This is a review of Robin McNamara’s debut chapbook “Under a Mind’s Staircase” under The Hedgehog Poetry Press (c) 2021.
As I was reading Robin’s poems I first felt like this was a lost journey, a poet seeking answers. Diving into every emotion and trying to absorb them into words. To be in a lonely state of mind, a scared state of mind, a worried state of mind (religion), to take in the beauty of nature. To be in panic and seeking quick answers. I identified most with the imagery of this poet as they try to figure out love, lust, lost, what’s left, then death. I appreciate the influences expressed in the poems such as Sins of Soul & Soul of Dust inspired by T.S. Eliot. I am often inspired in my own writings with T.S. Eliot’s inklings left for us to read.
“Sins of Souls” is one of my favorites because it dives into the unknown whether you’re wants might be the lust that the world impulses you in. How you are made to feel ashamed to sin, when hidden. While everyone is behind the curtain mimicking the same sins with a ridicule.
The language in these poems I can deeply feel such as in “The Devil’s List” “Have the angels fled?” …. “The angels have fled” I often dive into this same interesting dialogue within poems that leaves questions and ultimately a realization, or an answer from the poet’s perspective, however this leaves the reader pondering if they truly have found the answer at the end, or are they still searching.
Life being so complex. Figuring out what is real, what is ideal, what is surreal, and what is just a feel. This is what this journey is trying to lead you through.
With eyes: observations of nature “Blackbird on the Hill”, “Tides and Seasons” “Apple Picking Season” “Dusked Evenings” “The Fold of the Seasons” this leads to observations, to the mind, what do these images conjure, how can you relate to what you see?
With the mind in static: “It’s Quite Mental, Really” a trip through moments of insanity. Everything that surrounds is surreal, nothing is real, what can I do? To make it real? What does loneliness cause a person to be?
Explore this journey of humanity and take in the beautiful words, relatability (if you’re empathic) and realize we are all hidden and we are also all in front of those curtains in display. Soul and all for the pickings and the observation.
There are places people go to when they use their minds, places like poems that furnish them with the material they need to escape the bounds of mortality. Stuart M. Buck’s poems are either long or short in this collection, they use humour of an incisive brand to pare away the scales that lie over your eyes and once they have been removed you can perhaps see the poet laughing beside you like a statue of Bhudda you can think about buying online when the mood takes you to browse.
A Welshman, Buck gives you something to think about, something that will not only break the tedium of web surfing, but that provides open windows through which to view a world of contradictions. The role of sex, for example, is paradoxical. In ‘dear richard’ the narrator talks to a neighbour or a friend – someone he knows well enough to look after his house while he’s out of town – and tells him caustically that he’s “fucking your wife” but in ‘midnight in prague’ a different narrator imagines, as he’s walking around the eastern European city, that a woman is following him (“her scent a whisper, her taste. her taste. I burn for it.”) But then he thinks about infinity, as if the thought of the possibility of a strange woman following him around a strange city makes his imagination take flight and soar.
Humour works to temper such transcendent impulses, as happens in ‘rejection letter to the crow that just flew into my bedroom window’ which needs little to accompany it as the main gist of the poem is cemented in the title. Yet even while commiserating with a bird that came to an unpleasant end, the narrator celebrates the creature’s “innocence” and recognises “the delirium of flight” as something that he wants and, perhaps, dreams of. Is this the same thing the poet uses to anchor the unreality of sex and desire? In the longer poem his avatar muses, “i feel sad. these buildings deserve more than to be fucked, impregnated by moneymakers and endless tourist traps.” He wants more.
The problem of physicality the poem about the crow also contains is not resolved here but in other places the poet gains altitude and seems to leave the earth – or is this an illusion? In ‘tom waits and an infinite softness’ a trope the poet sometimes uses – global warming – arises at the outset but it’s immediately subsumed in the minute progress of imagination’s random ephemera that graze the consciousness of the narrator as she daydreams – it might be a bad trip she’s experiencing – but then, “suddenly i knew things i never knew before and i was in love and i had lost and i was in every moment of every life”. The dry evidence of a shared life on a lonely planet – the awareness of impending disaster – mutates without any interruption into contemplation of the divine.
This is the measure of this poet’s achievement. It’s there in the Prague meditation as well, in the way, at the end of that poem, he is tangling with things that cannot have a voice because they are too fragile even for words, things as hard to even think of, like infinity, which sits smiling beyond imagination. But still the poet tries to express what it looks, feels, and tastes like. “to feel infinity is, i believe, to place your thumbs over the eyes of a ghost. to feel the soft, giving eyeballs below. to have the power to end the sight of another, but instead to feel the flitting, papery wings of their dreams.”
At the other end of this spectrum is a hard-nosed and blank humour, almost humourlessness, as in ‘cat’ (which opens the collection): “on my way to kill myself i met / a very friendly cat” and as the narrator turns, deviating his progress along the street – the cat is probably one of those sociable felines that sits on walls in the sun waiting for passersby to stop and stroke them – he thinks about the universe. As you would if you were, for some outrageous instant, thinking of putting an end to your life. And what does the man think? He thinks, “we are all decomposing slowly / so that is of some comfort”. This is dead, stone cold but then you get the feeling that this flash of awareness has helped the narrator to get through another tortured moment. Perhaps there is a God and on this day the eternal deity just happened to take the form of a roadside moggy?
Matthew da Silva was born in Brighton, Victoria, and grew up in Sydney. He has Bachelor of Arts and Master of Media Practice degrees from the University of Sydney and lived for just under a decade in Tokyo. He has two adult children and lives in Sydney.
Many of the poems in this collection are very short and are designed to capture a single lived moment where memory and experience merge in the flux of consciousness. When I was reading I was trying to place the poet geographically – was he British? American? (he’s British) – and so had to search for his name online but the universality of these observations of life is what strikes the reader, the poet’s ability to reach inside you as you scan each short line, picking up the referents and passing them to the mental synapses in your brain.
If there’s a narrative set up within this fragmentary world it’s one of the night in a foreign place, such as we find in the eponymous poem (‘Neon Ghosts’) in which, it appears, a man and a woman are getting ready to go out for dinner. The man is in the living room going about his business and the woman is in the shower getting ready. The man occasionally stares vacantly at the TV, which is on, and catches brief sequences of segments aired for viewers throughout the city. A politician is caught up in a scandal. The politician is a neon ghost but what about the man and the woman? Are they, also, something like ghosts? It seems, as a reader, that they might be indeed – and then what about me who’s writing this review about a book which contains a poem with, embedded in it, like a flash of lightning, three particular, vivid neon ghosts? What’s real and what’s just a stray phenomenon like a thought?
Where is the boundary between fiction and reality? The ephemeral nature of existence is catalogued in this relatively long poem. In ‘The Scene’, which is much shorter, an almost fictional America is imagined by the poet, a place “Stuart Davis knew” with “skyscrapers in / technicolour” full of “gas pumps” and “rooftops” that is “in full swing”. As in the first poem I talk about, here Parry economically reaches into the reader’s subconscious and drags out images that “belong” to a particular place at a specific point in time. Stuart Davis, a painter inspired by jazz, is a signal referent that pulls you back to the middle of the last century, a time when America’s place in the world was still being negotiated.
Perhaps it was a more innocent time because it came before all of the struggles of the second half of that century, but because of the link to now-still-popular artforms, it was perhaps a time when the soul of the nation was nevertheless cemented in the global imagination. Or else it’s because of the struggles of the second half of the century that the achievements of an earlier age finally came to be celebrated. What’s important is that the ideas the poet places in words are also inside the reader. A brief, mediated connection is made that links minds. All of the special resonances evoked by the name “America” suddenly rise up like ghosts to inhabit the room where the reader sits, focused on the grey page.
The dark energies of humanity are also canvassed, for example in ‘God’ and ’15:30’ – poems that appear conveniently on facing pages. A theme opened in ‘Neon Gods’ takes flight in ’15:30’ where “young daughters in / green pencil skirts & / high socks / hold their knees close” while boys stand watching them on the opposite corner. The shopkeeper is like a guardian in this dynamic scene that is fresh as a bird’s wing and just as swift, being over almost before it’s begun. In ‘God’, the man who’s focalising the narrative is “watching women walk under speechless green trees” and because of where this poem sits in the collection – right opposite the one already mentioned – you’re left wondering what is given to the reader to contemplate without speech.
The underbelly of society is exposed and the position of America – almost as if the name had been tattooed on life – is a refrain the poet keeps returning to like a memory of a tune heard in a commercial that aired in a hotel room while he was waiting to go out for dinner with his girlfriend. Though he thinks about getting into the shower he knows that there’s no time for monkey business – they have a reservation – and so he contents himself with daydreaming. In his mind old jazz tunes mix with the neon ghosts that are his brothers and sisters.
MIXTAPES is Rachael Crosbie’s Poetry Chapbook, published by ELJ Editions released this April. Rachael is the EIC and Founder of The Winnow Magazine, a poetry reader for Persephone’s Daughter and Poetry Editor of Dollar Store Magazine. They have a MS in publishing from NYU and you can find their Poems in publications such as Re-Side, Cobra Milk, Lucky Pierre Zine, Wrongdoing Magazine and others.
I read Mixtapes five times before I wrote this Review(it only got better with every reading). While reading this chapbook I was going through a spell of dissociation following some trauma and in this book I found a kindred spirit, the poetic voice relatable in it’s stance of detached and distant reflection/recollection of the past. Moreover the format and mixtape concept accompanied by the spotify playlist is very nostalgia inducing and had me reminiscing about my father’s collection of cassettes with ghazals on them and our Sony radio cassette corder.
Mixtapes feels like sleep walking through a corridor of interconnected memories where nightmares bleed into reality, the Poems exist in a liminal atmosphere where dream fragments and memoria are deconstructed and reconstructed into reveries bordering on the frayed edges of consciousness. The perception of space and time is influenced by the speaker’s emotions and experiences at any given point. Like a Mixtape the chapbook has sides 1 and 2, each with eleven poems, which share the same core themes but are distinct in form and tone. All the Poems on this collection come together in beautiful harmony and compliment each other.
Side 1: You In Absentia views a past self in retrospect through a fogged pane of nostalgia and grief, memories appear distant and hazy and are laden with nightmares of loss and trauma like: “when you swear ghosts appear to / almost warm / austere of unknowns.” Abrupt enjambments, altered repetitions and virgule marked line-breaks lend the poems in Absentia the ability to haunt and shock at once, the reader is drawn in with visceral imagery and find themself face to face with personal ghosts for example: “you were afraid / of the body manifesting you and you / manifesting in the body. / fevered fits shifted sweat to sickness / trapping you in this loop / where you woke up confused, choking / on a room cleaved by white.”
Dreams In Absentia and Nostalgia In Absentia are especially remarkable Poems in Side 1. The former is about coping with childhood trauma and abuse, one of the best Poems I’ve read about this topic, the language used is vivid, brutal and uncompromising such as “clawed out medieval and raw / like when you cut / yourself with mirrors / broken by hand, broken for / modern blood letting” and “you were handled / by older others who glitched / with predatory magic / who made you beg / to physically dissociate”. Nostalgia In Absentia explores childhood, gender and trauma, I adore the language used in this poem accompanied by the striking visual imagery: “lying in a hammock, a loose / womb of yarn and air, / safe where you played / pretend, tethered to warmth,” and “double-vision pirouetting like bodies animated by the visceral blaze of night”
In Side 2: The B-Sides the speaker is present and a confessional “I” is employed. The form and tone waver and display a wide range from prose poems, free verse, couplets and experimental to saudade while the themes are more focused on love, body, relationships and loss. Lipstick and Fish a poem about American girlhood, gender and body is one of my favourites on side 2, saturated in pink this poem perfectly captures the atmosphere of fear, confusion and curiosity which surrounds puberty, rediscovering ones changing body and sex. “But I was not a woman. A girl as she was. My body sprouted sparse hairs and raw pink buds.”
Some honourable mentions, poems that had me feeling nostalgic, teary eyed and longing for lost moments include “Looking For Directions In Two Parts”, “Saudade For When You’re Gone”, and “Apologia In Absentia”. Rachael is a master of pulling on your heartstrings and invoking nostalgia and yearning like a magician, let the following lines from Saudade be evidence: “I searched everywhere for quarters, To call you from the laundromat. You never answered. So, I drove to the white sands, Wind howling with specks of cold water.”
And consider these lines from Looking For Directions in Two Parts: “a phantom touch from the last night slipping from your hands. A glimpse of white rabbit twitched in the background, in the field behind you”
Rachael has a pulse on the poetry and doesn’t shy away from displaying the range of their craft with imagery like “low pulse of wind textured by sleet”, “lichen grows in patches near ribbons of water”, “rabbits that won’t run, wolves that won’t chase. Pure halcyon, grace.”, “the day shed / in swathes of peplum purple dark, threads” and “a dying sun haloed copper on my hair”. In Mixtapes you see their own uniquely personal take on themes of memory, dream, relationships, loss and trauma. Mixtapes is a perfect read for a dive in the past, while handling a breakup or if you want to experience heartache and longing amplified tenfold by gutting imagery that ushers in a dream-like state.
This is a quick chapbook by Reggie D. Johnson.
But in 20 pages Reggie is full of reflection.
Reggie is full of fear, full of strength, full of freedom, full of rejection.
To feel completion when sitting with bravery.
It is a year of overcoming. While the clock may still be ticking negatively in the now. Maybe, just maybe there is a unity in time, in people, in change. Towards impermanence. The lyrical poems in this chapbook is the ultimate in a thinking man's poetry. Real poetry, not based in fiction, a storytelling from truth not from a new found religion.
The errors and failures of government, the death of heroes when people became "SCARED" and their hidden prejudices out for display. Reggie perfectly preaches out the rhythm of covid-era poetry and holding up a mirror to the world to see the reflection of all the sacrifices that have been given. The blood that has been shed should make us stronger, even as the ills in the air suffocates not only our breath, but clogs the clarity in our minds. The years even in it's most "radical" to many still seems to be a still frame that doesn't fade easily. Just remains gray. But the hope has to be vocalized, because WE have to recognize that WE are the ones that can change the direction of the compass. Let's change the compass and head to the right direction. Finally.
This chapbook has so many thought provoking poems including (Not Just on) Juneteenth published on this blog, soon to be in a Fevers of the Mind Anthology and also a Best of the Net Nominee.
I applaud Reggie D. Johnson for putting out poetry that matters more than just a self-righteous glorification.
Here is a link to the chapbook through Daily Drunk Magazine.
Bio: Follow R.D. Johnson on twitter @r_d_Johnson R.D. Johnson is a pushcart nominee, a best of the net nominee for Fevers of the Mind “(Not Just On) Juneteenth” Reggie is an author reigning out of Cincinnati, Ohio. At the age of 9, he found a love for writing while on summer vacation. With influences from music, Reggie has created a rhythmic style of writing to tell his personal experiences and beyond. Reggie has several books available on all major online retailers and his work can be seen in various literary magazines. He currently has two columns, Drunken Karaoke featured on Daily Drunk Magazine & REPLAYS featured on The Poetry Question. https://thepoetryquestion.com/category/replay-rdj/