Linda McCarriston, Eva-Mary

EVA-MARY, Linda McCarriston. Tri-Quarterly Books, Northwestern University, 2020 Ridge Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208, 1991, 78 pages $10.95 paper.

A friend gave this book to me in 1993, the year my twins were born. I don’t know when I read it, though I know I eventually did. Since then—for most of the last thirty years—it has been shelved above my writing chair with a lot of other poetry books.

I meant to write about another poet today, and their 2023 book of poems, but for some reason this morning I took down Eva-Mary and opened it to the first poem, “The Apple Tree,” dedicated to the poet’s mother. “Oh, yes,” I thought. “I remember this book.”

I was misremembering it.

Yes to blossoms, yes to family kitchens, yes to horses, yes to Irish ballads. But also yes to women raped with rifle barrels, to incest, to judges ordering women home to abusive husbands, priests ordering bruised daughters, “Mind your father.” The time-line stretches into adulthood, into divorce and custody battles. Even so, Eva-Mary is beautifully wrought, the winner of the Terrence Des Pres Prize for Poetry, a finalist for the National Book Award, in its 3rd printing by the time it came to me. I read every page (as if I’d opened a dystopian novella, I couldn’t pry my eyes away), and even so I can’t seem to offer this review without a trigger warning.

One reads this book, from the second poem (“To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons”) onward knowing exactly what the subject matter is, so I’m not giving away the content. And, on the chance that one of my readers needs permission to write her or his own devastating truth, I am happy to recommend this book. McCarriston does it brilliantly. (You could take nothing away but the metaphors and be redeemed.)

I know that I read this book, by the way, because I can see the ways in which it influenced my own writing. Here is perhaps my favorite McCarriston poem in this collection:

A Thousand Genuflections

Winter mornings when I call her,
out of falling snow she trots
into view, her tail and mane
made flame by movement, carrying,
as line and motion, back into air
her shape and substance—like fire
into heat into light, turns
the candle takes, burning.
And her head—her senses,
every one a scout sent out
ahead of her, behind, beside:
Her eye upon me, over the distance,
her ear, its million listeners,
delicate and vast her nose, her mouth,
her voice upon me, closing the distance.
I could just put the buckets down
and go, but I kneel to hold them
as she eats, as she drinks, to be
this close. For something of myself
lives here, stripped of the knowing
that is not knowing, a single thing
from the least webbed tissues
of the heart straight out to the tips
of the guard hairs that shimmer off
beyond my sight into air, the grasses,
grain, the water, light.
I’ve come like this each day
for years across the hard winters,
seeing a figure for the thing itself,
divine—appetite and breath,
flesh and attention. This morning
her presence asks of me: And might
you be your body? Might we be
not the figure, but the thing itself?

—Linda McCarriston

Among these poems (not to mention among horses) there is also great power to bless and console.

I’ve now learned that McCarriston wrote on, winning many awards. She is professor emeritus at the Low-Residency Creative Writing Program, University of Alaska, Anchorage, and you can learn more about her at Poetry Foundation and on her page at UAA.

At Poetry Foundation, I found another horse poem that I am compelled to share:

Monica Sok, A Nail the Evening Hangs On

A NAIL THE EVENING HANGS ON, Monica Sok. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 2020, 64 pages, $16 paper,

You know those poems you write into your commonplace book or send to friends when they go through a hard time? The poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On are not those poems.

“A daughter of survivors” (“Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions”), Monica Sok acts as witness for the Cambodian diaspora. Although she was born in 1990, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and now teaches in California, Sok’s relationship to America feels tenuous, on trial, as she retells, re-imagines, and brings to vivid life the 1970s genocide previous Cambodian generations escaped, and the trauma they brought with them and handed down.

Words such as “unflinching,” “powerful,” and “loss” abound in the reviews. From the cover:

“Embracing collective memory, both real and imagined, these poems traverse time to break familial silence. Through persona, myth, and invention, Sok joins voices and fragments in a transformative work that builds toward wholeness.”

The book is arranged in three sections: the first section is set in Cambodia; the third in the poet’s contemporary life (riddled by memory); the second section is one poem in parts about a visit with a six-year-old to a war museum, Tuol Sleng:

A boy runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,
his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.
He checks every classroom for the other kids.
He sits in a chair and waits. When I walk in,
he whispers, ghost.

In short, these poems struck me as both haunted and necessary. By the time I reached the final poem, “Here Is Your Name,” I, too, felt transformed by the poet’s memory, by her powerful witness of war’s legacy.


The fishermen, desperate, poisoned them with a cloudy gasoline
so they dropped like apples to the ground underneath a tree.

Except these were birds out of water, the conservationist said.
Sarus cranes, their long legs still wet, were sold for $200 each

at the border market, where Thais bought them and turned around.
After the war, that was how the local villagers made money.

The cranes, near extinction, migrated to waters near a Khmer Rouge holding,
where no one dared go, not that a mandate said keep out, no sign written

in blood. They rationed their food, knowing the pendulum of war
could swing anytime, and they’d need something to eat before evacuating.

They were sure it wasn’t over. Invisible the egrets and ibises, invisible
the forests of the eastern border to the one they shared with Laos.

This is why the wind blows a drought hard across the land, tonnage of life
destroyed in the invisible, invisible land.

—Monica Sok

So there is beauty in this book, but it breaks your heart.

To find more poems by Monica Sok, visit her webpage:, or The Poetry Foundation.

Colleen McElroy, Blood Memory

BLOOD MEMORY, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260, 2016, 112 pages, $15.95 paper,

I met Professor Colleen J. McElroy when I was a newly minted MFA student at the University of Washington in 1985. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “storyteller.” Yes, she taught us (a lot) about poetry and the making of poems, but part of the glamor of her classes, for me, was when she would lean back in her chair, half-close her eyes, and begin telling a story. She put all of us in a trance.

The stories were about her travels—which were many; about poets she’d met and read with all over the world; about her St. Louis childhood; about her family, particularly the women who taught her how to tell stories. Reading Blood Memory transports me back to her classrooms, and to her office where, as my faculty advisor, she met with me (and regaled me) weekly. I read these poems, and I hear her voice, its cadence, its rich timbre, her laughter. And, sometimes, I can see her, fixing me with a look that she must have learned at the feet of the indomitable women who peopled her childhood.

from “Paint Me Visible”:

in a family of beautiful intelligent and profoundly
crazy women     one danced in the dark
to soothe her nerves      another wove shawls
from her husband’s hair and discarded both
when the work was done      another read palms
tea leaves   cards   anything that left an imprint
on her inner eye    neighbors said she saw
things nobody else could describe

From hopscotch rhymes to blues, through birth, abortion, estrangement, exile, and return no one can describe this world the way McElroy can. Here is the book’s opening poem:

The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the questions
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now lived again through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of the metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

—Colleen J. McElroy

From the back cover, these words of description and praise:

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Cloudy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn’t know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.” —Nikki Finney

Exactly so.

To read more about Colleen J. McElroy, find her at The Poetry Foundation,, and I recommend this interview with Bill Kenower of author Here she talks about where she learned to tell stories. And (love this) she talks about poetry as not just any relationship, “but an affair.” Maybe that helps explain the clotted love that breaks to the surface in poem after poem in this book.

I first read Blood Memory when it was released in 2016. It was a delight to read it this morning and enter the trance again.

And, again, the link to her at

Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Reliquenda

RELIQUENDA, Alexandra Lytton Regalado. Beacon Press, Massachusetts, 2022, 84 pages, $16.95 paper,

Reliquenda means to abandon, relinquish, or that which must be relinquished. It’s a perfect title for this heart-thumping, amazing book about family, exile, separation, death, and identity. Salvadoran-American poet Regalado knows whereof she speaks. In the words of Reginald Dwayne Betts, who chose Reliquenda for the National Poetry Series,

Reliquenda is a rarity in that, in one book, it contains a multiplicity of longings and reckonings. Alexandra Regalado is poet as historian, and poet as that family member we all have who keeps the names in whatever holy book we name, the one who has the photo albums—and more than that, who we gather around when they begin to sing our stories.

Regalado reports that she wrote the heart of this book during the 89 days of lockdown in 2020, when she was stranded in Miami with her mother and grandmother, after the death of her father, while her husband and children were in El Salvador. The poems negotiate, linger over, and meditate on all of these themes. I visited several websites, looking for responses (so much praise), and you might start by checking out the National Poetry Series website (Reliquenda was the 2021 winner), and this interview at People Chica:

Here, one of the shorter poems:

The Garden of Earthly Delights

He is imminent, they have told us, a softer way of saying
he is about to die, like the words passed away, passed
to a place that is far, not here, cannot or will not
say where. Passed, as if through a threshold, to a place
we cannot follow, unknown to us. He died. It has a thud
to it, a spade of soil, the two d’s standing at either side
like bookends, died, bracing the solitary i, the self & the e,
his initial. His signature, a perfect birdswoop of wings.
And taking him by the hand, he flexes his fingers in sleep,
as if strumming guitar strings, notes that resound
in the caves of Sacromonte, geraniums in clay pots.
A puzzle on the table, half completed, all that blue & green,
grass & sky, tiny naked bodies, towers of fleshy fruits, a carousel
of dancing animals, & from somewhere comes
the music of a guitar, notes played by an unseen hand.
The adagio echoes in that whitewashed cave as we watch him pass.

—Alexandra Lytton Regalado

Many of the poems here are multi-lingual, many are choreographed across the pages, or have lines (whole poems?) by other poets woven through them. Sometimes such poems feel gimmicky to old-school me, but I was enthralled by Regalado’s choices from page one to the end. I recently—in Demystifying the Manuscript­­: Essays and Interview on Creating a Book of Poems (edited by Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon)—came across the advice to choose 5 or 10 poetry books that you would want to consult while putting your own poems into some sort of order. Reliquenda is now on my list. I found it astonishing.

You’ll find more poems and commentary on Regalado at Poets.Org and Poetry Foundation, also her website: