Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Briefly Noted - May 2014

Monthly book reviews in brief from the staff of Prairie Schooner and associates

Vol. 3 Issue 3. May 2014. Ed. Paul Clark.

On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson | Reviewed by Jack Hill

The Phoenix: New & Selected Poems by Judith Skillman | Reviewed by Bonny Barry Sanders

Darkness Sticks to Everything by Tom Hennen| Reviewed by James Crews


Elizabeth Robinson. On Ghosts. Solid Objects, 2013

Reviewed by Jack Hill

Elizabeth Robinson's poetry-essay book, On Ghosts, addresses “the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting.” Robinson writes in the introductory “Explanatory Note” that such conditions “calibrate individuals or places” and “make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness.” Short essays and prose poems follow the note which engage existence in such a way that suggests existence may be possible in places and in things not so evident at first glance. Spaces between spaces are available for haunting, such as the gaps between the pages in a book, which presents the notion that the very book, On Ghosts, may be haunted in this way. With holes and gaps in mind, Robinson describes squeezing a pore on her upper left arm “until a thin line of exudate comes out . . . a tiny bit of white thread . . . I press it between my fingers and it then disappears . . . All that's left is a mild smell of selfness. Whose?” On Ghosts ushers the recognition that the most obscure gaps and spaces may be haunted, and that something may exist in even the smallest of holes..


Judith Skillman. The Phoenix: New & Selected Poems. Dream Horse Press, 2013

Reviewed by Bonny Barry Sanders

In Judith Skillman’s fourteenth collection of poems, The Phoenix, she gathers samplings of six published collections and offers the reader twenty-one additional new poems. The first thing one might notice is that the natural landscape plays a vital role in her poems.  Although nature is always a source of inspiration to her, and often becomes a setting or controlling metaphor, it does not become the subject as in “Death of Pan” she writes, “…as we brought her / one more gift: a leaf bloodied in color, / a spare sapling, an agate choked in quartz.”

The reader will also notice that whatever form a poem takes, the author seems interested in striving for minimalist structure, and as heir to Imagist strategies, she resists padding language in any way. This is evident in her poem “Nature Morte.”

And here—at precisely this juncture—
the light sits shining
its sign for number:
titanium white.

Ms. Skillman is interested in words that come out of nowhere or from dreams.  Her style, form, and voice vary from impressionistic, misty nuances to the territory of poems that twist and turn with the liquidity of night visions. Indeed the author often uses surrealism to offer the reader her interior landscape—her unique way of seeing things, events, people, the  past.

Often her poems search the hazy depths of reality becoming dark as dreams and her tone becomes satiric, sardonic, ironic as in “Doppelganger” she depicts the ghostly counterpart of a living being.  In “My Grandmother’s Waltz,” she describes her aging grandmother with gritty honesty that looms over the poem with dark innuendos : “One breast gone, soft arms doughy, arms extended,  / no longer a woman, rather a specter, / …And we, die kinder, / were of one mind in our jury as children: /… made her into a kind of a contraption-- / a Babushka spinning in its own squat body.”

Although this collection is not an easy read, it presents a stimulating challenge.  Each poem invites the reader to return again and again, to rise (like the fire bird in her title poem) to new perceptions inspired by the great depths of the author’s sensitivity, sensibility, and imagination.

Tom Hennen. Darkness Sticks to Everything. Copper Canyon Press, 2013

Reviewed by James Crews

I am sad to say that, perhaps like many readers, I had never heard of Tom Hennen until picking up this collection, which finally gathers all of Hennen's work into a single volume. It is surprising that so few of us have heard of him because his exacting poems echo the work of past U.S. Poet Laureates, evoking a rich sense of place, as so few poets do nowadays. In fact, Jim Harrison points out in his introduction to the collection, "I identify the geniuses of Ted Kooser and Tom Hennen with each other," and Thomas R. Smith, in his afterword, makes a similar connection between these "poets of place," also comparing Hennen to the Chinese poets Tu Fu and Han-shan. These are apt comparisons easily illustrated by a poem like "Autumn Waiting":

Even sunlight
Is in no hurry and stays
For a long time
On each corn stalk.
Blackbirds sit in bunches.
From a distance
They are quiet as piles of dark grain

Spilled on the road.

The urge to compare Hennen to other masters stems from the universality he achieves with each poem. Spending so much time in a single place--the prairies of western Minnesota, in this case--allows a writer to uncover a clarity of vision always present in the work of those poets we most admire. And I believe that, at the heart of Hennen's hard-won clarity, is really what we might call a "poetics of sincerity." The Latin root of the word sincere is sincerus, meaning "pure, clean and untainted." The poems in Darkness Sticks to Everything arrive on the page free of literary ambition and the egoism that has become de rigeur in the work of many writers. In fact, the very goal of Tom Hennen's poetry seems to be to dissolve the self by finding a greater consciousness in the natural world, beyond the merely human

Jack Hill edits Crossed Out Magazine (crossedoutmagazine.org) and is a first year creative writing M.A. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Bonny Barry Sanders is the author of a collection of poems, Touching Shadows. Her poems, essays, and book reviews have been widely published. James Crews is the author of The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares and The New Republic, and he is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

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The editors of Briefly Noted welcome submissions of short reviews from our readers. The series features short reviews of books published in 2012 or 2013; however, we occasionally publish short-shrifted reviews of significant older works under the radar. We're looking for reviews that are punchy and to the point, around 100 to 300 words. Send all submissions to pswebed@unl.edu with “Briefly Noted" in the subject line. We look forward to hearing from you in brief!