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

Patricia Fargnoli (1937-2021)

WINTER, Patricia Fargnoli. Hobblebush Books, Brookline, NH, 2013, 88 pages, $18, paper,

When MoonPath’s Lana Hechtman Ayres told me Patricia Fargnoli had been her teacher and mentor, I went looking for her. Winter, the sixth volume in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, was the first to arrive, and is now on sale for $9 at Hobblebush Books (use this link:

I have fallen hard for this book, and this poet. In “The Horse,” she begins:

I let the horse into my apartment,
pushed back chairs,
shoved the rattan chest
up against the tall bookcases…

Horses abound in this book. What’s not to love?

In addition to any other praise I might dish out, it’s a perfect book to read on a cold and rainy January day. Yes, New Hampshire, snow, but it works its spell here in the Pacific Northwest, too: “[I] found a sad music in the fork of an ash tree, / a music made of wind and the tuning forks of stars” (“Glosa”). As Meg Kearney tells us on the back cover, Fargnoli has “listened deeply to the silence of winter.”

Many of the poems in Winter are about dreams. A line from “Beginning of Winter—A Sijo Sequence”: “Last night in the dream I was hungry, but there was no food.” Or the ending of “Letter to my Double”:

Your dreams tell you what you want:
a man’s arms around your body, a safe place near water,
a bus that arrives on time to carry you home.

She captures the mundane, that daily seemingly ordinary life that we all find ourselves up against, while lifting it above the ordinary. Home, here, is not just the physical place where you lie down at night. The following poem, too, is about an actual place (Ireland, which made me choose it), but it transports us into a dreamscape:


            after Tranströmer’s “Track”

Thousands of crows flew through the Irish dusk
toward the copse of dark plane trees not far from here,
between the university and the famous river,

as when memories wing in from your past
with their loud continuous cawing
and then move beyond you, you don’t know where.

Or as when someone dies and her spirit rises
to join the others who are leaving the world’s sadness
to find a resting place in the quiet night branches beyond you.

The crows streamed past the high clerestory windows.
Dusk. The small wood they entered. The silver river.

—Patricia Fargnoli (from Winter)

Notice how the crows are actual, but spur memories that “wing in from your past / with their loud continuous cawing.” Sorry, but I just want to gush on and on. I’ve been thinking (a lot) about how one gets the evanescent, the transcendent into one’s poems, and Fargnoli offers a master class.

When I was working on The Pear Tree, I often thought of something Priscilla Long says in her chapter, “Art and Elegy,” in Dancing with the Muse in Old Age:

“Is it too obvious to say that one advantage of growing old is to remain alive to the beauty and suffering of the world? To make an elegy is to express that beauty and that suffering.” —Priscilla Long

The elegy, the courage to elegize, is a strength of Fargnoli’s Winter.

To learn more about Patricia Fargnoli, visit her page at Hobblebush Books (“Read Sample” offers a PDF of the opening pages of Winter, including the informative table of contents and the first few poems). When I Googled her name I found several video recordings of “Winter’s Grace,” perhaps her best-known poem (which you can also find at Simply gorgeous.

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:

Donna Hilbert, Threnody

THRENODY: POEMS, Donna Hilbert. Moon Tide Press, 6709 Whittier, CA 90608, 2022, 102 pages, $15 paper,

ESSAYS ONE, Lydia Davis. Picador, 120 Broadway, New York 10271, 2019, 528 pages, $30 paper,

While reading poems this month, and blogging each day, I have also been reading Lydia Davis’s Essays One, a gift from a friend. She said, “You must read ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” so I did, and now I am reading the whole fat book from the beginning. This week, I am stuck at Davis’s essay, “Fragmentary or Unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert.”

Of course, any book, and any piece of writing, is already part of a cooperative. It is, in itself as printed on the page, incomplete. It requires a reader to complete it. But the reader may also misunderstand it, distort it in favor of another idea, forget large parts of it, misremember it, create something different in misremembering it, etc. All these responses are perfectly legitimate parts of the cooperative act. (Davis, p. 204)

It strikes me that all poems are, by definition, fragmented. Too densely written, too explanatory, they tip over into prose. (One of my own dangers, in writing narrative poems.) While reading Donna Hilbert’s poetry, Davis’s words have hung over me and made me wonder where I’m not being equal to the task. Consider this, the shortest poem in the book:


In the dishwasher,
nothing but spoons.

—Donna Hilbert

And consider Davis’s insight into uses of the fragment, the fragmented:

…when I think of the fragment, old or new—it is a text that works with silence, ellipsis, abbreviation, suggesting that something is missing, but that has the effect of a complete experience. (Davis, p. 208)

Hilbert has a big job, writing about grief. Again, I think of Lydia Davis. In this passage she  quotes Barthes: “incoherence is preferable to a distorting order” (p. 220), then continues to comment on Mallarmé’s book after the death of his son, A Tomb for Anatole:

The notes become the most immediate expression, the closest mirroring, of the writer’s emotion at the inspiring subject, the writer’s stutter, and the reader, witnessing the writer’s stutter, is witness not only to his grief but also to his process, to the workings of his mind, closer to what we might think of as the origins of his writing. (Davis, p.221)

This is what I think Hilbert is doing throughout Threnody, deliberately conveying a fragmenting experience. I first caught sight of this book on the publisher’s website, and both the title and cover leapt out at me, threnody, meaning lament. As I was trying to cobble together a book of poems about my childhood, and the loss of my parents, I felt Hilbert’s book would be of help.

It turns out that Hilbert is lamenting many things (as are we all), and though her husband’s death looms (“looms” is the wrong verb), she is also writing about the pandemic, about a stand of trees that shelter a heronry, about children leaving home, about her (our) own inevitable aging. A few of the poems are longer, and, on a first reading, had more of an impact on me. But when I began rereading the poems this morning, the shorter poems got their due. Here is another example:


For the brown pelican
diving into morning ocean,
I thank you, Rachel Carson.

—Donna Hilbert

If you encounter this poem all on its own, it seems true, of course (don’t we agree?), but … it’s hardly enough. In the context of this particular book, however, where things and people are lost who will never come back, where birds weave in and out of many of the poems, it fits like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and helps create the whole. Or, do I mean “the whole”? Words fail me. It takes a sympathetic reader to fill in the gaps. I think that’s the point. 

I have been trying to write this review all day, and it (certainly) is not enough. Let me leave you with one of Hilbert’s longer poems.

Walking the Palo Alto Marshes in My Red Coat

Say mud flat, salt marsh, bittern, egret.
Say egret without thinking regret
one letter away.

Say morning is a gift.
Say the mud flat is a silver tray.
Say birds sing like an orchestra tuning.

I am looking for a prayer.
I am walking for the saving incantation.
I am working at metaphor.

Say blackbird.
Say red wings like epaulets of blood.
Say heart: red four-chambered room.

Say womb, breast, cradle, boat.
Say desire.
Say desire: dark and fathomless,

the iris of an eye, your eye, the sea.
Say desire,
which is the boat.

I am wearing my red coat against the cold.

—Donna Hilbert

In short, the first time I read Threnody, several months ago, it didn’t have much impact. My re-reading of it, today, felt much different, and I’m grateful I decided to circle back to it.

Donna Hilbert has several books, and is the subject of a documentary about her work and life, Grief Becomes Her: A Love Story. To read about Donna Hilbert, check out her personal website. You can listen to a poem from one of her previous books on The Writer’s Almanac, here.