microreview & interview: Robin Carstensen’s In the Temple of Shining Mercy

carstensen chap
review by José Angel Araguz

Stray – Robin Carstensen

She came howling for food
on the porch in June — tufts
of gray-white hair sprung from her
birdlike strut — huffing a claim
for herself, as if she could
conjure the rain in this brown
drought-struck town, boarded up
houses marked Foreclosed.
On this small plot of land
I’d come back to save, books
in my heart with my name on them,
on these sun-baked planks
on this yellow-scabbed yard,
I’d watched her streak across
the street, tomcat tearing up
her dust. Her screech had stiffened
the humid night. She’d come
for three seasons, gulp my leftovers
beneath the red hibiscus, swish
her smoky plume of tail, brush
by me like a petal, be gone.
In early April, I found her
under the moonlight, her right eye
gouged and black-encrusted,
draining green as if the moon
had wept. Hard news struck
morning: the vet showed a pellet
lodged in her thin neck,
the entrance wound — her blown
eye. As I buried her that night,
children played in the yard
next door. Her milk had been dry.
The litter likely starved to death.
I couldn’t hear myself think
about them. Just the children’s
voices scratching the hot air,
loud and bored, my turn, my turn,
bouncing on the trampoline,
their big, thin skulls bobbing
on their string-bean bodies
soon to be loose on the planet,
roaming beneath the faint
moon bearing earthshine.


One of the things that immediately struck me about the poems in Robin Carstensen’s chapbook In the Temple of Shining Mercy, is the way poetic language is placed at the service of empathy. In “Stray,” for example, the speaker meditates on the final days of a stray cat whose life is cut short due to an act of violence. The speaker’s tone throughout conveys a sober wistfulness, able to lay out the details in a direct manner. The phrasing of “as if she could / conjure the rain in this brown / drought-struck town” both paints a picture of the speaker’s surroundings but also implies a certain hope.

This dual turn of imagery and phrasing occurs again at the end of the poem in the imagery of children on a trampoline. As a pellet was found to be the cause of the stray’s death, there’s a slight implication the cat was shot by neighborhood kids. This implication is furthered by the phrasing of “their big, thin skulls bobbing / on their string-bean bodies / soon to be loose on the planet.” The use of the word “loose” is crucial here: there is the loosing of the possible threat the children could grow up to be, but also the loosing from the safety of home and childhood, of children growing up and becoming strays themselves “roaming beneath the faint / moon bearing earthshine.” The poem ultimately empathizes with the speaker’s understanding of mortality, that all — stray cat, children, and self — are loosed awaiting their mortal “turn.”

Throughout the chapbook, Carstensen shows herself as able to lift everyday experience and evoke a bit of the mystery beyond it. From a magazine advertisement imploring the would-be consumer to “Explore This,” to a game of poker, the range of material Carstensen writes about is given the same multivalent empathy and consideration, each subject seen for what they are and what they mean and might mean. In this work, the poet is less mystic and more like the envisioned gardener of “The Master” (below). In this poem, the speaker describes growing a “garden in my next life” where:

My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves.

Instead of this human interrogation, the speaker’s imagined neighbor will:

offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun. 

This exchange of one kind of wisdom is rich with meaning, namely that of moving through the world in a way that helps others become themselves. Part of that work seems to be learning how to approach things (aim for the roots) or seeing them for how they work. The purpose of this work and consideration is evident in a final scene between the neighbor and the speaker:

Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.

The phrasing of this “no small occasion” reflects the lessons learned from this “master.” Being able to show consideration and empathy for other beings can teach one how to be considerate to one’s self. Yet, the poem is masterful in its own right in that it avoids speaking in the high terms I speak of it; that is to say, in handling the narrative through direct details, the poem develops such meanings subtly, so that both reader and speaker simultaneously experience the revelation of seeing the “tender things” before them in a clear light.

The Master – Robin Carstensen

I want to grow a garden in my next life
and watch a spotted toad beneath the rain.
My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves. Nor will she
insinuate how on Earth do I not know
how to trim a rosebush. She’ll know
I’ve learned perfectly well how to ask
such questions of myself. Behind her
fence, she’ll offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun.
My neighbor won’t ask me over for tea,
so I will never be late or anxious
about presentation. She won’t press
her weight over the fence or plant
herself in my yard inch by inch, tell me
wistful stories of sons who never call
or of poor souls besodden, stricken down.
I won’t tell her how I blew it again at work,
let someone get my goat. All that meditation,
awareness of ego, and for what? I won’t
tell her how I try to wean it, though it keeps
me up at night, how I’ve been too kind
or not kind enough, how much I know
about a womb and the way it can embody
hollowness, the way it echoes fears, mothers’
and daughters’ fears and envies and more fears.
My neighbor will observe these shadows
and leave them wordlessly to ebb and flow.
We’ll revel in the lizard, the red-tailed
hawk, the pink-fleshed mice they both devour,
and my face lit up upon the green shoot
in my garden, my first seed come to light.
Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.


Robin.Nov.2016.Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them? What do you feel poetry can do/be?

Robin Carstensen: Restraint  is one of my biggest challenges. It took many years reading, studying, and practicing poetry’s craft to learn this fine art of suspension and release. For this, I’m grateful for my graduate experience with such teachers as Lisa Lewis and the late Ai. While I needed encouragement and validation, I also needed someone willing to tell me to hold back, to work harder at precision and clarity as I ventured with the reader into uncharted territory. My early drafts are often journal entries over-steeped in the sensory, emotional world. I work to chisel the poem down to the sharpest, most resounding images and sounds. I want to cut but not drown the reader or myself. I’m thinking of my poem, “Stray,” for example, my outrage at the violence perpetrated against a neighborhood cat. The challenge in this and so many poems was to express the outrage, to question unnecessary violence, to discover its connection to all of human violence, without the overbearing polemics or the sermonizing that surely makes the reader run for the hills.

I enjoy the long adventure, the slow promenade. Perhaps this mirrors how I move my body in my daily life—I hate to rush. The challenge for me in life as in the poem is to bring the reader along with me, to hold steady at my pace and length, to trust we’ll arrive somewhere, if not spectacular and breathless, perhaps intriguing or quietly special. I discovered help and pleasure in received forms and the innovation of form in containing and shaping ambling, cumbersome drafts.  In particular, the incantatory ghazal and villanelle as well as the sonnet’s iambic beats help me hold the reader in a mutual descent or ascent into terror, ecstasy, meditation and all the valleys and rivers between. The question remains: How can I keep the reader with me—my companion, my lover, and my friend—as we reach into human violence, loneliness, or the depths of eros and love? The first reader, friend, lover is myself, and if I can be very still and honest with myself, the poem might expand to invite others to hold the tension with me. In the stillness, the imagery, sound, and form radiate and bubble forth.

Like James Baldwin in his writing habits, I found the stillness for writing most of these poems long after everyone else had gone to bed. Whether living alone or with someone, I mean a kind of quiet when the world and all our clamoring subsides. In her dialogue with Jane Hirschfeld and Juan Filipe Herrera on the “Poet’s Civic Responsibility,” Naomi Shihab Nye refers to this “muchness” we are all experiencing. We’re living among heightened, intersecting tensions locally and globally, as well as increased demands personally and professionally. While technology and social media offer more avenues to connect, imagine, and share, we are inundated with stimuli, information, private lives overshared and overexposed. Writing and reading a poem is an opportunity to bring us into stillness and the depths of feeling, thought, connection we hunger for. It’s one of my greatest challenges and pleasures to write poetry that reaches for this depth and for the impossible beauty between mystery and revelation.


Special thanks to Robin Carstensen for participating! To find out more about Carstensen check out this announcement by Iron Horse Literary Review. In the Temple of Shining Mercy can be purchased from IHLR here.

watching with joe wilkins

One of the things poetry is able to do is help reflect the minor shifts in life after something major happens. After the election this past November, for example, I joined many others in shifting the things we paid attention to. Whether it was checking the news more regularly or vetting clear, accurate news sources, or simply noting how I am no longer able to laugh at satirists while the political climate shambles on, I find myself  not exactly jaded but rather more aware and, thus, more watchful.

This spirit of watchfulness pervades this week’s poem “Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage” by Joe Wilkins, from his collection When We Were Birds. Within an address to an unborn son, Wilkins’ speaker is able to navigate the territory of job loss and its effect on lives in an intimate and direct manner. As the speaker centers a meditation on courage around the image of a family walking at evening, the poem makes a case for presence: presence as resistance, presence against the odds.

pexels-photo-249392“Watch the world, child, / it will teach you,” says the speaker, and in saying so within the conceit of this “note,” the speaker becomes part of the world to be watched. The final image of breath mirrors other things that pass (factories, time), and ends the poem on a note of human vulnerability in which the speaker’s own watching teaches him.


Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage
Joe Wilkins

Oh, now they have closed the factory.
We do not work at the factory,
so we are lucky,

which means we do not have to be brave.
It is no good having to be brave
all the time. You’ll see. I see

those ones who do. In the evenings
they walk their snuffling mutt,
smoke slowly their cigarettes.

Watch the world, child,
it will teach you. See, this is courage —
how he sets his steak-thick hand

to the small of her back,
how she bends and itches the ears
of that lucky, goddumb dog,

the way they breathe and their very breaths —
smoky, full of evening’s coming freeze —
seem to big for them to breathe.


Happy watching!


new work & review online!

The recent busyness of my move back to Oregon have delayed my sharing a number of recent online publications.

First up is the latest issue of Failed Haiku which features four of my senryu as well as illuminating work by Alexis Rotella, Lori A. Minor, Chen-ou Liu, and Terri L. French. Check out the issue here!

Special thanks to Mike Rehling for including my work and fostering such a great community of artists!


Next up is my poem “Depredadores en sombra” featured as part of Círculo de Poesía’s project #POESÍACONTRAELMURO / #POETRYVSTHEWALL / #POÉSIEVSMUR: POETAS DEL MUNDO, CUARTA PARTE.

I’m proud to have my first published poem in Spanish be part of this important project.


Lastly, I am happy to announce that I have signed on to be a regular reviewer for The Bind, a review site devoted to presenting creative reviews of poetry books by women and nonbinary authors.

Here is my review of Debora Kuan’s Lunch Portraits (Brooklyn Arts Press).


20170514_174144-1And lastly, just a quick reminder that my new book of poems, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press), is available for purchase!

This collection features my poem “Alien” originally published in Crab Creek Review.

See you Friday!



rioing with roberto carcache flores

maps coverIn my microreview & interview of Roberto Carcache Flores’ A Condensation of Maps, I noted how Flores has a knack for working up images that connect on both a conceptual and emotional level. In this week’s poem, “Friends in Rio Sapo,” we see the gradual build up of details and images culminate in a moment of quiet revelation.

The title sets up a moment of connection along “Toad River,” a phrase which is engaged immediately through the image of “passing clouds” looking “like white lily pads / in a heated / swimming pool.” This latter detail is jolting, as it implies a human element amidst an otherwise nature-focused poem. This jarring moment, however, serves to push the reader closer into the other details. As we move from cliff, albatross, mango groves, and stray dogs, just who the “friends” of the title are become apparent.

This coming together of elements continues in the second stanza as the speaker’s communion with Rio Sapo mirrors the arrival of “stray dogs.” At its heart, this poem reveals such communion as one of its gifts. I say gifts because of the third stanza’s subtle tumbling of details. Line by line, the third stanza evokes in words a similar spell as cast by what it describes. Between the sounds (undress, night’s, silence, innocence on one end; croaks, bank on the other) and the imagery presented, this last stanza reveals not the speaker’s thought but their experience before the reader.


Friends in Rio Sapo – Roberto Carcache Flores

The passing clouds
are reflected on
the water’s surface,
like white lily pads
in a heated
swimming pool,
my feet feel
the rocky cliff’s
an albatross
glides through
mango groves.

The opening
of a tuna can
and a bag of raisins
gathers some
stray dogs
around me,
their noses
grown tired
of corn meal
and the occasional
drum stick.

The frogs
begin to undress
the night’s
with the
of their
early croaks,
all along
the moonlit
river bank.


20170514_174144-1I’m also happy to share that I have received my copies of my new book Small Fires (FutureCycle Press)!

If you’re interested in purchasing a signed copy, feel free to email me at: thefridayinfluence@gmail.com

Copies can also be purchased from Amazon and FutureCycle Press!

This collection includes my poem “El Rio” originally published in Crab Creek Review.


Happy rioing!


microreview & interview: Roberto Carcache Flores’ A Condensation of Maps

maps coverreview by José Angel Araguz

Treatment – Roberto Carcache Flores

If I could
I’d be your
smooth jazz
the morning,
one eye
on the clock,
another in
your folder.

I’d browse
all those cries
you scribbled
using watercolors
while waiting
for a ring,
to usher
you inside.

My hands
would shake
in yours
like swarms
of moths
around a
lamp shade
until you
grab a seat,
and look me
in the eye.


Reading through A Condensation of Maps (Dink Press), I found myself again and again impressed by a poetic sensibility capable of creating images that evoke physical and conceptual movement. In the above poem, this work is set up by the narrative implied in the title, “Treatment.” The speaker develops a brief hypothetical scene, the short lines driving home the intimacy of the address. While the first two stanzas navigate the title’s conceit strictly, speaking in the literacy of the therapist’s office, it is the third stanza’s turn that brings all this metaphor work to a human level. As the speaker’s hands shake in the you’s “like swarms / of moths / around a / lamp shade,” there is a double immediacy evoked, that of hands in hands, but also that of a dire need for direction. This need is implied in the moth imagery, and presents both the speaker and the you as driven by seeking. The empathy here is palpable.

Similar moments of visceral imagery happens throughout the chapbook. The first stanza of “The Fordham Sentinel,” for example, delivers a line by line revelation, one that develops and suggests itself as the six lines move:

Have you checked your bed
for all your fallen pens?
Did the blue stains
on your sheets
leave bite marks
the following morning?

The result is a compelling and unsettling synesthesia: as a reader, I am drawn into the narrative of “fallen pens” and “blue stains,” only to be startled by the implications of “bite marks.” When these elements come together, this stanza does the work of a surrealistic tanka, presenting a personal and immediate meditation.

In “Borders Left Behind,” Flores’ particular brew of imagery and lyric sensibility come to bear on the political. Here, the use of the word “borders” carries special significance. For a poet from El Salvador writing in English, each poem is an act of navigating borders of expression and sensibility. These undertones course through the poem, charging the meditation of the first stanza with an objectivity that is quickly subverted into the intimacy of the second stanza. The political becomes personal in a moment full of human risk and need for understanding.

Borders Left Behind – Roberto Carcache Flores

a black seal
on a feather
every time
an eagle soars
too far from
its nest
or questioning
a vulture’s
motives for its
incessant travel.

The only borders
we should cross
lie across
the eyes
of two
even as
we travel
on this bus,
your head
on my shoulder.


bookscoffee-2Influence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationship/history with the short lyric?

Roberto Carcache Flores: The collection is ordered somewhat chronologically. The first poems represent my earlier work. Initially I think my approach was much more ambitious. I often tried capturing the essence of places and even bits of history. This is especially true for my “El Salvador” poems, which attempt through longer verses to convey my impressions of different places in my home country.  I still look back at these poems fondly, but with reservation.

Later on, I tried to focus on shorter verses and poems in general. Hence, the collection ends with works that only contain a couple of verses and very little sort of context.  I think my goal now is to merely replicate a specific sensation or thought, trying to say more with less. It can be something like a type of sigh or the meaning of a certain smile.  For better or worse, I now find myself aiming for poetry that is less expressive and more definitive.

IQ: What writers/forms have influenced your sense of sentence, phrasing, and brevity?

RCF: Two specific poems come to mind, since the list of writers who have influenced me is all over the place. The first is a very short poem by Roque Dalton titled “Miedo” or “Fear”, dedicated to Julio Cortázar. The poem says “Un ángel solitario en la punta del alfiler oye que alguien orina.”.  The translated version goes something like: A solitary angel on the needle tip hears that someone is pissing. I believe Dalton wrote this poem while being a political prisoner. Either way, it has haunted me since the first time I read it and completely changed my views on how poetry should work.

I stumbled upon the second poem more recently. It’s an odd sort of poem by Robert Walser titled “Little flowers stand in the field”. The poem involves Walser walking through lovely gardens, drinking coffee, and eating jam and butter. Like most of Walser’s work however, the lightness of these verses foreshadow a precipice, a deeper insight into the fleetingness of these sensations. The final stanza of the poem brings everything back to its essence: “Earth is a house with passageways / and rooms where you abide, / it is the storm and stress in it / that hurry me outside.”


Special thanks to Roberto Carcache Flores for participating! To find out more about Flores’ work, check out his siteA Condensation of Maps can be purchased from Dink Press.

earing with charles simic

Happy to report that things are moving along with the, uhm, move to McMinnville. We’re situated in a new home and are piecing together who we are from what we have been — which is to say that all our stuff is here, but not fully organized.

Zenith_pocket_watch_insideAs time has been slipping past me during this move, I thought it only suiting to share this week’s poem by Charles Simic. I continue to admire Simic’s knack for images that read with a riddle-like thrill. The subtlety with which one image suggests the next, until we’re left at the “lip” of the poem’s ending is the work of imaginative intuition. Both poet and reader listen with the same “ear” throughout.

Watch Repair – Charles Simic

A small wheel
Shivering like
A pinned butterfly.

Hands thrown up
In all directions:
The crossroads
One arrives at
In a nightmare.

Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.

Other wheels
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.

That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.

Tiny golden mills
Grinding invisible
Coffee beans.

When the coffee’s boiling
So it doesn’t burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest


Screenshot_2017-05-01-14-54-28-2A quick note of thanks for those of you who have helped welcome my new book, Small Firesinto the world. Copies can still be found via FutureCycle Press and Amazon. I’m really proud of this collection!

Happy earing!


rain & memory via claribel alegria

Screenshot_2017-05-01-14-54-28-2This week brought the release of my new poetry collection, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press), which includes the poem “Cazar Means to Hunt Not to Marry” originally published in december magazine. This particular poems travels through a series of memories on the back of two words that sound the same but are spelled different. Language as an experience beyond us acting within us, that’s where I try to go in poems.

I see memory working in a similar way as this in this week’s poem “Rain” by Claribel Alegría. Memory wends its way through rain and stones, until it overwhelms the speaker. By the end, memory becomes a means, something happening within the speaker through which they can love the world “without knowing why.”



Rain – Claribel Alegria
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

As the falling rain
trickles among the stones
memories come bubbling out.
It’s as if the rain
had pierced my temples.
streaming chaotically
come memories:
the reedy voice
of the servant
telling me tales
of ghosts.
They sat beside me
the ghosts
and the bed creaked
that purple-dark afternoon
when I learned you were leaving forever,
a gleaming pebble
from constant rubbing
becomes a comet.
Rain is falling
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
a voracious
but I keep loving it
because I do
because of my five senses
because of my amazement
because every morning,
because forever, I have loved it
without knowing why.


Happy raining!


P.S. Copies of Small Fires can be purchased from Amazon and FutureCycle Press.

Small Fires is here!!!


I’m happy to announce the release of my new book of poetry, Small Fires, available now from FutureCycle Press and Amazon!!!

This collection includes my poem “Blade” which won an Academy of American Poets Graduate Poetry Prize selected by Carl Phillips.

Be sure to check out the book and stay tuned for the availability of signed copies later in the month. Also, let me know if you are interested in a review copy.

Special thanks to Diane Kistner and the good folks at FutureCycle Press for giving this project a home! Thanks also to Andrea Schreiber for the cover artwork.

More news to come later this week!