Book Review: THE INVENTION OF MONSTERS / PLAYS FOR THE THEATRE by C. Dylan Bassett

 photo 0a19ae8f-fdee-4b6a-a5a3-5d0f884706c1_zpsbkpcydqv.jpg The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre
Poems by C. Dylan Bassett
Plays Inverse, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Derek Anderson

It’s a businessman’s sadness . . . it’s getting lost on purpose.

This is how I moved through C. Dylan Bassett’s collection The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre; as if I’ve chosen to walk into a corn maze, knowing it will take some time for me to crawl out. Bassett’s model is interesting and concise, but it works to keep the reader wanting more. He writes: “it’s a bad habit, wanting to understand,” and the collection follows this ideology, offering up conflicting and often recursive images.

Bassett’s work is not a play in any traditional sense (though it is divided into four separate “acts”), but rather a series of compact prose poems all entitled “[scene].” Though what he accomplishes in these short poems is, in fact, a play, told through sporadic, brief moments that begin to piece together what it means to the narrator to be “the man the man declined to be.” In this vein, the collection desperately tries to find a certain sense of identity but repeatedly comes up short. We are not left with one clearly defined hero or heroine, but rather a series of images all working to coalesce into a being. With a style that has evolved past Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, Bassett leads us through the progression of a human life while describing to us how he is doing so. As he says, “the plot does not occur in sequence but in various sampled geographies.” And so we move from images of “a boy at a certain age [who] is mistaken for a girl” to images of “the carcass of a dog left on the highway beneath whose skin another child is born.” Bassett guides us through these identities shamelessly, as if each “mask” is as legitimate as the one before it.

We see these masks in segments, all the while being told that certain information is not being given to us. Through his constant manipulation of mise-en-scene, Bassett works to deconstruct the stage he has built. Take, for instance, his poem which begins: “the woman, the baby, the bedroom . . . in certain social settings, one defers casually to ready-made hierarchies.” He allows us brief glimpses into what one would expect in a theater and then casually plunges us deeper, showing us the bones of the stage rather than the stage itself. Bassett says that “one would like to know the context of this story,” and he’s right. But in this admission he shows us how deftly he is able to withhold information, forcing us to look harder. And this is where the genius of the work begins to come through. Each poem works to coalesce into one cogent piece, much like the individual is made up of scattered, often conflicting parts.

In the final poem of his collection, Bassett tells us that “totally self-contained is what we call beautiful,” and it is in this pursuit of self-containment that he both succeeds and fails. Bassett does not pretend to leave us with a perfect image of a being or situation, but rather he openly leaves us a collection of images that we must puzzle together. His in an incomprehensible work that begs time and again to be understood. Overtly sexual with no room for the pornographic, corporeal with an eye on the mechanical, Bassett’s often self-referencing collection is one we should look to in an effort to define contemporary poetry.


 

Book Review: THE HOLLOW GROUND by Natalie Harnett

 photo 978d90a7-16f8-4d1c-a570-d3e2aa21cd53_zpsuvlradhv.jpg The Hollow Ground
by Natalie Harnett
St. Martin’s Press
$15.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Praise for The Hollow Ground by Natalie Harnett is not in short supply. Some critics have even compared Harnett’s debut novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, claiming that her child protagonist, Brigid, is akin to Scout. While it is certainly true that both novels are told through the eyes of a young girl, there are some fundamental differences that can make a case against such a comparison. Nonetheless, The Hollow Ground should be considered an achievement in its own right.

Set in 1970’s eastern Pennsylvania, The Hollow Ground attempts to characterize its story as one displaced by the Centralia Mine Fires. Brigid and her family are of Irish descent; her father worked in the mines and her mother sews for a factory. Early on, we are introduced to a fair share of family drama and secrecy. Brigid is a mere observer in this and has little to offer the story, which drags for the first half of the novel. We are given ample details surrounding the family’s move to Gram’s house, the distaste between Mother and Gram, and the gloomy atmosphere which is the result of a blue collar town barely surviving after the mine fires began about ten years ago. Every day the very land they live on becomes more and more unstable, a defining metaphor for Brigid’s family.

Yet the ground doesn’t start shaking beneath them until nearly halfway through the novel, and this is a fault in the story. Prior to Brigid’s gruesome discovery in the mines, readers may find themselves wondering where the story is going, what the book is about, or even what Harnett’s intentions are. While exposition and scene-building are certainly appreciated, especially in such a strange place, there is a balance that Harnett didn’t quite level. For as in-depth and well-explained the family secrets are later in the novel, it is unnecessary to have as much exposition as Harnett includes in the first chapters.

Since Brigid’s home is quite literally crumbling under her feet, the land itself is a character in the novel, something that plays a pivotal role in the displacement of Brigid’s family and the ultimate separation of her parents. Brigid’s journey is not the righteous path to knowledge and realization that readers may expect from a novel with a child first-person protagonist. Instead, Brigid displays a malleable nature that shifts with the story’s twists and turns in plot; she is not so much intelligent as reactive to her environment. There is therefore less learning on Brigid’s part and more adapting. The relationship between character, setting, and plot is very tangled and dependent in Harnett’s novel, a characteristic that sets it apart from similar novels, To Kill a Mockingbird included.

In many ways, Brigid is complex, relatable, and very affected by her circumstances. Over time we see her loyalties shift, her opinions develop independently of her mother, and her actions becoming more bold. As her family rapidly falls apart, she learns that she too must move quickly into a new life if she is to survive. Her lessons are not about morals, but survival.  In a scene midway through the novel, Brigid’s mother visits her hated stepmother in search of old belongings. The encounter quickly sours as a hideous secret is revealed, provoking anger from Brigid’s mother. Instead of an emotional response, Brigid is quick to offer her mother an item she came to the house for:

“Ma,” I said, slipping from my pocket the picture of her as a little girl. “You can stop looking. I got want you wanted. Here, Ma.” I handed her the photo. “Here you are.”

After receiving the picture, her mother calms and the chapter ends. We don’t hear about this encounter again until much later in the novel, a span of pages too long even for a delayed emotional reflection, which is not given to readers, either.

Again, however, I have to come back to Harnett’s pacing and plot choices. If the first half of the novel is a bit too slow, the ending is a bit too fast, and I have to question the purpose of the novel’s final scene. With her mother’s abandonment and father’s ensuing depression, neither parent is present. I’m puzzled by Harnett’s decision to lead Brigid’s father to death, even after his role as a father was otherwise compromised. The damage had already been done, but somehow that was not enough loss for Brigid. Readers may be even more jarred after reading the epilogue, which hastily gets to business correcting all the despair Brigid suffers throughout the novel, but not doing so wisely. The epilogue is too short and paced too quick to give reads a feeling of adequate story-telling rather than just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The epilogue almost feels like Harnett’s way of apologizing for all the wrong done to Brigid, and that’s never a place an author wants to be.

Despite its flaws, The Hollow Ground has a realistic, likeable protagonist who offers a unique perspective on the family drama that unfolds. It was enjoyable, if not difficult to read, and I would recommend the novel to fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as anyone who enjoyed the Irish stream-of-consciousness writing of Frank McCourt. Far from being a beach read, The Hollow Ground will keep readers thinking about it long after they’ve set it down.


 

Dance Review: REMAINDER NORTHSIDE by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Attack Theatre spent eighteen months working on their latest piece, Remainder Northside. For that year and a half, they taught creative movement at various Northside schools, after-school, and summer programs. In getting to know the youth of the neighborhood, they created an hour-long group dance that loosely shared the kids’ thoughts and experiences.

Before the show began, the company gave the audience a taste of their creative process. The directors and dancers spoke about how they turned the stories they’d heard into movement. One child had spoken of a gym teacher who swung his whistle— that became a circle of the dancers’ lower arm. Another remembered a trip to Cedar Point—that manifested as a “pointed” gesture with straight elbows.

In classic Attack fashion, co-directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, had the audience try the movement from our seats. Rather than reading a program note, we understood the through-line of the show by doing the choreography ourselves.

To open the piece, the dancers entered as if arriving at school. They placed their belongings in lockers and took their seats on a bench. De la Reza performed slow movements behind a see-through scrim while the dancers followed along; the section was reminiscent of a game of Simon Says.

One by one, the dancers broke from the bench to perform individual solos. Anthony Williams moved between spotlights, sometimes with an inquisitive feel, but sometimes tentative, with fear behind his eyes. Kaitlin Dann’s solo had a similar tone, emotionally back and forth. Both dancers moved swiftly in and out of the floor. Dann moved with precision down to her fingers, and Williams with sleek elongation of his limbs. Dane Toney finished the section, covering the space with long lines and lightness on his feet.

The musicians (Dave Eggar, Chuck Palmer, and Domenica Fossati) set the tone for each section, moving from atmospheric to rhythmic to experimental. At one point, they switched instruments with one another. And a few times, they danced right alongside the company members.

Remainder utilized a sparse set, and the choreography centered on highly physical movement. Anyone who has followed Attack over the years knows their stage design can be complex and their theatrics can drive a show. Here, the dancing reigned supreme.

Ashley Williams and Dann performed a unique duet where they tossed themselves to the floor with athleticism. Later, the men performed an equally impressive duo. Both pairs partnered with fluidity and strength. The four company members came together in a group section while de la Reza matched their movement from the rafters. A sense of wonderment filled the theater.

In another section, the dancers used their own bodies to create rhythms that turned into a dance party of sorts. Although the celebratory nature was a nice change of pace, the movement felt novice.

Later, there was a moment when the piece seemed to be ending. The dancers sat, childlike with awe, watching de la Reza solo as if a mother figure. The group joined her in a hopeful phrase, laying footsteps in a pathway while de la Reza lit the space with a lantern. The image was touching and would have made for a lovely and subtle close.

Instead the group came together in one last phrase. The musicians picked up the pace singing “I’ll go wherever you go, wherever our footsteps lead the way.” Each dancer showed optimism and community in group partnering interspersed with solos. Although their technique shined, the choreography was a bit sentimental.

In Remainder, Attack reminded us of their capability to pare down humor and theatrics, highlighting instead their remarkable partnering and technical abilities. Even more, the piece gave voice to an important Pittsburgh community and showed the universality of children’s experiences everywhere.


 

Book Review: ALONE ON THE WALL by Alex Honnold

 photo 209eafee-8c03-4c51-85a9-af3f8d590dc1_zpsnl7jxknv.jpg Alone of the Wall
by Alex Honnold
with David Roberts
W.W. Norton, 2015
Hardback: $26.95

Reviewed by Mike Walker

The majority of books I review are poetry, often in translation, because I came to literary criticism via my career in translation. However, I’m also an avid athlete and one of the sports I pursue is rock climbing. While it may not have the household-name superstars of the NFL or NBA, rock climbing nonetheless has its celebrities (I’m not going to take the easy pun of calling them rock stars, but if you like, go ahead with that). No one within the cloistered community of climbing nor to the general public’s view of the sport is a bigger star right now than Alex Honnold, a man who has in a multitude of ways raised the bar on what is even possible in climbing. Along with journalist David Roberts as his co-author, Honnold has penned his autobiography and despite being only thirty years old, it’s an apt time for him to do this: While we can hope this certainly is not the apex of Honnold’s fame or accomplishments, he is at a zenith of sorts currently in his celebrity status and has become one of those people in the public sphere who is written about and spoken of enough that a formal, personal, account of himself is useful. 

Alex Honnold’s story is a compelling one: a shy high school student in California, he took up climbing at the local rock gym as a hobby and realized he was good at it—like, really, really, really good at it. A bright and able kid if something of an introvert, as a freshman at Cal Berkeley he would walk around the lush, beautiful, campus and think of the fact he could at will climb the sheer sides of many university buildings. He was drawn to climbing in the way that very special athletes at times are drawn to their sports, especially to solitary sports such as surfing, skiing, or obviously, climbing. With many great places to climb within the scope of northern California, Honnold couldn’t see the prospects of an engineering degree from Cal outweighing the chance to spend limitless time pursuing climbing, so he dropped out of one of the most-respected of American universities and set off on the road in a old van which would become his home and base of operations as he encountered climbing routes which challenged even the most experienced and hardy of veteran climbers. 

But it wasn’t simply the fact that Honnold was an exceptional climber nor one this dedicated to his sport that has garnered him the praise, the fame, and the awe he now inspires: Honnold engages in free soloing, the act of climbing without ropes to secure oneself against a possible—and often possibly fatal—fall. Those who do not climb probably conjure in their minds a climber with loops of rope in hand, secured to his harness, carefully placing strange equipment here and there to offer safety and protection while scaling great heights. This is, no doubt, a compelling picture, one still capable of making the heart quicken and the blood rush, but with free soloing picture instead the athlete climbing with only his climbing shoes on, using nimble fingers dusted with chalk to cling to the edifice on which his climb is engaged. That’s Honnold, that’s what won him fame at least, because he actually undertakes far more of his climbs commonly with traditional ropes and associated safety gear. Nonetheless, it’s not the frequency of his free solo climbs but the intensity, the difficulty, of those he’s made which have garnered him not simply praise but downright awe both within climbing circles and without. From a college drop-out Honnold has become the singular adventure athlete who is now a household name, sponsored to climb and explore, traveling the world doing such day in and day out.

What makes such a person?

Not just what provides the courage to climb unprotected, at risk to fall and die at most any moment, but what paved the way for that tremendous development of athleticism? What allowed for Honnold to evolve from humble, shy, kid in the shadows of Yosemite to an athlete who has extended the very thought of possibility in his sport? And what does such a person think about while holding to dear life via a hand firm to the scrappy side of a sheer wall of rock?

If ever there was a person who needed to write a book of nonfiction, it would be Honnold, so I was elated when he decided to commit thoughts to paper. I had long followed Honnold on Facebook and noticed that unlike many pro athletes I follow, he posted not simply stunning photos of himself doing awesome stuff, but lengthy, pithy, musings on the outdoors, environmentalism, and related topics. Many action sports athletes come off like your kid brother in college at best, but Honnold came off on social media like John Brinckerhoff Jackson or R. Edward Grumbine. His Facebook posts are normally upbeat and do (expectedly) promote his activities and his sponsors, sure, but they betray a scope and depth that draws you in to desire to know Alex the person just as much as Honnold the ultra-athlete. Honnold is often described in the media as being “humble”—I’ve used that word already in this piece several times and it’s hard to avoid in any profile on Honnold—but more than anything, he is likable. Youthful and good-looking in a rugged and slightly geeky sense, he comes across as literally a guy next door, the grad student or dude who works at the local outfitter you might pass on the street in a mountain town like Truckee. He doesn’t factor—in looks or words either one—as the person who has accomplished feats beyond what many could even dream possible, and all that is part of his appeal. 

Like many celebrities who have penned autobiographies, Honnold enlisted a co-author, however in his case his co-author, David Roberts, acts as a cross between interviewer and outside observer, allowing him to add in his own comments instead of just wordsmithing Honnold’s prose. I very much like this approach, as it makes clear both what Honnold wrote and also does provide the benefit of someone beside the subject contributing to an autobiography. Too often, the co-author is really a combination of editor and ghostwriter, but here he is a journalist adding additional insight directly to Honnold’s narrative while keeping that narrative Honnold’s own, not truncated nor scrubbed for clarity nor effect. Honnold, as his social media posts suggested, doesn’t really need an editor anyways, as he’s a very strong, honest, and engaging writer on his own. There are people with full-time jobs in print journalism who do not write as well as Honnold does, suggesting that should he ever tire of hanging off outcroppings of rock for a living, Honnold may have another career awaiting him. 

Honnold obviously knew his book would reach a readership beyond hard-core rock climbers. He speaks to them, to his peers, with inclusion of the argot of our sport and detailed specifics on his climbs, but he also defines his jargon and offers an open enough framing of climbing to be inviting to non-climber readers. I did not fully appreciate the challenge of that task until embarking on this review, where I am tempted to laud Honnold with a chronicle of his greatest accomplishments, detail by detail retelling how he took on a free solo and why it was so jaw-droppingly difficult, but I know those reading this review—a review of a nonfiction book with what I would dare consider literary value—are not climbers, or at least most of you are not. I could spend a couple tidy paragraphs explaining trad climbing vs sport climbing or how Honnold goes about his climbs and preparing for some of his most-grueling exploits. However, most readers here probably would rather understand the book and somewhat the man who wrote it than those things. Therefore, writing an entire book that can appeal to both the rock climber who admires Honnold and the casual reader is a daunting task, but Honnold and Roberts have pulled it off as well as anyone could hope.

The question most readers will want to walk away from the book with—especially those who are not climbers and encountered Honnold firstly via a 60 Minutes feature on him or some magazine article—is simply enough, why does he do this? Why take the risk, the great risk, to his own life? Why do something where beyond much question, any wrong move or simple mishap could lead to certain death? Is he a daredevil, does he have a death-wish? Does he seek the thrill of knowing he’s air and sky away from a very short fall down a very serious distance? Is he like the BASE jumpers who become nearly addicted to that thrill? Is that it?

I will give this much away: that’s not it. That’s not the reason in Honnold’s mind, but even more, it’s not the experience, either. It’s not a thrill he seeks nor that he finds up there, ropes or no ropes. It’s not part of the process, according to Honnold, to say it is would be akin to saying you attend a rock concert foremost for the lyrics, or watch a James Bond movie to understand British spycraft. The experience of free soloing is not a rollercoaster-type rush of pure excitement, Honnold tells us. 

And he’s right. I know this not only because he is beyond much debate the best authority to weigh in on the topic, but also because I tried free soloing myself this summer in North Carolina. What I attempted was much less challenging  by far than even the more mundane of Honnold’s efforts, but I found the same state of mind he describes: the experience is one of concentration, of effort, of exerting oneself’s in a deeply physical, tangible, manner. It’s a turtle’s craft, not a hawk’s. It’s more like carving a form from a block of stone than surfing or skydiving. It’s just as much careful and complete calculation as you’d expect when miscalculating could spell disaster. If anything, it’s the opposite of being a daredevil drawn to a rush. There is no doubting Honnold’s vast courage, but the foundation of that courage is one of confidence in his innate skill, not a haughty young adventurer’s bravado. 

David Foster Wallace, himself very accomplished at tennis, once wrote of the problem he found with the vast majority of autobiographies of pro athletes: You pick up such a book hoping the greatest of greats, the person whom you know of for their ability to hit a ball or kick a ball or run faster than you or . . . or whatever, to tell you how they do it, or at least what it’s like to do it as they do. You hope the secret of their super-human athleticism will be shared, that it can be decoded, that the immense joy they have for it or the great skill they have for it will be transcribed in a manner maybe we can put it to use in our own lives. And as Wallace rightly noted, seldom does that happen,if ever. 

On a personal level, to be honest and sincere, what I really have always hoped from athletes’ biographies is to learn if it’s the same for them as for me: I know Lionel Messi and Ryan Giggs play soccer far better than I can dream of myself, but I would at least know if what they feel, what they think, when out there on those hallowed pitches before the adoring fans is the same as what I experience in my own Sunday pick-up games. I think, at least for athletes at all levels, that’s really what we want from a sports biography—not a how-to of becoming a great athlete, but to know the greats really don’t differ from us so much, even if they’re so very much better than us. 

Alex Honnold comes closer to offering this intangible quality than any other sportsman has in any autobiography I’ve yet read. It is still not precise nor complete, but he does give a good idea of his experience. He provides the actuality of things, the fact that climbing—free soloing included therein—is a process that requires concentration and nimble movements but also moves its athlete into a zone of understanding, into a channel where the immediate outweighs all before and after it. I would liken it myself to the movements of a great cargo ship, so easy to steer in the endless ocean, but prone to serious problems in the confines of a foreign harbor where obstacles abound. You know, when a ship enters a harbor passage like that, a harbor pilot who lives there comes out to the ship on a smaller boat and comes aboard to steer it in to whatever mooring will be its destination. The change in mindset while climbing can be much like that harbor pilot coming aboard, removing the scope of focus from the very general to the native, specific, and instant. Honnold via the sketches of his climbs and his wholehearted efforts to answer the question he has admitted he’s quite tired of being ask—do you fear falling and dying while free soloing?—is able to offer very good summary of how climbing at the highest of levels shapes the athlete’s psyche. 

This book is worthwhile—not only for rock climbers or those who spend ample time out of doors, but for anyone keen on knowing how someone who has carved out for himself a rather unique . . . career, vocation, whatever we wish to say of someone who became the most famous person in his sport but simply dropped out of school to head for the hills and climb to his heart’s content sees himself and his journey. It is, in a sense, a stations of the cross of climbing but also of Honnold himself. And it’s an utterly fascinating read. 


 

Now Then

by Nola Garrett

“The FROST performs its secret ministry.”
       from “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Now, that this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball season is finished, what I most recall are the  joyous moments I experienced watching the games on the Roots Sports channel while I sat here in my condo a few hundred yards across the Allegheny River from PNC Park when a Pirate batter was beginning his swing and I was hearing the exploding fireworks indicating he had hit a home run. Don’t bother reminding me about the electronic time lag inherent in those moments. Though I understand the science, I’m not dealing with physics in its most literal sense. I’m talking about my brief experience of joy. Perhaps, akin to Steven Hawking’s ironic title choice for A Brief History of Time.  What I felt was some sort of metaphysical joy. Did I save time? Will I be able to use that saved time later?

During my life I’ve experienced other joyous time-saving events, some involving much longer time periods. When I was eight years old, I remember the joy I felt while I took the short cut most mornings while walking from home across the lots around Walter Wright’s garden, then hopping on stepping stones across the creek behind the filling station that eventually became the Mill Village Post Office, crossing the street, to the sidewalk, then turning uphill to shudder  under the shadowed rail road bridge, then walking the half block to the Mill Village Grade School, thus getting to the place where I was always most happy sooner.

My first year at what was then Clarion State Teachers’ College, where I was even happier than I had been in grade school or high school, I realized my tuition bill was the same if I took 15 credits or even 21 credits each semester. Every semester after that insight, I gobbled 18 to 20 credits, attended summer school, and graduated in three years. By my lights, I saved an entire year.

During my first marriage, because I discovered I enjoyed being pregnant, I chose to become pregnant with my second child less than a year after the birth of my first child, partly for my own pleasure and partly so the two children could be playmates for each other the way I had been a playmate with my brother, Joel, who was a year younger than I. Maybe, I saved time. Certainly, my labor was hours shorter during my second delivery. And, I succeed in creating two sons whose best friends for many, many years.

While saving time, another part of my joy is the mysterious pleasure that for a rare ambiguous moment I feel the semblance of escaping time which in many ways is how I feel when I dream. I’ve always loved dreaming. Going to bed every night for me is like going to the movies. Over the last several months my health has improved, and I’ve been sleeping more soundly. I’m dreaming more often deep dreams involving my past two husbands, my two sons, my childhood, strange houses I seem to be living in. I’m dreaming new sorts of dreams, non-narrative, grand abstract ideas uniting time, reading, banking, computer technology, flowers, music, cooking, teaching, newspapers, game theory, visual art, and of course, writing. Maybe it’s the new buckwheat-filled pillow I bought that the Japanese suggest will keep my body more aligned? Maybe, now retired, living in the midst of a beautiful, interesting city, at last I’m free to use my saved time.

However, I may have already used my saved time when in the Spring of 1996 I took advantage of an early retirement window from my tenured teaching position at Edinboro University of PA to maintain our marriage when my husband accepted a call to a large Lutheran congregation in Spring Hill, Florida. I used those ten years—I would have been happily teaching at EUP—to learn how to write poetry. What I used or gained, depending how much you value poetry, was the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers one needs to master a high level skill. From a money and time standpoint my husband and the congregation were horrified that I was wasting my time. My poetry publications usually paid little more than a journal copy. Besides, who reads poetry anyway? And, when I volunteered to become a Guardian ad Litem for children who were dependants of the 5th Judicial District Court of Florida, because I felt I could be of help using my writing skills for those children at court; there was yet another frosty reaction until the national Lutheran women’s organization selected foster children and their support system as their theme for that year. Then, while none of them actually came out and apologized, including my husband, at least I was left in peace to practice my writing skills.

If time is money, how I’ve chosen to live a major part of my adult life writing essays, foster children’s court reports, and poetry has resulted in my financial failure. But if time saved spent writing, which for me makes time stand still resulting in joy, I’m still willing to pay that price sometimes with cold cash, sometimes with loneliness, sometimes with tears.


 

Book Review: GODDESS WEARS COWBOY BOOTS by Katherine Hoerth

 photo ab8c02d3-6ed7-48e6-926f-561834145fa0_zpsbcjj2f4m.jpg Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots
Poems by Katherine Hoerth
Lamar University Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The deities of ancient Greece are transplanted onto the Texan landscape in Katherine Hoerth’s Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots. Here, love and womanhood bud, flower, and fade on dusty back roads and along the Gulf of Mexico. Hoerth’s new mythology illustrates her speaker’s transformation from inauspicious cowgirl into “a woman even gods cannot resist.”

The strength of this collection lies in pitch-perfect metaphors scaffolded on the most everyday objects. A failing relationship is likened to bugs swept under a rug or a tumbling Jenga tower. Tackle boxes and pickup trucks are elevated out of the mere pastoral. With these props, Hoerth unearths an unexpected harmony between Texas and Olympus. Grocery stores, deserts, and high school football fields provide a perfect backdrop for cosmological dramas – and the rugged men and women Hoerth portrays are indeed a match for gods.

We begin with a series of vivid scenes that present the speaker’s coming-of-age as a woman in the midst of leering men and temptation. Hoerth’s initial comparisons of herself to Artemis, Venus, and other leading ladies come across as fresh and clever. By the middle of the book, though, some repeated tricks become apparent in her lines of blank verse. There’s much ado about the napes of necks, and the taste of Eve’s apple and Persephone’s pomegranate become cloying by the fourth or fifth time they’re referenced. “All timeless myths unfold the same it seems,” Hoerth writes, leaving the reader to wonder if so much space need be spent on some of the collection’s repeated characters.

The poems that stray away from myth have much to offer in terms of glittering surprises. For instance, “Winter” immediately turns the season’s traditional themes of death and decay on their heads.

The trees rejoice the snow’s return,
and leaves of oaks fall to the ground
like satin lingerie. They revel
in the barren twigs that still reach up
for warmth without the crowning green,
the succulence of April fruits.

Hoerth is eager to show us the beauty in grit and the sweetness behind pain. At a flea market in Alamo, she catches “a glimpse of holiness / on the shine of a bruised tomato” and remarks on children, “palms outstretched for dulces … [whose] teeth shine silver.” The sensory overload of the crowd reminds her of Neruda and Whitman, and it’s true that her keen, forgiving attention (here and elsewhere) call to mind those poets’ depictions of the world.

But the collection’s most invigorating poems may be those where Hoerth presents her female speaker alone, embarking on road trips or creating new universes with sugar and seeds. There is a quiet fierceness to these meditations; in these moments, we are aware of the speaker embodying the divine power she calls upon from her reinvented goddesses.

My Venus felt the salt’s sting on her skin
and opened sunray shells with fingertips.
My Venus tasted ocean on her tongue
and licked her lips. My Venus swam through flotsam,
seaweed tangled in her golden hair.
My Venus rocked the ocean, made the waves…

Taking a page from the tornadoes and hurricanes that plague her home state, our speaker rumbles with the power to destroy and create anew. Here among the “smells of sweat / and oil fields,” over the twang of “another song with steel guitar,” she emerges from a youth that’s taught her how to fend for herself. No surprise then “when she opens her front door, steps out / into the world to try again, alone—”


 

Book Review: IF YOU FIND YOURSELF by Brian Patrick Heston

 photo 4196d00b-7872-4e79-85bf-193f9300ef46_zpsc1pbxhub.jpg If You Find Yourself
Poems by Brian Patrick Heston
Main Street Rag, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One thing Brian Patrick Heston gets right in his collection, If You Find Yourself, is how death creeps into the lives of children. How it changes them. Heston opens on this moment of change—summer around the way, “latchkey kids” in Adidas dodging traffic and abandoned factories, to reach the tracks, “having / heard of a boy who walked without / looking, how they collected him, / in pieces, for days.” The poem, “Tadpoles,” ends with a character named Boo saying “Watch / your back. Can’t never / tell when something’s coming.” And so we enter Heston’s collection looking over our shoulder, conscious that our “asphalt lives” are breaking into a larger, more destructive world.

Set in Philadelphia, we move with the speaker down each city alleyway, past every shot body, and somehow, still, come out in a parking lot watching a peacock. These poems are brutal, consuming, both long and weighted. Yet, I don’t want to leave these poems to themselves. In “Childhood” the speaker talks about the first dead man he’s ever seen, states, “I was nine. The man, about eighteen.” Is the speaker too young to recognize the closeness of their bodies? Or is eighteen truly old in this place, this poem? Can we only survive in this life if we distance ourselves from these moments?

Heston doesn’t provide much in the shape of answers. The collection divides into three sections, yet there is no climax then brevity, no mounting towards softness. Every poem has a monster. This feels realistic to me in a way most collections don’t.

In the face of the monsters, we find distorted beauty. For example, “The Trails” tells of a sixteen-year-old clubbed and hacked to death with a hammer, hatchet, and a rock by his girlfriend and friends. At the moment of impact Heston writes,

…At first Jay was yelling
but he went away, his voice turning
into a bird….
…it pulled me into a world so big,
I could barely keep myself from floating off.

Or during “The Robbery” when “Shahid Seri was shot execution style,” a single star “claws its way from a cloud.”

In the final poem, titled “If You Find Yourself On An Unknown Street” the speaker advises his sister on how to walk through the world safely. He tells her to avoid the man in a golden fedora and the “cindering eyes of rats / will shine your way.” Nothing will be perfect and safe. If is a matter of maybe in the collection’s title If You Find Yourself.  But what Heston does leave us is the possibility for explosive, internal survival—

No,
you won’t see God, but your voice

will continue butterflying until
your mouth is unable to contain it.