Review of Magdalene by Marie Howe

2017, Book Reviews

Magdalene by Marie Howe

Magdalene by Marie Howe
W.W. Norton & Company; 96 pp

Reviewed by Joshua Jones

It’s no understatement to say poetry has been possessed by documentary lately—and with good reason. Books like Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Jill McDonough’s Reaper, and many others do the heavy lifting of research to represent the underrepresented and to expose abusive power. Although this way of writing poems has taken center stage, it’s necessary to acknowledge other books with similar ethical motivations founded on different methods. Magdalene, Marie Howe’s fourth book of poems, serves as a good example of such a book that begins from a near absence of source material. It imagines the inner life of a modern day Mary Magdalene, one few will recognize from her scanty biblical portrait. Howe’s account of the woman “from whom seven devils had been cast out” revises what we’ve heard about her and presents a wise, if somewhat erratic, teacher of the perennial lessons of empathy, attention, and love.

Howe’s Magdalene, unlike her scriptural counterpart, has room to express her vast interiority; in simple but elegant terms she speculates on her own psychology, describes her mystical visions, and ponders the nature of language. The poems follow a chronological arrangement without any hard section breaks. However, at irregular intervals Howe inserts seven short lyrics in the lower right hand corner of the page in italics. These poems, which one supposes coincide with Mary’s seven devils, both establish the pace of the book and reinforce its continuity. Most of the poems in the collection restrict themselves to one or two pages, making the book a quick read and lending a clarity to its narrator’s voice.

The story begins before the biblical account, “before I knew I was an I” as Magdalene says, speculating about the sexual violence that might have brought her to the place she appears in the Gospels. What immediately follows stands out as perhaps the best poem of the book, “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” in which she describes her demonic oppressors as a bevy of peculiar and familiar anxieties ranging from “that I was very busy” to “if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I / touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had / to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.” The poem lists far more than seven devils, one of which is “I could never get to the end of the list,” keeping a comical air in the poem that sustains us until we reach the devastating final devil, the recurrent memories of her mother’s death.

The first third of Magdalene continues this note of trauma, following Mary into her cycle of drug use and sexual exploitation. In these desperate conditions, she discovers her own mystical capacities to enter the minds of others and to reveal the world in greater clarity. In “On Men, Their Bodies,” she describes the penis of every man she’s slept with, navigating emotions from humor to outrage with precision. But her impressive powers of empathy and perception provide little comfort; she bottoms out: “I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse would come. / Then nothing did, and no one.”

Forty pages in, Howe picks up to the biblical narrative, introducing a Christlike teacher who pulls Mary back from the brink of death. In her bewildering state of freedom she “walked where [she] wanted, free of the pretense of family now, / belonging to no one,” but follows him unable to resist the way “whatever room we might be standing in, / assumed an astonishing clarity.” Then, as quickly as he entered her life, he dies, leaving her empowered but listless.

The book ends in a delightful, if abrupt, revision of Magdalene’s story; she adopts a daughter who becomes Mary’s new teacher. These last poems proved some of the most enjoyable and show Mary “pulled… from prayer and desire / from even the memory / the smell and sound of him moaning against me.” In her encounter with “the girl” she finally sees herself in another person. They learn from each other and even joke about changing roles in their next lives: “Next time, you be the mother, I said. / No way, Jose, she said, as we turned the last windy corner.” In moments like these, in her earnest and simple exchanges, Magdalene will be alright, despite her past and the lingering grief over her teacher, she assures us of the value found in the persistent mystery of the world.

As a collection of good poems, this book shines. I can’t find a page in Magdalene that doesn’t touch me or have some element of plainspoken marvelousness in it. “Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery” and “Magdalene Afterwards” shock me with their brief power each time I read them. However, the more I read it, the book’s construction as a story disappoints me. Some of this results from the decision to incorporate autobiographical poems that stray from the Magdalene narrative. The many men from the early poems seem to stand in for all men and then, in the book’s final movement, one man in particular, obscuring the narrative details in a sea of masculine singular pronouns that resist easy parsing. In “The Teacher” Mary says “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another,” and, while I appreciate the attempt to unsettle our traditional assumptions about the relationship between Mary and Christ, this confusion muddled the otherwise clear narrative. But I may be quibbling, because the very reason I dislike the book’s construction makes poems like “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” so pleasurable. In that poem, the very lack of specificity and focus becomes the object of critique and makes the poem so relatable. Perhaps I struggle with the book in a way it invites. A life—a real life absent the aggrandizing narratives of traditions like the scripture this Magdalene departs from—does not always tell its story by the rules we expect of literature. This is after all what makes so many of the individual poems charming. But Magdalene is more than a charming, if slightly flawed, book of poems. It nurtures empathy while making the familiar fresh which could atone for a multitude of sins—sins this Magdalene has few of.

Joshua Jones is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at The University of North Texas. He received an MFA in creative writing at The University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent poems are in Far Off Places and Jelly Bucket. He’s written reviews for the American Literary Review, Breakwater Review, and The Live Oak Review. He and his wife wrangle dachshunds in Hackberry, TX.

Review of Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile

Blog, Book Reviews


Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile; 
Noctuary Press, 2014; 90 pp
Reviewed by Janae Green

I am in my mother’s leopard heels &

we play house this way.

it hurts to speak beneath this bustier
but if I take it off,
it just hurts.
so I speak forever                      using my inside voice

—From Apocryphal by Lisa Marie Basile

Undoubtedly, Lisa Marie Basile’s collection, Apocryphal from Noctuary Press, can only be read as one who savors the crumbs of a last meal. Her poetry evokes hunger for every last vision—to gorge on every narrative snapshot with a runny chin and wagging tongue. Prior to the official release, I was grateful for the chance to e-read Basile’s book in advance. Nearly ten pages in—bless me father, for I have sinned—I got greedy and waited for the print copy. Basile’s collection is an example of why readers still need the print form. We need to turn the pages; there are works like Apocryphal that readers like me just need to exist in our hands.

Apocryphal discusses the body as both an ache and a crave that makes the passage between daughter and lover claustrophobic but dreamlike—and Basile does so with the sultry con of a femme fatale. We see the red-lipped roar of the female body created by the hands of man and her desire to be cradled and formed between his fingers.

The collection’s often emotional and always fearless narrative recollects nature as a woman and buries her hat in the garden, “hair big with curl & eyelid lined.” Often with a cigarette in hand, Basile’s narrator will not spare your trust nor will she apologize for her behavior:

I would learn to devour everything,
     mollusk & man,
become obsessively pregnant with you,
I mean:            become those woman staring,
& abort you.

As revealed here, Basile’s speaker is not only daughter and lover, but she is Mother. She tears the patriarchal order to shreds without smudging her lipstick. Her mythology is a crucial theme throughout the collection, and we forgive her feign as she continually rebuilds her story.

In Apocryphal, Basile generously showcases her ability to reveal humanity to itself, still raw and beating. With observations poignant and startling, “everything is born natural and then is not natural” and imagery that never disappoints, “like a pumping heart inside an egg-white envelope,” Apocryphal proves Basile will never be dust on a shelf, but an immovable poet, a force. Her poetry will be dog-eared and inked with a reader’s love notes for years to come and then, years beyond that.


Janae Green is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She keeps a blog of her short prose and projects here.

Review of Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann

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Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann;
Alice James Books, 2013; 80 pp,
Reviewed by Jeffrey W. Peterson

I’d previously heard of Matthew Olzamann’s work through Vievee Francis, the poet he dedicates the book to, but I was only familiar with one poem. Upon completion, I realize Olzamann took me to intimate places, places between worlds where I was already comfortable.

The poems in Mezzanines cover an array of topics, ranging from NASA satellites to horse mouths to unreturned letters. The topics are familiar, using themes of acceptance within society and love, but Olzamann’s platforms and stages are different, unexpected, and often invigorating.

“Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race During My Childhood” and “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” are among a few standout poems because of their turns. The first reminds me of Terrance Hayes and his poem“Talk”, concerning a white and black friendship forever changed after a request to talk a certain way. Matthew chooses to embark this same territory with sci-fi and interstellar references that lead to a plainspoken realization. We are all at once comfortable, intrigued, and dismayed with lines such as “You knew you were like all the other kids, / until your best friend said, No, You’re not. / And he was right.”

During other poems, Matthew chooses to go for the heart in a more overt manner. “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” uses familiar territory, but has its own flair. The poem focuses on a speaker listing the reasons their matrimony may survive. The reader is taken through scenes of sacrifice and quirks and fear, only to arrive at an essence. The lover’s last sacrifice, which brings about deprivation, is an example of how resonating their commitment is. I adore the pattern of the poem, especially when harsh turns like “When the lights / are off, the curtains drawn, and an additional sheet is nailed / over the windows, you still believe someone outside / can see you” delve deeper into the lover’s persona.

Mezzanines is a worthy read and the poetry here is refreshing and satisfying.


Jeffrey W. Peterson was a 2011 fellow in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. He earned degrees from the University of West Georgia and Sarah Lawrence College. He currently serves as poetry editor for Madcap, a semiannual online journal, teaches English Composition, and mentors English Education students.

‘Sexual Boat (Sex Boats),’ by James Gendron

Book Reviews


By Janae Green 

“I once moved to a house so old

I was unequal to living there.

I was hungry for two years, even while eating.

My foot was just long enough

to not touch the past.”

—From “Stronger than Dirt,” by James Gendron

For weeks all I thought about was pulsating waves; sex boats penetrating water: mouth-shape tight, and mouth-shape wider and mouth-shape wider, like water gulping water. James Gendron’s Sexual Boats (Sex Boats) from Octopus Books is steamy—your breath won’t fog the windows (and the water isn’t as dirty as it seems)—but it does rock back and forth quite a bit.

Forget the hot bubble bath the title suggests because Gendron’s prose works more as a black guffaw, as if to say: bend over and let me show you. Six chapters of poetry swallow his first collection, but just as “[p]oetry/is easy: you write whatever you want,” Gendron likes to backwash. His reoccurring title, ‘Sex Boats’ makes some waves, but the waters are at times tepid. The poet wants to almost abandon the reader in the shallow end, but when he’s deep, he’s very deep: “Sometimes I think the wind/is cute, then it destroys a town.”

Rather than peeling the flesh, the steam in Gendron’s poetry is more like a burning: the scar is internal. It can be both ghastly and haunting, but the intimacy is important. That’s the kind of poetry that shakes you from your bunk. My favorite piece in his collection, “Does the Hospital Deserve my Love?” does just that:

“A green car broke my friend. I saw her in the ICU. The x-rays revealed

that her skeleton was male. That’s why she can no longer walk.

As an exercise, I lie down in the hallway and sleep. I begin to feel

a certain warmth toward the hospital, but nothing I would

characterize as love.

Exercise two: I’m wearing a sick person’s body as a suit.”

Gendron often reflects the past as something current, or always with us and it is rightfully so. It’s eerie how the door opens and shuts on its own, isn’t it? You can give credit to the whirring fans and open windows, but it’s almost like someone is always in the room with you. As his narrator describes in “Shade,” the familiar always lives within us: “I swear: when you leave me alone./every part of my body/is having its own nightmare.” If you row the Sexual Boat be diligent about it.The poetry here can be worthwhile, but your arms may ache once you reach the waterfall.


Janae Green is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She keeps a blog of her short prose and projects here.

‘My Dead,’ by Amy Lawless

Blog, Book Reviews


By Janae Green

“Poetry is a way to live, a way to talk about the world, a way for shit to matter. Literature and creation of poems is just one paradigm through which to make sense of the world.” —Amy Lawless in an interview with James Gendron at The Conversant.

The dead never leave us, or rather, the dead never leave us alone. Amy Lawless’s second collection of poetry, My Dead (from Octopus Books*), was devoured in two sittings—but that is only because I had to shake the poppies from my skin and stare at the shadows on my bedroom walls between readings. Lawless writes with such a raw approach to death that her words breathe life into all of its brevity. Her prose takes the reader someplace higher—beyond the grave—to a deader world living inside the vulnerability of its narrators (and its readers).

The fear of death makes the poetry in My Dead  rattle—its heartbreaking, intimate, and often times perverse—Lawless writes death with the life-force of headlights and it’s hard to look away. The narrators’ hands are always dirty. What I found most remarkable in this collection was the narrative in her opening prose, “Elephants in Mourning”:

When an elephant dies the lover takes the body and rolls it over and over.

When an elephant is dead it lies in a way that living elephants can not.

When an elephant dies he takes the body and rolls it over.

He scrolls his trunk and pulls his head back.

Some call that honor but it looks like someone who wants religion for a minute.

He does not X out the window.

He is someone who wants to be told that there is something else.

There is nothing else.

Lawless makes us see elephants because they’re in the room with us. Suddenly, the mourning rituals of the two-legged sort seem alarmingly less human. And of course, there’s that smell: “Sometimes a man dies and no one finds him and his flesh dries off his bones and the bones slowly absorb back into the land and later a farmer will till the land and grow crops and feed the family . . .”  Now its cold sitting by the open window of our tiny apartments, deep between the cracks of taller buildings, somewhere in the big someplace. Her words are like a stale, open mouth and you constantly find yourself holding your breath. Stare at the shadows on the wall. Shake poppies.

What follows “Elephants in Mourning” is a series of jitters and screams; poems Lawless stabs with her sharp tongue and wit under the title, “One Way to Write a Sonnet is to Number the Lines.” Her words demand attention, but the choleric tone is thoughtful: “You think poetry / is something you get invited to but it isn’t.”  She finishes, “Why did you ask me for a light without looking at me? / Are you alone too? / Might we lean against the same tree? /  . . . And we will stay there until some social media finds us.”  A majority of her poetry reads desperate to share that we are all suffering alone together. Life is often more terrifying than death and her narrators take notice of the human condition.

My Dead plays to a thematic whole. There are human qualities in the alleged non-human and vice versa, but ultimately, accepting death—or truly, seizing life before death—is the only way to capture life and live to our brim. Notably in “Cannibal Wedding,” Lawless narrates in one of her most intimate (and arguably, her most perverse) poems about life, where it’s apparent that life literally feeds on death life:

At the cannibal wedding those invited looked upon them. Those who had loved and lost cried. And those who had never loved but wanted to love cried. And she, who had looked inside herself and knew that it’s just fucking wrong to expect another person to fill one’s vessel . . .

This is not so entirely different from her concluding narrative, “The Skull Behind My Face,” where Lawless bares the dirt beneath her fingernails and finally reveals her most grave vulnerability: what her fears of death look like. I think it will look familiar.

Lawless writes poetry that itches; you have to bury your fingernails into your skin and bleed a little to remind yourself not to scratch it. Particularly for those who think poetry is dead (god forbid), I recommend that you do yourself a favor and slap to yourself with a copy of My Dead. If you pay attention, you’ll discover what she means—and she’s only going to tell you once.

*A very special thanks to Hajara Quinn of Octopus Books for sending me two free review copies of your recent publications. I look forward to reading James Gendron’s book of poetry, Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). Sounds dirty.


Janae Green is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She keeps a blog of her short prose and projects here.