Wednesday, September 1, 2021

CSPS Poetry Letter No. 3, Fall 2021 - Reviews of Books by Stock, Johnson, Gregory, Chorlton, and Trochimczyk & Hitt

Santa Ana Canyon by Anna Althea Hills     

Welcome to the Fall issue of the Poetry Letter for 2021. In the next blog post, you will enjoy previously published poems by Greg Gregory of California, and Franklin Gillette of Colorado. Since both poets have been inspired by natural beauty, I selected California landscape painters of early 20th century to illustrate this issue of the Poetry Letter.  Benjamin Chambers Brown, 1865-1942), Anna Althea Hills (1882-1930) and Selden Connor Gile (1877-1947) are hardly household names. As Californians enjoying the natural beauty of the same landscapes they painted, we should learn something about them. Previously, I picked contemporary landscape paintings by Karen Winters (Annual Contest Winners 2020); this time, we can see the tradition she continues to bring to life. 

In the current Poetry Letter we present several poetry books. Doreen Stock and Caroline Johnson write about caring for parents in their old age and losing them to the relentless passage of time.  David Chorlton sings praises of Arizona desert where he lives. Greg Gregory, featured below, writes about the landscapes and reflections arising from their presence near Mendocino, California. The Village Poets Anthology that I edited with Marlene Hitt celebrates 10 years of our monthly poetry readings at Bolton Hall Museum in Tujunga. It is thanks to such local efforts all over California that our poetic landscape is so alive today! Many thanks to the poets and the book reviewers: Jackie Kudler, Anara Guardan Diego, Michael Escoubas, and Alice Pero. Enjoy! 
~ Maja Trochimczyk, Ph.D.
CSPS President & Poetry Letter Editor

Book Review by Jackie Kudler: Bye Bye Blackbird by Doreen Stock

Bye Bye Blackbird by Doreen Stock.  ISBN: 978-1-948461-81-8. ThePoetryBox, 2021.

The loss of a mother, regardless of her age or the quality of the relationship, is a profoundly significant life event. Poet Doreen Stock’s compelling new collection, Bye Bye Blackbird, is a tribute to the indomitable spirit of a much-loved mother as Stock shepherds her through the indignities and triumphs of her waning days.

In the introductory dedication poem, “for Annetta Diamond Winnick” who died in her 94th year, after being “polished by these/ years/ of loving and being/ loved,” the poet contemplates the prevailing strength of her mother’s influence on her own life:

“How were

You brave enough to do that?

I am often asked. . . . .

            Those who ask that question

have never known you.” 

Poets have written about love and loss forever, but few have tried to stand witness to the actual end-of-life experience in their work, an experience so many of us have lived through and seldom forget. Yet here, with the precise pen of a true poet, Stock paints an intimate, vivid landscape of that experience: the rehab hospitals, the ambulances, the gravesides, as well as the portentous dreams that haunt her sleep.

Where, but in a rehab hospital, could a poem like “Your Unbecoming” have been conceived? Here Stock gazes head on at the sombre landscape of the body’s regression back to its own beginnings:

“The urge 

to not soil oneself

laid down during those precious

toddler months with smiles and coaxing . . . .”

    now reversed by the cajoling night nurse:

               “ ‘Don’t you worry about it, just let yourself go’

How do you cross that particular border?

What do you find to say to yourself, no one

there to help you with your unbecoming?”

Anna Althea Hills, “Sunshine & Shadow-Orange Co. Park, California,” 
1915 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

“The Poem Geronimo,” one of the true gems of the collection, celebrates the admirable prowess and humanity of Geronimo, an ambulance aide. Here, we see mother once again suffering her “unbecoming,” but this time, ministered to by one of the book’s true angels:

At seventy miles an hour without losing balance, without bumping

his head on the overhanging glass full of life-saving equipment.

At seventy, without losing humane dignity, rolling the 93-year-old

patient back and forth as the job demands and then, 10 minutes later

as the infected bladder squirts, returning with a joke and a smile to do

it again (think angel here, a term I do to use lightly) asking me

meanwhile if I’m OK as we speed past the hawk poised on its

fence post listening, listening in the crosswinds of the cars to

swoop down on the little rustling being under the grass and take her

while the light of love shines out of the eyes of all of us . . .


It is indeed the light of love, even among the most challenging and disheartening of times, that shines through every line of this chapbook and is sure to remain with every reader long after.  “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the name of the song that mother in her “cherry blossom kimono” takes to singing through her end days is, of course, the title of the book as well as the name of the title poem:

              “I couldn’t see in, but could hear you, and all through the desert night

on your last ride you continued, passing cactus, passing sage, your last 

instructions clear in my ear,” You’re the one to be sure I look right

in the carriage, honey” all the way down Ramon Road, past

        Date Palm Drive into Cathedral City where the cemetery lives,

stop lights, go lights, with a wave of your white-gloved hand,

a Liz Minelli smile, black cane tucked under your armpit:

‘I said Blackbird, oh, Blackbird, Bye Bye …’”

Throughout this collection, Doreen Stock asks us to explore with her the many nuances of the pain of loss, but in the end, Bye Bye Blackbird  is a stunning collection of love poems, written in terms we may not have encountered before.

~ Jackie Kudler

Book Review by Michael Escoubas: The Caregiver by Caroline Johnson

The Caregiver by Caroline Johnson. 51 poems, 83 pages.  $16.00 ISBN 978-09986010-3-8. Holy Cow! Press

In 1983, at the young age of 58, my father fell victim to a brainstem stroke. This debilitating event placed Dad in hospice care, where he passed one month later. Caroline Johnson's new collection, The Caregiver, brought to mind my daily visits to the hospice unit, sitting beside him, hoping for a response but receiving virtually nothing that opened the door of opportunity to bid my father goodbye.

For approximately 12 years the poet managed the care of both of her parents through the rigors of slow-moving, long-term illnesses: Alzheimer's for her mother, variations of Parkinson's for her father. The 51 poems included in The Caregiver, invite the reader to share in the intimate details of the poet's twin labors of love as she, with the help of Donna, a professional caregiver, learned to care for others beyond all thoughts for herself.

The Caregiver is divided into three sections: Part I, Father; Part II, Mother; and Part III, Grief. In the Foreword Johnson reveals many of the inspirational sources that resulted in her poems. Trust me, don't skip the foreword. It is one of the best I've ever read.

Crossing opens Part I, and features her father's favorite creature:

Today I came across a painted turtle

as I was bicycling near a canal.

He had stopped in the middle of the trail,

head erect, all limbs exposed, waiting.

He seemed stuck in the moment,

moving neither forward nor backward,

trapped in time,

I thought of you, dear father,

moving across unstable ground,

gripping your cane and hovering

for a brief moment

before the storms set in.

Years earlier her father had offered his daughter a piece of sage advice, "Be like a turtle. Let your problems roll off your back." I believe that Johnson tapped into that "nugget" more than once during her caregiving journey.

Joyous Garden by Benjamin Chambers Brown, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The storms alluded to in Crossings, did set in. Poems such as Life's Melody, Shapeshifting, and Becoming Erudite, illustrate her father's once brilliant mind in slow decline. She remembers his voice, smooth, intoxicating/like the vodka tonic on the side table.

A Good Day, opens the door on Parkinson's in its advanced stages:

     He was having a good day. A nurse evaluated him. He couldn't answer

     most questions, but he knew it was spring. He couldn't sign his name.

     He thought it was January. Still, he was having a good day.

Johnson is candid about her feelings in stanza 2 of A Good Day:

     I wanted to leave. I had done my time—spent hours with the nurse and

     his caregiver. I had to grade papers, buy some groceries, get home to have

     dinner with my husband. But he was having a good day, and when I tried

     to say good-bye, he asked when he would see me again. I told him soon,

     and that I would bring cake.

As the poet moves the reader gently into the world of her mother's long goodbye, we are met with an epigram from Kahlil Gibran, The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind is the word "Mother."

Shut-ins is about Johnson accompanying her mother as she delivered pine wreaths to the less fortunate. Here she learned, my first lesson in kindness.

Coyote employs no fewer than four animals in a touching tribute, awesome and upright, harboring a/deep purpose and an elevated spirit.

Johnson has a way with metaphor; Skiing, showcases the poet's visual skills in this excerpt,

     She stands up from her wheelchair clutching her cane—

     a monogrammed rod, a wooden crutch, a tree branch,

     an extended piece of willow, a bleached crow—

     then plants it like a pole, attempting to descend

     the stairs one more time, each icy step a flag of victory,

     a fast blue slope, a thrilling dangerous carousel ride.

Barbara Crooker opens the door to the grief process, Grief is a river you wade in, until you get to the other side.

What Got Him Here, will touch the hearts of readers with its poignant lines that describe the grief process beginning long before Johnson's father dies.

As Johnson drives home from her mother's funeral, her poem Changing Lanes, begins to form. This prose poem takes the reader along in a potpourri of thoughts. Condensation appears on the windshield, it smears as she wipes it off. She recalls how her mom's grandsons played hide and seek around the coffin, how she fielded questions about what items should or should not accompany her mom to the grave. This poem in itself is worth the price of the book.

As the grief portion of The Caregiver, draws to a gentle close, look for “The Sneeze,” written especially as a remembrance of her father, as well as, “The Gallery,” which pays tribute to Johnson's mother, who loved and taught art. The closing lines stand out through the poet's tears of grief. Her mother's legacy captured,

      You will find me in the dialogue of my students,

      in the cry of my neighbor's baby,

      in the wisp of a dandelion seed.

~ Michael Escoubas

First published in Quill and Parchment, December 2018

Book Review by Anara Guardan Diego: Blue Tin Sky by Greg Gregory

Blue Tin Sky By Greg Gregory. Avenafatua Press, $16.00, 68 pages. 

Blue Tin Sky is clearly a labor of love for poet Greg Gregory. Not only has he written the 54 poems in the collection but also created the cover art, a painting of a storm near Mendocino, which is fitting for poetry so rooted in northern California.

The book is divided into four unnamed sections, and nearly all of these free-verse poems are a single page in length and easy to read and contemplate before moving on to the next one. The title poem, Blue Tin Sky, invites us to “come bathe under waterfalls of words” and indeed, many of Gregory’s poems use cascading words to evoke images, sensations, or emotions. For example, in “Along Drake’s Beach” which describes shells:

     the wonder shell, living in amazement, the rosy harp, lost in its music…

     the cat’s-tongue oyster, mewing for pearls,

     the moon shell, living in mystery,

     the anomia, living without a name –

     all reaching down through spirals…

The poet pays careful attention to nature and his poems are inspired by loons, sea glass, wetlands, cattails, tree frogs, beaches, and trails. At the same time, he captures images from city life, as in “Night Moving”:

        Moon in the mirror,

        dresser in the back of

        an open pick-up

        jouncing down upper Market at 2 am

in which he observes that although the mirror shudders in its frame, the image of the moon always remains still. Numerous other poems also evoke the moon as it rises, gleams in a window, winks or stares like a cat’s eye/ lost in the night sky.

Many of his lines are quite lovely: The thing of the world is/the softness of its secrets in “Loons” and When young, you have promise, when old, history in “Don Quixote, Summer” and the veil most fragile catches the most light. We learn to be quiet about beauty in “By Tomales Bay.”

Other poems are dialogues—with a house:

      My tires crush wild oat and star thistle that have finally grown through the concrete,

      now too broken to stop them.

      I have no business being here…

     The house whispers, ‘Remember me, remember you.

or with “an Ex from the 60’s” which unmistakably references San Francisco:

     City of visions. City of promises….

     City of painted ladies. City of mirrors…

     City of Alice’s rabbit holes. City of illusions…

The third section is the most elegiac, as it addresses grandchildren, aging, and memory: …years lose ceremony, importance. Our stories are the important things…The water and sea stay. The waves pass through.

These evocative and simple poems will stay with you long after you read them.

~ Anara Guardan Diego

Book Review by Alice Pero: Speech Scroll by David Chorlton 

Speech Scroll by David Chorlton, ISBN , xxx pp. Published by Cholla Needs Arts & Literary Library, 2020,

When is poetry different from music? When do words transcend the commonplace on the page to the realm of the spirit? David Chorlton’s “Speech Scroll” (Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library 2020), a long poem in a sequence of 158 sections, is a rhapsody, evidence that this poet can get inside of life and feel its ecstatic force. In Chorlton’s poems he is not just an observer, although one senses his keen perception of where he is and what he sees. He is more than that; he feels the causation of things, how they push and pull, how something in nature moves towards and with another and brings something new into being. 

The style in this book is simple, sentences that in their easy rhythm and effortless images, become poems. We feel the weight of the form; each poem is 18 lines, yet there is nothing still or stilted; one thing happens and then another; this style is so wrapped in a surge of energy one cannot feel anything but that movement and the almost noble elements, even of the ordinary.

“It’s a woodpecker’s work to keep tapping

at the edge where sky touches Earth.

He’s loosening the strip

of metal holding

clouds in place, persistent

in the Heavens as he is upon the siding

to a house with demons trapped inside.”

In Chorlton’s world “The wind tosses a hawk into the ragged sky” (155) “On the points of every star/insects are impaled” (142) and “The currency of a lost civilization/glitters all night/between horizons” (112) There is always action, excitement. Don’t read this work if you like pale lines of soft sadness. Yes, there is sadness, death, even extinction, but we always know life will keep surging through. And yes, there are gods and demons and the anxiety brought about by “… mice who live/in the drawer you never open/are nibbling away your rights.”  (93) 

All poets write about the moon but in Chorlton’s vision “The gods dropped the moon/through a slot in Heaven/and let it roll across/the roof of the world all night.”  This moon poem brings us through the ordinary life of convenience stores and television and selling, life on earth, but at the end we are left with the moon as “a silver/coin shining from an open palm” (92) 

Chorlton is intimately connected to the native life of the Arizona desert where he lives, yet we are also jarred into the reality of modern life with humans. “Why is that portable latrine/sanding in the street I can see it all/day is somebody hiding in there?” (120) And there is the persistent heat: “the forecast is a dry cough from the sky.” (121) 

Past and present roll with one another in these poems as we are pushed and pulled with an inner energy that never stops and we never want to stop reading as we discover that “The mountain opens wide its arms/to receive the sun.” (143)  Just as the Native American found life even in the rocks and stones, from this poet’s viewpoint all things are thoroughly alive and as he makes his testimony, we listen and learn with a thrill of joy.

~ Alice Pero

To read more poems by David Chorlton and his biography, and find links to his work, visit:

Book Review by Michael Escoubas: We Are Here – Village Poets Anthology

edited by Maja Trochimczyk and Marlene Hitt

We Are Here: Village Poets Anthology, eds: Maja Trochimczyk and Marlene Hitt. 290 pages (xxvi pp. + 264 pp.) 237 Poems + Biographies. 6’’ x 9” ~ Perfect Bound.  $22.00 Paperback ~ $10.00 eBook. Moonrise Press. ISBN: 978-1-945938-39-9 (Paperback)

In the 1950s my parents took my brothers and me to a science fiction thriller entitled, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Such movies were the “in-thing” at the time. For three impressionable grade-school boys, the whole thing was pretty scary. As our parents came into our bedroom to say evening prayers with us, they sensed our upset. Leaving the room, they touched our hands saying, “We are here, nothing bad is going to happen to you.” Eventually, we got over our fright. I thought about their words as I worked my way through the poems collected by editors Trochimczyk and Hitt. We Are Here, resonates with me on two levels. For over a decade Village Poets of the Sunland-Tujunga community have borne witness to Californians about the magic of poetry. They organize poetry readings, write poetry, and publish books keeping the art and craft of poetry alive for generations yet unborn. On another level, I found myself taking notes on those poems which spoke to me as my parents did long ago. We are Here, became for me, a series of windows which nourish my life here and now.

Organization. The volume is attractively organized under two headings: Part 1. Featured and Guest Poets; Part 2. Poets Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga. Contributor’s names appear in all-caps followed by their poems on successive pages. With some 80 participating poets, the designers have done a masterful job of pagination for optimal aesthetic appeal. At the end, each contributor is featured with an interesting biographical sketch.

Craftsmanship. If the pure love of poetry is your thing, We Are Here, will not disappoint. The Village Poets use virtually every poetic device in their well-stocked toolkits: end-rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, prose poems, wild and exciting indentations such as Peggy Dobreer’s “Exquisite Harmonics.” There are metaphorical connections, which had me smiling with Ah! Ha! moments all the way through. In addition, I was impressed with both the complexity of some creations as well as many poems which featured simplicity on the page. Bill Cushing gets a lot done with his poem:


Slowly circling,

the pelican

drops like a stone

into water.

Then climbing the

air, he stops, and

with a single

motion of wings,

glides on the wind.

Thankful for the ride, I reluctantly dismounted!

We Are Here—Opening Windows to Life. Christopher Askew opened a window to outer and inner “place” in this excerpt from “There Is a Place”: 

there is a place

where sun and wind collide

with towering fortresses of rock and cloud

where time and rivers flowing

carve in ruddy plans deep spaces

vast and clear

in one such deep a hollow curves

a dimple in the palm of God

Humor is a delightful window opened by Beth Baird in “Ode to a Temporary Relationship”:

You documented my existence

We took photos capturing moments

From our 753 days together 

For this and more, I THANK YOU!!

But now you lie in state

I felt your energy slipping away

You could not hold your charge any longer

The poem goes on to reveal the poem’s true subject . . . don’t miss out on this one!

Benjamin Chambers Brown, “Poppies, Antelope Valley,” before 1942 
Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

An impressive range of subject-matter and depth of thought are revealed by interesting titles: Madeleine Swift Butcher’s “What She Cries,” treats the very personal theme of parental disappointment, Butcher, “carries her mother on her back.” Educator, Don Kingfisher Campbell’s poem “Showing a DVD on the Galapagos to a Ninth Grade Class,” is irresistible in its showcasing of diffident students. Jerry Garcia invited me along, “While Walking the Dog Last Evening.” You won’t believe where this poem takes you. Another title, “The Magic of Mom,” held me at gunpoint:

Oh, MOM, your name’s a palindrome;

it’s letters they form that.

It reads MOM going to the right.

From left? It reads MOM back!

Dependable that MOM word is,

in quality so true.

The YOU we always do count on,

Today, you get your due!

Three hundred sixty-five the days,

just one we celebrate.

We ought to celebrate you more;

perhaps a weekly fete?

A magic MOM in ambigram,

so please, do take a bow!

For even more– –just flip that name,

And MOM turns into WOW! 

In each of these poems and many more, I came because of the title; I stayed because of the content.

Windows opened by the Poets Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga. First off, I was struck by the interesting history of former and current poets-laureate. This section features photos, brief biographies, and selected poems by each. Marlene Hitt’s “Arrival,” displays tender pathos as she anticipates the return home of her first-born son. “I will open my arms / to you, my firstborn child / so long traveling.” Katerina Canyon’s “Feet,” is a riveting poem that took me to places, times, and memories that surprised me all the way through. Wherever I looked among these poems, the windows I opened never failed to nourish my life-sensibilities, adding to my life the fresh air of love and wisdom. Maja Trochimczyk’s “What I Love in Sunland,” provides ample proof:

1. The strong arms of the mountains

        embracing, protecting our town

2. The lights scattered in the night valley

       during my drive to the safety of home

3. How clouds sit on the hilltops

       squishing them with their fat bottoms

4. The river playing hide-and-go-seek under the bridge

       to nowhere: “now you see me—now you don’t”

5. The towering white glory of yucca flowers in June—

       we are Lilliputians in the giants’ country

6. The Mockingbird’s melodies floating above

       red-roofed houses asleep on little sunny streets

7. Armenian fruit tarts sweeter than fresh grapefruit

       and pomegranate from my trees

8. Hot, shimmering air, scented with safe and star jasmine,

        carved by the hummingbird’s wings

9. The rainbow of roses, always blooming

        in my secret garden

It is little wonder that the Village Poets have served their community and the larger world of letters with singular distinction.

~ Michael Escoubas

Desert Gold, Palm Springs  by Anna Althea Hills  (1882-1930) 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for really seeing us. Maja deserves extra stars for her hard work and her brilliance.