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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

Chapbook Reviews

Over the years, numerous poets have sent me complimentary copies of their poetry chapbooks for my reading enjoyment. This blog post highlights ten of those collections. For more chapbook reviews, see my blog article titled "Best of the Small Press."

Bearable Weight by Michael Cleary CW Books, © 2011, ISBN 978-1-936370-51-1

Michael Cleary's Bearable Weight contains frequent allusions to religious life or the Bible in emotionally fraught settings and paints a sometimes bleak landscape penetrated by occasional rays of hope. There’s a bitter-sweet tone to several of his poems. The reader will be introduced to a diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own unique life story. Many of the poems left me wanting to know more about their subjects and speakers.

I question the reader who doesn’t cry at some point in the course of digesting this volume, and I found poems such as “First Wife,” “Relative,” “Some You Remember and Some You Can’t Forget,” and “Bless the Child in Any Juke Box Bar” especially affecting. As with any collection, there were a few poems I just didn’t “get,” that failed to hold my interest, or that seemed to be trying too hard, but, on the whole, the collection is impressive, and when I am hit hard emotionally by more than four poems in a single volume, I generally take note of the poet.

The Deep and Secret Color of Ice by Paul Willis Small Poetry Press, © 2003, ISBN 10891298-20-8

Here comes yet another tastefully designed chapbook from Small Poetry Press, complete with color cover. The title (which the poet draws from the last line of his “Sierra Juniper”) was arresting, leading me to look forward to reading the 24 poems within. The unrhymed poems are rhythmic and melodic. The imagery does not generally seem affected (as it unfortunately does in much modern poetry), nor is it used as a substitute for substance. My favorite poems in this collection are “Silliman Creek,” “Apocalypse,” and “The Leper.”

First Words by Don J. Carlson Jagged Corner Publications, © 2006

This tasteful, simple volume contains a variety of poems complemented by pen and ink drawings. Stylistically, some of the poems read like proverbs. Others are cast in the form of blank verse, and still others would best be classified as free verse. There are several short and powerful poems with stark messages, and yet these verses usually avoid sounding didactic. Favorites include "Start Again," "Seeking God," "Weeds," and the clever "Ancient Polls."

Heavy Lifting by David Alpaugh Alehouse Press, © 2007

This collection contains about 80 pages of poetry as well as an essay on "The Professionalization of Poetry." Some of the poems are written in free verse; some are concrete; some are metrical; and the rare ones even (gasp!) rhyme, and that rhyme is never obtrusive. Many of the poems are not accessible upon a first reading, and some take awhile to capture the reader's attention. There were few that were able to grab me from the very first line, but, if the reader invests some time and patience, there will be rewards, although I recommend instead the smaller, slimmer, lighter, and more arresting volumes Mightier than the Sword and DOWNSIZING my muse. Although there were several poems to enjoy in Heavy Lifting, I have to confess that this is my least favorite of the three collections I have read from this unique and clever poet. My favorite poems in this volume can already be found in the other, shorter collections.

i should have given them water by Eileen Malone Ragged Sky Press, © 2010, ISBN 1-933974-08-7

I am not a fan of the use of the lower case i for the personal pronoun, which has become increasingly popular in poetry. In fact, I even note my dislike for the use of the lowercase I in my submission guidelines to Ancient Paths, the literary magazine I edit and publish. In my experience, the lower case “i” in poetry is very often accompanied by either excess pretension or impenetrability. Therefore, I confess I was expecting to find much of the poetry in “i should have given them water” not to my liking. Interestingly enough, despite the title, no poem in the volume uses the lower case i.

I enjoyed the stark and often unique imagery of Eileen Malone’s poems. She makes use of the five senses, but I was particularly struck by her use of scent. At times the lines seemed too long to carry a pleasing rhythm, and I felt as though I was being dragged along them, but the alliteration was arresting. These dark poems are sometimes tender, sometimes disturbing, with alternating notes of hope and dejection. Some are quite moving. The most powerful are those that deal with struggling or dying relationships.

Journey Into Healing by Sherri Waas Shunefenthal Pocol Press, © 2003, ISBN 1-929763-16-6

This book uses poetry as an introduction to its prose reflections, reflections that consist of spiritual meditations, commentary, thought-provoking questions, and personal biblical interpretation. The author, as she did in her book Sacred Voices, focuses on the perspectives of women, this time moving beyond Genesis to include Esther, Hannah, Ruth, and Naomi. The book is intended to help people as they, like their biblical ancestors, struggle with the age-old problem of pain. The poetry is not overtly sonorous, but it does grapple with heavy themes, and it serves as a solid jumping board for the author's reflections.

Judith Translated by Albert W. Haley, Jr. Zip Type Service, © 2001, ISBN 0-938138-10-3

This chapbook-style volume contains a modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem “Judith,” which is based on the Apocryphal book of the same name, as it appeared in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Just as the author of “Beowulf” Christianized the pagan legend, so too does the author of “Judith” Christainize this Jewish, intertestmental tale, resulting in a few entertaining anachronisms.

Not being versed in Anglo-Saxon myself, I cannot judge whether Haley’s is an accurate translation. I can, however, say that the work is a pleasure to read. The alliteration (the primary device used in Old English poetry) is especially powerful in “Judith,” creating a mesmerizing cadence in the mind of the reader. The translator has also produced a version of “Beowulf,” available in paperback.

Light Under Skin by Amanda Auchter Finishing Line Press, © 2006, 1-59924-050-5

This simply-designed chapbook contains 22 poems unaccompanied by illustration. The collection explores themes of loss and renewal and examines the relationship between mothers and their children (especially daughters). The free verse poems are often rooted in time and place with imagery drawn from everyday life, childhood, and the general domestic landscape. Many of the poems have a "coming of age" feel as the innocence of children is slowly eroded by the inevitable march of experience.

Listening to Africa by Diana M. Raab Antrim House, © 2012, ISBN 978-1-936482-18-4

In Listening to Africa, the poet Diana M. Raab recounts the spiritual and emotional effect of her travels through Nambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The poetry is free verse but makes plenty of use of alliteration, cadence, imagery, and other poetic devices that make it read like much more than prose divided by line breaks. The volume is occasionally punctuated by photographs that lend flavor to the poems.

Motley Chaos by Joseph Hart © 2012, ISB 978-0615614069, Valentine Press

This collection is self-described as an "iconoclastic cacophony in words." While the poems are indeed characterized by an attack on established beliefs and institutions, I fortunately didn't find the "sound" of the verse to be harsh and discordant, though I did sometimes find the poems to be abrupt. The poet admits "there is no unifying theme, and these poems don't hang together" and then questions "What does?" It's a clever way to preface a hodge podge of poetry, although many of the poems do in fact share a common theme: literature.

Whether offering a paean to Dickinson, questioning the sincerity of Keats, praising the originality of Larkin, or reflecting on how Shakespeare "scattered words like gems and dice" thereby "burrowing through cheese like mice," the poet spends much of his verse in commentary on the poetry of others. In some respects, Motley Chaos is occasionally like a brief, metrical (sometimes rhymed) volume of literary criticism, with more opinion than analysis. The poems aren't particularly subtle, but they are well structured in blank and rhymed forms. The book is an easy read, if one can ever call poetry easy reading, though it will have a limited audience.

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