Category Archives: Book Reviews

Poem of the Week: Canoe, by Alison Luterman via poetry mistress Alison McGhee

Canoe, by Alison Luterman

When I was young, years ago, canoeing on the green
Green River, with my young first husband,

I wriggled out of my shorts, eased over the lip
of our little boat, and became eel-woman,

naked and glistening, borne along in the current.
He paddled, I floated and spun,

and let the ripples take me.
Even an hour of that kind of freedom

can last for years and years,
can become a touchstone you return to

long after the rented canoe has been returned,
and the road trip has ended, and then the marriage,

and then the husband’s brief life, and you yourself
have become someone else entirely; still

you return in your mind to the days
you could set up a tent in the dark,

and build a small fire
from birch bark and newspaper

and sit beside it, sipping tea, savoring your muscles’ sweet ache,
as one by one the uncountable stars came out.

A big thanks to Alison McGhee for finding and sharing these beautiful poems.

For more information about Alison Luterman, please check out her website. Website Blog
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@alisonmcghee

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Poem of the Week: Choices by Tess Gallagher via Alison McGhee

Choices, by Tess Gallagher

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,   
an unseen nest
where a mountain   
would be.  

                              for Drago Štambuk

​For more information on Tess Gallagher, please ​click here.

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Thanks to Alison McGhee for curating these beautiful poems.

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Poem of the Week: For Nothing is Fixed by James Baldwin via Alison McGhee

By Alison McGhee, a pre-amble to the poem “For Nothing is Fixed” by James Baldwin

Last week, late at night, the fire alarm in my cheap motel began to shriek. Doors opened up and down the hall and men began to emerge: huge men, small men, men in their underwear, one on crutches, one pushing a walker, one carrying a case of beer, one sweating as if just out of a sauna. This is the strangest assortment of men I’ve ever seen, I murmured to myself. One of the men leered or smiled, hard to tell.

Next morning in the breakfast room I sat tapping on my laptop while the hallway men shuffled in one by one. The leer/smile man sat next to me. I could tell he wanted to talk but I pretended to be too absorbed in my work to look up. This did not stop him.

“Hey! I like your pink hair! How’s it goin’?” 

It was early. There were six hundred miles ahead of me. I didn’t want to talk. But then the last lines of this poem by James Baldwin came to me and I closed my laptop and turned to him and smiled. Had a long conversation about the fire alarm, the slim pickings at the breakfast buffet, his favorite smoking rituals back when everybody smoked, hard to believe it now, right? 

He was a lonely man. He just wanted to talk. Sometimes it feels like most people are lonely, and most people just want to talk. 

For Nothing Is Fixed, by James Baldwin

For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed;
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing,
the sea does not cease to grind down rock.
Generations do not cease to be born,
and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails,
lovers cling to each other,
and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other,
the moment we break faith with one another,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

If you’d like to read more about James Baldwin, this is an interesting profile.

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Poem of the Week: Lumina by Darrell Bourque

Lumina
      – Darrell Bourque

We’re all extensions
          of someone or another’s
                     golden light.

In the moment
          I was made
                     stars filled the sky

& some parts
          of the bodies
                     making me

were fleetingly
          illuminated—
                     briefly luminous.

Druids see light
          in wood
                     and worship trees.

When we wave
          in recognition,
                     we disperse light,

set light in motion
          toward
                     the beloved.

We string our trees
          with lights
                     in wintertime.

We want
          to see ourselves
                     in the dark.

For more information on Darrell Bourque, please click here.

Thank you as always, to Alison for passing along these beautiful poems.

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Books: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

I couldn’t put it down from the moment I read the first page. The story of a missing anybody is always compelling. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Are they dead or alive? What led to their disappearance? And who is left behind to wonder?

Swimming Lessons is the story of Flora Coleman, a young woman whose mother disappears when she’s eleven. It’s also the story of her mother Ingrid Coleman, as told through letters she has written and hidden in books throughout their house to her famous husband, the writer, Gil Coleman.

Flora returns to her childhood ramshackle seaside home to help care for her ailing father who believes he has seen Ingrid. Flora, herself doesn’t believe her mother is dead and often sees her. You’re never sure whether this is real longing for a mother who simply disappears but is assumed drowned or if in fact, Ingrid, whose life had become isolated and unbearable disappeared herself.

Just as there are no certainties in life, the reader too must decide in the end what happened to Ingrid Coleman.

What makes this book so compelling is the contents of the letters Ingrid writes to Gil, each one revealing to him what she could never say during the course of their tumultuous marriage. In Ingrid’s last letter she instructs Gil on how to care for their two young children. Is it a suicide note or a goodbye of another kind?

That she has reason to leave him is clear. When they first meet in the sixties in London, he is her handsome, flamboyant English instructor almost twenty years her senior, and she is a twenty year old student from Norway. Everything from the very beginning screams, run away, choose life number two and stay free, as her friend Louise warns her but she falls deeply in love and becomes pregnant. And the rest is history. She can’t escape the reality of her life as a somewhat reluctant mother, a husband who is emotionally and physically absent and the numerous heartbreaks along the way. That she lasted as long as she did seems a miracle but the letters describing the heady romance of their early days seems deep enough to last a lifetime and this love, in spite of everything, keeps her hanging on. If only he had loved her as she had loved him. And when she does think of leaving, the reality of being a young woman with no education stop her at the front door. How could she manage?

In the end Flora, her youngest daughter has to decide if she can let her mother live or if she has to put her to rest. It’s how we square the circle and find peace in the end and each one including Gil finds it their own way.

I loved this book. It was beautifully written, giving the reader an incredible sense of place and time and a snapshot of a young woman who’s heart was broken by love.

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Poem of the Week: Voyage by Tony Hoagland via Poetry Mistress Alison

Voyage, by Tony Hoagland

I feel as if we opened a book about great ocean voyages
and found ourselves on a great ocean voyage:
sailing through December, around the horn of Christmas
and into the January Sea, and sailing on and on

in a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book’s end more beautiful.

And someone is spreading a map upon a table,
and someone is hanging a lantern from the stern,
and someone else says, “I’m only sorry
that I forgot my blue parka; It’s turning cold.”

Sunset like a burning wagon train
Sunrise like a dish of cantaloupe
Clouds like two armies clashing in the sky;
Icebergs and tropical storms,
That’s the kind of thing that happens on our ocean voyage —

And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long,
I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.

And the sides of the ship were green as money,
and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.

Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
by pushing into it —
The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

For more information about Tony Hoagland, please read his obituary.

Thanks to Alison McGhee for sharing these beautiful poems. WebsiteBlogFacebook page@alisonmcghee

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Books: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a treasure of a read. I grew up in Ontario but have lived most of my adult life in British Columbia. We were never taught indigenous, First Nation or Inuit history in lower and high school and although I went on to study history, I focused on Middle Eastern and American studies. Today, of course, I am much more aware of the sad history of my country and its first people and the more I learn the more horrified I am at the continued injustices that permeate our governance structure.

The Round House is a coming of age story that is told from the perspective of 13 year Joe Coutts, who grows up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Set in 1988, the novel offers a glimpse of a young boy on the cusp of manhood, who over the course of a few months, avenges the horrifying rape of his mother. The tragedy drives the action in the novel but in many ways is a backdrop to the delightful cast of characters who live on the reserve with Joe including his close circle of friends Cappy, Zack and Angus. Joe’s father, Bazil is a judge and after the assault begins to share details of other criminal cases with his son. Joe and his friends become embroiled in solving the crime and in so doing, come to an understanding that the complex legal system and land issues could let the perpetrator go free.

While the story is dark, it is a beautiful evocation of the  complexities that have resulted from stealing indigenous land and creating reserves. It’s a coming of age story that is oddly funny, incredibly tragic with writing that captures the beauty of people at one with the natural world and the characters that fuel generational mythology. So happy I found this book and want to thank my book fairy Cynthia for pressing this into my hands and saying “Read it. Read it.”

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