cambridge book review

Unexpected Shiny Things

Bruce Dethlefsen
Cowfeather Press 2011

Reviewed  by Gay Davidson-Zielske

One of the first things I noticed about Bruce Dethlefsen’s poems in Unexpected Shiny Things, his second full-length collection (his first, Breather, was published in 2009 by Fireweed Press), was the complete lack of standard end or internal punctuation. As someone once said (perhaps me—thirty years of quoting and giving sage advice while teaching English sometimes causes this confusion) punctuation makes a big sound in poetry. If one practices the sometimes deceptive synesthetic art of hearing punctuation, the lack of it is like realizing there are no benches in the art museum. If one wants to ponder an image, one may, but no provision is made for lingering. However, as I progressed through Unexpected Shiny Things, I found that Dethlefsen had provided another comfort instead: deft line, stanza, and sometimes single word breaks. So, in a sense, in a poem like “The Opening Days,” which plays with word syllabication too, one receives bonus information about how to perceive the poem by the way the words are placed on the page:

the opening days
near march thirteenth
bring phenomena
on rust black wing

some fumbling
lumps of coal
start sneezing

stuck in ice cream
freezing their mis er a ble
robin asses

shuddering that barely
I mean barely pass as
springtime in

Scanning the poem for rhythm, I found a basic 5-beat / 4-beat pattern, but by the second stanza this unit is varied as well, so that the poem is working another way. Its use of enjambment in imagery and sound unite it, the assonance of the short “u” in “rust,” “fumbling / lumps,” “bug-eyed / stuck” and “shuddering” holding the middle together, while the short “i” serves the same purpose in the final stanza. Without the safety net of punctuation, Dethlefsen has performed his “deth-defying” (sorry) acrobatics in the blank spaces.

Though not the title poem of the collection (which arrives in the variation “Shiny Things” in the fourth section), “The Opening Days” might also serve to signal one of Dethlefsen’s preoccupations in this collection: What it means to live in Wisconsin. This is altogether appropriate since Bruce is Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011/2012. His plain-spoken diction and modest “man of few words” persona invite diverse readers to appreciate “phenomena” that they themselves may have observed, but were not able to articulate as well. Breaking down the word “mis er a ble” and putting “pass as” in such close proximity to “asses” calls attention to how we are to hear and perceive the poem, with emphasis provided by the poet. His tone here is not one of defeat in response to our state’s sometimes interminable winters, but one of stoicism and even guarded celebration. We pride ourselves on toughness here, but we can also appreciate the return of the redwings and the robins, even if we have learned to doubt that they really herald Spring.

The book is divided into five sections, Stars on Strings, Golden Coffee Sunlight, Sifting Starlight, Unexpected Shiny Things, and Chasing the Moon, and each section contains poems that swing in mood from the hilarious to humorous to the somber, though there are necessarily more of the latter toward the end of the book as the poet grapples with the early death of one of his sons, Wilson. As a mother of a boy about the same age as Wilson, these poems hit me very hard. I think it would be too glib to say that by the final section the grieving father has recovered, since the death of the child before the parents is said to be one of the most excruciating ordeals one can endure. However, though poems such as “Bare Feet” and “Grief” sound a premonitory warning note as early as the first section, the poet does not deal with the subject fully until the penultimate section.

Dethlefsen is not averse to punning, in single words and in metaphors, but in his hands, punning can be a serious business. In “Bare Feet,” he takes the common metaphor of “walking on eggshells” and, as Ezra Pound commanded poets, “make[s] it new” by making it literal:

all night I walk on eggshells
and it makes me cry
I thought the tears somehow
might soften up the edges of the shells

each tear drowns
the crunching sounds a bit
but the moisture helps
the smaller splinters
slide into my heels
and sink like needles in the bone

the more I walk
the more I cry
the quieter the night

The irony of more sound making more terrifying quiet closes the poem more devastatingly than a period could. 

It may be a cliché piece of advice to poets that the most critical parts of the poem are the first and last lines, or so I was taught. If so, Dethlefsen has mastered the art. In “Grief,” for example, he allows, like Emily Dickinson, the title to form the first line: “is salty numb cold water / come in waves / from the sadness sea.” One of the most beautiful poems in the book with its pulsing, wavelike construction, it is also one in which the central primal metaphor of the ocean is most consistently worked out, each stanza a part of the overwhelming analogy of inevitability. By the third stanza, “… your knees buckle / and you are going down / done for and at least / you think thank god whomever / it’s got to be over” but, of course, as we know of grief, the respite is a short one: “no the next wave comes /… but then the waves get smaller … you can stand up some /… rest for a while / cause oh you’ll need it / when the mourning comes.” The punning on “morning” and “mourning” is not new with this poet, but perfectly placed. The colloquial language of “cause” (for the more formal “because”) and “you can stand up some” also underscores the universality of the nature of grieving.

Dethlefsen is a literal musician as well as a lyricist and includes one song labeled as such, “Rag and Bone,” with the dedication “song lyrics for Obvious Dog,” his band. Given his penchant for punning, he may be referring to musical “rags” of the Scott Joplin variety and is almost certainly quoting Yeats’s famous line, “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” Given that the lyrics are meant to be sung, they rhyme regularly in couplets and have a refrain as follows: “rag and bone / men are but rag and bone / searching the roadways for home / this way and that way for home.” Given the strictures of a song’s rhythm and rhyme, this poem still retains Dethlefsen’s mournful (perhaps ironic) message found in some of his other poetry—“disheveled and bruised / every crossroads we choose / wandering mazes toward home” and “each river meanders alone / swallowing stone after stone / the stick men awashed / their souls have been lost / hoping for ways to atone.” While I have not heard Obvious Dog, it strikes me as a bonus in a poet laureate that he be talented in as many ways as make him accessible to the general public. After all, poetry has a somewhat notoriously small and rarified audience, but music can deliver similar messages in a much more popular medium.

While Dethlefsen can be a philosophical poet, as is to be expected given the gravity of his subject matter in some sections, the majority of his poems employ a much lighter tone. Sometimes the tone results from his play with sound, as in “Tapestry,” a poem dedicated to “the poets at St. Joe’s” without further explanation, which employs heavy alliteration and assonance throughout:

regard the artistry of carp
the way they swim in woven water
doing carp wheels
down the tapestry
bump the surface
then sound in deep discussion
perfect swirling circles
they descend
to bark among themselves
regarding artistry of carp

Anyone who has ever witnessed these monstrous inland leviathans swimming thickly can vouch for the felicity of the poet’s description here and his ability to reproduce the somewhat everyday image is admirable.

A mock “list poem,” his “Sixty-one” employs a similarly playful, yet still thought-provoking tone by ticking off his diminishing career choices, ranging from cowboy to president in the first three lines, and culminating in “thursday I couldn’t find my list / friday my own fishing show / saturday catching for the cardinals / sunday I took a nap / sorry / I had to / the moons flew by too soon.

One of my favorite poems in the collection carries no specific dedication (the poet is fond of dedicating poems to specific friends), but feels familiar to anyone who has ever loved and perhaps lost, which I imagine includes everyone over the age of five. “Forgotten” begins with a kind of e.e. cummings-esque inversion of the expected: “I will always forget you / you’re the first person I forget / each morning and the last / one I recall at night” and continues to recall in ironic detail a special girl whose “whispering hair” he forgets best, since he repeats the refrain three times in this relatively short poem. It tells the story of an early, if not first love in imagery of Spring and fecundity, lilacs and forget-me-nots, but also in darker and more painful memories—“your beat cop father / charlie who drank too much.”

For my tastes, in fact, the poet is at his best when recalling his early school days, some sweet and some brutal. He keeps the reader from lapsing into rosy false nostalgia by reminding us that however innocent, most of us suffer to some degree while being educated. The section Sifting Starlight contains five such poems in quick succession: “Astronauts,” “Apple,” “Fair Territory,” “From the Principal’s Desk,” and “Crying Lessons,” the last of which begins with these ominous words by “miss richards”: “you mark my words … each one of you sometime this year / will run from this classroom in tears / some more than once I guarantee.” “Apples” contains the horrific image of a child being tied face down on a toilet seat “by wrists with a towel or two” and warned by another monstrous teacher “if you cry … you’ll go to the principal’s office.” The biographical notes disclose that Bruce is “a retired public educator and public library director,” which helps explain some advice he gives a son in a goodbye note called “Goner”: “I hope you are publicly happy / and that if you’re teaching / you’re affectionate / otherwise sell tires.” A poem placed very late in the book, “Wealthy,” also notes with gentle humor how becoming a good educator and poet, despite the fact that these are notably low pay to unpaid careers, can make one wealthy indeed: “after my reading / a very serious sixth grade girl / asked me if I was wealthy / well I said I have twenty-two / dollars in my wallet right now …” and ends “I’ve got my health my hands my eyes / my family and friends who love me / and I can come here to sennett middle school / to read poetry to you guys for free / so yes I’m very wealthy / wealthy indeed.”

I am writing this review on the day of the year when the moon is reaching perigee, the closest in its orbit it has been in one year, so I feel I would be remiss in my mission if I did not point out that among the shiniest of shiny things in Bruce Dethlefsen’s Unexpected Shiny Things is the moon. (The sun is a close rival, but the last section of the book carries the title Chasing the Moon and begins and ends with poems full of lunar imagery and lore.) “Fingernail Moon,” written from Guatemala, hopes that the anonymous person to whom it is addressed “saw the moon hang in the sky / somehow tonight / if only but a fingernail” and ends “I know now why all poets are lunatics / good night.” The last poem of the book, “I’ll Take the Moon,” begs others, maybe other poets, to take on the responsibility of describing the sun, the water, the wind, and the earth, love, fire, birds, and flowers, but asks that they leave for the poet himself the right to “take the moon / and dedicate what’s left of my life / to capture keep show and tell / utterly and complete / the epic story of the moon.” I, for one, think he has made a good start.


Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews.  She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM on WORT-FM or

June 1, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , , | 1 Comment

the eelgrass meadow

Robin Chapman
Tebot Bach 2011

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske


As Robert Frost described it, I am one “acquainted with the night.” In other words, like a lot of people as they grow more “mature,” I suffer occasional insomnia—a condition for which I have developed a series of “cures,” depending on how intransigent the bout. Recently, worried about something, I lay awake long after my husband was sleeping sweetly. As the minutes and then an hour crept by, I finally employed my best remedy: a trek down to the chilly kitchen for a cup of warmed milk. Nearly always, if I am patient, this lulls me softly back to sleep. That night, I needed a bit more help, so I decided to use my wakefulness profitably by reaching for a book that Cambridge Book Review had asked me to write about, the eelgrass meadow, by Robin Chapman. Switching on my reading light, I flipped the book open randomly. The title of the poem on page nine brought me to attention: “When I can’t sleep.” I confess to feeling a little thrill at the serendipitous nature of this poem’s appearing before me, a feeling only enhanced by finding out that Robin Chapman’s cure is the same as mine:

at one or two in the morning,
++++++I leave your warm arms
++++++++++++and the goose-down bed,
creep down the moon-lit stairs
++++++to the blinding light of the fridge,
++++++++++++pull out the milk carton …

Later in the poem, the poet echoes Frost’s tone of not only acceptance, but excitement at the privileged view we sleepless ones enjoy:

++++++standing there, I’ve seen
++++++++++++the silent winking
of lightning bugs
++++++rising in the locust trees,
++++++++++++the sudden shadow
of a low-flying owl,
++++++February waddle of raccoons,
++++++++++++racing rabbit pairs …

The speaker, whom I think we can assume is the poet herself, returns “reassured” to “milky sleep.” Smiling, I started writing this review instead, but well-prepared by Chapman’s lovely and reassuring imagery for a sweet sleep to come.

Like “When I can’t sleep,” much of the eelgrass meadow employs natural imagery and place-names both in the poems themselves and as a structure for the book, with three of the five sections referring directly to geography (The Eelgrass Meadow, Canyonland Country, and Old-Growth Forests) and the other two containing poems much informed by observation of landscape ranging from Southwestern France (“Following the Cathar Martyrs of Southwestern France, 1202-1244”) to “a Welsh malt-house converted to a cabin” (“Rabbit Watcher”) to Gambia, China, and Banff. But this volume is not content to simply describe the fabled wonders of Nature-with-a-capital “N,” in which the poet may grow rapturous simply observing Beauty-with-a-capital-“B.” Like the metaphysical poets first and the Romantics later, Chapman frequently uses the surface appeal of the scenery to suggest more subtle messages. The book seems to unfold organically, celebrating the unseen and seen with a nearly-orgiastic tone as she appreciates the sacred laws of evolution in the language of the mystic. After reading a few of the poems, I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of William Blake: “to see the world in a grain of sand.”

Chapman lays the philosophical groundwork for her book in the first section with two poems extolling the virtues of the philosopher/scientists Spinoza and Galileo whose dangerous and heretical speculations growing from their work with optics famously led to their censure by powerful authorities of their times. In “The Philosopher of Clear Sight” she imagines Spinoza’s perhaps reluctant conclusions: “And as he works and polishes, thinks on the God of all, the seen / and the unseen … // thinks how God must be immanent / in all of nature, ocean, each faint star … we can’t conceive or see, / so—no providential God, no immortality / or rescue for us …”

Chapman’s poetry is tough, infused with her love and reverence for the natural world beginning at the microscopic, cellular level (about which she clearly knows a great deal) but never does the need to convey information to those of us less well-versed in science overwhelm her art—her devotion to precise, yet playful, language. One senses a background in wonderful popularizers of science—e.g., Lewis Thomas’s Lives of the Cell, and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters—and the poet does in fact allude in a later poem to the environmentalist and nature writer Edward Abbey. She lets her love of sound romp in “The Second Messengers,” for example: [Molecules] “slosh to knock, unlock, / grapple, tangle, tango, brush or push.” Most of the poems are written in well-shaped free-verse, allowing the rhyming words to be enjambed so that the reader may not know what makes the line read so well, but whose ear pleasantly recalls the muted internal rhyme. Her diction, while containing several technical terms that may not be familiar to the lay reader (“neurotransmitters, histamines, and hormones”) pulls off that difficult task—translating technical information into colloquial language and concrete imagery (“those cruise ships docked in the slips / of the cell’s membrane, exotic arrivals …”)—which is the mark of an accomplished poet. (Both quotes from “The Second Messengers.”) To plant her poetry back on solid ground where most of us live, she descends to the humble in the same poem, to “black-eyed peas and hog jowls.” (Another interesting bit of serendipity—the night before I read this poem, I had been seized with a need to boil up a pot of black-eyed peas and greens—a meal I rarely think about making. There were more such coincidences waiting throughout the book to delight me.)

Chapman also shows her familiarity with a number of formal structures, though she modifies them freely. At least one of the long poems referred to earlier, “Following the Cathar Martyrs…,” is a sestina, an intricate and difficult form to write well. Others contain organizing elements other than rhyme or rhythm, such as the repetition of a key phrase, usually the first of each stanza, a technique called “anaphora,” as seen in “Hometown,” which begins “Which way was North?” and continues the pattern with the same question, but also punning on some of the refrains—“Which way was right?”… “left?”… “true?” She favors triplets (“tercets”) in some of her longer poems, but also writes a couple of prose poems toward the end of the book.

In my experience, much “message” poetry allows its preaching to overwhelm its responsibility to the needs of the reader to be gently persuaded. Even when her narrative poems, sharing insights into her personal autobiography, become a bit didactic, when one can trace how for Chapman “love of Nature” is much more than a simple philosophy, the language veers away from stridency. She mourns our human stupidity and arrogance in poems describing how her early experiences in the shadow of the Oak Ridge [Tennessee] National Laboratory, sensitize her to the dangers of what has always been a terrible two-edged sword. (She implies that her father worked at the nuclear facility in some capacity.) There are several poems cautioning about the unintended consequences of both physical and behavioral scientific experimentation, such as “Strontium-90 After WWII” which she dedicates to her father and “Will Safety be the Sturdy Child of Terror?” whose title is a quote by Winston Churchill and which ends with a “confession” of her own—her “field” being the one responsible for terrifying primates by “dropping / baby monkeys down drains,” likely a reference to Dr. Harry Harlow’s now-infamous primate lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Chapman takes the point of view of the laboratory frog in “The End of Biology,” and in the poem “Discovery Channel” chides the stupidity of  the cable network’s cynical observation, “We don’t know whether animals have emotions,” which leads the poet to “Washoe, the chimpanzee / raised to sign, who signed ‘rock baby’ over her stillborn infant.”

The breadth of knowledge and experience packed into the eelgrass meadow can be somewhat overwhelming since, like all good poets, Chapman knows how to compact a lot of meaning into a relatively small space (the book is 91 pages and contains 65 poems of various lengths). She clearly has plenty to say and has been saying it for many years. Many of the poems have been previously published in an impressive range of publications, anthologies, and chapbooks. As seems inevitable in such a collection of riches, some poems (such as “The Whale Becoming the Angel of the World in the Field of the House”) seem to me less accessible than others (though I imagine those to whom it was dedicated were thrilled to see the poem included). One last such thrill was left for me to discover in the final section of the book (though I am doing some educated guessing here). In “Joe’s Dream,” Chapman refers to DeKalb, Illinois where I spent many years as I attended Northern Illinois University and taught for three years. Just after the Dekalb reference, the poet talks about “Pastor Joe,” whose dream of seed-saving and helping to organize a farming effort on fallow land to “till and sow 80 acres of wheat / that will complete the protein needed in Gambia” forms the poem’s title. Reading, I began to smile, knowing that this pastor could be no other than the old fellow-English-graduate-student-turned-teacher-turned-Congregationalist-preacher of my “youth” (whose surname I shall omit as well—just as the poet did). Chapman had just given me the extra gift of figuring forth this hilarious person, himself a terrific poet, who remains my good friend over some 35 years. Three interesting coincidences in a row while reading the eelgrass meadow seemed just a bonus added to the pleasure afforded me by reading these ambitious poems. Thoroughly satisfied, when I finished the book I felt that I too had roamed the world freely, much like the majestic whales whose evolution she traces and pairs with other “wanderers” ending with an ecstatic description of the “encircling world, housed / under a roof of stars.” Robin Chapman’s work is not easy reading, but the lover of both craft and content willing to put in the effort will be well-fed.


Gay Davidson-Zielske taught English for 34 years and recently became RETINO (retired in name only) from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is now free to do any dang thing she wants anytime she wants, but will probably continue to write, bike, quilt, keep her coop, and meditate at her retreat, Piney Wood Mews. She also co-produces Mindseye Radio, which airs first Fridays at 11 PM onWORT-FM or

June 1, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , | 1 Comment

cbr 18 / summer 2011


cbr 18 / summer 2011

Eleven Poems: An Audio Chapbook
Elli Hazit

J.D. Salinger: A Life
Kenneth Slawenski
Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett

Birds of Wisconsin
B.J. Best
Reviewed by Amy Lou Jenkins

Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
Reviewed by Bob Wake

The Masturbator
A short story by John Lehman

A short story by Ruben Varda

From the Archives
Origins of FIS (Factory in a Suitcase)
An excerpt from Redshift: Greenstreem
Rod Clark


June 1, 2012 Posted by | biography, fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 17 / spring 2010


cbr 17 / spring 2010

Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook
Norma Gay Prewett

Reclamation: Memories of a New Orleans Girlhood
Eva Augustin Rumpf
An excerpt

From the Archives
Omens of Millennium
Harold Bloom
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | memoir, poetry, spirituality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 16 / spring 2009


cbr 16 / spring 2009

Four poems by Sarah Busse
This Bed
The Dreamer
Two Postcards to Sylvia
A Wish for the Bride and Groom

Tuned Droves
Eric Baus
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 15 / summer 2008


cbr 15 / summer 2008

Dark Card
Rebecca Foust
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , | Leave a comment

cbr 14 / winter 2007-2008


cbr 14 / winter 2007-2008

Canto 81: The crow and the jay
R. Virgil Ellis

Canto 82: The center and from the center
R. Virgil Ellis

Canto 90: oh this is good
R. Virgil Ellis


March 18, 2012 Posted by | poetry, spirituality | , , , | 1 Comment

cbr 13 / winter 2005-2006


cbr 13 / winter 2005-2006

Waiting for Beethoven
Laurel Yourke
Reviewed by Susan Tollefson


March 18, 2012 Posted by | poetry | , , | Leave a comment

cbr 12 / winter 2004-2005


cbr 12 / winter 2004-2005

An excerpt
Eva Augustin Rumpf

The Burning Point
Frances Richey
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Present/Tense: Poets in the World
Edited by Mark Pawlak
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Saving Grace
James Lenfestey
Reviewed by Karla Huston

The Half Brother
Lars Saabye Christensen
Translated from the Norwegian by Kenneth Steven
Reviewed by Michael Allen Potter

Graphic Classics: O. Henry
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Six Modern Plagues
Mark Jerome Walters
Reviewed by Dori Knoff


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration, non-fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 11 / spring 2004


cbr 11 / spring 2004

The Blue Dress
Alison Townsend
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Joy Unspeakable
Laura Stamps
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Something Near the Dance Floor
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Karla Huston

David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Graphic Classics: Mark Twain
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration, memoir, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment