House of the Tomato

If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato. -- Erica Jong

Regional website for the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, in partnership with the Reader's Loft.


Celebrating, sharing and inspiring poetry throughout Wisconsin.

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Tori's published poetry, reviews, essays and other work.




I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

by Kelle Groom 

I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Free Press, 2011) is the poignant memoir of Kelle Groom. Her life, as she tells it, is defined by the birth of her son Tommy and his double loss. As a young, unmarried woman, she gives him away for adoption only to learn soon after that he dies from leukemia at the heart-breaking age of two.

The memoir submerges us in Groom’s search for Tommy, and through Tommy, herself. Each short chapter acts as a small eddy as she tries to make sense of the course of her life. The chapters are not chronological. We ebb and flow with Groom from her young adult days of amorphous drunkenness and tragic consequences to her later mature success as a poet with something significant to say and back to her carefree girlish years.

As a girl she moves with her mother, father and brother from the ocean to the desert and back. No matter what happens to her, her parents are unflaggingly present. Groom is especially attached to her maternal grandparents with whom she spends summers on Cape Cod. The title of the book comes from these happier times when she is a bridesmaid in her uncle’s wedding.

My mother drove me to Boston and bought me a beautiful blue dress that touched the floor; I wore the ocean in the shape of a girl.

Her son Tommy is adopted by the sister and brother-in-law of her father. Groom is afraid to ask about him and spends a good part of her life constrained by the silence. The ocean, and water in general, is a recurring theme in her memoir. Groom is “ocean girl,” telling her story in a “quiet, blue voice,” lending all she experiences an “aquatic distance."

She is raped more than once. She is sent to an alcohol treatment shelter. She works in a health food store, a homeless shelter. She gets counseling. She goes back to college. She almost marries. She meets people who mean something. She writes. She falls in love. She volunteers at a grief center for children where the children teach her what she couldn’t seem to learn for herself.

Underneath the memoir is a mystery. Was Tommy’s death the result of environmental factors? Groom plumbs the facts, the secrets, her own observations. She watches home movies, discovering more about what’s behind what she knows of her relatives and family history.

In I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, Groom wrings from language its touching essence. She forgets herself back to the beginning, and, like a grief-stricken child, she teaches herself to matter in the process. For her, writing the memoir is a way to remember Tommy. Each memory, an epiphany, is like a small poem. And in the end, in Tommy’s celluloid eyes, she finds herself.

The arc of his eyelids are little beds where I rest my eyes.




by Ida Stewart

There is an expression that you are the place you come from. This is especially true of Ida Stewart and her poignant outpourings of home, heart and homily, as collected in her first book of poetry, Gloss(Perugia Press, 2011)

It is also true that you are the way in which you say it.

Gloss is a Greek word for “tongue” or “language.” Reading Gloss we understand a woman honing a new way of saying what she means or comprehends.

Stewart is from West Virginia, home of the Appalachian Mountains, and the mountaintop is a real presence, punctuating the collection with a recurring appearance:

The mountaintop solemnly
The mountaintop as expression or choking on her own words
The mountaintop as a magician falling for her own trick
The mountaintop unmoored
The mountaintop sends a postcard from The Breaks Interstate Park
The mountaintop as is

The mountaintop is mother, activist and counselor, adjuring Stewart to “find her center,” her voice, her alphabet. Her alphabet includes a series of “glossary” poems, in which Stewart explores root words, root causes, building a new kind of vocabulary to discuss her longing homesickness. The mountaintop is under siege, and Stewart defends it with words, with language, with a singsong celebration of all that it is.

The first poem of the collection is “Ginseng,” a wild hymn to the “forest-body, heart and mind.”

You are real and dream and dissolute.
I mean you are a tangle and a song.

Stewart plunges language, the vernacular of the mountain, exploring other iterations of gloss. In the title poem “Gloss,” she deals with the speaking in tongues:

The clamor from the mouth—as in glossolalia
words untrapped and tumbling: the spirit
into and out of the body from the margins.

In “Bless Out,” gloss is annotation, words in the margin.

The trouble is finding language that tells the truth.
The margins are wide here, and steep;

In West Virginia it rains so hard the ground can feel like it’s literally falling away. In Gloss, Stewart chronicles the slippery washout, the loss, with a breathtaking propulsion of poetic expression. Perhaps she leaves home. Perhaps she leaves a relationship. Perhaps the mountaintop developers win. Perhaps the wildness leaves her. Just a little.

But she knows where she comes from and holds onto the song of it:

I need you like/I need another vowel in my head another/home in this hope-heap of hope upon hope/that becomes me my knoll my knoll-edge/my backbone my hymn-knell to this earth.


The Chalk Circle: Validation of Diversity

edited by Tara L. Masih

The United States is facing a new period of unprecedented ethnic and racial diversity. Barack Obama as President is emblematic. The country now represents first, second and third generation emigrants from around the globe. Our melting pot days are behind us. The impetus can no longer be homogeneity but validation of the diversity that makes us different or “other.” The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2012), edited by Tara L. Masih, gives voice to these diverse identities as they explore their place in the world and how we might better connect.

“Since I’m a mix of Japanese and white with whispers of black and Cherokee, nobody ever knows where I’m from, but they know I’m not from here, and here is always where I am.” —Katrina Grigg-Saito

Forging an identity is wrenching business. Made more difficult by a shifting global world. We encounter “strangers” with more frequency. We fear what we do not know.

It’s been over 30 years since I’ve had a social studies class. At the time the subject was relegated to reading a dusty textbook even though the Vietnam conflict was just ending. Most adults didn’t talk to us about the situation, with the exception of my favorite teacher. Her husband had just returned from Vietnam, and she shared with us some of their struggles as a couple as he learned to re-acclimatize. She told us ruefully about one evening making dinner and how she accidentally dropped a slotted spoon to the floor. The loud clang of it rocketed her poor husband into full-bore panic. That story told me more about conflict than any textbook could.

Living in Wisconsin—as insular and “whitebready” (Mary Elizabeth Parker) as you can get—we have seen our share of ethnic changes over the years. The area was first settled by Oneidas, American Indians forced out of the state of New York. Next came waves of immigrants from Europe, seeking “land and hope.” The Belgians were first, followed soon after by the Dutch and Flemish, Germans and French, Scandinavians and Poles, Czechs and Irish.

In the past two decades we have seen the arrival of Hmong immigrants coming from their war-torn homelands in Southeast Asia, and Hispanic families coming for economic opportunity. Most recently an influx of Somalis has quadrupled the number of students in our schools. This is a whole new world for my sons and daughter and future grandchildren, a telling microcosm for larger changes happening around the globe. And like a favorite teacher willing to share, The Chalk Circle tells the stories that need to be told in order to foster an environment of empathy and tolerance—stories from the feelingly personal that can act as a social studies 4.0 catalyst. In one way or another we are all immigrants. The Chalk Circle should be required reading for today’s global citizens.

The Chalk Circle is intelligently and thoughtfully compiled, unified by a belief in writing to further our comprehension of what can (or should) define us, as individuals and as a global culture. The anthology takes as its inspiration an exchange between Jane Welsh Carlyle and her husband Thomas Carlyle from 1845:

“Instead of boiling up individuals into the species, I would draw a chalk circle round every individuality, and preach to it to keep within that, and preserve and cultivate its identity.”

And the beautiful thing about chalk circles is they can be wiped clean as needed and redrawn.

The essays in The Chalk Circle provide polished stepping stones to the re-delineation of identity. Read them in their splendid sequence. Or skip around. Each tells a story from a distinctly articulated perspective, rippling outward in knowledge and (hopefully) understanding.

There are seven sections with two to four essays each. An additional bonus is the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the anthology which may help a reader or a group of readers think more deeply on the topics, situations and experiences included.

The sections have a loose correlation to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” with the essays addressing all levels of need: physiology, security, society, esteem and self-actualization. The mini-biographies of each contributor which precede each essay were a particular (and surprising) pleasure.

The Chalk Circle:

Identity, Home, and Borderlands
• In “If Grandmother had Married a Peasant”, Li Miao Lovett considers her life in the context of choices made by her parents, her grandparents. How might her physical and emotional situation been different.
• “Fragments: Finding Center” by Sarah Stoner brings a unique voice to the question of belonging.
• Christine Stark’s “Giiwe: Go Home” discusses how home found her.

As I Am: Letters of Identity
• “Bufferhood: An Autoethnography” by Emma Sartwell attempts a family tree of stories as a path towards self-definition.
• In “Valentine and This Difficult World”, Tilia Klebenov Jacobs explicates a family letter in order to discover its meaning for herself, those involved and the times.

The Tongue of War: A Clash of Cultures
• In “Reflecting on Dragons and Angels”, Shanti Elke Bannwart remembers the ending of World War II as a young girl in Germany and the win/loss march of soldiers out of the global conflict.
• “Tongue-Tied” by Kelly Hayes-Raitt asks a simple, poignant question—can we really afford collateral damage?
• Shanti Elke Bannwart’s “Tightrope Across the Abyss” addresses the work of making peace with an ancestry that causes you shame.

The Tragedy of the Color Line
• “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow” by Samuel Autman considers what unseen factors might fuel a prejudice.
• In “Miss Otis Regrets”, Mary Elizabeth Parker insists on her interpretation of events.
• Lyzette Wanzer’s “Signatures” considers what unites and what divides. (It’s not always what you might think at first.)

Eyewitness: As Seen By Another
• In “Winter Seagull”, Toshi Washizu tells a heart-breaking story of an event that struck down all barriers.
• Jeff Fearnside’s “Itam” discusses how a souvenir can act as a talisman.
• “High Tech in Gaborone” by M. Garrett Bauman discourses on the lucky fit of character and place.
• Gretchen Brown Wright’s “Triptych: Paradise” shows how paradise is not always all it appears.

The Others
• Katrina Grigg-Saito, in “Assailing Otherness”, understands a foreign culture best through its food.
• Kamela Jordan, in “Fried Locusts”, remembers fondly her Thai childhood.
• “Israel: Devouring the Darling Plagues” by Bonnie J. Morris further maintains that food is culture.

The Culture of Self and Spirit
• Betty Jo Goddard, in “Connections”, believes connections are a state of mind.
• In “Palo del Muerte”, Simmons B. Buntin comes to the understanding that the ultimate goal is to evolve into god. And god is nature.


Nothing Daunted

by Dorothy Wickendam

Nothing Daunted is the story of America in the early 1900’s, the story of the settlement of the West, and one man’s vision of education in a far-flung outpost. But mostly it is the story of two women, two fast friends, Dorothy (Dot) Woodruff and Rosamond (Ros) Underwood, and their quest for adventure. No matter what straitened circumstances they found themselves in. No matter what the prevailing opinion about what women should be.

Dorothy and Rosamond’s friendship began in kindergarten, continued through shared family summers, a college education together at Smith, and a year of travel abroad. They were at once typical of their time and atypical. They were society girls who volunteered in their communities, considered eligible bachelors, and remained mindful of their parents’ wishes. Yet they longed for something more.

During a fateful tea back home in Auburn, New York, they learn of a gentleman cowboy, Ferry Carpenter, looking for two female college graduates to teach at his consolidated school in the Colorado mountains. Dot and Ros signed on.

Friends at home believed they were wasting yet another year. Unlikely to find worthy suitors among the cowboys and merchants of Routt County, they were apparently dooming themselves to be old maids. Dorothy and Ros, however, were more bothered by the idea of settling into a staid life of marriage and motherhood without having contributed anything to people who could benefit from the few talents and experiences they had to offer. The notion of a hard life – for a limited time – was exactly what they had in mind.

As the story of Dorothy and Rosamond’s grand adventure unfolds, Dorothy Wickenden, the author and real life granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff, enriches the tale with family lore and historical context, a rewarding tableau of who’s-who against major events of the time.

Susan B. Anthony, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Isadora Duncan all have walk-on roles in the story. We also learn about the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1859, and its impact on the development of Denver, Colorado. So, too, the gut-wrenching work required to expand the railroad west. And the hard life of miners and their desperate attempts to improve life.

But once situated in Elkhead, Colorado, the lives of Dot and Ros revolve around the schoolhouse and their pupils. The school is the pride of the community, and Dorothy describes her first impression: “It is perfectly beautiful and a monument to the courage and ambition of these wonderful people.”

Rosamond and Dorothy determine that Dorothy will teach the younger, more rambunctious children and Rosamond the older, more advanced students. They were nervous in the beginning, but very conscientious about their lessons, often staying after school until six o’clock or later in preparation for the next day, after which they had a long horseback ride home to the Harrisons, their second family in the west.

Love blossoms for both women. Ros, “the belle of Auburn,” becomes the focus of attention between Ferry, who secretly harbored matchmaking designs, and his best friend and rival, Bob Perry, heir to a leading industrialist in Denver.

The year in Elkhead, and all they encountered, leave an indelible mark on the lives of Dorothy and Rosamond. Both women remember the experience as an integral part of their lives. In fact, when they became young mothers themselves, some of the tough situations they faced in Elkhead gave them much-needed resolve. At different periods in their lives they returned to Elkhead for reunions, overjoyed to reconnect with fond friends.

Many of the children they taught went on to college or professional school, a rare occurrence for the period. As one student remembers: “I don’t believe there ever was a community that was affected more by two people than we were by those two girls.”

Nothing Daunted is an ambitious, personal story of a time, a place and an ideal. A hearty romp of a read, the book combines the stark frontier of Zane Grey with the chatty, journalistic style of Bridget Jones Diary. A must-read for anyone with a sense of adventure.


In the Shelter of Neighbours

by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Something happens to you when reading the shelter of neighbours by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. You think you are reading a regular book of stories, each one its own universe, drawing you in, seemingly familiar, language accessible, expressive and hypnotic. Yes, you get that. Yes, you have felt that way, too.

But, by the second story, you are submerged in a Dubliners-eque experience. In fact, you are moved, changed. You are convinced you are truly getting a glimpse of other people’s lives and can think what they think, feel what they feel. Almost a voyeur.

You are invited into a typical, ordinary Irish suburb and allowed a glimpse behind the blinds, neighbor by neighbor. Éilís has a keen observational eye and an Irish way with words. In the shelter of neighbors she leverages both full tilt.

Her stories include:

“The man who had no story” – A man tries to retire and write his story.
“The literary lunch” – Power struggles occur in the midst of a literary board lunch.
“Illumination” – A woman on an artist’s retreat meets an unusual family in the woods.
“Taboo” – An au-pair on holiday learns how to canoe.
“The Yeats” – A woman covets a new stove.
“It is a miracle” – A woman considers the nature of relationships.
“Trespasses” – A woman prepares to visit her son abroad and has an episode.
“The shelter of neighbours” – A woman must decide between kindness and pique.
“The shortcut through IKEA” – A woman looks for a lost love in IKEA.
“The Sugar Loaf” – A woman climbs a natural monument.
“The moon shines clear, the horseman’s here” – A woman faces her past while taking care of her ailing mother.
“Red-hot poker” – A woman loses her husband and is befriended by neighbours with an agenda.
“Bikes I have lost” – A girl recounts her lost loves.
“The Blind” – A girl remembers fundraising for a school of the blind.

Each story is a slice of Irish life, in which Éilís explores the many nuances of shelter, including “a thing that provides cover”:

She can hear feathery music floating across the water from someone’s garden, its source sheltered by reeds, by trees. – from “The Yeats”

“A refuge, a haven”:
Every day I felt I was on the brink. That the next day my brain, my self, would fill with light; that something wonderful would happen. – from “Illumination”

“The state of being protected”:
Faced with saying goodbye to me as I set off on my bike, she became an ordinary fussy pussy-cat of a mother. – from “Bikes I have lost”

There are no real answers, only the stories that connect neighbours, meandering thoughts, questions, the Irish vernacular, the “stick” which is “grand.” The way in which her characters give you the blank stare fix you with all manner of possibility.

Éilís captures all this and more of her native Ireland, steeped in storytelling for its own sake:

It takes her a while to get accustomed to the flow of words, which seem to pour out of her mother’s voice in a stream, not monotonous but unbroken, fluent as a river.
This is what she does all day.
She tells stories.
 – from “The moon shines clear, the horseman’s here.”


© 2019 House of the Tomato