WHAT THE PAIN LEFT, Sandra Noel. Kelsay Books, 502 South 1040 East, A-119, American Fork, Utah 84003, 2024, 56 pages, $20 paper,

Although it is always a pleasure to read poems by Vashon Island poet Sandra Noel, this book felt very different from the two I have previously reviewed, Hawk Land (2022) and The Gypsy in My Kitchen  (2015). Dedicated to her husband, who died in 2022, What the Pain Left is painted from a different palette. Though crafted with Noel’s eye for detail, her heart for nature, here the “commotion / of silver-scaled abundance / falling from nets” in “Love and Marriage,” feels doomed from the start. In “We Speak About Death Over Burgers and Fries.” I was amazed at Noel’s poise in navigating the trajectory of this book, encompassing a 40-year history: courtship to death and out the other side, alone.

I will catch you
or we will fall together
maybe there is another level
in this warren
a way out of the labyrinth.

end lines from “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Of course there is no other way out of life, and perhaps that’s why the poems are often spare, more spare than I’ve noticed in Noel’s previous books. They are tender with feeling, and accessible; for the most part, Noel omits punctuation, placing together lines about a heron abruptly with “tragedies / float noisily by” (“In the Shadows”). Unexpected capital letters intrude, and exclamation marks. All of which seem to be insisting on making sense of what feels senseless, an illness, ineffectual treatment, and untimely death. This praise from the back cover, felt apt:

Part diary, part love letter, Noel’s humor, gratitude, and self-awareness keep these poems honest and truly from the heart. –Katy E. Ellis

The cover art is by Sandra Noel, herself, a watercolor painting of Gaibo Whaling Station, Wadaura, Chiba Prefecture, Japan. In the poem, “Love and Marriage,” the whaling station provides a metaphor—at least, so I thought—for the messiness of life:

Love and Marriage

Every morning
we walked to the whaling station
bought hot sweet coffee in cans
from a machine on the street
too early for the sun but not the market
as vendors shoveled crushed ice
into large blue bins
and elegant fishing boats glided
alongside the dock
their holds full and ready to disgorge.

As we sipped our coffee
arm in arm
I listened to the talk of local women
understanding nothing
and everything as women do.

Then I saw your sea blue eyes
bright with promise
the same way you looked at me
gazing over that commotion
of silver-scaled abundance
falling from nets onto the dock
into the waiting bins of ice
and hopeful buyers with their yen
fish sorted from fish
squid, octopus, sea squirts
and smaller, even stranger creatures.

You pushed me forward
when the crowd thinned out
kneeling, picked up wriggling globs
telling me their scientific names
as my eyes wandered to seabirds
frenzied by the blood and entrails
where women cleaned fish in seawater
then, over your beautiful shoulders
to the sea, bright blue
the great Eastern Sun slowly rising
turning the bay into liquid gold.

“Are you listening to me!?”
“Yes,” I said, “Yes of course!”
and when I think of that first lie
I remember all the others
the kind that make a marriage work
but destroy a love affair.

—Sandra Noel

Notice how the lack of punctuation makes some lines ambiguous. Is it the local women who understand nothing, as women do? or is it the I, listening, who understands nothing? The latter interpretation makes, “Then I saw your sea blue eyes” a kind of homecoming, a moment of pure understanding. That the poem’s ending feels unresolved, or imperfectly resolved (going on a couple beats too long, or cut short?), is a simulacrum of a life ended too soon, and part of what makes this collection of poems so moving.

You can learn more by visiting Noel’s website, Noel Design. Or visit her book page at Kelsay Books.

Good Poetry for Hard Times

I have mentioned my upcoming class, Good Poetry for Hard Times, to you before, and posted the announcement on my Home page with other events, but this evening I’m taking a moment to promote it again. In short:

My Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) class begins May 24 and continues for a total of four Fridays, on Zoom, 1-3:00.  As far as I know, anyone can take a CRI class (do you have to prove you’re retired? I don’t think so), and they are inexpensive.  This class is $58.

For some backstory, I first proposed to teach a Zoom poetry workshop. CRI doesn’t do craft classes, it turns out, but rather than simply say no, they asked if I would consider teaching a class about poetry, and I said yes.

The first title was Your Memorable Poem (like my workshop last year), but someone at CRI didn’t like that title. We came up with Good Poetry for Hard Times because I had been thinking a lot about Gaza, Ukraine, Nigeria…political division in our own country, mass shooti… Okay, I’m going to stop there. My thought was, Who has time to read (or write) poetry? Does the world need another poem? Shouldn’t I be doing something?

When I asked my journal that question, these are some responses my brain came up with:

1. Reading poetry (writing poetry, too) is doing something. It makes us pause and catch our breath. It can bring us joy (it definitely brings me joy).

2. A good poem, shared at the right moment, brings breath and joy and hope to the recipient, too.

3. To expand on that, poetry (all art for that matter, and joy, too) is not a luxury. We need it.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence … The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

—Audre Lorde

4. How is poetry a necessity? William Stafford called it a way of paying attention, and what could be more useful today than a habit of attention? Not distraction, not self-medicating. Attention.

5. Poems help make sense of loss. They are vehicles for emotion, and when we see that this poet — famous, obscure, long long dead — felt what we feel, then at the very least we feel less alone.

6. In times past, when poets retreated into the mountains (Basho, Yuanming) or into monasteries (Gerard Manley Hopkins), or into their upstairs bedroom (Emily Dickinson), what were they retreating from? How did their poetry help them to survive? (How might their poetry help us to survive our times?) Nothing too shocking or earth-shattering, but these are the questions I would like to sit with for a while.

What will each class look like?

I’m cobbling together a handout of about 50 poems that inspire me. At each session, I’ll read several poems aloud, pausing over each poem to introduce the poet, and offering context I find useful. I will also talk through what I find intriguing, healing, inspiring, memorable about each poem. Other participants (are they students if there’s no prep and no homework?) are encouraged to break in with questions or to add their comments and insights to mine. (I am HOPING people will want to talk about the poems.)

I predict that the time will fly by. So, here’s why I’m promoting it:

The class is a go, but it is slightly under-enrolled, and I’m really really hoping for a few more people. All motivations welcome:

  • The person who slept through poetry class in high school, but is ready now to see what all the fuss is about. “What’s this I hear about poetry being good for your brain?”
  • Someone who read Priscilla Long’s Dancing with the Muse in Old Age and could use an introduction to poetry before beginning his own writing practice.
  • Anyone who has been reading and writing poems for years, but, like me, finds this particular conversation timely and intriguing.

The creation of art, okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it, is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness.

—Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness

If you — or someone you know — fits into any of these categories, here’s the link for CRI:

I hope to see some of you there. White hair not required.


[I believe this link will take you directly to the course description:]





Lana Hechtman Ayers, WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, Lana Hechtman Ayers. The Poetry Box, Portland, OR, 2023, 128 pages, $18.00,

When All Else Fails is a book-length memoir, beginning in the dark basement of a childhood of abuse and poverty, isolation, and estrangement. A violent mother, schoolmates who shun and ridicule. But lifting into something above storm-blown shingles of a rooftop. I imagine it a cupola filled with light, or the starry sky itself.

Poetry’s saving power is everywhere evident in these poems, even in the poems from childhood. In “The Slap,” for instance, where a leaf speaks, and in “The Thing with Feathers,” where a small brown bird outside a child’s window comes into its name, a wren. Of course the poet will find a way to rename herself (and it won’t be “fatso,” or “retard”), to love herself.  A father’s patient presence despite hardship is a great help, as are good grandparents.

And books: “Library books saved me from a dark childhood,” the poet writes in “Savior,” a poem about her brother’s less bookish transformation. In poems such as “I never thought to lie down with my father” (the title is the first line of the poem), and “I Knew,” with its perfect epigraph from Ellen Bass—What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someonewe witness the poet’s transforming forgiveness even of her mother. Let me add a little to this. From early in the book, we know the mother’s violence, her name-calling. But in “I Knew,” late in the book, we see another way to be:

Leaning in close
I kissed her cold forehead,
kissed her rigid mouth,
kissed her angry mouth,
my touch being her last,
knowing she would hate that. (p 55)

Many of the poems lean on narrative, and some pieces are in prose. But this is a poet who can, just as easily, delight us with music and image. Consider this, the first poem in the collection:

My River Runs

My river waits reply.
                        —Emily Dickinson

Born to basement rivers after rainstorm.
To a Charlie Brown rose bush that teetered
on a single thorned bough, and the one bud
a season that never opened.
Born to mother’s word.
Bus rides with multiple transfers,
escape being more waiting & wrecked
umbrellas than flight.
Born to wide feet, wearing men’s boots,
treading-gait free of grace.
Born to Neruda’s short love & long remembering.
To the door ajar that oceans are.
Born to if only and why must…
To discover the Atlantic’s pulse in my throat,
the Acadia forest beneath my ribcage.
Born to trip, to topple, to tumble.
Born to the sky’s reporter,
mood ring for the rain.
To be a lap for paws, a map of bejeweled weariness.
To memorize the changing light.
Born to curl hand around pen and ride
the whitewater rapids of poetry,
no lifejacket required.

—Lana Hechtman Ayers

The arc of the book takes us from childhood to age, from New York to Oregon where she now lives and writes, and holds our hand through the loss of dear friends and mentors, and recent hard times: Covid-19, race injustice, gun violence, personal illness. Always, the sunlight breaks in so that odes to breasts and biopsies stand side by side with odes to camellias. It’s a primer on how to navigate a life with grace.

Just a few words more on being saved by poetry. Hechtman Ayers is the managing editor of three poetry presses—Concrete Wolf, MoonPath Press, and World Enough Writers. In these poems, over and over, she reveals herself as a true believer:

I am waiting for the police
…to be taken into
custody by poets,
and taught to recite Dickinson
and Whitman from memory.     (from “What I Am Waiting For,” p 69)

For now, all I want to do
is pray day and night:
Pablo Neruda, Warsan Shire,
Langston Hughes, Patricia Fargnoli,
Richard Blanco, Alison Luterman,
Octavio Paz, Ellen Bass.     (from “Creed,” p 109)

To learn more about Lana, visit her Poetry Box book page, here, or her website,, where you can sign up for her newsletter, always a poem she has gleaned from her reading. And, while there, soak up the quote that adorns her opening page, a quote she very clearly lives by:

“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

–Vincent Van Gogh

Everything Has Two Handles

Over the years, in my quest to keep learning more about the craft of writing, I seem to have subscribed to a number of self-helpery blogs. Usually I delete the notifications without reading. Occasionally I take the time to unsubscribe. This morning, this title caught my eye and I clicked on it and read all the way through.

Beautiful and timely.

I’ve been writing a story that attempts to address the Greek idea of aporia — so this paragraph was important:

Everything is an opportunity for excellence. The now famous passage from Marcus Aurelius is that the impediment to action advances action, that what stands in the way becomes the way. But do you know what he was talking about specifically? He was talking about difficult people! He was saying that difficult people are an opportunity to practice excellence and virtue–be it forgiveness or patience or cheerfulness. And so it goes for all the things that are not in our control in life. So when I find myself in situations big and small, positive or negative, I try to see each of them as an opportunity for me to be the best I’m capable of being in that moment. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are, we can always do this.

-Ryan Holiday

I could quote from almost all 14 points, but I especially needed to hear, “You don’t have to have an opinion about everything.” (A choice one of my daughters is making, for instance.) Here’s the link: