Tuesday, April 17, 2018



UNMARK by Montreux Rotholtz
(Burnside Review Books, 2017)

Unmark, the Burnside Review Press Book Award-winning debut collection from poet Montreux Rotholtz is haunting and ambitious. The book’s 50 poems run a wide-sprectrum of content—explorations of creation and destruction, love and death, mythologies of ghosts and devils and mankind—and, through Rotholtz’s brilliant subtlety, force the reader to reflect on the world we live in and the impact we have on it and each other.

Rotholtz has an incredible skill for clear and unique descriptions. The sensory details she conjures pull the reader into each moment. Her visual depictions are valuable, precise: “veins like the cable or a bridge,” for instance. Yet it is often the other sensory-work for which Rotholtz stands out among her peers. She writes, “At dawn we heard the horses, / their voices like the sick crunch / of fire, a fungus-sound that grew heedless in our ears” and “He smelled of damp, of fires put out, / soaked charcoal, static held in the lines.” Her words have the uncanny ability to transport her readers, to effectively make us see, hear, and smell exactly what she wants us to experience.

Helping make Unmark so powerful is that Rotholtz has a strong sense of each poem’s form and the impact of those choices. The most narrative pieces in the collection, such as “The Shelter,” are oriented on the page in unexpected ways: the words running in a down-to-up direction, instead of left-to-right. The long lines this creates allow for more emphasis to be placed on the scene, the moment, instead of individual words or sentence fragments. Ten of the poems are approached in this way, an unconventional move on the part of Rotholtz, but one which benefits those stories. Other poems such as “The Summit” take a physical form on the page—in this case, a narrow column of text representing a steep cliff—which embody and further the poems’ messages.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, Rotholtz provides moments which make one take pause at her words and at the profound truth she presents—“The present time is in fact / an honest glancing piece of equipment”--or of keenly relatable experiences—“We found ourselves at the boundary. It was there / that the white line was, the mark beyond which there appeared to be no difference, though it could be felt / in the skin.” Her skill isn’t just in story-telling and description, but in making us think. One of the best examples of this in the collection is “Untitled,” which tells the story of a woman murdered near a school library. The poem is haunting both in its imagery—“She had only three teeth left / which was the most shocking thing”—and in how it forces the reader to grapple with how we respond to tragedy and death. The title itself, “Untitled,” serves as a powerful reminder that such things are not easily, if ever, fully understood or labeled.

Simply put: Unmark is a compelling, expertly-crafted collection of poems which often challenge the reader as much as they delight. Rotholtz delivers that which we expect from the best poetry—beautiful and unique descriptions, incredible command of rhythm and form—but it is her poems’ ability to make us reflect and think about our world which places her among today’s most exciting emerging poets.


Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. He is a regular contributor at Cleaver Magazine, and his writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.