By Jessica Purdy

Editor’s Note: This week, in lieu of poems, we present a review of a new anthology of DC-area poets.

The Music of the Aztecs is an anthology of poems by the “Magic Theater Poetry Club.” This is a group comprising Washington, DC area poets. Each voice is distinct and carries the sections, some longer than others, with a combination of themes. I found mythmaking, dreams, and memory to be some commonly shared ones. The introduction by David B Churchill (also one of the anthologized poets) states: “This book can change your life.” Whether the book can be taken medicinally or not, the poems included are often reminders that as flawed humans, we have shared commonalities, and we can take solace in that. From the ekphrastic to the re-animation of memories and myths, these poems will likely strike an emotional chord with readers.

Marianne Szlyk’s poems in the section titled “Rumors of Stars” are like instructions for paintings. An artist (Edward Hopper comes to mind) would easily render their images, populated as they are with the lives of humans experiencing their aloneness in the world even when they clearly have relationships. “Behind blinds a man lingers/ over coffee…His wife lies awake beneath/ blankets as white as dreams/ of summer’s clouds” from “Astoria at Dawn.” And they’re poems of a kind of desperation for hope, as in the poem “The Summer After the Bridge Closed”: “Without hawks or humans,/ birds have no need to fly/…Yet the grass is greener…Long grass sways in the wind./ It flowers.” Szlyk responds to photography and music in her poems as well. You need not see or hear the other forms of art to feel a connection in these poems.

“A Sibyl of Fortune” is the section of Jan Claire Starkey’s poems which move in and out of surreal imagery and memory. From “Magic Castles”: “I remember the little girl I was/ by the creek when the snow/ and I made canopies, magic castles–/…I make a circle of little loops,/winding motions of thoughts/ to hang myself on.” The poems stand out with their clarity of emotion. There are poems based upon the stories of Icarus as well as Eurydice. They enhance our knowledge of these myths. The reader will feel these poems as they see them come to life in their mind’s eye. In the poem “Kingdom without Space,” one feels a connection with the lines “I fly like swimming:/ there is no difference/ between air and liquid.” Having felt this sensation before, it was gratifying to read it in the poet’s words. One gets the sense of kinship in this poet’s work. Like old photos come to life.

John MacDonald’s “Small Gods” section felt to me like mythmaking. There are wishes and dreams of a world that doesn’t exist, or could exist metaphorically. As in the poem “Imaginary Sun”:

Make me a diamond

from pure twilight

built on early planets

shining

as we,

in darkness,

content ourselves

with imaginary

sun.

In the section “The Music of the Aztecs” by Ethan Goffman, the poet offers up laughter as a salve in the first poem of this section. The poems carry that humor throughout but there is a darkness that it’s born from. In “Laughter Makes the World Go Round”:  “I’d love to spread laughter,/ …Laughter is double edged/ Anger is its father….” This speaker understands the truths of human history. In “Taxonomy of History” humor is once again used to illuminate the broad scale of our wrongdoing: “There are three main branches in the study of History:/ The History of the Past/ The History of What Happened/ The History of What the Hell Happened!

As an anthology of poets who work closely together, the poems make thematic connections across the varied voices. Annie Finch, Reid Baron, Alan Britt, and David Churchill’s poems have a commanding presence in the framework of the anthology as well. When poets work together, there is a synergistic effect on the writing. It is clear that the poems have benefited from their origins in this community of poets and the reader will hopefully be changed emotionally after reading them. As Annie Finch’s single poem “Spells” states: “Over and over it answers me.”

The Music of the Aztecs is available from the editors website at https://ponyonedog.com/ or from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Music-Aztecs-David-Barnes-Churchill/dp/0975309544

Jessica Purdy teaches Poetry Workshops at Southern New Hampshire University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her poems and reviews have appeared in many journals, including gravel, The Plath Poetry Project, The Ekphrastic Review, The Light Ekphrastic, SurVision, The Wild Word, isacoustic, Nixes Mate Review, Bluestem Magazine, The Telephone Game, The Tower Journal, and The Cafe Review, among others. Her chapbook, Learning the Names, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Her books STARLAND and Sleep in a Strange House were both released by Nixes Mate Books consecutively, in 2017 and 2018. 

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