Book Review: CLOSING THE BOOK: TRAVELS IN LIFE, LOSS, AND LITERATURE by Joelle Renstrom

 photo 4b17c1ca-2ed4-45c7-82b4-0ee134c060ff_zps9a4hynly.jpg Closing the Book: Travles in Life, Loss, and Literature
by Joelle Renstrom
Pelekinesis Books, 2015
$20.00

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Joelle Renstrom’s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, does not try to explain to the reader how to lose a loved one. This is not a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense. It is a travel memoir, a coming-of-age story, a tribute, a book of essays where the author wrestles with the fact that our world is not fair or easy. In each essay, Renstrom grapples with the early death of her beloved father, a well-respected political science professor, using the best tools at her disposal: books. She turns to literary works like Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, Camus’ The Stranger, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Obama’s Dreams From My Father, as guides in how to process this tragedy that has befallen her father, a good man by all accounts. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” Renstrom is searching for the right questions.

The authors and books she incorporates into her search for meaning are sometimes the centerpiece, the driving force of the essay, but other times they are part of the background. The essays don’t become homogenous, which would have been an easy pitfall for such a focused endeavor. Renstrom’s prose is smooth and lively and, despite the somber nature of her subject, I found myself rapidly reading through these essays. In addition to her internal turmoil and the books she is reading, she pays close attention to place. In every essay, the concrete details of her surroundings ground the reader as the author travels through time and space: her family home in Kalamazoo, an apartment in New York City, a classroom, her father’s office, Scandinavia, or even a supermarket.

The opening essay, “A Sort of Homecoming,” tells the straightforward story of Renstrom’s world-altering experience of discovering her father is sick, then terminal, then never coming back. “In a strange strangled voice [Mom] says, ‘It’s not pneumonia.’ This is the moment that divides my life into before and after.” Suddenly, human mortality is all that she can think of. DeLillo’s White Noise is a book whose characters are also preoccupied with death. In one of the most powerful scenes in this essay, after a harrowing event in the woods, Renstrom enters the supermarket, struggling to find normalcy in this “after” she has been thrust into. She wanders, like a character in DeLillo’s novel, through the grocery store:

The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating, trying to right the squeaking wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbone sinking, chests caving.

Most of us ignore death until we’re forced to face it. With Renstrom, like DeLillo’s characters, we go right up to it and survive, but not wholly and only for an indeterminate while longer.

Renstrom taught high school and her class makes an appearance in a few of the most formally interesting and imaginative essays. In “Letters to Ray Bradbury,” Renstrom introduces her students to the genre of science fiction through his work, and documents the opening of their minds. In this series of epistles she is raw with her father’s passing and credits Bradbury for helping her find a way through the normal routine of life, “A thousand times a day I dissolved into pieces and, with your help, a thousand times a day I attempted my own resurrection.” The format of this essay allows for an intimate conversation, though one-sided, with the only person she called a hero besides her father. It is also a vehicle for proving the positive impact ideas in science fiction can have on otherwise disengaged high school students. In “Fighting the Sunday Blues with Camus,” Renstrom has a conversation with Camus as well as her students. This essay reads a bit like a lesson plan in absurdism, which turns out to be a fun read. In “How I Spent My Free Will,” the author flexes her comparative literature muscle and continues her dialogue with Camus, folding in Kazuo Ishiguro’s alternate views:

Never Let Me Go trades blow philosophical blow with The Stranger. I picture Camus sitting on my right shoulder. “We’re all going to die some day,” he says, breezy as autumn. “It doesn’t matter if or how much we hurt.”

Ishiguro sits on my left shoulder. “Yes, we’re all going to die someday,” he says mildly. “Thus, how we hurt is the only thing that matters.”

These essays underline the importance of debate, a skill her father, a political science scholar, no doubt taught her. Done well, a creative argument can be a balm and an inspiration, as well as a successful form for an essay.

In some ways, this is a selfish book, just as death is selfish. Renstrom rarely mentions her other family members and does not try to assign emotions to their experiences. She focuses intently on her experience with anguish and loss, her relationship with her father. This creates a sort of tunnel vision for the reader, enveloping them in the desire to know the unknowable. Though there is a sense of closure in the final essay, “The Stars Are Not For Man,” it is one of learning to live without a loved one. It is not about how it gets easier, or everything happens for a reason, or any of the other well-meant but useless things people who are grieving are told. Rather, with the help of the imaginative minds she admires, Renstrom comes to a place where she can bear to live, be happy even, though she always misses her father, wherever he is.


 

Dance Review: THE WINTER’S TALE by Quantum Theatre in collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A little known fact in the Pittsburgh dance community is that Michele de la Reza, co-director of Attack Theatre, performed mime as her first stage experience. She eventually went on to receive a degree in dance from the renowned Juilliard School, but her original training never left her.

Her partner, Peter Kope, also has dramatic experience. At age eight, his first role was as an actor. Together, Kope and de la Reza are entering into their 21st season of choreographing contemporary dance. But they have also spent their careers creating movement for close to twenty different operas.

Their latest collaboration, with Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque, was unique in that the show included all four Attack members: Kaitlin Dann, Dane Toney, Anthony Williams, and Ashley Williams. The dancers made up a large part of the production. Most impressive was their ability to change characters throughout the two and a half hour show. At times, they provided background, abstracting emotions or landscape. In other scenes, they took on literal roles.

The Winter’s Tale was written by Shakespeare in his late career, and provides both humor and tragedy in its ultimate story of love. Quantum’s artistic director, Karla Boos, collaborated with Andres Cladera and Chatham Baroque to transform the play into what is known as a “pasticcio.” The term refers to a style of opera that uses different composers to adapt an existing work. Included were musical works by Bach, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, and others.

The story moved from dark to hopeful. King Leontes imprisoned his pregnant wife, Hermione, whom he accused of infidelity with his best friend, Polixenes. When Hermione ultimately died, Leontes fell apart, filled with regret and sorrow. Only after sixteen years did the family find peace and happiness.

In addition to the remarkable singing and acting, the dancing showed exquisite range. Modern dancers are often trained to tone down their facial expressions and emote with their bodies. On the other hand, stage acting calls for a wide breadth when it comes to use of the face. The dancers slipped in and out of this easily, depending on the scene. De la Reza and Kope coached them on finding authenticity within the exaggeration.

There were many standout moments in terms of the movement. In one scene, Leontes ordered Antigonus, his steward, to abandon his newborn baby. Antigonus obliged, taking the infant to a forest. While video projection showed the sinister image of vines intertwining and rising up, the dancers wove their own limbs in and around each other. Their movement brought life to the forest.

Another rich phrase came when the dancers turned difficult partnering into a fight scene. The movement reflected the anger of Leontes, and added a layer of emotion to the production.

The dancers were skilled with their humor as well. To signify the famous (or perhaps infamous) Shakespeare scene when Antigonus is eaten by a bear, all four of them staged their own deaths. They convulsed on the floor in jest until their bodies contracted and then flopped dramatically into stillness.

It’s always a challenge for an adult to play the part of a child. Dann took on the role of Mamilius, the king’s son whose death is brought on by grief. She and the other three dancers brought out their inner children without mimicry. The movement was wisely choreographed as light and playful.

Sometimes the choreography simply matched the mood. In a bleak moment, the dancers paired off in the two balconies and performed slow partnering phrases under low light. Near the end, the dancers used the entirety of the stage in big, technical movement that matched the period well, although not literally. De la Reza and Kope chose balletic movement, regal in nature and reminiscent of a stately court processional.

The show succeeded in many ways. The caliber of each artistic genre was unmatched. Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque continue into their 25th anniversary seasons with quality and creative performances. And Attack Theatre proved, once again, their flair for the dramatic and a mastery in choreographing and performing opera.

The Winter’s Tale runs through October 3rd at the 19th-century music hall in The Union Trust Building downtown. Visit quantumtheatre.com for show details and ticket purchasing.


Book Review: THE STUNTMAN by Brian Laidlaw

 photo 3acff49d-3b31-48f3-8929-07bd853b261f_zpss1xujivf.jpg The Stuntman
Poems by Brian Laidlaw
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Brian Laidlaw’s proves himself a fearless, acrobatic poet in The Stuntman. Bold and unapologetic, the poems weave layers of lyrical images amidst logic. Described as a literary miner, Laidlaw is both playful and somber. Realistic inside the imaginary. This complexity, so fluid throughout the collection, is accurately depicted through the cover artwork—a map folded into a bird. An object normally rectangular, straightforward, and directional, is now creased in ways that creates a new purpose, a new image. This is the work Laidlaw embarks on in his poems, investigating new ways in which language can function and thus, new ways we read language. If we find ourselves ever lost, it’s because we are still looking at these poems as a map.

The formal series, “[Telegram]” opens the collection: “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN CAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN, FIRE CAME OUT IN THE FORM OF AIR.” Although we are unsure if these telegrams are being sent or are being received, the structure of the telegram evokes necessity and urgency. The capitalization reiterates this. Yet, the information inside the telegram, on the surface, describes a cause and effect, a statement with little surprise. On closer inspection, these lines dispel a misconception: the earth isn’t just broken, it is broken because we broke it. Further, with the fire as air, Laidlaw suggests what we see is not what is true, or more, that what we see is malleable.

Laidlaw’s reasoning continues, and in the second installation of “[Telegram]” he writes, “IF YOU’RE BLEEDING YOU’RE BLEEDING, THAT’S HOW CAUSALITY WORKS IN AN ENVIORNMENT” While this logic is relatively sound, he continues with “WAR MUST BE FUNNY BECAUSE PEOPLE STILL CAN LAUGH.” Here, there is a shift in the poem. We move from statements to deductions. The purpose of these deductions is no clearer than in the above line, for Laidlaw shows the darkness that exists when we look on the surface of most things.

While reading, I get the sense there is the general belief that the world and people outside the poems are unaware, often senselessly moving, relatively un-intelligent, or simply lazy. At times I reject this, but for the most part Laidlaw cautions against a “calling-out” or distancing. Instead, he shoulders half the responsibility by using the collective “we.” In “[Altitude Sickness]” the speaker describes the need to witness what is uniquely beautiful, forcing himself to notice the miniscule, how “the pinecone flowers/ like a rose & is beautiful, / but not the way a rose is…” The speaker acknowledges he is part of the problem, writing “today the dummies ripple around me, / I am part of the collective / idiocy…” Harsh, but at least we’re all in this together.

One of the strongest poems in the collection, “Terrarium Letter #3” balances Laidlaw’s whimsical logic with a central, grounding location. While the speaker in the poem feels lost, I don’t. We get concrete details about Minnesota and a character named Mr. Pocket, along with the speaker’s intentions as he begins, “I should keep a record of poetry’s death in my dumb-dumb heart…” It’s a sad and snarky poem, hinting towards our world’s inability to express emotions. The poem ends on this note, as the speaker asks, “Tell me what the billboards say in Wyoming, I’ve driven thru but I couldn’t read back then.” We’re left with the speaker reaching for clarity, yet clarity in a superficial and materialistic art form. It’s a modest victory, and one I doubt The Stuntman would even categorize as a victory. Which is perhaps the entire point—we’re always only halfway towards the goal, believing we’ve understood the entire picture, when in truth we’re just beginning to unfold.


 

Book Review: VESSEL by Parneshia Jones

 photo 8e6e90e0-1b35-41fd-8a1a-a373c328de59_zpstlqiaws1.jpg Vessel
Poems by Parneshia Jones
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

the keeper of ash and memory,
curtsies and curiosity,
Easter poems, skinned knees,
polyester, silk, and calamity
– “Girl”

Parneshia Jones’s debut poetry collection begins with a girl who grows before our eyes into a woman who serves as a singular vessel for family, racial, and cultural histories. In fact, women are the stars and influences across these poems; “Lesson Plan” serves as a sort of ars poetica for the collection when Jones writes:

You are meant to have a daughter.
You are meant to pass on all your women.
Speak all the women of you loudly—speak them with purpose.

Perhaps due to these intentions, the most successful poems of this collection are those where Jones tackles moments of historical importance. In one haunting poem, “Georgia on My Mind,” Jones memorializes the child victims of the 1979-1982 Atlanta murders. The children’s voices comprise a Greek chorus begging the reader, “Remember us” before the poem culminates in the explosive image of “the sounds of [their] fathers’ hearts on fire,/ and [their] mother’s wombs bursting.” Her ode to the Affrilachian Poets, “Legend of the Buffalo Poets” stampedes toward the startling visual of “a trail buffaloed black.” She writes to Marvin Gaye in the poem “Milk and Honey,” “some parts of you couldn’t be saved/ by your mama or the music,” attempting to heal the wounds of a grieving public in redeeming the tragedies he lived. Jones’s voice in these poems is clear and strong, ready to ensure Black lives and stories of Black culture are a vibrant, prominent part of American poetry.

At times, her more personal poems are bogged down in narrative or delivered in an obvious way. For instance, “Bra Shopping” sounds as though it was written out in prose and then simply had line breaks inserted. One wonders if some of these stories might come across more successfully and with more complexity as essays rather than poems – with more space to make connections and build on threads of image and metaphor. Even in these poems, though, Jones is plainspoken and sure. She lives by the call from Kwame Dawes and other poets that we should use only the most natural language to create our poems.

Sixteen: I am a jeans a T-shirt wearing tomboy
who could think a few million more places to be
instead of in the department store, with my mother,
bra shopping.

Due to its line breaks and use of commas, the poem comes across to us in the natural cadence of Jones’s voice – we can almost hear her speaking the words to us.

On the whole, though, this collection is built of poems that wholeheartedly inhabit their metaphors and music. “For the Basement Parties at the YMCA” seems the love child of Marie Howe’s “Practicing” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” – a nearly wistful recollection told over the rhythmic bump of Lenny Kravitz. Parneshia Jones has gifted us a new anthem, stories of Black lives that aren’t commonly given space in literature. Her “Litany: Chicago Summers” offers a detailed portrayal of growing up in Chicago.

We are hallways of crying babies,
simmering neck-bones, sirens
across the ceiling’s midnight…

We play in our shadows.
We are the televised, Technicolor,
inside-out dreams.

The refrain of “We” returns later in “Auto-Correcting History” when Jones offers – no, demands – a bright future for Black children everywhere. Speaking her stories loudly, she is ready to walk forward.

We are real and breathing.
We are hungry and rewriting dictionaries.
We are poets and presidents.
We have made it known that his name,
our names, every black letter birthed
from the blinking cursor is permanent
and correct.