Poetry Book Review
by Jeff Kaliss
Iona: New and Selected Poems, by Kenneth Steven (Paraclete Press, 2021)
This slender volume takes me back to some of the dearest things in life, not the least an unabashed celebration of place, people, and the English language. What it is shows a poet like me what can be, and what so many other poets and their poems, published or not, are not.
When I first encountered Kenneth Steven, as a featured reader on the online Lime Square Poets sessions earlier this year, I bonded with his sourcing much of his work in an island, the titular Iona, among the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. I’d grown up on Mt. Desert Island at the other side of the Atlantic, off the State of Maine, a landform sixteen times the size of Iona but abounding with seemingly similar mysteries and revelations. The 54-year-old Steven was raised in the Scottish Highlands, with frequent visits to Iona throughout his childhood and on into ruminative adulthood, both periods of which enliven his writing, which includes novels, children’s books, and BBC radio programs, as well as poems.
Steven and his partner Kristina Hayward also lead annual ‘Celtic Christian’ retreats to Iona, where an abbey was established in the 6th Century by Columba, an Irish abbot credited with bringing Christianity to what is now Scotland. Accordingly, Columba, Christ, and God figure in Steven’s verse alongside the island’s flora and fauna. All these matters are melded so naturally and with such equal adoration that a reader of any religious or spiritual conviction can comfortably share the poet’s vision, free of dogma and imposed authority. Similarly, the multi-millennial history of the Celtic lands stands alongside Steven’s personal history. It’s easy to sympathize with his caveats about present-day threats to cultural and personal integrity, and easy to follow him towards the restorative powers of the island.
I find the craft of this poet restorative also, his verses often decorated with surprises, his figures of speech unusually imaginative, nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs sharing each other’s functions in alluring, not annoying, fashion. Steven’s ear for prosody — the rhythms and sounds of poetry — is borne out by an unusual supplemental recording of the poets reading a few poems from this collection, interspersed with harp music and the natural sounds of Iona. This CD can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can contact email@example.com for the book itself.
Although the poet and all we readers will continue to age, I get the feeling that these poems will retain their freshness and appeal, like the island ever inviting our return to them.
Here are some samples of the craft of Kenneth Steven:
Is this place really nearer to God?
Is the wall thin between our whispers
and his listening? I only know
the world grows less and less —
here what matters is conquering the wind,
coming home dryshod, getting the fire lit.
I am not sure whether there is no time here
or more time, whether the light is stronger
or just easier to see. That is why
I keep returning, thirsty, to this place
that is older than my understanding,
younger than my broken spirit.
SALT AND LIGHT
The child comes back home at evening full of stories;
they’re spoken in a dry and salty torrent like a rush of silver fish;
pour onto the kitchen table where the faraway blue,
the afterglow of sun still are. She takes his hands in hers;
sits him at the table and wipes the sand from one eyebrow,
and touches the place on his left knee with its little cut of blood
and she thinks that all this is why life means so much.
THE SMALL GIANT
The otter is ninety percent watner
ten percent God.
This is a mastery
we have not fathomed in a million years.
I saw one once, off the teeth of western Scotland,
playing games with the Atlantic —
Three feet of gymnastics
taking on an ocean.
Now we are hard of hearing. The big world
thunders in our ears and gives us
all that we do not need. Just sometimes
a young deer turns in the early morning frost
and we see, for a moment, the beautiful road,
that lies like an ache in our blood.
THE DEATH OF COLUMBA
It was another day. The bell echoed;
a coracle came with news of Ireland
and a fine cut of meat. The sea
wrapped around the island like a mantle of silk.
Everything he did as always, just a beat slower.
They saw nothing; the talk was generous,
the laughter easy, as a lark spun songs
somewhere out of sky that morning.
Yet the horse came. In the middle of it all,
and the faces turned like full moons
as that long head rested on his shoulder
and the nostrils, full of hay, flared.
For the horse had heard
dark in the drumbeat of his heart
that edge of death, and wept
softly against the old man’s head.
Salt tears like the water that had brought him once
out of the heart of Ireland,
that would take him now
over a last sea, into the land he had lived.
Click here for profile of poet Bryon Franco by Jeff Kalliss.
From previous issues;
Winter 2022 Issue 20:
Featuring Lisa Delan
The Poetry of Lisa Delan – an Introduction
You’ll find the musical muse most apparent here in the singer-poet’s “Deux”. But prosody — the term for how music ‘sounds out’ in poetry — abounds throughout Lisa Delan’s work. “Yahrzeit” is a sparkling look back on an aware and happy childhood. “Dad — The Night Before” is the most recent of these, and is created for the poet’s aging father Arthur Delan, as he confronts sudden unexpected illness. With “Letter to Massachusetts”, which will be published on the Wingless Dreamers website, Lisa returns to the past while expanding into the very different format of prose poetry. These are all words passionately engendered by and lovingly working in real life. — Jeff Kaliss
Lisa Delan relates, “According to my mom, from the time I could talk, I was singing. And when I was in grade school, she talked to my music teacher about voice lessons, who advised I wait till I was 13, which I did. My dad studied piano growing up… When I was 15, my dad had a friend who introduced me to a voice teacher at Juilliard, so I worked with her once a week. But I also started writing poetry around third grade. I had a babysitter, and we would sit together at the table and write poetry.”
Read the Lisa Delan interview in Salon.
Some small grace
the white bows
you tethered to my
the basin on the table
by the window,
your hand –
you left this for me;
saved for the day
my hand went up
When you waved
was each round
in letting go?
A hand holding,
a hand waving,
a hand empty –
I toddle the
run the familiar
take the wheel,
wave through the
I am gone.
You box the bows,
play the reel
where I go round
you cup patient
tears in your palm
and save those too.
We learn that
we worry the
knead it between
careful not to
unravel the spool;
we hold it
waving to me
from a far way off –
your voice is music,
I hear my name,
my palm raised
to the still air
It will come to me then
that you saved this
grace for me –
these tiny bows,
the window watching
where you now sing
and where my
is always met
I dissimulate my
Dancing my skeleton
Convulsing to a taiko drum.
I am Olympia
Trilling Les Oiseaux while
Hoffman tells his tales
My lyric lilt
Obfuscating the rattle
Of sawdust in my throat.
A finely tuned grift conceals
My aporetic appearance
Swindler – charlatan –
Sleight of hand
Look under each shell
I am not there.
My corporeal form
The dybbuk who
Singing my flesh
Its axiomatic refrain.
It is the opposite of death
The body persists
Presents as a self
But my self has taken leave
What you see now is the
Star it left behind.
Dad—The Night Before
are collapsing around
the muscle they are bound to protect,
laying lifeless as bones stripped of marrow, a diagram
of the desert.
I hear everything
as from a distance except
your voice, wind in my ears. As we await
the appointed time you are both saved and gone; here and
already far away.
I want to be
gravity, pulling you to the
earth; a centripetal force begging your
body to remain with mine, here, in the center of
Let me bury your
toes in the sand and pray for a
mirage of water to weight the grains; a miracle in this
arid outpost lest you free your feet and walk into the beyond,
away from me.
But your freedom
is no longer here in a body,
on the earth, in these lives with their utterly
convincing mass. I am holding air, Dad, and you are
LETTER TO MASSACHUSETTS
The light comes early summer mornings on the eastern seaboard –
I’d forgotten, and the nights that stay warm late under the moon,
and the crickets that seem to sleep neither with the dark nor the sun.
The beauty of the west stuns me – the unexpected angles of
Pacific poppy orange cliffs perched on the unending landscape –
but driving through late summer Massachusetts (its neighbors so close,
clustered like settlements) breaks my heart.
The modest tree trunks standing so near one another that leaves share every branch, green and green and green and running out to the road to meet me…
old friend, we remember you, do you? Remember?
Riding under the low ceiling of small waving fingers, green walls billow like welcome banners, dust framed in the sun – each speck a world, whispering, we are here! You left, but we are here!
Each world holds a memory, a thousand of them whispering to me of sprinklers and ice cream trucks and sandwiches cut into squares on the table in the yard, the plastic pool spilling onto the blanketed grass under bare feet and swings abandoned as wrinkled hands grab from the top of the pile, mom and nanny and pop and only this moment.
I thought I left them, and all these moments before we knew the price of time, knew that each new breath is a trade, that the sandwiches would disappear and even cutting off the crusts couldn’t save us from reaching for an empty plate…
But their shadows see me still with my blue and red swimsuit with the gold star and curls bunched around my ears and bread crumbs in the corners of my mouth.
And I see them too, with shiny hair and pedal pushers, tennis shoes and cat eyed sunglasses, a cold can of beer, a cigarette, and their eyes holding everything – they are fading into snapshots that are already gone, but here is a tiny fist crying its first air, a white veil, a new coast, distant calls, loss and loss and loss and the redemption of home.
They sing to me now that they have always been here, that I have traded more time than I have left in front of me, but they will be sitting on their heels in the wet grass when I finally run through the field I cannot see, their arms open – run to us! Remember?
Read Lisa Delan interview in the Salon.
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Previous Issues follow:
Irish poet, Matt Mooney
“Every mile I walk, every road I take, every man I meet, and every woman, inspires me, that’s what I write about,” Matt Mooney told me. Coming to the craft in his retirement, Mooney also sources his Irish growing up, the family he was raised in and the continuation of that bloodline, and the redolent natural and cultural worlds through which he and they move. The three poems here are taken from his 2021 collection, Steering by the Stars. Aside from the eponymous reflection on being mentored into poetry, there’s “Besotted”, about childhood on a mixed farm, and “A Stark Cross”, written for the recent passing of his older brother, Pat, from COVID-related causes.
Besotted As a boy I was besotted seeing hay being mown or corn ripen in the field or washing baby carrots straight from their drills in water barrels for spray to enjoy their sweetness. Simple seasonal delights never to be erased again by later times or places. Strangely coupled yearly with an urgency in spring; staying close and tending to the need of everything. Until stacks were capped and the hay was doubled by the Races or the Reek. Riding bareback in relief, another day’s work down, on the grey mare trotting to the little watering pond balmy summer evenings. Waiting on her long drink before I let her go to roll on the cool green pasture, back and forth in ecstacy. Coming back up the fields every part of me felt sure nature’s way was my way. That I’d often ache for her, to be lost in her embraces. * Steering by the Stars For Michael Hartnett ‘My poems are written’ you said, on being told to trim your sails, to stop you drifting on the rocks and drift you did and you left us looking into the sunset for you. Once in crossroads conversation sitting around in the Arms Hotel, in the quiet before Writers Week, I put it to you as to where I was or if I was on the right bus at all. ‘Are you a poet?’ you threw at me in a voice that put me sitting up, knighting a vagrant soul searcher strangely by a serious challenge — led by the beck of your tilted cap. Down the road I look back at you eye to eye with me, taking me on. Mine will be written too Michael, yes, mine will be written soon. . . from here I will steer by the stars. * A Stark Cross The only thing I wrote that end of March to mark your burial were six simple lines, grief laden and finite. The rain fell gently on your grave the day they buried you in Lucan, a victim of the Virus, a stark cross above you. Out the door of life alone in isolation, the rest of us in lock-down far away; consolation later in the loyalty of friends ‘round your estate on a grief filled day in their applause as you passed by and they sang our Galway song that says, ‘It’s faraway I am today from scenes I roamed a boy’ in your funeral film, their last farewell, their hymn from home for you. I have hesitated long, maybe in denial, to open up the book, the story of your life, its good times and the bad as well bettered bravely, for maybe I’m afraid I’d find myself inside there with you living it to the full, listening to you, Pat, my own big brother; taking it all in, then, seeing the funny side, laughing in the end.
*All Mooney photos courtesy of the poet.
See interview with poet Matt Mooney here.
Matt Mooney was born, a farmers son, in Kilchreest, south Galway in 1943. He later settled in Listowel, Co Kerry, where he has lived for many years. A graduate of UCG and a post graduate of UCC, Mooney was a vocational teacher in Listowel until his retirement in 2002.
‘Steering by the Stars’ (2021) is Mooney’s fifth collection. His first – ‘Droving’ – was published in 2003, followed by ‘Falling Apples’ (2010), ‘Earth to Earth’ (2015) and ‘The Singing Woods’ (2017). ‘Éalú’, Matt Mooney’s Irish language poetry collection, is due to be published later this year.
He was the winner of The Pádraig Liath Ó Conchubhair Irish Language Poetry Award 2018, and his poems have appeared in: The Blue Nib, The Amaravati Poetic Prism Multi-Lingual Anthology, Feasta, West 47, The Applicant, The Kerryman, Kerry’s Eye, The Irish Independent, The Galway Review and its Anthology, Galway Advertiser (Ó Pheann go Pár), The Connaught Tribune, Pendemic, Live Encounters and in Musings During a Time of Pandemic, a World Anthology. His work has been translated into Spanish and published in the literary magazines Cardenal and Palabrerías in Mexico.
He has been a feature reader in The White House (Limerick), Ó Bhéal (Cork), On the Nail (Limerick), West Cork Literary Festival, Baffle, Féile Raifteirí, Éigse Dara Beag , The Forge in Gort and has featured online in Cultivating Voices (USA) and Not the time to be Silent (Limerick).
Mooney is also a copy editor, proof reader and poetry reviewer with the The Galway Review Literary Magazine.
Poetry from recent Issues below:
Summer 2021 Hometown Issue #18:
(For SF Poet Laureate Tongo poetry click here. )
Featuring Hometown Poems by J.Macon King and Jeff Kaliss
King grew up in Carrollton, Illinois before calling San Francisco home. The first poem is dedicated to the poet’s hometown Carrollton High School friends and the Carrollton Square. Kaliss poems are set in and inspired by his hometown of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine.
Round the Square
— J.Macon King
Hangout on The Town Square
because it’s always there
Driver window rolled down
even if it blows, frosted flaked snow
Heater on, getting a heat on, ya know?
We are small town born
See someone we like on The Square
be cool, give just a nod
or casual finger wave
Drive ’round The Square
Orbiting our capsules of steel
chrome and rubber wheels
Breaking trajectory to soar
over the back roads and roar
blacktop goo & skidding gravel
Drink sloe gin & PBR beer
avoiding skunks, ditches and deer
Look for cars we recognize
Back seats steamed with homecoming queens
Cindy Lou or Mary Lou or Any Who
just love anyone you’re with
Honk if we don’t like the friggin’ guy
Pit Stop at Root Beer Stand
Hopin’— yes! We get cute carhop
On our window is clasped
dinky serving tray
everyone pretends to steal
and no one does
Except the glue sniffer
who also Drove off
with the Drive-in movie’s
stupid tinny speaker for his radio
Then we go…
…Back to The Square, you know
we look down on one-track towns
without a Square
Apple knockers, cutters and
So, back to The Square
looking, seeking, waiting
Where is She? She’s not there.
The One. Who doesn’t see
how much you care.
Officer Green “Bean” sees you, though
He and car idle on corner, smoking smokes
No action yet, on The Square
its own rhythm has The Square
Souped-up cars circle like Hawks
Drag race later we hope
Header pipes opened, in the darkness
a few miles east of town
Chris’s Camaro can even pop a wheelie
Split, cruise to the cemetery
get high with the ghosts
One stone’s name you recognize
Realizing that you too, may die
I wish I’d of boned her, Tom says,
Before she became bones.
You’re mad because you had.
Shut up, fatso. Morbid, you say.
Sweet cheerleader so fine
until crushed against that
Great Northern Railroad Line
Back to cruise ’round the Square
Drive ’round The Square, Why?
you ask, red eyed,
‘Cause we can’t,
drive square The Round!
Huh? sez Tom and Ryan
but ponytail Beth, she giggles,
brushes her fingers to your thigh
Shhh, even though she’s Ry’s
Hang out on The Square
Small town born, Big city torn
So forlorn, Wishin’ you had been born
Away from all this soy
and god darn CORN
in Newyark or L.A.
or just up Chicago way
Hell, maybe find a girl
way out West, in San Francisco Bay…
For now, all you have right here
is just one more year
to hang out on The Square
Summers of Love
— J.Macon King
The City’s ultraviolet spectrum beckoned dreamers
Free of restrictions, boundaries, repressions
Free of the past. Desirous for a piece
of free love.
she was perfect.
The time-warping spectacle of ‘67
glowed for years
in new Summers of Love
birthplace of Flower Power
where Peter Pans and Tinker Bells
as a vibrant mixture
creatives, hippies, seekers.
Golden Gate Park’s
green expanse stretched
from Haight Ashbury
to the endless Pacific…
Where the War was over
but peace never came.
Illusory halcyon daze
of San Francisco’s mad decade
The Season of the Witch.
We were — enticed
yet repelled by excessive drugs
charismatic radicals and cults
stirring our pot with their dark arts.
Gays boldly gentrified bars,
shops, cafes— entire neighborhoods
and created a mad
non-stop nocturnal culture. Yet…
would soon arouse
to lay waste to the weak of flesh
And to the weak of heart.
the musician, the artist, the poet…
and her Circus of an entourage.
We would play, rebound, light up, score!
Win a free game. Or tilt.
—Summers of Love was originally published in Deconstructed Poetry, 2018, “deconstructed” from King’s novel Circus of the Sun.
3 Hometown Poems by Jeff Kaliss
Summer for Sophomores
What do these memories look like?
How do they sound?
All those that made
my dreams come true
or tried to,
on their clangoring way
through the true mud
of which we’re made,
spattered on the soft-scrubbed cheeks
of that girlish grin,
out in the yard,
out among whatever flies flew
for whatever while
in that summered time.
It looks like Mary Ellen,
when I picked her up,
early enough on that evening
that the Lewis family home
stood still welcoming
against the sinking sun.
Early enough that later
I could still dance
into the sparkle
of her pretty blue pools,
and hold us
in early love.
— Jeff Kaliss, Feb. 17, 2019
ABC’s with Alison
Alison, ah, my cute tomboy next door, in
Bar Harbor, on Myrtle Ave, after
Cottage Street, where I’d learned to toddle
down the peaceful post-War paths of Maine, and
Eddie, little brother, joined us, and
Forest Street became our place to play, with the
golf course close by, to hunt frogs at night, and
Hamilton’s Hill to slide down, on the snow, and an
island of some hundred-square-mile year-long
joys to hike and bike and swim upon, from
kindergarten through the halls of high school, where
lunchtime lovelies, Alison and all,
made adolescent fantasies familiar and
near enough to date, to take on
oceanside hand-holding strolls, to
parade with on July the Fourth, and
quote, in English, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”,
readying ourselves for our own fated partings,
schooling that would take us to the cities,
teach us chants of protest, far from home,
unite us with those other states and nations,
veer us towards exotic ecstacies,
women far from Alison, singing songs of
Xtabay, the siren strength of
Yma Sumac, while we yearned yet for
zephyrs of that quiet childhood coast.
— by Jeff Kaliss, March 2018
Route 3, East
Where should you
When I am
Put me under blankets,
Changed white to green by seasons,
On the shoulder of Mount Desert Island,
Welcomed home to Bar Harbor, Maine,
And to Ledgelawn Cemetery,
Where Eddie and Woody worked high school summer jobs,
Sweating and swearing over gravesites,
And brought their girls back, in the nervous nighttime,
To thrill to what makes life go, while it’s going.
I could watch that, from the back seat underground,
And I’d “Blame It On the Bossa Nova”.
Or put me
Back in college.
I’m talking College of New England,
They need bodies in Biddeford!
Back in science, my Phd Poppa
Would shake my hand,
First time ever.
While the nurses,
Clung to by white starched outfits
And loose white interns,
Would pop in their earpods
And click on Taylor Swift.
Or put me back on the Island,
On Eden Street this time.
Order me blazed to ash, at Jordan-Fernald,
Then packed in a take-out urn;
Let’s go party!
Now all the way down Main Street,
Out towards Ocean Drive,
Take a left on Seely Road.
(It’s a Dead End.)
And trek down the path,
And up on the cliffs.
And know where the big sea is
And where you are
And where I was.
You’ve got me,
And you’ve got
A 12-ounce can of Natty Daddy malt;
Don’t get confused;
The can you sip, the urn you tip,
There’s zest in there,
Toss it in the salty air,
And taste your tears.
While I, blown back through the pines,
Listen to Mom, through her picture window,
Waving Schumann’s Papillons
From the baby grand.
— by Jeff Kaliss
by J.Macon King
Dome glows like giant mushroom
Palace of Fine Arts
on the walkway
Lines of Virgins
shouldering long, scaly serpent
Virgins pinned to urns
Bas reliefs, carvings
Built for World Fair
in midst of war
eight figures with wings high
ample curved women
edges of vast vaults
Weeping mothers, sisters, lovers
gazing into crypts
of dark voids
Petrified from the truth
of their loss
Praying for their men
We stand dead center
Get on our knees and pray
Dome echoes back
We don’t get fooled again
of beauty, art, and war
We use stone planter boxes
to be near
Herculean men and women
on the magic dome
We are high
Above and below
Past and present
does war bring peace?
Following is from Previous Fall 2020 Issue #17
Featured poet — James Doyle
by Poetry Editor Jeff Kaliss
JAMES DOYLE may be a contemporary lawyer living in San Rafael, but like the dragon in his verse, he’ll fly you past the needless boundaries of time and space to when and where poetry was rhymed, elegant, and fanciful. In the spirit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Doyle’s tales are fervid and febrile, though pausing to reference such languid scenes as when “horses pulled us slowly past the day.” While himself journeying from Army duty in Vietnam to graduate school in philosophy at Gonzaga to law school at USC to seekers’ sessions at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Doyle maintained three decades of poetic output.
Here he shares “Dragonsbane,” a battle pitting valiant humans against flame-breathing airborne serpents, and “Kosmologi,” a compacted musing on history, evolution, and the beckoning future, which Doyle himself hopes will champion environmental protection and global animal welfare.
Upon the rising road to Stonegill Fell
we came upon a wizened, wearied Scot
who asked “Have ye a drink to warm a man?”
and could he ride with us to Woods End well.
He covered with some skins against the cold,
once seated in our wagon facing back;
and horses pulled us slowly past the day,
as from his weathered lips this story told:
“In Glendysfen — or nearly there,
A dragon beast which flamed the skies
Was hunted by a thousand knights
Who yearned to find her hidden lair.
A dragonkill would lift a brow
Of lowly rank beneath a crown,
And win the hearts of fairest maids
Who would the sweetest unions vow.
An eon since this dragon slept,
Her ancient eyes had blinked from light
Of Avatars who walked in woods,
Of Earth aglow ere Mischief crept.
And while she fenced these lands from strife
With dragon kin in vaulted skies,
Their shadows soaring swept the Earth
Made safe to bloom abundant life.
But simple-minded men of old
These flying ‘demons’ misconstrued;
The frightful fled their gusts of fire
And swore to slay the dragon fold.
Thus one by one the dragons fell
In broken heaps near guileful bands
Who’d wait with crosses blessed by saints
And strike with arrows charmed by spells.
The spreading darkness in the skies
Exposed broad belts of open ground
And Glendys, left to fend the Earth,
Had dawn to dawn too far to fly.
Exhausted by relentless pace
She dropped her guard in aerie rocks
And missed the dusky smell of one
Who lay in leaves with charcoaled face.
In one mad burst of hate and fear
The desperate lad jumped to his knees
And with his crossbow at his chin
Aimed just behind her feathered ear.
Impaled by bolt of poisoned elm,
She wildly writhed into the sky,
And flamed the air in flags of pain,
Her peals rang across the realm.
The birds on wing and beasts of prey
Each shivered as she tumbled down,
And as her heart turned cold as night
The last winged dragon lifeless lay.
The slayer’s face fell ashen gray,
Once darker hair turned hoary white;
A shaft of grief lanced through his heart;
(Somewhere he wanders still, they say).
Her fearsome head was carted down,
Paraded far across the shires,
Then toothless left beneath the mists,
While pawns regaled in every town.
Then soon enough the Harpies came
And followed close by trolls and sprites,
Till Earth was rife with lower kind;
In thriving gloom, men languished lame.
A crown the slayer never felt,
His village turned to martial law;
The townsfolk bolted doors at dusk,
And dreamt of peace where dragons dwelt.
In Glendysfen, outside a cave
A dragon’s bones might still be found,
But memory fades of flaming skies
Of warmer Springs, of dragons brave.”
The Scot sank back upon the wooden rails,
relieved, it seemed, to end his story there;
his wistful words lay heavy in the dark,
his wilted brogue an echo of travail.
And as his eyes blinked in the fading light
I noticed hands much scarred as if from fire;
and down his crevassed cheek a tumbled tear,
that fell on hoary hair, then out of sight.
One wonders of a time back when
the restless dreams of Indra woke
from massive grandeur, clenched in darkness
echoes from the Silence spoke —
And in the instant of the listening
patterns, once imagined — Living!
suddenly a blaze of Being
blowing outward, glowing leaping —
Stunning light and heat created
proto-matter fluxing fleeing,
twisting in the churning forces
threads of pieces shredded streaming —
Fledgling matter drawn together
matter seeking form and mating!
spinning sizzling ringing rounded
time is minted; space awaiting —
In the cooling of the streaming
atoms in the ethers stormed,
matter mostly dusted, rifting,
gathered in galactic form —
Colder reaches in the darkness,
masses lacy, lingered, rolled,
drawn by forces old as fusion,
plasma heated sheets unfold —
Spiraled eddies mid the shadows
pressed by fragments falling far,
Lord of Blacksmiths at the anvil
striking hot, enchanted stars!
One wonders of a time back when
a mighty Sea engulfed the Earth,
and lithic life was boiling, bruised
from fissured holes within its girth —
The seething Sea’s first sister, Sky,
is lit by sparks from angry wounds,
and firey pots of molten mines
forge coils of crust that lift lagoons —
The ground thus born to some fierce god
rears up amid the birth debris;
its raw and dark contours of rock
lie cracked and cut in bleeding seas —
A thousand cauldrons’ chemistries
are churned in nameless mineral strains,
as high above a brooding Sun
floods photons down on peptide chains —
And bolts of dreadful, dancing light
burn dark the fledgling life asleep;
resilient mutant forms survive
by sinking in the briny Deep —
The fervid Sea’s life flanks to shore
with bolder thrusts as eons pass;
and there upon the once bare rocks
Are lichen… algae… fungus… grass.
One wonders of a time back when
a filtered Sun warmed clearing skies
and deep within a troubled Sea
a pack of crawlers starts its rise —
The first low creatures timidly
slide up upon an apron beach.
a savage air tears tender gills
yet safer sands entice their reach —
And ruthless ravens of the Sea
must end pursuits in tepid shoals;
in coastal raids the sand is seized
by valiant kings — the size of voles —
As tiny kingdoms grow to great,
the jungles roar with their conquests;
and high upon Triassic skies
a hungry raptor searches nests —
And far below the soft earth groans
where heavy-lidded lizards creep;
where towering ivory pickets grin;
where harried, hunted reptiles leap —
A mammoth breaks from cypress woods,
and stalking from a hidden trace
are shadowed forms with twinkling eyes;
our hearts were bred in such a chase —
High mesas teem with smaller life;
the beasts and birds each other eat;
and shallow caves near frozen lakes
keep ape-men warm by fires for heat —
When evening comes they’ll venture out
and fall upon a rival camp
and those who have the strongest arms
return to lift a victory chant —
A gatherer of corn and grain
burns biscuits on a winter fire;
she scorns the nomad, hunter-race,
a stable hearth her chief desire.
Ten thousand lifetimes wax and wane
as Earth beneath the solar blaze
still guards her cubs through fair and foul
her course unchanged from ancient days —
The struggle of all life persists,
the hunters stalk, the hunted shreik,
and forests faint while skies turn sick
but of this darkness few will speak —
One wonders of a time ahead
when seas of eyes no longer weep
when tribes can peaceful steeples raise
when wounds can heal, and gods can sleep.
Previous featured Poet Spring 2020 Issue #17:
“Flowers, all sorts…” review by Jeff Kaliss
To all the rest of us, there can be something forbidding and welcoming about venturing into Irish literature. What I first felt in high school about James Joyce, I’m thrilling to again in Flowers, all sorts in blossom, figs, berries, and fruits, forgotten, by Dublin-born Oisín Breen (his given name is pronounced ‘Uh-SHEEN’).
This collection of long-form poetry was released a few months ago by Hybrid Press in Edinburgh, where the 35-year-old Breen now makes his home. Our excerpting it here is not entirely by chance: Breen contacted our Review after realizing it is published in the same town where he’s secured a long-distance bread-and-butter job, as a financial journalist for Mill Valley’s RIABiz.com. He in fact visited here last year, and though it was many months before the COVID shutdown, he “hated the fact that all the bars close at nine. . . excepting the Deuce [the 2 AM Club].” He’ll have his poetry with him when he returns to seek out Bay Area saloons, “for two reasons. One, because it’s just fun. And two, because I have an ongoing battle with people who talk to me about, ‘accessibility, Oisín!’. They believe in a dumbed-down, boring way of talking. [But in Scotland] I’ve performed poems from this book in bars, and it goes down a treat, because it has musicality, it has emotion, and that’s all you need. It doesn’t matter if they understand everything, that’s not the point.”
Breen’s manifest erudition — passages in the Gaelic language, references to Mesopotamian and Irish mythology (he was named for a Celtic poet warrior), and top-drawer English vocabulary — have me scratching my head, as does the subject matter of the doctoral dissertation he’s writing in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh: narratology and its connection with complex systems. But what comes through clearly in his verse, aside from the musicality and emotion, are themes of love for people, place, and tradition. “And, I hope, a sense of humor and wonder,” the poet adds.
“There’s also seriousness and an understanding of form, with similarities to the traditional British. But they don’t have a sense of play, and we do.” This spirit manifests at times as giddy structural experimentation and fluidity of tense, in “trying to show a holistic view of life.” The life is partly Breen’s, and partly “other people’s memories, that I just lifted.”
On your journey through it, you’ll find it becoming your life, as well.
Notes for Breen’s poetry
The first two excerpts are from “Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”— which is the first of his book’s three sections. The third excerpt is from the second section, “Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”
Oisin states, “Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten, the collection carries three long-form pieces, each in a series of thematic parts, and it is stylistically and formally playful. That being said, it also has that muck between its teeth that can leap out and grab you. The book is unlike much of what is presently de rigueur. It’s full of foot-stomping paeans rolling through father-death, mother-death, memory, revelry, horror, meaning, and contradiction. But again, it’s also quite riddled with a sense of knowing irony and humour.”
“Isn’t the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?”
I asked her if the muck-begetting brown felt good on her skin,
She told me to ask her if she felt the same-as-I.
For weeks now we’ve both been mute.
Not a murmur,
Mute. That awful consequence of our intemperance of speech.
She asks me for a root to gnaw on,
Sitting at the bus-stop if it rains,
And I say we should play kissing games,
But she’d like the real heaviness so much more.
Now the worms in our bellies are ripe for the hunger,
And I can hear all the heartbeats in the world,
And all I want is to rest in parabola.
So I stand,
Feeling just like that
But what will become of the ashes I give you?
This is a history of contempt.
But it is in these steps,
those that you take,
after the door has closed,
and my morning begins,
having said goodbye to yours,
that I recollect,
that I love you.
But, full of doubt, behind me I have left a litany of spoiled wishes.
But, though I remember more than enough to sate my living on, I take
myself to the riverside bridge, solely to weep at the bones.
The act itself,
Its flash powder of yellow-tan dust,
Engorges the hour hand when it’s brightest.
Barû, pitifully, I speak, and I remember.
I start, not with a heavenly chorus, a wail, or a Guinness wet lip against
my cheek as my da tells me he loves me — a moment he will always
forget, yet one that defines me — but precedes and succeeds the seconds
that counted for him when he said there he is, that’s my boy.
Nor am i the heavy sweat dripping release of gushing coos: ahhh, that my
ma’ belched out rapid when she said i have made you and she saw and
knew that she was right, and knew when she said it and would be right
forever that she did, and that she had made me.
Nor am i that inkling that a part of her that she would hide and deny
would always hate me for having stolen what was most precious from her:
her reason for living, and made it my own.
I start, instead, with a rasping cough on the horizon if I don’t ultimately
mend my ways, under the moody lights of a room empty save for myself
and a jobbing brewer, looking backwards over what mattered and realising
it was only the small things that ever will.
I am married, to be, and was.
I step into the hail and the rain on a cobblestone May and watch my
beloved walk forwards in the diachronic time of stilled heartbeats.
I am in love, thank Christ I am in love.
I am facing down an inverted set of footsteps racing out of a bar,
and I am taking back words that I said when glasses smashed and voices,
briefly raised, shook heavy thoughts into lightness.
I am plucking flowers at a baobab tree and thinking, ‘what if you forget
“Dublin and the Loose Footwork of Deity.”
Dublin, that day was the start of a cycle that would lead you in but three
days to falling madly in love, eschewing the contents of your stomach all
over her feet, still trying to hold yourself together while the clanging of a
bass guitar in the castle was ripping your belly apart, and even so,
working the courage up to just, just — and, I mean you gave her a biscuit
beforehand for Christ’s sake — to kiss her so gently, then hard, really hard
on the lips, to have one of those last memorable days of friendship with
your then closest kin, to have to twist yourself through the railings in
Fairview because the Dart track is mad-long and there’s no way off it
when you walk through the city, just to end up being on the front page of
the paper, for you were battered while trying to run from the guards.
Dublin, from the bridge, your river beautiful, your pockmarked, bric-abrac
coloured houses shift themselves along your quays, each of them
looking like an awful dodgy dealer, singing out story bud; strawberries
one euro; and how dey red it in a bewk. I mean Jaysus the state of you,
what like? I does be tellin ye, d’ye hear me?
Dublin, I can smell bread by Liberty Hall, and look at the fifty-three about
to shudder its way down past the last hovels that you’ve left near the
docks, and watch as your heart, beautifully, I admit, is quartered, so that
finance can lift you up from behind, so so nicely that it makes you feel
like you’re glowing, and makes you want it all the more so much so that
you endlessly push out your chest and masquerade, all tarted up, while the
building in Joyce’s The Dead is a ruin and you’ll pretend you’ve got no
But Dublin, Lámhfhada, that’s the king and all for you,
Do you remember him?