Tag Archives: poetry

Strength and Sensibility

by Christopher Ankney

A strong, bold voice pervades the poems of Christopher Ankney’s debut collection, Hearsay. The collection, winner of the 2014 Jean Feldmen Poetry Prize, must be considered a major accomplishment. The poems are successful and at their best when the poet is confident and capable. A handful of them could be considered too light or casual, but overall they fit together meaningfully and intelligently in this slender volume.

The vast majority of the poems in Hearsay have appeared inHearsay Ankney prestigious literary publications. (The author, who earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia College in Chicago, has been published in the likes of Fourteen Hills, Linebreak, Prairie Schooner, and Nashville Review.) Collections of previously published work can feel disjointed or haphazard. Oftentimes, books like Hearsay are simply collections of poems, one page after another, with no underlying connection, but that is not the case here: There are several overarching, related themes at play throughout Heresay.

Among the related themes is that of family, and the father figure is a major premise of the book. The idea of the archetypal father, in fact, is the primary connective thread throughout the collection. The poet draws from personal experience to evoke images and scenarios both haunting and inspiring. For instance, in “To the Rivers,” Ankney writes:

My father, my mother says, had Indian in him
His history walks into you, too.

 In addition to the strong presence of a father figure, Ankney’s poems are firmly rooted in place. There is a strong Midwestern sensibility about them. The book is populated with rivers, tornadoes, cars, backroads, and the bleak realities of small-town life. A unique American gothic works beautifully, for example, in the “1988” series, which appears in Parts 1 and 3. In “1988: Suicide,” the poet writes:

The day before his thirty-third birthday
he vanished like Jesus.
Left us with myth.
Left us with dustless facts.

 In “1988: Accidental,” Ankney contemplates the incomprehensible:

Did he really breathe in fatherhood?
Was he fishing, or just fish food?

Christopher Ankney

Author Christopher Ankney


The second and third parts of the collection move more toward the personal and observational. There are reflections, insights, the occasional illumination, high culture mixed with low—the typical experience of our time. There also are epiphanies. This is shown, for instance, in a moment when the poet discovers himself through his child in the poem “Son:”

You counted three languages
on my hand to learn the world
is full of rhythms

This new life brings Hearsay full circle. The mystery of father and fatherhood becomes tangible, the fear and the dread, real. Through this journey the poet finds himself, and what better way to find oneself?

Hearsay is a well-written collection of poetry. The language and logic are consistent, and the imagery feels like a rolling landscape, making this volume well worth the read.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, Washington Writers’ Publishing House
$16, paperback, 96 pages
ISBN: 978-1-941551-01-1

—Reviewed by Nathan Prince

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Big Questions in Small Doses

CBR_Logo2Extinguished & Extinct:
An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist
Edited by John McCarthy

Extinction is a sad business, and poets have as much to say about it as scientists. Don’t mistake Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist for an elegy, however, because most readers will encounter more life forms here than they likely knew existed. The volume beckons readers to embark and reflect on a meditation regarding what it means to pass through this world and then pass out of it. The longevity of any given species is the least of the matter.

extinguished coverWithin these pages, everything these writers turn their attention to—from airships to nomadic tribes to lovers who have left to love someone else—feels more alive for being gone or its absence only imagined. A free-verse speculation of being the last surviving Jew follows upon a conjuring of the ghosts of the Falkland Islands wolf in five acts, which itself follows a brief prose history of the passenger pigeon. Humanity, we are reminded, not only remains this planet’s most ferocious predator but a species of animal equally as vulnerable as those we’ve plundered.

Fortunately, certain people can also summon a certain eloquence regarding the passage of all we’ve witnessed, lavishing an equally lapidary attention on a genus of orchids as well as a single flower with thousands of extant replicas. Unlike plants, we can sense the mortality in every birth from which nothing, particularly human history, can claim exemption. Yet the end inherent in every beginning only propels poets and storytellers to keep writing.

So, alongside long quondam Carolina parakeets and cave paintings of ancestral horses gone the way of the dinosaurs, we have in these pages Cambodian women who believe the ghosts of babies slain by the Khmer Rouge still live within the scarves in which they once were swaddled. Alongside scientific fact we have mythology—or stories from a world as close to deathless as humanity can fathom—and readers have only to turn a few pages to realize this book is far richer in anthropology than taxonomy.

The volume’s refusal to narrow its definition of extinction to anything as concrete as species of animals is both its charm as well as a potential source of frustration, depending on its audience or the reader’s mood at the time. There’s no continuous narrative here or plot to stoke interest, only an investment in contemplations of erstwhile phenomena, from a shuttered Chicago envelope factory to lost languages. As is also the case with anthologies, some voices also resonate more than others, irrespective of their subjects. Some writers prompt a desire to read more, some less, but the editor of the collection has allotted them all a roughly equal word count.

The cataloguing of the demise of mastodons, moas, and saber-toothed tigers interspersed among metaphysical speculation as to why we’re all here to begin with doesn’t demand much sustained attention. To those with fragmented lives and attention spans, this volume poses big questions but in small, digressive doses. Sitting in an armchair for a longer stretch, however, might leave some readers craving coherence; organizing the volume into related sections or by genre might have made some readers more comfortable. But then comfort is hardly poetry’s purpose, and though there’s some prose here as well, even the smattering of nonfiction essays are decidedly lyric.

twelve-winters-smallHad the editor divided the book into different categories of extinction, from cultural to botanical or scientific to anecdotal, Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist might appeal more to the left-brained among us, those who like organization to supply some teleological significance. It also might have calmed what feels like the chaos of subjects whose random presentation can feel a little profligate. Then again, if anything embodies chaos—if anything places us at the mercy of the gods, perennially determined to hew life from mud just to destroy it—it is extinction, whether taking the form of the flattening of a family home by a tornado or the disappearance of a certain birdsong from the forest.

Ultimately, given that extinction here conflates with everything literally under the sun, one also can’t help feeling randomness is also part of the point of this collection, because nothing leaves us helpless quite like absence, when our only enemy is silence. Nothing likewise leaves us freer to infuse the resultant emptiness with meaning of our own making, a possibility the volume’s lack of all organization may suggest tacitly.

The editor’s introduction to the volume stipulates that extinction itself is a concept predicated on materialism, that nothing can cease wholly to exist so long as it remains in the larger consciousness. A better, if clunkier, subtitle, he offers, would run more closely along the lines of “things that no longer exist in the traditional sense of existence,” which provides, if not exactly hope, a way of reframing loss. Had any of the subjects addressed survived in their old husks, their chroniclers would lack for material and perhaps miss something key to living in the present. Embedded in anything we perceive as beautiful, these poets daring to dabble in science softly whisper, is the awareness that it cannot last, however hearty its species. Each heart, after all, beats for only so long. All the more reason to grow quiet enough to hear its rhythm.

Three-Star Review

March 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$14.99, paperback, 130 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9895151-4-6

—Reviewed by Melissa Wiley

Learn more about the book.


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A ‘Titanic’ Achievement

by Cecilia Corrigan

With a printed bibliography as diverse as David Bowie, Wittgenstein, Lil’ Wayne, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the reader presumes that a wild ride is in store in author Cecilia Corrigan’s debut collection. And Titanic provides just that. Grandiose, multifaceted, daring, and complex, Corrigan weaves a story in sync with its time, our time. A novel of sorts, Titanic is a work in and inherently of the twenty-first century.

Titanic is not an ordinary book; it is not an ordinary read. Rather, it is more like an experience, a performance piece. The story begins with comedic dialogue between talk-show host Corrigan and her sidekick Paul, then moves into a self-guided tour through the Guggenheim, poems, lists, descriptive prose, letters from historical figures, net code, iMessage chats, diagrams, jokes, and references of all sorts.

titanicThe story centers mystically around Alan Turing, the so-called father of artificial intelligence. A love story of technology and media, it integrates formal philosophical ideas with popular culture and popular personalities. Essentially a hypertext that attempts to transcend the reading experience, Titanic playfully mimics the experience of modern life—the profound, chaotic, incomprehensible pain and delight of a multileveled existence. Interconnected now through technology, every story, every character, every thought fits, bleeds, and blossoms together, one from the other. Corrigan, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a former writer for the HBO drama Luck, provides the chorus to that experience through poetry and visionary prose.

Most importantly, there is the poetry. An early poem plays a language game to engage the reader: “And by the time they sort it out we’ll be somewhere they’ll never catch us” (21). Another one, “The Poem Which Is Possibly a Collaborative Effort Depending on Your Sentence,” deliberately invokes participation. Explaining a map (or the idea of a map) of England, the poet writes, “It’s not the ‘real’ world of the main map, but it’s not some wild fantasy/(as of, the future).”

Then there is the love story, an endearing testament to the bond between the individual and the machine. Corrigan dances this into being with a unique hybrid style, a style that harkens back to Mina Loy and the outrageous but singular Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Nothing about Titanic, however, harkens back to anything. As originally presumed, it is wild, engaging, mysterious, and bold, and succeeds on its own terms. “No map of this future is needed: and the meaning/Don’t forget” (49).

Three-Star Review

September 2014, &NOW Books
$16.95, paperback, 216 pages
ISBN: 978-1-941423-99-8

—Reviewed by Nathan Prince

Titanic earned the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize.
Learn more about the book.

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