Sundress Reads: Review of Four in Hand

A book cover that reads "Four in Hand" in white letters against a dark green background with a folded down piece of yellow in the top right-hand corner. "Poems" is written in yellow in a vertical line below the title and the author's name "Alicia Mountain" is written in black letters at the very bottom of the page against a white outline that wraps around the dark green and yellow.

Alicia Mountain’s new poetry collection Four in Hand (BOA Editions, 2023) is comprised of four heroic crown sonnets—a sequence of fifteen interlinking sonnets wherein the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next, and so on, and the fifteenth sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous fourteen. Quite a complicated structure indeed, and tricky to pull off, but Mountain does so masterfully. She weaves together eloquent, and at times archaic, language with urgent issues like late-stage capitalism, the pandemic, environmental devastation, LGBTQ issues and discrimination, drone strikes, the 2016 election, etc. with contemporary references and found text. Mountain also offers contemplations of familial structures, her gay poetic lineage, love and loss, as well as investigations of the self and place.  Aside from the political undercurrents and heavier themes, Four in Hand is also tender and personal suffused with numerous kinds of love, including the lingering love that persists even after heartbreak, “I offer to trade you / a poem for the story of the place we pressed / our bodies together.” This book feels like a necessary antidote to the crushing pressures and anxieties facing us today.

A narrative thread is braided through the book, submerging then reemerging signaled by motifs like “train tracks,” “the queen,” and “violet,” “which operate as anchors that ground the poems and refocus the reader’s attention. The form lends itself to this loose, nonlinear narrative and though each heroic crown appears disparate at first you begin to notice the intricate patterns as you read further.

Each sonnet rolls effortlessly into the next, turning the meaning of its last line to mean something completely different—even opposite—when it becomes the first line of the next sonnet. For example, the last line of the ninth sonnet in the first sequence “Train Town Howl” reads “whomever you love. They belong beside you,” which seems to be a lament that their ex-lover likely has a new lover. But in the next sonnet, the same line reads as well-wishing towards the lover rather than lamentation—the speaker is now expressing to their past lover that they deserve to be with someone they love, whomever it may be, and be happy. Mountain achieves this reversal of meaning simply by changing the sentence structure. As a last line “whomever you love” is part of the sentence that begins in the previous line, but as the first line of the tenth stanza, “Whomever you love” is the beginning of the sentence, starting a thought rather than completing one. It’s a tiny change but has a significant impact, which is a testament to the virtuosity of Mountain’s. The syntax is delicately crafted and each period, comma, line break, and word, and is intentional.

On the note of intentionality, while many sonnets in the collection resemble traditional sonnets, the sonnet form never feels tired because of Mountain’s experimentation. In the second sequence “Sparingly,” she pushes the boundaries of the form: each line consists only of a single word. A traditional sonnet puts pressure on the line as a unit, by using one word per line Mountain zeroes in on the word, forcing us to linger with each word and really notice them, hold on to each syllable, savor the sounds.

Despite the dark cloud of political instability, environmental degradation, and loss that permeates, Mountain finds moments of lightness and hope, especially in the “elementary poets” the speaker is teaching poetry. They like “butts and cats and killing” and the girls are “purple princes too.” This childhood silliness and wonder contrasts the “The sinister lever-pull that will not right us / came swift in November,” meaning the election of Donald Trump and the dividedness of the nation. Mountain asks, “How long has it / been since you worked for an hourly wage?” exemplifying the disconnect between the wealthy and the politicians and the rest of us. By posing this question and then going to work with eight-year-old poets, the speaker is deciding to do not be crushed by despair and do the important work of investing hope in the future, represented by the children, and in small but not inconsequential actions. Such a kernel of optimism is found when “Eight-year-old writes, We befriend enemy / countries like we were never enemies.” A vision of a more peaceful world without senseless violence—a better world.

Four in Hand is an epic, ambitious work, the opulent landscapes, gentle intimacy, and acute awareness of corruption and destruction that we are complicit in, “Often, I forget I am a benefactor / of war by birthright,” will percolate in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. It is a perfect alchemy of the personal and the political, of abundance and sparsity, of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Mountain demonstrates dexterity in both form, lyric, and blank verse while retaining a pleasurable cohesiveness. This book is achingly beautiful and exemplifies the magic of poetry—how at its best, poetry can touch you deeply; make you feel, and think, and cry, and hope, and yearn, and be glad to be alive.

Four in Hand is available from BOA Editions

Max Stone is in his final semester as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, & Change, Fifth Wheel Press, Sandpiper ReviewNight Coffee LitCaustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also book artist and retired college soccer player.

Sundress Reads: Review of Ain’t Life Grand

In edie roberts’ Ain’t Life Grand (pitymilk press, 2020), the seething fury of radical youth boils just under a cooled, jaded, midlife critique of contemporary America. roberts pinpoints the surprisingly complex feelings of seemingly normal, bureaucratic experiences, such as going to the doctor and riding on the bus, and delivers them as hot, little coals of poems. In the condensed space of the chapbook, they touch on a heavy range of subjects: healthcare inequality, environmental disaster, hostile architecture, and familial anguish. Ain’t Life Grand begins with a dying cat and ends with a mountain of garbage, and in between, roberts files away the personal, political, and defyingly beautiful events that define our lives. 

“We were never meant to survive,” writes Audre Lorde in the book’s epigraph, and indeed, at first, it does not seem like anyone will. A dense pessimism begins the collection. The cat who cannot “find a comfortable spot / to wretch and foam / convulse then quit” in the first, eponymous poem becomes a framing metaphor for the physical and emotional separation between people imposed on us by a brutal, capitalistic culture. roberts uses a diction almost violently terse and direct to discuss this separation. In “I am going to the doctor in America,” the nurse’s touch is “like a sterile mother / who can’t assure you of anything.” Within the illogical and inhumane healthcare system, marrying a Canadian friend for medical coverage might be the only logical option for a cancer diagnosis.  

Despite the curt bleakness, an underlying attachment to the beauty of life runs through this book. In “Any Greyhound station bathroom,” roberts is “endeared / to every person / in here.” Their struggle to connect despite the bench separators provides a common resistance. That Canadian friend they “love / in a dear and tender way.” Even the human-made terrors have a kind of resigned beauty. In “The gulf is on fire,” the “cellophane / was let to ride / the hungry wind,” which in a way makes it more free than we are.

But beauty alone does not excuse these environmental and societal ills. With language like a staring contest, daring you to look away, roberts calls out their villains. “If people in America / really gave a shit / about babies / They probably wouldn’t have them / Because they don’t have shit to give them / except a mess so big / that the people who are already alive in America / can’t do anything / but ignore it.” And ignoring problems is the central crime of the book. They call out the “woman who seems to think / thinking good thoughts and / having hope / about the future / is all we can do.” Ignored problems pile up. Even the poet is culpable. “[T]hey all knew about / where the / world was going…We built this mountain / in 15 years / You can smell it for miles.”

Yet, there is some hope in Ain’t Life Grand. There is a dream of “some real estate / in the stars / where no one works / for pennies and / gets chased by / debt companies.” There is a sense that “I am / doing a bad job / trying to stay alive / and living at the same time” because we have been asked to live in an unreasonable structure. But hope, like ignorance, is a choice to be made by each individual. “I need things to look forward to,” writes Roberts, “or the future is a numbing jelly.”

Ain’t Life Grand is available from pitymilk press

Robin LaMer Rahija (she/her) did her MFA in poetry at the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Puerto Del Sol, FENCE, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. She loves books, trees, and Excel documents.

Sundress Reads: Shade of Blue Trees by Kelly Cressio-Moeller

Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s breathtaking debut poetry collection, Shade of Blue Trees (Two Sylvias Press, 2021), paints a complex tetraptych of grief, loss, and solitude, inviting readers into a space of introspection while singing an ode to the natural world.

Filled with nods to Greek mythology and art history, Cressio-Moeller’s words read like lyrics. The collection is organized into four sections, each boasting its own seasonal “panel” beginning with winter, then traveling through spring, summer, and finishing with autumn. In “Panels from a Deepening Winter” we’re thrust into a desolate environment with the opening lines “Veils of clouds replace the mountain’s ghost-blue / face: snow and fog, a sky of ice – a quiet haunting.” The rest of the poem continues with themes of solitude and bereavement, though in the 4th stanza, we catch a glimmer of hope with a “promise to a white moose” and a “buckeye for luck” – both seemingly good omens. Throughout the rest of the poem, we’re faced with the same feelings of loneliness and a “quiet in the way that online winter is” that doesn’t feel silent at all with moments like “the wind wears heels tonight” and “red-petaled cries, open mouths of cyclamen.” This poem is the third in the collection, thrusting you into the “brumal embrace” of a speaker navigating grief and isolation.

In “Panels from a Courtly Spring,” the speaker tells the story of a woman trapped in “gilt, guilt, geld,” and “Austrian pawn in Versailles,” a “foreigner at court.” The panels are packed with flowery language painting the portrait of this “wilding’s” demise, “barefoot racing, barely outrunning the metal clamor of blades and pikes.” This poem is the finale of its section, following a collection of observations and musings, like “In late afternoon pampas grass tapers shine silver as the hair in my brush.” (“Begin and End at Big Sur”) and “The tree’s arms hold her in the indigo lap of sky.” (“Among Other Things”). It also includes two letters, to low tide and the rain. In the first, the speaker ties herself to the tide, saying “I, too, want / to unhook myself from shore” (“Letter to the Low Tide’). The second, “Letter to the Rain,” starts with a similar sentiment: “Come at me with guillotine sheets, / I will be happy in separation.” The “Courtly Spring” panels feel like a story the speaker has spun or the way in which she sees herself, a “wilding” trapped in the vastly material world.

“Panels from a Blue Summer” takes us to the middle of the third section, and while the last set of panels was fraught with gilded language, these start with the speaker stating “I lack the luster that my lilacs / can muster at any time of year.” This rolls into a second stanza that returns to darker imagery – “torched moods” and the “melancholy shade of blue trees.” We get a reference to Van Eyck’s triptychs as “layers upon layers of brittle meditations.” The speaker’s relationship feels complex and the tone is depressive, matching that of the rest of this section with moments like “Poets and suicide. It’s been done before” (“Southern Gothic”) and “grief rolled up its sleeves” (“Sacrament”).

The final panel, and the penultimate poem of the collection, “Panels from a Celestial Autumn,” continues this darkness, with a speaker who tells us the story of a boy who “fell from oaken arms” when “Jupiter / held the current easy in his hand. Slipped it though / the lad from collar to hip,” and our speaker who “was born when the spark was fading, a gibbous face / turned her cold gaze elsewhere.” In the longest of the panel poems, the speaker transitions from the first- and third-person: “Lake-eyed & wolf-bit, she dead reckons the / hardscape of illness & rough sleep” and is “Somehow…always prepared for winter.” In a lot of ways, this piece offers returns and references to many of the others, like “flares persimmon,” tracing back to the poem titled “Still Life with Persimmons,” and is held together with observations in the form of “body as” statements that trend from dark, “body as dying star,” to the slightly brighter “body as forgotten island.” The rest of this section lives in the same mood: a level of darkness outlined in silver with images like “the hills look blue / in the arms of an old moon” (“Suburnan Aubade with French Horn”) and “a starless sky still shines as bright” (“Dusk at Mt. Diablo”).

The final sentiment of the collection is its best summary: “listen / when she whispers: If you are patient, / your eyes will adjust to the dark.” This moment serves as a reminder, of the capacity to adapt even in the heaviest moments. Traversing through the seasons, Cressio-Moeller’s Shade of Blue Trees takes its reader on a journey through history, grief, and solitude. This structure tells a story that is constantly weaving in and out of itself, showing how complex the process of healing can be, while leaving us with the hope – and the reminder – that somehow, after it all, “even broken glass refracts light” (“Self-Portrait as Empty Reliquary”) and that that light is worth the pain of perseverance.

Shade of Blue Trees is available at Two Slyvias Press

Nicole Bethune Winters (she/her) is a poet, ceramic artist, and yoga teacher. She currently resides in Southern California, where she makes and sells pottery out of her home studio. When she isn’t writing or wheel-throwing, Nicole is likely at the beach, on a trail, or exploring new landscapes. She derives most of the inspiration for her creative work from her interactions with the environment around her, and is always looking for new ways to connect with and understand the earth. Her debut poetry collection, brackish, will be published by Finishing Line Press in August 2022.