Thursday, January 11, 2024

Poetry Letter No. 4 of 2023, Part II - Reviews of Books by E.J. Rode, Neth Hass, and Hedy Habra

Purple Flower by Margaret Saine

In the second part of CSPS Poetry Letter No. 4 of 2023, we are sharing three book reviews.  Below is the introduction to the issue, followed by the reviews. 


We started honoring “our” poets working as volunteers for California State Poetry Society with the previous issue of the Poetry Letter, featuring our Monthly Contest Judge, Alice Pero; Annual Contest Judge in 2022, Frank Iosue; and the newest Editor of the California Quarterly, Nicholas Skaldetvind.  This time, we are saying farewell to three former Editors of the California Quarterly: Life Member, Margaret Saine, as well as Terry Ehret and Maura Harvey; the latter two continue to assist us on the CSPS Board. Since Maura is a painter and Margaret – a photographer, some of their artwork serves as illustrations. The issue also presents one of the Honorary Mentions from the 2023 Annual Contest by Gurupreet Khalsa, too lengthy for our journal, an ekphrastic poem by Michael Escoubas, three poems by Hedy Habra, as well as three book reviews: two by Michael Escoubas – of No Matter How It Ends by E.J. Rode, and of Genica by Neth Hass – and the third one by Joan Leotta, of a new book by Hedy Habra, Or Did You Ever See the Other Side? Did you? No? So, enjoy! 

Maja Trochimczyk, CSPS President

The poems are posted in Part I.


No Matter How It Ends by E.J. Rode | 56 Poems ~ 101 Pages | 
Meadowlark Press | ISBN: 978-1956578-30-0
The following quote by E.E. Cummings captures a principle I believe to be embedded in E.J. Rode’s superb new collection, No Matter How It Ends: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” Only the poet can affirm if the above dictum applies to her life or to what degree her poetry bears its influence. As I worked my way through the poems, I developed a strong sense that E.J. Rode has not only engaged Cummings’ battle but continues to do so. My goal in this review is to support that sense and prove its truth.

No Matter How It Ends
is organized into four headings: One (15 poems), Two (18), Three (19), and Four (14). While avoiding structural rigidity, I see section One as reflections on “Family”; section Two echoes life’s “Ironies”; section Three portrays the “Pathos” of life; and finally, section Four explores life’s “Simple  Joys.” These are general delineations. E.J. Rode cannot be run into a corner.

“The Morning After,” serves as Rode’s preface and sets a tone which captures all the areas referenced above. I share it in full:

     Love is always a miracle
     no matter how it ends

     for a time we walk
     with the sun on our faces

     warmed deeper than our skin
     we are new

     shocked from complacency
     rousted from bitterness

     by this unexpected grace
     this movable feast

     we’ve forever hungered for
     how sweet at last to savor
     with no cast shadow
     of what will come

     no matter how it ends
     we begin believing

     always awake
     praying for a miracle

I lingered here savoring the poem’s wide emotional sweep. With “The Morning After,” serving as a tiller or rudder, I felt empowered to navigate Rode’s river of life.
Speaking of lingering, you won’t want to miss a poem named, “Linger.” It is about rain coming through and leaving a “lingering / wet kiss / on the lawn.” Her ending is worth “lingering” for!
Rode’s style is predominantly free verse. With that said, the work shows impressive variety: couplets, tercets, long lines, short lines, poems with interesting indentations, and word spacing. Her endline decisions are impeccable. Rhymes are not forced; but appear interlineally, almost musically. There is a complete lack of self-consciousness in Rode’s work. By that I mean her heart is doing the writing. Poems develop out of her considered life experiences. By the time they get to paper, she has had time to think about them, to step back and work through the circumstances which gave rise to each poem.

“Moon Dance” is a dreamy, contemplative poem in which “Poetry tumbles / from the barrel of my pen.” This is about the poet’s creative processes, which at times resemble my own!

“best regards” channels e.e. cummings, showing his lower-case style, ampersands and wild indentations. In fact the poem begins “my dear old ampersand.” It is as if cummings is with her as she writes.
“Sunset” is an intensely personal poem; as the end nears, she will “remember / every evening walk / without regret / the same way I’ll remember / my hand against your skin / never wishing / I had touched you less.”
Rode uses a range of poetic devices. Irony is one of them. “Breaking” shares opinions that perhaps many harbor about the “information highway”:

The evening news
casts a shadow across

Over and over again I find
myself lost

Nightmare the debt too large
to be paid

Nightmare lives lost to
the games that are played                                               ⇗
Nightmare the spinning words
that spew nonstop

That stink of sulfur and lava
death and rot

I pour the wine and close
my eyes

Even the truth has learned
how to lie

I opened this review with “The Morning After,” an overview poem that anchors the collection. No Matter How It Ends closes with “Advice to My Invisible Self.” If “The Morning After,” guides us down the river, this poem ties the boat to the pier. Here is an excerpt:

     Tell your mind to hush,
     and listen to your heart.

     Write the poems
     you fear no one else will like.

E.J. Rode offers pearls that can be applied to life, not the least of which channels e.e. cummings’ principle of being “nobody but yourself,” no matter how it ends.
~ Michael Escoubas


Genica by Neth Hass | 154 pages | Nethanderal Books | ISBN:9798352215401

Celebrated Irish playwright, and social critic, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), once said, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.” I was reminded of Shaw’s aphorism, as I worked my way through Neth Hass’s Genica. I was struck by the depth of this writer’s mind and the range of his interests. It is as if Hass and Shaw were cut from the same cloth. The lives and work of each demonstrate an uncommon [in this reviewer’s mind] zest for life, attended by an eye for the anomalies of life.

The goal of this review is to drink from the well of Neth Hass’s creative life and serve up an imaginative “cocktail” to you, my reader.

Background & Style

The materials contained in Genica comprise a 35-year-period of life-reflections. Over time these reflections found their way onto paper, went through careful stages of editing and revision, until “parts” of the poet’s world became “the” world entitled Genica. The Author’s Note at the end of the book explains how Hass arrived at the title and opens a window into the poet’s life.

Neth Hass’s writing is difficult to pigeon hole. That is, the lineage in most compositions resembles free verse poetry; other pieces such as “How Not To Write a Poem,” present as essays, anecdotes, or short stories. Regardless of classification Hass’s writing style is engaging, witty, and wise.

I get the feeling that the writer has made his share of mistakes in life. I say this because no one could write with such insight without having “messed up” a few times. Hass says to me, “Let’s take a walk, I think the two of us may have a few things in common.”

“Wild Raspberries,” recalls a childhood memory where:

      At the edge of the field, I step into tall grass
      and negotiate a tangle of weedy brambles,
      brush and saplings bound with various vines,
      to access the luscious fruit, plump and black,
      with sweet juice as red as any blood—
      and tows and runs and ranks and racks of thorns
      reaching for my blood as I step in
      and discreetly insinuate myself among them.

This medium-length poem of 60 lines is replete with descriptions of a bird’s nest containing “two small ivory eggs,” an “intricate spider’s net,” and hidden things like ticks and chiggers, the armies of which will march up his legs, things that bite (flies and mosquitoes) and much more. This poem is a magnum opus of experiences the goal of which is to garner:

      A bowl of sun-warmed berries in fresh cold milk—
      cream, if you prefer—will be tastier
      and more nutritious for having come
      and shared in the ritual of blood sacrifice.

Ah yes! How this one spoke to my life at about age 12.
Speaking of youth, many poems serve as vivid flashbacks. For example, “Cadillac Heart Attack,” is about two boys, one of which could have been me, staffing a “full-service” gas station in the days before air-conditioning. The boys, covered in grease and sweat-drenched clothes, encounter “lush femininity” . . . “overflowing her skimpy garments.” Further details about those garments and what the girl says to the boys after “she rolled the window down,” await the intrepid reader.

Poetry, it has been said, “Is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Hass has thought deeply about the world. His meditative poem “Homeless” reads like a prayer. In it, the poet is on an extended winter walk. The “stirrings” of February weather “usher in the most tedious part of winter.” The poet tries to walk off his homeless mood.

Each stanza places the reader in the landscape: “The snow lies out in tatters; the air is sweet / with half-forgotten aroma of quickening earth / and lush moss caps the peaks of rock in the creek bed / like a tiny forest on a miniature mountain range.”

Throughout the poem, Hass ponders the meaning of homelessness. He and his canine companion, once abandoned with nowhere else to go, are a good fit. They pass through a neglected farm, bought and sold a hundred times, yet no one lives there. Time and abuse have laid waste to the poet’s “sliver of paradise.” The man and his companion encounter a deer herd, pensive at human presence, given the yearly autumn harvesting of their flesh. In a panic the herd disperses; a doe, in flight, becomes entangled in sharp fence wire. The poet is emotional in his concern for the wounded deer and hopes she and the herd will find each other. All of this and more become a metaphor for life, a meditation on the complexities of what it means to be human, on what it means to appreciate the time allotted to us on this earth.

I noted earlier that Neth Hass’s poetry epitomizes a zest for life. A better word might be passion. Hass, a life-long carpenter, one who measures twice, cuts once, has created a poetic edifice that will stand the test of time.

It is little wonder that Genica was awarded the 2022 Book of the Year Prize by the Illinois State Poetry Society.

~ Michael Escoubas


Or Did You Ever See the Other Side?
by Hedy Habra | Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53 
ISBN 978-1-9504136-90

Great philosophers often pose questions to stimulate creative thought and conversation. Hedy Habra, a great poet, uses this technique to title/initiate our entrance into poems that her own ekphrastic responses to art broadened to include dreams, beauty, and life in general.  By using questions for each title, Habra opens up a dialogue with us, the reader/listener, as well as with the piece of art that stimulated her own elegant verbal musing. The question approach opens an interlocutory with Habra herself inviting us to think about and talk over with her, each question as if we were in a tearoom with her, sipping, talking, learning, sharing. The end notes in the book invite us to dialogue in our own way with the art that stimulated her poetry.

 While each poem is wonderful in its own right, the entirety of the poems collected in this book lead us on an odyssey that reaches deeply into the heart of the subject of each question, to explore Habra’s, and our own heart. These poems are a brilliant grouping of both free verse and formal poetry. They are executed with such skill that within every form each word and phrase, so carefully chosen by Habra, power the poem to make them servants to Habra’s thoughts.

In the opening, title poem, Or Did You Ever See the Other Side, the beauty in an oak table speaks to us through a female narrator who runs her fingertips over the table’s surface feeling that her touch reaches to the grain of the tree whose boards made up the table. Wavy lines and burls in the surface spur the narrator to wonder if the tree feels pain in phantom limbs and if the table can recall the carpenter’s hands carving it with love. But Habra is not satisfied with this profound connection. She shifts into even deeper territory. We are brought further into the mind of the person seated at the table, with the line, “And what of the movement of her pen, her unanswered questions, the songs she sang to herself?” Subsequent equally masterful lines expose the writer’s open scars and overall openness to love.  

It’s no wonder that Habra, who has published four other poetry books, has won multiple awards for her writing including the Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her books have been awarded Honorable Mention and Finalist in various years for the Eric Hoffer Book Award. She is fluent in several languages, including Spanish and Arabic. Her story collection, Flying Carpets, won the 2013 Arab American National Book Award Honorable Mention and was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award and the USA Best Book Award.  She has won the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award, the Victoria Urbano Award, and the Eve of St. Agnes Award, won Honorable Mention from Tiferet, and was a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Award. Overall, in her career, she has been nominated twenty-one-times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Eight of the poems in this book are among those nominated for Pushcart, two for Best of Net in Poetry, and one for Best of Net in micro fiction. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies.

The rest of the book unfolds in a wonderful array of sculpted words, each a work of art. Three of the poems were first published by California Quarterly. These are: Or Did You Think Our Crushed Hopes Couldn’t Reawaken?, Or What Do You Learn When You Face Only Blue, and Or Would It Have Made a Difference, Had I Known? This latter poem hits hard at the expectations placed on a woman in the role of wife. It begins with a powerful punch into these expectations placed on a woman: “Little did I know that when I’d wear my wedding gown, I’d be crossing a revolving door to a path of no return.” Quite a lot to think about.

The final poem in the book, Or Did You Think I’d Never Find the Way Out begins, “It took me a while to wake up from a life not lived,” and ends with the powerful line, “a mirror outlining a woman I never knew.” Just as the poet has found out new things about herself, we, reading these wonderful works are able to discover new things about ourselves and our world through Habra’s work.

Each time I read the book, I am again glad to immerse myself in Habra’s wisdom, beautiful language, and skilful unfolding of herself and my own being. Yes, this is definitely a work to put by one’s bedside and read over and over again.

~ Joan Leotta


                 After Disturbing Presence by Remedios Varo

Seated at her table, her fingertips run over
           the knots where branches
                      once grew, feel the crevices
of the aged oak’s grain, its porous surface
           about to peel open

like the pages of a book. She watches wavy
           lines swirl and burls’ eyes
                      sprout in threadlike tendrils ...
Does a tree feel pain in its phantom limbs?
           Could the table remember

the carpenter’s hands that carved it with love,
           the many times it was stained
                      and rubbed with oils, would
these hands erase the memory of trees
           pregnant with bird trills?

And what of the movement of her pen, her
           unanswered questions, the songs
                       she sang to herself? A heavy
breath in the nape of her neck rarefies the air.
           The chair’s damask fabric,

woven with fleur-de-lis disintegrates, scattering
           petals wet with tears. Her open scars
                       exposed, she feels the pull
of a body against hers, her hunger unveiled as
           the moment recedes
                      merging with other reflections.

Hedy Habra, first published by The Bitter Oleander
From Or Did You Ever See The Other Side? (Press 53, 2023)

HEDY HABRA is a poet, artist, and essayist, born in Egypt and of Lebanese descent. She has authored four poetry collections, such as Or Did You Ever See The Other Side? and The Taste of the Earth, which won the 2020 Silver Nautilus Book Award, Honorable Mention for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Best Book Award. Under Brushstrokes is a collection of ekphrastic poems, finalist for the 2015 International Book Award and the USA Best Book Award. Tea in Heliopolis won the 2014 USA Best Book Award and was a finalist for the International Book Award. Her story collection, Flying Carpets, won the 2013 Arab American National Book Award Honorable Mention and was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award and the USA Best Book Award. Her book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y art√≠sticos en Vargas Llosa (2012), explores the visual and inter-artistic elements of the Peruvian Nobel Laureate's fiction. 

Habra earned an MA and an MFA in English and an MA and Ph.D. in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University, where she has been teaching. A recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award, the Victoria Urbano Award, and the Eve of St. Agnes Award, she is a twenty-one-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Bitter Oleander, California Quarterly, Cider Press Review, Cimarron Review, Cutthroat, The Cortland Review, Diode, The Ekphrastic Review, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, MacQueen’s Quinterly, MockingHeart Review, New York Quarterly, Nimrod, Panoplyzine, Poet Lore, Pirene’s Fountain, SLANT, Solstice, Tiferet, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Verse Daily, Vox Populi, and World Literature Today.


Established in 1971, CSPS is the official state organization representing California to the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS). CSPS was incorporated on August 14th, 1985 as a 501(c)(3) organization, so donations above the membership level are tax deductible. Donor and patron support ensure that (1) the quality publications of the CSPS continue and (2) our promotion of poetry and art in California and around the world thrives and expands. Information regarding renewal and patron contributions is on the Membership page of our website (.org). The CSPS began publication of the California Quarterly in the fall of 1972. The California Quarterly, published four times a year, accepts only unpublished poetry and no simultaneous submissions are allowed. Foreign language poems with an English translation are welcome. Submissions may be made through, via email, website, or even mail (by those without access to the internet and email addresses). 

CSPS Officers

President – Maja Trochimczyk;  
Vice President/Communications – Richard Modiano
Vice President/Membership – Richard M. Deets; 
Secretary/Historian – Ambika Talwar
Treasurer – John Forrest Harrell

California Quarterly (CQ) Board of Editors
Managing Editor: Maja Trochimczyk 
Editors: Nicholas Skaldetvind, Bory Thach, and Konrad Wilk

CSPS Board Members at Large
Terry Ehret, 
Maura Harvey 
Monthly Contest Chair – Alice Pero (website) | (blog)

The Poetry Letter ((Online ISSN 2836-9394; Print ISSN 2836-9408) is a quarterly electronic publication, issued by the California State Poetry Society. Edited by Maja Trochimczyk since 2020 and by Margaret Saine earlier.  The Poetry Letter is emailed and posted on the CSPS website, Sections of the Poetry Letter are also posted separately on the CSPS Blog,


California State Poetry Society encourages poetic creativity by organizing monthly poetry contests. The contests are open to all poets, whether or not they are members of the CSPS. Reading fees are $1.50 per poem with a $3.00 minimum for members and $3.00 per poem with a $6.00 minimum for non-members. Entries must be postmarked during the month of the contest in which they are entered. They must consist of a cover page with all contact information (name, address, telephone number and email address) as well as the month and THEME on cover page, and the titles of the poems being submitted. 

Starting in January 2023, we are accepting previously published poems for our Monthly Contest. Please note the publication where it first appeared on any such poem. There are two ways to submit fees, by regular mail (enclosing check) or email (using Paypal): 1) by mail to CSPS Monthly Contest – (specify month), Post Office Box 4288 Sunland, California 91041, with a check made to CSPS; and 2) by email to: (specify month), with fees paid by Paypal to the following account –

The monthly contest winners are notified the month after they are awarded. All of the winners for the year are listed in the first CSPS Newsbriefs and published in the first Poetry Letter of the following year. Prize-winning poems are also posted on the blog, The 1st prize winner receives half of the prize pool for pools less than $100. For pools of $100 or more, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners receive $50, $10 and $5, respectively. There are no exceptions to the prize disbursement rules. Please note: Do not send SAEs. We do not return poems. If you win, we will let you know. Otherwise, there are no notifications.

CSPS Monthly Contest Themes (Revised): 
① January: Nature, Landscape; 
② February: Love; 
③ March: Open, Free Subject;
④ April: Mythology, Dreams, Other Universes; 
⑤ May: Personification, Characters, Portraits; 
⑥ June: The Supernatural;
⑦July: Childhood, Memoirs;
⑧ August: Places, Poems of Location; 
⑨ September: Colors, Music, Dance; 
⑩ October: Humor, Satire; 
⑪ November: Family, Friendship, Relationships;
⑫ December: Back Down to Earth (Time, Seasons).

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