Review Issue 4

Flatback Sally Country

Written by Rachel Custer

Terrapin Books, 2023, 79 pp., 978-1947896628 

"Custer does an incredible job of contextualizing diverse issues that arise from people’s experiences in smaller cities."

Peeking Under the Hood

Review by Bryce Delaney Walls

          Flatback Sally Country is a new collection of poems from Terrapin Books written by Rachel Custer, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and author of the 2017 poetry collection The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press). Flatback Sally Country reveals the hard and often hidden truths of small-town living. Many poems follow a woman named Sally and the tragic life she can’t escape. Flatback Sally Country presents an apparently perfect town anyone would want to live in and peels back the top layer. Within, Custer looks at the unfortunate souls who are chewed up, put in hard positions, and abandoned by their community. The book is divided into four sections, each following a different time in Sally’s life. The book is prefaced, however, by a poem titled “History,” which provides the setting of Sally’s town and the suffering its inhabitants endure: “There is only one way to live in a place / where everybody believes nobody lives / Like there is only one way to be a fire and that is to burn.”

          The poems in this book are often entertaining, witty, lyrical, and gutting. Custer shines a light on the way people, especially women, are abandoned by their community once their reputations are attacked. Custer argues that this abandonment builds resentment, and that this resentment perpetuates a cycle of sad people living unfulfilled lives crushed by the weight of their past. Pieces like “Property,” “Fire,” and “House Soon to Catch Fire” show us the kind of people who use Sally throughout her life. Those poems are paired with pieces like “The Whole Town Knows Sally Is a Slut” and “Liquor Store Clerk,” which reveal Sally’s good intentions.

          Custer does an incredible job of contextualizing diverse issues that arise from people’s experiences in smaller cities. I especially loved the nuanced approach to motherhood. Sally raises her daughter in a completely different way than she was raised. Their relationship is hard; Sally tries her best to avoid putting Mercy in the same position she felt forced into by her youth. Many of the poems from Sally’s point of view show her upbringing as traditional. In “Bait,” an earlier poem in the collection, a 14-year-old Sally learns about the role of men, women, and mothers in the world, “Don’t fool yourself that / he can feel like you. A girl is made of skin / and the air through which she moves and all the things her daddy always said.” Later, after Mercy leaves town and strikes out on her own, we see how she’s grown separate from Sally. She expresses her own view on what a girl is in the poem, “Mercy, Defined,” saying, “What is a world? / Another set of hands pawing a girl. / What is a girl? / A mouth like a spung trap.” This level of nuance, of Mercy having escaped the small town but still not being immune to the same predatory nature of the world her mother was trapped in, is the main focus of Flatback Sally Country.

          This collection of poems provides a nuanced perspective on lives some may not often hear about. It gives a voice to people who are told they’re better left forgotten, and it gives them an opportunity to see themselves on the page, to be seen as fellow humans. This book subtly celebrates people who live paycheck to paycheck or come from small religious towns. It gives tragic significance to the lives of people whose suffering makes them seem like shells of their former selves. You’ll find Custer has an intimate understanding of what it’s like to be lost by an entire community. She aims for an old-fashioned value—truth: “Stories are like eggs, and truth like yolks / (They only show when broken) / Some bodies are shells, breaking themselves / empty, too sore for dinner.”

Bryce Delaney Walls (They/Them) is a nonbinary poet from South Bend, Indiana. They work as an assistant editor at Wolfson Press. Their work has appeared in On-the-High Literary Journal, verum, and Prismatica, and is forthcoming in Hellmouth. You can find them on twitter @BryceDelaney_.

Feet of the Messenger

Written by H.C. Palmer

BkMk Press, 2017, 79 pp., 978-1943491100 

"These poems live and breathe as much as the characters they portray, while providing new life and liberation to those they memorialize."

Mending Wounds With Words

Review by Robert Simons

          H.C. Palmer’s Feet of the Messenger lucidly filters memory, both beautiful and painful, through and into poetic verse. Such poems expose the reader to vivid images of combat zones, warm instances in the company of loved ones, scenes of suspension between life and death, lush landscapes damaged but not diminished by human destruction, in addition to moments of contemplation at the Vietnam War memorial. The story of the collection is founded primarily on Palmer’s perspective as both a surgeon and veteran of the Vietnam War but draws from other influences as well. The poet is always careful to cite his sources, often featuring bits of context, related trivia, biblical verses, and even quotes from other writers in the form of epigraphs. Even so, there is nothing borrowed about Palmer’s work that isn’t made new.

          The book is divided into three sections, distinguished by unstated yet clearly present themes. Part one blends the worlds of past and present by combining childhood memories and war trauma through reflection. Poems in this section, such as “A Season for War,” merge visions of potshots at ducks in a pond with the tradings of gunfire between boats and helicopters in Da Nang. Part two takes place on a different battleground, drawing from Palmer’s experience as a surgeon and budding writer. Here, wounds are mended through medical operation and storytelling. The third and final part leads the reader through prairies and towns, childhood homes and schoolhouses, and other destinations of memory.

          These poems live and breathe as much as the characters they portray, while providing new life and liberation to those they memorialize. Palmer’s words can flow as smoothly as waves in a shallow pond or strike as hard as bullets from an automatic rifle. His writing sparsely dabbles with rhyme but is never restricted by it. Instead, Palmer develops a rhythm through sensible yet unpredictable continuations of word sounds. This is so in “Death of a Dead Person,” where the first five lines read: “The scan showed a collection / of fluid filled my skull. / A silver cortex was all I had / to work with. / Science said I was dead.”

          The collection is unquestionably powerful and fulfilling, but it shines brightest when the writing has the most control over the reader. This occurs in poems such as “The Dead in Photographs,” “Dulce Et Decorum Est: Again,” “Bird-Hunting in the Tall Grass,” and “Sunsets at Lower Fox Creek School.” These poems use double meanings, fragmented time, or overturned expectations, and pure elegance to seduce the reader into empathizing with their characters. Palmer is such a skilled storyteller that the reader is continuously propelled by the desire to know how these poems will end.

          In the words of Rhina P. Espaillat, from the book’s afterword, “I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t need these poems.” What more can be said? Feet of the Messenger imposes a vision of war, suffering, survival, guilt, forgiveness, love, fear, strength, weakness, and beauty that weaves together not only the diverse experiences of Palmer’s own life, but the experiences of all who read his poetry. 

Robert Joseph Simons is an actor, playwright, and writer whose work has been performed and published. He is in his final year of undergraduate work at Indiana University South Bend, where he studies Theater Performance and English Literature. He enjoys running, purchases of LEGOs and keychains, as well as studying languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and German. 

Ghost || Animal

Milk and Cake Press, 2023, 28 pp, ISBN: 979-8988444916 

"Although it’s a coming-of-age collection about abuse and trauma, seeds of hope are sprinkled throughout, presented through a blossoming friendship, the forming of self-identity, and the healing and recovery occurring with time."

Hold Tight

Review by Josie Polizzotto

          Erin Elizabeth Smith, Executive Director of Sundress Publications and the Sundress Academy for the Arts, has written three full-length collections of poetry, including The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake Press, 2011), and Down (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2020). Her most recent collection, Ghost || Animal, follows Dot, a girl facing the realities of an unsupportive world as she ages into adulthood. This intricately woven chapbook of free verse portrays childhood physical and sexual abuse, and the lifelong trauma that persists. This collection is broken into three sections; some poems are a full-page block of text describing dreamlike sequences, while others are short, two-line stanzas addressed as a goodbye letter. The title of this collection plays an integral role in the themes of these pieces: ghosts of the past appear as guiding spirits and memories, while animals refer to the innocence of nature. Although it’s a coming-of-age collection about abuse and trauma, seeds of hope are sprinkled throughout, presented through a blossoming friendship, the forming of self-identity, and the healing and recovery occurring with time.

          Ghost || Animal begins with Dot at 15 years old, enveloped in a relationship with a man three times her age. Stowing away in hotel rooms and forming her “grouse nest” in his home, Dot feels something is wrong with her relationship upon learning about her abuser’s oldest daughter, Jenny: “he turned her / toward the wall where Jenny / looked down like a technicolor ghost, / another girl pursing her lips / whispering, Hold tight.” Realizing she is ensnared in a web of cyclical abuse, Dot leaves in the middle of the night and never returns. Later, as a sophomore in college, she struggles with lingering tendrils of a relationship haunting her, a father who “would clutch her hair, push her face / close... to the wood-burning stove,” and a manic mother who escaped to the Midwest with her Pledge and Lysol in both hands. Dot finds her only relief in the form of alcohol and a best friend named Nora. She learns to reclaim a stripped-away girlhood by coping with trauma, trying to proceed into an unknown future.

          The theme of trauma permeates the pieces of Ghost || Animal. This can be seen in the character of Jenny, who is never physically present but remains a static presence in Dot’s mind throughout her life. A sense of comradery exists between the two girls, extending toward the end of the collection once Dot owns her own house in Pennsylvania, where she tells Jenny, “I have made soup and tea, / and the seasons, / they change here, / shift from this ghostly grey / to a sprig of yellow / and green.” Such elements of nature are woven into the narrative, offsetting the heaviness of the “ghosts” with the introduction of animal sidekicks and seasons transitioning from gray to color. Although focused on shadows and abuse, this is also a collection of hope and recovery. Smith recognizes there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

          Survivors of childhood abuse will find a voice in this collection. Although Dot undergoes a tragic yet all too common reality of children and teenagers, she gains a voice to advocate for herself. In her farewell letter to Nora, Dot writes, “I have sent you that dress / you loved – it’s too small / for who I need to be.” This line encourages survivors of abuse to outgrow what no longer serves them, a lesson not often taught to victims. I recommend this collection not only for survivors, but for those who would like to better understand the experiences and struggles of people who experience complex trauma. The narrative touches down on key moments in Dot’s life, each piece a free-standing poem that fits together to create an arc of healing and triumph. To lovers of deeply introspective poetry: this book will make a wonderful addition to your collection. 

Josie Polizzotto is a co-editor for the Wolfson Review of Wolfson Press. She is an undergraduate English student at Indiana University South Bend and enjoys crafting poetry and short fiction. She owns a cuddly tabby cat, a growing collection of indoor plants, and has a knack for interior decoration and fashion. 

Sweet Herbaceous Miracle

Written by Berwyn Moore

BkMk Press, 2018, 86 pp., 978-1943491162 

"Moore subverts the usual expectations of nature poems that find a way to be ungrounded in actual nature. I feel as though she finds a way to reveal the beauty of nature while examining the inner parts of self."

The Essence Thereof

Review by Josiah "Jo" Hackett

          Berwyn Moore is the author of the 2017 John Ciardi Prize winning poetry collection, Sweet Herbaceous Miracle, and two other poetry books, O Body Swayed and Dissolutions of Ghosts (both published by Cherry Grove Collections). Showing how well-read Moore is, Sweet Herbaceous Miracle calls on the poets and writers of old to solidify her spot in the annals of rich poetry. I can see spots of William Carlos Williams in her descriptions of everyday circumstances, such as rat-infested homes or otherwise infested lives in “Epistle to the Rats.” She follows in the footsteps of her predecessor, Williams, in her use of short stanzas of sentence length. It makes the poems easy to read, but it’s also visually appealing. Yet, Moore is not confined to short stanzas; there are also poems with no stanza breaks that provide character studies, like “House of Sclerosis,” “Epitaph for a Housekeeper,” and “Tissue.” These poems seek to capture the essence of her subjects. 
          Moore also pulls inspiration from Gerard’s Herbal by John Gerard, taking key phrases out of the plant guide first published in the 16th century. There are many poems labeled “From Gerard’s Herbal” as well as poems only named after flora, like “Hyssop” and “Fennel.” She uses Gerard’s Herbal to provide some new way to look at the plant and nature, to find something beyond the physical, something intangible through the tangible. In “From Gerard’s Herbal: Of Borage,” we see a direct quote from Gerard’s Herbal with: “Ego borago gaudia semper ago. / I, Borage, bring always courage.” We may look at a plant, we might recognize it, but we don’t look much deeper than that. We may have preconceived notions about that plant, or we might go, Wow, a bit of red in my day, but she tackles those preconceived notions of a plant and finds the essence thereof to share, no longer bound in a 16th century book.


          I would like to highlight more than a few poems in this collection because of their specific greatness. “Rapture” has one of my favorite lines, “and clutch the edge of doom like a wall,” and provides some unique images I haven’t read in a poem before. “In Your Own Image” calls back to the creation story in Genesis, turning the passage into a relationship, exploring what it means to be someone else and not entirely yourself: “a concussion in whose darkness / you felt complete, your self at last.” “The Banker’s Wife Croons Fear” starts in a silly tone, but switches as soon as the cockroach hisses, providing a deeper look at not only fear but the fear of fear, giving us lines like: “Still, she finds death / in the currency of smell, asphalt after rain, // and touch, his gentle squeeze, and words, / probability and perceived risk.” “Life Goals” shows what the narrator wanted out of life but never achieved. All this shows how Moore subverts the usual expectations of nature poems that find a way to be ungrounded in actual nature. I feel as though she finds a way to reveal the beauty of nature while examining the inner parts of self. There is nothing explicitly grandiose about it, but it is indeed profound and speaks volumes, in contrast to the nature poets of old, who would talk about the whole of nature, not its individual parts, the parts we so macroscopically miss.


          Through the epigraphs at the beginning of each section, she calls on the poets who came before. She mentions poets such as William Carlos Williams and even artfully steals his idea of the poem as a field of action. She quotes part of his talk in her first poem called, “Poem as a Field of Action.” She runs with Williams’s idea, introducing variable feet in that poem. These variable feet, unlike the formal rhythms of older verse, allow a poet to write verse closer to the manner of speaking. Williams was concerned with how new American poets were constraining themselves with formal poetic rules that ruined the meaning and the flow of verse. She enters Emily Dickinson into the conversation with Dickinson’s insights about love, a subject Dickinson wrote about more than once, perhaps as much as she wrote about death. Lastly, she brings in one of the most popular nature poets of his time, Wordsworth. In this poet, I see her biggest influence, but it’s a subversive influence. Where I see moments of grandeur in Wordsworth, I see quiet moments from Moore. I can see where she pulls influence with regards to nature and the literal, tackling emotions and concepts like love, fear, and even death.  
          These poems express a connection to the Earth that is rare in modern poetry. There seems to be a callback to those poets of old, who were connected to their surroundings, enraptured with how the Earth spoke back to them. This book is for those already in such a world, experiencing what it can give and what it can take away, but also for those who long for a reason to explore what they have ignored for so long. 

Josiah “Jo” Hackett is a self-published author of seven poetry books, including Daily Prisms, Tangible Colors, Dyed Dwellings, Tinted Fires, Fifth Night, Kaleidoscopic Creatures, and Everything Tones. He is enjoying graduate studies at Indiana University South Bend, forming more poetry and prose each and every day. He owns two gray cats and likes to cook only when necessary.

Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems

Written by Karl Kirchwey

Triquarterly Books/NU Press, 2017, 89 pp., 978-0810136281 

"Kirchwey’s commentary on love and loss is both deeply personal and relatable."

Loss in a Foreign Land

Review by Robin Dubree

          Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems is Karl Kirchwey’s latest of seven original poetry books, including A Wandering Island (Princeton University Press, 1990) and The Engrafted Word (Henry Holt and Company, 1998). The latter was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.” In Stumbling Blocks, which is rich in historical and mythological allusions, Kirchwey engraves his own experiences with love and loss into the marble of crumbling Rome. The book is divided into nine sections, each of which gradually invites the reader into increasingly intimate reflections on the many lives that have been lived within these ancient sites. Along the way, Kirchwey contemplates the nature of loss, love, and legacy.


          Although at first glance this collection appears dense, it can be appreciated by anyone with an appreciation for classical history. It is packed with references to Renaissance art, Greek and Roman mythology, and stories of Roman Catholic saints. For those without an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects, Kirchwey includes notes explaining historical context or mythological events. But Kirchwey’s poetry goes beyond contemplating art and history by touching on the deeper recesses of the spirit.

          Kirchwey’s commentary on love and loss is both deeply personal and relatable. Earlier poems in the collection illustrate Kirchwey’s point of view as he adjusts to life in Italy, and his perspective is indispensable. As someone who has never traveled outside of the country, I was initially worried I would not be able to connect with these poems. However, he paints the foreign as something universal, something transcending time. He gives voice to ancient carvings, paintings, and sculptures in a fountain. The observations he makes are ones only a poet’s eye can capture, and he develops these in passages that can resonate with the artist in all of us.

          The book begins with shorter, simpler pieces about the author’s adjustment to life in Italy, but the poetry becomes more intimate as the sections progress. There is a balance of anecdotal, historical, and mythological poems, and sometimes history and myth are woven into more personal poems. Situated near the end of the collection, poems like “Return” show the poet achieving acceptance and comfort with the events recounted in the earlier sections. Stumbling Blocks reaches a bittersweet end. The tone of the closing pieces echoes the meaningful lessons about life and loss subtly developed in the earlier poems.

          Kirchwey’s writing is thoroughly enjoyable. Each poem is carefully crafted, selected, and arranged. When I was in danger of missing some historical understanding, Kirchwey’s embedded commentary brought me back down to earth. “Someone dug up his cobble last week / and replaced it–as if no one would notice– / with an ordinary gray basalt rock, / as if history were simply a matter / of what is removed, revised, held back” reads a section of “Stumbling Blocks: For Pius XII.” The loftier historical elements are not alienating but intriguing, and they’re seamlessly enmeshed with the personal side to Kirchwey’s writing. What most stands out to me most is Kirchwey’s “A Letter from Istanbul,” a longer poem which spans the entirety of the fifth section of the book. It’s a poignant, tender poem written from the perspective of the author to his son, containing dazzling lines such as “for even if two of us, caught as we are in time, / understand that spirit may be reached through the body / by which we apprehend the beauty of this world, / then there is hope for everyone else as well.” These thoughtful observations are the foundation of Kirchwey’s writings.

          Stumbling Blocks takes steps back through time to call to a more human element in each of its readers, putting us in the spirit of perpetually adapting to the ever-changing world around us. Instead of resigning itself to a feeling of isolation, the poetry in this collection speaks to a person who feels connected to the unique lives that came before them and those that will come after them. Kirchwey reminds us that loss is a universally felt wound and human connection can transcend time and place to heal that wound. 

Robin Dubree (he/they) is a Creative Writing student at Indiana University South Bend. He is an aspiring poet who spends most of his free time writing poems about nature instead of going outside. He loves all things colorful and strives to weave the rainbow into his work. 

Through a

Red Place

Written by Rebecca Pelky

Perugia Press, 2021, 85 pp., 978-0997807653 

"Through a Red Place is an important book for any indigenous reader and any American who comes across it."

Heritage, Language, and Being Heard

Review by Bryce Walls

          Through a Red Place, written by Rebecca Pelky, is a collection of poetry published in 2021 by Perugia Press. Rebecca Pelky, a recent National Endowment for the Arts fellow, is the author of one previous poetry book, Horizon of the Dog Woman (Saint Julian Press, 2020). This new volume, Through a Red Place, was the 2021 winner of the Perugia Press Prize, having its place in a long list of fine volumes from Perugia Press written by emerging women poets.

          Pelky’s volume should not be missed. Crafted from newspaper clippings, historical documents, observations, and personal experiences, it hums with history, legacy, heritage, and culture. This book has immersed my mind in the messages the poems are singing. Several poems throughout the collection are constructed from the Mohegan language with an accompanied translation mirrored on the next page. The way the Mohegan language appears on the page is fascinating. It’s a beautiful looking language that is impossible to resist trying to sound out while reading. The accompanying poems are wonderful, spiritual, and human. My favorite of these is “Peeping Frog Moon,” which describes a group of frogs singing a sassafras tree into life. In its original, the opening line, “Listen to the peeping frogs” looks incredible on the page: “Kihtamsh sisikoik kopayáhsak.” Another example that I loved was the poem “Wutáhum Wiyon” or “Heartberry Moon,” a poem about an old love coming home. The lines “Nikoni kipunumuwôk mihkáyuw wiyámoyak / wipi kupáhtomun wiksapákatôk” caught my attention. The translation reads: “The first picking is strong medicine / but what we wait for is sweet.” This poem succeeds in capturing the overwhelming emotions of seeing a lover after a long time apart. To the foreign reader, it is as if the very size of the words in the indigenous Mohegan shows the immense passion a speaker could be feeling in an intimate moment. I spent a lot of time examining these poems, enjoying the way they looked on the page, and existing in the world they expose us to via the bridge of language.

          Many of the poems in this collection are steeped in memory and discovery, and they often surprised me with how surreal their images were. They are magical off the page, creating unforgettable imaginative sequences in my mind. Poems like “Offering” left me thinking about them for days: “moat the bounding main / replace my eyes with sea glass / and tint my life vermillion.” I’m fond of how this poem is about offering the speaker’s own body. As the poem continues, the speaker replaces their body with elements of the ocean. The message is an offering to (and from) Pelky’s heritage.

          In more than one poem, Pelky explores heritage by writing about burial mounds and the thoughts of her ancestors. The reader can feel the melting pot of different emotions, from sadness and regret to excitement and curiosity. “Directive,” one of these mound poems, shows us how this book is important for the speaker’s contemplation of what their ancestors may think of them. The ancestors say to the poet, “now turn your pen to the children silenced / or missing or caged, and those / still to come, who might yet be / raised from the dead.” This book tells stories about people long since passed, pointing us to a group of people not often talked about. Through a Red Place is a wonderful way for Pelky to give back to her culture and give us, as readers who live outside of the tribe, insight into a group of people often alienated.

          This collection isn’t a funeral dirge for people long gone. It’s a call to remember a culture brutalized by American history. It’s a call to celebrate an ancient culture as it was carried on by its ancestors. It’s a reminder of the music, the art, the humanity of indigenous stories: “just visit, like this, every now and then / We’re well past the end of our story / and no one can tell us again. They say / Life was a good joke.” If you’re someone who has interest in Native American culture and heritage or wants to learn more about what that means to an individual, I highly recommend this book. Through a Red Place is an important book for any indigenous reader and any American who comes across it. 

Bryce Delaney Walls (They/Them) is a nonbinary poet from South Bend, Indiana. They work as an assistant editor at Wolfson Press. Their work has appeared in On-the-High Literary Journal, verum, and Prismatica, and is forthcoming in Hellmouth. You can find them on twitter @BryceDelaney_.

Personnel for Issue 4


Josiah "Jo" Hackett

Josie Polizzotto

Advising Editor

Dr. Joseph Chaney


Robin Dubree, Loss in a Foreign Land

Josiah "Jo" Hackett, The Essence Thereof

Josie Polizzotto, Hold Tight

Robert Simons, Mending Wounds with Words

Bryce Walls, Peeking Under the Hood Heritage, Language, and Being Heard