Book Review: Deathbed Dime$ by Naomi Elana Zener

 photo 131e1c09-1655-48bd-b581-a1720b0fdb67_zpsd173ce25.jpg Deathbed Dime$
by Naomi Elana Zener
Iguana Books, 2014

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Deathbed Dime$ tells the story of thirty-two-year-old Joely Zeller, an estates attorney,  who tries to distance herself from her privileged upbringing and earn success on her own terms and through her own work. Born to a Hollywood director and actress, she finds her calling in the courtroom as opposed to on the movie set. Upon graduation from law school, she finds work with a well-established New York law firm and leaves behind her family and friends in California. She tries her best to become partner at the firm, only to be passed over for a less qualified colleague. After the career disappointment, further tragedy strikes as her love life crumbles and she is left to reinvent and discover her true self by embracing the family and friends she left behind. This is where the fun begins, so to speak.

Naomi Elana Zener takes us through Joley’s attempt to gain control of her life by overcoming discrimination in work, love, and life. Deathbed Dime$ reads like simple light comedic fare through the detailing of the super-heroine’s trials and errors while establishing herself as the premier estates attorney in California (if not the world) as well as accepting the love she truly deserves (a wildly successful, handsome, smart lawyer like herself, Ethan Berg, who she happens to have been friends with for years and has loved her for about just as long even though she constantly ignores his attempts to foster that love with her). On the other hand, Deathbed also ends up dealing with cultural, sexual, and racial stereotypes.

The story is set around a bunch of white people with few flaws (other than having lots of sex at work and shopping too much) and doing whatever they please. In fact, the only characters of color are relegated to service roles as limousine drivers and as lesser personnel in the workplace. Though this at first appears offensive, it could be interpreted as commentary for the actual lack of racial diversity in law and entertainment. Zener does place an Asian-American woman in a prominent role, Coco Hirohito, as Joley’s best girlfriend and colleague, but a prominent black judge/congressman/businessman could still have been incorporated.

Though racially Zener misses, her commentary on cultural stereotypes proves more interesting. Joely is of Jewish heritage. Her profession is law and her parents are both in the entertainment business, both particulars fulfilling stereotypes. In one instance in the story, Joely is ignoring a fellow flight passenger until she realizes she could earn a fortune off of the young woman’s case and jumpstart her career. Remembering the girl’s name from files she had seen, Joely remembers the case’s potential:

I knew why her name was familiar. Esty was the long lost niece of Ivana Iretzki, the dead woman at the heart of my former firm’s new estate case. She was the heiress no one could locate. I tuned out of Esty’s rambling and tried to recall the details of the Iretzki file…

Later, in an odd blend of the law and Hollywood, Joely and other members of Joely’s new jumpstart law firm are walking down the red carpet for a Hollywood premiere. Her nemesis, the “Lazy, entitled , super WASPy and Mein Kampf-totting” Chip Hancock, the same person who was picked for partner over her by her former employees, also is on the red carpet. He refers to her through a racial slur and she subsequently punches him in the face. Zener deals with these themes unclearly. Nowhere in the story does it become clear that Chip is a Nazi other than when Joely needs him to be because he is her nemesis. It is unclear if Joely is a victim of discrimination or part of the perpetuation of it. Referring to her status in her former firm she claims, “I’m a Jewish woman ticking off diversity quotas for their boys’ club.” Yet, she uses discrimination as well.  It appears she is less the protector of the Jewish culture and more a creation from its stereotypes.

Of most importance to this story is the commentary offered on women and their sexuality. It is a constant battle between giving in to sex and remaining focused on a career. Her relation with Ethan exemplifies this as an employee at their jumpstart law firm points out:

“Joely, you walk around here like the Queen of Sheba. You have Ethan twirled around your little finger and even though you don’t want him, you won’t let him be happy with anyone else.”

Joely is constantly at odds with her desire for love and need for a successful career. Throughout much of her life and the story she is pushing away love to ensure her success as an individual. She is able to turn down sexual advances on a number of occasions in order to keep focused on her new law firm. On the other hand, she has had a sexual relationship with her law professor that ended in heartbreak. Her Asian side kick sleeps with partners at her former firm and ends up trying to use it to her advantage:

“I’ll still be offered partner. But I had to blackmail the managing partner after I dumped him. Unfortunately, ex-wife number three was his former secretary and still friends with all of the firm’s support staff. Needless to say, the word of our affair spread through the firm faster than a California wildfire. So now I’m a triple threat: female Asian attorney who sleeps her way to the top.”

Even with all of the tools for a career or job, the stigma of sexual promiscuity can interrupt a woman’s career according to Deathbed.

Though Joely is for the most part infallible, which destroys any aspect of suspense in Deathbed, only stereotypes can hold her back. But Joely is so smart and attractive nothing can stand in her way except for her own inhibitions, but Zener doesn’t let Joely ever fail enough for the reader to think that something actually might not work out for the character. Zener created a superwoman whose kryptonite is wanting the best for herself. Who can relate to this kind of character? Who wants to? In the end, Joely is feels like a brunette version of a Barbie doll with an I.Q of 190. I found myself rooting against her.

Deathbed Dime$ reads really easily, and it is obvious Zener did her research for the content of the story. Zener’s message remains unclear for the stereotypes she addresses; it appears that she does recognize many issues, but if she could have championed them better. In the end, Joely is not a good representative of women; in fact, she is the type of image that causes unrealistic ideals.


Publius Moves On

I always wondered what it would be like on my last day of work. I thought I would be sentimental. I didn’t think the feeling would be relief.

There are many other things I didn’t think. I didn’t think that the fun bits of my career would be the early parts.

I used to think that what made a great teacher was that they had an interesting life. Larry Walsh published a book of poetry. Ralph McGuire spoke sixteen languages, eight fluently, two with native fluency. Larry Russel’s wife was a photographer for National Geographic, and Larry every year played at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I’m not saying that every teacher need be a scholar or an artist. I am saying that the job’s purpose, in part, is to make possible the more interesting bits of our lives, not to crush them. Yet crushing the job has become.

So many years ago, when I got my Ph. D., I wanted to teach the poorest of the poor. Be careful what you wish for. Now it’s come to this: I need to retire to save my own soul. I once thought I was one of the strong ones.


The Teacher’s Retirement Speech

When I’m gone, I don’t want a tree or a bench named me.
I’d like someone to find a pay stub and ask “Wasn’t he…”

Someone gave me a card that said the stuff that makes the sun makes us.
For my part, I’d like everyone to take a breather—–to hell with the sun and the uplifting

stuff and think of light as an innuendo, a glance from your lover over dessert,
the glance that says sex tonight. Then think no more

about it. So let the answer to “Wasn’t he” be—–something that flashed
past an unwashed window, something glanced out the corner but gone,

a lesson you forgot when you were interrupted, the desire you feel
when you kiss the lipstick left on her last glass of wine.


Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

 photo 0ae29e21-7c9c-4fd5-a883-936dfe2d93cc_zps60e566b9.jpg Interrobang
Poems by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, begins with fear—specifically melophobia, the fear of music. But from the poem’s first few lines, it’s clear that this fear isn’t of just any music:

They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed
windpipes that knock like water mains behind

thin walls or else a lovely sound like wood-
winds sanded smooth—no middle ground…

The speaker is afraid of her own voice, of “Them” telling her she’s singing badly. Their critiques are endless and contradictory: “begin // again, again, again, now overwrought, / now under-sung; not done.” How apt a conflict to incite this particular collection, a series of poems exploring personal longing through the common lenses of love and fear. (What if readers think she explored these subjects “wrongly?”) But by the end of the poem the speaker seems to shrug off these ethereal naysayers, telling us: “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” She keeps singing and her voice, once she trusts it, transcends her body and becomes a natural element. We breathe a sigh of relief; we’re being led by a strong, sure voice.

More than just someone of firm conviction, Piazza proves herself in this collection to be a master of form. From sonnets to pantoums to poems that create their own rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, the powder kegs Piazza offers us here have clearly been painstakingly arranged. In “Clithrophilia: love of being enclosed,” she longs for “wonders, harbored,” writing:

And I’ve ached for it all: a closet; a stall;
the crevice between your flesh and the wall.
A way to forsake this freedom I’ve heeded
too often…

Under pressure, forced to be economical with her words, Piazza employs bold images and makes riveting connections and conclusions. Each poem contains harbored wonders. The speaker in “Xenoglossophobia: fear of foreign languages,” like so many of Piazza’s speakers, directs the reader in how to process something she’s seeing. From her first description—“The background’s Brighton Beach”—to her last—“gray sea, white house, red slash that is her heart”—Piazza fleshes out a painting from sketches into full detail, shocking us by landing on the only vivid color mentioned.

We enter Piazza’s collection with the assumption that love and fear are separate entities, possible endpoints on a spectrum of human emotion. But by the book’s midpoint we reach “Phobophilia: love of fear,” a dystopia of grisly images. Piazza handles these atrocities with a surprisingly gentle touch:

The censors will reveal the body, but
black out the eyes…
                        Tomorrow, paradise.
Tomorrow, trucks idling at yellow lights
will dash, will crush the thousand hands that wave
unvoiced applause. And then: mass graves…
            Tomorrow, circuses
will drop the safety mesh, disaster checked
for falling flyers with brute prayer alone.
Though some will slip, we know the system will
be wholly good…

Here, fear and love converge like the interrobang, simultaneous interrogation and exclamation. For Piazza, they’re sometimes one and the same. And in case we miss the memo, she gives us “Eisoptrophilia” and “Eisoptrophobia”—the love and fear of mirrors—a few pages later. Fear mirrors love, and often we love the things we fear.

There’s no real equivalent “fear of love” poem (though we do get an entry on “fear of sexual love.”) Arguably, that’s because the whole book addresses a fear of love. Every poem stands as a testament to this anxiety surrounding intimacy, especially those that flesh out the romantic through-line of the collection. “People Like Us,” the first of three series of sonnets, tells the story of a failed love affair from the moment of attraction to the aftermath of separation. The speaker appeals in these poems to herself and her lover, but also to society at large:

People like us, we’re dust, we’re everywhere. We lie
in spaces between places praying madly for
each other, staying mad at one another…
                        Chasing careless fathers or
neglectful mothers…

For Piazza’s speaker, love is a series of failures repeated time and time again with new subjects for our affection. It’s a futile search to fill an emptiness that has always existed, tied up in a fear of our inheritance—we get “Patroiophobia” later. To explore the depths of love and loss, she depicts tragic characters like the mother in “Pediophilia: love of dolls.” Loss is marked immediately: “The week her daughter died, the room her girl / had occupied became a home for dolls. / The first an angel… It looked like her.” There’s unspeakable pain here, a frightening illustration of the lengths we’ll go to memorialize love in our lives.

But life isn’t always lived in these extreme moments, and Piazza chooses to end her collection with a return to unadorned reality. “What I Hold” begins with its own answer: “a glint—an intimation of what gleams.” The speaker resorts again to a description of her surroundings, but this time her words are almost clinical:

The birds I hear don’t sound like opera, not
like flutes or piccolos at play. They sound
like birds. Sometimes the birds are all I’ve got.

We wind through these sonnets past attempts at forging meaning from moments that “amount / to nothing but a blink over the lifetime of the eye.” “I’m not a girl who has epiphanies,” the speaker tells us before launching into a story of her meeting of a tired woman who begs for a ride home. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say that Piazza comes again to that eternal conflict—choose love, or choose fear? An impossible question, perhaps, but one that winds up central to her self-perception. Beneath its possibilities exists a clue toward the things we hold inside us:

And maybe to this day that choice still seems
like a hint, a minute’s inkling of what gleams.

Dance Review: Kimono
by Mark Conway Thompson

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater hosted its first “Fresh Works” showing of the season on Friday night. The program gives Pittsburgh-based artists eighty hours of rehearsal space and technical support, to work on mixed-genre collaborations.

Kimono was directed by Mark Conway Thompson, who worked internationally as a mime for multiple decades. He performed the trio with Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson, both of whom graduated from Point Park University in 2012 and have been dancing in Pittsburgh ever since.

The 40-minute work-in-progress dealt with predation and was partly inspired by a fictional artist who found healing from trauma through the making of kimonos. Conway Thompson also drew inspiration from real life victims of abuse. For example, Japanese artist and World War II POW, Itchiku Kubota, also used art as a way to rebuild his life after war. And Shelomo Selinger, a Holocaust survivor, took to sculpting as his pathway to emotional freedom.

To begin, Conway Thompson and Knight stood nude under low lighting, performing the first of many intricate gestural phrases of the hands and fingers. The image was one of the only abstract moments in the show, and was quite beautiful. The movement developed further, in two separate solos by the men. Eventually alone, Knight stood center stage while a masked figure, Anna Thompson, moved toward him. She swiftly attacked him with a knife and the lights went down.

Conway Thompson later took his turn as predator. Knight and Anna Thompson performed a captivating duet of precisely mimed gestures that sometimes articulated all the way through their spines. Conway Thompson hid, just barely visible, near the back corner of the studio space, masked, as if stalking the others. One by one, he assaulted them, and carried them off-stage.

The aftermath of the attacks was the most haunting and mesmerizing part of the piece. Knight entered first, wearing loose-fitted gray clothing. His appearance was disheveled and his body language projected emotional agony. He tiptoed around in a staggering manner, feet turned in and back hunched. As if he were fighting off his inner demons, he began thrashing and gasping. He stripped his clothes, in a cathartic purge, and fell to the ground. Conway Thompson covered his body in a butterfly kimono signifying Knight’s freedom and ability to move forward.

Anna Thompson began her own purification in a similar state. In a baggy gray dress, she sank to her knees almost immediately, clutching what looked like a bloodied rag. She also gasped, swallowing the air, and ripped off her dress. The process of ridding herself from her predator was both difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. Knight eventually offered her a kimono. The two of them walked off as the lights went down.

The piece was quite literal in its interpretation of the pain and trauma of victimhood. In some ways, it felt necessary to push the depicted violence. Because we are a culture desensitized to brutality, the piece needed to be overt with the point.

On the other hand, some of the props were a bit too obvious. The predator’s mask, for example, felt cartoonish. At other times during the piece, the cast used simple black fabric to cover their faces; that would have sufficed as the attacker’s disguise, and would have been more frightening than the mask. Conway Thompson did say that some of the set props were subject to change. A toned-down approach would be more powerful.

The piece was timely and important, especially in light of recent news stories dealing with shootings, domestic violence, and corporal punishment. Conway Thompson expressed accurately that we have a hero worship of predators in this country. He said his desire with Kimono is to “push back at the bully, bad guy, strong man attitude…to render it unfashionable.”

There is a saying that, in the creation of art, it is better to go too far and pull back later than to never go far enough. The cast performed the work with authenticity, bravery, and uninhibited candor. With some honing and fine-tuning, the finished product has the potential to bring meaningful awareness to this crucial issue.


Food Safety

By Karen Zhang

Recently, a giant Chinese meat company, Shuanghui International, has bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, at the price of US $4.7 billion. The news immediately went viral on the internet in China probably because the Chinese people are very concerned about food safety.

The food safety scandal in China has been going on for years, from tainted baby formula to diseased pork, from polluted vegetables to heavy-metal rice. In fact, as the pace of the country’s economic growth gets faster, more food safety problems surface. Nearly every type of food you can think of has been a subject of scandal. Chinese people are living in fear. No one knows what food will be next.

Now the merger has aroused the suspicion of the Chinese public about whether Shuanghui International is trying to boost its meat quality by bringing in a foreign partner. After all, being cheated multiple times, Chinese consumers have lost faith in domestic food products. Imported food suddenly is what people are avidly after. The Hong Kong government has had to limit quantities of imported baby formula sales to mainland visitors in order to ensure the supply of the city. Perhaps you have figured out why Chinese tourists in America are so generous with their money on foreign brands. Quality is the key — although vanity is part of it as well!

It’s a shame that Chinese food manufacturers cheat consumers and the government is ineffectual in inspecting the supplies. In this respect, China is far behind the U.S. Many Americans think that China will soon surpass America, but actually China is still very backward.

As more Chinese people become middle-class, they’re consuming more meat. The country has been a net importer of pork since 2008. As urbanization develops rapidly in China, more people will adopt a meat-heavy diet. Thanks to globalization and the expansion of fast food chains and a high-calorie diet, in no time, Chinese kids will look no different than overweight children in the West. The merger of two large meat companies may be good news for the meat-loving Chinese who want the supply of quality pork to keep coming!


Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

 photo 3d22af97-93e8-4d69-a85e-1a7ac9ef0a72_zps4b795650.jpg Riceland
Poems by C.L. Bledsoe
Unbound Content, 2013


Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Immersive travel writer Joseph Hone wrote a million words, but I only remember a handful: ninety percent of love is tact, and ninety percent of writing is tactless. Put another way: reviewing a book I love is one thing; reviewing a book I love written by a man I love is a trickier affair. Not to sound doubly negative, but love isn’t possible without lines that mustn’t be crossed. And yet, how can I write a review without crossing every line?

C. L. Bledsoe’s fourth collection of poems is one of the most difficult acts of love any writer has attempted. In Riceland the author journeys to his youth in the Arkansas delta. These are poems of early first impressions of life, written as conversations clustering around images. Bledsoe wants to bear hug his sorrows—truly, his grief today—but first he must find the bear. His search is a marvel as he returns to a time long before he possessed the rich ironic sensibility Bledsoe is known for in his previous work and in such novels as Last Stand at Zombietown.

Although Bledsoe is quite comfortable using an elastic voice, stepping—or shuffling—into and out of his narrative threads in his previous poems, his voice in Riceland is not so preoccupied with witty touches to hold our attention. Rather, it is a curious voice. It belongs to a speaker almost ready to begin asking smaller questions in order to escape much larger ones that dominate his life such as why his mother is dying of a genetic mutation which is destroying her nervous system. That the child poet could still have wonder at the world is surely what saves him:

When I was a boy       I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night        after Mom got sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad worked long hours
and stayed drunk. Every day,
I came in from the rice fields
     too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to
     pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
     because it was cool
and they were in there                        singing.

(from “Roaches)

Even a despondent origin has its beautiful stars and Bledsoe delights in rustic shenanigans, dangerously “surfing” the silo’s grain feeder, hosing out the blood from the catfish butcher shop, identifying with his father over a pelican eating their livelihood, escaping the tub and running naked circles around his brother’s friend Crow as an eight-tracked Jimmy Page whined and wailed, and his sensing of shame when the silent pig farmer came to collect tubs of fish guts to feed his hogs. Everyone and everything around him is searching for words in an obliteration of noise. In “Cry of the Catfish” Bledsoe mutely watches—and learns—as the catfish try to speak while being skinned alive: “Even sober, / my father could skin a catfish faster than it could die. / Their little mouths worked, / but they couldn’t make a sound, / as he snatched one out of the dirty white basin, / hung it like a thief on a cross, / and cut it.” Wouldn’t anyone else have said Jesus? It’s as if Bledsoe’s beginnings aren’t even worthy of a savior, rather, he gets the savior’s crucifixion neighbor.

Hunting squirrels was next.
They barked at us sometimes;
He’d let one live long enough for that,
and I’d get a shot at it.

The author bonds with his father over many physical and bloody labors. Life here is cheap, and merciless, as we see in another poem where the young artist helps his father chain a dead calf which is stuck inside its desperate mother, then drives the tractor pulling those chains into a tree. The live mother and its dead son correspond with the live son—Bledsoe—and his dead mother. The father wrestling the both of them, the “levees in curves that made no sense to me. / Straight, young spears of rice, green and thick as hair / covered the field’s bone-white dust.” In “Bachelor Club,” Bledsoe offers a rare interpretation of what he describes: “Theirs was not a world in which scrapes / were kissed, forks were placed properly or even / used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal / of youth is eaten, the playful is stewed.”

Transcendence is one of those words that has fallen on hard times. In order to lift out of your own reality you must first have a sense of your own ground zero. The trick to flying is the launch from a sturdy place. After, it’s mostly managing air gusts and a little bit of steering before landing in a soft tumble. Most of us don’t have such a sturdy place to begin, or if we do, we refuse to acknowledge it. This is Bledsoe’s lesson in bravery, that love requires more bravery than war, even an almost tactless bravery which enables you to love the very wounds you spend your whole life cursing.

In a neighboring state which shared the same delta Bledsoe knew, the drunk galloper Faulkner wrote, “We cling to that which robs us.” Most of the time this is what we do. The larceny doesn’t have to be grand. We also cling to what steals only a little of us day by day. Rarely is someone capable of letting go of it. Rarer still to let go through an act of writing. Bledsoe has done this. Riceland is the miracle of his release.


The Modernists of Al Andalus

By Djelloul Marbrook

One of the consequences of adult caretakers trespassing you in boarding school is that you’re unlikely to trust the way anyone wants to teach you. So, when I discovered R.P. Blackmur all by myself in a bookstore, it felt like an act of rebellion. Fortunately I had happened on The Double Agent, his 1935 book of essays that introduced what came to be called the New Criticism. I understood none of this. I just liked what Blackmur had to say, which was that we should pay closer attention to the way things are said.

Just as haphazardly I later discovered I. A. Richards and then, much later, Blackmur’s disciple, A. Alvarez, whom I regard as sainted for the stringency with which he publishes his own poems. Years later I discovered Max Picard’s The World of Silence. With Blackmur, Richards, Alvarez and Picard, who needs the noisy Old Testament?

I was well on my way to being the kind of autodidact who can’t remember where he read anything but can’t forget having read it. Clearly not Ph.D. material. It’s hellish having a synergistic, alchemical streak imprisoned in an unannotatable mind, but everyone must endure a curse or two.

Blackmur comes to mind as I read Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen, and The Banners of the Champions. Blackmurian analysis draws me to conclude that just as the Arabs and Jews of Al Andalus gave voice and prosodic means to the troubadours, personified by William IX of Aquitaine they gave voice to such modernists as William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams.

Look at this:

Although you present perfect
musical soirees to entertain us
let’s get this straight:
the singers are flies,
the flute players mosquitoes
and the dancers fleas.

That’s the poem “Satire,” by Ibn Sharaf (d. 1068).

Now consider this, more than eight hundred years later:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It’s the famous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” 1962, by William Carlos Williams.

But his poetic demeanor in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is still redolent of Edwardian speech. Robert Lax is closer to modern speech:

the angel came to him & said
I’m sorry, mac, but
we talked it over
in heaven
& you’re going
to have to live
a thousand years

Very little punctuation, as in the Williams poem, lots of attention to placement, but also some street savvy. And get the use of those ampersands, which we’ve seen pervasively on shop signs and lawyers’ doors.

Some poetry translates into certain languages better than others. C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), for example, has had a profound influence on English language poets even though he wrote in demotic Greek. Introducing Rae Dalven’s celebrated translation of Cavafy’s work in 1976, W. H. Auden remarked that Cavafy’s eschewal of metaphor and simile made his poems relatively easy to bring into modern English. For all his scholarly interests, this Greco-Alexandrian poet, with family ties to the Greek community in Istanbul, showed us how a poet who knew his history could write in an unadorned and conversational style. Cavafy showed us much more. His prosody has a classical purity that continually reminds us he was a Greek. And this purity of language and structure arrives in English in ways that have been exciting poets like Auden since they first encountered it. He was a humble civil servant who never published a book of poems in his lifetime. Instead, he circulated poems among a small circle of friends, preferring to reserve his energies for his poems.

Modernism isn’t just language, it’s sensibility, and the distance between the medieval poets of Al Andalus and Robert Lax is closed in an instant once you savor the directitude of those Andalusian poets. You see that, much as they loved the Quadalquiver Valley and the caliph’s garden at Al Zahra, they would have made themselves at home in Marin County or the Hudson Valley.

A great deal of fancy language was spoken and written in the centuries between medieval Al Andalus and William Butler Yeats, but modernism always depends on what needs to be modernized. Modernist poetry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Andalusians were opening new periods in medicine, mathematics, horticulture, translation, finance and many other disciplines. Like their lancers before them in Provence, they were moving fast. And the modernists of the 20th Century were leaping forward in science, psychology, medicine, weaponology and other fields.

In both periods the poetry expresses a mercurial terseness, an economy of line and intellect, demotic speech and a sure handedness. But parallels will mislead if drawn too persuasively. The Andalusians were accustomed to bloodshed within and along their frontiers, but it was nothing like the carnage of the 20th Century. Yeats, with whom English language modernism may be said to have begun, witnessed the breathtaking nihilism of World War I and lived long enough to be certain worse was yet to come. (I think it needs to be said that modernist poetry was stirring in France even earlier, and the British, if not the North Americans, were certainly aware of it.)

We know that the Arabs who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, named for one of their generals, Tariq, spoke much the same language as the Arabs who had burst out of Arabia less than a century earlier under the spell of the heavenly language of the Qur’an.

We know our language is studded with Arabic words—perhaps half the stars in the heavens have Arabic names. And we know that poetry was so meaningful to them that it’s impossible to imagine any of their achievements in militarism, in medicine, chemistry, science or mathematics without poetry. Their approach to poetry was identical to their approach to chemistry. They made no distinction between poetry and everyday life. They saw no conflict between hermeticism and scientific progress, the way we in the West do today. Their constructs were more fluid and elegant than ours, and we have no basis for believing their synergistic approach impeded them.

In spite of C.P. Cavafy’s strophic inclinations, I see clear Andalusian traces in his work. The simplicity of speech, the use of vernacular, the quickness of sensibility—all Andalusian traits. And in Yeats, in spite of the Gaelic overtones, there is the voice of the troubadour, the impulse to speak of simple things, ordinary things, which is so much the modernist signature.

The Arabs—also called Moors and Saracens—who invaded Iberia and fashioned first a magical caliphate at Cordoba and later memorable taifas (kingdoms) throughout Al Andalus—were known for their advanced steel weapons, light mail, light cavalry, long lances and speed, and all these aspects of their presence show up in their poetry.

But there is something else—flashing briefly here in Ibn Sharaf and William Carlos Williams—a sense of wonderment. These Arabs profoundly appreciated their Al Andalus, their garden, as Williams humbly appreciated his red wheelbarrow.

Perhaps even more interesting, while Al Andalus nurtured this modernist respect for small and ordinary things—a sunlit stream compared to a white hand loosening a green robe, for example—this civilization also savored and developed the most cosmic of ideas: higher mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, physics, for example.

It was the Normans among all the Europeans who most appreciated the great heritage that the Arabs would leave Europe. Roger of Palermo wrote to his cousin, Henri Plantagenet, that Arab mathematicians from Iberia could probably help him design a banking system: thus the British exchequer. The Normans, who had been demonized themselves, knew better than to demonize the Saracens. Instead they used them and their advances for their own purposes.

The Franks, to whom the troubadour tradition passed intact and who vastly enhanced it, did not learn from the Saracens as readily. At Tours they celebrated a great victory over the Saracens, a tidal victory, if we are to believe the Christian historians, failing to note that the Saracens did not have the logical wherewithal or even the human resources to occupy and rule the Frankish lands. They were doing what they did best with such limited resources: they raided and looted. But the Franks regarded them as a demonic tsunami, and this demonization prevented them from deriving benefits from their contacts with the Saracens. This failure of vision was soon to be redressed by Charlemagne, renowned for his correspondence with Haroun al Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad.

An intriguing historic aside to this is that at the time there was an Umayyad caliph in Cordoba presiding over a civilization that was just as grand and memorable as Haroun’s—and much closer to Charlemagne. But the Abbasid Haroun and the Umayyads of Iberia were on very bad terms, and the Umayyads were a much greater threat to the Franks than Haroun.

Cola Franzen in 1989 translated into English the Spanish versions of the Arab poems by Emilio Garcia Gomez, a Spanish Arabist who had acquired a large body of Arab Andalusian poetry while in Egypt in 1927. There are undoubtedly African, Jewish and Berber poets in her City Lights book, Poems of Arab Andalusia, but they were all writing in Arabic, just as today many African and Berber writers work in French and English. Her book was published fourteen years after Juan Carlos I succeeded General Francisco Franco in Spain. This is significant, because one of Juan Carlos’ first official acts was to apologize to world Jewry for—and rescind—the brutal 1492 order of Isabella and Ferdinand that expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain. But he has assiduously avoided opportunities to make similar amends to Muslims in whose hospitable realm a Jewish renaissance flowered. This half-baked ecumenism is redolent of Christian triumphalism and has not gone unnoticed by Muslims or by Spaniards who respect their Moorish past.

The Internet search engines yield many references to Juan Carlos’s gesture, but there are few mentions of his breathtaking failure to redress wrongs done to the Muslims. The rationale for the king’s intellectually insupportable position is, predictably, that the Muslims were invaders. So were the Visigoths and the Romans and Carthaginians before them. Moreover, the Jews probably welcomed the Muslims. It is dishonorable to ask the Muslim world to ignore this tortured intolerance, particularly as it dismisses a famously tolerant Muslim era.

Franco had worked hard to separate the Spanish from their Moorish heritage, much to the detriment of Spanish culture and hence to Western culture. Franco’s thought police bedeviled the poets of the Generation of 27, who were trying to recover the suppressed glories of the Convivencia in Arab Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in harmony and prosperity, instituted by Abdar Rahman ibn Mu’awiya I during his thirty-year reign beginning in 756. But under Juan Carlos the outlines of the Convivencia under Arab rule began to reappear, and Spain recognized that Al Andalus belonged to it and it would forever belong to Al Andalus.

Today in the New World, even in the American Southwest and California, Arab Andalusian architecture and landscaping is manifest if unrecognized. It was appropriate that a California publisher, City Lights, should remind the New World how indebted it is to Arab Andalusia.

In 1989, the same year of Franzen’s little volume, also appeared The Banners of the Champions: An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry From Andalusia and Beyond. This hard-to-find and important book by Ibn Said al Maghribi, translated by James A. Bellamy and Patricia Owen Steiner, connects the Arab east and west. There was a tradition among Arab tribes of painting poems on tribal banners and conducting festive competitions of banners. Poetry competitions—not bone-crushing football or mendacious parliaments, tricky diplomatic missions, slippery language—what a magnificent model. Here is probably the true origin of the troubadour tradition.

The Arab poetry of Al Andalus reflects the elegance and confidence of overlords, for that is what the Arabs were. It will always remain difficult to sort out from Arab poetry that written by Berbers and Africans. Not so the Jews. Under Arab rule they achieved a renaissance that allowed them to equal the language of what Christians call the Old Testament. Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, the crown jewel of the Qaballah, and the Qaballah itself emerged under the aegis of Arab Sufism.

Today pundits who speak all too knowingly of the ancient enmity between Arab and Jew conveniently or ignorantly overlook the Convivencia, during which Muslim, Jew and Christian lived in peace and startling creativity. Nothing is as it seems. Certainly both Sufis and the Qaballists would say so. Nothing is as it seems, especially history: another reason to celebrate the genius of King Juan Carlos.

Jewish poetry in the medieval Arab world—remember, if you will, there was nothing medieval about it to the Arabs, who live by a different clock—exhibits the plain speech and grittiness of a tolerated people who are nevertheless not overlords. Like Arab poetry it assumes that language doesn’t need to be dressed up. This poetry shares a common ground with today’s rap in America, with the rai of North Africa and immigrant Europe and with Arab ideas of horticulture and architecture, but it has less in common with Arab decorative art.

The Jewish poetry of Arab Spain, especially when it is not Qaballistic, is bold, in your face, sometimes raunchy, and determined to speak plainly, testifying not only testament to the tolerance of the times but also to the confidence of medieval Spanish Jewry in their ability to create a society to rival King David’s. They understood their times in a way the Christians did not. They understood they were living in the artistic and intellectual powerhouse of the era, but as a colonized people, they saw the clouds of the Reconquista gathering. They felt a darkness descending. They were to be expelled from a garden once more, a second Eden, this time along with their tolerant masters.

It’s no accident that we are rediscovering Al Andalus and the Convivencia of the Umayyad caliphate. When the respected medievalist Maria Rosa Menocal published The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown and Company, 2002) the United States—and the world—was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. People were searching for reasons why the world seemed to have been thrown back to the medieval confrontation between Islam and Christendom. We are still seeking reasons. Menocal’s description of the glories of the Convivencia were as disconcerting as they were enlightening because we realized—once more—that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. By “we” I mean all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all the other inhabitants of the earth.

Menocal’s book challenged us at many levels. It invited us to reflect that if fundamentalism in the Muslim world, in Israel and among Jews and Christians in the United States is replicating the attitudes that drove the world into the Crusades, fundamentalism is also what brought down the Convivencia.

A worthy successor to The Banners of the Champions and Poems of Arab Andalusia is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. It isn’t my intention to review any of these books, but merely to point out not only a heartening revival of interest in Arab Spain but its startling connection across the disciplines to our own age. Poetry is only one of these disciplines, worth singling out, I think, because it would be useful for modern poets to savor their indebtedness to the Arabs of Iberia.


Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

 photo 19302376-8280-41f1-879a-b20741beaab5_zps3f460283.jpg Discontinued Township Roads
Poems by Abby Chew
Word Poetry, 2013


Reviewed by Alison Taverna

“The Earth doesn’t bleed the way we do. / It’s a different skin. I like knowing — blood flows all ways,” writes Abby Chew in Discontinued Township Roads. Chew’s speaker walks down awestruck, brutal, and unforgiving roads, a country human in its sufferings, but severe in its inexplicability.The community that surrounds such an environment shifts, similarly, between human compassion and rigidness, as if to suggest, eventually, we become what surrounds us.

In “Rooftop,” Sister absorbs the natural world. She learns harmonica for the bats, envious of their movements, their bodies. The speaker watches Sister’s ritual, reveals,

Late in March, late at night,
she crawls out on the porch roof
to sigh and breathe them in.
They fly like flapping black gloves
when she reaches out her left hand
hoping she might become
part of the way the movement

Here, Chew attributes animalistic qualities to Sister and human qualities to the bats. Sister “crawls” to the porch, while the bats flap like “black gloves.” The image of the gloves sits above “hand” on the following line. This almost physical covering of Sister’s hand by the glove mimics her internal shift.

Sister’s bat experience seems a result of isolation a need for connection, but Chew balances these metaphysical desires with the practical. In “Chicken Coop” the speaker comments on the stupidity of hens and their willingness for Sister to take their eggs. Even though the speaker is addressing the audience, the lines are equally a self reminder, an acknowledgement that in spite of these facts, it’s important to be human.

Of course their brains
are peanuts. Of course. But you
need to know how to frame their house.

Make it warm. Make it tight. Maybe
paint it yellow. Heat the water
in January, when you think your own fingers
may shatter from wind. Don’t tell
them where you’re going when you leave.

Chew’s repetition of “of course,” paired with the compassionate instructions shows the conflict that comes from living in this environment. On one hand, practicality is part of living on the land. On the other hand, there exists a desire for comfort, for giving, one that even a January wind can’t shatter.

The poems in the collection stand direct as corn, bold and seemingly obvious. Chew’s sentences are short, definitive in their breaks and her word choice. Unlike most nature or placed-based poetry, Chew avoids an indulgence in sentimentality, an ode-like explanation of how the natural world invades the psyche. That doesn’t mean there isn’t emotion in the collection. It means that Chew doesn’t overwrite; she lets the Earth have the power.

Arguably the most power comes from “Back Two.” It begins with an address to the audience, “Jog down this road and you won’t see the culvert / once spattered with blood where our dog / killed a ground hog.” The separation between the speaker and the audience, however, makes all the difference in this poem. The following lines read:

You might, if you jog in late fall or winter…
…see the skeletons of three deer—
big bucks, not much antlered—poached and left to rot…

I stepped knee-deep into the belly of one when I jumped…
…The stink and the slap of flesh,
the sudden buzz of flies tapping my half-closed eyes.
That kind of landing can ruin you, I know for sure.

The audience jogs and sees water. The speaker remembers a violent scene. How quick we are to appreciate what is beautiful, to adore a one-sided nature.

As Chew’s collection progresses, the environment’s grittiness yields maturity within the characters. The poems grow into a quiet resolve, a bow to what cannot be controlled. In “Storm” Chew uses weather as a metaphor for a relationship. The Earth becomes a language to the speaker, as she says,

 We salvage what we can.

The sky doesn’t ask if we want our arms
slick with sweat…

July doesn’t ask what we desire.
It only creeps up over the hill each morning,
brings us what we deserve.

Although Chew often creates a distance between the poem and the audience through her use of the second person, there remains a sense of community. Perhaps a “discontinued,” extreme environment renders connection, for “We’re put together inside our bones, and we’re put together with each other, in this place.”

Wherefore Art Thou

And the best comment of the week comes from the young lady, who calls the play I’m teaching “Roosevelt And Juliet”.

She says, “Why do adults want us to admire them? I mean, he’s cute, so I can see doing him. But I’m not going to kill myself for his dumb ass. I mean, really—Off myself ’cause he can’t give me ten minutes?”


Book Review: The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert

 photo 2fac73fc-2fc7-49e3-ac0b-f6609eddf56b_zps3ddad943.jpg The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert
Riverhead Books, 2014
Hardcover: $27.95


Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

A fair, done correctly, fills its visitors with wonder and amusement. A bizarre bazaar should make people’s eyes sparkle and satiate their sense of adventure from darling rides and attractions. The fair is the talk of the town during its stay, and memories of its heyday linger even during its decline. Timothy Schaffert tries to accomplish all this with his novel, The Swan Gondola, and almost succeeds. But the audience can sometimes see through the guise and notice where pieces are pasted together and lines are drawn to add effect. What’s left is a warped mirror reflection that hints at real characters underneath a fluffy presentation.

But then, this novel was never meant to be fluffy. It was meant to dazzle in the beginning before unveiling a stark truth: people are broken and misunderstood; they wear masks even in private. To illustrate, the book steps into wonder almost immediately. Darkness falls over a shaking house, inside of which sit two scared elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester. When the commotion settles, they discover that a deflated hot air balloon had landed on their roof and brought with it Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist with a troubled past. The novel proceeds to bounce between that past, the present, and letters to a ghost as Ferret explains what brought him to the sisters’ run-down farm, and explores what resulted from his presence in their home. The key to all of it, met at the key-shaped 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was Cecily. With biased hindsight, Ferrett describes their whirlwind romance, tragic separation, his desperation to get her back, and their sparse stolen moments.

In Cecily and her baby daughter, Doxie, Ferrett finds pieces of himself that he hadn’t realized were missing. He becomes consumed by Cecily’s presence, and lives completely for her. He comments:

Every time her name crosses my mind, I whisper it. I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue. And like a chant, or a prayer, it soothes my soul.

This narration almost suggests obsession. Yet only when Cecily is gone does the narration introduce a skewed perception. Ferrett is surrounded by people—friends and enemies alike—who convey different events during his time with her. They don’t just include different perspectives, but new information—details that are both unbelievable and yet, somehow, true. Because the readers are so close to Ferret’s mind, which is helped by the first person perspective, they can’t trust what the other characters say. Yet, as the novel unfolds, that distrust slowly shifts toward Ferret. In the end, readers may suspect that he has an unhinged sense of reality. Did he register everything as it was, or did he only see things as he wanted them to be and rejected the rest? His final musings of events reveal a slight but wondrous insanity. He narrates:

On the farm, I came to believe in the logic of dreams. I believed in magic, perhaps even a heavenly order. I went up in the balloon so the balloon would come down, so Emmaline would dream, so the cathedral would rise, so Cecily would speak. Not only did I believe it, but it seemed insensible to believe anything else.

The logic of dreams and magic wouldn’t have been there, of course, without the romantic glitter the fair had settled over a dusty livelihood of peddling for laughs on dirty streets and in seasonal theaters. The fair itself warped reality before its gates opened. And because of the novel’s jumping linear timelines that converge into an ultimate outcome, readers will lose track of time and may believe that a few weeks is a few months. Ferrett, certainly, forgets time and lives wholly in the moment. Everything is drawn out to where even the act of smoking is a holy moment. Schaffert writes:

He took smoke in his lungs like it was a breath of bottled air, and it appeared as if he could feel the cigarette healing all the cracks of his bones, working down through him like a vapor.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about Ferrett and Cecily, or the sturdy old biddies Emmaline and Hester. In fact, the main characters are rather dull compared to their friends. All their intrigue is showcased in the beginning chapters as a hook. But the friends appear as spice to thrust the plot forward. August—a gay Native American who dresses in a drag of mismatched clothing and sells “tonics”—and Rosie—a Polish anarchist who sells tastefully artistic nudie pictures from under his coat—are the leading compatriots in Ferrett’s life. They are solid, reliable, scarily creative, and loyal. Even Mrs. Margaret, a crotchety one-eyed hag who hates Ferret immediately, provides intriguing conflict and believable barriers between Ferrett and Cecily.  More believable, in fact, than the pitiable but diabolical antagonist, Billy Wakefield, the millionaire who owns most of the fair and schemes to steal Cecily. He doesn’t become a fully developed person until the end, when Ferrett finally sees weakness and learns his full story. Of course, he is technically a main character.

When everyone finds their places in the world, tension is finally and satisfactorily released. Readers will close the book and see through the bound papers to the shiny interior: wonder, romance, appeal, and an unexpected sparkling of the supernatural. They’ll want to look away from grimy details that eventually overtook the dream, and ignore the process of dismantling as characters returned to reality. They may want to resume the meandering tread through sugar-dusted flights of fancy, when everything was new and special, and damn the rest.