Book Review: City of Shadows & Light (Philadelphia)

Through a glass darkly:

The sharp reflections of Diane Sahms



City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia) by Diane Sahms (Alien Buddha Press: 2022). 110 pages, 5.5” x 8.5”. ISBN: 979-8363952005. $12.24 on Amazon.

For the literary wayfarer seeking territories uncharted and quite singular, a recent collection of audacious poetry by Diane Sahms is worth adding to your itinerary. This unique and striking venture, featuring three distinctive parts – evincing holistic sensibilities and impressive range, complexity – akin to discrete and disparate acts of an ambitious drama, entails a rare and gritty, harrowing odyssey of urbane character and exalted scope.  Its conductor acts as Virgil of sorts guiding company through a fascinating journey across storied landscapes and intense, at times squalid, reliably captivating backdrops. But rather than purely allegorical pits infernal we find ourselves navigating very concrete and specific annals of a charged place and eerie, liminal time, albeit by way of unconventional and dizzying channels, blazing an arduous path about the lofty heights and grisly valleys of Philadelphia, that inimitable City of Shadows from whence the volume’s name fittingly derives.

like spiders born to spin

Captured figuratively through didactic visualization via a thought-provoking cover photograph of a stone clock-tower: only partially illuminated at top by a streak of sunlight across the noble statuary encircling its pinnacle, the lower portions enshrouded in increasingly dense shadows, a chiaroscuro which extends and deepens the lower we peer. Indeed, these gloomy depths call to mind, for anyone familiar with the philosophies of Freud or Jung, archetypal exploration and research of Joseph Campbell, the notion of an iceberg famously employed to describe the human mind and its driving forces, which prevailing suspicions argue the predominance of whose mechanics and factors lurk below the surface outside the realms of conscious awareness. Of the treble movements this elegant tome encompasses, the deepest depths of mind, a stew of symbols and impulses is our first destination in this earthly commedia, and we plumb these mercurial wonders in something of a rock opera of sorts starring the unforgettable character Iris whose travails and struggles feel fit for a surreal picaresque by David Bowie, some Jacobean carnival of Nick Cave or the Decemberists.

scattered needles—everywhere.

Scaling the walls of a cavern fit for Plato, by the second portion of triptych in Shadow and Light the viewer finds themselves hovering about the rim and edge of surface in our Arctic model, gravitating back and forth between a dialectic of darkness and illumination through a series of ‘dichotomous pairs’ effecting a powerful dialogue of calls and responses, continuing the subtle musicality and classicist modes of this writing, rife with eclectic allusions to ancient myths and histories and no less connected to modern influences and popular cultural subjects, from Saturday morning cartoons to space westerns. The final chapter, darkest and most personal, incisive and unflinching, is delivered in the least removed and most immediate language and imagery, probing formative experiences and the constituents, protean ingredients which congealed to form an inimitable person and valuable worldview, and find our culmination and ultimate destination on a progress from heart to mind, absurdness into reason, abstraction’s transition towards cogent, valuable intentions. Nor is this voyage disconnected from fear, ennui, existential and material deprivation, sociopolitical anxiety, a keen awareness of current events. Amidst the most elevated ideals and scholarly aspiring there is always a worldly specter hovering in the wing threatening, whether that be embodied in noxious politicians, global pandemonium, dire health emergency, or the tentacles of late stage capitalism, this is a poetry which does not shy away from, confronts and challenges our age’s many virulent ills.

Known to drown kittens…

Human frailty and deviance are also rarely as engagingly depicted, articulated poetically with the flair you will recognize peppering this collection. A certain timeless darkness and noir, true crime flavor reminiscent of Scorsese, David Mamet, Mulholland Drive is woven masterfully, somewhat unexpectedly throughout, and makes for some of the most compelling and memorable passages. Truly an original and memorable book which deserves attention and thoughtful exploring, these are techniques and subjects free verse truly benefits from invoking, and readers and writers alike will be well served observing closely. Diane Sahms is a poet of enormous talent and potential to keep on your radar, I’m excited to see where her instincts and inclinations next take her!


Diane Sahms is the author of four full-length poetry collections and most recently a chapbook, COVID-19 2020 A Poetic Journal (Moonstone Press, 2021). Published in North American Review, Sequestrum Journal of Literature & Arts, Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal, The Northern Virginia Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chiron Review, POEMS-FOR-ALL, among others. Former high school English teacher, she teleworks full time as a procurement agent and is poetry editor at North of Oxford.


Jerome Berglund has published book reviews in Fevers of the Mind, Fireflies Light, Frogpond, Haiku Canada, Setu Bilingual Journal, Valley Voices, also frequently exhibits poetry, short stories, plays, and fine art photography in print magazines, online journals, and anthologies.


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