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Review of Judith H. Montgomery’s Litany for Wound and Bloom

Review by Amy Miller

Litany for Wound and Bloom
Litany for Wound and Bloom
Judith H. Montgomery
978-0999833414
(2018, Uttered Chaos)
$19, paper

Judith Montgomery’s latest full-length poetry collection is about life. Literally, life. From the cosmos of pre-birth, through the mysteries of child-rearing, to the inevitable letting-go as children venture into the world alone, Montgomery works the lens of her magnifier to focus in on moments that are startling when seen in such clear detail. This is an electron microscope of a book.

From the first poem, “What Were You, Before,” the book asks, What is body? What is essence? And how to they determine our fate? Next comes a series of poems about infertility, a long battle replete with technology, hope, plans, and near misses—but also with an omnipresent sense of “othering,” as if infertility sets this woman outside of the rest of our culture, in a place that’s dark in every sense of the word. Then, when conception finally happens, light literally returns to these poems, the speaker now allowed back into the world. Montgomery is making some subtle, dystopian comments about how women are viewed through the lens of their bodies, and worse, only as bodies that continue the species. And yet—for these poems have their paradoxes, as does life—there is an unwavering tenderness toward babies, whether real, imagined, or lost, as in “Baby Blue”:

Check       for blood     they said. Call

us if. Call us when. But no spotted

cotton. O sweetrunt     Katy Kate

don’t make me         choose—

I have to lose you, loose

you     have to

The book’s second section, “Word,” ranges through time and geography, tracing families: a mother fading into dementia, an aunt lost to a fever, a parent lamenting her murdered son. Many of the poems ekphrastically describe paintings and photographs, focusing Montgomery’s sharp lens again on the body: scars from a mastectomy, a mother bathing her disabled daughter, or the constraints and restrictive clothing dictating the guise of female acquiescence in “Her Silence Is”:

Floating

rib removed, the more closely

to corset her waist. Breath.

Is handcuff. Straitjacket. Gag.

The last section, “Witness,” explores the world’s particular dangers for children—illness, accidents, warfare—in a litany of a mother’s worst fears. The poem “Bearing/Bearing Down” signals that even at a baby’s birth, safety is already compromised:

…expelled,

sent out into the fallen unprotected world…

…exile marked

by cord and cuttery, first of many leave-takings

dimly rising on the horizon—

Two poems that form the crescendo of the last section, “A Blessing” and “Five Ways to Wear the Balaclava,” show the extremes of that inevitable leave-taking: In one, parents make a desperate decision about their teenage son, whose life is threatened by his own mysterious mind; in the other, a mother knits a scarf for her son who is leaving to invade another nation, to go to war with other parents’ children.

How, indeed, do we send our children out into that world? Why do we bring them into it, knowing what we know? Montgomery is smart enough not to answer these questions. But in these graceful, searing poems, we sense that virtually every parent has faced these fears and chosen to bring up children anyway. In that regard, Montgomery seems to be saying, parents are never alone; they have all of history keeping them company.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 2.

Amy MillerAmy Miller is the author of The Trouble with New England Girls, which won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Permafrost, Rattle, and ZYZZYVA, and her most recent chapbook is I Am on a River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press). She lives in Ashland, Oregon.

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The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Review by Sharon Tracey

The Bones of Winter Birds
The Bones of Winter Birds
Ann Fisher-Wirth
978-1947896116
2019, Terrapin Poetry
$14, Paper

Like the hollow bones of birds full of space for air sacs, the poems in Ann Fisher-Wirth’s new collection, The Bones of Winter Birds, breathe in the tiny hollows of grief and loss. Where things are delicate and hidden. And where we find the birds we find the bones—poems for parents, a deceased older sister, a child still an infant, the poet at fifteen, a letter to Emma Bovary. Personal histories filled with bones that break, leave, return, unsettle, and slowly repair. Some are shared in winter light, others on the edge of a season. In the poem “Nearly April,” the poet notes that “the sap-rife glory does not stop for grief.” (p. 31)

We follow birds as they make their way through the collection: birds in a jungle of wisteria, a cardinal, a scattering of little grey birds flitting over a barbed wire fence at a Mississippi state penitentiary, swallows from the river, warblers, mourning doves, redwing blackbirds, crows over scorched grasses. Living birds with hidden bones.

We also find ourselves “In That Kitchen (She Speaks to Herself)” as the poet writes, “In that kitchen, despite the official sunshine, soup boiled / up with the bones of winter birds, cook-sweat slid down / the windows, and the mothers cooked the death of things.” (p. 16) The steam she creates continues on, permeating the poems.

Fisher-Wirth embues her work with a strong sense of place. She takes us to pecan trees in Mississippi in the opening poem,  “October: A Gigan,” then travels back and forth to California and further afield to France, finally returning us to the Mississippi campus where she teaches and where “students pass with their Ah’m gone go Southern soft/ voices and the squich squich of their flipflops…” (p. 78). Place also turns into bird anatomy. In the poem, “Beneath the Rain, the Pewter Feathers of the Seine” the poet writes, “that was a narrow time for us…” ending with the line, “the days pass I remain” (p. 61). One can almost see the pattern of feathered vanes rippled on the river.

There is more than one cold fire in the collection, and grief enough to spread around, but there is also lightness in “everyday darkness.” Even the poem “Everything Here Looks Very Dismal” turns on itself, launching into a reverie set around the conditional if as a way to conjure other possibilities and outcomes. (p.57)

The poet draws out delicious sounds in lines of poems. In “Sumac,” “Brilliant stems of sumac in a jam jar, black-eyed Susans—scarlet.” (p. 76) even as the poem itself turns dark. In her short poem “Wyrd,” Fisher-Wirth reflects on fate and personal destiny, condensing the sense of loss and how we wrestle with memories, (p.77)

Like a summer creek the mother dries up
in me. Enough to see the sun and hear
the jays toward twilight squabbling in the pines.
Enough. All that worrying.

Clawfoot, bone, beak, and feather, now let be.

As the collection nears its conclusion, Fisher-Wirth brings us “Sunlight, Sunlight” (p. 78) which includes the lovely line, “sunlight doesn’t stop just because we do.” It’s such a simple fact but she makes the line feel newly made….” Later she goes on,

now, sun’s all over this page except where shade is, sweet
scalloped shade breaking the Mississippi glare…

…And sunlight stroking the birds’
throats so it comes out as song.”

Grief and loss—it comes and goes and never leaves us. But Fisher-Wirth’s evocative poems console even as she offers up her lament, making meaning out of grief in poems that renew and render loss in words that sing and linger.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 2.

Sharon Tracey is a writer and editor and author of the poetry collection, What I Remember Most Is Everything (All Caps Publishing, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Egg Mom Review, Tule Review, Common Ground Review, Ekphrasis, Naugatuck River Review and elsewhere. She lives and writes in western Massachusetts. sharontracey.com

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Review of Lisa Bellamy’s The Northway

Review by Alarie Tennille

The Northway
Lisa Bellamy
978-1947896055
(2018, Terrapin Books)
$6.75, Paper

“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 . . . .”

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 1.

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.

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