What So Cal Poets Are Reading

Edited by liz gonzález


This month we review Displeasures of the Table by Martha Ronk (Green Integer Books) and Shadow of the Plum by Carol Lem (Cedar Hill Publications).


Displeasures of the Table
by Martha Ronk
Green Integer Books, 2001


Martha Ronk is also the author of Why/Why Not (University of California Press, 2003), Eyetrouble (University of Georgia Press,1998), State of Mind (Sun & Moon Books, 1995), Desert Geometries (Littoral Books, 1992) and other works. She resides in Los Angeles and teaches at Occidental College.



Self-Reflexivity Brought to Table

Reviewed by Christine Zembal


Of course I thought at age nine,

anyone would chose poetry. I loved it from the get-go...

(“Boiling water”)

In her multi-faceted work, Displeasures of the Table, Martha Ronk is able to weave the central themes of memory, philosophy, the craft of writing, along with biographical elements surrounding the importance, or non-importance, of food.  Ronk examines America’s affinity for eating and the preparation of food and fuses these elements together to create a series of compact, delicious prose poems. Many of Ronk’s poems are testimonials to the act and craft of writing as she is able to bring up the questions, dilemmas, and choices writers face with the written word—especially poets.

In her poem “Christmas cookies,” Ronk interchanges the need for adjectives with the act of decorating cookies:

We always made rollout cookies

cut into shapes and decorated. In the German man-

ner the cookie sheet was covered with anise seeds and

after the baking the cookies were spread with white

icing and sprinkled with green and red colored sugar.

The seven minute sugar icing cooked in the top of a

double boiler and the kitchen smelled of steam and

sugar as the icing was got on quickly before it hard-

ened into crystals and stuck to the sides of the pan.


What to do about adjectives perplexes many a writer I

know. Others reject them outright, altogether, and

always; others pile them up as if the ornate prose of the

last century could be maintained by will power and 

skill. The Christmas cookies were clearly too rich and

gooey and these days I make them plain or no one

would eat them at all.

(“Christmas cookies”) 

The address and tone changes as Ronk draws attention from the decorating of the cookies to the actual construction of the poem. Inserting a self-conscious shift in subject gives the reader insight into how Ronk fashions the written word. The conversational tone allows the poem to become a more personal experience for author and reader. In “Christmas Cookies,” Ronk comments on how adjectives, icings, sprinkles are indeed all on the same plane: too much excess and you are left with an inferior poem and cookie. This same technique is at work in the prose poem “Creamed tunafish on toast.”

The problem with syntax is that is so demanding,

demanding of explanation, of meaningful connection

between the past and present, of causality and drama,  

of art and belief. The problem with giving it up alto-

gether, as much contemporary writing does, is that it

asks us to take that which is missing on faith, as if it

were more complex and compelling because unsaid.

                                    (“Creamed tunafish on toast”)

Through the first line of the poem, Ronk self-consciously wields words to her will and makes the case that rules should occasionally be broken. The opening line also implies that sometimes a thing or an event does not require explanation. Ronk illustrates that sometimes the frills, “why” and “how,” are not always the point or necessary.  

The first two-thirds of the “Creamed tunafish on toast” describes an autobiographical account of a moment Ronk experienced in college:

The minister and his wife didn’t eat I don’t think; they

were gracious in ways I couldn’t then see. I was young.

I hated grace. I hated religion. He climbed the

belltower and we all sat leaning on our palms in the

grass watching as if it were and were not happening

as the sun went down. It had the stillness of going on

and on, as we watched him inch his way up, not only

because it took so much time, but also because it was

so potently and embarrassingly symbolic. The grass

was August brown and warm.

                                    (“Creamed tunafish on toast”)

Although stirring, there is no way to know exactly what happened in this scene or what it means in the larger context of the poem. While the reader might be inclined to attach an interpretation, Ronk-- in the final stanza—advises against this: “that which is missing on faith, as if it were more complex and compelling because unsaid.” Just because the luncheon scene is unexplained doesn’t mean there is a “compelling,” hidden meaning in it. Here again Ronk’s conversational tone and constant engagement with her audience is apparent. 

Ronk admits that we need food, even though it may be an interruption: “Cookbooks seem to me as preposterous as poetry, the imaginative leap as great.” (“Rappini”). Like food, words are also necessary, and throughout Ronk’s poems, she addresses this need for these different elements. She distills the bare essence of concepts in spare, rich portions spread out like a five-day feast for the reader.

I like yoghurt in small cardboard containers, also for-

mal poems, especially sonnets. Most everyone I know

likes process art and the unedited, run-together de-

tails of daybooks or lists. The vanilla is cold and as

easy as babyfood and nostalgia. The shape of the spoon

is as delicious as if it were silver and one could eat



Christine Zembal received her B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She is currently studying with Suzanne Lummis through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and lives in Los Angeles.

Shadow of the Plum

by Carol Lem

Cedar Hill Publications, 2002


Carol Lem, who lives in Temple City and teaches creative writing and literature at East Los Angeles College, has recently published poems in The Chrysalis Reader, Red Rock Review, and Runes. A reading of selected poems from Shadow of the Plum may be heard on her CD, Shadow of the Bamboo, with music by Masakazu Yoshizawa. For more information, contact her at clem64079@aol.com or visit her website, www.carollem.com.




A Review that Ends with “and …”

 Reviewed by Gary Soto


I gave up reviewing poetry books several years ago, but this week I received in the mail Carol Lem’s Shadow of the Plum, (Cedar Hill Publications) and began to admonish myself for my failure to display more affection for reviewing. I beheld a wonderfully designed book and fanned the 83 pages so they created a breeze that smelled of ink and glue—it was hot off the press, as they say. I read these poems in their rightful order, from first to last, and over again. I make no bones about it; I know Carol Lem, a much-loved instructor at East Los Angeles College. She has invited me numerous times to campus, and she and I have put our heads together to try to make her students—my students, indirectly—readers and, thus, wiser and more fulfilled people.


Before I review her book—actually, only a single poem will be addressed, a poem titled “Didn’t They Tell You Stories?”—let me give you a picture of Carol. She is Chinese-American, born in the 1950s and raised in Los Angeles, and has been for many years an instructor of English at ELAC in the heart of Aztlan. Most of her students are Latino, many of them recent immigrants. Her favorite language is Spanish. Orale pues!  Her favorite food?  Mexican, of course, with a penchant towards enchiladas. She plays the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, and likes wine. In the photo on the back cover, she’s holding a glass of red wine that has circulated to her cheeks—she’s on her way to a stately bliss.


Now the poem “Didn’t They Tell You Stories?,” which operates as a preface to the collection and which sneakily negates her inability to tell a story while telling a story. The poem begins with Carol and a student walking across the college campus lawn littered with “broken blossoms of East L.A.”—a lovely image that suggests the students are broken yet still flowers in their own right. This student at Carol’s side naively asks if her parents told her stories (presumably Chinese, thus exotic and mysterious) when she was a girl growing up in the 1950s. The question startles Carol. She doesn’t know how to answer. Did my parents tell me stories? she wonders. Then she realizes that she can only provide facts about her family, not luxurious details about growing up in a Chinese household where there were plenty of cultural references at her fingertips—language, food, customs, music, religious, tea, incense, superstitions, etc. Her family was more prone to tense silence. The reason becomes evident as the reader delves into the book—her father, for instance, liked betting on losing horses. He was also not careful at Las Vegas roulette tables.


For Carol, then, there were few stories, only occasionally remembered moments through the lens of memory—the sweetness of her early life was rock candy after an evening bath and the babble of the television that kept her parents from arguing. This is what startles her. The question (Didn’t They Tell You Stories?”) from the student is perhaps idle chatter on the way to class, but for Carol a profound shocker. Did her parents pass on a story for her to tell?  Does she have something to say?  This reviewer believes so, and it’s a familiar story for those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and shared names like Deborah or Gary or Carol—god, how ethnic families wanted their young to assimilate.


It’s easy to ask a simple question, but often difficult to answer it—or so Carol discovers. And it’s the simple question that often provokes us, and, as a result here, gets us going if we’re introspective, if we’re soul-searching, if we are poets and writers. I will even argue that “Didn’t They Tell you Stories?” is about “art.” Consider the line, “[I] tell a boy there’s a life in the sky . . .” In some regard this phrase has a religious connotation—i.e., heaven and the afterlife—but I believe Carol is saying that the life of writing is, well, up there, in that sky a poet sometimes touches and pulls down onto the page. She is telling this student, her other students, her future students who will walk at her side, that the art of writing is life and—


—Originally published on Gary Soto’s website: www.garysoto.com in October, 2002

Gary Soto is the author of numerous books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems (Chronicle Books, 1995); Canto Familiar/Familiar Song (1994); and Neighborhood Odes (1992). He has written two novels, Poetry Lover (University of New Mexico Press, 2001) and Nickel and Dime (2000). He also wrote the memoir Living Up the Street (1985), numerous young adult and children's books; and edited three anthologies: Pieces of Heart (1993), California Childhood (1988), and Entrance: Four Latino Poets (1976). He lives in Berkeley, CA.

So Cal poets, please email  me your reviews of a recently published poetry book or chapbook. See guidelines below.


  • Paste the review in the body of your e-mail. No attachments.

  • 250-300 word limit. (If you have strong grammar skills and know how to write a review, this limit is flexible. Contact liz for info.)

  • Include a two-sentence bio for the book author: City in which s/he lives and publication credits. (Include your one-sentence bio: Publication credits.)

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  • Refer to the other reviews for format and to use as a model.

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach