Review by Independent Book Review: The Dead and the Desperate by Dan Denton

The Dead and the Desperate
By Dan Denton
Genre: Literary Fiction
Reviewed by Maxwell Gillmer, Independent Book Review

Beautifully written and utterly raw—a
harrowing look at the life of an American
factory worker

There is no title more fitting for Dan Denton’s third book than The Dead and the Desperate. The story is borne of these two elements: those dead of this world, (one figure) and those desperate who are stuck living (the other). However, these two paradigmatic figures are by no means a simplistic demonstration of a forthcoming plot; they rather incite an explosion of realism and humanity that examines the struggles that come with American late-stage capitalism. These figures operate much like shepherds, always a step ahead of the sentence, casting a shadow over the world of the narrative.

The Dead and the Desperate calls into question the function of the novel’s title and how it, in an abrupt vision, can initiate a story, much like a portal into another space and time coerced by capitalism and plagued with struggling. Though, what summary is there to give for a story in which a person struggles in their entirety? What plot is there of a beginning, a middle, and an end when the story existed before the first page
and continues beyond the last? What Denton offers is the life of the novel’s unnamed narrator—a factory worker. It doesn’t matter what kind of worker, it doesn’t matter what kind of factory; in this universe, reflective of our own, people appear trapped.

The story begins with Ohio, a place to which the narrator said he would never move again after leaving behind lives of divorce, rehab, jail, and homelessness, and yet somehow, he finds himself sucked back after getting a woman pregnant. He does what he is told is right: marry her, get a job at a local factory, support the kid, have another. But for the narrator, living day to day by way of onerous “factory math” where a 12-
hour shift feels like 18 hours of labor, what is deemed “right” never seems to pay off. The narrator falls back into a cycle of misery. This marriage looks like it’s headed toward divorce; those misdemeanor charges are piling up; he can’t pay his utility bills and his rent is coming up next, and on top of all of this, he has to work another 12-hour shift at the factory. No matter what he does, he can’t seem to escape. As a result,
he’s drained of life itself. He seems stuck on a track ending at the bar after his shift ends, throwing back dollar beers and two-dollar shots that feed a fire in his body. He returns home drunken and enflamed and fights with his wife. Slowly the narrator finds his life unwoven, thread by thread.

The Dead and the Desperate is a heartbreaking story of the tragedies of life defined by late-stage capitalism filled with potent imagery and written with tear-jerkingly beautiful prose. The narrator admits he is the ideal American factory worker, saying “I’m a college dropout with a high school diploma. I don’t have any skilled trades licenses, or technical training. I’m smart, and don’t mind working hard hours and long hours. I’ve worked in almost all the kinds of plants and factories you’ll find in the Midwest, and I’ve ran almost all the kinds of machines they have in those factories.” He can do anything, and he will do anything because he has to. Under American capitalism, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are; all that matters is what you are. And he is defined.

But what the book’s specters, the dead and the desperate, see, the narrator cannot. He grasps for rationales to understand why his life and the lives around him are crumbling under the weight of long hours, heavy machinery, drugs, and alcohol. He intermittently traces American histories of mental health care, wage gaps, divorce rates, and alcoholism and drug use in search of an explanation. The book is a flurry of topical substance that the narrator uses as tools to analyze how and why life around him could be so agonizing, but The Dead and the Desperate is not a polemic in its form.

Susan Sontag offers a distinction of narrative argument as either proof or analysis in her essay “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie.” Sontag defines proof as a narrative in which something happens in its entirety—a demonstration of events as a result of given precipitants—while analysis is a narrative that seeks “further angles of understanding, new realms of causality,” and is, as a result, “always incomplete” to explain how and
why. Sontag argues that art trends toward proof rather than analysis, but Denton’s The Dead and the Desperate reflects the existence of both within a story of an individual and one’s tendency to seek a greater truth.

The novel as an argumentative tool of analysis, especially when dealing with an intimate relationship of a first-person narrator, runs the risk of pathologizing inexcusable behavior (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.). When behaviors are depicted as pathologies, the perpetrators of these behaviors may place the onus of
their actions onto the source of the affliction rather than themselves. What makes The Dead and the Desperate powerful is that its offered analysis extends beyond the system that governs the individual and includes the individual within self-governance.

The book does not seek to absolve him of his sins and neither does he. People throughout the novel call the narrator a scum bag, and he never denies it. But the entire scope of the characters and the universe in which they operate must be known in its entirety to demonstrate a story beyond one single character and offer humanity to those who even do him harm just as he does harm to others.

This process of broken analysis is constant throughout the book. Just as the narrator is about to complete a singular path of analysis that would remove his culpability and place blame on the system of capitalism, the narrator steps back. In one instance, he admits, “I have done things in life that have hurt others, and I have had hurts done to me. None of that serves as an excuse.” Rather than an excuse, the narrator implicates himself, demonstrating that he can simultaneously be a person with an unchecked bipolar diagnosis and an addiction to drugs and alcohol with no support system, while also including him as a part of this world that oppresses other people, namely women in this story.

The Dead and the Desperate is a challenge—it is a hypermasculine narrative looking intimately into the psyche of a character who abuses women both emotionally and physically. However, in its refusal to take the final step in pathologizing the narrator’s behavior as something outside of his control, it shifts to a narrative of proof that stands on its own. There is no justification in this shift because justification would be beside the point. It offers a look into the mind of someone who has been scarred—someone who does scar.

Denton tempers the urge to fall too far into portraying his characters as strictly victims by redirecting the narrator’s voice away from melodrama, saving the narrative from becoming self-pitying in its depiction of hardships, and replaces it with a detached narrative style. The style permits the reader to see but never truly hear what is going on, such as when fighting with his wife. In these instances, spoken words are given
with little direction on how the reader should feel. But is this formal distance a prescription of impersonality or a degree of intimacy? It is a trick that encourages empathy—the reader is only given so much, and not because the narrator is withholding, but because the narrator is unable to give. The reader must cast aside any predilections and instead observe the situation as an invited participant.

The reader doesn’t have to know entirely why the narrator acts in the way that he does because the narrator cannot. Denton arranges an observation of what the narrator, much like the other characters in the book, is left with: moments of pain and moments at which the pain can be assuaged. The narrative is a reflection of this human tendency to reach for analysis, though ultimately being left in a position of observance. The novel is humble in this sense that it does not try to complete the interminable search however interminable in its struggle.

But there is a profound exhaustion that courses throughout this book at the expense of this search and struggle. The mind can just barely comprehend the suffering it endures, and when faced with the need to escape, the people of the story turn to the carnal: sex and drugs. On a sex- and drug-fueled bender, the narrator writes, “It felt good to not feel anything. To not feel the factory aches in my knees and shoulders
and hands. To not think about dead kids and kids you haven’t seen. To not think about how you’re gonna make the rent next week, or whether you were gonna go to jail at next month’s court date.” The narrator in searching high and low for moments of feeling tries his hand at different approaches to finding peace in his life, however fleeting, as if life, itself, is a partner whom he must understand.

The Dead and The Desperate in this sense is something like a Danse Macabre, twofold in its imagery. The first being that image of the title—the specters of the dead and the desperate moving together—and the second being the narrator and his life.

When one seeks to dance with a partner, one must know that partner’s footing. The specters of the dead and the desperate dance with each other just steps before the narrator. The desperate appears to struggle with its partner, death, and the narrator observes. He watches what the others do, attempting to trace why—what of this cruel world allows children to die and leaves so many others in agony—but while turned, he finds himself placed in the throes of his own missteps in the dance with his life.

The title, in this sense, does not just offer elements that act as the catalyst, but instead, it pulls the characters through in a duality of being: death and life; struggling and surviving. Only when the narrator can turn back and face his life as it stands before him can he find his footing.

The Dead and the Desperate is a massive undertaking of American life and struggle. Denton doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. He nibbles. He gives just as little as the narrator is given. Life, after all, is not all-encompassing, and only a small few are given it in its entirety. The Dead and the Desperate is one in one thousand. It observes the destruction of the American Dream and the American Life, and it offers a look into
an individual’s tendency to make sense of it all.


The Dead and the Desperate is available for pre-order at and will soon be available online wherever books are sold.

Review by Scot D. Young: Born on Good Friday by Nathan Graziano

In Nathan Graziano’s latest book, Born on Good Friday from Roadside Press, the poet tells the story of a good Catholic boy’s coming of age that develops into a 40 year story that most of us can relate to. He checks all the boxes growing up and eventually leaves the confessional behind. Graziano’s book reads like a good novel enticing the reader to keep turning the page. It is a poetic memoir from childhood through middle age. Toward the end of the book in the poem “The Old Zip” when he and his friend are playing catch in the backyard and he decides to throw some heat, he realizes he still has it and although drinking wine their wives decide they still love them. I typically don’t do reviews as it isn’t my strong suit but I can recommend this one as a must have even if you don’t like poetry.—Scot D. Young, author of All Around Cowboy and editor at the Rusty Truck



BORN ON GOOD FRIDAY is available at the Magical Jeep or at online retailers everywhere.

Review by Adrian Lime: Unknowable Things by Kerry Trautman

Kerry Trautman has a gift for shimmying away the veneer of seemingly simple moments to expose the depth and beauty of what lies beneath, the complexities and hidden passions. Unknowable Things celebrates the common and the spectacular on equal terms.

“And so the poem starts as many others—
at the kitchen sink, as peaches drip down
elbow to drain…”

Trautman’s poems are at once grand and intimate, unfolding in the mind like a nagging idea that has finally come clear. Some are lilting and playful, others heavy with a stark sobriety— all reveal themselves gracefully, confidently, without apprehension. To be honest, it’s what I’ve come to expect from Kerry Trautman’s poetry, but still she continues to surprise. What a lovely book this is.

—Adrian Lime, poet and maker of magical jeeps

Review by Dan Denton: Clown Gravy by Misti Rainwater-Lites

Misti Rainwater-Lites is one of the best writers alive, and in Clown Gravy, she out greats many of the great indie underground writers that so many of us hold in reverence, like Bukowski. Like Buk, Misti writes about the sweat, bruises and loneliness that living a misunderstood misfit life brings, but unlike Buk, she does it kamikaze style, never afraid to crash her characters in a pursuit of the truth that’s brave, but somehow never reckless.

Clown Gravy is written in short story and flash fiction style, but reads like punk jazz poetry that was written at a Texas bus stop on a too hot summer day, when your life starts to scroll by in the steam-mirage that rises from oil-slick asphalt, and your off brand can of cola is slowly collapsing and suddenly warm and flat like the worn out pick up lines being lobbed from every direction, and from every leering, jeering too big dick, hairy or not.

The book has 13 stories, all of them so goddamned good you feel like you found your new favorite record that plays on repeat. Some of them are fables, full of anecdotes for the struggling outcast. One is a post apocalyptic tarot card prophesy that’s so fucking perfect that I read it four times in a row. A truly great American short story. Throughout, no American taboo is safe, as Rainwater-Lites stares down most every sickness and malady known to modern man, including the ones most never talk about and pretend don’t exist, but she writes about them so well that you’ll read this book again and again, and hug it forever in your hangdog heart.

Dan Denton

Review by Westley Heine: A Room Above a Convenience Store by William Taylor Jr.

Somewhere in the light filled mist of San Francisco teetering at the edge of the world wandering through the ghostly landscape of the pandemic drinking in parks and peeking out cheap chipped windows are the fiery eyes of William Taylor Jr. This candid glimpse into a poet’s life is where, “the universe is dumb and vast with our failures and the loneliness of it is the only perfect thing,” and “the gossip parlors of the void” ring in the ears after midnight. I too “like books and poems, films and paintings that tell stories of sad lovers in old rooms existing as if in some abandoned dream.” I too live that way. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is “full of tourists ordering complicated drinks.”

Somehow a poet is more sensitive to the apocalyptic Zeitgeist, but more prepared for it. The poet has long since lived with that hellish hue on his shoulder pressed against the perspective of cosmic time. Eternity at once burns us like an insect under an unseeing magnifying glass as well as sets us free. It’s an answer echoing from the abyss, it’s “listening to the broken music at the heart of the world,” it’s “our lives just an awkward silence beneath a temporary sun, stillborn moments caught in the air like mist,” it’s everyday life, it’s a likely story you can’t believe, it’s A Room Above A Convenience Store.

—Westley Heine, author of Street Corner Spirits and Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician and Squatter

Review by David Alec Knight: Street Corner Spirits by Westley Heine

The streets listen to you — listen to them as you read this book.

Knowing Westley Heine’s poetry and prose from previous works, and confident in his talent as a writer to educate, entertain, evoke and empathize (and sometimes all in the same work) Street Corner Spirits: poems & flash fiction, from Roadside Press, was an easy purchase.

Heine, with a mix of nostalgia, regret, and a much lived in awareness, comments on growing up in “Boys and Girls” — it deals with the first fixation, a lust of a sort, the wrestling with possessiveness, and how that follows him into adulthood. In “Peach Schnapps” he talks about the first time he got drunk as a teen, and how the passing of a friend from those days haunts him now. In “Scarecrow Joe” Heine and his friends have regular run-ins with a local homeless man who has some form of cognitive delay. Heine’s dad tells him a story that puts Joe’s life into tragic perspective. Heine conveys so well that sudden feeling of dawning realization. “Bomb” is about a bomb threat at school that his friends are blamed for. False blame often happened when one wore a Metallica shirt.

His long poem “Eulogies For Youth” shows tremendous advancement in his skill as a poet to sustain reader attention with such a well crafted flow of words in a long work that is not overlong. He puts into perspective his childhood, his teen years, and further growing pains of young adulthood. A lesser poet would have taken twice as long to say so much. It’s a prime example of the beauty found in his free verse poetry — that lean, concise and calculated word choice for maximum effect…

“Us kids / out the window / escaping by bike pedal, the swamp fog lit gold by the / harvest moon, the smell of yeast and mint all around in great / singing freedom…”
And then later in the poem…
“We that danced in traffic at dawn. / That told cops that their lights were trippy, / Whose hometowns got bypassed by the future.”
“Eulogies For Youth” is simply a brilliant piece of work that commands rereading. I had to read it twice, then take a pause. It really hit me. It sets a high bar.

So many grow up, just to not fit in, and Heine feels for them — feels kinship with them. No matter how dark a theme his writing explores, his humanity is there in his voice. In “Plasma Deluge” he asks “Am I even here? / or infinity in a mirror?” “Digital World” is a scathing spoken word style rant on the state of society, with observations incisive and well chosen words sharpened. In “Street Corner Spirits,” “The city sounds like an ocean / as cars cut the inky night and streetlamps dance underwater.” In “Freak Kingdom” “They all end up here / schizos, shape-shifters, / like bugs to light they flock to Hollywood.”

In “Love” we read “…looking for ice cream / streetlights spin as the / rotating door reflects the / history of the world in the haze / ghosts flash between blinks / laughing because we’re in love…” There are poems about his wife, his dog, and another long poem that reads as if it is simply as long as it needs to be. “The Silent Auction” is another poem of the quality as “Eulogies For Youth” in the preceding section. We can see the influences of Lawrence Ferlinghetti perhaps, and of Carl Sandburg, and a bit of Charles Bukowski mixing with Heine’s heightened sense of musicality in his word choice, his line breaks and arrangements, owing to his musical background in blues through folk, rock, and metal. It’s all at work to examine the cycle of our existence.

The story “Voice To skull Transmission” is a slice of life story that plays with its proximity to the surreal, so it rewards rereading. The poem “The Smile Never Fades from My Skull” sums up our new pandemic world very well. “Pay Per View Apocalypse” is like cyber punk meets ‘the Beats’ meets William S. Burroughs. Only a musician who is also a writer could revel in his influences and maintain yet his own unique voice.

Much of Heine’s writing is going to be relatable to many. Just substitute a different location and a different decade and one will find how easily one can see how closely their experiences and feelings are shared in Street Corner Spirits by Westley Heine.

David Alec Knight is the author of Leper Mosh (Cajun Mutt Press)

Review by William Taylor Jr.: St. James Infirmary by Steven Meloan

      St. James Infirmiry – a Review by William Taylor Jr.

St. James Infirmary,  a new collection of stories by Steven Meloan, is an engaging and pleasantly unpredictable read.  The opening piece, “Googies,” does a solid job of setting up themes that are revisited throughout the book. What begins as a nostalgic first-person narrative of a family’s cross country road trip out west ends on a sour and slightly sinister note, with the destination of Los Angeles offering the disillusionment that comes with experience in the way only a big city can.

“Hold Me Tighter” follows, in which a chance encounter in a Redondo Beach Dive bar begins with the hope of romance but the Hollywood ending proves elusive. “The Swan” is the first story in the collection that caught me a bit off guard, moving from the seemingly autobiographical fiction of the first two pieces to a story from a woman’s point of view that begins as a tale of two lonely people getting to know each other in the distant world that existed before the internet, before drifting into something like magical realism.

The pieces are of varying length, and most are concise snapshots of a lost America, generally spanning the 1960s-80s. The stories are filled with quirky, well realized characters, and unadorned writing with a solid sense of place. The varying subject matter and length keeps things lively and the fast moving prose always left me ready for more when I reached the end of any given piece. A good number of the stories are set  in California’s Bay Area and the city of Los Angeles, and occasionally fittingly dabble in noir, such as in “The Apartment,” a creepy tale set in 1980s San Francisco.

The title story presents an evening with a dysfunctional family that I imagine will ring true with many readers of a certain age, as it did with me. The narrator’s household hosts a business faculty party, and family members, younger and older alike, end up in various stages of inebriation and secrets and resentments that most any family holds rise to the surface as the evening unfolds.

Much like the America of the late 1960s that they bring to life, many of the stories here are breezy on the surface but eventually reveal a darker underpinning. “The Ranch” in particular, one of the more memorable pieces in the collection, begins as a teen-age horse riding trip before taking a number of dark turns to an unexpected and sobering ending, capturing the essence of a tumultuous and paradoxical time in American history.

“The Dancer” is told from the point of view of a young addict doing what she does to get her daily fix. It’s a hard and honest look, but not unsympathetic. “Naked Popcorn” is a humorous story of life in a house with hippie film students in the late 1960s. Meloan is adept at bringing these times and people from years gone to a vivid life and he creates engaging characters and situations with relatively few words.

The final piece finds the narrator and his brother busking about Paris and Berlin in the early 1980s. They immerse themselves in the punk/new wave scene in the local dive bars, make brief connections at the Berlin Wall, and there’s another romantic encounter that never has the chance to bloom.


Review by Laura Novak: St. James Infirmary by Steven Meloan

St. James Infirmary
by Steven Meloan

This collection of essays might have been called Postcards From the Edge, had that title not already been taken. As a child of the 60s, a young adult in San Francisco in the 80’s, and a transplant to California, and ultimately LA, I can say with certitude that St. James Infirmary captures the zeitgeist of each time and place with stunning and riveting accuracy. The writing is so clean, tight, and evocative, I felt like I was on each journey with the author. It’s not so much the details of the era or area, though Meloan was spot on with his writing, as much as the aura, the feeling, the sensibilities of the characters involved that he nailed with evocative prose. To wit, this was the way frustrated mothers talked. This was the way teens sassed. This was the way young men navigated love, lust, and loss. Lies, loneliness, even the restless energy of youth, are captured in technicolor with sharp, precise prose and pitch perfect creativity. I wasn’t ready for St. James Infirmary to end. I wanted more—more stories of Meloan’s life, but also more memories for myself of what it was to be in those places at those times of life. As writer Westley Heine notes in the book’s Foreward, the collection is about a rock and roll attitude and some pangs of regret. My only regret is that the collection ended too soon.

Laura Novak
Author of Finding Clarity and Murder at the Mailbox

Review by Westley Heine; Michele McDannold, Roadside Press, Gutter Snob Books, and her latest book of poetry By Plane, Train, or Coincidence

Independent, but not alone

Michele McDannoldRoadside Press, Gutter Snob Books, and her latest book of poetry By Plane, Train, or Coincidence.

I have come to realize that no one is going to save us. We have to save ourselves. I was never charmed by religion or politics, but Hollywood has chewed me up and spit me out twice. Also, I’ve spent years sending my writing to what’s left of the big publishing houses in New York. They are merging or crumbling, and refusing to take chances just like the record industry did after illegal downloading. Now big publishers are only interested in celebrity memoirs, political tell-all books, cookbooks, and the occasional kids book.

Despite the thousands of channels the truth still isn’t on TV. It’s not even in the news because they too compete as a form of entertainment. The truth isn’t in pop music. For me it’s at the blues jams in Chicago and Memphis, or in the garage band playing in backyards and dive bars. The truth can be heard at your local open mic from that poet, rapper, or singer songwriter. If your community doesn’t have an open mic then start one yourself. Your neighbors are wise.

I have come to realize that there are no proper channels, because what is left of the proper channels don’t want us. They don’t want the truth only sex appeal and distraction. As artists we have to do it ourselves. I know the value of DIY punk art. I know that punk rock is folk art. That folk music is totally punk rock despite the stylistic difference. I know that real art comes from the people not from the streaming services. Young people know this instinctively every generation start doing their own thing. The counter-culture has always been there. It’s a thin almost invisible line that has kept American culture from becoming a plastic dystopia. Someone has to tell the stories of the poor. Someone has to help us relate about how fucked up life can be. Someone has to say the wrong thing the ugly thing to remind us that the right to do so protects us all despite that it may be triggering or more offensive than sticks and stones.

How can an artist be both sensitive and tough? Poet Michele McDannold is a great example. In her latest collection By Plane, Train, or Coincidence the poems come out of thoughtful still moments but suddenly scream with angst of the recent years, of restless travel, and of heartbreak. These poems will sneak up on you and sucker punch you. She knows that life, real life, is not on the screen but out there on the road, in the mountains, or at the shore. Life is to be lived. Roll the dice. Don’t just go through the motions. That it’s very possible to leave your hometown but never forget where you’re from. She knows when the muse is visiting and how to catch those moments like lightning in a jar.

Michele also knows the frustration of any poet who puts their work out in public has to suffer clichéd career advice. Why aren’t you on Tic Tock? As if we have to explain that what we have to say isn’t for the short attention span. In her new book she has a poem called Friendly Advice that reads, “Find another way to make money. Invent new ways to stalk your lover. Start a diet fad. Marry a rich man. Kill’em with your good looks and big tits. Don’t take a penny. Dig graves for a living. With your fierce competitive attitude sell, sell, sell. Aim high. Shoot low. Find an airfield saturated in hair spray. Tell the whole world about the mood you’re in. In other words lie, lie, lie.” Such free advice costs people their souls. Some of us don’t want to lie. Get those filters off my face. Perfection is boring. We want to be our real selves not the idealized digital footprint. I can’t believe we have to keep saying this but we do. It’s important that we do.

In an earlier volume Stealing the Midnight from a Handful of Days there is a poem called “Nothing to Lose (or Freedom)” where she writes: “I will keep on gathering great poems, sharing the news about great poets, new ones, old ones, killer ones, fucky ones, we’ll call it the ‘didn’t make it to twitter because it had too much character’ book. I want to drive down the great river road. I want a reading right now in bars, bookstores, and bowling alleys. I want to read/scream at bikers and rednecks, housewives and whores. I hope they throw stuff and spit on me, chase me out to the car yelling ‘We don’t like your kind round here,’ but they will secretly worship me and my freedom and my hoard of poets from the suburbs, the city, the farm. They’re multiplying like gremlins… I want them all (not to make them famous) to make them infamous. To spread their disease of think, of cut out the bullshit, and get to the point. I want America in her glazed over Red Bull eyes to really wake the fuck up.”

As I’ve traveled across this country I’ve learned that it takes time but eventually you will find your people. Those you can conspire with. I am lucky to have found Michele and a legion of underground writers who like rats are patiently chewing at the support beams of the brainwash machine. I am proud to be one of her “multiplying gremlins,” one of her not famous but infamous poets. Michele has created a platform where we can express ourselves without compromise. Take a look. And if you don’t like it, write your own book and show us how it’s done. Because like I said we can only save ourselves.

—Westley Heine, author of Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician & Squatter

Review by Sandra Feen: Unknowable Things by Kerry Trautman









Unknowable Things is an evocative language feast where sensory imagery is omnipresent.

We see this throughout Kerry Trautman’s masterful collection, from the accessible first lines of her opening poem, “Drop,” He closed the screen door, stepped/into rain that smelled like worms to the engaging first lines of her concluding poem, “Marblehead:”

The lighthouse lamp is dark,

     and the caretaker’s shack – their insides locked,

     shattered from thunder, mayflies,

     and the always, always




Readers are equally challenged and routed to the layers of their own psyche, experiencing deeply universal conflicts through Trautman’s poetry where language is so deft the harsh and difficult seem almost casual and effortless. In the poem “Pretty,” Pretty is not just pretty, but beautiful pathos … the day she wore her hair in a high high ponytail… hung beside her… boys cat-called toward her face in the shut bus window, made sex gestures, flicked their tonguesShe knew she was supposed to be shocked, pissed, roll her eyes, pretend she didn’t see them, but it was her first taste of pretty.


Trautman continues to navigate readers through more complex realms of interacting with each other, and readers comply, so engrossing is her poetry. The poem “Stray” begins Was it cruel to have lured the stray cat/ these weeks closer to my fingertips, /to teach him petting? The poem isn’t only about daring to touch a stray feline. It explores what happens when the speaker asked the older boy’s sister for his number, and she cautions that he’s sometimes not nice to girls. Trautman connects all entities with her second stanza: It was a new thing—involuntary/ joy on skin terms./ Fur can’t help that it’s reached-for.


Trautman spares no one. She directs readers to feel a conglomeration of life experiences and limitations, revealing that sometimes limitations are not readily evident or ever understood. Sometimes they thrash into our presence as in the sudden loss of a dog in a very unexpected fashion. In stanza ten of “Driving Lesson” No one wants to close a door and/ walk away knowing it will never/open again. Except when they do.


In her poem “Withholding,” she further apprises readers that Sometimes two beings are bridged only by air carrying/ the scent of browning butter. Some bodies coexist,/ appreciating, simmering from safe distance, like a dare.


All is not dark or lost in Unknowable Things. Quite the contrary. Certainly, a hopeful acceptance flickers in the final lines of the collection’s concluding poem, “Marblehead:”

…I would plant a peach orchard,

stitch a kite, allow constant wind and gulls to weave

through my clapboards, gust me

with wet sand and walleye, and wait for

the light to be restored


Unknowable Things is a gutsy balance of both tender and harrowing moments with resilience as its impetus.


Sandra Feen

2022-2024 Ohio Beat Poet Laureate