Monday, June 09, 2014

One Oar: A Journey with Alzheimer’s, poetry by Marie Bahlke

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 38 pages
Publisher: Christmas Cove Press, 2004
Price: $11.95
ISBN-10: 0975383302
ISBN-13: 978-0975383308

Now in her 90s, writer and poet Marie Bahlke began her writing career when she was in her 70s. She is living proof that it is never too late to chase and catch a dream. Alas, her poetry collection One Oar was inspired by the painful and difficult experience of living through her husband Harold’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and eventual demise.

Writing is often likened to therapy for its healing powers, and that refers not only to the writer, surely, but to the attentive reader. Bahlke’s courage in sharing her and her husband’s journey allows us to enter their intimate world, the world of a caring marriage, where one partner must gradually learn to let go of the other. With her poetry, her skill, her open heart, she allows us to feel along with her the bewilderment, the frustration, the grief, the loneliness, the desire to go on.

In the poem “Balancing,” Bahlke writes:

Half there, half gone
one oar in the our boat
what do I do—crawl to the bow
and paddle from there?
Move my pillow
to the middle of the bed?

How do I deal with
faucets that weep,
too many potatoes,
the Christmas tree stand,
a stranger’s kiss,
that shoebox full of foreign coins?

Filling out medical forms, the poet hesitates before checking off: widow. She sleeps in a half empty bed. Her damaged heart spreads its pain through her chest and catches in her throat. As we read, we know these emotions and sensations, too, and we know them in direct transfusion from her clear and unsentimental, brutally yet beautifully honest writing. One poem leads into the other to tell the story of this journey, and it is done with the rich beauty of a successful marriage, wife to husband and poet to words.

Interspersed between the poems are the black and white photographs of Steve Bahlke, lending poignant images of nature that offer both metaphor and healing.

One Oar was the winner of Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards. Bahlke continues to write, currently at work on her memoir.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tea in Heliopolis, poetry by Hedy Habra

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 100 pages
Publisher: Press 53 (2013)
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1935708767
ISBN-13: 978-1935708766

I’ve met the delightful Hedy Habra at local poetry readings, and I have gotten to know her, and her work, through several submissions I was thrilled to publish in a literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet. Indeed, one of the poems there published makes an appearance in her new poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis, called “Adagio for a Forgotten Viola d’Amore.” I have also read and reviewed her short story collection, Flying Carpets. Every bit of this crossing of paths has been a pleasure. Call me a fan.

So I found myself in the first poem of the collection, “Bricolage,” expecting poetic pleasure—and I found it. Reading Habra’s lines, “Go every day a little deeper/into the woods, collect acorns,/twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,/pine needles, a fern’s curl,/a bird’s nest, a lost feather,/spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,/a touch of blue, a ripple,/and why not the hush/of your steps over moss,/the trembling of leaves/at dusk against black bark?/,” I found myself on a familiar path, knew myself at home in Habra’s world, and immediately settled into her pages like one does into a comfortable chair, molded already to one’s own shape. Poetry like an old friend, walking side by side into new discoveries.

Habra weaves her different homes into her poetry. Of Lebanese origin, she was born in Egypt, has traveled across the world and called other countries home before settling down in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she now teaches at Western Michigan University. It is helpful to know this about the poet, because her experiences of different cultures, different languages, different perspectives on the world around her, imbue her work on countless levels of lush nuance as well as vast life experience. Some would call it exotic, and it is, but it also as simple as a woman growing up anywhere.

Consider her opening poem, “Bricolage.”

Go every day a little deeper
into the woods, collect acorns,
twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,
pine needles, a fern’s curl,
a bird’s nest, a lost feather,
spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,
a touch of blue, a ripple,
and why not the hush
of your steps over moss …

She is the every woman that perhaps only a woman of international knowledge can be, finding the common in the uncommon that lives everywhere and in every heart and experience. The reader can feel at home, whatever Habra’s landscape, in communion with a close friend.

In “How the Song Turns into a Legend,” Habra shares her light as a poet, shining it on the importance, indeed the necessity, of telling our stories. Not in whispers to ourselves, but “in tongues, in parables, uttered in public squares,/whispered in corners/in sotto voce,/from mouth to mouth.” Engraved in stone or on paper, told or written, her gorgeous poem encourages all our many stories to be told and so made enduring. Her own need to tell her story comes through with a tender yet fiery passion.

Habra also crosses art forms, her poetry connecting with her painting (note the book cover by the poet) in a delicate blend—painting about her words, painting with words. In a tribute to her mother, “To Henriette,” also a painter, Habra writes: “You dream the painter painting his model,/merging dreams, erasing distances.”

Habra writes in various forms, and her poetry can take traditional form, to free verse, to haiku verses tucked into larger poems, to experimental and prose poems, such as “Amber Daum.” In whatever form, as a multi-lingual poet, she imbues language with a quiet power that seeps inside and blooms, at first almost imperceptibly, but then in breathtaking and near overwhelming beauty. If in “Vision” she mourns how a beautiful line can sometimes evaporate like water, this collection is as near perfection as any I’ve read, with not a drop evaporated. In her delicacy is her power, in her light touch she delivers great and powerful messages, in a whisper she produces longing, and with each poem a growing satisfaction in a body of work that can be read again and again, with each time new discovery.

Tea in Heliopolis is a finalist for the 2014 International Book Award and finalist or semi-finalist in a number of literary competitions.

Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of a short story collection, Flying Carpets, and a book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa. She has an MA and an MFA in English and an MA and PhD in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. 

Bad Apple by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Book review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 194 pages
Publisher: Vagabondage Press, 2012
Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0615683894
ISBN-13: 978-0615683898

In reading as in life, it’s always a good idea to push one’s comfort zone, break routine from time to time, and try something new or different for the purpose of discovery. Reading within the horror genre is that for me, although I’m not sure I would classify Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s novel, Bad Apple, in that category. It certainly does send the occasional shiver of delightful creepiness up and down the spine, but it’s not the sort of story that gives one nightmares.

Bad Apple is the story of teenage Scree, growing up in a Maine apple orchard among an intriguingly dysfunctional and broken family. She is burdened with household chores that never seem to end, among them the raising of her brother’s baby, Beckitt. Fascinated with patterns, Scree allows dishes to pile up because she enjoys the patterns food and mold make on dirty dishes, and household debris accumulates as a kind of funky art form. Her obsessive behavior seems to indicate unhealed psychological wounds, and rightly so. Deep in Scree’s psyche is a childhood memory of pushing her mother down a well, and the memory surfaces in her life and her choices in surreal ways throughout the story.

Rather than allow the baby she grows to love to follow in her life path, Scree escapes the orchard to a colorful resort. It seems to hold within its walls all that Scree has dreamed for her own life, but facades begin to melt and tapestries of story lines unravel to increasingly reveal the odd, the freaky, the inexplicable, the haunting in her surroundings as well as Scree’s inner landscape. Reality becomes ever more meshed with dreamlike scenarios, and the baffled reader must hang on until the ending for a stunning revelation.

Schoonover is a writer who loves her art and is practiced at it. Bad Apple is not her first novel, and her dedication to excellence in the written word shines here. Descriptions are vivid and tense, reeling the reader into her character’s ever more twisted world:

“My fingers went numb, my toes stiff, my teeth chattered, and my breath came in white puffs: I was instantly freezing. I sat up, and for some reason, I was embarrassed as Adam and Eve in the Garden the second they’d discovered they were naked. I marathoned across the icy broken cabana cement to the door that—strangely—was stuck and took three yanks to open. The wallpaper glared, each stripe a crowbar threatening to bash in my skull. I ran up the stairs, down the hall, tripped over something—what, I didn’t know—and crumpled against a wall mural depicting gnarled, shadow-dark trees under an igniting sky. It made me miss the orchard.

“The orchard that was no longer my home. The mural’s tree limbs swayed and called to me, cursing me for leaving behind the bobbing Gingergolds, the incinerating summers, the raw spring, the moon-indigo winters, the November afternoons when the gray sun was an omniscient eye.” (pg. 150-151)

Kristi Petersen Schoonover is the author of the short story collection Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole—Tales from Haunted Disney, and her short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum Literary Review, Full of Crow, Eclectic Flash, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Macabre Cadaver, Morpheus Tales, Citizen Culture, MudRock: Stories & Tales, New Witch Magazine, Spilt Milk, Toasted Cheese, and a host of others, including several anthologies. She hosts the paranormal fiction segment on The Ghostman & Demon Hunter Show broadcast and serves as an editor for Read Short Fiction. An interview with the author is featured in The Smoking Poet’s Summer 2014 Issue #26