Since 1996


Poetry Reviews

By Carol Smallwood



Like a Beggar
by Ellen Bass

Copper Canyon Press, 2014

ISBN 978-1-55659-464-9

paperback, 86pp., $16.00

It is daunting to review a poet and teacher of such stature as Ellen Bass who helped

edit: No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women in 1973. The Courage to Heal:

A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in 1988 has been translated into ten

languages. Her honors and awards are long and she teaches at the MFA program at

Pacific University in California. Her website invites contacting her which is rare for such an

important poet.

Like a Beggar opens with the poem, “Relax” listing bad things that will most likely

happen to you but ends with the lines:

Oh, taste how sweet and tart

the red juice is, how the tiny seeds

crunch between your teeth.

The 46 poems are not separated into parts like her last collection, The Human Line,

2007. The charcoal and oil cover art is also by Carolyn Watts, and Copper Canyon Press

is the publisher like her 2007 collection.

The epigraph is by Rainer Maria Rilke: “But those dark, deadly, devastating ways, how

do you bear them, suffer them? ---I praise.” It applies to her poems. Her style is direct.

Her strength as a poet in my view is her fearless look and acceptance as in “Morning”

writing about her mother’s death:

Her long-exhaled breaths

kept coming against her

resolve. And in the exquisite

pauses in between

I could feel her settle—

the way an infant

grows heavier and heavier

in your arms

as it falls asleep.

Her very readable poems are mostly in a narrative style based on common events and

places such as “Women Walking” but this commonality is wide; “Another Story” includes

the television program NOVA and the size of the universe, Marlon Brando, red fingernails,

and baby bats.

“Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955” includes an unlikely mix of T-shirts, A&P parking lots,

deliverymen, a pack of Camels, Allen’s Shoe Store, tweed skirts, and ends with it all being

“…at the center of our tiny solar system flung out on the edge of a minor arm, a spur of

one spiraling galaxy, drenched in the light.”

Quite a few poems deal with aging but “Ode to Invisibility” concludes “It’s a grand time

of life” and the element of sex is a often mentioned. While the immensity of the rings of

Saturn and the Hubble Telescope are topics, so are the smallness of flies and wasps.

Bass describes the praise that a poet has for the onion in “Reading Neruda’s “Ode to

the Onion”: “When he praises the onion, nothing else exists. like nothing else exists in the

center of the onion. Like nothing else exists when you fall in love.”

My favorite is “When You Return” that begins:

Fallen leaves with climb back into trees.

Shards of the shattered vase will rise

and reassemble on the table.

Plastic raincoats will refold

into their flat envelopes.

With the poems in this collection you will see layers you didn’t catch before with

rereading. What looks effortless, requires much expertise to write—to make the reader feel

the poet is writing just for them. She also has the ability to surprise with such descriptions

as high heels on linoleum “distinctive as the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth” and I am

looking forward to her next collection.



http://www.haggardandhalloo.com/category/book-reviews/ November 24, 2014

The Commonline Journal http://www.commonlinejournal.com/ October 8, 2014



Angles of Separation

Judith Skillman

Paperback: 96 pages

Publisher: Glass Lyre Press (2014)

ISBN-13: 978-0984035298

Buying a new poetry collection is like investing in a travel ticket—the

excitement begins when a book arrives with shiny cover and unexplored pages;

the cover art of Angles of Separation is Edvard Munch’s oil painting, “Separation”

from the Munch Museum in New York. There is an epigraph from Osip

Mandelstam’s Tristia about separation; a dedication; acknowledgments. There

isn’t a foreword or preface and the fifty poems are divided into four parts with a

page of Notes at the end, followed by an About the Author page, and a page of

titles by the poet. I avoid the back cover, blurbs, author page, until writing the


There is great energy in Skillman’s work, cosmic power as in “A Sliver of Heat”:

“At night the earth collided with comet hair/ and you wanted to tip the Milky Way/

into your parched throat.” In the 3 page poem, “Thrum and Goad” are the lines “I

hunger for what is true” and yet the last stanza begins “I yearn for the cessation of

wing beats.”

Some of Skillman’s work reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s meditative darkness of

modern life, his examination of time and meaning such as in her short narrative

poem where emptiness is echoed in the last line: “But when I return to the kitchen,

nothing lives there, nothing fills the saucepans fitted like Russian dolls one inside

the other inside the other.” This search for meaning is repeated in “Cause and

Effect” where things mock, cruelty thrives and there is a pattern of violence to

those who listen, those who want to hear and have enough courage.

This is a poet who bravely addresses the brevity of life and is a close observer

of nature from animals, birds, trees, the water lily, grasshoppers, and the wind.

This American poet’s sweep is wide: from shingles on skin, eating tongue,

bluebells, starlings sitting on wires, seasonal affective disorder, Shakespeare’s

characters—and her look is clear, economical, without sentimentality or illusion.

And yet she also notes that the world has too much beauty to be understood.

I would have liked more on the back Notes page to explain words such as

Kore, the Judas tree, Macabee trap, geodes, and the passages in French; giving

the four parts names would have been helpful to me as a reader. I’m looking

forward to her next collection—the travel time with Angles of Separation, seeing

her landscape, was a memorable trip.

The most recent books of this multi-award recipient are: The Phoenix: New &

Selected Poems 2007-2013 (Dream Horse Press, 2014); Broken Lines—The Art

and Craft of Poetry (Lummox Press, 2013). Some of the poems in this collection

have appeared in: Prairie Schooner; The Aurorean; Athenaeum: Best Indie Verse

of New England.


February 28, 2015

January 13, 2015

http://www.newpages.com/books/book-reviews/item/27991-the-long-blue-room December
2, 2014

December 18, 2014



The Long Blue Room

Poetry by Joan Gelfand
Benicia Literary Arts, January, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9703737-2-4
Paperback: xii; 87 pp. $12.95

Review by Carol Smallwood

Ms. Gelfand searches her own motives with a touch of whimsey while probing

for hard answers which makes her wide knowledge of humanity evident. She

is a poet that has visited abroad and traveled her own country to give her a

sense of contemporary life that is grounded in realism but also is presented

with a delightful wit that’s penetrating and wise. She observes the rhythms, the

good and bad of what is about her but maintains the appreciation of small

things—takes time to thoroughly taste fruits like peaches and pears and

wonder about them.

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The Long Blue Room, the third poetry collection by Joan Gelfand, is divided

into: Section 1. The Long Blue Room; Section 2, Ars Poetica; Section 3.

Taste; Section 4. Sex, Death, and All That Jazz; Section 5. Scraping Dead

Stars Off The Pavement; Section 6. The sections have poems well chosen for

each equally divided. Practice. It has a Foreword, Introduction, and Epilogue.

The two page foreword is by Renate Stendhal, the author of Gertrude Stein: In

Words and Pictures. The title, The Long Blue Room, is from an oil painting by

Vincent van Gogh which appears on the cover. In one of the poems bearing

its name, the poet observes that the artist painted it three times until he got it

right. The epigraph is a quote from “Ars Poetica” by Czselaw Milosz. Gelfand,

an American writer, is the Past President of the Women’s National Book

Association and a regular speaker at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.

She has appeared in numerous national, international magazines such as The

Griffin; Caveat Lector; The Toronto Quarterly
and in anthologies such as

Broken Circles: A Gathering of Poems for Hunger Anthology (Cave Moon

Press, 2011). Also by Ms. Gelfand is: Seeking Center (Two Bridges Press,

2006); A Dreamer’s Guide to Cities and Streams (San Francisco Bay Press,

2009); Here & Abroad (Cervena Barva Press, 2010); Transported (Daveland

Studios, 2011).

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The first poem in the collection, “Good Morning, America, Where Are You?”

questions America’s position after the recent economic crisis: “The party’s

over the game is played/The bad boys took off/With the cache.” p. 14 The

questions are central to our contemporary life. Greed’s the topic of another

poem, “The Money Shot” regarding plundered rainforests.

Another look at contemporary life is “Mother’s Day”: one appearing to have the

good life in New York City ends her life in front of a train on 42nd Street. A

poem about Sylvia Plath is also a woman who also ends it all.

“Bach Flower Remedies” using the narrative style is a humorous, 3 page look

at 5 types of natural medicines bringing up questions one surely would have

about small brown bottles of: Agrimony, Aspen, Impatiens, Elm, and Chestnut

Bud coming to about $100. The reader is taken on a shopping trip having

many aspects that will be familiar, one that they will laugh also.

“Cobra Sonnet” does not follow the traditional number of lines of sonnet or

follow the rhyme scheme but does finish with a couplet providing a conclusion.

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It uses humor, knowledge of plants, irony, to craft a poem 26 lines well worth

reading and rereading.

The tanka poems, traditionally using thirty-one syllables, are on such varied

topics as: lime, maple leaves, and praise.

“Ode to Toast” is praise to roasting toast and the humor evident with:

“Raise a glass in honor of skinny wire coils/That heat out bread’s best.” and

also “Let’s toast the aroma that rouses a dog/From its coma….” p.42

“Paris Whistling” ends with the appealing lines:

“When did it become passé

To share a tiny slice of happiness,

Wear your heart on your sleeve?” p.40

Her poems have aspects of a cosmopolitan and a naturalist, a combination

that makes her poetry so grounded. The Long Blue Room is a collection to go

back to again and again as it is a conversation with a friend with wit and

understanding: one who writes not to confound or puzzle but to share the

extraordinary lurking just beneath what is all around us. Ms. Gelfand finds

inspiration in Monet’s paintings, William Carlos Williams poems, letters in the

5 Smallwood The Long Blue Room

Hebrew alphabet , movies—but mostly from what she has experienced, what

is within her as a contemporary American woman worthy that is of being


Carol Smallwood’s most recent books include Water, Earth, Air, Fire,

and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014); Divining the Prime

Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); and Writing After

Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Carol has founded, supports

humane societies.