Thursday, May 28, 2015

“Re-Use and Remember”: A Review of Eileen Tabios’ I Forgot Light Burns

(Chicago: Moria Books,, 2015), ISBN: 9780991212132

This month marks 10 years since I wrote my first book review. In that time, I have had the opportunity to review multiple books by the same author (in several cases, different books from a continuous series, but not always). Of the 110 reviews that I have done, there are half a dozen reviews of books that Eileen Tabios has either written or edited. This has been an easy decision to make, because no two are the same. Tabios is not only a talented wordsmith, and visual artist of language—she truly is an innovator. She invented a style of poetry called the Hay(na)ku, which numerous authors have adopted. She writes poems that pull in visual and literary art, music and dance, and that employ an impressive array of styles. She can go from dense prose poems that fill page after page with compact images and historical/literary references to very brief forms.

Some months ago, I reviewed Tabios’s Sun Stigmata (2014), which was a reworking of the prose poems of her Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (2002) as “written-sculpted” poems; she likened the process in her Preface to a sculptor releasing the image from a block of stone, echoing Michelangelo.

In her latest collection, I Forgot Light Burns, she is again using previous works by creating lines from reading through her first 27 poetry collections. In the “Afterword” she writes, “My recent work, ‘Murder, Death, and Resurrection’ (MDR), includes a … Poetry Generator [which] contains a data base of 1,146 lines which can be combined randomly to make a large number of poems.” I Forgot Light Burns was created from this method.  Each line begins with the phrase “I forgot” which was inspired by a Tom Beckett poem that began in the same manner (this is the multi-level genius operating behind Tabios’s work: in this case, reconstituted poems from her work, with the framework re-purposed from someone else’s approach as well as hers. As regards the latter, the framework also reflects her interest in cubism where images are fractured and still retain validity).

Poets have been either continually revising their poems (e.g., Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) or taking found texts, etc. to create works for a long time now (e.g.,  Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-up technique; note that Gysin was a painter). I’ve used old, unpublished poems of mine to create Mind Maps, a combination of phrases and images thematically linked on a page, and have turned some of my prose works into poems and poems into prose.

The result of Tabios’s approach in I Forgot Light Burns is akin to a series of sutras—of gemlike word-meditations with endless facets, meditations on color and sound and humanity. Sometimes concrete, oftentimes abstract. The following have been chosen to show the variations in effect:

“I forgot Red of cantaor’s voice becoming rusty nail pulling out of old board.” (1)

“I forgot how quickly civilization can disappear, as swiftly as the shoreline from an oil spill birthed from a twist of the wrist by a drunk vomiting over the helm—” (7)

“I forgot how gemstones can gasp—” (8)

“I forgot the revolt of the minor key—” (30)

“I forgot the mother snapped the umbilical cord with her teeth, strapped the newborn to her back, then picked up the scythe—” (31)

“I forgot I wanted to make memories, not simply press petals between pages of expendable books—” (42)

I Forgot Light Burns creates the kind of feedback loop between author and audience that I have found to be one of the bedrocks of Tabios’s work. It invites numerous textual and visual readings, and a meditation on the nature of what it means to forget. And to remember. And to reconsider the role poetry and poetics plays in the creative process.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Rousing Pirate Tale: A Review of P. S. Bartlett’s Demons & Pearls

(available through Amazon in paperback and for Kindle), ISBN: 978-1511572552
By Joey Madia
About 18 months ago, I reviewed P. S. Bartlett’s Fireflies, which I touted as a “novel that tells, simply and elegantly, the story of a family’s love.” Although family love is a strong undercurrent in her latest offering (the second book in the “Razor’s Adventures” series), Demons & Pearls is a much different read, taking as its subject matter the high-adventure world of pirates in the 1700s.
            Pirates are immensely popular these days, with the success of Black Sails on Starz, last year’s take on Edward “Blackbeard” Teach  by NBC, called Crossbones starring John Malkovich, and the buzz around the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There are also an increasing number of re-enactors and cos play participants donning pirate attire and a national “talk like a pirate day” that is always fun to participate in on Facebook.
            What is it about pirates? It's a treasure-seeking, freedom-loving Archetype, full of the romanticism that has somehow bled away (for the time being) from our notions of the Old West, and Demons & Pearls takes all the best of the romantic tropes and couples them with the requisite scenes of brutality, double-crossing and the denigration of women.
            Demons & Pearls centers around the character of Ivory Shepard, an independent, strong, and beautiful woman whose life has been turned continually upside-down at the hands of ruthless pirates. She has taken on the responsibility of protecting her three cousins from on-ship hazards as well as a dark, unseemly plot in Port Royal, Jamaica. Ivory, who is nicknamed “Razor” because of her weapon of choice, is a complex, compelling character. She walks a thin line between the male and female, and leaving behind the life that has caused her and her family so much misery and fully giving into it by becoming a pirate herself.
            Amongst the male pirates, there are lively characters with names like Rip, River, and Red, who are vying for the captaincy and working the pirate articles of conduct to their advantage, all while trying to make a quick buck and get a girl any way they can.
            Bartlett’s facility with written dialects is just as strong here as it was in Fireflies, with the “pirate-speak” with which fans of the period and genre are well familiar adding a fun and spicy rhythm. There is just enough to give an authentic flavor to the dialogue without bogging the reader down.
            Bartlett also demonstrates a working knowledge of the ships of the time, adding detail and authenticity to the tale.
            My one criticism is that I wish an editor had the opportunity to look over the manuscript to clean up some of the typos. The cover, typesetting, and overall design are appealing and professional and the writing is so strong that little things like a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation tend to stick out.
            In the end, Demons & Pearls made for an excellent read and the end has me looking forward to seeing what is next for Ivory and the pirates.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

“Thru the Windows and the Blinds”: A Review of Ed Baker’s Neighbor

 (1998/2015; Moria Press; paperback:; free ebook:

Some poets write in a minimalist, Eastern style that reads like a sutra or a prayer, as opposed to the at-times very dense poetry of Western writers. Poets writing in the former style give the reader ample space in which to graft their interpretations and morph their experiences with the work, allowing their poems to operate like myths, folk tales, and fairytales.

It was five years ago that I first reviewed Ed Baker’s work, when I received for the purpose his Restoration Letters (1972–1978)—co-authored with Cid Corman—and his solo book, Restoration Poems (1972–2007). I had been a fan of his writing and goddess illustrations for years prior, and since publishing that review, we have kept in touch through email.

Neighbor unfolds like a classic mystery (at least to this reader, who has recent experience writing in the genre) without a murder; a noir-ish exploration of the complicated relationship of the narrator and the troubled woman who lives next door to a house in which the narrator seems to be doing renovations.
The book is broken into five sections (Arousal, Calling Her, Shades, Fu:sion, and Intersections), the poetry interlaced with some of Baker’s line sketches, reminiscent of his well-known goddess drawings.
Neighbor quickly places the reader in the role of voyeur, much like watching a play in a darkened theatre, where the “fourth” wall has been removed and your participation in what unfolds is implicit rather than explicit.

With his ladder propped against a wall, the narrator let’s us look, vicariously, through a window. There is a letter slipped under a kitchen door.
“a woman waiting/invitations
getting to know her”

She tells him: “My father molested me when I was young”; the narrator later confirms she was “gone into by her father.” She is troubled, self-sexualized, and perhaps unstable.
Their “relationship” is consummated fairly quickly, the narrator describing her sexual appetites, capabilities, and her body with an initial reverence reminiscent of the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Rod McKuen:
“eaten her ripe fig from
tree of heaven between
her there      and me ...”

But over time, the metaphorical reverence melts away, and we are left with the bluntness of
Time passes, and my read is that the narrator is doing odd jobs for the neighbor. There is wiring and ladders, and continuous imagery of her garden, which she tends, while he works. Their relationship continues its dynamic tension, power constantly shifting, with the narrator professing:
“deliberately/I had kept/my/distance”
even as he tries to “get a better/view/across the way/for days shades/up/blinds open”
“the shade was up”
In both the poems and the illustrations (a series of abstract line drawings of the female shape, open and impressionistic) the window and its shades and blinds are prevalent. Both passageways and a code, these are the mechanisms of memory, as one is titled: “A Man Contemplates Sketch Pinned to Wall.”
In the sub-section “Calling Her” the voyeurism increases: “her shadow-dance/behind the drawn/shade”
Or later in the book, in a poem called “The Eyes”:
Throughout the book there is admonition by the narrator that the poems and drawings are most important; the imagination more real than the “reality” of the trysts:
“as this run of poems the
book is become yet to be

“it was never her/mound that he had/wanted  it was/
on a poem that/his words had made”

“he had drawn her/like she had/drawn him”

But the poetry then seems to work upon her, drawing her in (or out):

“…one line/sentence/gets/her/outside…
tinted windows/all around auto”

Although, as we see, even the windows of her car have the potential to hide her secrets.


“the shade/came down/abruptly/the window too/it was that final/these poems are/what/is/left/of the relationship”

Within the dynamic tension, there is at times overlap with the structural and sexual:
“back doorwide invitation to
enter her”

And Kafka-esque perceptual transformation, as he likens her to a mantis that


As the book proceeds, the illustrations begin to change. Just before the section entitled “Fu:sion” there are two portraits that might be of the author/narrator. In the 1999 drawings, the female subject looks skeletal and monstrous.

By this stage in their voyeuristic dance, it is clear just how much she enjoys the game:

“her habit was/to watch him/watching her”

In the final section, “Intersections,” the narrator more fully articulates the somewhat selfish nature of the relationship:

“he had had his own ex-/pectations of woman/in the window”

and in the next to last poem:

“it/had/never/been/her/sex/that he was after”

In its movement from voyeurism, to passionate sex, to the roller-coaster of rejection and reunion, to the admonition that it was all about the art, Neighbor takes us on a journey full of shadow and mystery, leading the reader to the harder questions about why we do what we do, both as people and through our expression of our experiences as art.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Review of Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief

(Larson Publications,, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-936012-72-5

A decade ago, I lost someone very close to me. My Aunt Annette was not only a favorite family member; she was a spiritual teacher who first instilled a love of myths and stories in me. At the time of her death, her husband, a counselor and spiritual teacher in his own right, suggested that I read Neil Donald Walsch’s Home with God: In a Life That Never Ends to help me process the profound sense of loss I was feeling.

In the years since, I have turned to that book many times, as I have lost other family, and some close friends and mentors. I recommended it to those I knew who were dealing with losses of their own.

Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love, for the reasons that I will explore in this review, is the book that I will now turn to and recommend first in times of sickness and loss.

First, because it is so personal. Mansfield, who was a nutritionist and personal trainer before her husband’s two-year battle with cancer and his subsequent death, leaves nothing out as she tells the story of their journey. Their love and commitment to each other through decades of partnership is made all the more real and precious as Mansfield relates the darker moments, both before and after Vic got sick. There were times when the struggle was too much for Mansfield to handle, and she took much needed alone time to recharge; times when she felt that Vic’s experience of illness became the dominant story, leaving her own story of a spouse’s experience of the illness unheard and unappreciated; and the moments where these two very much in love individuals had a difficult time connecting. These very human moments are often left out of discussion on grieving and loss, and yet they are essential.

Second, because, as spiritual and based in ritual as the book is, it holds a broader view of grief and loss and ways to work through them than more traditionally based religious books such as Walsch’s. Mansfield and her husband were both deeply involved with various spiritual groups, and Vic was a scholar on Tibetan Buddhism who knew the Dalai Lama personally, but the source material for their journey was widely varied, from the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke to the writing of philosopher Paul Brunton. Mansfield also writes about the healing power of journaling, painting, working with myths, and Jungian dream work and the importance of synchronicity. The varied array of tools she provides will offer strategies and inspiration to any reader, no matter their own religious–philosophical background.

I was most drawn to the emphasis on ritual and dreams. I can attest to the power to heal that ritual provides. After my Aunt Annette passed, I wrote a memorial to her that I published on my blog and share each year on the anniversary of her leaving us. My wife and children and I went to the parks she loved and said prayers and shared remembrances, and each of us had our own simple altars to her memory. She came to each of us in dreams for awhile, before, I believe, moving on to other realms and other concerns in her new life beyond death.

Third, Leaning into Love resonates with energy. You can feel the love between Elaine Mansfield and her husband, Vic, and the love of their two sons and their family and friends coming off the pages as you read. As she describes their acreage in upstate New York, you feel like you are there, walking among the flora and fauna with them, participating in the rituals, often tied to the turning of the seasons, and being able to listen almost first-hand to their hopes, dreams, arguments, and discussions. I began to experience parallels and synchronicities in my dreams and waking life that I believe were the result of the honesty and energy of Leaning into Love.

I suggest watching Mansfield’s TEDx talk (“Good grief! What I learned from loss,” available on YouTube) just before reading the book. Her quiet, yet strong and experience-strengthened personality and voice enhance the reading experience if you picture them as you go.

After finishing the book, you can continue the journey by subscribing to the author’s blog and newsletter ( As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the grief and sense of loss never end, although they do morph over time. I continue to learn from Elaine Mansfield as she walks her path of writing, lecturing, and learning about grief and loss and how ritual can help guide us through. Losing a loved one is perhaps the hardest of life’s hard lessons, and when the inevitable time comes that we must face it, I cannot imagine a more moving and helpful story than Elaine’s to help us in that time of need.