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Book Review: How Blasphemy Sounds to God by Gary Fincke

 photo c23ff664-77b8-4a9f-8986-e1d7047fc99c_zps4f79e560.jpg How Blasphemy Sounds to God
by Gary Fincke
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014


Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

“Shaken, I stared at myself in the mirror above the dresser. At twenty-three, I looked old enough to appear ordinary in a coffin.”

Striking sentences like these remained with me long after finishing Gary Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. The book’s imagery lingered like regret, something with which each of Fincke’s characters are intimately familiar.

The twenty-three year old coffin-dweller is Corey Gillis—a quiet, confused young man who acts as an observer of the world around him. He watches, he reflects, but rarely judges. He is oftentimes a blank slate, one whose inner recesses the reader rarely accesses. And that’s what makes this story collection so fascinating.

Fincke’s book is set in the Appalachia of the 1960s and 70s. It is presented starkly, matter-of-factly. The character I encountered first and foremost was not the protagonist, but the setting in which he lived. Corey’s Pittsburgh is one of global paranoia, the anxiety of growing old, and the pressure of choosing a way in the world. A landscape of fear and uncertainty.

The collection is a novel in stories, each tale picking up from roughly where the last left off. Written in the first-person perspective, Corey tells the reader the story of his young years, from the confusing dysfunction of his childhood to the intimidating beginnings of an adult life.

In the greatest coming-of-age stories, there is nearly always a profound change that takes place in a protagonist—one that redefines both the character and the world around them. Corey continually grows through each story, steadily losing that precious ignorance afforded to us as children. He begins losing that ignorance, that innocence, at an early age, mainly thanks to the constant, overshadowing presence of his mother and father.

Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Fincke’s prose has a knack for cultivating an atmosphere of melancholy. It was a sadness that spread through me—rattled through all of my bones with each turn of the page. Until the final stories, when this sadness grew into a desperation. I needed to know what would become of Corey and his family. My urgency matched Corey’s own as he became a more evocative character with each passing tale—his words took shape and affected the characters around him. The older he grew, the more he became a presence in his world, unlike during his childhood.

And how realistic Corey’s evolution is. As the reader, as the protagonist, as a child, we do what we are told, we believe what our parents tell us. We grow as they direct us to grow. We blankly nod and say, “Okay,” as Corey does time and time again throughout his youth. But what does that blind obedience afford you when your instructors are as confused as you? As Corey ages, he sees the cracks beginning to form in his family, and how devotion to opposing ideals can so effectively break up a home. He is constantly caught in the center of his broken parents—his mother, a radical, charismatic educator, who emphasizes worldly experience and hard truth over dogma. And his father, tied to the television, to his church, to the collective fear of Russia, of Vietnam, of a changing world in which the U.S. is no longer the undisputed global superpower.

With straight-forward prose that often seems conversational, the collection’s narrative voice constantly propels the reader forward. Always forward—through the drawn-out deaths of family members, through presidential assassinations, through the turn of the decades. Corey’s uncertainty about his own future oftentimes combines with his floating imagination. Quick moments of elevated beauty drop and ripple in the midst of crisp sentences.

I wasn’t going into the mill like my father. I wasn’t managing Hickory Farms. I wasn’t going into the army. I didn’t need luck to keep from frying in molten metal or tearing apart above a Bouncing Betty. I sat there…and thought about how it would feel if you were half a mile inside the earth and the wall may or may not buckle on you.

The pressure of earthen walls is quite the fitting analogy for Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. It documents the pressure of the Earth itself—of a changing world, of the devolution of a family, of the growth of a child.


Gary Fincke has published twenty-five books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Twice awarded Pushcart Prizes, Fincke has also been recognized by both the Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited twelve times in the past fourteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. In 2003, he won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his story collection, Sorry I Worried You


Book Review:The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke

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