Corrina Wycoff Reviews Crysta Casey’s “Rules for Walking Out”

This review is forthcoming in Raven Chronicles Journal, Vol. 24, HOME, out July 7, 2017.

Cave Moon Press
P.O. Box 1773, Yakima, WA 98907
2017, paper, 86 pp., $12.95

Rules for Walking Out—Crysta Casey’s second posthumously released poetry collection—chronicles Casey’s life during and after military service. Her poems stretch from the Parris Island boot camp where her enlistment began in 1978, to the Seattle Veteran’s Hospital where her life ended thirty years later. She rarely editorializes. Instead, with journalistic distance, Casey juxtaposes her experiences, revealing their complexity, and creating a deeply authentic, poignant memoir in verse.

An enlisted woman in the 1970s, Casey lived the sexual politics of Marine culture. A boot camp poem quotes the chaplain, who derides the all-female troop as “lesbians [and] whores” while the drill instructor asks, “How many of you joined because love is a pain in the ass?” This ambiguity between exploitation and agency recurs in several poems written about her time in active duty. In one, Casey’s “legs [are] spread open to officers who . . . ask [her] to suck / them like a cherry popsicle, only hot / like corn on the cob.” In another, she confesses, “I needed the money. They tipped well. I only knew them as fellow Marines; I had my own male friend off-base.”

Casey serves under Captain Bowman. It is Bowman, ultimately, whose false allegations of Casey’s suicide attempts result in her commitment to the military hospital’s psychiatric ward. His authority as a male officer means more than the inaccuracies of his accusations. The volume’s preface, “A Curse—for Captain Bowman,” explains: “You told them I was slitting / my wrists . . . . You said, ‘In the bathroom / in her room . . .’ The toilets were down the hall. / You didn’t even know / how enlisted people lived . . .”

While his mendacity seems clear, Bowman’s sanity does not. Casey and other female lance corporals clean his office. One poem describes discarding plastic spoons they find in “coffee cups, where dried noodles / claw the sides like ivy,” only to be shouted at, via intercom, “Where are my spoons?” Bowman “orders a detachment . . . to find some spoons.” A prolonged scavenger hunt ensues for replacement spoons of the specific weight and thickness Bowman requires. Not long afterward, still on base but threatened with commitment to the psych ward, Casey aptly claims, “I am on the psych ward . . . The truth is, I am.”

Once literally institutionalized, Casey receives a schizo-affective disorder diagnosis and begins “writing furiously in a new notebook” about the fellow soldiers she meets on the ward. Like Casey herself, they seem no more insane than the uninstitutionalized Captain Bowman. Anne, a fellow Marine, refuses to take the prescribed medicine. Casey writes, “I already swallowed mine. / Anne is sure I’ll die.” And Anne’s worry isn’t wholly wrong. Casey writes that her “thoughts are more exciting when [she’s] not on meds.” The meds trample and circumscribe her imagination. “On medication,” she writes, “I think of vacuuming the carpet.”

Casey relocates to Seattle in the 1980s after her honorable medical discharge. She is an indigent military veteran struggling with mental illness, yet poems about these post-military years remain keen and clear-eyed. One wryly describes Jim, the homebound, depressed Vietnam Vet who one day decides “to go downtown to the VA Regional Office and make sure he was going to get an American flag on his coffin,” only to be told, by the clerk, that military records already list him as dead. Another observes a five-year-old boy playing by a fountain, pretending to have been shot in the head. She writes of a Marine killed in Iraq and of a middle class civilian woman who, when asked why a nearby flag flies at half-mast, suggests Orville Redenbacher’s death. She writes of her friend Kim, a cross-dresser and former bomber pilot, living in shoddy transient housing, directly across the street from the municipal campus where the courthouse stands.

Casey, also a self-taught painter, overlays these baldly rendered situations with deliberately colored images. One of her active duty poems mentions a visit she makes to her family during a Christmas leave. There, she receives a gift of acrylic paints: “red, yellow, blue, black, and white,” all the colors needed to replicate the American flag and the Marines logo. Casey employs this palette as a central motif. On the psychiatric ward of the military hospital, she writes of living among “black sheep, white artists and poets.” There, she will sit in the dayroom and “stack white, / blue, and red poker chips / into a tower, knock it down with dice, then pile the chips again.” She writes of a Black female Marine found murdered in the barracks.

Sometimes, she mixes pigments. Writing of a literal self-portrait, she describes: “I wear a camouflage shirt . . . Only black nylons cover my legs . . . My feet are partially covered by black, open-toed high heels.” She writes of the “green cammie shirt” she buys at a garage sale when, as a veteran, she finally declares herself “Private/General of [her] own Army.” Finally, at the VA hospital, in yet another dayroom, she will “refuse to paint green or gold” on the paint-by-numbers set. She paints another self-portrait instead: “pink cheeks, red lips.” She paints a hand below the portrait, paints numbers on its fingernails, “each with purple hues.”

Describing her expression in this self-portrait, Casey deems it “sad as a baby’s hunger.” But a baby’s hunger cannot always be assuaged by bottle or breast. The keening continues without protecting the listener’s comfort, without assigning any blame, and without offering any advice. Rules for Walking Out is just as unapologetic, as innocent, and as discomfiting.

Corrina Wycoff is the author of two books of fiction, O Street, a novel-in-stories (OV Press, 2008), and Damascus House, a novel (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). Her fiction and essays have also appeared in many journals and anthologies. She lives in Seattle and teaches English at Pierce College.

Book Review: Watching the Perseids

Watching the Perseids
by Jed Myers
Sacramento Poetry Center Press
1719 25th Street, Sacramento CA 95816
ISBN: 978-0-9831362-9-3
2014, paper, 83 pp., $15.00

Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard

My stepfather wept often during Mum’s last year. Fear and shock shone from way back in her eyes, behind the blank stare. Her knowledge of who and where she was had already left. Dementia had stolen her brain, and after a final year of total helplessness, she passed — Mom was gone and it was finished. Dementia took her away from us, then killed her, and her long dying deeply scarred both my stepfather and myself.

If only Jed Myers’ book, Watching the Perseids, could have come fifteen years ago, the pain could have been far more bearable.

A bit of a father figure among Seattle’s community of poets, Myers is a psychiatrist with a solidly established, well-respected practice. His beautifully-written, poetic observations show us how — with love, respect and dignity — he navigated the passing of his father, who died of a brain tumor.

In the showing, Myers has given to us a master’s collection of poems, all interconnected by themes, by rhythm, and by a son’s strong, quiet love and understanding of his father. He has given us a guidebook and an anthem.

Inter-generational continuity flows through both of this collection’s two parts, “Until” and “Since,” serving as an overall theme. Myers’ subtle but ever insistent reminder that we are all made of the stuff of stars — atoms of our composition being without beginning or end — sparkles here and there throughout the book, and as suggested by the title, defines it.

“Cruising Home,” this collection’s opening poem, has Myers and his already bedridden father reminiscing on a winter day about “…evenings playing catch before dinner, / the night his father died….”

And farther down in the same poem,

….He couldn’t say
if it’s October or March—it’s neither.
But this his last February is

itself a river of what
we, together, happen
to remember. He clears his throat,

windpipe boggy already
since he’s reclined—he tells me,
in that gravelly stutter,

his feelings have gotten too strong.
Oh, he knows they’ve been there,
inside his chest all along…

since he was the young man he was,
cruising home from work in the Buick,
becoming and becoming my father—

now it’s harder….

Myers admits, in “Selfish Wishes,” that the limitations his father’s work made on their times together leave him short of complete satisfaction with their shared life. “…What about dinner? / I’d ask. He wouldn’t answer….”

…I wanted more. I’m ashamed
to come clean. Take the train to Rome,

perhaps find the oldest synagogue
together. Just look at it still standing—

we might not even enter.
But work. It came first….

The mention of train in this poem is first of several scattered through this collection. Trains were an important mode of travel in his father’s eastern city life, working in Philadelphia and New York. Also Myers mentions his father having played clarinet. Music becomes one of several minor themes that run throughout, as does water, also mentioned here.

Further along in “Selfish Wishes,” we see,

…I have to add how I wanted

to hear him play that old clarinet—
he led a swing band with it in high school!

I had the thing fixed, but he wouldn’t
pick it up for a minute, even

when he was well. I didn’t get it.
But he sings the old hits more and more

as his brain’s taken over by the tumor.
He laughs and weeps more easily now.

I’ll have to let his bed and my chair
beside it be where we meet on the shore

of that distant water….

These themes, these words, repeat and repeat without being intrusive or their repetition even being too obvious. And they give both of the book’s parts almost a feeling of being one continuous poem. Myers seems to have designed and assembled this collection so that every detail supports other details, creating beauty, interest, and a sense of human proportion and, most interestingly, a pronounced structural integrity. Reading through it brings a whispered subliminal pleasure, like the physical comfort one might experience while spending the afternoon in an architect’s house.

A sense of quiet grace glows within the family’s agreement regarding hospice care. The poem, “No IVs in Hospice,” shows us how his father’s comfort in that certainty of his last few days becomes the priority, displacing the family’s wish for more time, more goodbyes.

If we get more water into him
he could liven up, enough
perhaps to enjoy our visit.

No IVs in Hospice. He sips
the diet coke he loves from a straw
we place between parched lips.

But his thirst is almost lost.
Hunger’s gone. He hurries,
lying there in his pale blue gown,

off to a meeting. He’s got to
get on that train….

Additionally, this and several later mentions of trains underlines it metaphorically as vehicle for one of the collection’s tenors — Myers’ father’s constant striving, his work ethic.

A sense of his father’s presence lingers even after the funeral, an experience familiar to anyone old enough to have lost someone close, and emerges in this book’s second part, Since, where we find the title poem, “Watching the Perseids.”

The broadcast’s breaking up in static—
solar flares, snow, ozone
fluctuations, I don’t know.

Should I care? I can still play the message
my phone captured one year back—
“No Time for Love” he sings

the refrain in that same boyish tone
I’d heard come from him over a steak,
or climbing the bleachers to our seats

my hand in his, before
a night game at Connie Mack. Even
on his way out in the cold in the dawn

to catch the train, singing whatever
he said—his brisk See ya lat-er!
down the steps. See ya to-night!

 Singing the tireless dance of his life—
he left no time in it for the quiet
closeness of watching the Perseids

or the river from its banks….

And so the memories shared at his father’s bedside, the observations of the man’s dwindling and final passing, the gradual acceptance of his absence, the going forward — all sprinkled with the themes of his and his father’s life and times, run through Myers’ book even to the very end, where in the last few poems he brings all the parts together, the water, the trains, the music, the stars, the living, immortal atoms, and his tender love for the father who raised him. In this telling of his father’s story, Myers marks the continuity from his grandfather’s father through to the three children Myers himself has fathered and reared, and in the doing he renders more bearable the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one.

This is a book for parents, their children, and those they love. It is a shrine built of profound truths.

Another version of this review appears in The Cartier Street Review, august 2015, an online magazine.

Thomas Hubbard, a retired writing instructor and spoken word performer, authored Nail and other hardworking poems, Year of the Dragon Press, 1994; Junkyard Dogz (also available on audio CD); and Injunz, a chapbook. He designed and published Children Remember Their Fathers (an anthology) and books by seven other authors. His book reviews have appeared in Square Lake, Raven Chronicles, New Pages and The Cartier Street Review. Recent publication credits include poems in Yellow Medicine Review, spring 2010;  I Was Indian, ed. Susan Deer Cloud, Foothills Publishing, 2010 and Florida Review, and short stories in Red Ink and Yellow Medicine Review. He serves editorially with Raven Chronicles and The Cartier Street Review and he blogs about writing techniques for WordCraft Circle of Native American Writers and Poets.

Book Review: What I Learned at the War

Mish Cover2What I Learned at the War,
by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
West End Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico
West End Press
ISBN 978-0-9910742-9-7
2016, paperback, 80 pp, $15.95

Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard

As a child who spent countless days in company of a river — swimming, catching crawdads, fishing, trapping muskrats, hunting rabbits — I learned how to cut small, tinder-dry grapevine twigs and smoke them like cigarettes, exhaling the mild smoke to drive away clouds of river gnats. And so when I opened Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s What I Learned at the War for the first time and read the lede stanza of her “Pastoral for My Brother,” I was immediately hooked. She wrote,

Today, I remember
prowling the woods with you
smashing wild grapes
into our haunted mouths,
smoking the vines.

Reading on, I discovered a writer whose work evokes the America that birthed “new” southerners, urban mixed-blood NDNs, midwest greasers, and the legions of lost travelers who, like Kerouac in the fifties, cross the continent endlessly, searching for their lives. This collection of poems displays a distinctive attitude, established most succinctly in the poem, “Sometimes there was an armistice.” Mish recalls attending her first formal dinner, and toward the last lines she tells us,

…I went to the ball, and as I remember it,
managed to always use the right fork
and to not say fuck out loud, not even once.

She tramps through America’s garden of violence, inequity and hurt, making poems of evidence she sees and remarks she remembers, then kicks them along her path like a child who kicks an unwashed tin can along railroad tracks, ignoring the oncoming freight train.

Mish’s prologue, “For the American Dead,” even though not written in an elegiac form, elegizes America and even American elegies, establishing a distant background of disconsolate introspection as she tells stories of the unfortunate among friends and family. But she peoples these stories with palpable characters who — despite bearing deep scars and bruises inside and out — smile, laugh, and shout at indomitable life.

The first poem in this collection’s body proper is “The Mice.” Mish carefully establishes the setting and personnel with subtle brushstrokes that would make Michelangelo proud.

It was late July, late afternoon,
one of those thick southern days
when shimmering heat draws a veil
over everything. A day that farmers,
eyes shaded by calloused palms or
John Deere caps, raise faces to the
stony sun and dream of rain. We tilled
the garden in March. Now, scarlet runners
weave red and green Pendletons around
their bamboo tripods, apparitions of old
Cheyenne women singing by the drum.

In her hospital room we were desperate
not to speak of death. Defying silence,
distracting her from pain, I confessed….

Here, the speaker inserts into the conversation an anecdote from when she was “running the cultivator” and accidentally disturbed a nest of field mice, which fills the eleven-line stanza. And then she finishes the poem with three lines:

We spoke of squash and mice and mothers
and of rain and scarlet runners. I tell you,
we were desperate not to speak of death.

Mish proceeds with three poems under the title, Occupational Hazards. The first, “#1 Child Labor,” recounts her childhood chores, which lead up to her ironing jeans for the family, and it ends with four rollicking sentences,

…Graduated to jeans at fifty cents a load at age eleven and developed a fetish for perfect ironed-and-starched creases. Later fell for a series of cowboys based on the perfection of their starched-and-creased pearl-button shirts and Levis. Gave up starch-and-crease when I gave up cowboys. Never ironed again.

Next comes seven somewhat whimsical pieces under the heading, Literacy Autobiography 1961-1992. The first, “#1 Body Language,” begins with birth, “My first language, mothersmell, rhythm of womb…,” and ends with,

…The hand reaching for a belt or a long-neck bottle, the fist swinging, the leg drawn back the perfect distance to kick with accuracy. This language I have tried to forget, so as not to confuse an arm reaching out in comfort with one poised to choke; so as not to confuse a body hovering over me in ecstasy with one preparing to suffocate.

The final piece in this grouping of seven is “#7 What I Learned at the War.” It ends with darkly humorous advice,

Try not to think about whether there is somewhere no war is going on. It’s like sending happy postcards to your former pimp in prison—it just makes the situation more unbearable.

Mish’s two poems, “What Sarah Venable Little Told the Sheriff” and “What Sarah Venable Little Wrote in Her Diary,” recount the vengeful and violent aftermath of America’s war between the states, first from a “family history” viewpoint, and then from a dying grandmother’s viewpoint of personal repenting and sorrow. On her deathbed, Sarah Venable Little mourns fathers of two generations, slain, “…because we turned away from / our grandmothers’ simple faith / / forgot the commandment / to never take up arms against another.”

Like many American families, especially in the South, this family still carries forward (and holds dear) their old, festered wounds of the Civil War. And like so many southern families, this family’s hearts pump blood of the conquered tribes which roamed here not so long ago. Conflicts….

In the poem Pia Toya, Mish writes two stanzas that may bring rain to the eyes for Coast Saliish tribes and, indeed, for all tribes.

Inside your heart
is a mountain written over
with a story not its own.

Let us remember its
ancient name, tell its true
story in the old way

made new.

And we all know the names given our west coast volcanoes on mainstream maps are not those mountains’ real names.

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish ends this collection with a long poem, “The Quah Effect,” named after Talequah, Oklahoma — capitol of the Cherokees’ “new” home at the end of the Trail of Tears. Among her closing lines are these:

It comes down to this:
head out for The Territories
east of the 97th parallel
south of the cultural Mason-Dixon

where there are two kinds of
survivors: the crackers and the
others—the music makers, the poets,
the artists, the medicine people.
I come from both kinds.

This book provides, among its considerable gifts, a view of what it is that makes otherwise sane adults write about the life “new” southerners, urban mixed-blood NDNs, midwest greasers, and the legions of lost travelers forever search for, and sometimes regret finding.

Thomas Hubbard, a retired writing instructor and spoken word performer, authored Nail and other hardworking poems, Year of the Dragon Press, 1994; Junkyard Dogz (also available on audio CD); and Injunz, a chapbook. He designed and published Children Remember Their Fathers (an anthology) and books by seven other authors. His book reviews have appeared in Square Lake, Raven Chronicles, New Pages and The Cartier Street Review. Recent publication credits include poems in Yellow Medicine Review, spring 2010;  I Was Indian, ed. Susan Deer Cloud, Foothills Publishing, 2010 and Florida Review, and short stories in Red Ink and Yellow Medicine Review. He serves editorially with Raven Chronicles and The Cartier Street Review and he blogs about writing techniques for WordCraft Circle of Native American Writers and Poets.


Jarmick coverNot Aloud,
by Christopher J. Jarmick
MoonPath Press, Kingston, Washington,
ISBN 978-1-936657-19-3
2015, paperback, 188 pp., $20.00

Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard

Do you read or write poetry in Seattle? Have you ever read or written poetry in Seattle? Columbia City? Kirkland? Are you familiar with the term, Poem Starter? You do? You have? You are?

Then you must know Chris Jarmick. So you won’t be surprised, reading the first poem in this collection, “A Supermarket in Seattle,” to learn that it is not only a tribute to dead poets, but a very skillfully crafted, sometimes giggling, near paraphrase of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California.” Look it up on YouTube, and realize this guy does his homework.

Nor will you be surprised, upon buying and reading Not Aloud, to find that Jarmick’s “Supermarket” takes you back to shake Ginsberg’s hand and laugh with him. And you will likely agree that Jarmick does funny about as well as anyone, including Dr. Seuss, another of his sources. But if you want something other than funny, turn directly to “Rides With Dad,” on page 112, and be sure to have a handkerchief handy. Not that it’s sad — it’s not. It’s a feel-good poem that could change the way you feel about family errands. But have the hankie handy, just in case a drop of rain … well, you know.

Perhaps you’re a lover of irony — maybe even irony about love? Then “Not A Poem About the Divorce,” on page 63, will please you. Ironic as it is, you will still get a belly laugh. This is a big book, so despite the Poem Starters (after all these years I’ve come to enjoy them), there are plenty of funny, serious, ironic, earth-shaking poems here that will change the way you see most anything, at least for a while.

This is another of those books you buy, then give away, then buy another. Might as well just go on and buy a couple. Not Aloud is a bargain. And the cover art, “When The Believers Try To Silence Their Gods,” by Duane Kirby Jensen, is a big bonus.

Thomas Hubbard, a retired writing instructor and spoken word performer, authored Nail and other hardworking poems, Year of the Dragon Press, 1994; Junkyard Dogz (also available on audio CD); and Injunz, a chapbook. He designed and published Children Remember Their Fathers (an anthology) and books by seven other authors. His book reviews have appeared in Square Lake, Raven Chronicles, New Pages and The Cartier Street Review. Recent publication credits include poems in Yellow Medicine Review, spring 2010;  I Was Indian, ed. Susan Deer Cloud, Foothills Publishing, 2010 and Florida Review, and short stories in Red Ink and Yellow Medicine Review. He serves editorially with Raven Chronicles and The Cartier Street Review and he blogs about writing techniques for WordCraft Circle of Native American Writers and Poets.