By Jane Hirschfield:

Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.


Today’s poem originally appeared via The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series.

Poet’s Note: “This poem was written well before [the 2017] Presidential Inauguration and without this event in mind. But it seems a day worth remembering the fate of our shared planet and all its beings, human and beyond.” —Jane Hirshfield, via The Academy of American Poets

Editor’s Note: Today I defer to Jane Hirshfield and The Academy of American Poets. Listen to the poet read this important work of protest. Read the poem in its entirety.

Today’s poem is dedicated to those who are marching with the Million Woman March and those who stand with us in solidarity.

Think. Feel. Rise up. Resist.


By Georgia Douglas Johnson

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)

Editor’s Note: No matter who you voted for in the primaries nor who you plan to vote for come November, there is no denying that this was an historic week in American history.

In this vein, I dedicate today’s poem–written by a black woman in a white age–to Michelle Obama, a black woman running the White House who reminded us this week that: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” And I dedicate this poem to the fact that, for the first time in American history, a woman has been nominated by a major party to run for President of the United States of America.

Any (reasonable) reservations you (or I) may have about Hillary Clinton and our two-party system aside, this is a moment to pause and marvel, to appreciate what we have accomplished and to believe that this can–and should–be just the beginning of progressive progress. This is a moment to celebrate that the heart of a woman need not try “to forget it has dreamed of the stars,” for it need not break, break, break “on the sheltering bars.”

Georgia Douglas Johnson: A member of the Harlem Renaissance, Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote plays, a syndicated newspaper column, and four collections of poetry: The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962). (Annotated biography courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.)

“The New Era of Engaged Literature” By Okla Elliott



The New Era of Engaged Literature

by  Okla Elliott


When I was fourteen years old, I naively and ignorantly and perhaps over-seriously declared myself a Marxist. It was around this time that I also began considering myself a writer, though most of what I wrote sounded like quasi-plagiarized Bad Religion and Pixies lyrics. When I think back on that younger me whose main goals in life were to become a professional skateboarder and to save the world with his bad poetry, I feel a kind of wistful nostalgia; I also want to ruffle his hair and tell him to chill out a bit. That said, I can’t deny that in many ways those formative years are still with me and shape much of how I view literature today. Sure, I am no longer a Marxist (if in fact in my youthful ignorance I ever was), but rather a democratic socialist of the Bernie Sanders variety, but I sport a Black Flag tattoo that the fourteen-year-old me would be proud of, and I likewise have Simone de Beauvoir and Slavoj Žižek tattoos that the fourteen-year-old me would appreciate if he knew their work.

To be honest, my ignorance has likely been the guiding star for my literary development. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so when I made it to college, I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer. I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and German, double-minoring in French and religious studies, because I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was the way to become a writer. I also studied abroad to Germany and Poland in undergrad, another weird idea I had gotten into my ahead about how one becomes a writer. I remained highly political, preferring writers such as Gore Vidal over the aesthetes of the literary world. It wasn’t until I began my MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University that I learned politics and literature are frequently seen as opposing activities.

I have often half-joked that just as the rich don’t talk about money, American authors have tended not to talk about politics, since we’re members of the most powerful nation on Earth. The rich don’t talk about money, and the powerful don’t talk about politics. Authors in virtually every other nation are expected to incorporate politics into their work, however openly or obliquely. But I have seen this state of affairs in American literature change dramatically in the past handful of years (and of course there were notable exceptions beforehand). American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “engaged literature,” and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.

Putting aside my half-joke (which I don’t think is entirely empty), why else might American authors have had this tendency to avoid politics? There is one other key reason I see: rampant anti-intellectualism among Americans that reaches even into the corridors of universities, where our programs in creative writing are housed. One of my favorite professors during my own MFA referring to the scholars in the English department as “those pointy heads on the fourth floor” (the fourth floor being where their offices were). He said this several times in the years I was there, yet I never sensed an ounce of animosity in his words; it was merely a casual dismissal, and one that always got a chuckle of agreement from most of the students in the workshop. I have heard dozens of similar reports from other programs, with some even describing real dislike/distrust between the creative and scholarly factions within English departments. But I and many writers I’ve talked to feel this distaste for political thought and intellectual engagement in cultural issues is changing, at least among a sizable subset of us. The causes for this change are numerous, but having 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 collapse, and the unprecedented wealth inequality all hit us over the course of a decade or so are foremost among them.

Director of Ohio State University’s MFA program Michelle Herman said the following when I asked her about this trend:

In 28 years of teaching at Ohio State—and teaching through some pretty contentious election cycles, too—I cannot recall my graduate students (or the alumni of our graduate program, for that matter) injecting themselves quite so intensely into the whirl of political discourse.

Herman also has a theory as to why this might be happening at this point in history. She points out that “the ease of disseminating ideas, of moving from thought to ‘print’ (electronica) quickly enough for those thoughts to matter—or anyway to be heard” might have as much or more to do with this increase in political activity than some sweeping cultural change. I certainly agree that social media has played a huge and incalculably important role in such movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I think Herman has accurately hit on that importance. This moment in history is saturated with the effects of online activity in ways we likely won’t understand for many years, if ever.

There are three main causes, to my mind, for the shift to more political engagement in American literature in the past decade or so. 1) Institutional changes at the level of grant-giving entities and universities. 2) A general awakening to political and international problems across the culture. 3) An increase in literary inclusion of marginalized people.
I’ll begin with and focus largely on the institutional changes, because they are so pervasive and more easily quantified.

Interestingly, just as the advent of MFA programs and therefore the age of craft in American literature aided in reducing the amount of politically oriented literature in this country, I argue that the advent of the PhD in creative writing is aiding in ushering in a new age of engaged literature—though without totally jettisoning what we learned from our decades in the craft trenches. How so? Well, as part of their course load, PhD candidates in creative writing also have to take scholarly courses that expose them to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, and many others. They likewise receive introductions to the larger fields of disability studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and postcolonial studies. All of this means PhD candidates in creative writing receive at least a cursory knowledge—and in some cases an in-depth understanding—of major political and philosophical thinkers from around the world. This new hybrid degree is, in effect, creating a new hybrid category of creative writer, one that is interested in craft and social engagement in equal measure.

The other major institutional change that has helped bring about this new era of engaged literature in the United States is at the level of grant-funding entities. Obviously the events on 9/11 themselves were horrendous, as were the majority of the Bush administration’s reactions, but one interesting accidental byproduct of those events is that Americans were woken up and were forced to recognize that an outside world beyond the United States exists. There was a time when scholars were heavily funded to learn Russian and German, since those were languages of Soviet Russia and East Germany. In the years after 9/11, the US government pumped millions of dollars into the learning of Arabic, Korean, and Farsi—while still funding the study of Russian and Chinese at high levels. And in a kind of cultural trickle-down, universities have begun offering more courses in these languages and cultures.

Likewise, programs in translation were created, often connected to varying degrees with the MFA in creative writing program at the home university. Here are just some examples of recent translation programs added to major universities: University of Illinois added an MA and various certificate programs in translation in 2008; University of Maryland started an MA in translation in 2013; and University of Iowa, which already had an MFA in translation before this recent boom in such programs, has added an undergraduate certificate in global engagement via translation. This last one is especially salient for my point, since it overtly names engagement as part of its goal. And the list of new programs and journals focused on translation from around the world goes on and on. In 2015, even Amazon announced an investment of $10 million over the next five years in AmazonCrossing, its translation program founded in 2010. Since politics is heavily global in nature now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of all these new programs and investments in terms of its effects on literature.

The gifts of translation for English-language literature are myriad: blank verse as a solution for translating unrhymed Latin verse, the sonnet and sestina forms from Italian, couplets from French, and, some have claimed, free verse from Chinese. I argue that the 21st-century gift translation can give is an understanding of how political and literary discourses may most profitably mix.

I also believe that the adjunct crisis has created increased awareness among writers. With nearly 70% of our courses now being taught by adjuncts, emerging writers are often working for criminally low wages and no benefits or job security. This newfound economic precariousness among many writers has forced the issue of economics and institutional policy into the lives of writers in a way that was not as pronounced in previous decades.
The change at the institutional level therefore originates from several sources, ranging from government funding to greater global awareness to the increasing need for more higher education in the form of PhDs in creative writing if one wants to pursue a career as a creative writer in academia. The causal lines here are sometimes direct and sometimes roundabout or even totally accidental.

As I mentioned earlier there have of course been numerous exceptions throughout American literary history: Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright, among others, and there were of course excellent organizations like Cave Canem before the time period I am discussing. I am therefore emphatically not claiming that this is an entirely new phenomenon, just that there is a notable increase in it. Interestingly, we find that the least powerful among us—minorities, women, and the impoverished—are often more likely to inject politics into their literary production. Here is where my third main reason for this change comes in. A more open acknowledgment of racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ practices in the literary industry, as well as the founding of groups such as VIDA to highlight and combat such practices, have brought more marginalized writers to the forefront of American literary culture, thus bringing a more politically engaged literature to the forefront as well.

Given the limited space I have here, I have focused largely on changes institutions and organizations and how those have caused a shift in the literary culture in the United States, but as mentioned earlier, there is a broader and more nebulous increase in interest caused by recent historical events, a topic worthy of an entire essay unto itself. But that, as they say, is a project for another time.

As so many great authors from here in the United States and around the world have proven, literature does not have to choose between being aesthetically pleasing or politically engaged, between being of the moment or achieving timelessness. Aristotle famously defined humanity in two ways: 1) Humans are political animals. 2) Humans are linguistic animals. I would argue that engaged literature which still keeps its eye on craft brings these two definitions into enjoyable and productive harmony.



By Devin Kelly

We are discussing the roots of things. How phobia
means fear of, and we make them up. Bookaphobia.
Classroomaphobia. Girlaphobia. I say there will be
a quiz. They laugh. It is evening in a small room
in Queens where the desks are miniatures
of the things they should be and the children
sitting in them too close to me and my coffee
so soon done. Then I ask them if they are afraid.
Then I ask them of what. The word penis. Spiders.
The people who hate me for my name. How a moment
turning stills to a moment stilled. How silence,
even in silence, breathes. Their pages of homework
loiter upon their desks. Fifteen words they had
never seen before, and fifteen meanings, written out
beside. Benevolent. Ailurophile. I spoke, upon the hearing,
of opposites, to think of words as people, rooted,
experimenting with different prefixes. To think of words
as lovers, hungry for what it might be they want.
What is her name? It lingers a moment before
it hassles its way out of my mouth. The shape it takes,
unfamiliar, awkward. A word I have never spoken before.
And her skin brown. How she taught me the way
to count to ten in Arabic. The people who hate me
for my name. The people who hate me. The people.
Across an ocean, a man kneeling does not see the hand
that holds the gun that fires the bullet that splits
his head in two. Across an ocean, someone laughs
at a fence of severed heads. I do not know
what to teach anymore. Graphophobia. Philophobia.
Fear of writing, fear of love. And all these children
who do not have a name for their sorrow. At night,
in bed, I turn her name for the hundredth time
and find its beauty. The soft grace of wanting
to be held. A child, scared, moving in dark
from room to room to find the mother who named her,
the father, too, and their reasons why.

Today’s poem originally appeared in Rattle and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, The Adirondack Review, and more, and his essay “Love Innings” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Manhattan, teaches Creative Writing and English classes to high schoolers in Queens, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.

Editor’s Note: June 26, 2015 was a day of imperative progress in American history. A day of change. A day when love triumphed. I celebrated this historic event in the most wonderful way I could have imagined, at the wedding of two women whose love is beshert. But when one of the brides gave her speech, she reminded us that there is still more to be done. “Today we celebrate,” she said, “but tomorrow, we keep fighting.” Even amidst a joy so great she shared it with the entire country, the blushing bride reminded us that we can—and should—always be working to make the world a better place.

Today’s poem was written in response to Islamophobia. A Muslim girl in a classroom. What is she afraid of? “The people who hate me for my name.” The families of the victims of a racist hate crime—a terrorist act—in Charleston, SC have what to teach us about love and forgiveness. But what are they truly the victims of? “The people who hate me. The people.” We speak words today that carry with them the chalk outlines of the hatred that flows from fear: Black Lives Matter; I can’t breathe. “I do not know / what to teach anymore,” writes the poet, but he knows “all these children / who do not have a name for their sorrow.”

Let us shout our joy from the rooftops and dance in the streets because yesterday love won. And today, tomorrow, and in the days to come, let us fight until love triumphs over fear and hatred, until there is justice and equality for all.

Want more from Devin Kelly?
The Adirondack Review
District Lit
Little Fiction
Devin Kelly – Published Work


NLValdez head shot

By Norma Liliana Valdez:


Everything is happening now. Everything is present tense. The horses. The running.

The losing. This operation is a well-oiled machine. All is slow motion until dusk. After

dusk come the icy furrows. Overnight temperatures the kind of cold that enters marrow.

There is so much winter in the eyes. From here the only lights: the moon and Chula

Vista. After the ice, the running. Ravine. Huizache. Thorns. The hiding. A Cadillac.

There is a gun in the glove compartment. There are two boys in the trunk. Two other

boys contort their bodies on the back seat floor, legs entwined. Face down. Face down.

He is the one balled on the front passenger floor because he is the smallest. He is bones

and destiny.


every breath you exhaled

a blanket of hosannas

each hand like prayer, like

unfettered music

you were night, naked

shoulders in moonlight

I lost my breath

beneath your gravity

your touch slid along the arc

of every whisper

I inhaled greedily

filled every room

filled every empty space

inside of me

you must have known my anthem

when you left

urgent as an animal

“Unaccompanied” was the poetry winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest, and “Hummingbird” is an original feature on the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be. Both poems appear here today with permission from the poet.

Norma Liliana Valdez is an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, the Writing Program at UC Berkeley Extension, and a 2014 Hedgebrook writer-in-residence. Her poems have appeared in Calyx Journal, The Acentos Review, As It Ought To Be, La Bloga, and Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. She is the poetry winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. Additional work is forthcoming in Poetry of Resistance: A Multicultural Anthology by University of Arizona Press. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Editor’s Note: Over the years Norma Liliana Valdez’s writing has grown much in the way bougainvillea grows. Along earth-toned buildings in warm places. A steady, fertile spread erupting in vibrant blossoms. Like the sight of bright and blooming bougainvillea, today’s poems take my breath away.

“Unaccompanied,” winner of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest in poetry, is a work of art. The title is evocative, deftly making its mark. The narrative envelopes us in a gripping and heart-wrenching tale that speaks as much to the experience of the few as to the dreams and suffering of the masses. This work is vocal, political, and brave. Brimming with stunning lyric, we feel “the kind of cold that enters marrow,” see how “there is so much winter in the eyes,” and are left with what reads like a told fortune: “He is bones / and destiny.”

While “Unaccompanied” is yin-like—covert and treacherous—”Hummingbird” is like the yang—in relief, open, belonging to this world. The energy is sensual and intense, with “each hand like prayer.” And while both poems end spectacularly, “Hummingbird” is volta-like in its finale, confessing that “you must have known my anthem / when you left / urgent as an animal.”

This is the poet’s third Saturday Poetry Series feature. Three is a sacred number. The Holy Trinity. Maiden, Mother, Crone. The Triple Bodhi. The Trimurti. Which is fitting, as the poet divines poems that are alchemical. Spiritual. Faithfully wrought and nearly religious in their lyricism. Evocative of a humanity made palpable through poetry.

Want to read more by Norma Liliana Valdez?
Saturday Poetry Series feature, As It Ought To Be, 2011
Saturday Poetry Series feature, As It Ought To Be, 2010
Winners of the 2015 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest
Spiral Orb
The Acentos Review



By Laura E. Davis:




about their cocks, naming
names—Rebecca, Elizabeth,
Ashley—we see these girls
all lined up, waiting to admire

the boys’ cocks. And the boys
talk about size of their cocks,
seven inches becomes ten, then
thirteen. They tell us how

they measured their cocks
after their first wet dream: they
woke up sweaty, quick-covered,
got their cocks hard again, pulled

out the ruler. Boys and cocks
everywhere. A boy shows his
cock to a girl on the playground.
Another boy watches girls from

a parked car while he touches
his cock. On the subway, boys
unzip their pants, put cocks
on display. Baby boys discover

their tiny cocks during every
diaper change. I didn’t see
my own clit was until I was
twenty-three. I had to hold

a mirror just to see it rise
like slow-motion stalagmite.
Had to hold back my own skin
just to show it to myself.


woman as human being.smaller

“Attitudes Toward Sex” was originally published in iARTistas. “The Boys Are Always Talking” was originally published in Muzzle. “Woman as Human Being” was originally published in Toad Journal. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.

Laura E. Davis is the author of Braiding the Storm (Finishing Line, 2012), founding editor of Weave Magazine, and founder of Submission Bombers. Her poems are featured or forthcoming in Toad, Stirring, Corium Magazine, So to Speak, Muzzle, and others. Laura teaches for Poetry Inside Out, a K-12 a bilingual poetry program in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, Sal.

Editor’s Note: This week I had the honor of working with an artist to create an artistic response to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. I have already written an editorial response to the ruling, but I wanted to speak out against this injustice in many ways, through many voices.

Today’s poems speak for womankind. They speak for our bodies, for our vantage point within a man’s world. When read together today, they are meant to be a shout from the rooftops. That no one exercises control over our bodies but ourselves. That we are human beings whose rights are superior to the rights of corporations. Yes, that we are human beings. Beautiful, complex, powerful human beings who are as capable of a battle cry as we are of “a vigorous and radiant sigh.”

Want to read more by Laura E. Davis?
Dear Outer Space – Laura E. Davis’ Blog
“Quiet Lightning” on Youtube
Buy Braiding the Storm from Finishing Line Press
“Relics” in Sundress
“Vessels” and “Red Storm” in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review


Accompanying Photo

By Jackson Holbert

Perfection, of any kind, is not what we are after,
And the poetry we invented hasn’t been invented yet;
We know human folly like the backs of our hands,
And, because of this, we want to discard armies and fleets;
When we laugh, respectable senators dismiss us with laughter,
And when we cry the little children are already dead in the streets.

             * a response, in admiration, to W.H. Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant

(Today’s poem originally appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Jackson Holbert is a senior at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Washington. His work has appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal and A-Minor Magazine.

Editor’s Note: Today’s is a poem that considers, in a few short lines, the quest human beings find themselves on, the struggles of the poet, politics, and violence. An honest poem that does not try to be more than it is, and yet speaks to all that comes before it and the realities we are faced with. The last line functions much in the same way as a sonnet’s volta, and I find myself reminded of a line from a Pablo Neruda poem: “and the blood of children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood.”

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

by Letitia Trent

I had a professor during my undergraduate years (one those old-fashioned liberal arts professors who believed that intimately knowing Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s Lear was a prerequisite for being a fully-functioning citizen of earth) that defined a great book as a book that shows you what it means to be human. He meant the great, big (and, unfortunately, primarily European or American) books, like War and Peace or Middlemarch, in which an enormous cast of characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, figuring out what it means to be a citizen, part of a family, a soldier, an artist, a lover, or a parent. I appreciate these kinds of books, too, books that are willing to explicitly wrestle with questions about how a person should be in the world and do not fear the explicitly political or philosophical. I don’t know how anyone writes books like this anymore. As Matthew Rohrer writes in the first poem from his book Destroyer and Preserver:

The oldest songs are
breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement

What kind of writer has the gall to tell people how to live now, when there are no fixed certainties and no unassailable truths? This is not an original question, but one that I find myself bumping into over and over again as I read contemporary literature and poetry that dares to directly touch on the political as Destroyer and Preserver does. While I’ve read many contemporary poetry books that comment on the paranoia and rise of some fervid, defensive American identity that happened post 9-11 (Christian Hawkey’s Citizen Of comes to mind in particular), I don’t see many poets writing in what comes close to straightforward confessional lyric touching the issue of politics aside from Rohrer. Sometimes, when writing about war from the distance of a relatively safe place, the lyric, personal “I” can seem limited, small, stupid, unable to fully grasp anything important from the perspective comfort. Perhaps this is why many poets who are fairly privileged (I know that I am one of them) and who have never seen battle try not to tackle something as large as “the war”.

Destroyer and Preserver tries to show us something about what it means to be a middle-class, materially comfortable human in this particular time in the United States, one in which foreign wars and news of slaughter in countries in which we are linked by politics and war filter in and out of our consciousness through reports from Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, seeming both incredibly important and completely divorced from our everyday lives. I specify that the book is about middle-class life because it differs from many other overtly political books from the standpoint it takes: the speaker is comfortable, white, male, and a father. This is not a book that howls from the edges or speaks as a witness to political and social turmoil. I don’t mention this to belittle the book, but to make it clear from what perspective the book addresses the political. In Carolyn Forche’s introduction to The Poetry of Witness, she writes about the privilege of being a North American in the 20th and 21st centuries: “Wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” This space is where Destroyer and Preserver comes from.

Part of the book is about the dance between enjoying the privilege we have as North Americans to live our lives relatively unscathed by war and the responsibility to acknowledge that our privileged lives are partly built on the backs of the suffering of other people. Rohrer’s book differs from those big books about morality in that it’s a product of its time, and therefore the poems don’t tell us anything definitive about how to balance joy and responsibility: the subject is not knowing, of feeling guilty for running away to poetry or family life or dreams (the book is full of dreams), and of being politically engaged but not politically engaged enough to leave what is comfortable behind. The speaker in these poems spends his days taking care of small children, recovering from hangovers, and walking around a city as news of what’s happening in the Middle East filters in and out of the central consciousness of the poems. For example, in the poem “Casualties,” the poet’s small son asks “are soldiers good or bad?”, and the speaker meets his son’s confusion with his own:

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of the ship.
He looks just like me.

The poem leaves us with an image of the plane, having just dropped a bomb on the house and desert, gliding through the sky and being returned to the United States, “to be washed and put away”. Throughout the book, images of war are and desperation are washed and put away and then continually taken out again to be examined, as with the speaker of “Poets With History/Poems Without History”:

… and the melting icebergs crumple

like the prisoners shot in the side

I move through the days remarkably sinuously

and spinning inside

I washed the dishes two or three times a day

with hot water on and on

like a dream behind the yellow gloves

from which I too cannot awaken

though my son is done with school

and holds my hand on the walk home

the feeling of falling backwards

into the bed at night fills me

each time

with sweet content

all the people rounded up in camps

have a look in their eyes

that can’t reach us now

Rohrer is at his best when the speaker of the poems sees this point of tension between a comfortable life and the knowledge that so many other people are not able to have that comfort: the poems are electric when the speaker is both conflicted and ultimately a failure at keeping the high moral ground. They falter, though, when the speaker seems to imply a particular stance is the “good” one: in “For Which I Love You,” the speaker congratulates a lover for a fairly standard, simplistic affirmation against “hate” which reads a little bit like self-congratulation for having the “right” political point of view.

It would be unfair to say that this is only a political book: several short, lyric poems punctuate the book, ranging from records of sad, contradictory moments to poems that seem like sheer celebrations of everyday life, such as “The Smell of Frying Fish.” It’s the context of these poems that makes them political: images of war surface throughout the book in poems that at first seem to be about something completely outside of war, and so these moments of domestic bliss mean something more: is the speaker giving in to forgetfulness or resisting despair by living in the moment (as cliché as that can’t help but sound) by fully embracing the given world around him?

Rohrer’s poems are largely dreamy, personal lyrics that roll from matter-of-fact observation to gentle surrealism, creating poems that seem casually tossed-off yet completely controlled within one lyric event, world, or emotional/narrative moment. You could call it domestic surrealism, but Rohrer’s observations are more about finding the literal strange in the familiar than in creating strangeness. Still yet, reading the book felt too easy: the poems are easy to read and pleasing because Rohrer is good at this kind of poetry and knows what he is doing. I couldn’t help but feel that Rohrer was coasting and that these poems are a slightly toned-down, less boisterous versions of ground he’d already covered in his first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, and his subsequent books. Only in the long poems of the book (“Believe” and “The Terrorists”) does Rohrer seem to stretch beyond his familiar gently joking, gently serious tone.

I can’t say that Destroyer and Preserver left me with anything definitive about how to be a conscientious person in a complex world, but it left me with a useful confusion and the realization of how often I, too, retreat into what’s comfortable in order to forget my own great fortune. I’m not the soldier who crumples, the face behind the cage, or the person whose home has been bulldozed. I have the privilege of forgetfulness, and I exercise it far too often.


Letitia Trent‘s work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, and Folio, among others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, was published by Sundress Press in early 2012. She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.