Month: October 2015

Our Day in the Labyrinth by Kate Asche

Our Day in the Labyrinth by Kate Asche

Finishing Line Press, 2015 ISBN: 978-1-62229-992-8 Paperback, 24 pp., $12.49 Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy “Studia Intima,” the opening piece in Our Day in the Labyrinth, offers us a pace and vantage point, tools with which we can examine Kate Asche’s new collection of poems. Studia […]

In Case of Infection by Vicki Entreken

In Case of Infection by Vicki Entreken

When you happen upon a great piece of writing, you want to read it again. A passage that sings with language or moves you in ways that leave you wanting more, or wanting to experience it again. Whenever that used to happen to me as […]

The Killing Fields and Other Poems by Nahshon Cook

The Killing Fields and Other Poems by Nahshon Cook

Shabda Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-0990795810
Perfect bound, 136 pp., $14
Review by CL Bledsoe

I discovered this collection through one of my favorite contemporary poets, Joseph Ross, who wrote a blurb for it. The collection covers Cook’s two-and-a-half year stay in Asia where he taught and lived. Cook describes himself as a poet of witness. What that means is that the political pervades the personal. Cook’s poems are deeply socially aware. But what really struck me is that Cook isn’t lecturing. One of the earliest poems in the book is “Nepal Poems Reworked #1: A Leper.” The poem describes a beggar, a leper with a baby, in clear tones:

She sits on the side of the street
atop a bundle of rags
with a copper begging bowl in front of her
and a naked, brown, chubby-cheeked baby boy
cradled in the handless stump of an arm

What truly stands out about this poem is Cook’s lack of commentary. He simply describes the scene. His language is simple, specific, and lacking in emotional charge. With a title like that—mentioning a leper—the reader is immediately guarded, expecting emotional blackmail. As the poem progresses, and no overt agenda emerges, the reader is left to consider the scene until the closest moment to commentary arrives the end, when Cook describes the woman’s sores, missing eyebrows, and “the two fleshy parts / where lips should be.” In the context of the poem, this is another simple description, but it’s not hard to see meaning in the image; if she lacks lips, how does she speak? She speaks through her visage, of course, and Cook doesn’t try to speak for her. This is a perfect example of the poetry of witness, I think, and of good poetry, whatever the label. A lesser poet could have tried to hammer the point home, but Cook chooses subtlety.

Periodically throughout the collection, Cook has included several poems in the form of journal entries or commentaries on his time in Asia. “China Poem: Last Night” describes a street scene. A young woman, probably very drunk, has thrown up on the sidewalk. Her companion is trying to flag down a taxi, and fails:

…Maybe
the drivers caught sight
of the spit-up clumps of food in her hair
and were afraid
she would vomit
in the backseat
of their car.

As he watches this scene, it begins to rain. Cook concludes that he:

…spent the rest of the walk home
thinking about
that place
deep inside of us
that’s not trying
to do anything
except live.

Many of the poems are surprising, often delightful observations of life, though just as often, they are deeply moving and personal. Cook includes a series of poems chronicling his mother’s fight against cancer, for example. Many of these poems are religious or conclude with echoes of Cook’s mother’s religious belief, which comforts her. It’s tempting to read these near-platitudes with a disdainful eye, but the simple, naked honesty in the scenes and the poems makes this impossible, as does the fact that Cook isn’t selling a lifestyle or set of beliefs. A perfect example of this is the juxtaposition of two poems. “Bowling,” describes Cook’s mother’s struggle with her cancer treatments, one effect of which makes her arm ache:

All this is like a ball
coming down
the bowling alley
trying to knock me down.

On the next page, we have “Penpals: 12,” which describes a memory about poor workers in Thailand. “There’s a Khmer proverb that says: The rice field is their university. The hoe, their pen. It reminds me of the day I asked the reason Nam and Jo’s kids weren’t in school, and was told that if we didn’t keep the servants dumb, they’d kill us.” Cook isn’t naive or ignorant about the true depravity of the world.

“Walking: 1” is a lovely pastoral, slice-of-life poem. It begins:

The wind carried the laughter
of invisible children
playing in the neighborhood
next door to the field
where my dog galloped around in circles
like she was herding sheep

Cook wonders what the “little furry buds bursting open / on the branch of a pussy willow / would sound like” and is surprised by a garter snake, “the two tips of its tongue were dark / like a fountain pen point / dipped in black or blue liquid ink.” It’s a little thing, but Cook is changed for the moment. The real power in Cook’s poems is his aching honesty. He isn’t writing purple prose—in fact, his poems are stripped-down, bare bones and essential, at times. He is simply capable of showing the heartbreaking truths of life without hiding behind platitudes.

Fortune’s Favor: Scott in Antarctica by Kim Roberts

Fortune’s Favor: Scott in Antarctica by Kim Roberts

Poetry Mutual Press, 2015 ISBN: 978-1-329-00621-8 Perfect bound, 56 pp., $18 Review by CL Bledsoe Kim Roberts is a fixture on the DC scene as a poet and editor for Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Fortune’s Favor, drawn from journal entries, follows explorer Captain Robert Scott on […]

Haw by Sean Jackson

Haw by Sean Jackson

Harvard Square Editions ISBN: 978-1-941861-06-6 Paperback, 181 pp., $22.95 Review by Sue Ellis Sean Jackson’s Haw takes place in a bleak, futuristic America. For decades, Central North Carolina’s public water utility has been losing the battle to achieve acceptable levels of toxicity, providing its citizens […]

Paintings: Ramsay Wise

Paintings: Ramsay Wise

Ramsay Wise teaches film studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and English at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. His paintings are mostly motivated by an empty canvas, but he is also interested in working from broad archetypal subjects. His studio (the garage) is a mess. His art can also be seen in Mud Season Review and forthcoming issues of The Sonder Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.