#SummerReads #4: The Shipwreck Dress by Terri Witek

This summer, my goal is to read ten poetry collections. Click on the summerreading2015 tag to chart my progress.

I encountered Terri Witek’s work by chance at the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago. That discovery alone made the conference worth it (though generally speaking it was an excellent conference).

I bought Exit Island on the spot, read it as soon as I got home, and loved it, but am only now reading Witek’s older work.

After reading The Shipwreck Dress, I can see how her work progressed to Exit Island. One of my favorite features of the latter collection is a series of de facto word quilts: words arranged in a matrix-like grid that can be read up and down, left to right, or diagonally. (Not to mention the poems she constructs out of constellations and fractured pictures of animals.)

Molly Peacock says in her review of The Shipwreck Dress, “As Witek sensuously explores the most ancient connections between text and textile, she turns her poems into stunning, subtle word-kimonos.”

And how.


The “kimono” poems in The Shipwreck Dress seem to be the precursors to the word quilts of Exit Island. This series of poems features two columns. The left-hand column is made up entirely of colors, while the right-hand column has the poem proper.

Each line of the poem is assigned a color; there’s a progression of color as well as a more typical poetic progression. The color assigned to the line adds a layer of meaning to each individual line as well as the poem as a whole.

I love the range of these kimono poems. Some are sweetly nostalgic, some are sad, some are simply frozen moments poignantly captured. They also serve as a sort of stitching that holds the collection together.

Unlike with some experimental work, these poems are all grounded in reality. Witek uses all five senses to describe the world around her–a world of heartbreak, healing, and introspection.

Find The Shipwreck Dress at an independent bookstore near you.

#SummerReads #3: Heather McNaugher

This summer, my goal is to read ten poetry collections. Click on the summerreading2015 tag to chart my progress.

I first encountered Dr. Heather McNaugher at an open house for Chatham University’s MFA program, where I ultimately decided to study. I never had the occasion to take one of her classes–and I’m really sad about that, especially after (finally) reading her poetry.

As part of my goal to read ten poetry collections this summer, I read all three of her books:

  • Panic & Joy (2008)
  • System of Hideouts (2012)
  • Double Life (2014)

McNaugher writes brutally honest poems that explore gender, identity, place, and love. Her language is sharp and pointed, and she isn’t exactly kind to herself. I love the brutality of this honesty, and the way she turns it into something funny and beautiful.

Failures or faults in relationships are a common theme. Throughout the three collections, poems examining these failures are frequent. Like this poem in Sleet Magazine.

I love the way that “If” builds toward a simple, but devastating conclusion: if this, and if this, and “If you had told me that this would be my story I’d have said, another round please.”

These poems, including the one quoted above, don’t condemn love for the pain it causes. Instead they document the mistakes the narrator has made, with the implied advice, “Don’t do what I did. Or if you do, at least be self-aware enough to poke fun at yourself.”

Even a poem about a new washer and dryer is really about growing up and what it means to be a single woman.

These are all poems I want to return to, because I know I’ll excavate more meaning out of them each time I read them.

I’m all about supporting local writers, so if you have a few dollars to spare, please consider purchasing one of Dr. McNaugher’s books. If you’re strapped for cash, all three are available for free from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

(Full disclosure: the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is my employer, but they did not suggest or request that I make that plug.)

#SummerReads 2015 #2: “The Hospital Poems” by Jim Ferris

This summer, my goal is to read ten poetry collections. Click on the summerreading2015 tag to chart my progress.

hospitalpoemsI am particularly interested in poetry about disability and chronic illness—not surprising, since I suffer daily from a chronic illness and both my in-laws are disabled.

Jim Ferris’s collection is compact but powerful in the way it describes a childhood spent undergoing painful surgeries that left him no better off. Most of the poems, too, are short and full of an energy that hits you in the same way a rubber band that’s been launched across the classroom does: You never want to admit how much it hurts.

Ferris certainly succeeded in getting me to feel at least a ghost of the pain he felt when undergoing multiple surgeries to correct his one leg being longer than the other. He captures moments of both physical and emotional pain in metaphoric glass, freezes them in time so we can walk through the rooms of his experience, study them at length.

My favorite poem from the collection is “Pater Noster:”

I am an orphan. Yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, my parents love me, and I live in the narrow space
between two worlds. I am not their son—
I am the son of Vulcan, the crippled god,
and down in his never-broken bones Jesus knows.
He is so sad, he knows I am lost.
My father makes a brace for me—he is good
with his hands—and I move through this world
like Jesus, reproach and inspiration to all.
For I am sent on high—what do you worship?
Look upon me, then look within and know thy god.

I like that this poem packs so much into only eleven lines. We learn that he feels orphaned by his parents and religion, that he feels hopeless and “other.”

The line “I move through this world / like Jesus, reproach and inspiration to all” suggests that he feels like a sacrifice or a martyr, but also captures a common element of the disabled experience. People look down on him as less than human, but also hold him up as an inspiring example of what even less-than-humans can accomplish—and if the crippled kid can do it, you can do it!

It’s more than him just saying “I am an orphan.” The tone of “yes, Jesus loves me, / yes, my parents love me” suggests an eye roll. Like, if you really loved me would you leave me here and let doctors break my bones over and over?

These are poems that I will return to, to contemplate the lengths we (or our parents) will go for the sake of “fitting in.”