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New poetry collections contemplate the human experience via music, rituals and exhortations

By Morgan Musselman

 This article was first published in The DC Line here. This article was produced within the New Book Critics project, a component of Day Eight’s 2022 The Crisis in Book Review conference.

Three recently published poetry collections explore themes of loss, devotion and self-love, demonstrating the art form’s capacity to express the depth of the human experience. 

The Shomer by Ellen Sazzman; published in 2021 by Finishing Line Press (85 pages, $21.99)

A striking debut collection from poet Ellen Sazzman, The Shomer takes its title from the traditional Jewish practice of designating a guardian — a shomer — to watch over the body of a deceased person until burial, protecting them against desecration until they are safely interred. As poet-guardian, Sazzman guides readers through significant life events as well as daily routines; her poems offer glimpses into the realm of memory wherein loved ones are safeguarded. 

Split into three parts, The Shomer first watches over the speaker’s familial relationships, the poems securing the memories of those once in her care — mothers, fathers, children and grandchildren — and protecting them from the erosive nature of time and forgetting. In this initial section — which begins with “To Chaya (1915-2014),” an elegy for her deceased mother — the speaker travels from orphaned adulthood to childhood and back again, exploring the relationships parents have with their children, each other and themselves. The poet’s reflections are deepened and complicated by her own experiences of aging and parenting. In “October in the Neonatal ICU,” the speaker directs these words to her newborn grandson: 

Over stigmata pricked on your flesh, 

I bend, touch your forehead. 

The generations’ shared claim: 

to swaddle you beyond suffering,

line your transparent manger

with the straw of names. 

In these poems, loved ones’ bodies — eyes, hands and lungs — are preserved through memory along with hopes, failures and loves.  Threads of forgetting and destruction expand to questions of tradition and rite in the collection’s second section, “The Body Sanctuary,” where the poems attend to old practices and rituals of life in the face of time, loss and persecution — particularly as they relate to Judaism. From “Seek and Hide in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery” to “Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guacamole” and “Renewing Vows in the Atlantic,” the speakers in these poems search for asylum in the spaces once occupied by other bodies — loved bodies, lost bodies, and former versions of oneself. In “Peeling the Orange,” for example, the speaker breaks open the skin of an orange and reminisces about the way her father did the same each morning throughout her childhood, concluding, 

                The peeling 

releases nectar that clings to my fingers,

perfumes my palms for hours. Perhaps we can

tease out the pungencies, reconstitute

the fullness, un-seamed, returned to one another.

These spaces grow more tangible toward the collection’s end as Sazzman turns her eye to the physical, flesh-and-bone body as well as the material objects it handles and fills: a grandmother’s sealskin coat, for example, or another person’s thighs. This final selection of poems progresses steadily through themes of sensuality and pleasure as Sazzman recounts adolescent flirtations. In a reprieve from the collection’s generally heavier tone, readers get a fleeting taste of the author’s wry humor before moving to loss and unfamiliarity as she ruminates on the ways bodies begin to say their goodbyes. To watch over the body corporeal — our own and others’ — is to see damage and desire, fruit and rot, these poems suggest. But “Better to / welcome the wounding, no matter how deep the cut” than remain unscathed.

Sazzman explains her thematic choices in the collection’s introduction: “Under the best of circumstances the Shomer gains a glimpse into the liminal, into what happens in the space between love and loss, hunger and fulfillment, forgetting and remembering.” Though the collection’s final portrayals of memory are clouded by grief, nostalgia, age and human fallibility, The Shomer succeeds in its role as guardian, artfully preserving the poet’s love for those who welcomed her into this life and those whom she has welcomed in turn. Here, loved ones are held fast in memory, preserved through poetry, protected until we are all buried. And what a blessing to be so lovingly guarded by a poet as skilled as Ellen Sazzman.

Riffs & Improvisations by Gregory Luce; published in 2021 by Kelsay Books (33 pages, $19) 

Music is the master key to emotion, declares Gregory Luce’s collection Riffs & Improvisations. Here, when music plays, fervent sentiment spills forth, filling the poems with earnest and reverential contemplations of sensuality, yearning, wistfulness, loss and, above all, love. 

As these poems traverse emotions, so too do they span place and time, from a Metrorail station in “Music to It” — where the speaker perpetually searches for the right song to play in his life’s soundtrack — to awaiting divine judgment after death in “Richard Strauss in Purgatory.” Most of the poems portray a lone speaker isolated by time, death or his own thoughts, pondering music and the moods it conjures, each contributing a line in an ardent love letter to the art form.

In one of the collection’s more sorrowful pieces, “Satie in the Dark,” the speaker turns off the lights and plays Gymnopédie No. 1, intentionally invoking memories of “old lovers, my dead– / my father and mother / and the others.” It’s a solitary séance that reminds the speaker of his own inevitable death, only to be snapped out of his reverie by the start of a new song. Here and throughout the collection, as music opens the speaker to emotion, it also functions to facilitate eulogy and memory, linking past and present.

With a title such as Riffs & Improvisations, there comes an expectation that the poems within feature rhythms and meters, evoking the very compositions with which they are preoccupied, but most poems here are free verse without a noticeable musical pattern. Luce tends toward explicitness over subtlety when painting a scene and, rather than mimicking song, what many of his poems capture is the sensation of listening to music. In “Aspirins and Coffee,” Coltrane plays, and the speaker is consumed by the sound: 

Jimmy’s bass notes step up my spine and thump

      the base of my skull

Elvin’s sticks tattoo the back of my head from the inside

McCoy’s chords shatter like fine crystal behind my eyes

“a Love Supreme a Love Supreme”

and then Trane’s lines burn up from my gut like raw liquid sugar

      like hot syrup like pure honey

To experience Riffs & Improvisations to best effect, readers might want to play aloud the music referenced therein as they read each poem. When the notes of “A Love Supreme” accompany “Aspirins and Coffee,” readers can truly feel the impact of the beat, their own fingers tapping in tandem with the speaker’s as he sits at his kitchen table. 

Luce’s collection ends with a revisit to this song and these moving lines: “I try to work my pen / for Trane the way / he played his sax / for God.” This is Riffs & Improvisations at its finest: a poet composing in awe of others’ craft, enveloping himself and the audience in a love of music. 

My Poetry Is the Beauty You Overlook by Kim B. Miller; self-published in 2020 (73 pages, $16)

Kim B. Miller wants more from you. And more for you, too. Demanding readers’ attention from the beginning, her collection My Poetry Is the Beauty You Overlook opens with a poem that ends with the following lines:

My name is poetry and I will never be what you want to hear

But truth cannot be ignored

Poetry is not what I do

Words are what I breathe and I decided to come exhale on you

Part poetry collection and part motivational guide, My Poetry presents the work of the first African American to serve as the poet laureate of Prince William County, Virginia. Emboldened by experience and the personalization of her craft, Miller is determined to speak her truth and inspire others to do the same. 

My Poetry’s themes are wide-ranging, from the truth-telling role of poetry to the struggle against anti-Black racism. The collection incorporates an unconventional format: Each chapter explores a different theme through a sequence of one free-form poem, followed by a featured haiku, six more haiku, and finally a so-called “Kimism.” These Kimisms are candid sayings that clinch each chapter’s theme — for instance, “Some of you are too busy trying to explain your journey to someone who will not be going with you” comes at the end of a chapter urging confidence and self-love. 

Given Miller’s professional experience as a motivational speaker, it is unsurprising that many of her poems adopt this style. Nearly every poem in My Poetry adopts a second-person point of view, addressing the reader directly. The many haiku are key examples of Miller’s motivational tone, as in the featured haiku of the chapter “Mom, Gone Too Soon”: 

You cannot divide

Yourself into fractions to

Make someone else whole

This inescapable “you” present throughout the collection consistently demands more of the reader — more attention, more introspection, more accountability, and more love. 

Miller’s haiku also exemplify her taste for playing with tradition. While adhering to the established five-seven-five syllable structure of a classic haiku, Miller often makes inventive modifications to the words’ arrangement within lines. Three times in the first chapter, she makes the two syllables of “poet” stretch from one line to the next. In “Judging,” she writes, 

Just cause they don’t po-

et like you poet that doesn’t

mean they aren’t poets.

The splitting of po-et while sticking with traditional structure underscores Miller’s meaning: Poetry is malleable, and the liberties taken with art do not negate the writer’s artistry.

In this way, Miller has learned to claim more for herself, to declare her own love and praise — and she insists that her readers do the same. The opening free-verse poem in Chapter 8, “Poetry Is,” reads: 

Poetry is unsolicited help

It holds us up when pain tries to erase our voice

It allows us to pour into emptiness and create peace 

Like much unsolicited help, it can be tough to swallow. Bold, funny and earnest, My Poetry Is the Beauty You Overlook knows that there is beauty in truth and insists that you see it.

Morgan Musselman is a reader and writer living in Washington, DC. Morgan holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa. Upon graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. and began her current position working in the fundraising and communications department of a local nonprofit. In her free time, Morgan can be found at coffee shops around the city, desperately trying to clear up space on her to-read shelf, or at a bookstore undoing all her progress.

An Ode to Joy (and Pain)

By Edgar Farr Russell III

This article was first published in Washington Independent Review of Books here. This article was created within a New Book Critics project and within Day Eight’s 2022 “The Crisis in Book Review” conference.

For those compelled to ponder how the past molds the experiences of the present, the powerful language of Saida Agostini’s first full-length collection of poetry, let the dead in, not only offers the opportunity to see and hear people’s interactions in her world, but to smell, taste, and feel their joy and pain. Readers unfamiliar with this sphere will likely find Agostini’s words and imagery resonating within themselves — recalling their own experiences and emotions.

The collection, a finalist for the 2020 New Issues Poetry Prize and the Center for African American Arts & Poetics Poetry Prize, is divided into three parts: “notes on archiving erasure,” “we find the fantastic,” and “american love.” The first begins the story in Guyana, where past generations tell their stories of young love at first sight, of brutal treatment of women at the hands of men — whether husbands or lovers — and of children hungry and wailing for their absent daddies.

We also experience the environment where these people live and work and suffer — such as the sugarcane fields where they toil, the rivers of “dark cool moving waters,” and the homes where the families exist — with or without love.

But, most of all, this section introduces us to the power of women — full of passionate love or jealousy; suffering but surviving — role models to be emulated or not. The author also affords us an initial look at the fantastical world of spirits and demons, such as the Jumbees. The general belief is that a person who has been evil in life will remain evil in death and continue to exert his or her power over the living.

The second part further introduces readers to the creatures of this world, including the ole higue, a myth created by Dutch enslavers in Guyana of a hunchbacked old woman “said to depart her skin at night and beguile young women into killing their families.” Ironically, such spirits provide an emotional outlet for women betrayed or abandoned by their men. Others, such as the moongazer — a bloodthirsty monster created to stop slaves from stealing sugarcane from the fields after dark — inspired Agostini to transform this horrific mythology into a glorious dream of being reunited with a deceased lover:

“…what I have done

to find my darling; look at her

crowned by nothing but the stars

in this bowl of sky. Her dark hands lifted

soft and warm, my gaze

a patient delight. Look at her

there beyond the moon…”

Also in this section is a sequence of six poems introducing us to a man who may serve as a symbol for many men in this culture. He is known as chickenfoot, “all sinew and black amble.” He offers romantic passion to women but will cause them great heartbreak. Chickenfoot also loves his granny and weeps for a man he adores and can never touch. In his macho environment, such feelings cannot be tolerated. Here, Agostini demonstrates that pain is often a universal constant for children, women, and men.

The third part of the collection features the ironic title “american love,” for here we are reminded of past and present examples of Black men and women who have been killed by police, used or abused by those with greater power, or convicted of killing their abusers. Agostini’s poems in this section cover multiple locations and span decades, even centuries.

Some of the names — Freddie Gray or Eric Garner — may be familiar. Others, such as Recy Taylor, hark back to 1944. In “Bresha Meadows Speaks on Divinity,” Agostini offers these words on the resilience of children beaten by their parents: “god is a black girl in love with living, a sacrament on how to be disbelieved, forgotten and rise a thousand times over.”

While her poems appear to be about one subject, Agostini often uses them to express an entirely different emotion. She writes “whoever died from a rough ride” as a gentle meditation for her love of Baltimore in all its complexities — her memory of the feel of her mother parting her hair on Sunday with a purple fine-toothed comb; to a stranger seeing Agostini weeping and placing his hand on her shoulder to express concern for her welfare; to viewing the falling houses behind her, whose bones chant, “we won’t leave we won’t leave.” 

At the same time, some of the brutal experiences she has endured recur in multiple poems. Agostini finds grace, however, in the collection’s penultimate poem, “who we are human to,” as demonstrated by her closing words:

“we are nothing if not houses to each other that can hold

all sorts of brutal tender memory, make rooms of flesh

and light where we bear witness to the most horrible

rock each other in our arms and whisper yes yes 

I know”

Readers willing to journey with Saida Agostini will find their path full of conflicting emotions and painful choices which must be made. In return, the reward offered is one of richer insight and greater empathy for those whose lives she has illuminated.

Edgar Farr Russell III is a fine artist, writer, director, and performer. His art was selected for the Joslyn Art Museum’s Biennial XX. His plays have been produced for NPR, the stage, and television. Russell produced and reconstructed the lost 1938 Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre On the Air production of Julius Caesar. This new presentation featured members of Welles’ original Broadway cast. Russell has performed at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center. A lifelong enthusiast of Abraham Lincoln, he served as president of the Lincoln Group of DC, as well as president of the Washington, DC, chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. His most recent poem was published in November as part of the anthology We Were Not Alone, which features a foreword by singer/songwriter Jewel.

Capacity Building for Artists and Arts Organizations: a workshop with Michael Kaiser

Capacity Building for Artists and Arts Organizations: a workshop with Michael Kaiser

Saturday July 23, 2016 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM
4201 Georgia Avenue NW, Third Floor

How can you, as an artist or arts administrator, ensure that you not only survive, but thrive? This workshop will include a presentation by Mr. Kaiser followed by a question and answer session. Space is limited; to register for this workshop click here.

More about Michael M. Kaiser:

Michael M. Kaiser is Chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management.

From 2001 to 2014, he served as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Dubbed “the Turnaround King” for his work at numerous institutions, including the Royal Opera House (London), American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Kansas City Ballet, Michael has earned international renown for his expertise in arts management. Through the DeVos Institute and the Kennedy Center, he has advised performing arts organizations around the world, working with arts leaders in nearly 70 countries.

In 2001, Michael founded the Institute to provide advanced training for young arts administrators and has developed a series of programs to help train others in the field. He created a Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations, which offers mentoring services to the leaders of African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American arts groups from across the United States. A similar program was instituted for over 280 arts organizations in New York City. In February 2009, he created Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative, a program to provide free arts management consulting to non-profit performing arts organizations around the United States. He embarked on a 50-state tour for the program, bringing his expertise to every state in the Union along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

His books include Curtains: The Future of the Arts (2015), The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations (2013), Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask (2010), and The Art of the Turnaround (2008).

Mr. Kaiser directs the DeVos Institute at the University of Maryland overseeing training and consulting programs in the United States and around the world.

To reserve your spot for the workshop: click here.

Thanks to the DC Arts and Education Collaborative, Dance Metro DC and Emerging Arts Leaders DC for their partnership in this event.

Panel Discussion on Artists Journalists with Fellow Jonelle Walker Sunday July 17

Artist Journalists

Sunday July 17, 2016 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
Mt Pleasant Branch of the DC Public Library
3160 16th Street NW

Mass media no longer exists and real time reporting has destroyed the news cycle. What does it mean when artists are also journalists? Visit with four practitioners and share your thoughts about the role of expert opinion, independent opinion, and self-promotion in the arts.

Lenny Campello (Artist, Curator, and author of DC Art News blog)
Jenn Larsen (Artist at Dog and Pony and co-founder of WeLoveDC magazine)
JT Kirkland (Artist and author of Thinking About Art blog)
John Stoltenberg (Playwright and publisher of DC Metro Theater Arts.)

*** RSVP on the Facebook Event ***

This panel event is co-produced with DC Art News and will be moderated by Fellow Jonelle Walker.