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Kristin Berger’s Echolocation

Review by Melissa Reeser Poulin

Kristin Berger
(2018, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
$15, Paper

Kristin Berger’s newest collection of poems is a storm moving across the desert: expansive, quick moving, and deeply satisfying. In these technology-paced days when it’s hard to hear the inner voice, the poetry world is in need of work like this, connecting our oldest human stories—love and its loss, heartbreak and the rebuilding of hope—with purposeful grounding in the natural world. Echolocation picks up where modern naturalists like Mary Oliver leave off: rooted in a particular place, yet casting a net into further territory.

“Let’s work this out in the dark,” the title poem suggests. It’s a suggestive line, and it’s meant to be. This is the story of a romantic relationship impeded and dissolving, and the impact of emotion on the body. With each turn of the page, the speaker in these poems traces the familiar shape of a mate, using rhythm and sound to locate herself in the wake of his absence. These are poems about the electric undercurrent of relationship in all its forms: with the land, with the small pleasures of living, and with the beloved.

“I can talk about it any way I want,” Berger writes in  “After Reading Sharon Olds,” and it’s as if, with each poem, we can feel the determination of a gifted poet to set down lines that are as close to the truth—to the poet’s particular truth—as possible. Any writer worth their salt understands the difficulty of writing sex well: it’s easy for language to turn either sentimental or crass. There’s a balance to strike, and Echolocation does so by maintaining a sense of humor, of humility, and by remaining rooted in the plant and animal world of the speaker’s own backyard.

Berger leads us through the forests, mountains, and deserts of the Pacific Northwest with the keen eye and easy intimacy of a local. From “the gossip of starlings in the firs, of ripe figs/ and porch-slant” in a suburban neighborhood to  “the silent, snaking Deschutes. Sagebrush” of the open Oregon desert, Berger situates herself firmly in a known place. In echolocation, animals use objects to locate themselves in dark, unfamiliar places. In these poems, natural images serve as landmarks for the speaker to orient herself in space, as she charts her course of discovery.

Echolocation is a quiet tour-de-force, written, revised and published in the span of a year. It is a surrender to the narrative arc of a love story, and the speaker’s determination not to lose of that story what is hers to keep: the beautiful slow moments in the natural world, of the natural world, that belong to no one and to everyone because they are human. “The heart wants one good panorama with no power lines,” Berger writes toward the end of the collection, a wry comment on the modern world’s intrusion into beauty, stillness, connection. Consider this book that panorama. Echolocation leads your heart toward a vista most of us know well—heartbreak. But, oh, what a view.


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

Melissa PoulinMelissa Reeser Poulin is the author of the chapbook Rupture, Light (Finishing Line Press 2019) and co-editor of Winged: New Writing on Bees (Poulin Publishing 2014). Her most recent poems and essays appear in Coffee + Crumbs, Hip Mama, Relief Journal, Ruminate Magazine, and Writers Resist. More at melissareeserpoulin.com.

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Illusion of an Overwhelm
by John Amen

Review by Erica Goss

Illusion of an Overwhelm by John Amen
(2017, NYQ Books)
$16, Paper

John Amen’s latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, takes the reader on a disquieting ride via the psyches of multiple narrators, shape-shifting through intertwined lives observed close up. Amen exposes the forces that simmer under the surface of the banal, but unlike too many contemporary poets, he does not revere the quotidian. Instead, he understands it for what it is: the barest of veneers over the anguish of everyday life.

The book is organized into four sections. “Hallelujah Anima,” the first, contains eighteen poems that deal, each in its own way, with Anima, a female character holding power over the speaker. She is anima in the Jungian sense: the female side of a man, or anima, the part of the psyche that is directed inward. In either case, Anima controls the hapless speaker, taunting him, manipulating him, and then discarding him. In “5,” he describes the cost of this emotional upheaval: “My moods streak & swing, rotating / like stock images on a website.” Later, in the poem “11,” he writes:

The sham I see in the world

is the sham I see in myself…

Some say there’s no such thing as rehearsal,

I say that’s all there is.

Yet he knows he’s lucky to have survived this journey. In “Grace,” Amen writes “My years / have been punctuated by small salvations / I can never explain.”

“The American Myths,” the book’s second section, is a piercing look at race relations, power, and guilt, both collective and individual. A character named “J” “slurps diet soda,” “haggles over refills,” and “dry swallows three Ambien.” The poems that make up this section contain three stanzas with six lines each, which barely contain their fury as they lurch through the rage, moral contamination and shame of America: “A black son…/ needs a white father like a dinosaur needs a meteorite” (“18”).

In “My Gallery Days,” Amen invents a persona whose loopy, engaging voice takes us on a roller coaster ride through the world of an artist: drugs, grants, jobs, lovers and friends, who are as often as not betrayers. The ironically self-destructive tendencies of the creative class, those who toil in “spattered rooms,” are expressed with uncanny accuracy: “You pawned our sketches to Mr. Pharm, who attended / the opening, a final Rx hoopla to hang my gloat on” (“4”).

The poems in “Portrait of Us” are more tender than those in the previous sections, but no less intense. As Louise Glück wrote in her essay about Hugh Seidman, “love in these poems is longing and pursuit of the past.” In “5,” Amen writes, “I cry for the lovers we were,” even though he’s accepted that “it’s possible / to love things / just as they are, / a woman / just as she is.”

Illusion of an Overwhelm explores what lies below the surface of ordinary life, its risks, joys, and disappointments, with language that is fresh, daring, and complex.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.

Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. She is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2016 Lyrebird Award, Wild Place and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. She is co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls: www.mediapoetrystudio.com. www.ericagoss.com.

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Review of Grayling, by Jenifer Browne Lawrence

Reviewed by Joannie Stangeland

Jenifer Browne Lawrence
(2014 Perugia Press)
$18 Paper

In Grayling, poet Jenifer Browne Lawrence invites the reader to enter a world between woman and fish, a realm below the surface where being is swimming, sometimes catching, sometimes being caught. These poems both plumb the depths and trail through the water like fingers dangled from a boat.

This play between surface and under the surface—what’s felt or intuited—is braided throughout the book, starting with the first poem, “Casting,” where “her shadow / swam into a fish / spooled from her reel” and later “her legs refused / to fuse into a tail / as planned.” On the surface, the poet is fishing with her father. Under the surface swim questions of identity and security: “Kneel at river’s edge / if the father you love / has been drinking / again.”

Lawrence skirts the narrative, inviting the reader to generate the connections, to make the story. In some poems, the title sets the context while the poem zooms in on the details. “On the Day of Her Father’s Funeral, Six Birds on the Line” goes on to describe a memory of fishing at age six, “nobody / wading to set her free.” “To Moclips with No Ash to Scatter” etches a shoreline where the one mention of death concerns the firs.

“Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (prelude),” which lopes across the page in three-line indented stanzas, speaks of a wrecked barge making
“a fine barn when the tide was low

shelter for a foal, beachgrass

bedding piled inside, seaweed pawed and popped”

then asks the reader “Who knew / the track would bruise with blood, / the swell of water draw horses out to sea.” Lawrence lets the images stay open, doors through which the reader can plumb his or her own past, and does not explain the track, the wound, or even the horses’ departure, the ocean’s lure.

Readers can look for clues in “Whose Hair Swings Like a Wind-Coarsened Mane (reprise),” but will find no obvious connection. The poem talks about watching, with a sister, a black-and-white movie of a village girl being suffocated by a “ring of white- / hatted women” who “look down at her, each of them / wearing the same unreadable face.” This poem is set in a narrow prose block, and although prose poems came out of the surrealist movement, this is one of the most narrative poems in the book. The unsettling comes from the title—its relationship to the earlier poem and its mysterious association with the rest of the poem.

Other poems speak of a father, his drinking and his death, of a mother, and of becoming a mother. The sister in “The Sister Next to Be Born” is possibly the same sister in “Year of the Dog,” which refers to “the shirt she’d been wearing when / the driver didn’t stop—.” The reader can create the history of this family or let the images stand or race on their own. Either choice fulfills.

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.

Joannie StangelandJoannie Stangeland’s most recent book is Into the Rumored Spring from Ravenna Press. She’s also the author of two chapbooks, and her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, Tulane Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and other journals and anthologies. Joannie helps edit The Smoking Poet and Cascadia Review.

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