New Review: The Children’s War and Other Poems by Shaindel Beers

Tonight, I finished reading Shaindel Beers’ second full-length poetry collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems (Salt Publishing, 2013). It’s a book in two parts about a difficult subject — the effects of war and violence on children and society at large — but it’s also a book about the healing power of poetry and art.

The first part of the book contains poems based on the artwork of child survivors of war.  In one, “After a drawing by Mercedes Comellas Ricart,” Beers writes from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old survivor of the Spanish Civil War, imagining the reasons behind the artistic choices her speaker made in this piece:

The plane drops a single black tear of a bomb
that tears a hole in the mountains. The station
bell is mute next to the air raid sirens, and we run.
… [The train] is a ghost train, light gray
and see-through because we never got on. I didn’t finish
the tracks because I never learned where they would go.

Another poem, “Little Amira Honors Her Cat, Pepa,” is based on a drawing of a “family of fourteen hiding in a basement” with the speaker’s cat Pepa, who Little Amira claims  “himself was love.” This is why when she draws him, Beers has the girl explain, “his face is an orange heart. He is smiling / with his mouth and his eyes and his whiskers.” Yes, a grenade “blew open the shelter.” Yes, after the explosion, “the world/ became only Lejla and me…” But Amira “draw[s] Pepa over and over” to honor him, and looks to the future with hope, however heartbreaking that hope is: “When I grow up, I will own a pet store./ I will have ten cats named Pepa./ I will do a better job because/ I will be bigger.” Though Beers stares unflinchingly into the inhumanity and violence of war, over and over, she finds humanity and beauty in the artwork it inspires.

The second part of the collection plumbs the same psychic depths in the world at large, beginning with “Me Llamo,” a poem dedicated to Esteban Guerra, a little boy who believes he carries the guilt of the world’s wars because his name means war itself:

At Confession, he recited figures from every
war he could find in the encyclopedias his abuela kept
in the front room. Padre, I killed 500,000 in Spain
In the 1930s. And 750,000 in the American Civil War alone.

From Esteban, Beers moves to victims of domestic violence in the Midwest, a nameless sister who takes the blame for her brother’s death, a girl near Boston who is waiting for a kidney transplant. Scattered throughout these poems about contemporary American people are mythic poems exploring the violent depths of our collective consciousness: there is a poem from the point of view of a raped naiad, a narrative from Daphne of her transformation into a tree. There are poems inspired by art here, too, for example “After Doctor’s Orders,” a poem inspired by a fused glass sculpture by Tom Dimond, which takes as its subject a man-become-bird who “has felt the southern pull on him in fall,/the northern tug in spring…”

By the end of the collection, when Beers describes her son, Liam, staring up from “the orange hammock of his stroller” at the “bright blue field” of the sky, throwing his fists up, his small hands “opening and closing,” we understand exactly what she means when she says he is “trying to grab // the vastness.” Her poems do something similar: they reach into the dark with small hands to capture the vastness of the human spirit.

Three new poems on folklorist Robert Kirk in Contrary

Three of my new poems exploring the life, death, and work of Robert Kirk — the 17th century Scottish folklorist, minister, and Gaelic scholar — are featured in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine! Robert Kirk was the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairiesa pseudo-scientific study of the folk beliefs of his parishioners about the sleagh maith — that is, the sith or fairies — and all of the other “subterranean and invisible inhabitants” of Scotland. Left in manuscript form at the time of Kirk’s death in 1692, The Secret Commonwealth was published by Andrew Lang in the 19th century. I’m fascinated both by the book, which paints a vivid picture of 17th century Scottish folk beliefs, and by the facts of Kirk’s life. He claimed to have second sight, truly believed in the sleagh maith, and was found dead in his nightshirt one evening on a dun-shi, or fairy hill, in his native Aberfoyle, Scotland. You can read the poems here.

New Review: Book of Asters by Sally Rosen Kindred

I just finished reading Book of AstersSally Rosen Kindred’s haunting second collection (Mayapple Press, 2014). The poems in Book of Asters, like the poems in Kindred’s first full-length book, No Eden, explore themes of motherhood, grief, and spirituality in beautiful, lyrical language. Many of the poems turn flowers into metaphors for womanhood and desire, exploring the fertility, transience, and healing power of asters, zinnias, and weeds. Others explore what happens when the flower of womanhood fails to bloom, using the language of flowers to articulate the secret griefs of infertility and miscarriage. Reanimating a long-ago childhood when carts drifted through Winn-Dixie parking lots, children placed their heads on their desks to listen to records, and a daughter longing for otherworldly talismans stole “fists of quartz” from a neighbor’s driveway, this evocative collection explores the complexities of family life and the relationships of a mother to her children and “all the children [she] will never bear.” Highly recommended.

Interview about Wolf Skin with Tanya Chernov

The interview Tanya Chernov conducted with me about Wolf Skin is now up, over at her blog. Below is an excerpt from the beginning:

TC: Let’s talk about that fantastic title! At what point in the process of composition did you nail it down and know you had the title of your manuscript? What does it represent for you?

MM: Many of the poems in the chapbook explore our preoccupation with putting on a front of invulnerability or fierceness. European folktales as we know them today are violent stories, with clear underlying assumptions about the widespread existence of evil in the world. One of the questions I found myself asking, as I wrote these poems, is do I believe in that evil? Whatever it is, how should we choose to react to it? The title poem follows the huntsman from the Brothers Grimm variant of Little Red Riding Hood as he comes upon the wolf asleep—snoring loudly—in the grandmother’s bed. Because the poem is written in second person, reading the poem, you enter the huntsman’s mind as he realizes what the wolf has done and rushes to save the girl and her grandmother. You become the huntsman, as he “slit[s] the beast open, the word hero stinging [his] tongue.” But Red and the grandmother do not respond, here, as they do in the Grimms’ version. At the end of the poem, the huntsman plans the story he’ll tell his friends, then tries on the “wolf skin” as he walks home. The title shifted several times during the writing process, but when the poem was accepted at Los Angeles Review, I loved your and Kelly Davio’s suggestion that I pull out the phrase “wolf skin” from the final verse and use it as the title, because of the way it brought out the themes of the poem. Ultimately, the poem asks, what really happened at grandmother’s house? Why do men become heroes or villains?

Read the rest of the interview here

Tanya Chernov earned her MFA in poetry from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop. Author of the Kirkus Review’s 15 Excellent New Memoirs, A Real Emotional Girl  (Skyhorse Publishing), she is the former poetry  and translations editor for the Los Angeles Review. In 2014, she edited the groundbreaking multimedia poetry anthology, The Burden of Light. Tanya lives and writes in Seattle with her dog, Mona, though the roots of her heart remain firmly planted  in Wisconsin. 

The Burden of Light Now Available on Kindle

The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss (edited by Tanya Chernov) is now available on Kindle! The first of its kind, this multimedia anthology weaves together many solitary experiences to create a tapestry of inspiration, support, and hope. In it, you can read my poem, “Irène Joliot-Curie,” watch a short video introduction about my inspiration for writing it, and watch and listen to me read the poem. The anthology also includes inspiring, personal multimedia contributions from eighty-nine other poets, including Jeannine Hall Gailey, Kelly Davio, Janeen Rastall, and many others. Contributions include audio, video, paintings, photos, digital art, and links to books and literary magazines. Best of all, 100% of the proceeds benefit cancer research!