Guest Post, Meghan McClure: In Praise of the Physical World

Matthew Nienow’s House of Water

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2016. 57 pages. $15.95.


Picture of the book House of Water by Matthew NienowFor the past few months I’ve been unmoored, I feel against everything. I think a lot of us do. During this time I’ve turned, as I always have in difficult times, to books. I’ve found myself drawn to two types of books, both of which seem relevant and necessary. The first kind are those that teach me to see through the eyes of others, show me the history of how we got here, give voice to the often unheard, teach me to resist, give me strength to fight back. The second type of book I’ve been drawn to are those which praise the physical world, look with wonder at the earth and its inhabitants, draw the eye to the light. The books of the first kind have been my maps and guides. The second kind of book has been an anchor for me. In these times of upheaval and uncertainty I am seeking things that ground me to the world, that re-invest me in this place. I want to hold something in my hands, to know that it is real, to remember I’m not against everything. The poems in Matthew Nienow’s House of Water are as close to that as poems can be.

Built in to each of the poems in House of Water is a commitment to the physical world. Readers cannot escape the smell of seawater, the heat of fire, the shavings of wood beneath their feet, the laughter of children, or the rock of a boat. The book begins with a prayer to the tools of his trade (he builds boats) and continues with odes to those tools (“Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood,” “Ode to the Steam Box,” “Ode to the Gain,” “Ode to the Preacher Jig,” “Ode to the Slick”), joy in the work of creation, and quiet moments of watching his wife and children. Nienow begins with the tools, but from there goes on to praise the body which uses the tools, the life that is created, and the work it all takes.

These poems are about learning to look closely at the things we hold daily. In Nienow’s case these things are tools and woods I’m unfamiliar with, but came to admire as I read through the book. In “Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood” Nienow holds up a block of wood to the belt sander and:


A single knot blinks

out of the small block & becomes


the eye of a hummingbird, its beak

bending around the edge of the wood,


its song captured in the annular rings.

To think, this block was tossed in


with the scrap. That the bird

could have been lost. Or burned.


How quickly the mundane scrap of a day can become a thing to behold. The world still holds mystery and wonder. Sometimes that mystery is locked away in a block of wood, sometimes it is hidden in a page of scribbled notes waiting to become a poem. Nienow shows the reader how to hold a scrap in their hand, hold it to the light, and get to work uncovering its beauty.

At first glance “The Handshake” seems like a shout against the body and work:


God damn my hands

and the inward ache

that is the echo of every


hammer swing; God

damn every struck thing

and the impulse to make.


God damn the scars

and the memories they bear,

the fists I carry with me


everywhere; God damn

all that my hands fail

to hold…



But in the refrain of  “God damn…” we hear the echo of “God bless.” Instead of reading of anger and resentment, the pain and shame of this poem become an ode all their own: to the hands (“my two best tools”) that long to create, that come from a long line of hands (“I remember / my father’s father”), and that get to shape their future:


I consider

the road. My handshake


will not tell you

what kind of man I am.


This poem is a reminder that we can howl against the pain in our lives and still hold our lives dear. We can see the darkness of the world and still want to make it brighter. Sometimes the very hands that hurt are the hands that will create something that gleams.

Halfway through the book, in “Song of Tomorrow,” the speaker wants to give the world, whole and shining, to his children: “I will give / them whatever I have, whatever I can acquire.” But he also knows he will not be able to give them all he desires to, he is “ a man trying / to hold water in cupped hands” knowing he “will fail / to hold it.” But even in that failing he knows “what joy there is in feeling it pass.” Throughout the book Nienow balances praise of the physical with the knowledge that it will never be enough. Nienow’s book is not a glossy ode to the perfect, but an ode to the scraped and dented imperfect life we create with our hands. There is joy not just in the material or the tools, but in the process of creation – the life we live.

By the time we get to “Making a Rabbet Plane in the Machine Shop on the Hill” we have praised the materials, the tools, and the process of creation, but here we watch the speaker work. The worker has to dig into his collection of tools with his aching hands and put them into action. In this collection of poems, the speaker is never more than a line or two away from work. Above all, the work is to be praised:


I turn

the idea of the tool over in my hands.

That it works makes me want to work.

The work, it carves that want away.



Nienow shows, through his writing, the work it takes to chisel, bend, and sand raw material down to a useful object and how that work itself is beautiful. When we look at the world there is endless wonder, but wonder alone won’t change anything, it takes work. This is not a book merely of ideas, but of tools, material, and what they create. Nienow finds beauty in the world because he works to make it.

We need things to tether us to this earth. We need to find reminders of the immensity and wonder this earth holds – it will give us the energy to move forward when it feels like we can’t. We need to create wonder of our own and to find joy and solace in the work of creating. As writers, this book is a reminder to stay observant and alert and curious in our work. And above all, to love the work.

Stand up, march, protest, yell, read to inform yourself, carry a sign, volunteer, donate. And when you get weary and start losing hope, recharge with a book that tethers you to this world. Because we have to stay invested in this place, in each other. Writers need to keep writing about the things that matter to them, sharing their stories because like the famous Maggie Smith poem, “Good Bones,” says: “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” To work to make it beautiful, we have to remember it’s worth it.

More book recommendations for mooring you to this earth:

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

System of Ghosts by Lindsay Tigue

World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

Guest Post, Mary Shindell: Inflection Point ll

My working process is influenced by my experience and interaction with the world around me.

In my studio, I produce layered, linear works that relate the terrains of the desert and outer space. I use botanical imagery of plants collected around my studio in Phoenix and also from the Herbarium at ASU, where I photograph pressed plant specimens from the locations in Arizona where the planetary discoveries were made. In drawing the satellite images of Earth and Pluto, my focus is on the similarities of surface and texture between images of Earth and the dwarf planet Pluto. Pluto was discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I have selected imagery from the Grand Canyon to represent the place of that discovery. After I combined the images, I placed a numbered grid on the surface, as pictured in the sequence of images that follow.


Detailed grid artwork, featuring stellar body laid over topographical map

Figure 1: Gridded satellite photographs composed by placing Pluto in the center of mirrored sections of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon


In process photo of transferring grid information from map to drawing

Figure 2: Here, I am using the numbered grid to draw each section from the satellite image.

Drawn piece, prepared for photograph.

Figure 3: In the above image, the hand-drawn piece is finished and digitally photographed. It will be printed as an archival Ink Jet print titled “Inflection Point II.”

Hand drawing with cacti digitally added to parts of the map and stellar body.

Figure 4: The digital drawing is then created using a combination of photographed and hand-drawn botanical images from the herbarium specimen pages. Pictured above is an early look at the process.

Close up picture of cactus

Figure 5: An enlarged example of the botanical elements in figure 4

Close up of cacti near both the Earth elements of the Grand Canyon and the map of Pluto

Figure 6: Finally, the analog drawing will be layered with drawings of plant specimens from the Grand Canyon. In this image, the plains of Pluto are on the right, the Grand Canyon’s rim is on the left, and plants from the North Rim region are suspended above the terrain.


As the above images illustrate, I will use the botanical elements to connect the experience of the planetary researcher with the sense of physical place from which the scientific research originated and to the physical world of the viewer. As a part of my ongoing concern for the relationship between space and detail in the environment, I am creating a connection between conventional landscape formats in art and the perspectives offered by the study of planets and outer space. By combining the two perspectives with detailed observations of plants, I am creating holistic landscapes that encompass the intimate and the vast. This connects information that we know but cannot see with the reality of the things we can see and touch.

Guest Blog Post, Simon Perchik: Magic, Illusion and Other Realities

Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple; there are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers moves back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. The reader needs to be informed of what cannot be articulated. To be made whole the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable idea. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile conflicting views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. See, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138 describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known  facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized  by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections  between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments  on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, one percent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…


Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife
Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?
Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words –bricks and mortar
Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
building the ant hill,
not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
its too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soul mates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it…

Interview with Cassie Tolman from Pomegranate Cafe

Vegan Rolls from Pomegranate Cafe

Cassie Tolman and her mother Marlene Tolman created Pomegranate Cafe as a space to combine flavor and nutrition in an earth-conscious manner. Opened in 2009, Pomegranate Cafe become a Phoenix hit. Cassie Tolman is a former Superstition Review intern and a graduate of The Natural Gourmet Cookery School. Her mother, Marlene, is a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute’s Cordon Bleu. You can find out more about Pomegranate Cafe on their website or on their Facebook page. This interview was conducted by current intern Christine Truong.

Superstition Review: What inspired you and your mom to open Pomegranate Cafe?

Cassie Tolman: My mom and I were inspired to open Pomegranate Cafe because we wanted to do something creative and authentic. We also wanted to get to know and nurture our local community. We are both passionate about healthy, organic vegetarian food and recognized that there were not many places in the neighborhood that serve fresh, wholesome food and drinks. My mom had some money that was passed on to her by her grandfather, and she decided that with the instability of the economy, investing in this dream was just as sensible as putting her money into retirement savings or any other investments.  My 90-year-old grandmother (we call her the original health nut) also invested in Pomegranate Cafe. Two and a half years ago, we both quit our jobs, took a risk and opened Pomegranate Cafe in Ahwatukee.

SR: How has your interest in poetry and literature translated over to the conceptualizing of the restaurant?

CT: My interest in poetry and literature helped me conceptualize Pomegranate Cafe by supporting the idea that ordinary, everyday work can lead to magic. Opening Pomegranate Cafe has been transformative. Through lots of hard work and practice, what was once an empty, abandoned wine bar in a strip mall is now a bustling, thriving, vibrant cafe!

SR: What are some of your favorite dishes to prepare and why do you prepare them?

CT: I do not have a single favorite dish to prepare. Rather, I prefer to experiment and almost never cook the same thing twice. My favorite way of preparing a meal is to start with fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. From here I am inspired by the people I am cooking for and the ingredients I have in my kitchen. I love to create raw vegan dishes because the colors, textures and flavors remain crisp, bold and beautiful.

SR: Do you think that preparing food and writing poetry involve, in some ways, a similar process?

CT: Preparing a meal and writing poetry do involve similar processes. The cook and the poet are both resourceful. We use what we have on hand, what happens to be in the cupboard or fresh from the garden today. With our hands, practiced technique, a few tools and a little magic, we create a meal (or a poem) that can be devoured. The magic comes into play when ordinary things – a bunch of beets, some garlic, a drop of oil, a handful of herbs / a single image, a memory, a string of words – all begin to work together with elements like time and heat. And somewhere in the process of hand and cutting board, stove and knife, pencil and paper, washing, chopping and mixing – a transformation occurs. The ingredients that were there in the cupboards, or the words that were under your pillow while you slept, are now coming together in the pot or on the page to form something new. Hopefully something to be eaten, savored, read, remembered.

SR: What are some things you like to do in your spare time?

CT: Spare time is almost non-existent since opening the cafe! Whenever I can steal a moment, I do still love to read…

Some of my current favorites:

Gabrielle Hamilton’s book Blood, Bones & Butter

Poetry by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Tamar Adler An Everlasting Meal