Dance Review: LAWS OF ATTRACTION by Attack Theatre

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For over two decades, Attack Theatre has transformed otherwise unknown Pittsburgh sites into ultra-creative performance spaces. In their latest work, Laws of Attraction, they took on an old auto body repair shop located in Uptown.

The two-act show was inspired by the study of science. About a year ago, the company taught creative movement classes to elementary students at Winchester Thurston. There, the science teacher asked if the dancers could center their lesson around “the complexity of bridges.” The concept grew from there, culminating in an almost two-hour long show.

Laws of Attraction featured five dancers, including Nile Alicia Ruff who joined the company most recently, and live musician (and painter), Ian Green. Under the direction of co-artistic directors, Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, the performers used scientific concepts like weight transfer, structural supports, and counterbalance to build movement phrases. Like most Attack shows, props were used; however, exploring these themes with their bodies worked equally well.

No Attack show would be complete without the use of witty metaphor. The piece tied elementary classroom concepts to the nature of human relationships. Throughout the show, they played with phrases like, “Why does everything revolve around you?” And, “Nothing can pull us apart.”

The first half brought a healthy dose of partnering phrases that naturally invoked the science of kinesiology. Ashley Williams stood on top of Kaitlin Dann while the narrator (pre-recorded) declared, “I don’t understand why you’re always right on top of me.” Each dancer continued with individual solos in and out of the floor that left them breathless on their backs. The narrator spoke again. “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

In another section, Anthony Williams placed magnetic shapes on a large metal door. The dancers then built similar shapes with their legs, arms, and torsos, darting about the space as the music crescendoed.

The women performed a memorable trio, each partnering with a ladder. The three of them took turns climbing it, cartwheeling inside of it, and jumping in and around it. Many duets also stood out. Dane Toney’s and Ruff’s extended lines complimented each other well. Anthony Williams and Dann played two patrons in a neighborhood bar, eyeing each other from across the room. Their short relationship ended with, “I’m sorry; I want to go in another direction.”

The second half brought signature Attack athleticism in the form of child-like play. In one section, the dancers performed on hover boards. Although long, the segment was mesmerizing. The boards waved as the dancers calmly snaked around one another, gesturing and turning the entire time. The choreography never resorted to trickery; rather, the group found ways to turn the obvious into artistic.

They did the same with a giant seesaw. Each took their turn on one side, investigating weight and simple physics. A lovely moment ensued when Dann and Ashley Williams found a counterbalance. To illustrate swing, climbing and falling, the dancers manipulated a dangling rope swing throughout the show. Both Ashley and Anthony Williams impressed the audience by climbing the rope in what felt like five seconds.

Most eloquent was how Attack managed to blend the exploration of relationships with the investigation of science. The ending led us back to the opening relationship, when Ashley Williams needed space from Dann. Their attraction couldn’t keep them apart. The two ended in an embrace. Perhaps our human attractions are mere chemistry.

Laws of Attraction was smart, entertaining, and easily educational for a classroom of students. Attack continues to create well-made dances with clever storytelling that compliments exciting and playful movement. Don’t miss the remainder of this performance run; see details below.

Laws of Attraction continues for one more weekend, April 27th-30th at 8:00 p.m. The shows are located at 300 Gist St., Uptown. Check the website for parking information and ticket costs:


Bret-Easton-Ellis-a-t-O-D-_-Lina-Wolff-rgb-300x460 Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs
by Lina Wolff
trans by Frank Perry 
And Other Stories, 2015

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

Swedish author Lina Wolff’s debut novel is a wonderfully complex and sometimes confusing journey. The plot meanders, the prose balances grittiness with the surreal, and our ideas about gender and love are challenged. While the novel is not linear and the narrative can be difficult to follow, the situations and concepts Wolff puts before us are thought-provoking, yet easy to digest. This balancing act between soft and hard, challenge and ease, and supposed versus real morality is central to the novel’s success.

Araceli Villalobos is a young girl at the beginning of the novel, living with her mother in a small Spanish town. Her life leaves much to be desired, which leads her to compulsively watching Alba Cambo, the writer downstairs. Araceli wonders about Alba’s life, fantasizes about it. Wolff’s prose and near-constant switching of point of view makes it unclear how much Araceli actually knows about Alba. The narrative tends to deviate from Araceli’s story in pivotal moments, such as when Alba’s maid comes to live with them. In this instance, we’re immediately thrown into Blosom’s backstory. If Araceli knows this, comes to know this, or if it is only known to the readers, is hard to discern. The narrative voice clings to Araceli when she is on the page, yet seems to know things she couldn’t know. Wolff’s choice to leave knowledge ambiguous gives the novel its surreal feel, yet manages not to distract from later progressions.

Wolff tackles more than unconventional narration. Her attention fixates on women breaking gender norms, and she challenges her readers to think about the concept of “real” love. Despite having opportunities later in her life, Araceli chooses to pursue sex work. Wolff also takes us inside the complex relationship of her friend, Muriel. Muriel’s ideas about love are materialistic; they include ideas about gifts, wealth, and favors. The transaction of money for sex seems to have seeped into her overall understanding of men and women. We learn that Muriel left her boyfriend, a man we’re to believe actually loved her, for an older, richer man named Paco Parra. Wolff tests us with this relationship. Is it love? Parra captures Muriel’s former boyfriend and offers her the chance to murder him, an act which he sees as a gift to Muriel, a gift of love. Like Muriel, readers are likely disgusted by this. But through Araceli, we’re left to wonder what makes a person so perverse? What makes their version of love so different? Are we correct to assume that people like Parra are beyond any explanation or redemption? Araceli says of him as she and Muriel retreat back to Barcelona, “His good intentions frightened me,” because of the kindness he had shown her. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to forget him, or this trial on our moral conscience.

Wolff’s novel weaves together many stories, each one with a distinct narrator and series of unexpected events. One of the more memorable stories is actually a short story written by Alba Cambo. It features a little girl named Lucifer, Lucy for short. Lucy’s mother named her so because she hated her, hated the thought of giving birth to her, to raising her. This defies conventional thoughts about how mothers should behave, but the story doesn’t just tackle that issue. As Lucy grows up, she forms an innocent attachment to a young priest. Poisoned by ideas that this priest must be molesting Lucy, the town rises up and prosecutes him. To them, a simple love between a man and a child cannot exist. It must lead to perverse actions. But in this story, we see it does not. In the overall novel, Alba is known for writing violent short stories, and so Araceli ponders if that could be the only reason the young priest meets a horrible end. But as readers, we’re able to look beyond Alba’s intentions, and realize that Wolff is making difficult statements about what constitutes love.

The novel’s preference for strong female characters, like Araceli, Muriel, Blosom, and Alba, only exemplifies the naming of the brothel dogs – with famous, male authors. It is clear from the rest of the novel that these dogs are metaphorical, and that perhaps what Wolff is really saying is that the topics she’s so diligently covered in her novel were essentially ignored by male writers, the “dogs” whom she feeds rotten meat when woman are mistreated. Wolff’s debut novel is well-worth the zig-zagging trip it takes through narrative, to end at a place where readers are left with an appreciation for Wolff’s careful craft and protest of conventional norms.


My Slant

by Nola Garret


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
Wit explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

Three years ago at a coffee shop on Mt. Washington when Mike Simms first asked me to write a monthly blog about anything at any length for, I was surprised. I was so depressed about being in the process of being divorced by my husband of 33 years and being diagnosed with a potentially fatal, auto-immune liver disease that I said no, or maybe I could if I wrote under a pen name.  Mike said, “Think about it,” and he handed me an Autumn House review copy of Andrea Hollander’s Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982-2012. Then, Mike gave me a ride home in his pickup truck back to my downtown, fortress of solitude in Gateway Towers. That evening when I settled into reading Andrea’s new poems, tracing her marriage’s long disintegration into divorce, I took heart. I wasn’t the only older woman dealing with a broken marriage. I knew that I not only wanted, but that I also needed to write a review of her book under my own name. When I thought I no longer had a voice, Mike gave me a new prose voice. What a great gift Mike (and Andrea) gave me!

Writing that first blog was made easier because I was assigned a form and subject: a review of Landscape with Female Figure.  However, writing the second blog essay meant that I had to dig deeper into whatever leaky truth trove I might possess to discover not only content, but also a rhetorical form to accommodate the subject and my new point of view. At that time I was still in the midst of the legalities of divorce: not the best of all times to publicly let one’s almost ex-husband know much of anything that might be on one’s mind. I found myself yet again wishing I was writing hidden under a pen name. Essays, even the most informal blog/essays, always involve a lot of trial and error, a sort of trying to figure out what one thinks out loud, so to speak. That’s when I remembered Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” And, that’s pretty much what I did monthly until the divorce became final almost two years later. I discovered I didn’t need to take subjects or even emotions head on, though many of the blogs I wrote were deeply felt. I slowly learned to trust the writing process itself would dissipate, disarm, and soothe me through any essay subject I chose. In many ways writing essays was almost the opposite of writing poems, which often served me as ways to intensify my hidden feelings. My own poems often frighten me. Sometimes after writing a poem I’m  emotionally exhausted for days, but writing an essay seemed to corral me, seemed to give me more emotional control.

Also during a good part of these last three years, I discovered that my two sons didn’t know me. Maybe most sons don’t really know their mothers, but I suspect that in my case, I always tried to protect them by withholding many of the messier parts of my life, especially the time during my first marriage and divorce from their abusive father that happened when they were toddlers. And, because my family—my grand parents, my parents, my uncles, my aunts, my brother, and most of my cousins—died or were murdered either before my sons were born or when my sons were barely in grade school, I wrote about my childhood and family. So, some of the essays I wrote became memoirs, my attempts to pass along a legacy to my sons, even though they may or may not have read these essays. Maybe, some day…maybe, not. That is their choice.

This is my last blog for Mike Simms has retired as the editor of coalhillreview, and the new editor, Christine Stroud, is reshaping her on-line journal into a more formal publication of poetry and reviews. This is as it should be, I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially if I were the new editor. But, know that I am thankful to have been given the healing gift of sure and accepting publication for these last three years.

My prosaic closure has come just as I have begun to resume my poetry writing life. July 1, 2016, Mayapple Press will publish my third full-length poetry collection, The Relative Heart & Selected Sestinas, the new poems exploring family, place, and the last of  my pastor’s wife persona poems. I have begun writing a few new poems for yet another book, this one dealing with dusk and other end of life subjects. I don’t know how many more essays I will write, but I do know that I have one more long literary essay that I need to write which will be about the life and style my former poetic persona, the pastor’s wife. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to prepare for that task in such a grace-filled venue.



Book Review: EMBER DAYS by Nick Ripatrazone

00023 Ember Days
by Nick Ripatrazone
Alleyway Books, 2015

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti


Ember Days opens almost immediately with this all-caps note—a message from a brother to a brother, a last-ditch effort to reunite, to collect a debt, and to repent for a wrongdoing. This is the core of the collection, slightly rotten and a little sweet. The past in muddied recollections. Characters trying to overcome the tragedies and disappointments of their past, whether it be a deceased daughter, a taped-over VHS, or even a bomb that burned much too brightly.

With sentences that oftentimes blend prose and poetry, Nick Ripatrazone’s Ember Days is a gorgeous read. Eight stories that flow off the page, slithering in your ear and rattling around your skull. The language is beautiful, but can occasionally lose the reader with its generous use of metaphoric imagery. Though when the images land, Ember Days captures ether.

Indeed, the setting is never static—Ripatrazone flies between decades, from the sand-blasted New Mexico desert, to the suburban homes of blue-collar families riddled with dysfunction. No two stories in the collection feel the same; there’s constant momentum. And it helps that the various characters of Ember Days think of themselves in relation to the setting, the inexorable forces of nature that shape their lives—the desert, first and foremost. Ember Days spends a good chunk of its page count in the arid wasteland, and Ripatrazone writes life into an otherwise dead landscape.

The desert appeared so stale and white, as if God had created the vast expanse for one reason: to be blown up.


Wind spun through the cracked windows and he moved his mattress to the kitchen. He kept a blanket over his face and wondered if he would ever wake up. He had dreams within dreams and saw the desert in black and white, and imagined peeling off his own skin and touching bone and feeling so real.

Ember Days is swift in its pacing, in that it offers glimpses—quick flashes of human depravity. Cruelty from one brother to another, blistering dialogue between spouses, the occasional hard-handed violence. There’s an especially terrible moment in one short story when the reader suddenly realizes a next-door neighbor isn’t merely a friendly role model to a young boy. The collection allows us to see the worst in its cast of characters, often through the machinations of the surreal landscape—the desert, rearing up with its grit and heat, catching people in its swell and dragging them down and under.

These terrible, human moments consistently surprised me—they come almost out of nowhere. Almost. Once you realize what’s happening and the shock wears off, the stories kind of just…click into place.


Book Review: WAKING THE BONES by Elizabeth Kirschner

waking_the_bones_400_2 Waking the Bones
by Elizabeth Kirschner
The Piscataqua Press, 2015

Reviewed by Allison Keene

In her memoir Waking the Bones, Elizabeth Kirschner unravels the snarled strings of her life, weaving connections between her childhood traumas, her adult mental illness, and the redemptive power of self-reliance.

Kirschner divides her memoir into clear sections, each of which anchors the short, poetic chapters within to a specific span of years and to a particular location. Despite these confinements, the individual chapters are airy and dynamic, and Kirschner’s language is alight with sensory detail and a feeling of constant, fluttering movement.  Often, this movement is most apparent when Kirschner – called “Little Bits” as a child – escapes the dangers of her domestic life and seeks refuge in nature:

I, Little Bits, dost remain in the vast, blue woods of my childhood from scantest dawn to decanted twilight, rare as the cherry womb of a lady-slipper. Here I scramble onto downed trunks whose roots span the girth of Catherine wheels, trunks whose spongy insides are stuffed with what seems like crimson-brown catkins. I wonder: does the catkin fairy nest in that puffy stuff? Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink with sea-green inchworms?

Kirschner’s poetic prose plays with both speed and sound, starting with low, deep vowels sounds that anchor it (and Little Bits) to the ground – “downed trunks whose roots span the girth.” Then, the narration beings to lilt upwards, building to sharp consonants and tight, light vowels – “Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink.” Though she is weighed down by immense childhood trauma, Little Bits is as bright and airy as her narration, darting and hovering between images like the monarch butterfly whose migrations she traces throughout the book. Kirschner never loses this childlike voice, nor the impression of speed and sensory distraction.  Elizabeth the woman maintains the sporadic wonder of Little Bits the child, attracted to beauty and ephemera, fantasy and poetry.

Even as the memoir moves forward in time – progressing from Little Bits’ chaotic childhood through Elizabeth’s marriage, the birth of her son, Ryan, and her eventual institutionalization and divorce – the story maintains its fluttering narrative style. Kirschner’s chapters continue to resist the temporal order that the section headings ascribe them, often beginning with phrases that destabilize an attempt at ordering the narrative at all:

“After a long death, I started to come back.”

“In time, over time and through time, I continue to cross three bridges and states to see Ryan.”

“Soon after, long after Dad goes to the other side, the seizures start.”

These gestures intentionally unravel time, drawing the reader’s attention to the way that all the moments that Kirschner describes – childhood, marriage, illness, divorce – inform and shape each other. It’s of no consequence if a moment occurs “soon after, long after” another moment in linear time, since all moments occur simultaneously in her memory.  Little Bits/ Kirschner are in constant motion alongside and against each other, colliding into one another and their memories as they try to make sense of their story.

Woven amongst these fragments is a complex question about love and blame. In spite of Kirschner’s painful childhood, suffered at the hands of abusive parents, she chooses not to challenge or condemn them for their transgressions against her. Kirschner knows that her bones are not her own – they belong (at least in part) to the family history that created her, the tangled knot of stories, relationships, and people that produced her damaged (and damaging) parents and her own wounded self.  Her bones are fragile, like the skeleton of a fallen bird that she and her son once found in their garden, and they’re flimsy, like the material of the skeleton costume that she wore while her father abused her as a child. However, fragile and flimsy bones are also her foundation, and they are the tools that she uses to rebuild her life after the unraveling of her marriage.

Kirschner often refers to her Sea Cabin—the home in coastal Main that she rebuilds after her divorce. She calls the process of rebuilding the house “waking the bones,” stressing that, in rehabilitating the house, she is also rehabilitating herself.  Kirschner doesn’t reject her damaged foundation –  her old and wounded bones. She merely accepts that she has been “Kirschnerized,” that her loss expands her, propels her, and is part of her heritage.

At the conclusion of her dynamic and emotive memoir, Kirschner leaves her readers with a sense of hard-won wholeness and peace. Kirschner continues to renovate her Sea Cabin, feeling, as she does so, her damaged mind and body begin to heal:

Because I go after it, through, under and over my healing, I braid it into the plaits of my being. By doing so, I learn that a mad mind can heal, but a mad soul – Mom, Dad’s – can’t. My mind is a lighthouse, greenhouse, moonhouse.  It’s a dream structure built upon a foundation of boulders caulked by starlight and mission figs. It’s not only built to last beyond my own lasting, but out of a fabric transient as tears, a hope that’s not easily undone.


Book Review: THE NERVE OF IT by Lynn Emanuel

51+A-OhCOGL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_ The Nerve of It:
Poems New and Selected
by Lynn Emanuel
University of Pittsburgh Pres, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna 

As a younger poet beginning her career, I’m interested in the process seasoned writers undergo when compiling a new and selected. Can the inclusion of older poems be likened to a band playing that first single, ten years later, at the encore of every show? Are the ghosts of who we were, at least as artists, a burden to bear? Or are the words a reassuring reminder that we’ve changed at all? I may never know my own answers to these questions unless I’m one day lucky enough to have a similar project. But here’s what I do know: Lynn Emanuel embraces these disparate spaces of time. Instead of arranging chronologically, The Nerve of It is based on “linkage” and “collision.” Old poems nestle against the spine of new poems, the new poems sparking fresh context and narrative through the words we’ve read and loved. This re-imagining gives a real pulse to this collection, as Emanuel points out “This is the wonderful thing about art / It can bring back the dead.”

Art as a medium of expression, as well as the work of the poet, is a major thread here. From the first page we are met with a poem titled “Out of Metropolis,” which details a train trip into the heart of America. The first stanza lures us with romantic images of the Midwest:

             We want cottages, farmhouses
with peaked roofs leashed by wood smoke to the clouds;
we want the golden broth of sunlight ladled over
ponds and meadows. We’ve never seen a meadow.

But in the second stanza we experience a shift in tone. Our visions are broken. Suddenly, urbanization pops our country bubble with “a Chevy dozing at a ribbon of curb,” and “the street lights on their long stems.” A second train fades into the distance and “there is a name strolling cross the landscape in the crisply voluminous / script of the opening credits, as though it were a signature on the contract, as though / it were the author of this story.” At this point, I wonder if Emanuel is talking about the train anymore or the scene outside the window. That maybe, instead, this is the journey of the poet; we must imagine beauty where it has long ago fled. Or, as writers, we are often disappointed by the real world in comparison to our own creations. Perhaps Emanuel is suggesting both.

Another poem that stands out in this collection is “Frying Trout While Drunk.” Though an older poem, it still remains a bright light in contemporary poetry. Here we are witness to a mother struggling with alcohol and a speaker who locates herself within this addiction. The images have not wilted over the years; “In his Nash Rambler, its dash / where her knees turned green,” “The trout with a belly white as my wrist,” “Buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.” And probably most famously:

She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
In love with a man of lechery so solid
You could build a table on it
And when you did the blues would come to visit.

In these lines we are reminded of why Emanuel has a new and selected. And tomorrow, when I cringe at what I’ve written today, I’ll think of the trout frying and know, eventually, I’ll find the right words, because,

A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
The stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
We could have anything we wanted.