Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Legacy, by Jane Levin

I recently received a slender, elegantly printed book of poems in the mail from Jane Levin, former St. Louis resident now in Minneapolis. She had found this blog, and sent off the poems. I recognized her name from past involvement in the women's movement here in the 1980s, but we had never met. This encounter through the blogosphere, with a slim volume of poetry as the conduit, is the sort of lucky and random connection computers allow.

Legacy is Jane Levin's first book, and is from Moonflower Press (price $8, inquiries to moonflowerpress at gmail dot com). It is slim--20 poems, and most of them are the way Emily Dickinson's poems are brief. Spare, finely edged, and the resonance afterwards is huge. Here is the opener:


her life

is an

tiny islands of dependency
alluring from oooooo afar
up close
a relationship
of sand

she leaves at
oooooooooooo high tide

oooooooooooo floats

Some of the poems are about the author's fight with ovarian cancer; some are deeply sensual lesbian love poems, or poems about the harder societal aspects living a lesbian life; some are about Jewish culture; some are funny. One of my favorites, perhaps because of the title that splices one type of gambling (emotional) into another (financial, as in the commodities market) and layers it into a new understanding of risk, is this:


Clumps of wavy brown hair cover my pillow
like November leaves.
She leans close,
scoops a curly nest into her cupped palm,
wraps it in tissue paper, whispers
just in case.

Tears trickle down my chest,
flat as Nebraska.
She licks the moist prairie,
files its taste under "beloved."

Understated and overpowering -- rare in a first book, where the usual tendency is to over-write.

Lines here will draw you in, and the small poems will enlarge you. They invite close attention, and give it back.


In the interest of conservation
recycle a poem

to kindle
reuse each word
every line

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Urge To Believe

The latest release of the Midwest Women Poets Series from Cherry Pie Press is an extended piece by Erin M. Bertram.

The Urge To Believe Is Stronger Than Belief Itself is a meditation on connections and cleavings. Its backdrop is a story about how breast cancer recreates the ties between mother and daughter. Seen through the lens of language, relationship is stronger than illness. Bertram’s poetry is a quiet crescendo of love and attentiveness that connects and redefines whatever it touches.

“But are you not, as you said, your body. Is it not, in its own quiet heft, 2 percent your agile frame. I’ve done the math, twice. One night, on a dare, I tugged one of mine from its cup, placed it on the postal scale on my desk. It rested there awkwardly, weighed 2.5 lbs. Once I woke clutching them both, groping for a loophole, a patch of dry skin, guilty of having & holding what you no longer possess.”
Erin M. Bertram's The Urge To Believe Is Stronger Than Belief Itself (ISBN 978-0-9748468-8-0) is available locally in St. Louis at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, St. Louis, MO 63108 (ph 314.367.6731), or from the publisher

Click here to view a downloadable flyer/order form for The Urge To Believe Is Stronger Than Belief Itself.

Erin M. Bertram is a fellow and instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studies Women & Gender Studies and poetry. She is the author of three other chapbooks: Alluvium (dancing girl press, 2007); Body of Water (Thorngate Road, 2007) which won the Frank O'Hara Award; and Here, Hunger (NeO Pepper Press, 2007) with Sarah Lilius; and the micro-chapbook Wise Raven (Big Game Books, 2008). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barn Owl Review; Bloom; CutBank; Forklift, Ohio; Knockout; So to Speak; and others. She edits Shadowbox Press.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A mother of us all - Joan Lipkin

This Mother's Day, I'm thanking Joan Lipkin for all the mothering she's done over the years. She is the quintessential example of how to use art to change the world and to improve the lives of individuals. She's recently written an article on her own Mother's Day mode of honoring her mother's contributions to the world and to the development of her own mettle, and describes it here:

Joan is an essential part of St. Louis and its art, St. Louis and its heart. She has brought theatre and audiences together in unexpected, challenging ways, working with high school students, people with disabilities, all the while up-ending and challenging the audiences thoughts on democracy, disability, gender roles, and the power of art. Last year she won The Ethical Society's St. Louis Humanist of the Year award (

You can read more about her on the web site of her theater creation, That Uppity Theatre Company, Thank you Joan, for all that you've brought to so many of us.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Poem Bakeoff Winners!

Thanks to all who sent in a poem for the Cherry Pie Poem Bakeoff. Competition was hot, plentiful, and -- I'm glad to report -- yummy. I had planned on picking a single entry, but there were three competing for that spot, even after multiple read-throughs. So the results include a first-place winner, and also a second-prize and third-prize winner. I'll also mention some choice lines from other poems.

The first-prize winner will receive free copies of all three Cherry Pie chapbooks to be published in 2008. Since second and third prizes are now included (it's just so hard to say "no" when the poems are good!), those winners can each select one free chapbook from the 2008 selections.

The three Cherry Pie chapbooks for 2008 are:
The Urge To Believe Is Stronger Than Belief Itself, by Erin M. Bertram (May 2008)
A Stranger Here Myself, by Niki Nymark (late summer 2008)
Weaving the Light, by Mary Ruth Donnelly (fall 2008)

Here are the winning poems.

First Prize goes to an untitled cinquaine (loosely) from Dianne Ladendecker. I was charmed and astonished each time I read this economical little wonder.

The brine
Then there's the knife
It's out of proportion
I hear eerie sounds of half-life

Second Prize goes to Gaye Gambell-Peterson for a pantoum about a middle-aged mermaid. I was intrigued by the well-used effect of the pantoum's interlocking structure, and completely sold on the "C-sharp half-life, caught in the half-light" which mingles echoes of music, radiation/decay/science, time, and water so beautifully.

Mermaid’s Pantoum

I am unrepentant mermaid, middle aged.
Flesh and scales still in seemly proportion,
though wrinkled by brine and tattered by time.
Still adored, a diva of fathomed opera.

Flesh and scales still in seemly proportion,
a siren, chanteuse, my voice a knife-edge
shrill, adorned. A fathomed opera’s diva
in a C-sharp half-life, caught in the half-light.

A siren, chanteuse, my voice a knife-edge
cutting through tides. Me, under the weather,
caught in sea’s half-light with only a half-life,
still luring men with plaintive arias.

Cutting through tides, me, under the weather
though wrinkled by brine and tattered by time,
still luring men with plaintive arias.
A middle-aged mermaid, unrepentant am I.

And Third Prize goes to Elizabeth M. Johnson, who gains an extra point for incorporating the full title of a Cherry Pie chapbook (Kiss Me Cold). Some of the required five words in this poem were used in variant forms (e.g. disproportionate instead of proportion) and although I've seen many contests be strict on that count, I'm constitutionally unable to be strict and so will allow it. The poem's worth it.

Ending It

Last summer, in the months without an “R,”
we ate oysters, the jagged edges of
the shells were sharp against our tongues, the brine
cool in our throats, delicious as the crisp

sea salt against our skin, the beach bonfire,
the Great Bear asterism far above,
an operatic swell in the timeline
of us, peace tenuous but in our grasp.

But now the months have “Rs.” Also, “-embers.”
You lumber toward me, and I try to move
away; your heavy body next to mine
seems wildly disproportionate. You clasp

me, kiss me, cold, your lips a slick steel knife
at my throat. No half measures, just half life.

Congratulations on the great poems! The other entries were wonderful, and I hope everyone had fun with the contest.

Notable lines or moments from other entries, that I just couldn't resist:

From Bobbi Lurie, a prose poem that started off: "brine she says is nothing but the half-life of the pickle. . . "

And from Gail Eisenhart, a sinister love poem that included: "this tryst / has the half-life of house-fly."

To wrap up, an unexpected "non-winner" that simply must be mentioned for its refusal to follow any rules, and for the delightful poem that resulted. This is from Katherine Mitchell, who attempted a poem using the five required words but ended up with a poem that used a form of one of the words, did not use the other four at all, and is titled as a haiku but is, in fact, not a haiku. So here is a poem of . . . great resistance? Katherine sent it in as a non-entry, and I reproduce it here as such. Not a prize-winner, but in many ways a winner!

Summer Haiku

paddle boats float
on two tanks
painted copper lake

paddlers wear pajamas
hold champagne flutes
small rising circles
happy tongues

water smoothed
butter knives in cake frosting

orange bursts
over the horizon
sending heat
inside our paper lantern faces