Bez & Co- January 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-
pseudesthesia • Daniel Jones
Saint Peter • S.E. Reid
Pray For Us Mothers • Mary Tarantini

Book Review-
Cuarentena • Stephen Lang [Wipf & Stock]

Advanced Book Review and Interview-
I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember • Matthew J. Andrews

pseudesthesia

Here goes our phantom limb of hope.
We both feel something
which hasn’t existed in years.
A flutter, a tremor, a quaver, for me.
For you, a nagging ache.

-Daniel R. Jones

Saint Peter

the small dead fir
had hidden behind a taller hemlock
until the storm
brought it to its knees,

tipped near the top
snapped
head downward
shaggy and undignified
against our driveway.

that’s where the dog and I found it the next morning,
puffs of breath in the cold sunlight
we walked around it,
admiring how it had hidden there
until this moment of revelation;

the dog investigated its top-most branches
seeking out bird-hymns and bug-psalms
as yet unsniffed;

but my nose could only find the sweet scent
of the dozens of usnea lichen that had grown
soft and fragrant
slowly eating away at the dead limbs;

and I thought: what a fate
for your true beauty
to be witnessed in this death,
shaggy and undignified,

a testament
upside-down.

-S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living on a patch of wooded wetland in the Pacific Northwest with her craftsman husband and her big black dog, Finn. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the now-retired Plants Are Magic magazine in the UK as well as the current issue of Being Human magazine, and her short fiction has been published by webzine Mysterion. She regularly posts her poetry and short prose on Instagram. When not writing she loves to cook nourishing food, read widely, and tend to her vegetable garden. Website: http://writersereid.wordpress.com

Pray For Us Mothers

A cardinal alighted upon a branch
Outside my window pane
Red against a piney green – 
I called you by your name

Your name is ever on my lips
My first gift to my first love
Bestowed before you breathed your first
With every dream I could ever dream of

I never should have lived to see
The day that you were taken from me
Pray for us mothers who bury their babes
Kneeling by gravestones now bearing their names

– Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini
Mary Tarantini, TSSF, is a poet, mother, high school English teacher, and a professed member of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. She holds a BA in English and a MA in Theological Studies. Some of her poems have been published in The Franciscan Times, the newsletter of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis.

Review of Cuarantena by Stephen Lang
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

Besides the obvious tragedy of the climbing death toll, the outbreak of COVID-19 gave way to a myriad of other, more subtle tragedies. The trajectory of the entire world seemed to turn on its heel, overnight. The routines we so tightly clung to were disrupted and thrown askew. And somehow, born out of all that chaos, was Cuarentena, Steve Lang’s second collection of poetry.

You may remember this author from our inaugural issue, released exactly one year ago today. His poem “Humility” appeared in that issue. “Humility” can be found in this collection as well, alongside 39 other well-sculpted poems that plumb the depths of human experience.

Lang’s preface tells us that our English word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian word “quarantena,” which literally translates to “forty days.” A ship entering the port of Venice had to spend 40 days in isolation in the days of the Black Death.

And while most of these poems are not directly “about” the pandemic, they all stemmed from it.

On the one hand, you could liken these 40 poems to the 40 days Christ spent in the desert: they’re stark, raw, and often take an unflinching gaze at the most painful parts of our humanity. An example of this can be found in Lang’s short poem “Late Afternoon Sunlight.” He writes:

Late afternoon sunlight

On a cloudless day
in El Salvador

So pure
And placid
And appaling

Upon cracking the spine of Cuarenta, Lang’s attention to craftsmanship and wordsmithing become immediately obvious. His images are so deftly crafted that they’re sure to haunt his readers with an uncanny feeling, long after the book is set aside. One fascinating example of this comes in the poem “Littoral,” which inverts a saccharine “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul” type anecdote and fleshes it out with a more austere and poignant sense of abandonment.

But yet, for all the dark shades present, Lang rounds out the picture with lighter tints. The wide-eyed surrender into the Kairos of the present moment can be seen in “Ser/Estar.” Indeed, throughout the entire book, the effortless vacillation between Spanish and English (Lang wrote these poems in El Salvador) adds a level of intrigue and musicality to the poems.

Although an English-only poem, “Orchid” shows off Lang’s abilities to craft a sonorous poem as well as any in this book. He writes: “…Pink slippers lurid/ Adder’s mouth/ Resupine/ All wanton inflorescence/ Labellum swollen fused/ In Vanilla inner whorl…” The cadence and vibrant imagery of the flower creates for a gorgeous reading experience.

But perhaps my favorite in the collection is the poem “Cuarenta.”It’s a rumination on the number “40” as much as it is an exploration of our own quarantine. Rather than spoiling a perfect piece of writing, I’ll only say that it manages to be the most profound poem I’ve read on the subject of our post-Coronavirus world.

If, coming out of the past couple of years, you—like me—ask yourself, “What more can be said about this pandemic?” The answer is “Cuarenta.”

And in a broader sense, one that spans much more than just COVID-19 and the global backlash to it, Stephen Lang has much to say to you in Cuarentena. The subject-matter is wide and engrossing, the language is vivid and lyrical, and the author doesn’t shy away from taking on the most difficult of topics. Grab your copy at Wipf and Stock’s website or Amazon today.

Daniel R. Jones

Interview with Matthew J. Andrews

Daniel: First and foremost, Matt, thanks for taking the time to chat. Right there in the blurb, it’s announced that I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is “born of spiritual crisis.” Without prying into your personal life, can you talk a little about that? How did events in your own life inform the creation of these poems?

Matt: In short, the “crisis” at hand was a real disconnection with the Christian faith, which had once permeated every aspect of my life. I grew up in church, absorbed all the right teachings, even contemplated seminary, but within a matter of years I found myself on the brink of apostasy. I had a lot of things pulling me away, but at the heart of them was the fact that I had grown disillusioned with the Bible, what we often put at the centerpiece of the faith. I grew to no longer trust it, to place its stories more in the category of “myth” than “truth,” which had a domino effect everywhere else.

I spent many years adrift before I felt compelled to revisit my faith, and poetry was a big part of that process once I did. The poems in this collection were written as a way of reengaging with the stories of the Bible, of trying to breathe new life into something that had become stale and lifeless, of making these communal narratives feel personal again. I spent about two years writing poetry in this way, just creating out of the need within me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had a collection on my hands.

Daniel: Speaking of “spiritual crisis,” this book is filled to the brim with biblical figures facing such a dilemma! The collection is described as being filled with characters that “struggle with their place in the grand narrative.” What I find interesting is that some of these struggles are emotional (i.e. the picture we see in “Ezekiel’s Wife,”) while other struggles could be described as cognitive or “thinking errors.” (I’m thinking particularly of the eyebrow-raising methods suggested in “Boanerges.”)  When you wrote these poems, how did you choose the particular struggle each character faced?

Matt: Most of these poems sprang up pretty organically. As I read through the Bible again (and again and again), it became sort of a spiritual discipline, something akin to the practice of Lectio Divina. Rather than trying to force anything, I tried to let myself notice what I was taking away from my reading: what characters am I relating to, what images are resonating with me, and what emotions am I experiencing as a result? I then built poems based on honest answers to those questions. It wasn’t until I looked at these poems as a whole that I understood just how much I was writing about the challenges these characters must have faced, the burden that comes with being compelled by the hand of God.  

Your examples are interesting, and I think they point to the variety of ways people struggle with faith. On one hand, the story of Ezekiel’s wife (detailed in Ezekiel 24, for those who are unfamiliar) is told so quickly that it’s easy to overlook it, but it’s a troubling story with a real human cost and some hard questions about servitude and justice. It’s hard not to read that story and have your heart sink into the floor, to feel like Ezekiel was a victim. “Boanerges,” inspired by James and John offering to call down fire and destroy a Samaritan village in Luke 9, is a very different kind of struggle, one based more on the corrupting power of a faith held too closely to the chest, where the main character looks more like a villain. In the end, both are very human stories, and I certainly find pieces of myself in both of them.

Daniel: The carnal, more base desires are at odds with higher, more spiritual purposes in this collection, just as they conflict in Scripture (and indeed, in our everyday lives.) The Bible is filled with broken people who use songs, hymns, and poetry to process the disparity between spiritual reality and the way they feel. This is probably most evident in the Psalms of King David. To what degree does writing serve this purpose for you? Do you see writing as a sacrament of worship or a method to process the events of your life?

Matt: Writing poetry is definitely a process for myself, a way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me. And as a man with propensities for doubt and cynicism, I have many things weighing on me! This is not to say that I don’t also write poems that venture into the area of worship, but even when that happens, I feel much more like I am exploring the depths of something I don’t quite understand than making declarations that come anywhere close to sacramental.

Daniel: You said that poetry is a “way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me.” Israel, of course, means “wrestles with God,” and anyone who does even a cursory reading of the imprecatory psalms can see that King David used poetry to work through some tough emotions. How does one make this an edifying exercise? As we all know, when dwelling on the tough aspects of life through the arts, it’s easy to become self-indulgent or lead ourselves into a worse headspace than when we started. What’s your take on this?

Matt: The job of the poet is to interrogate and probe, and I think that’s key to avoiding the holes you described. When wrestling and writing, I try to take a step back and create some distance, to give myself space to ask questions: Where do these feelings come from? What do they mean in terms of my relationships with others, or with God? How would I feel if things were different? I think writing from a place of exploration keeps you balanced. 

In retrospect, I’m seeing now that working through issues via biblical characters automatically creates some of that distance by channeling myself through their experiences, sort of like giving a kid a toy to play with in therapy. As a result, the poems end up a strange hybrid of myself and the characters.

Daniel: Are there specific poems in this book that you hold particularly dear? If so, how come?

Matt: “Isaac at Twilight,” which focuses on the aftermath of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, holds a special place for me. Some of that is thematic – the father-son dynamic comes up a lot in my writing, and this story in particular has always been a very difficult one for me to stomach – but a lot of it is because it took such a long time to get right. It’s not a long poem (12 brief lines and 44 words), but it was stubborn; it started out as two poems and then took a lot of finagling and adjusting once they came together. I consider it a triumph that it exists at all.

Daniel:  I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is your debut collection. Though the book isn’t yet released, do you anticipate a second chapbook in the future? What can readers expect from you in the future, and where can they find your work?

Matt: I certainly hope this is the first of many books from me! I am actually hard at work finishing and compiling a second chapbook, which I intend to be a collection of surrealist prose poems based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Once again, I didn’t intend on putting a collection together, but I had a goal to listen to the entire catalog of Bob Dylan (39 albums!) in 2021, and I suppose it just kind of bled out of my brain and onto the page. I’m hoping to have that wrapped up by early 2022. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but readers can always keep up with me on my website (http://matthewjandrews.com/) or on Twitter (@2glassandrews). 

Daniel: That sounds fascinating! As a fan of Bob Dylan as well as sprawling prose poems, it sounds right up my alley. Are the poems ekphrastic–that is, a direct sort of “reader’s response” to Bob Dylan’s catalog, or based more loosely off the themes in his songs?

Matt: The poems are all pretty loosely based on the themes in his music and events in his life, with each poem grounded in a song and every one of them featuring Bob Dylan as a character. They’ve been fun to write, and as a group they explore that strange relationship between the artist and the audience, as well as between the artist and the people in their life. I’ve had a few of these published individually, and these three poems in Pithead Chapel do a pretty good job of previewing what to expect: https://pitheadchapel.com/its-all-right-the-thin-man-and-with-god/.

Review of I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember by Matthew J. Andrews
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is Matthew J. Andrews’ upcoming debut chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Anyone familiar with Scripture will recognize the figures scattered throughout these pages: the prophets, kings, disciples, and warriors, herein.

I’ll admit, I was reluctant to review this collection, initially, for this very reason. Poems aimed towards reimagining biblical figures are notoriously difficult to pull off. Too often, the author takes so much creative license that their theology suffers. Or else the author swings to the other end of the pendulum, taking no risks, and writing a poem that is ineffective due to its lack of nuance or creativity.

I Close My Eyes suffers from neither of these maladies.

The subject-matter is approached respectfully and reverently. Even still, each piece feels unique and inspired.

Sometimes, this creativity comes in the form of a clever play on words. For instance, in “A Toast,” Matt writes: “Drunk at the bar, Pilate slams his glass/ on the table to broadcast his emptiness.”

The decision to frame this image as Pilate broadcasting his emptiness rather than the glass’s emptiness is as clever as it is profound.

In “Onesimus,” the titular character contemplates going from one type of slavery to another. Paul reminds Onesimus that “You are no longer your own.” Onesimus counters with “I have never once been my own.” Our narrator struggles with varying forms of “entrapment” in the poem, and the writing is razor-sharp, contemplative, and thought-provoking.

The chapbook has a pleasant cyclical motif, as well.

In the very first poem, “The Sixth Day,” we see God feeling a “compulsion” to create, and that feeling is satiated by the creation of humankind. It’s only fitting, then, that in the final poem, “The Gardener,” we see a mirror image of the Almighty: the poet imagines the Lord at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, his eye straying to the void bursting with possibility. He feels the inkling to create again.

In reading this collection of poetry, I found that same inkling rising in my own chest: the desire to not just digest the material, but to let it impel me towards a creation of my own. And to be frank, I can’t give any chapbook a great endorsement than that.

-Daniel R. Jones

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