Meg Wade on Jim Harrison and Recognizing Displacement

“All of my life I’ve held myself
/ at an undisclosed location.”

The opening lines from Jim Harrison’s, “L’envoi” nestle themselves inside me. They burrow up from the ground, a distant bellow from a person I long forgot I was. I am at home but I cannot tell you where—

To explain the country to the city means to crow of blown-down barns, black earth back roads, to wave a fanfare for the closely foreign. There is a difficulty of asking an audience to care whose dog is sick or whose mare birthed her first foal. It’s a rapid to cross. However much I understood (and loved) the specialness of the rural, I still chose to leave it as soon as I graduated high school.

To bring the rural to the city means you can show the place on a map, but there’s no damp smell of the hayfield after rain.

It’s an incredibly special and terrible thing, to carry this displacement. Too city for the country & too country for the city—but Harrison’s poem carries it well. And more than carry, he hoists it. High above his head. Higher and higher,

“At a brief still point on the whirling earth / we saw both the stars and the ground we walked / upon, struggling to recognize each other at noon”

In a life where agreement is sometimes brief, if possible at all, this poem recognizes the difficult contract between city & country. The dissonant orchestra that piles between seat & stage. Everything bathed in the light & still hard.

Is there ever relief? Absolutely. City & country may be different, but they are not impossible. It’s a marriage of necessary work. Of ease which comes from leaning into the uncomfortable. In the end, Harrison calls to the reader, wants to let them know there is a place where he (and you) can settle,

“downstream I’m singing a water song / not struggling against the ungentle current.”



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Meg Wade on TC Tolbert and voice

Photography by Mamta Popat

Photo Credit: Mamta Popat

I am forever in awe of TC Tolbert. The way his work swings the body back to life on the page, the way his language sings me home. TC went to elementary school just down the road from where my Pop lives in Hixson, Tennessee. We both ran around those hills, loved that place, an East of our own; but it’s just not the familiarity and comfort of landscape & nouns that I find in TC’s poems—it’s the voice.

Southern & strong. Proud & vulnerable. The marriage between two seemingly “different” forces, which in turn, aren’t so different at all. In his poem, “May she show herself by what she loosens with her teeth” I am (my whole mind and body) transported back to a place of belonging, of longing, of everything a little more roughed up:

“I don’t know / who told you / we like company / I am here / to tell you / otherwise / I am wishing / someone else / could see this / I am wishing / you would / put up a little / more fight / I am taking / your clothes off / with my eyes / I am warming / up my car”

There is a welcomed & refreshing confidence about this poem. A certain sass in the movement, which can’t be ignored. This is the Southern way. Take me or leave me, either way, the door will close behind you. There’s a confrontation with not only the speaker as they sing their way to the end of the poem, but with the implied reader. The “you” forever tempted into the situation:

“I am listening / to your bones / telling secrets / I am shifting / from 4th to 3rd / I am wondering / what to do / with your tongue / I am singing”

I fall in love again & again with the use of the second person in this poem. Above undressing you, above taking you for a ride, above protection & honor & tradition, what I admire most about this poem is the necessity of the speaker wanting to be heard. Wanting to impart something (a confession?) to the reader. To say that which needs to be said, and to say it most fashionably.


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Movement & Voice in Mara Vahratian’s “In this great wide country” with K.B. McElhatten

In Mara Vahratian’s Hicks Poetics statement, she claims her poetry is  “built around movement.”  She wants her poems “to move and stall and be expansive and subjective and feel lived-in and new.” This is a promise on which Vahratian repeatedly delivers, but especially in these opening lines from “In this great wide country:”


“In this great wide country held forth the bear dunes, glacial basins—unlocked

the flight maps magnetic and the mid-century address numbers.”


Here, like in many other lines, Vahratian creates quick movement by selecting monosyllabic and disyllabic words made of short syllables.  Vahratian also relies on assonance and consonance in word pairs to reinforce this pace: in and this;glacial and basin;  maps, magnetic, and mid-century.  At work here too, Vahratian uses the comma and dash to add movement and to stall her lines, as if to ask the reader to pause for a moment to take in the “bear dunes, glacial basins—.”   In her claim to write poems that are expansive, Vahratian selects words that make me feel the expansiveness of the Michigan landscape–great wide, held forth, bear dunes, glacial basin, unlocked, flight, magnetic.  What’s smart about this selection of words is that they don’t just point to the vastness of the setting; they also conjure a vast mood, making this poem feel legend-like—like Vahratian could tackle anything in the lines that follow.  As a result, when I read these lines, they feel fresh, exciting—as Vahratian intended, “new.”  But what I like most about these lines is that they feel “lived-in.” I know this pace. I know these stalls. I know this expansiveness.  It’s a voice familiar to my favorite writers, the Beats, who like Mara Vahratian, are wanders—“mapping thoughts as they come.”

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Bardos, Attachment, Ego and singleton’s “Day 21” by K.B. McElhatten

“Day 21” is one of 49 poems that giovanni singleton writes about Alice Coltrane’s journey through bardo, the Buddhist transition from one life to the next. The purpose of which is to provide an opportunity for enlightenment or to assure an auspicious rebirth.

“Up the main road a ways,” “Day 21” presents a trial to Coltrane—a test between attachment to the earthy and the liberation of ego, as presented in these lines:

a button fell

from her one

good dress

The button: attachment. The one good dress: ego. I like how singleton uses a button, which in its usefulness is attached. I like the use of one and good, how they are adjectives, but barebone.  I like how when the button detaches itself, the dress is no longer “her one good dress.” I like singleton’s sparse diction, as though free from attachment and ego itself.

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On Violence and Vulnerability in Carolyn Hembree’s “Pig” with K.B. McElhatten

Hembree pic

When writing about “Pig,” it’s hard to use the words enjoy, like, or favoritelines. The poem makes me uncomfortable and uneasy, and the violence of it makes these words feel wrong. Instead, I will use the word amaze. What amazes me about “Pig” is how the poet establishes a simultaneous state of violence and vulnerability. Carolyn Hembree begins “Pig” with,

The pig’s hindquarters flip-flopped;

a cane, finger’s length, into its vagina slid.

Meet its eye; your fear to the wayside dropped.

To create this state, many things are at work, but for me most notable are Hembree’s use of phonics, irregular meter and juxtaposition. Hembree creates violence with the sounds of the words: the plosive /p/, /b/, and /f/ combined with the guttural /g/ and the fricatives /s/ and /z/. This combination creates a tension that is accented by Hembree’s choice of irregular meter — with unexpected accented syllables, to mimic the beating of “the pig to marshmallow.” Hembree positions this violence against the vulnerability of the pig, “flip-flopped” with “a cane…into its vagina slid.” Here the words cane and vagina jab at me. Cane: hard and crooked, with its long history of violence. Vagina: its soft, tender tissue. This juxtaposition is unsettling. And with this vulnerability, I meet the pig’s eye in line three, where like the speaker, I am ashamed. I am ashamed to have borne witness to the violence and to have been helpless to stop it.

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Kim McElhatten on Mark Wunderlich and home

The lines in Mark Wunderlich’s poem, “Driftless Elegy” remind me of home, of Northwest Pennsylvania. They remind me of the bridges shut over French Creek, the now-closed Golden Dawn grocery, the condemned Meadville mall, the outsourced Talon Factory, and the subdivided or gas-pad littered farms. But more than these, they remind me what it is like to travel home–to find myself in my own driftless elegy–mourning for what is gone, mourning for the decay and decline of my own rural community.

My favorite lines of “Driftless Elegy” help me better understand my own mourning:

I am the end of a genetic line—a family dies with me.
This is hardly a tragedy. We are not an impressive group,

in intellect or physical form. With weak hearts, myopic,
we paddle lazily down the human genome,

pausing to root briefly here on the riverbank
in the shade of these limestone bluffs.

At first read, I get a sense that the speaker mourns his own mortality. But upon a second and third reading, I pick up on the word myopic and I wonder if I my reading is nearsighted. When Wunderlich writes, “to root briefly…in the shade of these limestone bluffs,” I recognize that the things in “Driftless Elegy” are all like the limestone bluffs, easily eroded and impermanent.

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Travis Lane Wade on Michael Sikkema and layers

In Michael Sikkema’s poem, “Code Over Code,” imagery layers structural decay with a tone that communicates both feelings of restlessness and confinement. Sikkema writes:

Approaching from three sides one wind one edge of house torn blue.

Music comes

                                                                bursting and drunk. No light escapes bullet casings or

laws draped

over this hole.

Sikkema’s line, “Approaching from three sides one wind one edge of house torn blue,” embodies the different ways in which an object appears to us—the various angles, perspectives, and viewpoints a person has in viewing an object or structure. Here, Sikkema uses the verb “torn” to introduce an idea of deterioration. However, assuming that Sikkema is being purposeful when he writes of approaching a four-sided structure “from three sides,” implies destruction—it implies that of the four sides that enclose a structure one is missing: “one edge of house torn blue,” like the sky.

There is restiveness in the lines, “Music comes/bursting and drunk.” Sikkema’s descriptive language in regards to music creates a contrast of thoughts and ideas—“bursting and drunk” can be seen as both celebratory and lively or as aggressive and confrontational. It is as though Sikkema is giving us the freedom to choose how this poem will affect our vantage point.

“No light escapes bullet casings/or laws draped/over this hole.” Here, the scope of limitations is achieved. Words and phrases such as “No light escapes,” “bullet casings,” and “hole” tightens the reader’s vision and the lack of restriction that appeared in the first line is gone—where there were only three sides, now a fourth has appeared closing the reader in.

I appreciate the unconventional perspective Sikkema provides in these lines. The way he describes a place and a situation with just enough detail that imagination has the chance to take over. There are many viewpoints in which to see Sikkema’s poetry—he finds a way to take you on an alternative route to understanding.

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Travis Lane Wade on Ander Monson and belonging

Ander Monson

In Ander Monson’s poem, “KNOW YOUR LAKE EFFECT,” the concept of memory and identity (in this case with regards to Michigan) raises the question of whether we truly belong to a place and time. Monson writes:

To drink of and in the past.

To know that many of us who once did anything to leave end up coming back.

To not return, not yet.

To dream of it.

To keep singing.

“To drink of and in the past,” suggests the speaker’s remembrance—that ability to travel back in time within one’s own mind. Monson gives the reader a peek into those intimate moments where we dream about the past, in order to show the vulnerability and doubt we all face when coming to terms with how the past has shaped the present. Here, the past and the present come together in an adverse embrace—both concepts have an effect on the perception of memory, yet time and experience dictate the degree of positivity or negativity in that memory. Monson creates a moment where the speaker of the poem is searching for a time and a place where he/she belongs.

“To know that many of us who once did anything to leave end up coming back./ To not return, not yet.” I agree with the questioning of belonging that Monson has formed here. The thought of “moving on” or “moving forward” and then coming back to what is familiar—the idea that everything you ever wanted was right where you left it. I have moved many times in my adult life, and the feeling of “home” changes as the years pass. I recognize what Monson means when he writes: “To dream of it./ To keep singing.” As people, we long for comfort. We long for the sense of belonging. We long for the past, but we still keep moving through the present in order to get to a place where we feel at home.

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Travis Lane Wade on Kristi Maxwell and dualism

In Kristi Maxwell’s poem, “TO KEEPING WE DID NOT FORGET,” the imagery of a field conveys a tone of desolation found in between light and dark or day and night. Maxwell writes:

A small fire stuns the field within cinder blocks.
The field looks far away

in this narrow perception of light.

The word choice that Maxwell makes with the verb “stuns” gives this line in the poem a liveliness and an unexpectedness that excites the senses and suggests a tone that would otherwise seem contradictory of a “small fire” in a far away field. The play on the double meaning of “cinder blocks” adds a dualism to the imagery and the tone of this line. Here, Maxwell is referring to “cinders” as smoldering bits of wood. But the concept of an enclosed space or imprisonment still appears within the phrase “within cinder blocks.” Thus amongst a line where the imagery comes alive, Maxwell creates a duality that also conveys a stillness and a sense of loneliness.

The concept of dualism within these lines of poetry creates a concept of light and darkness that complements the contradicting tones at work here. A small fire in a field illuminates an otherwise dark night. However, it is that “narrow perception of light” that makes the field look “far away.” Maxwell has created a complementary dance between two adversaries—a world where lightness and darkness are not competing, but sharing a space and building an emotional setting where the reader can have a sensory experience all their own.

I see this field from a distance. The tiny glow just an afterthought on a cold, windless night. And although the field is relatively close by, the illusion of that small source of light makes me aware of my distance.

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Travis Lane Wade on Maurice Manning’s poem “Culture”

In Maurice Manning’s poem, “Culture,” the balance of simplicity and complexity of a rural, small town setting is explored though the opening lines:

Some of us in cahoots with the birds
are smiling, silly smiles, because
the sun in the barn lot is warmer
today and that means nothing in
particular, but it is a change.

Manning’s use of the idiom, “in cahoots,” sets the tone of this poem and invites the reader to take a journey through a pastoral world and meet the people that inhabit it. There is a sense of personality that Manning explores in these lines that defines the community—a community where culture is shaped by place and the place is shaped by its people. It is in the specific details of the place, the people and their memories, that the identity of their culture is born. Manning shows us the unique intricacies and details of a place where we are invited to be locals. There is a connection that Manning is making with the reader. He is extending a hand as if to say, “Welcome, won’t you come in?”

I feel this connection with Manning’s lines—the small town existence where something as common as a shift in temperature becomes a point of interest. I understand the relationship with nature that gives those in rural communities a sense of belonging and identity—the idea that, “some of us in cahoots with the birds/ are smiling, silly smiles.” The oneness of nature and community that Manning connotes in these lines gives the reader an inside look at this particular life—the kind of life where simple pleasures come with connections and relationships, but where the complexities and meanings lie just below the surface waiting to be explored.

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