“As a seed, I was shot out the back end of a blue jay.” Pow! In her opening persona poem, “Wild Pansy,” Lisa Bellamy grabs our full attention. How could anyone stop there? In the first four lines of The Northway, she takes us from poop humor to unexpected empathy as Pansy remembers the blue jay, “. . . briefly I called her Mother / before I passed through her gullet like a ghost. / In a blink of God’s eye, I was an orphan. . . .”
That first poem draws you, and Bellamy doesn’t let up the pace. Her final, title poem, “The Northway,” begins, “If I drive with my eyes closed, I imagine the road better.” The suspense could almost kill us if her blind driving doesn’t. Luckily, by the time we reach that page, we have complete confidence in Bellamy’s ability to keep us safely in our reading chairs.
Bellamy’s poetry defies description, because it’s so many things at once. She can go off on more tangents in a 30-line poem than a Southerner in a porch swing chatting away Sunday afternoon, yet her unique grab bag of topics and metaphors works. If her poems were a movie, we wouldn’t dare leave our seats.
In “Blueberry Crumble at the Noon-Time Diner,” a single-page poem, Bellamy manages to cram her immigrant Irish ancestor, tourists, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, patrons in lime-green and yellow shorts, trout at her grandparents’ house, her ancestor’s communion watch, her lover’s salty neck, bear grease in the hair of Mohawk men, Paul Bunyan, and more. The unlikely juxtaposition of people and events makes us even more curious where the heck she’s taking us.
The poet also understands when simplicity works best. “Girl Meets Bear” contains only the girl and the bear, because why would it need anything more?
The Northway could be a master class in Where Ideas Come From. Bellamy spends more in nature than most of us, but she doesn’t rely solely on the species most endearing to humans like deer and butterflies. She tells us her “father used to say, play the cards you’re dealt,” and she admires that same determination in all species, including ticks, snakes, woodchucks, and feral pigs.
Like most poets, she also writes poems of personal experience, her marriage, addiction, breast biopsy, but Lisa Bellamy goes even further in her topic search. We’ve all had people call us by the wrong name, but she creates an alternate personality and new life for herself as Lucy.
Bellamy does more than amaze and entertain. She may even save our lives. In “If a Black Bear Approaches,” she shares a warning from Adirondack Explorer: speak to the bear in normal tones so that it knows you are a human. A normal tone might be hard to master in such a moment, so she provides a sample monologue. We may memorize all or part of it and be prepared when we meet a “Gigantic – filthy, / slightly-slobbering, / big-tongued Teddy / sniffing the air.” You might want to practice calmly chanting, “Go, go now, / go, go, go, / my splendid, plus-size / Paddington . . . .”
Alarie Tennille graduated from the University of Virginia in the first class admitting women. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she serves on the Emeritus Board of The Writers Place. Her newest poetry collection is Waking on the Moon (Kelsay Books). Please visit her at alariepoet.com.
Tara Skurtu’s The Amoeba Game is a collection about moments and memory and how they collide, mutate and transform. An amoeba is a type of cell or organism which has the ability to alter its shape, and in The Amoeba Game, Tara Skurtu makes time into an amoeba, changing its shape by reaching out to the past and the future across continents and years. The book, organized in sections, applies a constantly shifting lens to relationships, recovery, and ancestral landscapes.
In the first section called “The Amoeba Game,” Skurtu explores the dynamics of relationships and personal philosophy, the tones of the poems teetering between joy and pain, often with realistic narratives ending in some sort of lyric revelation. In an early poem “Indian River at Dusk,” the speaker throws her father’s keys into the water after catching a fish and, despite pointing out the spot, cannot recapture them. This seems like just a childhood story until the last stanza:
For over a year, I made myself
guiltless; couldn’t preserve the thing I caught
or get the syntax right. I didn’t know about
currents. I can’t keep anyone safe.
Here the poem relates a simple, and seemingly banal event (catching a fish) and a childish prank (throwing keys into the water). But beyond the narrative, the poem delves into spiritual realms of confession, guilt and absolution, arriving at a conclusion that resonates both literally within the circumstances of the poem and figuratively within larger spiritual and emotional contexts. In this way, the poet makes every story amorphous and mercurial –nothing is ever just what it seems.
Several poems in this section mention a sister—in one, visiting her in a correctional facility brings a memory of her as a child, bold and wholly original:
With one hand she holds a wriggling lizard,
with the other she hinged its jaws open
then closed onto the lobe of her ear.
and in another, a description of wild years ending with the lovely metaphor of a tattoo:
You covered up that cross-eyed skull with a big blue rose.
Now it looks like one of those trick Magic Eye images—
all you have to do is squint and relax your gaze,
and the past surfaces just so.
These poems pull the past and future against one another, beyond just the observations of the author herself. The sister has one tattoo changed into another, thus the sister herself has likely changed, and the speaker as well. This constant shifting of perspective and perception create a tension that both winds up and releases for the reader.
There is also illness here, grief and loss, the speaker confronting her own mortality in a world that will not remain still. In “Survivor Vade Mecum,” she reminds herself “you are a living, breathing organism with all your fingers and both feet…” and in “Discovery: Negative Return,” we learn that “Some days the doctor says you have to napalm/the napalm, but this morning he says undetectable,…” These poems celebrate both corporeal and figurative amoebic bodies, medical crises sandwiched with the explosion of the spaceship Discovery and a cat flattened on the roadway. Here, no body, whether human, animal or machine, can stay the same shape for long.
The third section called “Skurtu, Romania” marries these ideas of memory and loss as the speaker spends time in her ancestral country, a stranger to the language while still intimately bound to its landscape. The centerpiece of the third section is the long, sectioned lyric poem “Derivatives” which chronicles both the time in this new country and also the arc of a relationship, building bridges between known and unknown worlds through image and music. It would be difficult to excerpt this long poem in a meaningful way, but also characteristic of this section is the poem “Spoiled.”
In this poem, the dichotomy of living itself is deftly and simply observed, and even the title serves up two meanings. Here, the restless lover leaves the apartment for the market, returns with a “perfect apple, put it in my palm./So small, so red. I can’t wait to eat it/alone.” The speaker shuts herself in the kitchen to watch the news and enjoy the apple which is not as perfect as she thought—“flesh mealy, a mouthful/of sweet mashed potatoes I spit/into the garbage.” Spoiled. Damaged. Yet the speaker revels in the other small delights of the morning—the world’s largest loaf of bread being sliced on the television news, the downstairs neighbor singing Blondie, the lover showering “down the hall, scrubbing the sweat/of our morning from your skin.” Spoiled. Indulged. Skurtu’s gift for images and narrative, on display in this whole section, are shown in this poem’s spiral structure of image and movement which wraps the reader in an indulgent comfort that mirrors the content.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Catechism” which shifts the shape of doctrine into one person’s deeply personal yet completely relatable version of the afterlife. In the first stanza, the speaker asks, “Who wants an eternity of cloud-/to-cloud bouncing, no afternoon/chocolae chip cookie in sight?/I’m against dying.” Then in the third, “I raise my hand, ask Sister John/the Baptist, Can you eat cookies/in Heaven? Turns out, you can’t/even bake them.” The poem ends with the speaker’s vision of the ideal funeral: “Let me be scattered illegally/into the Charles as a riverboat/emerges from the shadows of/the Salt-and-Pepper Bridge.//Let there be a birthday party/on that boat, my hungry selves/swirling in the wind while the song/is sung and the cake is cut.”
This poem is the beating heart of this book as Skurtu considers how to move forward while looking back, how to approach the inexplicable unknown. A collection that considers so many aspects of a life could be viewed as disjointed or choppy. But with The Amoeba Game, Skurtu avoids that pitfall, reminding us that, no matter what type of order we try to enforce, we are at best shifting cells, reaching out, pulling back, trying our best to shape ourselves a world.
Donna Vorreyer is a poet and author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and AHouse of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared widely including Quarterly West, Tinderbox Poetry, Connotation Press, Poetry International and The Rumpus.
Travel Notes from the River Styx is a carefully crafted study of a soul journey. Although the work is not personal in the narrow sense, it does focus on family. We live through the saga of a dying father, watch a mother giving piano lessons, and meet a son going off to college. But the larger reference is to the human family, including emigrant peoples, their experience of displacement. In “Migration” we hear their voices: “My family came to stay/ but not in one place”. The monk who says “My real country is not a place…” speaks for all those whose identity is less geographic, more relational.
Among the most striking characteristics of Lang’s poetry are its wild leaps. As in all good writing, the metaphysical rests on and arises from the physical. The poem “In the Rearview Mirror” turns our eye to five migrating Sandhill cranes. The birds stand motionless, “the long/knobby legs of their resurrection still”. This is the epiphanic leap, but the setting couldn’t be less so: a traffic jam.
Lang shows us we’ll find splendor and ecstasy in the pedestrian. Yes, these are Travel Notes and we do indeed pole down a mythical river, but as the opening citation from TS Elliot reminds us, in every true journey we “arrive where we started” – we end up at home.
Many unknowns await us before we get there. In the title poem, which opens section three, we’re spelunking in Mammoth Cave, its cold river running under our feet. The cavern’s name refers to its size and seeming endlessness, and in these images, Lang finds powerful metaphors of disjuncture and confusion.
The cave may be made of rock but “the border is porous”. There might be a river but it is “flowing so slowly/it almost isn’t a river”. And those etchings on the walls—they’re “written in candle smoke”. Added to all this indeterminacy is a father’s decline through dementia. The final section, a sentence fragment nine stanzas long, evokes this bewilderment:
of drifting, low in the water but never sinking, never
snagging on a fallen branch, never touching the shore
where we walk beside the river, endlessly, our muscles
aching, the boat just out of reach—
And so it ends: abrupt, unsettling. We’ve drifted along the river only to come suddenly to a falls. Out of control, out of options, we find ourselves asking “where/has the ferryman gone, how do we call him?” But isn’t it always this way? Whether on Chicago’s elevated train or Charon’s dark waterway, the one thing we can expect is: “destination unintelligible”.
Some poems give us comfort. In Travel Notes from the River Styx, Susanna Lang gives us more. She’s a wise guide on a dark river every human being must learn to navigate.
Michael Eddie Anderson has been an editor at Rhino: the Poetry Journal and now serves on their advisory board. His poetry has appeared in New Verse News, Matter Monthly, Rhino, Pen Woman, the Poet and Artist Chapbook of the Northwest Cultural Council and other journals. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Susanna Lang’snew collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). Read her poem “Confession” in CPR Volume 20, Issue 1 (April, 2018).