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A carefully structured collection of abstract and conceptual poetry concerned with the nature of reality and relationships.

Raben’s first book-length offering may better be termed a project than a collection, and an ambitious one at that. Composed of 10 thematically distinct chapters, the volume offers a complex, nonlinear structure in which tightly entwined images, phrases and themes from each of the seemingly self-contained chapters shoot out tendrils that loop and coil themselves around the stalks of neighboring chapters. Insistently recursive and nonnarrative, the poems, taken together, read not unlike an untended villanelle gone to seed. There may not be a story, but there’s rhythm and a message. Amid it all, Raben’s voice is eminently postmodern; in addition to recursion and fragmentation, she employs highly irregular, subtle rhyme and meter, while working with short but richly syllable-dense lines. Her characters and perspectives shift frequently, exploring the same question from first-, second- and third-person, sometimes in a matter of a few lines. Time, her narrators understand, is relative—“for a moment we were the same / as we had always been / then the hours became shorter / and the second loses time”—but so too are constructed identities: “I allowed my eyes / to be painted on / chiseled and chipped / it’s harder to undo a life / made from stone.” In her most direct philosophical statements, Raben strikes a Whitmanesque chord: “We are the paint that / makes the painting / not the mind / and not the hand / we are the very stuff of life / together on the sand.” While sharing some philosophical ground with Whitman (though Raben ultimately evinces more pessimism), she evokes Alice Fulton in her abstractions and, at times, calls to mind Charles Simic’s surrealism. Occasionally, the abstractness crosses over into abstruseness, and despite the many elements of its larger structure, the collection feels incomplete. Still, Raben has a solidly crafted, enjoyable and appropriately challenging debut.

A bold, exhausting but highly rewarding experiment in stripping away the illusory world in search of only the most essential qualities of the human experience.

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Raben (Terracotta Smoke, 2011) ponders motherhood and beginnings in a collection rich with Christian imagery and alliteration.

Though unpunctuated, most of the free verse poems of Raben’s second collection are written in complete sentences, as demarcated by capitalization. One notable exception is “Transcending”—all one run-on sentence built around three “When I” statements, with no concluding verb. Instead, the stanzas are alternative definitions of the title. The following poem, “When I Sleep,” echoes the conditional phrasing and dreamy tone. Spiritual language infuses many of the entries, especially in the first two sections. The Virgin Mary has a recurring symbolic presence; e.g., “I was completely pure / and the shower was just a symbol / for my Madonna-like purity.” “Mother Mountain” blends creation imagery with an allusion to the Sacred Heart to suggest a feminine deity: “Her heart beats out a message for me / She has created me / out of her molten blood.” Confirmation of this mother/creator’s identity comes in “Peace to All Mothers,” which insists, oxymoronically, “She has not given birth.” Throughout, Mary functions as an emblem of both innocence and sacred maternity. Meanwhile, “He Was Waiting” imagines Jesus’ thoughts on the cross. Raben also compares saints past and present in the lines “Mother Teresa / Mary Magdalene / In between a sinner and celestial angel.” The poems in the “Something Out of Nothing” section (perhaps referencing the doctrine of creation ex nihilo) dwell on mornings—specifically, breakfast. This works well in “Creation,” where a hard-boiled egg stands in for a newly revealed world; the narrator tells us, “A little pressure and the shell slips / A perfect white oval.” However, other breakfast-themed poems, especially the comic but literal “A Lonely Pancake,” seem trivial. The collection’s middle sections, their poems composed of vague vignettes, feel less essential. Yet they are more memorable sonically, with striking, short phrases and successful alliteration like “Women / with window shades / and wings” and “Crawling out of a coffin…Cheering clusters of crowds.”

Sound and subject serve to unite most of these spiritually resonant poems.

Go to Kirkus Reviews Website for Spark In Time