Reading the Open Wound of War:  A Review of Westheimer’s, A Sword in Both Hands

February 23rd revealed the one-year anniversary of Putin’s war on Ukraine. I remember well its start, the sound of bombs dropping on faraway cities over the airwaves of NPR, CBC, BBC.  It was a year ago this day that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s name began to roll off our tongues and appear in social media memes that ultimately hinted not only of his personal and charismatic strength, but wide support of his country’s sovereignty. I remember my own anguish at this unjust act of aggression at the heels of the world weathering Covid and just beginning to emerge from the controlling grip of the pandemic. Simply unfathomable.

As is the way of poets and readers, we seek the trail of words that will offer us greater understanding of not only ourselves, but the greater world around us.  It was with great anticipation that I awaited publication of Dick Westheimer’s poetry collection A Sword in Both Hands:  Poems Responding to Russia’s War on Ukraine (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2022).  And was well worth the wait.

I’m struck first by the beauty of the cover created by Ukrainian artist Olga Morozova.  It captures the blue and yellow tones that have surfaced widely in the support of a country whose flag sports these very colors of field and sky.  It’s a lovely accompaniment of color and energy to the book’s poems and represents the strength, beauty, and spirit of those under siege.

The book is dedicated to “the people of Ukraine and refugees and truth-tellers everywhere.”  In fact, a visit to Westheimer’s blog will not only walk you through news articles that inspired the writing of his poems, but acknowledges that all proceeds from this collection will go to the Ukraine Trust Chain which is a network of volunteers that works to move people from war-torn areas in Ukraine to safe zones.

“Holodomor” leads the collection, unveiling a methodical listing of disappearance and death in the shade of year of war:  Fish, songbird, the good, the generous, “the prostitutes [that survive] their johns.”  As the poem moves outward, it ends with the idea that we all too often share, “that it can’t happen here.”  Poems following document the everyday:  Shuffling the cards for Durak, a long-played card game, the baking of bread, scouring of pots and pans, the trash collector going about his business of lifting and emptying cans, while young clubbers stumble their way home.  War is at the edges, but not yet trampling upon the moment.

One of the clear news to poetry connections is that of the poem, “A Ukrainian Woman Confronts a Russian Soldier in Henechesk.”  This, widely reported on at the time, recalls the occasion of a woman asking an enemy soldier to carry sunflower seeds in his pocked so that they may sprout upon his death in her country.  The poem begins with the question, “What seeds will you carry?” and ends with the reflection, “What will grow from the breakdown of your life / depends on the seeds you carry when that time arrives.”

As is the way of war, the innocent bear the brunt of destruction.  Neither children nor animals can escape the brutality of conflict and often surface in the poems gathered here. In his poem, “An Open Letter to the Poets, Editors, and Redditors Who Have Moved on from War,” Westheimer calls to task those whose duty is to stay the course, to continue writing about the conditions and consequences of the war, to not leave it to chase the story of the day, “billionaires in space” as example. His final stanza in this poem reads,

So here’s your prompt for next week’s poem: war

never ends.  The dead speak in blank verse.

The dispossessed scatter like bitter alyssum seed.

It is with a poet’s eye that I appreciate Westheimer’s exploration of form.  “Demi-Sonnet for the Dead” is just that, a half sonnet that reveals not the living, but the burying of those made victims of war. The speaker has a preference for pine-box or ash-urn burials, but never ditch or pit, and that burial, when done properly, requires “…one sifted fistful at a time, / dirt mixed with tears.  Sometimes blood.”  The collection’s concluding poem is “Ghazal for the Trees,” a fitting end that offers some hope that war is like seasons, that as it comes it also goes.  This ghazal hints of peace, of the song to be sung to trees.

Poet Dick Westheimer reminds us that while the war may not physically be outside our door, we nonetheless bear witness to these events and the stories that emerge. Overall, A Sword in Both Hands is a superb collection, and one to add to the shelf of keepers.

A Sword in Both Hands can be purchased from Sheila-Na-Gig Editions.

Winter Illuminations

The weather is grim, friends. In recent weeks, the days have alternated from snow to rain, but often settling into a fine blend of sn-rain. Such is winter in the rainforest of Southeast Alaska. A few more minutes of daylight each week is the sole sign that spring is coming.

The continued indoor time has kept me hopping with pen and keyboard. Sheila-Na-Gig has held recently a series of poetry readings both in late January and through February to celebrate new publications! The time difference between there and here allowed me to partake in poet Simona Carini’s reading of her new collection of poetry, Survival Time. Such a bright gathering of work here, this is a book to add to the shelf.

Additionally, George Franklin’s new collection, Remote Cities, is soon to be released. I’m so eager to read this! And, there is a 20% discount on preorders if ordered by February 28th.

I’ve been quite motivated this winter to return to previous years’ efforts to write regularly and submit work weekly. Duotrope helps me achieve the latter.

Huge gratitude to both Duck Duck Mongoose Magazine and Compass Rose Literary Journal for publishing my work. The first picked up “Lavender Shortbread in February” for Issue 4: Valentines. Compass Rose picked up “No Headstone” for their Inaugural Issue.

Happy writing!

Gary Glauber’s Collection of Poems, Inside Outrage

In the last breath of September, it was my pleasure to attend and celebrate Gary Glauber’s new collection of poems, Inside Outrage (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2022).  He read beautifully via Zoom.  His selected poems touched upon an array of topics:  Love, Mr. Rogers, teaching, poetry, civil justice at Starbucks.  It was the perfect antidote to the drumming of the atmospheric river and wind pummeling the windows outside, allowing me to disappear inside, into words for an hour that passed too quickly this afternoon.

With a shelved and bespectacled Homer Simpson over one shoulder and a guitar over the other, Glauber began his reading with his poem, “Blocked,” one he explains celebrates a lifetime of poetry.  The poet reminds readers, “Let us celebrate the infinity / of our limited mortality…” It is also one that considers time and the travel of, the “…inestimable unknowable” that is “much like a poem.”

A teacher, just one of his many career hats, some of his poems explore education, from setting to art.  “Learning to Read” and “Have You Graded the Essays, Yet?” are both essential explorations of educational experience from knowing both sides of the desk.  The latter, especially, is relatable, right down to the red pen and the questions even my own high school students ask, “Why don’t we read / anything with a happy ending?” and “Do we need an introduction / and a conclusion?”  Here, too, the speaker contemplates student immunity to the very changes his red pen marks, the indication of editing ahead, and proceeds to muse that for students, “Writing / is a lost art, along with reading.”  We can all hope not.

There are so many reminders in his poetry of what is to be human and the lessons we’re all bound to learn one way or another. Glauber’s collection is one to savor, and add to the keeper shelf for future returns.

Cover art by Loree Harrel, Digging a Hole in Tomorrowland