Rebecca Valley

The Garden Inside Her by Isobel O'Hare

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Isobel O'Hare starts her chapbook The Garden Inside Her (Ladybox Books, 2016) with a quote from Penda's Fen, a dreamy TV play by David Rudkin that aired on the BBC in 1974. The play is remembered for its mythical visions and poetic language, which suits this collection of surreal vignettes; much like the images in Penda's Fairy, the poems in this collection twist around each other and touch for only seconds on complicated subjects – sexuality, death, the crevasse between technology and experience – before they drop off at the end of each page. 

O'Hare quotes, “What is hidden beneath this lovely shell of earth.” Indeed, the poems that follow are grounded in two images that revolve around upheaval and gazing into the earth; the first a cliffside that the narrator is terrified to approach, and the second mossy green vomit, which erupts from the narrator and other characters in the chap like an alien dredged up from the gut. O'Hare focuses in on that image of vomiting more than any other, referring to it often as “the green” or the “green inside me” which transforms the puke into something amorphous, natural, even precious. This green is O'Hare's garden, which disturbs the more mechanical and technological moments in the chapbook the way vegetation reclaims abandoned buildings. In her poems, O'Hare plays with that balance of natural and virtual space, never letting one win over the other. 

While exploring these themes, O'Hare is brutally vulnerable; in one vignette she says quite plainly, “I've always felt that if someone loves me, it's my job to love them back.” The poem is self-critical, honest, but reads like a revelation. It continues: 

I'm not sure that I know
what love is, other than the systematic
wearing out of my body after so many years. 

When you say yes that often, you forget
what yes is supposed to feel like. 

How rare a yes should be. 

O'Hare talks about her body like a system in this piece – again trying to balance the natural with the technological. Love is a “wearing out of the body” after years of use, as if she were more machine that human, unconsenting, programmed to love because there isn't another choice. She builds on this in the next vignette, which is brief; it reads, “Known as a broom // as a woman. / She who stands in the corner / until she is needed.” Again, the female body is a tool, used for one purpose, ignored when it is no longer needed.  

What I admire most about The Garden Inside Her is the way it reads like a meditation. You get the sense that this book was what needed to come out of O'Hare in order to heal, the way the green vomit burst out of her body and piled on the floor. The last poem reads like a letter, perhaps to the self, perhaps to the audience that at this point in the chap is desperately seeking closure, guidance, some solution. “I want to tell you that sometimes these things happen,” writes O'Hare, 

You will find no comfort in anything. You 
will stare at walls until your minds feels 

You will be forced into silence and made 
to wait.

Your thoughts will circle in endless 


Green will spill out of you like moss to 
cover a forest floor. 

This poem solidifies the collection, transforming it into a series of poems not about binary code or love, but about healing. This is the true beauty of O'Hare's work. At the same time that it stirs up difficult feelings of loss, pain, loneliness, and death, it fosters hope. Early in the chapbook, O'Hare repeats the lines, “It rained this morning. Maybe something / will grow in this city; become green.” The Garden Inside Her is a cleansing of the body, an embrace of the violent, wild green inside everyone, a prayer for newness. This book read like a mantra and a journal, an embrace of the difficult and the beautiful, an acknowledgement of the balance that those diametric forces can create together. 

Rebecca Valley is a poet and freelance writer living in Olympia, WA. Her poems have been featured most recently in the Pickled Body, M Review, and Rattle. She is the poetry editor of the Drowning Gull, and editor-in-chiefof Drizzle Review. You can find her on Twitter at @rebecca_valley, or online at

Blake Wallin

Erin Taylor’s oooo

A couple things about hugs that are worth noting before moving onto the review proper: 1) hugs last as long as either party wants them to (or doesn’t want them to), 2) hugs establish a connection between the body and the mind that precedes any thought on either party’s part, 3) hugs can come at the perfect time.  

The opening poem “a letter to the Beijing Metro” introduces a key theme used skillfully throughout the chapbook – the connection between the reader (you), the “you” of poetry, and the author/speaker. (The authorial connection to the speaker is a strong point in Taylor’s poetry, and she uses it throughout the chap wonderfully.) Immediately, a spark is created between “you and I and our/ humanity”, creating a pitch that doesn’t let up until after the end of the poem when Taylor has offered a seemingly life-or-death injunction to “say something with meaning!/ say something with longing!” (4). If that wasn’t enough to convince you of her argument, she connects it back to her own experience brilliantly by saying, “I too have that longing/ you know what I speak of.” (4). The poem works better as an introduction to the chapbook than as a standalone poem where it can feel disembodied and a bit pushy, but here it works wonders, ending with the word “yours” to remind you of your human duties to love others (discussed in the first half mostly) and yourself (discussed in the second half mostly).  

“the oceans are rising” is the perfect second poem to a severely loving and commanding first poem: a lithe and seemingly effortless extended meditation into our birthright to love and be loved and to honor ones parents. (It’s said better than that of course, but you get the idea.) This poem establishes the connection between the affecting and the colloquial that is one of the hallmarks of Taylor’s engaging style. In the first half of the chap, pitch doesn’t matter because the subject matter is at once so engaging and relatable. This has something to do with the way the poems are laid out on the page: a stream of perfectly short or long lines down the page without stanza breaks. Erin Taylor is talking about things of such importance that your silly stanza breaks would only interrupt their urgency and render them meaningless!


The poem that opens up the chap thematically for the amazing second half is the dead-center “perth, australia. december 22nd 2015.” If the first half introduced themes of longing, loneliness, the ineffability of human contact, love, and sex, the second half complicates things by both getting more personal and broadening the frame a bit. The Perth poem locates all this longing and personal statements until right before a fever pitch, and the second half is the breath out from the first half’s long inhale. (And how fitting is it that the poem immediately before the Perth poem is an extended reflection on personal connections plus or minus sex – this comprises the final ecstatic breath in.)

Although the poems I’ve mentioned are the most fully realized in the collection, the way these poems wind around each other is a thing of beauty. The chap wears its dense structure lightly so that it can better move around its human themes. What at first seem like simple declarations of love become something larger than life – well, larger than just yourlife. One of the most powerful poems in the collection adds powerful social commentary to the chap right before the last couple of poems. “i wish i could give bell hooks a hug in trying times” comes before the gorgeous last few poems (wherein the poet alights on the consciousness like a helpful and memorable afterthought). This poem lends the collection moral seriousness and provides an example of love being twisted and taken advantage of, the negative side of what she’s been speaking of this whole time. (But to say they are sides of the same coin would be to miss Taylor’s point entirely. These moments of abuse interrupt the normal flow of the stanzas and all the mental and emotional progress the speaker has made on their journey towards being a more loving human being.)

 One of my favorite things about Erin Taylor’s writing is the blending of impermanence and permanence until the terms no longer matter (“we all chose to forget our impermanence/ until we felt solid again.” from “a day before everything got cold”), until the things you thought you knew no longer matter and you are left with the naked fact of existence (“with you”). Although this may strike some as less than liberating, Taylor lifts the nature of this revelation into something a friend would say to you nicely and at the right time, so that the episode you’re experiencing can not only expire quicker but make a more lasting impression (“a friendship in symbols”). The hard-fought lessons in OOOO also eliminate the need for lessons in the first place, something life teaches you but only later, this ultimate lesson coming after a requisite attachment to sitcom finality and immature bow-tied resolution (“I love lucy meets night of the living dead”). This is the after-effects of realizing there is no after, and it’s reassuring to be told this from someone who truly cares. What can be more loving? 

OOOO is now available from Bottlecap Press.

Blake Wallin is the author of the chapbooks Otherwise Jesus (Ghost City Press, 2015) and No Sign on the Island (Bottlecap Press, 2016) as well as the microchap The Lucidity of Giving Up (Ghost City Press, 2016). He is the Reviews/Interviews Editor for Ghost City Review.

Blake Wallin

Trey Pharis’ Emoji Death Mask

The cover art for Trey Pharis’ Emoji Death Mask, out since May at Maudlin House, shows a vertical rainbow wheel of colors dripping down behind the title which is white and scribbled thickly onto the foreground. The letters look as if they were smudged into the color scheme like cave paintings, like what cave paintings are now, like the technological version of trying to get your point across. It is this image that I found following me throughout my reading of the book, reminding me of the desperate, primeval search for connection we are all involved with and which we continue to do despite setbacks. 

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One of the themes of the book is humor as a genuine way of coping with sadness, disappointment, loss, and depression. You wonder where this speaker would be without his humor, and it is a terrifying prospect. But then you look at yourself and wonder the same thing, and that’s part of what’s great about this book. After all the emojis and haikus and jokes, it gets you to look at yourself more and what you’re laughing about in the poems. There’s a double-edged sword with his humor, and it gets the reader to reflect on what they’re laughing about blithely and creates this powerful emotional + intellectual force that almost predates speech and thought. 

One of my favorite things about this book is that if you took the context out of most of these statements, they would sound inane, conspiratorial, or borderline sociopathic. Examples: “computers will ingest the future” (43), “You were born on a different planet” (40), “I do not remember dreams” (33), “I am an idiot who likes/ to stare at a screen for 14 hours” (38), “nothing is responsible for anything” (46), “i will disappear/ into the blue screen of death” (52). In this book, things conspire against the speaker in hilarious ways, things including tax forms (“insane russian and american scientists are secretly creating a massive existential crisis”), the internet (“c y b e r p o e m”), computers (“the future is inside some top secret quantum computer”), time itself (“the next century”), science (“emotional research grants”), and even desert plants and animals (“various places”). 

I don’t know if it’s because it’s surrounded by emojispeak and meditations on loneliness, but “Romantic emoticon” is one of the sweetest damn poems I have read in the longest time. To interrupt the staggered long lines with a shorter-lined, one-stanza reflection on a recent love is a stroke of genius and it pays tremendous dividends throughout the rest of the book.

The poem begins with a birthday party in which the kind host distributes ecstasy to all his guests. A girl wants to fuck the poet/speaker, and the poet/speaker is not into it because another girl at the party has won his heart instead. Although the first, hornier girl ends up in a ditch, the poet/speaker feels bad. Then, the cool veneer of the poet breaks enough to admit that “now we [him and the second girl] have been/ together for three years” (42). To have this switcheroo tale alight on an affirmation of monogamous love is sheer genius, and it bodes well for the rest of the book. There are hints at depth as well as genuine moments of depth throughout the first half of the book, but this is the first moment in it that the best affirmation of life shines through, giving necessary context and making it clear that, yeah, you’d wanna be friends with the poet/speaker. 

To say the book is well constructed despite being lithe/coy is an understatement. This book gets under your skin (after you laugh about it of course), and the most deeply felt moments come when you suspect the speaker is wearing some sort of protective mask or covering. But to whom do you reveal yourself online? Who gets the benefit of knowing you in this post-industrial, post-internet age we live in? Is true connection possible anymore, or have we boxed it ad infinitum? These aren’t the last resources of a desperate speaker; these are the very vestiges of connection seeping through the cracks of our technological society.

For the naysayers: to assert that the poet gives himself up to a brand of nihilistic sputterings that merely sound cool when put together like so undercuts and misses what Trey Pharis does throughout the book. This is the humanistic revolution, where Internet lingo meets true feelings and vice versa. Where the guarding of feelings through that same lingo is respected. And where both are allowed to coexist in a harmony that the speaker deeply feels for and engages in despite mental health concerns and setbacks. 

This book will help you laugh in the face of danger more through its deeply entrenched hermeneutical suspicion of technology, communication, relationships, and therapy. Humor remains the only tangible element in the universe. But don’t worry, just laugh. And then think. But don’t believe you’re changing your thinking much. Until you laugh again and the circle continues and goes on infinitely like the universe you are a part of beautifully and ineluctably. 

Emoji Death Mask is available now from Maudlin House.

Blake Wallin is the author of the chapbooks Otherwise Jesus (Ghost City Press, 2015) and No Sign on the Island (Bottlecap Press, 2016) as well as the microchap The Lucidity of Giving Up (Ghost City Press, 2016). He is the Reviews/Interviews Editor for Ghost City Review.