A review of No Angels by Mary Makofske

Reviewed by J.R. Solonche

No Angels
by Mary Makofske
Kelsay Books
ISBN: 978-1-63980-342-2

Okay, I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t like long poems. I never have. You can blame my 6th grade teacher who forced us to read Evangeline. You can blame my 12th grade high school English teacher who forced us to read Beowulf. You can blame my college Medieval Lit professor who forced us to read Gawain and the Green Knight (2530 lines) and Piers Plowman (7300 lines). Yes, both! Although I admit it was an elective course, I did almost drop it. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And what a relief it was to discover Williams and Creeley and Roethke and Wright and Bly and Bishop and Lowell and Larkin and Yeats and all the Chinese and Japanese short form masters. Bless their souls.

But I do like “No Angels” – the title poem of award-winning poet Mary Makofske’s new book. A poem of nearly 300 lines based on the trial transcripts and newspaper articles of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, it held my attention as compellingly as a sonnet or a villanelle. And I like the other long poem in Part I of this three-part collection, “Matilda Lawrence,” perhaps even more. It tells the story of the escape, recapture, and ensuing court case involving a mulatto slave in the free-state of Ohio in 1837. Except for the first and last stanzas, it is told in the riveting first-person voice of Matilda herself, which Makofske so uncannily captures.

There is so much more to like here, too many wonderful poems to single out, but I have chosen “Nasreen’s Story” also from Part I to quote in full. It’s a masterful variation on the ghazal, the oldest poetic form still in use. It relies on a repeated word, which gives the form a hypnotic effect. The name imitates the sound of a dying wounded gazelle, and the form has roots in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, and Hebrew. It is clear why it won first place in the Atlanta Review annual poetry contest, so I offer it to lure you into a complete and thorough appreciation for Makofske’s craft, her exquisite eye and ear for detail, and her deeply felt empathy for all things human.

Nasreen’s Story

In the converted barn we gather to hear Nasreen
tell her version of what Iraqis call “the collapse.”
Before, things were bad, very bad, but everyone knew
to keep quiet, be patient awaiting Saddam’s collapse.
She struggles with words to express her shock and awe,
watching her city’s buildings, bridges, lives, collapse.
But also jubilation, faith that the yoke of oppression
had lifted, Saddam’s statue yanked down, its collapse
reverberating through the land. Though soon her brother
was taken, tortured, returned only to collapse
in a corner, refusing to leave the house again. How to keep
teaching her students English, after the collapse 
of hope? As she waited at the bus stop, a car pulled up, a bullet
ripped into the man beside her, whose collapse
she knew to ignore, staring straight ahead, grateful she
was not the one whose life bled out on the pavement. Collapse
time to this room, where we are safe but shaken, where someone
asks, What can we do? And again, the collapse 
of hope when Nasreen says, You also are powerless in this collapse.
Your government decides what stands, what will collapse.

Parts II and III are comprised mostly of lyric poems as opposed to the narrative poems of Part I. They range over a wide variety of subjects and emotions, from remembrances of the poet’s parents (“My Mother, Bathing,” “My Father Wanders”) to her grandchild (“Speechless”), from the dream-like world of nature (“The Owls Consider Their Kind”) to the nightmare world of post-nature (“After a Class Discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”).

“The Poems Are Vanishing” is the first poem of the book, but by the time we have read the last, “This One Life,” we are grateful that from the hands and heart and mind of Mary Makofske, we can say that the poems are back.

About the reviewer: Professor Emeritus of English at SUNY Orange, J.R. Solonche has published poetry in more than 500 magazines, journals, and anthologies since the early 70s, including The New Criterion, The New York Times, The Threepenny Review, The American Scholar, The Progressive, Poetry Northwest, Salmagundi, The Literary Review, The Sun, The American Journal of Poetry, Poet Lore, Poetry East, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and Free Verse. His poems have been read on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac and other radio shows and have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, German, and Korean. He is the author of Beautiful Day (Deerbrook Editions), Won’t Be Long (Deerbrook Editions),  Heart’s Content (Five Oaks Press), Invisible (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by Five Oaks Press), The Black Birch (Kelsay Books), I, Emily Dickinson & Other Found Poems(Deerbrook Editions), In Short Order (Kelsay Books), Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday(Deerbrook Editions), True Enough  (Dos Madres Press), The Jewish Dancing Master (Ravenna Press), If You Should See Me Walking on the Road (Kelsay Books), In a Public Place (Dos Madres Press), To Say the Least (Dos Madres Press), The Time of Your Life (Adelaide Books), The Porch Poems (Deerbrook Editions , 2020 Shelf Unbound Notable Indie Book), Enjoy Yourself  (Serving House Books), Piano Music (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by Serving House Books),  For All I Know (Kelsay Books), A Guide of the Perplexed (Serving House Books), The Moon Is the Capital of the World (Word Tech Communications), Years Later(Adelaide Books), The Dust (Dos Madres Press), Selected Poems 2002-2021 (nominated for the National Book Award by Serving House Books), Life-Size (Kelsay Books), The Five Notebooks of Zhao Li (Adelaide Books), Coming To (Word Tech Communications/David Robert Books), The Lost Notebook of Zhao Li (Dos Madres Press, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), Around Here (Kelsay Books), It’s About Time (Deerbrook Editions), The Book of a Small Fisherman(Shanti Arts Publishing), The Dreams of the Gods (Kelsay Books), Alone (David Robert Books), and coauthor with his wife Joan I. Siegel of Peach Girl: Poems for a Chinese Daughter (Grayson Books). He lives in the Hudson Valley.