Book Review: THE BENEDICTINES by Rachel May

00024 The Benedictines 
by Rachel May 
Alleyway Books, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

Anne James is a thirty-year-old Visiting Artist at Saint Christopher’s, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school in rural Maine. Although she had a Catholic upbringing, Anne can’t relate to the monks who run the school: “They are a mystery, even to the dogs.” She sees their long dark robes as both uniform and a distraction from their previous lives as married men with families.

In the first year of her two-year teaching position, she is struggling: struggling to adapt to the strict Catholic culture, struggling to manage the rebellious teenagers, and struggling to leave behind the memories of a failed engagement to a shadow of a man named Danny.

Although she feels that she doesn’t belong there, Anne also knows she has no place to return because her relationship is over. The distance is both emotional and geographic:

It’s too far away. I don’t understand this landscape, I say. Always, the wind. And the ocean with its whitecaps. And the teachers with their buttoned-up shirts and their blazers, their attendance at church, their shiny loafers. I don’t fit here.

For Anne, Saint Christopher’s may as well be on another planet.

The tone and structure of the novel create a sense of distance between the reader and Anne and between Anne and her colleagues at the school. Early on, she doesn’t even use character names and instead gives them nicknames that parody her impressions of them, such as My Devout Roommate, Talking Man, and My One Friend. Instead of chapters, the book is structured using short sections of narrative vignettes intertwined with communications from the school regarding upcoming masses, memorials, notices from the principal about grades, and the campus dress code, creating a sense that judgment is ever-present.

My Devout Roommate dislikes Anne almost immediately, seeing her as a sinner. However, the Roommate has a secret that is alluded to early on, though Annie can’t be sure what it is, as the woman is young—just out of college—and adamantly against sin in any form, including premarital sex. Tensions arise almost immediately with the Roommate and the headmaster as Anne defies a rule about no overnight guests of the opposite sex, first vocally and then in practice.

Anne’s students push the boundaries of the school rules, particularly a student named Kathryn who swears in class and pretends that a rolled up piece of paper is a joint. Students feel betrayed when Anne sends Kathryn to the headmaster’s office, and it’s the guilt of betraying her students’ trust that stays with her the longest rather than the guilt of defying school rules or her growing ambivalence toward the Catholic faith.

The turning point occurs when she realizes that she likes her students. “Strange how I like them. How they make me laugh. They are all kinds of tangled up inside, and they struggle and they yearn and they are honest and silly and good.” It’s not the teaching that is hard for her; rather, it’s the confines and restrictions of the place.

The Benedictines is a fascinating look into the restrictive and hypocritical practices of devout Catholics, the flaws of contemporary religious educational practices, and one woman’s internal struggle between the morals of her past and asserting her identity as a modern, independent woman. Firmly rooted in coastal Maine, the novel confronts the notion of belonging and identity, salvation and redemption. It’s a story that will appeal to any reader who can appreciate intentionally tight and simple writing against the backdrop of complex and seemingly contradictory dogma.


 

Book Review: THE REDEMPTION OF GALEN PIKE by Carys Davies

9781907773716_grande The Redemption of Galen Pike
by Carys Davies
Salt Publishing, 2014 
£9.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Carys Davies’ second short story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, winner of the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, is unique and exquisitely human. It dives deep into the lives of not-so-everyday people in very few words, yet capturing the experience entirely. Davies is a rare talent capable of narrating a plethora of voices with clarity and skillful ease.

The collection opens with a story called “The Quiet,” which aptly sets the tone for the stories that follow. “The Quiet” centers on the idea that sometimes strangers have much more in common than they think or want to believe. Protagonist Susan Boyce is wary of her neighbor, Mr. Fowler, because of the way he looks at her and seeks her out. Immediately readers are led to believe that Mr. Fowler’s intentions are less than honorable, but in fact he has seen something in Susan that reminds him of himself, a pain they both suffer, quietly. When their common burden is revealed, the final paragraph expertly shapes the emotion readers are left hanging with:

She took his small brown hand and lifted it to her cheek and closed her eyes like someone who hadn’t known till now how tired they were, and then she asked him, would he help her, please, to dig the hole.

With this final line, readers need no further explanation. Every detail Davies planted along the way created a landscape of vivid feeling that was achieved without once naming the emotions of her characters, and it is brought to a close neatly with Susan’s quiet acceptance of her bond with Mr. Fowler.

Other stories are less complex, such as “Bonnet” or “Myth,” but are no less well-crafted. In “Bonnet,” a woman changes the color of her bonnet lining in the hopes of garnering more attention from the man she secretly loves. In “Myth,” we see the startling perspective of a woman who is losing a breast, willingly, to appease her Amazonian Queen. But even these simpler narratives capture tenderness, in “Bonnet,” Davies writes:

For a moment, he is speechless—all he can do is stand there looking at her and wishing that he could tell her something, the future perhaps… but he knows nothing of her future – nothing that could come now to her rescue or to his… and he says nothing about the bonnet and neither does she but it is the worst imaginable thing for her to sit and feel the bright new silk around her face, like a shout, and see how embarrassed he is, how he can’t look at it.

These moments are staples in Davies’ writing. Her ability to so fully capture complex emotions in very few words is indicative of an award-winning author. The namesake of the collection, “The Redemption of Galen Pike,” is equally extraordinary. A convicted man is due to be hanged, and in the short time before his sentence is carried out, he is visited daily by Miss Haig, who brings him biscuits and talks to him. Their interactions are not inspiring, but rather dark, grounded, capturing the grit of such a time before a man dies, not pulling excessive redeeming qualities to light or shuffling through snapshots of a life wasted, in ways that a lesser story might employ. What Davies does instead is show readers exactly the bad person Galen Pike is, exactly the hopeless case Miss Haig may be. There is no shining light at the end of this tunnel, but that doesn’t mean redemption is out of reach. Life for Miss Haig carries on after the death of Galen Pike, and it is not unchanged. Pike’s redemption didn’t come from a standard good act in his own life, but the lasting effect his character had on the life of Miss Haig.

While the collection lacks a strong coherent thread the stories all explore elements of a shared human experience and the intensity that can exist there. Davies’ voice is unique and present throughout her stories; she often employs long sentences uninterrupted by commas or other punctuation to achieve a rushed effect. In this she is very successful. Her observations of the human condition, well-crafted stories, emotionally powerful sentences, and overall unique experiences on the page reflect an author who shows great promise.


 

Book Review: EACH VAGABOND BY NAME by Margo Orlando Littell

4ebfdb_1e814b9d70ab4fd5bccfe63841c8f4c9 Each Vagabond By Name
by Margo Orlando Littell
University of New Orleans Press, 2016
$15.95

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

From a distance, it seems the people of Shelk—a sleepy, working-class mountain town—live ordinary lives. They have ordinary jobs, ordinary homes, and ordinary families. In Each Vagabond By Name, the characters are content with the ordinary until it is disrupted by a band of gypsies who take up residence in the mountain caves and start breaking into homes to steal cash, jewelry, heirlooms, and anything else of value. No matter the precautions taken by the people of Shelk, the gypsies continue to find a way in, perpetuating the distrust and alienation from the residents.

War veteran Ramsy also knows what it means to be an outsider. Even though he had lived in Shelk for decades, running a small bar that barely brings in enough patrons to break even, he, too, feels like an outsider. His closest companion is Stella, a woman still disturbed by the disappearance of her infant daughter fifteen years prior.

As the gypsies become a more common presence in town, Ramsy and Stella find themselves at odds with the other residents who will stop at nothing to chase away the thieving outsiders. Conversely, Ramsy and Stella are empathetic as they befriend two of the gypsy youth, JT and Adrienne, the latter who has just given birth to a baby, Serena. Meanwhile, Ramsy has reconnected with his estranged daughter Liza who is trying to convince him to move in with her and her family. As the tensions grow in Shelk, Ramsy must decide if he’s going to intervene to protect the vagabonds lead by the heartless Emaline or leave Shelk to settle its conflicts on its own, even if that means leaving Stella behind as well.

The narrative begins in the fall and ends in the spring, the darkness and chill of the winter months providing a context for the growing tensions as well as the gloom that seems to be a consistent component of everyone’s past. It taps into the reader’s sense of humanity, breaks it open, and cautiously invites it to the surface.

Each Vagabond By Name is an intriguing story of belonging, sense of self, xenophobia, and overcoming loss through empathy and outreach to the underdog. Each chapter begins with a brief narration of a home invasion and continues with the town’s reaction to the theft. For brief moments, we have insight into the gypsy’s mind as they infiltrate people’s homes. It pokes at the sense of security we all have about our homes as well as appealing to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The characters of Ramsy, Stella, Emaline, JT, Adrienne, and the bar regulars all embody a small-town resident archetype without relying on stereotypes or assumptions.

Ultimately, we’re left with a startling rediscovery of what love, loyalty, and redemption can look like for characters who appear to have little perspective of the future beyond their ordinary lives. Even the concept of “ordinary” is redefined as it becomes clear that characters with such tragic histories could never fall into a pattern of simple daily life. Nevertheless, we’re left with a renewed sense of hope and wonder as the seasons transition to spring and the town at once begins to feel like a community.


 

 

Book Review: KARANKAWA by Iliana Rocha

9780822963844 Karankawa
Poems by Iliana Rocha
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The most striking element of Iliana Rocha’s debut poetry collection Karankawa—in addition to its lavish Día de los Muertos-inspired Betty Boop cover by sculptor Michael Brown—is that it perfectly articulates the disorienting strangeness of grief. “I hear you died as beautifully / as a yellow cloud chalked onto sidewalk, & the / grief-dog starts gnawing on the black rain boot / stuffed deep inside me,” Rocha writes in “Departure/Aperture.” This and other poems in the collection are full of those out-of-body moments we experience in the throes of our most extreme emotions.

So it seems especially appropriate that Rocha would see the story of the Karankawa Indians as indicative of these poems. She borrows the book’s epigraph from R. Edward Moore, who writes that “much of the history of the Karankawa is lost…. Making things worse, the Karankawa were favorite targets of many false myths and made up stories.” As a guiding metaphor for the collection, the Karankawa are perfect; Rocha writes these poems to memorialize bygone people and half-forgotten recollections through beautiful stories and images that don’t quite make sense. From the pop-camp tragedy “La Llorona as Andrea Yates,” with its amplification of Mexican folklore alongside American justice and images of birth arising from death, to elegiac representations of Texan cities and the poet’s dead grandmother, this collection seems a fitting tribute to the simultaneous grief, erasure, and pride that come with being Native American in the contemporary United States. In this way, it’s perhaps as much an anthem to those Native American tribes who have been expunged from history as it is to queerness, the state of Texas, and Central American culture.

Rocha also succeeds at illustrating the interstitial experiences of our lives, from puberty to coming out to living through grief, and illuminates their repetitious, cyclical, unending nature. For instance, she lets time go slack in “Coming Out” and defies our ideas of chronology when she writes:

They say, said, will surely say, they do
not, does not understand this time, sequence of
events, but who ever will, does. For a while, this
pause, pausing, much like guilt is a pause, does
not, will not, did not go anywhere, but planted,
is planting, itself into intestines, golden leaves
emerging, flirt with the wind, will flirt with other
branches, hands, will always be is, is, was.

And it’s not just time that can exist in the in-between, but people too. Rocha alludes to this when she discusses sexuality in general, but eventually chooses a drag queen to be the emblem of this threshold between realities. Her “Sonnet for Jinkx Monsoon” brings us the quip:

       I bet you fuck in
pentameter, pink-corseted confusion…
       but I cannot say
I ever wonder you as lady-naked:
I know what you’ve got going on under there.

Whether grieving, forgetting, or mixing up realities, Rocha still finds space for liberation—from empowering her ghosts to creating her own saints. Much like the Texan landscape ravaged by a hurricane, she finds herself broken and exhausted, but also transformed. “I leave & think of you leaving,” she writes, “somewhere now in the sky with me, glowing with / the earth’s invisible halo.”

The Karankawa’s enemies, not to mention the general march of American colonization, have done much to obliterate indigenous history. This is the plight, on some level, of many marginalized groups. But, as Rocha shows, some of our proudest and most powerful stories can be the ones we tell about ourselves—especially those that blend our fantasies with a vow never to go unheard.


 

On a Poetic Voice

by Gerry LaFemina

Many years ago PBS ran a series of television shows about American poetry called Voices & Visions. Each episode focused on one great American poet, and I think that name, Voices & Visions sums up nicely what poetry becomes about for each of us who write it. Voice and vision share a symbiotic relationship within the work of each writer. Vision shapes the types of poems we write. Our voice as embodied in the poems hone and develop our vision.

As we write we think through our subject matter, embody that thinking in language, and shape it with line. Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought mentions a little girl who “had the making of a poet in her” because on “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, [she] said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say.’” Wallas seems to agree that poets think as they say. By giving our thoughts voice, our visions are refined and defined as our own. Poetry is an art where a solitary voice and our solitary vision fuse in the making of each poem.

The history of the lyric is filled with distinctive poems of the I; poet Gregory Orr suggests that every culture has a lyric poem because the human need to express the unknown and overcome chaos. To be able to put it into language and thus “order” feelings that overwhelm us is an inherent need. Consider how many people write when they are sad or depressed; or why when they’re ecstatic with love they write about it. There’s a reason why there are so many love poems, so many elegies, so many cliches about writers who are crazy: writing allows us to express and to edit (or, better yet) clarify exactly what we feel. Although long over, the Romantic era’s sensibility of the poetic I remains rooted, perhaps, in William Wordsworth’s notion that inspiration is found “in the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet works on when he can “recollect in tranquility.”

It’s easy to think we must recollect accurately, after all novice writers are told to write what they know, but not how to leap beyond the self into the imagination. What we know only takes us to the edge of mystery. The next step is to envision what we don’t know based on the empiricism of what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, what is possible. Novice writers are taught various forms but not how to use the poem to help them find their vision, how to use it to shape their voice. It takes time, truly, to discover the intricacies of poetry, to learn the various ways it might be used, and the various ways it helps us to formulate what it is we mean to say. That’s rocky terrain. It means we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what we want to say just yet, we have to begin in uncertainty, in a world that often seems filled with talking heads who seem so certain as to what’s right and wrong. That’s why it’s good to remember that we tend to learn more from our poetic failures than our successes.

We must also remember to trust the poetic process and our ability to actually find something to say. Writing in this way allows that voice and vision are interwoven. In one of the first books of literary criticism, The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, the Chinese scholar Liu Hsieh notes that poetry is a combination of fruits and flowers. By fruit he means that what is said that is sustaining, in other words: content. Flowers refers to how content is said. A good poem has lots of fruit and lots of flowers, vision and voice. [1]

Louis Simpson in his essay “Honoring Whitman” notes that “[p]oets don’t have to be philosophers on the scale of Kant—they need only have ideas that enable them to make sense of their experience and make it seem worthwhile to go on writing.” More though, we have to express our vision in a way that makes it seem worthwhile for the reader to go on reading. Just as our experiences must be transmuted to be more than just the facts, so, too, must our voices be transmuted.  It is important for poets to love language and its possibilities—the way certain syllables make our mouths move; the way certain sounds clash together while others blur into each other. The poet’s voice is a transmutation of our own, but heightened: not in diction, or in rhetoric, or in intelligence (a good poem does not drop SAT words will nilly) but in concern for the musicality and imagistic capacities of each word and in concern for the possibility of multiple meanings and ambivalences through an understanding of homonyms, connotations, and denotations.

This understanding, then, allows for some help with the “best words” part of Samuel Coleridge’s dictum that poetry is “the best words in the best order.”  Our vocabularies surely reflect our poetic voices; ditto, our syntax and diction (our word order and how our words are used) shape our voice and tone (the attitude of the speaker toward subject matter). “High” language about base things can add sarcasm done well, or it can seem pretentious done poorly. Word order helps this. But order does not only include the ordering of words in our sentences, but the ordering of words in our lines. Our sense of line—of rhythm, of pacing, of its potential to make meaning, to create emphasis or surprise—is also part of our voice. As our sense of the possibilities of poetic craft develop, so too does our poetic voice.

To put it more simply: our voice is made up of our poetic vision, our sense of poetic craft, our love for language, our subject matter and our attitude toward it. With that said, whether we use the I or not, our poetic voice is an extraordinarily intimate part of our poetic selves. What develops as we develop a voice, is the lyric I who uses a private language for public discourse.  By a private language I don’t suggest our words mean “differently” than the dictionary definitions, but rather our language is representative of our thinking, our private selves. It’s this intimacy that defines poetry as different from many pop songs, that seem to be very “public” in their sensibilities. And, when done well,  the intimacy of a poem is its strength. Bly suggests “[p]oetry is best imagined as a conversation between two beings, even if it’s a conversation between body and soul. If two beings talk inside a poem, the reader usually has a chance to get a word in edgewise.” 

What I like about this way of thinking about a poem is that such conversations require both a level of trust and a need to withhold. We trust that the poem is a safe place to discover what’s beneath our wanting to talk about a particular subject matter, and we can withhold everything that seems unnecessary or uncertain. Our poetic voices are means of exploring and defining (or constantly redefining) our visions and such explorations should also help our voices to evolve. For our readers, they become confidants in the dialogue, sharing in the experience of thinking, so that it becomes part of their thinking, too. But they have to be invited into that experience through the poem’s voice.

________

[1]These first five paragraphs are a slightly variant version of comments on voice from LaFemina’s textbook Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically (Kendall Hunt, 2016)