Book Review: WHY IS IT SO HARD TO KILL YOU? by Barrett Warner

warner-book Why Is It So Hard To Kill You?
by Barrett Warner
Somondoco Press, 2015

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe 

Warner’s collection opens with, “I Thought Pigeons were Vegetarians,” a meditation on (and critique of) the concept of monogamy as expressed through the image of doves and love birds. Warner challenges preconceptions of married life and normalcy, the sickly-sweet ideas we’re often spoon-fed in childhood, contrasting them with the harsher realities of life. Similarly, Warner challenges preconceptions of nature poetry as pastoral, serene. “Poem with Only a Single Reference to a Shotgun” describes a mercy killing of a deer badly injured by a car. “I’m startled by his surrender, / turning his head to give me a better target,” Warner writes. He hauls the body into the woods and finally, “toss(es) a bucket of lime over the wound / to discourage thieves.” Even with death, the description isn’t peaceful. In fact, Warner’s final act with the deer is one of aggression; he tries to sabotage the primacy of scavengers and decay. It’s a final ‘fuck you’ to death. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty in nature. Surprises still happen. “Sleeping on Sand While Dolphins Swim Past Bethany” describes exactly that, except, of course, the narrator isn’t asleep: “A few shrieks, and an olive-skinned bather says, Look! Look! / He begins counting dolphins in Arabic. // I can tell by the sincere way he’s counting/there are a lot more than five.” The narrator tries to ignore this moment of beauty and return to sleep, but the spirit of the moment sneaks in, “I am dreaming/you are brushing my hair off my eyes, // and I am not trying to bite your hand or anything.”

Warner’s poems describe moments in which the world breaks. Some of these moments are beautiful, some are tragic, and most are a combination of the two that make it impossible to pick a side. “I Thought I’d Stop Having Sex Dreams of Kim after She Broke Her Neck” is one of these latter ones. It describes the narrator’s sub/conscious fixation with “Kim,” listing some examples of dream scenarios, “outdoors, under willows, bodies quilted. / The more she takes, the more she has to hold. / The more I take, the more I let go.” Warner has set a wistful tone. He describes the injury in almost emotionless language: “Kim’s break is two knuckles down/from what they call a hangman’s fracture.” One expects the poem to end in sadness, anger, some wrenching outpouring about lost opportunities. The real accomplishment of this poem, though, comes with the turn at the end:

After lunch, I wheel her outside to the herd.
A gray horse lips and tongues her ball cap
until it finds the peppermint someone put there.
This is the one who fell on me, she says.

A lesser poet might’ve gone too heavy-handed, but Warner leaves it open, somewhat ambiguous. Is she angry? Do they laugh?

“Tanya” is a love-lost poem. The narrator receives a phone call from the titular character, a kerosene drinking hard case down in Florida, “I thumbed an atlas, scanning varicose highways. What could forty years have done to Florida?” he muses. The poem continues, “When my wife asked me for water, I reached for the bottle, drained half, and gave her the rest. I wanted to say, because I’m a mean bastard. But instead of asking why I had done that, she stared at the rain hammering our tin roof. She said, Who’s Tanya?” There’s a lot happening in that interaction. The narrator tries to lash out but his wife doesn’t even notice.

“Immortal One” gives us the book’s title. It begins, “Good morning, angel fish. / Why is it so hard to kill you?” The poem continues with a litany of pets the narrator has owned until they died or neglected until they died. In the context of the book, the fish could represent many things: love, innocence, even depression.

But underneath the darkness of Warner’s world, there’s a joie de vivre. He embraces this darkness for what it is: reality. And to explore that, honestly, means he’s going to bump up against some joy, too, even if he doesn’t want to. Most often in these poems, those things come from art and an appreciation of beauty. In his previous collection, Warner crafted a love letter to the Baltimore poetry scene. He touches on that again in some of these poems, “Thrasher,” for example, which is about novelist and skateboarder Timmy Reed, “His stories make me think of fables. / Instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.” “Maine Is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea” is a great example of Warner’s joy. He describes a trip to a cabin, abounding with natural beauty. Warner’s great sense of humor pops up:

I imagine her sunning herself
on a chicory mat,
surrounded by Japanese poetry.

is almost
one-fourth of a haiku.

The “she” in the poem scolds him about how unrealistic it is to have a tropical plant in Maine’s climate, “That plant will die in a few/weeks, she says, and then we’ll all/have to deal with your grieving.” Finally, she relents and asks, “Where do you want to put it? / Over here, I say, by the banana tree.”

But it’s not all bad between them. “Bath” is a tender, loving poem, “Julia comes midday to the hospital/to smear lunch on my lip and to wash my hair and back.” Warner describes the simple acts of her feeding him, adding ice to the soup so he doesn’t burn his lips. “I swallow three sips and go back to sleep. / When I wake she’s gone, and my hair is beautiful.”

“Wow,” gets at the heart of things. “The Yellow Pages of everything / I might have been is slimmer over time.” it begins. The poem cycles through foiled dreams, “At forty, I tear out all the Surgeon listings / when I notice the fluttering in my hand.” Finally, “I’m looking for a single listing:/Walking Around with an uncertain look on my face, / exclaiming, Wow, at frost on the turnips, / at the red smile of blood as I slice open a finger…”  And in this collection, Warner has shared his true talent for cataloguing the wonders of the world as he sees them; dead horses, disappointed lovers, missed opportunities, his dead or dying hand, but also the wonder of crows grieving their own dead, a grandmother’s wisdom, the way a heart can still catch fire.


Book Review: ROCHESTER KNOCKINGS by Hubert Haddad

Rochester_Knockings-front Rochester Knockings:
A Novel of the Fox Sisters

by Hubert Haddad
Trans. by Jennifer Grotz
Open Letter Books, 2015

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

In Rochester Knockings Tunisian author Hubert Haddad brings to life with exquisite historical detail the theater and sensation of the Fox sisters, spiritual mediums who captivated the world in the mid-nineteenth century. Haddad travels through time and space and spiritual plane to bring us this tale, channeling both the voices and the spirit of this turbulent time in history when abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage were forefront on the political stage.

The novel opens in the small town of Hydesville just outside of Rochester, New York, where sisters Maggie and Kate begin to witness strange phenomena in their farmhouse home. In the dead of night, doors slam, furniture scrapes across the floorboards, and unexplained rapping comes erratically from underfoot. Instead of treating the farmhouse as the innocuous setting for these bizarre events, Haddad introduces it as another character in the story of the Fox sisters with complexity and agency of its own: “Certain long-poisonous houses seem indifferent, bored with human lives, and then one eye half-opens suddenly from the depths of their comatose sleep.”

Maggie and Kate become convinced that a spirit from the beyond is attempting to make contact, so the sisters perform their first séance before a crowd of Hydesville neighbors. As the spirit knocks in response to their questions, they learn that a man named Charles Haynes had been murdered and his body buried beneath the farmhouse. This shocking information is regarded with both fear and skepticism, but their unnerving ability to communicate with the other side launches the Fox sisters’ career throughout North America and across the Atlantic. It was the first of hundreds of séances the sisters would conduct over the course of their forty-odd years spearheading the Spiritualist Movement.

Haddad works hard to place the Fox sisters within their proper historical context, resurrecting the uncertainty toward rapidly evolving science as well as a general dissatisfaction toward conventional religion. In the wake of this societal unrest, spiritual mediums pierced the veil, providing much sought-after answers about death and the afterlife. Furthermore, Haddad ties together the power of spiritualism with the rising demand for equal opportunity: “[As mediums] American women finally held a new way to take their turn speaking without being booed at like those feminists in municipal assemblies advocating the right to vote.”

While Haddad’s extensive research no doubt provided the framework of this intricate story, it is truly the prose that sends readers spinning through time. For this artfully crafted narrative, Jennifer Grotz’s translation retains all the fluidity and precise word choice of the original French. At times, the writing might feel stuffy and cumbersome, not unlike the nineteenth century, and this technique speaks to the expertise of the author and translator in mimicking and recreating the formal air of the time. It’s one of a few tricks that serves to further engulf readers within the realm and world of the Fox sisters. Masterfully written, Rochester Knockings is a haunting tale you won’t be quick to forget.


Lucifer Morningstar

by Nola Garrett

Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he Stood and call’d
His legions, angel forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbor’r; or scatter’d sedge
Afloat, when fierce Winds Orion arm’d
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’rthrew
Buriris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
from the safe shore thir floating Carcasses
And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hallow Deep
Of Hell resounded.

ll. 301—315, Book I, Paradise Lost
John Milton

It’s Lent, and during this year’s Ash Wednesday service while I was reciting The Great Litany of ills that beset us humans, I was pressed yet again into thinking about the nature of good and evil. So, later when I noticed Fox Network’s new dramedy, Lucifer, I watched the pilot show. It had everything a Lutheran, English professor turned poet-blogger could possibly find in a television series: comedy, evil, sex, odd justice, a jazz-piano playing Lucifer, set in Los Angeles (oh the glory of puns!), laid over a police procedural; derived from a comic book series, a graphic novel; a handful of verses from Genesis, Isaiah, Job, Matthew, Mark, Revelation; and, most specifically, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which echos in form and content most of the great epic writers of Greece and Rome.

Don’t bother to phone me on Monday nights between 9 and 10 p.m. I’m not picking up. I’m taking notes for further research, and later rummaging around in various Bible translations, Paradise Lost, Google Search, and my O. E. D. Don’t you just love Milton’s word, “nathless!”

Fox’s Lucifer is based on the premise that Lucifer after all these eons has decided to take a vacation from Hell. Though he has retained his immortality, he has removed his wings the better to show off his beautifully tailored black suits. He has bought a nightclub in L.A. which is managed by one of his female dark angels. To help him understand his life on Earth, he has acquired a mid-life, blonde therapist whom he appears to pay with sexual favors. Every now and then God (Dad) sends down from Heaven Lucifer’s brother angel to check up on His disobedient son. Sibling rivalry ensues.

At a crime scene Lucifer meets Chloe, a Los Angeles Police Detective, who like him deeply believes in justice, but seems to be one of the few humans, other than her young daughter Trixie, who is immune to his wiles. Her immunity and her shared sense of justice interests him so much that he sets out to help her solve crimes by becoming a consultant to the LAPD.  What Lucifer and Chloe both insist upon in every situation and with each other, is that everyone must take responsibility for their actions. Chloe is content to let the law mete out punishment, but Lucifer sees himself as the one who punishes. After all, punishment always has been his hellbent job.

However, as the series proceeds, we find that Lucifer’s time on earth among the mortals is beginning to change him. He starts to feel pain. He bleeds. He’s surprised, yet curious. He does retain his ability to persuade everyone, except for Chloe and Trixie to admit their deepest desires which they often then act out, even though he cannot make them take action. In other words, the Devil doesn’t make them do it.

Nathless, Milton’s spoken version of nevertheless, a sort of transitional, reality check accounting for the Universe’s only constant: change—always involving some loss along with some gain—may be the most powerful force at work in Lucifer’s televised vacation. After Lucifer’s long fall from Heaven he didn’t just lie there. Milton reports that Lucifer and the other fallen angels built the Palace of Pandemonium and organized punishments for the hoards of Earth’s sinners who keep arriving. Lucifer’s vacation appears not to be time off from work, but rather merely a change of place. And, just as when God created the earth and its inhabitants, His interactions with the inhabitants, caused God to change his mind several times, to change his covenants with His people, and to reincarnate as Jesus. I suspect that Lucifer’s interactions with the inhabitants of Los Angeles will change Lucifer, too. Never mind Fox’s Trump and the Republicans. Lucifer Morningstar’s forthcoming changes as portrayed on the Fox TV Network are what so terribly intrigue me.


Book Review: THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli, Trans. by Christina MacSweeny

StoryOfMyTeeth-Web-356x535 The Story of My Teeth
by Valeria Luiselli
Trans. by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

In 2013 Galería Jumex, a contemporary art gallery outside of Mexico City, commissioned Valeria Luiselli to write a fictional story about their exhibition, The Hunter and the Factory. Her resulting work, The Story of My Teeth, explores the connection between the gallery’s collection and its source of funding—Jumex, a juice factory. Luiselli was inspired by nineteenth century Cuban tobacco readers—who read serial novels to tobacco factory workers—to write the novel in installments for the juice factory workers. The workers read and critiqued her installments, contributed photographs of the neighborhood, and offered stories and opinions on the art collections that their labor funded. The final, collaborative product is ultimately about the love of storytelling, from the process of creation to its power as a shared experience. It becomes so layered and complex through experimentation with perspective and form that ultimately it transcends genre. It is literary fiction, but with elements of memoir, biography, metafiction, tragicomedy, and magic realism woven in.

The novel is about Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, nicknamed Highway, a collector of objects, like teeth, his father’s fingernails, jewels, and contemporary art. He works at a juice factory in Ecatepec (a neighborhood outside of Mexico City) for more than nineteen years, before becoming an auctioneer. He desires to someday write his autobiography, and have a surgery to fix his teeth. As a temporary solution, he purchases Marilyn Monroe’s teeth at an auction and has an operation to replace his with hers. The confidence Highway gains from his Monroe teeth does not depend on their authenticity. Fake or genuine, they contain not only the weight of Monroe’s name, but also her history and impact on the world. In replacing his teeth with her teeth, he merges their histories and evolves his identity—he is as much a part of the teeth’s story as the teeth are a part of his story.

And this is, more or less, the “story of his teeth”: they are crooked, then removed (and replaced with dentures), and then sold at an auction. He auctions them as the teeth of Virginia Woolf, Plato, Rousseau, and more. The stories he tells are entertaining, humorous, and often complex. They derive humor from their two-line simplicity, or long and unrelated anecdotes, or violent endings. His stories indirectly question why we value what we value—whether that is art, or straight teeth. He believes that he can “restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’” Its authenticity doesn’t necessarily matter, only the story and faith he has for the object. In buying an object at an auction, one is buying the story that sold it. Consider a certain portrait hanging in the Louvre that increased in value from being stolen and vandalized. Like auctioneering, art—whether in the form of literature or a painting—must be bought and sold, both figuratively and literally.

Highway’s story is “sold” to us from three different perspectives: Highway’s, his friend (and transcriber of his autobiography), Voragine’s, and Christina MacSweeney’s, the actual novel’s translator.  Luiselli “sells” us The Story of My Teeth by appealing to our inherent need for storytelling. The novel is, overwhelmingly so, a writer’s novel: it is (continuously) aware of its origin—a fictional collaborations with an art exhibition. This is exemplified by the novel’s setting in Ecatepec, Highway’s initial career at Jumex, and the most climactic scene, which takes place at Galería Jumex. These examples serve as the novel’s “constraints”: the novel’s plot cannot stray too far from its origin as a commissioned project.

In consequence for straying, Highway is punished: he is kidnapped, most likely drugged, and taken to a clown exhibition at the art gallery. There he is forced to confront some of his biggest fears, such as clowns and being perceived as a clown. This section is absurd, and seemingly fantastical. It is not until Voragine’s chapter that we learn what exactly happened to Highway when he was kidnapped. On its own, this chapter would not have worked; it would have felt too contrived. But combined with Voragine’s chapter, it works because Voragine grounds both Highway and the story of his kidnapping, and presents him as a more sympathetic character. Voragine’s chapter is a necessary companion, and contrast, to Highway’s story for this reason. He presents himself as a more reliable narrator than Highway, and avoids Highway’s hyperbolic and boastful language, instead favoring straightforward facts and prose. Voragine admits to Highway’s flaws, but still hopes that the reader will see Highway as he does: as an entertaining and enthusiastic storyteller.

Like Voragine, I choose to see Highway as an entertaining, albeit flawed, storyteller. It is his exaggerated sense of self, and his stories, that make the novel enjoyable. But the novel becomes successful, as a whole, with its structure: Voragine’s chapter, MacSweeney’s chapter, and Luiselli’s “Afterward” revealing the novel’s origin, help to immerse the reader not only in the world she created, but in the process of its creation. Luiselli proves that collaborative fiction, or even a fiction exercise, can yield a successful and cohesive novel—and that if this is where the future of contemporary literature may be heading, we should embrace it.

In addition to The Story of My Teeth, Christina MacSweeney translated Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and her collection of essays, Sidewalks. Luiselli’s first novel won a Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and in 2014 she received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. The Story of My Teeth was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015.


Book Review: WAITRESS AT THE RED MOON PIZZERIA by Eleanor Levine

s224039681740579826_p92_i1_w2560 Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria 
by Eleanor Levine
Unsolicited Press, 2016

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

I’ve known Eleanor Levine primarily as a fiction writer. Her stories are usually funny, high energy jaunts that read like bursts of insane joie de vivre, though they can be quite dark as well. I’ve also seen her read fiction, and it was just what I’d have expected; Levine is one of those writers who can command attention without even, I think, meaning to. Everyone knows she’s in the room, and they tend to like her. So, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from her poetry. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Levine’s poems have surreal elements, but at their core, they are love poems, and there’s nothing more surreal than real life. The Red Moon Pizzeria, itself, is mentioned in several poems as a neighborhood landmark. The title poem is a touching reminiscence, “When I first met you, you were a waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria.” It continues, “I wanted to kiss your cheek, feel your fury for a minute, but / couldn’t drive my bike near your German Shepherd on Sycamore Avenue.” The waitress marries a man named Hank and doesn’t respond to the narrator’s letters. Intermittently, over the years, she reaches out to the former waitress without success until finally they reconnect, years later. Of course, things have changed, and though that fantasy attraction is still strong, it can’t compete with reality. Aside from the pathos of the poem, one thing that really stands out is the way Levine casually drops what would seem to be life-altering occurrences. She describes the former waitress as “in ‘the program’ with boys who drowned me.” This casual reference to abuse is never explained. Similarly, “It took months / weeks after my mom died for you to write.” The casual mention of the narrator’s mother’s death is overshadowed by the humorous description of the conversation:

Thought you were nuts/speaking forever on the phone/the jittering sensation of your mind
on the moon/the matters that lilted in your brain on cocaine but were now
quite sober, thank you Jesus and members of AA.
Wanted off the fucking phone, but you kept talking talking talking.
Other women I could date didn’t divulge heroin addictions in thirty seconds;
could walk in profoundly safe conversations along country roads;
why not date normal fifty-year-olds with inferior orthodontic work,

These details, though tragic, are commonplace. Everyone’s mother dies. Everyone has difficulties in life. The truly profound moments, like love, are the ones worth focusing on, Levine seems to be saying.

In addition to love poems, Levine also writes about her family and friends. “Daddy and the Cicadas” is another standout. It begins with a spare, almost terse description:

When Daddy was dying
he watched the Mets
“Been there, done that,” he said
like the kids in school

The poem is restrained, avoiding melodrama with what could easily be a dangerous topic. Levine manages emotion, though. One of the more compelling details, for me, is the simple statement:

I worry about Daddy
stuck in the ground
with no Worcester sauce
to put in his tomato juice

It’s such a specific, odd detail, and it evokes a speaker who is familiar with tragedy. “Daddy” is a beautiful, heartbreaking poem about loss. It begins, “he was a thin man/ with lips tighter than Nebraska dirt/ and bristles on his chin.” The image is one of restraint, possibly forced restraint. She continues:

I wanted to touch his face
but instead felt the stomach
and kissed him there
and asked, “Why are you
taking my Daddy?”

Of course, there’s nothing to be done, and Levine continues with an almost surreal detail, “The people politely didn’t /  know what to say, but/ wrapped him in a big / sack.” The image of the sack is a perfect counterpoint to the bare emotion of her reaction to his death. There are a handful of poems about Levine’s father, and all of them are outstanding.

Being Jewish and from New York are recurring details in Levine’s poems, though she avoids the clichés often associated with these things. She doesn’t wax poetic about any of the boroughs or make parochial references meant to show how well she knows New York and you don’t; instead, her references are to (often dead) family and places that no longer exist, much of the time. Neighborhood kids threw rocks at her family’s door, and the peculiar quirks the family and friends exhibit are neither praised or ridiculed; they simply are. There’s a vibrancy to the New York Levine paints, not of cultural significance, but of bodies; these places exist as backdrops to the scenes of heartbreak and past joys. And, Levine does seem to move around.

“First Girlfriend” is a bittersweet reminiscence. It begins with solid characterization:

instead of Rilke,
she hums the Garden State Parkway Blues
reads a Pisces horoscope
plays guitar at the nursing home
and meets her husband

Right away, Levine has established the liminal quality of so many of the relationships she describes. “Meningitis” is another love poem. The narrator describes encountering and being intrigued by a woman with meningitis. She researches the disease and then flirts with the woman:

I knew at any moment,
in those big vinyl chairs,
with ice clicking in my Coke,
she’d stare at me

Levine sets the poem up beautifully. The narrator is obsessed:

across from the golf course,
as rain poured along the highway
and cars went to the amusement park,
past the blue-shingled house,
I decided to write her biography.

I phoned to read the introduction,
but she hung up.

That moment, at its heart, captures the appeal of Levine’s poems. The thrill of meeting and becoming intrigued with someone is vivid and real, and the sting of rejection is also real, but is tempered with Levine’s great sense of humor. It’s so absurd, of course, that someone would just decide to write a biography of a near stranger, but haven’t we all felt that way, for a moment, when meeting a certain someone? There’s a great wisdom and equal parts stupidity to the human heart, and Levine excels at capturing both with a manic but real energy.