diode v9n1



Small Press Full Length Collections Omnibus Review

Work by Ellen Kombiyil, Rachel Mennies, Marcela Sulak, and Sarah Wetzel

Histories of the Future Perfect
The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards
River Electric With Light

I would like to take this opportunity to support small, independent, and academic presses. To celebrate institutions that are dedicated to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting scholarship and literacy. Be they newly-emergent or established, Red Hen Press, Texas Tech University Press, Black Lawrence Press, and The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective are committed to publishing underrepresented voices and to transforming lives by disseminating writing that is “innovative, electrifying, and thoroughly intoxicating.”

New from these cutting-edge presses are four full-length poetry collections from four visionary writers. Whether crafted by award-winning artists or carefully curated, whether hand-selected or born of generous mentorship, these thoughtful and painstaking works gift the reader an exquisite unrest. Vivid, lyric, and evocative, the words and ideas proffered within these books enable the reader not only to question, but to reconsider, not only to reflect, but to be transformed.

Seemingly disparate, these collections grow from the fertile soil of common ground. Each one stems from the rich roots of questioning, and among their boughs are inquiries into science and religion, genesis, generations, and death, the infinite and the inevitable, history, humanity, and crossing over.


Review | Histories of the Future Perfect, by Ellen Kombiyil
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, 2015

Enter a world where nothing is off limits for exploration: history, mythology, love. Dive to the deepest depths of the ocean and travel as far as the imagined reaches of outer space. Slip into the skin of the philosopher, historian, astronaut, necromancer, classicist, adventurer–all as imagined by the contemplative mind and lyric lilt of the poet. Give yourself over to moments as beautiful as they are thought-provoking–“My mouth / at the moment of loss unbinds a thousand // mouths all making the same sound”–and know that these are the ripples circling out across the waters of this one-of-a-kind collection. Welcome to Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect.

Imagine a world freed by the boundless realms of a child’s imagination. A child, that is, with a PhD and the resources of NASA at its fingertips. And a heart that has lived more than one lifetime. “Of the heart,” Kombiyil observes, “one might say that it slows,” and “love is / lava spilling out & cooling into rock.” From earth, she imagines the stars, and from space, she longs for earth. In “While Sipping Lemon Tea on Saturn’s Ice-Cloud Deck,” the poet experiences “Dizzy days and sleepless nights—elongated years,” wistful when admitting that “I’ve forgotten the outline of my body against you.”

Like the other collections that are the subject of this omnibus review, Histories reverberates with echoes of religion and creation. As the book moves away from its center, the nexus between science and God reaches a crescendo in the series “Sequence of My Future Selves”:

secret things belong to the Lord—an omni-
present plucking of strings, constant
in the act of being plucked. I am
alone, I’ll say out loud to the patch-
work dark, while time-elapsed arms touch
all parts of myself at once: inside God’s
sensorium, infinite shades of black.

The collection embraces current events and popular culture—The Matrix, Kurt Cobain, Elvis, Hurricane Irene and Duane Reade each make an appearance—but even a pop-culture-referential poem such as “Neo Takes the Red Pill of Negative Infinity” says Let there be God, Let there be creation, and, also, Let there be science:

On the day
[the universe] begins to contract, God’s exhale
finished at last, the giant glass
sphere he’s blowing—iridescent,
sparkling—will shine before it goes dark
each individual pinpoint
a plethora of pinpoints
will dazzle with the staggering
intricacy of snowflakes.
A continuum of moving parts
sucks in stardust, spews it
back out, the fine powder of
nothing comes from nothing
it only changes form.
In a universe next door they’re
vacuuming the floor, complaining, Last night
the neighbor’s party ended with a bang.

The poet’s relationship with God—that is innately and steadfastly entrenched in science—is deeply personal, contemplative, and mystical:

Within my reflection is
his reflection, mirrors into mirrors, back and back for eternity. I
wonder if I ever reach origin, will I see an explosion of light or its

Then, what is personal for the poet becomes a form of advocacy when the poet is unafraid—as Marcela Sulak is in her collection Decency—to take on the intersection of sexual violence, misogyny, and religion:

The women will not speak when they speak,
they will speak of that time. When they speak,
wiping hands on apron checks, they will not
speak of what mustn’t be named. One might
say that time while pounding out dough and men
will stroke graying beards in a living room
laden with apples and pine, girls with down
cast eyes. They’ll say we didn’t tell her
because. They’ll say it’s better she not know.
Insert your horror here [              ]. It was years ago.
. . .
That’s all behind us now, the civic
leader rings out, naming it wild female
imaginings. It’s still happening.

What does the end of the world look like in such a world?

The day of no more water
we will vanish like patterns
left back cracked and spilling salt
craters gaping and vacant
pink dawn over desert our mouths
beautiful and awful all at once

Yet in the end, it is time that is the redeemer in this world of the possible and the imagined:

in the deep plunk a layering of silt
is the layering of selves my hope is
I exist really it’s the loneliness
let earth unloosen its grip let
me feel the cold sweat of clouds after all
I’m not afraid of falling climbing
towards sun’s miniscule spreading here I am
in the future shining and important

Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect is a collection that contemplates what was and what could have been—“I exist in two worlds, here and the past”—that wonders what is inevitable and what is eventual, that explores the connection—and disconnect—between the individual and the universe, the finite and the infinite, the microscopic and the endless vastness of existence: “your immediate heart beats / closer to the stars.” Time and space, science, God, and creation, even math intersect with the lived and the personal: “Now solve for bare feet glisten. Now step on constellations.” The entirety of possibility lies ahead, and, as for the past, “history can be shed.”


Review | The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, by Rachel Mennies
Texas Tech University Press, 2014

The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards “cradle[s] a weight unasked of it.” This ambitious collection is laden with questions of religion and God, of Judaism as a uniquely weighted experience, of the tension between a lost matriarchy and a present patriarchy—“prayers as old as a thousand matriarchs;” “Sarah had Rebekah had Leah and Rachel had… no use for sarcasm but lived thick within God’s ironies…” Woven between the fibers of these themes are the intrinsic considerations of—and reflections upon—history and those relationships that are the genesis, generation, and continuation of life. 

When Mennies asks What does it mean to be Jewish? She is unafraid to reveal the full breadth of her experience. There is both “the guilt: / the weight, the backbending weight / of survival,” but also, “As a child, deep in your growing heart, / you knew magic before schoolmates’ birthdays—not the tired / deception, the rabbits and cards. Your magicians stood / at the ark, wore yarmulkes, giant black-clad men / enchanting you: books became graves, a blood-rubbed door / saved sons, wires blessed made walls.”

As much as Mennies struggles with—and embraces—her own relationship to Judaism, she also must struggle against those definitions others impose on her and her people:

“You are Jewish?” she asks me. “I’m
American,” I say. “You are Jewish,”
she says. (America, invention
of the nomad, roof over the outcast’s
head.) “Then I’m German,” I say. “No,”
she tells me . . . You are Jewish.”

Even death—and the rituals that accompany remembrance—is reflected upon through a uniquely Jewish lens. In the poem “Yahrzeit,” “the eye of God opens, unblinking…making constellations of all our deaths. // How long a wick, how short a year… how clever, the way earth / makes us into mud—how heavy // the feet of our commemorators, how white / the knuckles that clasp their books of prayer.”

In one of the collection’s brightest moments of capturing this struggle with identity, the poet grapples with the question of what makes a work of art Jewish: “What makes this poem Jewish?” Mennies asks, then notes:

blessed it yet. Nobody’s named it,
named it again in Hebrew, put that name
on a Kiddush cup, filled that cup
with wine purple as a bruise.
. . .
Where are the bobby pins to stick
the lace to this poem’s crown, cover
its head on the Sabbath? Where’s
this poem’s sense of ritual?

And the tongue-in-cheek ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’:

Let’s name this poem Rivkah . . .
[S]mash a glass under its husband’s foot,
circumcise its wailing, red-faced
sons, watch it multiply
into a book (some poems
will remember, some
will not)—sit shivah
for its passing once
it ends.

No matter how substantial the other themes the book considers, it is apparent that Judaism is not an isolated, compartmentalized phenomenon for the poet. It is inherent to who the poet is and it colors the entirety of the collection. So when Mennies considers history and immigration, it is inevitably against the backdrop of the Holocaust, of diaspora. The immigrant is not just an immigrant, but a “Jewish immigrant on her knees,” the immigrant’s struggle is always at once to forget and to never forget: “Amnesiac, you become American. Historian, you remain a Jew.”

The book’s reflections on marriage give off the air of Yiddish wisdom—first comparing marriage to an onion: “the learned sting / that comes with marriage, with peeling / back its skin and slicing it deeply,” and then offering that storytelling is key to a successful marriage: “when you find love you will see marriage is easy if you know the right / stories to tell.” Finally, when marriage inevitably leads to generation and the generations that follow, there is that same sense of a uniquely Jewish wisdom and experience, of guilt and sacrifice: “In this world, we cut away / what we cannot hoist onto the shoulders / of our children;” “They must / know the lessons of each generation, feel / that thick, stinging pleasure in their eyes.” There is a sense throughout the collection that new life is never free of the history that made that life possible: “I have the worries of my great-aunts, / their consonant names.”

For a book with a monotheistic religion at its core, God is not elevated, but held accountable: “God’s unscientific tale-telling… fear untreatable;” “God, the / collector of stories // and bodies;” “God, / our brute teacher.”

And so, in truth, this collection is really a secular inquiry into a designation that goes far beyond religion, taking root in the realms of race and culture. What this leaves us with is a book of serious inquiry. But so, too, is there magic in this work. Ritual. Tradition. Its stories rise from the page in painstaking detail—vivid, emotive, and all too real. History is both honored and excavated; bones and memories are buried in the backyard. Time is not linear, but fifth dimensional; the past, present, and future unfold more like the birth of a star than a linear timeline. The soundscape is rich and evocative, the themes resonant and deeply lyric, the entirety layered and striking.

Easy to invest in, the rewards of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards are “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”


Review | Decency, by Marcela Sulak
Black Lawrence Press, 2015

Driving Marcela Sulak’s Decency is the question of the ways in which we are and are not decent to one another. As individuals and as countries. As intimates and strangers. Both within and across the (real or artificial) divides of race, creed, culture, and nationality. With an eye on history, relationship, and etiquette, Sulak pursues the answers to this question with the keen eye of an academic and a researcher, relaying her observations and discoveries with the skilled and deliberate abandon of an artist.

Throughout this masterful collection the poet’s own experiences are seamlessly paired with the book’s overarching inquiries so that the poems are at once deeply personal and delightfully educational.

When the book considers history, that consideration is varied enough to encompass Cortés, the Holocaust, and the southern backyard of the poet’s own childhood. Sulak writes of La Malinche, a Nahau (Aztec) woman who was born noble, sold into slavery, and came into the possession of Cortés:

They call me La Malinche,
because I betrayed. Cortés called me
Doña Marina. Our friends
called us by the same name.
You can call me mother,
of course. But what I like most,
is the unanswered calling in the sun
and the corn and the coins, those luminous
voices eternally seeking their gods

And of the poet’s own history:

At the end of our marriage, I remember
the raccoons of my childhood . . .
how my brother set the spring-triggered steel jaw trap for the coons
in the dim light of the barn floor; my cat stepped into it and caught her    paw,
and how she howled, her desperate twist, and when I bent to release her
she bit my finger and it swelled ten times its normal size, how that’s    what
my father said, when you touch an animal in pain.

Yet these ideas are not disparate; they are finely woven together by Sulak’s skilled hand, acting as interrelated answers to the question of human decency. The genius of this interrelation is beautifully evidenced by moments like this, in a poem that appears to be about the history of the napkin, but is equally about the poet’s leaving her husband:

It takes great trust
to use a napkin.
It takes an act
of faith to leave
the table.

As in Kombiyil’s Histories, Sulak stands at the intersection of God and science, contemplating love:

How I would have loved
to stand one night with you
under a meteor shower
and let some other entity
cascade its celestial seed all over the world. And could
you hold my hand and squeeze until I returned
from the skies I rarely visit anymore

And, like all of the collections that are the subject of this omnibus review, Sulak launches a serious inquiry into God. From the title of the opening poem—“Ecclesiastes”—to the recurrent presence of biblical characters and locales—“Jezebel: most maligned applier of eyeliner”—Sulak’s God is grounded in the Hebrew Bible and the Holy Land:

The cracks in the Western Wall are soaked in prayers,
the doves are scraps of light above Jerusalem.

The Mount of Olives crouches over the Wailing Wall:
bleached bone, bleached stone, sun-crumbled white Jerusalem.

The poet’s meditations on God are elevated by her incredible lyric: “If to be holy / means to be set apart, / then keep the wound open until it no longer // resembles a wound, / but a constant tenderness;” “This is called grace—a permeable emptiness . . . It is the boudoir of the ego. This is a kind / of prayer. Or / even prayer’s definition;” “When God withdraws, we all must breathe a little harder.” Her observations are timely and insightful, at times even humorous and satirical, which is no easy feat given the subject matter: “It goes without saying, this is how I see / myself among the women, Dear Ahasuerus, you fuck;” “today there is nothing worse than / trying to live with God’s chosen people in the land that God gave to them.” And she is always sure to draw attention to lost history: “But then an ear of corn appeared, / and from it, the mother and father gods. / We are beyond all that now.”

Within its varied themes of parenthood, marriage, and divorce (“The judge, our lawyers, her father, and I decided the fate / of my child”), translation (“Translation depends, not on what must be included, but on what must not be left out”), history, science, cartography (“and didn’t I make a / map so fine / you could fill every loss / with a world?”) and more, there is a long poem that stands out as the height of this ambitious collection.

“Solidarity” is a stunning inquiry into rape—its ramifications and its afterlife and the endless experiences that collide with sexual violence in concentric circles. Encompassing reflections on misogyny and witch hunts, virginity and agency, the said, the unsaid, and the cannot-be-said, this poem is, perhaps, Decency’s magnum opus. Of virginity, Sulak writes, “It’s not that you get tired, it’s that it starts to be the only thing, / starts to disappear you.” Determined that her daughter know the truth about the history of hysteria, misogyny, and women healers, she considers witches through a history of truth and scaremongering: “Silent are the women in the village // who took their cloth packets of herbs and were silent / when their husbands rushed off to kill the witches in that story.”

“It’s her story, her silence,” the poem recognizes, and we must face the realities and ramifications, “I think, he said, I am my mother’s rape,” and then there is this—there is always this: “my mother asking me what I was wearing after I told her.”

And it’s true, silence is the sheet over my bare body
when I am being examined by her words, when I am stretching
my fingertips into the glove of her words…
when I am kneading the neck muscles of her words, for
they are stiff with all those men staring
at your hair, staring at your body, her husband said.
So she shaved her head.

An incredibly ambitious work, Decency delivers on both its threats and its promises, proving Marcela Sulak a force to be reckoned with and a poet to be widely read.


Review | River Electric With Light, by Sarah Wetzel
Red Hen Press, 2015

Be it that of the smallest rain drop or the greatest ocean, Sarah Wetzel’s River Electric With Light is alive with the power and motion of water, even in its deepest moments of quiet contemplation. This collection is enigmatic, transversive, transformative. There is a movement within its pages—between sections and poems, between concepts and experiences—that is reminiscent of the Italian notion of attraversiamo; crossing over, moving on, getting to another place.

The driving force and metaphor running through this work is water. Rivers carry words, ideas, people. “If I must choose a word for you, / let it be river,” the book opens, and in this way the poet conjures up a world in which water and the you of the collection become one. She then echoes these words with a shift that sets the stage for the ways in which water—and the you—shifts throughout the book, throughout life, and throughout both personal history and the history of the world: “If I must choose a word for you, / let it be the word / for what flows.”

Along with this motion there is an unsettled feeling underlying the life of the work and the I behind it: “Which is why / I will always live close to water / but never again by the sea.”

Time moves in water:

The rain leaves fingerprints
in last summer’s
window dust
. . .
If you watch long enough, you’ll see that the rain
shapes a path in the pane
for what falls behind it—

yet if you put a hand
to the glass,
the water will fall toward you.

And grief takes the shape of water that once was: “Many rivers have gone missing. I recognize this by the grief / they leave behind, the fossils of bony fish, imprints / of leaves.”

When the river gives way to ocean, the metaphor of water gives way as well, the lived life transforming into myth:

we can’t help
sending ourselves
                                                  into the river, believing this time
we’ll breach the place forbidden
to the untroubled. Singing all the way down,

              I am Orpheus; Oh this time, Eurydice, this time.

Myth, then, shifts back again to water:

I, who lived
a long time in one place,
                                                  am Daphne released
from her Laurel prison of
leaves and roots. She, who lived
                                                             a long time in one place.

I slide down to the actual river, its bank
             with feather grass and reeds.
                                                                          I want to say

I threw myself in. Its current
was strong.
                                                            I want to say
that this time
               I let it take me.

But even water, the poet comes to realize, is neither an answer to the questions of the book nor to those of life: “Oh, I went to the sea. // I splashed at the surf’s edges, / my clumsy hands grabbing / for the sand / as it ran back / toward the water. But it wasn’t what I wanted— // I just couldn’t admit the tide’s perfect / futility.”

Carried by the tide that undercurrents this book are many of the same inquiries that drive the other works in this review. Among them are questions of the role and future of the poet, and, by implication, poetry itself—“Tell me / what will become of the poets?”—and humanity and interconnectedness: “I think it important to acknowledge / we’re not all in this together. // I think it important to accept that not all the wounded / are going to pull through.”

Like Kombiyil, Wetzel writes of the intersection of God, science, and math: “God’s a lot like gravity. He pulls things / toward each other.” And as all of the collections at hand do, River Electric looks back to history and uses that history as a lens and mirror for relationship and the poet’s own lived experience: “Afterward when I told you I loved someone / else, you screamed you were betrayed at the end. // Jesus—like any flawed man—from the cross: / why have you forsaken me at the end.”

Perhaps most striking among these ties that bind are those questions that lie at the crossroads of history, science, religion, God, and humanity: “This morning I turn on the news / to hear that physicists discovered a particle / immeasurably small they call / God that explains / the difference between nothing / and rain, its granite mass. / They say they’ve seen it.”

At the end of the last age, the great ice caps melted,
huge floods ripped the world’s surface.
                                                                          Beneath this city
are inhuman cities
assembled from ocean and calcium, constructed of shell, the remains
of boneless creatures . . .

Pompeii, Atlantis
were erased from Earth’s face
                                                           in one day.

How long do I have  
before the gods grow tired
living among the ruins?

This collection is electric with a brilliant lyricism that pulls the reader like a current through shifting locales, political commentary, and mindful meditations on religion, relationship, life and death. A lyricism so stunning that a respected poet recently observed, “I’d like to write fifty books just so I could use a different line from each of [these] poems as the epigraph.” Always in motion and always multifaceted, the poems in River Electric With Light remind us that “Our lives are always half over,” but “There’s still time.” 


Sivan Butler-Rotholz is the founder of Reviving Herstory, editor of the “Saturday Poetry Series” on As It Ought To Be, and a columnist for iPinion. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and teaches creative writing, composition, and feminist biblical interpretation in New York City and abroad. Sivan’s many hats include writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita.