Book Beat Spring 2023 – Reviews by Elaine Palencia

At Pegasus we draw great pleasure in celebrating the work of our colleagues. Although Book Beat only reviews poetry, we will be happy to announce books members publish in other genres. If you are a member of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and interested in having a recently published work reviewed for publication in Pegasus, please contact:

Elaine Fowler Palencia

3006 Valleybrook Drive

Champaign, IL 61822

(217) 621-1093

Tom C. Hunley, What Feels Like Love; New and Selected Poems.  n.p.: C & R Press. 122 pages, $16.00.

“I’m Professor Frink. I’ll make/you laugh. I’ll make you/think. I’ll make a thing/that will make you love me,” declares one of the persona poems in Tom C. Hunley’s new poetry collection. That pretty much sums up what’s going on in these funny, thoughtful, but often dark and heart-wrenching, poems. Because six earlier collections are excerpted, those selections joining a batch of new poems, this book reads like a Greatest Hits album.

The new poems come first and center on difficult human relationships, such as parenting an autistic son and a teenaged foster daughter. Confessional poetry requires exposing one’s vulnerability and the speaker does that, as in “Dear God, Show Me How to Walk in Wonder,” when he admits, “Sometimes, God, I stumble like a foal, / a fool, / a fawn, a phony. I fail, I fall …” Trying to protect the vulnerable brings regrets—Did I do enough? Can one ever do enough?—as in “Will be Done,” which addresses a student who committed suicide. The ending is stark: “I’m not really talking to you, Will. / I’d just as well talk to the West Wind or an artichoke. /Everyone left, I’m talking to you. Don’t leave. / You’re not alone. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”

Here Lies  (2018) is represented by several poems drenched in black humor and imagining Hunley’s death—on his hammock, in a car wreck, in the shower, from ignoring warning labels, by freezing, dying surrounded by aliens. There are arresting last thoughts, as the dying man gropes for meaning: “He knew love felt like a color with no name/that only one other person could see/He knew loneliness too; it wore a mask/that made it look like love . . .” (“Here Lies Tom C. Hunley Who, According to the Coroner,”). Hunley’s The State That Springfield is In (2016)contributes funny, wistful persona poems like “Troy McClure,” about a man who remains a background figure in society and whose sad refrain is “You may remember me.” “Goodnight Milhouse” is a clever prose-poem mashup of The Runaway Bunny and Where the Wild Things Are. 

As this new collection continues to spool backwards chronologically through samples from Plunk (2015), Octopus (2008), The Tongue (2004), and Still, There’s a Glimmer (2004), the joyous identity theft this poet perpetrates creates a hall of mirrors, as in “Out of Body Experience,” in which he becomes a canary, Giovanni Verrazano, Henry Hudson, Samuel Langley (second to fly, after the Wright Brothers), Elisha Gray (too late to patent the telephone), a female blue whale, and more. At the same time, the poetic persona chronicles struggling to play the hand he was dealt in life while he wasn’t paying attention, as we all do. His message: we are both never, and always, up to the task: “My future arrives and I/have to settle for it” (“Um”). Over all the brilliant linguistic tapdancing floats God and a host of poets—Ginsburg, Christopher Smart, Robert Creeley—as well as a rich family life and a cloud of doubts—about identity, love, meaning, how to live. The study of life that such intellectual restlessness entails is humorously summed up in “Interdisciplinary Studies,” a poem that neatly defines life’s questions as areas of academic study, from literary criticism (“A poet’s words could be pulled apart/and the letters reassembled/into copy for a beer commercial, / and that’s literary criticism”) to theology.

Reading this collection may turn into an expensive exercise, as you will want to track down all of Hunley’s earlier collections so you can read every word of this inventive, continually surprising writer.

Nancy K. Jentsch, Between the Rows. Brunswick ME: Shanti Arts Publishing, ©2022. 87pp. $14.95.

The title poem of Nancy K. Jentsch’s new poetry collection juxtaposes two scenes. As a woman and her daughter-in-law, under the cloud of Covid, wash and fold twenty-nine-year-old baby clothes for new use, the woman’s thoughts go to London, 1940. There, young women behind blackout curtains, under a pall of air raids, also were washing baby clothes. “Between the knitted rows,” both groups “fold hope.”

This collection thus portrays the quiet life, lived out of the spotlight; a life that daily negotiates the distance between gain and loss. Salvation from despair comes via small, daily routines carried out in the nurturing presence of nature. “Bucket List,” the first poem in the initial section, offers such advice as, “Spend time in a barn/where hay is stacked/for a whiff of last spring’s blooms/and next week’s milk . . . See a burl you’ve passed before/imagine the kaleidoscope within . . . Consider the perfect sphere/of a Michigan blueberry . . .” This practice of mindfulness will come in handy as memories of loss begin. In the section’s title poem “Unexpected,” we find ourselves at the funeral of beloved grandfather Pop-pop, a victim of Parkinson’s. We will meet him again.

 In “Into Uncertainty,” the second section, there are personal losses and worries that point deeper: The poem “Fall from Grace” asks, “What will become of us/when all the birds are gone, / when earth’s days tangle and riot, dreams/pale and dusk bestows mere darkness?” Perhaps one could string  worries into a bracelet, then either “Leave them home one day/to tangle in a waiting box/ or stand mid-bridge and break the string” (“Worries’ Beads”). The short section “Overnight” begins an upturn. In the title poem, a strong wind may cause stones to cower, but at the same time the opaline petals/of my kitchen orchid” unfold. The final section, “Every Day Has Something in It,” returns to the fruitful management of the human condition introduced earlier in “Bucket List.” “Evening Mantra” counsels, “Knit and purl a wish to frame/and mount the moment/despite clock’s mocking tick.”  A grandson is born, an 1889 letter from an immigrant turns into a found poem. And “Sometimes for a moment/the air is as still as the sky is clear,” and we received a gift: the call of a yellow-billed cuckoo. As Samuel Beckett might say, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Living between the rows is worth it.

Several references to knitting or other needlework reminds the reader of creation as a daily practice. Ekphrastic poems responding to the art of Bianca Artopé are included, with a QR code that will lead the reader to the paintings.

Jessica D. Thompson, Daybreak and Deep: Poems. American Fork UT: Kelsay Books. 68pp. $20.

In her first full-length collection, Jessica Thompson builds on the solid rock of her earlier chapbook, Bullets and Blank Bibles (reviewed in Pegasus, summer/ autumn 2013 issue), from which a third of these poems come. The new poems continue the hard, fruitful work of observing the passage of time unflinchingly and drawing comfort, wisdom, and direction from contemplation.  Many are what I call Witness Poems, that is, poems that say, I was there, I saw this fleeting, precious moment. Remember it with me. Remember it for me. The fact that I hear echoes from so many other poets here tells me Thompson is writing in a literary tradition—the elegaic, as it happens.  “Though much is taken, much abides,” Tennyson’s Ulysses murmurs behind these poems of loss and renewal, even as Emily Dickinson whispers of “Sweeping up the Heart/ And putting Love away” after a death.

The title poem, also the first poem in the collection, starts us off with a delicate, seasonal shift presaging other, less predictable changes: “Overnight, the trees/dropped/their pine cones. / This morning,/ I pulled more strands of hair/from my brush.” Then comes the gradual dissipation of childhood innocence, as in “The God of My Waking.” Seeing her father bitten by, not a snake but a “serpent,” a more Biblical word, a child realizes the father is mortal. “The Mood Ring Diaries” lays out the lock-step lives of girls from a recent era (and still going on), in which societal norms dictated everything: “we ran to altars . . . tied the knot, / spent the rest of our lives/keeping everything inside/prized, knotty pine cabinets.” The loss of farmland in “Wood Violets” and “Future Home of the Mammoth Mega Church” call to mind Jim Wayne Miller’s poem, “Small Farms Disappearing in Tennessee.”

The mood of loss never wins decisively because of the accompanying sympathy, and empathy, for both strangers and self. In “Something so Grand,” two elderly sisters are glimpsed standing in their garden in nightgowns: “Coffee cups in hand, /they stand/barefoot and oblivious/to the world.” “The Mourners” tenderly describes five old friends, widows all, arriving at the funeral of a sixth like “a covey of doves.”

The emotional center of the collection is the loss of a spouse. First, the comforts and joys of a shared life, as in “Where the Crocus Waits:” “You dig the peonies. / I replant them. I think about/how much we love this work.” Then, intensive care units, then “Let me tell you how they cut/the clothes from his body,” then “Sitting with the Dead”: “There are no words/for this noble/loneliness…” and finally, giving the late husband’s clothing to Goodwill in “Worn.” Eventually, some radical change must be effected in order to break out of the paralysis of grief. In “Made Beautiful,” we learn what must be sacrificed: the beloved garden. “I’ll tell you how I survived/losing you. I dug up/the backyard.”    So that the penultimate poem, “The Blue Light of May,” can say, “No one told me/how long this sharp-edged road. /  I know only one day I woke/and found a faint footpath.”

Every individual poem in this collection is worth reading and thinking about. That the author has arranged them so intelligently into a narrative only magnifies their power.

Back to Spring 2023 Issue

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