Book Review: How Blasphemy Sounds to God by Gary Fincke

 photo c23ff664-77b8-4a9f-8986-e1d7047fc99c_zps4f79e560.jpg How Blasphemy Sounds to God
by Gary Fincke
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

 
“Shaken, I stared at myself in the mirror above the dresser. At twenty-three, I looked old enough to appear ordinary in a coffin.”

Striking sentences like these remained with me long after finishing Gary Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. The book’s imagery lingered like regret, something with which each of Fincke’s characters are intimately familiar.

The twenty-three year old coffin-dweller is Corey Gillis—a quiet, confused young man who acts as an observer of the world around him. He watches, he reflects, but rarely judges. He is oftentimes a blank slate, one whose inner recesses the reader rarely accesses. And that’s what makes this story collection so fascinating.

Fincke’s book is set in the Appalachia of the 1960s and 70s. It is presented starkly, matter-of-factly. The character I encountered first and foremost was not the protagonist, but the setting in which he lived. Corey’s Pittsburgh is one of global paranoia, the anxiety of growing old, and the pressure of choosing a way in the world. A landscape of fear and uncertainty.

The collection is a novel in stories, each tale picking up from roughly where the last left off. Written in the first-person perspective, Corey tells the reader the story of his young years, from the confusing dysfunction of his childhood to the intimidating beginnings of an adult life.

In the greatest coming-of-age stories, there is nearly always a profound change that takes place in a protagonist—one that redefines both the character and the world around them. Corey continually grows through each story, steadily losing that precious ignorance afforded to us as children. He begins losing that ignorance, that innocence, at an early age, mainly thanks to the constant, overshadowing presence of his mother and father.

Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Fincke’s prose has a knack for cultivating an atmosphere of melancholy. It was a sadness that spread through me—rattled through all of my bones with each turn of the page. Until the final stories, when this sadness grew into a desperation. I needed to know what would become of Corey and his family. My urgency matched Corey’s own as he became a more evocative character with each passing tale—his words took shape and affected the characters around him. The older he grew, the more he became a presence in his world, unlike during his childhood.

And how realistic Corey’s evolution is. As the reader, as the protagonist, as a child, we do what we are told, we believe what our parents tell us. We grow as they direct us to grow. We blankly nod and say, “Okay,” as Corey does time and time again throughout his youth. But what does that blind obedience afford you when your instructors are as confused as you? As Corey ages, he sees the cracks beginning to form in his family, and how devotion to opposing ideals can so effectively break up a home. He is constantly caught in the center of his broken parents—his mother, a radical, charismatic educator, who emphasizes worldly experience and hard truth over dogma. And his father, tied to the television, to his church, to the collective fear of Russia, of Vietnam, of a changing world in which the U.S. is no longer the undisputed global superpower.

With straight-forward prose that often seems conversational, the collection’s narrative voice constantly propels the reader forward. Always forward—through the drawn-out deaths of family members, through presidential assassinations, through the turn of the decades. Corey’s uncertainty about his own future oftentimes combines with his floating imagination. Quick moments of elevated beauty drop and ripple in the midst of crisp sentences.

I wasn’t going into the mill like my father. I wasn’t managing Hickory Farms. I wasn’t going into the army. I didn’t need luck to keep from frying in molten metal or tearing apart above a Bouncing Betty. I sat there…and thought about how it would feel if you were half a mile inside the earth and the wall may or may not buckle on you.

The pressure of earthen walls is quite the fitting analogy for Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. It documents the pressure of the Earth itself—of a changing world, of the devolution of a family, of the growth of a child.

______

Gary Fincke has published twenty-five books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Twice awarded Pushcart Prizes, Fincke has also been recognized by both the Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited twelve times in the past fourteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. In 2003, he won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his story collection, Sorry I Worried You


 

Stolen Eggplant

By Karen Zhang

I cannot think of another better title for this piece than “Stolen Eggplant” to express my anger and regret. This summer I planted a box of Japanese eggplants. Just as they were bearing fruits and I was receiving praises from a neighbor, one of the biggest eggplants was gone overnight!

The day before I had checked on my eggplants and planned to harvest the biggest one the following day. But what awaited me was the empty branch with a cleverly-hidden cut. I assumed a greedy neighbor must have her eyes on that very eggplant for a long time and when it was time to take action, she was also well-prepared to not arouse my notice

Although I have received comforting words from my friends and family over this small loss, I still cannot understand why this misfortune has happened to me. Or I should say, neighbor-theft happens in America with no exception.

Before I came to America, I kept hearing about the safe and quiet neighborhoods in this country. Granted, before my eggplant was stolen, I did believe American neighborhoods were safe and even soul-less—as American people rarely roam around on the streets but drive mostly. An American friend of mine told me he had kept his house door unlocked for years, uneventful still. A biker could leave his bike on the lawn, untouched. A letter got misdelivered and the neighbor returned it to the right address honestly..

Now my eggplant is gone and my faith for a safe and quiet neighborhood has changed. I have to be vigilant. As a saying goes, once bitten twice shy. I have moved my eggplants to the fenced back yard from the open air in the front of the house. However, critters like chipmunks and squirrels are easily lured by the big fruits. I’d rather feed the critters with the fruit of my hard work than encourage a neighbor to get something for nothing.

Alas, when it comes to growing vegetables in America, you cannot always win but must get ready to fight against weather, invaders and many other unexpected threats.

Who says American life is easy as a pie?

_____

Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

 photo dc599729-b2e7-49a7-8703-e7eb684fea6b_zps9e7455a6.jpg The Holy Ghost People
A Play in Verse
by Joshua Young
Plays Inverse Press, 2013
$12.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The power of drama is that it plays back to us the human condition in a way that, while not always wholly realistic, seems just real enough for us to understand and absorb. Add to that the connotative meaning-making and compression of language found in poetry and you have Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People: A Play in Verse. Equal parts supernatural, ominous, and linguistically beautiful, Young’s play has all the right stuff to help us make sense of a subject—religious disagreements in America—that we might otherwise find incomprehensible in its vastness.

But to boil the book down to that one simple nugget seems unfair to the scope of Young’s project. This is also a wonderfully terrifying god-cult horror movie, a study in metaphysics, a slightly surreal retelling of life in fundamentalist Christian communities—or maybe just everyday American suburbia. Young’s archetypal character names (the Holy Ghost People, the Speakers, etc.), indeterminate setting (a city neighborhood, time: whenever), and his placing us directly in the midst of a situation (“we’ll come in at the half-act & the holy ghost people will be here already”) make this play an allegory with all the potential to stand the test of time. This is 2014’s Vanity Fair, another story without a hero depicting humanity’s inevitable failings of morality and understanding, but Young doesn’t seem to share Thackeray’s desire to promote a specific mode of thought.

From the outset, the Speakers attempt to show how different the Holy Ghost People are from typical humans. Their hair looks like neon, they can conjure a deity known as Sylvia, they wear white cloth and seem to glide when they walk. The list of items they consider blasphemous seems laughable to us:

SPEAKERS   the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, cru-cifixions, dalmatians, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beat-ers, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrids suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in play-grounds, dead pigs…

The Speakers decide that the Holy Ghost People’s religion is nothing but “a story punched together/ with astronomy & pop-astrophysics & [they] do not/ believe [the Holy Ghost People] because there is nothing to believe.” They tell the preachers, “we have learned to recognize cults.” And this attitude seems warranted for most of the play—the Holy Ghost people speak at times in unintelligible nonsense, at other times in unrelenting dogma. At one point they react violently to blasphemers. They deliver to the Speakers a menacing prophecy:

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE    god will come for you in the ether-light of dreams, your throat will be slit in your living room, in your lawn, in the road, in your workplace, in your bed. when there is a dead owl without its feet in your back lawn, you have been judged & god is coming, or he is sending us to finish. you will know in the morning & god will come in the night & the owl will rise & you will be dead flesh. you’ll ask for sylvia then.

Over time, though, it becomes clear that the Speakers are just as dogmatic as the Holy Ghost People. They worry that “the weakness of faith revs.” Their biggest issue with the Holy Ghost People is that they cannot prove that their god is more real than the Speakers’. The two groups are cut from the same cloth and only separated by the names and qualities they give to their gods (jesus, god, sylvia, science). Twice throughout the play they break into a chorus of the repeated line, “we drink from the same water.”

Young shows his smarts with these characterizations. The reader, at first, feels gradually more and more comfortable with the Speakers, until she realizes that they are simply another shade of the Holy Ghost People. Who, then, in the play stands in for your everyday person? We’re given three representatives in the supporting cast: the Barfly, who only drinks; the Policemen, “kind of annoyed with the holy ghost people,” who dismiss both the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers from the scene of a stand-off; and the silent people who sit quietly on barstools or in parking lots. Young’s world, then, is one of high drama created by a passionate fight between two small groups over religious truth—the rest of the population either drinks to deal with the chaos, feebly tries to hold onto order, or entirely surrenders its voice. Sure, the Holy Ghost People are not quite anything we’ve seen before… but this world is ours.

After reading through the play once for the story, I’d encourage you to go back and examine Young’s language more deeply. There are many beautiful lines and stanzas that could inspire or stand as full poems in their own right. At one point the Speakers, presumably speaking to other Speakers about the Holy Ghost People, say, “but you are so right about them./ they are not truthful & you look like your/ mother in the garage shadow.” The Holy Ghost People decree that “all you need to/ make a star is tongue-baths & god’s will.” And the language is not only beautifully lyric—at times it enters a space where meaning is built solely by connotation:

SPEAKERS  give us the good stuff. the black tongue & stomach deep. give us the army jacket & stairwell run. the dresser of good booze. the holy ghost people parade. the holy ghost people preach. sermon-flare. the snake handlers have been bitten, give into the holy ghost people. the tv’s waving lights ruptured in four.

Almost Steinian in its way, Young’s language here is certainly poetic but also suits his subject matter. In conversations like those between the Speakers and the Holy Ghost People, words almost never mean what they seem to on the surface. At one point, Young compresses an entire debate between the two groups as the Holy Ghost People saying “evidence, evidence” and the Speakers replying, “we respond. ok. evidence, evidence.” His language is at its most compressed here, entire opposing dogmas being concentrated into the same two-word phrase.

As a reviewer, it’s always wonderful to come across a work of literature that is simply too well-written to be fully articulated in the span of a single review. Young’s play in verse is certainly one of those works. It’s my hope that the lines above inspire you to seek it out but, as a final motivator, I give you my favorite “poem” from the play, some lines from the speakers which I think very easily stands on their own:

SPEAKERS   transit into the trail—the detour, the hedge, the channel spike—you are so drunk when i pick you up & you want to see the floating bridge, the construction—you say, there’s supposed to be an abandoned piano, abandoned train cars, filled with gravel & chunks of coal. you’re asleep when we get to the bridge. i watch the construction lights from the hood, waiting for you to wake & demand a cigarette.

JOSHUA YOUNG is the author of When the Wolves Quit (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and, with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press). He is the Associate Director of Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his wife, their son, and their dog.


 

Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet in Life, Love, & Jazz

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

On Saturday night at the New Hazlett Theater, Texture Contemporary Ballet presented a two hour long show of five works in various styles, proving once again that the company is capable of much more than ballet technique.

Associate Director of the company, Kelsey Bartman, opened the show with her group piece, Fun. The popular rock band of the same name accompanied the seventeen dancers through a playful romp of shoulder shimmies, big, jazzy unison, and flat out, non-technical jamming to the music.

The highlights of the piece came in two contrasting sections. In a humorous moment, several women came toward each other in a slow motion fight scene reminiscent of the West Side Story Jets and Sharks. The other high point was Bartman’s solo, under a wide spotlight. Bartman seemed to be more expressive than usual, showing off a fluid torso and emotional transitions into and out of the light.

In Hollowed, Bartman and Executive Director, Alan Obuzor, performed a pas de deux to the haunting voice of Lana Del Rey. The two moved effortlessly from pirouettes to interesting gestures, and as always, their partnering showed an incredible comfort level between them.

Amanda Summers shined as the soloist in Bartman’s, Spinning Plates. Moments of traditionally light, ethereal movement countered her ease with more weighted dynamics. Most impressive was her ability to emote without drama. Summers had an honest quality about her.

Detachment. Without Reason by Gabriel Gaffney Smith had the most interesting choreography of the evening. The dancers wore pant suits in grey and black, a unique change from the normally scantily clad ballerina. The piece blended dissonant rock sounds with spoken word and even a few seconds in silence. Much of the movement was athletic and bound, with an unpredictable trio of intertwined limbs and frenzied, passionate partnering.

To close the show, the Marty Ashby Quartet played live, original jazz compositions from the theater’s rafters, in Life, Love, & Jazz. The piece showcased Texture’s technical abilities in both ballet and jazz. A throwback to the Fosse era, the dancers were calm and collected, moving easily across the stage in frontal, audience-focused sequences. The choreography matched the musicians’ smooth sultriness and quick rhythms. A cheeky section had five men swooning and even fainting over the lovely Alexandra Tiso. And a duet between Obuzor and Katie Miller stood out for its purity of movement and delicate lifts.

Texture’s work has certainly grown over the past year. Bartman and Obuzor are honing their choreographic skills and will only continue to grow. The two take obvious risks in movement invention; not often do we see unusual gestures and floor work in a ballet concert, even a contemporary one. I still crave deeper themes in their choreography, subjects that investigate nontraditional topics. The company is young, and it will be interesting to see the direction they take as keep growing locally and nationally.


 

On Catholic Anti-Semitism

by John Samuel Tieman

Perhaps the greatest challenge for anyone religious is to consider The Answer, but hold off on The Rule.

Not long ago, I wrote an essay about growing up Catholic. It was generally sentimental. Among other things, I wrote about the comfort I took from the Church during an emotionally turbulent childhood. Comfort. Stability. When I think of the Church of my childhood, this stability is what I often remember.

A Jewish buddy wrote me about my essay. When he thinks about his family’s encounters with The Church, it is not comfort that comes to mind. His father fled the anti-Semitic Catholics of his city in Poland. For my friend, mention of The Church brings to mind a very different set of memories.

So consider this an addendum to my sentimentality.

As I said in the previous essay, I belong to an annoying Church. That’s how I experience The Church at its worst. Annoying. I’ve never been molested by a priest. I’ve never had my shtetl burned to the ground. I don’t get pregnant. I don’t cringe when I hear the word “crusade”. I have experienced anti-Catholicism – it was painful, but still well within the class of annoyance.

We Catholics are at our most small c catholic when we are in the minority. We are at our worst when we make The Rule.

There’s a three-fold trap to bad leadership. The first is when the leader can’t imagine the consequences of the new rule. The second is when the leader personally experiences no consequences from his or her new rule. The third is when that leader receives little or no accurate feedback concerning the new rule. There would be no pedophile scandal if Catholic bishops had children.

It would be easy at this point to simply say, “Well, we’re all human. We’re all flawed. It’s not the fault of the religion. It’s all the fault of the flawed humans. A flaw. A mistake.”

When I take my students to the Holocaust Museum here, in St. Louis, I make it clear that anti-Semitism is very Christian. A lot of young folks want to treat this as yesterday’s flaw. I’m just old enough to remember when, on Good Friday, we prayed for the conversion of “the faithless Jews”. It’s a painful memory, this memory of a prayer. But remember we must. It was not a personal flaw. It was liturgy. It was Church policy. Lest we forget, here’s what we prayed when I was a kid in the ’50s and early ’60s –

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. [Pause for silent prayer.] Arise. Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That’s what we said. That’s exactly what we said. It was no mistake. The only flaw, the only mistake, is to forget that it was no mistake.

We Catholics also like to dismiss another painful memory. “Christ Killers”. Although apologists are correct in saying that Jewish deicide was not part of formal dogma per se, many Catholics, including members of the clergy, and not just a few bishops, preached that the Jewish people were collectively guilty for Jesus’ death. Vatican II repudiated that. That was a step in the right direction. But it didn’t change centuries of history. That damage was done.

If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat when he sang in his church choir, straight across from him was the statue of a much revered abbot. You can see that statue to this day. It is adorned with what was, long before Hitler’s youth, a common version of the cross of Christ. The swastika.

When someone feels they have The Answer, there is an overwhelming urge to take The Answer and make The Rule. How could The Rule be so wrong if The Answer is so right?

I love my Church. But we do need a new rule. My new rule is very small c catholic. It reads —

Just because you think you have The Answer
doesn’t mean you get to make The Rule.

_____

Book Review: Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold by Tim Chapman

 photo 229f0a4f-8e18-4bb0-9ad7-9f7f692f687c_zps90461a10.jpg Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold
by Tim Chapman
Allium Press, 2014
$14.99

 

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Tim Chapman’s Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold is a fresh take on the typical crime thriller. Chapman distances his work from the simple, run-of-the-mill, “who done it,” adding complexity by incorporating historical fiction and knowledge of forensic science. Set in both contemporary and 1930s Chicago, three story lines, centered on mobsters and gold, come crashing together. Chapman’s dynamic characters make us question our own morality and ethical boundaries when it comes to economic concerns and desires.

Right away, in the front matter, Chapman readies the reader to encounter ethical and moral economic quandaries by including a section from Thomas Hood’s poem titled, “Gold!:”

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold.
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

The human desire to acquire gold, a valuable metal that is symbolic of wealth and power, is clear. Not only does the poem highlight the monetary value of gold, but it comments on how gold is acquired: “stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled.”

Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, seemingly written for our attention-deficit-disorder culture, provides quick and entertaining chapters that rotate between three tales destined to coincide. Chapman weaves the stories of Delroy and Lucille, a young and simple-minded couple from Kansas who move to Chicago in the 1930s to start a new life; a desperate criminal named Gilbert Anglin in search of mobster treasure of the Karpis-Barker Gang; and the hero, Sean McKinney, a quirky, forensic scientist (possibly in Chapman’s own image) trying to balance morality and ethics. While the overall plot twist becomes apparent a bit early in the story, the interesting set of characters and subplot developments maintain interest throughout the piece.

It’s hard to tell if Chapman understands where he succeeds most in his story, because of how well it is imbedded into the minutiae. His commentary on economic concerns per different time periods and social levels is very powerful, but it seems lost or at least underplayed in the very nature of the genre and subject matter. McKinney, a single dad, is constantly battling a moral obligation to clear a suspected murderer by breaking the boundaries set for his job, which runs the risk of his termination at the forensics laboratory. After his boss informs him there will be a formal investigation into possible obstruction charges an exasperated McKinney lays out his beliefs:

It’s not that I have a right to interfere, I have an obligation. I became a forensic scientist because it gives me the opportunity to search for truth, truth that can help determine who’s committed a crime, and sometimes, who hasn’t.

McKinney, though he is often portrayed as the “cool fifty-year-old guy,” is redeemable through his heart. He does his job because he believes in it.

Meanwhile, when Lucille and Delroy first arrive in Chicago, most of their possessions are stolen, and despite constant day-long searches for honest work, Delroy is eventually coerced to join a group of gangsters to make due. But the life of crime brings only troubles for him and Lucille. After another robbery, Delroy questions his life of crime:

“What have I come to?” he sobbed. He hooked his elbow over the sill, pulled himself to his feet and raced down the stairs. He intended to run off. Leave the gang there. Somehow get back to Chicago, grab Lucille, and hightail it to Kentucky.

Then there’s Gilbert Anglin. At his very simplest, he is a man on a mission for mobster gold, and nothing and nobody will get in his way. While it is easy to submit to his simple-mindedness and apparent two-dimensional desires, Gilbert’s development is dark, twisted, and dynamic. His progression into desperation narrows his thoughts and his character. He changes from a man to a serial killer before our eyes. After sleeping with a waitress his picks up in a small-town diner, Chapman provides insight into the mind of the serial killer.

While she slept he aimed the little gun at her and imagined what it would feel like to pull the trigger. It would, he thought, be a little sad. Maybe he would enjoy it at first. He would probably enjoy it more than shooting little old ladies.

Gilbert is more than a deranged man. He is a study of desire. He shows control and is able to compartmentalize what he is doing; killing is his business:

He’d known kids who pulled the legs off insects to see them squirm, or thrown rocks at stray cats. Those kids had disgusted him, yet here he was, killing people and enjoying it. He was looking forward to killing Terrell right now, and the excitement of his anticipation was mixed with selfloathing…When decisions were influenced by anything other than business considerations it was time to reevaluate.

While Chapman succeeds in slyly incorporating commentary on the world, he sacrifices realism for plot advancement. Chapman’s treatment of police and law enforcement is the most glaring issue. He adopts the idea, and then expects the reader to follow, that police and law enforcement are and must be stupid. Too often are police ignoring facts and possible leads in regards to open investigations, mostly in order to have McKinney continue on his adventures. Speaking about a recently murdered woman, a cop blatantly ignores connections:

I don’t really have time to look into this now, McKinney. The family’s real upset, and I feel bad for them, but we just don’t have much to go on. Our best bet is if the daughter can give us a description, but she’s in no shape to answer questions and I’m up to my neck in gang shootings. I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time.

The treatment of the police reminds me of how the law is often portrayed in film comedies; bumbling and stumbling around, and all the while it makes you wonder where your tax money is being spent.

Nonetheless, Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, provides enough of a new take on the crime thriller that it keeps the reader determined to see what happens (if only involving the subplots). The characters are much more entertaining and dynamic than they appear to be, especially after considering the social, cultural, and economical concerns that Chapman confronts them with. In its simplest, this is Chapman’s ode to the forensic scientist, but if you dig deep there are facets of Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold that will have you questioning what effect greed has on us all.


 

 

 

Reenactment: A War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

A friend invited me to a Civil War reenactment. He was well meaning enough, although why he’d think I, a Vietnam veteran, would enjoy such a thing, who knows?

Then he said, “It’s realistic.”

To which I replied, “You want realistic? Here’s realistic. Fill their rifles with real bullets. But the blood and the gore, that’s not what I’m getting at.

The one who lives, the dead guy’s war buddy, there’s where you’ll find your realism. The survivor, in five years he’ll think how his buddy would have graduated from college. In ten years, how his buddy would have started a family, bought a little house. In a park one day with his own kid, fifteen years from now, he’ll imagine how his buddy would shag some flies with a son. But he won’t. Because he died. In twenty years, the survivor sending his kid to college, he’ll think how his buddy won’t. Twenty-five. Thirty. And on it goes until forty years from now, when he visits some memorial somewhere, and he puts his hand on his war buddy’s name – reenact that. That’s realistic.”

_____

Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

 photo 291329a6-45dc-4785-991d-c98101d39488_zps76d636a3.png The Earth Avails
Poems by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2014
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

God appears to be making a comeback. Six months ago Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journal was unveiled in The New Yorker. The break came on the heels of former child evangelist Terry Lucas’ If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press), and Edward Mullaney’s Figures for an Apocalypse (Publishing Genius Press)—a dark minimalist collage of nouveau romans and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

These works raised a few issues for postmodern reader such as how do we save ourselves from our own subject matter without a place to escape. They also hint that anarchy in poetry—a music of forms—is a critical push back against impenetrable and predictable layers of order in our society. Regrettably, these authors lacked the stamina needed to subdue the answers to questions they provoked. They’re poets for Christ’s sake, not bloodhounds, and poets readily grasp that it’s far easier to question the meaning of life than to actually live it. Still, the authors O’Connor, Lucas, and Mullaney—one from the past, one from the Golden State, and one from Brooklyn—ushered an important vertical dimension, bringing some sorely needed longitudinal thinking to the latitudes of the alt lit poetry community. Not since Saint Ignatius threw down his Consolation of Desolation has there been so much fuss about the up and down escalators between Heaven and Earth. Hang on tight, that handrail is there for a reason.

Mark Wunderlich makes a solid entry into this conversation with his third book, The Earth Avails. The title comes from an Anglo-Saxon charm, or ritual prayer-song, said or sung during the honey harvest to prevent swarming. It also seems to link him in a strange way with those curious bee poems in the last pages of Plath’s Ariel, as if we’re about to read of morbid sadness, a sadness that must nearly overtake us. In The Earth Avails, the poet’s soul seems in a constant state of surrender to an unhappy universe, the seasons, and all the possibilities for destruction—blights, illnesses, infertilities, coyotes. When it’s not shaking the white flag Wunderlich’s rustic soul is in the barnyard bleeding-out a lamb or taking a shotgun to a raccoon, but not before taking the Have A Heart cage trap to a reasonably beautiful and quiet setting at wood’s edge.

The Earth Avails mercifully is not divided into sections. There are no commercials in this drama. Nor does one need to read one poem in order to grasp another. Some of the poems are autobiographical. He visits his youth here and there, and commingles these with some reports from the limestone rich ground in upstate New York where he resides, but the majority of these poems are what Wunderlich calls “house prayers” after the late 18th Century prayer book models written by German immigrants to central and western Pennsylvania. For anyone keeping score, this was the onset of the Enlightenment Era.

Wunderlich’s house prayers are occasional poems. Some address very specific agricultural fiascoes, some are written as simple conversations with God, and so forth. Each prayer also serves as a prompt for the speaker to reveal himself as he loosens his meditation on us. Since many of them are written in second address, written to “you,” these prayers have the added bonus of making the reader feel like God. When he begs God for rain in his poem “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” Wunderlich is also in some way begging the reader to unlock our own shut doors that keep “the skies from opening / and cooling and sending the quenching, / sweet smelling rain.” His closing words, “Father please,” made me ache.

Wunderlich’s God is not necessarily a Christian one. In true Lutheran fashion the Messiah doesn’t even show up the first time, let alone a second coming. This gives the Lord a very Old Testament feel, which in turn imbues the speaker’s misfortunes, and blessings, with a larger proportion. Still, there is a reason that twenty years ago this book would not have been optioned by Hollywood for a film starring Charlton Heston. As William Carlos Williams said, each poem is a small universe. Wunderlich adheres to this wisdom while tackling a much larger universe. In other hands, the scope of these poems might have swallowed the poet, and even metaphor itself, but Wunderlich’s gifted use of language, his familiarity with older syntax and construction, and his ability to find the precise noun during some very imprecise moods alert us that these poems are shaped by someone skilled in the art of the beautiful and the true.

Americans have always had a restless bone (did somebody just say Manifest Destiny?), and we’ve come to associate a spiritual record as a journal of discovery. That usually means going places in a poem. No thank you, Wunderlich seems to be saying, as if he’s perfectly at peace being engaged in labor-intensive routines on his small piece of ground. Rather than write himself outside of the box, to use poetry as a way to leave what Bruce Springsteen calls “his own small town,” Wunderlich climbs deeper into it, lushly revealing its habits and rituals and horrors.

The way some people put bumper stickers on their cars to show where they’ve been to I imagine Wunderlich has a sticker that says “Mail Box” or “Corn Crib.” Maybe going on the road meant something fifty years ago, but Mailor’s American Dream is not quite the same with 7-Elevens dotting the turnpike like punctuation. Wunderlich prefers to stay at home and let the world—and its loving, vengeful God—come to him: “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side. The willows bent // their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely. / The hawk cried by the well.” Thus it’s ironic that The Earth Avails begins with a journeying poem, but the discoveries are all within his own midst, his waking up and his gratifying slumber. “Once I Walked Out” concludes with a desperate yoga that might have added ten years to Frost’s life:

I swung my arms, pulled air into my lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew—

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

Wunderlich’s deft handling of images in series takes us from a dust mote to the solar system within just a few paces without the reader feeling hurried. He does this again I “prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain” when he writes: “The corn, stunted in the fields / presses green tongues to the sky, / desperate for a lick of sun, the garden bloats / and goes to seed, pebbled with slugs.” In those two brief couplets the reader is handed the cosmos, weather, dirt, rocks, time passing, and even ecological French kissing.

Another poem, “Heaven-Letter” also goes back and forth between God—a great force, a blinding light—and the day to day as represented by particularly mundane tasks on the speaker’s farm:

With your sorghum broom you sweetened my path, pulled
the woolen shawl around me while I slept.

That the lightning struck the willow
and did not fall—for this I am grateful.

Help me to work. When I mow or plant,
when I seal the summer fruits in jars,

slaughter or pluck, slit the rabbit’s throat, butcher the fallow hen,
when I mend my rended garments, stitch the blanket top,

it is for you. When I wash or scrub upon my knees,
it is to see you more clearly.

Poetry about subject matter has been frowned upon by some critics, and rightly so. The feeling among Beats that one had to live a poem before writing it was actually a lot closer to Hemingway—who believed one had to die in order to write about death—than to Mark Strand. The problem with subject matter by itself, writing what one knows for example, is that it becomes too difficult to get at the mystery of something. The world of the poem becomes very two-dimensional and it’s not enough to merely rely on Time to add another dimension. The result is a very horizontal condition which we access by reading how the experience or the concept of the experience made the speaker feel or else made the speaker think of something. Wunderlich’s use of poems as prayers acknowledges his subject matter, but shifts the focus onto a seductive, faithful and spiritual realm with which one never tires for its many surprises. And it’s all about the work, the work of writing: “Urge, with your holy claw, the scratching of my pen.” In “A Servant’s Prayer,” Wunderlich prays: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry / of tasks and humiliations // is a shining world that must remain hidden / so it may remain unspoiled.”

It is important that we have enough knowledge to more or less get by, but not so much that we lose contact with subtle harmonies. Like strawberries, those harmonies will turn in an instant and we’ll miss them if we’re too smart. It is precisely because those subtle harmonies are the source of mystery in his writing that Wunderlich has created this uniquely traditional and oddly experimental form of collecting them as house prayers. Consider the closing lines of “Driftless Elegy,” a long sad poem—I kept blinking though its middle parts—describing a return to the depressing Wisconsin territory of his youth:

In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.

A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself

into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.

Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.

A hundred years from now would any of us be writing so sweetly and so sharply about the twin towers? The desolation of the postmodern poet is that even in community he feels isolated and alone, lonely, and afraid of death. This is why the focus has to be outside of ourselves completely, just shy of a light year away, and yet we must bring to bear on that outward focus all of the intimate, boring details, all of our clarities, to that aim. Consolation is only possible through empathy and empathy requires some sort of spiritual focus to transcend contradiction. Wunderlich carries this to extraordinary measure. At times, the speaker and God seem like lovers, and yet the God is also an executioner. In “Prayer for a Journey by Sea” he writes: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon // across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” Wunderlich also addresses empathy dead on in “A Husband’s Prayer” when he concludes: “our hands / barely touching as we sleep.” The empathy, making a connection, is more important than romantic love.

It is remarkable to me that as I read these poems, each one reporting an often very foreign context to me, I found myself saying, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say all this time. And yet, I hadn’t really been trying to say those things. It’s just that Wunderlich has such an indirect, even plain spoken way of “controlling the interview” between the poem and the reader. He lets us pray these poems with him.

The phrase that sticks in most readers minds from O’Connor’s spiritual journal was her comment about God being the only true atheist. That line kind of morphed in my head with advice from novelist Bob Bausch to “write what you know,” and poet April Bernard to “write what you don’t know.” The conflicting wisdom says a lot about the difference between genres. In fiction we create stories. In poetry, we create mysteries. But what if you’re not a poet or a novelist? What if you’re a minister; how would you follow this logic? Writing what you believed, I reckoned, was writing what you didn’t believe.

Maybe Christianity has it wrong. Maybe instead of creating us in his image, God destroyed us in his image. No one is afraid of mortality like a ghost. And if we’re not fully engaged in life, in our own autobiographies and the possibilities that defy them, then we’re all ghosts. “Come Lazarus,” Wunderlich seems to be saying. “Step out from behind that boulder. Grab a plow. Glance at the sky. Let me show you what you’ve been missing.”


 

June 20th

June, this year has been rainy and unsettling for me here in the condo. June 2nd, I signed the closing mortgage refinance papers into my name here on my dining room table, and I have dwelled for ten days surrounded by The Three Rivers Arts Festival.  Living in the midst of the Arts Festival sometimes feels like being assaulted by a gang of jewelry makers, hot sausage sandwich cooks, and amped-up bass players. Most of my building’s residents leave for their out of town vacations during these ten days.  I should, too, but I feel leaving home for a vacation is even more stressful than living with the festival that at least closes promptly at 9:00 p.m.  Besides, I’m poet. I’m in favor of public art.

June, I think, is a dangerous month: school lets out for summer vacation which gives everyone either too much free time and/or ruins family and work schedules. Things happen.  Garden weeds are at their worst.  People move.  Marry.  Divorce.  Babies get left in hot cars to die.  Air conditioners give out.  We remember all those U.S. World War II boys who died on Normandy’s beaches.  And, if some hapless, vacationing American is shopping in Paris, the French clerks still will ignore us if we can’t speak French.  June yearly reminds me life is not fair.

&&&&&

 

June 20, 1959, I was taking a Pre-Session Phonetics class for my Speech minor at what was then called Clarion State Teachers’ College.  That evening, in my second floor dorm room I was reading my homework assignment when my Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha knocked on my door.  I was amazed and puzzled.  Why were they visiting me at that hour all way from Mill Village in Erie County, a two hour drive away?  Why were they allowed upstairs to knock on my door?   Why weren’t they smiling?

I don’t remember their exact words, but what they quickly told me was that my brother, Joel, who was 17 months younger than I, had died earlier that day. My brother, who only a few months before had surprised me with a larky, two hour visit while I was working in CSTC’s dining hall scraping garbage off lunch plates, would never again kid around with me.

Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha were vague concerning why or how Joel had died.  All they would tell me was that Joel had died in Erie behind the store on the west side that our third cousin, Dick, worked. They were there to take me home for Joel’s funeral.  I packed my suitcase for a three day stay, because I knew that I would have to come back quickly to Clarion to finish my class.

What did I, an eighteen-year-old college English major, know?

 

&&&&&

 

Well after 10:00 p.m. that night I carried my small suitcase into my family’s red wallpapered kitchen so big it even held a stone fireplace. My weeping mother was just starting to remove Joel’s supper from the oven where she had been keeping it warm for him.  She scraped his plate into the garbage.  Then, she emptied our pale blue everyday teapot down the sink drain.  She barely noticed my arrival, except to tell me that Joel’s long time girl friend would be sleeping with me in my room.  Uncle Russell went directly to see Dad in the living room.

Except for my five year old brother, Jerry, I doubt there was any sleeping in that house that night.  Certainly, Joel’s girlfriend, whom I discovered had just days before accepted a diamond ring from him, never slept. Neither was there any information given about how or why Joel died.  What I did find out the next morning, much to my horror, was that Joel in his casket was delivered by the undertaker to our living room, directly beneath my upstairs bedroom, where it remained for the three days before his church funeral.  Hundreds of relatives, friends, neighbors, and the curious trooped up our front walk for the viewing, held every day from nine in the morning until nine each night.  Laden with casseroles and desserts, others came in through the back door into our kitchen.  Nobody knocked.

Meanwhile, Dad took up a position at the head of Joel’s metal casket where he carefully drew everyone to view what he continually explained was “the most natural view of my big bull calf.”  Mom pretty much stayed as a greeter in the dining room, except that after everyone left each night she sat crying alone in the living room with the casket until morning.  Dad slept in their downstairs bedroom.  As usual, I could hear his snoring that filled the entire house.

 

&&&&&

 

Somehow after the funeral, I found a ride back to Clarion and was allowed to take the Phonetics class final exam.  I’m sure, given that I missed so many classes, that I failed it, though I was given a C for the class.  A gift.  Clarion had a rule at that time that students were not allowed to stay in the dorms between semesters or between summer sessions, so I reluctantly had to return home the weekend after my final exam.  The house was back in order, our home was silent.  Joel’s pickup truck had been sold.  I suppose to pay for his funeral.  However, Dick, our third cousin, who had spent several years in Western Penitentiary for theft, lived across our street.  He was sitting on his front porch, so I walked over to find out why or how Joel died.

Because of Dick’s recently deepened black sheep status, he was relieved to be able to talk to anyone who wasn’t connected with the Coroner’s Office about Joel’s death behind his Erie store.  Dick told me Joel had arrived jubilant at his store the morning of June 20th.  That morning Joel had given Dad the last payment for his truck, and he was there to celebrate because he knew Dick would understand how good it felt to no longer be in debt.  Then, to further celebrate his independence from Dad—a loud, rigid fundamentalist, tee totaling Christian—Joel strolled to the local State Store and bought a bottle of vodka.  When he returned, he offered a drink to everyone in the store, then according to Dick, Joel chugged the rest of the vodka.  Soon, Joel said he felt tired and went out back to lay down for a nap in the back of his very own pickup truck.  A few hours later, Dick went out back to check on him and discovered Joel wasn’t breathing.  Dick called for an ambulance, but by the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late. The police and coroner were called, and Joel’s death was declared an accident.

However, although Dick identified the body, no one wanted to inform our parents of Joel’s death, especially because of how he died.  Finally, very late in the afternoon, the coroner who knew our family drove to Mill Village and told my Uncle Russell who lived just four houses down the street from our home.  First, Uncle Russell made the arrangements with the undertaker to pick up Joel’s body.  Then, the coroner and Uncle Russell drove up the street to tell Mom and Dad.  According to Dick, Uncle Russell talked the Erie newspapers into leaving out Joel’s cause of death.

 

&&&&&

 

As far as I know, neither of my parents ever revealed to anyone the real cause of Joel’s death, except to vaguely mention a heart problem, which I suppose is a version of their truth. But, even I, a mere 18-year-old English major, could feel their shame, a shame I did not and still do not share.  I also do not share their penchant for fending off the truth with silence.

A few days after Joel’s funeral on my 19th birthday, I had surgery for appendicitis.   Early that fall, my Mom’s mother and stepfather were instantly killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver.  That Thanksgiving, when I came home from Clarion, Dad told me that the reason Mom was in bed was that two weeks earlier she had suffered a major heart attack and that I was going to have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 21 members of our family who were always invited to our home for that meal.  So, I did.  I knew there was no further discussion wanted or allowed.

 

&&&&&

That was then, but I, the eternal English Major, am still reading, considering Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, especially section 6 where he writes:

 

            And now [grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 

            Tenderly will I use you curling grass.

            It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

            It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,

            It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their

              mothers’ laps

            And here you are the mothers’ laps.

 

Yes, if my family had been able or willing or permitted to share the truths of our grief over Joel’s death, we would have known Joel and ourselves better.  Perhaps, we would have known how to love each other better. However, if all that had happened, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a poet/writer, who like Whitman says a few lines later:

 

            I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

            And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out

              of their laps.

 

And maybe, June 2, 2014, I wouldn’t have had needed to sign those mortgage papers on my black, dining room table here in what now legally has become my condo.