2021 Editors’ Choice Poems: Week 1

2021 Editors' Choice Poems

Week 1

We were so happy to receive a significant number of submissions to BMP Voices National Poetry Month 2021 — in only the first week. Editor C. Kubasta’s theme seems to have resonated with poets, and in this first week, we discovered a theme within the theme.

This set of nine poems, this week’s Editors’ Picks, speak out to specific but very different audiences and seem to reach out to connect in order to share what these audiences may need to hear after a year of global pandemic. A thirteen-year-old poet gives us insight into the experiences of young people during this time, protest poetry indicts a complicit United States, a Mainer wife squares her chin and maintains her space, two poets imagine hauntings and ghosts in very different ways. Masks and quarantine bookend change and grief.

Thank you to these poets for sharing our collective experiences and the powerful experiences unique to different communities.

Ruth & Mary Ann
Brain Mill Press Publishers

Poetry Month Contest

Submit 1-3 poems of any form or style that speak to Remembering/Reckoning as a response to the traumas of 2020

“Roosters”

by Alanna Shaikh

I’m used to roosters
I’ve always lived in cities; when I hear an outdoor sound, I know it’s roosters
Roosters or stray dogs
Drifting off in bed I hear them
ooo-uh-oo-oo, faintly or loudly but always clear
in the dark of night tending my bladder
in the morning as I cling to my blankets
as I eat lunch by the window

This new city though.
First, it has no roosters.
I never hear them, not ever.
Next, it has other birds; it teems with them.
exuberant choirs of birds
festivals of birds and
determined rusty squeak of palm squirrels

Now, I fall asleep to cooing, trilling, that squirrel squeak
I wake and sleep and urinate to choruses
I know a chirp from a tweet from a squawk
The small hours are all hoots and chirrups

It’s a new thing, this abundance
My ears need time.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Alanna Shaikh is a first-generation Pakistani immigrant. Her poetry is influenced by the landscape of Northern New York state where she grew up, daily life and the literature in the seven countries she’s lived in, and her work in global health and pandemic response. Her poetry has been chosen for publication by Eclectica Magazine and the Norfolk Coast Guardian.

“The Ghost at Home”

by Jareen Imam

I found her standing in the corner,
or maybe I should say, she found me.
She was watching me as I worked late into the evening.
My face illuminated by the pale blue light
shining from my overheated laptop.

I think she mistook me for one of them, initially.

You’re up later than usual, she finally said.
This is normally my time to haunt.

Just give me another hour, I responded.
I’m working on a PowerPoint my boss wants.

She sighed as she threw the white bedsheet off her ghastly frame,
huffing and puffing before she vanished into thin air.
The next night, she found me again,
but this time she was sitting on my bed.

Are you working late again? she complained.
When is this going to end?
I’ve got a schedule to keep up with, she moaned,
as she showed me her planner

Haunt 30-something-year-old woman
between the hours of midnight to 2 A.M.
Make sure to instill feelings of inadequacy, the planner read.
A footnote was scribbled at the bottom, reading:
Extra 10 percent commission if woman dreams about
never getting married.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read her notes.
You don’t have to worry about doing these things, I said.
I already feel so alone.

Jareen Imam author photo

Jareen Imam is an award-winning American journalist who has worked for media companies such as NBC News, CBS News, and CNN. During 2020, she led a global team of journalists who investigated and reported on stories about the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, BLM protests, voting issues, the U.S. presidential election, and more. In 2020, while reporting for NBC, she endured the death of her grandmother, the separation from her family—many of whom worked as frontline healthcare workers and took care of those infected with Covid-19—and a painful breakup from her long-term partner. It was also the year she started to write poetry again after a 20-year hiatus.

“Grief Is the Ghost”

by Anne Marie Wells

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

Anne Marie Wells (She | Her) of Jackson, Wyoming is a queer poet, playwright, and storyteller navigating the world with a chronic illness.
AnneMarieWellsWriter.com

FB|IG @AnneMarieWellsWriter
TW @AMWWriter

“Parable of the Drought”

by Merridawn Duckler

I was rattling the inside of an old saltine tin when you came home. We’re out of tears, I said. Again, I said. You put the bags down in a huff. They were supposed to last until the party, you said, where do they go? We both know the answer to that. You spent them. Pretending it’s for others, to be donated or sent overseas. But it’s crap. Everyone knows you cried up all those tears for yourself. My eyes have been dried for fifteen years. My mouth is like a ghost lake. Sadness scurries in rat feet at the bottom of my well. A soul could drop a rock in there and hear no echo. Whereas you are a fountain, bountiful crocodile. The world is your blue handkerchief, wrung once and snapped out fresh. I am sad, I said, I’m broken. I walked to the other room and saw you absorbed in the images, taking a screen shot and superimposing it on your face. What do you want now, you said. I tried to explain to you about my hollow. My dust. You turned your face to me. Goddamn, you are beautiful. I’m so sorry, you said. And your eyes filled up with tears

Jareen Imam author photo

Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Oregon, author of INTERSTATE (dancing girl press) and IDIOM (Washburn Prize, Harbor Review.) New work in Seneca Review, Women’s Review of Books, Interim, Posit. Fellowships/awards include Yaddo, Southampton Poetry Conference, Poets on the Coast. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.

Twitter@MerridawnD
Instagram@merridawnduckler

“[2020] The Divided States of Attica”

by henry 7. reneau, jr.

"Grief Is the Ghost" poem
Jareen Imam author photo

henry 7. reneau, jr. writes words of conflagration to awaken the world ablaze, an inferno of free verse illuminated by his affinity for disobedience, is a discharged bullet that commits a felony every day, is the spontaneous combustion that blazes from his heart, phoenix-fluxed red & gold, exploding through change is gonna come to implement the fire next time. He is the author of the poetry collection, freedomland blues (Transcendent Zero Press) and the e-chapbook, physiography of the fittest (Kind of a Hurricane Press), now available from their respective publishers. Additionally, his collection, The Book Of Blue(s) : Tryin’ To Make A Dollar Outta’ Fifteen Cents, was a finalist for the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series. His work is published in Superstition Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Rigorous. His work has also been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

“Lucency”

by A Whittenberg

Amongst a breathless, debilitating, incapacitating panic
attack, I told myself not to panic and… without warning, I was
suddenly all right.

Jareen Imam author photo

A Whittenberg is a Florida native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum.

“We Stand”

by Keira Schaefer

2020 broke the limits
Tearing our boundaries apart
Like Buffalo trampling the plains
Through nothing but darkness
Our world was the midnight sky
2020 overwhelmed our healthcare workers
Many lost beloved friends and family
Others lost their job, and the ability to pay rent
We thought we lost the world
But we had each other
Now, in 2021, we stand together
We raise higher than the ocean’s tides
Although we are still apart
The light, the sun, the new day is coming
Through hardship we are more united than ever
We stand, we raise, we unite

Keira Schaefer is a thirteen-year-old girl who has a passion for poetry. She loves to express her feelings and emotions through her literature. Other than writing poems, she enjoys gymnastics, playing harp, ice skating, and photography.

“Sea Change”

by Nancy Cook

The sun is midsky when he cuts the diesel.
Now he can hear the tonguelap of water ripples
against cedar plank, feel a shadow of sweat
forming on his brow. A line of pelicans whips
across the horizon and he sees, without looking,
tricolored bullet buoys in neat order, bobbing
at water’s surface in a subtle play for attention.
He senses the sadness all around. In times past,
on days such as this, the water would talk to him.
Now it has nothing to say. The fishing is good,
the weather is fine, but all the world is as quiet
as winter. He unpacks the sandwich the wife
has wrapped in waxed paper: ham and cheddar
and mustard on rye. She’s thrown in some chips,
a folded napkin, and a sliced apple sprinkled
with sugar like she used to do for the kids.
A cold beer would taste so good right now.
He reaches deep into the cooler for a Dr Pepper.

He ends the day early with a light haul. On town
streets bereft of tourists, still he savors whiffs of
rendered butter, partakes with phantom taste buds
the sweet succulence of boiled lobsters. It is one
pleasure that doesn’t age. Before joining the wife
at the church, he showers and shaves. This evening
is the annual strawberry festival, which every year
she organizes. She is a pillar as they say, always
in public her chin lifted, daring and determined,
one ear cocked as if to say I’m listening. And though
tonight, socializing will be minimized, face masks
mandatory, she’ll oversee the sale of two hundred
fruit pies, baked in honor of the state bicentennial.
Keeping busy is a way of life. They all respect that.

Two dozen tables are set up in the churchyard
under hulking shade trees. Broad leaves like titans’
hands block the ebbing sun. The dusk feels heavy
with sadness. As if reading his mind, the wife says,
Even with the church locked up, light’s passing through
the stained glass. There’s secrets older than memory.
Sins to be forgiven. He doesn’t know that some mornings
she takes the deer path down to water’s edge. There
she stands on the old dock, hands deep in the pockets
of her oversized Mac, and watches for the fog to lift.

Jareen Imam author photo

Nancy Cook is a writer, teaching artist, and completely recovered lawyer. She serves as flash fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press and also runs “The Witness Project,” a program of free community writing workshops in Minneapolis designed to enable creative work by underrepresented voices. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been awarded grants from, among others, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Parks Arts Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, and Integrity Arts and Culture. Her first chapbook, Written in Nature, is forthcoming in 2021.

“Safekeeping”

by Tracy Mishkin

We go to some essential job, our faces swaddled
in fear. Masks leave us lightheaded, but sometimes
we wear two because there are worse things.
In the produce section, we struggle to open plastic bags.
We must have licked our fingers back before all this.
And touched our faces.

Walking the dogs feels good. We shout hello
to every stranger, for nothing is stranger
than this year. We used to pick up trash, but now
it’s masks and tissues scattered in the grass.
That neighbor we haven’t seen in months says
the pandemic is a hoax. Six feet isn’t far enough.

A vet we’ll never meet says the big dog has cancer,
and every three weeks she hops behind the wheel
as though it’s normal for dogs to drive. “Shotgun,”
we say, and she moves over. We do a piss-poor job
of watching the road. When we brake hard,
we throw out an arm to stop her from hitting the dash,
the way our fathers tried to protect us, remembering
a world before seat belts.

Jareen Imam author photo

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University. She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She lives in Indianapolis with her family and fewer than ten cats and dogs. You can read more of her work at tracymishkin.com

Top photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

A Lean-To Upon a Once-Was

Paula Cisewski’s poetry book, The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review Books), is on the smallish size, trim-size-wise.

It fits easily in my small hands and seems to be littered with hearts—although upon closer inspection those hearts are less than sweet. None of that prepares me for the first poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To.” Variously, each section of the poem offers, then withdraws the award to:

First, “my newly betrothed and me . . . It was already the apocalypse, and we already felt appropriately minute.”

Next, the award is given to “most grown people,” who are described as “kaleidoscopically unsafe.” Then, the “animal kingdom,” then “doctors who specialize in treating Prolonged Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” so that finally the poem includes everybody. But these are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions. This is a poem for this moment, I think—which, given the time invested in writing a poem, revising, getting it into some editor’s hand, pre-production, and publication of a book, shows some strange sort of prescience on the part of the poet. That I should find it in my hands right when I needed it. Because the poet stopped me to say, “For statistically what percent of the parents pushing strollers on this sunny boardwalk have guns tucked away in holsters? For bullets rip through every modern poem, even the ones where shot or gunis not stated explicitly.”

These are just the bones of the poem; it’s shot through (literally, in one case) with interruptions.

As I was digesting that, thinking of a friend who I recently learned is nearly always packing, who I’ve begun to hug more carefully, the poem clobbered me with, “Another patient in this waiting room switched on the news and I immediately began leaking. Oh, well. It won’t be the first time a poet has leaked through her own poem.” The poem talks about the practice alarm for the apocalypse. It asks, parenthetically, “What if we need the alarm while the practice alarm’s going off?” and later, “(Those sirens are just on TV, aren’t they?)” These are the questions of worriers and I’ve embraced my suppressed worrier-self of late. This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us. As the poem says of the apocalypse, “It’s a slow burn. Some of us have mothered whole people through it, others have died of old age in it.”

This poem is the frontispiece for the entire collection—mixing technology and pop-culture references, sly jokes, relatable fears, and the constant sense of unease and disbelief that has come to characterize the current political and cultural moment for many of us.

Cisewski’s book thereafter is divided into three sections: Field Guide to Austerity and Surroundings; The Wolf/Cave Problem; The Laughing Club. In the second section, twins are everywhere. There is a “good one” and a “bad one” and they are the same person, finally. The speaker of the poem “The Good One” is like that soft-sewn children’s toy that has the face of Little Red, and the Wolf, and if you flip it over, also the Grandmother, all in one. After one kills the other waiting for the “old woman” to arrive, she realizes fingerprints differ even on identical twins, so she undertakes to sever hands and sew them on, becoming all one person in one body: “whether or not I had ever been / the good one no longer mattered.” Other imagery from that tale recurs in other poems in this section—the kitchen shears, the animal inside the girl-speaker (like an echo of Carter’s retelling of the tale). All this reminds me of Carol Clover writing of slasher movies, “What makes horror ‘crucial enough to pass along’ is, for critics since Freud, what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.”

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do. In the poem “Suddenly Laughter” it’s described as an “intersection / at terror and comfort.” Laughter is a “familiar wrecking ball” that “pummels / your heart’s hollow / business center.” The poem ends with the word “relief,” but we don’t feel any relief. Rather, we’ve decided to laugh, because we don’t know what else to do anymore.

The final section of The Threatened Everything ends with laughter, a cathartic kind of laughter. It is not joyous, but the kind of laughter that occurs after too much stress, too much pain, when the body and soul is wrung out and doesn’t know what else to do.

Similarly, in the poem “Humans, Dogs, Apes and Rats” we have a description of rats and the insistence that they laugh. That they have laughed “since before / humans even resembled // ourselves.” Before our culture, or technology, before we gathered to exchange ideas, “or irony, way / before irony.” And then, for those of us uncomfortable with rats, there is the description: “a wriggling pink pile / of bald rodent babies, // the size of several / opposable thumbs.” This is laughter that rings true and unsettles, as many poems in this section ring true and unsettle. Like the poem that includes Obama’s joke about Orange not being the new Black, but of course that’s exactly what happened, and it’s not so funny after all.

But I can’t end on that note, although this was a poetry collection that seemed to meet me where I was, deliver gut-punches I wanted to receive, right in my pale fish-belly. I have to tell you about my favorite poem. In the first section is the amazing “Revolution Prairie” which takes up the imagery of weeds and root systems and limbs and desire.

Consider the right of way of weeds,the root system’s defiant grip,

that they’re only called weeds becausewe didn’t buy them with money

or decide where to plant them.A flowering without

a boss, like our lovepopping up everywhere

(I wish I could read the whole poem aloud to you . . .) Suffice it to say, the weeds burst forth; the poem concedes a mower could cut it all down—the weeds, us, the words that are weeds that burst out of us like sentences of things that need to be said, popping up everywhere. But the poem ends with a call, a promise, and a declarative: “Burst forth with me in this narrow vista / of the threatened everything.”

The Threatened Everything by Paula Cisewski

The Negative Space of the Page

In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.

He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.

The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.

Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stella explores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”

The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing.

Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.

By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.

While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.

Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence.

In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”

Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”

          Domesticitycan feel like a form ofterrorism, and sometimesa feral urge creeps inon mouse feet or cedarwax wings.

There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.

It was a misstaketotakehis name. I wentmissing when Imisstookmyselffor his Mistress.

Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.

The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.

Prove Something Happened

Reading Sara Ryan’s Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned is like finding poetics, a philosophy, a mini-manifesto.

It’s fitting, too, that the work is described as “hybrid”—as it mixes lineated poetry with prose endnotes that read as a mix of research notes and essay. She blends childhood memories of visiting museums, layering the remembered visions of taxidermied groups of animals with visiting taxidermy shows, excerpts from how-to manuals and articles about the meaning of skins and mounting, with a poetic voice that is quiet (fragments and small i’s) and loud (calling attention to the sheen and color of faux-blood and bright eyes). Altogether, this micro-chap from Porkbelly Press is an examination of the ways we preserve both ourselves and the animals we regularly pretend not to be.

A particularly strong poem is “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships in Missouri. The speaker describes women who “flock around like smart pink birds” and “men wearing leaves” who “chew on toothpicks.” The poem continues to contrast these genders: men and women, boys and girls. Judges walk through, taking the measure of all the animals there: “this is how wet the nose should be, this is how / cocked the hoof.” The final lines showcase the juvenile of the species— “a girl dusts paint flecks off her road-kill / beaver. a boy licks a pearl of blood from his thumb.” How color-rich and sensual these details. The reader’s understanding of the poem is only deepened by its accompanying endnote, which describes the gendered divisions in the field—hunting is masculine and so women in taxidermy “encounter sexism and gender stereotyping.” However, the footnote informs us women’s numbers are increasing: “young, academically driven, and largely female.” The endnote concludes with lines that could be back in the poem: “Women in polo shirts. In poodle skirts. In camouflage. Combing dead birds as if they were still chirping.”

Another poem with the (literal) cold-belly moments, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the unsettling, is “Prehistory.” In it, the speaker is discouraged from being an archeologist, but tells how she “identified the difference between / a shoulder blade and a pelvis in middle / school science. I dug into a fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair.” I am there with her, in the poem, the black lab tables, the chemical smell, the pairing up (of lab partners). At the end of the poem she promises her mother she wouldn’t “dig up bones / for a living” but explains “I only meant the bones / that didn’t belong to me.” The poems are peppered with small moments of memory (a childhood visit to the Field Museum, the middle-school science lab, sitting across the table from “wily foxes on two legs”) that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for— “are we mourners? Are we searching for sweetness?”

The poems are peppered with small moments of memory … that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for.

I admit it: I’m a sucker for skins, the animals they once were, and the strange things we do to them. I’ve begun my own collection of weird vintage accessories that I wear, often unsettling people I meet. I have the requisite foxes-biting-their-tails stole, complete with claws and glass eyes; a baby alligator purse with the whole small body intact; a skating muff with loose fox tails that waft in a breeze. I keep a small cache of porcupine quills, some blue jay feathers in a box, a raven hairpiece I should probably only wear for costume. As Ryan writes in “Beast Fables,” “we are all animals here” —the speaker goes on to invoke even the tiger mascot on a volleyball jersey as part of this menagerie: “the animal in all / our skins.”

The poem continues “this is a lesson in fake dead / and real dead. in learning / all the lies.” And here the poem breaks away to an endnote (and this reader along with it), a discussion of an art exhibit with photographs of taxidermied polar bears, accompanied by the bears’ biographies. From an article (cited in the footnote and included in the chap’s bibliography) by Rachel Poliquin, she includes the quotation, “. . . the bears become mysterious and ambiguous objects.” The endnotes are poems in themselves, a treasure trove of ideas to linger over—I found myself reading them as prose poems. They revisit key ideas: when does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?) How does the process of turning the animal into a taxidermied object change our relationship and understanding of it? What does this process of “othering” look like? How does it function?

When does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?)

There are small quotes here and there that read to me as a statement of poetics, encapsulated:

“a sharp knife is important—always is.” (from the poem “The Specimen Dealer”)

“Through making things, people make themselves. Without things, we could neither be ourselves nor know ourselves . . . Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal” (from endnote 12, paraphrasing Patchett’s “Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives”)

“The various reasons and purposes of preserving animals are ‘underneath and between,’ meaning that they are liminal and surface-level reasons, that cover or make glossy the visceral aspects of human desire . . . to prove something happened” (from endnote 13, referencing Rachel Poliquin)

There is a poem about the literal making of a taxidermied animal, “Of Men & Birds” that takes the reader through the process: “thrust your hook into his pelvis / and suspend him in midair (the better to work with the body) . . . be gentle with his neck (remember he was once other than object) . . . fill him up (a list of suitable materials follows) . . . when you take him home / notice his body (be filled with wonder) . . . you have never seen such a bird, / not even in your dreams.” The poem goes on to ensure that in its instructions for constructing this thing that is both object and subject, both animal and not animal, it shows its once alive-ness, while also showing the care given to the illusion. “he should have a few stitches / at his back, but not too many. / for obvious reasons. // you wouldn’t want him / to look a fool.”

Here, too, I don’t think the poet is talking about taxidermy, or not only. I find this a useful instruction for making a poem or thinking about how a poem could—or should—be made. Work with both hands; disjoint bones carefully; what wings! such feet! he is some good genius! But be sure a few stitches, a few seams (not too many) show, because it shouldn’t be too perfect an approximation of life either, there should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”

There should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”

The final poem is entitled “Extinct” and even more than the others in the collection makes use of fragments, half-starts, and dismembered sentences. This is heightened further by its form on the page, two columns that can be read in columns, or across, or both in sequence. The subtle shifts in the poem—depending on how one reads it (columns or across), and then how/whether/if one doubles back to the other reading occasions a contrast between things that survive: “fossilized sequoia” and “gold of an oil slick”—that final of final moments “eating the sun” and the already disappearing human who would witness these things: “the bone museum” that we’ve peopled with artifacts we collect and reconstruct for our comfort. I love the stop and start of this form, the way it sounds like an incantation of strangeness, the disjointing of images, pauses like unguents.

I highly recommend picking up this strong-voiced micro-chap that engages with all sorts of bodies and making and uncovers various ways of understanding what any of this means—asking far more questions than it provides answers for. The cover art by Rachel Allen is beautiful and perfectly paired; what a gorgeous specimen of a book. Together, the images of fur and feather and claw—and the hands that make use of them—give new life to the beasts of the woods, whether seen in their natural habitat or behind museum glass.

Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan - available from Porkbelly Press
Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan – available from Porkbelly Press

top photo by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash

Thousandth Time

“For the Thousandth Time, I want to Know” is a poem by Mark Nepo from his out-of-print book Inhabiting Wonder.

I first imagined this piece nearly four years ago, and contacted Mark, who generously gave me permission to reprint the poem. It was an ambitious project at the time, and I got about three-quarters of the way through before I abandoned ship. Over the course of a year I designed it, printed it, built all the frames, and scored each sheet by hand eight times and each hinge three times. Then I assembled the first full prototype, and my morale plummeted. It just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. A classic example of what Ira Glass is talking about in this genius little video on beginners, and making things. I let my perfectionist get the better of me and put the whole darn project up high on a shelf, leaving it there to lurk in the corner through three studio moves and countless other projects.

For three years now, I’ve alternated between forgetting about this project and feeling bad about it: guilty, dismissive, or just plain impossible. It’s been entered on to several hundred to-do lists without ever being crossed off. Until about a month ago. Something shifted and “Thousandth Time” moved from the “unfinished old crap” list in my mind to the “new work to be editioned” list. There were a few external motivating factors, but in reality I don’t know what made the the project click over from one side of my mental divide to the other. The good news is it did, which made it feel possible to work on, and voila! Now its many pieces are covering my work table and the edition is more than half completed!

It also feels current, which is perhaps the most interesting thing of the whole matter. Because the fact is that when I began the project it was beyond my ability to execute from a technical standpoint. I could see it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I simply did not have the experience and hand skills to improve it. Now, coming back to the binding process a good three years later, with a handful of large book editions under my belt plus a lot of one-off blank books, my hands are much more capable! And my eyes can see a lot more. It’s been an unexpected gift to pick up the pieces of this ‘old’ project and experience just how far I’ve come since I started it. Somehow my old self must’ve known it would be important work for my future self to complete.

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“Thousandth Time” is a three-dimensional poetry broadside, printed on Japanese paper and bound on balsa wood frames with two-way hinge so it can open and close in both directions. I’m making it in an edition of 26. The design was inspired by traditional shoji screens, and a few smaller pieces built by Jules Faye for window displays. This broadside folds closed like a book and slips into a protective black soft-sided slipcase – which is a whole ‘nother pile of work. But hey that’s okay! I like work. Doesn’t everyone like work? One more prototype and the slipcases should be ready to edition. The binding process for these screens is challenging and time-consuming. The materials are delicate and finicky and I designed it without considering the grain of the paper. The truth is I derived the overall dimensions from the paper itself, which I found in a dusty old box labeled “Antique Japanese Paper from Ralph” which must’ve been sitting for a couple decades itself. As it happens the grain is running short-wise which means the longer turn-ins are the more difficult ones. Here’s the process in a nutshell: first, I trim the corners of each sheet so that they’ll fold properly. Then I glue the frame to the sheet and place it under boards to dry flat. Now the turn-ins, the most difficult part. Head and tail are turned in first and the corners are wrapped with the tabs (cut in the first step). Then the sides are turned in, with generous amounts of PVA, some swearing, and a few deep breaths. Back under boards to dry flat. Then the hinges are attached to two frames at the same time so they line up, first to the front, then folded and scored against the frame. The last step is joining the two screens together by gluing the hinges on the back. Then back under boards, and they are left to dry closed under weight. This helps the finished pieces stay flat and also lets the hinges relax into their closed position. On a personal note, my mother asked me to print this poem the year after my older brother died. So the project has a lot of grief tied up in it as well, which I am sure has played its own mysterious part in the stymied stop-and-go nature of working on it. I can’t help but note the time of year: there’s something about fall and the days getting darker, a general trend toward introspection that feels appropriate for coming back around to finishing this edition. I spent Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, prototyping the slipcases, which are all black. Who knows why we let certain things go, and when if ever we’re able to pick them back up? Some things can’t be rushed, and sometimes we’re not meant to know. Good craft has a way of being slow, as does healing when there’s a rift in your soul. I’ve thought of my brother Nathan a lot while working on this project, and I will continue to through the many slow hours left to finish it. “Thousandth Time” is dedicated not just to him, but to all of those we love, and see no more.

Artist’s Statement

As a letterpress printer, I work primarily with handset metal type and antique presses. My studio practice is research based and employs strict experimentation alongside no-holds- barred exploration. I collect poetry fragments, expand on them visually, and thread them together to create an experience at once intimate and vast, exposing a sense of wonder and available space. According to Franz Kafka: “a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” I aim for my prints to be pages out of that book. Whether an ice-shattering blow or a tiny doorstop, my work holds space at the threshold of imagination and invites the viewer to enter.

About the Press

Expedition Press produces literary-inspired artwork and limited edition poetry books and broadsides. Our mission is to increase access to poetry via multiple beautifully crafted points of entry.

Expedition is also home to a full service letterpress print shop and bindery. Our shop offers a broad range of design and print work rooted in handset type. We’re located in downtown Kingston, WA, just a few blocks from the ferry. The Press is open by appointment.

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top photo by Marco Djallo on Unsplash

Myrna Keliher in her shop.
Myrna Keliher in her shop.