Book Review: Closer by Christopher Soden

Closer
by Christopher Soden
QUEERMOJO/A Rebel Sartori Imprint, 2011
ISBN 978-1-60864-045-4

reviewed by Julia Crane

Closer, Christopher Soden’s first full length poetry collection, published by Queermojo/Rebel Sartori Press, is a rich and provocative collection that circles and re-circles human experience, honing in on sex, love, self, loss, memory, regret, and place. Soden’s voice is expansive–in turn pensive, tender, vehement, ecstatic, reverent, irreverent, intimate, ironic, conversational, oratorial–and his poems teem with hard-won existential perspective.

The power of Soden’s poems often seems to hinge on a vital blurring between the surreal and the real, the mythic and the everyday, the mundane and the fantastical, the concrete and the metaphysical. Even the causal world is worthy of redemption, and the divine world subject to passion: “Some collisions are sacred. Some angels / restless and fierce.”

While Soden’s work is infused with an indelible sense of longing, to get closer, his poems grapple with the difficult realization that we can only get so close, that distance–both literal and metaphorical–is unavoidable and inevitable. Desire is “…keen /and negotiable as a blade / across the open palm.” Intimacy is paradoxical, embodying space and proximity, pleasure and pain: “From the moment your black eyes / intersected with mine, a wound / began to seethe.”

Soden draws, with lyrical prowess, on the particularity of place, amplifying it to echo the futility and motion of the human condition:

Why bother when you can surrender
to the stolid, hypnotic dance of newspapers
dragging in a rough wind, the hum
of cicadas playing voiceless dirges,
the sparkless flint of dry wood and road
kill bone, the tinder of aimless rage?

Existence is fleeting, but, nonetheless, firmly rooted in the harsh sensuality of earth: “I do not know how / the world keeps pulling me back.” One comes away from this collection with the sense that redemption lies ultimately within the self, and in the longing to transcend the self: “I am the man who yearns for a way back / to himself and actual wings, and so pulls / other men up to taste and see / who I am… / I am the man who lets go.” Closer is a powerful and cathartic collection that invites immersion and revisiting. Soden’s poems are portals to consciousness, drawing on quiet and not-so-quiet moments of being–they simultaneously mourn and celebrate the random plan of human existence.

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Dos & Don’ts

By Songyi Zhang

From the day I first stepped on American soil, a series of comparisons have been in my head. What do Chinese do, what do Americans do, what things that Chinese do would not be accepted in America and vice versa. I always hope someday these impressions about America from a Chinese perspective will be published in a palm-size guide for travelers. Anyway, here’s a glimpse of the comparisons:

Chinese: For women, in particular, they carry umbrellas, rain or shine.
Americans: Nah, on rainy days, the hood on our jackets will do. Nobody will walk with an open umbrella under the scorching sun.
My experience: I can’t buy an umbrella in a small supermarket. Or I should say not every supermarket in America sells umbrellas.
***
Chinese: Women don’t leave their handbags on the floor. For safety reason, they put them either on the nearby chair or behind their backs. Plus, the floor is not as clean as it looks!
Americans: As soon as a woman sits down, her handbag, open or closed, will be next to her feet.
My experience: It takes me a while to get used to leaving my bag on the floor. I sometimes wash my bag though. Luckily, there’re more carpeted floors in America than in China, which can drive hygiene freaks like me crazy.
***
Chinese: Don’t let the babies play on the floor in public. The floor is dirty. And the babies are likely to stick their germy fingers in their mouth. Ugh!
Americans: Let the kids have fun, make a mess!
My experience: It’s great that American babies are allowed to enjoy their freedom. But I can’t help thinking how nervous the Chinese mothers would be if they see children rolling around on the floor in a restaurant or playing hide-and-seek under the dining tables.
***
Chinese: Parents often warn the kids not to talk to strangers. They’re likely to be crooks!
Americans: “How’re you doing?” is said as frequently as “Thank you” to strangers.
My experience: In America, if a stranger doesn’t judge me as a Chinese who may not speak English, he’ll say “Hi” or “How’re you doing today?” I’ll also smile to a passerby – which feels a little weird, but I enjoy it.
***
Chinese: Don’t put your legs on the table or step on the chair with your shoes. It’s impolite and it reflects badly on one’s upbringing.
Americans: Readers can stretch their feet on the coffee table at the Barnes & Noble. Sports fans can dangle their feet over the seats at the front row. If a girl wants to tie her shoes, she rests her foot on the couch instead of getting down on her knee.
My experience: This is one American habit that I can’t get used to. I think my habits are migrating toward something between Chinese formality and American laxness. I hope this doesn’t make me unsuitable for both cultures!

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Cherry Blossoms

by Songyi Zhang

Last week I went to D.C. for the annual cherry blossom festival. I arrived just in time. It’s the first day of the Festival and most trees were in bloom. The capital was festooned with ribbons of pink and white flowering trees, absolutely photogenic. Plus, the weather was agreeable. I could still feel the late winter chill but the sun brightened the blossoms.

I took hundreds of pictures. The cherry blossom is, as we all know, the herald of spring. Squirrels scavenged near the rubbish bins. Robins on the grass were busy looking for worms. Japanese dancers performed on the stage near the Washington Memorial. Dressed in traditional kimono, the white-faced dancers raised their arms and kicked their feet in slow motion, commemorating the gift of the cherry trees to the U.S. in the 1920s.

America is known as a melting pot of people as well as cultures. If you want to know how authentic one sub-culture is in America, you may ask the people from that culture’s original country. Their opinions may be the most accurate. For instance, I’ve been asked how I think of the Chinese restaurants in America. Before I respond, the questioner may already know I’d say the restaurants are Americanized. But will she know how so? I say in China the waitresses will serve you tea instead of a big glass of ice water. Also, there’s either iced bottle water or boiled water at room temperature available in most regular restaurants in China. If you ask for a glass of ice water (you may think it’s a simple request), things may get complicated. You’re likely to get a glass of boiled water and a glass of ice cubes—you have to mix them yourself. Or you may end up ordering a bottle of cold water, which costs you. The bottom line, Chinese seldom drink ice water in a restaurant.

So my visit to D.C.’s cherry blossom festival did make a non-Japanese feel like being in Japan, or at least not like the cherry blossom show I saw in China. I remember one year my family and I went to a local farm to see cherry blossoms. The Chinese visitors didn’t care much about protecting the cherry trees. To pose for a photo with the blossoms, kids climbed on the trees and couples stood inches close to the fragile branches. Some even picked the cherry blossoms off the trees. Pedals were scattered on the ground. The trees looked balder than we expected. My family and I were disappointed and heartbroken. My mom even criticized the visitors lacking public morals.

Thank heavens that the visitors in D.C. are different than the ones I saw in China. I heard various languages spoken around me. Despite the fact that the people came from all parts of the world, they appreciated the cherry blossoms with good manners. Perhaps this is why I like D.C. better than New York City. Both cities attract international visitors, but NYC visitors seem to bring with them more bad habits to the Big Apple than visitors bring to the capitol.

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Lent

by John Samuel Tieman

desire after work
I caress my wife’s brown hair
this is how I pray
as the clouds evaporate
I stroke the length of her thigh

Friday and Phoebe and I watch “The Newshour”, largely for the pleasure of hollering at Republicans. After that, we turn to “The Office” or some such, because, as Phoebe says, by 8 or 9 she’s “running out of I. Q. points.” That said, I often enjoy the silence when I go home, those hours between when I get off and Phoebe gets home.

I’m Catholic. I get monasticism. I really do. I don’t get choosing not to get laid. I don’t get choosing not to watch a good Cardinals game. But silence, I get silence.

silently I pray
I leave my flute on the porch
if God wants music …
a breeze over the mouthpiece
the instrument plays itself

From the outside looking in, Catholic ceremonies seem exotic. From the inside, there is a sameness that easily leads to the contemplative moment. The Mass is the same Mass, whether it is said by the Pope or a parish priest in Rome, Georgia.

after a sermon on ashes
he recalls his childhood
the singularity of blood
the sun he once hid with his hand

I drive by my childhood parish. Christ The King in St. Louis. My childhood memories of Lent begin with ashes. “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” The season was filled with images of death and penance. The priest wore violet vestments. All the statues were covered in a similar dark purple. We didn’t sing the “Gloria” or an “Alleluia”. The season was filled with silence.

if it be Your will
that I’m silent as I was
before poetry
then let my poetry be
what I yowl before I pray

Every day during Lent, we kids went to Mass before school. And every day during Lent, we prayed The Stations Of The Cross after school. Every school day for the forty days of Lent. Confession on Saturday. Sunday Mass. The Triduum. It is worth repeating that, as exotic as all these prayers may seem, they are virtually the same prayers over and over. I think of the rosary, for example, as the Catholic chant. All of this is to say that I learned early the contemplative moment, be it in the caress or the “Memorare”, the novena or the ninth inning.

on days I don’t feel
like praying I hold Phoebe
instead of my beads
this is my true rosary
I stroke the length of her thigh

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Book Review: Madbooks

by Liane Ellison Norman

MadBooks is an imprint of Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic Program. The brainchild of Professor Jan Beatty, head of Carlow’s writing program and instructor of several Madwomen in the Attic courses (for non-matriculated students) during the regular school year, MadBooks has now published eight collections of poetry, the first in 2008, the most recent in 2011.

Three of these volumes were published after the poets’ deaths, each poet having left collections that were well along to becoming books. The other five volumes are by still-living—and, we hope, long-lived poets.

Each of the poets has her own distinctive voice, her particular way of seeing and understanding the world. MadBooks has taken pains to assure that these distinctions are represented by each author’s book and, in the process, has assembled an impressive set of publications. (I should confess to being the editor of these books, serving together with Jan Beatty who is senior editor.) The graphic designer and poet in his own right, Todd Sanders, has designed each of these beautiful volumes. I touch on below, far too briefly, each poet’s work.

Jo Ann F. Pratt’s chapbook Leaf Writing: The History of a Tree, MadBook’s first publication, expresses the author’s varied interests from the natural through the anthropological to the historical worlds. Pratt’s book was published posthumously.

Watching the Summer Away

Those dive-bombing hummingbirds
are back, chasing each other around
and around a ruby red globe
filled with sugar water, the center
of their universe. As I watch
the summer away in my patio chair,
wings whirr so close the hairs
on my head blow in the air
current of their flight. Their tiny
iridescent bodies, more like giant
insects, hover above the perch
of my nose as they check out
my trustworthiness. Ready
at a second’s notice to put out
my eye with an epee-like beak
then fly to a nearby tree to gloat
.

Steam Rising by Anita Gevaudan Byerly arrived only hours before her death in 2009. Byerly had published several books and many individual poems that vividly express her sense of place, though “place” covers several countries and includes strong ties to family and community. In Steam Rising “When My head Gets Too Big, I Remember” begins,

I was a poached egg in the first grade play.
That is all I remember about the first grade…
that and a boy named Harry,
who wore dirty shirts, torn knickers,
and smelled like my grandma’s cellar.
He always tried to sit by me,
pull my braids, upset my box
of cardboard letters, put his hands
on my desk so I couldn’t print.

In “My Father’s Language” Byerly speaks of the foreign-born father’s havaing learned to speak a new language.

Now I’m learning a new diction:
words like carcinoma, invasive chemo
that cut like a scalpel: heavy words
like lymph nodes, tamoxifen that catch
in my throat the way the guttural
English consonants must have caught
in yours that first day at Shady Park.

Christina Murdoch’s Burying the Body was published by MadBooks in the aftermath of the birth of her daughter and, not long after, her own death. In this instance, friends, other Madwomen in the Attic and Christina’s husband collaborated to assemble the volume that Christina had already gone far to put together. She writes:

Regarding a Gathering Storm
….
From this hillside, I have seen
the staggered rocks below. It rains every morning here,
but the ocean starts first—
slaps the cliffs with an open palm and curls over, taking what it
can into its fist:
earth, rusty pitchforks, a few goats. This is when the sea floods
into the sky and everything beyond the cliff is some fluid deviation
of gray.
I can’t understand how the goats don’t sense the change
in the ocean, the salt sweat on the cliff grass—
why they don’t know how far it can reach,
how far back in the field they should stay.

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Death and Taxes

by Songyi Zhang

This is the second year I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Just as the Chinese New Year arrived in early February, I received two magazine-size tax return manuals—one from Pennsylvania, the other from the city of Pittsburgh. I guess once you have an identity in the U.S., (for a foreigner, it’d be your residential address, phone number and most importantly, your social security card) you’ll be reminded of filing your tax returns annually.

The tax return manuals are certainly my guaranteed new-year presents from the U.S. government.

How can I forget about this cumbersome documentation? Chatham University’s international affair officer made it clear: all international students, regardless of being employed or not, must file the Form 8843.

8843—it sounds like an inmate’s identity number. To some extent, I do feel myself, as one of the F-1 students in the U.S., am bounded by the paperwork of the Department of the Treasury. Form 8843 is a statement for exempt individuals and individuals with a medical condition. On the form, the subtitle reads: For use by alien individuals only. I don’t like the term, alien. But I guess the U.S. Federal Government sees us foreign visitors no different from the outer space invaders. 8843 actually can make a case number for the X-Files, too.

I filed Form 8843 last year, so it’s just routine, I thought. But this year, instead of filing it on paper, the international affair officer taught us to file the form through an online software. I find the process taking more time than by the traditional method.

How reliable is this tax return software? Can you really depend on the machine to take care of your personal accounting? I mean, the information you provide on the computer is not simply your name and phone number, but your annual assets, your money!

Since the day I spent money in the U.S., I’ve realized I must pay tax on every transaction. So a paperback at the Barnes & Noble is labeled US$15, the total cost is always more than the price tag. Why can’t the price tag show a tax-included price? So I won’t be overly elated when I see a cheap price but, in fact, it’s not cheap when I pay at the cashier. In China, I’d have to pay what it is priced on the item. If a bowl of noodle costs ten yuan (approximately US$1.5), I’ll only pay ten yuan. No tips, no tax, no frills. The price has included the tax.

In America, it’s so different. Customers can learn clearly the breakdown of the cost; the governments, federal and local, try to make their revenues transparent by requesting every eligible taxpayer to fill out tax forms on which list, if not hundreds, but dozens of questions. Some of these questions are interrelated and involved with some twists-and-turns calculation. No wonder an accountant is such a desirable occupation in the U.S.

As long as you have lived in America, taxes will follow you all your life. Even though you’re dead, the governments will chase your soul. I remember when I first filled PA-40 tax returns, in the column of filling status, there’s one option which reads D for Deceased. I didn’t know and wondered. Can’t the government just let the dead rest in peace? Later I learned the departed’s family is the preparer of the form. As they say, nothing is certain but death and taxes.

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Book Review: Mine by Susan Sailer

Mine by Susan Sailer
Finishing Line Press
2012. $14

Reviewed by Liane Ellison Norman

Is it presumptuous for a woman poet, also a retired Professor of Irish and British literature, to speak in the voices of West Virginia miners, their wives and children? Susan Sailer, in her new chapbook, Mine, is anything but presumptuous. She has done voluminous research into mining and particular mine disasters. But it is her respect for the coal miners she imagines and portrays, the difficult, dirty, dangerous work they do to support their families and communities, that is real and goes deep.

Hers are quiet lines that present the staggering cost of prying coal out of West Virginia hills. It takes people to do the prying, the digging, and those in her poems are strong, matter-of-fact, earthy, used to danger and loss, which they suffer keenly.

In “Two Die in Aracoma Alma #1 Mine Fire,” “

All he asked was to see his kids,
to yell I’m home and drop his lunch pail

on the counter. All he asked was to find
the escape route, to grab his buddy, drop

to his knees, crawl toward the wall that cut off
air flow, away from vent fans that fed the fire.

In “Survivor’s Wife” Sailer speaks in the voice of the woman who keeps vigil by the bedside of the one survivor of the Sago Mine explosion of early 2006, the man whose buddies all died, who lies in a medically induced coma. She sits by his bed, remembers their middle-school romance,

She remembers their beginning
in eighth grade: she sat in front of him, liked how he knew
birds’ names, explained algebra better than Miss Vincent.

She shivers, lifts the sweatshirt hood over her head, tugs
the sleeves to her fingertips. “Look, Anna,” he’d said,
walking home from church. He’d seen it through the mist,

sleeping in an oak. “A great horned owl.” She followed
his finger, saw it large and still, tufted ears just visible,
a slightly darker gray than the limb on which it sat.
Sailer gets the richness and ordinariness of the miners’ lives in a multitude of details. These lives are like our lives, but unlike our lives in that the daily work of miners courts death.

The Sago Mine disaster near Buckhannon, WV, trapped 13 miners. “Not One Damn Thing Went Right” details how lightning struck and safety devices failed. The speaker, a miner whose shift was over,

woke right up, drove back to Sago, twenty-five miles
away. Lightning never hits in January here….

Rescuers, off work for New Years Day, take time to assemble and time is a luxury the trapped miners don’t have. “Twelve men dead long before they got there.”

Sailer enters these miners’ lives, their complicated reasons for remaining in the mines, reluctance to report safety problems even though their lives are at risk:

Say we have
a belt fire. Inspector shuts the mine. But the inspector,
he don’t come again for a week to say the mine
can open. So for eight, nine days, no one gets paid.
You take my point? So the foreman talks
with the inspector. They keep the mine open,
keep men working, make repairs. We pay the bills.

Though many of the poems concern the Sago disaster, when seals that ought to have withstood the pressure of an explosion failed, Sailor explores several other mine disasters as well. As she explains in end notes, she draws on “facts about coal mining but create[s] characters based on my imagination of what situations might have been like….” The voices she presents are those of miners—some trapped underground—but she also speaks in the voices of wives and children, colleagues, neighbors. Into these lives Sailer enters with imagination and a fierce truth-telling, reporting voice.

“Firm Pleads Guilty, Faces Massive Fines”, the poem’s title a newspaper headline, details the company’s egregious safety violations in couplets, each beginning “It wasn’t just the….” particular violation, ending, “It was two miners in their prime, dead.” Thud. This is, finally, the cost of mining.

When it’s not underground mining it’s mountain top removal, leaving behind rock and rubble that clog streams with waste, impoundment slurries. But the speaker boasts in “Bottom Line,”

We take off mountaintops—clear-cut
hardwood forests at the peak….

You make a million easy. Small teams,
few accidents, little skill required.
You hear a few complaints, coal soot
sifting under window sills, a few more folks
claiming asthma silicosis. The streams they

say got buried under a million tons of rock
and rubble?

What makes this collection so compelling is Sailer’s understated outrage, acknowledging that the tragedy of mining that proved fatal at the Sago and other mines, belongs to each one of us. Mine records particular places, relationships and disasters. But it’s also mine, belonging to me, someone who relies on what these miners risk everything to dig out.

Sailer writes in many voices—of miners, their wives, sometimes mine operators, neighbors. Though she lives outside their world, she reports with robust respect. In the voices of these people, she finds—and conveys—rich poetry about a world few of us know, but most of us rely on.
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Liane Ellison Norman is the author of Driving Near the Old Federal Arsenal, Finishing Line Press, 2012, Keep, Smoke&Mirrors Press, 2008, The Duration of Grief, Smoke&Mirrors Press, 2005.
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Once Again Publius Finds Himself the Recording Secretary for Insanity

by Publius

Brittany has been sent to the re-education camps. That’s what we’re calling professional development these days. It seems that some people have objected to the way the state is running the schools, the state test, dozens of standardized tests, class sizes, one free period every other day. And on and on. These folks, in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “need to get their minds right.”

And Brittany really does need re-education. She teaches right down the hall from me. She is sweet, smart, pretty, from California, 22, so of course her name is Brittany. She teaches math. More importantly, she is a non-tenured, non-union, first year Teach For America teacher. Thus does she merit nine classes, 279 students. Unfortunately for her, she’s expressed some feelings about this. Hence, re-education.

Her core problem is that Dr. Asoka cheated too well on the last state test. The requirement for passing the state test is that the school have a 10% gain over last year. (Jesus help the school that scores a 91%.) Dr. Asoka was so frustrated that he just said, “Fuck all”, and wrote the answers on the board. The problem is that he drove up the school’s Algebra score so high that the only choice was to promote Asoka to an administrative slot, and give all his classes to … well, hence Brittany’s need for re-education.

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