentence. The poem “Guerrero” is a short poem about the soul of a house. The English version of this poem confused me because at first, but after reading it in Spanish I interpret it as the soul of the house is protected and protective of others. This poem reminds me of the comfort of an ancient house.

Carmen Boullosa is a Mexican author and poet. When reading her poems, I noticed the amount of description that delicately puzzles together into an image in your mind. In an untitled poem, Boullosa described the night as an “unmoved, peaceful skein of sound, large impenetrable serenity”. The soft tone sets a calming mood that is homey and comfortable. In the last line, the speaker says that the night covers them “in the presence of clarity without borders”. As someone who loves her country, I can only imagine that Boullosa writes about the Mexican night sky that is tranquil and silent. It reminds me of the nights in the Dominican Republic that are so rich in stars, incomparable to the smog-filled city in America that is always alive in the nighttime. This poem gave me sweet nostalgia and for a brief moment, I was in the presence of the unmoved night. When I first read the poem, “Vein”, I instantly had the thought that it was alluding to the destruction of the earth. The “wound, incision, cut” to me relates to all the times we have hurt the earth. The last line sets a negative tone with the words “viscous, rotten, permanent, poisoned” to describe the open wound. It may not allude to the tarnished earth but it resonated with the impeding planet we remain on and continue to harm.

Rossella Di Paolo is a Peruvian poet and teacher. I agree with Di Paolo when she states that “poetry gives shape (language and music) to the chaos that we all are and because of that we feel less perplexed, less alone”. The poem “Fifteen Hundred” includes descriptive words of a goat climbing uphill. My favorite line is “a thorny sun that scratches my eyes. Like a lightning bolt of dust I grow”. The impressive play on words brings me a sense of joy. The last poem I looked at is called “leave if you can II”. This poem personifies poetry in a way that I can relate to. There are times when you are in love with poetry but other times when you want to remove yourself from the endless thoughts, lines, and rhymes cluttering your head. I love the line “I surrender always because I live in the house of poetry”. Poetry is always something I come back to. It is always in my head when I feel intense emotions or when I tune into the lyrical genius of my favorite rappers. Poetry is a fantasy and an inescapable reality. It can be overwhelming at times, but I am always drawn to it.

Ultimately these poems have shown me that poetry comes in all shapes, sizes, and lengths. The featured poets in this book have reminded me of myself, my culture, and my connection to poetry. I am glad I am not the only one that thinks of poetry as a companion that we can confide in to express our emotions or just lay out our thoughts.

****** Hecmely Ferreiras is an undergraduate writer at Endicott College

Friday, May 13, 2022

Red Letter Poem #110

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner



Red Letter Poem #110



This is one of the things I love most about poetry: there isn’t a single rule, aesthetic stricture, established formulation, honored tradition – no matter how critically revered or widely practiced – for which I can’t offer you an example of a poet who violated said rule in order to achieve a successful poem.  Perhaps that is poetry’s ‘prime directive’: once a new poem begins to announce itself inside your consciousness, do anything – no matter how devilishly subtle or lavishly irregular – if (and I must stress that sense of necessity) it helps you to bring that dynamic vision, that singular music to the page.


One of those ‘best practices’ young poets learn in writing classes: don’t beat around the bush. You should move directly into the heart of the subject; don’t sacrifice clarity or economy of expression by allowing the poem’s attention to wander.  After all, how can you expect a reader to be moved if the poem indulges in detour or distraction?  Well, tell that to acclaimed poets like Frank O’Hara or Ruth Stone, Philip Levine or Wislawa Szymborska – who each seemed to make detours into an art form, creating a new experience of consciousness within poetry by mimicking the way our minds often meander, subvert and, seemingly, stumble upon a more meaningful destination than the conventional one sighted at the outset.  Jennifer Garfield – another fine poet making Arlington her home – has her own version of such anomalous behavior, often second-guessing herself within the poem, challenging her own perceptions, only to offer at the end some realization, some unexpected clarity made more satisfying for the circuitous route that brought us there.  If I tell you a poem entitled “Spring” contains baby bunnies and tulips, I’m sure you have some immediate and Hallmark-like expectations about the piece in question.  But this poet continually undercuts our assumptions and, in doing so, reminds us of our own doubts and insecurities, our often-formless craving for clear emotional resolutions in a world where such things are, at the least, problematic if not downright impossible.  Jennifer has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review, and Salamander, and was recently featured in Mass Poetry’s Hard Work of Hope series.  She’s also the recipient of The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship.  She’s one of those poets whose voice and vision seem desultory and eccentric – and then, after a few readings, inevitable and strangely trustworthy.


So if spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, shouldn’t a spring poem take Ezra Pound’s directive to heart – “make it new!” – and uncover what unimagined moments might be blooming inside even everyday consciousness?  And if new poems seem to sprout each May, attempting to honor both the season and, of course, Mother’s Day, I’d gladly help myself to ones as mysterious and honestly self-reflective as Jennifer’s.  Her “Spring” produces both a smile and a wince, and makes me grateful to have endured another winter.







There are baby bunnies in our neighbor’s yard 

hiding behind an old ladder. I watch them 

while doing dishes and think to show my own kids 


the miracle of spring, but I don’t. You are a bad mother, 

the voice in my head says. It sounds a lot like 

my own mother. I turn her words into statues 


and arrange them in the garden. Bunnies hop 

over syllables, unbothered by their tone and history. 

Can I not be wild without strumming my list 


of failures? Let me admire someone else’s flowers, 

not mine, I don’t know how to make things grow. 

Yet somehow the kids keep sprouting, 


even when I keep the bunnies to myself 

for reasons I can’t explain, and don’t you see? 

Spring really is meant for poetry. Or poetry 


is meant for spring. Or I’ve been stuck inside

too long and willing to mistake any damn season 

for spring. I forgot to mention the tulips 


and the pink blossoms

on our tree, opening their hearts

to no one but the sky. 



                         – Jennifer Garfield




The Red Letters 3.0


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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

On Earth As It Is By Michael Todd Steffen


On Earth As It Is

By Michael Todd Steffen

Cervena Barva Press

W. Somerville, MA

ISBN: 978-1-950063-17-8

53 Pages



Review by Dennis Daly


Matter-of-factness takes center stage in Michael Todd Steffen’s magnificent collection of poetry entitled On Earth As It Is. Acceptance, albeit with enormous curiosity, seems meted into each poem’s very marrow and, with it, the poet’s cogent observations. No confessional spattering here. Only hard detail, telling irony, and all-weather humor.  


Steffen’s objectivity stems from an apparent deep-seated stoicism not unsimilar to the rather dry meditations left by Marcus Aurelius (Consider Aurelius’ belief that externals do not enter a person’s essence. Quite the opposite.). The complexity of this book is evident even in its title, which exhibits a connection to the Lord’s Prayer and brings with it another meaning entirely.


In one of the collections early poems, Climb to Climber, Steffen reveals the durable nature that surrounds mankind. The world, embedded with ultimate truths, governs the upward trek of life’s adventure. The Mulberry tree fostered silkworms, which, in turn, encouraged human connection by trade route. Carpenters used other woods to build ships and inspire the spiritual in congregation after congregation.  Yes, nature witnesses all, sometimes beneficial, sometimes not so much. Steffen’s piece concludes with a question mark,


… Look up

in an old cathedral and notice

the upside-down hull of a ship

urgent with angels,


the clouds they emerge from

good as any basis.

                                            When you

stumble where the sidewalk heels up

with the wandering roots of a tree

jolting the frame in you, is it

without intention—nobody

there—heating your cheek

for the shade cast over you,

the high leaves jeering in a breeze?


Perhaps the oddest and funkiest rite showcased by religious zealots, who once crisscrossed rural America, must be poisonous snake handling. Derived from biblical verse, this lethal practice exemplifies the downside of literal interpretations of religious texts. Steffen’s poem Snake draws down the dangerous implications of mixing faith with tangible reality. By adding “in heaven” to the book’s title phrase “as it is” gives one not just a different meaning, but a contrasting and ultimately ironic meaning. The poet looks at his subject with detail and fascination—almost snake-like. He opens his poem coldly,


Tail, neck. It’s a member of itself,

extension to eyes. It’s a mouth


alive by its severed tongue that tastes the air,

sighted by glimpses, vanishing, of what all


lies beyond my ordinary senses,

outside the savoir of the myths of old


even to Gilgamesh from whom

a sea serpent stole the sprig of eternal life…


My favorite poem in this collection Steffen titles The Vice of Innocence. An arrangement of three short stanzas, the poet lets in enough ambiguity to create a magical, almost numinous atmosphere. Steffen also makes good use of a bit of Frost-like imagery. He presents denial as a life force, a strategy, which allows humankind to cope. The universe disguises any ultimate deliverance in circuitousness and seasonal change. Here, one’s innocence,


prides itself in its certainty

of denial

to allow the seasons to



following its leaf-strewn path

on the way to its narrow salvation

deeper in the woods.


Both title poem and master work of this collection, Steffen’s piece Ansel Adams conjures up an alien and wanton universe, richly detailed and ever-expanding. Steffen accurately depicts the artistic vision of Adams and connects with it in a charmed, uncertain landscape. He is taken by the un-colorized grandeur of what is objectively there and the dynamism inherent in it. Consider the heart of the poem,


So much of what he aspired to take

and therefore leave was land on land

on land, an edition of views of a nearly

alien planet, earth as other. Insleeve?

Back cover? Where even was the photographer’s

picture? Bowl of valley? Aerialist pines?


His millennially worn pristine meccas

and reclining foothills

powerfully magnetized compositions.

His dalliance with sagebrush blurred

in ankle breezes.

His patience and rigor couldn’t keep

The clouds from being capricious—

Wisp to flock to castle.


For many, college graduations bring with them disillusionment and disorientation. The world of hard knocks awaits the former student with big-picture problems that will soon overwhelm his or her privilege and pettiness. Steffen uses a little rural humor to effectively complete the trajectory of his poem Leaving College. The poet proffers these telling, homespun lines,


…I was grinning at a card

from a rancher uncle in Western

Nebraska, congratulating me

For being no damn better

Than one of them January days

That turns your lips blue

Now that I had one degree.


Metaphoric and wonderful, Steffen’s ode To a Housefly in Winter steeps his readers in scientific particulars that disguise a burgeoning, uncontainable irony, at least until the last stanza. All the while Steffen exults in the marvelous biology of the housefly, he laments the metaphysical unfairness, the tragedy of fate. The two constructs, unfortunately, go together. This awareness of terrestrial dazzle and confinement seems to liberate the poet into a concluding action,


Near your claws there are

adhesive pads, pulvilli,

facilitating your walk


on walls and ceilings

with glorious


having its own sorrowful


demise, betokened by one

of your forebears,

a partial wing left,

flat on his back


in the window sill.

Beyond the thin transparency

full of light attracting you,

you must feel the confine


I clothe myself

to step out of, into

my own wondrous machine’s

transitory clinging.


Steffens poetry transcends artistic perspective. Its fail-safe distance invites readers to share his steady visions as they are on earth, in heaven, or, perhaps, elsewhere. An impressive second book.

Monday, May 09, 2022

This Close by Karen Klein

This Close 


Karen Klein  ( click on to order)

Karen Klein’s This Close is a beautiful read, the poems ranging widely in mood and tone. Her partner’s painful, fatal illness includes a grieving awareness of her own body registering “the meaning of old.” Parthenon presents an excited “First time tourist,” while Tribal Tongues is playful about Yiddish that enriches “…my tribe/those meshugena enough to make poems.” Commitment to Poetry describes her mysterious process of vision: “Poetry made a commitment to me…pulled words out of me…scant rain dew on my face…I melt into it,” an engaging, sensitive collection.— Nina Rubinstein Alonso, author, Riot Wake, editor, Constellations a Journal of Poetry and Fiction