Running at Night By Contributor Ned Randle, A Review

One of the things I like best, as both a reader and writer of poetry, is poetry that takes off from the imagination, poems that lead the reader into imaginary scenes or situations, which is why this collection appealed to me as soon as I saw the title, and there’s nothing arbitrary about Ned Randle’s title, Running at Night. This is a courageous book of witnessing. It takes the reader through dark paths on fast foot. The poems are written with a sure hand, the images right, the word choice sharp, the line breaks masterful, as in this passage of “Misplacedˮ:

 

There are times when we misplace our hearts—

misplace, not lose like one might lose

his head in love or lust or anger.

Misplace—carelessly resting it in a place

it should not have been set

and then forgetting it like an empty cup

or pair of worn shoes until the emptiness inside the

forsaken heart aches, like the cup aches for the heat

of the coffee and the shoe for the warmth of

the friendly foot….

 

In it the boundaries between past, present, and future are permeable, constantly shifting, as in “Portrait of Rain in Septemberˮ:

 

Now within the faded fields

hardened yellow corn persists;

the long shirttail of summer

is tucked into the lap of fall.

Skeleton echoes of the past

picnics rattle in the hall

of thought and bring again the warmth

of shifting sun onto shoulders,

onto squinted eye; contrast

with the gleam of dampened windows;

your flowers are now soon asleep,

their dream of spring as vivid as

freshly painted falling rain.

 

These poems are mysterious and beautiful. It is a place where longing and resignation are mingled in poems like “Reply to the Invitation to Huntˮ:

 

I stare at you as you sit by the fire

reading your book through polished eyeglasses;

I am warm with whiskey and freshly cooked eggs,

girding to walk through the cold

morning to hunt the heavy fleshed mystery.

You see the words, you read the words, the words

are forgotten; I know, I have quizzed

you in your sleep. I kill the deer, I skin

the deer, the meat is eaten; it puts fiber

in my limbs. Where are your sonnets?

The poem has not yet been born with

the strength of a ten point buck.  

 

It’s hard to pull off a collection of poems with so many shifts in tone, but Randle succeeds because the scenarios are so compelling, and because his language and images and references are so rich. The transformation of the commonplace—this phrase came to me repeatedly as I read this collection. Randle examines our relationship to that which is around us, investigating its solidity and strength and our personal reactions to it. In many of these poems, the speaker is trying to hold onto time and space, yet time and space are essentially unreliable and uncontrollable. The speaker is often sleepless, running in the dark, looking for light, haunting the reader.

 

These carefully crafted poems cohere into a meditation about our relationship to life that speaks truly about how we learn about ourselves and how knowledge transforms our lives. As we read these poems, we learn that there is no alternative to facing into life’s alchemy, that life changes you in ways you cannot predict, such as the title poem “Running at Nightˮ suggests:

 

An acid pain in lung and limb,

the runner is tired tonight.

The tap tap tap of rubber sole

shoes on the oiled road is a

peaceful monotone melody

compared to the restless rhythm

of the daytime indoor job.

It is a good solitude

after sunset running toward

the headlights on the highway

a mile and a half away.

He rounds the rose bush planted on

the edge of concrete and returns to

make pace with the selfless sounds of night.

It is hard to stop quoting from this book. On every page there is a passage I want to share. “Gravesideˮ is truly a tour-de-force, though I am partial to it, but to quote only part of it would not do it justice, so I’ll give you only one more taste to tantalize you to buy this book and read it from cover to cover for yourself:

 

Kneeling unsteadily near the headstone

he unfolds the clean cotton handkerchief

from his breast pocket and carefully cleans

the lenses of his eyeglasses, wiping

away the loess of their past life as fine

and dry as powdered bone.

The thought of her

under the freshly turned earth so weighty

that it bends time under its mass, curves light,

warps reason.

Surveying adjacent plots

nestling restless aroused souls close by,

nearly hip to hip and thigh to thigh,

pressing obscenely against her on each

side, ghostly frottage in a vulgar crowd.

He conjures up a prayer but lets it fall

unspoken onto the sod, into the

soil, jealously hating heaven after

death where strange souls are urged to love his love,

and briefly hoping for hell for her, where

no love survives the crucible, where she

melts in the heat of his lust forever.

 

While some collections consist of a series of closely related poems, with a common subject or theme or form, or a narrative arc that connects all the poems, others offer a wide variety of settings and subjects, where each poem comes as a surprise, where the reader finds themselves in unexpected places and new situations. The latter is what Randle offers us through winding directions, the darkest of places, the freshness of life.

Pretty the Ugly, A Review By Samantha Duncan

There are loud and abrasive ways in which to speak about obstacles women face in sexuality, love, and loss, and there are also small, quiet ways that work just as effectively, as with the poems in Jillian M. Phillips new collection, Pretty the Ugly. From revelations of betrayal to confessions about sex, these stories sit like smooth stones on a riverbank, but their impact is felt to the opposite shore.

Much is intriguing about a poem that takes grand emotions and concepts and compacts them into a poem of a handful of lines. “Wishing Well” and “Not So Fresh” show Phillips’s mastery of this style, often read so quickly that one must reread them once they’re over the poem’s initial impact. On the other hand, Phillips’s verse shines in her longer pieces. “Those Women” is a tale familiar to most women of the distance resulting between them when they insist on favoring niceties over honesty.

There is, however, plenty of honesty in these poems. In “Your Tribute,” Phillips makes the claim,“I can create obsession / out of admiration or absence,” speaking obviously to the great impact of a critical void in one’s life. Other lines are heartfelt, honest pleas for a presence by one’s side, as in “Blown Away”: “If I raised my flag high enough, / would you fight for me?” The second section of the book focuses on sexuality and is the most candid, admitting all the secrets that sex exposes or struggles to hold on to. In “The Politics of Sex,” Phillips unapologetically suggests, “Perhaps your breasts / should be windows / so I can peek through the curtains.”

Meanwhile, it is unclear what exactly the work’s title piece wants to shout from the rafters, but perhaps that is because there are a myriad of hypotheses to consider — that everyone has a beauty and an ugliness within them; that such ugliness can be changed, but still not accepted; that the ugly part of someone cannot be changed, but one falls for the whole, anyway. There appear to be endless approaches to Phillips’s poems, but each one embraces its various meanings with a complementary grace and simplicity, themselves objects of beauty birthed from the ugly caves of experience. Seemingly, the message meant to be taken away from this collection is something similar: that beauty can be easy to find, but hard to create.

Birth in Storm, A Review By Samantha Duncan

Across rural landscapes that routinely produce tornadoes and hailstorms are stories of women weathering the winds of their own lives in Birth in Storm, a new poetry collection by Leah Sewell. An ever-present quiet that pervades the notion of small towns by no means indicates stillness, and Sewell’s tales of adolescent struggle and maternal strength spin every bit as strong and prevalent as nature’s storms.

The women narrating these poems often become swept up in new, but perhaps expected, roles, quietly settling into the molds of mothers, lovers, and teenage daughters. In “Escape by Wave,” a young girl imagines the sacrifice she would make in order to be a mermaid, claiming, “I’ll trade my ankles for mermaid hair.” An arcane fantasy spurred by an all-too-familiar adolescent low self-esteem, the poem takes an assertive turn when her made-up mermaid self determines, “In place of boys, I’ll ride the narwhals.” The poem “Fast Turn” is another vision of the tumultuous rides on which young women find themselves, and Sewell’s short lines and stanzas quickly carry the reader from one uneasy scene to the next.

Following the harsh weather of childhood is the transition into adult roles, and one such role Sewell writes about candidly and perceptively is that of motherhood. “Portrait of My Mother as a Young Womb” is an emotional portrayal of a woman becoming a mother, against the context of her previous experience as a daughter. The narrator carries the poem through dark descriptions of her mother’s husk-like womb to her own as she gives birth: “I moan / back to clarity & my daughter slips finally / from me – ship from port, / seed rubbed clean / from husk.” The universal journey from being a daughter to becoming a mother is succinctly tied together by Sewell’s recurring husk image.

Birth in Storm is a masterfully linked collection of poems that liken the unpredictability of natural disasters to the uncertainty of natural and inevitable human experiences. Sewell’s stories are often rich in specific detail, all while retaining an accessibility that grounds a perhaps unfamiliar setting with stories readers will feel as though they know — or have experienced themselves.