Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.
Reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.
“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).
In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.
The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.
Marrowbone (Beetnik Press)
Relic (Appaloosa Press)
Unbridaled (Valium Vixen Press)
Reviewed by Brigette Bernagozzi
Several new chapbooks and independent literary presses have made their way into the world this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading three of them in particular. All three have been penned by women and all three relate to the natural world in mysterious ways. The first is Hannah Kreitzer’s Marrowbone, which has been described as a collection of “myths and fables” by the publisher: “These three stories will whisk the reader to arcane and mysterious lands, but the darkest journeys take place within the human heart.”
Indeed, Marrowbone delivers to the reader a strange world filled with unusual characters, including one of the most intriguing characters in this slim volume, a bony animal-like figure who befriends a fellow traveler:
That night the sun gave swift surrender to the butter-pale half moon. I fell asleep with ground squirrel and cold water in my stomach, the bonebuck’s ribs bracing my spine, and I dreamed a sky full of crows layered dozens-thick between the clouds and earth. Bones were strewn all through the field around me—ribs and limbs cast askew like forgotten omens. Snow came down through the crows’ wings, stacking up around the bones and settling on my boots…
The stories in this book lead the reader to some fascinating and unexpected places, and we never lose our confidence in Ms. Kreitzer’s vision and skill as we journey along with her characters. Chelsea Ardle, one of the publishers of Marrowbone and co-founder of Beetnik Press, shared with me her impressions of Ms. Kreitzer’s take on the natural world and of the chapbook itself:
Marrowbone takes the reader to places unknown, and yet, emotionally familiar—a woman going through her time of the month, trying to find some comfort; a girl trying to find her rhythm on a path unknown; a love lost. In her fictional tales, Kreitzer uses subtle symbolism to tell old stories through new eyes. In her descriptions of place, I think it is easy to recognize the author’s own ties to land.
On a more personal note, the publisher continues: “I will tell you here that Kreitzer is a strong supporter of being barefoot for as long as it is possible during the year. Her feet are calloused and knowledgeable of the places she has walked, the land she lives on. This fact, shows through in the chapbooks stories to me, especially ‘Threefold.’”
As I read this volume, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Ms. Kreitzer distills the mysterious into concrete terms. A native of Maine, she cites as one of her writerly influences John Prine, “who is a quiet master of earth-stained truth and humor,” and has said of her own connection to place: “I love the woods and the dirt and the shared heritage of stoicism. Being from Maine means knowing something about space and silence. I’m grateful for that.” Ms. Kreitzer has proven herself an expert in those very topics via the earthy yet elusive stories in this collection.
After hearing Lorena Williams read from her new nonfiction chapbook Relic last week in Braddock, PA, I quickly became enamored with the honest resilience of her prose. While she is currently a writing teacher at two universities, the bio on the back of the book also tells me that she has played the roles of “Wilderness Ranger… wildland firefighter…and…whitewater guide,” so by the time I open her chapbook to the first page, her well-wrought descriptions of place don’t surprise so much as thrill the restless wanderer buried somewhere within me. Her descriptions of the natural environment are shot through with a quiet kind of beauty:
My jog takes me along the ditch road past rolling hills of sagebrush, the windswept Oregon desert silent but for the tee-dee, tee-dee of pygmy nuthatches huddled together in the morning sun. The crunch of my shoes through crusty snow disturbs the tiny blue-gray birds into a chattering departure, only for them to alight on the very same branches moments after I pass.
Ms. Williams displays a finely tuned sense of place in these tales, as befits her biography on the back cover. I find myself intrigued with this description of the author’s roots: “A native of the American West, Lorena Williams has long preferred rock to brick, sage to streets.” Released by Appaloosa Press, Relic displays the tension between the Oregon landscape of Ms. Williams’ roots and the Pittsburgh cityscape that is her more recent home:
Content with the reasonably unchanged vista—the cows, the distant tractor making its way up Graham Boulevard—I turn toward home and prepare to lie.
“No—I actually really like living in a city,” I say through a mouthful of scrambled egg. “It’s great being so close to everything, you know? I ride my bike pretty much everywhere.”
Throughout Relic, Ms. Williams confides in the reader as she explores a kind of longing for the land of her childhood, and we can only respond with appreciation for the beauty of both her landscapes, real and longed-for, and her words themselves.
Shannon Hozinec’s chapbook Unbridaled, a book of poems, also makes its debut this week. According to her bio, Ms. Hozinec is a Pittsburgh poet who “is powered by an oft-lethal combination of whiskey and hairspray!” I appreciate the humor in this description, though the majority of poems featured in the book are of a far more serious nature than this brief description.
According to the publisher, this intriguing collection of poems “examines what happens in a post-apocalyptic society after a pseudo-human creature corrals a horde of lostlings under his wing. It engages with bloodlust and dominance, sacrifice and self-preservation, gender relegation and destruction—with what is earth, what is meat, and what is unalienable within us all.” An earthy kind of premise, indeed! While this description sounds terrifying to me, the poetry itself is a gifted mixture of surprising images and juxtapositions like this:
The sky ate and ate, clutching
the open spaces in our jaws where
it flashed through and became the world.
and this one from later in the same poem:
Past the hungry days, gathered,
shudder as we remember how it felt to eat our least favorite dogs.
On the whole, I found Ms. Hozinec’s use of language to be thought-provoking and often astonishing. Witness for yourself in an excerpt from “The Melting Town”:
Besmeared with mud as we were–
as we walked, we created the ground. And oh,
we are such a wooden bunch,
wearing gristle-grain proudly on our chests–
each step turned old beasts to ash.
Her images resound and linger, long after the book has been set down.
Engaging in Life with Barrett Warner, Associate Editor of Free State Review
By Nicole Bartley
At first glance, you may not believe that a man who raises horses at his farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder watershed is also a poetry editor for a literary magazine. Yet Maryland’s new biannual literary magazine, Free State Review, saw both its first issue release for Winter 2013 and Barrett Warner’s inauguration run as an associate editor. Warner’s lifestyle fits well with the magazine’s theme of “people doing things.”
Warner, a poet himself, concentrates primarily on poetry submissions and helps with short stories. However, much of the magazine’s content does cross his desk. He is also a reviewer for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, California Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Natural Bridge, and Comstock Review, among others. His chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published by Tropos Press.
Coal Hill Review managed to distract him from his busy schedule for an interview before a reading event in Pittsburgh on April 17, during which editors and featured writers will present at the East End Book Exchange.
Coal Hill Review: What got you into writing?
Barrett Warner: I was one of those kids that was just fascinated by letters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing letters. When I was in 2nd grade, I read the Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum. It just totally set me sailing. I dabbled at [writing stories]. When I was in high school, I began writing stories in earnest. I had an ability to type three pages an hour and always had three hours. I must have three dozen stories from that period, all nine pages long.
CRH: When and why did you shift toward editing literary magazines?
BW: It was a shift that was 35 years in the making. I shifted primarily to writing poetry in 1994. I had published a dozen stories and was a finalist for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University right out of college. I didn’t get it, but I was sort of on a real fiction track. I segued into editing by starting with revising my own poems. When I switched to writing poetry, most of my poems were outlines for writing my stories. It took me 10 years of revision to write the short story out of my poem.
CRH: How did you get the job?
BW: One of the other editors knew me and knew my work, and knew that in the past year I’d been doing a lot of book reviews and felt like I would be a good person. I had a lot of breadth of knowledge of what was out there and what people were trying to do. I’d written a lot of essays on it. It was just sort of putting a couple things together and it worked out.
CRH: How were you approached to do it? What was your reaction?
BW: The other senior editor called me up and I immediately wanted to do it. Part of it was anything that my friend Jim Clark was involved in, I felt like I wanted to be part of. I just knew instantly that I wanted to do it.
CHR: Were you part of the process to start this new literary magazine?
BW: Hal Burdett… he recruited Jim Clark and Jim recruited me. There’s another person who helps out with some of the readings we have and some of the managing. Her name is Raphaela Cassandra.
CHR: Did you set out to emulate a particular literary magazine, or to start with a clean slate?
BW: I’ve been publishing my work since 1982; Jim since 1966. Both he and I had seen a lot of literary reviews come—some make a splash—and we also saw ones that seem to stick around for a while. We knew what our own experiences had done and we just wanted to steal from the best and try to be original—just try to have our own focus. We knew what we liked and we just wanted to concentrate on that for the most part. We like the print journal, we liked activities, so a lot of the literature in our journal is not so much conceptual and speculative, it’s more like people doing things.
We really emphasize that we like literature that comes out of action. It doesn’t mean like an action-thriller. The easiest way to look at it: It used to be that you’d have a window installed by somebody that made the glass. There’s a real sort of in-touch with reality there. We go for the literature of people who are out there doing something and living life. Riding horses, rolling up nets, just engaged in life rather than a more academic sort of thing.
CHR: Were there any dreams for this literary magazine? What were the realistic expectations?
BW: Well, we sort of dream one issue at a time. Hal comes from this newspaper background, so the big thing in newspapers is distribution. We didn’t want this to necessarily be something that was read by 100 people just like ourselves—we wanted to see if we could get it out there in the world, both to be read by other writers and also with general readership. We want to be able to support print runs of 500. We want it to become a national literary magazine.
CHR: How was its name created?
BW: We were just kicking around some ideas and we like the Maryland state motto (The Free State), and just started with that. We’re all Marylanders. It’s sort of like a Maryland’s publication, but at the same time it’s also a little bit like bringing in the world a little bit and exporting the state a little bit.
CHR: How did you determine the cover image? Does it match with the magazine’s contents, or stand alone?
BW: When Mark Strand was in Baltimore, we got to know him a little bit. As a result, we had some of his paintings. I just asked him, “Mark, do you mind if we use [one] for the cover?” And he said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” The way it transferred to the cover, you can’t see it well. It’s a very sort of Prince Edward seascape. In the original painting, it … [is] as if you’re viewing a book that’s opened—viewing it from the top. Not all of that came out when we digitized it. We just thought it was a striking portrait of land, sea, and sky. I do think it matches with the content in the sense of cross-genre. We have a poem submitted by a novelist, we’ve got an essay by a poet, we’ve got a poet who wrote two short stories in plain verse. So there’s a real cross-genre element of people stepping outside themselves. Mark is much more known as a poet, so that’s why we were interested in having him as a painter.
CHR: Was there a minimum page count in mind for the first issue?
BW: We just wanted to have enough pages to be able to have a spine, so that put us in the 60s range. We ended up having around 90 pages. We were really worried we weren’t going to have enough pages. But submissions came in. The funny thing is that we had only one rejection.
CHR: How did you advertise for submissions?
BW: We just put the word out like word of mouth. We canvassed a lot of readings and talked to people. We sent smoke signals up everywhere. We did everything we could to put the word out during announcements at the poetry readings—we let people know we were up and running. We felt like we got some really nice submissions. For the next issue, of course, we got swamped by submissions. [Page count is] not a problem we’re ever going to have again.
CHR: Did you solicit for stories and, if so, how did you decide who you were going to ask?
BW: We just let people know that we were putting together a literary review. A couple of people that sort of followed my book reviews, they knew about it, so some of them sent in work. We didn’t make a special appeal.
CHR: Will you solicit in the future?
BW: Our policy is: “Hey, we’re just letting people know.” We feel really good about it. We think these issues are taking really nice shapes. I suspect if we have special theme issues, [we will solicit].
CHR: How long did it take to receive submissions after advertising?
BW: It took about two months before we got the first batch in. In the first batch was Edgar Silex, Barbara DeCesare, Chris Toll (who died after he submitted), and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The interesting thing there is that Edgar and Chris and Barbara were veteran writers. Jessica Lynn Dotson had not published anything before. But since we took those two poems, she’s been in six other magazines and has a Pushcart nomination. She’s just skyrocketing—this is all within three months. Two other authors, Bethany Schultz Hurst and Katherine Cottle, after we accepted their work, they became finalists for the Yale Younger Poetry Award.
Part of the success, I think, is that we were able to put the word out and we’ve been in the business a long time. Probably, if you ask the other writers, they would say, “I always wondered how long it would take Bar and Jim to do something like this.” The other thing is: Because we’re so involved with literature, writing poems and stories and doing all the book reviews and going to a lot of readings, we’re all able to find these authors when they’re really on the rise.
CHR: How did you determine what piece is featured on the website, like Bethany Schultz Hurst’s?
BW: We’re just basically trying to feature a different one every month. First we chose Scott King, and then we chose Bethany. Part of it had to do with the timing of when they made submissions. Scott King submitted his work early, so we had more time to fall in love with him. As for Bethany, she is somebody I’ve sort of been tracking for six months and I’m seeing her get more and more stuff out there. So I felt like I knew her a little bit as well. The point of the splash page on the website is to share a story about the author, if there’s a story to be told.
CHR: Is anyone on the staff paid, or is it all volunteer?
BW: We’re all crazy volunteers.
CHR: 14 clams?
BW: We’re happy to receive clams. We were offered a dozen oysters, but that’s not a rarity in Annapolis. We took the oysters but we still made them buy the review. None of us are used to being hustlers—we’re not used to being salesman. We’re just trying on these outfits and doing the best we can to make it work.
A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, poems and prose by Megan McShea. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2012.
Reviewed by C.L. Bedsoe
When I read collections like this, I’m frequently reminded of the excellent poem (and song) “It’s Saturday” by John S. Hall which contains one of my favorite lines: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed.” Hall is getting at the core of art. There’s something in it that doesn’t have to be explained, perhaps shouldn’t be explained. McShea’s collection, similarly, doesn’t jump out and fish-slap the reader with obvious meaning. Rather, it gambols around meaning like an impromptu interpretive dance. Poems range from the building blocks of “Table Saw,” each line of which begins with “Table” and adds another word which changes the meaning of each successive line: “Table/Table saw/Table saw bird” etc. to surreal stories like “The Appointment,” whose imagery shifts like a stream-of-conscious fill-in-the-blank. Here’s an excerpt from near the middle of the flash piece, in which McShea describes a mother and son’s outing. They go to a building which immediately doesn’t impress. It is “flatter than we had imagined it” and has a confusing intercom: “It sounded like the ocean, but in a very high resolution, with cries of bird and shouts tossed by waves and even sand under our feet.” They undress and wait in a room:
“This is nothing like I expected,” said my mother, who had persuaded me to join her in coming here. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked. “I thought it would be rosy, like a womb,” she said. She sounded sad.
“Change your rabbits!” came a shout from up the stairs, and then again, descending closer, “change your rabbits immediately!” A man in coveralls appeared with wide black eyes. “Oh, pardom me,” he said when he saw us there. “You’re not the people I thought you were.”
But it was too late, for mother and I had already changed our rabbits.
McShea is quite playful. She’s included poems with titles such as “Four Unrelated Sentences with Unrelated Elements,” “Conditional Clauses,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is a deconstruction of the titular pledge, but also an homage to the idea of the thing. “Three Large Swollen Things” is a triptych in which each line section is an acrostic spelling out “Large Swollen Things.” From section 1:
Lingering amidst our
rigged up with fancy
glows a bride
entirely made of cotton
sticks to sin talk
when it wants fed
options evaporate quickly then
like it never lost anything
not without a certain inky grace
to be hewn from
in their suckling linens
nesting there like a
gull out of
“11 Irritations that Morning” is a more straightforward poem. It begins, “I want things and beautiful/light, a perfectly soft don’t.” It’s a beautiful ode to being. “On the street, that recently-cleaned texture/of things. To be alone daily makes/everyone seem interesting.” And isn’t that what poetry’s all about?
McShea is a mistress of sound and mood. “Baltimore Prayer” is a wonderful example:
Precisely this fogged window, which prevails in the cold, wet night, blinks out onto an uninhabited land of Other People’s houses and in sight of all that forgotten real estate, along with all the amiable conversations on phones across America and evenings shared in movie houses, around the corner from a recent homicide, down the block from wild lots and weeds, great unknowns, colossal, all evolving along with Darwin and his species. One’s life, assumed to be finite, ticking away. Night covers things up but you can still hear the rain.
Pressure comes from a thousand enemies buried in your heart. You practice fighting them, and then one day, it seems like they’re gone. One day, allowing for silences, it breaks. You can prepare. It’s like preaching. Ready yourself.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
by Sean Patrick Hill
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2011.
BlazeVox poetry collections tend to have three things in common: physically, they tend to be oversized (not necessarily thick, but wide or tall) and very attractive; stylistically, they tend to be experimental (whatever that means – so basically, they don’t usually publish poems that slap the reader in the face with obvious meaning, but rather poems that require a little bit of work; you might need to strap on your snorkel, fins, and air tank to plumb the depths of a BlazeVox collection) which doesn’t mean that they’re simply gibberish; and quality-wise, they tend to be pretty strong. I can think of several recent BlazeVox collections I’ve really enjoyed: Sarah Sarai’s The Future Is Happy, Kristinia Marie Darling’s The Moon and Other Inventions, and Rob McLennan’s Grief Notes, to name a few. Hill’s collection has all of these qualities in common. It’s laid out length-wise with a beautiful cover, and it’s certainly a powerful collection of poetry by one of the most talented poets working today.
“The Emperor’s Nightingale” references the story of the mechanical nightingale we’ve all heard:
The song goes something like this: A kind of pining binds us in muslin and butcher’s strong. Only now have we begun to see to what extent we are unwritten. Leaves, integers, moths—of course we are machines in the ghost. I never said I wanted everything I touch to resemble gold.
Hill weaves a surreal tapestry reflecting a rural, poor upbringing in fresh, powerful images. “How is it we forget that some of us are not allowed to remain/poor,” he says, in “Poem” (7-8). There is comfort, of course, in the familiar, even if that familiar environment is a negative or limiting one. And there’s beauty in even the bleakest stories. “Moon reflected in a moving window” tells the story of a train wreck. It begins, “Cassidy laid his head like a zinc penny on the track./At five, the freight arrived from Omaha.” (1-2). He continues, “We’ve heard the story at every crossing, walking to the factory:/Kid wearing earphones full of noise, deaf to the afternoon.” (7-8). Hill is subtle, but isn’t that kid wearing the earphones BECAUSE he’s walking to the factory, which is probably his only real option for making even decent money? He’s hiding from the hopelessness of his world—that same world that might kill him. But in addition to the narrative aspects, Hill’s language describes the setting vividly: “A dog barks at the moon reflected in a moving window./Skin thickens around the ankles of utility poles.” The thickening skin, literally, could mean tar, but it implies so much so subtly. (4-5). In “Crossing Idaho,” he describes the weather: “Like a coffin carried on stage, snow falls and falls.” (1). One is reminded of Chekov’s line about the pistol in the first act. It’s not just the vividness of Hill’s imagery that’s outstanding; it’s the way he weights those descriptions with such powerful implications. In “The Taste of Bone,” he reminds us, “All we need do to experience disaster is be born.” (8).
Hill’s first collection, The Imagined Field, was an excellent debut, and he’s refined his talent here.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found themselves staring out the window and wondering at what we saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. IN her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:
On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free. (lines 1-6).
Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.
The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).
Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.
But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.
The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Soho Press, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Readers already know the ending of The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson when they begin the story. That’s what happens when it’s based off historical events, the back summary describes those events, and the prologue reveals too much. We know the main character poisons men in her village, gets caught, and survives—though she doesn’t know how she managed it all.
But that’s the whole point: She doesn’t know. The readers are tasked to figure it out. This book was never about what happens—it’s about how it happens and why. Instead of providing readers with a twist or surprise ending, Gregson takes them on a long journey.
Sari, the main character who was branded as a witch and is a social pariah, becomes engaged to her cousin Ferenc soon before her father dies. Within months after her father’s death, Ferenc and the rest of the village men are called off to fight in World War I. This results in the women letting their guards down and easing into comfortable friendships. When Italian POWs arrive, most of the villagers begin to conduct affairs. After the husbands return broken or more abusive, their women search for an escape. Sari discovers that her sweet fiancé has turned into a controlling, paranoid man. This sparks the village poisonings that go on for years. For a while, the other women view death as an easy fix to life’s problems until a botched murder attempt.
The story is faithful to historical events in Nagyrév, Hungary, between 1914 and 1929. The main midwife Julia turns into Judit, and Susi turns into Sari, Judit’s apprentice and the clerk who signs death certificates. The method of creating arsenic is the same, as are the detections and criminal investigation methods. Gregson researched the incidents well and incorporated all of them, weaving together possibilities with facts.
Despite deaths and legal ramifications, there is no grand climax, and there isn’t meant to be. Life is composed of defining moments of intense conflict and mundane actions, as if it follows rolling hills. So instead of a dramatic accusation, the final conflict is quiet and gradual, almost to the point of anticlimactic. However, this quality of authenticity is hindered by most of the characters lacking depth.
Perhaps Gregson’s characters couldn’t evolve during the writing process because she tried to adhere so closely to historical facts. Thus, most of the villagers represent shallow archetypes and are dull, predictable plot points. It’s hard to care about any of them. There is the battered wife who is quiet but has great personality when she’s left alone long enough; the wizened crone whom everyone else fears, but is really a pushover; the war-torn fiancé; the abusing husband; the kind and worldly older Italian lover; and the snobby village queen bee.
Of those, the strongest characters are Judit and Ferenc. Judit is crude, cynical, and indifferent toward the villagers, but also honest and affectionate toward Sari. They are kindred spirits because they are both outcasts and deal in herb lore. Judit emits an air of experience to the extent that she no longer cares about life. She is an aged bottle of wine turned to vinegar.
Ferenc is a well-rounded dynamic character. The gradual alterations in his personality are fantastic. He begins sweet and caring, if a little consumed by hormones. Readers will begin to believe that he’ll take good care of Sari after they’re married, and he’ll treat her well and appreciate everything about who she is. And finally, someone in life other than Judit will want her. However, readers’ faiths in him begin to falter when he imagines Sari’s likeness above the battlefield—apart, untainted. He becomes obsessed with his idea of her; she becomes his salvation and sense of control. His disappointment after returning to her reality contributes to his downfall. When he comes home, he’s mentally and emotionally broken. He’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and he’s paranoid. He begins to doubt Sari and control everything about their lives.
An excellent moment of foreshadowing occurs before he beats her. Sari knows that something is wrong. She recognizes Ferenc’s tightening control over her, his loosening grip on himself, and his absolute need for her. Gregson writes:
“They are engaged, they will marry, and then she will be his. She would be just the tonic he needs, to build up his strength, to make him brave enough to leave the house, to reclaim his life again. It’s different, everything is different now, but she’s still his. She is still his” (151).
It seems as if this realization should have been reason enough to leave. However, Sari makes excuses and tries to ignore the warning signs. In fact, readers will recognize danger in this passage but to Sari, it represents a balm of excuses to soothe her growing concerns.
Then he beats her. Savagely. And for petty reasons. After he’s done, his condescending words almost drip poison from the page. If any character in this book is meant to evoke emotion or malice from the readers, it could be him; it’s a mark of good writing when a character pisses off a reader. And Gregson’s technique of including Sari’s name in Ferenc’s dialogue—like speaking to an unruly but punished child—is particularly effective.
Sair, however, is just plain aggravating. Readers may be able to sympathize with her situation, but not with her. She is methodical and clever, but her emotions are flat and distant. Sari seems to observe her world and choose what to react to. She is supposed to be aloof; instead, she is stiff and predictable, as if she is always under the author’s control. Again, this may be from adhering to historical events. There is little substance that makes the readers feel sympathetic toward her. Readers may react more with “All right, let’s see what you do next,” instead of “I can’t wait to learn what happens!”
When the beatings begin, suddenly every aspect of womanhood roars into the story. Initially, Sari becomes annoying because of submitting and making excuses so easily. But when Ferenc endangers her child’s life, she becomes herself. The strength that the narration always talks about surfaces and readers finally see what Sari is capable of doing. But it ends there and she soon returns to her old self.
This is where the third-person point of view has failed Gregson. The prologue is intriguing and beguiling, albeit a bit too revealing, because it opens with first-person narration. But its style sets a false stage for the rest of the book. When chapter one begins, the point of view shifts to third person. Readers are sucked away from the main character to watch as bystanders. It doesn’t matter how much the narration describes Sari’s thoughts and emotions, the readers cannot feel much because of the distance. Due to this and the prologue’s reveal of Sari’s survival, readers cannot feel invested in her character. Thus when she loses “all the vital, vibrant parts of her” (180), it doesn’t seem as disheartening as it could have been.
If that was the only point of view shift, Gregson could have been forgiven. However, it happens constantly. It jumps between characters, as if the camera looks over their shoulders for a few paragraphs before returning to Sari. Mostly this happens with appropriate section breaks and isolated paragraphs. But sometimes the shifts occur for a sentence or two in the middle of a steady section. This spins readers around, and they either falter at the abrupt and momentary change or continue reading with a mild sense that something indeterminate tilted that world. It is hard to tell if this tactic is intentional or if it reveals a faulty craft.
Overall, the novel represents well the victim’s state of mind and the progression of abuse, but in the end the characters are bland and unsympathetic, and the prose style is flawed. The result, unfortunately, is a novel that fails to engage us.
The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The Susquehanna is an old river. Kerouac called it “the mighty ghost of the East.” At 440 miles, it’s the longest river to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a lot of haunt, but author Gary Fincke doesn’t scare easy. The director of the Writing Institute at Susquehanna University has published over twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. Although the Pittsburgh native jay-walks between genres, he’s primarily known as a poet. Fincke’s most recent offering, The History of Permanence, won the 2011 Stephen Austin Poetry Prize. All but two of its twenty-eight poems and sequences were previously published, making this book feel like a greatest hits collection. The adverbacious liner notes say Fincke “has built a reputation for his skill at combining the realism of personal narrative with the realism of the fantastic precisely imagined.”
Fincke’s subjects are everyday, ordinary people to whom very bizarre things might happen on a Tuesday. The collection begins with “The Possibility for Wings,” a meditation on what aerodynamic form our souls return—the suicides getting crows, the lonely hearts getting butterflies. Two friends speculate the winged possibilities for their own passe composse, their souls becoming “moths or whatever” and the speaker chooses the “poorwill,/ the only bird that hibernates.” As if listening to this conversation, the Gods send an airplane overhead, “shaping our fear against the summoned sky.” The speaker never says it was divine intervention, or something random, but in many places where Fincke knits the ludicrous with the day to day—such as neighbors chatting in the backyard—there’s a spiritual energy at play. The reader feels the spirit by its sudden arrival or sudden departure from the poem, and sometimes by characters who are seeking that energy, and not finding it.
“The Serious Surprise of Sorrow” begins “She’s twelve, the girl who discovers a foot/ Washed ashore in British Columbia./ Interviewed, she chatters, puzzled, amazed.” This poem is written in blank verse tercets, creating a kind of order when realities collide. Also, by focusing on the girl instead of the foot, the reader is invested before the absurd takes hold which becomes apparent when two more feet wash ashore, both left ones like the first, each wearing a size twelve running shoe, a size as big as the girl is old. The concluding image finds old men with metal detectors, moving as if wearing prosthetic feet, “Walking with stuttering steps like robins,/ Their heads cocked a moment, then cocked again,/ Their beaks passing over the unmown grass,/ Listening for the soil’s faintest sound.” A poem, then, about everyone looking for a certain random and holy energy, “becoming the urban legend,” or perhaps, leg end, of the mysterious left feet.
Fincke seems to love teaching poetry as much as he does writing it. At Susquehanna University, twenty-eight percent of the graduates have taken courses in his small department, making his the biggest rival of the Science and Business programs. So it’s not a surprise to find a few poems about poetry in this volume, notably “Meat-Eaters” which contrasts two different writing approaches:
In B-films, the carnivorous plants
Are always huge. They swallow anyone
Who wanders near, a single knot of vines
Tugging a victim into the dark maw
Of horror, not discriminating
At all, as if eating were accident.
Fincke observes a killing field of sundews in England which consume millions of butterflies—the souls of lonely hearts—but his final rhapsody is for the Venus flytrap because for the poet “working alone, selectivity/ Is what matters.” The plant “Measures its meals so it doesn’t/ Squander the down time of digestion/ on the undersized. The jaw seals/ Slowly, the spaces between its teeth/ Allowing the escape of small insects…Not through mercy, but efficiency.”
One of the most efficient techniques Fincke uses for his hyper real and hyper absurd marriages is to be very tidy in how he enters and leaves a poem. His care with getting into a poem spares the reader the over-written set-up most poets rely on for unexpected juxtaposition. His poem “Selflessness” is a marvel in how he gets from the animal kingdom to a single trans-gendered womb in less than forty syllables so that in the space of fix or six breaths the reader finds himself in very new territory but without any whiplash:
In the animal kingdom among fish,
one father carries all of the laid eggs
in his mouth sixty-five day starvation,
to make the flexible, deep mouth a womb.
This poem evokes the simplicity of parenting and fatherhood in general: the fish spitting out the babies and taking them back in his mouth at night, the daily chores of being a selfless dad. One of the hardest things to do when writing blank verse is to use language which still gives the feeling of a poem rather than a story, and this must have been additionally hard for a poet who’s an accomplished short story writer. When he uses blank verse Fincke puts a stop—a comma, a period, an em dash—somewhere in the middle of each line. He uses verbs for description—puzzled, amazed—and keeps analysis to a minimum. You’d have to be a real asshole to find something wrong with these touches, but unfortunately, I’m an asshole. In “Selflessness” Fincke’s language gets a little too religious, with his clunky “Such sacrifice” and “his mouth like God” and “He’s a living prayer.” This makes it seem like he’s taking a shortcut to suggest something sacred or mystical. Fincke is much better merely implying some spirit energy rather than being so out loud about it. He’s even forgiving of the father at the end: “…every father has his limits, and so/ does this one, turning his back, one morning,/ as they feed, swimming away while he still/ knows them, before his children grow so large/ he can’t tell them from what he hungers for./ If he forgets to flee, he will eat them.” Fincke’s excellent departure line returns the terrifying moment to the ordinary behavior. The father is essential, but deadly.
Fincke is so aware of the demonic tendencies in his world he would never have to spend a weekend in Iraq in order to write a book of poems about torture. The exotic is not the thing; rather, the interplay, that millisecond vibration one feels before a light flicks on. In Pennsylvania, we need only to do a little fishing, or some casual gardening. If the season’s not right for cultivation, try the florist. In his poem “The Doctrine of Signatures” a man seeks a certain something: :The woman who followed me from flower/ To flower said Birthday? Anniversary?/ And I shook my head among the arrangements/ Until she shifted to Accident? Sickness?” Paracelsus’ Doctrine of Signatures assigned healing purposes to flowers and seeds based on shape, size and shade. The speaker wanders aisles finding remedies for pancreas and liver and soul, “the flowers that form like tumor…scattered/ Like great seasonings for the earth, blended/ So perfectly they lie invisible/ Until they rise from our astonished tongues.”
Some people feel ashamed about the ordinary. Every next generation is screaming to be different from the former, yet all of its revolutionary members are wearing the same Earth shoes, or “Crocks” or Nike running shoes. Fincke’s riddle is that the more we’re dependent on communities, the more our individuality wants to spark and reclaim its own freedoms, and to do this while still making connections and feeling empathy. Kerouac’s restless bone was geographic. Fincke’s bone is temporal. He carves and shapes vast stretches of Time and this sometimes makes it tricky to not come off as a Delphic Oracle. The quotidian elements of his narrative threads are the perfect fuzzy handcuffs to rein his big reach. “Specificity” is an elegy, in a modern sense, for the poet’s friend Len Roberts: “Until I was twelve, worn out/ and God’s will were the reasons/ my relatives died.” Fincke calls it King James medicine, and he pushes back to his mother, his grandmother, and his great greats in creating the evolution of mystery. When the poem ends, that mighty old ghost of mystery is still at it:
And now, after memorial,
after an hour of tributes
by poets who traveled hours
to eulogize, I sit with my wife
who orders a glass of Chambord
for a small, expensive pleasure
in a well-decorated room,
the possibility of happiness
surprising us in the way
hummingbirds do, stuck in the air,
just now outside this window,
attracted to the joy of sweetness
despite the clear foreshadowing
of their tiny, sprinting hearts.
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles is an agonizing 10.5-hours-long piece of existentialist fiction. Most literature doesn’t evoke the rage in me that resulted from this book; I’d consider burning it if I hadn’t only listened to its audiobook.
According to the blurb, “Paul Bowles’s writing is so extraordinary, so special. The landscapes are magical, the characters are questioning so much–it’s haunting in a very beautiful way.” In addition, it is “a landmark of 20th century literature, a novel of existential despair that examines the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness of the desert.”
It’s also about detachment from the world and loved ones, and nihilistic tendencies that leave characters both empty and dumb. The story includes a love triangle within a faithless marriage, set in the vast expanses of North African deserts during post-WWII. There are culture clashes, international conflicts, and sickness. All that is fine, because it’s enough to make anyone ask, “Why the hell am I here?” and find a way to escape, which establishes a good story.
But, it belabored the existential theme to the point that I had to ask: “Why the hell am I listening to this?”
I’m all for existentialist fiction, but not when characters contemplate their existence only because the author seems to demand it, instead of developing existential crises on their own. Every character is selfish, naive, conceited, pompous, spoiled, and pretentious. I couldn’t care for or about any of them; nothing in their lives made me feel sympathetic toward them. The two men are unremarkable and unmemorable, but it’s the woman, Kit, who really pissed me off.
Through her actions, Bowles reveals that he knows nothing about wome. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought women were all irrational, flighty, weak, stupid, and overly emotional. Kit gives women everywhere a bad reputation. She avoids her husband, Port, despite passionate proclamations of love; has sex with the family friend, Tunner, despite said proclamation that was made to him; and even locks Port in a room while he’s on his deathbed. Spoiler Alert! She leaves his corpse there to rot, locked in that room, for the authorities to find.
What woman does that? I can go only so far in rationalizing her actions. She’s in shock. Ok, fine. She’s in shock and wants nothing nearby that reminds her of a faithless, failing marriage and a body she doesn’t know how to properly dispose. So she runs. Stupid woman, who has a passport, runs into the desert instead of deciding to return home to the United States.
Kit is also a slut. She finds people to make decisions for her in exchange for sexual favors, so all she has to do is exist. She falls in love with every male that gives her attention. She even expects a strange man riding past on a white horse to save her as if he’s her Prince Charming. In fact, she lifts her arms to him, as if he were going to swoop down and carry her off somewhere grand just because she’s pretty. She goes as far as saying she loves a different man after just meeting and sleeping with him, despite having also just met his wife. When she leaves this married man, she is accepted into a random caravan and is raped. Repeatedly. By two men. But somehow that’s okay.
And that’s what pissed me off. She accepts rape from a stranger as an act of love. She makes feeble attempts to smack him away and then lies there and accepts it like he’s a long-lost lover. What woman does that? What woman thinks, “He’s not doing this for himself. Every motion he makes is for me alone; they’re loving touches.” What woman begins to consider her rapist with affection?
A woman fights. She kicks, punches, and claws her way out unless she has a weapon pointed at her, which Kit did not. Because as a woman in that situation, even if the rape occurs, even if you’re battered and broken, you can be sure that you fought through it. But not Kit! Oh no. She loves him the moment she believes that he’s caressing her. She loves him so fervently that when his companion mounts her, she just stares at the “accommodating” first rapist in confusion and reproach. As if that, alone, would make him repent.
And of course, the initial rape is swept aside in florid prose meant to make the reader pause to consider symbolic implications of every little detail. We are detached from the action, just like Kit is mentally and emotionally detached from everything. She’s raped, but during it, let’s wonder at the glory of the rising and falling sand dunes of the Sahara desert. Such a technique is like a camera panning over to fluttering curtains next to an open window during sex scenes, back when movies strove for propriety.
Afterwards, she becomes his sex slave, pines for other male residents in a household while being held captive, and doesn’t argue when she’s forced to marry her rapist. In fact, when she finally flees, she’s still married to him—though I’m sure that doesn’t prevent her from sleeping with other random men along the way.
The argument that events and decisions are pertinent only to this character’s personality is weak, specifically because her characterization is weak. I never acquired a full sense of who these people were. Although Kit’s actions were always a surprise, I never learned anything more about her, no added depth.
So yes, I hated this book. It only serves to perpetuate the prejudices against women–flighty, irrational, over-emotional sluts and bat-shit crazy dolts. Oh, and it’s okay to rape, because she’ll love you for it. No thank you, Paul Bowles. You can keep your despicable and deplorable characters and your mutually cheating real-life marriage; meanwhile, I’ll block this book from memory.
Salt Pier (Pitt Poetry Series)
by Dore Kiesselbach
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Dore Kiesselbach brings forth in this slim volume a true, robust, and fully novel burst of poetry—an outpouring that appears like a new crop, with a lot of little things to find in the market-sized assortment that it tallies as a whole. Poems such as “Infection” and “Bullet Ant” speak with a sudden and powerful economy of illness, danger, and other conditions of bodily harm. Dore Kiesselbach writes in a narrow sense on the page, taking up little room and having few poems wander longer than the slight piece of paper allows, but he is able to both fill up a massive space with the ideas he brings forth even when on seemingly simple topics. In this sense, his work reminds me a lot of the songs of the British pop group Saint Etienne insofar as how this band can place an entire wide concept—urban planning, for example, or British coastal towns—in the space of a three-minute song. Using easy, topical, titles such as “Commute” or “Balance”, Kiesselbach proceeds to interrogate every possible aspect of the extended meanings of these terms, in all their varied applications, but with a real sense of thrift and gravity, never toying with his concepts nor his reader but instead also furnishing only the most-useful of truths plainly told. If that does not sound, at first mention, like what we expect from poetry, we’re missing out on the greatest of powers that poems can hold, which is to offer truncated communication of the most-universal and expansive of ideas and subjects.
One of the most outstanding poems in the collection for me was “Protect and Serve” which tells the tale of the author stepping off a BART train—probably in Berkeley, certainly somewhere in the East Bay as he’s above-ground and Oakland is later mentioned. It is night and the author is lacking cab fare for the rest of the journey home so instead, he walks across a high bridge—a bridge a person shouldn’t be walking across at night nor in this odd manner. Passersby see him and fear the worst, summon the cops, and soon the author is under arrest for his own protection as an apparent suicide. What makes this poem stand out in part is that I also lived in the Bay Area and know the BART well—I can see this in action, I can see the policemen’s faces and their ease in guessing they have yet another depressed kid (as the cops in the poem do call our hero) on their hands. I can see the humor and I can see the very San Francisco nature of the whole absurd scene. Beyond that though, the aspects I marvel at in this wonderful—and also, like most of those collected here, short—poem are the wealth of small details included and the ability of the author to make this into . . . well, truly authorship. There is story-telling here, this has the tenor and command of a good short story. While a poem, there is a clear voice of the author—not only because he is speaking apparently from life experience but also because he demands from his poem the purpose of relating a story, a narrative, just as one would over a beer at the bar or a professor might at the start of class or a man on the radio would have in decades past. This is story-telling in the smart guise of a poem.
Most of Kiesselbach’s writing has a narrative tone to it, an event he has in mind to speak of, and the very best examples in this book are often those concerning nature:
Startled from snow-day slumber
by a neighbor’s mutt, it
banged its buzzard’s head
then couldn’t solve
the problem of the white
pine’s limbs with wings
nearly too broad
for a planned descent.
Somewhere a lumbering
angel knows whether
it was dead before
it hit the ground.
This is the poem “Turkey Fallen Dead from Tree”, at once funny and morose, absurd yet perfectly true-to-life in its telling of a very unfortunate incident for a rather awkward bird. These things do happen: as an avid hiker and woodsman I can tell you they really do, and the way such incidents unfold is caught here in a manner both adroit and unique.
Kiesselbach constantly walks the line between personal and universal, between science and the realm of myth-prone emotion. “Beach Thanksgiving”, one of my favorite of poems ever about the beach—and that I say as someone who adores and gobbles up all literature I can find of quality on beach-oriented topics—makes plain the magic of fellowship on the beach but also is true and sincere with its ample details. How, exactly, Kiesselbach fits so many details such as these into his poems I’m not quite certain even after reading them over and over again. In a poem like “Green Zone” we see bright flashes of Dylan Thomas but we also see the articulate voice of an architectural historian or social scientist looking down the busy rush-hour street and taking copious notes.
At points Dore Kiesselbach’s forthright plain language spills too many raw emotions out into the open and seems to lay naked to the eye things better wrapped in layers of dressing. His poem “Volley” concerns his father and family and is one such example, but when his poetry seems to suffer even in the slightest way from his honesty, we have to remind ourselves of all the poets—indeed, all the writers—who suffer from not giving enough instead of providing far too much. Another poem—which like “Volley” also speaks of his family—entitled “Apology” is more engrossing simply because it provides a shorter moment, a very direct and specific moment, for the reader to consider in relation to the expanded topic at hand.
Salt Pier is just full of energy—were the poems longer, they would feel like a full soccer match played with no half-time, such is the energy they carry. Some poems, such as “Ward”, feel long despite their economy. Some invite outside references while others are properly self-contained in their own little frames. Always, what he is doing is something both humble and bold. The poem “Windmill” reads like a thesis on contemporary life but it wasn’t meant as such out of the box, I feel pretty certain. Kiesselbach knows there is such a thing as trying too hard and overall avoids that in these poems, providing very nuanced readings of life that are powerful but never try for a higher goal than their immediate specifics foremost, and whatever other asides they contain are simply a bonus round for the reader. Rock and roll is alive and it lives in Minneapolis, Prince once sang, and poetry it appears also is alive and well and it lives with Dore in Minneapolis.
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I recently read two books, published twenty years apart, and both are works of genius. My first question to myself: How did I miss the one published in 1992, by an author whose work I have loved since the beginning? Somehow I did miss it— and then, after buying it, even lost track of it on my own shelf, among the stacks.
Dime-Store Alchemy by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic is a collection of prose poems (some call them short essays but I disagree) about the life and work of the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell (who also influenced Elizabeth Bishop.) Beginning with a preface that details Simic’s own fascination with Cornell and a short “chronology” of Cornell and his evolution as an artist, the
poems that follow, while exploring Cornell’s life and work, also serve as a memoir of Simic’s own travels through time and space. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.” (p. ix)
As we read we understand that Cornell’s obsessive and inspired use of collage, his reliance on “chance operations” (p. 30) also grounds Simic’s poetic approach.
…A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks
leaning against each other make a house. In that world
one plays the game of being someone else.
This is what Cornell was after too. How to construct a
vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination
of the viewer and keep him company forever.
(“The Truth of Poetry”)
This book is so wise, so rich, so surprising that I often find myself thinking I could spend an entire year on one sentence alone. And there are so many sentences like that! —far more than the number of years left to contemplate them. “All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image,” Simic tells us in the poem, “A Force Illegible. “
Below is a poem in its entirety that speaks to the quote above:
Our Angelic Ancestor
Rimbaud should have gone to America instead of Lake Chad. He’d be a hundred years old and rummaging through a discount store. Didn’t he say he liked stupid paintings, signs, popular engravings, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers?
Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more “Illuminations.”
Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a
“Since the beginning” almost describes my following of Frank Gaspar’s poetry. His first book, The Holyoke, won the Morse Poetry Prize (selected and introduced by Mary Oliver) in 1988. I came across the book a few years later and began using it for my poetry workshops (Gaspar has published four more books of poetry and two novels since then); I have used his poetry collections in my classes ever since, and always the students are blown away by his work.
But: Back to the twenty years apart: His most recent poetry collection Late Rapturous (published by Autumn House Press) came out in 2012. It is a widely and wildly visionary collection. Like Simic, Gaspar has become a master of the prose poem form, though the poems in Gaspar’s book are generally much longer and more densely packed. Cornell would have loved them, for, like Simic’s poems, they are masterful and ingenious constructions—poetic collages “in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives” (Simic, “The Truth of Poetry,” p.46).
In fact, the poems here seem like a culmination of all Gaspar’s previous work. And if you look at Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, his second collection, you will find a poem a little past midway into the book, called “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”—a poem which seems to foreshadow, to predict where his poetry will go in the future (beginning as he did in The Holyoke, with poems using stanza breaks, free verse lineation, a more open narrative, before he developed/discovered an ever richer, ever denser, prose poem form.)
Here are the prophetic last lines of “Love is the Power…”:
…Now, after all these years of reading
poems, I may finally understand certain questions
of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and
there is language with its catalog of figures, and
there is symmetry and breath. Every beginning
demands an end, every curve a consummation, and
the world and our lives must locate themselves in
image or cease to exist. This could be a kind of
Longing or a kind of Will. In seeking beauty it is
sometimes necessary to reject a familiar or even
an attractive form. If a symmetry is broken, we
begin again. In some things failure is impossible.
Yes, Gaspar’s new poems radiate wildly. They encompass. They refer. Like Simic’s book, they’re not afraid to exist in several dimensions or in several layers of existence at once—each poem a kind of “Cornell box”— “finite infinity,” as Dickinson said.
Now, to set something down in
the midst of folly, one true word, one simple cry out of the black arroyos
and dangerous washes, the canyons, the granite redoubts, but the lone sob
of the desert hen is not enough, the television’s mangled voices creeping
through the drywall and stucco are not enough…
(“June/July—Eleven Black Notebooks at the Desert Queen Motel”)
If the roof of the world is a wheel, if the heart of the world is a heart.
then you have another poem about truth, and if that’s the case
you had better not trust it, not trust its voice or its knowing vowels
or its perfumed arrogance. We’ve all been down that road, and it
leads to the edge of a town with one broken-down gasoline station
and its pile of yellowed ledgers, and one sad ghost wondering where
the glory days have slipped off to.
Now I am reading a book that tells me every raindrop falls to earth
exactly as it’s supposed to. That there are no errors. Therefore,
there is no therefore. Nothing to do then except go out to
the porch and listen to birdsong, listen to the prevailing
wind up in the leafless branches. Do no harm, I told myself.
Look for the small miracles. Already the moon was crisp in the east.
Already the moon was faultless behind the naked limbs, following
the black notes of the huddled birds, shining, and it wasn’t even dark yet.(“Do No Harm”)
The moment one begins to read Late Rapturous, one feels Dickinson’s “top of one’s head flying off,” the test, for her, of a true poem, a work of true genius.
In the Company of Spirits
poems by Carmen Calatayud
Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53. 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Calatayud is a DC poet, and like many in the DC scene, she understandably focuses on social issues, questions of involvement and public policy. This is the poetry of witness. She slips between potent scenes of tragedy to mythic portraits of landscape and people. The collection opens with “Tale from Chiapas,” a surreal portrait of evocative images:
In this country we count the trees, then count again.
We lift the streets by mixing paint.
Nine guardians live upstairs and we sing with them.
There’s a slit in the sky and we reach through to pull down the sun.
The imagery is dreamlike. There’s an unreal feel to this place. The poem portrays haunting memories, ghosts, “At times, tricky spirits swallow our eyes./They bring bad news like the black moths./We open the coffin, smell al alma during the wind.” (lines 7-9). She concludes, “We point to the northern sky before sleep smokes our limbs./Fig trees spin into ash, and we wash our soil with milk.” (lines 13-14). There’s optimism as well as a certain sense of foreboding.
“To My Father Juan, Who Thought There Was a War To End All Wars,” is one of the more powerful poems in the collection. She opens with a scene of brutality:
The soldiers took your Tio Rafa:
dragged out of bed and shot in the street
the Franco way
the Generalissimo in my dreams
sucked away your soul
when they killed Rafael.
You and your friends played soccer
around the bodies,
death was a daily smell
and the sound of mothers who screamed
hung in the air.
Calatayud tries to make sense of this situation, the same way her father tried to, “All of this, this wasn’t ordained by the Holy Ghost,” (line 19). His belief system is shattered. The effects of this are far reaching, even as an adult, Calatayud describes her father “hoarding canned food in the basement” (pg. 5, lines 23). But there’s no real solace to be had, no way to protect oneself and one’s family against something like this.
So when faced with these sorts of calamities, where does one turn? In “Flames and Angels,” Calatayud turns her attentions to DC: “There is misery by the busload. Mothers scrounge/for bits of bread.” (lines 1-2). She continues, “We can’t make sense of paper, rock or scissors/or velvet political games. We lose a day each night,/tending to the problems of the world in our dreams.” (lines 3-5). This is Calatayud’s survivor’s guilt, as the child of immigrants (at one point, a relative praises Calatayud’s luck at being “white.”). Throughout this collection, she deals with questions of her liminality. She is trapped between the world of her parents and the past and her current life, where she is outside these experiences and looking back, free of them but still tethered to them. In the same way, America is in a liminal stage as the more diverse populations gain more political presence. But, even though many of the more privileged holdouts fear this change, and this fear produces dangers for some others, Calatayud is hopeful. In her title poem, she reminds: “This is the land you came from. There is no worry in this dirt./You are the harvest of our desert dance.” (lines 25-27).
The Imagined Field, poems by Sean Patrick Hill. Paper Kite Press, 2010.
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Hill’s collection begins with “When You Hardly Knew Your Fingers,” a surreal portrait of a struggling spiritual life. “It’s an old story, need.” he begins (line 1). He continues with images of alienation and loneliness: “Wind in trees, gaunt horses,/A bank of bleeding hearts–//Like granite they make hunger look easy. A matter of grim resistance.” (lines 1-5). Even the dying seem to have mastered their reactions to life (and death) better than the narrator. But solace can come from observing the beauty in the fragility of life: “Take the trillium, for example, its three-lidded eye:/Six seasons seed to flower./Such mild ambition. Did you know as little/As one touch could wreck it?” (lines 7-11). Later, he explains the source of his alienation, relating to the flower, and “…your own fatal contact//When you hardly knew your fingers/Could do such damage.” (lines 20-23). He continues, “Passion is something you beg for…but I wouldn’t say it’s something/You deserve.” (lines 13-15). There’s a kind of humility, there, which could serve to increase the narrator’s alienation, or which could actually shift the focus from himself and outward.
Hill’s poems are powerful, imagistic works that swoop into stunning scenes with solid language. “The Hours” reminisces about the narrator’s past. “I had slept alone for weeks,” he begins (line 1). Hill paints a vivid scene, “Days when rain made idle threats/I climbed the California hills,/And not even poison oak/Could offend me.” (lines 3-6). “This was after the floods./This was during my breakdown./Mud stained the roads/Like a bad memory,” (lines 8-11) he tells us. There are evocative images of eating Sunbeam white bread, old seaside farms. He concludes:
What matters are the hours, like frightened birds.
The way the land ends at the sea and says,
What’s done is done.
The way the sky just keeps walking
Where you can’t follow. (lines 40-44).
“The Last Frontier is Not in Alaska,” paints a vivid scene, both physically and psychically: “In this desert our lives are, at best,/A draw,” he begins (lines 1-2). Hill expresses trepidation towards his surroundings. The “desert” could be real or figurative. “It’s not that sunlight struggles./It’s that clouds never give up.” he continues (lines 4-5). And “Wells are a constant source of worry.” (line 10). It’s a dangerous world with little possibility of control. “Don’t bother to ask forgiveness./The river accepts no excuses./Learn to swim.” (lines 12-14). Even things that might be considered positive are sources of concern:
Unless we do something, blackberries will win.
Then again, they have a way of fixing
The soil for themselves: they poison the ground.
That is, they cheat.
That’s what we mean by the sins of the father. (lines 19-24).
He concludes with an image of scorn: “Lilies our mothers planted are like teenagers/Who say they didn’t ask to be born./They secretly hate us.” (lines 29-31).
Hill is working towards something in these poems. He rarely spells it out or tries to hit the reader over the head with meaning; instead, he lets us work through the process, as well, and come to our own conclusions. “Cairns” delves into his journey:
…My wife taught me her best slipknot,
That love is not that kind
But a mild steel:
No China doll, nor wandering Jew
But something more
Like a dove
Covered in tar. (lines 3-13).
He isn’t romanticizing this idea of love: he’s trying to be brutally honest. He’s trying to get at truth. he goes on to describe a very violent personal experience which served to try to rip him away from this “slipknot.”
A reference that pops up more than once is to Don Quixote. In “The Genius of Birds,” Hill points out: “Cervantes had it right:/you could live your life in a dream and get away with it.” (lines 31-32). And this seems to be at the center of Hill’s struggle: the world seems to be so often an ugly, greedy place, but the ‘dream’ is difficult to live in. But what is “the dream?” Perhaps it’s that tar-covered dove mentioned above. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of beauty or tranquility. But this seems to be fleeting, which makes it all the more precious.
Between Gods, poems by Donna Lewis Cowan. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012
reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Cowan’s debut collection begins with “Thaw,” a beautiful meditation on the changing of the seasons, played out through ice skaters:
At the pond’s edge, the skaters steer
from the etched-out hollows, speed
toward the marrow mapped tight.
We are trying to outrace it, thaw
channeling into the grids – where you could
step through, surrender the balance (lines 1-8)
Cowan is hinting at more than a change in seasons; she’s alluding to growing up. She continues, “So you are an accomplice, shearing/the surface into further conquered// territories, into what will happen” (lines 16-19). These skaters are trying to wring the last bit of experience from the winter before the ice melts, though it is futile: “something our heat/cannot alter.” (lines 25-26).
Many of Cowan’s poems explore characters from religious stories. “Daphne & Apollo: Meditations” is a triptych which retells the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. What stands out about Cowan’s work is her masterful use of language. In the first section, she describes Apollo’s efforts: “his fingers/like flies against a windowpane” (pg. 14, lines 10-11). In the second section, Daphne has turned into a flower: “She wondered, if she had arms to move/could they round about a child” (pg. 15, lines 9-10). She regrets her decision to transform herself, but she finds no solace: “…the blooms about her//tightened, offered nothing;/their stems were stolid as crucifixes” (lines 15-18). It’s a lovely line, resonating with the web of religious imagery throughout the collection. In the third section, Daphne is trapped in her decision while Apollo sings, his voice, “passion raise like the chronic sweat of flowers” (pg. 16, line 12). “The Siren” is an exploration of the myth of the mythical beings who lured sailors into rocks. “Penelope” is a monologue from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who delays the advances of suitors while waiting for her husband’s return. Cowan’s true talent with these poems is her ability to humanize mythical characters. She begins with Penelope’s concerns with her own mortality:
Now four years of fraying wool
on the loom – my hands grey,
splintered as never before –
and once the tapestry is finished,
anything may happen. We are so
vulnerable to magic; one may be raped
by swans; none of it is hearsay. (pg. 30, lines 1-7).
It’s a touching portrait focusing on the fragility of Penelope, as opposed to the stolid, somewhat heroic version who waits patiently for Odysseus, as is often portrayed. Cowan develops Penelope’s somewhat sardonic voice: “I have heard you are lover to a woman/who could keep you with her forever –/and what a trick!” (pg. 30, lines 9-11). Cowan creates a sensual scene to portray Penelope’s loneliness:
Here the soldiers’ wives use each other
for company; the handmaids touch
my skin as they touch my gowns,
with windy light fingers, out of habit –
pressing harder only to coax
the wrinkles out. One stray touch
and my skin is alive for hours –
that is loneliness, a pair of hands
winding through that medusa
of strands, soothing the loose ends
into patience… (pg. 30, lines 13-24).
There’s humor, as well. One of the suitors, drunk, tells Penelope, “…his semen is wine/drawn from the rarest of sea-violets” (pg. 31, lines 3-4). Finally, Penelope is faced with the futility of her situation, as the suitors gossip about Odysseus’ trysts with goddesses, and she pictures him, “driv(ing) glory slowly,/absently into the sand” (pg. 31, lines 11-12).
Cowan also deals with the mythology of everyday life. “Cleaning Lincoln Logs” is a meditation on the expected arrival of a child: “The impossible task:/making our leftovers/clean enough for a daughter,” she begins (lines 103). Cowan’s language is simple but resonating:
You empty the scratches
where you etched
before you knew
how the world
could whittle away
each masterpiece. (lines 14-21).
But this isn’t a maudlin poem: she is emphatic about passing on these toys and all they represent. “They are still alive,” she says about the toys, about what she once built and imagined with them (line 17). She hopes to pass on only the toys, not all of the damage and baggage that has occurred since she, herself, played with these toys.
Cowan is a talented poet with an ear for language and vivid construction. She tackles themes and ideas that easily fall flat, but pulls them off with aplomb and verve. Throughout the collection she deals with issues of spirituality, not just as an abstraction, but as a vital question presented in beautiful language. Part history, part magic, this collection is well worth a read.
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is the kind of book you recommend with a one-line explanation: It’s amazing.
This story absorbs readers so thoroughly that they won’t realize 50 pages have been read. It’s as if the reader is sitting at a table with the main character as he colors in a coloring book, inside the lines, and tells the story. It’s about an imaginary friend named Budo and the boy who imagined him, Max. At first, readers follow daily routines of school and their home life—subplots such as bullying troubles, Learning Center teachers, and family problems at home. Then Max is kidnapped by one of his teachers, and Budo must find a way to save him, even if it means relinquishing his own existence.
Budo is the perfect combination of a childlike mentality with a few bits of adult knowledge. His narration is repetitive and simple, with a basic knowledge of how the world works. Because Budo was not imagined as being stuck by Max’s side, he can wander away for extended periods of time and for indefinite distances. Max also imagined that Budo is smarter than he is. Because of this, Budo learns from catching glimpses of the adult world, and then uses his knowledge to help Max with his daily routines.
To Max, Budo is a complete, real person. Other imaginary friends are usually startled to learn that he’s one of them. And, he’s five years old, which is ancient by imaginary friends’ standards. Budo speculates that his age and nature are the result of Max being different from other children.
Max either has Asperger’s syndrome or he’s a high functioning autistic. Yet, no one ever mentions these words, including Budo. This is what makes the novel special. To Budo, Max is normal. His fascination with toy soldiers and video games—and his antisocial tendencies—are all regular, everyday attributes of an eight-year-old boy. In fact, the only times the reader encounters signs of autism are when Max becomes “stuck” or when Budo describes him. Yet any reader who doesn’t already know the signs might agree with Max’s father, noting only that Max is peculiar. This lack of concentration on autism itself presents Max as intelligent, clever and talented instead of automatically stunted. It helps to convey that Max is not defined by his autism.
Despite his apparent freedom, Budo is confined by the science of being an imaginary friend. They seem to exist on a separate plane, and only other imaginary friends and the children who “imagined” them can see them. Thus, Budo cannot communicate with other humans. Also, imaginary friends cannot affect their immediate surroundings, and how they interact with their environment depends on how they were imagined. They are governed by the “idea” of things. They walk an inch or so above the floor because it is the idea of the floor that they touch. Some imaginary friends can walk through windows and doors, but others are trapped by the idea of the window and door as an obstacle and can only get through them if they are opened. And, when a child no longer believes in his or her imaginary friend, that friend gradually fades from existence.
Dicks probably had a brainstorming session in order to determine an imaginary friend’s capabilities and to describe all of them, and then kept every idea. The details are extensive, incredibly unique and represent the wide range of childhood imagination. Some friends have no ears but can still hear, others are different colors, one is a flat paper outline of a person that coils and folds in order to move, and another is a bobblehead. One is even a small puppy that can talk. There are so many imaginary friends in the book that Dicks may have interviewed children to discover the appearances and details of their imaginary friends.
But the story isn’t just about the imaginary friends. It’s about what it takes to be a parent, and what it means to be a friend. Max’s mother tries to get his father to recognize that there’s a problem, though she never outright says what it is. His dad believes that Max is just a late bloomer, a normal kid who likes to be by himself. He believes that Max doesn’t need special teachers at the learning center or any sort of therapy. The mother seems frazzled but determined to make the best of their situation, while the father comes off as disinterested, stubborn, and in denial. This results in a dissonance at home, to the point that the reader might worry about a divorce. But when Max is taken, the parents rely on each other and do whatever it takes to get him back.
As for Budo, he realizes that while Max remains kidnapped, he will always believe that Budo exists. Budo is better off with Max this way, but he understands that Max is better off with his parents instead of a woman who thinks she knows better. Max will never grow up if he remains with his teacher, and Budo recognizes the problem with that. This culminates in a few scenes that are heartbreaking but necessary.
The book also illustrates the importance and the effect that one teacher can have on a student. In a way, it seems as if this novel is homage to the author’s teachers. It is possible that Dicks based the teachers off real people he knew while growing up, or people he knows now. In particular, Mrs. Gosk, who is Max’s favorite teacher, is revered by her students. Budo never stops talking about how great she is, to the point that sometimes she is too perfect. This is countered when Budo sees her away from the other students, where she is revealed to be flawed and emotional, but the tactic almost seems like a requirement to prevent her from being perfect.
Throughout the novel, Dicks represents childhood very well. He pulls his readers back into a child’s mind. He also panders to the inner child of his male readers. For example, there is at least one scene and multiple references to poop jokes. In the beginning, a bully tries to reach Max by crawling underneath a bathroom stall door while Max is inside. In order to escape, Max “accidentally” poops on his head, an event that establishes their relationship for the rest of the story. The event is also remembered fondly and with apprehension by Budo, who recognizes the act as a moment of growth and also a catalyst for future bullying.
Overall, Dicks makes us remember our childhood and the imaginary friends we loved or almost had. His story references the existential question of what it means to be real and alive. And at the end, when Budo is faced with his own mortality, we dredge up memories of past imaginary friends and, for a few brief moments, entertain the possibility that they were real. Then maybe, for those fleeting moments, our beloved or barely formed friends are alive again simply because we believe.
Injecting Dreams Into Cows, poems by Jessy Randall. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2012. $17.95. ISBN: 1597092304. 104 pgs.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Randall’s collection begins with “Metaphors,” a clever, playful piece that bucks preconceptions, “A duck is like the moon/because a kid can point at both. A house/is like the sky: both hold things…” (lines 1-3). The central image, here, isn’t a comparison of things (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these lines of Randall’s are actually similes); rather, it’s the linking idea: the kid and the things being held by the house and the sky. One can’t help but think of the house as holding a family (including a child) and the sky as, perhaps, holding God, an idea which links with family in a traditional sense. Randall continues, later with a playful conclusion, “This poem is like a pillow: I hit you with it.” (line 10).
Randall’s poems tend towards the brief, often minimalist. Throughout, her sense of humor reigns. “One Day, the Ass-Talker Stopped Talking Out of His Ass,” describes the fateful day we all wish would come for some people, “I was wrong, he said. I was only guessing. I never really knew the answer.” She concludes. If only. “Trouble in Pac-Land” is about exactly what you’d think:
The truth is I don’t know
what it was that set me,
well, packing. Maybe it was
the lack of scrutiny.
All those teenagers
for so long, caressing
that perfect round
controller. And then
they were gone,
moved on, grown up. (pg. 46, lines 10-20).
A disenfranchised Ms. Pac-Man sets herself up in a new life out of boredom. “I’ve got my own game/that no one plays.” she says. (pg. 47, lines 8-9). It’s a study in existential despair; the waning housewife recreated as pop culture icon who isn’t really any happier.
“In the Mind of Elizabeth Blackwell,” deals with various rumors and aspects of the life of Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree. Known as a difficult figure because of her unflinching opinions, Blackwell, though well connected, socially, managed to alienate many, though, more importantly, she championed many social and moral reforms.
“The Consultant” gives us our title in the opening line: “The scientists told me they were injecting dreams into cows. “ She describes the experiment and the results the scientists are getting. The scientists inject human dreams in some cows and cow dreams in others. “The cows with the human dreams, they told me, were keeping/ journals of their dreams in their dreams. But the cows with the/cow dreams were not keeping journals.” (lines 5-7). She goes on to point out that “the cows with the cow dreams don’t have hands in their dreams…so they can’t hold pens or pencils…” (lines 11-13).
Randall shifts from the humorous or sardonic tones of certain poems to more sincere poems, though she manages to maintain her sense of humor. “My Son, When He Is Sick,” presents a sweet portrait of Randall’s concern for her sick son:
My son, when he is sick, is a little wet
hot ball candy, sweaty forehead,
damp hair on the back of his neck,
his eyes screwed shut as if that will help.
His toddling voice repeats “oh dear, oh dear”
when we ask what hurts. He says a quiet
“yes” to everything: Is it your tummy?
Your throat? Your foot? Your toy hippo?
He slurps his water and then throws up
everywhere, his father and I leaping to catch it,
begging “throw up on ME, here is my sweater,
my lap, my cupped hands.” (lines 1-14).
“Why I Had Children” is another humorous yet sweet poem in which Randall examines herself honestly:
Because I was reading too many books and getting too much
sleep and my self-esteem was too high. Because I needed to be
taken down a peg. Because I thought love was one thing and
really it’s another. Because I thought I knew everything about
everything and I didn’t know anything, not anything in the world. (lines 1-5).
“Celie At Four,” continues this theme of parenthood:
The way you say
“I know THAT,”
wanting to get on
to the next thing. (lines 1-5).
Randall avoids sentimentality by approaching her love and admiration for her child from a different direction: she’s actually a little annoyed at the child’s impatience. “You mean/you now know it/because I just told you.” she continues (lines 6-8). Her child is gaining confidence while Randall’s shrinks: “at four, you’re/seventeen and I’m/the little sister/wanting to be liked.” she concludes (lines 10-13).
Randall’s poems waste no words: they are often short but pack a powerful punch. Her language is clean and precise, which allows her to sneak-attack the reader with profound images. I’ve been a big fan of Randall’s work, which I’ve read in various literary journals, for some time, and I’m thrilled to have this collection to solidify her reputation as a talent to watch.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals as well as five forthcoming books. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at http://tenpagespress.wordpress.com/2011/08/01/the-man-who-killed-himself-in-my-bathroom-by-cl-bledsoe/. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His poem “The Bank” was nominated for 2010 Best of the Nest and his nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
Drucilla Wall, The Geese at the Gates
Salmon Poetry, December, 2011
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The search for truth and beauty is a panic for dreamers. Try heading north from native Creek country, turn left at Philadelphia. Keep more or less straight to Wyoming, then dog-leg back to Nebraska. Pick up the big river and let it run you south to St. Louis. Avoid the floating McDonald’s.
Drucilla Wall’s journey likewise takes a very promising turn on the trussed banks of the muddy river’s western shore. Her debut collection, The Geese at the Gates, is a book of great arrival and strong presence. Big forces have put a vast geography into Wall’s middle, but irony has quieted this terrain. The Beats’ hurry for constant motion and their ecstatic, restless subtexts are generously absent from this book. Even the geese in her title poem do not migrate: “The fat geese should be slicing/ the heavy clouds, heading south./ In the last heat of these afternoons/ I should hear them exclaiming/ on their way. But the geese remain/ all winter. Having forgotten themselves/ and changed their story.”
When Wall writes about a car, it’s almost always parked: “we can see our cars wiggle their/ steely asses under the laurel oaks./ All that shiny potential.” In a poem about her son Matthew, he is running, but his eyes are closed. He’s asleep: “You’re safe,/ safe in your bed./ It’s only a dream, a dream./ Sinking back, you answer,/ blinking, disappointed,/ Only a dream?”
Wall stands well apart from the usual crowd of word slingers. Poets today seem obsessed with wanting a poem to have something happen, but dramatic tension doesn’t require cause and effect, action and reaction. Wall’s poetry liberates us from that facile snare. Her poems don’t require verbs to manifest meaning. Occasionally a speaker will roll over or recline. Sometimes there is a memory of an action from twenty years before. Wall nicely doesn’t need to establish motivation to justify action which doesn’t occur. The result is that her poetry—her essence—isn’t cluttered by personality and the tricks of story-telling. There isn’t any Vaudeville in her meter. While there’s movement, it’s usually just the narrator’s eye, panning about, or else making a feast of unexpected associations. Her title poem “moves” from parked geese to parked cars, a shopping mall, Egyptian cotton made in China and washed in Mississippi waters, all the way to the memory foam of God’s bosom where we wonder “how to rid ourselves/ of these fat, honking angels here among us.” We’ve navigated the globe without leaving the windows, looking down on geese which don’t fly, perhaps like us, fat, honking poets whom we are, needing and dreading a higher purpose.
Wall’s traditions spring from older grounds in Ireland where Irish poetry from Yeats to Muldoon hasn’t stopped being Irish no matter with what the rest of the world is pathetically busy. To that island’s fetish for boundary and place, Wall adds a mystical, feathery, almost Japanese way of observing. She wants us to know Jack Gilbert’s waterfall without hearing the sound of its water, wanting us only to hear its beautiful silence as it rages.
Wall’s “Disappearance Song” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. The first stanza is the rapture of an awakened spring. It’s second stanza is a classic haiku, scanning five-seven-five, so that two distinct traditions, the Romantic Era’s nature praise poem, and the haiku—an imagistic surrender—are wed: “Now behind it all/ the silence of honeybees,/ the absence of wings.” When we remember that St. Patrick chased the snakes of Ireland and sent them all to England, we can look at this poem as an elegy for the environment we’re losing, and perhaps disappearing ourselves along the way.
Wall releases information very slowly, unlacing her brief narratives with agonizing—for us—deep-breathed modulations. Most writers have shown us their tits by page three. Eighty delightful pages of Wall and I’m still anticipating, absolutely aquiver on my chopper. Oh for a glimpse. It almost happens in “Deer Woman at Fifty”
One misty night on the road
to Wentzville, a doe cut across
the headlights and vanished
kicking gravel chips
from the edge of the woods,
her provoking rump
giving the last flash.
What begins like fable…’twas a dark and stormy night…immediately gets specific, so that the abstract qualities of the poem are not lost in abstract language. Her specific, rational observations enhance the unknown. “On the road to Wentzville” immediately engages our right brain hemisphere. It makes us think of maps, signs, trailheads. The fact that Wentzville is a town named for the past tense of a being verb, literally, “wents ville” also intrigues. The images of the doe “kicking gravel chips” steers us to Wall’s belief that movement is only one half the thing in motion. The other half of movement is the way such motion affects the larger world.
By contrast, Wall also celebrates some movement which has no impact. “Invisibility Lesson #1” teaches us “the way Indians walk in the woods” and concludes: “You’ll know when you get it right/ by the deer ignoring you,/ and the arrowhead hunters,/ with their shovels and sieves,/ shouting your obituary/ right across your path.”
Wall probably does not write poems in the nude, but she does seem to take off her watch before composing. There is hardly a clock face to be had. Not only is her poetry nearly devoid of temporal markers, but in several poems she conveys several centuries in one stanza so that images mixed in time–“colonial” and “highway”–are almost matter of fact. In another, “Hannibal, Missouri” characters go in and out of the 1840s. Tom Sawyer jogs past the diner and “Becky Thatcher strolls down Main Street/ with a smile and a pistol in her hand,” while the “kids out/ by the Dairy Queen prefer their cherry vodka.” Wall’s poem, “Regarding Last Chances,” about relationship miscues, ends on a hopeful note: “I have one page left/ in my appointment book,/ where another man’s name/ is penciled in.”
Where time is so indefinite, space means everything. This is Wall at her strongest, giving us just enough light to adjust our irises and just enough detail to rightly furnish each stanza. “Under the lights,/ the elongated hurt,/ stubborn clay,/ turns within the force/ that is your will,/ beyond any choosing,/ to each smallest/ rounding of the elbow,/ slightest declination/ of the fingers,/ builds gesture to gesture,/ circling more and greater/ space into fire.”
Wall’s mastery is that in spite of her dialed-down revelatory pace she writes very personal poems. Her intimacies are thrilling. There’s the evocative sexual imagery in “Blue Marker Landscape” in which the speaker is doodling a Kansas farm scene on her lover’s back, when—because it’s Kansas—the winds pick up and a tornado whirls their embrace. In “Snake Shadows” Wall writes: “my arms coiling your chest,/ my hands diamond heads,/ my tongue water over rock,/ your sounds the prayers of stones.”
Any one of Wall’s gorgeous blossoms could stop a train, but one of my favorites was “For Matthew at Twenty-five.” Although one never stops being a parent, the poetry about being a parent seems to come to a crashing halt after our children start driving cars. For Wall, nurturing means everything and it will go on forever. Archetypes aside, she’s plain good at it, whether scrubbing a sick cat or comforting a restive child or a worried husband.
Do you remember collecting
the bright leaves of autumn,
how we ruined the iron,
pressing them in waxed paper,
and taped them to the windows
to glow like stained glass,
now that another holds your hand
and takes you walking in the woods?
The nicest part of walking the woods with Wall is that she doesn’t stop to sniff every butterfly, just the ones which matter. The unfenced world there, its trees and denizens, is meant to be lived and experienced first, then dreamed and remembered, and only after the longest and most pleasant of whiles, to write a timeless poem about.
Sense by Arslan Khasavov
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Moscow: GLAS Publishers, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
The reputation of Russian literature in the West has long centered around the greats of the distant past—Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy—with little thought given, it seems, to the writers of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Certainly, the dissident poets of Stalin’s time have gained the attention they well deserve, but post-Soviet—what might be perhaps considered “new Russian” literature—is hardly known in the West. Beyond that, the fall of the Soviet Union has allowed minority groups and their identities in Russia and the other former Soviet states to become better-known worldwide, though their own specific literatures still suffer from a level of neglect that emerging literatures in other regions simply have not witnessed. While African, Latin American, Arab, and Asian literatures have only grown in their international readerships and number of works translated, it seems that post-Soviet literatures have not benefited from the same zest for widespread interest in foreign writing. Another area of post-Soviet writing not well-represented in translation is that of younger writers—the first generation of citizens to grow up without having ever been part of the Soviet Union.
GLAS Publishers is trying to remedy this situation with its “New Russian Writing” series of emerging Russian literature in English translation. One of the most acclaimed and interesting volumes to come out of this project is the translation of Arslan Khasavov’s debut novel Sense. Khasavov is a Kumyk who grew up in Turkmenistan and came to Moscow for university at the Asia and African Studies Institute of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Following his degree and further studies in Russian literature, Khasavov became a freelance journalist in Moscow and was able to garner a number of impressive assignments including work with the BBC. The Kumyks, it should be understood, are an ethnic group that historically have lived mainly in Dagestan and are thus an Islamic, non-Russian, minority with their own language and very removed from the traditions of the Kievan Rus’ that formulate the basis even today of mainstream Russian society. The Dagestanis are related to their neighbors the Chechens and long-standing tensions exist between Russians and both groups due to the treatment of these Caucasian minorities following the Second World War by Stalin and also the recent conflict and struggle for Chechen independence. Caucasians, whether Chechen, Kumyk, Dagestani, or otherwise in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia are often the targets of hate speech and sometimes acts of violence. Young male Caucasians are especially prone to being targets of discrimination and suspicion. Much of Khasavov’s journalism centers around both the continuing strife in the Caucasus and the treatment of ethnic Caucasians in Moscow, as he has experienced this situation of discrimination first-hand. Far from being simply a mouth-piece for his side of the story when it comes to the plight of Caucasians, however, Khasavov has provided in his journalism a nuanced view of how young people from the Caucasus who have settled in Moscow for their education or other reasons are developing an ex-pat’s savvy sense of identity and community. In Sense, he applies this same approach but beyond a journalist’s discernment or a native’s inside experience, he is able to provide a deft, often very funny, take on how ethnicity and youthfulness both conspire to present an absurd sense of reality in post-Soviet Russia.
The central character in Sense is Artur, an idealistic, if rather delusional, young man of twenty who forms a political front known as SENSE that has the stated goal of creating a new, utopian, society in Turkmenistan. Why Turkmenistan? Because it is, according to our hero, the supposed center of the world. This gives the reader some foresight into the rather unbalanced views of Artur and the absurd nature of the novel; however, Sense is not simply a post-modern work in the comic style of Nikolai Gogol out to sell a sociopolitical point alone but instead the novel is overall a fairly insightful examination of Russian youth today, albeit one where much artistic license has been taken to allow for the most entertaining story possible. Khasavov has social and even political issues to bring to our attention, to be sure, but he seems more keenly interested in the general state of his generation in Russia after Communism. To that end, he has Artur meet a variety of other young people who represent the various subcultures and social groups found in contemporary Moscow. Those who long for a return of Communism, those who support greater social freedom than what United Russia (President Putin’s party) promotes, those who believe Islam is the key to peace—all these very different approaches and philosophies are represented.
Any writer who embarks on such a journey will run the risk of creating characters that are stand-ins for greater issues or simply stereotypes, but overall Khasavov rises above this and provides characters who are truly interesting if often in a way that begs the reader to suspend any disbelief and just enjoy the crazy motion of the story. Still, in all, Sense provides a tale that is not just a post-modern fable and in fact invites the reader into a very powerful internal view of today’s Russia. The youth of the Russia of right now—those in their teens, those attending university—have the agency for experiences that was mostly out of the range of possibility for their parents or anyone who grew up under the Soviet system. Not only because of changes in Russian society, but due to the ability via the Internet and other technologies to communicate with people all over the world. The newfound emphasis on ethnic and localized culture following the fall of the Soviet Union also has allowed greater agency in young people from non-majority origins to be themselves instead of conforming to a majority view of social norms. That said, with new freedoms have also come new oppressions: fueled by the Orthodox church and United Russia, new laws have challenged gay rights—especially in St Petersburg—and the aforementioned discrimination and violence directed towards Caucasians has remained a serious and disturbing problem. The position of youth in this dynamic mix is essential as they are the ones who will guide society out of this transitional period. Will they elect a more liberal sense of equality or dwell in the fear of Russia becoming a less-homogenous and more diverse nation? These are the core questions addressed in Sense.
Russia’s youth have also in this new era discovered a voice of their own, informed by their past and by Euro-American youth culture but also a voice unique, distinct, and original. The fashion designer and photographer Gosha Rubchinskiy is representative of this trend and in his menswear and photos of Russian skaters and punk kids who at once look forlorn and quite couture, he expresses a lot of the latent themes found running through Sense. Rubchinskiy himself in an interview to the American press has stated he finds St Petersburg more interesting now—more vital, more happening—than Moscow, and Russian youth I know have spoken of Kazan and Sochi as places to visit just as much as the two eternal leading cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. The world-view is changing: there are young business students fluent in English in Novosibirsk who work off of Macintosh laptops and watch Japanese animé; there are teens online via ВКонтакте (or, as it is now better known, VK) which is more or less the Russian Facebook. BMX is becoming huge in Russia’s urban centers and teens ride American-built bikes, posting photos of those they have or those they pine for on their VK accounts. Football (soccer) though remains king, and everyone has his own team to follow with a sense of loyal devotion unmatched even by Western Europe or American college football rivalries.
ВКонтакте is a joy: in some ways I must say I like it better than Facebook and besides, it enabled me to “meet” a number of young Russians from all over their vast expanse of a nation—people I might never have known to even exist otherwise. The Russians in their twenty-somethings who have the free time to establish extensive ВКонтакте profiles are, in general, not surprisingly of the wealthier and more educated set. If anything, they often outshine their American counterparts in their apparent wealth and wanderlust: photos abound of beach holidays in Sochi or Turkey or weekends in Paris; nights watching a football match between FC Zenit and one of the rival Moscow clubs in Saint-Petersburg; winter vacations spent snowboarding near Murmansk. Not all Russians live like this, of course, but then again neither do all Americans. What their profiles and conversations with these young Russians portend, however, is an exacting, powerful, and dynamic desire to live life and really enjoy it. My friend Anton, from Krasnoyarsk, perhaps put the situation best, in an almost Joycean sentence he typed to me one night as an instant message: “We want to see what we can, ours is a huge country but we’re in Europe too so we can hop a plane or a train and you’re there with your friends and just drink, just go where there’s something to do, snowboard, beach, whatever. We’d be all over America if it wasn’t so far away. You know, we just drink on the train—it doesn’t seem so long then—just drink and play cards, chess, stare out the window as trees go zip zip zip by.”
This same basic view on life appears in spades in Sense, though tempered by the divergent political leanings of the various characters. Part of the author’s message, it seems, is to say that we are aware of so many outwardly political young Russians in this novel because the hero of the tale has gone out of his way to move in such circles, to court the lunatic political fringe. If, we may well say to ourselves, if only Artur had not gone off the deep end—poor, poor, Artur! A tragic hero, however one who is moving by his own private logic, and some of the most sudden and powerful moments in the novel occur when his logic is in fact proved to be correct and utterly valid. At a mere twenty years of age, couldn’t Artur just attend university and get on with life, we wonder nearly aloud, but then we encounter some event where his actions—or at least the philosophical and political catalysts to them—seem somewhat appropriate. Artur, for all his complaints with Russian polity and society, becomes a hero in a way that is especial to Russian literature and tradition. Emotional, manly, finding a desire to prove his courage and acumen, at once intellectual and base, grand yet impoverished, he takes us centuries back into the tropes of the grand old Russian novels.
Artur is, for better or worse, a character who invites sympathy—not only because of his youth and lack of clear understanding of the world, but due to the showmanship in his voice as he implores the reader to believe in and side with his narrative. Khasavov does a sterling job of selling us on Artur and making Artur’s voice true even given Artur’s obviously uneven bearings. As a reader, it’s easy to bounce back and forth between seeing the absurd nature of Artur’s desires and plans and at the same time viewing them as simply youthful political devices writ very large, very rough. Given the current political situation in Russia, it’s easy to see most of the groups vying for a voice also in the actions that take place in this novel. That may be the greatest benefit of all in what Khasavov has given us.
Publishing Genius Press, 2012
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
There are only eighty-eight keys on a piano and the best of us only have three simple chords to our lives—work, love, and play—but music is not made of math. Neither is poetry. Still we take some risk in making art from our confessions. The narrative that comes from living in the world is too often one-dimensional, or else it’s too wink-wink, and that’s the peril. Melissa Broder’s second poetry volume Meat Heart shows us why that risk is so important. In these intensely personal poems her experience—her personal witness—is a stepping stone to revelation. Broder’s is the perfect bascule between apocalypse and rapture. She snuggles up to the edge, she rocks back, she rounds and folds inside the arc, she reaches and grabs the other side.
Broder plays a jive, a rag, a stride, a blues, a hymn. She finds her center by getting outside of her middle. Give her eight beats and she’ll discern the plaguing icons, love them, discard them. Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach. Broder isn’t so polite: “Listen wormhead/ There is no celery emergency/ …/ No evil peach in your vein of air.” In her title poem the love, glow, and magic all of us are seeking are only Slim Jims, tacos, and all-night burgers. In another poem, “Lack,” Broder is ravenous for icons: “I found the Summer of Love in a trashcan at Hardees & I ate it.” We are gluttons for it because we’re never satisfied. In “The Mail,” Broder is “disgusted by the U.S. Mail/ its endless soul-crush pulp of catalogs/ utility bills, act now offers and sales/ stinking with aggravation.” Broder wants something different, free from obvious rituals that displace her soul’s true purpose. “The Mail” continues: “Just once I would like to reach in the slot/ and come upon a stony hollow/ or perhaps, a tiny garden…This will be the depth of my story,/ the stunning extent of my smile:/ a scattered few pinprick dung drops,/ some night weather, no envelopes.”
Most of us are what we eat. Broder is what she vomits. She’s a self-mutilating anorexic alcoholic: “There are scratch marks all over/ my life…Let’s/ write a sermon on control. Let’s/ write a love song for heavyweights.” Broder’s poem “Supper” puts all her key images—boys, food, smells, and church—into a rousing intimate couplet:”Boy comes to me at church potluck/ perfumed with frankincense and lasagna.” Their courtship begins with tater tot casserole, a gateway food that can only lead to angel cake and ice cream glossolalia as Broder becomes the “burping circus lady” who’s “busting from her garments.” Just at the brink of a Willy Wonka-styled destruction, Broder finds “There is room at the organ bench” and plays.
Hungry for seconds? “Binge Eating in 2067” which turns out not to be all that futuristic. Consider these lines: “I have a jaw that seeks chunks/ and he has the heart of a fat man,” and later, “When he cooks a real live cassoulet/ flesh and fat, no hoax/ I turn my face from the bowl/ and put my fingers in his mouth.”
It’s the moods of these poems—their great suffering arcs—rather than nifty openings and closings, that catch you and whip you forward into Broder’s doom. You’re relieved as each one ends, and immediately nostalgic for the inscrutable what-was-that? you felt as you strummed into its seductive opening. I know why I liked the poem “Waterfall,” but I don’t know why it made me cry so hard:
The most romantic thing a human being can say
to another human being is Let me help you vomit.
your vomiting; it is like a psalm to me
a place where wilderness might be new.
Other people’s dirt makes a lovely frock.
Grant I be forgiven in the gush.
Broder’s poems are works of art and works of life. She isn’t the first writer to believe one should live a poem before one writes it, but she’s one of the more effective partisans since she understands its limitations. She confesses just enough to make it clear she has a great grasp of her subject—herself— showing us how genuine is her poetry bone. This is something real to her—her poetry, her life—and it becomes real to us. By turns we learn how to make poetry of our own pathetic misfit lives.
But this is only one half of a breath-taking story. Most volumes of poetry are like little kissing matches. Our nerves are touched. We smile. We smirk. We nod. At times we get excited. Meat Heart is more of a boxing match. Broder confuses our reflexes, softening us with the believability of her otherworldly destruction—her personal apocalypse—and then knocks us down with her speculative poems dealing with the abstract. We trust her as readers to take us there because we’re already swept up in her upside-down life that oddly makes perfect sense. The narrative rings true enough that when her lyric and metaphoric threads take leaps we stick around. This is what makes “Ciao Manhattan” a different sort of poem:
All day long my skull
That horsey gulper
Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles
But pauses somehow
The day falls off its reins
My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in
And says I’m back baby
We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless
It is so God
When the voice is like wheat
In whole milk
Come closer it says
You cute little fucker
The French have one word, sacre, to mean both sacred and profane, depending on the stress, and there is something decidedly Last Year at Marienbad about Broder’s pulse. What Robbe-Grillet does with a circle, Broder conveys by harmony between the actual and the speculative. In “Gate 27” she demures “It’s very important to me/ that there be a sense of unity.” And in “Flurry,” “Something/ about the sum of us/ works best.” Sparks fly when the unity between destruction and glory happens; the feeling is electric. In “Mercy” it happens literally through the poem: “Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine/ I said Let this voltage last forever.” And it almost does, it wants to: “I want to buzz all night…Maybe your hum could just fall from my lips.”
In “Superdoom,” before the electric happens, there is panic, “200 flavors of panic,/ the worst is seeing with no eyes./ Cowboys call it riding your feelings.” Let go, Broder is telling us, ride into the violet. This is the whole world in her sad eyes. “Obituary” captures this theme much better than I could: “But if you put nothing to your eye/ Take the questions out of your mouth/ I’ll let you kiss me on the lips/ and suck my ancient oxygen.”
My favorite poem in this collection is “Bones,” which can be dissected vertically, or horizontally since the first and fourth the second and fifth, and third and sixth stanzas have seamless connections:
I held a nightlight
to my bones.
Run said the moon
or build yourself
a rowboat with a roof.
I am like a sailor
who is terrified of fish
if I see a skeleton
I might begin
to vomit up
and then what?
I am nothing
like a sailor.
This is a poem about identity, mortality, and myth, conveyed about as simply and clearly as the big awful of life could be shown, and rendered with a sophisticated lyric parallelism that reveals a curious mind in spite of life’s battering wounds. All of Broder’s most intimate moments involve imperfections. Some of us tolerate flaws; others blink and try not to talk about them. Broder adores imperfections, physical and emotional, a life as crooked and sad as her teeth are straight and happy. As a bad man living a messy life I find these poems thrilling. The search for truth and beauty is also the search for imperfection, and not being so ashamed when we find it.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser
Introduction by Toni Morrison
BOA Editions, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
More often than not, when BOA Editions sends me a book for review it comes in a modest package as it is commonly a small book—a single monograph of new poetry by either one of the established or younger poets BOA publishes. Recently though, a monster of a package came via post from BOA. At first I thought it was my new toaster from amazon.com but in fact it was a single book—a very, very, large book. And well it should have been so large because even nearly eight hundred pages seem too few to confine the entire span of the career of one of the most-American, most-essential of our contemporary poets, Lucille Clifton.
Looking at this book as I removed it from its packaging, it was clear that BOA pulled out all the stops on this one, producing a beautiful volume that even has the now-rare bookmark ribbon one used to encounter more often in high-quality books, especially those on some sort of mission. The mission here, of course, is to introduce the reader to Clifton’s poetry or, for one who already knows her well, provide a single-volume overview of her work. This book in an instant made me want to sit down and start reading from it, but it also made me quite happy for BOA: as a book reviewer, you become fond of publishers to an extent, knowing that they make their every dollar off our industry whereas most of us as reviewers also teach, write other journalism, or have another vocation. The publishers are, even more than most authors they represent, right in the thick of the very difficult book business. BOA’s offerings are always exacting, pithy, and urgent books of poetry and short fiction but to see them publish the life’s work of a major poet I felt moved them into another sphere where they fully deserve to be: you’d expect to see this title come off of Farrar, Straus and Giroux or one of the other very-old, very-established, very-literary publishing houses in New York City. Yet BOA deserves to be in such company and this book perhaps more than any other should put the press on the lips of the literati.
Even more importantly, Lucille Clifton is an American writer who deserves to be in the highest circle of our poets and she has, alas, often been neglected from those reaches. This book should change that, providing a hefty anthology complete with an introduction but one of our greatest living writers, Toni Morrison. Friends who are graduate students in our local university’s English department who saw the Clifton book on my desk remarked at once “oh wow, yeah I read something by her but I didn’t know she wrote THAT much!”. The book’s size and the Morrison contribution make it immediately portend itself as serious business, and let’s not fool ourselves, this is how authors ascend in the modern canon. A recently-departed poet needs a book like this if she didn’t quite get as much scholarly attention as she should have during her life, because now the matter of such is made easier for the scholar, the critic, and the everyday reader alike. It’s a book that needed to be published, to be out there; my first thought in fact was that it would make a fine Christmas present for many of my friends . . . until I realized my friends are all over the States and Europe and the shipping alone on this tome could put me in the poor house. I hope though they’ll read this and other reviews and buy it themselves. Sometimes, amazon has free shipping—even on toasters. Perhaps that will help.
Lucille Clifton’s career spanned decades and saw a great deal of transformations happen in American society—transformations especially in civil rights and women’s rights that were essential to an African-American woman writer like Clifton. However, it also saw alongside positive, much-needed, changes a way of life slip away. As she was from the North, from New York state, Clifton was of a first generation of African-American women for whom college was a viable option and for whom the post-war years offered opportunities that would have seemed impossible mere decades prior to their mothers or certainly their grandmothers. Yet Clifton also saw the strife of the civil rights era and how little in some regards many vestiges of racism had changed over the years. One of her most-known quotes speaks to that, and to the position an educated Black woman aware of the world was in during the dynamic years she came into her own as a writer:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering mine
These lines appear all over the Internet and even on a plaque on the outside of the New York Public Library. These lines, I would not say sum up Clifton—that would be a grave mistake—but they do provide a great place to start in learning who Lucille Clifton was and how she wrote. What motivated her to write. How a clerk and philosophy professor’s wife wrote of the world she came from and the world she saw growing around her. Clifton was always very smart—keenly smart and intellectually curious—but also was a poor student while at Howard University, which she attended on an earned scholarship yet dropped out of due to a lack of continued interest. She was not a rebel, either, though but instead a young woman who was on the cusp of change and was in the full process of learning about the world around her.
The “memories” she was requested to “remember”—I must presume at Howard, too—were not the same as her own nor were the stories she knew she must tell the world. Clifton was born in a time when Black women—most women, period—were not college-educated yet she also was born in the same year that Dawn Powell’s masterful novel Turn, Magic Wheel was first published. The New York literary world Powell wrote of in that book was a world that was becoming more and more the world of Lucille Clifton, too, and the sheer excitement of the evolving, spinning, globe Clifton knew she was a vested part of is clear in her poems from this period.
Clear as well, though, is Clifton’s sense of history. The position of family, faith, food and traditions that we might today call “Black American culture” but at Clifton’s time were just simply her own experience come across plainly and powerfully in her poems. It’s no wonder that Toni Morrison so admired Clifton: much of the core material we find as mature and complete themes in Morrison’s own novels can be found well-defined in Clifton’s often short but always-engaging poems.
hey music and
hair a flutter of
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no behind, hey
and i’m wearing
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
This poem, “My Dream About Being White”, is a perfect example of both Clifton’s approach as a poet—her understandable concerns with race and gender—but also her sense of voice and structure, her debt to the Harlem Renaissance, and her interest in writing about the female body—a theme that becomes crucial to her work.
Hélène Cixous, who is to me one of the most-important literary critics (as well as writers of fiction and drama) of the past century and our contemporary era, has made it an especial focus of her career to discern the ways women write of being outsiders and also how they write of being women, period—how they tell of female time, female bodies. Lucille Clifton was walking the very same path, yet while Cixous was an outsider in Paris—an Algerian Jew of all things beyond being a woman in man’s Paris, in man’s world of letters—I suspect Clifton had a less glam and more gritty experience of it, really. She was hearing jazz fly out the windows of rent parties, pianos played lovingly but drunkenly, giddily, by rough but talented hands. For Clifton—and her poetry tells us this much—Paris and what Cixous experienced there may well have been the grand dream but for Cixous, who was by only a year Clifton’s junior, I highly suspect that Clifton’s torrid New York and the Harlem of Hughes were just as much a dream. What Clifton touches upon with a deft and brave pen time and again in her poems is the sense of a woman’s body, and at that, a black body that doesn’t conform to the strictures and expectations of white beauty. A body that turns her verily into someone other than just a woman, though being a woman alone was enough of a disadvantage and yet did not alone make one a lady. While being a writer was not one of the obvious nor approved vocations for a woman—lady or otherwise, it was one that women like Dawn Powell were starting to make not only in fashion but powerful.
The juxtaposition of themes in Clifton’s work is at times astounding even when the constant motifs of gender, race, and a society slowly coming into a more clear and bright period are easy enough to identify. Where Clifton often shines though is when she approaches other topics including things as simple as a meal shared with family. The backbone of her writing, the nails and teeth of her concern for progress, make it possible for her to write so lovingly of things traditional without seeming coy or as if she is sticking too close to a very old song-book. Clifton is also at points at her best when writing about sickness, disease, and allopathy—when she writes about her experience as a patient or simply in visiting a hospital. Her writing here is not at all limited to her emphasis on racial or engendered experience but is about more general social experience. I feel this is one of the most crucial points to take away from Clifton’s poetry and a point well made by having an anthology as comprehensive as this one, where it is possible to examine the depth and scope of such a long career in poetry. Too often, female African-American poets are expected to speak of their experiences as Black women alone, as if one enters the arena of poetry simply to build a whole career around one’s origins. Certainly, the agency afforded to any minority via writing to express their voices which have for so long been mitigated is essential, but it’s a huge mistake to presume anyone of minority status or origins does not have more universal concerns in writing; obviously, a Black woman could write about the same very basal, central, issues as any poet from Frost to Eliot to Jorie Graham. Clifton escapes the trap of being considered “a Black poet” or a “woman poet” via the scope and merit of her work, but she also provides us with some of the deepest, most nuanced, writing regarding race we’ve obtained yet in America.
At her best, Clifton flawlessly addresses multiple topics at once in a poem and also can hit the difficult mark between natural, pastoral, concerns and empire of mankind as industry has affected the landscape with its devices and designs. A fine example is her poem “Blessing the Boats”:
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
When Clifton was writing—between 1965 and the last decade prior to our current one—the world and especially America saw vast changes in society but also leveling out of an industrial culture that came into its own fully after the second world war. The advent of the computer alone changed the face of work, how women especially were employed as secretaries and clerks and how office work was done. Other technological changes had serious weight in industries like shipping and agriculture. We think of the period from the 1960s until our present time as one of mainly sociopolitical change and perhaps, at least in literature, overlook the other changes involved in our fabric of life. Clifton is keen on getting the everyday effects of such advances down, even when she places these between the lines. She is able to see where the novel wrinkles and veins of society mimic those of the human body and is able to truncate the extra, the non-essential, and break down the very complex mess of social construction into a few lines of poetry. When we think of the human body, the female body, it too is there, but so are all the waterways, the Interstates, the airports, the wing and wheel, the circuital, the impulse of business—the thrust of industry. Much of the tenor of all that shaped America in the post-war years can be located in Clifton’s writing, yet it’s often not what the reader first seeks. It’s worth looking for, however.
Clifton’s writing on nature, such as in her poem “Light”, takes on a nearly gospel-style approach of wonder and reflection—in the aforementioned poem using mainly a simple list of works for the topic to explore that topic. Her work in this way is masterful though often very subtle. She uses not only an economy of words, but of actual page-space, too. Dreams, also, are constant subjects of Clifton’s poetry:
a woman unlike myself is running
down the long hall of a lifeless house
with too many windows which open on
a world she has no language for,
running and running until she reaches
at last the one and only door
which she pulls open to find each wall
is faced with clocks and as she watches
all of the clocks strike
This is Clifton’s “My Dream About Time” and sums up a lot of the motifs we encounter time and again in her work, but the shortness of the poem, its ability to express so very much with so little is what makes it remarkable. Also, where other—mostly male—poets might use pastoral images Clifton applies household ones and not only in this poem but in many. While she still can master both the pastoral and the man-intervened environment as in the poem above about the blessing of ships at St. Mary’s, she often places female protagonists in households, reflecting on the scope of domestic duties most women of her time and class encountered.
As the poems above should make clear, Lucille Clifton is an important—one of the most important—poets of her period and one who very much deserves a readership today and one in the future. Her output over the years has been vast but prior to the present collection, it has not been easy to obtain a good selection of her work from around 1965 onward in one place. Due to this situation, and due to the fact many younger readers may not have encountered her early works aside from where these have been reprinted in anthologies of American or African-American poetry, the new BOA Editions collected works is essential. Indeed, beyond providing a mechanism for interested readers to come to Clifton’s work, this wonderful new book should be the very catalyst for many to take her up in the first place. BOA is to be congratulated for its publication of this much-needed and beautiful work.
Poems by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2009,
85 pages, $14.95 paper
by Lindy Hough
Blood Honey is a book filled with moving poems by a poet who has been a translator of important poets since she was a young woman. Her own poems are lush and vivid. One never finishes a poem wishing for more—they end beautifully as finished wholes.
Bloch trails the blood of her Eastern European forefathers into accessible set pieces, eschewing experimentalism and the hip-pocket currency her progenitor Yehuda Amichai achieved, commonly regarded as Israel’s greatest contemporary poet. Her work is a weave of tribal knowledge: family secrets kept, told, suspected, weighing down her bones, refracting in her writing.
She is our inter-generational poet, weaving the generations together, showing where psychological and emotional ladders make a rip-rap between child and grandparent, or young woman and mother, or child and uncle, in case any Gen-Xers begin convincing themselves they’re the whole story, that what happened in their family before them doesn’t count. Some young people want to strike out alone, so they don’t see themselves as within the context of family. Bloch’s generational swing, like Faulkner’s deep veins of Sutpen lineages, reminds the reader that the generations are supposed to be generous to one another — though they are not always.
Bloch’s poems reverberate with nuances of those who came before, in many different countries. A lightning rod grounding energy from her past, she endows us with the feeling it is our past. Narration as history, not just personal revelation.
Bloch takes her palette on the road, writing in any country or state; if she is a poet of place, it would be anywhere. Amichai wrote mainly of Israel, much to the delight of his countrymen. We hear about nature in Blood Honey, but Chana Bloch’s mind is so active with images and memories the actual location is subtle, glimpsed, or not mentioned. Writing of the colors of the Grand Canyon, she thinks of Rothko’s colors, and describes them.
Amichai had published a dozen books in English translated by many others by the time Bloch and Chana Kronfield’s translation of Open Closed Open was issued in 2000. Bloch then bit off the translation into English of three volumes of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s work. The last, published in 2009, was Hovering At A Low Altitude, Ravikovitch’s collected poems.
Her early translation with her first husband Ariel Bloch of the biblical Song of Songs faced the task of rendering poetically deep sexual love with language compatible with the King James version. She and Bloch brought alive a beloved Victorian-weary cliché, probably one of the most excerpted parts of Old Testament. They made it starkly sensual, neither ribald or tacky.
The earthiness of “Trespass” echoes the quick sensuality of The Song of Songs, mixed with dreamscape time- travel. The narrator takes a fantasy lover into her train compartment fashioned from the man at the ticket counter, who reminds of an early lover. “He’s not the one, but he’ll do.”
without knowing, that man
handed me a key.
I open him easily, helping myself
to whatever I please.
There’s no stopping me now—nervy, elated,
I’ve sneaked past a sleepy guard
to plunder a time zone.
The “time zone” of the poem is a leap to years back, the present brought to contemporary life by dream.
Perhaps translation gave Bloch a surety and ear for freshness in language. Ear, voice, vocabulary, rhythm, and economy—she mixes the elements deftly and acutely into a pleasing whole.
Who came before? Bloch is not afraid to ponder and critique her own mothering, understanding that it came at the same time as she was living through the horrors of the Holocaust for her family and others. The book most concerned with children, her own and others, is The Past Keeps Changing, poems written in the 80s and published in 1992. In Blood Honey, the horrors of the Holocaust seep in, almost as if now that children are gone, one can explore more these dark shadows held at bay during the raising of “the boys.”
The narrator remembers the callousness she experienced as a young girl from rough-talking parents, and reflects on her own actions as a mother. In a rueful and memorable passage she tells of reading her sons Baba Yaga folktales and acting them out in later moments of play when they were small, and loved being chased:
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
My witch-blade hungry for the spurt
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother!
The narrator is jolted by an awareness of ancient and modern cultures where brother betrays brother, in the Old Testament, in the Holocaust. Bloch pinpoints the moment in the past with her children, reflects on her action of the raised hand, and allows the darker shadow to surface the ending of the poem.
As Director of the Creative Writing Program at Mills College for many years, Bloch was a griot responsible for giving her students tools to maintain an oral record of their tribal history in music, poetry, and storytelling. No trivial matter. A failure of modernism is that many of us aren’t born into tribal clans who pass down initiation and social bonding rituals, stories and a mythopoetics for life—or we are and don’t value this material. MFA Programs can teach some things, but they can’t create a gift for writing. She trained generations of students’ ears and eyes to recognize eschew sentimentality, and tack towards honesty and subtlety in writing. She listened to her students’ cadences, and attempted to instill a useful lineage: poetry is a map with earlier mapmakers. She empowered her students, by deconstructing her own poems and others; and drew attention to visual artists and musicians—important influences from a colorist, so her students could see their task as carrying on lineages and adding to the world’s knowledge.
Blood Honey, at this moment the pinnacle of Chana Bloch’s poetic output, is outspoken, true to history and the tribal lineages it represents. Searching for some reason for the horrors humans create, she maps history as individuals enter her life—decades ago when she was a child, or at breakfast yesterday. Older people seem particularly strong in the first section of Blood Honey—an uncle, an old Jewish woman in Prague, a calm rabbi.
This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
he shouted to a cheerful crowd…
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
“Flour and Ash” startles— a vision washes over reality. The narrator is in the studio of a painter using flour and ash, “working in seven shades of gray” on large sheets of paper tacked to the wall:
“Make flour into dough,” she answers,
and fire will turn it into food.
Ash is the final abstraction of matter.
You can just brush it away.”
The artist applies “the fine soft powders with a fingertip, highlighting in chalk and graphite,/blending, blurring with her thumb.” The narrator looks outside, is alarmed at the red and yellow daylilies in the dry summer, and the notion of fire begins to fill her mind, as it does for many in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills when the weather is dry and still, perfect for conflagration: “Her garden burns/red and yellow in the dry August air/and is not consumed.”
But then the chilling vision:
Inside, on the studio wall, a heavy
thickens and rises. Footsteps grime the snow.
The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp
with their boxy suitcases,
When I get too close she yanks me back.
She hovers over her creation
though she too has a mind
to brush against that world
and wipe it out.
A revelatory poem, full of confusions about time and space—A real occurrence? A dream? An imagined sequence suggested by looking at an artist’s work? This ash cannot be “brushed away.” The Biblical resonance of the second line “and fire will turn it into food” foreshadows the mournful dirge of the Holocaust. We feel the sorrow of the dead, relive the victims’ agony. The poem leaves us with “boxy suitcases,” and “ashen shoes.” Recent horror only a generation old, never to be forgotten.
The Past Keeps Changing (1992), Bloch’s second book, is filled with children. The first poem suggests the tight unit of the nuclear family as “The Family” is compared to a Russian nesting doll, all the members sealed up again at night: “We sleep/staring at the inside.”
These poems are as strong as those in Blood Honey, without its sweep. The focus on family leads to lovely detail: movement from remembering her own piano lessons in one poem, to working with her son at the piano in another; a son asking her to sock her fist into his stomach to test his strength is a wonderful depiction of pre-adolescence. “In the Land of A Body” lays it out about a cancer operation. Bloch is a reliable narrator; we are sure that revelation will include transformation. My favorite poem in this collection edges into the moral ambiguities which claim more attention in Blood Honey. In “Listening,” an unknown man brings everyone, including all his women and myriad children, to a carousel to say something tawdry:
It’s your dream, not mine. That’s why
we’re all in one place:
you, me, your dead wife,
your mistress, your girlfriend, everyone’s
We climb on the carousel without speaking.
This is your dream. You wrote it. That’s why
the women lean forward in their stirrups as if
to kiss each other, and the children
close their eyes. They’re so young,
Why are you
telling me this, suddenly happy,
tapping the spoon against the spongy
palm of your hand? Why
am I leaning forward, listening,
like one of them?
The poem chills us, with its Cocteau-like carousel, its depiction of children inappropriately present. Bloch’s disgust at the profligacy of the dreamer is clear. Less easily resolved than many of her poems, it’s equal to the best of Blood Honey.
Back in Blood Honey, there is an almost lazy comfortableness to “Natural History.” Bloch watches a meadow and traces the evolution of the trees over eons, past when we’ve forgotten we were there, past our own lives:
It takes a long time to make a meadow.
First you need glaciers
to gouge out a lake.
Then reeds grow, the lake fills with silt
and eventually grass.
So many trees with their litter
of fallen leaves to beget
a single live joy.
Look at the dead ends
up and down that trunk: each one
could have been a branch.
How a meadow is made, by a colorist who sees with the vision of a painter. The “single live joy” makes art of science—deft strokes on the progression of a lake.
The title poem describes long days with a man dying of a brain tumor. He recalls the summer he packed blood oranges, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice straight from the tap, “scooping sweetness from the belly of death/—honey from a lion’s carcass.” /We sit with our friend /and brood on the riddle he sets before us:/What is it, this blood honey?” The weeks turn into months, as Bloch realizes this is how this man is going to die: his flame will leap and surge before going out is extinguished. The poem captures the sadness of this, the amazement that day after day the man tastes the goodness in the world “through a keyhole/that keeps getting smaller/and smaller.” A metaphor not just for death, but our lives.
The comings and goings of the generations; a commitment to emotional honesty. Bloch tastes the joy of life in “The Daily News,” written at Lake Como: “We rush out into the blur of snowflakes/flustered and suddenly happy./We’re all set to hope/but the sky turns to water in our hands.” Like a good songwriter, she stays with the poem just long enough.
Blood Honey contains poems you may want to keep with you always, savor while travelling, or a train or anytime you want delight in a small space, as in these memorable lines from “Blue:”
from one hope to the next, irremediably
deep in blue.
Lindy Hough is a poet and fiction writer. She is Founding Publisher of North Atlantic Books. Her most recent book is Wild Horses, Wild Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1971-2010. She lives in Berkeley, California and Mt. Desert Island, Maine with her husband, the writer Richard Grossinger. They have a son, Robin Grossinger, in Berkeley, and a daughter, Miranda July, in Los Angeles.
Reviewed by Marcella Prokop
One of the great joys and struggles in writing fiction is the process of developing characters. The word here is, indeed, “developing” and not “creating.” Many fictitious character are an assemblage of parts: a boss’s arrogance here, a neighbor’s laziness there—and in Party Girls, Diane Goodman’s 2011 collection of short stories, the delicate crafting and organizing of these characteristics into the women who flesh out these stories makes this book a humorous and often challenging study of humanity. Thematically, each story pulls readers into the lives of “party girls”—women who plan for, attend or are ostracized from social events and lives in their narrow worlds. Goodman’s process of character development is so seamless the reader must remind herself that the women appearing here are not likely to show up at her next party and demand attention. This is a relief because the standouts, who include an isolated mother, a lonely chef, and a manipulative, naïve ex-banker, are not the life-of-the-party party girls any hostess wants to entertain or endure.
Take Candace, for example, the protagonist of “CandyLand,” the collection’s third story. At 60, she has worked her way to the top of the banking ceiling—executive vice president—but her life is empty. With no friends, and an imaginary husband, her clients are the only people she truly knows, perhaps because they are just like her: “They are self-important, entitled, often rude. They can be judgmental. Mean. Candace is often amazed at how ugly they are inside.” Shortly into the story, Candace has even these relationships taken away when she is let go, and Goodman takes the reader into Candace’s gaudy, empty life, and a depressing St. Patrick’s Day party.
“The little dogs, Fred and Wilma, trot around her feet as she works in the kitchen,” writes Goodman, before moving on to Candace. “She had thought about dressing as a leprechaun but then decided on a green jumpsuit with a gold lame belt, sparkly gold sandals, and green and gold dangling shamrock earrings. More hostess-appropriate.”
Goodman’s ability to find the quirky and pair it with the familiar means that each character in this collection, whether prominent or supporting, is reminiscent of someone any reader would know. This adds depth to the characters and stories—readers like to feel a sense of common ground with the characters who occupy their free time—but it also means that some of the characters are so irritatingly real it’s hard to remember they are figments of someone’s imagination. Yet the very process of showcasing such individuals allows readers to fall into a story and find their own likenesses interacting with and befriending (or not) the characters. In this way Goodman helps readers understand the world and the people who inhabit it—themselves included.
As “CandyLand” progresses, Mr. and Mrs. Kramer, Candace’s former boss and his wife arrive, becoming the only guests at the party. This leaves Candace confused and alienated, drawing out her true nature.
“‘Are we the first ones here?’ Mr. Kramer asks, hesitantly. He is thinking that at least her own staff would have stopped by. He felt it was the least they could do. When Candace hears his question, the full weight of what is happening begins to descend and the steam from the pot of potatoes rises up and into her face. The heat makes her angry. Look around, fool she thinks but says, ‘Yes you are!’” Candace’s fury appears as mashed potatoes spattered on her green jumpsuit, and as she demands hunger of her two guests, “it sounds almost like she’s singing.”
Goodman’s ability to shape her characters is such that the reader may feel embarrassed and sad for them, but it is this emotive response that fosters a sense of understanding between page and person. Envisioning Candace’s pride in her getup and her hope for the evening is easy, and depending on where the reader stands—cringing each time the boss tries to throw a party, or wondering where all the guests are—this is a story to which all people can relate. Furthermore, Goodman has woven the need for human interaction and acceptance into each story, humanizing characters that chafe against the grain of social interaction with awkwardness. In “CandyLand” this note of empathy comes with a simple history, and the foundation of Candace’s personality becomes clear.
“Her mother and father had named her Candy, a confection,” Goodman writes, her tight sentences sharp with disapproval. “But she was not the daughter her mother envisioned. … Candy wanted to make her mother proud but she couldn’t because her parents were too much in love. They were so much in love that there wasn’t enough room for their child, especially such a big child.”
Goodman’s work as a caterer and chef in Miami Beach has no doubt led to her sifting and blending of fact and fiction in each of the nine stories in this collection. With a focus on food, relationships and the ways in which base instincts are involved when the two intersect, the stories contained within this collection depict the life of a party girl as less than glamorous.
In “Abracadabra,” the second piece in this work, the nameless narrator and protagonist engages in a whirlwind affair with a stranger and loses all she has built as a restaurateur and chef when he robs her in the night. Her plight is that of many ambitious women in the creative world: “I threw myself into culinary school and then into work,” she explains. “I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.”
This is the most difficult narrative to read, for the narrator is so obviously vulnerable that one cannot help but feel sorry for her. The converse is that it’s hard to pity someone who so blindly hands over all she has worked for to a stranger, yet Goodman’s use of the magic metaphor and her ability to evoke compassion make this also the best story in the collection.
Additionally moving are “Dancing,” the only story with a truly heroic and eventually confident protagonist, and “The Other Mothers,” in which a mother and pilot’s wife is displaced on an island for her husband’s work and ostracized by the women on the island who could be her lifeline.
“Sometimes the other mothers say ‘Hi’ or ‘Hola’ when I approach them,” she explains, “but then they turn back to each other. … I can’t tell them apart. They are impossibly thin, polished and flawless like statues. Each one is astonishingly beautiful in different ways yet interchangeable: at one time or another, each one has touched me on the shoulder to compensate for her disinterest.”
So many of the scenes and actions completing this collection are chillingly familiar. Who does not know women like that; who cannot remember a time she was excluded from “the” party of the year? For all of the pettiness that parties stir up, for all of the desire, and yes, fun, at the end of the event, those of a more reflective nature will sit back and contemplate what worked, what didn’t, what should be done next time. Goodman’s distinct background certainly enabled her to look at the party world from this angle and apply it to her writing, and all readers of this collection will be better prepared for the next fete for it.
Goodman’s ability to isolate traits and scenarios from the real word and blend them into rich stories has done more than simply satisfy. It has entertained. And what hostess—gracious or otherwise—would refuse such a comment?
We no longer love you, boss,
but the reason – it’s just hard to tell;
though there’s one thing we know,
and we can tell this full well –
we’d all love to smash your ass, boss.
by Nicole Bartley
Toni Morrison’s novels are rarely quick reads, even the short ones take time to absorb. It’s not the pacing that slows the reader, but the fact that Morrison deserves time and thought. She always includes profound and sometimes unsettling themes within simple plots, and Home is no different.
It is a story about co-dependent siblings. Frank has always protected his younger sister, Ycidra (or Cee), who had been called “gutter child” since she was a baby because she was born while the family traveled. Frank enlists in the Korean War and Cee runs off to marry “a rat,” who steals the car they had borrowed and abandons Cee. After a couple dead-end jobs, Cee becomes a doctor’s assistant and is soon ill from an infection caused by the doctor’s exploration of her womb.
Frank returns from the war as one of the only survivors from his hometown in Georgia. He falls in love with a woman who can calm his post-traumatic stress disorder, but she eventually leaves him. Soon afterward, Frank receives a letter from Sarah, who is a woman who works with Cee. “She be dead,” is all it says. Frank then sets out to travel from outside of Portland to his hometown. On the way, he suffers a PTSD episode in public. The police apprehend him and restrain him in a hospital. He escapes with his clothes and service medal, but no money, and relies on the kindness of strangers in order to take a couple busses and a train back home.
One prevailing theme in Home is the concept that people are inherently good. Both Frank and Cee experience kindness, ignorance, hatred, and desperation from strangers, employers, and family members. While they were children, their grandmother denied them nutritious food and constantly judged Cee to be trash. As an adult, Frank is given charity money, lodging, and gifts of clothes from various strangers as he travels, but he’s also incarcerated and mugged. Cee’s employer uses her as a test subject and causes an infection, but does nothing to cure her. Frank must take Cee back to elderly women in their hometown for medical attention. It takes months for Cee to heal, and weeks until she’s able to return to Frank’s care. In that time, she matures from her exposure to the other women’s personalities and skills, and to her own stupidity. On that matter, Morrison writes, “As usual [Cee] blamed being dumb on her lack of schooling, but that excuse fell apart the second she thought about the skilled women who had cared for her, healed her… So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue.”
This touches on a second theme that Morrison often incorporates in her stories: female prowess. Women or girls in her story are either already strong, or they grow from their experiences. Home incorporates both of these types of characters. After reading Morrison’s stories, readers can step back and find the strict or taxing women in their lives and see them in a new perspective, thus finding ways to learn from them. How many of us have had elderly neighbors who gossip and judge, but also help when others need it? How many of us have abusive relatives who could still provide a few lessons if we stopped to listen? How many of us have strong women who were always there, affecting our lives and never receiving gratitude? And finally, how many of us want to be like those women? In this slim book, Morrison causes her readers to consider their lives, recollect all the complaints we’ve issued, and recognize where the fault actually lies and how to fix it, thereby making us stronger.
In tandem with this concept of strong women, the story also contains a few brief passages that offer social commentary that are as true now as in the ’50s. These are lines that stick out, ones that college students underline has key passages that resonate or provide fodder for discussions. It is as if Morrison inserts an “Oh, by the way, has this notion occurred to you yet?” For example, she writes in one passage:
You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you… You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let [your grandmother] or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.
Sadly, racism and prejudice still exist in modern days—people are still segregated, hated, and ridiculed based on the color of their skin or their genders. In addition to this, women are undergoing civil rights issues due to the threat of legislature that limits a woman’s rights to her own body. Morrison’s characters embody both of these issues, especially because of Cee’s infections. The above passage, then, pushes home the concept that we have the strength and the right to save ourselves, to define ourselves without requiring approval from anyone else. Also, the last line, “Locate her and let her do some good in the world,” almost echoes a popular quote from Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This passage, then, is a verbal slap upside the head for young women who believe that the outside world is the cause for all their woes.
Morrison also excels at revealing life’s grit. She doesn’t veil details for the sake of propriety. All of her books maintain this writing style, resulting in readers almost expecting curse words, intimate details of bodily functions, or deviant sexual scenes. She writes the uninhibited truth about life. Returning readers may be less prone to being offended by the language. Morrison has a flare for making deviant activity enticing. And, in terms of language, Morrison allows her characters to speak the same way people would in the real world. This is evident in the lack of proper grammar or sentence structure in the narration, as well as in dialogue. People, especially those who are poor and live in the country, do not censor themselves. In a stroke of realism, Morrison doesn’t censor them either. When Cee is ordered to lie out in the sun with her legs spread and without clothes, she protests from embarrassment. One of her caretaker frankly says, “You think your twat is news?” In everyday conversation, many people would be offended by this statement, and yet it appears to be fitting in a Morrison novel. If that is the way people talk when censorship isn’t a concern, then that is the way her characters talk. This complements the narration and provides something tangible in order for the readers to understand location. The language aids in representing “home,” and readers may consider their own hometowns and recognize that language and accents are just as important as the physical details.
However, Frank and Cee’s hometown appears as a backdrop of events rather than a character in itself. Morrison concentrates on her characters and their histories. Even Frank’s journey home is more about the people he meets along the way than the journey itself or the destination. Also, throughout most of the story, Frank and Cee hate their hometown. They both left as soon as possible. In all that time growing up, moving apart, and finding one another again, they each represented home for the other. Only when they were together did they fit in the world. It is only after life takes a turn for the better, toward the end, that Frank and Cee begin to see their hometown as “fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.”
Whereas Morrison fails to turn place into a character, she manages to use the narrator instead. Occasionally, short italicized chapters punctuate the narrative after a few regular chapters. It is almost as if the narrator (who may or may not be Morrison) becomes an off-stage character. The voice in these italicized chapters belongs to Frank, who is speaking to the narrator as that person writes his story. Frank usually opposes the narrator and “clarifies” bits of information or emotion for the narrator’s (and thus the audience’s) benefit. Other times, he seems to reminisce about a moment that had just been explored in a previous chapter, or a new one that the narrator may not have included. In this way, Morrison creates a parallel story. It is also as if the story has a commentary feature, like on a DVD’s special features disc, with character commentary instead of an actor’s. This effect is intriguing. It makes Frank’s character more real, as if Morrison based the entire story off a real-life friend. It provides layers that fold into each other and flatten only at the end of the novel. It leaves readers guessing about what else is omitted from the narration, as well as whether the narrators and characters are reliable storytellers.
Morrison also skillfully shifts points of views between the main characters and secondary characters, who appear only briefly. This is evident in a scene when Frank removes Cee from the doctor’s house. Sarah stands at the door and watches Frank carry Cee away and, for two paragraphs, readers are able to see her side of the story, her fears and expectations. During this brief scene, she provides an explanation of the doctor’s history, which readers would not encounter during the regular narration. The POV returns to Frank when Sarah shuts the kitchen door, because her role is complete.
Despite Morrison’s stable use of realism, she incorporates a touch of magical realism, which exists in most of her stories. In Home, this touch manifests in the form of a short, older man who wears a pale blue zoot suit, a wide-brimmed hat, and pointed white shoes. Frank first sees him on a train. The man sits next to him, says nothing, and soon leaves. There is no indentation from where he sat on the seat. He appears again in a child’s room when Frank is offered shelter for the night from a family. Frank, in alarm, jumps to fight the man and protect the family, but the man again vanishes. This incident suggests that the man is part of Frank’s imagination, perhaps a symptom of his PTSD. However, he doesn’t reappear again until Frank is digging a grave with his sister. This time, Cee notices him while Frank remains oblivious. Here, at the end of the story, readers may suspect that the man was a ghost of the person whom Frank and Cee were burying, a man they had seen buried in a ditch when they were children, and a man who was guiding Frank home in order to do the right thing.
This small insertion of magical realism suggests that in the gritty details of life, there are still fantastic moments that guide and shape us from childhood to adult hood. The fact that the man appears only when Frank is either traveling home or already there might mean that wherever readers consider to be home, magic is there just for us.
Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye has been described as “pastoral” by a literary critic in the press release that came along with my review copy of the book, and while that’s a very good place to start with this volume it’s not an all-encompassing description, either. Rekdal uses pastoral motifs to engage discourse on life and love—as many poets from Wordsworth onward have before her—but she also constructs full models of life in this book. It is as if a scientist is at work in the basement of the museum of natural history, building a diorama of an entire ecosystem via words. She seems not only interested in using the natural world as a metaphoric lens in her poems but is set on building them item by item into natural worlds themselves. Her poetry—though in most cases short, tight, poems—can overwhelm the reader, though in a very good way.
For example, take a look at the opening of her poem “Nightingale”:
There is a bird that comes at night, he says,
that makes the most beautiful music.
The “he” described is a boy, seated at the kitchen table—we’re given that much—and then he launches into the reason for the title of the poem. “Nightingale” is flowing, bittersweet, and adroit in every capacity—possibly my favorite poem in the entire book. It also prepares us for the longer poem “Wax” that earns its own section in the book: when “Wax” comes on the scene, all else grinds to a halt. The parade of powerful yet compact poems is over for a spell, and instead we have a massive missive about wax museums and thus about the celebrities re-created in wax form therein. Here, in literal terms, Rekdal is working as that museum tech down in the basement and building displays to entertain and inform the public. And when that public reads of her tales, to this museum of melodrama, you know they’ll come in droves.
But before all that, I want to return to the boy and his nightingale:
The field is wet and full of stars.
The boy cocks his head toward the dark.
I won’t give away the full tenor or meaning of this poem, but it’s sublime and filled with language as lush and leading as these fine examples. This kid is describing an event; this boy is telling a tale; this kid is constructing a reality; this boy is cut like a stencil from the Boy Scout ideals of an America that hardly was; this kid could be Ohio, North Carolina, or Detroit. He is rural, he is suburban. He is in from soccer on a November night or bored to tears in the heart of the hot summer. Rekdal provides us with a whole person—she put him together from straw and lumber in the basement I suppose —not just the image or narrative of a person. She offers a character able to tell his own tale as if being interviewed on the nightly news. There is her magic: Rekdal’s boy at the kitchen table is now real, set loose to offer his own commentary, seemingly no longer a voice of the poet but one fully of his own.
In other instances, Rekdal’s work is of the same level of raw craft but somehow the end result is not of the same caliber, such as in “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce”. Though well-written, even the title is somewhat an example of trying too hard. There is an air of the set-piece to it, a sense of knowing exactly what to expect and just waiting to see the poet draw it all out. These poems though number few in her book and they are even above the level of many contemporary poets, offering sound construction and pithy, ready, emotions. Indeed, were it not for poems such as “Nightingale” or “Ballard Locks” in this volume, even the weakest of Rekdal’s efforts would appear exceptional, but these poems push the standard even higher.
What Rekdal does over and over in this book and does always very well is to interrogate the lives of a variety of people via her pastoral references as seen perhaps by some small mammal or bird—something with that “animal eye”—from a short distance away. She asks us to come to know otherness by firstly becoming the other. If inside the same society as the subject of the poem, we are too insular to these often-cloistered subjects, so she allows us the benefit of being someone else, perhaps even someone/something not human. She allows us removal even beyond being a party foreign to the subject, in a sense doing the opposite of what every author of fiction who tries to make his reader feel like the reader is in fact one of the characters in the narrative; instead of putting us in the same social circle as her characters, Rekdal puts us one step more removed than normal and thus allows us a specific formulation of understanding which is unique to the most different, most foreign, most exotic.
The question of “character” development in contemporary poetry is one too seldom asked or approached in criticism: the way many of us write today involves the creation or replication of personages different from the poet and thus, really, characters in any sense of narrative. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have names, if they don’t extend for five pages of activity or have concrete backstories. They can, like the boy at the kitchen window and his nightingale, be momentary but they’re no less powerful when crafted by skilled hands. Rekdal certainly has this sense of craft down pat: she draws us into these poems via characters who are full, lush, evocative, and compelling—so much so, in fact, you don’t realize at times they are nameless or you are unsure whether they are the poet herself or someone else. Many readers—even those dedicated to contemporary poetry—seem still to presume that any figure introduced in a poem is a real person and thus, ever poem is a chronicle of the poet’s actual life in verse. Not so, of course, as poets can as adeptly create fictional or fictionalized portrayals as readily as any other writer. This is not to say the genesis of Rekdal’s poems is one of only her powers of imagination, but her work is able to expertly weave in so many colors of description aside very compelling and ready characters that I have to wonder of their full origins. Whether fully true to life or truer to a masterful sense of fictional creation, these poems are filled with people we want to know. The boy in “Nightingale” alone could go on to star in an entire novel, just as some scholars claim that Bloom was first seen in a story in Joyce’s Dubliners long before starring in his masterpiece.
Rekdal’s approach to developing atmosphere is no less comprehensive than her ability to flesh out characters of substance: her descriptions of place are stark when need be to allow the focus to fall elsewhere but can be lush and affirming—glossy even—when desired. That “pastoral” quality another reviewer noted is very apparent in places and the development of place can be nonspecific yet realistic, broad, and wide-ranging in scope. Rekdal’s summer-filled or autumnal-flavored spots on the page resonate like vintage landscape postcards and it’s much to her credit that when required, she can draw in these lush string and brass sounds of the pastoral and have her orchestra play a smaller tune devoted to specific human emotions. It’s a treat though when Rekdal fully unleashes her orchestral overtones and depicts a place in such painterly terms, reminding us of one of the most-valued of traditions in Western canonical poetry—that of breathtaking landscape.
More than simply pastoral I would praise Rekdal’s writing in Animal Eye as verdant, as lush, as filled with dreams but not normal dreams—ones that creep out of the skull and remain deep in the carpet until their seeds bloom into actuality. Her praxis here is at such a high level that even her shortest poems are full and never suffer for their economy on the page. When she turns to something nearing long-form, she provides us with “Wax” and after reading this poem, you’ll never look at a wax museum the same again, I promise you. This book is necessary: it is a step in a more consummate direction of contemporary poetry that openly acknowledges the debt poetry has to fiction yet also the multiple debts it has to its naturalistic past. More than a book-length pastoral, this is an eclogue and a fine one at that.
Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press
reviewed by Mike Walker
The concept of a volume of poetry transporting its reader to a far-off locale is not a new one. Given the constant tropes of how poetry is supposedly an emotional, romantic, art, the idea of remote vistas and escape almost too-easily fits into the realm of the poet’s craft. Expectedly, there are many poor—perhaps even horrible—examples of this approach, however, this is not to say it cannot be done very well, and be fully effective in its transportation of reader to a place miles away. In the case of Nathalie Handal, the place in question is Andalusia, the southern-most geographic region of Spain and what was once the heart of the Islamic Caliphate of Córdoba.
Andalusia really contains a wealth of history and at that, history of many flags, many languages, many colors. Handal could have filled a whole book simply with images and visions of Moorish Spain and left it at that, but instead, she attempts to cover the entire range of Andalusia’s long-running game of politics and personages. Overall, she is very successful, too. She can compose a poem about Toledo’s glory and then one about Jorge Guillén, jumping from century and realm of polity in one graceful swoop. In this, and due to how pithy and informative her poems are—and how constant her voice is regardless of its specific topic—Handal is able to offer a book that nearly reads as much as a travel journal or even historical record as it does a work of poetry. In the instance where I come to her poem “The Thing about Feathers”, not even half-way into the book, I feel like I am in the middle of a truly majestic, swelling, work of fiction. Much of my own scholarship is on Chrétien de Troyes ‘s Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette and somehow, in the middle of Handal’s discourse of Moors and Spanish poets I got the feeling of that great work—the feeling of something designed to be entertaining yet rooted in deep history, of something that has grown larger than life since its creation and sounds nearly oral even when read in silence on the page. Of course, the book I am holding was only published in 2012, but never mind that: what Handal has done is no less than a spectacular triumph as she has knitted up and enveloped centuries worth of history into a slim volume and nonetheless it all reads—consistently—like grand literature.
We are strange when we’re lost,
his father told him.
With these lines, we start into a poem. This is how Handal often begins—straight out the chute, but certainly mid-stream, half-way through the film, far into the maze. That is travel. As seems fitting for a poet “in Andalucía”, we catch up with our poet and not the other way around, and this is as it should be, since Handal’s approach helps convey the very sense of her journey itself.
I have inherited your shadows,
and a thousand crossroads.
This theme of travel is constant, and often comes with a motif of awe, of narrative reaching beyond whatever immediate import it contains as where it rests as lines of a specific poem. Everything in this book feels interconnected. There is an element of García Lorca in Handal’s writing—not surprising, as she mentions him and other Spanish poets throughout the book—still, his spirit floats over the pages just like Handal’s words float over the entire Iberian landscape.
He longs for
the secret forms of god
along the back of his neck
Those quick lines are probably my favorite in this entire book, and picking favorites is a chore not easily undertaken given the bounty of options the poet provides. Aware that she is as much a teacher as a poet in these pages, Handal also includes a helpful set of notes about her travels in Spain and the topics and places she concerns herself with in the poems. Most readers may find they need it: having taken several courses in college in European and Moorish history that covered Andalusia in depth, I thought I would be fine yet here and there Handal would introduce something I’d not really encountered—or at least understood—before. Moreover, she made me desire to open up García Lorca once again and read him anew.
Handal quotes everyone—like a reporter on assignment overseas, she is quick to get a word or two from all those of importance she can interview. Only with Handal, she has the benefit of not limiting her interviews to the living but includes everyone from (literally) dead poets to an Umayyad prince from Moorish times long, long ago. This quoted material bookends the sections of her book and interfaces with her poems, making the effect of the whole somewhere between epic poem and an anthology of travel writing. Quoting others at times indicates an author is either running thin on original work or else trying to locate herself as someone of equal greatness to those she quotes, but Handal applies her quotes to the best of use, building with them a historical and atmospheric timeline of sorts into which she can insert her poems. The whole feeling the reader takes from this experience is one of a real journey, a tangible venture through Spain and the crisp waves of the water, the fine sand, the rocky shores, the savory kitchens, the faded tiles in churches centuries old all come forth with power and poise.
Two rather unrelated but vital elements allow Handal’s poetry to be as strong and robust as it is: for one, she has a well-developed understanding of observation, which is something not all poets today retain in their array of skills. As writers encouraged to look inward and expected to produce works that do not even require in most cases plots or the development of characters as in fiction and drama, poets can become more insular than anyone else working in literature. Not Handal: she takes her tasks of description as seriously as any first-rate journalist would, focusing on all that comes into her path. Secondly, Handal is able to produce clear prose, writing that is contemporary, familiar and direct yet that also is warm and and lyrical, creating the type of romantic, nearly courtly sense of succession— of prolongation of the narrative at hand as something unified. What might have been only travel sketches transcribed into verse are instead very singular, consummate, organic, creations. They stand on their own but also, even better, as a whole in the scope of the book.
This book, and its author, are a treasure. In the course of reviewing books of poetry for four different literary periodicals, I encounter “good” poetry all the time—little of what established publishers send out to reviewers is without merit—however, it’s exceptional to find something as cohesive and engrossing as Poet in Andalucía. I highly recommend it and await Handal’s next journey.
By Marcella Prokop
To read Peter Blair’s Farang is to find oneself in a lucid dream. Set in Thailand and wavering between Bangkok, the “Up-country” and Pittsburgh, Blair’s language moves readers through scenes with the elegance of a foreign dancer: the rhythms are mesmerizing, the experience transcendent. Having spent three years in Thailand in the Peace Corps, Blair knows what it is to be a farang, the Thai word for “foreigner” that means so much more than just that. He writes as an English teacher in a foreign land, his main speaker working through the joys and sorrows of instruction, of class bonds, of trying and sometimes managing to fit in. The nature of duality that defines those who are bound to contradictory memories, places and interests comes to life in the existence of Thai culture. Thailand is duality—it is the land of pleasure but also the land of restraint, of the Buddha—and this conflict is woven into this collection. Whether illuminating saffron robes or Pittsburgh’s “cold November drizzle,” Blair details the beautiful nature of memory, loss and uncertainty in these luminous poems.
“Thai and American cultures, two dreams / of one world, the Dharma,” he writes in the opening poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam.” Blair’s speaker questions the Dharma—the word of the Buddha and the way of life in his new home—and finds himself grasping for answers. To accept Buddhism is to accept the loss of ego, and throughout these poems Blair’s many speakers question tradition, reality and the life that unfolds around them. What is it to dream, to exist in this reality? Buddhists love confusing those unversed in their word, not to be cruel, but to crack open the uninitiated mind to a new perspective. As the speaker in this first poem works through a streetside meal of noodles in Bangkok, he is confronted by the “emptiness deepening” in his companion’s bowl. This is a powerful poem, for its lack of resolution sets the tone for the collection. As the seasons and locations change, the principal speaker becomes more firmly entrenched in his dual nature, forgetting who he is and questioning what he knows. Yet strong voice is not the only element that unifies these poems. The ever-present reminder that at some point we are all foreigners in our own lives binds each scene to the reader. And so, like any good dream, another strong element of craft swirled into the sounds of Blair’s poetry is his way with delicate images: the flash of ocean as a student drowns, the scent of an indescribable soup steaming from a bowl, the brilliance of a silent Buddha flaking chips of soft gold. Despite the confusion of this dual world, each image provides clarity in description, adding texture to these poems.
In “From the Window,” the first poem in the second section of the collection, the speaker abandons all he has come to know. He leaves Siripan, his Thai lover; his former students; his now-familiar Bangkok, the City of Angels. Yet there is continued uncertainty, and continued growth. Blair’s inquiries and insights in this section become as vaguely precise as a monk’s questions: What comes first, the mountain, or the valley? Is life as an outsider choice or consequence? In this section readers find a different country, and with it, another set of lyrical poems that lead deeper into the Thai dream as remembered by a foreigner gone native.
The train pulls away from Bangkok station,
away from Siripan, from the closed
school and into a myth of rice fields.
What’s older, the farmer plowing
a glass sea, or the idea
of motion, of wheels and wind?
A small blue comma, the man’s body,
hunches over the plow in the distance.
The speaker questions movement here, his motion as well as the wheel that turns for all who live. Later, in “Barubador Temple,” he examines a new conflict:
If I wasn’t in love
with stones I could be the one
monk statue sitting free, nothing but air
and light around me.
This is intriguing scene and language because on the one hand this speaker is free, not just of traditional American constraints, but also in his ability to move from place to place. Yet his struggle to let go of his Western notions of life and attitude bind him to his body. Is it possible, he wonders, to sit, to know one space, and yet be grounded? Is it right to be happy in that place, yet wistful for another? As Blair moves through his two lives the question continues to haunt him.
One of the joys of reading these poems is that they work like a traditional Koan—a Zen form of poetry that confuses, yet (hopefully) enlightens the reader or listener. Each piece in this collection presents questions and lessons that prompt the reader to consider his or her nature. Getting into the meat of these poems, then, is like meditation, like getting to the moment or near-moment of Nirvana. The careful reader will suddenly, abruptly, feel the click, the ah-ha! of understanding. It takes loss and confusion, these stories say, to find the truth of being.
In “Night House,” contemplating a student’s paper about a Thai fairy tale, Blair’s speaker unites the abstract and concrete by exploring emotion and necessity:
How can I grade its agreement
or tense? I want to hear the mother’s
voice, her spirit calling like the frogs
in the paddies. Is that her, that magic
mother who speaks the language of rain,
husks and the night house?
English teacher or not, the reader can understand the speaker’s problem: Is it better to maintain the order of structure and expectation and ignore the beauty of the content, or is it best to let oneself go to the whirlwind of feeling created as structure is broken? This is a question answered in the literal form of Blair’s poems. The rules of storytelling apply to each poem, allowing each character to have his or her voice. It’s a paradox that Blair as the principal author/speaker could accomplish this only through losing and questioning Blair as person. This cleavage is strongest in “Two Farangs” as the speaker transcends location and color, forgetting his own body, his own identity, while watching another farang from across the street:
Look, at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.
I’m about to cross the street
to warn him we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.
Life as metaphor in this inquiry into self and reflection on who he is and who he’s become challenges the speaker throughout these poems, and Blair’s gentle way of setting up this tension pushes toward some kind of long-sought release. But as he brings his collection full circle in his return to Pittsburgh, that desire, like all desires, must fade in order for the speaker—and thus, the reader—to feel at peace with what is.
In “Back in Pittsburgh” the speaker feels out of place during the ceremonies surrounding his father’s funeral. The memories of the times mentioned and people conjured are no longer his to cling to. Lost among once-familiar faces and streets and bars, the speaker attempts to return to the familiarity of his Thailand.
what I expect
to see throws me: not Singh quart bottles
but Iron City ponies on the table,
not sunshine on the wide Bangkok Boulevards
and palm trees waving in glare, but overcast sky,
narrow streets hugging hillsides, my tires
drumming cobblestones between old steel rails.
Those who have left home for distant lands and returned to once-familiar shores will connect with Blair’s words here. The expectations, the memories of what once was—after life in another country these things too, are simply dreams, fading from grasp as times flows.
Driving the old streets I spot a blue bicycle
like the one I ride everyday in Ubol.
I want to follow it, as the rain thickens
into curtains between us, want to believe
its wavering silhouette will guide me home.
Home? Where is home, for this ghost of a man, this drifting voice here, that stone statue elsewhere? The speaker’s dream has faded at the end, and caught between the reality of what is, now, and what was—both in Thailand and at home—he cannot find a place to plant himself. In the end, he dreams of two worlds again, his Thailand, his Pittsburgh, and both are gone, leaving him forever changed.
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
reviewed by Mike Walker
Ruth Schwartz’s new book of poems starts off with a quote on poetry as an art by Pablo Neruda and this seems like a most-apt and fitting introit to the poetry that follows. Schwartz, as well as being an established and accomplished poet, is a psychologist and the dynamics of interpersonal relations and the life of the mind one would expect from a clinical psychologist is apparent in her writing. While her topics are diverse, her focus on personal interpretation and also on the mind-body relationship are clear in many of them. When she writes about other people, her introspective skills shine through and I cannot help but think she also, in turn, probably employs many of the benefits of her skills as a poet in her work with patients.
“How we shuffle along in our various bodies” she begins the title poem “Miraculum”, going on along on this trajectory with teenage girls, the postman, and an older woman all called in as examples of the variety of humanity and human movement. The poem is at once heart-warming and nearly scientific: it bespeaks a clear sincerity in its tone that is amplified by these examples of people who feel like honest observations from actual life.
The face of the pavement is wrinkled by light.
The dusty parking lot has turned to snow.
And this other dust, the dust of our hearts?
These words conclude Schwartz’s poem “Beginning, Over and Over Again” and offer a prime example of how her word-craft is tight, evocative, and yet almost truncated, edited down to its basal strengths. The biographical paragraph on the back-cover of the books identifies that Schwartz lives in Oakland, California, but there’s something very snow-bound about many of her poems, something of dark skies and cold days. Coupled with this is how she writes about love and interpersonal dynamics of romance—which is from an expectedly older, wiser, viewpoint.
Maybe the lilies pray for us,
for all the ways we keep ourselves
The lines above come from the poem “Lilies at Midnight” which forms something of a spiritual and artistic core of this book and brings forth some of its richest writing and most pure images. Schwartz is able to craft the lily into something far beyond metaphor and enable to the flower to take on many roles in society and literature. The poem reads like a sweeping tour of how people, romance, and flowers interact in the guise of this specific flower, but more than that, it demonstrates why we have florists, why flowers matter and are crucial to so many functions and core events in our society.
“Winter Solstice” is another poem that invokes the roles of nature in human affairs of the heart. Such efforts are not atypical of our contemporary poets and in the hands of some, so many poems in one book focused on romance would seem a bit much unless it was early into the month of February, however, in Schwartz’s skilled craft, her high number of poems on romantic themes are simply delights. In other poems, most notably “Driving Home”, Schwartz is adept at placing the daily human processes of modern life (post-modern life perhaps?) into the eternal and magisterial realm of nature that continues along, always the same, season by season. Our commutes to and from work pale in contrast but they also fit into the patterns of nature Schwartz identifies in this and many of her other poems in this volume. “The Immutable” is another poem of this tenor and this same high caliber: In its expression of a child’s curiosity and the tireless cycles of the ocean’s steadfast waves, it tells us so much about ourselves.
One of the seemingly most straight-forward yet one of the most-powerful poems in this book is titled “Some Answers to the Question ‘Who Are You’” and the poem in fact offers these answers. Perhaps telling of the poet’s training and experiences as a psychologist, this poem interrogates crucial, basal, issues of identity as they come forth in our everyday speech. The “answers” are quite varied and appear to come from different people, with some being very honest and logical such as one where the speaker states she is a cardiologist while others are flights of fancy, such as a pilot who is throwing people one by one off his plane, high over the open ocean. He tells us he too will soon jump into the sea—just not quite yet. It is in writing such as this that Schwartz shows us one of the foremost jobs of the contemporary poet: to ask questions, to postulate realities, to investigate—and to lead her reader moreover to also investigate—the interplay between mind and external world.
Another poem that really stood out to me was “Many Things Are True”, which like many poems presented here concern human relations—mainly those romantic—in the larger metaphoric arena of the wealth of nature. Winter is again conjured up, but instead of presenting any feelings of coldness or barren expanses, it offers a framework of the stoic, strong, environment that our mere human lives move through. Woodpeckers, one example of many where Schwartz brings us animals to help animate her material, natural, sphere for us, peck away and the world—a “new planet” in the poet’s own words—exists in radiance in the background, like the fabled “blazing world” Margaret Cavendish described in her own romantic flights of fancy so many years ago. The crowning power of this book is exactly this quality: it is the rare ability to join the outright fantasy and the very tangible reality—the veracity of the cardiologist and the horror of the suicidal pilot, plus all the lovers found here and there within the forests of Schwartz’s words.
Miraculum is an especially rare book in that it concerns often everyday issues and ideas yet in a way that brings back lyricism to what we call “poetics”. Very much worth reading, I would dare call it even one of the best books of new American poetry thus far of this year.
Reviewed by Noah Gup
Baseball has been a fixation in all aspects of American culture, perhaps most potently in literature. There is something deeply poetic about the stop-and-go momentum of baseball games and the romanticized innocence of childhood that comes with it. Matthew Pitt, in his collection’s title story, essentially bucks any of this childish romanticism. The story is narrated by a cynical, alcoholic announcer who gives inspiration to the band of misfit players by publicly discussing their most embarrassing moments. To put it lightly, all of the characters are selfish and unsympathetic. Yet Pitt has such a mastery of specific vocabulary (the batter spits a “slug of chaw”) that his view into this world of baseball, however morally murky it may be, is nonetheless enticing. And the final, emotionally charged moment is the perfect pay-off, bringing the bittersweet reality of family to the forefront.
Yet despite the intense portrait of a small-town that could easily sustain more exposition, the stories shift constantly to new, engaging worlds. While they sometimes feel trite (“Wanted: Rebel Anthem”), when Pitt gives himself a leisurely easel to explore the background, it is crafted beautifully, such as the beautiful yet difficult undeveloped island that sets the stage for “The Whole World Over.”
The perceivable connection between these stories is, most bluntly, dysfunction. Each story displays fissures between characters’ feelings and their actions, what they can say and what they want/need to do. This conflict is displayed clearest in “Goes Without Saying,” where the barrier between an agent for a music label and his deaf son is explored. Yet this eventually becomes exhausting, with a suite of stories particularly disheartening. Nearly every marriage in this collection is completely dysfunctional. While this can be portrayed elegantly, as in the slow burning “The Whole World Over,” it often feels like an exhausted source of tension. In “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” the narrator is too much to bear, first wrongly accusing his wife of cheating, then abandoning her. While unsympathetic narrators can often be compelling, Benny’s motivations are never expressed clearly, and the awkward question and answer portions don’t help.
The strange and humorous “Au Lieu de Fleurs” is a surprising delight amid all this domestic conflict. This quirky story moves from a café serving only soup that “smelled of clams and sewer,” to a clown’s funeral, to a park’s public bathroom, yet ultimately celebrating the compassion and talkative nature of the charming narrator.
Despite the sometimes monotonous plotting, Pitt’s dense and often striking writing is a constant. A recurring, ghostly dog’s gait in the first story is described “like some prisoner at sea walking the plank, with fierce, final dignity.” And in “Observing the Sabbath,” after a character severs a relationship by cutting the phone line, “the exposed wire was the color of a hamstring.” In this way, reading Attention Please Now can be a consistent pleasure, with Pitt’s writing guiding the reader through even the most uncomfortable territory. And Pitt often finds the humanity within these stories. The final story, “Kokomo,” is a perfect example. In brief, it is a fairly standard apocalypse tale, but the powerful mother-son bond it portrays elevates the story beyond its plot.
Much of Attention Please Now feels familiar: marital strife, the bond between parents and children, the baseball field. But, as the title demands, the power in this collection is in the details, in the intricacies of the writing, and the tiny beautiful moments that punctuate these lovely stories.
The Book of Ten
by Susan Wood
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
reviewed by Mike Walker
Susan Wood brings us this new collection of her poems and a steadfast intent to write with courage of history and contemporary American life. She is able—adept, even—to make things mundane seem complex and worthy of her pen while in due contrast illuminating things that could be considered justly grand as very human, tactile, and near. Like Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, she is swift and unapologetic about plunking her reader down in the middle of some landscape—as if the dear reader had been on holiday there with her all along—and provides details of her views of this place, making it familiar at once even if it screams unknown, remote, or exotic. Wood, however, also is skilled in providing intimate junctures involving her own presence without fanfare, without any involved surroundings grand, exotic, or otherwise:
A parrot of irritation sits
on my shoulder, pecks
at my head, ruffling his feathers
in my ear. He repeats
everything I say, like a child
trying to irritate the parent.
These lines come from Wood’s poem “Daily Life”, a title that sums up about half or better of her poems in this collection. The marvel is really her ability to write plain-spoken verse about her day and then write a poem such as “Decalogue: Thin Ice” where, while also intimate, her tone and focus jumps into a more universal and complicated formulation. Wood is concerned with family, with the nexus of generations most appreciated at middle age, and, as a professor (she teaches in the English department at Rice University) she probably has a very keen sense about younger people also, and the dynamics of their relationships with lovers, parents, and siblings. Hence her recollections of her childhood and teen years in these poems seem as fresh as they are nostalgic and as global as they are personal.
Wood’s poem “In America” is a perfect example of how she skillfully extends the personal into the realm of the global, illustrating the essence of the common flow of current affairs of this nation. She is able, in a poem of sleek and measured size, to provide a good glimpse into American lives. Not afraid to name proper names, she mentions a man’s girlfriend who works the nightshift at the “Smoothie King” in the mall, providing a clear and very real portrait of this person she—and we—have not even met. We know this girl without meeting her; we know what we need to know. Her narrative is a small thread in the wide quilt Woods presents, but it’s a thread perfectly taken into Wood’s needle. The man—the girl’s lover who plans to marry her—is himself a minor character in a sense, a stand-in for so many people in America, yet Wood is able to make the girlfriend “real” via a few choice words. Likewise, Wood writes of problems germane to race relations and economic/class differences in a way that is subtle yet direct, understated yet firm. It is in this ability we can locate her tremendous skill: she can spend two pages writing of how America “is”—both unjust and romantic, rich and bone-poor—then she can spend two pages writing about her own father and herself, narrow in focus, knitting out as tight a narrative as you can get.
Grief is a common motif in Wood’s poems here, and there is often a very autumnal, final, feeling about some of them. She realizes we live in tough times and of course when writing about people suffering in one sense or another, she offers sympathy combined with a near-journalistic ethos of getting the facts, the details, typed out clear and plain.
Perhaps Wood’s best poem in this collection is one where President Lyndon B. Johnson—now out of office and Nixon in—comes to a congressman’s fundraiser in western Texas. Wood travels back in time, considering a visit to her Texan high school by LBJ when he was running against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination and then the years he was in office both as vice president and then president, then the Nixon years when the fundraiser takes place. In the visitation of a former president to a political dinner, Wood is able to paint a tight landscape of the most known moments of his career, and it is a resoundingly delightful yet somber journey into memory. Like another captivating contemporary poet, Judith Vollmer, Wood is adept at describing geography in a way that puts us right there—in this case, at a small motel in a region of America where Wood tells us you can drive for hours without encountering a single human soul. More in the legacy of the confessional poets than a nature poet contemporary or otherwise, Wood has an agenda for her descriptions of place, but they can well stand on their own footing, too. Wood has a psychologist’s or teacher’s (after all, she is the latter) understanding of how to describe people in an environment—how they look at the world from their own two eyes and how that world becomes either a mirror or an alien landscape to them. In one poem she describes a woman who is out of touch, lonely, and alone in our world yet acute in her own awareness of her plight as she sees the apparent harmony of a comfortable family raising a Christmas toast. Whether or not this lady actually stands lurking outside a window peeping in and seeing this vista or not is moot: Wood provides us the most pungent form of deep empathy for this soul because we can envision the world as she sees it: I would love to have from Wood a description of a pilot walking through an airport or a surgeon walking out of the operating theatre. I enjoyed her ability to put the reader into the shoes of her characters very much and it’s no stretch or ill call to name the people of her poems “characters” for despite how short many of these poems are in length, these people jump from their pages as fully formed as many characters in a novel or short fiction.
The people in her poems, be they grand as LBJ or the famed hijacker D.B. Cooper who vanished without a trace mid-air from a plane in flight, or be they an unknown average American who only wants to impress the woman he desires to marry or be they the father of the poet herself, they are strong, cunning, and stand up as if we’d known them as our neighbors all along. The academic’s varied and informed concern with world affairs is well-coupled with the down-home Texan appreciation of the familiar and dedication to the details of the same in Wood’s poetry. She seems nearly determined to write it all down, as if the entire world she knows could any moment burn to the ground. Perhaps it’s the fact her own father is, if one of her poems speaks of him as it seems it does, aged ninety-three and in a nursing home—there is a sorrowful reality of what could be lost overnight in her poems and thus a rocket-driven push to get all these varied thoughts down to page as they carry the weight of world, family, and legacy within their typography.
It is this understanding of real people, real language, real geography that allows Wood to get away with using a bird as a metaphor for grief in a poem. The concept seems too typical at first, but when she develops the bird’s call into something that rings through the home of the person plagued by grief and then takes it a step further and notes that when this odd birdsong is heard we mistake it for the doorbell and rush to see who has come to call, only to discover once again that no one is there—no one, she tells us calmly, ever is there. It is madness, it could be war, but it’s the internal world of someone overcome by grief. The poet who knows her people, her land, also knows her animals and her animal-knowledge. She’s in a business of writing poems that won’t let go and like Secretary Clinton said during her bid for that office old LBJ once held, Wood is another lady in this, and she’s “in it to win”.
Win she does: this book is one of the most thought-provoking (and feeling-provoking) books of poetry in the English language I’ve read in several years now. She deals in the deepest parts, but never for the sake of seeming serious: she deals there because circumstances of life demand her involvement. She wins—she wins over the reader, she wins against the injustices she finds in our supposedly modern and just society—because she is so skilled in her craft and willing to pick topics that are meaningful but never feel selected as show of force or even an overt show of skill. Wood never seems intent on impressing us but instead simply set on telling her story. You have to wonder at places in this book, why is she not in the fiction business?
The Book of Ten is worth buying, it is more than worth reading. Read, if nothing else, Wood’s poem “The Magic Hour”. Spend some time with her, as this one is a winner.