River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler: Book Review

This island is far more full of life than I had thought. Animals I cannot name are beginning to make themselves known. I hear twigs snap, and cries filter now and again from woods to sky. I wrap up tighter and try to concentrate on Mama and Mima. I think of that day Mr. Sammy decided he had turned old. His sudden despair and Miss Raison’s drowning weren’t the only life-changing events in the forest hideaway that stormy afternoon. Mima conceived my mother in the middle of all that lightning and rain (186-7).

I often buy used books from volunteers staffing “Friends of the Library” shop at the entrance to Belleville’s library. This is where I found River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler. (Purchases support our public library and often great finds can be made.)

I picked the book up because of the cover – a photograph that I might have been smitten to take – an egret in long, marshy grasses. The narrative, which identifies as fiction, is dedicated to two women who seem very much like two characters in the story. However, the blurb on the dust jacket almost put me off – romance (the romantic, not the historic variety). Nevertheless, I was drawn in.

Fowler’s book reminds me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (2018). What the two books share is a boat on a river, water that hides mysteries and danger, and consciousness more surreal than real. Johnson’s story is far more complex and more beautifully executed…and much more surreal and daring. But Fowler’s story was published 24 years earlier. Johnson’s story centres on the intricate relations of a mother and daughter; Fowler’s focuses on a woman’s memories of her mother, grandmother and grandfather who tell their own stories. To my mind, the intervention of Carlos and a mummified baby spoil what might have been a much more interesting tale.

River of Hidden Dreams fought with me (or I with it). I threatened to toss it aside. Then I turned the page again. The orneriness of the grandmother and granddaughter parallel became a bit too much…but then I continued reading. The handsome, perfect, prince-charming Carlos is polar-opposite of his miserable, mean Mamacita/Saidie. Perhaps someone told the author, “you’d better include a love object and sex.” Still, the pages kept turning.

What works: Mr. Sammy, the trawler, the river, the Everglades, and the ancestors speaking their own stories for the eerie, jarring, sensuous impact. Fowler’s descriptions held me enchanted. I slipped into her river-world where time became untethered. The story may have happened last century or last year; it doesn’t matter. I felt its immediacy, its reality in a surreal kind of way.

River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler has earned my toughest review. Now that it’s written, I’ve checked what others have said…and everyone loved everything about it. Now you might want to read the novel and make up your own mind. Do let me know…please.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: River of Hidden Dreams

(The hardcover is listed for Cdn $248.72 – you may want to visit your library to borrow a copy.)

The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson: Book Review

I find a kind of hope here, in this / homelessness, in this place / where no one knows me – / where I’ll be gone, like some / over-wintering bird, / before they even notice. (Beginning to Green)

The poet searches: for his shadow-self, for grief and guilt, and for life and meaning. In The Wrecking Light, Robin Robertson moves into the past, sheds light onto the present, and shape-shifts between reality and the surreal.

In the first section, Silvered Water, the first poem, “Album,” sets a tone that echoes throughout the collection. It begins:

I am almost never there, in these
old photographs: a hand
or shoulder, out of focus; a figure
in the background,
stepping from the frame.

(…)

A ghost is there; the ghost gets up to go.

The Wrecking Light is full of memories that include memories of others: the girl / with the hare lip / down by Clachan Bridge (“By Clachan Bridge”). And the collection ends with the personal memory of “Hammersmith Winter” when through the drawn curtain / shines the snowlight I remember as a boy, / sitting up at the window watching it fall. Mixed with memories is a sense of grieving, as in “Fall From Grace:”

My life a mix of dull disgraces
and watery acclaim, my daughters know
I cannot look into their clear faces;
what shines back at me is shame.

The theme continues. In “Tinsel,” in the woods: If you’re very quiet, you might pick up loss: or rather / the thin noise that losing makes – perdition. / If you’re absolutely silent. And with loss comes leaving. The very next poem, “Leaving St. Kilda,” takes us on a sea journey brimming with geographic details and clear images cut clean by departure. In this geographical catalogue: sea rhythm; progression.

But don’t get the wrong idea, these poems are neither nostalgic nor maudlin. In the skillful hands of this visionary, we are taken on a raucous ride with unexpected twists and turns.

In the second section called Broken Water, the first poem’s horror and the brutal honesty of rough island life and penance is laid bare. In “Law of the Island” Robertson paints a vivid description of island punishment and the casualness of its deployment. In this section, he gives us a back-and-forth of short poems with punch and longer, exploratory ones where he writes after Ovid, Neruda, Baudelaire, and myth to understand humanity’s weaknesses. Here, “Grave Goods,” is beyond surreal; it enters magic.

In the third section, Unspoken Water, the woods and forests of childhood again dominate. In “The Wood of Lost Things,” the vision is clearer and in its clarity, more haunting. Robertson writes: I have found the place I wasn’t meant to find (…)

Hung on a silver birch, my school cap
and satchel; next to them, the docken suit,
and next to that, pinned to a branch,
my lost comforter –
a piece of blanket worn to the size of my hand.

 You can see how he leads us. Like Narcissus he sees a face I seem to know. But unlike Narcissus, he isn’t struck by his beauty. Of course not. But he does give us a resolution (of sorts).

In The Wrecking Light, there is much of the sea, of woods, of love and loss, of searching. I return to the final poem, “Hammersmith Winter,” and the poet’s final plea: Look at the snow, / I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold, / would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go.

Robin Robertson has written an intense, lyrical collection with movement as through dreams bordering on nightmare (I dare not use the word haunting again, although that is the effect his writing creates). This is Robertson’s forth book of poetry; I recommend you enter his world.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Wrecking Light

Bone Antler Stone by Tim Miller: Book Review

In every real way, the ring was placed here / the ring of now pock-marked, planetary stone (…) but the landscape was first, the stones only our / attempt at echo and veneration. (The Ring of Brodgar)

Tim Miller collapses 30,000 years of archaeology into a poetry collection that feels the thrill of immediate experience. He stirs a bit of magic, weaving it into the facts of what we know from long-past history.

In “Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira” (France and Spain, 35,000 – 12,000 BC), Miller writes: Now we come to paint with light and fire. In this seven-part poem, we go beyond the images and enter the process of painting them:

A bison made with his hands, white hands dipped in red
And palms slapped on cold rock again and again,
Smacked hands turned or righted or angles
And his exhausted step back to see
The animal made only of red palms and rock,
Red like bison’s blood, stone vitality,
His awe at a heartbeat behind the wall,
And his hands red as a midwife’s.

The poet does not stand back, merely to look in wonder and awe, although the mystery inherent in that is present. He manages intimacy and time dissolves.

Lines jump off the page, lines like The sun sets into the sea and is doused / and rises with the sound of reborn flame / rolling into another red morning. The title, “The Sun Sets into the Sea” is incantatory, hypnotic. Doing the work of a chant, it carries us to the sea and the sun, which so many peoples worshipped.

The landscape, too, is revealed as it reveals burials of the long dead. In “Long Barrows,” graves become humps…in the landscape, / small rises like murmurs. The collapsing of then and now runs throughout the collection as it does in:

Horses and Cows on Orkney

Horses curled in the flaming spiral of sleep,
The huge immensity of their bodies
Belied by the blankets they wear, or the
Tight scroll they twist themselves into on the ground,
A
n enormity suddenly made small
Or at least passive, compact, the coiled braid
Of body closer to tree or landscape,
The tilted, chiseled head nearer to stone
Or to steel or something pulled from the fire,
Some monument to just how this place works,
That you do not escape the wind, but dream in it.

And this would not be a “prehistory” collection if the goddesses were not brought forth. “Female Figurines” begins with the urgency of poetic catalogue, an incantation:

Hum the words with me and you might understand:
Mammoth ivory, hematite, limestone,
Black jet, soapstone, antler and fired clay –
All of these become our bodies because
Our bodies are the place of becoming.

Tim Miller stirs the imagination. His narrative poems in Bone Antler Stone breathe life into the archeological past of Europe. Now my heart yearns for poetic translation of “New World” prehistory.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Bone Antler Stone

A personal note:
Reading “Female Figurines” (Bone Antler Stone), I walked over to a display table in my sitting area and picked up a cast replica of the Goddess of Willendorf, a gift of my professor of Art and Archeology. In that course, Professor Leonard Kroon insisted we experience art. I did two things: first, I visited the petroglyph site at Rice Lake, lay on the shamanic rock and listened to the earth gurgling through a slanted crack (out of that experience came a poem, “Migration,” which is included in A Breeze You Whisper) and I carved a hawk from a block of soapstone. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the red-tailed hawk would become a motif in later poems. That aside, I cradled the Willendorf figure – both tiny as my palm and monumental – and felt magic through the rotund Lilliputian goddess before returning to Miller’s poems.

For more about my writing, please see “About”

Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman): Book Review & Writing Tips

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge — of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

In the previous blog, Away, I looked at the journeys of poet Andrea MacPherson who ferreted out people and places of ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland and Scotland a generation or two earlier. In this post — Ru, a poetic fictionalized memoir by Kim Thúy — we experience the harrowing journey of refugees fleeing Vietnam for Canada, escaping Saigon for Montreal. From war to an escape by boat, from a refugee camp in Malaysia to snowy Montreal, Thúy shares both the intimate and the universal realities of escape and renewal.

When NPR interviewed Thúy (“A Refugee’s Multilayered Experience in Ru”), they said that the “novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off its petals: one small scene after another.” On the page, the novel looks like a prose poem or perhaps the concise pages of a journal. Yet the narrative flows smoothly and coherently.

It begins with a ten-year-old girl, but like memory that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself chronologically, the story called Ru flows back and forth in time as one experience triggers another. It does so as the name suggests, as gently as a lullaby. This is extraordinary given the intense and often devastating experiences of the refugees. At the books core, Ru is a story of survival against all odds (Thúy has said the family expected to die) but it is also a beautiful story of a girl who becomes a woman almost in awe of the way lives unfold and people grow and blossom.

Near the middle of the book, Thúy introduces Monsieur Minh who gave me the urge to write. And we can see how writing flings windows wide open, creating space for seeing:

He was saved not by the sky but by writing. He had written a number of books during his time in the re-education camp—always on the one piece of paper he possessed, page by page, chapter by chapter, an unending story. Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard the snow melting or leaves growing or clouds sailing through the sky. Nor would he have seen the dead end of a thought, the remains of a star or the texture of a comma (88).

Later, we meet the grandmother who chose withdrawal into prayer as a way to cope:

Today, my grandmother is a very old woman, but still beautiful, lavishly so, like a queen. When she was in her forties, sitting in her parlour in Saigon, she epitomized a whole era of an extreme kind of beauty, of opulence.…

After the markets had been cleaned out of merchandise and merchants, after her Communist tenants had taken the contents of her safe and her lace scarves, she learned to dress in the long grey kimono worn by the faithful.…

She’d let her two youngest, a boy and a girl, leave with my mother despite the uncertainty. My mother asked my grandmother to choose between the risk of losing her son at sea and that of finding him torn to shreds in a minefield during his military service in Cambodia. She had to choose secretly, without hesitating, without trembling, without perspiring. Perhaps it was to control her fear that she started to pray. Perhaps it was to become intoxicated with the incense smoke that she no longer left the altar (116-117).

Imagine! Yet the story is so sensitively written that the horror fails to leap out and grab us with a scream. Instead, it silently builds and haunts long after we’ve read the last page.

Ru has won a string of prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Grand prix littéraire Archambault,  the Prix du Grand Public Salon du Livre/La Presse, the Grand prix littéraire RTL-Lire (France), and the Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism (Italy). In addition, it was the 2015 winner of “Canada Reads” (CBC Books/Canada Broadcasting Corporation).

Writing tips:

Structure: the lesson here is to not fear innovation. Choose the format that best suits the telling of your story. Think about how different the reading experience would be if the novel had been written in the usual chapter format, all those transitions and unnecessary details.

Consider the power being concise. In an interview or talk (I can’t be sure where), I heard Thúy say that whatever country that she has traveled people have related their unique journey through war and escape. I believe, in large part, that the brevity of her narration opened space wherein readers filled in their reality. You may want to take a longer piece you’ve written and streamline it down to essential; then consider the impact of each style.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ru

Away by Andrea MacPherson: Book Review and Writing Tip

Before, there might have been children playing in the street, / the rumbling of cars and feet, / but now there is nothing. Taut, stretched stillness. Waiting.

“Walking Shankill Road” (29)

Andrea MacPherson travels in Away — and we travel with her through the magic of her poetry. The journey begins in Ireland, a personal quest where sites and family are sought.

This is the one place you insisted I come,
this place where limestone weeps
and children once played between execution sites
and burial grounds.

So begins “here’s to the wings of a bird” (12) and with it an elusive you, someone who has planted the seed of return, a return instead of, as if MacPherson is visiting the memories of another. Throughout, the time of the “Troubles” persists. In “boundaries” (16), she writes:

We anticipated a stop here,
men with guns and strict faces
(tightropes of unsmiling mouths,
eyes that have seen marchers falling)
a checkpoint at least, with flashlights
turning our faces to ghosts.

Instead there is nothing but seamless conversation;
rapeseed fields.
Trading prayer for something even quieter.

With the poet, we ride through countryside, lulled, until Belfast and RUC men… their guns and tanks.

Somehow we have forgotten about the strife
we had prepared to see, more content
with wavering fields a thousand shades of yellow
and ancient schoolhouses.

These places where people once sat.

The “Troubles” are old; the people we meet are old. It is as if all love and youth have left Ireland. MacPherson captures a poignancy that is haunting. In “the backyard faerie circle” (20), we visit an old man, alone:

A grey cardigan coming apart at the seams,
smelling of sheep and skin and age.
A threadbare chair,
imprinted with the memory of the body
thighs and shoulders and hip bones.
This is what his life has become:
wool and paisley just there.

We learn something of him, his youth and love, but now the small patch of wild roses / left untended, / forgotten in the shade.

The family journey of remembrance crosses the Irish Sea and continues in Scotland where we learn MacPherson’s mother’s mother left with only a rose-gold / wedding band, a few porcelain figurines (“blue salt,” 41). In “Caldrum Street,” MacPherson writes: I take photos to enter a past that is not mine (48); yet the poems lack nostalgia. They are immediate, felt, experienced. History – political and personal – continues to dig deep, becoming, as she says in one poem, fable.

MacPherson’s travels continue to France and Greece. In Paris: A streak of blue paint / thick / across a painter’s cheek (“sketches of Paris, 71). Allusions to artists and their art continue. In “La Goulue & Jane Avril” (77).

You write to me from Toulouse
and I think not of you and the red
city you describe, but of the small
deformed man with miniature legs
(childhood breaks that never quite healed)
who drew cabaret dancers
and whores and faceless men.
Smell the absinthe on his stale breath,
the unwashed quality of his hair.
Dark, dense in the spring sun.

Toulouse is nowhere in those photos,
only the possibility of his compressed figure in the corner,
black coat tails, shriveled leg
fleeting.

In “National Archaeological Museum” (85), Greece, archeology replaces the art trope of France:

[The statues] have all been saved from watery graves,
a shipwreck hundreds of years ago in the Aegean.
They might have been home for minnows,
crustaceous prawns, octopuses;
seaweed might have covered the boy’s eyes,
letting him forget he once had limbs.

As the trip comes to an end, she writes: I dream of the places I will go once home: / thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes…relearn the taste of green (“the geography of bougainvillea” 89).

Away describes a circle, a going out and a return – to place, to self – and it does so with keen observation and insight. This is Andrea MacPherson’s second book of poetry. It is now one of my favourites to be read and reread.

Hints for Writers 

  1. For writers on personal journeys to places of emigration, Away shows how the quest can embrace the stories of generations, the return (almost) on behalf of parents and grandparents but also open doors to others curious minds. MacPherson travels with purpose, but her list of places and people to see does not blind her. She finds ways to draw readers into her poems; she bridges the personal : universal divide. If this is your journey, read MacPherson with an eye and ear as to how she accomplishes the magic.
  2. The author’s voice is consistent throughout the collection, creating cohesion between poems and sections of the book. MacPherson’s voice is intimate/personal but also knowledgeable. We trust her. We also remain open to the surprises and insights that happen along the journey. Think about how she uses the first person to control what we see and feel and then how she inserts the twist that makes us pause and contemplate the awareness or insight or question revealed.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Away

Mechanics of a Gaze by Branka Petrovic; poetry review and reading/writing tips

Inside his studio, a woman awaits // her turn to be myth

In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.

The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.

Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.

Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.

Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:

If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate

into a metallic-gold,

backdrop; osmanthus sprouting

from your hands….

…Your air,

a brooding saint.

Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.

The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.)  In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”

In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard.  In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).

The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.

Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.

 

Tips for Writers

  1. Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
  2. Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
  3. In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
  4. The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze

Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss

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Panicle, poems by Gillian Sze, book review and writing tips

This is how the beginning sounds: an inkstick grinding against stone,
a dark circling like ancient gears. The water blackens from soot;
we paint with the burnt ashes of pine trees.

In “Calligraphy,” the first poem in Panicle by Gillian Sze, we are led into the art of writing which begins: “even before the brush touches the paper.” Sounds and the act of writing—of listening, witnessing, experiencing, reaching essence at the core—permeate Panicle. This is a collection about poetry itself.

In a prose poem, “Sound No2,” she writes:

There are things I want to show you, like the empty pause that encircles desire. Or how Klimt knew that a woman bends her neck that far for a kiss only if she really wants it. I want to show you how quiet it gets when you’re in the company of someone who no longer loves you.

Sze pushes beyond sound and sight, beyond even behavior, in order to explain poetry, as she does in “Bona Fide: or, Setting the Seine on Fire.” She begins by drawing us into “impressionist modes” (do you see the shimmering light?) and note how black differs in Paris where “even the chestnut trees never cast black shadows.” This thrusting of opposites applies to ideas about poetry as much as it does to the words within a poem. After creating the Parisian scene, she notes:

A modernist tells me
he’s searching for genuine tones
in poetry
something authentic, not fugitive…
Something, he repeats, in good faith.

And I tell him
I’m search for natural light.

She brings us back to experience and away from the theoretical voice of the critic.

In “Aubade,” Gillian Sze introduces a hospital room in which she sees “A raised cup / and behind my eyes / a rush of wings;” perhaps a reference to the Eucharist before she turns to nature as “each leaf lifts an eyebrow / and regards the day,” returning us to hope and light. (“Aubade translates from French roughly as auba=dawn + albus=light.) Her play on allusion and sound throughout the collection pares the subject down to its essence.

It seems to me that Sze breaks rules with “Staging Paris: Tableaux Vivants,” ten scenes that she outlines for us, each creating a situation, unresolved. She plays with light and sound. She leaves it to readers to resolve each situation.

My favourite section is the long poem that concludes the collection: “III Guillemets,” although she does not use the chevrons ‹ and › (single or double) in the poem. What is included are sketches by Jessica Hiemstra (please see the previous blog: Apologetic for Joy for Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poetry). The poem is a creative interpretation of Pouvoir du noir by Roland Giguère in which is contrasts black and white and much more in a clear, accessible way. I recommend Panicle for the clarity, contrasts, sound, and skill of Gillian Sze’s poems.

For the writers among us:

  1. Think about the place of sound in your poems;
  2. Think about creating tension through opposites;
  3. Think about leaving the door open for interpretation, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, as Gillian Sze does in the “Tableaux.”

Available through your local bookstore or online: Panicle

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