Francine Sterle and the Age Old Question of Art, Worth, and Meaning

Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.

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19th century Parisian artist Edgar Degas’s ‘Dancer with Red Stockings’. Degas is famous for his paintings of ballerinas. Via edgar-degas.org – Thank You.

The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.

Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.

Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.

Nude In Winter_SterleI do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.

It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.

And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.

Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)

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A cropped image of 20th century Polish-French modern artist Balthus’s disturbing ‘The Guitar Lesson’. Via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.

Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?

Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.

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Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s famous ‘Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)’. Image via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.


The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.

Little Writer With Big Kick: L. N. Holmes’s Otherworldly Collisions

Like many with and before me, one of my first compelling reads as a youth was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In the beginning chapters, there is a most enthralling moment – illustrated by an ant and a piece of string – where Mrs. Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit explain how a clever loophole in time and space allows them to travel the universe.

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Illustration of ‘the wrinkle’ – Source: A Wrinkle in Time

We know it as “the tesseract”, or, “the fifth dimension”. In reality i.e. geometry, a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube, consisting of 8 cells, 24 faces, 32 edges, and 16 vertices. It is, in short, a cubic prism. But at this explanation, the tesseract looses its mystique and magic. In the book we understand the tesseract only as this: The way to bridge the gap between worlds.

In reading L. N. Holmes’s too short but gripping chapbook Space, Collisions, I was hearkened back to this moment. The moment where somehow, incredibly, far flung worlds are brought together, and the canyon that once sat between them is closed.

Space Collisions“Across the water, I can see a mosque built from tan and green stones. Further along the shore, cruise ships and freighters have been plucked out of the water and deposited onto the sand, like beached whales. People dot the shoreline, mirroring us, waiting for us on the other side. […]

On our shore, one of the men with the guns shoots off a round toward the sky. I bolt inside my house. From the window, I see everyone scatter and disappear like crabs scuttling into their holes. I haven’t seen any crabs for days. The gunman stands alone on the beach, abandoned by friend and foe alike. Everything is afraid as we wait for the unknown.”

With publication by Ghost City Press, L. N. Holmes’s chapbook is a mere 14 pages, with only 9 pages of story material. It’s small. That being said, Space, Collisions is available for free download. And it is worth it. The book contains three stories: “When Continents Collide”, “Trace”, and “Spacefall”, and though all are good, it is really “When Continents Collide” that is the star of the show. In the story, a man living on the shores of North Carolina waits and watches the collision of the continents of North America and Africa. The tale is like origami, folding into shape; from the sands, he sees the country of Morocco steadily slouching forward from across the Atlantic, and the final moment before the tumultuous slamming of the land masses is so visually serene and moving, one almost forgets it’s a death. I found this story immensely emotive, and striking. There is not much explanation as to why this event is occurring, with the players in the tale themselves full of confusion and uncertainty; however, this is one of the great self-determinations of short story writing. The reader and writer know there is limited time, that things must proceed quickly, and this limitation allows a huge berth of creative freedom. The writer must get to the point, the message, and all other thoughts and burdens are caved into the purpose.

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Portrait of L. N. Holmes, winner of the Apparition Lit April Flash Fiction Contest. Photo provided by L. N. Holmes.

The other two pieces “Trace” and “Spacefall” take up little more than two pages. “Trace” is poetic and nebulous; “Spacefall” is equally poetic, but less nebulous, with a definite tale being told. They exist as a nightcap to the emotion and adventure. Both are finely written, and both leave a sense of more. Along that note, if anything is wrong with this chapbook it is simply that there’s not enough of it. L. N. Holmes has a talented pen and a great imagination, but this chapbook needs a little more meat on its bones.

It’s Four out of Five stars for Space, Collisions. L. N. Holmes is fresh off the boat in the writing world, but nonetheless is bending space and time. So, who knows, maybe by tomorrow she’ll be a best selling author.


Full Disclosure: I was contacted by L. N. Holmes and was asked to give an honest review. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and maybe you’ll make the cut!


The featured image is a photo of the Andromedids meteor shower. In L. N. Holmes’s flash fiction “Spacefall” the Andromedids are present in two women’s sense of love and pining. Source/Photographer: from the International Meteor Organization, taken over East Point Lighthouse, NJ by Robert Lunsford – Thank You. 

EJ Koh Brings The Gentle Thunder – A Chapbook Review

What moves us is already inside us. When we feel that shifting and churning in ourA Lesser Love_EJ Koh bellies and chests, brought to life by words, we are awakened. In EJ Koh’s Pleiades Prize winning chapbook, A Lesser Love, Koh doesn’t cut corners. She goes for the heart – the center of life – and rumbles the foundations. In all of this, somehow Koh manages to soothe, to bring peace, to initiate both tranquility and uncertainty. A Lesser Love was a fabulous read.

“He pointed to himself and then to a patch of weeds / to show the difference between Man & Plant. / He gestured at the space between his index & thumb, / and said, there has to be a middle point, which would be Animal.

In order: the root & the fox & the infant. / He looked at me then and said, / I will not live to know / if there’s a room between Man & God.”

55 stirring poems broken down into three segments: “Heaven,” “War,” and “Love,” I must say, after reading poetry nearly everyday for two decades, EJ Koh surprised me. After several years of stacking the chapbooks, wondering if I’ve read it all, right on time comes Koh, with new insights, new verses, new emotive subjects. Koh tackles everything on her mind, swerving around binaries and carefully building an intricate work of questions, theologies, fears, and ideologies. She embraces the blurring of time, taking the past, present, future, and compounds them together to reveal the whole. She wields both Korean and American life with ease, yet never the sugarcoat-er, tells the truth. Her truth. And her truth has doubt with grace, power with humility; EJ Koh swept me away in an afternoon.

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Portrait of EJ Koh, Winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Image Credit: Word Mothers

As expressed in several pieces, in particular Testimony Over Tape Recorder”, “South Korean Ferry Accident”, and “Retrograde”, Koh is not one to shy away from difficult events and matters. EJ Koh knows what she is doing. Assured, but not pompous. She has a message, a reasoning for what she is saying. Though her writing could be described as ‘flowery’, never do her words seem irrational; there is a solid logical framework around many, if not most of her poems. Even if EJ Koh didn’t know where she was going when she started writing, she certainly got there. All is smooth, point by point, moment to moment, like links in a chain.

There are a few great confessional poems in A Lesser Love as well. “Blurb” stands out strongly in this arena. Throughout this chapbook, I felt for Koh. Not in anyway that could be construed as sympathetic – no. Koh avoids these routes. I felt for Koh in a way that was intimate, and reflective. So many times while turning the pages of A Lesser Love I was startled by lines that seemed as though they were me; parts of myself constantly leapt out and caught me off-guard. And this, this sensation of ‘off-guard’, is the aim of poetry. We read poems to be comforted, yes, but more so, we read poems to be enlightened.

Would I recommend this chapbook? A resounding “Yes” sounds off. EJ Koh has hit the ground running with her first chapbook. I very much look forward to reading her work for (hopefully) years to come.

EJ KOH
Another portrait of the talented EJ Koh. Image Credit: Sundress Publications – Thank you.

Five out of five stars for A Lesser Love. 


The featured image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. EJ Koh won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize For Poetry for her chapbook: A Lesser Love. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA