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Review of The Temple She Became

Rachel Custer doesn’t like me very much, and that’s fine, can’t say I blame her, however, I still love her poems. This book contains an awesome array of emotional verse, so many great moments and lines that just wreck your heart and then spend slow motion seconds rebuilding it with intense introspection. The overall tone of the book is one of quiet prayer, perhaps reverence for simplicity in the way life tries to destroy us while allowing us to live in such a beautiful world of hidden dangers and joys. Standouts for me were “There was a little magpie,” and “Fractal geometry,” but there’s much to find and enjoy in every poem, in this collection that feels like a poet discovering her voice.

Natural progression

Building a life

Do memories make a life?
Memories do make a life,
on a deathbed, looking back,
the mind becomes a scrapbook
with pages missing.

I always wanted to live
among the mountains
where the shadows of clouds
crawl like sneaking cats
across the cliff faces and the valleys.
I always wanted a life
of veritable joy upon waking
beside the warm body of a lover
and a puppy’s blinking awareness
from the foot of the bed.

You can call me selfish,
call me monstrous
for daring to carve a hollow
space for this wanting,
but every man is guilty
of some deforestation
to make space for a home.

The night sky plays no favorites
with where it drops its dew
or whose view of the moon
gets obscured by creeping cauls,
we must make due
with surviving the magnanimous tide
that gives and takes our breath,
and this gravity that allows our steps
without crushing our fragile frames.
These steps were always balanced
on a high wire between here
and not here.

A poem is a gun

If poems were firearms

Another disenchanted youth loads his backpack
with weapons, the heavy oil stink of black metal
and copper clinging to his pink and sensitive fingers
like chalk dust and graphite from hand sharpened pencils.
He’s spent the night memorizing Dylan Thomas,
loading clips and carbines and lubricating slots and slides
with metaphor and simile, with adjective and verb,
the lasting impressions of a concrete image.

The bell sounds and he drops the weight from his shoulders,
crouches behind a line of plain gray lockers to unzip his bag,
no one paying attention, he’s just another student in another hall
in another school in another town of America,
where the kids form packs and cliques as easy as amino acids
build ladders in the blood, and he’s up, and he’s done thinking
about whether this is right or wrong, red or blue,
he puts a barrel to the forehead of a beautiful blonde
and bang, fills her brain full of Shakespearean sonnets.

The kids begin to shriek and scatter like seagulls chased from beaches,
bouncing off each other and into the walls, falling down,
trampled by sneakers and boot heels and twisted ankle soles,
as the shots echo in rapid succession, leaving their words
like bruises on the flesh. A boy whose only desire from the day
was to ask Maggie Mae to the dance, suddenly compares her face
to the sun, wants to tattoo his heart with rhyme, to leave verses
like postcards from his hormones inside her mailbox at night.

Another finds that his appetite for carving curse words into desks
is suddenly replaced with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “we real cool,”
a girl stops taking selfies and starts speaking in iambic pentameter,
another throws her phone into the toilet and jots down five lines
in a three-subject notebook that previously held only her name,
a teacher suddenly realizes he’s shown favoritism to white students
and has an entire chapbook of poems about racism in his head.

Slowly, the crowd loses its panic, as more and more students and faculty
hit by the power and ferocity of stanza and scheme
feel their lives take a sudden change, a nod toward beauty
gone too-long ignored, their faces slackening then glowing with grins,
one by one they realize they’ve allowed their lives to be consumed by lies,
to forego existence for mere reflections of selves in palms,
and they line up like believers after the pastor’s psalms, saying, “Me too. Me too.”

Keeping Pain Fresh

From new to nowhere

I pass three waterfalls on my daily commute,
their foamy-fingered descent, contrasted against dark brown stone,
is a newborn countdown calendar of days, until beauty fades
into the ordinary, simple, and plain background noise
of just another forty minutes alone between destinations.

Nothing new stays new past the moment it’s first perceived,
the senses overwhelmed begin to adjust
like eyes squinting against morning’s fractal light
and shaking free of the dust of dreams to find
one’s self at home in the same room as yesterday and many days before.

Even mountains, even rivers, even jagged coastline cliffs
juxtaposed with seascape clouds of purple and white and gold,
become just more paintings to be ignored on walls
in waiting rooms of mere mundane diagnoses
to be slept away like common colds or boredom.

O, to feel each crested hilltop as fresh as a blister burned
on a child’s careless palm, to rediscover awe
in its truest form, the first pain, the first joy,
the first taste of sweet sugar, candy apple green
pressed against the virgin tongue.

To never be numb, to never view death as inevitable,
these bodies just trapdoors for sighs,
piles of kindling waiting for sparks,
to never see names of children in a breaking newsfeed
and place them like shells along the spiral path to nowhere.

Another Gun Control debate

Nature Debates Gun Control

The trees don’t shoot, because the trees are unarmed,
their thin, spiny-limbed fingers foolish and flayed,
fail to form fists and succeed only in fractal whispers
of wind blown through bent and boughed bodies.
The trees are not concerned with mental health,
though victims themselves of axe and flame and saw.

The rivers don’t shoot, because the rivers are unarmed,
their beds worn smooth as glass, leaking dirt like blood
into currents ceaseless as breath from children
sleeping sound in rooms waiting for alarms,
waiting for parents to serve them breakfast
and hand them backpacks like life preservers

as if each new day is a potential drowning
in these rivers, these roads that carry them
away and then carry them back home.
The river is not insane, it has no control
over the bodies it carries, or if these vessels can float.

The oceans don’t shoot because the oceans are unarmed.
These great swallowers of reflection and light,
transparent and yet opaque,
junkyards and toxic waste dumps,
holders of secrets until the end,
the oceans have the power to make us well again
but they won’t.

The mountains don’t shoot, because the mountains
are unarmed, just arrowheads sharp and blunt
shaped from push and pull of Earth,
a force well beyond that of any trigger
with repercussions felt for millennia,
the mountain itself an atom bomb
times ten thousand, a pressure building
to eventual extinction, rendering all these debates
much like all these pistols, rifles, and grenades,
obsolete.

Another mass shooting in America

Prayer to the cosmos

Should every morning carry the weight of survival instinct,
the backpacks being shouldered now
possible body armor, pens and pencils
now mere instruments of self-defense,
the cell phone a witnessing device
and possible conveyor of last words
to loved ones in times of inevitable crisis?

School buses have become potential hearses,
an ambulance but a carrier of bodies
from one panic attack to the next,
a diploma more like a participation trophy
in the obstacle course of a shooting gallery,
as we wring our hands and offer the wind
from our mouths as succor for blue light.

Hear the requiem organ moaning the soundtrack
of another day accompanied by the timpani
that echoes as gunshots down a concrete hallway
and these shrieks like anniversaries
that become monotonous as birthday songs
sung over candles that refuse to blow out,
another wreath on a door, another flag flown half-staff.

Valentine’s Day 1990, the Voyager telescope
looked back and glimpsed a pale blue dot
caught in a ring of stardust and starlight,
a reminder of insignificance and smallness,
like a wedding band in a Holocaust Museum
or a permanent shadow cast on Hiroshima’s wall,
and yet we pray, we pray to infinite space
that the person we love returns home safe.

unremarkable

An unremarkable truth

For the poem, I’d put my teeth in the page,
pretend I’m an apple
with worms in its core
best fed to the hogs
who would eat their own shit to survive.

For the poem, I’ll lay down my cinder block soul
on the bed of crucifixion nails
and wait for my weight
to silence the blood in my ears
always asking for apologies.

For the poem, I’d abandon my friends
to find myself in the valley
where steam rises in the dusk
like mirrored reflections giving up their ghosts
from a lake of icy depths
incapable of holding such fiery extinctions.

For the poem, I will lie to myself
about my own integrity,
it’s the only way to prevent my suicide,
the shadow of the noose
is a shackle, an eclipse, a doorway
closing around my throat.

For the poem, I’d sacrifice so many lives,
so many splintered paths
tree roots, the veins of bodies
each feeding different versions of the self
in a future I’ll never see,
cut off from my footsteps
with every choice of line break and verse.

For the poem, I will suffer anonymity,
just another voice unheard,
another unremarkable infant
birthed into a population of unremarkable infants,
each one told
they are more important than the rest.

deforestation

Death knell

Logging crews turn forests into graveyards
of tree stump tombstones, their markers
nameless and imperfect, tilted and broken
among the barren and brown landscape
dozer tread-tracked earth and splintered
discarded limbs left to gray and decay
like scattered remains of bombing victims
in a war-zone they once called their home.

So much for the soft serenity found in footsteps
among the shed and yellowed pine needles,
so much for intermittent shadows
and the disorienting pleasures of an upward gaze
through many-fingered flora filtering light
like so many interwoven DNA strands
building their ladders to the sun.

Best to keep driving until the madness subsides
and the silence returns its dopamine rush,
the rarity of a woodland left mostly untouched
where you can spend an hour
collecting images for a poem here or there,
crouched beside a creek bed
listening to water trickle down stair step stones
and through root-channeled harpsichord hands
playing the songs of calming quiet.

I’m here among the foot-trampled paths,
the over-grown fanning ferns
and the hidden heartbeats that scamper
before they can be seen
through the underbrush,
but I am also there
in the graveyard, my fingertips tracing
the concentric rings of the fallen,
asking forgiveness and permission
for a fate that takes
the same toll in all things,
its pace quickening.

Ode to a factory town

Longview

In the industrial towns you’ll drive past
rivers green as moss
creeping up the crevices
of every manmade thing,
every stone-jutted hillside
and tree so laden with that lush verdant carpet
its limbs droop down with weight
like alien fingers probing
scientifically for proof
of their own existence.

The paper mills chew their sawed trunks
into pulp that steams
in the chill damp dark,
and emits a stench
most akin to boiled cabbage
when it rains
and traps the scent
closer to the earth.

Some days it’s difficult to tell
where the rising smoke
from the slate gray chimneys
comes to its end, and where the clouds
begin, so many swollen vessels
competing for space
on the ever shifting skyline,
it’d be beautiful if not so obscene.

These testaments of human progress,
factories, plants, wonders
of the mechanical age,
they light up like spaceships
from some Spielbergian dream
where strange visitors
make friends with troubled kids
then leave them awestruck
and staring after stars
just as the music’s crescendo
begins its inevitable fade.

night rider

night rider

white water falling from black jagged rocks,
trickles into thin rivulets
like pale fingers
stroking a consensual body
and these trees lean over, observant.

I look at my hands and feel detached
from the sensation of touch,
my mind unable to flex a fist
and these appendages moving
independent of my thoughts.

shadows criss-cross every road
in conjunction and relative
to location of the sun,
winking between the branches
becoming silhouettes, inverse lightning.

at night, the frogs are awake
and cacophonous, white noise,
an engine left to idle
where the air rests like a damp cloth
on my forehead to calm my nerves.

there’s the moon oblivious to its phases,
to its many faces,
dropping its white halo
into the mist and fog,
creeping parade of ghostly caravans.

my mind is free again
to observe the minutiae
of light’s give and take
among the pine needles
and foamy splashes along river’s edge.

I’ll purchases hiking boots
and a new guitar
like a premonition
of life’s continuance
that the mountain refuses to notice.