What SoCal Poets Are Reading

Edited by liz gonzález


This month we review Whore by Sarah Maclay, Embers, by Terry Wolverton Displeasures of the Table by Martha Ronk and Shadow of the Plum by Carol Lem.



By Sarah Maclay

University of Tampa Press, 2004


Whore (2003 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry) is Sarah Maclay’s first full-length collection. The author of three chapbooks, Ice from the Belly (FarStarFire Press), Shadow of Light (Inevitable Press) and Weeding the Duchess (Black Stone Press), Maclay grew up on a ranch in Montana, received degrees from Oberlin College and Vermont College, and currently teaches writing in Los Angeles.



Reviewed by Cecilia Woloch

Whore is bound to shock some readers — its arresting cover image (a photograph by Rocky Schenck) and title, alone, are enough to startle us out of our preconceptions.  Here is haunting beauty married to a gash of a word we’d believed was a condemnation, a slur. That juxtaposition holds out a promise on which the poems within deliver, stunningly: that something like light seeps from the wound; that sexual love might lead to a sense of loss so deep that it’s luminous; that that by which we’d believed we were damned might be a blessing, after all.

“Let it be a blessing,” the poet prays — she seems to be praying — in the opening poem.  It’s twilight; “the blue shadows/pull themselves across the hills.” We’re in a landscape of grief so delicately rendered that it might be hope; “where the field intersects the sky” — which echoes the epigraph by Louise Gluck, “I couldn’t tell/my solitude from love.” Such echoes and resonances reoccur throughout this collection, so that it becomes more than a collection of individual poems— more an assemblage in which each glittering fragment is part of the gorgeous brokenness of the whole.  

The imagery is fragmentary but lucid — “The air is ripped ... Sunset spreads like a bruise;” “The boxing ring of his heart is vacant.” The language manages to be both elegant and raw; in some places lush, in others stripped to bone and shine.  And the speaker of the poems seems to stand before us both naked and veiled.  By the time we get to the title poem, at the physical center of the collection, an explanation of the collection’s title hardly seems necessary, but there it is: an etymology of the word “whore” that traces its roots to “precious,” “dear,” “pitting charity against law.” 

Whore is dedicated “to the beloved.” As Sarah Maclay tells us, “All contradictions can live in one place.” In her first full-length book of poems, the contradictions are radiant.

Cecilia Woloch's most recent collection of poems is Late, from BOA Editions, Ltd.

Sneak Preview: Three poems from Whore



It comes from hore in Old English,

hora in Old Norwegian,

but the Latin references charity –

at the root it's carus – dear,

as in Hello, whore. Hello, dear.

As in loved one, sweetheart, precious,

as in rare – therefore expensive, dear,

cher, cheri, a luxury

when given freely,

pitting charity against law.




(A version of "Whore" appeared in Solo





So let's call them something other than clouds –

Mirror, shell, flame. The sky's idea of hair.


And you know the way the voice sounds

when it's cried all day:


like it could comb stones.

Imagine, then, I'm driving to this sound


which is its own kind of rough velvet

under an amber sky, and the dj


has a jones for just this sort of thing tonight

as I circle the block, looking for parking


and must circle several times

because of the gray, lithe limbs,


as though a body had many arms –

and each was nearly satin, raised,


tree after tree, with its endless

offering of leaves.


This is the way I walked into our rendezvous,

carrying a miracle


in the inner lining of my pocket. So don't ask

why those kisses under the streetlamp,


borrowed moon, under the arms unable

to retreat from their suspension, permanent


in gift, don't ask why everything that followed

made me your mirror, shell, flame. I will tell you:


The sugar fell all the way to my ankles

and I had to eat.



Night Song


Spring; the air is October.

The night-swathed maples linger in mid-breeze


and everyone seems to be sleeping

or away.


and my belly, the whole middle of my body

swells, as when I carried you –


or later, like your body

as it passed into night.


I was your mother,

and night passed through me, into night.


No one can touch me.

No one can touch me.


Sarah Maclay and Julia Levine, who also won the '03 Tampa Prize, will celebrate the release of their new books at Poem.X on Friday, February 27, 2004 at 8 PM at Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade (at Wilshire) in Santa Monica. Admission is free.


By Terry Wolverton

Red Hen Press, 2003

In addition to the recently issued Embers, Terry Wolverton is the author of four published works: Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building, a memoir published in 2002 by City Lights Books; the novel Bailey’s Beads; and two volumes of poetry, Black Slip and Mystery Bruise.  Terry has taught creative writing for over 25 years and is a certified instructor of Kundalini Yoga.  She has lived in Los Angeles since 1976 and is the founder of Writers at Work, a center for creative writing in Los Angeles.

Reviewed by Carole Carp

Embers, a novel-in-poems by Terry Wolverton, is intimate, epic and cosmica juxtaposition that might have proven unwieldy in lesser hands.  Wolverton not only meets the challenge, she is its brave originator, seamlessly weaving three conceptual levels into this story of the rock-hard life of Marie Girard. 

In 1919, at the age of twelve, Marie is thrown into the streets, the consequence of her stepfather's abuse and her mother's indifference.  She learns how to earn her meager keep by selling sexual favors to "working men who trudged in, shift-weary, August caked into grime at their collars, butcher's blood or axle grease wedged under fingernails."  Marie has a son with a man to whom she is not married and a second son with another to whom she is.  Still, she leaves her husband for a third, Adolph, a man who "belonged to the world of daylight" and who brings the possibility of a more genteel life.  Abandoning her younger son to his father, excommunicated from the church and altogether too quickly reviled by Adolph for seducing him away from the soft, knee-bending life of a shoe salesman to the crusted, gritty work of construction, Marie's descent into madness is inexorable.  And we are pressed intimately against each stony step of her journey; privy, too, to the innermost thoughts of Marie's husbands, her three sons and, in Book II, her step-granddaughter, Terry.  

Yet as close as we are placed to these most personal moments, Embers is, as well, the story of the human condition, of a society in which every abuse, every degradation, can be visited upon a woman without a word of protest from that society, without the least offer of resource or recourse.  In that sense—in the sense that it transcends specific time and place, defining the human experience against a societal backdrop— it is definitively epic. 

Despite the cruelty and ultimate loneliness of her life, Marie is an inextricable part of the universe, neither alone nor disconnected.  Indeed, the cosmic in this story is multi-dimensional:  Marie is tied to both past and future.  We see her as she walks along Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

"Four million years ago

An ocean died, blood evaporated.

Salt is its bones, interred by glacier.

Marie saunters over those bones; they crunch

beneath her worn heels …. "

                                                (from “City of Salt”)

Even more monumental is the movement forward that comes with Wolverton's concept of present repairing past—that Terry, by putting Marie's story into the world, can repair the tattered lining of Marie's past.  This is a huge spiritual concept, and utterly moving.

"Who among the living might take up

her cause, unlatch the bolt on

limbo's heavy door?"

                                                (from “Legacy”)


As for Wolverton's poetry, it is both beautiful and brutal - just as all of life is both beautiful and brutal.   And Wolverton pulls no punches on either end of the spectrum—equally unafraid to be soft and lyrical as to be tough and coarse, as is displayed in this passage from “House Afire" where Marie has, in her madness, set fire to her own home:


"Here at last was warmth

enough to hold her

a thin vein of red

along the dim hallway

tendrils curling

orange and blue.


Faces spit from flames

and she grinned back

as curtains leapt

to lick the ceiling

glass panes burst

from their tidy frames."


Embers is a work resonating with the eternal, universal brutality and beauty of human life.

Carole Carp is a freelance writer, transplanted from New York City to L.A. in 1990.

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.



Reviewed by Christine Zembal


Self-Reflexivity Brought to Table


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


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.


 Reviewed by Gary Soto


A Review that Ends with “and …”


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.

Poet, please email me your review of a book of fiction, memoir, or poetry (including chapbooks). See guidelines below.


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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach