Ann Spiers, Back Cut

BACK CUT, Ann Spiers. Black Heron Press, PO Box 614, Anacortes, WA 98221, 2021, 88 pages, $16 paper,

I had dropped by Edmonds Bookshop to quickly pick up Sharon Hashimoto’s book of poems, when this slim volume (too) caught my eye. The cover is black, but has darker blocks set into the background. The title, in white letters, is partly cut away.

On the back cover, testimonials from poets we’ve already heard from this month: Kevin Miller (“a love story weathered and brined in the wilds of the Washington coast”); Sharon Hashimoto (“mastery of such unspoken, yet tender emotions”). Inside, more testimonials. And the poet’s introduction:

In felling a tree, the initial deep undercut is wedge shaped. This cut determines the direction of the fall. Opposite and higher than the initial cut is the back cut, the first of the felling cuts. The labor varies with tree, axe or saw, and with the crew’s strength and smarts.

Having grown up not far from the wild Washington coast, I found familiar voices in this cycle of love poems. The husband and wife (whose voices alternate) scrape a living from the shore and the trees. They escape fires. The wife plays piano. The husband—a veteran of WWII—drinks. They make a life.

It’s difficult to excerpt this book (you sort of have to read the whole thing). But here’s a sample:

Putting Up For Winter

The glut
we net smelt out
of the wave’s long running
eagles snag silver scattering

so plentiful
their splishes racket up
stream    bear smell hot at every
trail turn

so thick
milked from the stem plunk plunk
in our buckets     fresh scat purple
with fruit

so much
we cannot stop
bigger loads just one more
woodstove glowing into the night
horse clams

—Ann Spiers

Some of poems are in numbered parts. All are spare, no punctuation, no ands or buts — all those little “stage directions” such as yet, then, next, “I thought,” and so on that I find in my poems — anything unnecessary stripped away, life itself, stark, shining. The subject matter reminded me of my family, and these voices, hard-bitten, “briny,” took me back. I came away from it wanting to write, which is one of the reasons I value doing all this reading of poetry books every April.

Ann Spiers is poet laureate of Vashon Island, has several art-chapbooks, and teaches poetry writing. You can learn more about her (and you should!) at

Sharon Hashimoto, More American

MORE AMERICAN, Sharon Hashimoto. Off the Grid Press, Grid Books, Boston, MA, 2021, 80 pages, $16 paper,

I knew Sharon Hashimoto in graduate school, and have long been an admirer. Her first book of poetry, The Crane Wife, was a co-winner of the 2003 Nicholas Roerich Prize, originally published by Story Line Press and now reprinted by Red Hen Press. It was a privilege, this morning, to read her 2021 book, More American.

Samuel Green, the inaugural Washington State Poet Laureate, writes of this book:

I often wonder whether the urge to share joy isn’t one of the most primal human urgencies. Perhaps that’s behind the impulse to read so many of the poems of Sharon Hashimoto’s More American aloud to someone else. “Old memories are ghosts we walk through,” she says in one poem. Hashimoto knows how to let those ghosts bear witness without nostalgia in poems of reconciliation, tolerance, forgiveness, and the sort of love that understands it might never be seen for what it is… (back cover)

And that comes as close as I can to explaining why I’m sharing this book with you. Hashimoto has crafted poems here that collect and treasure family voices, stories of internment and military service, education, and a grandmother peeling onions, or rising from her bath. Every subject is given such poise and dignity, even when buttocks and breasts are “plump bags,” “socks stretched.” It is a book of family, and a book of witness to that family’s particular (and particularly) American history.

It’s also exquisitely crafted, both the book and the individual poems. In the first section, “Japanese-American Dictionary,” I found myself reading aloud, just for the pleasure of Hashimoto’s words, carefully chosen like ingredients her grandmother uses in her recipes: “shoyu-soaked ropes, / chicken sizzled in garlic and fat. Home // was smell: seaweed, ginger, and rice wine / vinegar” (“Oriental Flavors”).

Language abounds here. “What I knew of Japan / was in my parents’ faces: / okasan, ojisan—the baby sounds / I sometimes used for mother, father,” as we hear in another poem (“A Matter of Loyalty: Question #28, A Nisei’s Response”). These ghostly voices, though, are what I believe will stay with me.

Those Left to Tell: For A. C.

The Igbo of Nigeria believe
you’re only gone when the last relative

who remembers you has died. Dear cousin,
we’re old enough to recall Grandma’s kitchen—

the Nehi bottles of orange fizz lined up
for special meals on New Year’s with the shrimp,

those stiff translucent shells we snapped in half.
Her sink was wide and deep—big enough

to wash my sister in. Fifty years:
the largest anniversary picture

barely held us all while our numbers
quickly spread like ripples fanning far

from shore. Only Aunty Meri
lives on; my mom, your dad—a fading story

that holds huge holes we’ll never fully know.
Memory makes of us brief cameos.

—Sharon Hashimoto

If you’d like to learn more about Hashimoto and her writing, visit Poetry Foundation, Off the Grid Press, or follow this link to the Edmonds Bookshop poetry reading from April 21, 2022.

Paul E. Nelson, American Sentences

AMERICAN SENTENCES: ONE POEM, EVERY DAY, TWENTY YEARS, Paul E. Nelson. Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21210, 120 pages, $11.99 paper,

Honest-to-goodness, there’s nothing I can add that will make this better. (That is my 17 syllables today.) To learn more about the American Sentence, visit Paul’s homepage and navigate to: All will be explained.

Paul E. Nelson is the founder of multiple poetry movements in the Pacific Northwest—or Cascadia, as he prefers. I very much recommend the August Poetry Postcard Fest. (Find lots of information here.)

Paul’s 17-syllable sentences in this book span twenty years (an earlier edition covers 14 years). They are sometimes silly, sometimes grounded in nature, sometimes sexy (sometimes raunchy), often elegiac, always curious. They offer a history of Paul’s personal life (loss of a father, loved mentors such as northwest legend Sam Hamill, birth of a child, travels). And they offer a history of our world in the decades they cover. Some of the sentences offer writing advice; some (many) would be good poem-starters.

Here’s a smattering:

1.06.09 – Michael says he gets writer’s block about 6 or 7 times a day.

N.20.10 – Want to call her and tell her I forgot my cell phone but I forgot my cell phone.

1.25.07 – David fantasizing: I wonder what she looks like without her cellphone.

10.2.13 – In the self-help section of Last Word Books, there are only typewriters.

10.29.14 – The biosphere’s being destroyed & you’re writing poems about pie.

12.18.14 – A two year old’s Jingle Bells: “No no no, no no no, no no no no…”

4.3.2015 – Sam tells me: “Reading Zukovsky is like doing a crossword puzzle.”

5.27.2015 – The buttercups in the neighbor’s lawn do not consider themselves weeds.

6.5.16 – If someone offers you a pancake shaped like the Buddha, eat it.

8.3.17 – Hacking at the moment’s shadow 17 syllables at a time.

1.14.19 – I know, drugs, surgery & radiation and edit your poems.

7.12.2019 – Amy Miller calls the postcard fest a “low-pressure laboratory.”

8.5.19 – If you have no inner life by age 60, your life caves in on you.

12.15.20 – Your yoga pants collection is not indicative of an inner life.

Paul has a new book, or an old book in a new edition: And when I attended his #nationalpoetrymonth book launch a couple weeks ago, I bought American Sentences and told him I would read it. So, this morning, I did.

Open the PDF at his American Sentences page, scroll to the bottom, and at the end you’ll find this:

Exercise: Go out and take 10 minutes to slow down, look around and get two American Sentences. It is not as easy as writing seventeen syllables, but having a notebook on you at all times, making a commitment to writing one a day, or two a week, or whatever, will keep your hand in it at times when you are not writing much else. You can also go back and have a short, imagistic journal that may serve as source material for other poems. Remember: Imagistic, Juxtaposition, Found Poems, Mindfulness, rhythm, busted syntax, condensed, demotic speech. Refrain from commentary. It’s a bad habit. American Sentences, on the other hand… Look! He says he has American Sentences on the other hand!

Slow down, look around, carry a notebook. How can this be anything but good?

Solmaz Sharif: Customs

CUSTOMS: POEMS, Solmaz Sharif. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 94 pages, $16 paper,

This morning I read Customs, the brand new book of poems by Solmaz Sharif, and I read the interview in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers, and the review in my copy of the March 21, 2022,  The New Yorker.

If you are interested in poetry today, this is a poet to watch. Reading the opening paragraph of the NYer article, I thought of William Carlos Williams: “It is hard to get the news from poems / but men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.”

The title of Solmaz Sharif’s second book of poems….evokes the extended “if” of someone enmeshed in the sadistic bureaucracy of American immigration, a person at the mercy of an “officer deciding by blood sugar, last blow job received, and relative level of disdain for vermin” who belongs and who does not. Anyone whose presence is conditional knows that a time will come when the conditions will not be met. To be let in, as Sharif—who was born in Turkey to Iranian parents and is a naturalized citizen of the United States—writes, is inevitably to be “let in until.” In these poems, the ostensible clarity of borders and checkpoints gives way to a terrain of fundamental uncertainty, a geography of elusive thresholds, delayed arrivals, and impossible returns.

–Elisa Gonzalez, The New Yorker, March 21, 2022

 To emend Gonzalez’s paragraph, the poem “He, Too,” quoted here doesn’t end with a period but leaves us in empty space:

I am let in until

We’re left dangling, as Sharif, making her way through a customs officer—who wants to know (among other intrusive questions) what she teaches, only to reply, “I hate poetry“—leaving her in doubt as to her own belongingness, or her ability to belong anywhere. In the middle section of the book, too, an extended riff on the preposition of plays similarly with white space and closure, this time adding end brackets (never open brackets, as the NYer article points out).

Of is the thing without which
I would not be.


Of which I am without
or away from.
I am without the kingdom


and thus of it.


I’m not replicating this excerpt exactly; there’s more white space. The poem occupies 20 pages, some of them almost entirely blank. It ends with a black page. It’s a book you have to hold in your hands and physically experience.

In the Poets & Writers interview, Douglas Kearney quotes another poet, his friend Yona Harvey, as saying “I’m not writing for awards. I’m trying to get my soul ready.” Sharif responds by talking about wholeness: “I suppose the only thing that is possible is wholeness, that any kind of hacking—that’s the illusion. But as a writer I care for the hacked things, in their illusory hackedness, and what it might mean to name, very smally, the seemingly aborted or disdained or broken things that feel incomplete or irrelevant” (p. 43).

She continues:

I appreciate, too, the word integrity. I’m realizing that that’s the central word of my practice. How do I live with integrity? I’ve wondered that, politically and ethically, for a very long time, and now a part of it is “How do I live with a spiritual integrity?” Also I love that: “Get my soul ready.” How to know how to get out of the way of things I don’t yet know how to articulate or how it lines up politically with everything I’ve done so far—but if I know it to be true and I know its intention is not to harm, then it is my job to live with integrity toward it and in naming it.  (p. 43)

And here’s a poem that, at first glance, seems deceptively simple, or named “smally,” as Sharif might describe it, the first poem in the book:

Dear Aleph,

Like Ovid: I’ll have no last words.
This is what it means to die
among barbarians. Bar bar bar
was how the Greeks heard
our speech—sheep, beasts—and so we became
barbarians. We make them reveal
the brutes they are by the things
we make them name. David,
they tell me, is the one
one should aspire to, but ever since
I first heard them say Philistine
I’ve known I am Goliath
if I am anything.

—Solmaz Sharif

Before I leave this, I want to add that Sharif would argue with my use of the Williams quote above (“It’s hard to get the news…”). To quote from the NYer article:

Rejecting the injunction to bear witness, [Sharif] displays a thrilling contempt for literature’s vaunted ability to elicit empathy, which means only “laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalklines/and snapping a photo.” For Sharif, the chalk lines around a body, like the borderlines around a body politic, are another boundary not to be trusted; the contours of personal experience can’t describe, literally or literarily, the truth of a trauma.

—Elisa Gonzalez

To my mind, this is news we need to hear.

You can read more about Sharif, and more poems, too, at Poetry Foundation, and and … well, everywhere.