Thursday, May 7, 2020

Review of "Open Burning" by Christopher McCurry

Open Burning

by Christopher McCurry

Accents Publishing, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-936628-55-1

79 pages

Christopher McCurry grew up right outside of Lexington, Kentucky in the small town of Paris. In the seventh grade he entered one of his poems in a contest and won a medal. He's since lost the medal but still remembers the poem. His poetry has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and featured on NPR's On Point as a Best Book of 2016 for his chapbook of marriage sonnets Nearly Perfect Photograph. A graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College and a high school English teacher, he spends his time playing board games, skateboarding, and going on adventures with his daughter Abra. In 2015, Christopher co-founded Workhorse, a publishing company and community for working writers. He believes everyone should write poems and that everyone can.  (Bio and photo from Accents Publishing’s website).

Christopher McCurry’s Open Burning speaks of the gradual unraveling of a marriage alongside a father’s growing love for his young daughter. The book contains three categories of poems: ones about his wife, ones about his daughter, and ones about apocalyptic dreams, though these categories bleed into each other. The poems don’t appear to be arranged by the above categories I’ve delineated, or in any chronological order. They are intimate and emotionally intense. I read the collection in one sitting, and it affected me deeply. I felt as if I’d been through an apocalypse along with the people that appear in these poems.

Open Burning’s first poem, “The Epoch of Nothing Beyond Her,” sets the tone for the many of the poems to come—poems that recount dreams with apocalyptic settings and imagery. The “her” in the title and “she” in the poem refer to the narrator’s daughter. It opens with “When she was born my mind went dark. / I no longer dreamt my death.” The poem ends with his dreams returning “Four years later on her birthday.” He relays his dream with the following surreal imagery:

          I’m locked in a cell and an eye of gray watches me.

          In the black of the pupil there’s a man with my teeth
          eating from the palms of his hands. 

In the poem “Tarantinoesque Societal Underbelly Soap Opera,” he dreams he’s in “an abandoned storefront,” where men are dismembering a body, telling him that “the more of you / from different parts / of life involved, / the harder it will be / for the police.” They are ordered at gunpoint to “each take a piece / of this man with you.” Then, the dream switches to an airport, where a woman warns him:          

                               …they will pin
          this on whoever they catch
          and everyone loves a good
          story about a teacher fucking
          up his life. It will be front page news.

In the poem “Surreal Japanese Mumble-Core” he dreams people are chasing him with swords, and suddenly “It’s a game show. It’s televised. / Your fear is everyone’s fear.” Another dream described in the poem “French New Wave Influenced Latin American Apocalyptic Love Story” begins with:

          We have boxes of dead soldiers’ belongings.
          In one a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
          Another stuffed with letters and flowers.

          Our job is to bury the boxes because we can’t bury the bodies.

At one point in the dream, bombs start falling, and:

          One hits the mountain and melts the car
          and at first we don’t understand
          that the car is melting into us and we ae melting too…

In the dream poem titled “PG-13 Superhero Movie,” more bombs are dropping and “I’m thrown / from it as buildings crumble / and flames catch and light // anything up.” He’s burnt to ash, but he rises “naked / but whole, glowing red. I’m the Phoenix, // resurrecting is what I do.” The poem ends with him, the superhero, searching for his daughter “because what’s the point of all this / fake destruction if there’s not / anything so fragile it needs to be saved.” This image of the Phoenix (the mythical bird rising from its flames) is a powerful one, because throughout these poems that is what he is attempting to do, move forward from the disintegration of his marriage and the worries of raising a daughter in today’s world.

This image of flames threads throughout these poems, as seen in the collection’s title poem “Open Burning,” a vision of the end of the world which poses the haunting question “… what will we do / until it’s our turn // to toss our bodies / in the burn barrel?”

The way these dreams shift unpredictably suggests and echoes the way his life feels so volatile—around every corner, another danger waits. These images of violence and uncertainty emphasize his mental and emotional state. In the poem “Most Nights,” he talks about the terror of these dreams, and how they reflect the trauma in his life:

          Sleep used to be safe but now
          the dreams come, cinematic and terrible
          in their invention. They say I’m sick.
          They say I’m hung from a tree—my feet
          in blocks of concrete in the cold lake of this life.

The poem concludes with him “wishing someone would show me / how to be me again so I wouldn’t / have to do it all by myself.”  The above image of being hung from a tree with his feet in concrete perfectly conveys his frustration and inability to know how to start reframing his life after his wife leaves.

The second category of poems revolve around his wife and the unraveling of their marriage. He addresses his wife as “you’ in these twelve sonnets titled with tally marks, but I’ll refer to them as numbers 1 through 12, since my I can’t figure out how to make tally marks on my keyboard. In poem “2” his wife is packing her clothes. That night she refers to their sex as “an exit tax.” He words it in the following way:

          Tonight when you come you cry out
          and I do too as though together we conjure
          a new reality out of pleasure, a new present,
          one that’s simpler to walk away from
          but also easier to return to.

The above lines portray so well the complications and contradictions that make up love relationships. In poem “3” their daughter wants to know why her mother has to move. He tries to explain: “I tell her there’s a you in your mind / you are anxious to meet.” The daughter asks, but what if he’s not happy, and he replies, “I think you and she will be. / And if not, you both can come back home.” Of course, we as readers, notice he didn’t answer whether he’d be happy, suggesting he won’t be, and that he doesn’t want to burden his daughter with that knowledge. 

These sonnets don’t appear to be in any chronological order, which implies the kind of back and forth, unsettling way relationships often traverse. Poem “5” opens with another sex scene in which he says, “We need a new way to talk about our bodies / during sex.” It’s serious and funny at the same time. He says:

                                                          …I don’t want
          to pound you, take you from behind, tear it up.

          Knocking the bottom out sounds to me like
          hitting speed bumps in a CVS parking lot
          while going too fast…

                                       ….I don’t want to hit it.
          Or beat it up. I’ve never plowed anything

          or ridden something that had a choice
          in the matter.

I love the way the poem finishes with intimacy and honesty: “Let’s start with this: / your clit under my tongue and name it.”

Poem “4” starts in a kind of joking manner, with him telling the men at the YMCA, “I won’t survive when I’m no longer / all that impressive to you…she no longer believes I’m a god.” But the poem ends on a haunting image of their cat catching a bunny, “a baby with the smallest ears.” It goes on:

                                               … It panted
          in the corner, scared and wet. I tried          

          to save it but I was too slow. The sound,
          as it is carried off into the night, hurts the most.

I couldn’t help but think that the “it” he tried to save also referred to his marriage, making the image all the more powerful. 

Poem “7” is a tender poem with an effective mix of sweet and sorrowful. In the first line he tells his wife that it’s true, he loves their daughter more than her. He tells how he listens for his daughter’s heartbeats. The images in the following lines are filled with such beauty and longing:

          The streetlight outside our apartment
          as she sleeps next to you pours through
          her and projects on your skin the cities
          she’ll build, the men and women she will love.

The poem continues with him saying he knows his wife also counts their daughter’s breaths, and the emotionally resonant lines:

          … Every sigh from her upturned face
          replacing me just as I replace you, in part, in half.

The next one in the collection, poem “8,” contrast the previous one with images of violence. It opens with the lines “Neither of us has killed the other so far. / The tools of misery are slow: / a half a turn of the vice, one drop / of battery acid.” But then things get more volatile:

          We’d adhere to the rules of puncture.
          And after stitch ourselves up. Take flame
          to the wound. Drive out infection.
          How do we recover from this? The hole
          in my gut, blood leaking from your ear.

Though we know that these are metaphorical battles and wounds, we also realize the hurt and regret are all too real. 

The last sonnet, “12,” speaks of the night the husband and wife agree that she will leave him. He says they stayed up late, talking, and “gave ourselves over to pleasure one more time.” The poem closes on such a heartbreaking note: “…this was always the best part of us so / we said thank you and then finally goodbye.”

Poem “11” is written after his wife has left, when he’s trying to build a life without her. It ends with a breathtaking image of loss:

                          …This zoo of origami animals is stupid
          I know, but the mind craves a complex system

          of clean folds, straight lines, of angles so sharp
          they make of your absence the absurd neck of swan.

The third category of poems in this collection revolve around his daughter and navigating fatherhood. In “The Name of Your Nail Polish is Free Spirit,” we witness a sweet moment of this father painting his daughter’s fingernails. It opens with the simple, but powerful lines: “First day of second grade / and we are both still learning.” It finishes with the gripping image of the daughter’s “hands steepled. / You’re afraid. It looks like prayer.”

In the poem “Your Personality,” he worries about protecting his daughter, which echoes back to the poem “PG-13 Superhero Movie,” a dream in which envisions him as a superhero searching for his daughter “because what’s the point of all this / fake destruction if there’s not / something so fragile it needs to be saved.” “Your Personality” begins with the lines:

          For five years I’ve been trying
          to give you the swiss army knife
          you’ll need for this fucked up life.

The poem goes on to say she’ll also need a lightsaber, a halberd, a blowtorch, a slingshot. He says:

          These you’ll need, and there will never be          

          a good time to tell you why
          to tell you that men will want
          to rape you that men will want

          to cage and burn your body
          if you refuse. And why
          when you are afraid of me

          I think good
          wish me dead—
          what’s more useful

          to a little girl
          than knowing
          men are dangerous.

What a heartbreaking realization for a father, to feel it’s necessary to instruct his daughter this way. This theme of protecting his daughter goes over the top in the poem “Teaching My Daughter To Survive the Apocalypse,” in which he says, “You may have to shoot a man / in a tarp shuffling down the road / looking for food, looking for shelter.” We don’t know if this is another one of his dreams or if he’s speaking in real-time, but it’s chilling either way. He says:

          A limit has been set for compassion
          And there will be no exceeding it.
          How hard do you make your heart for this land?

In “Drown is a Verb,” he goes over water safety with his daughter, and in “Away From the Windows,” what they’ll do in case of a tornado. One of the things he says is “I’ll try to act like I’m not afraid / so that you aren’t afraid. I’ll read to you.” At the end of the poem the daughter asks why a car doesn’t kill you if it runs over you. He replies “…we can’t help but to build / what we can’t control and sometimes that ends you / and sometimes it helps bring you to a place you’ve never been.” What an intriguing answer. It could apply to a marriage, any relationship, or life itself. 

Throughout these “daughter” poems, there is a repeated pattern of questions she asks, and answers the father gives, as exemplified in the long title of the poem “Because You Asked About the Line between Happy and Sad and I Said I’m Neither I’m Just Blah and I Said Does That Make Sense and You Said Yes.” He describes himself as “decades old pavement / having been trodden on, beaten / down by rain.” The comparison goes on to say:

          …but still here, still riding up
          over that hill and hugging
          that turn to the courthouse
          and wearing my holes like
          inside each one is a seed
          winged from a tree, perfect
          shelter for some small
          creature’s desperate meal.

This final image of his holes, which suggest to me his hurts or wounds, is one of hope, because he’s acting as if each one contains a seed—an image of growth and possibilities. The second last poem of the collection, “There Won’t Be Any More Sonnets But,” also contains images of hope. The title leads into the first line of the poem:

          there’s this five minutes on the mezzanine
          of the Opera House, your hand resting
          on her left leg and mine on her right
          as she watches the ballerinas below.

Such a beautiful moment shared between father, mother, and daughter, even though the title suggests they are already divorced. But then the poem goes on to ask a haunting question:

                                     …Why has it been
          years since we both touched our
          daughter at the same time?

Such a sense of longing, regret and loss in the above lines. The poem ends exquisitely:

                                              …I don’t know
          which of us drew our hand away first,
          but I know, at some point, the curtain fell,
          and every one of us was called to applaud.

This image of the curtain falling, and everyone applauding, is to me both sad and hopeful, both literal and metaphorical. They’ve shared this experience of the opera together, and they’re continuing to share their life together (at times), and apart at other times. It suggests they’re also applauding for “the curtain falling” on their marriage, for all they shared while they were married, and also for their moving into new lives in which they continue to share in their daughter’s life.

The author does a very nuanced job of portraying an inquisitive, caring daughter and a loving father trying to be honest, but not wanting to reveal too much to hurt, frighten, or worry her. This interplay between the two echoes wonderfully throughout the poems. The final poem, “Bone Brush,” closes with the daughter asking about death and telling her father she’s afraid to die. His beautiful reply ends the book:

          I tell you what I’ve heard and what I hope is right, that you will
          live a long life and death will be careful with you, not painful,
          slowly eroding you, untying the bow that anchors you here,
          a slow drift across a sky you find friendly and expectant.

Christopher McCurry’s collection, Open Burning, examines the complexities of relationships—one ending and one deepening. These poems vibrate with longing, vulnerability, unflinching honesty, and tenderness. They’re threaded together with an intricate network of repeated, layered images that rivet you into the intense and unforgettable world McCurry creates. 

You can find Christopher McCurry online at or

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Latest Publications & Readings

This is a video of me reading my poem, “The Onset,” which I wrote for the “Postcards from the Pandemic: A Cincinnati Poetry Month Project,” which current Cincinnati Poet Laureate Manuel Iris, and Poet Laureate Emeritus Pauletta Hansel, collaborated on:  The Onset.  Here’s the text of the poem:  Poems from the Pandemic. This poem is dedicated to my mother, Vivian Margaret Riedinger, who died on March 16, 2020, the same night as the President announced a need for social distancing. I also included some photos of her throughout the years.



The Kentucky Arts Council invited Kentuckians to join them in celebrating a virtual Kentucky Writers’ Day by recording ourselves reading some of our work. Here I am reading poems from my second poetry collection called, A MAP AND ONE YEAR, which came out in 2018 from Dos Madres Press. Thank you, Kentucky Arts Council! Karen George reading for Kentucky Writers’ Day.


My poem "Frida Kahlo's The Wounded Deer, 1946" was published in the “body issue” of South Broadway Ghost Society, an online literary and arts journal based in Denver, Colorado.   

Here is Frida Kahlo’s painting that inspired my poem:


My poem “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George with Crows, 1921” was published in the fifth anniversary issue of  Gyroscope Review on page 11.

Here is the O’Keeffe painting that inspired my poem:


Friday, January 24, 2020

Happy to be published in the latest issue of “Thimble Magazine.” Thank you to Editor Nadia Arioli!    

My poem was inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting titled “Series 1, No. 8,” completed in 1919.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Happy Birthday to Georgia O'Keeffe!

“I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”  ― Georgia O'Keeffe

Photo from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum website.

Today, November 15th, is the birthday of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.  

Years ago, I fell in love with the art of Frida Kahlo, then a few years later, Georgia O’Keeffe. More recently, I discovered the art of Emily Carr. Shortly afterwards I found out about the book, “Carr, O`Keeffe, Kahlo, Places of Their Own” by Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, which discusses the work and lives of Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871–1945), U.S. artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). I’d already written a few poems inspired by the art of these women, but shortly after buying Udall’s book, I came to think of these female artists as a holy trinity who impelled me to begin my third collection of poetry.

So far, I’ve written drafts of close to eighty poems inspired by the art and writings of these three women. Next week, I’m delighted to be going to an individual writer’s retreat for some concentrated time devoted to working on these poems. The retreat was made possible by the Kentucky Foundation for Women, who promote feminist art and social justice through grants, retreats, and residencies they award. I’m grateful to have received a grant, a residency, and a retreat from them in the past. If you want to find out more about the Kentucky Foundation for Women, visit

Here are three of my poems inspired by the art of Georgia O'Keeffe:

Pattern of Leaves or Leaf Motif #3, 1923-4, published January 2019 in “The Ekphrastic Review.”

Georgia O'Keeffe's Nude Series VIII, watercolor, 1917, published January 2019 in “The Ekphrastic Review.”

If you want to read more writing inspired by art, check out “The Ekphrastic Review,” edited by the fabulous artist/writer Lorette C. Luzajic, at:


The following poem originally appeared in the journal “Thirteen Myna Birds.” After the poem is a link to the O’Keeffe painting that inspired it.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Light Coming on the Plains III, 1917, a watercolour
The sun rises, vibrates

light into inky night


A teal dome hovers above a disk. A horizon

separates the two—their negative space


An earthenware vessel balanced

in a niche that holds it in place 


A murky seashell opens to reveal

an opalescent, radiant orb


You enter a dim cave

tiptoe toward pale blue


Monday, November 11, 2019

Congratulations to Karen Craigo for being appointed Missouri’s fifth Poet Laureate!

You can read the official announcement from the Missouri Arts Council here:

In July 2019, I posted the following review of her poetry collection “Passing Through Humansville” at Poetry Matters blog:

Passing Through Humansville

by Karen Craigo

Sundress Publications, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-939675-78-1
77 pages

Karen Craigo is the editor and general manager of The Marshfield Mail, a weekly newspaper in southwestern Missouri. She is author of the collection, No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016), and the chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013), and Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004). Her poetry, fiction, essays and journalism are widely published, and she maintains a blog on writing, editing, and creativity, Better View of the Moon. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review and the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and I have been a fan of her poetry ever since I read her chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, published by Hermeneutic Chaos in 2016, but now out of print. I reviewed her poetry collection, No More Milk on this blog in March 2018. —Karen L. George

Review of Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville

Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville explores, celebrates, and at times mourns and resists what it means to be human through her particular lens of curiosity, honesty, playfulness, urgency, tenderness and reverence. These poems take us inside a home, a car, a school, a church, a hospital, a coffeeshop; in the woods, a butterfly house, a cow pasture, at a concert, an art museum, and within reimagined Biblical stories. She examines the duality and mysteries of being human—layering images and scenes of beauty, connection, nurture, creativity, and the holy pinned against vulnerability, worry, violence, loneliness and loss. The book is dense with emotion and understanding. I’m going to concentrate on the poem’s ideas and images surrounding the human need to connect—the give and take of nurturing and being nurtured.

The beginning poem, "Meditation With Cat and Toddler," sets up the recurring dynamics of the complexities these poems examine:

            And here I sit with a body reluctant
            to bend, a brain that won’t still, a cat
that bumps me for attention, and a toddler
            who will come, who has punched
me in the eye for pure love.

We see a mother trying to nurture herself by meditating, but her toddler and the cat both want attention. The image of the cat bumping the mother perfectly mirrors and heightens the image of the toddler punching her “for pure love.”

The second poem, “Before He Was Born, I Sang Night Songs,” is lush with images of connection and the sweet, primal, holy intimacy of breastfeeding. She describes it as “the latch, firm, parasitic, drawing the nectar / down.” The word “parasitic” effectively echoes the “bump” of the cat, and the “punch” of the toddler. In the first poem, the “constant rumble / of om” echoes the sounds this mother and her son make in their connection: “the soft constriction of throat” as the baby latches onto her breast, and how he “still vibrates with my humming.” In the center of the poem is the mother’s breathtaking admission: “There is nothing on this sphere I won’t pull to me, / won’t sing to in the dark.” She speaks of how she too is nourished by feeding her son: “the last moment I am everything, his sweetness / and his sound.” In a later poem, “The Art of Rhetoric,” the mother and son are described with this beautiful image: “this baby beside me, / curled against my back like the comma…” The poem ends with the following stunning lines:

            there is nothing more convincing than
            the whispered swallows I hear behind me
            as my son works his bottle in his sleep.
            Each nearly silent gulp makes a claim.

In “On His Brother’s Second Birthday” a second, older son is “inconsolable” because he “misses the baby,” his brother, who is now two years old. The mother reveals she too misses the baby, and comforts the older son, herself, and us by the reminder, “our younger selves / don’t go away—they live on, / deeper and deeper within us.” She goes on, in a kind of dual direct address, including the reader in this intimate, moving scene:

            …We must believe
            an infant resides in all of us.
            Come. Sniff the hollow of my neck—
            a scent so soft you’re not
            even certain it’s there.

In the playful “Spelling Test Friday” the mother nourishes her son by helping him to learn: “I spar with words / like a pugilist,” and she in turn is fed by the knowledge that “he gets it,” understands “he’s going to do fine.” In “Avocado” she talks about the ripeness and fertility of her body— “the nurturing flesh.” “Good Night in the Blanket Fort” shows a mother who promises to sleep in a type of nest her and her son built with pillows and quilts, “walls” to “protect us from blue night.”

There are repeated images of breath and breathing in this collection, which fit into this theme of nourishment. When we breath, oxygen is inhaled into the lungs, moved into our blood that carries it to sustain our bodies, and the carbon dioxide is expelled through exhaling. In the poem “Tasseomancy,” the mother and son connect through sharing coffee, and they thirst “to know / what the future holds,” ending with the image of her son staring into her coffee cup, “close enough / to smell the other’s breath.” In poem 5 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” a baby under a jaundice lamp is addressed with the following tender lines:

            You, little loaf,
            are almost risen. How
            warm you’ll feel
against me. I can’t wait
            to breathe you in.

This collection also celebrates our human need to connect with friends and siblings. One poem recounts a childhood memory, a circle of girls in the woods, joining their drops of blood to become “Scab Sisters,”—“it was holy, we were dryads rejoining the wood.” In “Total Knee Replacement,” the poet refers to the body and the operation her sister has undergone, but in the following lines, she suggests vital aspects of love and our connection to others:

            We come to rely on the hinges—
            how they lift us and let us down, soft.
            Most love requires collapse.
            We fold and unfold into the other,
            or wrap the self in the self.

There is such essential wisdom in the above lines, and in the poem’s closing lines, that again express the healing of her sister’s knee, but at the same time speak of life in general in a reverent, unforgettable way:

            try to remember:
            this is how we rise, and how
            we leave, and how we pray.

The poet also explores the nourishment of love exchanged between spouses. In “When We Find a Hurt Mouse,” the husband “is kind enough / to bear the injured to the yard, / then with one stomp save it / from hours of suffering.” What a powerful image of violence as a means to deliver comfort. She goes on to say “not all gentleness / is conveyed in a caress,” and to describe watching him “stroke the patchwork squares / of the giraffe’s neck, receive / a blue tongue the length / of his arm, offer it a bit / of grain” – such a gentle, compassionate connection, which implies each (the man, the giraffe, and the wife observing) is enriched. In poem 7 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” the husband is portrayed in such a loving manner as he gets the coffeemaker set up at night for his wife’s morning coffee:

            …each night
            unfolds a filter,
            measures grounds
            with a wooden spoon,
            adds water and comes
to bed.

The poem ends with the lovely image of how the next morning the “green dot” of the coffeepot “is just / enough light to help / me find my way.”

Imagery of light, as in the above example, is also threaded through these poems. Light as a metaphor for energy, connection, protection, and hope. In the collection’s center, the ten poems in the series “Ten Sources of Light” contain different examples of light: the glow of a town seen on a hill while driving at night; a reporter watching the eclipse and asking others what they think of the sun; seeing the aurora borealis; flicking on a cigarette lighter at a Pink Floyd concert; and with her father, viewing fireflies light up the night sky. There are also contrasting images of life’s dualism, its darkness, in the poems—instances of when we can’t connect with others, and when we can’t nourish ourselves or others as much as we’d like. 

Besides connection between humans, this collection contains poems in which the author reflects on how we connect with the natural world. In “Speleology” she refuses to kill the spider above her pillow, which she describes exquisitely as “eight eyelashes affixed / to a speck.” The poem “Filibuster” retells the memory of a male teacher that makes her stand each day during a civics class in the garbage can with her nose pressed to a chalk mark on the blackboard. The poem ends with a stunning, redemptive image:

            I start to get
            the sunflower, whose every
            instinct makes it stand
            with its tall quorum,
            who together turn
            their backs on the dark.

This collection also delves into connection and nourishment through spirituality. In “I Come to the Garden Alone,” she tells a friend she terms “a better Christian” that she doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, but instead feels “a river / of intelligence courses through all things, / and we join it when we are lucky // enough to die.” She describes this flow of connection in the following way:

            We are paddling through otherness,
            and the molecules that enter her mouth
            on a gasp came from somewhere,
            and maybe once were in me, in the barista—
            in cave people, street preachers, nuns.

In the poem “Mary of Bethany,” during a church service, a woman rubs the bald spot of the man she loves. The poem ends with the beautiful observation:

            And isn’t that God, touching us
            where we’re most exposed,
            loving even our emptiness,
            those places soft with down.

Besides the hopeful moments portrayed in these poems of connection and nourishment, there are also moments of unsatisfied hunger, emptiness, discomfort and disconnection. There is such heartbreak in “For Brenna <3 Ernie” when a mother recreates the moment her son hands a picture he drew of himself and a girl named Brenna to that girl:
            When he gave it, he broke
            into grief, racking sobs,
            eyes closed in shame.
            He loves her.

The poem reveals with such tenderness the details of the picture he drew:

            his vision, two, standing,
            so happy and plain
            in their britches. It is
            simple. There is nothing
            easier; the beauty
            hurts him, each one
            dignified and glad,
            small arms open
            to possibility
            in the twin flags
            of their rectangle pants.

The poem “Inventory” talks about not having enough money to pay the bills. The narrator asks the question, “What is the world’s crime / that it should be forced to pay / and pay again?” She continues:

            …I know the feeling.
            Credit cards, rent, car insurance.
            Just going to the mailbox
makes me numb. And then
            I look around, see a clearcut
            where my life ought to be.

The collection’s title poem, “Passing Through Humansville,” references an actual town in Missouri, in which the narrator of the poem “slips[s] into and out of …both coming and going.” Besides the literal journeying in a car through a town called Humansville, the poem suggests the journey of a human lifetime. The driver passes through fog, which she depicts as “the layer of white like an old lady’s hair / spread out behind her in rapture.” This creates such a whimsical picture, and to me, suggests the idea of the old woman being “raptured” to the hereafter. The poem continues: “Why not? / The oldest vessel can still hold / / a drink, or else we’d call it a shard.” This image of the woman’s body as a vessel infers she can still nourish and be nourished—that there’s still life in her. The ending stanza is so full of the duality of being human—living and dying:

            And maybe I’ve stepped on the ground
            where my ashes will light.
            Maybe, unknowing, I’ve danced.

The last two poems of the collection talk about the nourishment a teacher provides for her students, who appear to be learning English as a second language. In “Walking Papers” “students are learning / where to put the stress, what vowels / to flatten or round, how to hear / the difference in consonants…” It felt to me that this teacher is also speaking of language as a means to connect and nourish us, similar to song. The poem ends with the teacher’s compassion for her students, “those stonemasons and carvers, / painters and metalsmiths, / heading off into the unknown, everything they own heavy / against their shoulder.”

In the collection's last poem, titled "The Movement You Need," the teacher again delves into the components that make up the English language:

            The key, you know, is emphasis. English
            is a stress-toned language, and we listen
            for the punch, in a word, in a sentence,
            and that extra oomph, that little flex,
            is all we need to make sense of a thing.

And then she sings “Hey Jude” with the students who she says are “visitors here, / people who have been misunderstood / by cashiers and taxi drivers, / the lilting mismatch of Arabic, Polish, / Yoruba, Japanese.” The teacher begins singing “Hey Jude” and that has made all the difference—they are connected and nourished:

            …but today in class
            we layer vowel over vowel, and we sing,
            no hesitation, all voices present and clear
            from the first “Hey, Jude.”

The poem and the book end with such a note of unity and hope, incorporating some of the words of the Beatles’ song so beautifully into the poem’s flow of meaning:

            Don’t you know that it’s just you,
            hey Jude, you’ll do, and we do know,
            we feel it, we punch each key word
            to drive it home, into our heart,
            then we can start to make it better.    

The last line is, of course, a line in the Beatles’ song, but by not having it in italics, it feels as if the teacher is saying that the sentiment of this song is being “driven home,” into these students’ and the teacher’s hearts at one and the same time, to become a part of them, and that this connecting to other human beings through language, through song, can begin to make this a better world. I believe her.

Karen Craigo’s Passing Through Humansville is threaded with tenderness and reverence, vulnerability and honesty. These poems sing with intimacy, and a powerful voice of gratitude and hope about all the ways we connect in our experiences as human beings. The moments this poet creates, the ways she speaks to the reader, will nourish you at every turn.


Here are links to some of Karen Craigo’s poems:



In March 2018, I also interviewed Karen Craigo, and reviewed her collection “No More Milk,” at Poetry Matters.