Versification: Chapbooks worth a read

Poetry sections are dusty these days. According to a study conducted by The Washington Post in 2015, more American adults have gone to jazz concerts, gone to classical music concerts, knitted, crocheted, woven, and attended theatre performances, than have read poetry.

The aim here is to change that and reaffirm that poetry is still a valid medium of understanding fellow humans and nature more broadly.

I’ll be reviewing two accomplished Kansas authors, one contemporary American poet, one naturalistic American classic, and an English translation of one of Japan’s most widely read poets.


“Fast-Food Sonnets” by Dennis Etzel Jr.


Etzel’s blank-verse sketches address the lives of those people who find themselves being paid next to nothing to whip up McMeals. Etzel himself once held a fast food job — climbing the dubious McDonald’s employment ladder. Drawing from that experience, Etzel introspects on the burger flipping life.

In “Buddy”, Etzel tells of a supervisor who was a petty criminal. The speaker remembers, “He loved the spotlight, dancing as he trained us on how to fry burgers. But he knew his fast life would outrun his fast food life.”

Etzel’s poems are humorously sympathetic to the blue-collar worker who understands the art of feigning productivity. “Fast-Food Sonnets” will make you laugh and question whether or not fry-cooks being paid $7.50 an hour isn’t somehow related to violent crime rates.


Find it here.


“Eliot’s Violin” by Kevin Rabas


Kansas Poet Laureate Kevin Rabas wrote that, upon witnessing his son’s birth, “He’ll grow, though and his hands/ will be in everything: marbles, rocks, trucks, blocks.”

This human curiosity is celebrated throughout “Eliot’s Violin.”

Rabas’s collection is abbreviated — just 36 poems in all. However, the book is packed with rumination on life’s possibilities and exploration of father-son dynamic.

Rabas anthropomorphizes the adamant — transforming the pitches of a violin played by his son to the voice of a plains wolf. “Eliot bows the violin, the stick/ across the instrument, a howl/ of rosin, horse hair, and metal string.”

In the same poem, the speaker equates the musical efforts of his young child with tangible, expressive power and oneness with worldly surroundings. “What he says is the wind,” Rabas concludes.


Find it here.


“The Cold and the Rust” by Emily Van Kley


In a contemporary Plathian method of aligning spiritual poverty with artistic prowess, Emily Van Kley cuts readers with the finely honed knife of verse.

In, “After Winter,” Van Kley observes a school of salmon — noting how their struggle mirrors that of a starving artist. “Better than any of us, they understand/ that to compose something beautiful,/ you must be very hungry”.

Van Kley’s words commentate on the difficulties of growing up poor, confused and hyper-observant.

Elsewhere, Van Kley’s poetry is filled with parallax. In “Ways to Hunt Deer,” Van Kley brings readers to terms with death by describing the ways in which we hunt prey. Some use a bow and arrow. Others sip beer in a tree stand. Others still hunt with the chrome front end of a Ford F-150. Van Kley poignantly reminds us of this. So too in reading her, you consider that the poorest of us might retain the most freedom and that the world oscillates despite the actions of man.


Find it here.


“Regarding Wave” by Gary Snyder


A known Buddhist scholar, intellectual, former forestry surveyor and environmentalist, Snyder provides readers of a poetry with an easily comprehended view of eastern philosophy as applied to that of American society. The book serves as excellent supplemental reading to the classics “Turtle Island,” which is often taught in modern American Literature classes.

Keeping with the theme of creative inspirado, Snyder too gives insight into the prerequisites of becoming a talented writer. In “What You Should Know to be a Poet,” Snyder prescribes that writers strive to learn:


“All you can about animals as persons/

The names of trees and flowers and weeds./

Names of stars, and the movements of the planets/

And the moon/.”


The poem climaxes with Snyder’s prime recommendation for creative inspiration. Snyder observes that one must learn to, “Love the human: wives, husbands and friends./ Children’s games, comic books and bubblegum.”


Find it here.


The selected poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa



The English translation might be hard to track down, but it’s worth it. The contained translations of Tanikawa’s work laugh at the straight-faced monotony that often comes with being a human in the technological age. In “Everyone,” Tanikawa balks at the prospect of depression. “Everyone possesses something unspeakable/ So without knowing what to say/ He possesses it all alone./ ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha/”.

Tanikawa’s ability to pinpoint fine details of nature and human emotion is frightening and sublime.


Find it here.