Review of Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed (Persea Books, 2015)

Attempting Scientific Inquiry into Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed

by Laura Maher, with illustrations by Julia Koets


The animals know: something is beginning, or something is ending. Something has changed. Call it climate change, call it human interaction, call it nature. The animals are looking for what has drawn them.

The humans look on, observe. The humans aim to know these animal desires: to learn them, to learn from them, to understand why the animals behave in the prescribed way that scientists know, or why they do not. Call it exploration, call it research, call it nature. The humans are looking for what has drawn them.

Drawings by Julia Koets

The poems in Elizabeth Bradfield’s Once Removed are possessed of both animal instinct and human reflection. These are poems I am familiar with, but have never read before. These are poems that delight in the world and its questions; these are poems that direct us to hypotheses, not conclusions. In the process of reading the book, I found myself scribbling questions into the margins, like:

Where does language fit into this world?

Hard to care about the split
infinitive when ice storms,
when past dues, when shore erosion.

                         —“Distance Education”

How do we name the bodies of others?

Maman. Breasted & nippled
& warm, warm, warm.

                         —“We All Want To See a Mammal"

How do we name what we cannot see?

My heart, my heart—I am so often lost.
How do we map our time apart?

                          —“Travel of the Light”

What are we to do with the wreckage created by living?

        I’ll reckon you. I’ll reckon
we’ve not wrecked it, not yet.



            what greater hush is there than a boat aground

            then       lifted by tide?

                                     —“August Song”

What does the I know of the self?


is harder and harder to leave the stiff forest of I, I, I,
a life cultivates. The trunks of self
thicken, saplings rise, ready to replace

 whatever falls. The wafted drift of meadow
in which I began has been supplanted.

                           —“Deliquesce: A Meditation in Seven Parts”

What can be learned from the wisdom of animals?

 In laboratory dark, birds leap toward
their routes. Their inked feet
prove again and again that they know
which way (and when) to begin.

                            —“Travel of the Light”

So much of the book relies on the relationships of subjects—of animal to human, of land to sea, of the living to the dead, of the self to the world. By the end of the book, one has studied innumerable mammals, fish, habitats, human choices, work, and language.

Through repeated observations and the asking of questions, hypotheses tested, Bradfield builds poems that use scientific method as an ongoing process. Even when there is a conclusion to be drawn, we pause just long enough that it can then be refined.

That is was daylight, that we saw the coyote
low under roadside brush, that
it just kept walking and did not
                                                            turn away.


I stared. Silence, a thick band, wove
from you to me to this coyote just beyond
barbed wire. We attended       
                                                      one another.

                                            —“It Was Daylight”

Bradfield’s poems, though they do much to navigate the complex environments of emotion, relationships, and knowledge, ultimately ask just one thing of us: how will we attend one another?

Laura Maher is the author of the chapbook, Sleep Water (dancing girl press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in CrazyhorseMoonsick MagazineThe Collagist, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Arizona, a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She lives, works, and writes in Tucson, Arizona.

Julia Koets’s poetry collection, Hold Like Owls, won the 2011 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize and was published by the University of South Carolina Press. Her poetry and nonfiction have been published in journals including Indiana Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Carolina QuarterlyShe has an MFA in poetry from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati.

Review of Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art (TriQuarterly/Northwestern, 2017)

The Torchbearer Speaks: Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art

review by Kathryn de Lancellotti


The photograph in Jet magazine from Sept. 15, 1955 of Emmett Till’s mother staring gravely at her son’s mutilated face in an open casket forced the world to witness the reality of racism in America. In a country where “the sound of weeping is a prelude to sleep,” Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art is a torch that illuminates injustice—a narrative of poetic elegance and form that invites the reader into the art of truth, of the implications of the black experience, and of American bodies—what it means to be a black man, or his mother, or daughter. Smith speaks to our vile history, and points to a present as gruesome as our past. She sews together stories of Emmett Till, modern police killings, men killing their daughters out of desperation, conversations between mothers waiting to visit with their sons in prison, and mothers mourning too many murdered.

Smith tells stories in parallel realities, creating situations or circumstances where things could have been different for fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, small snapshots that would have saved the boy’s life and/or altered history. She titles them “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and prefaces them with lines like “turn to page 128 if Emmett Till never set foot in that damned store,” then starts the poem with a kid running by the store instead of being “wooed by chewing gum/ and peppermints. The steamy shop’s a bore/ ‘cause they’ve got better suckers where he’s from.” Smith imagines a world where all children have access to life’s sweetness, and from a grieving heart she dreams up better endings.

The poem “That Chile in That Casket,” referring to the Jet magazine photo, is about black families keeping the infamous photo in their homes as a reminder of what happens to their kind. Daddy would shake his head and mumble, “this is why you got to act/right ‘round white folk,” and whisper, “Lord they kill that chile more than one time.” The poem ends with the speaker looking at the photo and realizing that there aren’t any photos of her in the house which meant she “sparked no moral,” and that she was alive. Smith invites readers into her own story as well as the stories of others in the hope that we might better understand the haunting effects racism has on individuals and families—where living in fear for one’s life is a part of the American experience.

The various forms and meter Smith employs in her work creates a sense of urgency for the stories. They are often written in syllabics, and with assonance, consonance, and rhyme, all working together to move the poems quickly and with force. The multiple forms she employs such as prose, villanelle, sonnet, and sestina become the containers for the wildfire that is her poetry as it burns through the page with heat and velocity. There’s a tension between the controlled forms she writes in and the explosive content. This tension creates restraint and authority over the syntax and the sound, so readers sense that the poems are tightly controlled by Smith as they erupt with the violent and horrific truths of structural racism.

Smith’s ability to bring the reader into the sorrow of her characters is a testament to her capacity for empathy. In the poem “For the Mothers of The Lost,” the speaker aches with the mothers lamenting their children’s futures. With the daughters who are “out of dollars, out of time.” With sons who are “just seeking ways to be erased,” who say to the police, “please, I’m tired. Help me fall down.” With the men who leave their daughters with their mothers, or murder them out of rage. Smith has a way of shining light into the darkness with a necessary and timely tongue of fire, challenging readers to open their eyes and face the truth. In the final poem, “Incendiary Art: The Body,” she writes, “Today, one said I sure would/like to burn a black man alive. So, Yep…” The work isn’t over, and I get the sense that Patricia Smith will continue to carry the torch and raise fire until every heart is roused, and every injustice illuminated.

Kathryn de Lancellotti is currently completing her MFA in Poetry at Sierra Nevada College. She has a degree in Literature with a Creative Writing concentration from University of California Santa Cruz and is a former recipient of the Cowell Press Poetry Prize and the George Hitchcock Memorial Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Press Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, Porter Gulch Review, Rabbid Oak, Red Wheelbarrow and others. Kathryn resides in Cayucos, California with her son, Jade.

Review of Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press, 2017)


“She’s past words // now and I hear every thing / she means”: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak

review by Paige Sullivan


A slender, wholly transfixing collection, Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak meditates on language and knowingness rooted in the body.

More specifically, the collection explores Sadre-Orafai’s connection to her paternal grandmother, Malak. In a recent interview with Tell Tell Poetry’s Tim Lynch, Sadre-Orafai described her relationship with Malak as “more based on this psychic connection, this spiritual connection,” noting her grandmother’s limited English as an obstacle in more commonplace conversations.

As Sadre-Orafai’s poems illustrate moments and intuitions that often elude but demand explanation, the notion of connections and communication that extend beyond normative English lexicons becomes all the more essential to appreciating her work.

In “Mouthing the Future,” when a young Sadre-Orafai is told by her father “not to tell my friends” about Malak’s abilities“how your grandmother sees // patterns divide”the poet’s impulse is to “believe so hard that I write / down her language of residue,” enacting Malak’s ephemeral language on the page, as does the collection as a whole.

Later, in “How They Arrive,” a poem about Malak interpreting people’s futures in coffee grounds, that paradox is extended:

A peasant woman who couldn’t read

taught Malak how when she was young,
when she didn’t know how much people

needed to be told what was coming.

This paradox—that one may not be able to read written language but can still read the future—operates on a universal level, where the future always seems to occupy a space in the present, where one can be completely certain of a truth, even when its edges are undefined.

As in “Last Reading,” when Malak sees a pregnant bird in the cup and crochets an endless array of baby linens in “Neapolitan ice cream colors,” truth exists not in realms of “logic” or “reasoning,” but intuitively, within the body—both that of the poet and that of Malak.

This idea of intuitive awareness is more deeply explored in the second section of the collection in a poem titled “Origin,” a series of ruminations over inexplicable, supernatural moments in the poet’s life: locking a door without turning a key, making something happen just by concentrating on it, knowing a tire will burst seconds before it happens.

Threaded through this poem, too, are the twin figures of Sadre-Orafai’s speaker and Malak, who the poet believes is the source of these abilities: “I like to think it came from Malak...My grandmother and I wore the same shoe size, wore the same small bird shoulders too.”

The universe of the collection’s third and final section expands in scope but still maintains its preoccupation with the slipperiness of language, knowing, and truthhow, like the grounds that gather in the seam of a cup that can speak a future we don’t yet know, there are markers to be interpreted in unexpected places, “how many other ways we could be / having this conversation.”

The certainties of such mysteries seem to crystallize, appropriately, in “Gospel”:

You’re still running from the chain
letter you didn’t write because you saw

your life would be safe, miraculous,

you lie down because the streamers in
the blow of the heat are telling you

something you don’t know yet,
and you call it truth.

That we can name the truth as such even in its unknowability, that we can comprehend languages we don’t speak, that there are languages that exist outside of utterancethese notions exist comfortably and beautifully beside one another in Malak, and they often glow, miraculous: “A blank sound  / when your daughter sees / a chick hatch from an egg / for the first time, her open / mouth cried / nothing.”

Paige Sullivan completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Recently, she participated in the 2017 Tin House Winter Workshop and the Poetry Foundation’s 2017 Poetry Incubator. In addition to essays and reviews, her poetry has appeared in Arts & LettersNinth LetterAmerican Literary Review, and other journals. She lives and works in Atlanta.

Review of Eve L. Ewing's Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017)

Desire-Based Thinking in Eve L. Ewing's Electric Arches

review & writing prompts by Marlin M. Jenkins

Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017) is a book of possibility, a vision of writing as an agent of re-imagination. Full of wonder and affirmation, the project expands the confines of what we consider “real” and provides us a model for the role writing can have in re-shaping our realities.

In an episode of the podcast VS that features Ewing, she discusses “desire-based thinking,” an idea pulled from scholar Eve Tuck’s open letter, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” In Ewing’s paraphrase of Tuck, she encourages writers and researchers to write narratives that aren’t damage-based but rather desire-based, lest the writing be incomplete and re-committing violence.

And this is exactly what Electric Arches achieves; it’s a collection that resists this incompleteness through its focus on desire, in addition to its multi-genre approach and its investment in both the past and the future. To be clear, this book does not shy away from pain, but it redirects that pain into magic and miracle; it shows us how imagination is not escape, but a construction of a new understanding, an assertion of self and our power to shape the ways we tell our experiences—and shape the experiences themselves. In the series of “re-telling” prose poems, as a prime example, Ewing begins to recount experiences of racism, and then the poems shift; they break from type to hand-written script where the bodies spewing “nigger” are carried away on a flying bike or possessed by a ghost-spirit, where black boys float away from police, “only looking at each other and smiling and singing as they fl[y].”

In the same VS podcast episode, Ewing frames the responsibility of teachers in terms of informed consent, reminding us we must be thoughtful with what we ask of our students: “The way we have taught young people to engage with their trauma through poetry is extremely toxic and extremely unethical,” she says.

There’s often a lot of pressure to mine our trauma in our poetry—and to pass on this mode of thinking to young/newer writers—and while writing about trauma is of course important, Ewing reminds us that we must contextualize the pressure to write it, allowing a range of possibility not bound only to pain.

In thinking about how we guide and foster young minds in regards to poetry (and how we think about our orientations to our own work), the writing prompts below are meant to act as ways to use Ewing’s work as a model for accessing imagination, wonder, and positive desire.

How can we get closer to answering the question that Ewing’s work so wonderfully and productively explores: How can we have a critical eye to the past, present, and future that dares to imagine possibility as a core element of its vision?

(These prompts are meant to be flexible for various age groups, from middle school on up through adulthood.)


Model poem: “Arrival Day” (p. 5)

Make a list of identities that describe who you are, anything that you identify with on some level (e.g. Black revolutionary, latchkey kid, musician, etc.).

Pick one that you’re most drawn to, or the one that you have the most questions about (these may be the same one).

Then, for the poem, imagine an origin story. Don’t be confined to explaining the actual, fact-based origins of the identity; allow yourself to be creative. Ewing writes in "Arrival Day," for example: “it happened under the cover of night or early morning / depending who you ask. … / they hit the earth and coiled at the foot of a tree.”

In your version of the story, where did your people come from? How did others react once they got here? What did they do? What did they bring with them? How did things change upon their arrival?


Model poem: “Shea Butter Manifesto” (p. 28)

Make a list of things you use often that are important to you—bonus points if they have an association with your family, culture, or group of friends.

In "Shea Butter Manifesto," Ewing writes, “in this world, grease is a compliment, / no, it’s a weapon, / no, it’s a dream you had.”

Pick one of the things from your list and think about how it is one of these things: a compliment, weapon, or dream. Write about that. Consider questions like: What does it compliment, other than the obvious? What is it a weapon for/against? What are the details of the dream?


Model poem: “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife” (p. 34)

Make a note of one of the following: something you say often, a quote from someone you respect, or something you’ve said that you’ve wanted to clarify.

Based on that quote, write a list of clarifications using “I mean” statements. For example: “I mean I’m here / to eat up all the ocean you thought was yours” or “I mean I never met a dish of horseradish I didn’t like.”

Think of these statements not as having to explain yourself or justify, but as a way to more fully express something important that you have to say, that you want people to know, what’s valuable for you to assert.


Model poem: “Affirmation” (p. 89)

Ewing opens this poem: “Speak this to yourself / until you know it is true.”

Write a poem that is a list of affirmations. This can be a list of affirmations to yourself, or to someone else you care about, or to a group of people. What do you think would be helpful for you/them to hear? Don’t forget to include metaphor and sensory details. Allow the poem to swerve into and out of straight affirmations if it needs. Either during or after the first draft, consider moments when repetition would be useful.

Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry at University of Michigan's MFA program. His writings have been given homes by The Collagist, Four Way Review, The Journal, and Bennington Review, among others. A former teaching artist with Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project and current editor at HEArt Online, you can find him on Twitter @Marlin_Poet.

Review of Khaty Xiong's Poor Anima (Apogee, 2015)

Some Notes & a Cento for Khaty Xiong’s Poor Anima

by José Angel Araguz

Je est un autre (I is another). – Arthur Rimbaud

This quote from one of Arthur Rimbaud’s letters kept coming to mind while reading Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015), at first because of the poet’s borrowing of lines and titles from Rimbaud’s work, but later because of its connection to the book’s running theme of the elusive self. Rimbaud’s quote, “I is another,” which can be interpreted to mean that our concept of self or “I” is separate from our inner selves, seems a natural conclusion within the context of the poetic act. This idea walks the fine line between persona and lyric self, and creates a space for emotional authenticity. These words also carry an added charge when considered within the world of Xiong’s poems, a world of bicultural identity, where the “I” is another in not one but two languages.

With these thoughts in mind, it is telling to look at the opening poem, “Refine,” and note how it reads as if fighting against having a first-person speaker. Without an “I,” the reader feels an added insistence to focus on the opening image:

—two bodies tangled in the night
cutting, pleading
her dark wet form against the darker form

This image is followed by a series of questions:

what does love look like now?

why would anyone want to write this?

what is vulnerable?

Again, without an “I,” these questions feel like they are coming out of a void, their need to be asked more urgent than a need for authorial presence. In dealing with the braided narratives of war, exile, and family, the poems of Poor Anima alternate between this “distanced” type of speaker and an “I” that is right in the mix of meaning-making. Note that by “distanced” I don’t mean abstract or objective; rather, Xiong is able to bring herself under as much lyric scrutiny as any family story or linguistic concept. In this way, Rimbaud’s “I is another” becomes a creative act, one that allows a poet to directly trouble and be troubled by various aspects of the lyric self.

In working on this cento, I specifically sought out lines that had an “I” in them. I thought doing so would unravel a hidden theme or argument in the book. The resulting cento gives examples of the linguistic elasticity that Xiong’s work seeks to engage with. The opening couplet consists of lines from the title poem and from “Bad Blood,” the latter’s title taken from Rimbaud:

When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother
I mean language touched by letters, the ones that teach surrender.

While my means of bringing these lines together was intuitive, I feel these two lines on their own speak to the spirit of the book in their respective ways; when brought together, they create a new depth. In “Poor Anima,” the line “When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother,” is one of a list of “when” statements. Each statement feels unfinished, yet they accumulate into narrative and dialogue grounded in the speculation of the word when, which implies a specific time but also the suddenness of transition via cause and effect.

The line from “Bad Blood” above is the last line of Xiong’s poem, and is preceded by a meditation that starts, “The dead return.” This opening phrase is echoed later in the poem by “Exile opens such possibility, and ghosts remind you to care.” Both of these instances point to the last line’s idea of being taught “surrender.” There is tension implied in this poem between the living and the dead, one that points to the creative space of meaning. The dichotomy of the living and the dead also implies transition. Ultimately, to make peace between the self that is “I” and the self one lives in, one must make peace with the changeable nature of meaning. Which brings us back to the questions of the opening poem:

what does love look like now?

why would anyone want to write this?

what is vulnerable?

The book and statement that is Poor Anima stands as an answer to all three.


Poor An(i)ma: a cento with lines from Khaty Xiong’s Poor Anima

Je est un autre (I is another). – Arthur Rimbaud

When I linger awhile longer and I want my mother
I mean language touched by letters, the ones that teach surrender.

Often, I call to lure myself—
I am American and it means something: My family,

the others I can’t quite trace out
though I harrow,

this time a depression, etc.     I hand over my species,
what a fucking mess. I guess we earned it—

seasons in words. I am your keeper.
I can’t hold this form, can barely remember how

I abuse the season for dialogue.
I mourn the living;

that gives river a new delta. I wait—go on—the same way.
I have been writing other things: other things have been writing me.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.