DANCE REVIEW: MEMORY 4: STATIC by slowdanger

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Last weekend, the creative duo, slowdanger, opened a 5-week performance series at the Wood Street Galleries. The series’ aim is to bring “up and coming local artists” to the third floor of the gallery, in unique and intimate performances.

Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight (the slowdanger artists) fit that description in terms of their individuality. However, they are no longer newcomers on the scene. As the Pittsburgh Brazzy Award winners for the 2014-2015 dance season, they are local favorites rooted in the experimental genre.

Memory 4: STATIC is currently a work-in-progress that will be performed in full next June as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA program. Audience members got a sneak-peak into the early stages of their creative process at Wood Street.

In addition to the movement, visual artist, Celeste Neuhaus, provided the set design. Mike Cooper and Mario Ashkar also created film and visual elements. Slowdanger has been interested in the idea of memory for a long time. In this fourth investigation into that theme, they delved into “static” memories (the ones we hold onto) that inform our present.

Right away, the dancers played with the idea of fixed memories. They began facing the back, slowly revealing smart phones and humorously posing for “selfies.” Knight scrolled through his Instagram feed and posted photos. Thompson appeared to be making a kissing face at her phone. Their purposeful lack of communication with each other showed the loneliness of social networking.

Eventually they stood. Sheer fabric was draped over their faces, obscuring their features. With a few simple gestures, they dropped their phones, keys, and wallets into the middle, bowl-shaped sculpture. And then they took off, performing a traveling phrase with quick jumps, cheeky shoulder-shimmies, and big extensions. The section was satisfying after a slow opening.

Another pleasurable part came when the performers lay next to a larger, more geometric sculpture. Thompson fell into Knight’s lap for a moment of stillness. They then took turns in supportive roles, mimicking the visual art with the sculptural shapes of their bodies. That led into a brief but gratifying floor-phrase. The dancers sat in fourth position, then moved from their hands to their feet to their hips once again, reminding the audience of their physical precision and grace.

The piece continued with the dancers underneath the third piece of art, a feathery hanging work that brought to mind a dream catcher. One at a time, they gestured, spoke, and sang, lighting each other with LED headlamps. Knight spoke in a hushed, almost inaudible tone; Thompson sang lightly, but crescendoed with eerie lyrics. Both appeared to be lost in memory.

To end, the dancers exited the stage, but their images were projected on the back wall. In the video created by Mike Cooper, Thompson and Knight moved with the same physicality we saw earlier in the evening. Cooper played with the size of their images, and projected their bodies in multiple imprints. The result suited the nostalgic style of the choreography.

Thompson and Knight continue to present work considered challenging to a traditional audience. In Memory 4: STATIC, the lack of narrative, unusual costuming, and moments of pedestrian movement allowed the audience to come up with their own ideas. One must be imaginative and willing to let go to enjoy this type of art.

As a work-in-progress, the piece has yet to be fully developed. But in the past, slowdanger has presented many interesting, completed performances. They excel when they use multiple dynamics to break up the hypnotic feel of their choreography which is soothing but can become repetitive. Within that calming style, there is room for moments of higher energy, both in movement and sound.

Check the Wood Street Galleries website for information on the next four performances: http://woodstreetgalleries.org/portfolio-view/5-performances-movement-series-overview/.


 

Book Review: DO NOT RISE by Beth Bachmann

 photo f9a7b430-e451-467e-9f99-fe3b43aa913e_zpslb2loqlj.jpg Do Not Rise
Poems by Beth Bachmann
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

You be the garden   I leave             my boots in when I walk                  barefoot

after drought. Do to me what no one has done.

These lines come from Bachmann’s poem “garden, and a gun,” a title that brings to light the collection’s most powerful creative device—positioning nature beside the harrowing images of war. At first, this seems like a classic juxtaposition, the delicate punctured by the violent. But in a collection centered on the PTSD of soldiers, we quickly learn nature isn’t delicate—human or environmental. In war everything becomes contaminated, the garden next to the gun, the stars turning into animals, “the snow says, blood  -shed…is tired of fearing where to lie down,” “the flowers feel like sacrifice: opening and opening and / upending the golden light.” In this way, we know the battlefield is as wide and endless as every moment, stretched into a life, where “The reader is not unlike the killer: you could be / anyone. Beauty is futile.”

The repetition of images throughout Do Not Rise hints to the often incessant, haunting, and lonely experience soldiers endure. As readers we can’t escape in this collection the mud, the snow, the ominous you. Even within the poems, each word seems to lead to the next. This is especially obvious in the poem “daffodil,” where Bachmann writes,

bulb in the gut   butt of the gun I am   numb soldier suicide    is

everywhere        the narcissus    is narcotic   mother I am…

The lyrical quality of Do Not Rise only adds to the uncomfortable already present. In a way, these poems are made beautiful because of their sound, yet how can any of this be beautiful? But perhaps this rhythmic quality keeps us reading, and thus, reminding us of what the soldiers can never forget.

Bachmann’s titles sweep vast spaces: “revolution,” “privacy,” “dominance,” “humiliation,” in a Jo McDougall-like boldness, while the interior of her poems breaks down language to its barest of selves. She is calculated, fragmented, and hollows-out each word before placing it on the page. In “shell” she begins,

Fingers          in the mouth make mud

into a poultice to warn         the dead….

but the eyes. The dead we   burn; the living we bury in our faces.

Every word feels heavy and I read with hesitation, careful not to miss the purposeful pauses, the weight it takes to construct an image, a thought. I read as though watching the slow movement of a soldier’s lips, his shifting the physical on his tongue and knowing that each time, whatever he sees, will lead to the same picture, the same conclusions, like a revolving film. In light of Bachmann’s precision, we aren’t given certain specifics, such as individual characters, particular wars, or even a location we can point to on the globe. This isn’t a mistake. By emitting these details, Bachmann reveals the placeless nature of war—how it follows us home, chameleons into our daily struggles, and stays warm long after the guns have cooled.


 

Book Review: MORE MONEY THAN GOD by Richard Michelson

 photo 4a214628-59bc-48e7-8823-9271c7a25869_zpsqbxxk2sa.jpg More Money Than God
Poems by Richard Michelson
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Balanced on the threshold of misery and comedy, Richard Michelson’s More Money Than God is an examination of the intersections where personal tragedy and global suffering meet. In Michelson’s fourth collection, we find poems that seek resolution but settle for meaninglessness, all the while aiming for a little levity.

The book opens with a comparison between two holiday heavyweights (pun intended) – Santa Claus and the prophet Elijah. The men are sized up quickly. Santa gets the “weight advantage,” but Elijah comes from a storied tradition of “fire-tinged horses… whirlwind / and brimstone.” The two figures duke it out for a young Michelson’s admiration, but this coming-of-age poem ends with the speaker’s plea to his dead father: “Give me

the imagination to climb the fire escape
and look up toward the Godless Heavens
and to marvel at the ordinary sky.

It is in poems like this one that Michelson’s comic sensibility is at its strongest. He can lighten the mood without undercutting his attempts to wonder about big, solemn ideals. These sorts of dualities inhabit many of the images Michelson presents us – the darker side of mass hysteria, a man watching sitcoms the night his father is murdered, children playing loudly in the halls of the Holocaust museum.

This same lightheartedness that allows Michelson to complicate the concepts of genocide, erasure, and his own pained family history rings a bit hollow when turned toward other subjects. His poems on race, in particular, seem more tenuously situated than their counterparts. A vague reference in one poem to “the rotten mulatto” and other racial signifiers (quadroon, octoroon, one sixty-fourth) seems to be Michelson’s hesitant justification – or apology? – for broaching the subject of race relations. We learn a few details about Michelson in this regard: that the man who shot his father was black, that he is offended by the inclusion of a cocktail called the Dead Negro on a bar menu, that he is aware of a history of slave ownership even among Jews in the antebellum South, and that he is “unable / still, to determine the Dixie line dividing ignorance from evil.” In the end, these poems amble toward uncertain interpretation. Is Michelson, in recognition of the Jewish people’s historical exclusion from the category of whiteness, attempting to draw parallels to or even own the experience of blackness? The few poems we are given in this vein don’t venture deep enough to tell us. In a similar way, the poems in the book’s third section, “This Costume’s No Disguise,” all persona poems spoken by Death and his loved ones, wind up more an exercise in flash, bravado, and form than any genuine reflection on mortality.

Admittedly, Michelson takes on subjects in this book that are terribly difficult to address, and he does so unapologetically. These are poems that bring to light concentration camp tourism, poverty, and crime, while still allowing glimpses of beauty to peek through – like the children “who drew / such dazzling yet delicate butterflies at Terezin.” Each poem is a search for meaning, a question as to how we can possibly survive this world, as Michelson sets and resets new weight on the scales of justice. “I never said anybody’s blameless,” he writes, letting us in on the joke. Yes, this world is imperfect. There is everything to be fixed and mourned and commemorated. Still, Michelson reminds us, “the poem ends here // but life continues: yours, of course, and for now, mine.”


 

Book Review: WHITE VESPA by Kevin Oderman

 photo 3637620b-b629-4261-bf22-7d44536ae555_zpstjvo5mno.jpg White Vespa
by Kevin Oderman
Etruscan Press, 2012
$16.00

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

Running from one’s problems doesn’t mean they are left behind and oftentimes there are new troubles waiting. In White Vespa, Myles travels to Greece to distance himself from the pain of his disintegrating family only to find himself mired in the complications of two siblings with a dark past.

Kevin Oderman begins his novel by introducing two characters in a state of transition. First, the reader sees main character Myles packing up the life he made for himself on the Greek island Symi. In the next section the story jumps back three months to delve into the thoughts of Anne, a woman crossing on a ferry to Symi, where she intends to face the man responsible for the trauma from her childhood. With the introduction of these two characters, Oderman begins the intertwining of two narratives taking place at different times until they conclude simultaneously.

Myles is a photographer taking pictures on the island as he works on a compilation of photos for a coffee-table book titled The Lesser Dodecanese. His heart isn’t in this work, though; he prefers to work on it lackadaisically as he busies himself with the island and the culture. Myles is trying desperately to forget but he is plagued with the inability to let go, which is why he cherishes his photographs: “Photos rise up out of reality, things forever fixed.” This is clear through his obsession with a photograph of a man on a White Vespa. It was this photograph that spurred his migration to Greece after the disappearance of his son and subsequent failed marriage. But his beliefs are challenged when, after becoming acquainted with Anne, he agrees to take portraits of her. These photos spark a change in Myles. “Even as illusions,” he thinks, “they had the feel of beginnings.”  With this the two begin a relationship. But the love they find together is threatened by the revenge she seeks upon her sadistic brother, Paul, who traumatized Anne by forcing her to watch as he committed an appalling act of violence.

In White Vespa the point of view shifts so the reader can understand the motivations of a broad range of characters, starting with Myles and Anne and then broadening to others, including Paul. From inside Paul’s consciousness, the reader gets to see him prey upon women on the island. Paul is a constant threat to Anne and everyone in the community. Experiencing parts of the narrative from inside of the antagonist is both interesting and disturbing. Aside from the main characters, the book is told from the point of view of characters with much smaller parts, such as two local children that live on the island.

The novel is beautifully subtle. All of the characters are observant and perceptive, absorbing the landscape and culture around them and musing upon it in ways that relate to their own situations. Many of the secret wounds of the characters are not blatantly spilled across the page. Instead they are told through small bits of dialogue that give insight into how much these characters, especially Myles, are hurting:

“Just this much loss,” he said, “and no more.”
Jim looked at him quizzically from where he leaned against a wall, watching.
“Until we turn our backs and go,” Myles whispered.

Another of the striking qualities of White Vespa is how it plunges the reader into the Greek lifestyle, from Myles going through the process of making Greek coffee to the tiniest cultural details, such as a Greek waiter’s hesitation at presenting the bill. This familiarity with Greece paired with the attentive detail to the landscape, from the sea to the caldera, offers the reader full immersion into the characters’ world.

As the story climaxes with a character’s disappearance and then settles upon a quiet yet satisfying ending that doesn’t necessarily grant the characters what they set out to accomplish, the novel shows that when people come to terms with their past, it isn’t always in the way they expected. Towards the beginning of White Vespa, Myles says, “You can only keep a story from getting sad by cutting off the end.” While it may be true that White Vespa is a testament to this, the ending is not without hope.


 

Book Review: CRYSTAL EATERS by Shane Jones

 photo 8a89ebb9-3c9a-418a-8cf4-71a913a6056d_zps7hvner9c.png Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, 2014
$12.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

I’ve been told time and time again not to judge a book by its cover. And I’ll come clean—I always do. I’m a sucker for beautiful cover art. It will force me to pick a book off the shelf every time. I grew up with that old adage, as I suspect most of you did: don’t dismiss or praise something solely due to its outward appearance. Dig deeper; find out if that beautiful cover matches the pages inside.

Isn’t it a nice feeling when you realize they do match?

The cover for Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is a vivid sight—a psychedelic wasteland full of fleshy pinks and the greens you see reflected only in the deepest of waters. Something I’d pick off the shelf, in other words.

A tiny cursive script winds along the top of the cover: “Crystal Eaters.” An intriguing title, and one meant quite literally. The characters in Jones’ novel are living on borrowed time—mortal, just like the rest of us. But the difference is that they are constantly reminded of it. These people are born with crystals inside them. One hundred, to be exact. When they’re injured, or when they age, they lose crystals. They are able to see their life physically leak out of them. They can make a tally with how many precious life crystals they have left. Getting older? 76…75…74…etc. Car crash? Let’s deduct 20 crystals from your count.

And when they lose all 100 of their crystals? They die. It’s a simple, elegant rule—almost like a videogame.

It’s a big, fascinating concept. But at its heart, this is a story about Remy, a young girl in the Crystal Village who tries to save her family from destroying itself. Her mother, who’s down to her last few life crystals—coughing up one every other day. Her stubborn father, who refuses to acknowledge the pain and sadness reverberating through their home. And her drug-addled brother, locked away in the nearby prison. Remy is on the hunt for the one thing she believes may save her mother, thereby saving her family. The mythical black crystal—never seen, but rumored to restore someone’s crystal count, to provide a sort of viscous immortality.

I can safely say that I’ve never encountered concepts quite like these in fiction. Remy’s quest is heartfelt and earnest, in a world filled with characters desperately and literally fighting against their own mortality. And the sentences used match the standout plot, for the most part. They each seem so handcrafted and purposeful. For instance:

With lips coated in glittering filth, dressed in red shorts with white trim, Remy mourns…Idle work trucks with their gun metal paneling appear two-dimensional in the evening light glimmer while Remy’s left hand shines wet with blood from the rocks that pinprick her palm.

She imagines her count as a loose pile of yellow in her belly, not a stack of a hundred red. No combination of touching her body helps, it just feels good.

While the language is certainly beautiful, Crystal Eaters occasionally falls victim to its larger concepts. It’s a short novel with a rich world, and Jones’ sentences—while imaginative and elaborate—sometimes confuse the reader instead of providing much-needed clarification. I read slowly and carefully, but still occasionally lost myself in Jones’ metaphor and form, asking basic questions like, “Who’s speaking now? To whom? Is this…even someone speaking?” There’s much loveliness in Crystal Eaters, but its beauty is occasionally muddled by its dense imagery.

Crystal Eaters touches upon addiction, estrangement, innocence, apocalypse, and a monolithic city that dominates the horizon and threatens to overtake Remy’s crystalline world. Though at its center is a tale about a family. Remy’s family, full of love and sorrow over their mother’s inevitable passing, crystals dripping from her one by one.


 

Cooking for One, Part 2

by Nola Garrett

Last week, I went grocery shopping at Giant Eagle on S. Braddock Avenue in Pittsburgh with my 90-some-year-old friend, Ginger Carlson, who lives by herself in Wilkinsburg. First, though, we sat on her back porch, watched a black and white cat, splayed flat pretend to stalk a pair of red squirrels who plainly knew a great pretender when they saw one. Our conversation ambled along family matters, church, mutual friends, and which local apples are now in season. Of course, I’m delighted to have fresh Macintosh apples, so I can make apple sauce to freeze in small containers for the oncoming winter. By this time the cat, lying in the dappled sun light was sleeping, so we changed our subject to poetry. Ginger mentioned her favorite Robert Frost poem, “Good-by And Keep Cold,” that I had no memory of ever reading. It wasn’t his usual “Apple Picking,” but it was set in a fall apple orchard. The unlikely title alone pricked my curiosity, but we still had to go grocery shopping, so….

Ginger gamely directed me to her Giant Eagle shopping center where I had never been. First Ginger headed for the State Store for a large bottle of discount Chardonnay, which I stashed in my trunk for her. Aloud, I wished I was buying a bottle of medium sherry for me, but I knew preserving my compromised liver was more important than the brief pleasure of a few forbidden sips. We moved my car to the entrance of the grocery store, and Ginger stowed her cane in the shopping cart she pushed past her Citizens Bank branch to the store pharmacy where the pharmacist greeted her by name and gave her a big hug. At that point I knew I was in Gingerland!

While her prescription was being filled, we both found hygiene items and the Maybelline cosmetics we both use because they are the least expensive. Ginger goes for bright reds and black eyeliner while I shrink back into my usual autumnal colors. However, I’m not a former beauty queen and New York City model. Ginger still carries her royal bearing. By that time Ginger’s medication was ready which resulted in another conversation and another big hug, this time from the pharmacy clerk.

At this point in her life Ginger doesn’t do much scratch cooking, so my shopping with her was an education in how one at her age can still eat well and stay healthy. Ginger, like many of us who live alone, sometimes doesn’t feel like eating much or even at all, especially if we’ve had a hard day of medical events or family worries or loneliness. That’s the reality of living alone, but there’s also an upside: independence. Independence allows one the freedom to eat any time, anything, and our favorite foods. The trick, I think, is to be aware of our bodies’ nutritional needs and intake over the course of a day and of each week. During the last year or so, three of my acquaintances have had serious medical problems with salt; two with sodium levels so low they fainted, and one with thyroid problems from using non-iodized salt.  We have to eat a balanced diet, or we’ll be hauled off to a hospital and/or a nursing home where little freedom exists. Besides, we’d have to live on a schedule with a roommate and a bunch of complaining, old people.  That’s the real specter haunting Giant Eagle’s aisles.

Giant Eagle knows Ginger and me through our Advantage Cards and welcomes us with a huge variety of merchandise and price points. Ginger and I buy quarter pounds of liver pate, half barbeque chickens, single pork chops, single lamb-leg slices, marinated artichokes, store-brand butter, whole grain English muffins, graham crackers, plastic & paper products, Triscuts, loose fruits & vegetables, Greek olives, hot peppers, cut squash chunks, and (God help me!) Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese. We both keep an eye on our protein intake. Ginger buys an occasional steak. I splurge on a half pint of fresh oysters, sea scallops, and individually frozen fish fillets. We’re both fans of eggs and canned salmon. I often make marinated bean salads with canned beans or black eyed peas that keep well, refrigerated for more than a week, so I don’t have to eat the same thing day after day. And, unlike Ginger I use a gallon of fat-free milk every week that I hope off-sets my fear of a broken hip.

We hit the Deli section last and head for the gourmet cheese counter where again Ginger is greeted by name. The clerk asks Ginger if she likes goat cheese, and Ginger says, “Not so much,” but I chime in with “I do!”

Then, the clerk shows us a 15 inch, half wheel of red-paper wrapped cheese that she says has finely ground potato chips mixed within. Hmmm. I’m curious, and she cuts us generous samples. And, wow! Who knew that potato chips could make such a difference in goat cheese? The addition of the potatoes and salt near the end of the cheese making must absorb enough the goat cheese’s usual sloppy texture to firm it up and smooth the flavor. We both left the counter smiling as we clutched our quarter pounds of Dorthea Goat Potato Chip Cheese.

The next morning, I got out my copy of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems and found “Good-by And Keep Cold” which was included in Frost’s fourth full-length book, New Hampshire, published in 1923. I ended up that morning reading all those poems in that book. What fascinated me was the unity of that book’s theme—paradox in all its manifestations, not only in subject and speaker, but also within each poem’s words and lines.  “Good-by And Keep Cold” begins

This saying goodby on the edge of the dark
And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard…

Then, Frost goes on in heroic couplets discussing all the threats both live and weather-related that can befall the young orchard he has recently planted on the far north side hill of his farm as he leaves it to winter. He is of the opinion that an early spring, quick thaw-freeze cycle is a fruit tree’s most dangerous threat, thus he bids his orchard farewell:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.