Martha Silano, Reckless, Lovely

RECKLESS LOVELY, Martha Silano. Saturnalia Books, 105 Woodside Rd., Ardmore, PA 19003, 2014, 88 pages, $15 paper,

I don’t think I’m alone in often picking up poetry books that remind me of my own poems—or poems a couple tiers up, aspirational Bethany Reid poems. But today’s book spun me, and made me want to tear everything down and start over.

Maybe by taking better notes in the Astronomy class I took from Bruce Margon in 1985. Maybe by taking my kids to more museums and fewer playlands.

No matter, it was my great pleasure to spend the morning with these poems, and this poet, someone I am pleased to say is, like me, a northwest poet. Or “northwest poet plus the universe.” From the Big Bang to La-Z-boys, it’s a book that drenches you in specific language, leaves your head buzzing with Astro-physics and Da Vinci, madonnas and Neanderthals. (And so much Italian food.) I hardly know where to begin. Maybe by simply sharing this profile from the Saturnalia website—which does a splendid job of capturing Silano’s many achievements:

Martha Silano is the author of five volumes of poetry, including Gravity Assist, Reckless Lovely, and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, all from Saturnalia Books. She is also co-author of The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice. Martha’s poems have appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and the Best American Poetry series. Honors include North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize and the Cincinnati Review’s Robert and Adele Schiff Poetry Prize. She currently teaches at Bellevue College and Seattle’s Hugo House.

“Inventive, chewy language,” Aimee Nezhukumatahil informs us. Precise language, marvelously multi-disciplinary, fantastic, inspiring.

To prove my point, one poem:

Pale Blue Dot

Candice Hansen Koharcheck, I’m not sure how
to pronounce your name, but you were the first

to spot it, this two-pixel speck otherwise known
as planet Earth. Sitting at your screen, shades drawn,

office dark, you searched the digital photos sent back
by Voyager 1, four billion miles from your desk.

And there it was, not the big blue marble swirling
with clouds and continents, not the one Apollo astronauts

the sheer beauty brought tears—thanking God and America,
declaring no need to fight over borders or oil; this was not

that view; this was how our planet might look to an alien.
And yet how close this photo came to not being taken at all;

scientists arguing aiming the camera back at the sun
might fry the lens, questioning the worth of such a risk;

this shot you say still gives you chills, dear Candice,
our planet bathed in the spacecraft’s reflective light.

Pale blue dot lit by a glowing beam: I’m surprised
Christians didn’t have a hey day, though viewing

His his crowning achievement requires squinting.
When NASA put it on display at the Jet Propulsion Lab,

a blow-up print spanning fourteen feet, visitors touched
the pinprick so often the image needed constant replacing,

perhaps because without the little arrow we wouldn’t know
which pinprick was home. And yet its barely-there-ness

doesn’t excuse the plastic bags, duct tape, juice packs,
sweat pants that lodge in the stomachs of whales. And yet

its lack of distinction doesn’t pardon the brown-pudding goop
on the Gulf of Mexico’s floor, a goop in which nothing alive

has been found. To reckon that speck, mourn the loss
of the black torrent toad. To take it in, grasp its full weight,

then turn toward a child’s insistent give me a ride in a rocket ship!
With meteors and turbulence! Like you, dear Candice, alone

and in the dark while a loved one’s asking Where are you going?
When are you coming back?

—Martha Silano

A romp of a book. A gift. A call to ars poetica, and to arms.

To read more about Silano, visit her website, or this page at The Seattle Review (including a bit of a tutorial on endings, by the way); you can read a review of Reckless Lovely at The Los Angeles Review

Richard Hugo, 1923-1982

DUWAMISH HEAD, Richard Hugo. Copperhead, Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368, 1976, 24 pages, out of print.

I have an extraordinarily busy day lined up, and beginning early, so I’m sharing with you a chapbook of poems by Richard Hugo, recently passed along to me by a friend who was letting go of some books. Copperhead no longer exists, and I couldn’t find any mention of it when I searched, but I suspect it was a precursor of Copper Canyon, as this chapbook was produced by Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson.

I can’t imagine that any northwest poet doesn’t know Richard Hugo’s work. Perhaps his collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On (Norton, 1984), is on your shelf, as it is on mine. But, just in case, here’s one poem:

Back of Gino’s Place

Most neglect this road, the concrete torn
and hunched, purple boxcars
roasting in the wind or in the sun,
both direct as brass. Only smoke
from two shacks and a scratchy radio
prevent abandonment from falling
on this lateral bare area like fog.

In the winter what clean nightmare
brought a sketcher here
to risk his hands, the loss of line
in this much light? Not the poverty
alone, but other ways of being,
using basic heat: wood brought in
by the same sea that is blaring
wealthy ships to a freshly painted port.

He was right to come. Light
in this place cannot kill the lines
of the charred boat, the rusted net,
the log-boom beached and slanted
waiting for a tide. Not when a need to die
here, just to be an unobtrusive ghost,
takes from mud and wood the color of the day.

—Richard Hugo

Reading these poems takes me back to my early MFA workshops—this would be 1988 or -89—when we were assigned Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1971), reading aloud to hear the strongly iambic beats. Many of the titles here (“Duwamish,” “Duwamish No. 2,” “West Marginal Way,” “Duwamish Head”) tip us off to Hugo’s trademark evocation of place. Not just place names, but mudhens, cormorants,  teal, grebes, and salmon.

Hugo’s music is irregular. Sometimes he relies on the iambic 10-syllable line. Then he breaks the pattern and you’re not sure. You can trace the sounds by reading aloud the end words of lines, in the first stanza of “Duwamish,” for instance: river’s / knocks / crud / out-tide / sea / nails /ovens / owns / spines / bribes / coins. Almost all concrete nouns.  The ending of knocks chimes with crud, crud chimes with out-tide. Subtly.

His biography at Poetry Foundation includes this insightful paragraph:

In his poems Hugo reflected as much upon the internal region of the individual as on the external region of the natural world, and he considered these two deeply interconnected. According to Frederick Garber, “the landscape where things happen to Hugo goes as far into his mind as it goes outside of it”; Hugo’s poetry “is about the meeting of these landscapes.” The role of the past as a shaping force on the individual predominates. While “failed towns, isolated people and communities imprisoned in walls of boredom and rage,” as Michael Allen notes, are often the subjects of Hugo’s poems, there is also a pervading sense of optimism, of an uplifting hope, as Hugo puts it, “that humanity will always survive civilization.”

I was amused, looking up the book on-line, to find signed copies for $3 (the original price) , and for $150. My copy is pretty beat-up, and not signed. I think I’ll keep it.

Visit Poetry Foundation, linked above, or to learn more. I found the photograph of Hugo here.

I also found a couple videos of Hugo reading (listen for the cadence), including this short feature (5 min) from PBS. (However, when he’s talking, toward the end, the subtitle says “Ricky,” when he says “Roethke,” which is really annoying.)

Warsan Shire, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head

BLESS THE DAUGHTER RAISED BY A VOICE IN HER HEAD, Warsan Shire. Random House, New York, 2022, 93 pages, $17.00 paper,

“No one leaves home unless one’s home is the mouth of a shark” writes Warsaw Shire in her powerful and explosive poem, “Home.” This line sounded so familiar to me that I thought Shire must be quoting someone. But, no. In fact, people are quoting poet Warsan Shire, and the line has become a rallying cry for refugees, immigrants, and human rights advocates. Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Shire has lived in Britain and the U. S. The poems are often shocking, always authentic.

Consider the fourth stanza of “Home”:

No one would choose to crawl under fences, beaten until your shadow leaves, raped, forced off the boat because you are darker, drowned, sold, starved, shot at the border like a sick animal, pitied. No one would choose to make a refugee camp home for a year or two or ten, stripped and searched, finding prison everywhere. And if you were to survive, greeted on the other side—go home Blacks, dirty refugees, sucking our country dry of milk, dark with their hands out, smell strange, savage, look what they’ve done to their own countries, what will they do to ours? 

Roxane Gay wrote of this book: “Warsan Shire electrifies. The beautifully crafted poems in this collection are fiercely tender gifts.” And in every review, the praise echoes and continues: “fierce and compelling,” “exquisite, memorable,” “full of ferocious love and truth.” And music. Poet Terrance Hayes says of it:

“It is not overstatement to say Shire writes the way that Nina Simone sang. All the brilliance of her lean, monumental Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is magnified in this remarkable new book.”

This was another book whose cover (and its provocative title) grabbed me as I browsed bookstore shelves for something else. Despite our cultural differences, it was a book I eagerly read straight through. A book of mothers and daughters, wombs and vaginas and silenced mouths: “Infants swaddled in blood, the bees / bring messages of postpartum grief. / Your girlhood an incubation for madness” (Hooyo [mother] Full of Grace”). And healing, too, or if not healing, holding out the promise of a devouring wholeness:

Under your feet, the trapdoor to heaven
opens its mouth, its teeth
grazing your toes.

Fathers and brothers infiltrate (read the long poem “Backwards” to see for yourself), as in this poem, which could be ripped from the headlines in any U. S. city. A note adds, “In Islam, Azrael is the angel of death who separates souls from their bodies,” which increases the menace.

Bless Our CCTV Star

Ma’am / is that your brother /
being breastfed / by hooded
goons / are those your brother’s
teeth / caught on speed cameras /
eroding in real time / is that your
brother’s face / marred by pixelation /
you say you’re able to recognize
him / from any distance / and from this distance
you say the figures appeared to be /
swaying / under the moon’s cordial light? /
And you say one of those dark
figures / may have been Azrael /
with his scythe tucked / under his
chin / like a violin / and the notes
he played / you say you already
heard in a dream?

—Warsan Shire

Shire now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. Read more about her at Poetry Foundation, here,

You can hear Shire read “Home” here,, and I recommend that you do.

Caitlin Scarano, The Necessity of Wildfire

THE NECESSITY OF WILDFIRE, Caitlin Scarano. Blair, Durham, North Carolina, 2022, 78 pages, $16.95 paper,

I have to tell you that I fell hard for this book. I was cobbling together my Escape Into Life review of Ada Limón’s The Hurting Kind, and came across an announcement about the Elliott Bay book launch of The Necessity of Wildfire, 2022 winner of the Wren Poetry Prize, selected by Limón. The recording of the event, featuring both poets, is available here, and at Scarano’s website.

The book has now won a 2023 Pacific Northwest Book Award, well deserved. As Limón describes it:

“Hungry, clear-eyed, tough, and generous…. Cinematic and sound-driven, these are brilliant and honest personal poems that open up to the larger universal truths.”

So, let me try to tell you about my experience, reading The Necessity of Wildfire. Scarano’s second book, it braids together multiple themes: childhood dangers, adult love and trauma, domestic violence, illness, animals (both scary and beloved), and landscape, landscape, landscape. Cacophony, euphony, lines that want to be spoken aloud: “Who made my wrists / of wire. Copper conductors of heat / and electricity. Think of the synaptic / dance, jaw loose daze…” (“A Poem to Multiple Men”).

At times the voice is matter-of-fact, telling a story, but the themes get twisted together like a braid, or like a wire with razor sharp edges. Consider as an example, the opening lines of this poem:

I am driving by a field. Mountains crusted with a gold decay
surround me. My mother called yesterday; they finally have
a diagnosis. In the field I notice a cow on her side,
a trembling mass. Sick paternal aunts and cousins
I’ve never met. I get out of the car and move toward the wire
fence. Inherited autosomal recessive mutation.

(from “Calf”)

Scarano grew up in Southside Virginia (which I had to look up) and now lives near Bellingham, Washington. Along the way, she’s studied in Alaska, and Antarctica. She has a scientist’s eye, and a humanitarian’s mission: “To not harm  / each other is not enough” she writes in “The houses where they eat the lambs,” continuing with these provocative lines:

I want to love you
so much you have no before. No mother,

no bower, no history of burning doors.

The sea with her rising wet ash. To be marrow
intimate. A crime committed…

I can see that I will be excerpting the entire book if I keep on. Here’s a poem that I keep rereading, noticing the enjambments, those tricky ends / beginnings of lines that shift the meaning of the words:


What good is a long life? The river smells
of where it comes from

not where it is going. I’ve never lived
by water until this. I grew up between dairy

fields and oak-pine forests. Sisters
hiding behind a crushed

velvet window curtain. Girl,
static, ghost. There was a clock

high on the wall in the living
room. One night, I swear, the sound

grew so loud. My blood’s ticked ever
since. Travel far from where they raised you

and your blood will still burn.
In a dream, the lower half of my body

is buried in snow. The rest scatters
for sky. Along the river, a conspiracy

of crows take up in a white pine. A bevy
of swans follow. The contrast is too much

for the field to contain. Someone asked me
my greatest subject. Shame, I said

without thinking. My lover keeps a folding
knife in the bottom drawer of his dresser.

I like to take it
out when he isn’t here. Dig little

notches into the back of our headboard
with the tip. One for every secret

we or the water withhold.

—Caitlin Scarano

The book, itself, is lovely. I found a copy at my local library, then saw it at Edmonds Bookshop and had to own it. I keep telling people I’ll lend it to them, but I can’t seem to let it go.