THREE SHORT TAKES

Reviewed by Richard Robbins

What Falls Away is Always: Poems & Conversations by Richard Terrill

Holy Cow Press, 2020 | Paperback:$16.00

Richard Terrill’s new book of poems assembles an impressive group of witnesses from the world of art, film, music, and poetry in order to create a running meditation on the sources for art and ultimately on what sustains a thinking and feeling life. Some of his poems step into the atmosphere of another artist—a painting by Hopper, a quote by Whitman or Issa, a film director’s stage directions—in order to illuminate the  uncelebrated moments that nonetheless point to powerful sensibility. Other pieces are in active and extended conversation with a suite of works—I’m thinking of the pieces  treating Chet Baker’s work and Diana Arbus’ photography. What will connect the grand variety of poems is the unrelenting return to the ordinary, the “nothing” where we live most of our lives—which is quite enough, thank you, the poet is saying over and over.

I want only four things and three of them are seasons

the last is light and darkness

it sounds extravagant at first

Worldly Things by Michael Kleber-Diggs

Milkweed Editions, 2021 | Hardcover: $22.00

These poems are about love, finally. Where does it come from and how does it get passed along? The speaker proceeds over and over as if love’s source is not a voice in the cloud or a sacred text, but rather the living energy, radically and fully engaged with, at the level of the small moments in one’s life. And so he situates himself to make a difference:  in a car shouting helpful admonishments to strangers, for instance, in a class full of adolescents pushing him away behind their earbuds and indifference. It would seem like a losing strategy until the richness and number of his engagements becomes clear. He is middle-class villager, teacher, son, husband, father, Black American citizen—trying and often failing at the demands of love, but nonetheless returning to the eternity of the small moment, to the call to be a good man.

            I want to be part of a colony where I feel easy

walking around. Cool as the goddamn breeze. Where

I can breathe, build structures sturdier and grander

than this—but the woman crosses to the other side

of the street, and I do what I usually do:  retreat into

myself as far as I can, then send out whatever’s left.

Homes:  Poems by Moheb Soliman

Coffee House Press, 2021 | Paperback: $17.95

These poems, each a kind of fractured vision, travel the endless, recurring Great Lakes  border between lakewater and some made space on land. They go west, south, east, north, and then they travel that circuit again—Duluth to American Falls, Green Bay to Manatoulin Island—creating the obsessive circle dance of the book, where the forces of industry and human effort and passion and history push up against a silence, a wild, an insistence that is neither baptism nor absolution. That the speaker clings so fiercely to the shore in every poem—rarely straying inland or out onto the water for the poem’s  materials—suggests that the homes we live in are made of this in-betweenness. They are neither a problem nor its solution.

                                                                                                                        the      wildest

blue yonder’s no sky sea whatever, water    but just the frontier, the edge of,

where worlds knock like bumpers with the weary driver waking to backseat

squeals about a tall turkey or portly porcupine seen marching out of the trees

how bad could it be?,          coming out of the collapsing green, to just

patronize the lakeside    fish & sundae shack    with    some    backwoods

currency but up good to prove it’s real

For the Love of Cod by Eric Dregni

University of Minnesota Press, 2021 | Hardcover: $22.95

Reviewed by Ailee Slater

Minnesota writer Eric Dregni is no stranger to Norway. It’s where his ancestors hail from, it’s where he spent his Fulbright Fellowship, and it’s where his son was born. But when Norway comes out #1 in the United Nations’ 2017 World Happiness Index, Dregni finds himself wondering: Is Norway really one of the happiest places on Earth? To investigate further, Dregni books a trip to Norway for himself and his son Elif.

For the Love of Cod is the story of Eric and Elif’s adventure in Norway, but it is also a frank, funny look at what makes this Scandinavian country unique. Part memoir and part travelogue, with plenty of humor and historical details to boot, For the Love of Cod takes readers on a vivid tour Norway’s people, landscape and culture. As Eric seeks to uncover why Norway has earned so many accolades for happiness—and what happiness even means—readers are treated to a thoughtful, laugh-out-loud adventure traversing the varied Norwegian landscape and covering everything from black metal music, to the complicated truth about the Vikings, to all the reasons why Norwegian home design is just plain weird.

Throughout the book, it never feels that Dregni is romanticizing Norway. While extolling the country’s long parental leave, low rates of violence and plentiful vacation days, he also covers the less rosy side of life: including the rising wealth gap, differing attitudes on immigration, and an economy largely based on oil. Rather than taking a steadfast view on any of these cultural arenas, Dregni deftly explores them through the lens of factual data, and the opinions of friends and strangers whom he and Elif meet along the course of their journey. The result is a delightfully informative narrative that’s both entertaining and insightful, without ever being heavy-handed.

Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress by Ranae Lenor Hanson

University of Minnesota Press, 2021 | Paperback: $19.95

Reviewer by Heidi Newbauer

The body is one. Writer, educator, and climate activist Ranae Lenor Hanson takes us with her as her body experiences its own crisis, type 1 diabetes, while weaving us through the climate changes she has seen since her childhood in the Minnesota woods. All the while, she connects us to other parts of the world through climate refugee stories: gently moving, compassionate.

Interwoven into these narratives of her life, she invites us to further nourish our ecosystems individually and collectively through poetic, meditative breaks from each chapter. These meditations teach us how to breathe again. They teach us how parts become whole, how wisdom carries us and heals, and how the simple things are the bigger things. She tells us, “Listen with a welcoming face so you come to know your neighbors” and “get to know a tree. Over time. Personally.”

Hanson’s experience with her type 1 diabetes parallels the breaking down of the world she sees around her, and how the diabetes epidemic has broken down generations who have struggled for traditions, lost in war and commercialism. She writes, “in some communities, more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native adults have type 2 diabetes. Why? Traditional lifestyles for those communities rely upon identification with the land and its inhabitants and upon the hunting and gathering of food” and “increasing evidence shows that endocrine disrupting chemicals may well be precipitating the development of diabetes.” The grief is unavoidable, she tells us. It is to be felt.

Even in this breaking down, she reminds us of the true cycles of healing and how hope is light and water a life force across the world. Hanson’s poetic weavings of stories and meditation give us a window into the power of our relationships. She shows us how gentle—and knowing—our individual and collective bodies truly are.  

Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root, Illustrated by Claudia McGhee

University of Minnesota Press, 2021 | Hardcover: $17.95

Reviewed by Annie Lindenberg

The story of Begin with a Bee is an educational one, summarized best perhaps by one of its own pages: “Next year’s bees begin with a bee.” Published in 2021 and written by Liza Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and Phyllis Root, this book follows the life cycle of one rusty-patched bee through the course of a single year. Our first pages start us in spring alongside the queen bee as she emerges to find pollen, and it’s near impossible from those first few pages to not enjoy the vivid images the book provides in tandem with the story.

Illustrated by Claudia McGehee, Begin with a Bee’s artistic value cannot be understated. Working in scratchboard, a medium that highlights the nature of the text with woodcut-like lines, McGehee makes the queen bee’s story come alive amongst the lively natural world. While at times the text itself may feel disjointed, most likely due to its educational value overriding the story’s flow, the illustrations step up and carry their weight. They keep the work pushing forward and provide pages that can be poured over to find new details each time, while allowing the reader time to digest the important science of the rusty-patched bumblebee (the first bee to appear on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species list).

This educational value is the true heart of this book, providing necessary background on an endangered species that can be understood by any age along with information on the native plants and wildlife bumblebees need for survival. After the story’s completion, there’s supplementary information on both the rusty-hatched bee and the things we can all do to ensure their survival. Begin with a Bee has the ability to teach parent and child alike about an important species. In collaboration with the detailed, dynamic illustrations, this book will surely be capable of being picked up multiple times—departing its worthwhile message with each rereading.