Author Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

About Robin Helweg-Larsen

Director, Andromeda Simulations International, Bahamas: a global education company providing online and in-person workshops in business finance. Series Editor, Sampson Low's 'Potcake Chapbooks'. Formal verse about traveling, family, love, etc...

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brooke Clark, ‘At a Child’s Funeral’

Today we give to the earth the body of our little girl,
our little darling; we’ll never watch her twirl
around the house again in her impenetrable games
or listen as she wheedles and whines our names
in that annoying tone we tried to break her of before;
now we’d give anything to hear it once more.
She’ll find whatever waits for all of us when this life ends–
eternal silence or the souls of friends–
while, left behind, we bow our heads to see what prayers can do.
Lie lightly, earth–she stepped so lightly on you.

*****

Brooke Clark writes: “‘At A Child’s Funeral‘ is loosely adapted from one of Martial’s epigrams. This poem interested me because it’s quite a departure from Martial’s usual satirical style. In it, he attempts to convey a genuinely tender emotion, which is well outside his usual register of scorn verging on disgust. That made it a departure for me too, and I struggled to get the tone right — emotional without being mawkish. I hope I succeeded! In terms of form, it’s in rhyme, and uses alternating 7-stress and 5-stress lines in imitation of Martial’s elegiac couplets.”

Brooke Clark is the author of the poetry collection Urbanities, the editor of the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus and the book reviews editor at Able Muse. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark

Photo: “Filipino child funeral” by Ted Abbott is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Styx’

Black waters,
deep and dark and still…
all men have passed this way,
or will.

*****

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original epigram, written in my teens, returns more than 6,000 results. I started writing poetry around age 13 and decided that I wanted to challenge the immortals around age 15. I was always very ambitious about my writing. When I couldn’t out-write Keats and Shelley at age 15, I destroyed everything I had written in a fit of pique. I was able to reconstruct some of the poems from memory, but not all. I still miss a few of the poems that seemed promising which have not cooperated with being resurrected.”

Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two outrageously spoiled puppies. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, epigrams, quotes, puns, jokes and letters have appeared more than 7,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper, and, according to Google’s rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Darfur, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. Burch’s poetry has been taught in high schools and universities, translated into fifteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, set to music by twenty composers, recited or otherwise employed in more than forty YouTube videos, and used to provide book titles to two other authors. To read the best poems of Mike Burch in his own opinion, with his comments, please click here: Michael R. Burch Best Poems.

Photo: “Styx” by wilding.andrew is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Review: A.E. Stallings, ‘Like’

‘Like’ is the fourth volume of poetry from A.E. Stallings, the best poet that I know of who is writing in English today. The themes in ‘Like’ are the same as in her earlier collections: American childhood, Greek adulthood, children, memory, local wildlife, Greek mythology… and concern for the abused, whether women in the patriarchy or refugees in the Mediterranean. There is a difference of organization, though: instead of four or five different sections, ‘Like’ lumps all the poems together and arranges them alphabetically by title; the result is a smooth, wide-ranging read.

Stallings has a superb mastery of form, and plays endless tricks with it. Start on ‘Battle of Plataea: Aftermath’ and the apparent prose in 11 lines when read alertly turns out to be a rhymed sonnet in iambic pentameter. Or take the eponymous ‘Like, the Sestina’ which uses the word “like” as the rhyme for every one of the requisite 39 lines plus 3 mid-line rhymes (with such variations as “unlike”, “dislike”, “look-alike”). See how the most substantial poem, ‘Lost and Found’, carries its rambling dream-and-memory dissertation on for 36 stanzas of ottava rima in iambic pentameter, whereas the shorter and more time-sensitive ‘Swallows’ uses 6 stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Her ‘Refugee Fugue’ attacks the unmanageable and unimaginable horrors of the desperate and drowned through a blues poem, a host of epigrams, a found poem – an appropriately confused assemblage of forms for a situation not amenable to coherent resolution.

But forget the technicalities! The beauty is in the easy music of her verse, the casual wordplay as with the doorbell that
Portended importunity from Porlock,
the throwaway etymological observations as of nighttime thoughts:
To consider means to contemplate the stars,
the poem on a ‘Pencil’ that ends
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter,
the playfulness of ‘Night Thoughts’ that begins
Night thoughts are not like bats
and then goes on to describe the flight of bats in extended lyrical detail, before finally ending with how night thoughts are different…
And always the underlying awareness of thousands of years of history, showing through in the description of sky, contemporary but ancient, as
the contrailed palimpsest of blue.

And that leads me to my only regrets about Stallings’ verse: too much Greek literature with which I’m barely familiar. I’m not saying it’s a failing on her part, it’s merely a regret on my part that I can’t keep up. Although I would love to come across work by her with Norse themes…

But I will settle for what she offers: a very wide range. She can be very succinct as with ‘Paradox’:
Of the ones that happened to die, the little ones and the old,
Of hypothermia, or drowning, all died of cold.

Equally, she can be extensive and thorough in her exploration of a theme as with ‘Lost and Found’, where she is wandering through a dream of mountainous moonscapes, landfill landscapes, of things lost – toys, gloves, loves, baby teeth, time, opportunities, keys, coins – led by Mnemosyne, Memory herself, the mother of all the muses. The smooth formal stanzas of ottava rima, maintained steadily for 288 lines, provide the same meditative state as the 250 lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’ or Edward FitzGerald’s even longer ‘Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam’.

My personal favorite in ‘Like‘ is her semi-formal ‘Crow, Gentleman’ (whose title I am guessing was changed from the original ‘Gentleman Crow’ to prevent it from coming between two poems in ‘Like’ addressed to her daughter). It begins:
Pacing to and fro
Along the autumn shore
Among the wrack and reek

With your arms clasped behind your back
And sporting your grey frock coat
Trimmed in black

And your black hat and your lean long-legged stride,
Up and down the strand perusing
The headlines of the tide:

and ends:
Life is a joke you crack,
Wry and amusing,
And death a dainty snack.

I find Stallings’ work altogether delightful: by turns sardonic, detached, passionate, compassionate, always observing carefully, always expressing wittily, always in masterful control of rhythm and rhyme. I repeat: I don’t know of a better poet writing in English today.

Sonnet: ‘Zombies and Wolves’

Women I’ve failed or wronged or left behind
Approach my thoughts like zombies for the kill;
I’ve literary walled defences – still,
Given the chance, they’ll eat my brains, my mind.
Through forest, orchard, farmyard in decay,
A shadow of a wolf slips greyly in,
My thoughts of death, grim, wasted, ill, rib-thin,
Tracking my weak resolve, hungry to slay.

Mountaintops blown apart, forests clear-cut,
Where’s there to hide? Nature doesn’t exist;
Her landscapes crushed in patriarchal fist.
This former farmland hides my ruined hut.
Impotent, I still write, thus giving birth
To future wolves and zombies of the earth.

*****

What on earth triggered this sonnet 15 years ago? I have no idea. What’s it really about? Well, it seems the volta between the octave and the sestet moves the narrative from purely personal regrets to our current planetary destruction. More than that, I can’t say. Your suggestions are welcome!

Anyway, the poem was published in that now-defunct British beacon of formal verse, Candelabrum.

Photo: “Wolves in Action” by iam_photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.Copy text

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘On Johnson’s Creek’

Mid 80’s, late Wisconsin summer day.
You’re male; just one of many crayfish lured
Innately to this shallow, turbid creek.
July’s sweet warmth assures you that you’ll not
Find only sanctuary, but a mate.
And at a human hand-span’s length from tail

To telson, you’re a splendid prospect: tail
Aloft and eyestalks staunch, you greet the day.
With fierce claws brandished, you await your mate
In burrow’s dark. And nothing could have lured
You from your would-be breeding quarters – not
Until a stealthy stick from o’er the creek

Despoils your warren’s sanctity. The creek,
In tacit bounty, spurs your nerve. Your tail
Aflutter, claws outstretched, you’re not
Alarmed – you clamp the twig and seize the day.
But then the surreptitious branch that lured
You wrests you from the stream, reveals its mate

Above – a boy who thwarts your quest for mate.
His form obstructs the sun and dwarfs the creek
Below the wooden pier. It seems he’s lured
You here for idle sport; he grips your tail
And flings you hard against the planks. While day
Retreats, light’s sudden ebb arises not

From cosmic cause. The sneering boy (who’s not
Alone – a girl shrinks near her preening mate)
Uplifts his foot and renders blissful day
Brutality. Impassively, the creek
Laps on. Your once resplendent olive tail
Is tattered, shattered by the boy who lured

You, crushed your stately carapace. Though lured
From neural ruination’s throes, you’re not
Yet blind; you see his female friend turn tail.
And I, the girl that boy deems doting mate,
For whom you’re executed by the creek –
I know what cruel conceit is that day.

From where once lured, you sink, potential mate
Undone. Not waiting, brethren flee the creek,
Tails undulating. Silence veils the day.

*****

Mindy Watson writes: “‘On Johnson’s Creek’ represents not only one of my earliest published poems, but also my first-ever sestina attempt. Even three decades later, the poem’s instigating tragedy—an ill-starred crustacean’s senseless slaughter—so profoundly disturbed me, that I chose the most convoluted, challenging form I’d known (at that point) to narrate from the dwindling victim’s (second person) point of view. Although my own human projections—predicated upon the Northern Wisconsin climate, incident’s time of year, and region’s most statistically plentiful crayfish species—dictated the crayfish’s depicted age, gender, and objectives; the poem’s auxiliary characters’ (the boy=my older step-cousin; the girl=10-year-old me) motivations and ensuing impressions were pointedly accurate. While I’ve since drafted/published two subsequent sestinas, I still believe the form’s almost fanatical repetition, intricate transpositions, and final unifying envoi best suit this tale-in-verse; which aimed to equate a single creature’s unwitting suffering with humanity’s often capricious cruelty. Two end notes: 1) this sestina preceded/inspired ‘The Maligned Majority,’ a pro-arthropod, non-fiction essay that appeared in Willows Wept Review’s Summer 2020 issue; and 2) while I’m told my childhood step-cousin later married (twice) and still resides/works near Johnson Creek…I haven’t directly spoken to him since that fateful day.”

Mindy Watson is a Washington DC-based formal verse poet who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from the John Hopkins University. Her poems have appeared in venues including Autumn Sky Poetry, Eastern Structures, the Poetry Porch, the Potcake Chapbooks, the Quarterday Review, Snakeskin, Star*Line, Think Journal, and many others. Read her work at: https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite

‘On Johnson’s Creek’ originally appeared in Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Jan. 30, 2017

Short poem: ‘Into the Cryonics Dewar’

We had no destination ever, from birth,
save into the ultimate ocean, or ultimate fire, or ultimate earth.
Now we have not quite so ultimate ice.
For now, it will have to suffice.

The chance of reanimation from cryonic suspension may be small, but still greater than the chance of reanimation after cremation or burial in land or at sea. And I guess we now have a fifth option – ending up off-planet, adrift in space. But in effect that will be a variant on “not-quite-so-ultimate ice”. In space you’d end up near Absolute Zero, as with cryonics – but whereas with cryonics there is the miniscule hope of eventual reanimation, in space your ultimate fate would be that of all space debris: drifting for millions of years until burning up into a star or planet, or getting sucked into a black hole.

Life, death, quite fascinating. Not many options for changing the outcome, though various billionaires are throwing some of their money at the search for immortality, as people have done since at least the time of the pharaohs and early Chinese emperors. And why not? think it’s “just science fiction”? For thousands of years we used to dream we could fly to the moon, and that happened eventually…

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin #274, July 2020. Thanks, George Simmers!

Photo: cryonics.org

Resources: Light poetry magazine

Light‘ has just published its winter/spring 2022 issue… perhaps a little late, but it still has snow on the cover. Originally founded in 1992 by John Mella as the print magazine Light Quarterly with the mission to “restore humor, clarity, and pleasure to the reading of poems”, it is now biannual. It moved online in 2013, and all issues since then can be read for free on its website, along with excerpts from print issues dating back to 1999. Under current editor Melissa Balmain and her staff of fellow volunteers, it remains the oldest and best-known journal of light verse in the U.S.

I used to think of magazines as purely ephemeral, things to be skimmed and discarded unless a page or photo was worth retaining by tearing out physically or saving online. Light, however, has made me pay attention to how many resources are made available through a well-managed publication. In this case you get the following:
1. The magazine – some 50 poets with one or several pieces each – a great way to be exposed to, and kept up to date on, the range of light formal verse being produced in the English-speaking world today;
2. and more extensive work by, and coverage of, a featured poet – someone with a strong track record, worth learning about their work and career;
3. and (sometimes) an additional light-verse-related feature or essay;
4. and (always) reviews of light-verse books, and/or books that at least have a large helping of comic poetry – and I’m happy to say that the Potcake Chapbooks are again mentioned this issue!
5. and general news: the News page carries info on: 1- events of interest to Light poets (i.e., readings, workshops, and so forth involving light verse and/or Light poets); 2- contests and submission calls friendly to comic poets; 3- awards and honors received by Light contributors and volunteers; 4- books and, occasionally, music by Light poets. **NOTE: Poets and editors are encouraged to email editor Melissa Balmain with info appropriate for the News page: lightpoetrymagazine@gmail.com
6. and the magazine even runs light-verse events! Recordings of its “Light Verse in Dark Times” Zoom series are on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-tR4v4H23BUg5ZDUJlU7fA. In pre-Covid days, Light hosted live readings in Washington, DC, and at the AWP conference in San Antonio, TX. Its first live event in two years will be a reading in honor of Light’s 30th anniversary, May 26 (next week!) at the Poetry by the Sea conference in Madison, CT;
7. and the current-events Poems of the Week (POTW), a mailing list you can join (or find on the Light website’s Home Page) for a weekly blast of 10-12 snappy, snippy comments on the absurdities and iniquities of the world.

So, more than just being a skimmable and disposable magazine, Light provides a doorway to an extensive community, with each issue providing the work of dozens of current poets, and opportunities to go deeper into the world of formal light verse either online or in person, and to be engaged with it actively or passively, weekly, twice-yearly, or as you feel like.

Of course Light also provides an opportunity for a poet to submit their own work: just read an issue or two, and go to https://lightpoetrymagazine.submittable.com/submit to get the details on how (and what) to submit to either the magazine or the POTW.

And for those who think this is the most worthy (free) enterprise they have run across in a long while, their donation page is here: https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/donate/)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: James B. Nicola, ‘Everybody’s Friendly, Just About…’

On my floor there lives a very nice old
man. Foreign. He’s going blind.
I don’t think he was necessarily an act-
or but a vestigial life percolates up from beneath
the lines in his face and accent. Lately, reaching
out to him has become exhausting. He’s too friendly

now and thrusts his face too close. . . . I was friendly
when I moved in the building. I thought old
meant interesting. Besides, singles are always reaching
out somehow, even when we appear blind
to the personalities and plights that lie beneath
the surface of a stranger’s smile, that casual act

on the elevator where everyone’s an act-
or in some way. Alas, I lack the stamina to feel friendly
always. . . . One time I was standing beneath
the shower in the health club, and another old
man poked his head in. The steam must have blind-
ed him to the soapy mess in my hair. He was just reaching

for whomever he could find for help. What’s wrong with reaching
out when you need help? He had been a famous act-
or, probably used to bothering others. I almost blurted, “Are you blind
or what?! I’m showering!” I felt unfriendly—
then hypocritical, for I knew the showers were old.
After I got his to work, I heard him singing beneath

the nozzle and the steam. Tone deaf. Of course beneath
it all, I was just cranky about his not reaching
out to some paid employee instead of me. Was I getting old
all of a sudden? Old and irritable. O, why resent act-
ing friendly simply because you don’t feel particularly friendly? . . .
Sometimes in the elevator, I’ll read. The book or magazine’s a blind,

but is it hypocrisy? I wonder. Then, when a certifiably blind
person gets on—with a walking stick—the person lying beneath
my literary subterfuge looks up, and, actually feeling friendly,
says hello, implying I could provide some assistance in reaching
a floor if so desired. No, this is not an act:
When they don’t ask for help, I don’t feel cranky or old.

When they do, rudely, I fear I’m going blind, reaching
out to souls beneath loud showers, trying too hard to act
friendly always, and turning prematurely old.

James B. Nicola writes: “If anyone cares to perform ‘Everyone’s Friendly, Just about….,’ you can either enhance the repeated end-of-line words (slightly), or try to ‘enjamb’ through them. In this way, you may notice it exploits the sestina form to serve as a bridge between the ‘poetic/special/heightened’ and the ‘conversational/ quotidien/ casual.’ The balance, or tension, between the two is a concern we have in the theater as well, with the actor’s craft. More than once have I coached an actor with: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone catch you acting!” The poem is the first sestina of mine ever published. It is from my first poetry collection, Manhattan Plaza.”

James B. Nicola has authored six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. Decades of theater work culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. Residence: New York City; born: Worcester, Massachusetts.
https://sites.google.com/view/james-b-nicola

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Cody Walker, ‘Mad System Down’

He thought he saw a Herd of Cattle
Grazing on his lawn:
He looked again, and found it was
A Phaser set to “On.”
“We’re seeing more and more of this,
With Sarah Brady gone.”

He thought he saw a One-Eyed Jack
Go grizzling through the night:
He looked again, and found it was
His Dream of Being Right.
“It turns out not to mean a thing,”
He texted Barry White.

He thought he saw a High-school Hoodlum
Trash his Neighbor’s Yard:
He looked again, and found it was—
Just say it, man. “It’s hard.
I saw my life, reviewed by God.
He had it single-starred.”

He thought he saw Roberta Vinci
Execute a volley:
He looked again, and found it was
A randy Shepherd (prolly).
“I’d live with him, and be his love—
But no, I’ve read my Raleigh.”

He thought he saw his Country’s Fortunes
Crumble—wait a minute:
He looked again, and found there was
Another way to spin it.
“In eighty years we’ll be cadavers.
Kinda funny, innit?”

He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck:
He looked again, and found it was
Umm . . . nothing. Wait a sec.
He thought he saw a Panicked Face
Upon a Panicked Neck.

Cody Walker writes: “I’ve been writing in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza form for a couple of decades. The form ferries me to some of my favorite destinations: the Land of Rhyme, the Land of Associative Logic. Though I don’t think I’ll ever outdo Carroll in terms of quality (the start of his final stanza—’He thought he saw an Argument / That proved he was the Pope: / He looked again, and found it was / A Bar of Mottled Soap’—strikes me as unimprovable), I have outdone him in terms of quantity (he wrote nine stanzas; I’ve written about 375). I’ve also, more and more, tried to shake the form free from its light-verse origins. Can a form as seemingly weightless as the ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ stanza take on cancer, Alzheimer’s, school shootings, and (see above) debilitating anxiety? I think it can. But I may need another couple of decades to fully test the hypothesis.

“I’ve read ‘Mad System Down’ for the University of Michigan’s Poetry Blast series, and I’ve written about the form for Poetry Northwest and the Kenyon Review’s blog. Four of the six stanzas in ‘Mad System Down’ originally appeared on the KR blog. The poem’s penultimate stanza first appeared in Light.”

Cody Walker is the author of three poetry collections, including ‘The Self-Styled No-Child’ (Waywiser, 2016). His work appears in The New York Times Magazine, Light, Parnassus, The Best American Poetry and the latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. He directs the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Northern Michigan. Website: codywalker.net

Illustration: A Harry Furniss illustration for ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’ from the Lewis Carroll novel Sylvie and Bruno.

Political poem: Bono’s St. Patrick’s Day poem on Zelenskyy

Oh, St Patrick he drove out the snakes
With his prayers but that’s not all it takes
For the snake symbolises
An evil that rises
And hides in your heart, as it breaks

And the evil has risen my friends
From the darkness that lives in some men
But in sorrow and fear
That’s when saints can appear
To drive out those old snakes once again

And they struggle for us to be free
From the psycho in this human family
Ireland’s sorrow and pain
Is now the Ukraine
And St Patrick’s name now Zelenskyy

OK, first of all I recognise that the Saint Zelenskyy artwork by Liliya Rattari is a complimentary parody of either St Michael or St George, not St Patrick – but who cares? Putin is a big enough snake to rate as a dragon, and Zelenskyy is heroic enough to be any saint you want.

U2 frontman Bono‘s three-limerick poem was sent by him to Nancy Pelosi for her to use on St Patrick’s Day this year, and she read it at the Annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington to the assembled guests including the particularly Irish Joe Biden. The poem may not be good enough to be revered eternally, but nor is that snake Putin. Hopefully St Zelenskyy will chase Putin out of the country soon, and the sorrows of Ukraine will become as distant as the sorrows of Ireland.