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Roberta Feins’s A Morsel of Bread, a Knife

Review by Susan Shaw Sailer

A Morsel of Bread, A Knife
Roberta Feins
(2018, Center on Contemporary Art)
$28, paper

Roberta Feins’s chapbook Herald won the 2016 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize. Her extraordinary new work explores the theme of maternity from the standpoints of church, family, and art. Through this triple springboard—the frozen sensuality of the medieval church, the mother whose concern with beauty and style barricaded her from her daughter, and women in art as sexualized objects—Feins creates a 21st-century Boschian carnival that explores the body as trash-rack and, simultaneously, home of sensual pleasure.

The ultimate representation of motherhood, one medieval Virgin offers only “tiny nubs” on a “trunk of wood,” the statue originally having been male, a Roman emperor. This Virgin doesn’t support baby Jesus, who sits “on (her) left knee, must hold himself erect,/ or fall.” A mechanical puppet theatre shows Eve’s nakedness “shielded/ by the Tree, as she reaches for a painted,/ ruby drop.” But in the France of 1971, girls kiss “smooth-cheeked boys” behind a spice bush while Jesus “swings from (the) waist on a beaded leash” of a wimpled nun.

The speaker’s mother escapes into art museums, the realm offering “searing beauty.” Though she recognizes that behind powerful art is suffering, she pretends it is clean of life’s muck. While the daughter explores sensuality through first sex and the pleasures of gourmet eating, the mother, dressed in stylish clothes, seems incapable of bodily warmth. Exploring the sensuality inherent in art, Feins takes her readers through several paintings in the Louvre depicting a sexualized woman. In each poem, a female family member counterpoints the experience of victimhood.

If the choice is between victimhood and frozen beauty, the speaker of these poems opts for a conflicted refusal of motherhood:

What would I do

all the days feeding

nights soothing, sapped. “No,” I said, “I won’t.”

But the pain of this choice registers: “Oh, I am a dull match failing to spark,/ a nightingale singing with her tongue cut out.”

An air of rich vitality permeates these poems, as well as a delicious sense of humor. Riding an old ethnic joke, Feins writes,

In Paradise, it takes an infinite
number of light bulbs to change a person.

Driving through southwestern France, the speaker declares,

I want to wear these hills       fabric woven of sun and leaf
granite and burn

my breasts clothed       in forests of teaseled velvet

To restrictions placed on the body by various religious groups and the doubts women have been inculcated to feel about their own bodies, Feins counters that without the senses’ rich input of messy but rich life, having a body would be a miserably thin experience. Yet the body is mortal. The answer is to embrace richness, accept mortality:

My little trash rack, built
from blood and neuron: daily
braving the rush of the great stream –

I want this rubble burden to end,
I want time to ratchet on forever.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 3.

Susan Shaw Sailer lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, and is a member of Jan Beatty’s Madwomen in the Attic critique group in Pittsburgh. Sailer has published two books, The God of Roundabouts and Ship of Light, as well as a chapbook, COAL. Her recent work appears in KAKALAK 18 and Conclave (“Justifying the Margins”).

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by Ruth Williams

Review by A. N. DeJesus

Flatlands by Ruth Williams
Ruth Williams
(2018, Black Lawrence Press)
$15.95, paper

The relationship between landscape and self-identity are often more deeply intertwined than we can imagine. In Flatlands, Williams explores this link between her developing sense of Self and her life in the flat expanse of plains in Nebraska. The poetic landscape of this collection cultivates surprising language and musicality of verse, allowing for the fundamental truths of Williams’s life in the plains to be illuminated with beautifully wrought images.

In “Physiography,” Williams writes:

the pat of a hand
on your head. A good girl,
a slicing edge. Like a scythe
through grass you learn to love
the sound of cutting hair…

The complexities of girlhood in rural life are fleshed out in this piece with the unexpected juxtaposition of violence and passivity. The underlying toxicity of learned submission is plainly evident without discounting the complications of familial tradition. The piece ends with the lines,

so being put in your place
is like a cross on your flat back.

The finality of these closing lines is palpable. Williams refrains from the use of flowery language and instead opts for simplicity. The jarring image of crucifixion communicates how natural submission and complacency become in an environment where it is expected and enforced as a community unto young girls and women.

Flatlands is rife with revelations of the ramifications this kind of upbringing has on the development of her identity as an individual, and as a woman. Understated and subtle, the poems themselves take root. Whether you live in a bustling city, a sprawling suburb, or a cottage on the cape, this book is an invaluable window onto life in a place where each sunset and sunrise send the earth aflame as far as the eye can see.

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 3.

A N DeJesusA. N. DeJesus is a technical writer and poet out of Kansas City, MO pursuing an MA in Literary Theory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review, Bear Review and Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine.

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Review of Aileron
by Geraldine Connolly

Review by Bernadette McBride

Aileron by Geraldine Connolly
Geraldine Connolly
(2018, Terrapin Books)
$16, paper

If memory is “the weight of stones,” as Geraldine Connolly writes in “Aileron,” the situating poem of her latest book of the same name, it finds its balance in the poem’s counter challenge, a hint at the title’s allusion to flight, to triumph: “The air divides as I pull up to climb, / to turn and tilt, to stay aloft,” introducing the host of lucid images and points of reckoning that unfurl throughout the collection as the speaker navigates through childhood’s brief, peppered season of innocence into the increasing anxieties and losses of adulthood which invite us into the world that has built her.

These poems are akin to a an autobiographical film, the lens through which we view a chronicle of childhood joy in outdoor play on a family farm in western Pennsylvania amid the tensions of indoor family life where children escape into imagination’s comforts, as well as its growing pains: ultimately losing the farm, not simply to sale, but to complete demolishment — what, in “Legacy,” takes from the speaker and her family more than the physical spaces like “the hayfield and the creek, / …the silo, the corncrib, / the orchard, the creek bed,” but also leaves the family emotionally, spiritually adrift as they “…watch from / [their] distant dwelling, / dreaming the past / still exists.”

We accompany the speaker on both her actual, outward journeys as well as her interior forays toward understanding: in a move to Montana, where, in the poem of the same name, nature’s lush affords “Zen mountain after Zen meadow after Zen stream,” and onto Phoenix, where, in “The Border,” the speaker’s “sip[ping]…morning cappuccino, while sunny “patio flowers bend in the breeze” is juxtaposed to the border-crossing small boy who “All day… follows the shadows…All night…crawls through the desert…” —while in “Being a Female,” the persistent social challenges of gender in a man’s world show up:

I am sick of my hair and my lipstick,
my mascara and eyeliner.
and my unspoken comments, tired of
my small footprints and the bandage over my mouth.

… tired of men repeating my remarks,
pretending they were theirs.

Though much of Aileron wrestles with the darker underpinnings of memories’ weight, there are enough moments of relief to provide a balance for all the relatable experiences that speak to most, if not all of us, who are able to master the mettle needed to maneuverer through grown-up lives, not only in beautiful descriptions of nature throughout, as in “Buckeye”[’s] “soft moss,” “bubbling creek,” “a rabbit rustling in the ferns,” or the happy times of “Childhood Play” where, from linen closet gatherings,

We built our hut…
Like minnows, we dove
into swells of pillows.

We loved, we sang, we played.
We slept. We nibbled popcorn

and peanut butter crackers.

but in spirit as well, conveyed so clearly in “My Granddaughter’s Face,” a poem filled with love and wonder and a measure of contentment that seems to reckon, finally, with it all:

Gardners dream
of a flower like you, Adela,
unfolding before them,
a creamy, heart-shaped blossom
uttering birdlike syllables.
The features of our ancestors
are filigreed on your skin.

a hearkening back, as age advances, to familial attachment, of honoring the past which continually manifests in the present —and offers hope.

Throughout this collection, Connolly paints scenes of pain and sorrow, nostalgia and melancholy, countered by leaps of spirit, as events, as they must to keep life’s tenacity on track, barge in at the most needed, if unlikely, times: “All we make / becomes comfort or grief.”

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 3.

Bernadette McBrideBernadette McBride, author of four full-length poetry collections —most recently, Everything Counts (Kelsay Books 2019), is poetry editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Pennsylvania county Poet Laureate, and recipient of several awards for her work, she taught creative writing at Temple University for many years. She welcomes your visit at bernadettemcbridepoetry.com.

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