In Her Terms
by Toti O’Brien
68 poems ~ 100 pages
Price: $5.00
Publisher: Cholla Needles
ISBN: 979-8481278049
To Order: Amazon

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

The title of Toti O’Brien’s new book, In Her Terms, intrigued me from the get-go. Words are the tools of the poet’s trade. But it is the “way” this poet uses words that is so fascinating. The goal of this review is to showcase Toti O’Brien’s unique take on the world and on life as she plies her craft.


O’Brien’s titles are unique. Of the 68 total poems only five contain more than two words in their titles. We’re talking “terms” here, Toti O’Brien’s terms. Subjects are not in question. A term is proffered, then treated with interesting twists and turns that make the most mundane words come alive, breathing a breath of their own. While poems are lyric-rich, with few exceptions, they fit on single pages, making for a tight, aesthetic look. By way of style, O’Brien writes free verse poems. She is a seasoned artist whose work exhibits good end-line decisions and cadences that make for an enjoyable read.


Three major division can be noted: “In Her Terms” (12 poems); “Body Count” (19 poems); a series of trilogies (comprising 15 poems), titled: “Shadow,” The Bridge,” Broken Bone,” Fibrillation,” and “Etruscan.” “Aftermath” rounds out the collection with 22 scintillating poems. The collection’s structure facilitated skipping around to sections that appealed to my curiosity at any given moment.

Context & Highlights

The collection was written during the pandemic. O’Brien’s reflections on life during this stressful period come to the fore. With wisdom and strength, In Her Terms offers perspectives on that period never losing sight of light and hope. Someone has said, “Poetry helps us live our lives.” The following poems became “sources of light” for your reviewer.

I begin with O’Brien’s intro poem, “My Pleasure”:

          Starting isn’t a problem, she explained.
          Don’t look for beginnings. There isn’t one.
          You shall start the poem, she said
          at the very center.

          In the middle? Sure, darling.
          The way you came into life.
          In the middle of things. Didn’t you
          Intrude? Interrupt?

          The end of the poem, she said’s
          easy to figure out. You
          should leave it exactly
          as you found it
          like a public toilet.

          It’s the least you can do.
          Leave it as you found it.
          Door unlocked.
          Ajar is fine. Thank you.

What a fitting start. Embedded within this appealing poem is the poet’s love for writing and love of life. “My Pleasure,” to be sure, is life lived through the lens of poetry. This poem exhibits resilience. A resilience, I would add, that is sustained throughout the collection. The hand we are dealt, especially within such events as Covid-19, may seem unfair. By the way, this poet never indulges in self-pity. She knows we may not always get life right but living with grace and courage energizes the entire effort.

From “Body Count,” the poem “Harvest,” had me reveling in landscapes, colors and seasonal transitions. O’Brien, in this poem and others, displays an innate skill for layered meanings:

          Gather, she said, each tusk as it falls.
          It is lighter than it seems.
          Do not mind the smell, sweaty, musky
          and sour. It dissipates.

          Pick it up as soon as it falls
          feel the warmth, exuding in waves
          a small cloud of heart. Enjoy.
          Soon it will dissolve.

          Gather all, snow white, ivory
          or tinted the colors of rainbow.
          Take the whole and the broken.
          Don’t mind cracks or dents.

          They’ll be patched, then sanded
          smoothed out. They will look like new.
          Here’s an apron you’ll tie at your waist
          and use like a pouch, a large pocket.

          They are lighter, she said
          than they seem to be.
          Don’t be scared, my darling.
          They won’t bite. The don’t

I leave it to my reader to dissect the layers in this poem. I take it as a metaphor that compares In Her Terms to a harvest of life experiences, wherein we hear,

          Don’t be scared, my darling.
          They won’t bite.

That is, live life on your own terms, and leave it,

          exactly as you found it / door unlocked.


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