Poems by Roy Bentley
|Lynx House Press, 2013
Reviewed by Jason Barry
“The hardest part is when someone tells you
about America and defines promise as hope,
and a love for the truth pushes you to give
the raised middle finger to what you hear.
The hardest part is living without hope.”
- Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”
It’s easy to see why Bentley’s work has gained such traction in contemporary poetry outlets: his poems are technically proficient but never pedantic; they are hard-hitting and serious, subtle and philosophical. As William Heyen has written in the jacket blurb, “I know of no other poet this percussive, this relentless, this unswerving . . . His [Bentley’s] dedication to even debilitating truth will not allow him to flinch.”
Like the recent work of Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, Roy Bentley’s Starlight Taxi moves the reader—by way of skilled metaphor and storytelling—to the grittier, more difficult aspects of American living: a career that didn’t work out as planned, the charcoal-filled lungs of coal miners, the seared fingertips of steel workers, various dropping offs and burning outs, alcoholism, and child abuse. Each of these themes and subjects in Bentley’s latest book could warrant pages of critical discussion, but I’d like to focus here on only three of them—the ones I take to be most pivotal to the core of his book, and indeed most central to getting at the heart of the author’s poetic story: memory, violence, and acceptance.
Memory is perhaps the most important recurrent theme in Starlight Taxi, and several of the poems are grounded explicitly in it. These are reflections of an earlier time: Dayton Ohio in 1960, for example, or Christmas in the late fifties. They tell of the author’s life in the Midwest (and in Florida and Appalachia) and they are concerned primarily with history, both personal and public, and how narrative shapes the course of what’s remembered and what’s forgotten.
In “Zombie Apocalypse,” Bentley describes a scene in a nursing home. His mother and her friend, Dorothy, are residents of the home. When Bentley gives his mother a box of chocolates during a visit, the following exchange occurs:
I hand her a box she opens with help. Chocolates.
When she finishes, she closes the box, hands it back.
asks, Why are you here, Billy? I’m not Billy. A nurse
says she’s been striking attendants. Kicking, hitting
other residents. Around every exhausted official word
a wheel of better times spins, though it’s slowing down.
I say, I’m sorry to hear that and take my mother’s arm.
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—
but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Dorothy is beside us, telling my mother the world
is ending. For them, it is. And the three of us walk.
Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother
changes the subject. There is always that to do.
This poem is illuminating in its treatment of not only memory, but also violence and acceptance, the subjects we’ll turn to shortly. Let’s start with a focus on memory. Memory in “Zombie Apocalypse” is mostly a private matter—i.e. the inner workings of the author’s subjective mind (as opposed to group memory or public historical narrative), and yet the last lines of the poem hint at a question that extends above and beyond that of the individual.
When Bentley writes, “Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother / changes the subject. There is always that to do” he invites the reader to consider the connection between the questions we ask, the conversations we have, and the states of affairs in the world. How many events––wars, famines, the loss of family and loved ones—seem to disappear because we change the subject? How many arguments and heated discussions are ended with a plea to “drop it,” as if doing so would itself alleviate or solve the problem(s) at hand?
Bentley is not a poet who changes the subject from the pressing and difficult questions, and he tends to follow the thread of his poetic inquiry wherever it may go—even if it’s heading into dangerous or difficult terrain. Note the lines about the prospect of killing his mother:
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—
but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Bentley does not offer us an inflated image of his mother, nor does he tell us why life is still beautiful when one is old, etc. He decides against the killing (presumably by way of stabbing) of his mother not for the sake of her life, but for his own wellbeing; it’s the thought of her fear in his memory that persuades him to reconsider. It would be awful to clean up all that blood and to think of Mother’s Day and roses for the rest of one’s life, wouldn’t it?
There is also a sense of acceptance here, an understanding that life isn’t always beautiful. Dementia and death are all around us. When faced with difficult questions and circumstances, we have four options: we can look away from or change the subject, we can argue or complain about things, we can accept reality as it is (or at least how we perceive it to be), or we can slip into the oblivion of apathy and stop acting/asking altogether.
For me, this poem not only accepts the horror of aging and forgetting, but it also dares to bring the subject up in a violent way— in a knife and blood sort of way. It’s a bold poem, and one that doesn’t shy away from the awful qualities of life or the motivations to end it should things get dirty.
But Bentley does not always reveal his hand so quickly or expresses violence with such explicit, “movie-butchery” type imagery. In perhaps my favorite of the batch in Starlight Taxi, the poem “My Father Dressing Me as Zorro,” Bentley addresses our themes of memory, violence, and acceptance:
Outside the store with the circling Lionel train,
he ties cape strings, loops twin black ends,
making a bow at the front of my throat.
Now he relaxes back, into the bucket seat
of his ‘63 T-Bird. Says he’s gotten remarried.
He tells me it was sudden, no guests. Says
he’s sorry, too, he wasn’t around on my birthday.
He fingers a shirt pocket for a pack of L & Ms.
Now I’ve lowered a mask over my face.
The eye-slits don’t fit, and I can’t see.
I scent the smoke of his cigarette. I tell him
they turned off the electricity, the gas and phone,
that neighbors fed us after he left. I’m feeling
in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave
between us. He tells me to stop horsing around:
this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.
This sophisticated poem about pain and protection has more nuance to it than we might think on first glance. First, the imagery of protection. Note the store with the “circling Lionel train,” the bucket seat that surrounds the father’s body (we feel relaxed when we’re safe, when we’re protected) inside of the car—itself a type of shelter from the world outside. Notice the mask and the hiding behind it, and the presumed notion of feeling safe and indestructible when wearing it. Observe, too, the cigarette smoke and the shield that it provides for the boy (he doesn’t address his father until the mask is on and the smoke is rising).
Violence is also at hand; the bow being tied at the front of the child’s throat calls to mind the image of a noose and the procedure of being hanged. There is the violence of living in a home where the basic necessities have not been met or provided for. And in the last few lines, the poem suggests an implicit or past violence: “I’m feeling / in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave / between us. He tells me to stop horsing around: / this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.”
Surely there has been a previous instance of someone getting hurt, and we wonder how many times the father has told his son to stop horsing around. We have a sense in these lines that violence is just around the corner, is just outside of the old T-Bird. The hard discussions between father and son need protection to get off the ground, and this protection (as mentioned above) is found in the Zorro mask, the car, the smoke, and the seats. The mask, of course, is the key physical and psychological barrier between the father and son. Note that the young Bentley cannot see from behind it, and presumably his father cannot see him either, or at least not see his eyes.
This fleeting exchange is the closest to vulnerability that these two get, and when the son reaches toward the rapier (a toy, no less!) we sense the barrier between the two— and their precarious emotional balance—is threatened. Although one might accuse the author of hiding behind his Zorro mask and thus avoiding danger, it’s clear that the poem does what it needs to do: it reveals a seesawed history of violence and abuse (of power and protection) though we must read carefully to discover it.
Yet some readers might feel that Bentley leaves them hanging; that things still need resolving, unpacking. But we are not offered an exit into the rosy or sentimental in this poem, nor are we given a quick resolution to a lifetime’s worth of problems. True, we will never be able to take the mask off the boy or glimpse his saber in its shiny, deadly glow, nor will we know the full conversation between father and son. But we know the score well enough, and the skilled withholding and covering-up in this piece is just what makes it successful.
Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
Poems by Lisa C. Krueger
|Red Hen Press, 2014
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
A few summers ago, the Saratoga Racing Tip Sheet on Lisa Krueger noted: “Goes a few places. Moves away from the obvious. Sometimes needs to look back over her shoulder to make sure the reader is following.” Big bettors may wish to read Krueger’s newest volume, Talisman, and put this Golden State poet into their combinations. The new Krueger is sleeker, has a convertible soul and gets plenty of air into lungs. In Talisman, she writes to heal all of us, especially her grieving, implicated, rapturous self. Here, the flower child reminds us that landscape, and ocean, and sky—all of these elements occur in some wonderful dream when experience is sleeping.
Krueger’s poems are what happens when experience is suddenly woken by life. Although her Beat cousins liked to start with a car and a highway, Krueger begins with a crash in “What She Felt:”
In L.A. my sister’s car wrapped like foil
around a pole as the sun sank,
offering illusions of a softened world,
the other car careening, reversing,
screeching off into the almost dark.
That’s plenty of clarity, except for one huge detail—Krueger doesn’t have a sister. I mean, of course she does, but try to forget that right now. Krueger is writing about herself as her sister, having a secret self through her, a wilder one, a nearly dead one, a patched up self: “They lay her on pavement, / forced rods into her skull. / They called what they did a halo.”
Don’t many of us have a secret sharing soul like this one? A sister, or a brother—one who leaps from windows dressed like Superman? These secret selves become our heroic angels. Krueger’s poem nicely ends without ending: “What she felt, they said, / wasn’t what we felt. // My sister surfed every sunset. / Her hair was wet.”
Krueger keeps the reader close to her by making good use of internal logic and related images. The sun sank, wrapped like foil, surfing, metal clasping flesh, Jaws of Life, breathing machine…the logic keeps us focused without giving us tunnel vision while the poem’s energy goes upward, outward. It’s a call for each of us to wax our boards, jog into the tumult, make our hair wet, go where she’s going, risk our lives, risk our secrets.
In “Girl, I’ll House You” Krueger writes: “says my sister, / my only sister, my / best kept secret, // disabled sect of self.” The sisters—psychic twins—one a poet and one a muse, do all sorts of things: visit each other in asylums, bicker, go to Labyrinth parties where “we walk woodchip paths / that spiral in nautilus design…the universe listens to people / who wander in circles / then offers a response.”
Krueger’s “Pre-measured” differs from the other sister poems where the tension is between active and passive sides. Here, the two are just being together in the kitchen. The effects of an accident linger in one, but this visit is more about baking a pie. The crash survivor has lost her sense of nuance and the only world for her is a literal one. The speaker, however, seems to exist in a realm that is nuanced to the point of abstraction. Conflict produces an inevitable Lady Macbeth moment. The nurturing sister tells the victim sister that creation requires cleanliness, and the soap “turns around and / round in her hands:”
How pure is this? she says,
holding her hands above her head.
Sometimes the secret sister is an herbivore. In “Prodigal,” a deer who eats flowers and who mangles fences suggests the image of metal mangling limbs in “What She Felt.” The deer, like the wounded surfer, is also a swimmer, and begins to swim in the backyard pool:
I no longer feared she would drown.
I began to talk, not knowing if she heard.
Once I called her Mother.
She swam to me, animal face dispassionate,
fierce, a glint of silvery down
echoing the flash of my heart.
You are old I said to her.
I listened to the patterns of her breath,
the animal vowels, the voice.
Thank goodness Krueger loves a stanza break. The patterns of her breath, her vowels, and her voice make me think of Pilates, all that exhaling, and all that taking in of everything…it’s nice to have genuine pauses that a break offers just to wipe our foreheads. I could have used a couple in “Guest Farm Pardon,” a poem about caressing that urgently trucks eighteen lines. The caressing—tender, almost sexual—is between the speaker and a sleeping wild boar. The boar “assumes the possibilities of night” and has a “vigilant carnal scent.” Again, Krueger connects personal peril to evolving her spirit, but the connection isn’t rattlesnake Pentecostal, it’s more a process of connecting our frailty to the sweetly impossible. The poet also puts the ending of this poem in its middle as if to say, there’s no such thing as an ending when you’re rubbing a beast with tusks. Her lines “Most nights she yearns for sleep / but feels afraid, as though / she must fix her life” would ordinarily conclude a poem like this but Krueger goes on until she achieves an unguarded, feral complexity.
In section II of Talisman Krueger migrates from the duality themes of the first section to poems where we trust in the one-ness. Because of that trust, Krueger is now able to offer non sequitor images which might have given us trouble if she hadn’t already used the order of her poems to coach us how to read her. Unexpected pairings emerge, such as the lines “She notices the odor of ripeness from bananas / wondering why some people need to be kind” and “My daughter got ill the year / they tore out eucalyptus // along the 101.” There is a seamless ecological synthesis at work in poems such as “The Old Story Follows Us” (“I want to run my hand / across the ridge”) and “Opening to Light” where a husband’s birthday becomes claustrophobic; he feels trapped by time in the space of his marriage:
He wanted to open everything,
he wanted to rip off the roof.
Wildness would offer shelter.
That would be Heaven.
In order to deal with emotional trauma we must strengthen our spirit. In order to strengthen our spirit we must put ourselves in some sort of physical peril or risk. It helps to have a few magic powers to aid us. The marvel of Krueger’s poetry is how she shows us how to be one of Rilke’s mysterious heroic angels as if it were the only way to cope with human emotional catastrophes such as grief, abuse, or even love. It’s a wise and sustaining message, but Krueger’s elastic gift to us is her abstract confessional lyric. Personal experience is a metaphor first and foremost. Krueger lives her images just enough to help draw us to the essence. It’s the first step towards transcendence from lives of generally slight impressions to lives of vision.
Poems by George Bilgere
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”
The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:
“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”
Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.
This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,
“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”
Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,
“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”
Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.
In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:
“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.
No one can explain this.”
In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.
“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find
“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”
The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
|Low Ghost Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.
Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.
Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.
But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.
Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”
Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.
Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is
such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.
We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”
In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”
Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:
Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.
The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”
This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.
And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.
Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.
The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.
The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.
In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:
“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).
Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.
Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.
Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.
However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.
Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.
Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”
Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.
Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”
There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.
There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:
“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”
Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.
Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,
“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”
In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.
Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.
One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.
My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.
Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
|Main Street Rag, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
There are a lot of people out there writing poetry, and most of it will be forgotten tomorrow, or maybe even later today. But just a handful of poets might be remembered. Joseph Ross should be one of those poets. Ross writes the poetry of witness. His debut, Meeting Bone Man, is a powerful meditation on mortality and humanity. Ross’ follow up, Gospel of Dust, continues Ross’ investigations while shifting to a humanistic examination of Christian values and beliefs.
“In a Summer of Snipers,” is one of several poems dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and not only the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the fact that many of them knew that they were probably going to be murdered for their actions. Ross shifts to Brazil for “Mothers of the Disappeared” in which he describes the aftermath of political dissidence. Later, Ross considers the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Rights Activist, and Matthew Shephard:
Though you died
in crisp hospital sheets,
no one believes you
felt them touch your skin.
The last touch your
skin knew was wooden:
a prairie fence, whose wood
was nearly as splintered
These poems appear in a section called “The Human Gospel,” and it’s difficult not to see the connection Ross draws between martyrdom and holiness. These people often carry certain qualities of sainthood, sacrifice being the most obvious, but also the effect they, or their deaths, have had on the zeitgeist. But not enough effect, obviously; something Ross is trying to remedy.
The second section in the book is called “The Pieta Gospel,” though many of the poems in the book could be described as pietas of a sort. Ross begins with Fritz Eichenberg’s “Pieta” and shifts to “American Pieta,” a poem about the photograph of Mary Vecchio kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller who’d been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. One of the more well-known poems in this section is Ross’s excellent “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God:”
If Mamie Till was the mother
one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.
No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field
would be burned in praise
and their teeth.
If Mamie Till was the mother
every river would be still
so nothing thrown in
could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be
worn as a necklace
If Mamie Till was the mother
every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see
how baptisms are done
Ross’ closing image is especially keen; he’s captured a violent, uncaring world where even God seems oblivious, unaware of just how brutal His world has become.
“The Written Gospel” is Ross’ third section, in which he examines specific biblical instances such as the washing of feet. “The Ritual Gospel” closes out the book with some of Ross’ most powerful poems. Ross established a style of series poems in his first book, and he continues it in this section with poems about Tupac Shakur, for example, in which Shakur is considered as a martyr and even prophet. Cool Disco Dan, the graffiti artist, returns as the subject of a series of poems, as does J. Alfred Prufrock.
What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter. So much of modern arts—from visual arts to writing to music—is nihilistic in its approach, and nihilism simply cannot maintain an audience’s interest because it’s incapable of progress and change. If nothing matters, why should I even pay attention? It’s a masturbatory trap, at best, and something quite sinister (though unintentionally so) at worst. Ross is an antidote to this nihilism, which may seem ironic since his work so often deals with death and suffering.
Joseph Ross is the author of two collections of poetry, Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poetry has earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and the 2012 Pratt Library – Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. His poems appear in many anthologies and journals including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. In 2007, he co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He teaches in the Department of English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at JosephRoss.net
Poems by Jennifer Maier
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
If Jennifer Maier’s second full-length collection, Now, Now, was likened to a type of candy it would be a Hershey’s Special Dark. I say this based on accurate metaphor, not hunger. On first chew, Maier’s poems are delicate, quiet, deliberately fond with a spark of bitter, subtle destruction, as if what is sweet is temporary. It’s a world of the everyday—of Dave the Electrician, paper men cut-outs, and Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome. Yet, in Maier’s collection the tender hand of memory is tainted by the fleeting nature of time, the past relative to the past of this exact moment, suddenly gone, as she writes, “the past,/ once yours, you wouldn’t trade for any other,/ ringed by the past you’re living now—here…” Everything, it appears, ends while it begins.
I once read in my high school journalism textbook each bar of chocolate contains eight insect legs. I imagine the grasshoppers in their sugar comas, ripped apart in sleep by the dessert miners, their tiny spindle bodies not surprised because it happened to their brothers and sisters. A result of their environment, our lives are a balance as Maier explains, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Now, Now is a woman’s middle-aged awakening, the romantics of youth manifest only in nostalgia and time “a collapsible cup.”
The first poem in the three-section collection, “Hangman” brims with tension, foreshadows the fallible future, which carries into each poem of Maier’s. On the surface, a daughter rides shotgun to her father as they drive into town, play hangman on a pad of paper. It seems innocent enough—the word Volcano—the daughter excited to stump, unaware of the real danger as Maier writes, “he can still get it you know he can if he just concentrates,/ so you hand him the bottle, taking the wheel as he leans back, eyes closed, thinking.” The speaker of the poem seems to be positioned outside their car, this moment, as if it has already been lived and in remembering, years later, the speaker sees the warning signs to come. This is achieved, and appears subtle and effortless, through Maier’s balance between the interior and exterior of the vehicle. She weaves, “Then seven spaces underneath,/ like the broken centerline the father will cross when he feels/ under the seat for the bottle…” The speaker is omniscient here, unveils the inevitability of death hanging, in wait, like the penciled circle of the hangman’s head. Her language is suggestive of violence in, “the headlights that slice through the cab like a quick and painless incision” and “the road a running scar through the dense woods…” Maier likens the hangman to the father, a childhood game to the reality of death. This is the poem that begins her collection, and so, we understand within the following pages that memories will be re-visited and re-examined in an attempt to locate what always existed: imperfection.
While the first section seems the most concentrated to a particular past, the second and third section appear current, moments fresh from happening with titles “The Wind Blows My Dictionary Open To ‘Man’” and “Sharing A Bath.” Yet, what carries throughout all sections is Maier’s wrestle with love—what should it look like, how should it resonate, does it alter with the passing of time and the loss of youth? Should it?
Two of my favorite poems, “Jane” and “Heat and Light” examine the wild, uninhibited love. While the speaker in “Jane” believes with few doubts the relationship between Jane and Tarzan existed, she questions the reality of a woman giving herself entirely to a man:
“Jane was pure make believe: the good,
A-student girl who gives up everything for sex…
And if you were like her, dipped in the waters
of her nature, how could you find your way
home to that lost continent? How could
you ever return?”
To the speaker, the question is not why Jane loves Tarzan, but how. The sacrifice too large to conceive and hidden among the social constructs, for “a woman shapes/ a man, haft and point, into the thing she needs…”
“Heat and Light” echoes the desire to discourage the Jane and Tarzan love, through the novel Ethan Frome. The speaker reminisces on Sister Bertrand’s sophomore English class, thinks,
“She must have thought the subject
of doomed, illicit love
would slow the downward slide
she’d marked in faces streaked
with rouge, in pleated skirts,
rolled at the waist.”
Here, she pushes against Sister’s Bertrand’s opinion of Ethan and Mattie’s love, claims a tight hold, for “Love,/ our true religion, would save them/ in the end.” Wharton though, does not save Ethan and Mattie, and so the ideal, sacrificial love is broken and the students, broken, are left copying “More heat than light” down for their test. Maier is conscious of the past and its ability to curb the future, the speaker’s ideas of womanhood shifted by the literature of her childhood. The past is never the past, but fluid in its influence on the present and future.
Now, Now does not seem to reach a climax or spiral towards a particular finish. For Maier, there is no end, but only the interconnectedness of time and our memory’s desire to look backwards. Maier’s title to her collection represents this idea. On one level, Now, Now sounds like words cooed with a gentle pat after receiving bad news. On a deeper level, the title speaks to Maier’s main focus: time is never stagnant. The now that exists before the first comma is over in an instant, followed by another now. Memory aids in our remembering, but it fails to slow down this process. It’s bittersweet, this life, but Maier accepts this, as should we, as she reminds,
“And if it all passed in an instant,
a comfort now to know you had your life of ordinary good,
of love’s tart fruits, its showery blossoms.”
Jennifer Maier is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and associate editor of the arts quarterly IMAGE. Her other poetry collection Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets. Maier’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, New Letters, Smartish Pace, American Poetry Review, and has been featured on Public Radio International’s The Writer’s Almanac.
The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
|Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Unreliable narrators cause readers to question their own methods of perceptions, particularly when recognizing logical cause and effect. As if to prove this, in Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist, she takes a character with untapped potential for mental instability and places her in a unique and extreme situation. The book is fascinating, sensual, and sensational. It takes a prudish, conceited, and hypocritical nobody and plunges her into the chaotic world of speakeasies and bootlegged liquor—in the middle of a downtown New York City police precinct.
Rose is drab and predictable. She begins the story in 1923 as a New York City precinct’s typist who lives in a boarding house with other young women. She is intellectual but not social and often silently derides her roommate’s actions as silly, rehearsed, and selfish. As far as readers know, Rose was raised in an orphanage. Because of this, she follows rules, schedules, manners, and etiquette to the letter. Through Rose, Rindell writes:
“In the absence of flesh-and-blood equivalents, over the years I’ve taken a series of rules to serve as my mother, my father, my siblings, even my lovers…. Rules kept me safe. In keeping the rules dear to me, I could always be certain the nuns would clothe and feed me, the typing school would place in me in a job, and the precinct would employ me…. The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears.”
That governing foundation crumbles when Odalie appears. If this name makes readers whistle “Oodalalee” from Disney’s Robin Hood or “Vol der ee, vol der rah” from a post-World War II German song “The Happy Wanderer,” it isn’t a coincidence. Even Rindell writes through Rose’s perspective, “…the name of that latter individual play[ed] musically in my head, tripping along to the pace of my own steps like a child’s song: Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee…”
On the first day Odalie is in the precinct, she drops a jeweled broach, which Rose claims to have been a purposeful act to catch her attention and pull her into Odalie’s persuasive schemes. As the story continues, Rose becomes obsessed with the enchanting new girl whom everyone adores. Eventually, the two become friends and Rose moves into Odalie’s extravagant hotel room. Odalie then takes Rose on a late-night adventure to a wig shop, where a secret door opens to invite them into the glitzy, dazzling world of speakeasies. Rindell, during her acknowledgements, claims that she drew inspiration of this era from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is here readers first see similarities between the two stories: a quiet neighbor commingles with a mysterious personage who follows a grand but ultimately unstable lifestyle.
Astute readers will also recognize that the writing bears a strong resemblance to a legal confession, as if Rose were typing her own story for the court to read. Rindell reveals the truth in teasing snippets: “I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer. Of course, ever since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim…but of course, if I am to tell it all in order, as I keep promising to do, there are other things I must tell first,” and “I’ve already mentioned my doctor’s encouragement that I explain my actions with an emphasis on chronology.” It is only after a devastating climax that readers are finally given the full account of events.
Here, then, is a second similarity to The Great Gatsby: the overall arc of the plot, but with a twist. Rose doesn’t just represent neighborly Nick Carraway from Gatsby; she represents Jay Gatsby as well because she adopts his glamorous but questionable lifestyle. Readers watch, helpless, as Rose is taken along a dubious but extravagant ride with many events that make her suspect her own safety and Odalie’s authenticity. But she remains faithfully by Odalie’s side and learns from her until Rose’s life and memories are turned upside down. Through Rose, Rindell writes, “The advantage of hindsight, of course, is that one finally sees the sequence of things, the little turning points that add up to a final resultant direction.”
The novel’s first-person narration locks readers in Rose’s mind and personality. Toward the final chapters, when her world no longer makes sense, the readers’ perceptions also become suspect. Up until that point, they agreed with each of her experiences. Her progression and attempts to understand are both well-paced and fascinating. Readers will not only want to know what happened to her, but how she went from a quiet, stuffy prude to a committed woman. And like a bad batch of absinthe or bathtub gin, they may not emerge unchanged from the blinding and disorienting story.
Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.
The Old Priest: Stories
by Anthony Wallace
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Mike Walker
The work of a critic—be it one of literature, visual art, dance, or music or anything creative—is vexing in the sense that you have to so often set aside to a degree personal opinion while fully retaining your command of everything that opinion has ever taught you. I was speaking with a friend who is a graduate student in historical keyboards (he plays the clavichord, mainly) and was awestruck by how many very well-regarded, canonical, classical composers he totally dislikes and avoids insofar as possible. Most are Russian romantics so thankfully for him, he will never have to play their works since they post-date his own instrument. I started thinking though, what composers do I most dislike? Or for that matter, what authors? Which playwrights? And what if my friend had to review a concert of Medtner’s piano works or I had to write about a poet whom I simply do not care for at all? What then? Can it be done, can we really set aside what we “like” and instead focus on what we know about the genre at hand, the technique and the craft?
Anthony Wallace’s book of short stories, The Old Priest, allowed me to test this question out first-hand. It is not the type of literature I enjoy: I have seen much of this before in contemporary American writers of fiction, especially those in the MFA-centric circles. You find stories like those collected here in each and every literary journal every single month—stories of regret, stories of love gone wrong and characters either haunted forever by it or not able to set it right somehow—these stories of sex, drink, and loss. Stories of people who have a lot less to complain about than they think, so complain they certainly do, and how. Stories that are, I suppose, supposed to reflect the real and now of America? Moreover, I’m not big on New Jersey, or casinos, or people in bars being sad or lost as my bar experience is more one of watching some football (soccer, that is) or a good NBA game and having some fun—yes, wonder of wonders, you can have fun when you hang out with and drink with people! You can even have fun going to church, I suppose. But people don’t do that in the type of short stories we encounter far too often: they just have to have problems and those problems, beyond being simply sources of conflict to further the plot, often are very problematic in and of themselves.
So this isn’t my type of fiction. It’s painted in muted colors, it doesn’t take you away but instead locks you into a world where you, yeah, feel somewhat sorry for the sad saps who dwell within it, but you’ve met their cousins before in other stories and it seems quite much a matter just of more of the same. As I state all this, though, I realize it’s my view, it’s my personal feelings and it extends into other areas—how I dislike Vegas because of how fake it is, how it tries to broker fun, scandal, and an all-inclusive experience to ho-hum middle-aged folks who after the party go back to being tax accountants in some small town or simple suburb. I’m someone who would rather be skateboarding or BASE jumping than in Vegas; I’d rather have the world writ large and real than seeing the world writ small and covered with glitter. (I don’t like Disney much, either, in case you wondered.) So, when I encounter a book like The Old Priest, it’s not a book I would put first in the pile of those I really want to read. It just isn’t me. But is it good, even if it’s not what appeals to me? I don’t like a lot of hip-hop, either, but I can tell you what’s “good” regardless and probably be pretty much on the same trajectory as someone who loves hip-hop and knows it well. I’ll try to do that for Wallace’s book.
The title story, which opens this short collection, actually really shines. There is, of course, an “old priest” but the twists and turns taken from there on out are exceptional. There’s no shortage of magical realism—which isn’t an easy ploy to place in a short story, but really one where you have to know exactly what you’re up to for it to work, yet here it works fluently. The problem is, the opening story is probably the best of the lot, and yet it has exactly what it needs to keep you interested whereas much of what follows are long on grit, spite, and sorrow but lack the compelling magic (in every sense) of the opening tale. Wallace is skilled, to be sure—very skilled: great sense of dialog, the ability to craft characters who seem as seriously flawed as he wants us to see them (no easy trick, that) and the ability to put together some plots that are highly innovative. The problem for me too often though in these stories is that the characters have arrived at their lot in life mainly through their own very unwise (and oft-repeated) actions. You cannot feel sorry very long for adults who repeat their mistakes as if trying to make a cross-stitch of them. When you look at the greatest writers the world over who provided us with characters deeply flawed and long-suffering, and I mean writers like Mario Vargas Llosa or Roger Martin du Gard, you find that the characters themselves—no matter their problems—are enriched in some manner, filled in some manner with color, with emotion that draws you into their world and even probably their plights. When you have the type of characters that often Wallace offers—such as a couple on vacation in New Mexico despite their bitter, seemingly set-to-end, relationship—they read like second-rate versions of Bret Easton Ellis characters, right down to the cocaine and legacy of over-the-top 80s parties. They’re not easy to care about, and it serves them right to be listening to a hotel flamenco guitarist in an expectedly touristy variant of a New Mexico experience. There just seems to be a lot of missed opportunities here to better develop the characters and really explore their settings, but that probably was not what the author wanted to express: it appears his main intent is to show how inner turmoil predicated on past experiences haunts people—or can haunt people, if they only let it. He meets that task well enough, but it’s just not something as a reader that has much gravity for me: despite the magical realism, despite the efforts to illustrate characters overcoming obstacles, it all seems so basic and expected most of the time.
But then, I must confess again I’m not a fan of Jersey—at least not this stereotype of Jersey, and no matter the detail, the skill Wallace has to mention the sound of the oil furnace cutting on and so forth, I still feel like he’s dealing cards from a pack of stereotypes too often. I have a friend from Jersey and his tales of urban blight, corruption, and portly wannabe Sinatras in Atlantic City bore me, too. Wallace may concern himself with subjects I don’t care for, and that’s fine—I’m sure there is an ample readership for his fiction, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed at all in the quality of what he offers. I noted that the story “The Old Priest” itself was one of the best, certainly probably my personal favorite. Perhaps reading it first was also an issue for me as it set me up for certain expectations in the rest of the stories in the book. Alas, most of those other stories just didn’t measure up in terms of plot nor the really fascinating narrative elements the author provides in “The Old Priest” (which, in the interest of not giving too much away, I will not elaborate upon, except to say that so many good and bad stereotypes and concepts of Catholicism and priesthood come to a very surprising . . . if not “end”, at least “transformation” here). Wallace has his hand on the pulse of the aspects of New Jersey life (and by extension, aspects of American life that seem connected to the Garden State somehow) and he is able to make these connections shine in places, but there is a recurrent issue of him either seeming to try a bit too hard (the example above of rehashing the torrid times of someone’s former lover comes to mind—why? It’s not germane to the story at hand, seems trashy, tabloid, and just distracts) or else he doesn’t turn the story into what it could be—often a fault of a lack of length rather than his writing.
In his story “The Unexamined Life”, much like “The Old Priest” before it, Wallace finally comes close to winning me over. I’ve already at this point in the book resigned myself to the fact the story will concern either sex, drugs, or errr, blackjack, and not with beautiful people, not with a hint of gloss and diamond sheen, but with a dinge of dross. You know when James Joyce described that green-black color, that faded color, that combination of Irish coal dust and simple grit in “The Sisters” in Dubliners? Yeah, that color seems to seep through the lines in much of Wallace’s prose, but it’s there by clear design. Wallace has his topics he wants to address, he has settings and characters that inspire him even if as one reader in a vast spectrum of readers, they often fail to interest me all that much. So, in “The Unexamined Life” we do have a porn shop, we do have . . . how can I say this? We have lives that are based around the basics that on some level form the everyday foundations of most of our lives. We have the desires that motivate the human race and these are well-rendered; in this story, and I mean this as the highest of praise, Wallace reminds me of one of my all-time favorite short-story authors, the great Maeve Brennan. The shadow of Joyce is also here and the influences of many other authors turn up in places. Once again, Wallace is a craftsman of the very highest order, but throughout most of this collection can’t seem to draw me—or I cannot seem to allow myself to walk through the door. Again, the first story of the collection set my expectations high and in a certain direction so perhaps I’m looking West when I should be East or something, but I expected more of the Angela Carter type of magic that we have at the onset to be carried forward, and I didn’t locate that in most of the other stories.
I would recommend this book to someone who scans this review and finds mention of subjects, of types of characters, that reader finds of interest. I do not mean to be unkind—not because I fear such for I don’t and as a reviewer know I will encounter books where I will feel fully justified in being very critical—but because I do believe in and admire Wallace’s work. I find it frustrating that at points his characters are not likeable, for as human as they are, as flawed, I don’t pity them or cheer them on as I would, say, a Dawn Powell or Carson McCuller’s character. The is my greatest criticism here, but there is no doubt the man can write and that also he is keenly able to construct worlds—cut from the fresh, damp, unkind cloth of reality—that seem very life-like, very able in his descriptions to come to life. It’s just not a place I wish to explore further in most of the stories. For some readers, I have no doubt it will be though and that this may be one of their favorite books of the year.
Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.
The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.
Reviewed by Nola Garrett
Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.
While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.
Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.
I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.
So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.
I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:
Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.
He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.
This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:
We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.
We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.
Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends
…. Was it much worse than any place
we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.
“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins
Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.
and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:
Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald
fact cast in bronze….
These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.
Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.
This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.
Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980′s and 90′s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.
My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.
The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”
Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.
Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.
In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:
“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”
The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.
“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.
But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.
Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.
And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.
In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.
It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”
As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…
Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
|The Viking Press, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Everyone has a story. For The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers chose the one belonging to a quiet cleaner in Notre Dame, the famous cathedral in Chartres, France. Vickers’s problem with this choice, however, is the style with which she began the tale.
The use of a prologue has become such a stigma in contemporary literature that authors have resorted to explaining setting and history in the first chapter. In The Cleaner of Chartres, readers are greeted with the history of Notre Dame’s fires and descriptions of the main character’s obscurity instead of an intriguing opening line. Because of this, the first chapter is dry and factual, and readers may not become interested until the second chapter—one that should have started the whole book with the words “Agnes Morel was born neither Agnes nor Morel” (9).
The novel follows Agnes both as a teenager and an adult while she struggles to find a quiet place in life. Fate seems to conspire against her, and half the time she simply waits until it’s safe to move again. Readers meet Agnes as an adult who is appointed as the official cleaner for Notre Dame and various townsfolk. Readers are then introduced to baby Agnes, who is found in a basket by a farmer and brought to a convent. From there, teenager Agnes is raped, accused of being a whore, and shipped off to a psychiatric ward when her baby is adopted and she falls into severe postpartum depression, catatonia, and psychosis. The rest of the book is a juxtaposition of the crazed teenager and the somber, isolated cleaner; it weaves two timelines together until readers have a complete understanding of this unfortunate woman.
Compared with Agnes’s childhood, middle chapters in present-setting Chartres are dull. Agnes is often in the background of events and only becomes pivotal when she is falsely accused of a couple of crimes. Otherwise, she never stands up for herself. During her whole life, she allows others to dictate where she should live, what to think, and how to act. She perseveres with almost profound insight about others and abstract concepts, but she relies on truth and friends to save her. It is hard to care for a weak character; pity and morbid fascination should not be the only driving factors of a story.
Vickers’s fixation on the wrong elements extends further to backstory and architectural facts, so much so that the main plot is buried underneath a massive amount of unnecessary detail. For example, early in the novel, Professor Jones hires Agnes to organize his notes and photographs. He then inspects her work and gleefully relives memories, even in his dreams. Vickers writes,
“Professor Jones had dropped into a morning doze. He was five years old again, sitting beneath the keys of an upright piano at his mother’s feet, as she sang in the Welsh tongue that had long since left his waking mind. If he sat there long enough she would scoop him up in her soft white arms and carry him to bed. Nestling against his mother’s warm bosom – made slightly uncomfortable by the spikes of Sunday brooches of jet, bought during her parents’ honeymoon at Whitby – Professor Jones on his bench sighed in a peaceful contentment that he was unlikely to ever know again” (16).
Readers don’t need to know where Jones’s mother got the brooch or that it existed. In fact, the whole passage could be condensed into a few sentences about a mother singing a Welsh song to her son before bedtime. Short, endearing, and just as efficient as all the tiny details above. But with Professor Jones in particular, some of Vickers’s passages read like a free writing experiment, as if she donned memories and rambled just to see what emerged. Instead of determining what she could keep to provide depth to characterization, she kept it all, including breaks in speech patterns. She is adept at showing personality through dialogue, certainly, but the detail becomes cumbersome.
This detail is key to the whole story, though. It constructs the very thing that the novel presents as vile: gossip. Old biddies, Madams Beck and Picot, fill their days with speculation, prejudice, and judgment, and whispers and misconceptions surround Agnes. The narrator gives every possible piece of information—no matter how innocuous—about everyone in Agnes’s world just to appear “in the know” like certain characters. The result is a book that reads as if it is one long gossip session.
Luckily, Vickers occasionally inserts gems of description to counter an overabundance of detail. For example, when Agnes is marveling the cathedral’s ceiling, Vickers writes,
“The tremendous height of the ceilings, the noble lofty columns – like lichen-covered trees – the succession of roaring arches, affected her profoundly and the jeweled brilliance of the stained glass, re-created in the ephemeral butterflies of light which played over the grey stone, lifted and brightened her darker thoughts” (56).
Most people can imagine the splays of color along gray stone walls of ancient churches. It’s part of their lure. This visual talent, as well as speculation about Agnes—both her past and the resolution of her troubles—will pull readers to the last page. But it is a tough journey. Perhaps if Vickers chose to reorder her chapters, she might hold readers’ attentions better—hook them into Agnes’s childhood from the start and make them curious… instead of rambling about the church and secondary characters.
But, hidden much like the plot, The Cleaner of Chartres answers a question that most people have asked at least once: If I disappeared, would anyone notice or come find me? This reveals another gem in the book; The Cleaner of Chartres isn’t just about stories, self-worth, and truth… it’s about how one person can affect the lives of many, and the discovery and selection of family.
Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girl’s School (something which caused her father some anxiety because of his dislike of public schools and for a while he felt that she should not attend the school) and went on to read English at Newnham College Cambridge, with which she recently renewed working ties. She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.
Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.
Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.
There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.
Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.
I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.
Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”
I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.
The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.
“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”
Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.
If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?
If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense
of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,
feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,
should I stay
to make my history happen here?
Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?
I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;
here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth
as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?
Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear
at the moment of birth?
Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—
Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,
which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.
When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where
they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,
and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.
My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”
Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler
|St. Martins’ Press, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
The Golden Couple of the Roaring ’20s was actually tarnished pyrite. This is revealed in Therese Anne Fowler’s recent novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Its overall message seems to be that reputations lie; it shatters any incomplete preconceptions of Zelda and Scott, leaving readers wondering what is fact and what is rumor. As Fowler writes from Zelda’s perspective,
“I was a Sayer, after all; a woman, yes, but still a Sayer; my life was intended to mean something beyond daughter-wife-mother. Wasn’t it?
“Oh, just let it go, a different voice urged me. What difference could your puny achievements possibly make?
“All the difference, the other voice answered.
“Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?
“And the question that troubled me most: Was it even really up to me?” (308)
Before readers delve into the story, they may skip to the last pages—not to learn how and when it ends in Zelda’s life, but how much of the novel is fact or fiction. Fowler’s repeated disclaimers that Z is a work of fiction based off an investigation of contracting facts, beliefs, and gossip is reassuring. The question, “Did this really happen?” may still exist in readers’ minds, but they can be assuaged by Fowler’s attempts to be as faithful to Zelda’s reality as possible.
The novel follows Zelda Sayer’s life after she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finishes soon after Scott dies. Readers are easily swept up in the glitzy and glamorous era of New York and Paris in the 1920s, and the soothing beauty of the timeless Mediterranean. The couple flits between parties, hangovers, and writing sprees in a whirlwind of activity and promises. However, Fowler does not dwell on Scott and Zelda’s moments of destitution. Readers are never sure how Scott and Zelda are able to survive—where they get their money when he’s not writing, how much they have to borrow, or whose kindness they request; they just seem to get by. And according to Fowler, even Zelda was in the dark about financial circumstances.
Plot holes aside, the novel uses solid descriptions and voices. Readers could easily envision Zelda’s hometown, the glittering parties, and the sweeping landscapes of New York and southern France. And in the beginning, Zelda’s enthusiastic southern belle mentality radiates from her narration and dialogue. But as the story progresses, the structural twang in her narration slowly disappears. Perhaps as the story progresses, she is assimilating northern American and French cultures and leaving the South behind.
Largely, Zelda’s growth is due to Scott, and her transition from maiden into worldly woman is gradual and believable. Readers witness Zelda’s growth through her own eyes, as well as Scott’s dismaying spiral into paranoia and alcoholism. There is something voyeuristic about living a renowned writer’s life through his wife’s eyes. Through Zelda, Fowler reveals more of an unbiased representation of the writing life than if she had undertaken the task from Scott’s perspective. So many writers are neurotic, self-deprecating, and overly critical about their work, and it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was no different. This novel is as much about him as it is Zelda, and writing about him from a woman’s perspective might have been easier for Fowler. The double layer of writers’ mentalities might have driven Fowler mad, but Zelda’s madness was a challenging and welcome plaything.
For most of the book, Zelda’s famed craziness is nonexistent. Her physical and medical problems coupled with marital strains make her behavior erratic, but insanity seems to be nothing but a vengeful rumor… until part four. Fowler’s Zelda is a misunderstood and captured woman struggling with her own independence during a riveting but stifling age when a woman’s role was wife, mother, and homemaker. Scott’s insecurities and unstable senses of responsibility drive her first to infidelity and—after his desperate attempts to make her adhere to a woman’s “proper” role—a physical and mental breaking point. In the story, the doctors call schizophrenia a “divided mind,” which is what Zelda is pushed toward: a divide between who she is and who Scott tries to make her be. (Doctors have since reevaluated her condition and diagnosed her as bi-polar.) Fowler writes,
“I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture the past that had never existed in the first place. He’d spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.” (346)
But Fowler does more than explore the causes of Zelda’s insanity. She presents Zelda’s story and fragile state so realistically that readers will easily sympathize with her shifting emotions and rationality. This is one of Fowler’s main accomplishments: She made madness become rational. Another accomplishment: She reveals a person underneath the mask of legend.
The Philosopher’s Daughter
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
|Salmon Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Lori Desrosiers first came to my attention as the editor of the Naugatuck River Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, a journal, similar to Rattle or Flint Hills, and many of the better, though lesser-known journals, that carry the torch of well-crafted poetry publishers. Naugatuck stands out not only for its focus on narrative poetry but for Desrosiers’ fearlessness when it comes to publishing sometimes risqué, bawdy, gritty, but always powerful work. So I was quite excited to sit down with her debut full-length collection, especially considering that it was published by Salmon Poetry, one of the best small presses around.
The Philosopher’s Daughter is a portrait of Desrosiers’ family. She, herself, appears as an ancillary character, an observer; the true focus is on others. The first section, “Starting Places,” opens with “Conducting in Thin Air,” a poem ostensibly about the odd event of an airplane crash survivor (or fortunate dodger, since she missed the flight) who, a week later, died in a car accident. Desrosiers uses this springboard to examine larger issues of mortality and fate, setting up a major theme for later in the collection of the fragility of life. The final poem in the collection, “Night Writing,” bookends this nicely as a sensual exploration of the body, of feeling, so that we see that the answer to the curse of mortality is to fully inhabit the cage, so to speak.
Several of the poems in this section are simple-seeming scenic reminiscences. “Thinking Rock” describes a playing girl “safe/from pernicious imaginary monsters” as she climbs onto the thinking rock and “thinks until she is tired of thinking.” There is a marked lack of danger or stress. Back home, the girl watches her grandfather “smoke his cheroot,/have a whisky with her father./ Smoke rings rise like grey ropes.” There’s a hint of the future danger, here, with these ropes, but only a hint.
“Last Seat, Second Violin” is a humorous poem about the ability of children to overcome difficult or annoying situations in creative ways: “In 7th grade, Mr. Hayden would throw his baton/at anyone who played a wrong note,” she begins. The children are terrified, of course, and learn how to “fake bow” and not actually play any music, leaving it to the first chairs to actually play. A handful of the poems in this section deal with this theme of the attempted stealing of childhood. “Mile Swim” is about the Red Cross certification swimming requirement. The 12-year old swimmer stands “alongside fellow campers’ goose-bumped bodies/to start the swim across lake Coniston.” They “plunge into icy water, crawl away from the screaming/children on shore, relieved it is not their turn today.” Desrosiers’ language is vivid: “Our toes brush lake muck, seaweed, fishes,/shadowy spirits of unhappy campers forced to swim on rainy days.” But the 12-year old Desrosiers breaks free of the others:
To my surprise, I am alone.
Blue ripples, cloudless sky,
silence smells of dragonflies.
At the center of the emerald lake
all is green-gold and shimmery.
For a moment I am free—
free from swimming lessons,
the endless teasing,
the pain of my budding breasts,
my parents’ divorce.
It’s a moment of grace amidst the hardships of growing up.
“Paris 1950” captures a moment in Desrosiers’ parents’ lives in which “I am only a thought.” She begins:
Footsteps on cobblestone
Blanche eats crepes on Ile de la Cite
learns to sing Schubert.
Leonard studies philosophy
at the Sorbonne
The poem is spare and mysterious, mirroring Desrosiers’ knowledge of her parents’ lives at this time. Similarly, Desrosiers meditates upon reading her father’s philosophy books and connecting them to her memories of him (she’ll explore him more in-depth later).
The second section, “Mother’s Places,” focuses on Desrosiers’ mother, Blanche. “Last First Kiss” is a poem about love, specifically about a man who proposed to Blanche:
He was a violinist,
he would pay
for voice lessons.
She described him as
older (27) and going bald.
She was seventeen
Unfortunately (for the violinist) Blanche declined. Desrosiers explains:
she had already been kissed
by my father,
who had no money,
but at eighteen
had long lashes,
and silky blond hair.
“Daughter’s Places,” the third section, focuses on Desrosiers’ relationship with her daughter, and “Internal Spaces,” the final section, focuses more on Desrosiers’ herself as an artist. Throughout all of these sections, though, the mystery of Desrosiers’ father pervades, so that we see that she has become, in many ways, a philosopher herself by examining her life and the lives of those around her in order to find meaning.
What stands out when reading these poems is Desrosiers’ vivid, clear imagery, her attention to detail, and the emotional resonance she manages without tiptoeing into the realm of preciousness. Writing about ones parents, especially her father who died of cancer, would be a difficult task to accomplish without overt sentimentality, but Desrosiers manages to not only do this but to reveal her parents (and her children) as interesting characters.
Lori Desrosiers has a full-length poetry collection The Philosopher’s Daughter from Salmon Poetry (2013). She has a chapbook, Three Vanities, a chronicle of three generations of women in her family, from Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her MFA in 2008 from New England College. Desrosiers also edits the Naugatuck Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry.
Poems by Alan King
|Willow Books, 2012
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The acknowledgments page is standing room only in Alan King’s debut collection of poems, Drift. In fact it’s two pages long, which might say a lot about King’s gratitude, but climbing aboard these poems (each one is a train car) the first thing I noticed were the many passengers. The speaker is almost never alone. Yet neither are King’s poems boxing matches where dramatic tension is drawn from characters at odds. Usually the company he keeps is a lover, a brother, his mom or dad, a wife, some friends, or just some fellows from the neighborhood. There is a matter of fact sort of intimacy that sweats out from his lines. It made me realize how I’ve been reading too much of the loner stuff, speakers isolated from the world, with fractured egos, driving empty cars on highways without any trucks to follow.
King seems like the kind of poet who would be perfectly comfortable with a stranger sleeping on his shoulder on an airplane. And these poems, having meter without being metric, are conversational without being plain spoken. How nice to read them without suffering the “I am being a writer” tone that dulls most music.
Drift is divided into nine roomy sections of between one and twelve poems each. I read one section a day in a span that included busheling some tomatoes for sauce canning, skipping a pitchfork, writing a poem for Saemus Heaney (how original), loading a piano onto a truck, and making love to my wife twice (once downstairs). It’s so pleasant to carry on with them, here and there, sharing King’s world with mine. King’s poems are almost always one page, but that’s plenty of space to offer some adventure. Consider his poem “Conundrum” in which the speaker and his brother head out to find the recipe for pheromones, an irrational pursuit of an irrational goal that somehow makes perfect sense:
A decade before, my brother
and I were strapped inside the leather
belly of an Oldsmobile 88 that roared
like something feral, with speakers
coughing up bass and spitting rhymes
from Busta’s first album. I don’t recall
where we were headed, just that we
cruised the city with our fresh
haircuts and fragrant whispers
of Egyptian Musk behind our ears.
The clock and the compass, the when and the where, are not so important to King’s journeys, this one to “answer the riddles of women,” which makes it possible to swing between narrative and metaphor without losing your balance. The logistics are rich with detail, while the subjects continue to be abstract, searching moments. In “Why I could Never Be Vegan” we initially think we’re in the land of memory: “The smell of charcoal gets me / nostalgic: my childhood and / those summers my parents / were always throwing something / on the grill…” But quickly the discussion moves from nostalgia, to animal rights, to human rights. Birmingham is also part of the speaker’s memory: “…fire hoses / and what was unleashed / on protestors. What’s sacred / then?” In this poem, the only sacred thing left is his mother’s sense of exaggeration: “Ask my mom and she’ll say / I might have been / an Alvin Ailey dancer the way / I Step Hop and Run to a bubbling pot / of curry goat.” The speaker concludes “Why does salad, / despite its dressing, seem incomplete / without chicken?” King is asking, Why does memory, despite its dressing, seem incomplete as well, given our Birmingham, our history?
The past, hunger, hope, and resignation are so intimate in these lines. Perhaps a thousand poets will write a poem about a horse this year, but almost none will have ridden a two minute lick in company, wire to wire, at a race track. Being so comfortable with intimacy, having had some experience with it, having ridden that horse a time or two, we’d expect King to shape some physical intimacy where the actual doesn’t sit so far back from the ideal. His love poems made me think of John Donne. King runs to all sorts of bubbling pots, and not all of them are cooking curry. In “The Invitation,” like many of these poems, King gets us into and out of a poem with images: “Your lips were petals brushing / my neck…” is followed by some light-hearted analysis “This was not supposed to happen // on the third date” and eventually concludes “our bass-heavy pulses. / The eye contact, / you biting your bottom lip, / then smiling.”
The poet’s vexing history and his passionate flair join up in “Horn”:
The more I watch the news,
the more my country resembles
a biblical city destroyed by fire;
the more I think of those
who spat on the messenger
their God sent them. At the gates
of a temple called “Beautiful,”
sat a blind man. How many of us
are him? Sometimes there’s no name
for what runs the streets with
misspelled picket signs and hate
as its bullhorn. Sometimes
what’s wrong with this life
could be an avalanche ready
to wipe us out. The only true Bible
might be your open arms. Your name
is a communion wafer on my tongue.
The only true psalm might be
what washes over us while
we sleep, your breath in my ears—
the sound in a shell.
While some poets may marvel about empathy, how it comes from using image and lyric to wed unmarriageable ideas, King returns again and again to the simple truth, that empathy is very intimate, expressed in the oneness you discover after slipping out of routines of living, desire and memory, but without slipping out of who you are. It’s cruising in a big car with your brother in blood. It’s the sermon in a barber shop. That post-modern poets love the hero afraid of being alone and dying alone may just be a mask for the greater fear of connecting with others, of being intimate. King describes such poets in his poem “How to Call It”:
Take the woman walking
alone down a boulevard
or the guy seated
at a table for two
with a glass of wine
and his favorite book.
King concludes these portraits of poets with one of himself: “I need a lot of things: lips / and fingers waking the body. / And from what? // Call it hibernation, / but never loneliness.” Read a book to yourself and you’re a scholar. Talk to yourself and you’re a nut. But poetry evolved from an oral tradition. It’s always been about talking and listening between friends and strangers.
Why are we so afraid of empathy? That is the “drift” in Drift. King writes in the superb title poem: “What were you / searching for among the buzzing / kazoos and party blowers // punching the air? That night // the bright streamers were serpents / curled among liquor bottles that blurred / like landscape through the windows // of a train headed to the end // of its line. You watched the lit / subway cars zigzag the night / like the Dancing Dragon / of Chinese New Year.”
Move over Mr. grumpy disassociated poet with your arms and legs and ears falling off your disconnected body. There’s a new kid in town.
Alan King is a poet and journalist living in the DC metropolitan area. He is a blogger on art and domestic issues. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Alan is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum.
Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.
Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:
A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.
She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story
But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”
“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:
The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.
Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:
He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.
So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.
He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.
Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.
“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:
You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.
You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.
Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?
Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”
Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.
Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”
Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.
Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.
Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.
What Things Are Made Of
Poems by Charles Harper Webb
|University of Pittsburgh Press: Pitt Poetry Series, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.
Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.
“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:
It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
It overflows your clogged commode.
It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.
Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:
Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes
on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
bucking tules at the water’s edge.
Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard
rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:
…The baking soda
submarine I lost in 1963
surfaces: full-sized, blowing
like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.
Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”
The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.
Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, and Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.
by Stephanie Barber
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
We’re a nation of critics and deciders—folks hired for their opinions rather than physical labor. One of the pleasures of nonobjective painting is that the role of the critic in defining contemporary art becomes obsolete. The artist—photographer Linda Conner in the Seventies, or painter Susan Rothenberg in the Eighties, or poet and video artist Stephanie Barber today—loosely shapes the art, sharing the discovery process with the viewer or reader. In its purest form, the nonobjective painting or poem is the energy produced between the original signifying work and its audience. An audience of thousands or an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the waves produced by someone experiencing the photograph or poem, waves where feelings and thoughts don’t swim in different lanes. Think Reiki therapeutic massage. The touching is figurative, but the healing is real.
Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves tests the outer limits of concept poetry, but because hers are found words the bulky, baggy premises which accompany most concept works are happily not present. Barber draws on YouTube comment threads responding to Mr. Seger’s song “Night Moves,” a ballad of desire and aging and nostalgia. Is it even poetry one might ask, to tap into the energy between a Classic Rock song and its listeners and then to reproduce it without altering so much as a comma? Thomas Sterns Eliot might have thought so, based on his view that poetry was the mix of desire and memory. And whether one samples Sanskrit texts or The Golden Bough, or whether one samples three chord harmony, using literary allusion to scaffold the mix is sturdy stuff.
“I remember…I remember…,” writes one listener. Keyword search “Heart” and variations on “Memory” in this volume and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes to count with. One of the mystifying traits in Barber’s Night Moves is how the “comments” come from witness, and become seductive in the way that witnessing is so sculpted by memory and wanting. By using their comments, each listener becomes a speaker, each speaker, a viewer. Participation is the thing, Barber seems to say. It’s what makes art of our day to day, as if life weren’t about the drowning but all the riotous splashing we make before the end.
“Love this song…I remember this song and dancing around singing it, stereo as loud as it would go…” says another. Like people who all seem to remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, these speakers hear the song and it cues them involuntarily to a forgotten context. It was love-making before there were any responsibilities. It was having a magic night begin with an unforgettable dinner at the Golden Corral. It was a song you hummed driving your first car before you ever flattened a tire or bent a rod. The funny thing is that so many have forgotten an “unforgettable” time. Hearing the song out of context brings it back, which is one way that old music is still so important to poetry.
The comments Barber reproduces are not epitaphs in some strange graveyard. Listeners interact with the song, but they also interact with each other interacting with the song. There’s even a lot of debate as to what makes music real, or what “points” may mean, or what could be wrong with the seventy-eight or eighty-four people who hit the “dislike” button. Maybe they never had sex, one listener wonders. “Must be under twenty years old,” another writes. In one sequence, two listeners spar about the meaning of art:
You claim this song is boring but I think what
you are missing is that it is a “Mood” song. It might not
have interesting melodies and chord changes but to
Add these you would Subtract from the “Mood.” Some
of the best songs are the simplest and this you do not
In such plain-spoken ways, Barber transforms a modest 2013 discussion about a 1978 song that romanticized something going on in the summer of 1962, so that the YouTube comment thread reads like the minutes of an AWP panel about the meaning of poetry today, its riddle of memory, and desire’s cryptic role. “Gina will never know the truth,” someone writes, in what could well be the best six-word short story since Hemingway.
The interactions vary between the heart-breaking and ones sopping with praise. Most are emotional, some rational, some even seem scripted by authors who have some experience at this sort of thing. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered. I feel such emotion with this part of the song. So true. That’s how life is. Honestly, one of the best transitions in song writing I’ve ever heard.” This writer, like all the others, anonymous, which blurs point of view. We’re used to first, second, and third voice, but Barber’s Night Moves seems to offer a hybrid, a fourth voice which combines the other three and makes it seem as if the reader is hearing his own thoughts aloud.
Particularly evocative are the anonymous notes intended for a specific unknown someone: “Night moves in her dad’s barn 1975 love you Pam! Hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I hear this song.” Someone else chimes in “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you every time I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves were with you. I hope you have a great life.”
One of the hazards of living in a high concept world where the idea of something has more weight than the actual doing of it, where the abstract replaces the concrete, is that poets lose track of a narrative thread’s value. It becomes all about the lyric, or all about the extended metaphor, and we lose track of how important it is to use narrative to give the reader’s empathy some place to go. Greek myth is interesting, but it becomes relevant to us through the story of the Odyssey. “Today’s music can’t tell any stories about their experience in life,” someone writes. Neither does a lot of the poetry either.
I love how this “nonobjective painting” of a poetry book makes us ache for more in our lives to not be so objective. Praise to Stephany Barber for taking the time to sit cramped on her former bodega’s trembling wooden floor between the friendly cat and the other cat who gets sick a lot, hustling what internet she could when the wind was blowing right, and crying for days over this comment thread that was so sad and so inviting that she had to share it with us.
This book gives us permission to lust for what we remember about whom we loved. Take any three years out of the past fifty. What were you doing 1962? What were you dreaming about in 1978? What has become of all those doings and all those dreams? Your personal answer is a poem for everyone. Now thump your left hand on the roof of your speeding dark sedan and sing it.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Review by Nicole Bartley
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is depressing darkness filled with war-torn horrors and punctuated by bright moments of fragile tenderness. Individual points of light converge to create a story—to convey connected lives. To view a constellation is to see each star’s past during the present. So, too, is it with Anthony Marra’s characters—each one composes a story that spans generations.
The story follows a group of neighbors in a modern Chechyan village. The current government abducts a father, Dokka, who manages to hide his young daughter, Havaa, before their house burns. A neighbor and friend, Akhmed, finds her in the woods and shelters her first in his house and then in a nearby hospital, where he convinces the chief, Sonja (pronounced Sohn-yah), to not only provide him with a job but also protect the girl without him. What follows is five days of memories, secrets, and a constant debate between life and death.
Marra’s writing is beautiful and filled with lyrical phrases, intricate details, and crisp narration that hook into readers and keep them wondering until the last page. It is also harsh, horrific, and unrelenting in its depictions of a stark war-torn village that immediately settles readers into a fear-filled landscape. Despite this, Marra pays close attention to intimate, delicate additions and profound descriptions. He is adept at switching the direction of analogies, especially when fixated upon light; his best and most poetic lines contain light. For example, instead of a house disappearing into ash or smoke or being razed to the ground, “[Akhmed] watched the house he had helped build disappear into light” (6). Marra writes,
…a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken [Akhmed] months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky… There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn’t distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur’an and telephone dictionary returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke. (4)
Perhaps this use of light is a counterbalance to an otherwise dark story and setting. Marra mentions moonlight that lies as a flimsy bed sheet, and a cigarette lighter’s droplet of flame. Put poetry in light, and anything can seem bearable: daily gradual starvation, the occasional bombing raids and shootings, an informant providing names of innocent people just to fulfill a grudge, the daily possibility of someone triggering a landmine, the constant fear, and the absence of innocence from childhood. He writes:
As children Sonja and Natasha played hide-and-seek in the dust-thick catacombs of the apartment cellar. Light streamed through the high windows in long diagonals. On the floor, each semicircle was a pool of lava, and light-caught dust motes were the remains of children who had stumbled into those incandescent rays. (187)
However, the strong writing seems to dissipate as the story progresses, and the amount of shining phrases diminish with each chapter. It is as if Marra used the first chapter to dazzle readers, who will then continue to read to discover what’s happening and why.
Marra also has particular aptitude for weaving time. In the book, readers learn about Chechnya’s militaristic history as well as the characters’ personal experiences during the span of five days. The book is separated into “day” sections, and chapters contain events specific to a designated year. But they also contain references to past and future years and scenes—circumstances that readers have already and will eventually encounter. All Chechen life is happening “now;” time within time within time.
To follow these temporal jumps, Marra utilizes both tight third-person limited and omniscient narration. He follows a handful of characters, but eventually wanders to different people’s perspectives in order to provide an added bit of information, just for the readers’ sakes. It is as if Marra inserted commentary, wherein the narrator steps in to break the fourth wall and tell readers information that may not, in the end, be pertinent to the story. Most of the information jumps occur in chapters set in the past, as if they are explored more like memories. This is one of the few inconsistencies in the book, when the author’s desire to inform readers interrupts characterization and realistic possibility. For example, he follows a character, Khassan, who encounters a young, scared soldier who saves him and asks him to post a letter to the soldier’s grandparents. Marra writes:
‘You must survive,’ the blond-haired conscript said. ‘You must survive and tell my grandparents. Tell them their grandson is not like the other soldiers. Tell them that they raised him well, that he is trying so hard to stay the boy they raised.’ Khassan would write a letter to the conscript’s grandparents, but without access to a functional postal system, it would remain in his drawer for seventeen months, until the autumn morning when a Russian woman knocked on his door, asking if he had seen her son…. Khassan wouldn’t be able to help her, but he would ask her to post his letter from Russia. He wouldn’t know that in Novosibirsk the grandparents of the blond-haired conscript would receive his letter eight days after they received word of their grandson’s death and would read it is a eulogy at his funeral. (144-145)
Readers don’t need to know this information, except for a little reassurance that not all soldiers and rebels are heartless murderers and thieves, and that even in midst of danger, some people actually are inherently good. But occasional peeks into the future like this one seem out of place during consistent third-person limited narration. They appear more as confusing slips in craft that may leave readers wondering, “Wait, what was that? He could s/he know that? Why is this important?”
Marra often references the future beyond ten years—a future when people have paying jobs, don’t live in fear, and can work toward rebuilding a community by following dreams. But judging by the novel’s timeline, ten years is now. Is Chechnya rebuilt as promising as Marra writes? Are all the novel’s horrors behind that country? Time will tell whether this novel will be referenced in English classes or assigned as suggested reading for history courses, and whether history repeats itself, thus making this story relevant in any era. But one thing’s certain: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will leave readers aware of the outside world, and thankful for what they have.
Anthony Marra is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s won a Pushcart Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Prairie Lights Fiction Prize and first place in the Atlantic’s emerging writers’ contest and in Narrative’s short story contest.
Poems by Martha Rhodes
|Autumn House Press, 2012
Reviewed by Marcella Prokop
In her fourth collection of poems, Martha Rhodes examines illness, love, the infidelity of the body, and “The pleasures and inconveniences of being detested.” This, the title of the twelfth poem in her collection The Beds, begins with frailty, meanders through the doctor’s office around “friends tired of all the errands and schlepping” to end on a humorous note, setting the tone of breakdown and amusement that underscores this book:
And broken leg again.
And 81 stairs.
Despite the difficulty of caring for an ailing loved one, or caring for themselves, Rhodes’ speakers share an unwavering sense of grit and humor, and the poet’s ability to work from abstract title through bone (and heart) breaks and line breaks to clear image often brings the reader to a muscle-clenching moment of understanding. This sense of connection is sometimes so subtle it may be missed on the first read.
This is the case with “Thrombosis,” “A rat carried this week to us between its teeth and dropped it at our feet…And the rat will find its way to us here, too, where at the hospital I hold onto your foot lest you be rolled away without me…today I am able to eat every doughnut New York City offers.” Rhodes with another story within a story, the connotation of doughnuts and roundness and illness gelling together in an instant at the end:
My grandfather was a baker from Vienna. Perhaps he’d say to me today, Doughnuts are in your blood. And what should I say about your blood, dear, not knowing yet what’s in your blood that brings us here this week.
Without a doubt, Rhodes’ poems are curious and provocative, like a small animal scratching at the window. Her simple, quick lines create a sense of immediate imagery, urging the imagination to run like a fever unchecked. And as the sound and mouth feel of her words works its way inside, the symbiotic relationship of reader and writer, of experienced and imagined, consumes the reader.
On the surface, Rhodes’ poems are about the natural processes of separation and loss, illness and grief and the mirthful capacity to overcome reality. Weaving imagery of the domestic life and the human implements of hospitals and houseplants into the earthy textures of the world beyond, Rhodes yields a quiet, uncanny power over nature unknown to most humans.
In “Fog Horn,” for instance, the gauzy language of disorientation pulls at the reader’s senses.
The first stanza, “The sheet’s dark-on-dark pattern, / a flat dull sea, calm enough,” pulls readers into a quiet, dark seabed of solitude. But as the couplets progress, the speaker becomes unsettled, then solid, leaving the reader with a sense of direction.
I’ve begun my own noise—
of warning—a trembling at first,
then persistent, even confident,
through the night’s steady fog.
Rhodes continues drawing upon the natural world in “The Gathered,” layering the detritus of a stalled river and a stalled life until the physical image pushes the mind to a new reality.
The river sludge hardens and cracks.
We pitch tents in mile-long rows.
We’re camped above, too tired to press
one more step; we sleep in fits—
the gnats, the howlings, the mess
of our lives brought in our eyes and lit
before us, our precious disasters.
…we deserve this rot
and roll in it, thrive in it, and in turn
welcome those who follow us. Need a bed?
Rest here with us, friend. End of the line.
While Rhodes’ perception of the physical world lends itself to the hardscrabble life of the outdoors, that sense of emotion, fragility and strength comes through best when she relates the physical world to the natural process of stagnation, decay, creation and existence as it applies to the personal. The best poems in this fifty-four page collection explore death, absence and illness, and create meaning for those facing or remaining after, a final absence. Readers will search for the underlying connotation of each poem, and with each new reading the poems will reveal something new of themselves, in much the same way a wound’s appearance changes with each unbandaging.
Martha Rhodes is the author of At the Gate, Perfect Disappearance (Green Rose Prize), and Mother Quiet. Her poems have been published in such journals as Agni, Columbia, Fence, New England Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and TriQuarterly and anthologized in Agni 30 Years, Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, Poem in Your Pocket (a publication of the Academy of American Poets), and It’s Not You, It’s Me. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Martha Rhodes is the director of Four Way Books in New York City.
Reviewed by Noah Gup
One of the early stories in Aubrey Hirsch’s collection Why We Never Talk About Sugar (Braddock Avenue Books 2013) begins with, “Right from the start, Cris was pretty certain she could get me pregnant.” It’s an ambitious first line, one that is both intriguing and bizarre. While the story’s introduction seems odd (let alone physically impossible), the conclusion is surprisingly, generously human. This epitomizes the power of this collection; driven by a keen sense of character, it offers intensely personal tales that, despite peculiar details, connect with the reader.
There is no distinct link connecting the thematically and geographically diverse collection. The struggles of relationships and parenthood echo in several stories, but the strongest link is the immersive and varied settings. Hirsch adeptly adapts her diction to create vivid, detailed worlds, such as the densely scientific “Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber” or the soldier-speak of “The Specialists.” But perhaps most notable is Hirsch’s sparse, yet meticulously constructed, prose. Her stories focus on the characters and often wring profound conclusions from simple, understated actions. In her many stories focusing on familial conflicts, this directness is piercing, especially in “Strategy #13,” where a girl reconciles with her sickly father’s declining health: “I can still picture my father running up the stairs to break up a fight between me and my brother. Now he is huddled on the floor with blood droplets clinging to his hair.” Even in the collection’s eponymous, final story, which enters the realm of magic realism, the frank narration elevates it to a meditative fable on the subject of love.
“Snakeskin” exemplifies Hirsch’s minimalist power. The story is set within a high school, barely longer than two pages, and focuses entirely on the effect of a series of discarded snakeskins discovered in a high school. At first, the principal assumes it is a prankster, but the school eventually adapts to the snake’s unseen presence, described by Hirsch’s careful eye: “students pile their schoolbooks under the legs of their desks to raise them off the ground.” It is quirky, clever, but ultimately a fascinating portrait of the school’s principal. A completely different story, “The Specialists,” addresses sexual assault in the military, through through the lens of two soldiers going through boot camp. Its violent finale manages to feel both genuine and thrilling, and is perhaps the collection’s single most powerful segment.
As with many fiction collections, not all stories in Sugar are equally enthralling. In “Paradise Hardware,” a couple’s infertility struggles are dramatically amplified to the point of absurdity, derailing the story from reality. And with several stories focusing on troubled relationships, the weaker ones (“Made in Indonesia”) seem more like palate cleansers for her more developed, detailed stories. Despite these inconsistencies, it is difficult not to be won over by the minimalist prose and candid emotion of Hirsch’s writing. Some of the stories seem ridiculous, others are highly dramatized, but all reflect a resonating humanity. We observe the collection’s vast array of characters, but in the end, we see ourselves reflected.
Poems by Eric Pankey
|Milkweed Editions, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Pankey explores the idea of traces in several ways throughout this collection. One version is as traces of religious faith or traces of evidence supporting that faith. Another is traces of memory, specifically memories of Pankey’s deceased father. And finally, there are traces of meaning in the poems, which could be inspired by any of the other traces.
The collection opens with a section of poems focused on Pankey’s religious beliefs. “The Sacrifice” questions the validity of blind sacrifice. “A Bird Loose in the House” nicely conjures an analogy of the soul, “A shadow-play alive on a curtain alive with wind.” As evidenced in this poem, Pankey finds inspiration in nature, not only for poetry but for his faith.
Pankey tends to avoid the easy, well-trod imagery of religious poetry. He doesn’t speak from a place of fear of retribution, or scold. He doesn’t belittle human endeavor for the sake of appeasing divine ego. Instead, he paints a chaotic world in which so little is understandable, not that science has failed us, but rather a world so complex, simple cause-and-effect relationships often don’t make sense. “The Creation of Adam” describes a humanistic landscape:
On a cross of branches tied with baling wire,
An old man hung a ragged wool overcoat.
As he weeded, he instructed the scarecrow
On the doctrine and conundrum of free will.
When a crow landed on the scarecrow’s shoulder,
The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew
If he chose, he could shrug and shoo the crow.
If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.
Another version of traces are traces of memory. “Faith” describes a lost love, which retreated like a glacier. “The Burning House” describes “The house afire, the house of my childhood,/All tinder and kindling married to spark.” The burning house is never consumed, of course recalling the biblical burning bush; it exists in a liminal state in Pankey’s memory. “Southern Elegy” is a subtle commentary on place. Pankey describes a garter snake hunting “along cracked masonry/Marked by rust, along slate//Slabs in the unkempt graveyard.” It’s a desolate world in which “Autumn passes like empty freight cars –//Some doors open, some doors closed.”
Finally, Pankey focuses on traces of meaning in his poems, which he struggles to reach. But clarity isn’t something that can necessarily be reached. “Sometimes I exist,” he says in “Models of Paradise” “only as anxiety.” And later, he struggles with finding that clarity not only in his poetry but in his faith as he describes “Just stars above me,/ a broken abacus of stars:/The beads scattered, the beads unthumbed.” Finally, he begins to reach meaning, “What we lack, mostly, is context.” This leads to wisdom: “One measures the void a gram at a time.”
Pankey doesn’t so much try to make sense of the world as he tries to make sense from the world. He shares observances, reserving comment many times, in favor of letting the images resonate by themselves. Pankey’s language is beautiful and spare and he constantly surprises with profound lines. Pankey’s built a name for himself, and considering the quality of the poems in this collection, it’s no surprise.
Eric Pankey is currently Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Trace is his ninth collection of poetry.
Herve le Tellier
Other Books, 2013
Reviewed by Noah Gup
Writing about love inadvertently teeters on the edge of cliché. Typically, the subject is treated as a plot-point, a simple development for the many romance movies that spring up every summer. Herve Le Tellier’s Electrico W (Other Books 2013) is a resounding rebuke to this formula. In most other circumstances, a sad sack journalist running away from a failed relationship would lead to finding love in a new locale. Not so in Herve Le Tellier’s newest book, where relationships do not run smoothly, and people’s emotions are more complex than one-word classifications. Both in its clever meditation on love and even the act of writing about love, Electrico W is a knotty wonder, both intricate in its form and serious in its emotional heft.
Taking place in seven days in Lisbon (each chapter corresponding to a different day), the plot is minimal to say the least. Vincent, the narrator, is a reporter working the Lisbon beat for a French newspaper and is assigned to collaborate with a photographer, Antonio, on the arrest of a recently captured serial killer. The assignment takes the back burner to Vincent and Antonio’s problematic romances and exploration of the city, and the book is made up mostly of a series of conversations and reflections.
It’s a simple concept and the beginning takes off slowly. However, the book comes into focus (in perhaps its loveliest segment) when Antonio describes his first childhood love. It is the shadow of this first love, known only by her nickname Duck, which sets a nostalgic, lovelorn tone that persists throughout the rest of the novel. The segment, beginning with Antonio as a child running to catch the Lisbon tram (named Electrico W), is so charming, and the intensity of their young love so palpable, that its inevitably sour conclusion is wrenching. Vincent, curiosity piqued by Antonio’s past, searches for Duck in Lisbon, while still reconciling with his own history of failed romances. It becomes a kind of personal detective story, where Vincent takes advantage of those around him in an attempt to weasel his way to the truth.
Vincent’s manipulation, while occasionally repulsive, gives the book momentum. As Vincent uncovers more about Duck, the pace picks up and climaxes in a surprising and perfectly understated way. Even though Vincent’s snooping can be uncomfortable, he manages to be a sympathetic character. Jaded from unreciprocated love, his fixation on Antonio’s idyllic relationship with Duck is understandable. Even more, as the book progresses, Vincent reveals more about his dysfunctional family, making him a difficult, but compelling mix of relatable and conniving. Especially in the book’s final chapters, when his tragic history is revealed, the reader roots desperately for Vincent despite his reprehensible actions.
Yet the book is more than just a character exploration. Vincent himself is attempting to write a novel on the fatal duel of the math prodigy Evariste Galois, killed by a man obsessed with Galois’ lover. In another anecdotal story, Vincent recounts his favorite movie in which a boy falls in love with his female companion travelling across France, but ends with a melancholy parting of ways. These reverberations add layers of detail to the apparently straightforward plot. And Vincent’s reporting on the bizarre Lisbon serial killer is intriguing both in its own mysteries (did he do it?) and its connection to the greater story (is there any?). These are the types of giddy, page-scouring questions that arise when reading this book. And while the plot occasionally stumbles into soap-opera territory, as when Antonio’s Lisbon lover encounters his girlfriend visiting from Paris, the layers of meaning make the book into a strangely satisfying puzzle.
Tellier’s masterfully pared-back writing lets the intricacies of his book come forth. It is reserved and often invisible, only drawing attention to itself in snapshots of elegance: “She was describing shapes in the emerald water, ephemeral figures, no two the same, manipulating the bamboo precisely, unhesitatingly. It was as if she was forming letters, writing words long forgotten by the waters but carried to us silently on the shimmering wavelets.” Primarily, he brings his characters to the forefront, and this is what makes Electrico W so riveting. Its writing is disarmingly simple, but its interconnected details and questions require an intense reading.
In the story’s epilogue, which flashes forward several years from Vincent and Antonio’s journey in Lisbon, it is not happily ever after. But it is genuine, and genuinely sad, in its portrayal of relationships decaying with time. Electrico W is a true love story, dealing directly with the uncomfortable aspects of desire. But just as Tellier’s beautiful language occasionally shines through, there are moments, such as Vincent’s meet cute with the comically candid Manuel, that are totally joyous. Even though this friendship doesn’t end as expected, just like Electrico W as a whole, it’s a wonderful journey.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
When he woke up, retired 65-year-old Harold Fry probably didn’t know that he would be the man who would walk 500 miles to see a dying friend. Yet that is exactly what happens in Rachel Joyce’s national bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Although there is nothing spectacular or riveting about this story, it piques readers’ curiosities.
It begins when Harold and his wife Maureen’s lives are drastically altered after they receive a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Harold steps out to mail a brief response, unsure of how to express everything that remained unsaid between them. He eventually believes that if he walks the 500 miles up England to see her before she dies, she will wait just long enough. The extra challenge is that Harold travels with only the clothes on his back and a pair of yachting shoes. As he puts one foot in front of the other, readers will find themselves walking with him—comparing his life to theirs and wondering if they, too, could do what he has undertaken.
In an interview at the back of the book, Joyce states, “I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words” (332). Although she never stops reminding readers that Harold is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position, she uses his small, everyday words to showcase flaws and limited knowledge, which is complemented by self-deprecating memories. After a while, Harold realizes that he’s walking not only to keep Queenie alive, but also to atone for his sins. Joyce writes:
“Why must he remember? He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder, as if he wasn’t so much walking to Queenie as away from himself” (70).
His journey is particularly haunting because, for a long time, he only has the road and his thoughts. As he meets new people, readers witness how thoroughly each person shapes his view of the world and grafts pieces of them into his being. Joyce writes:
“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went” (90).
England represents one of Harold’s dominant encounters. It plays such a prominent role in the story that place itself becomes a character. Harold has been detached from the world for most of his life and is suddenly thrust into it. Despite his solitude throughout the journey, he finds a companion in nature and begins to prefer it to people. Through his close observations of England’s landscape, weather, and vegetation, Harold develops almost profound wisdom. In addition, natural occurrences remind him of events in his life just as often as people do. Joyce writes:
“It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet” (43).
In this way, Joyce is teaching readers to explore their environments. She is commenting on the amount of knowledge that one can gain from a simple walk, and that nature can provide exactly what readers may be missing in their lives.
The journey changes when the media becomes involved and transforms a simple walk into a star-crossed love story with Queenie—“a perfect love story.” And yet, his walk is all about love: for his wife, his son, and for his friend. The difference between the love is the form: romantic, paternal, and platonic. Despite the media being portrayed in a corruptive light with a touch of group think, it may have had the story right this time—it just concentrated on the wrong form of love.
As the story repeatedly references the distance Harold needs to walk, readers may find themselves constantly humming “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. The song’s comparison becomes particularly poignant because “you” could mean alternately Queenie and Maureen. Despite no romantic affair occurring, readers can be certain that Harold loved Queenie in his own bumbling and quiet way that never touched his consuming love for Maureen and their son, David.
In the end, when the readers think they know everything, Joyce punches them in the heart. She finally resolves a piece of dramatic irony that was the catalyst of the whole story. This information surprises the characters, and readers are left saying, “Well, duh.” But then Joyce unveils the heartbreaking ace up her sleeve, the piece of information that readers never see coming. It lifts a rosy lens from the readers’ perspectives and reveals a taint on every memory and piece of dialogue about just one character. The information sweeps back and changes the entire story, leaving readers shocked, dismayed, and sympathetic.
This is the type of book that, upon finishing, will make readers set it down and ponder in silence for awhile. Readers may find that the story crept up like the tide, swept over them, and tugged them out to sea. And they can either go with the current, or surface and forget the book’s lessons. It’s just a book, after all. A simple thing anyone can pick up. Much like walking.
By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press, 60 pages, $15
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
When it comes to oceanic feelings, novelists reach for fishing poles and poets reach for binoculars. Being the latter, I’ve spent my life trying to find a pile of dirt in the high seas. I want to build a fire on it. Combine the five ancient elements into one miraculous instant. But this god-damned planet—earthly rotations and lunatic revolutions aren’t kind to lumps of firmament. Tides, waves, and currents wreak their petty havoc by the minute. That pile is gone in a blink. Along comes Alejandro Ventura. He was born on a pile of dirt in the ocean. It was a big one. It had mountains. It had a race track. Puerto Rico. Rich Harbor. Heaven of intimacy. Where his body grew inside his mother’s body before leaving her womb face first. And then the pile of dirt was gone and just like that the whole world became a subdivision in New Jersey.
Ventura’s debut collection of poems Puerto Rico is slim without being slight, intelligent without being “smart.” He signals that his journey is backward and forward to intimacy—to Puerto Rico—early in the going. In “Beginnings” he writes “I don’t understand the winter. / Blindly, I felt for things that made life bearable” and “The land is fallow here. The animals can sense your guilt.” Ventura doesn’t play games with his lines the way some poets use gaps or step down enjambments or a sickness of commas which tell the reader when to breathe. He assumes we’ve got the breathing part nailed and instead breaks his lines with a maul—a sentence, a sentence, a sentence. The heavy downward energy keeps our feet moving so that we don’t lose a toe. “Beginnings” continues, “The only decent way to die is in your lover’s arms… / An oath is sworn, perilously close to intimacy.”
“A Waiting” is like several poems in this collection, a good one, but also one where the speaker focuses in, controls the shot and just at the moment of genuine intimacy, pulls back one curtain:
What remained, when last we swam at Sandy Hook
and were embarrassed by nudity?
We got lost somewhere along the beach,
and yet, as Deleuze says, no sense of falling explains the face in vertigo.
Like Fontana’s Attese, black gauze supports the canvas.
Brothers abide and are divided.
One remembers the gesture that makes the wound,
but this explains nothing of our lives together.
Who can say when a duration has occurred,
as when the grass becomes a field?
It has nothing to do with color, and is timeless.
For instance, why do I mention that day at the beach?
I love this poem. It’s a single-room apartment but it feels so big with its space and time and involuntary memory. The speaker’s self-conscious note which ends the poem has cousins in many of these searching laments. At times the whole poem seems drunk and Ventura’s sober thinking voice slips past. At others, the poems are very sober and his glancing remark seems a little buzzed, as if the intimacy had gotten too real or scary and a little distance was needed to help him find the rail. In “You Are Either Making Mangu or Something Else Entirely” his un-analytic description of place is smoldering: “There is an American tower along the mountain pass to Las Marias / and a Spanish one overlooks the bay at Guanica. / Perhaps they communicate, by pigeon or raven. / Wait, are there ravens on the island? Someone call an ornithologist.”
True, Ventura does address his own contrary side, so it’s not as if I’m calling him out. He calls himself out with such lines as “Free and whole, with no more cynicism than was necessary” and “the only thing you know at death is disbelief” and “no one can disabuse you if you don’t believe in anything, / and merely go about yourself, collecting postcards” and “as if the Apocalypse will grant us a sense of belonging.” In fact, the greatest barrier to arriving at intimacy—which means language and place and seduction—is to believe it can still exist. Ventura doesn’t believe it in most of these poems, but in a few he does, and the results may drop you to the ground. In “Culebra” the poet’s body absorbs his whole loss, nurses teasing him about his round ass after a game of stickball goes awry:
To feel the body’s weight descend the hill with the lesser island above you.
Sunscreen oil eases along the fingernails, which ease along the curve
of the thigh line. The waves continue to cylinder on land.
When your mother dies your fingertips roll into the rosary,
beads being so unlike music. This is a general rule
not unlike the one in the hospital in La Vega, where young women
tell you how round your ass is, after a stickball
lofted into the neighbor’s lawn spiked your arm into an iron finial,
to paint it with a skin of rust and clear your mind of sound.
There’s something I cannot get past, reading Ventura, which is that over fifty years later I still live close to where I came out face-first. His thousand mile wound seems so much bigger than my little ten mile mishap. I’ve driven the wound countless times—it’s on the way to the Post Office and the Feed Store. I’ve walked those miles and ridden horses back and forth, and even though my “Puerto Rico” is so much nearer to me (even on cloudy nights I see its lights), the intimacy is no easier to grasp. I wish for it, too, and I think that’s the story Ventura has walked all of us into. Maybe this is why I sometimes get moist approaching the outskirts of Hampstead. In Ventura I have a brother, and maybe we’ll fight now and then about what it means to be a poem but it’s nice to have him sharing some of the heavy lifting, the big dead weight of not believing anything, or else the little one pound weight of a rum bottle as we share sips off the rim.
I guess what I’m saying is, I liked this book and I look forward to the next.
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood is a quiet exploration of womanhood within the confines of damaged relationships. Readers are rocked between eras as they learn about love and grief throughout the novel’s parallel plotlines, which interchange between chapters.
In 1919, Vivien is a “spinster” mistress who believes that her married lover, David, suffered from amnesia after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She is unable to move on until she uncovers his fate, which colors every decision in her life. She uses her grief to fuel her unconventional obituary writing that is renowned for “her gift for bringing the dead to life.”
In 1961, Claire is a dutiful housewife who realizes that her routine-based marriage is stagnant and unfulfilling; that she’s falling out of love with her husband, Peter; and that she is attracted to one of her married neighbors. She cheats on her husband, learns that she’s pregnant, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends while being obsessed about Jackie Kennedy and the impending Presidential inauguration.
But the story is more about loss than cheating women. Without integrating Kübler-Ross’s five stages, Hood explores what should be said and done to help the bereaved and while grieving. Hood’s writing is honest and blunt. For example, she splatters descriptions of grief’s effects throughout the story.
Grief makes people guilty. Guilty for being five minutes late, for taking the wrong streetcar, for ignoring a cough or sleeping too soundly. Guilt and grief went hand in hand (32).
Grief paralyzed you…. It prevented you from getting out of bed, from moving at all. It prevented you from even taking a few steps forward (101).
The grief-stricken want to hear the names of those they’ve lost. To not say the name out loud denies that person’s existence. People seeking to comfort mourners often err this way. They lower their eyes at the sound of the dead’s name. They refuse to utter it themselves (103).
To fight off these side-effects, the novel mentions the concept of comfort food, be it the dinner parties Claire attends or Vivien’s use of tea, water, wine, broth, toast, cheese and crackers, cookies, or fruit. Vivien also believes that the proper way to show support to loved ones is to maintain their household for them instead of asking to help.
Hood is also masterful at nestling readers inside each woman’s mind in order to experience other characters through emotional lenses. She doesn’t allow readers to make their own decisions about the lovers and husbands; they hate as the women hate, love as they love, and fear for each fleeting encounter. Hood also adeptly represents various aspects of womanhood: being a mother, an aunt-type figure, a wife, a cheating wife, a mistress, a best friend, and a daughter.
In addition, Vivien and Claire are excellent foils for each other—both “other women” but for different reasons with different lifestyles. Vivien is strong and financially independent; she had a secure life alone before and after David with no social stress to get married. Claire is uncertain, weak, and apologetic; her life is tied to her family, partially due to society’s condemnation of wayward women. The main similarity between the two women is their emotional insecurity, both over the loss of a lover.
Although Hood displays excellent research of the separate eras—such as habits, specific brand items, and culture—the women seem to clash with the time-frames’ expectations. Vivien in 1919 seems to have more freedom without consequences than Claire in 1961. But what changed between the freedom of the Roaring ’20s and the dependency of the ’60s? It’s doubtful that Vivien realistically has that much freedom coming out of the Victorian era. And Claire lives in a society past 1940 and WWII when women became more involved with society and industry. Did society backtrack so much in 20 years? Culture is about to shift into an era of sexual freedom and equality, yet Claire is embarrassed from having an orgasm with her husband. Hood tries to explain this with a lengthy rundown of lessons Claire learned from her mother.
Claire came from a generation of women who did not question things. A generation raised by women who didn’t question. Before her mother died… she’d taught Claire the things she believed a woman needed to know: always wear a hat to keep the sun off your face so you don’t get wrinkles; moisturize every day; never to go bed with your makeup on; … a man likes soft hands; always get up before your husband so you can do your own morning routine in private, make yourself look pretty, and have his breakfast ready when he wakes up; keep up on current events; agree with your husband’s opinion, even if you think he’s a horse’s ass for believing that; … know how to sew a hem, darn a sock, replace a button—those skills will make you indispensable; … never refuse your husband’s sexual desires; … and Claire, honey, love goes out the window when there’s no money (181).
The list deftly illustrates the position that women were in during the early ’60s: they existed to look pretty for men, cook for men, and live for and submit to their men. Without question. Claire’s marital problems occur because she begins to ask questions and make no exceptions for her husband’s flaws. Only her guilt makes her silently acquiesce to him by way of apology instead of leaving.
Although these women are foils living in different eras, their connection is revealed toward the end of the story, which provides an intriguing moment of bonding and recognition. It also makes readers satisfied after encountering subtle hints and dramatic irony. As one story ends and another begins a new stage, the closure between the characters and the readers is complete—all questions are answered after a gentle goodbye, and Hood ends the novel there.
Any Deadly Thing
by Roy Kesey
Reviewed by Noah Gup
From its first lines, Kesey’s collection paints an unforgiving, even cruel, portrait of the world. A father attempts to cut his daughter’s hair. She screams, he grabs her, she bites him and runs off. As an opening sequence, it’s far from inviting, but Kesey’s keen sense of immediacy gives the action a primal, documentarian styled thrill. Later in the story, as the tension and violence escalates (as happens in many of the stories in this collection), it is Kesey’s devotion to character that keeps the story from veering into absurdity. At its core, the story is about a father and his daughter, and despite some unreal circumstances, Kesey’s collection
Dzanc Books 2013) is an intimate portrait of flawed people in search of redemption.
Familial and marital bonds are at the center of most of these stories, specifically the role of father and husband. Kesey’s intense situations demonstrate the limits of these connections, showing how strained relationships reaffirm and challenge notions of marriage and family. Often, they can be simultaneously disheartening and affirming, where his broken families (as in “Stillness”) manage to build bridges between generations only to burn the same bridges down. Yet the frequency of domestic drama and dysfunctional relationships is exhausting and ultimately makes several stories thematically redundant.
If the subject matter verges on monotony, the range of settings creates vivid distinctions between each story. Whether describing meth-infested backwoods or the protocol for handling attempted muggings in the capital of Paraguay (“if you do not let go, they will often scatter”), Kesey imbues the vast range of locales with tangible details.
The vividness of each location is due to Kesey’s beautiful, careful prose. Even in his simplest stories, bits of elegant language elevate the strained plot: “Northern California, he repeats, holding the words in his mouth like hummingbird eggs”. The collection’s best stories are its most eccentric stories, where his elegant writing is able to take center stage. In “Asuncion,” the narrator falls for his attempted mugger, only to begin a sexually charged, cat-and-mouse chase. Kesey’s narration perfects the line between affection and malice, dialing up the dread as the narrator’s actions become less altruistic and more predatory. In “Today/Tomorrow,” perhaps the collection’s strongest story, a man attempts to save his lover from an unknown stalker, the true hero is Kesey’s surreal, magical language. The story is a dream turned nightmare, delicately detailed throughout: “the birch trees spread their arms, hang like thieves, past you the cars ring and ring and the museum walls are a shadow box, headlights kaleidoscoping through the leaves, the wall sings with monochrome flurry and the accordion girl has stopped.”
In stories bound in reality, Kesey’s penchant for dramatic intensity occasionally undercuts his stories. In “Stillness,” a soap opera’s worth of family drama is condensed into a day of hunting, and the screaming conclusion feels awkwardly rushed. While the hunting sequence is riveting, the final twist derives its tension from dramatic clichés, sabotaging the story’s previously measured pace. In other stores, such as “Levee,” there is solid, tangible tension between father and son. However, Kesey shifts quickly between details of past and present, making the story ultimately feel haphazardly constructed. “Bloodwood,” whose powerful emotional core is the narrator’s connection with a wayward, drug-addled boy, is diluted by descriptions of his pet monkey and time working on the local radio station. There are powerful moments in nearly every story, but these often lose steam amid waves of unrelated details.
But when his stories are cohesive and tension is dialed up slowly, it is often breathtaking. In “Shadow Leaving Body,” what begins as a tale of a Japanese man’s futile attempts to find peace and quiet ends in an emotional gut-punch that is both tragic and humane. In “Scree,” a father lays with his sick son, attempting to fight off both dreams and his son’s sickness. Despite the fluid shifting between dreams and reality, the father’s devotion to his son is strikingly intimate: “the father starts rubbing his sons back, in case it helped, in case it helps.” And there are lighter stories, like the comic tale of an obsessive ornithologist who insists on studying hummingbirds or the downright romantic “Probably Somewhere,” that relieve the reader from the dark subject matte.
The collection’s final story, “Stump,” exemplifies the power and flaws of his collection as a whole. Describing a town schlump who follows a firemen call to help “a horse in a stump,” It’s overlong, elegantly written, and with an ending that is equal parts absurd and satisfyingly optimistic. Like his characters, Kesey’s collection isn’t perfect, but there is enough wrenching moments and lovely language to make a reader both exhausted and enthused by both the tense struggle and the faint glimmer of hope.
By Michael Kimball
Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $23, ISBN: 978-1-60819-854-2
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
Most metaphors weigh a few ounces. Big Ray weighs five hundred pounds. He isn’t the sort of metaphor that fits through a window. Think grand piano. And we’re talking dead weight, not live weight, so right away we know that all of Michael Kimball’s skills—his deft handling of gesture—aren’t going to be much help as he walks and drags and pushes the big refrigerator across nearly two hundred hysterically sad pages. Kimball does the heavy lifting, but don’t just sit there, help him! I did my part by making sound effects. Grunts and groans and gasps.
It’s amazing the author found the ends of some paragraphs. It’s amazing this story ever got told. When the book was released last September Kimball gave plenty of interviews, explaining the Rick Moody-like trans genre—half-memoir, half- roman a clef. Kimball doesn’t just write close to the wound. He does a cannonball off the high dive. Once he’s in the pool of old scars we see him doing an Esther Williams backstroke so precise the saltine cracker balanced on his forehead never gets soggy.
Big Ray is a predatory glutton. While I like to believe that every effect has at least two causes, Big Ray’s past is one of those that just sort of happens. His death unlocks the grief and memory of his son who tells the story. Although he died seven years ago, the story is told as if it had only happened a few pages before the book’s beginning. The son is still preoccupied with its details and logistics this long after.
My heart leaps up when I behold, some say. Those afraid to leap tend to have a lack of faith. It’s the landing—not the jump—that worries them. The son has a persistent not-knowingness—even the first sentence of this book contains the hedging word probably. He doesn’t know how old his father was when he died: “I can’t be exactly sure because my father had been dead for a few days before anybody found him…probably five days.”
The son’s way of grasping what he cannot understand is to learn the order of things, as if knowing all the minutes could make an irrational hour seem comprehensible. This book is an obsession on chronology. When he’s confused the son repeats what he knows and starts over, trying to find the connections between abstract effects and concrete causes. This is why, although he has his own life, a marriage, the world of a different city, the son is still a very young adult in spite of being his thirties. He knows what he feels, the physical reactions to his emotions, without knowing what those emotions are even seven years later.
As a witness, the narrator is unreliable because he seems so unformed, but we’re drawn into his experience by his methodical openness, his deadpan, his tone of Oh well, someone had to have their life destroyed. The fact that he seems to have so little agency for his own life is charming. Haven’t we all shrugged at life? Isn’t that why we cry when no one is looking? The son says in the early going: “For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. Everything about my father seemed complicated like that.”
Kimball’s willingness to engage the idea he’s created, to flesh out the metaphor, gives each of us a craft workshop in describing things which there are no words for. He doesn’t settle for calling his dad a fat monster, but rather, like Sexton “wondrously tunneling” into her own beasts, Kimball focuses on logistics. The way Big Ray sat in his truck sideways in order to drive, only able to make right turns. The way he sits on the floor because nothing can hold him. The way he pees all over the bathroom because he can neither see his penis nor the commode. In one old photograph of Big Ray in fifth grade “He’s trying to smile, but it looks like he hasn’t learned how.” Our rational mind doesn’t want to believe in the father, but our practical mind cannot not believe in him.
While the father becomes more real, more alive, in every chapter, the son is completely open about how pathetic his upbringing is. He doesn’t have any judgments to put on his dad’s head. The son seems nonplussed about missing out on a world that excited the rest of us. My buddy Rachel talks about that special age of boys who are carrying toy guns in one hand and teddy bears in the other. Big Ray’s son skipped that part of life. The world is just something to walk through—to endure—for the molested speaker. In one instance, the father’s inability to deal with his childhood wounds—his own father shooting and drowning all of the cats—contrasts mightily with the son’s trying explicitly to deal with the old hurts centering on his father:
That story was why, when I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have a cat. That was why I also wasn’t allowed to have a dog or any other kind of pet—no matter how many times I asked. As some kind of shiny consolation, my parents would buy me glossy photobooks of cats and dogs for my birthdays and Christmas. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I would pull one of the glossy photobooks down from the bookshelf in my bedroom and start naming the cats or the dogs.
The phenomenologists—if they exist—are not always right Kimball seems to be saying. We don’t know if something matters just because we can name it. We’re not even scratching the surface, because living isn’t only about the concepts. It can help us when we’re lonely, but no amount of drinking your own tears will slake your thirst. The complexities are what push back against answers and knowing, and the more the son describes the father, the more he seems to be describing himself: “I don’t know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life.” The son has a coin collection while Big Ray has a racy pinup medallion, and in one episode the son observes: “Sometimes, I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.”
Kimball is very slow to release information to the reader. When we first learn of Big Ray’s obesity in chapter nine it’s as if the son is reluctant to describe one way in which he and his dad were so different: “I need to say something else about my father. I don’t feel good about this, but the first thing I think about when I think about my father was how fat he was.” Kimball’s pacing uses many hundreds of micro paragraphs which approach us like mile markers. Some of the dolmens are rhapsodic and some are brief, and the chapters do not end, but merely stop. New chapters sometimes reflect a new time sequence, but not always. The plot points are based equally on action and realization, which is a little closer to how things seem in life where consciousness seems to matter as much as actually doing something. Soon after passing a mile marker which contains fat jokes, we come upon the next: “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”
This duality is present in one of my favorite scenes in the book when the father and son are playing poker. Big Ray is broke, and has to borrow money from his son to make ante: “…he had used half my life’s savings to win the other half of my life’s savings from me.” This brief reminiscence becomes one of Stuart Dybek’s “Magic Objects” toward the end of the novel when the son takes Big Ray’s ashes to Law Vegas.
Kimball is not shy about telling interviewers he wrote Big Ray in three months. Although we can all agree this had something to do with his having lived the book his whole life, I believe it has more to do with his developing skill as a writer. This is Kimball’s fourth book, although it’s his third published book since his third book, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story on a Postcard, was published, and re-published, recently. There’s also a collection of short stories which must be cooking.
Subject matter—in spite of overwhelming the speaker—is only part of the lyric in Big Ray. What exactly is Big Ray to the rest of us? Is Big Father a new of way of calling Big Brother? How do we write about weighty issues like AIDS, rape, child abuse, poverty without the subject overtaking the art?
There are many ways to answer these questions. This novel is one of them. A story about the child in each of us. A story about the Big Ray in each of us. That’s the value of looking at Big Ray as a metaphor and not only as Michael’s dad. If the child is the father of the Man, surely we must all be cousins. Bloomsbury re-released Big Ray in paperback this past June making it a perfect Father’s Day gift. It might not be what he had in mind, but it’s better than giving him another suit tie with strawberries printed on it.