Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2011 Book Reviews

The Broken Bone Tongue by Dianna MacKinnon Henning

Black Buzzard Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-938872-42-9
Reviewed by Anasin Beth Conner

Dianna Henning’s collection of poetry, The Broken Bone Tongue, journeys to the marrow of human emotion and experience, contemplating grief and loss, personal discovery, love and family, and the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  Henning’s poignant imagery breathes life into her writing, while her honesty exposes the bare bones of the wisdom hidden within.  She beckons us to step into a world that is as intimidating as it is awe-inspiring, as fragile as it is resilient.  Henning’s world, as depicted in her poetry, is both melancholic and nostalgic, reminding us that the human condition is one of duality, touched by sorrow and hope.

Henning starts this collection with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods” that reflects the dual essence of our mission here on earth.  “To live in this world / [we are] to love what is mortal / to hold it /. . .and, when the time comes to let it go.” Henning’s title poem follows, beginning with an awareness of duality in writing: “There were things she could say/and things she couldn’t say . . .”  Although the language that begins the poem vacillates,  leaving the reader to grapple with their own contradictions, the poem’s conclusion is profoundly decisive.  When the writer attempts to retrieve the “things she couldn’t say,” she discovers that “only bones survived, their marrow dry.” This first section on bones and tongues concludes with “For the God of All Bones,” a poem reflective of Henning’s gift for transformation.  What begins as a dog chasing a cat in the pre-dawn hours of morning becomes a boy chasing down his busted toy helicopter.  Henning’s true magic is her skill of drawing the profound from the simple, transforming an innocent, childhood moment into memorable, unexpected insight.  The reader becomes the boy, “breath backed up / because you never realized / how going after one thing / brought about something completely different.”  One delves into Henning’s poetry expectant of a particular tone or message, only to discover that it evolves into something completely new and unforeseen, and all the more spectacular.  As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, Henning’s poems take flight in their transformations.  In “Fleshing the Tongue” the reader is told that by reading a poet’s work out loud, he becomes the poet.  Thus, the poem dares the reader not only to witness the metamorphosis, but also to participate in it.

In the section that follows, Henning explores the spiritual connection between human beings and animals. “Animal Mission” speaks of a tragic change from a time of harmony and accord between humankind, nature, and animals to our current state where our own superiority compels us to forget the sacredness of this bond:

                This division split our spirits,
                and the animals cried for their people.
                A fracture grew among nations.
                At night the animals pined for us to enter their lives,
                but we’d forgotten the wholeness of the world,
                and for this the animals continue to weep.

By the poem’s end, the reader is left grieving for the union human beings once had with Mother Nature and her children. The sacrifice mankind made when they segregated themselves from the world believing they were superior, cannot be denied.

This sense of oneness with the world extends not only to animals and other human beings, but also to all of nature, including potatoes, “whose richness even earthworms recognize.”  In “Forking for Potatoes” Henning asks, “Do you cherish potatoes for their sweet white meat, or the way they extend themselves with magic wands?” Henning encourages the reader to pay attention to the depth of life, to recognize that not one element of nature is dispensable.  In “The Holiness of Potatoes” Henning confesses:

                There have been potatoes I’ve sometimes favored
                more than people.  Because of their faithful journey
                in the dark, their absolute adherence to mystery. 

Potatoes perceive the depth of life. Unlike human beings who measure and calculate every step, potatoes need no confirmation or direction for growth.  They fare better in the dark.

Other inanimate objects come alive through their interactions with people and the world.  They often possess animistic qualities.  In “The Adirondack Chairs Are a Couple Facing East,” two chairs live, breathe, and love through the wear and tear of weather and age. This suggests that marriage is born of love and wonder, two sentiments sustained and reinforced when a couple commits to surviving both happiness and hardship together, sharing their feelings as if they were two Adirondack chairs who “side by side. . .wed silence with resilience.” For Henning, “There’s nothing more lovely or more lonely. . .” 

Henning’s more personal pieces are her strongest. “Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking” forces the reader to confront his or her own fear of death and loss by exposing the chasm of loneliness and irrational hope that often follows the passing of a loved one:

                You cannot recall what hour
                he was whisked away in a kaleidoscope of sirens,
                the house suddenly grown so large you no longer fit
                comfortably inside.  Didn’t even the doorbell wither
                to a barely audible sound, and didn’t you think it him
                ringing, his house key again locked in the car?

The longest piece in The Broken Bone Tongue is a three-part poem of heart-wrenching transparency titled “A Journey to the Father on the Gurney.”  The reader accompanies Henning as she dodges holiday revelers, a disgruntled dog, and unknowing pedestrians, to rush to her father’s bedside in his dying moments.  As she nears the hospital, she recalls a time when childhood mischief was punished by her drunken father’s hand on her face, his arms weighting her down on a cold block of ice.  The reader experiences Henning’s apprehension as she enters her father’s hospital room.  While the nurse sees a dying man in peaceful repose, Henning sees no peace for either of them. Her father, even as he takes his last breaths, is a man still troubled by regrets of the past, and her future is still that of a bruised ice-child with a wounded spirit, condemned to a lifetime of unfulfilled hopes.  The poem ends without redemption, leaving the reader to reflect on the solemn responsibilities of parenthood and the command a parent has over a child’s self-esteem and destiny, for better or worse.

The Broken Bone Tongue reminds the reader that to see the world is one thing, to experience it is quite another.  To really live, human beings must acknowledge the life that breathes and moves around them, must recognize the transcendent qualities of nature here on earth. In a world united, where all creatures are born of the same energy, it is easy to imagine, as Henning does in “Retrospect” that a bowl of potatoes could equal a vase with long stem roses. If one views the world with less expectancy, open to mystery and surprise, as one should view Dianna Henning’s poems, then perhaps the gift of transformation can extend to all of us: humans, animals, and even potatoes.

Toy Firing Squad by Tom Chandler

Wind Publications 2008
ISBN: 978-1-893239-70-8
Reviewed by Chaitanya Nichols

In Tom Chandler’s book of poems titled “Toy Firing Squad,” he uses every-day situations to introduce serious topics such as coming of age, death, parenthood, history, and the beauty of life, in an often satirical, often contemplative tone. Times of sadness and despair are contrasted with uplifting, aspirational moments, and this seemingly incongruent imagery is woven together masterfully by Chandler, whose writing has the power to make the reader smile, cry, and laugh, all at the same time. This book takes a lighthearted approach to the serious issues people face in their lives, using irony and metaphor to introduce topics in a manner that turns otherwise bland situations into fodder for the author’s caustic wit.

The theme of hope runs as a cord throughout this collection of poems and is used to contrast with the darker tone of poems such as “Kaddish for Bob,” which reflects on the helplessness felt by those left behind when exposed to death and bereavement. The image of the man who shovels the first scoop of dirt onto the grave, “ . . . bare head/snow frosted,” is telling; from the use of the term Kaddish in the title, which is a Jewish prayer associated with mourning rituals, and the mention of a rabbi attending the funeral service, the reader is clued in to the fact that this is a Jewish burial and that the poem is a prayer of mourning for the departed. The absence of a yamulke, or traditional Jewish skullcap, from the man’s head and the image of his head being “snow frosted” indicates that this man is not of the Jewish faith, perhaps commenting on the bareness and emptiness one feels in the absence of faith and tradition, or even the mistrust in religion that can grow from tragic life experiences that go seemingly unaffected by intervention from a God who is presumed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.

The poem “Kaddish for Bob” is juxtaposed with the poem titled, “Night Books,” which describes how the darkness of night encourages the vivid imagination of the reader, and how the words on the pages of the book are only “dreaming faded to a stain of meaning splashed/across blank paper.” In other words, your imagination and dreams give color to the black and white symbols that represent meaning, for the words on the page are only a guide while your mind creates the vision of the piece. Taken as a pair, these two poems comment on the idea that while life events can shape your reality for better or worse, such as the death of a close friend, it is ultimately your decision how to go forth and live your life in the aftermath. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of these two works, “Kaddish for Bob,” and “Night Books,” is representative of the larger theme of the book: the intermingling of despair and hope, and the capacity of human beings to mold their reality from the lot they are given in life.

The poem aptly titled, “First Poem” is exemplary of how Chandler uses everyday situations to comment on weighty issues; in it, he speaks of a camping trip he made with his father, describing the childlike feelings of elation he experiences, while also painting a picture of his father as a solemn, weathered man. He says:

My father sat in the stern, sternly
guiding us into the current,
eyes shaded by a battered hat
as I sat in the bow, dizzy with joy
at riding this river, being this boy 

Here, Chandler introduces the reader to the joy one derives from being simply being a passenger, guided by knowing, trusted hands, as children should be. He then contrasts these light images with dark, skillfully transitioning the two moods with the image of he and his father in a place of safety, with the comforts of civilization and each others company, watching “the ducks fly away quacking in fear.” From this point of action, we are then introduced to the coming of age ritual of Chandler’s father allowing him sips of beer, and this sets the pace for the remainder of the poem. One of the most telling lines of the piece occurs in the middle:

My father offered me sips of his beer
and then went for a swim
and stripped bare I glanced
at the places his body grew hair
and he said that I would as well
all too soon . . .

In this passage, Chandler mourns the permanent loss of naivete and unrestricted joy he relished as a boy, evoking feelings of loss and melancholy in the reader, and using the metaphor of “the dark breeze” to represent such coming of age experiences, which he feels “lift the light from the day like campfire smoke/out over the river and forever,/forever away.”

Chandler’s “Darwin Awards” is a poem that relies heavily on irony to convey the idea that simply being alive is a defiant act in the face of the dangers of life. Chandler enumerates the seemingly harmless acts people have committed that led to their death, and comments on the irony that in an ever more dangerous world

Despite the color-coded warning,
the childproof cap, the lead-off story,
the surgeon general’s report
and the tire’s squeal we persist
in being born completely naked,
without crash helmet, kneepads
or a prayer.

The idea of helplessness is brought in again in this piece as it was in “Kaddish for Bob,” yet this time Chandler uses humor to contrast it. The image of a baby being born with kneepads and a crash helmet is comical and provides a satisfying dividing line from the images of death and destruction that pepper the poem, allowing an overall impression of comedy rather than fatalism. The skill required to bring a reader through nineteen lines of the imagery of death and destruction, and with only two lines bring the mood of the poem back from dismal to uplifting is impressive and worthy of commentary, and Chandler does not disappoint in his ability to transition smoothly and effectively.

The theme of hope is explored in Chandler’s poem “Aftermath,” which evokes the frustration and discontent of the lower classes while simultaneously praising the invaluableness of those ostensibly without value. Chandler is able to again leave the reader on an upbeat note after having walked them through seventeen lines of somber, disconsolate images, and adeptly paints vivid snapshots of the suffering and longing experienced by the working man who can never enjoy the fruits of his or her own labor. As he points out

Someone must serve as the king’s
first taster and someone account
for the accountant’s suicide.
And there is the woman who must scrub
the toilet she is not permitted to sit upon
but does anyway, and feels for a moment
the way perfect feel always,
and in the aftermath perhaps a quiet dignity
that lasts for a good twenty minutes.

Chandler uses the word “perfect” to create an implied contrast to the burdens of the working class, and brings the poem around to the conclusive theme of hope with the simple idea that one’s dignity can still be retained in the face of indignity, even if only for a short time.

Chandler’s Toy Firing Squad is a study in contrasts, beautifully molded and shaped by the authors sharp wit and studded with dark humor that has the power to turn tears into laughter and convey powerful and complex messages using simple, timeless imagery. This book of poems is refreshing for anyone who can glean joy from every-day situations, anyone who holds onto hope in the face of adversity, and those looking to put a name to the feelings that color their lives. It is at once sharp-witted, touching, humorous, and trenchant. Through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, Chandler never loses sight of the conviction that anything life hands you is subject to your own interpretation, and therefore the choice on how to move forward is entirely your own. This collection as a whole points to the fact that with just a little bit of hope, a dash of persistence, and a pinch of humor, we can overcome any obstacle, and this idea is put forth masterfully yet simply in a way that draws readers in and is relatable to their lives no matter where in the world they are.