By Abriana Jetté
Sayreville, NJ, USA

I am thinking these days of space and place and how the two concepts encompass entirely different roads that can’t help but intersect. In fact, they go beyond intersecting, they are torqued, sometimes knotted together. What inhabits the space between the places we love? How much space do we like to keep between places? What places seem to suffocate because of a lack of space?

The space of a poem refers to a few things: the space the poem occupies on the page – that is, its aesthetic form. To determine this type of space, readers don’t even have to actually read the poem – they just have to look at it. How is it composed? How many stanzas? How many lines per stanza? Are the lines long? Short? How does the shape of the poem direct the movement of our eyes across the page? Once we’ve determined this space, and the way that this space is bound to influence our reading, we can move on to other considerations of space: the space between words, the space between themes, the space between speaker and content, the space constructed between speaker and place.

Place takes us somewhere. Place is where, but place also means placement. Poetic verse demands attention to semantic placement. The placement of a word and its relationship to the words that surround it determine a poem’s meter. Writers place us, often, en media res, in the middle of the action and the place. 

The significance of place and space oscillate in each poem of Chen Chen, Nancy Reddy, and Jan Verberkmoes. Their poems rely on rhythm and accuracy, and in this way they are poets who sing. Individually, they create auspicious, lyrical poems, and when joined together here in this space and place for contemporary poetry, their work reads symphonic and enigmatic. 


Regardless of the forms and strategies used to compose individual poems, the speaker of Chen Chen’s poetry remains consistently sharp-edged and introspective. For instance, while the use of litany and repetition drives “Self-Portrait With & Without” and “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey”, “Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon” employs unrhymed couplets and free-verse. All the while, each poem offers introspective meditations on the relationships that propel the speaker’s emotive and psychological urges. No matter the form, Chen Chen’s voice is at once playful and somber, and always revelatory.

Chen Chen
Remnants of the unsaid permeate through “Self-Portrait With & Without”, which details all the “withs” the speaker has accumulated: “with my mother’s / worry”, “with the youngest brother”, “with cities fueled by scars.” In reliving the experiences of the “earthquake in my other country”, “aunt’s calls from China”, and the speaker’s “hands / begging for straighter teeth / lighter skin / blue eyes, green eyes, / any eyes brighter…”, readers begin to understand what the speaker has done without: acceptance, love, desire fulfilled, male companionship. 

I like to think of the “without” that pulses through the poem as Mona Lisa’s smile: that which compels us to come back and look again at what else transpires amongst the background. After all, the poem bears the claim “self-portrait”, a particularly composed slice of the self, not to be confused with the full self.  On the page, the poem appears to be framed in its language. As the speaker continues to tell us what he has had, that which he has done without intensifies.

“Self-Portrait With & Without” details how the speaker lived without his father for a year “because he had to move away”, and also specifies a “white boy” that caught the speaker’s eye in the ninth grade. The admiration was not reciprocated. The following sentences are repeated twice throughout the poem: 

                                     “With the white boy
                                     I liked. With him calling me ugly.”

The otherness that plagues the speaker’s consciousness is clear. Not only has he done without his father and family in China, he has also lived a life without feeling welcome. Throughout “Self-Portrait With & Without”, the speaker craves the contentment that comes with acceptance. What the speaker has is that itch of discomfort within one’s own skin: what the speaker wants, what the speaker doesn’t have, what the speaker is without, is a way to soothe that itch.

Perhaps “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey” poses as some relief. An ode to the lover, the poem’s syntactical construction relies on the coordinating conjunction “for” to begin each of its lines. Blossoming between moments of simple, narrative statements and elongated, almost exasperated descriptions of the lover’s habitual motions, the poem is unabashed in its intention of praise. It begins: “For I will consider my boyfriend Jeffrey”, and continues to consider Jeffrey throughout, “for he dances in his seat while driving”, “lets his beard grow”, “washes with holistic care his whole foxy face”, for “he shaves” / “he shaves” / he shaves.”

Within the poem, repetition creates pressure on the act of shaving. A process of growth and removal, the speaker often helps hold the buzzing razor to the “back of his neck”, and in this shared action, shaving turns into a metaphor for how Jeffrey and the speaker’s relationship has transformed. Their bond is intimate, layered, thick, tough; it is one of regrowth, one of care.

“For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey” and “Self Portrait With & Without” deliver their narrative in the space of a single stanza. There is very little breathing room within the landscape of each poem – lines stretch out on to the page, guiding us to finish each sentence before taking a breath. The form mimics the existentiality of the speaker’s thoughts. To consider notions of self-acceptance and love, some type of containment is necessary. Through this form, what is said means what it means and also means much more.

“Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon” questions this idea of what is said, what is meant, and what said thought makes one think. The poem’s narrative focuses on another’s mother falling sick, which prompts the speaker to think about his own ill mother, amongst many other things.

It begins with the speaker meditating on how “sick” is also jargon for something “cool”, as is “ill”, and from there we journey with the speaker through this theme of there being many definitions of “sickness”, including the speaker’s mother’s battle with her heart and the other’s mother’s battle with pancreatic cancer. Midway through, the speaker confesses that actually “I hate how words / get outdated or we outgrow them.” Language is as malleable as the self in the poem, and the self is subject to affliction. In this way, the poem wants readers to consider not only how we measure pain, but also how we talk about pain. Loss, or the fear of losing, compels much of the speaker’s thoughts.

Chen Chen’s poetry inhabits a genderqueer space that redefines conventional standards of how a poem should behave. Throughout much of his work, what once was will be no longer, whether this is in regards to personal vulnerabilities, familial relationships (between distance and disconnection), or the speaker’s personal obligation to write.

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions 2017).


Nancy Reddy’s latest collection, Acadiana, details the culture, customs, and superstitions of the mostly-Cajun region of Louisiana of the same name. The book blends voodoo-like, sardonic meditations as it submits to the power of the river. Acadiana examines landscape through language, and through this lens readers encounter the stuff of legends – legends of fantasy and reality. The narrative is determined by water: a hurricane (Katrina? – I do not think this matters much, it could be any – it is every) floods and destroys the town, and as the story goes the river that once provided comfort becomes the source of terror and fear.

Nancy Reddy

“Dirge” reads as a lament for the dead, a lyrical meditation on destruction. Beginning with the action of birds ascending and breaking the sky, the atmosphere of the poem alarms readers that things are not how they are meant to be. Departures are abreast. People and animals are leaving. Gone. Mother Nature is brewing a terrible storm, though, the thought of Mother Nature throughout the collection is more akin to Gd’s might. The town moves through religious belief. A majority of the poems plant their roots behind a saint or martyr or legend. “Dirge”, however, places itself in the before and the after of the hurricane’s path.

As the speaker describes it, the storm came
                                     “…howling like the seam ripped out
                                     and all the under waters and the roaring gods”

splintered and bobbed and flooded. By the time it left, “the dead lifted in their rotten boxes”, left wading “in storm water.” The place the speaker and her community have survived is “raw and wind-worn” – it is a “weeping sound like that.” Reddy’s descriptions are cinematic and pulling.

“Holy Week, Acadiana”, mixes the voice of prayer with images of devastation. It begins:
                                     “One whole week no air moved in town.”

In contrast to “Dirge”, which explores the physical effects of the storm, “Holy Week, Acadiana” invites readers into the speaker’s intimate thoughts. It locates readers in a church, but the tension of its narrative arises from within the speaker’s mind. In this space of spiritual contemplation, we grapple with the ethics behind prayer. The speaker wonders:

                                     “…if you prayed for mercy
                                     or wished away a strong storm’s landfall,
                                     weren’t you also wishing harm          

                                     on someone else’s town?”

The speaker was raised to recognize that one couldn’t just “wish away the sorrow / the Lord saw fit to grant you”: an acceptance of living in a storm-prone place. The poem describes faith failing and fulfilled as in the last two stanzas, the speaker undergoes a spiritual awakening. She wakes up “wailing”, “the Lord a light inside” the “ribcage.” This moment of epiphany illuminates much of the collection. Readers bear witness to how the speaker digests such spiritual knowledge.

Reddy’s descriptions contain sharp, precise accuracies so intimately seen they transport readers into each movement of scene. Acadiana bears the burden of hurricane trauma and survival democratically, offering equal attention to the suffering of the land and the suffering of the people.

Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PleiadesBlackbirdThe Iowa ReviewSmartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.


Through its profusion of consistent inconsistent spacing between words and lines, Jan Verberkmoes takes seriously the intricacies of individual line and its effect on the whole. Carefully nuanced breaths interrupt our reading, and these spaces instruct readers on each poem’s individual rhythm. A subdued eeriness haunts much of her work.

Jan Verberkmoes

In “Firewatch”, readers are placed in the “hot house           of August”, and look out of the speaker’s room, which resides above the trees, at the “wash of hayfield”, and the “gnarl of the town beyond.” The town is “bridgeless”, which adds to the aura of feeling stuck that permeates the poem. The heat presses down on readers. It bloats a sheep, which rots in

                                      “ a pit of white          in the tawny grass”

and a young boy, “mouth wet          from a beating” sleeps in the torridness behind a barn. Everything within the world of the poem has its place: the heat, the sheep, the boy, the wind. It is the speaker that doesn’t belong, can’t figure out what to do. The poem’s last line reveals that the speaker is “ashamed           to look         like anything at all.”

“Firewatch” speaks to “Drought.” Both poems feature a speaker struck with the feeling of loss. They seem to loop around one another. “Drought” begins with the memory of shaving the

                                     “red hair           so short” that the “father confuses
                                     the daughter    for a soldier…”

in the dog days of summer. The heat is the same heat that suffocates in “Firewatch.” Both poems feature a speaker struck with the feeling of loss. In “Firewatch”, zoned out in reverie, gazing from her room overlooking the town, the speaker asks herself:

                                     Weren’t you just holding                  a baby?”

It is a startling question – one that strikes readers inquisitiveness to reread the previous lines again. In “Drought”, another mention of a child adds to the speaker’s narrative. After describing the way a house lit “up / in a summer burn”, the speaker and company run to “the far side of the lake” and wade, waiting, inhaling so that the

                                     “voice travels          inward,     back into the belly.”

There is grave pressure to escape. To remain silent. To surrender to the heat. “Remember?” The speaker asks, rubbing her skin where she was separated. She wonders: “who is holding who?”

Verberkmoes writes poems that read like novels. They are rich with character, content, mystery. They ask to be read together to gather a full picture. Darkness, a heavy darkness like that which comes from a plume of smoke, rests purposefully between blank spaces.

An Oregon native, Jan Verberkmoes currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where she is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi and a candidate for an M.F.A. in poetry. Her poems are forthcoming or have recently appeared in EcotonePleiades, Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry and OpinionNashville Review, and The Adroit Journal. She has received scholarships and grants from the Fulbright Program, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop. She will be a 2018-19 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University.

Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals, including the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg ReviewThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe American Literary Review, and 491 Magazine. She teaches at St. Johns's University and the City University of New York, writes a regular column for Stay Thirsty Magazine that focuses on emerging poets and she is the editor of The Best Emerging Poets of 2013 that debuted on Amazon as the #3 Best Seller in Poetry Anthologies, the author of 50 WHISPERS that debuted on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Women's Poetry and the recently released 50 WHISPERS - Vol. II. Her newest anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. 1, will be released in the Fall of 2018.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.