Review: Brief Black Candles

Brief Black Candles (Not A Pipe Publishing 2020) by Lydia K. Valentine

In her debut collection, Lydia K. Valentine wields precise language and classic poetic forms to lay down hard truths about race and racism in America. Many of the poems (“Brief Black Candles,” “Shot after Shot,” “Ferguson, Missouri USA,” “Speaking in Tongues”) deal directly with the many recent police killings of Black people. Other poems about the joys and sorrows of family and love and ordinary life are touched by the extra burden of living while Black.

Valentine has forged art from her experiences. These poems were challenging for this white reader, but the art illuminated the hard truths so I could see them without flinching away. Recommended for readers willing to look.

Review: You’ve never seen a doomsday like it

You've never seen a doomsday like itYou’ve never seen a doomsday like it by Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2017)

From the back of the book: “These are poems about surviving doomsdays. People use the word doomsday to describe the apocalypse, and apocalypse simply means ‘an uncovering of knowledge.’ Every life has its share of apocalyptic moments—not only great catastrophes, but also small secret revelations, and surprise twists of good fortune as well. They leave you with lessons learned, and stories to tell.”

I’ve often said I don’t trust poetry. Why is it so sneaky, and what is it for, anyway? But I love this idea of personal-sized apocalypses, and surviving to tell the tale. “Doomsday” also implies approaching disaster, and these poems tell of an escape, as in a disaster flick, not without dangers and setbacks, but step by step, poem by poem, reaching for something better. The 22 short poems (again, personal-sized, but not sentimental or self-indulgent) are arranged to suggest a narrative of that hard-fought journey to freedom.

The first poems present a child who can’t afford to be too innocent but who stubbornly forms her own self, chasing pixies in “Adrenaline and Sassafras,” spooking and thrilling cabin-mates in “The devil in the room,” and campground trick-or-treating in the spooky, atmospheric prose poem “Peanut Butter Moon,” in which she emerges “from the trees, one chocolate bar clutched to my chest like a dark moon medal—a consolation prize for coming back from the dead.” Then a teenager takes risks and finds a measure of freedom in “Anarchy called collect and I was happy to answer” and “Mint car.” The title poem has her selling off pieces of her childhood to fund her escape, anticipation and discipline overcoming nostalgia. The escape happens, but leads through peril (“Something you see in movies”), disorientation (“North by Midwest”), and loss (“Meeting Tink at a bar in Heaven”) to grown-up love and home (“A change of habit”, “They say three is a magic number”). In the final poem, “Gravida 5, Parity 3,” the child is now a mother considering the three children she has, the one on the way, and her “little never sprouted” who “was the first, a scout sent to map a universe I’ll never know.” Loss, abundance, and wonder, all compressed and distilled in less than a page.

That, my friends, is what poetry is for. Check it out.