Reviews of chapbooks by Kelly Scarff and Eric M.R. Webb | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Reviews of chapbooks by Kelly Scarff and Eric M.R. Webb

Scarff’s Mother Russia is especially compelling

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Esteemed local poet Judith Vollmer, in publicity notes for Kelly Scarff’s chapbook Mother Russia (Kattywompus Press), states that “the lyrical energies … make me want more poems of hers to hold, read and re-read.” Scarff, of Greensburg, uses powerfully concise writing to explore emotions raised by a missionary trip taken with her pastor-mom to an impoverished Russian orphanage. It’s a thoughtful read that necessarily considers the mother-daughter dynamic.

Scarff’s speaker questions faith and the effectiveness of the work she’s doing so far from home. In “Russian Missionary Trip, 2006,” she writes, “Think of your mother, of religion. / That’s why you’re in Russia anyway. / To spread religion. Like a soft butter. / Or maybe a disease. / You don’t know yet.” The candor continues in “Where the Missionaries Start,” which begins, “There are seven of us, / like the days of the week. And we all hate / certain parts of one another.” Her directness emphasizes that embracing humanity is often a work-in-progress.

Many poems focus on bonds made with orphaned Yulia, bringing a physicality to the work. In “June Bugs,” Yulia “sprints toward me, / the kite stealing the wind / of her movement / until it unfurls through the air / like a June Bug in the summer’s heat.” The image, like much of Mother Russia, will indeed leave readers wanting more.

Another recent chapbook, How to Lose Faith, by Fairfax, Va.’s Eric M.R. Webb and beautifully published by local indie publisher Blast Furnace Press, is more of a mixed bag. It also strives, at times, to sort out a speaker’s relationship to god and the universe, but more abstractly.

Poems like “Virga,” “The Solipsist & God” and “The Angry Star” are thoughtfully existential, with Webb writing: “I want a god / who breathed me / into being and set / me spinning. / It makes me / angry when no / one answers.” But the symbolism Webb works into these poems feels overwrought and unsatisfying.

A more narrative favorite, “Poem for Elizabeth,” concerns a disabled second-grade classmate who “wore glasses like round platters / tight up against her face” and was teased as “Flat-Face.” The poem’s honest contemplation of childhood misdeeds comes across as tender, while “Poem Written in Paris” stays grounded with description that hearkens to thoughts of “idealism, love and noise.” The Rumi-inspired How to Lose Faith often strives for metaphysical heights so difficult to reach. 

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