Lynn Levin

Review of Smoke and Mirrors by Antonia Clark

Smoke and Mirrors
Antonia Clark
31 pages | Finishing Line Press 2013 | $14.00

You miss dead relatives, even if they were difficult people, because they were your people, and sometimes the more trying and troubled they were, the more they stand out in memory. So it is with many of the departed family members that Antonia Clark recalls in her new chapbook of poems, Smoke and Mirrors. Mother, father, and grandmothers appear in these unstinting and elegant lyrics as, I imagine, they did in life: severe, repressed, sometimes angry, but always strong, stoic, and able to endure. Much gentler is the presence of the speaker's younger sister, who died, one surmises from the poems, sometime in adulthood. The sister is the person with whom the speaker seemed most deeply bound, the one she misses most, and the one whose image fades the fastest, a phenomenon that Clark evokes in her title poem. The dead, whether elegized or recalled in their discomfiting moments, haunt these poems. They are the smoke. The speaker's memory is the mirror. But "smoke and mirrors" is also a magician's phrase; the question pokes and prods: how much can you trust your memories of the dead?

A poet whose rhythms range from the quiet and contemplative to the assertive, Antonia Clark has a love of poetic organization and composes in a number of different stanza patterns, among them octaves, quintets, and couplets, and includes several sonnets in her collection. She also has a fine ear for the sonic, and many of the poems feature pleasing end rhymes and internal rhymes. Above all, Clark is a master of strong sensory imagery. I can see jars of preserved fruit biding their many years on a basement shelf in "Unfinished Marilyn." In "Widow's Weeds," I can visualize an older woman's sere countenance and disciplined housekeeping habits as she continues to dust and sweep in accordance with the strict demands of her late husband. In the skinny poem, "Savor," I can taste the sour and bitter foods--raw onions and horseradish--that the speaker's mother lived on during lean times, harsh foods for which she remained nostalgic.

I find myself returning to Clark's nonce sonnet, "Home Permanent," about a young girl forced to tough it out as her mother administers a stinging and pungent home permanent. The mother feels it is necessary to suffer for beauty's sake:

She wound my hair relentlessly around
the plastic rods we'd sorted out by size,
pulled so tight tears stung my eyes. The thin
pink lotion burned my scalp, dripped in my ears.
Complaining only makes it worse, she said.

Not only do I get a whiff of the permanent chemicals, I can also see the formation of stoic family values in which the ability to suffer is a prime virtue.

Other poems haunt in more ethereal ways. Take the sonnet "Orthopedics," in which the poet personifies advanced age as an "old woman" who "leaches my calcium day by day." In the Shakespearean sonnet "About the Dead," the departed

...linger near
their loved ones, listening and leaving clues--
a bar of yellow light across the floor,
scents of earth and river, muddy shoes

The dead seem to be calling for the attention of the living, but are they really trying to connect with us? Is this instead the play of the mind, more smoke and mirrors? Clark's speaker seems to be a rationalist who recalls and converses with her dead without the rituals, consolations, or beliefs of religion. How poignant this becomes in "Smoke and Mirrors," in which the speaker sees her beloved dead sister gradually dissolving as she imagines their conversation:

My sister dressed in the colors of water
and stone, walked out on foggy mornings
in search of misted rivers,
folded herself into low-lying clouds.

She insisted that none of this
was for the purpose of deception.
It's a matter of becoming

accustomed, she said. It's incremental.

There's something of the transcendental in this beautiful poem, but I think that it has more to do with the processes of the mind than the preternatural. At the end of the poem, Clark inserts a stunning shift: "The hard part is what to do with the body,/she told me. The rest is nothing./It's easy to disappear." The physical fact of the sister in life cannot be denied. Recalling that sharpens the pain of loss. George Szirtes awarded this poem first place in the Interboard Poetry Competition, a well-deserved honor.

My favorite poem in the collection is "The Bridge, When We Came to It." Clark presents the bridge as a symbol of the dying process. In this case, it is a shining bridge, but still a bridge of no return. The dying people in this poem have lived long full lives. As they cross the bridge, they get their last look at existence: "Far below us, the water lay/black as the night, crowded/with floating stars." There is no heaven or afterlife on the other side of the bridge, only those last sparkling moments in the world. The clear eye of the poet reports on the awe of dying. This is a profound and stunning collection, the first, I hope, of more books to come from Antonia Clark.

Review of The Body's Bride by Miriam Kotzin

The Body's Bride
Miriam Kotzin
76 pages | David Roberts Books 2013 | $18.00
What does the term "bride" signify? Hope, romance, youth, beauty, white lace and flowers, sexual readiness, a state of not-yet-disappointed love? In The Body's Bride, Miriam Kotzin's fourth collection of poems, the poet engages these concepts. She also treats us, in this startling array of lyrics and narratives, to meditations on time and piquant observations on contemporary culture and relationships. The collection is a treasure trove of triolets, rondeaux, rondels, sonnets, villanelles, a sonnenizio, and a host of other musical and delicately rhymed metrical stanzas. But the technical virtuosity is only part of the delight of The Body's Bride. Time and again in reading the book, I found myself falling back into its blossoms, its dark green shadows, its poems that speak of life's renewal and its passing seasons.

The cover of the book, an especially striking portrait of a many-petaled fuchsia and pink flower, evokes the themes of nature and sexuality that inform many of the poems. Floral imagery abounds and entices in these poems as in the triolet "Nuptial," which I quote here in its entirety:

Each year I wait for the old pear to bloom,
to stand adorned again in frothy white,
a brazen backyard bride without a groom.
Each year I wait for the old pear to bloom,
I stand beneath the tree, the air a tomb
of scent and petals. Spring's a passing blight
each year. I wait for the old pear to bloom
to stand adorned again in frothy white.

I can see the lacy whiteness of the bride evoked in the blossoms of the pear tree, and, in the refrains, I can hear the speaker's turns of mind. Here, too, is the melancholy that perfumes a number of the poems, especially those that engage loss and the passage of time.

One of my favorite poems is "Iris." This is a rondeau, one of the more challenging French forms, and Kotzin executes it perfectly with elegant rhymes and graceful confident iambics that impart a sense of knowing and wisdom. But the poem is much more than its prosody; it speaks of both mortality and continuity as it describes a garden of irises:

As they once were, they are today--
a green and lavender display
on either side of our back door.
They're growing now, just as before,
to bloom in time for Mother's Day.

The poem goes on to observe that unlike irises, people don't get renewed each year. It concludes with these true, beautiful, gently heartbreaking lines:

This vegetative metaphor
expresses what we're all here for:
Our spikes of bloom last but a day
as they once were.

The refrain "as they once were" means something different each time it returns in the poem. First, it asserts constant renewal, then the toll that time takes on people, and finally lost youth. I especially love the jot of violence in the term "spikes." The harshness and aggressiveness of life surge in that line.

Lovers and mothers occasionally come in for some wry commentary as in the poems "Dinner in Babie Lato" and the rondel "Thundergust." Kotzin pokes fun at the politically correct catchphrase "sustainable" in a series of poems in the second section of the book. In "How to Write a Sustainable Poem," she takes on free verse writers in a nonce form comprising the trickiest ever series of double-line refrains. Then there is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poetry Reading," Kotzin's hilarious send-up of Wallace Stevens's over-estimated (in my opinion) poem. Here are a couple of stanzas:

Among twenty folding chairs,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the poet.

I was of three minds,
Like a bookstore
In which there are three poets.

And those are just two of the thirteen witty, laugh-out-loud stanzas.

In the third and final section, The Body's Bride turns to the theme of threat in such poems as "Lurkers," "Bait," "The Marriage," and the previously mentioned "Thundergust." Especially notable is the narrative "The Listener," which follows a young girl's anxieties about her mother's reputation and the girl's fears for own safety. Kotzin incorporates a variety of traditional forms in this tense dramatic poem; I found triolets, rondeaux, a rondeau redoublé, and a villanelle. By choosing to write in forms that incorporate refrains, Kotzin is able to enact in language the young girl's obsessive (and well-founded) fears.

In the past several years, readers have been lucky to have a bounty of new books by Miriam Kotzin, including a novel, The Real Deal; a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts; and the poetry collections Reclaiming the Dead, Weights & Measures, Taking Stock and, now, The Body's Bride. Kotzin, Professor of English at Drexel University, a contributing editor of Boulevard, and a founding editor of Per Contra, has given us some of her best work in The Body's Bride. I will turn back to this book again and again to savor its beautiful verse and grave depths.


Poet, writer, and translator Lynn Levin is the author of four collections of poems: Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013); Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry; Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Award; and A Few Questions about Paradise (Loonfeather Press, 2000). She is, with Valerie Fox, the author of a craft-of-poetry book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). Lynn Levin's poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, Washington Square Review, Verse Daily, and on Garrison Keillor's radio show The Writer's Almanac. She is currently involved in translating the work of Odi Gonzales, a Peruvian Andean poet. Lynn Levin teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.


Roya Hakakian
Lynn Levin
Megan Vered


>We are pleased to announce that Anne-Marie Thompson is the recipient of the Mezzo Cammin scholarship at the West Chester University Poetry Conference and Wendy Sloan is the recipient of The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project scholarship.

Judith Schaecter: I found the beauty of stained glass to be the perfect counterpoint to ugly and difficult subjects. Although the figures I work with are supposed to be ordinary people doing ordinary things, I see them as having much in common with the old medieval windows of saints and martyrs. They seem to be caught in a transitional moment when despair becomes hope or darkness becomes inspiration. They seem poised between the threshold of everyday reality and epiphany, caught between tragedy and comedy.

My work is centered on the idea of transforming the wretched into the beautiful--say, unspeakable grief, unbearable sentimentality or nerve wracking ambivalence, and representing it in such a way that it is inviting and safe to contemplate and captivating to look at. I am at one with those who believe art is a way of feeling ones feelings in a deeper, more poignant way.

I would describe my process as derived almost entirely from traditional techniques in use for centuries. The imagery is predominantly engraved into layers of glass; only the black and yellow are painted and fired on in a kiln. The pieces are soldered together in a copperfoil and lead matrix.
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