Book Review: THE GOOD DIVIDE by Kali Vanbaale

TheGoodDivide_Cover300 The Good Divide
by Kali Vanbaale
Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016
$15.00

Reviewed by Victoria Albacete

“A farm is like a mistress,” she muses, “a passively tolerated extramarital distraction.”

On the surface, Jean Krenshaw is—in a word—reliable. A mother, a housewife, a farmhand, she is seemingly content to look after her husband and sons and play second fiddle to the dairy farm that has been the mistress of her husband’s family for decades. Yet, while Jean strives to be the ideal farm wife, dark secrets lurk in her past and deeply influence her present. Told through alternating flashbacks between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, The Good Divide explores the corrupting influences of jealousy, passivity, and blind idolization as a deceptively ordinary Midwestern teenage girl becomes a woman.

The narrative begins in an unknown year, with an unknown elderly farm wife narrating the conditions of her life. She lives with and cares for her disabled sister-in-law. Reminiscing on their shared history, she takes the reader back to the day that the two women first met: In the summer of 1963 in Chickering, Wisconsin, reliable Jean Krenshaw is introduced to the free-spirited Liz Belardi, a student from Madison dating Jean’s brother-in-law Tommy, and instantly dislikes her.

Of course, it’s not just that Liz is exotic and modern while Jean feels plain and old-fashioned—Jean is secretly obsessed with Tommy, and she hints at a tragedy the last time that Tommy called any woman his girlfriend. The reader is then drawn back to 1952, when Jean first moves to Chickering as a teenager and meets Tommy, her future husband Jim, and the girl who would eventually become her best friend: Sandy Weaver.

Again in the mid-60s, Liz and Tommy marry and Jean’s life begins to fall apart as she obsesses over the life she will never have with her brother-in-law. Concurrently, the events of the 1950s unfold and expose the reasons behind her intense jealousy and fixation with Tommy, as well as the truth behind Jean’s involvement in Sandy’s mysterious death. Here writer Kali Vanbaale is at her best, fluidly weaving Jean’s intricate history and methodically revealing the twisted state of her mind, especially through her struggles with self-harm and growing awareness of her discontentment with the ordinary life she lives. Vanbaale’s down-to-earth and realistic dialogue in particular brings each character to vivid life through Jean’s eyes.

The concept of blind idolization is prevalent in the book, especially in the relationship of Jean and her deceased mother Marjorie. Vanbaale explores the consequences of how Jean’s idolization of her dead mother as she grows up in her father’s abusive home establishes a damagingly passive, take-it-on-the-chin mindset. “‘You cut your coat according to your cloth,’ my mother used to say.” By adhering to her mother’s wisdom of passivity, Jean fails to fight for anything she wants in her life that might require a struggle, and tries to force contentment by taking what she can get. Her illusion of contentment, however, is a thin veneer and fosters an intense buried jealousy and possessiveness towards the life Jean thinks she deserves with Tommy.

Ultimately, however, as the narration concludes with a return to the elderly farm wife, The Good Divide balances the darker aspects of the story with the idea of atonement. Vanbaale suggests that despite jealousy and corruption, forgiveness can hold true and recompense is possible. A true Midwestern gothic, The Good Divide is an intriguing and engaging novel that presents and examines the possibilities of both beauty and ugliness within a person.


 

Book Review: A SKY THE COLOR OF CHAOS

sky_color_chaos_med A Sky the Color of Chaos:
Based on the True Story
of My Haitian Childhood 

by M.J. Fièvre
Beating Windward Press, 2014
$20.00

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

“Memory is mutable,” M.J. Fièvre writes of her wealthy childhood outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during the President Duvalier’s regime. While Jessica (the name she goes by in the memoir) and her sister, Soeur, are somewhat shielded from the abject poverty in Haiti, they are not protected from the violence caused by the Macoutes, Duvalier’s private militia. At night, she can hear gunfire, bombings, and the screams of the Haitian people as the streets are stained with the blood and bodies of civilians who dare to speak out against the government.

Inside their home that is maintained by maids and gardeners, Jessica, her sister, and her mother confront a different kind of violence that they cannot escape: The unpredictable temper of and abuse from her father.

“I had grown skillful at reading the many browns of Papa’s eyes, and the slight changes of his voice. One moment, my father was normal, composed, in control, reliable; the next he was unglued—a wild-eyed stranger, screaming so loud that my ears stung,” Fièvre writes. As a child, Jessica teeters between unconditional love for her father and undying hatred of a man who brings as much fear to her home as the Macoutes bring to the streets. There is no escaping either regime of terror.

As Jessica grows up, the focus becomes less on the violence outside her walls and more on how she can escape her situation at home. She begins studying harder, reading more, and making plans to go to medical school in the Dominican Republic, and later decides to go to college in the United States.

She seeks comfort in others, first in her friend Junior, and later in the arms of dangerous man named Ben. Although firm in her convictions and plans for the future, Jessica is haunted by the inherent meanness in people, particularly herself: “I never knew that kind of meanness in me. Things inside me moved toward something I didn’t know, and couldn’t come back from,” Fièvre writes. It’s through the recognition of her own primordial tendencies toward anger that she understands the influence her father’s childhood had on him and how he turned his rage against his own family.

Written in lyrical prose that brings vivid beauty to the ugliest of situations, “A Sky the Color of Chaos” closely and flagrantly examines the complexities of the human condition, the thorny and dark side of love, and the power of forgiveness and redemption. More than just a coming-of-age memoir, the backdrop of the social and political unrest of Haiti’s corrupt leadership complicates Jessica’s patriotism to her homeland. It’s a book that shatters western images of Haitian life and leaves the reader with an unfettered empathy for the unabashed spirit of the oppressed.


 

Book Review: RECEIPT by Karen Leona Anderson

receipt-webedit-copy-copy Receipt
Poems by Karen Leona Anderson
Milkweed Editions, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by Shelby Vane 

Karen Leona Anderson’s second poetry collection, Receipt, is a reexamination of the daily duties of our modern American culture, particularly regarding feminine expressions of identity and womanhood. Anderson unearths the power behind receipts and recipes, transactions and documentation of the many roles women stretch to fit: mother, wife, cook, sexual being. With a precise and often cheeky voice, Anderson illuminates daily things—a CVS receipt, a Nordstrom dress, a cookbook—documentation of domesticity that beckons the reader to adapt a critical lens for the mundane and ordinary.

Receipt is sectioned into three parts: “Recipe,” “Receipt,” and “Re.” Anderson begins her collection with vintage cookbooks as inspiration. As a culturally identifying marker of domesticity, the aesthetic of 20th and 21st century cookbooks formulate women as recipes themselves: commercialized instructions to be followed and consumed. The parallel Anderson makes is eye-opening, albeit witty. In “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air,” the caricatured homemaker is representative of ingredients for the picturesque wife— “So slow, the directions on how to stay newly wed: / marshmallow, movie, coconut, marriage, whip cream, // baby, mayonnaise, baby.” In most of the “Recipe” poems, Anderson notes the playful vintage cookbook as the poems’ backdrops; however, it’s poems like “Asparagus,” or “Pizza Night” that imply a much darker side associated with domestic roles. In “Asparagus,” the speaker struggles to accept the disillusioned confines of her environment, “how I / love how I hate this place we’ve made.” And in “Pizza Night,” she needs “to feel / full of the worst thing you can / without meaning anything.” In “Holy Face Community Cookbook,” Anderson unveils the brokenness of the speaker’s relationship to her children through recipe-like instructions:

These recipes tell us Mix Well. Or Bake
till done. Some dumb sun blighted this land,
no, you did; no, you. The receipt

for repairing damage…
careful not to overdo it;
you’re overdoing it; exactly; I am;
kneading hand over hand

over hand; now, Fight well,
you two, as the kids watch the world
burn down. Did you fight to save it?

If not, start over.

It’s moments like these where I felt the draw of Anderson’s larger message: there are distortions everywhere regarding female identity, continually perpetuated through ordinary objects that represent our consumeristic culture.

As the collection moves from “Recipes” to “Receipts,” the consumerist nature of American identity is offered in forms of paper receipts. Anderson evokes within the reader the stark realization of the products and services women buy, why they buy them, and their cultural weight—financially, emotionally, and physically. The purchased items are clearly angled towards women and their perceived social roles in the following poems: “Beauty Nails ($39.95),” “David’s Bridal ($0.00),” “ClearBlue Easy ($49.99 CVS),” “Epidural ($25.00 copay).” Anderson reflects these receipts—a dialogue between the speaker and the object—back on the reader as a way to reveal the underlying distortions. In “Shirt ($29.69 T.J. Maxx),” the speaker confronts the frustration between the menstruating female body and the unrealistic expectations of how female bodies should carry clothing, “I can’t / pin up a whole half / of the species. I can’t stop. / I guess a good skirt / would help; I guess I’m bleeding.” In “Paid ($3,678.53 Capital One),” the speaker is in conversation with her accrued debt, “an existence built on dinners out and clothes, men, / and the management of myself. That’s my kind / of work.” Here, Anderson positions the reader to question how and where money is allocated, and how much money women spend to meet unrealistic standards of beauty and femininity.

The third and final section, “Re,” seemingly merges the old and the new, the manufactured with the natural world, as a kind of rebirthing or reconstruction. Anderson blurs the line between our culture and outside environment. In “Free Minutes,” the speaker hears “Frogs call all-network: / across the marsh’s mall,” and in “First House” the speaker finds “Bees have restored the holes they left in the porch.” In a sense, Anderson allows man-made objects and natural objects to coexist in women’s lives. This conveys a re-representation of domesticity—a recalibration of the various female identities that are either embraced or rejected by society.

Karen Leona Anderson succeeds in Receipt by giving the reader documentation of the domestic. By doing this, the reader has the power to reexamine female-identifying roles in our patriarchal culture. The importance of these physical documents is the reminder of what is problematic in the everyday domestic practices of women. Anderson gives agency to these distortions—a voice that grants the reader context for questioning the “ordinary.”


 

The Delicacy of the Image

by Gerry LaFemina 

Much has been said about the importance of the image to the poem. Images function as touchstones in poetry, they help create the landscape of the poem, provide a means by which the reader imagines the world and context of the poem’s thinking. They are the things that embody ideas, as it were, but they are also the things that shape the ideas for the reader. It’s no wonder that two of the twentieth century’s most important schools of poetry included the word image (Imagism and the Deep Image movement) or that Aristotle thought of metaphor as the most important skill a poet could have: metaphor allows image to stand in for an idea. As Stephen Dobyns puts it “the image half of the metaphor has the greatest possibility of touching the reader” (and thus work symbolically). A poem, in the end, is a formal assemblage of words—of sounds and meanings and images—and as such, the image cannot be isolated but has to be considered, too, as part of a whole. The overall effect of a poem, then, is the power of the images to bring about some understanding via the pleasures of language; one of our jobs as poets is to maximize both the pleasures and the effect for the reader.

Although many of the decisions we make in composing a poem may be unconscious, they are never arbitrary; and later in our process, as we edit poems, we are deliberately making choices to improve not only how we say what we’re saying but also clarifying for ourselves what we’re saying. We are strengthening the metaphorical relationship between images and ideas. Jane Bennett in Vibrant Manner talks about “the vitality of the material that constitute” an assemblage and mentions the Chinese notion of shi, which helps to

…illuminate something that is usually difficult to capture in discourse: namely, the kind of potential that … results from the very disposition of things. Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or élan inherent to the specific arrangement of things.

There we have it again: Best words. Best order. As Mary Kinzie puts it in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry: “When metaphor is used well, the vehicle is seldom flat or single-valued; the images belonging to it have physical qualities that suggest a tenor of feeling or idea with more than one component.”

What does it mean to assemble our images? What does it mean to use a metaphor well?

It helps to remember the delicacy of our material. Because we work in words and not gauzy materials, we may think any word might do, and that if a noun alone doesn’t do the work, a modifier can add clarity. The computer allows us to move words easily, to see them in different places and different combinations so rapidly that we may forget the material power of language as we first experienced it when we fell in love with poetry, with the possibilities of words. Yes, our material is flexible and malleable and can perform many different functions, but we also have array of words that mean similar things for a reason. Language has the potential for amazing precision. As Carver notes, “It’s possible…to write about commonplace things and objects and using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—chair, a window-curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling, power.” He goes on to quote an Isaac Babel story in which we’re reminded that “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”

Such use of precision is an example of delicacy as established by the fifth definition of the word on Dictionary.com: “extreme sensitivity; precision of action or operation; minute accuracy.” The image, and how we present it, requires delicacy. In talking about Whitman, James Wright (that wily, deep imagist!) praised the poet’s “delicacy of music, of diction, and of form” and then offered this caveat: “The word ‘delicacy’ can do without formally rhetorical definitions; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness.” The imagistic powers of words are limited or enhanced, Wright reminds us, by how we use them; that’s why it helps to be wary of adjectives and adverbs.

That said, I do think we need to consider the “formally rhetorical definitions” of delicacy here, because I think there’s much to be considered by the poet when thinking of the poetic image as a delicacy. For instance, Dictionary.com’s first definition of the word I’ve already touched upon, and that is a “fineness of texture, quality, etc.; softness; daintiness.” Language, when used well, is delicate.  It may be simultaneously harsh, loud, and durable, but we should always consider the fineness of each word, too.

The second definition of the word is also important to keep in mind. This definition is more akin to what many of us think when we think of delicacies (particularly from delicatessens): “something delightful or pleasing, especially a choice food considered with regard to its rarity, costliness, or the like.” Remember, images spark the imagination, and because we associate this word with taste, delicacy reminds us that images are embodied in language that engages any of the five senses. By “delightful” I mean something different than pretty, but rather they must engage the senses in ways that are surprising, that literally are full of light in that they illuminate the thinking of the poem. When we encounter a poem such as “Piñata” by Christine Garren, we understand how images delight in this way:

Brief yet amaranthine,
what’s left is this
wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches where we went, those programs
left. And now, next door, the neighbor’s daughter
has a party every August
as her mother did. This year the strung-up animal is a donkey
being beaten
in the elms.

The opening line is abstracted and yet relates to a piñata. Then the metaphor surfaces: this is about a divorce/break up even though those words are never mentioned. Instead, the images tell us this:

… torn valves and surgeries
broken bank accounts, whole rooms pressed
into a landfill, the churches we went, those programs…

What we see though, too, is not just the second definition of delicacy in play, but also the fifth in the way line breaks shape individual lines to make meaning so that implicitly “the churches” have been shoved “into a landfill,” representing the failure of a sacred trust.

This is all followed by the actual piñata, this one of a donkey, which is a deliberate choice (Does the speaker feel like an ass for believing in her marriage? Does she feel like a beast of burden?). And of course the speaker feels “strung-up” and “beaten.” Through their delicacy, the images do the work of illuminating the feelings of the speaker and allowing the reader to experience that illumination.

The crafting of this poem, though, also represents another definition of the images’ delicacy; Dictionary.com’s third definition calls this “the quality of being easily broken or damaged; fragility.” In its only unique definition of the word, the American Heritage Dictionary notes “Fineness of appearance, construction, or execution; elegance” as a definition for delicacy (AHD’s fourth definition correlates with Dictionary.com’s third). Both of these definitions are related, particularly when discussing poetry. It’s been said that a poem can’t be paraphrased. The way the images are structured in the lines as they are suggest any other reworking of the poem would damage its capacity of maximum effectiveness for the reader. Line three is powerful because we are set up for an actual piñata and thus “wreckage everywhere—torn valves and surgeries” shocks us. What “torn valves and surgeries”? These images announce the metaphor, their delicate placement adds surprise and intrigue to the poem.

Definition four of delicacy is also an important aspect to how we think of the image’s function in a poem. “[T]he quality of requiring or involving great care or tact” is an important role. Metaphors must be precise; they must be apt. To go back to Dobyns “When someone accuses a poem of being vague, this often means that the object of a metaphor is unclear or that the relationship between object and image is imprecise. Vagueness is withheld information and usually no amount of thought will supply what is missing….” A poem’s images must—without being heavy-handed or too vague—carefully bring to light the relationship between object and idea.

In order to do this, then, the image and how it’s employed must be keen to the last definitions of delicacy, which are variants on the same theme: “fineness of perception or feeling; sensitiveness” and “fineness of feeling with regard to what is fitting, proper, etc.” The specific image allows us to perceive through its “fineness” a feeling, and this feeling is proper and fitting to what the poet is trying to express.

Poems themselves, in the end, are metaphors for experience, and as such they become experiences for both writer and reader. The images employed in the poem are delicate gears in the “machine made of words,” as Williams put it—the wrong gear, and the cogs don’t turn, or they do but at the wrong speed, or they wear out easily. It’s keeping in mind the sheer potential strength and weakness of the image in the assembled whole of the poem that makes us understand their delicacies, their strengths and weaknesses, their deliciousness.


 

Book Review: RADIO SILENCE by Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney

Schaefer_Whitneycw-250x386 Radio Silence
Poems by Philip Schaefer &
Jeff Whitney
Black Lawrence Press, 2016
$8.95

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

Winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, Philip Schaefer and Jeff Whitney’s collaborative effort, Radio Silence, is as much an urgent call to arms against cyber immersion as it is a nostalgic ode to human connectivity and curiosity. The voices of Schaefer and Whitney intricately—and intimately—entwine as one in their fearless exploration of our world. Navigating us away from the noise and the chaos, Radio Silence urges us to see, hear, and smell the things that are happening right in front of us.

So as to sever the connection to our ubiquitous devices, Schaefer and Whitney draw us back into an era before widespread internet or instant communication. “Imagine this is still the late nineties,” they write. “We’re still young. / Shaped by summer and its legions.” They harken back to the simplicity of their own childhoods, painting a portrait of innocence and make-believe:

Children holding nothing but the burnt ends
of their kites. Old Folgers, rusted through,
cupped string conversations. Winds inside
these winds spiral cigarette butts around
the yard. Fool’s gold. In the forgetting
dark, we take off our names.

In these precious moments, Schaefer and Whitney gift the reader with the ability to see through a child’s eyes; they allow us to relive a time when the world was misunderstood and magical.

Schaefer and Whitney twist and turn their words to draw soft eloquence from sharp observation. Not unlike a surrealist collage, the power of their work stems from startling juxtapositions: “There is the robe / his mother wore, pink with one yellow flower, / ribboning like the flag of a ruined country.” They layer the benign and familiar beside the unexpected and peculiar to create stunning and dynamic imagery. Some of these unconventional matches help us to deconstruct the tragedy and the chaos that we have come to expect from everyday life: “A man shoots through / another man, his chest / a black sky of star holes.” Others capture singular moments of childlike power and awe: “I took a mason jar of fireflies / and shook them / like a snow globe. So much death / Lighting up. / Manhattan / in my hands.” In this world of overstimulation, it’s clear that Schaefer and Whitney impose radio silence not for our safety or security, but for our sanity and, perhaps, our very humanity.