Review of A Fire Without Light by Darren C. Demaree – Michael Rush

++++Although Forage closed as a journal, we were recently offered the opportunity to review a collection of poetry from a former contributor, Darren C. Demaree. This was an opportunity we didn’t want to turn down. The concept behind Darren C. Demaree’s prose-poem collection, A Fire Without Light, as a response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA, is an intriguing one to this Briton who feels slightly distanced from American politics. As convinced as I was, and still am, that Trump presents more than enough material to inspire reams of poetry and prose, I held reservations that such a collection could hold enough emotional range to keep me interested. This collection, however, kept me interested throughout. It’s far from being just about Trump, and I think that is the key.

++++The prose-poem form is an inspired medium for this collection. Although a potentially constrained form, it provides a springboard for an immediate sense of intimacy with which to explore a mixture of the more visceral and seemingly considered response; not just to what Trump’s election means at the macro-level, but the way in which it causes the author to analyse their life at the micro-level.

++++Although Demaree seems to deliberately avoid any attempt to cast his voice as that of the everyman—in fact, there are times when it feels desperately isolated and almost feral—the first of the numbered prose-poems, #3, ends with “I will sing as often as I can” as a reminder that one voice is better than none. Having seen the level of response to Trump throughout the world of poetry it seems that this promise to sing is not only indicative of Demaree’s voice but also of the response of poets and poetry across the globe.

++++In some ways, the poetic response to post-truth politics reminds me of the so-called ‘poet-soldiers’ of the First World War. This comparison holds weight in Demaree’s collection, not least because of the use of conflict as a central theme. While the refrain of #13 reminds us that “This is all conflict”, the most profound sense of conflict is perceived in the narrator’s voice; at times in direct response to Trump and at others to “a world which didn’t understand how tenuous things were becoming” (#36).

++++Unlike some of the earlier poetry of the First World War, A Fire Without Light offers no romanticised vision of home. Ohio comes to the fore throughout this collection, no more so than in the quotable and memorable #86: “I know most of Ohio wants him to make the world like most of Ohio, but I’m telling you that most of Ohio is dead.”

++++Having looked at a map of Ohio, mostly shaded in dark Republican red to illustrate the weight of votes for Trump in his election, it is no surprise that someone who feels as threatened by that result—and it is clear that the author is not merely politically opposed to it, they are appalled at a deeper moral level—should feel as caged by their home as Demaree shows in this collection.

++++For all that the prevailing sense in the earlier pieces is one of anger, and the form employed lends itself to short, sharp bursts of that anger, Demaree retains a poetic touch; no more so than in the intricately paced #45 which juxtaposes anger with the narrator’s overriding love for, and need to protect, his family.

++++Although that aspect of the author’s life offers one of the few bright threads within this collection, there are other significant motifs which bind the individual pieces together. Perhaps the most surprising for me was the way in which it lives up to its dedication to “every person that believes empathy is our most important strength” through attempts to enter Trump’s mind and understand the vulnerability of perhaps the most cocksure personality on the planet. Even #113’s acknowledgement that our eventual demise “won’t even be his fault” offers one of the most understanding insights into the childlike tendencies of Trump I’ve seen from anyone, let alone someone vehemently opposed to his presence and politics.

++++I sense this surprising empathy is a product of the narrator as a devoted family man. Even when he is conflicted, wrestling with anger, recognising his unwillingness to “be the good man my wife says I am” in #172, the sense of willing sacrifice in order to make a difference is always apparent.

++++The natural world is a staple of the latter part of its collection, with tumultuous nature seemingly symbolic of changing climate—both meteorological and political—punctuated by references to the bodies which will be lost along the way. So while my comparison to the poetry of the First World War may seem extreme, nothing is quite as evocative of The Somme as #343’s “We will bury our dead beneath the last beauty they remembered”.

++++What seems like an absence of hope could well be an abundance of reality. The recognition of the blurring between dividing lines is there, but more so the understanding that picking up the pieces in the aftermath with be a battle in itself. As stated in #435, “An ending would be too easy”.

++++I don’t know Darren, so I don’t know how much liberty he may have taken in writing any of these pieces. I do recognise sincerity—it’s here in spades—and, if this is a war, he seems like someone I’d want alongside me in the trenches. There is a raw honesty about this collection which acknowledges shortcomings, whether personal, local or national, and in the face of someone like Trump, who knows only soundbites irrespective of the truth, I’ll take honesty any day. Maybe it’s all we have left with which to arm ourselves.

++++The long list of individual pieces from this collection which have been published is a testament to the standalone value of each. The depth and range of the collection itself is a testament to the talent of the author.

++++Darren C. Demaree’s collection A Fire Without Light is available from Amazon here. You can find him at his website.

++++Michael Rush is the former co-editor of Forage Poetry Journal and current co-owner of Forage Poetry Forum.

Review of Scraped Knees by Kristine Brown – Michael Rush

++++It would be easy to label Scraped Knees as a collection on growing up. It would be easy to see its poetry and prose about someone finding their voice, then connect it to your own upbringing and drift back into personal moments of discovering the world. Yet for me Scraped Knees is much more; it is a book of contrasts. A collection of poetry and prose which can speak from the perspective of the young, but do it with a more mature voice. Wonder is mixed with rationality and realism. Expectation mingles with disappointment. We experience some lighter moments, but there is a weight to carry with us both before and after that lightness.

++++Anemic Disappointment would be an example of that weight as the speaker’s uncoordinated efforts are further highlighted by her Mother’s reminder of her own athletic exploits. Yet it’s not the rebukes or even the nature of them which leave their mark on the reader, it’s the speaker’s lack of surprise at being on the sharp end which tells the story within the story.

++++It’d be misleading to say the parental relationship is all-smothering though; The Smart Mouth brought me one of those all-too-rare laugh-out-loud moments I cherish in my reading, when the speaker mis-hears the word ‘prostitute’ and assumes her mother is talking about a lawyer (“No. But I thought you said prosecute! Pros. Uh. CUH-YUTE!”) – some might say our speaker was demonstrating wisdom beyond her tender years!

++++Although that could be written up as innocent misunderstanding, you begin to sense a rebellious voice at work. How Babies are Made gives us the cognitive dissonance of someone forced to ingest mythology and doctrine, then responds with the first real taste of ferocity experienced in the book. There’s no mistaking the passion and certainty of that voice, even when it reappears in different contexts, such as in (To Be Read in Rapid Orbit) – an appropriately instructive title, because if you can’t find your own rapid orbit then it’ll take you there:

“You were my encyclopedia,
the tome on first-time kisses
that could get you great big deals
like movies, and mags, and perfume ads
in which girls wear knee socks
and sweatshirts in the rain.”

++++Appropriately, there is a clear feel of a maturing voice throughout this collection. Even when it seems to be railing against those who would control and contain it, even when there is an identifiable petulance, it is coupled with reason and measure. The raw energy of Lethargy, Abridged mixes emotional response with poetic technique and confidence in a piece which is anything but lethargic.

++++The prose pieces within this collection are not to be underestimated, and while they occasionally serve as a break to the pace of the more energetic poems they still spin phrases which show poetry at their core. Trance contains one of my favourite examples of this; “Your hat is a wooly gray hyperbole”. What is even more distinctive about Trance is how it could be a microcosm of many of the contrasts and features of the collection as a whole. We have a narrator and a subject, to whom the words are addressed, yet we feel included as readers. Perhaps even more included than the narrator herself, who seems to be fighting differences and indifference alone.

++++Buoyed by the growing strength of the speaker’s voice, you might be lulled into the idea that Scraped Knees has evolved into a collection of a poet who accepts life circumstances like a warrior; I Love You, but It’s a Lie, version 289756.0 is the antithesis to that assumption, captured with a raw vulnerability which made me believe that when “the frame is breaking” it isn’t a reference to an inanimate object but a moment of re-evaluation in the greater scheme of life.

++++As we near the end of Scraped Knees the prevailing energy and vulnerability lingers, now mixed with an uncertainty we have yet to experience; no more so than in the questioning and challenging Hippocampal Sighs. It is now that the speaker’s consciousness of the world around her becomes even more explicit. Rusted Assurance demonstrates this in a dialogue-heavy prose piece where the contrasts are distinctive: between narrator and subject, even between the narrator’s cool professionalism and indignant anger.

++++It is perhaps more striking how the view of the world becomes even sharper and more attentive; one which sees the periphery as much as that which is centre-stage. In close succession, June, Advice Left in Cursive and It is All Okay are all testament to that.

++++Although Brown’s pretext to this book includes the disclaimer “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” I am sure of two important things: that you will find resemblance to lives you have known, and that you will agree it isn’t really coincidental to have found that resemblance, it is the hallmark of a talented writer who is able to create a collection which makes things you have never experienced seem universal.

++++Kristine Brown’s debut novel Scraped Knees is published by Ugly Sapling and can be purchased from Amazon here. You can read more from her at the Crumpled Paper Cranes blog.

Review of Meditations of a Beast by Kristine Ong Muslim – Michael Rush

++++One of the pleasures of reviewing work from a writer whom I’ve never read before is that I am able to enter into their work without any preconceived notions regarding the content. Although that openness is valuable in any honest appraisal, I found it especially useful for Meditations of a Beast as it was such a densely-layered collection and it allowed me to be fully awake to the nuances of the world created within.

++++In the atmospheric opening Genesis I saw the juxtaposition of everyday imagery underpinned with a negative claustrophobic energy. However, more strikingly, Section I seemed to take inspiration from the Corona sequence technique, where the final line of each part was cribbed to become the first line of the next. I think it is worth noting that four of the pieces from this section were published as standalone poems, which illustrates that as well as being written within a greater narrative, there is appeal in each individual poem.

++++Although the title of this collection might lead you to believe it will delve into a macabre underworld, I found only hints of the ethereal here and, for the most part, we are grounded in the routine tangible elements of life – albeit a life interspersed with a sense of horror derived from tone and unease at contextual elements.

++++Section II continued to evoke a sense of journey with pieces heavily influenced by a theme of crime, relying on moments like the end of Kleptomania and its reference to a body burning “at the stake” to jolt us back to a deeper context. It’s hard to escape the idea of being sucked in by this section; each poem’s reality seems to grow more twisted, almost coming full circle back to a calmness epitomised by Man with the radio seemingly listening to the static we, as readers, experience while searching for melody.

++++When I write of each poem having its own reality, perhaps it would be better stated as each one having its own place within the book’s world. Section III comes from a new place within that world, and is one inhabited by Dolls. This is no pastiche of Chucky, however, and its freely-switching perspectives remain true to the conceits developed throughout the book. Still Hiding provides an eerie example of that, evoking the sense of claustrophobia I mentioned in Genesis alongside an observation of the very person listening to static from Man with the radio. It achieves the effect of making the world created in Meditations of a Beast seem even more confined yet, perversely, even greater in size and scope for the different sets of eyes we see it through.

++++Section IV cements the idea of a journey throughout the author’s world with direct address to everything which dwells there: one by one, using haunting repetition, inanimate objects are challenged about their history “before [they] came here”, all of which – and I almost used ‘whom’, such is the strength of personification – knew horror before they found the world created by the book.

++++Although the later poems which conclude section IV feel more distant, thematically speaking, I feel there is still some excellent standalone material. The disturbing narrative presented as footnotes to P is for Pavlov’s Best Friend certainly left a mark on me.

++++The series of nautical pieces to end the book create a literal and figurative flood and a sharp reminder that this book is capable of surprises with its core themes and the author’s ability to craft poetry and prose pieces with a mixture of subtle and overt links to each other.



Meditations of a Beast by Kristine Ong Muslim is available from Cornerstone Press. You can find more from the author at her website here.

Review of infant*cinema by Barton Smock ~Emma Hall

++++How do we face a world where our experiences and their impacts do not hold the necessary weight? Having read the poetry of Barton Smock for a few years now, this is a question I find myself repeating each time I return to his works. My own poetry has been shaped by experience and the shapes that response takes, so when I discovered Barton’s work, I was (selfishly) most interested in discovering someone speaking in the same language. Barton is a poet who self-publishes several collections a year. The subject matter seems to press itself into the fabric of daily life in the same way as time itself- creating a space that keeps moving away against our will. I understand this, and appreciate the dedication it takes to keep up the momentum that allows for such expulsion of energy through language. Seeking a way out of the mind to scatter toward the sky like so many murmurations of starlings.

++++I was reading recently that perhaps Shakespeare can be blamed for the presence of starlings in the United States. An unqualified statement that can nevertheless drum up a great deal of subsequent speculation. But, when I think about the idea of creativity, consequence, and the reach of human thought, I think there’s something magnificent in the idea that a small statement can lead to another world of unsubstantiated idea. Maybe that statement seems foolish in light of the recent U.S. election and the apparent role of speculative news in the outcome, but as with all things, I think there are always at least two possible outcomes. As such, we have to accept the good with the bad and move forward against, or in tandem with, the consequences of history and try our best to bring something brighter to the fore. I think Barton Smock’s work is an attempt at this kind of reparation. I say this, also, without qualification beyond observation, but each volume of his poetry seems a reaching toward some greater future where understanding finally takes grip of the land.

++++In his first volume of poetry published by Dink Press entitled infant*cinema, Smock’s signature economy of language is showcased to the effect of creating an environment where the dream mind dominates and the reader must orientate herself to a world without absolute realities. Like the ability of Shakespeare’s work to reach across centuries and change local ecosystems, Smock’s work, in this collection, offers a world of malleability where circumstance itself alters the viability of reality while also stamping itself on the future. The future is the consequence of the past, the poems seem to say, but not only, and in recognition and acceptance, it appears possible to forge through the darkness of negative circumstance to land somewhere more solid.

++++The book is trim, and filled with short, mostly paragraphed, often untitled poems which offer a sense of reading a collection of aphorisms or journal entries. There’s something deeply personal, but also distant about this that allows the reader to enter the action while remaining aloof. In the third poem of the collection, there comes a request that “god save the translucent.” In many ways, the supplication of this line sums up Smock’s poetry for me: the mythic conversation between humanity and the other; the lowercase god and the marginalized man locked in a constant refrain. At bottom, I would say that there’s a sense of seeking justice and reconciliation for Man as an entity, while also recognizing the sanctity of the specific.

++++Following this line of appeal, there is the stark sentence: “the abused are never more alone than when their abusers get help.” And, in this sentence, I am struck by the all-encompassing nature of the struggle, as a species, to both come to terms with what we are presented with, while also not losing sight of the importance of our own humanity. The marginalized remain marginalized and perhaps become further alienated in the struggle toward growth and survival, but that is not all. From the search for reconciliation, or the introduction of a new element, the story grows, perhaps more difficult, but there is flux, and in flux, there is possibility. Whether that possibility leads to redemption seems to be a question for the individual, and perhaps even a challenge as evidenced in other poems.

++++While much of the book comes back to the macro, the archetypal brother, mother, father, son, and so on, these characters and themes encourage the careful reader to read with both an inward and outward gaze. There is a plea at the heart of everything. A plea, again, for recognition of the particular and how it relates to the universal. The poem that begins: “I am on vacation and this dead body is kind of amazing,” offers the aforementioned distance coupled with the modern ironic tone of the social media socialite. There’s the temptation, at times, to read the ambiguous tone as social commentary, but the poems always manage to bring things back around to the rending reality of the human condition. The realization that distraction is only a temporary condition which will be alleviated like all things are with time.

++++The juxtaposition presented in the poem and others between elements like the light ‘kind of amazing’ and the weighty ‘dead body’ can make it difficult to navigate the world of infant*cinema. This difficulty is apt considering the emotional landscape of the poetry itself. The poem goes further to say, “brother, god is only the end of the dream. I dream the / ocean is a doll that comes to my knees. suicide has a room all to itself. can / narrate what I’m saying,” and the reader is drawn deeper into the world of opposing forces. Whether it is man against god or god as nature against all of time, we are never sure, but the need to find a ground to stand on that will support the questioning and need for accountability reverberates through every line.

++++Like Smock’s other collections, I believe infant*cinema is best read as an entire collection rather than as a book that is flipped through for a one or two poem fix. The power of the collection is most fully realized in its totality as each poem builds on the ideas of those that came before it. There is a context that brings the work together into something meaningful that may not be fully realized in parts. I would recommend the time spent.



infant*cinema is available at Dink Press. You can find out more about Barton Smock at his website kingsoftrain.

On Mona Arshi’s Small Hands ~ Emma Hall

I am a poet, though to call myself a poet feels somehow unnatural. It is not my occupation but rather a part of me that weaves through everything. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “to be a poet is a condition, not a profession,” and I often think of this when I am compartmentalizing the pursuits of my life. It is easy for me to say, I am a mother, because this is something I act out daily and see the physical reality of manifesting in all that I do. To be a poet, however, is a different story.

Mona Arshi’s debut collection Small Hands, winner of the 2015 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection, in its own way gets at a bit of this. I won’t say that I feel this is her intention, but that I found, woven among her eclectic mix of poems, a thread that led me back to that place in myself where I struggle to realize the expression of different aspects of self-hood and how that conflicts with both outer expectations and inner dialogue.

My first introduction to the collection was through a friend who shared the poems ‘The Lion’ and ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage,’ and through these two poems I noticed a lovely diversity in voice. The mythic obliqueness of ‘The Lion’ provided an interesting contrast to the immediate, whimsical, sometimes burdensome observations of ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage.’ Arshi has a voice that branches, aiming to explore female existence not from a fixed position, but from a world in flux. What might seem commonplace to the opening voice of the collection in ‘The Lion’ who says “Although / you can never master the deep language / of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough / stroke of his tongue upon mine,” might become something of curiosity or triviality to the woman suffering the loss of her brother in ‘In the Coroner’s Office.’ Yet there is a tenderness and vulnerability about the collection as a whole that brings the differing elements together.

A personal favorite poem of the collection was ‘The Gold Bangles’ where Arshi explores familial connection and the female position in the world among other themes. Like other familial poems in the collection, the poem explores two important cultures present in Arshi’s consciousness, the English and the Punjabi, and shows how those two existences transfer not only for the woman telling the story, but for the subject of the story as well.

There is a sense of culture and tradition, but also a sense of impending change and a need to preserve things of importance in the midst of the inevitable alterations of living. The poem begins with: “In my bedroom dresser, in a little red box / sit two gold bangles. / They are pure yellow gold / and the pair are a set, though I believe / they once belonged to part of a bigger set.” And the plays between past and present, between inheritance and ownership, between generational acquisition and first hand understanding are placed at the forefront. We do not experience things through our own senses alone, but through all that we accumulate through the act of living, and these poems act as a reminder of that.

Arshi’s poetry is full of this sense of the communal intersecting with the personal. How death brings us deeper into the fold of our close circles, how the imaginative vision of our families shapes the way we interact with the world, and how the world itself, in all of its mystery, beauty, and foreignness can lead us into places we never expected. And while I am never fixed on my position of poet in my constantly shifting life, I find small bits of comfort in recognizing, in the poetry of others, that I am not alone in my wanderings.